Dona Lupita’s Youngest Daughter
Perhaps nine months before the birth of her youngest daughter Dona Lupita enjoyed a more than casual acquaintance with a remarkably fair American male; for the child proved not merely light-skinned but positively white. Even without this detail the birth would have certainly raised eyebrows: it was generally believed that Dona Lupita had moved several degrees beyond the age of forty and past an ability to procreate. Besides, no signs of a pregnancy were detectable in the formidable businesswoman prior to the morning that she locked the front door of her store and retreated into a room at its rear to issue a new soul into the world---despite the fact that her slim figure, unlike those of sloppier senoras, didn’t lend itself easily to concealing a prenatal condition.
The unattended delivery was apparently accomplished with Dona Lupita’s typical efficiency. Her store re-opened less than an hour after it had closed. She seemed as poised as usual to the six ladies, led inevitably by Carmela Cervantes, who were drawn toward the kind of sustained high-pitched crying, startling and monotonous at once, which often encourages dogs to accompany it with howls. Before there could be time for the newborn to be displayed and for its color to be questioned, Dona Lupita explained to the sextet of frankly curious customers that on the maternal side of her family the final child of a generation would sporadically reveal the presence of the chromosome that is responsible for producing a fair complexion.
The brand new mother stepped to the back of her store then returned with a cardboard box that had originally been filled with forty-watt bulbs. The brief glimpse of its current contents afforded to the ladies on hand would remind them later of Dona Lupita’s twisted tendency to tantalize shoppers with a striking piece of merchandise in her store window. When the item had vanished from behind the glass the next day she would flatly deny that it ever existed except in the fanciful minds of dreamers who couldn’t have afforded it anyway.
Only a lapse induced by a brief immersion into the realm of blood and pain might explain why a character of Dona Lupita’s notorious reserve would acknowledge that she had given birth at all. As quickly as the cardboard box vanished she had recovered her redoubtable front. Her blood-stained fingers successfully sold several articles which had long resisted purchase—an automatic cherry pitter to a customer allergic to a fruit so rare in the vicinity as to be non-existent meriting special mention.
“Well, she was very white,” seemed all that the six witnesses to the fleeting exhibition of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter could say afterward, as if a profound absence of color had manifested a corresponding lack of eyes, nose and mouth. So brief was this single presentation of infant to public that even gifted Gypsy eyes might not have been equipped to divine a resemblance between her features and those of parents or of more distant relations. Certainly Dona Lupita and her rarely seen husband were both so dark that Indian blood might not have been alien to their veins--even while Dona Lupita claimed to possess in the iron chest where vital papers pertaining to her store stayed locked a legal document that delineated her family’s undetoured path of descent from a minor prince of Aragon; a blue-eyed, golden-haired Zaragozan, to be precise. Dona Lupita’s three older daughters--Carmen, Consuelo, Conchita—were dull-complexioned adolescents of thirteen, fourteen and sixteen years respectively; each one stolid in build, big of foot, and with a sour expression to boot, and none of them betraying the slightest hint of any variety of princess, be it Spanish or otherwise.
No one could remember the visit of a fair-headed stranger to the area nine months earlier or at any other recent point in local history. Always scarce, foreigners seemed of late to have become a species as endangered as the panda here, and the human population of the world beyond the town might as well have grown quite extinct. That this impression could have been disproved by a forty-mile trip across the hills to the teeming streets of the capital city that lay on their further side didn’t make it less keenly felt. In the end such speculation seemed beside the point: not even a fabulist as gifted as Esmerelda Lopez could imagine Dona Lupita slipping down to the beach for an illicit encounter with some gringo however blue his eyes or blond his hair; or even, when all was said and done, for sparing a second from business concerns to fold herself within her shadowy husband’s arms.
As white as snow or milk, as paper or a ghost, as Old Chonita’s house or any star: the town’s newest inhabitant became immediately recognized as bearing the properties of an original creation, perhaps one with some significance. In the excitement of the moment everyone seemed to forget that the murky cave of their communal memory had long been haunted to sorrowful effect by several phantoms which shared the newborn’s pallor. While perhaps purely accidental, a freak of nature on the same level as the birth of a two-headed calf, the special appearance of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter might just as likely have foreshadowed serious change in the established order: a portent of what would come. Of course the town felt pitifully anxious to spot omens of evolution within the most trivial events and the most dubious tricks of chance so great was its longing for the swamp of sameness in which it drowned to dry all at once into exotically solid ground. Hope that Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter might herald an era of pale and improved residents evaporated on the same evening of her arrival however when three women on the next block delivered what were, as Carmela Cervantes took pains to point out, the three darkest babies to be recorded in the local history book.
After its brief presentation to the public upon her birth the youngest daughter of Dona Lupita stayed hidden in the dim rooms at the back of her mother’s store where she was presumably cared for by the trio of older sisters who like her would disappear from sight for the next six and one half years. Not so much as a ritual introduction of infant to God by means of baptism occurred to the considerable consternation of Jesus Salvador de Asuncion; upon this latest rebuff of his sincere efforts to save souls, the priest flounced in his pink and purple robes to the Cine Tropicana where Elizabeth Taylor currently attempted to seduce a man of the cloth, in the form of Richard Burton, in The Sandpiper each night. For all anyone knew the white wonder would never be rewarded with a Christian name though surely the most unimaginative of mothers might have stumbled upon an appellation as apt as Blanca.
As a consequence of the lack of opportunities for empirical observation, it wasn’t possible either to verify or to challenge the stories concerning the child’s coloring which grew to flower more and more freely as time passed, and soon her whiteness achieved a legendary status. It became common for closed eyes to behold a shape of light illuminating the darkness. What soon expanded to resemble an unfettered landscape of snow—unmarked by footprints, unsullied by exploration, virginal and blank—must really, the town yearned to believe, be the diffused gleam cast by a single glittering girl.
During this post-partum period Dona Lupita invested some of her sizeable savings into the construction of a second storey upon the building that contained her store and home. The main feature of this addition would apparently be a glassed-in balcony running along the side of the structure that faced upon the plaza.
“There goes our money,” bitterly remarked townspeople upon viewing the extremely slow progress of an architectural project for which no expense seemed being spared. Without a scruple for the cost, Dona Lupita would command workmen to tear down what they had done so far and begin anew from scratch time and time again either because her original vision was unclear or because it grew increasingly more grandiose. As a result the addition took nearly seven years to complete, and it threatened to become, like the aborted bingo hall, bowling alley and covered bandstand, the latest in a fairly long series of unfulfilled local dreams. Each month of construction encouraged the townspeople to anticipate an edifice of greater splendor until they came to imagine something that would surpass the Taj Mahal in both size and glamour, and that would tower as a magnificent monument to their poverty.
For everyone here lay deeply in debt to Dona Lupita—some, it was rumored, owed her millions—and the populace shared a dread of the day that she would call in her loans then seize furniture, houses and property when they couldn’t be repaid: that this had yet to happen served to make reckoning more imminent and apocalyptic. Nearly every household had no choice but to continue on a downward path toward ruin through no fault of their own but due to a long-reigning economic depression that seemed, unfortunately, to have manufactured a comparable spiritual slump in the area, as Jesus Salvador de Asuncion would have been more than happy to confess between nibbles of salty, greasy palomitas in his permanent front row seat inside the movie house. “On account, please,” meekly murmured a housewife upon finding herself once or twice a week in need of this or that essential item from Dona Lupita’s store but lacking the hard cash necessary to acquire it. The businesswoman would reach for a large key that hung from a ribbon of faded yellow silk around her neck; opening the dreaded iron chest, she removed a thick black ledger within whose pages the name of every family in town appeared above a long column of figures. A debtor would attempt to peer over Dona Lupita’s shoulder to gain a glimpse of how much he owed; obligations seemed to be entered by means of some sort of a code however, and no one was able to know exactly how deeply they might be beholden. As she added another number to a balance Dona Lupita wore the kind of inscrutable expression that no matter the circumstances rarely inspires the easing of a worried mind.
Really, could Dona Lupita’s present eminence have been envisioned by the most feverish imagination in this place renowned for undisciplined fantasy? Not even Esmerelda Lopez was capable of connecting the dizzying contemporary heights of the successful woman to her lowly beginnings in a grass hut with dirt floors at the edge of town, and it was disremembered that technically, at least, she had ties to one of the most infamously insolvent local clans; certainly blood connections, including parents and siblings, wouldn’t have dared to remind their lucky relative of a kinship less presume upon it. Dona Lupita’s assertion that she had been born into a very well-to-do Guadalajara family was never once contested.
She had preferred vaguely-colored plain shifts to cheap frills and flounces as a child; after her advantageous marriage to the heir to one of the town’s several shabby general stores she chose to present a neatly dressed figure clad in trim suits made of long-lasting wrinkle-free fabrics of either a dull grey or a dull brown, and she invariably imprisoned her mouse-colored hair within a tight bun. Dona Lupita’s characteristic gesture in the course of driving a hard bargain with a weak wholesaler or while listening stonily to some poor fellow’s plea for a life-saving loan was to search with the long, thin and unadorned digits of her left hand for the sharp pins that kept her coiffure perfectly in place. It would be difficult to know whether the look of satisfaction to cross the businesswoman’s face upon her achieving another advantageous financial transaction resulted from that victory or from the taste of the blood that she liked to suck from a pricked finger.
Dona Lupita had driven other local stores from existence one at a time by amassing sufficient capital to allow her to undercut their prices. While Carmela Cervantes stated without equivocation that the shadowy husband and three dull daughters of the ambitious entrepreneur had gone hungry to enable the accumulation of that fund, little account was paid to what must surely have been but one more wag of a notorious gossip’s tongue. Carelessly managed, always teetering on a tightrope between profit and loss, each enterprise that struggled to compete with Dona Lupita’s fell by the wayside one by one without a whimper. She increased the size and scope of her retail enterprise with each share of the market that she captured until it came to stock groceries, medicines and clothing as well as a range of more frivolous items. When her monopoly over the local economy grew to be one hundred per cent secure Dona Lupita was free to charge astronomical prices for the shoddiest of merchandise. She realized that her fellow citizens could hardly venture forty miles to the capital city, which provided the nearest shopping alternative, every time they found themselves in need of a liter of milk or a dozen aspirin.
Compounding the dominance of Dona Lupita was the fact that she had been commissioned by the state power company to take payment for every resident’s electricity bill because her business was singularly possessed by the stability required to properly manage such accounts. For rendering this service Dona Lupita received free light—a compensation that induced nightly dreams of bulbs blazing from dusk until dawn among this dark-fearing population. On too many occasions one family or another would find itself suddenly without power after a careless remark had been dropped to Dona Lupita or when an innocent child happened to strike her the wrong way. The darkened household would scheme to re-enter the woman’s good graces by means of a basket of avocados left at her door each morning or by offering to sweep her premises for one month without charge. Perhaps accepting them as her due, Dona Lupita barely deigned to notice such concessions; in any case they rarely led to a speedy restoration of failed light. The unfortunate Ramirez family suffered darkness for six long months because neighbors felt reluctant to share their working wattage with them out of fear of appearing to challenge Dona Lupita’s authority. By the time electricity was finally allowed to illuminate the house in question again its entire occupants, including a tot of just three, had become hopelessly enslaved to a powerful concoction of tequila and gasoline which they had imbibed each night to alleviate an unbearable blackness.
Further, as the town had been deemed unworthy of a post office—never mind a bank, a library or a jail—all mail meant for its citizens was held at Dona Lupita’s store. “No, there’s nothing for you today,” poor Isabella Moreno would be informed when visible behind the counter waited an envelope that contained desperately needed dollars from her son in Modesto, California. One and all accepted that Dona Lupita intercepted then burned each love letter contained by the postal sack that was tossed toward her door from the battered blue bus that rattled through the town three days a week; she also seemed hostile to get-well cards, birthday greetings and Christmas wishes. Not bothering with the stratagem of steam, she ripped open any envelope to attract her notice. To pass idle moments at her counter she would read without apparent interest or enjoyment the sensitive contents of correspondence that were intended for more sympathetic eyes. Dona Lupita became privy in this way to all sorts of secrets which might originally have been trivial but which assumed an otherworldly importance from their rough passage from darkness into light. In the end there could be no way of knowing whether Dona Lupita acted in regard to either electrical or postal disturbances out of whim, or from a motive more occult.
Not a few naïve souls in town cherished hope that with the arrival of her youngest daughter Dona Lupita’s business philosophy might mellow. Optimism vanished when the store’s already outrageous prices became immediately doubled. A throat to have muttered a mantra of profit and loss for many years couldn’t all at once begin crooning lullabies instead, it seemed. True to habit, Dona Lupita remained behind her counter all morning and all evening—posture erect, demeanor cool, gaze unflinching—and when a baby cried from the closed rooms to her rear she blinked no more than she would at, say, the plaintive squealing of Francesca Fernanda Fidelia, Petra Delgado’s prized and pampered pig. Some whispered that with breasts as dry as tear ducts Dona Lupita had hired an indigent slattern from the capital city’s slum as wet nurse for her youngest daughter and that the greedy lips of the more fortunate infant proceeded to suck milk rightfully belonging to one who was left to starve to death in consequence.
Apparently the businesswoman also felt incapacitated or disinclined to enjoy maternal moments during siesta, for during those hours she could be seen directing the large crew of men who worked without rest upon the upper storey of her house. Striding in sensible shoes across precarious beams and forms, brown or grey skirt lifting demurely in an afternoon breeze, she suckled drops of blood induced upon the surface of her left hand’s fingers by repeated pricks of the pins concealed among her hair. A tendency to close her eyes in order to enjoy this private experience with an added intensity sometimes seemed to impair Dona Lupita’s balance to the point where she would be left to sway like a cantina drunkard upon the vulnerable perch that she occupied on high.
The store became locked by means of a forbidding number of bolts and chains and keys every night at nine o’clock; free electricity or no, it would descend once again into a darkness shared by the adjacent living quarters that Dona Lupita and her family occupied. To promenaders in the plaza the unfinished upper part of the building resembled the skeleton of some immense beast extinct for eons and now being raised contrary to natural law from dank fetid swamp into clear air, sweet breeze, starlight. This concept would prompt ears to snap to attention at a wailing that carried from within an unlit, incomplete structure that might turn out to be anything at all; fighting the sense that the unhappy sound did not resemble any to have been produced by human lungs before, listeners would summon then nurture their ingrained optimism until it found the strength to insist that Dona Lupita was a mother, a wife, a child of God, say what you will, and within her inflexible frame must be housed a heart that one day would crack open like the toughest shell to reveal its tender fruit.
That she seemed unaffected in an emotional sense by the newest addition to her family did not mean that Dona Lupita failed to value it sufficiently. Indeed her attitude suggested that here was a precious jewel to be kept safe inside a dark vault whose sole key belonged to her. Dona Lupita made it crystalline clear from the beginning that inquiries into the appearance, character or health of her youngest daughter would not be tolerated; whether the infant were living or dead could be no one’s business but her own.
An existence shrouded in secrecy became further cloaked by stories that grew increasingly fantastical leap by bound, month by year. It went declared as plain fact that Dona Lupita would not think twice about sending her husband in their late-model Pontiac to fetch the capital city’s most illustrious physician regardless of the hour whenever a minor ailment happened to strike the child. The infant was clad exclusively within silk or satin, or wore similarly pure white lace, swore many mythologists. Once weaned she went on to be raised upon a strict diet of candy and Coca Cola: a sip of plain water or a nibble of corn tortilla would never be allowed to pass her fussy lips. There grew lots of legends concerning the expensive toys that towered in mountains around the little girl to be destroyed in a back-yard fire after being smudged by her white fingertips once. A never-played grand piano was purchased for her at age three, a diamond ring of twenty carats at four, a real mink coat when five. More than an ordinary family’s annual income was wasted on the quantities of ice imported daily by Dona Lupita from the capital city to be doomed to melt quickly from its solid state upon being placed before a full-sized electric fan that spared her youngest daughter from suffering the discomfort of heat and that saved this special being from any related decomposing effects. The three dull-skinned sisters of the pure white child were employed around the clock to wash and iron her virginally white clothes, decided Carmela Cervantes; besides changing these snowy garments every fifteen minutes on the dot they had been assigned to brush her white hair even while she slept and to maintain in a perfect state the manicure of both alabaster hands and the pedicure of each alabaster foot. One of the darkest rumors concerning Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter took the shape of a purported purchase from a capital city prostitute of a little chit whose lifelong career would be to serve as slave to the more fortunate child; that is, obey her every wish however exacting or unnatural or cruel it might prove. As years went by it came to be believed that the continued failure of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter to appear in public owed to the necessity of safeguarding her pure white complexion. “She will never feel a single harsh ray of sunlight on her skin,” the mother in question was claimed to have vowed in a moment of revelation as rare as that with which the atom splits.
. . .
It may be said that legends can possess distinct levels just as there exist various strata of earth and atmosphere that darken according to the distance from which they happened to lie above or below the planet’s surface. Who knows what forms of life slither one thousand miles beneath our feet or float a similar distance overhead? Might human imagination lack a language necessary to translate such creatures out of darkness and into ordinary daylight? Shall one or another of them appear among us once every million years by chance or by design? These became questions posed by a slim fraction of the townspeople who had never been satisfied with the popular fable of the lonely princess in the lofty tower or by the props that variously surround her and her ilk—the frog prince and the pea, the wicked stepmother and the glass slipper—nor were local meta-physicists content to view this sort of folklore as a psychological projection of id or of ego, or of the deeper and richer veins that run through every mind’s mine. Herself the mother of a favorite town tale, this one involving twin daughters named Linda and Lupe, Esmerelda Lopez had recently been the originator of a scientific craze that threatened to boil the romance out of history with Bunsen burners, explode sentimental memories by shaking them in test tubes, and prove with pendulums that all experiences of love are the manifestation of one or another basic law of chemistry or physics. Individuals encouraged by the scientific attitude instilled into the air by Senora Lopez began to seek to explain the phenomenon of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter according to the principles of biology. There flourished a good deal of talk about genetic matters for one week; sounding to the uninitiated like a sinister code, acronyms such as DNA and RNA became dropped left, right and center. Before any supposition could be proven through rigorous laboratory trial, premature speculation upon it seemed to act as a kind of ultraviolet ray that mushroomed into existence mutant flowers of alarming size, impossible brilliance, unearthly aroma. It became intimated that Dona Lupita’s dim rooms served as a prison for a desperately misplaced member of a rare species, halfway between the monkey and the eel, whose thin white wrists were chained by heavy irons; properly residing in the deepest heart of darkest Africa, this exotic exemplar thrived upon a diet of commonplace arachnids (requiring a minimum of ten kilos of them daily), but it could also enjoy tarantulas and black widows as special delicacies, and was sufficiently adventurous enough in the gastronomical sense to savor a scorpion for dessert sometimes.
These constituted the bare bones of one of the less outlandish stories concerning Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter: only a sacrifice of the pale being to the public’s avid eye could have produced a realistic if perhaps disappointing understanding of her nature in the end.
Did a foreshadowing of things to come occur when after almost seven years of unstinting labor the upper storey of Dona Lupita’s residence became finally finished to betray all of the Spanish-castle expectations cherished for it by the town? Though impressively solid and obviously the work of true craftsmanship it resembled less the realized vision of some spendthrift Oriental prince than of a shrewd woman who demands nuts and bolts, preferably long-lasting ones, in return for her pesos. The sole fanciful feature of the structure proved to be a glassed-in balcony overlooking the plaza; its only hints of extravagance consisted of the gilt chairs, real orchids and rare velvet tapestries which had been ordered from the capital city to decorate the enclosed space. Those facets could barely be envisioned from the ground however, and any effect of opulence above was diminished by the first unexotic sighting of Dona Lupita’s three older daughters in seven years. In matching grey overalls that resembled prison garb and that did nothing to flatter their figures but left them even less alluring than before the trio perched atop tall ladders to polish the glass encasing the balcony in what would become a thrice-weekly effort to keep it crystal clear.
On the morning after the last hammer hit the upper storey of her building Dona Lupita was absent from the store that occupied its ground floor. “Is she ill?” inquired shoppers not without hope of the three older girls who had opened up that day. In their grey overalls Carmen, Consuelo and Conchita sat each at a typewriter behind the counter; between serving customers they struck laboriously at the keys of their machines. A cacophony of flat clacks and bright pings competed with Carmela Cervantes’ attempt to solicit morsels of information about the missing mother.
Fearing that no offers of marriage would be made to them except for mercenary reasons, believing that sooner or later they must earn their daily bread, Dona Lupita had likely decided to prepare her trio of older daughters for a secretarial career. “They’ll be sent to work in city offices as soon as they can type fifty perfect words a minute,” Carmela Cervantes declared in a convinced tone that for once had the power to sway her neighbors. The dull skin of the three sisters appeared to have darkened further from a long sentence served beyond reach of sunlight; their conversation, never brilliant, now seemed reduced to occasional grunts muttered at moments when they became confronted by the demands of especially challenging dactylic dexterities.
When the morning sun had voyaged part way across the sky and Dona Lupita’s balcony had retreated into shadow, mother and youngest daughter materialized upon it. A crowd gathered next to Manuel Olvidado’s cantina in the street below and peered up into the dimness that lay beyond the glass above. While Dona Lupita became rendered nearly invisible by the gloom, her youngest daughter gleamed upon it like a pool of floating light.
Could the child’s complexion and hair have further paled in the course of the past seven years contrary to the tendency of fairness to darken during this early period of life? Was she wearing her real mink and her diamond ring of twenty carats? How tall and how graceful had she grown, and what variety of haunted expression played upon her dead-white face, and did her eyes deign to turn bewitchingly toward the throng that gazed from below? Was Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter begging for rescue from a brilliant isolation aloft, or had she acceded to the sad separation that exists between light and dark, day and night, up and down?
Instinctively the town thirsted to be rewarded by a romantic tableau, some seductive sight or other; and at its first gulp of vision certain distasteful details concerning Dona Lupita as well as similarly unsavory stories of a mutant or monstrous daughter became erased from civic memory with the swipe of one hand, for the words to describe the apparition presently on high could equally have defined the qualities of a star: both entities lay phosphorescently above to emit a dazzling light; each existed for no reason than to receive and to fulfill wishes of an earthbound species below.
Townspeople realized within the space of one hour the irrelevance of their musing upon the expression worn by Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter, about the style and color of her dress, or if she were human. As afternoon passed and shadows lengthened, the balcony sank more deeply into obscurity until from earth it could not be judged beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not Dona Lupita remained with her daughter above—strolling back and forth behind the glass, reclining in a stiff pose of relaxation upon one of the gilt chairs, sniffing an orchid less with the aesthete’s appreciation of aroma than with a consumer’s desire to know what value she has gotten for her money; but proof of her youngest daughter’s presence only grew more luminous. Did just thirty-three steps separate her point of elevation from the level from which she was being watched? At evening’s fall the little girl may have switched on a record player to swell the balcony with music that was unable to penetrate its encasing glass; for on the tips of white toes and with white arms curved above her white head Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter embarked upon a solo dance above. Watching her pirouetting palely, the audience below moaned to see its oldest memory taking form: here shone the original image that appears prior to birth, during life and after death; nearby but beyond reach a white being glistens, a white being gleams. In the days when stones had yet to transform into grains of sand, please remember, a white horse would pose upon every point of the horizon; and recall too that while each spring unfolded into a fresher and happier season a pair of Lopez twins (or was it only one girl doubled by desire?) had once traced white Ferris wheel circles through a sweet April sky; and realize as well how like any cruel lover all of those images of light had each abandoned the town without explanation to wound it at its heart and to leave a darker, more despairing place behind. As Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter danced above the realization by her audience that there could be no escape from her mute promise of love caused it to exhale a sigh that traveled deep toward the bottom of the darkest well and lifted high into atmosphere spreading spread cold and thin and without light.
Even after their heads swam with a longing for sleep, bedazzled spectators of the apparition on high could not abandon her remote presence. They fell one by one into an unconscious condition upon the plaza to litter its flagstone surface into the collective scene of an apparent aftermath of recent massacre or plague; and from this evening the town became enslaved by its love for Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter though she would remain unknown.
It’s not for me to say what variety of transformations might have been wrought by time upon this community’s adoration of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter, or whether such emotion would eventually have paled like any earthly love until it evoked no more passion than the memory of a single perfect gardenia petal glistening with dew at dawn in Old Chonita’s garden twenty years ago. But now, after love has been dethroned, it seems possible to recognize that during the reign being considered here the town enjoyed a measure of peace dissimilar to any known by it before and perhaps unlike any to be experienced in the future: though profound and intense and all- consuming, an apparently unreciprocated love for the youngest daughter of Dona Lupita did not inspire madness or death, drunkenness or ruin. Maybe people in this place had finally learned to accept the limitations inherent in longing, and had achieved the ability to live with an object of desire shining aloofly out of reach.
Wandering through empty, silent noon streets, a stranger as fair-haired as myself would have received an impression of dullness and dust and dreariness from whose spell sleepers tend to wait for an awakening kiss—when a seemingly somnolent town was in fact experiencing the degree of complete contentment that permits transcendence of a gnawing appetite for an outer world through which an infinite number of idealized images might or might not wander.
Eyes did not drool with hunger from within windows for my unfamiliar figure to materialize out of flat sunlight with the news that I had brought a cure for thwarted desire or an effective antidote against loss or the sure remedy for heartache. Young girls were not driven to pace upon a foaming moonlit shore in anticipation of some pirate ship’s plundering approach; adventurous youths failed to climb into the western slopes in search of a cinematic country called California concealed within the clouds that wreath those peaks.
This present era would be remembered as one when children attended school with regularity, when houses were kept neat and clean, when every sisal field remained well-tended. The slow, heavy step and drooping eyes of all citizens including youngest infants and their oldest relatives seemed suggestive of a spiritual as well as sexual satiation although even the most passionate individuals did not lie in pairs during this time.
Jesus Salvador de Asuncion felt a daily disappointment when his pews now proved to be more thoroughly eschewed than ever by a congregation that would hardly flock to fill them at the best of times. A dearth of paying customers drove Manuel Olvidado to begin consuming one bottle after another inside his empty cantina; Gabriella Fernandez and Juanita Martinez had little alternative except to enjoy an unscheduled vacation when drunks ceased stumbling one after the other up the steep stairs that led to the conveniently located pair of workrooms where the two women labored to satisfy the demands exacted by commercial love. Within the courtyard that housed the Cine Tropicana Elizabeth Taylor became reduced night after night to emoting to an audience that was currently comprised of just the husband-and-wife proprietors of the place; when not even the star’s brilliant performance in Elephant Walk managed to draw its standard SRO crowd, Rosa and Juan were each left with a shaken faith as well as with dropped jaws; and for the first time in twenty-five years they gave serious consideration to the question of whether there could be any point in holding their Annual Elizabeth Taylor Look-Alike Contest which during that lengthy period had always served as the high point of the town’s social, civic and religious calendar.
Perhaps that envoy from the outside world, whatever his identity (permit me to be coy for once), would wonder if the price of satisfaction might be a too expensive forsaking of dreams—or, rather, of the heights to which aspiration can drive us to achieve. When all needs are nourished what becomes of the appetite that urges men to defy gravity and dare an ascendant flight above their starved hearts? “How calm, what order, such sobriety,” the fair-headed stranger could have thought before departing hastily in search of some place such as Mazatlan where folly might still rage. Blind to every sight save for a reach of white light extending through evening air, insensible except for that beam’s balm, shivering beneath its caress of their dark skin, the residents of this far removed town would have been unable to notice either the arrival or the departure of their pale-complexioned visitor.
The calmness of those days when heat droned and while houses hummed with the quietest activity came from confidence that at eight o’clock precisely an embodiment of ideal love would emerge from Dona Lupita’s inner rooms to grace her balcony. All ordinary aspects of daily life were dealt with thoroughly if mechanically as steps that needed to be taken one by one in order to bring about this moment of fulfillment. Worshippers did not wonder how Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter occupied herself during the hours preceding and following each evening appearance that she made; possessed by the selfishness of all lovers, they felt scant interest in the circumstances to be endured by the source of their rewarded emotion, and cared only that the miracle conjured by it might continue.
While the balcony above the plaza lay bare during morning and afternoon no one passing on a mundane errand below would have dreamed of glancing up toward it. From the start there existed an unarticulated and unquestioned acceptance that this love affair possessed the finite proportions of any geometric shape, and occupied a specific and limited space of time during which all of its rewards could be extracted without leaving leftover longing to knock on the door at inconvenient moments. As the church bell shaped eight imperfect circles of sound, townspeople would file through dimming streets and settle in alphabetical order upon folding chairs which had been removed from the patio of the Cine Tropicana where they served no useful purpose now, and which were arranged in neat rows below Dona Lupita’s balcony to allow the pleasures of love to be enjoyed in comfort. Like eager students of Eugenio Ortega or the true fans of motion pictures, this audience did not require a stimulus of popcorn, chiclets or tacos to augment the experience of witnessing what unfolded before their eyes but would receive sufficient reward from the spectacle itself. Now and then could be heard an isolated sigh or some barely audible moan: no other human noise ever disturbed the stillness of these hours, and it may have been just a psycho-sympathetic deafness that made it seem as though crickets and owls and wild dogs fell mute too.
Was Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter aware of the attention that she received from below? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Indication of the former possibility could be found in the conviction held by spectators that their love was being reciprocated fully; the strength of this belief grew furthered by a sense that Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter had the veteran performer’s consciousness of an audience. Night after night the girl in white passed through a fixed program upon her balcony in the same way that actors will repeat a drama within the proscenium of a stage: in the end, all true lovers are artists who balance the demands of creative risk and technical control with an aim of summing an ever-more intense response from those in attendance; who finally resort to extremes of creative measures in the hope of delaying the inevitable moment when the many eyes fixed upon them grow neglectful, and who dread the departure of a once-enthralled throng that will leave the theatre empty and dark.
Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter would flit for an hour upon the balcony to an accompaniment that seemed to her audience to be composed from strains of silence. With the purpose perhaps of demonstrating the principle of stillness she occasionally froze for a timeless span during which her devotees also eschewed movement to enjoy the sensation of having escaped themselves from the rough jerk of passing minutes and from the clock’s cruel bounding, and of having encountered the delight of pleasure unlimited by the calendar. Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter sometimes folded herself within a bolt of thick black cloth that disappeared her entirely from sight. Just as everyone grew to understand in its sharpest form the interdependent nature of presence and absence, she would unfurl her prop with an exquisite sense of timing to shine seemingly twice as brightly as before.
When the townspeople finally found themselves lulled into a peacefulness of such profundity that it resembled death they would realize that the point of light at which they gazed was in fact a star shining high above Dona Lupita’s rooftop, and that the balcony loomed dark and bare. Rather than suffer a sense of abandonment or of loss, they felt that the object of their love had ascended to a more rarified level, and had imparted to their earthbound hearts some of the divinity possessed by astral bodies; and as the church bell struck its midnight cue these yawning amorists would drift homeward to enjoy an experience of sleep which proved unmolested by nightmares or haunted by dreams unfolding beneath a scattering of stars that paled slowly into the promise of another dawn.
Dona Lupita remained unseen during all these months of love-filled nights; yet the curiosity that had always been inspired by the woman before seemed quite quenched in her absence now, and little speculation spread in regard to a sudden demise caused by a haemorage of blood induced by one too many pricks of a hairpin, or to an equally deathly entrance into The Sacred Order of The Sisters of Pure Piety. Nor did a rumor arise about an extended Acapulco jaunt complete with muscular cabana boys and fruit drinks decorated by miniature paper umbrellas and dusk to dawn mamboing in the discoteques that line the Playa Diamante. Failing to gain the least bit of traction was a sensational report by Carmela Cervantes: upon deciding that the operation of her store could be left safely in the dull hands of her three older daughters, the local powerhouse had felt freed to take up the ambitious challenge of assuming management of the notoriously popular and ineptly run whorehouse located in nearby El Llano.
Very late at night, it was true, the sight of two dark eyes burning upon Dona Lupita’s balcony could easily have been observed were all potential witnesses not enjoying a sleep of post-coital soundness at that hour. And perhaps just beyond the blinding spotlight of love that played out each evening upon this raised stage a dark force presently robbed of the energy required to impose itself upon vision waited patiently for a shift of power or for an altered flow of electrical current which might permit her to blaze once more.
Whatever the nature of Dona Lupita’s unseen activities, her store operated smoothly enough under the management of her three older daughters who slowly increased their typing speed without showing signs of learning to quicken in conversational skill. Even while engaged upon prosaic tasks the townspeople spoke exclusively in the language of love these days, and it seemed the typewriting girls failed to grow familiar with the idiom. Anyone not immersed fully within the scented bath of romance would likely have been baffled to respond to recently adopted terms of speech whereby many nouns, verbs and adjectives became replaced by one and the same word, love (one spoke of buying a kilo of love, of loving the kitchen floor, of rain falling lovingly, and so forth), although amongst themselves the inamoratos seemed to experience little linguistic confusion. Isolated by a deficiency with the new dialect Carmen, Consuelo and Conchita remained mostly ensconced inside the store during each evening session of al fresco passion in order to soak tender fingertips in a concoction made from fresh-squeezed lemons and pig lard before bandaging the digits for the night. Only rarely did the trio feel sufficiently stirred by their mother’s sharp business spirit to venture into the street and attempt to sell potentially attractive items to the audience below the balcony; namely, cushions to soften the hard surface of chairs upon which these lovers swooned, umbrellas to shelter entranced heads during brief showers of rain, toy binoculars to aid eyes that strained always to see a little more. The three girls appeared quite oblivious to the all-consuming affair existing between their youngest sister and the townspeople, and it is difficult to believe that at midnight they lay dark heads upon lonely pillows to dream about the twist of fate by which a sibling rather than they had been selected to shine.
Feel free to make of it what you will, but there is this: sudden, unexplained failures of power did not afflict unlucky households at present, and each letter sent from California now reached its intended recipient in an unopened state. Some measure of the calm enjoyed by the town during this time may have been due to such cessation of postal and electrical disturbance.
One longs to fantasize that barring the most brutal coup or ruthless purge the ruling regime of love might never have been deposed in this place. It is equally tempting to dream that eyes would not slowly have become less blinded by the light of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter and more capable of seeing past her razzle-dazzle to the sight perhaps of an anemic listless girl wearing a slack or sulky expression upon her utterly unremarkable face. Possibly, we might muse amid moonlight filtering through the leaves of the amapa tree that rises yesterday, today and tomorrow from the center of the plaza, the child in question wouldn’t have tired of shining always as the object of love and never as its subject upon her lonely balcony. To be as realistic as is demanded by the fashions of these times, it must however be considered that sooner or later the youngest daughter of Dona Lupita would have given into the temptation to conceal her phosphorescence behind a black veil and within one of her mother’s dark fringed shawls. Slipping thirty-three steps to the street below, the incognito arrival settles discreetly among the audience of her adorers upon the lone Cine Tropicana seat to have remained unoccupied beneath the balcony each evening. A universal belief that this chair located amid the “L’s has been reserved for Linda Lopez becomes dismissed with singular unanimity by one glance at a dark figure who couldn’t by any stretch of imagination be the embodiment of a sixteen-year-old girl whose perfect beauty and pure whiteness form inextricable elements of the legend that surrounds her famous disappearance from the town some fifty years ago. Black-dotted lace obscures the upward raising of the translucent eyes of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter as with a pounding pulse she anticipates the appearance of a light so bright as to render her hidden brilliance as dull as that possessed by the dark-skinned company which in ignorance surrounds her.
And on one of those erotic April evenings that lure many of our daughters into the dangerous arms of desire mightn’t Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter have been seduced into discovering the potential offered by a ten-peso tin of shoe polish and with blackened skin have begun to orbit the square in search of a boy whose flesh would darkly tremble beneath her darkened lips? Or her light dims of its own unexplained accord: invisible in obscurity, solitary and unshining, she is left to languish in a state of isolation upon a gilded balcony for the remainder of a tediously long life; unprepared for this unsung fate, numb with nostalgia for all of the eyes once trained with adoration upon her from below and now turned every one of them toward the starlight thrown anew by Elizabeth Taylor inside the Cine Tropicana or by the more expansive sparkle cast through the higher heavens. Night after weary night she awaits the prince with blue eyes and blond hair who is empowered by love to spy a shimmering being camouflaged beneath drabness; but before he has the chance to gallop to the rescue on his pure white horse, Dona Lupita will cast a cold eye upon what appears to be no more than one more dull-complexioned daughter and set her to type for one thousand days and one thousand nights upon white paper whose blankness mocks a pair of eyes as browned as sautéed sugar. When she can manage a fifty pristine words per minute this fourth disappointing daughter is destined to be sent to earn her living amid electric lights that weaken the power generated by stars shining above the capital city. Like her ordinary neighbors she dreams about a white horse that if compelled by sufficient faith will lead her to where darkness does not loom; or she fantacizes about a twinned girl in white who revolves through a permanently April sky spreading above a carnival crowd in a suggestion that love is bound to orbit with the same never-ending persistence possessed by the planet. When her dark skin has grown as inevitably wrinkled and creased as last year’s calendar she shuts her eyes and drifts into an eternal obscurity never to be woken again by thirst or hunger or light, or by the power of love.
But there is no denying that history denies dreams as it unfolds. There can be no ignoring how destinies twist and turn and slip from fingers that desire to mould from them monuments to all our foolish hopes that the light of love need not ever extinguish. Yes, the time has come for tired truth to slouch a form as thin as mine through these several dusty streets and to dryly remind wishful historians to stick to the hard bones of its skeleton, to refer only to facts as fixed as the features of its granite face. What is most unbearable in retrospect, always, is the suddenness of endings: we can secretly accept that a romance must conclude one day even while never admitting this tough knowledge aloud; but none of us are equipped to tolerate the shot-gun slam of the door behind our departing lover’s back or an abrupt goodbye bleeding into silence after just six skipped heartbeats. If love could withdraw with infinite slowness and imperceptible motion, perhaps it might leave behind a less sharp absence—the void dulled by familiarity before its ache has time to turn actual. If history is a human science, then surely it might be practiced with compassion: breaking yesterday’s bad news gently, and smoothing the hurt of the past as though it were the linen of the once-shared bed that he left rumpled in his haste to leave: for history is our memory made ordered and precise and clear; and no matter how perfectly a past love is recollected it never dies upon a specific date carved into textbooks or upon the minds of students instructed by Eugenio Ortega or by another equally handsome schoolteacher.
Certainly there exists no need for me to insist that one instant love was here, the next instant it had gone. It is similarly unnecessary to record that just a single second after a sky lay wholly blue it splintered into countless shards of white as upon a shattering of the heavens. Speak instead about one morning or another (or still another) when snow began to descend softly, gently, slowly over a town hopelessly in love. Large white flakes drift through a warm as ever cerulean sky in obedience to the law of gravity yet in defiance of that those which rule temperature: blanketing rooftops and covering the dusty streets, and blunting the shape of chairs arranged in alphabetical rows beneath a balcony.
For the first time in its history this part of the world experienced the phenomenon of snow. Even as they wondered whether it could be real, minds recognized this occurrence from Cine Tropicana stories of Alaska and polar bears and igloos. Personalities as disparate as Esmeralda Lopez, Carmela Cervantes and Conchita Carranza gave in without struggle to a primal suspicion that their landscape must be as unique as their square’s amapa tree which would refuse to limit itself to producing red and yellow poppies during a single month of February but through every season would bloom in a flourishing testament that this landscape existed as the natural setting for miracle. They imagined a glass wall curving around the town’s parameters to enclose it beneath a white-feathered sky; on the other side of this transparent boundary stretched an ordinary snowless world whose unblessed inhabitants pressed unremarkable faces against glass to gaze enviously at a white universe within.
All ages abandoned themselves like overexcited children to the enjoyment of an exclusive experience, and throughout the morning voices pitched at the verge of hysteria failed quite to drown out the steady sound of typing persisting from Dona Lupita’s store. Everyone ran outside, opened mouths, extended tongues; in delight they felt a cold soft substance melt its way through their deepest inner spaces. When a snowball fight broke out toward noontime it turned the town into a raucous stranger to the sober love of yesterday; and participants did not contemplate that here and now they might be engaging in an unprecedented encounter with whiteness, or that an elusive element had altered its nature to enter then become an element of lovers who had previously adored it only from afar. Huge pleasure resulted from discovering the banal truth that each white flake is as uniquely shaped as each individual to receive its touch while at the same time the substance can possess a collective capacity to transform every distinct body into a similarly anonymous figure.
As noon passed unnoticed the snow began to fall with greater force and weight; then heavy rocks of hard ice descended through the otherwise blue sky. Notions of nirvana became driven from the townspeople to waken them from an experience of love that moment by moment seemed increasingly to resemble an anesthetic that is doomed to wear off to leave its groggy patient unprotected from the pain which he has suffered in secret all along.
The streets became interred beneath six feet of white by mid-afternoon. Everyone felt chilled through and through; yet the air remained as balmy as during any day in May. Though it would dissolve upon touching dark skin as well as the clothes that camouflaged such darkness, this element failed to melt upon meeting the ground. Floundering through deepening drifts, baffled by confounding circumstances, scientific citizens recited the laws of meteorology; they chanted aloud the properties possessed by solid and liquid, heat and cold, up and down. Quickly there arose the possibility that in the lack of any suggestion of spiritual significance an apparent miracle might be no more than something that has gone very wrong.
The townspeople had retreated indoors by six o’clock to shiver within layers of warm-weather clothing that seemed pitifully insufficient all at once. No one felt in any condition to recall their evening rendezvous with Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter when the church bell failed to toll its usual eight o’clock reminder. They wondered instead what would happen if the snow refused to stop. “Should things continue at this rate we’ll all be buried alive by dawn,” declared Esmerelda Lopez finally speaking her mind after twenty-five years of uncharacteristic silence during which attention had been focused for a change upon neither herself nor her famed twin daughters, Linda and Lupe, whose obsessive circling on the Ferris wheel in white dresses with matching sashes and bows played such a central role in establishing that non-color as a particular symbol of longing and of loss for the town. Like some kind of pestilence spread a vision of a world whose white surface seemed determined to rise nearer toward white stars each night and to extend farther above buried, suffocating spirits whose last muffled cries would be incapable of reaching through a thick white shroud to touch the ears of an albino God.
The empty chairs beneath Dona Lupita’s balcony devolved into blurred white versions of themselves then become quite unidentifiable; when the town had transformed into a place of frightening luminosity at dark they vanished beneath this alabaster surface altogether. Snow sparkled like stardust and cancelled out the illumination thrown by authentic stars; households huddled behind closed curtains from fear of becoming blinded by an exterior dazzle, and as their members endured the silent, sustained descent of white beyond the window they experienced the special horror of dreams come true.
The snowfall ceased at dawn. In the same arbitrary fashion with which it had formed out of the sky the white substance began to melt at once upon the ground. The temperature of today’s air felt identical to that of yesterday; only the passage of time had intervened. Streets immediately turned into rivers of mud that refused to dry for one week. Constantly washing clothes and hair and bodies during this period, people felt a nagging sense that they had become thoroughly soiled beneath the surface of their skin, and despaired of ever feeling truly clean again.
No one felt in the mood at this challenging time to heed a trio of blind men who claimed to have been privy to certain events which had supposedly transpired during the course of the long white night; only when streets reverted to typical dustiness could attention be paid to an insistence that at the stroke of twelve o’clock six sightless eyes had each one glimpsed the same white figure poised in the doorway of Dona Lupita’s store. It shone there for one moment from uncertainty or out of fear before dashing into flakes falling with such thickness that no slivers of darkness were available to relieve the element which swallowed whole the youngest daughter of Dona Lupita—who else could it have been?—with the very first steps her feet took from home. Simultaneously, these blind men stated, the late-model Pontiac belonging to Dona Lupita skidded down the main street toward the edge of town before itself disappearing into the uninterrupted expanse of white beyond. Behind the steering wheel sat Dona Lupita’s husband (Manuel? Miguel?), while in the back seat her three older daughters each rested a typewriter upon her lap. No shot-gun passenger added her dusky presence to the departing party swore its six witnesses upon a stack of Bibles none of which were printed in Braille.
. . .
“When the world was white,” it would later be remarked about that historic day and night of snow. Urged by long-cherished literary aspirations, Petra Delgado wrote up the interesting event in her very best prose style and sent the article to the capital city newspaper; but she would not be rewarded with publication or even by a polite response. There lingered some regret that nobody had thought to preserve a ball of snow inside their icebox to serve as an artifact of an episode that without the slightest doubt they knew would never occur again. That gifted artist and renowned entrepreneur, Senora Popsicle, kicked herself for not having had sufficient foresight to secure a supply of the special snow within her enormous old Westinghouse with the aim of featuring it as a frozen creation which would afford the tongues of her customers the opportunity to savor a sweet souvenir of Dona Lupita’s youngest daughter.
Yet the town that lay beneath the western slopes had little time for rueful moments at this time. It seemed to throw itself with more than previous vigor into violently passionate love affairs which would sometimes last for as long as one week but more often than not flared then died in the space of a single day and night. Within the first month after the snowfall there occurred six suicides due to unreciprocated adoration, seven murders motivated by jealous love, and three drownings of young girls driven by unmanageable ardor to strike out to sea in the hope of discovering pirate paramours waiting beyond the distant waves; this was in addition to such phenomena as the absence from school of children who preferred to study the nature of desire beyond classroom walls, the priority of love-making over housekeeping and above laboring in the fields, and the abuse of alcohol and narcotics by those who suffered from a lack of reciprocated love.
The town became filled day and night with moans of ecstasy, screams of erotic despair and complaints of unmet longing; and there occurred a ceaseless scurrying to and from trysts and rendezvous and between the briefest of encounters. Dona Lupita’s store stood silent in the midst of this bustle. The doors stayed locked, the rooms remained dark. An enterprising young Moreno woman, perhaps the eventual successor to Dona Lupita in the realm of retail, opened a small grocery in the next street and enjoyed an immediate prosperity.
Although Dona Lupita did not appear outside her sealed residence, she sat every evening upon its balcony—straight-backed and stiff-necked and searching constantly with one left hand for the pins that fixed her hair in place. Sometimes two blood-smeared fingers would hold a dried, faded orchid near her nose; otherwise she gazed inscrutably at townspeople who ran errands of love below without one glance toward this aloft essence which, no shimmering star, would have barely been visible to them anyway.
There tentatively circulated a story that for a while Dona Lupita managed to sustain herself by means of a dwindling stock of canned goods that remained upon her store’s shelves until she had consumed the last tin of salty anchovies then suffered a slow death from starvation; but the town’s impressive talent for mythmaking seemed largely a thing of the past, and scant speculation arose to shape the image of a mother driven by grief who clutches a pillow dressed in white garments of a disappeared white daughter during sleep or who hangs herself from a noose fashioned from the snow-white locks of this same lost object of love. Soon no one spoke of Dona Lupita or of her youngest daughter at all, never mind of her husband (whatever his name had been); and her three older girls became neither mentioned too.
As far as the subject of Dona Lupita and her youngest daughter was concerned, amnesia might have descended along with snow upon the town; but the melting of that white substance failed to expose long-hidden memories now bleached as clean as bones. Only occasionally did little girls look up from a battle of jacks waged in the plaza to exclaim: “She was pure white.” Only Senor Ramirez, who fancied himself as the area’s top real estate tycoon, would frown at the sight of its most impressive structure then shake his head at the waste. Strangely, neither Pepe Gonzalez nor any other homeless members of the community tried to break the locks of the abandoned building with an aim of squatting inside rooms that surely offered a more attractive potential for sleep than the one provided by the empty garbage-strewn lot that stank behind the Farmacia 5 de Mayo.
Upon the occasion of each confirmation and each marriage a flurry of appropriately white dresses induced a communal sense that a crucial participant was missing from the ritual; this emotion would invariably prompt an expedition down to the well located within the yard of Esmerelda Lopez’s tumbledown childhood home for no reason except that the cistern there had long been considered the recipient of every object of local significance to vanish without a trace. “Are you down there?” celebrants sporting party clothes shouted into the deep dark hole. “Can you hear us?” Asked why their calls were directed downward rather than up would have left these individuals at a loss to reply; nor could they have named the identity of spirit that they tried to summon.
A similarly vague sense of absence often surfaced just at the moment of falling into sleep or at the point of waking: this emotion did not seem necessarily inspired by longing for a missing girl, or for any pale entity at all; its source must instead have been wrought by suspicion that a mystery more profound than those might lurk among the thick jungle through which the path leading to the river wound, hover within the dim recesses of the west alcove contained by the crumbling church, or rustle amid the elephant grass and Nayarit thistles which concealed the graveyard’s slanting crosses and faded plastic wreaths. Or perhaps the answer to the unarticulated question of why love had chosen to leave loneliness behind lay in clear view, out in the open, as prosaic a sight as that of the tortilleria clanking and clamoring in broad daylight.
Previously the town had emerged from every disastrous, rapturous affair with white with all of its foolish sentimentality and unrealistic expectations somewhat damaged but more or less intact; now the heart of the place appeared to have broken into several cold, tough pieces, and there were no signs that a softening or mending of the vivisected organ would ever occur however romantic a blue moon or sweet the April air. In all present affairs of love could be discerned a quality of icy calculation and of selfish cruelty, and of the variety of lust that goes unrelieved by pleasure or affection or humor; and the qualities possessed by each ingredient of this psychological potpourri combined to create an unsatisfying stew that bore an unmistakable resemblance to perversion. One can only point to the fact that hand in hand with this unfortunate feeling in the air came a loss of what had once been a deeply embedded curiosity about the town’s immediate surroundings and about the world that lay distant from it too. One example: when the driver of the battered blue bus realized that Dona Lupita’s store had apparently closed for good he would no longer bother to slow down in order to toss a sack of mail into the dust before its door three times per week; yet mothers did not toss and turn at night from a longing to know what sort of fantastic news might be contained in unreceived letters from sons in California. And when the town found itself without electricity one evening, presumably because Dona Lupita had failed to make alternate arrangements for payment upon her retirement (let’s call it that) there ensued no wailing against resultant darkness, no pleas for returned light, no fervent prayers for an early arrival of dawn; instead, lard candles formerly disparaged for being unsatisfactory weapons in the war against night became wildly popular, and their glow grew to be appreciated as an aphrodisiac as effective as the entrails of armadillos.
The most naïve soul to wander these wanton streets and to hear their carnal cries would have been left no choice but to accept that romance had packed its bags and left with a one-way ticket on the early morning bus to the capital city; by dawn the battered vehicle has crossed the western slopes, passed through dripping jungle, and descended upon the interior plain from which travelers can proceed toward the north or south or east in search of any place where love might yet thrive. In the abandoned town no one noticed when dust stirred by heavy, heartless feet rose from the street and came to cover the glass surrounding Dona Lupita’s balcony. Why did not a single set of eyes, blind or not, feel compelled to witness the sight of the long, thin and unadorned fingers of a left hand smear blood upon the inside of this formerly transparent surface in a fruitless attempt to create a small window through which to see? Why did even Esmerelda Lopez, the town’s most steadfast student of love, not lift her ancient head to recognize ( as I also failed to do) that what had once been crystalline now appeared as opaque as a thick wall, as dull as the color of Dona Lupita’s skin?
James Hanna spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and another fourteen years as a probation officer in San Francisco. Because of his background, much of his writing is about the criminal element. James has had over seventy story publications and three Pushcart nominations. His books, three of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.
She was blonde, slim and finely-boned—much like a young Helen Mirren—yet she did not seem out of place in the seedy local bar. The band was playing “Broken Lady,” a Gatlin Brothers favorite, and this mournful ballad made her look accessible to me. As I walked towards her to ask her to dance, I hoped she was truly broken. If I could provide her with the illusion of support, we might share a few moments of touch.
“Madam,” I said theatrically. “Would you spare this poor traveler a dance?”
She put down her drink and studied me in a manner that made me blush, and I prayed that her dating standards were as charitable as her looks. My recent divorce had all but convinced me that women expect too much.
“I don’t like this song, but yes,” she murmured. “I wish you had picked another.”
When she rose from her chair, I felt as though I had passed a critical test, but she wanted to know more about me after I followed her onto the dance floor. “Please state your name and business,” she said in a teasing voice.
She was obviously a regular, accustomed to getting hit on, and I knew it might be a challenge for me to outshine her pack of suitors.
“Tom Hemmings, soldier of fortune,” I said as I carelessly stepped on her toes.
She winced and patted my shoulder. “I have an uncle named Tom,” she said. “He got picked up for kiddie porn last year. He’s locked up in that penal farm out on Highway 40.”
“I start work there tomorrow,” I said. “They hired me as a guard.”
She arched her eyebrows. “How exciting,” she said. “So what do you want with a small-town girl whose name is Sally Potter?”
“I’m new in town,” I replied. “I could use a bit of company.”
“A bit of company,” she said. “Is that all you think I’m good for?”
Was she good for a one-night stand? I wondered as we stumbled around the dance floor. Ever since breaking the lockstep of a short, confining marriage, I had been feeling spontaneous, a rush that had led to my applying for a job at the prison. But the fruits of divorce offered more than the thrill of starting a new vocation. I saw no harm if my bounty included a tryst with a barfly as well.
Reading my mind, she squeezed my fingers. “Don’t get ideas, you fancy talker. I don’t sleep with idle strangers.”
“I’m not that idle,” I told her, hoping to disarm her with my wit.
“Why? Did your wife just dump you?” she asked.
“How did you know that?” I said.
She laughed. “I can spot a self-absorbed man. I was married to a cop.”
Some empathy seemed called for, so I nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sorry he didn’t make time for you.”
“You’re not sorry at all, Tom Hemmings,” she said as the song droned to an end. “Besides, if I’d spent more time with him, it would only have made things worse. Cops are good for heroics, but they’re pretty hopeless as husbands.”
We left the dance floor. She again squeezed my hand. “Thank you for the dance,” she said.
“Sorry I picked the wrong song,” I replied as she sat back down in her chair.
She fished a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her mascara. “I enjoyed our chat, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Please ask me to dance again.”
I sat at the bar for an hour, pretending to nurse a beer, and I watched as half a dozen patrons invited her to dance. She politely turned each of them down, and my hopes began to rise. I decided my chances of bedding her were considerable, after all. I did not attribute this to my appearance—I’m a plain-looking man who at thirty was probably five years younger than she was. But I had convinced myself that the bar’s dim lighting made me look like a tall, mature stranger.
The band was playing “Not Fade Away,” a classic hit from the fifties, and I abandoned my stool at the bar and approached her once again. The jaunty lyrics spurred my courage as I strolled across the dance floor. “I’m a gonna tell you how it’s gonna beee.” Bumpa bumpa bum bum. “Yer gonna give yer love to meee.” Infused with the magic of Buddy Holly, I once again asked her to dance.
“What took you so long?” she said.
“I wanted to give you some space.”
She frowned. “I have plenty of space, Tom Hemmings. I don’t need any more.”
“Would you like to dance?” I repeated.
She shrugged. “I don’t think dancing’s your thing. Please sit down, let’s finish our chat. I’m not going to force you to dance.”
We talked for almost an hour, and she told me about herself. Her story seemed rather provincial and maybe a little trite. She worked as a records clerk at the Castleberg Hospital, she had been married and divorced three times, her hobbies were going to the movies and reading romance books. She mentioned only briefly that she had run away from home at sixteen, an event that led to her having an early-term abortion. I did not ask her why she had run away—I suspected she had been abused—so I kept our conversation light and was encouraged by her easy laughter.
When she asked me why I was talking a job at the Indiana Penal Farm, I said, “For the hell of it.” This response more than adequately describes the milestones of my life. It applies to why I had dropped out of college and backpacked all over Australia. It applies to my short-lived marriage to a woman who had wisely discarded me. It pertains to why I had worked so many odd jobs while trying to make it as a writer. If my life needed more introspection than that, I did not want to make the effort. “For the hell of it” was even the reason I was trying to pick her up.
“Tom Hemmings,” she said, “you impress me as a rather shallow man.”
“Would you prefer somebody profound?” I asked.
She smiled and sipped her drink. “I don’t know about that,” she joked. “You’re too good at playing the clown.”
“I’m not trying to sleep with you,” I lied. “One-nighters aren’t my thing.”
She smiled. “Oh, how disappointing. I adore a one-night stand.”
She crossed her legs and eased back in her chair. She seemed to be getting bored. “So where are you staying, Tom Hemmings, if you’re so new in town?”
“The Holiday Inn near Highway 40.”
“The Holiday Inn,” she parroted. “I find that a little depressing. But if you’ve managed to keep your room tidy, you’re welcome to take me there.”
She held my hand as we walked to my room. There was no one around and the hallway was quiet, but she flinched when she heard the clanking of a noisy ice machine.
I escorted her into my hotel room, and she sat down on the queen-sized bed. Noticing a pile of books on the nightstand, she picked up one of them.
“The Canterbury Tales, my goodness,” she said. “So that’s why you talk like an actor. I had to read this in high school, and I haven’t touched it since.”
“It’s a masterpiece.”
“That’s the reason,” she said. She placed the book back on the nightstand. “I wouldn’t survive in this boring town if I broadened my horizons too much.”
She placed a pillow under her elbows then leisurely kicked off her pumps. Her shoes made a hollow clatter as they landed on the floor. “A prison guard that reads,” she laughed. “You are full of surprises, Tom Hemmings.”
“Does that impress you?”
“A little,” she said. “but I’m not very hard to impress.”
I sat down on the bed beside her. She rubbed the back of my neck. “I fall in love very quickly, Tom Hemmings. I hope you can keep up with me.”
“Tell me about your uncle,” I said. “The one who’s serving time.”
She interlaced my fingers with hers then rested her head on my shoulder. “He’s where he deserves to be,” she said. “But I could say that about us all.”
“Was he the one?” I asked her.
She nodded. “His bedroom was right next to mine.”
She told me about the incident as though she were describing a movie. Her voice was monotonic and without a trace of self-pity. It had happened only once, she said, after which she had run away from home. She had never reported the matter because she didn’t trust cops or lawyers. “The system would have raped me again,” she said. “One rape was all I could handle.”
She sighed. “Stop saying that word. It’s terribly depressing. How can we enjoy what we came here to do if you’re going to feel sorry for me?”
I touched her breast as though fondling a kitten. She pushed my hand away. “Let’s be neat about it,” she said.
She rose from the bed, slipped off the dress and suspended it on the coatrack. Returning to the bed, she opened her purse and handed me a condom.
After we finished coupling, she shucked the condom off me, then she retrieved a towel from the bathroom and meticulously dried me off. She seemed more intent on cleaning me than she had been on making love.
“Thank you for making me laugh,” she said before falling asleep at my side.
I awoke to the clatter of the ice machine that was still laboring in the hallway. It was morning—she was already dressed and was perched on a chair sipping coffee. She looked like a commuter impatient to board a train.
“Will I see you again?” she asked.
“That might prove untidy,” I said.
She handed me a hotel postcard on which she had scrawled her address. “I’m inviting you to move in with me, stud.”
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
She blew on her coffee. “No, but that makes it exciting.”
There was no time for discussion, so I simply nodded my head. I was scheduled to report to the prison farm to begin my orientation.
“Some coffee before you go?” she said.
I nodded a second time.
“Cream and sugar?”
She laughed. “You’re such a basic man.”
She manipulated the hotel coffee machine then brought me a cup of black coffee. “Don’t look so shocked, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Haven’t you shacked up before?”
“I’ve known you for just a few hours,” I said.
“Maybe that’s for the best.”
“So why invite me to live with you?”
She placed her cup on a nightstand then sat back watching me dress. “Must everything have a reason?” she said. “All right, I’ll give you a reason. The first thing I noticed about you is that you have nice fingernails. I’ve never been able to resist a man who takes care of his fingernails.”
“That isn’t much of a reason,” I said.
“Well, I don’t live in much of a place. It’s a bungalow on Mulberry Street. The walls need a coat of paint. Maybe if you move in with me, you could give them a fresh coat of paint.”
“Maybe you should shack up with a handyman.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “You’re handy enough for me, Tom Hemmings. Just keep taking care of your nails.”
After I walked her to her car, I drove to the Indiana Penal Farm: an expansive penitentiary alongside Highway 40. I was in an especially buoyant mood after spending the night with her, and as I parked beside the arch gate, my cheerfulness endured. The barracks beyond the wire mesh fence reminded me of red-bricked fraternity houses, and the watchtowers hovering above them made me think of giant mushrooms. I was even seduced by the lettering painted on the arch. The message read, “Let he who passes through these gates renew his hope.”
My orientation was held in a cramped conference room in the administration building, and I sat with a dozen strangers who had also been hired as guards. A short, excitable captain of the guards introduced himself to us, then he paced back and forth like a wolf in a cage while he gave us a prepackaged talk. He told us his name was Harold Hawkins and he didn’t tolerate fuckups, and if we expected to keep our jobs, we would have to learn how to say no to inmates.
“Ya can’t be friends with these lowlifes,” he barked. “They’ll just take advantage of you. If I catch any of you cozying up to them, I’ll fire you on the spot.”
He went on to say we were all on probation, so we had better tow the line. “If I catch any of ya sleepin’ on duty, I’ll fire you on the spot. If I ever smell alcohol on you, I’ll fire you on the spot. And if any of you sneak in contraband, you know what I’m gonna do?”
“You’ll fire us on the spot,” I said.
He gave me a withering stare then he hooked his thumbs behind his belt. “I saw ya last night in the Castleberg Lounge. You was bird-dogging Sally Potter.”
“She know you?” I asked.
“I know her,” he snapped. “The whole town knows Sally Potter. Son, didja come to your senses, or did you cross the line with her too?”
“I’ll be living with her,” I said. “Is that any business of yours?”
“It ain’t,” he replied. “I’m just doing you a favor. You need to know there ain’t no percentage in messin’ with Sally Potter.”
During our lunch break, a shift sergeant approached me in the officers’ dining hall. He said he’d heard about my altercation with Captain Hawkins, and that the captain was full of shit. “He ain’t no judge of women,” the shift sergeant assured me. “His wife ran off with one of the inmates a coupla months ago.”
We spent the rest of the day watching some video training tapes. When the matinee was over, Captain Hawkins gave us some final advice. He suggested we go to Walmart and buy portable TVs. He said we were all going to spend two weeks at a correctional academy up north. “There ain’t no entertainment there—just classrooms and a shotgun range. If ya don’t wanna sit in yer room jacking off, ya better have a TV.”
He said the next training cycle would start up in a couple of weeks, so we’d better start working the flab off and learn how to stay awake. In the meantime, we would get some on-the-job training at the Indiana Penal Farm. Tomorrow, each of us would be paired up with a seasoned officer, and if anyone showed up with booze on his breath he would be fired on the spot.
After checking out of the Holiday Inn, I felt restless from watching tapes all day, so I took a jog along Highway 40 before driving into Castleberg. That I was about to act out of character did not seem important to me. There were probably a dozen good reasons not to shack up with Sally Potter, but the censure of a cuckold was certainly not one of them.
Castleberg, a gutted factory town, was as barren as a moonscape. As I drove past the abandoned IBM warehouse and a dozen empty storefronts, it seemed sad that practically all of the streets had been named after popular trees. Signs like Oak Lane and Cedar Road did nothing to salvage the town—no more than a Ouija board séance might rouse the Ghost of Christmas Past.
She lived in a small house on Mulberry Street, a cottage with gray panel siding, and I felt as though I were trespassing as I pulled into the driveway. She answered the door on my very first knock—she was barefoot and wearing cutoff shorts, yet her smile was rather formal as she invited me into the house. It was a taut, reflexive smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes—the kind of acknowledgment one might expect from a hostess at a chain restaurant.
“You’re sweating,” she said. Her voice was cool.
“I’m a jogger,” I replied.
“Well, you might have jogged to a flower shop and picked up some roses for me. What kind of man sleeps with a woman then doesn’t bring her roses?”
“A self-centered one,” I joked.
She frowned. “You’re such a primitive man. I guess I’m a sucker for primitive men, but some roses would also be nice.”
“How about I go fetch some?”
She stiffened and shrugged. “How about I just fetch you a beer?”
Stung by her passive-aggression, I sat down on a cream-colored couch. How could I have failed to bring her flowers? I thought as I surveyed the room. The room lacked plants or artifacts, the carpet was threadbare and torn, and except for a crucifix ornament, there was nothing on the walls. The barrenness of the room compounded my sin of omission.
She padded into a kitchenette then returned with two cans of beer. Sitting the cans on a coffee table, she curled up on the couch beside me. When she interlaced her fingers with mine, it seemed like an act of concession; the tension in her body suggested she had not gotten over her sulk.
“How was work?” she asked politely.
“I fought for your honor,” I said.
“Oh really?” she laughed. “How medieval of you to think it was worth defending.”
“Well the training officer trash-talked you, and I told him to mind his own business.”
“That must have been Harold Hawkins. He’s the laughingstock of the county.”
“Is he?” I said. I managed not to smirk, but the news did not displease me.
She snorted and wagged her head. “You call standing up to that miserable gnome fighting for my honor? How can anyone take a man seriously whose wife eloped with an inmate?”
“Has he hit on you in the Castleberg Lounge?”
“What do you think, Tom Hemmings? He’s a desperate little man. Cops and guards.” She sighed like a kettle. “They just can’t hang onto their women.”
Using a remote on the coffee table, she turned on a television set. She flipped to a rerun of The Mary Tyler Moore Show then put the remote back on the table.
“Will you watch it with me, Tom Hemmings?” she said. “I never miss this show.”
“I never miss it either,” I fibbed.
“Stop teasing me,” she muttered. “I don’t find it funny at all.”
We watched as Mary Tyler Moore’s character broke up with her latest suitor. As the episode ended, Sally let go of my hand and finished drinking her beer. “I’m glad she kicked him out,” she said. “He was nothing but a beast.”
“Mary lets all her men go,” I said. “She’s never satisfied.”
“Maybe not,” she replied. “But at least she has standards. I wish I could say the same.”
“Is that why you let me pick you up?”
“Must you put it that way?”
“Well, why did you tell me you adore one-night stands?”
“Why did you believe me, Tom Hemmings?”
“I found you pretty convincing,” I said.
She folded her arms across her chest as though she were guarding her breasts. “How easy it was to convince you of that. I think you had better leave.”
Bruised by her sudden mood change, I headed back to the hotel but not before parking at a KFC and picking up a box of fried chicken. In spite of my lack of etiquette, I was starting to ache for her—after all, she had offered me sex and affection with no punishing expectations. How could I have forgotten roses? I thought as I drove past the empty storefronts. How could I have hurt such a beautiful woman when she had been so generous to me?
I was hoping a change of solitude would get her off my mind, so I asked the clerk for a different room, and he handed me another key. But the total sameness of the room gave me little comfort. I could even hear the familiar clunking of the ice machine in the hallway.
Not feeling particularly hungry, I set the chicken aside. I wanted a stronger distraction than takeout, so I turned on the six o’clock news. Jimmy Carter, running for president, was addressing the American public, and I felt that he was scolding me when he promised he would never lie.
I dozed for several minutes then awoke to the sound of thunder. On top of that, a Brady Bunch rerun had replaced the six o’clock news. The canned laughter from the program made me feel like an unwitting clown, so I grabbed the remote from the nightstand and turned the TV off. Only then did I realize that someone was hammering on the door to my room.
I answered the door. She was standing there. Her hair was matted and wet. “It’s pouring, Tom Hemmings,” she gasped. “I need to dry my hair.”
“Why are you out in the rain?” I blurted.
She sighed as though chastised then shook her head. “I missed you,” she said icily. “Is that some kind of crime?”
She was still dressed in cut-off shorts, her blouse was untucked and disheveled, and swollen blots of mascara made her look like a panda bear. “Will you please let me use your bathroom? I know I look a mess.”
“You look sexy to me,” I murmured, and I regretted the remark right away. Her rumpled appearance had too quickly awakened the carnal beast in me.
“Tom Hemmings,” she snapped. “I will leave this minute if you don’t let me tidy up.”
Not wishing to vex her a second time, I invited her into the room. Moments later, the bathroom door closed behind her and the hairdryer started to hum. My heart was racing like a sprinter’s and I wanted to feign composure, so I picked up my copy of Oliver Twist and pretended to be reading.
When she shuffled out of the bathroom, she was running a brush through her hair, and she looked at me as though I were keeping her from an appointment. “What a bookworm you are,” she muttered. This time she did not seem impressed.
“Books keep me from getting lonely,” I said.
“How convenient not to be lonely,” she snapped. “Perhaps I should read more books.”
Hoping to change the subject, I offered her some Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“Is that what we’re having for dinner?” she said. “Can’t we go to a restaurant, at least?”
“Of course,” I replied.
She laughed mirthlessly. “No, let’s just have the chicken, I don’t want to be an expense. Oh, how I wish I had standards—I’m such a bargain date.”
As we sat on the bed, eating chicken and coleslaw, she started to relax. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch,” she said. “It had nothing to do with you.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t the reason,” I said.
She bit into a drumstick and looked at me pensively. “Don’t get cocky, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “You’ll soon give me plenty of reason.”
“How can you be so sure about that?”
“You’re living life out of a suitcase, and you seem way too content with that. I know adaptable men when I see them. You aren’t once of them, Tom.”
The accuracy of her perception demanded an honest reply. “So why did you invite me to move in with you? Why not an adaptable man?”
She finished eating the drumstick then picked up a paper napkin. After carefully wiping her fingers, she said, “Why do you think, Tom Hemmings? Feral men excite me. I know that’s not much of a reason, but I don’t have a better one.”
Later, I lay under the bed covers, watching her undress. I was impatient to feel her body, but she moved as though in a trance. She slowly snaked off her shorts and blouse and smoothed them out on the bed, then she hung them from the coatrack as though they were works of art.
As she peeled off her bra and panties, she looked at me and smiled. “How come I want you so much?” she asked. “You’re just using me, Tom Hemmings. I wish I didn’t know men well enough to know that about you for sure.”
“You’ve read me like a book,” I joked.
Laughing, she slipped under the sheets and fitted me with a condom. She then snuggled up beside me and threw her leg over my thigh. “You’re more like a pamphlet, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “Just be glad I’m a very light reader.”
The following morning, I drove back to the prison to start my on-the-job training. Making love to Sally had exhausted me, and I did not feel up to being schooled. Why had she clung to me throughout the night like a cave dweller spooked by a storm? “Hold me, Tom Hemmings,” she kept repeating. “I want you to hold me tight.”
After donning the dark blue uniform of a correctional officer, I reported to morning roll call to receive my first assignment. At roll call, Captain Hawkins assigned me to the dorm for laundry workers, and he introduced me to a short, wiry woman in her thirties who was going to be my mentor. Her name was Officer Dobbins, her hair was clipped into a buzz cut, and her alert brown eyes appraised me as though she were pricing a used car.
“Keep an eye on him, Lou Ellen,” Captain Hawkins remarked. “He’s livin’ with Sally Potter, so his judgment ain’t too good.”
“That true?” Officer Dobbins asked me.
I looked at Captain Hawkins. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”
The captain laughed and slapped my back. “Ya can’t do yer job if you’re pussy-whipped, son. That means ya dunno how to take charge.”
“That true?” Officer Dobbins repeated. She seemed to be highly amused.
“Just show me my job,” I replied.
Officer Dobbins told me to pay attention as we entered the laundry dorm, a cavernous barracks where a hundred inmates were on their bunks awaiting count. The dorm had an air of austerity that made me feel like a tramp: the game tables were anchored like sentinels, the beds were tightly made up, and a four foot stone partition bordered each row of bunks.
As Officer Dobbins instructed me how to take count, she kept trying not to laugh, and her chuckles caused me to miscount twice before our numbers matched. Later, she demonstrated how to shakedown the bunks and inspect the footlockers, and she showed me how to test the window bars by striking them with a baton. “Do that every shift, hon,” she said. “Make sure you hit them hard. That will discourage the inmates from trying to work them loose.” She also told me to keep my cool if inmates started to fight. She said to call for backup and to not get involved in the brawl. “Don’t let the inmates distract you,” she said. “Those fights are usually staged. That means they’re planning to knife someone on the other side of the dorm.”
When the shift was over, Officer Dobbins asked me to cut Captain Hawkins some slack. She said if she could take him more seriously, she’d report him for sexual harassment. “But I just can’t do it, hon,” she said. “I feel sorta sorry for him. His wife ran off with an inmate, and he’ll never live it down.”
I spent a full week assigned to the laundry dorm under the tutelage of Officer Dobbins. She advised me to forget the captain’s advice and to build some rapport with the inmates. “Don’t get too friendly with them, hon,” she said. “That will make them look like snitches, but it’s okay to ignore minor infractions and to joke around with them some.”
She demonstrated her humor one day when we were taking the mid-shift count—when an inmate tried to disrupt the process by meowing like a cat. “Will someone please feed that pussy,” she said as she finished circling the dorm. The entire dorm rippled with laughter while we tabulated the count, and a couple of inmates told the joker not to mess with Officer Dobbins.
That evening, while sitting on Sally’s couch, I described the incident to her. We were eating takeout pizza while watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had waited for a commercial break before telling her the story.
She stared at me and bit her lip. “Is she your new girlfriend?” she snapped. “Are you tired of me already?”
“I think she’s a dyke,” I protested.
“Stop lying to me,” she cried. “I’ve known Lou Ellen since we were in high school. She wants to get into your pants.”
Her eyes teared up and she dropped her gaze and went back to watching the program, and I wondered if it were time for me to pack my bag and go back to the hotel. This woman is crazy, I reasoned. This woman is out of her head. Why does she have to be beautiful? Why should that still turn me on?
When the program ended, she stretched like a cat then switched the television off. “Are you going to lecture me, Tom Hemmings?” she said. “The way you’re looking at me, I feel a lecture coming on.”
I chose my words as though they were pearls. “You’re wrong about me and Officer Dobbins. I mean that in a nice way.”
She carried our plates to the kitchenette and dumped them into the sink. Turning around to face me, she drew a ragged breath. “All right, I’m wrong, you’re right,” she said. “You’ve set the record straight. Do you really think that matters when you’re just another man?”
“I don’t want you thinking badly about me.”
Shaking her head, she rinsed off the plates then shuffled back to the couch. She sat down beside me, picked up my hand and cupped it in both of hers. “You’re living out of a suitcase,” she said. “You’re employed as a prison guard. If you want me to stop thinking badly about you, you’re not making much of an effort.”
“You told me I was exciting.”
“Well, I’m telling you something else now.”
“Do you want me to leave ?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t want you to leave. Whenever things get difficult, men like you want to leave.”
She kissed me as though she were sampling a dish at a buffet. “You taste like anchovies,” she complained and turned her head away.
In spite of her bewildering mood, I felt myself getting aroused. “Tell me what you want me to do,” I urged.
“You should know what to do,” she muttered. “Why is it my job to tell you?”
“I’m just a simple man,” I said. “Consider it charity.”
She dropped my hand and rubbed her eyes. “Will you please stop talking above my head? It’s like you’re laughing at me.”
“Did I say something funny?”
“No, you just talk like you’re read too many books.”
“I thought that impressed you.”
“It does,” she said, “but not in the way you think. Talking with you is like meeting Mark Twain, and his writing is so blasé.”
She rose from the couch and stared at me with wet accusing eyes. “Why do you need to impress me at all? I’m just the local tramp. Ask anyone in town, they’ll tell you the same. I’m only the local tramp.”
“I’m sorry they think that.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s not why you need to be sorry. How little I care what they think about me. I’d just like to meet a man.”
“Count time,” Officer Dobbins called the following afternoon.
The inmates retreated to their bunks, and we began the mid-shift count. Moving in opposite directions, we took individual tallies, counting each inmate carefully as we orbited the dorm. Our numbers matched on the very first go-around, and Officer Dobbins phoned the count in.
When the count for the entire prison cleared, the inmates filed out for lunch, and Officer Dobbins suggested I stroll around the dorm to keep from nodding off. We were seated at the officers’ station, a horseshoe-shaped counter in the center of the dorm, and I could not ignore the severity with which she was looking at me.
“Does it show?” I asked.
“It shows,” she replied. “Sally Potter is tough on her men.”
“She told me she has no standards,” I said.
Officer Dobbins shook her head. “She’s a funny kind of woman, they say, if you want to know the truth. She’ll live with a man for a month or two and then find fault with him.”
“She’s found fault with me already,” I said. “It only took her a week.”
“So why are you still shacking up with her, hon. You trying to prove her wrong?”
Before I could answer, a tall, tattooed inmate bellied up to the officers’ station. He had blue, piercing eyes, a Roman nose and a smile that seemed etched on his face. Apparently, he had skipped lunch so he could chat with Officer Dobbins.
Leaning on the counter, he said, “Miss Dobbins, you look real nice today.”
“Eddie Leach,” she replied. “You’re going to lose weight if you keep on skipping lunch. Didn’t your mama teach you not to be missing meals?”
The inmate laughed, showing straight white teeth. “My mama taught me to watch over the ladies—make sure they get treated right. If any of these bozos start bothering you, I wantcha to let me know.”
Officer Dobbins laughed and said, “Eddie, you’re the only one bothering me.”
“Aww, Officer Dobbins,” the inmate drawled. “Why are you giving me a hard time today?”
She waved him away as though shooing a fly. “Get out of here, hon,” she said. “Don’t tell me about your hard time. You’ll just have to find a Kleenex and take care of it yourself.”
After the inmate ambled away from us, she glanced at me, shaking her head. “He’s trying to soften me up, hoping I’ll bring in drugs, but that’s not going to happen.”
“Why do you let him keep bothering you?” I asked.
She looked at me with serious eyes and replied as though addressing a child. “Hon,” she said, “if you’re going to work here, there’s something you need to know. It’s the inmates that run the place—not the guards. The inmates just let us work here. Now they’ll let you take count and do your inspections, they’ll let you enforce the rules, they’ll even allow you to bust them if you don’t get carried away. But they can take your life any time they want, so you don’t need to be a hard-ass. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re outnumbered fifty to one.”
What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. Do I really need this much adventure? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Hawkins fired me.
Aware of my thoughts, Officer Dobbins smiled and wagged a finger at me. “Just do your job,” she said, “and don’t be a hard-ass about it. Hon, your chances are much better here than they are with Sally Potter.”
I spent my next few workdays assigned to the visiting room, a sterile lounge with low tables, couches, and several vending machines. I was working alongside a fleshless officer whose name was Henry Yoakum, a short, fawning man in his fifties with a poached, misshapen face. We were sitting at an officers’ perch overlooking the room. The room was filled with inmates talking with girlfriends and family members.
The first thing Yoakum said to me was, “I take my hat off to you, guv’nor.”
I told him, “I’m only a guard in training.”
“No matter,” Yoakum said grinning. “Hawkins told me yer living with Sally Potter, and that’s a wunnerful thing. You gotta be a hell of a cocksmith to be pleasin’ a woman like that.”
“Why does that matter to you?” I said.
“’Cause you’re way ahead of me, sir. I’ve tried to chat her up six or eight times, and she always sends me packing. She tells me she don’t fuck fossils, and I need to stay outta her hair.”
“So why do you keep trying?”
He cackled like a hen. “Guv’nor, she’s balled half the men in town, including some married fellas. So I figger it’s just a matter of time ’til she spreads her legs for ol’ Henry.”
“Can we end this conversation?” I asked him. “You’re supposed to discuss this job.”
“This job don’t need discussin’,” said Yoakum. “You can learn it in fifteen minutes. But holdin’ onto a beauty like Sally is somethin’ worth jawing about.”
I insisted he show me the job instead, and he told me how to regulate visits. I was to check the inmate’s visiting card when a caller came to the counter, and I was to deny visitation to anyone whose name was not on the card. Once an inmate entered the room, I was to log his time of arrival, and I was to terminate the visit once an hour was up.
“That’s ’bout all there is to it?” Yoakum said. “But time is flexible, guv’nor. If the visitor is a babe with a nice set of tits, I might give her an extra half hour.”
“That sounds voyeuristic,” I said.
Yoakum smirked. “This is a damn good job for a voyeur, sir, ’cause you’re supposed to watch the babes close. Some of them bitches stick crack in their pussies and sneak that shit to their boyfriends. Usually, they go to the lady’s room, so they can hide the balloons in their mouths, then they pass ’em off to their boyfriends by giving ’em a smooch.”
“And that’s when you write them up?”
Yoakum shrugged. “If I don’t have a hard-on, I do. Ya gotta fill out a real detailed report steada sizin’ up the babes, and if the inmate don’t shit a balloon, the brass will put you on report.”
As I looked around the visiting room, I saw several attractive women. One of them was filing her fingernails while chatting with Eddie Leach.
“Why so many beauties?” I asked.
Yoakum winked like a firefly. “’Babes like bad boys—that’s why,” he said. “Don’tcha know nothin’ ’bout women? Show a bitch a bad boy, and she’ll stick to him like a leech.”
Yoakum chuckled, pleased with his pun. “Now that fella you’re watchin’ got three or four broads, and he ain’t even much of a crook. Far as I know, all he done was steal some iron from a construction site. But women are so hard up for bad boys, they’ll settle for Eddie Leach.”
The following afternoon, I received my orders to attend the training academy. I was to report to Westfield Correctional Facility, a combined prison and training institute a few miles south of Lake Michigan. I was instructed to pack loose clothing, sneakers and what medications I might need. No mention was made of a portable television, but I picked one up at Walmart. Thanks to Sally, I had become addicted to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
When I told Sally I was leaving for two weeks of boot camp, she looked at me stonily. “Boot camp?” she said. “How macho that sounds. And what am I supposed to do with myself while you’re learning to be a screw?”
“It’s only for a couple of weeks,” I said. “I’ll call you every night.”
“Make sure you do, Tom Hemmings,” she said. “I’ll suffer while you’re gone.”
“You suffer when I’m here,” I said. “The break might do you good.”
“So now you’re deciding what’s good for me. You’re so very presumptuous, Tom Hemmings.”
Maybe it’s time this ended, I thought as I started to pack my bag. Or maybe it’s ended already and only my willfulness is alive.
A few minutes later, she came into the bedroom and gathered my hands in hers. “I’m such a bitch,” she murmured. “I’m such a demanding bitch.”
“Would it help if I were a bad boy?” I joked.
She let go of my hands and laughed. “A bad boy?” she said. “Just what are you saying? You’re bad for me already, Tom Hemmings. You’re such a narrow man.”
The Westfield Correctional Facility, a sprawling grassy acreage surrounded by watchtowers and wire fences, did not stir my narrow soul. The prison contained dozens of Spartan-type buildings—barracks, vocational shops, a stern-looking chapel—but there was no sign of habitation anywhere on the grounds. I later learned that the buildings were connected by a maze of underground tunnels, and that all inmate movements were conducted within these passageways.
I was assigned a tiny room inside the training building—a room that contained only a bed and a dresser, upon which I placed the TV. Training would not start until the next morning, so I had time to give her a phone call. Since I had some loose change, I made the call from a payphone in the hallway.
“I miss you,” I said when I heard her voice.
“I miss you too,” she said thinly.
When I told her I’d be back in just two weeks, I heard a sharp intake of breath. “How nice,” she said. “Should that make me feel better? I miss you no less when you’re here, Tom Hemmings, so please don’t try to console me.”
“I’ll try to do better.”
“Please don’t,” she snapped. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Would you rather I left you?”
“Of course not,” she snapped. “I’m in love with you, you big dummy. But don’t pester me with phone calls. You sound so cold over the phone.”
I wondered again why I longed for her touch, being such a callow man, and why I was desperate for our conversation to end on a positive note.
“I miss you,” I repeated.
“Oh, I miss you too,” she replied.
The operator said, “Please deposit another fifty cents.”
I phoned her two weeks later to let her know I was coming back. Along with forty other recruits, I had received my training diploma, and I had found the regimen undemanding and rather superficial. Classes consisted of glib observations about how to handle inmates—comments that in no way measured up to Officer Dobbins’ sound advice. The self-defense coaching occupied just a couple of afternoons, and I cringed to think how such training might fare against muggers and murderers. And peppering cardboard silhouettes with shotguns lacked the element of fear, an emotion sure to grip anyone forced to fire upon rioting inmates. But if my liaison with Sally defined me, I had poor cause to complain. I should have grown used to embracing affairs I was unequipped to handle.
When she answered the phone, her voice was so tight that I wasn’t sure I had the right number. “Is there something you want to tell me?” I said.
“Yes,” she said flatly, “there is.”
“What is it?”
She paused then spoke as though she had caught me reading her mail. “I happen to be in love, Tom Hemmings.”
“I think I could love you too,” I lied.
“You’re not listening to me,” she replied. “Everything is not about you. I have fallen in love with somebody else, and he’s grown very dear to me. I believe I am truly in love for the first time in my life.”
I felt no sense of betrayal as I processed this information. For a moment, I felt that my bogus diploma had made me unworthy of her. But her story seemed inauthentic—I had heard it many times. When women want to disown you, whatever the reason might be, they often say it’s because someone dear has come into their lives.
Lacking a talent for outrage, I said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t enough.”
“Tom Hemmings,” she said, “you were really too much.”
Convinced that she was just angry with me—after all, she had dumped me before—I said, “Shall I drop by and pick up my things? There are only a couple of shirts.”
“Don’t be so condescending,” she said. “Do you actually think I planned this?”
“What I think is that you’re toying with me.”
“Must you be cruel?” she murmured. “It really doesn’t suit you. I want to remember you fondly, Tom Hemmings, so please don’t pretend to be cruel.”
“All right,” I said. “You have my blessing.”
“Your blessing?” she laughed. “My, that sounds so passé, but thank you anyway. Considering my luck with marriage, I could use a blessing or two.”
“You’re marrying him?”
“Yes, I’m marrying him. Does that surprise you, Tom Hemmings?”
“It would if I believed you,” I said.
“Whether you believe me or not,” she snapped, “please drop by and pick up your things. Let me know when you’re coming, and I’ll leave them on the front porch.”
Driving south on Route 431, I decided not to pick up my things. This wasn’t because I wanted to pout, but because her story was too unlikely. What prospects could she possibly have in such a diminished town? And, given her reputation, who would choose to marry her? I drove past the Castleberg turnoff and went back to the Holiday Inn. I wanted her to know where to find me once she was over her funk.
On Monday, I returned to the prison and met with Captain Hawkins. He had phoned the training academy to get my evaluation, and he seemed particularly eager to go over it with me. “You graduated at the top of yer class,” he said, “but the report they wrote on you is bullshit. The instructors say you’re capable of thinkin’ outta the box.”
“Why is that bullshit?” I asked him.
“Do I gotta explain it, Hemmings? As long as yer ballin’ Sally Potter, you ain’t thinkin’ outta the box.”
When I asked him to stop projecting, he said he would give me a break. He said he had slotted me to work the laundry dorm on my own. He told me I would work the busiest shift, which was 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and that would give me a chance to prove that I wasn’t pussy-whipped.
On my first afternoon in the laundry dorm, I remembered Officer Dobbins’ advice. Treat them fair and respectfully, joke around with them a little and don’t feel compelled to write them up for every infraction you see. My post orders stated I had to conduct three shakedowns every shift, so I selected the bed areas of inmates whom I believed would cause me no trouble.
The first inmate I chose was Eddie Leach who had always been friendly to me. “Go ahead, Mister Hemmings,” he said, opening his footlocker. “You got a job to do.” His manner was so obliging, his face so kind and composed, that I felt like I’d been punched when I found a balloon of white powder. It was tucked inside the cavity of a hollowed-out King James Bible.
“Eddie, what have we here?” I said, hoping to keep the matter light.
Eddie smiled. “Ya caught me, Mister Hemmings, so I guess I’ll be losin’ some good time. But don’t feel bad about it, man. Yer only doin’ yer job.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” I said.
“We’re cool, Mister Hemmings, don’t worry. Man, I hope you’ll still do me a favor.”
“What is it?” I asked suspiciously.
He laughed. “It ain’t nothin’ illegal, man. Didja know I’m getting’ married?”
“After you get out of prison?” I asked.
“Naw, I’m gettin’ hitched here,” he replied. “The chaplain he’s tying the knot tomorrow. Mister Hemmings, if you can manage it, I’d like you to be my best man.”
It was not until after my shift had ended, and I was driving back to the Holiday Inn, that the most sobering thought I had ever had popped into my head. Could it be? I wondered. I shook my head. No, how could it possibly be? I watched the late news on television then fell into an exhausted sleep. The next morning I took an extra-long jog alongside Highway 40.
That afternoon, I arrived at the prison several hours before my shift. Eddie had actually given me an invitation, which he had printed on a scrap of paper. It said the nuptials would be held at 1:00 p.m. in the prison chaplain’s office. The invitation did not mention the name of the bride, so I wondered again, Could it be?
This thought pounded my brain like a mallet as I entered the administration building. Walking towards the chaplain’s office, I grew acutely aware of my footsteps. My soles thudded so loud on the carpetless floor that it felt as though I were being followed. So sharp was the hammering in my brain, so explosive the sound of my footsteps, that I was already stunned when I entered the chaplain’s office and saw her standing there.
She was wearing a formal, white dress. Her hair was done up in a bun. Her face was so glacially composed that she looked like a mannequin. Eddie Leach was standing beside her, clad in freshly starched prison blues, and the chaplain, a scrawny little man, was chatting with them both.
When Eddie introduced me to his bride, she smiled and squeezed my fingers. “Thank you for dropping by,” she said then she looked away from me. Thankfully, her face did not betray a hint of recognition.
The group was still waiting for Officer Dobbins who was apparently the bridesmaid. She showed up a minute later, carrying a bouquet of white roses. Noticing me, she blanched and clutched the flowers to her chest. Speaking to Eddie Leach, she said, “Congratulations, hon.”
I stood as though bound while the prison chaplain conducted the ceremony. That he seemed to be in a hurry was no consolation to me—after the vows were recited, after the rings were exchanged, he asked me to escort the newlyweds to the visiting room. The reception, if you wanted to call it that, would consist of a two-hour visit.
I delivered the pair to the visiting room then hurried away like a thief. Having grasped the true worth of my passion for her—a mawkish thing at best—I felt like a tawdry specter at the shoddiest of feasts. I was therefore surprised when Captain Hawkins stopped me in the hallway. As a phantom, I did not feel I deserved the concern with which he looked at me.
“I heard what happened, son,” he said in a voice that could be poured over pancakes. “I wantcha to take a coupla days off. I’ll arrange to cover your shift.”
I did not want to suffer his sympathy. “She’s just the town whore,” I snapped.
“Never mind, son, it happens,” he said, and he patted me on the shoulder.
I did not need a sermon—I needed a friend—so I broke off our conversation. Too feckless for flight, I retreated no further than the officers’ dining room, and I felt that all eyes were upon me when I sat down at an empty table. I sat until Henry Yoakum, having finished his shift in the visiting room, came in, drew a cup of coffee and sat down on the chair beside me.
“Guv’nor,” he said, “yer slippin’—there ain’t no two ways about it. There can’t be much lead in yer pencil if she swapped you for Eddie Leach.”
“I’m one up on you,” I joked cheerlessly.
Yoakum cackled and blew on his coffee. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that, guv’nor,” he said. “Eddie Leach has a year left to serve—he told me that anyhow. A woman like Sally won’t keep her legs crossed while she’s waitin’ for him to get out.”
“And that’s where you come in, I suppose?”
“Well, she ain’t no vestal bride—you know that as well as me. If I play my cards right, guv’nor, I’ll be wettin’ my turtle yet.”
Since the room seemed oppressively warm, I told Yoakum I had to leave. The thought of sitting still any longer was more than I could handle, so I decided to take a cleansing jog alongside Highway 40. I planned to exhaust myself running and then watch Mary Tyler Moore.
The shift change was beginning as I left the dining hall, and I had to push past a wave of officers showing up for the 4:00 p.m. roll call. Since I felt like a leper, I was relieved when none of them deigned to notice me, but after I got out of the building I discovered I wasn’t alone. Officer Dobbins was waiting for me at the edge of the parking lot.
“Hon,” Officer Dobbins said, “you look like you need a drink. There’s a bar a few miles from the prison—just follow behind my Jeep.”
The charity in her eyes made me feel even worse. “It’s early,” I replied.
“Well, I want one,” she said. “Will you keep me company?”
I got into my car and followed her Jeep to a bar on Route 231. The bar was a dive named Flakey Jake’s, and its lot was filled with cars.
I accompanied her into the bar. We sat down at a small greasy table. The place was packed with guards from the prison who had just gotten off their shift.
A pot-bellied, beetle-browed fellow, who must have been Flakey Jake, automatically brought us a pitcher of beer and a couple of slippery glasses. “I come here a lot,” Officer Dobbins explained. She filled both glasses with beer.
“How do you suppose they met?” I asked her.
“Probably through a church group,” she said. “That’s usually how it happens. Women come to the prison to bring the men to Jesus and then fall in love with them.”
We talked no more about the wedding. We talked about jogging and softball— she belonged to a coed league. We talked about playing tennis, and she challenged me to a match. We even talked about fishing—she said the penal farm had several stocked ponds. “Just watch out for escaping inmates,” she warned, and I laughed along with her.
By the time I had drunk several beers, I was a little in love with her. When I invited her to my hotel room, she said, “Not in your wildest dreams, hon. In case you aren’t aware of it, that isn’t the way I swing.”
I apologized for my fantasy. I told her I’d presumed too much.
Officer Dobbins chuckled and said, “Dreams are dreams, aren’t they, hon.”
A week later, while browsing in Walmart, I ran into Sally Potter. She was pushing a shopping cart that was full of men’s clothing, and she blushed when she looked at me. Her face wore the glow of a newlywed—she looked stunningly beautiful.
“Tom Hemmings,” she said to me sternly, “you never did pick up your things.”
“Will they fit Eddie Leach?” I asked her.
She laughed. “No, he isn’t your size.”
I wished her luck with her marriage. She smiled and folded her arms. “At least I know where to find him,” she said. “Are you buying new jogging shoes?”
I confessed that I was. She shook her head. “You’re such a runner,” she said.
“So when is he getting out?” I asked.
“Not for eighteen months,” she replied. “He lost six months of good time yesterday—that was because of you. Did you bust him just to spite me, Tom Hemmings?”
“I was only doing my job.”
She told me my scheme was not going to work—she would wait for him anyway. She informed me he was the sweetest man that she had ever met, and that when he got out of prison she would make sure he was well-dressed. She said a wretched visiting room was no place for a honeymoon. They would honeymoon in Vegas, she said, and stay at a Holiday Inn.
William Kevin Burke once wrote an article for In These Times that exposed how a corrupt foundation officer had compromised a grass roots environmental group. A cover story in The Progressive exposed how the pest control industry lied about exposing home owners to chemicals that could cause cancer and severe neurological conditions. The environmental group ended up folding and a major lawsuit resulting in $3 million in punitive damages was decided by evidence from that pest control article. Power is not usually happy to have its lies and crimes exposed and the repercussions from these articles were not all friendly, but it felt damn good to tell the truth, no matter what the outcome. That's part of what this story is about. The other part is how the truths we sense, what we know without having to know how we know it, can open our hearts to our own possibilities. I hope you enjoy it.
Near the exact center of the city of Oakwood Heights, along the south side of the railroad yard that divided the already miniature city in half, was a few acre lot that someone still planted in corn. Each June the stalks leafed out and flowered. Gangs of boys, and over the years an increasing number of bold girls, ran up and down the rows playing hide and seek, war in the jungle, or war on Mars. This was in the days when the whole nation was taken up by the excitement of our imminent trip to the moon. Men were traveling to space! Anything was possible! Every Fall, when the kids had been packed off to school, the field was harvested, leaving only stubble and dirt where the corn stalks had been sliced away by a mower. A farmhouse and barn with walls that no longer recalled the touch of new paint sat next to the field. The children who played in the field told wild stories about this never seen farmer. He’d been dead for a hundred years. He didn’t exist at all. He killed kids and kept the bodies on hooks in the basement. The house was said to be filled with tramps and hobos, or ghosts.
One morning in a certain August a cool mist hung in the corn rows, forming thin fingers that reached up to vanish in the first rays of sunlight. Three boys stood at the edge of the field. They had planned their adventure for a week, made sandwiches the night before and woken before dawn to be here. Now, at the very edge of the field, with everything in place, they paused. They dug their sneaker toes into the dirt, pried rocks loose with their heels and fussed with their backpacks.
Jack, the tall one, dark haired, thin and accustomed to taking the lead, plucked a stem of grass and chewed it with hands on hips. Beyond the field rose the Turner Street Oak, the tallest and widest tree in town. Its branches spread out towards the railroad yard and the abandoned farm house, so thick with twigs and heavy with leaves that they seemed able to conceal a world with its own secrets. Tucked in the tree’s highest cluster of branches and all but invisible from the ground was a tree house. This was the boys’ destination. Reached only by a difficult and dangerous ladder of boards, each board barely held to the tree by rusty nails, the tree house was a dangerous rumor to the towns’ parents. Opinion was unanimous when adults talked about the tree house. It was dangerous, deadly and off- limits. The notion that the tree house had been dismantled years ago was popular among the firm majority of parents who preferred to linger among thoughts that had been safely digested in the maw of popular opinion. As a result, even though climbing to the treehouse and spending a few hours there reading comics and telling stories was an important rite of passage for all the town’s bolder children, no boy or girl would ever admit to venturing into those branches.
The boys recinched their backpacks one last time and Henry, the stout red haired boy to Jack’s right, kicked a rock that arced into the air and vanished in the corn. He started forward, then stopped. Ethan slenderest and smallest of the three, waited in Jack’s shadow. Jack remained still as a sentry. He watched the last traces of mist hover amidst the corn and savored the passing of each breath. They had cans of pop, sandwiches, candy bars and comic books. Today was their day. Jack had come up with the idea. Henry was going to turn thirteen in a week. Within the next two months the other boys would follow. Everything was going to change. Soon they would be back at school. They had to do something, prove they were ready to be men. Birds chittered in the brush line that masked the rail yard that cut the town in two even halves. Ethan ran ahead a few steps.
“Hey guys! Look at that!”
Ethan had blonde hair and green eyes and a habit of making himself small and avoiding attention. He was quite proud of the day his father walked right through the room, strap in hand calling his name and never seeing Ethan hunkered down in a wing backed armchair. But Ethan had spied something important and raced forward to point it out. There was a dead possum near the dirt road that circled the field.
“C’mon!” Henry chased Ethan as mechanically as a dog that has seen a cat jump off a chair. Jack took time to spit out his grass stem and walked carefully, watching the corn and the line of woods at the end of the street for signs of hobos.
The three boys silently studied the grinning clownish corpse, alternating waves of nausea and awe rolled through Jack’s guts as Ethan poked the possum with a stick.
“Musta been a car. It crawled here from the road,” Jack said.
“You sure it’s dead?” Ethan asked.
“You can’t be sure with a possum, ” Jack said.
Henry lifted a rock the size of a grapefruit.
“I’ll make sure.”
“No you won’t.” Jack put a hand on Henry’s chest.
“C’mon. It’ll be brains and stuff all over.”
“Yeah. Except it won’t.” Jack took the rock from Henry and tossed it into the road’s ditch. It hit with a satisfying thump. Henry rubbed cold dirt from the underside of the rock into his blue jeans. Ethan poked the tip of the Possum’s vile pink tail with a forefinger.
“Cold enough to bury.”
“Worm food,” Henry said.
“Should we dig a hole?” Ethan asked.
“Time for that later,” Jack said, very much hoping the possum was only playing at being dead and would be long gone when they returned. Once Ethan had turned over a raccoon they found lying in the woods half rotted. That was a memory Jack would give much to lose.
“ Let’s go,” Jack called as he ran toward the corn field. Ethan and Henry followed him. When they burst into the corn the leaves slapped at their faces. Ethan stumbled while pushing through a row of stalks and had to push a hand against the dirt to keep from falling. When he looked up all he could see was corn. Husks smeared with black mold trailed slimy hanks of silk from their ends. He kept moving the direction of the oak. All you had to do was follow the rows of corn then turn right in the middle. He knew this field well. Sometimes he spent whole evenings sitting cross legged under the oak. When the last color slipped from the sky he imagined the home that waited for him was a far different place, with a mother who protected him and a cup of hot cocoa and a stack of comic books waiting by his bed.
Henry stomped through the rows, pushing over the stalks that tried to bar his way. Thick armed, belly already broadening, Henry had once landed a punch on the nose of Kyle Kruzzler, the blonde beast of General Hooker Middle School. He had accepted the ensuing beating with the poise and courage of a Spartan warrior, or at least that was what he thought about when he lay on the ground with his head hidden in his forearms while Kyle pounded his belly.
Two days ago Henry had walked these fields with Natalie Ash. Natalie was the one. Her dark brown eyes, light brown skin and cascade of dark hair always stilled the boys when she walked into Ms. Thornton’s homeroom just before the first bell. They had slipped carefully down the rows, quiet, barely even stepping on stray strands of grass. Near the center of the field, at the exact moment the sun went behind a cloud, they had kissed. The first real girl kiss of Henry’s life, their lips juicing against each other, their tongues touching, first shyly, then slipping around each other while soft electricity coursed up Henry’s arms. He could still feel that surge and recall how the world looked different when he had opened his eyes and seen it really was Natalie he was holding. He had known where to put his arms! How had he known that? It was a marvel. He had told no one about the kiss. Today was not the day to start.
The problem was Jack, Natalie’s brother and Henry’s best friend. Jack had thin arms and mostly tried to avoid fights. But he was tall and had one special gift. When he lost it he lost all of it. He screamed and his eyes didn’t know you. All you could do was run and hope nothing that passed for a weapon was handy. Even Kyle had not bothered Jack since the time in fifth grade that Jack chased him down Prospect Street waving a picket pulled off old Mrs. Mayhew’s fence. Nails had stuck out of the picket and Jack had screamed something that did not even sound like words.
Henry heard a sound, saw through the corn leaves that Ethan had wormed his way ahead. That would not do. He edged through the corn, making no more noise, creeping up on Ethan, silent as a ninja. Ethan had gotten himself turned around and was trying to jump high enough to see the oak. Henry was right behind him, about to engulf the kid in a double deal death clutch when Ethan took off running. Henry chased him, smashing through corn plants, tripping but not falling. He got one hand on Ethan’s T-shirt before they ran into Jack at the edge of the oak clearing. Jack hissed them silent, then pointed to the woods.
Watching the boys was a deer, a male with knobby fuzzy half grown antlers. It had been browsing on willow fronds at the edge of the railway woods. The deer’s dark calm eyes held the boys still. Jack felt the cold morning air on his arms and chest. Working his way through the corn had raised a sweat. He felt an urge to speak to the deer, to share his secrets with it. He liked to imagine scenes and he imagined one now, chasing the deer up a steep trail to a wide green meadow where the deer turned and lowered its head, ready for him. They had something to say to each other. Something Jack would never know.
Ethan poked his hands in his pockets. They were empty. If he had a sugar cube he would go to the deer and offer it up, pet a cheek with one hand while the deer licked his other for traces of the sugar. Did deer like sugar even? Why not. Who didn’t like sugar?
In Henry’s mind the deer had fallen, gracefully, with only the spot of blood, when he fired one dead eye shot through its heart. He had strapped it to the hood of the car he was gonna have one day on the day when he had everything he always wanted. Which was mostly the car. A GTX Special Edition. He drove down the street, right up to Natalie Ash’s house and when she came out Natalie didn’t get all girly and weird but understood. He’d killed it for her. So they could be together.
For the deer’s part it only wanted to finish off some new shoots of willow. The tender leaves gave it a mild high and thrilled its heart with excitement. The boys had no guns and could be ignored, but they were hard to keep in sight and most of the easy to reach leaves were gone already. After the willow the deer planned to work its way through marsh and brush to a farm grove ten miles down the creek where it had smelled a lone female two days ago. One more bite¼
“Kaboo! Kaboo! Kaboo!” Ethan called. The deer stepped to the edge of the brush, gave the boys a look that Jack at least interpreted as disdainful, and stepped out of sight. “Kaboolaloo!” Ethan ran to the oak trunk and fell into a squat legged pose underneath it, as if the air had been let out of him all at once.
“You guys see me scare off that big buck?”
“Yeah.” Henry said.
“I thought it was gonna charge.”
“You saved us,” Henry said.
“And I found that possum.”
“We’re here.” Jack said. He dropped his backpack on the ground. They had made it. He checked his watch. Not even seven AM. The tree house would be theirs.
Jack had planned the whole day. Sandwiches, comic books and warm pop. They only had to watch for hobos at the edge of the railroad woods. Everybody knew what hobos did to kids if they caught them. The fact that no kid could say exactly what those things were only made them worse to think about. Maybe they would see a hobo. They could throw rocks at him from up in the tree. Maybe save some kids. They might have to fight off some high school kids who wanted the tree house for themselves. Once they were up there no one could make them come down. At least not until dinner. All they had to do now was climb up to the tree house. Something Jack had tried three times in his life. And three times failed.
The tree house was so high up it seemed a different size from the ground, a toy house perched among branches just strong enough to hold it. But it was a real house, not just a few boards laid among low branches. Nobody knew who built it. There were legends of a brave and ingenious pack of kids, all now long grown and swallowed by the world. There must been a plan, measurements taken, walls of scrap lumber sawed and nailed and hauled up with ropes to fit snugly into the crannies and crevices of the tree.
To get up there you had to follow a path of boards loosely nailed to the tree. It was not so hard at first, the boards showed you the way and gave you something to stand on while your hands found the well worn holds. But then you reached Dead Man’s Branch. There you made a leap, you had to actually fly in the air for a couple feet, grab a certain branch and hope your legs found the notched branch that served as a foothold. Twice when Jack had failed and turned away from the leap he had been alone, no one to see when he climbed back the way he had come. The third time his seventeen year old cousin had called to him from the other side of the gap. He had reached out and said Jack would not fall, could not fall. That was a damned lie. Jack saw clearly how he could fall. He could fall real good; bouncing and banging off branches for an awful few seconds while the ground rushed up at him.
“Damn Baby!” his cousin had called as Jack started working his way back out of the tree. Jack saw the face of that cousin in his head as he started climbing. Pimples and a scrawny mustache. He was said to be on an aircraft carrier, somewhere off the coast of Vietnam. Jack’s feet and hands remembered the holds. Every reach and grab took him farther from the ground. Leaves brushed his face. He thought of his mother walking out to her garden, certain that Jack was playing baseball with some kids on the other side of town. If he fell she would get a telephone call, she would pick up the receiver, sure that it was one of her friends calling to pass the time on a long slow summer day.
Jack found a place to stop, let the sun splash on his face. He had been reading a story about a future world where some unimaginable event had made the surface of the Earth too hot to live. The few remaining people lived deep underground, growing food in underground chambers with sunlight reflected by a series of mirrors, watching as the underground rivers dried up gradually, all their hopes in a space ship that would take them to a new planet. The hero of the story did not want to leave. He said if they just waited long enough the trees would restore the Earth. Trees whisper the truth. Listen to them! Listen to them! the hero kept saying as they tied him in a straightjacket and led him onto the ship. Jack listened to the leaves, felt the fear of that man lost at the end of everything. What would he hear in space? Was how the book ended.
Jack reached the gap. There waited dead man’s branch. Kids had cut notches and initials in the branch. The place you grabbed was worn smooth. Henry and Ethan were quiet behind him. Even the breeze held back, barely stirring the brown edged leaves as if the tree were listening to the boys’ breathing. The branch could not have been more than three feet away. It seemed like Jack could just reach out and…
Jack went for it, before he had another thought he had launched himself into the air and was falling towards the branch. His hands reached for the holds. What have I done? He heard himself think in the forever moment flying among the leaves. Please help me. I want to live. His arms grabbed the branch. He scraped his feet across the foothold but they came free. He dangled, kicking twigs and leaves, fear drained his strength, filled his arms with a terrible creeping cold. Stubs of twigs dug into the soft insides of his wrists. His feet thrashed the stupid useless twigs and leaves that clutched at his legs. He looked down. All he saw was the writhing of branches and leaves; a world of endless green.
“You’ve got to swing back and forth. It’s the only way.” Henry called. Jack could be such a girl. Everybody knew what to do on Dead Man’s Branch.
“Yeah. I know.”
“Be careful,” Ethan said. Ethan came up here all the time. Twice he had slept up on the floor of the tree house after his father had hit his mother and she had run off to her sister’s house with the other kids. But Ethan never talked about the tree house. Maybe he did not want to embarrass Jack. He needed to believe in someone. Jack would figure it out.
Jack had to kick out with his legs then swing his butt back and forth to get moving. He felt his arms loosen and locked the grip of his hands tighter. His skin was slippery, fingers losing feeling. Some kids never made it. They hung from Dead Man’s Branch until their eyes rolled back in their heads and they fell all the way down. At least that’s what kids said.
Got it! Jack found a foothold. Now he had to slide his arms around and under the branch. Easy now. Reach up for that board. He hoisted himself onto the branch that ran up to the tree house door. He had made it. He reached behind himself to make sure his backpack had stayed shut.
“C’mon guys. Be careful,” he called out. He scooted up the branch, turned around so he could reach down to help his friends, but Henry and Ethan both made the jump on their first try. Anything is easy when you see it can be done. Jack thought. Until then all you think about are the reasons you can’t do it.
“If I had known I was going to have a guest I would have brought more food,” a voice said while Jack was still blinking, trying to see into the shadows.
Jack lifted himself through the hole in the floor of the tree house that served as a door and took a cross legged seat. The boy was older. High school at least. He had dark hair and wore black jeans and a black jacket and a black T shirt. He had a sleeping bag bunched up behind him so he could sit facing the window that opened towards the railroad right of way. He closed a composition notebook that he had braced on a book that he held between his knees.
“What’s going on?” Henry called. “Are there kids up there? I’ll take ‘em.”
“It’s just one.”
“I could say I want to be by myself,” the kid said.
Henry and Ethan climbed up through the tree house floor. The three boys set up in the corner farthest from the kid. The kid had a flashlight and a water bottle tucked under the window. The top of a cigarette pack showed in his shirt pocket.
“It’s the faggot Crothers,” Henry said.
“Nice to see you too, Henry.”
“Not as nice as you’d like it.”
“You been here all night?” Ethan asked.
“I have. “
“What you been doing?”
“Reading forbidden books. Thinking the worst kind of thoughts.”
“You go to Memorial?”
“Tell him how you cried like a big fat baby the day Coach kicked you off football,” Henry said.
“I’m past that. You can be too. If you would like.”
“Coach caught him dogging it in monkey jumps. Smacked him with his golf club. The big baby cried. They sent him home right then.”
“At least we got that out of the way.” Crothers said.
They had this kid three to one. High School or not. Henry pulled a sandwich and a Silver Surfer comic out of his backpack.
“This place is ours today,” Henry said. He made a fist and smacked it into his open hand. His arms were thick, a bit soft with what Henry’s Dad called baby fat, but they were big and his shoulders were solid. The football coach said he might place varsity line as a freshman.
“So that’s how it is.” Crothers said.
“That’s how it is,” Henry said.
“God does favor the big battalions,” Crothers said. He tapped a cigarette out of his pack then offered the pack around. Nobody took one. When he took in the first puff he rolled shut his eyes and started humming a tune.
Crows called from a dead tree on the edge of the railway swamp. Jack could see the tall rushes that hid the swamp. In their center was a small pond and in the pond a rock. Once he and Henry had seen a turtle on that rock. They kept it their own secret. Turtle Pond. They had been only seven years old. Second grade. For a few weeks they returned every Saturday to see the turtle catch his rays. When you startled him the turtle slid under the water with a soft plop.
Crothers was not a greaser, but not a jock. He had quit football even though he was a starting end. In Oakwood Heights that was like quitting being a God. Jack had never heard what he had to say for himself.
“How about you get out of here so we don’t have to beat your butt?” Henry said.
“I propose a game,” Crothers said.
“Sure. We’ll call it you leave. Now.”
“Actually, I call it prophecy.”
“How do you play that?” Ethan asked.
“What do we bet?” Ethan asked.
“Our lives,” Crothers said. “And winner keeps the tree house.”
“I like my game better,” Henry said.
“What do you mean our lives?” Jack asked.
“I’m going to tell you about your future. If I’m right you go find somewhere else for your day. If I’m wrong I’ll leave.”
“How will we know if you are right?” Ethan asked.
“What if we lie to you?”
“You’ll be cursed. For the rest of your life you’ll think about this day. Whatever you do you’ll ask yourself, am I just doing this to prove Crothers wrong?”
“No wonder they kicked you off the football team,” Ethan said.
“It gave me more time to practice.”
“I’ll play.” Ethan said.
“This is stupid,” Henry said.
“Okay,” Jack said. “We’ll play under one condition.”
“Don’t you want to know the condition?”
“I know it.” Crothers let the smoke from his cigarette ease out of his mouth while his eyes held Jack’s gaze. They were dark brown. The black pupils filled Jack’s mind. He was the kid you weren’t supposed to know. And he was right here.
“Let’s play his damn game.” Henry said.
Crothers flipped the smoke out the window and tapped out a fresh one. He stuck the cigarette behind his ear before pulling an apple out of his pile of belongings and holding it up. A burst of morning sun painted the apples skin in layers of red, yellow and green.
“Who wants to go first?”
“I’ll go.” Henry said.
“Fine,” Crothers tossed the apple without any warning. Henry juggled it once then snapped it out of the air one handed.
“I wasn’t ready.”
“Now you are. You have to hold it up in front of your face. Watch it while I talk. Watch it close.”
“This is stupid.”
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “We’ll all do it.”
Henry held up the apple. Crothers closed his eyes and sat there with a calm smile. Nothing happened. They heard distant yelling and the slamming of a boxcar door. After a while Crothers opened his eyes.
“There’s a problem.” Crothers said. “There’s always going to be a problem. The same one all your life. All you let yourself be was tough, but there was always someone tougher than you. You tried to hide your fear. But it never worked. Not really. After football ended you never found another place where the world made sense. You got through school, had a few girls. You found a job. Weekend nights you picked fights when you thought you could win. Sundays you leaned against your car with the hood up, telling how you were going to really trick it out. Make it cherry. One of these days. You played softball and grew a full beer belly. A few years ago you ran into Jack. You guys talked about everything except this day, except how right I was, how alone you are. Sometimes, when you’re sipping a beer and having a smoke, you remember me. You remember hearing this and then you sip real hard or double drag your smoke. There’s a quiet voice in your head that comforts you. ‘Don’t worry,’ it says. ‘This heart won’t beat forever.’”
Henry had closed his eyes while listening to Crothers. The crows called from their distant tree, all of them at once. He thought about how Natalie had ignored him in school the next day. As he had approached her she had turned away to talk to her crowd. Her hair was held back with a barrette of wood painted a glossy red. He had pretended not to care about Natalie turning her back. He walked right past the girls, felt them looking at him as he walked away. He kept on walking and he knew that Natalie had only kissed him because he was the kid bold enough to try. It would be someone else next. Now that she knew what to do.
“This is a bunch of crap.” Henry said. He opened his eyes. The tree house was still here. They still had this kid three to one.
“I wanna go next!” Ethan said.
“Can I have my apple back?”
Henry handed the apple to Crothers, who tossed it to Jack.
“Hey,” Ethan said.
“Not your turn.”
“Cause I say. Now you. Hold it up. Just like your friend did.”
“Let him go,” Jack said. He handed the apple to Ethan.
Henry nudged Jack and whispered in his ear. “This guy’s whacked, he’s beyond whacked. He’s what you get when the whacked ones get whacked on something really whacked.”
“That’s not how it works,” Crothers took a paperback book out of his jacket pocket and flipped through the pages. The book was old, the paper had turned yellow and Crothers was as much holding it together as holding it open.
“You going to ignore us?” Jack asked.
“I’m consulting my gods.”
“Make him tell about me,” Ethan said. Jack slid closer to Crothers and put his hand on the book. The paper even felt old, the edges crumbling under Jack’s touch.
“C’mon,” Jack said. “We’re in this.”
“Yes. Just let him go. I’ll be last.”
“Well, in that case I will want a boon.”
“Yes. You will have to give me something.”
“I get to decide when I ask.”
“Well that makes no goddamn……oh whatever. Fine. I will grant you a boon.”
“If that’s what you want,” Crothers said. He closed the book and slid it back into his pocket. Ethan held the apple in front of his face.
“Close your eyes.”
“They’re closed.” Ethan thought about the comic books Henry had brought for them to read. Three Silver Surfers and the new Creepy. They were going to stay all day. The apple was smooth against his hand and getting heavy as he held it. Was this kid ever going to start?
“You’re going to be special. All the time these two spend fighting each other for the best view of everything they can never really see, you’ll spend watching and listening and thinking. Thinking your own thoughts. That’s going to be your gift. You’re going to be free to think your own thoughts. And each thought will make a world and each world will flower in a hundred ways you’ll never know. You won’t be cruel and you won’t make yourself stupid to fit in and you won’t close your eyes to any of it. You’ll see it all. You won’t be one of those people who work all day at shutting their eyes then claim there’s nothing worth looking at.”
“This is dumb,” Ethan said. “Tell me what I’m going to be. A fireman? A car guy?”
“You don’t want to hear that part.”
“Yes I do. I want hear about me being a cop. Shooting guys. Taking them down.” But Ethan wasn’t thinking about shooting guys. He was thinking about hiding in the closet under the basement stairs. How dark it was when he closed the door. How his father had never yet found him there, behind the boxes of old stuff. His Mom had never ratted him out, no matter how much Dad whipped her.
“I won’t tell.”
“What if we make you?” Henry said. Crothers was thin. He was supposed to be fast, but that meant squat up here in the tree house.
“What if you do?”
Henry was already picturing how it would go down. He’d get things started, but the key was to get Jack going. Then Henry would be free to get a hold on Crothers’ arms while he fended off Jack.
“Tell me.” Ethan begged.
“Is that what you really want?” Crothers asked.
“Tell me what you see.”
“You’re not going to be anything.”
“What do you mean?” He dropped the apple. Someday somebody would think about the closet. The door would open and his father would poke his head in the door.
“Your Daddy already killed you.” Crothers scooped up the apple and held it between his hands.
“I’m right here.”
“No you aren’t. You hide. You hide all the time. From your Dad. From his strap. His nasty words. You hear them right now. Don’t you.”
“I don’t hear nothing.”
“Yes you do. There’s nothing ahead of you. As long as you go on breathing your life will be nothing but hiding. Part of you has escaped. But wherever you go in this life he’ll always be waiting for you.”
“No!” Ethan cried. He noticed that tears had wet his cheeks.
“This guys whacked. Let’s take him,” Henry said.
“Tell him you’re wrong,” Jack said. “Tell him you made that stuff up.”
Crothers had his eyes closed now and hummed softly.
“I don’t like what he said,” Ethan said. He wiped his face on his T shirt.
“Let’s beat his ass,” Henry said.
“Not before my turn,” Jack said.
Crothers opened his eyes. Jack had the apple. He put an arm around Ethan’s shoulder, whispered “BS” in his ear.
“I’m ready.” Jack said.
“Okay then.” Crothers closed his eyes and started again with the humming. The apple had one side smashed and felt soft and lumpy in Jack’s hand.
“You won’t have what you want,” Crothers said. “That’s the first thing you need to know. Not now. Not soon. Not ever. Maybe it will pass right in front of you and you won’t even see it. You’ll be so busy being who you think you’re supposed to be that your whole life will pass you right on by.”
Jack closed his eyes. Crothers words went on, blurring together, each bit something that could not be false because it was hardly anything at all. Jack realized that was the trick of prophecy. Say something that almost sounds like something you heard before but really could meand anything at all. If you attack a great empire will fall. An oracle once. The emperor attacked and his empire fell. The wanting something to be true is what hooks you. Well, Jack knew something that Crothers could never know. Jack did not want anything. He only wanted to see life unfold. It started when he was a boy. A dream of an eye looking in the window at him sleeping in his first big boy bed. But was it a dream? The eye filled his window. He had woken up, walked through a party his parents were having. He had to go outside, see what was going on. Who was looking in at him? No one was there. His mother followed him and carried him back in to put him to bed. He can’t have been more than three. He was almost back to sleep when he heard something like a voice. Listen. Wait. Watch. Not words really. Just a sort of soft knowing that would beat under everything he had ever thought or done since that night. He was slightly to the edge, watching the world happen. It was what he knew.
Crothers was still talking. “You’ll never let it out. You’ll lose everything.”
When the anger gripped Jack it was like complete freedom. He could take anything, do anything. The kids scattered from him. Nobody laughed at his habit of using long words. Not while they were running away. But Dad was always waiting. When he hit Jack it was like the wall of everything saying this is where you stop. At least his Dad did not chase him. Not like Ethan’s.
“You’ll lose it all,” Crothers said. Was he finished? Jack opened his eyes. What had Crothers been talking about? Just stuff. Typical. Just trying to hurt people so nobody would look at him.
“You’re better than you know,” Jack said.
“What do you mean?”
Jack handed him the apple. “Now your turn.” Above the swamp Jack could see two small birds harassing a crow, diving at it and swooping away. The crow kept veering back to a steady flight path. It must be after their nest, Jack thought.
“Okay,” Crothers said.
Jack closed his eyes. He had no idea what to say. Henry’s Dad loved Henry, how his thick arms could throw kids around. Just wait till my boy gets his growth, Henry’s Dad would say and take another suck of his beer while he leaned on the fender of his car. Ethan’s dad was thin as death. His belt was always loose in the loops, ready to slip out and be knotted in his hands. But Jack had it easy. The guys always said so. Jack’s Dad only ever got angry if he had to stop talking and notice Jack. Why was he thinking about their Dads? He was supposed to be talking to Crothers. He was talking. What was he saying? He heard himself talking and watched himself in the treehouse. It was the strangest sensation of his life. And somehow he knew it would be the strangest thing he would ever experience.
“This world is not what anyone thinks it is. People see what they have been trained to see and say that must be all that there is. You think you are so smart because you see that, but you are still stuck. You only let yourself see what you think. So you are going to be as trapped as the next guy. You will wear your black clothes and stare everybody down. Making fun of everything is not being free. It’s hiding your prison by avoiding looking at its walls. Now you will always think of this day, of how you pretended to be beyond it all but were really just as afraid as the next kid. You should have just borrowed a comic book from us and hung out. We could have had fun and made friends,but your pretending was more important to you than your living.”
“They’re going to beat you down. You think you can hide but no one can hide. Not forever. Not for real. You’ll read your books and make your cracks but it won’t be enough. You’ll be all by yourself. You’ll just be this guy who wore black and used to know something, something he never learned how to tell.”
Jack reached over and took the apple. Ethan had his eyes wide, watching every move Jack made. Henry had his shoulders hunched, head bent like the floor had just gotten real interesting.
“Cool game, “ Ethan said.
“I guess we win.” Henry chewed a twig in a corner of his mouth and while he let his eyes slant half shut. Something he did before a fight.
Crothers looked from face to face.
“I guess you do.”
“Make him say he’s wrong,” Ethan said.
“I’m wrong. I’m a liar,” Crothers said.
“I knew it.”
“You can keep the apple,” Crothers tucked his book, notebook, smokes and water bottle into a gray bag that he hung across his back. He bundled up the sleeping bag and tossed it out the window. They could hear it thumping its way down from branch to branch. Crothers lowered himself through the hole in the floor.
When Crother’s head slipped through the hole the treehouse was quiet enough to hear the wind ease through the leaves of the oak. The boys pulled out their sandwiches and comic books. The sun was warming the tree house floor through the window.
“Hey look!” Ethan called them to the window. In the clearing below a mother possum lead her babies towards the wall of thorny shrubs that lined the railroad track. At a darkened opening they all trundled into the shadows and vanished.
Jack leaned back on his pack and bit into his first sandwich as he read the new Silver Surfer. Near the end of the story he thought about Crothers . He looked up. Henry was watching him and looked away quickly. Let it go. Not like he could control Natalie anyway. He thought about Crothers and his game. Why do do we have to hurt each other to know each other? Maybe we don’t but we do it anyway. Maybe we are all just scared of anyone knowing how scared we are. Maybe that was what Crothers knew. Jack went on reading. That was the last thought he had about Crothers for a long time.
When he isn’t writing about dragons, hell hounds or clown sex; Pat O’Malley loves to write the kind of quirky and weird type of fiction that he and his friends would love to read. So far, his work has been published on webzines such as The Weird and Whatnot, Teleport Magazine and Dark Face Fiction. On the rare occasions where he has the extra time for it, Pat also likes to travel, attempt stand-up comedy and study for the law school.
“The Audit,” was originally published in the November 2019 issue of the e-zine, The Weird and the Whatnot. It was also later published on the speculative fiction magazine website “Teleport Magazine.” https://www.teleportmagazine.com/2019/11/10/the-audit/.
“Dear S.” was published on the website Dark Fire Fiction in 2019. http://darkfire.epizy.com/fiction_OMalley1219.html
“Charon,” was published by the webzine Aphelion in their April 2020 issue. http://www.aphelion-webzine.com/shorts/2020/04/Charon.html
“A Job Well Done” was written as part of a Gotham Writer’s Workshop course in NYC in 2018. It was first published by Piker Press in 2020. http://www.pikerpress.com/article.php?aID=7997
As far as first dates go, this one was going exceptionally well. Normally, Calvin avoided going out to bars on weeknights for risk of being hungover at work the next morning. Tonight however, he didn’t care if he couldn’t move the next morning because right now, he was sitting across from this absolutely gorgeous and charming woman.
Her name was Allison. They had met on the dating app Cherub and after a few days of flirty text conversations they had gone out for lunch and spent time walking around Washington Square. Tonight they decided to meet up at Mercury Bar which was only a fifteen minute Uber from hiss apartment and five minutes from Allison’s. As New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ blasted from the Mercury Bar’s speakers and the smallish Thursday night crowd chattered around them, all he could hear was Allison and he couldn’t stop smiling.
Up until now, he hadn't had that much luck with meeting anyone on the app. She was the first girl from the app that he actually met up with in person. He was of average height and had been exercising so that his doughy frame now looked significantly more toned. He had recently cut his long dark hair into something short and sensible and had shaved his beard so he didn’t look forty instead of his natural twenty-seven.
Allison was petite almost waifish, with long dark curly hair hung to her shoulders. She was wearing a grey top with no sleeves, highlighting the meticulously designed tattoo of an octopus along her right bicep. Calvin was oddly drawn to the blue ink tattoo of an octopus as it went well with the silver ring in her nose.
Her face had a certain brightness no doubt helped by her great smile and gorgeous blue eyes. In less sophisticated terms, she was the type of typical ‘hipster’ girl that Calvin was drawn to. He himself was a big fan of anime, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog and other guilty pleasures so when Allison revealed that she was a Deception sympathizer and joked about the bizarre online fan art of Sonic, he knew that he had found someone special.
There was an undeniable spark between the two of them that only grew the more they smiled at one another. Allison could recite poetry from memory, particularly “Hope is the Thing With Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson just like he could recite Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwock.” They both laughed at how pretentious they were.
As Calvin got the check, Allison asked him if he was up for getting a night cap, preferably at her place. He felt his heartbeat begin to race. This was their third date and aside from making out a little in the closing moments of a date, Calvin hadn't gotten the impression that Allison was ready to take things to the next level. Still, the brief moments where their tongues lightly swirled around each other made I’m feel elated. All that mattered was that passion was there so he didn’t object to her idea. He had only known Allison for about a month but he wasn’t just attracted to her good looks, it was the personality that he wanted more of.
Soon the two of them were splitting an Uber and within five minutes they were at her apartment. She lived alone in a one bedroom apartment with green carpeted floors, a decent sized living room with a small flat screen television on a white counter. Not long after walking into her apartment, they were on her couch making out much harder than they ever had before. Calvin’s hands caressed Allison’s light frame as he felt her fingers grasp and feel the back of his head as one of her legs wrapped around one of his hips.
After what felt like an eternity of their tongues touching, slowly he moved his left hand to Allison’s hip and his right hand towards her chest. Allison lightly grabbed his hand just as he made contact with the curve of her chest and she pressed it harder to her. Then she opened her eyes and moved her face away from hiss, her eyes reminded him of a cat as they stared at him with a suave yet vulnerable look.
“ I’m sorry, could we pause for maybe just a second?”
“ Of course! I’m sorry, I don’t want to rush things or do anything you don’t want to,” he was suddenly anxious. Had he blown his shot with her?
“ No, Calvin you’re fine. I’m always awkward with things like this. I like you a lot and I want to keep going.”
“Oh, um okay great,” Clavin smiled nervously.
“ It’s just that I kind of have this-“ her face turned away as her voice dropped into an embarrassed mumble.
“ You have what?”
“God this is so embarrassing. Do you remember on Cherub when I said that I’ve had a lot of relationships? Well, sex only occurred in only three of the eight relationships I’ve had in my life because of my own issues.”
“Hey, whatever it is, its fine. Really, we can wait before we-“
“The issue was, that out of the eight people I dated only three wanted were able to go through with sleeping with me,” coursing her arms, she looked down suddenly appearing self conscious.
Confused, he looked back her. He didn’t want to think that he was shallow but he didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to sleep with Allison. Aside from her clever personality she had a beautiful aura around her delicate looks that was undeniable in its attractiveness.
“Forget about them, thats their loss. They must have been crazy to let someone as cool as you pass them by.”
She didn’t seem convinced and instead looked increasingly bashful as if she knew the punchline to an uncomfortable joke. Trying to be supportive, Calvin placed a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.
“I know we haven’t known each other very long but I’m not one to judge,” he smiled at her. She returned his gaze.
“ It’s just that…oh God, you’re going to think that I’m the worst. Basically, what it comes down to is my tastes where a little too much for most of my exes.”
“What do you mean?”
“To be blunt, I’m kind of into some really freaky shit.”
He looked at her with his hand still on her shoulder not sure what to say and trying not to to laugh with relief. From what it sounded like to him, this girl he was already attracted was apparently some kind of closet pervert. This date was going even better than he had hoped.
“Thats fine! Hell, thats more than fine! I mean everyone’s got their kinks, God knows I’ve got mine.”
“Is that so?” She laughed arching her right eyebrow as she gazed enticing at him.
“ Hell yeah its so! In fact, I’ll tell you one of my embarrassing kinks to show you its not a big deal,” he laughed and cleared his throat.
“I kind of sorta, enjoy being choked,” he blushed feeling that he may have revealed too much.
“Well well, Mr. Calvin I do believe you are giving me the vapors!” She said putting on a faux Southern belle accent as she pretended to fan herself with her hand.
Calvin thought that was as good an answer as any.
“Okay so you wont care about what I’m into?”
“Its nothing with animals or dead people is it?”
“Nope, no dead zebra sex for me.”
“All right well bring it on! Show me what you got girl!”
“All right, just don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Allison smiled again, leaning forward and kissed him, her tongue darting into his mouth before jetting out just as quickly as it entered.
“I’ll be right back,” she darted over to the door to her bedroom before looking back with a sly smile and closed the door behind her.
Sitting there on her couch with only the ticking sound of Allison’s living room clock keeping for company, Calvin fidgeted around excited and smiling. As he patiently awaited for her to come back, one thought kept mulling it over in his head:
“What could she be into that could make her so embarrassed?” He wondered but wasn’t too worried, she had confided something personal to him which he really appreciated.
He couldn’t remember the last time he felt his happy.
Time passed, the minute hand on the clock had gone from 11:25 to 11:45. Calvin was beginning to get anxious. Whatever she was doing, why was it taking so long? As he thought this over, the sound of Allison’s bedroom door creaking open startled him into sitting up straight.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Are you ready?” Her voice came from behind the door.
“Lets rock!” God help him that was the best he could think of to say.
“Ooooookay! Let’s go!” Allison’s voice sounded lighter now.
The sound of ukulele music suddenly filled the room.
Allison opened the door and instead of the cute hipster girl that he had been talking to before, out walked a scantily clad circus clown. She was wearing a small floppy green hat on top of a long blue haired wig. Her nose was painted bright red, she had drawn a red heart around her right eye and the rest of her face was chalk white. Wrapped around her slender neck was a burgundy bow tie that sparkled with glitter. On her arms and legs she was wearing rainbow sleeves and stockings that outlined her sensual build.
Otherwise she wasn’t wearing much else.
“Hi! My name’s Sunny. Ya ready to have fun?” She pulled out a clown horn and gripped it twice producing an uncertain honking.
Years earlier, when he was a child there was one night where he and his brothers had watched the classic horror film “Poltergeist.” Skipping over plot details, the movie lived up to its reputation. It wasn’t the child eating tree or the later scene of that guy ripping off his face that was one point where the young boy was man handled by a terrifying clown doll that was possessed by angry spirits and now sported a sinister, Satanic clown face grinning with needle like teeth and murder in his eyes.
Ever since that traumatic night, he had maintained a life long terrifying phobia of clowns.
“Guh,” he sputtered.
This wasn’t some kind of sexy jester Harley Quinn outfit, this was full on sexed up birthday clown. Calvin was horrified. He sat there with his eyes as big as Manson lamps and a poorly maintained rictus grin on his face. His mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Only moments ago he thought he was in the greatest night of his life now it was like he was living one of his actual nightmares.
All he could do was sit there and try not to scream.
“Well there it is,” Allison sighed as her sad clown face looked down and her naked shoulders drooped in dissapointment.
“What?” Calvin managed to croak out.
“You think I’m a freak because I need to dress up like a clown to have sex.”
“Think youre-what? No! No, no no I’m just a little surprised. So you like to dress up like a clown…”
“During sex. The sexiest thing for me is to dress up like a clown when I’m having sex. Nothing gets me hotter than dressing up like Bozo and screwing another clown with joy buzzers, whoops cushions and part favors on standby.”
“Why?” He couldn’t stop himself from asking.
“I don’t know. Why do people have foot fetishes? Just my preference I guess,” she shrugged.
“Gotcha. Awesome. That’s fine. That’s totally fine.”
“Really? You’re gripping the couch pretty hard and you’re shaking.”
“All the more energy reserved for you Allison!” He thought that forcing more nervous laughter would make the the fear might go away. It wasn’t working.
“Whats that now?”
“When I’m dressed like this I’d like it if you’d call me Sunny, as in Sunny the Clown,” Sunny pulled out the horn again, smiled and gave it a few more honks.
“S-Sunny, right okay um look maybe I-”
“I’ve just been dying to bring out the balloons animals, banana cream pies and I’ve been practicing magic tricks. I don’t know how good I’ll be at them though,” her bright red lower lip stuck out in a sexy pout.
Sunny the Clown also known as Allison slowly made her way over to Calvin, leaned close to his ear. Her red nose brushed his ear with her nearly bare chest less than a foot away from him.
“I’ve been a very bad clown,” she whispered into his ear before licking it.
Calvin didn’t know which feelings inside him were stronger, lust or terror. Years later, he would look back on this moment and to his eternal shame, against all rationality, even in knowing how badly it would end, he’d probably do it all again in an instant. He swallowed his fear, closed his eyes to thoughts of puppies and moved towards her. Sunny straddled him on his lap as they went back to making out even more fiercely than they had before.
He lost himself in her clown face and rainbow attire. The next thing he knew his clothes were gone and he was in her room laying on her bed. Sunny the Clown was riding him. Her moans of satisfaction sounded more like high pitched giggling. He shut his eyes and pretended he was somewhere else. Still he couldn’t deny that this felt amazing.
At some point Calvin thought that she had pulled out another condom but then she started inflating it with her mouth to reveal a long red balloon. With him still inside her she laughed and whacked his face with the long red plastic noodle. He cringed as the ballon swatted him in the face several times. She tried twisting it into a balloon animal but it popped not long into the attempt so instead she just rode him harder.
As he slowly opened his eyes he noticed that he had unconsciously become more enthusiastic on his end. A horrible realization crept into his head. Here was having sex with the woman dressed as his worst fears and it was easily the greatest sex of his life.
He had already finished twice but he got the impression that Sunny had finished herself after she pulled out a fake jar of peanuts and moaned with ecstasy as she opened the can and polka dotted snakes made of springs shot out. Afterwards he had white and red face paint smeared all over his body. Sunny’s head was on his panting chest, she had taken her blue wig off. He couldn’t prevent the tremble of fear he felt when he looked at Sunny’s painted clown face but thankfully the pleasure he felt was stronger.
“ My God Sunny, my God. That was insane.”
“You can go back to calling me Allison now,” she smiled looking into his eyes.
“ Tonight was incredible. I had a really great time,” he returned her smile.
“ Me too. I was hoping maybe we could do this again sometime?”
“ Definitely,” even though the back of his mind was screaming for him to run away somehow he didn’t.
Thus it became their routine. Each time they met up for a date, Calvin would smile and bury the feelings of primal terror and love battling within him. Aside from the clown sex, their dates weren’t anything too wild. They would, watch a movie, go bowling or cook a new type of food. Still with each date, the two grew happier and closer together.
During their more intimate moments, she would take a few minutes to turn into Sunny and they’d resume their wild clown on man sex. If they went to Calvin’s place Allison was always sure to bring a backpack full of her Sunny costume. He didn’t want to risk ruining the great times he had with her so he made sure to never let it slip that he had nightmares about scary sexual clowns.
Two months into this arrangement, Calvin and Allison examined where there relationship was. Calvin couldn’t remember ever feeling this way about someone. She was a smart, funny woman with a wild sex drive and he knew that he was lucky to have her. They had both developed such strong feelings for one another that they had talked it over and decided to become committed but she had one non-negotiable condition.
“I cant see my self long term with anyone who doesn’t dress up like a clown for sex too. If we’re really going to go for a long term relationship, you have to buy your own clown costume.”
Once he pulled himself together after nearly fainting on the spot, he and Allison walked to the most local costume store. The store was empty except for the an older gentlemen behind the cashier who bore an uncanny resemblance to John Waters. He felt uncomfortable browsing through half a dozen Bozo, Joker and Pennywise costumes but preserved nerves be damned.
Eventually Allison helped him find the right clown style for himself. They settled on a rainbow afro wig, standard blue, white and red face paint, big yellow pants with red stripes and large floppy blue shoes. To complete the outfit, Allison placed a big red clown nose made out of foam over his nose.
His now girlfriend was all too excited to introduce his new clown persona, so the very next nigh Calvin swallowed his fears once again. He went into Allison’s bathroom with his backpack full of clown clothes and began the transformation. Fifteen minutes later, Calvin stepped out of the bathroom. He was greeted by Sunny the Clown, already changed back in her sexy makeup and rainbow sleeves. He had the rainbow wig on, a white painted face with blue in the eyes and red around the mouth. His nose had the foam red nose in front of it and the only other thing he wore was his big yellow clown pants that were already starting to fall down.
“Ahhh! I love it!! Sunny squeed jumping up and down with excitement before running over to him and wrapping her striped arms around his bare chest.
Looking at himself in the mirror across from her. He couldn’t recognize himself. In his mind he only saw his reflection laughing an uncontrollable nasal laughter. Soon the laughing face of his reflection morphed into something with needle sharp teeth and murder in his eyes.
“Soooo? Whats your clown name handsome?”
“How does Flip Flop the Clown sound?”
“Ooooohlala I can dig it. Pleased to meetcha Flip Flop,” the sexy scary clown pulled him close until both of their big red noses were touching.
Flip Flop thought that the sex before had been great but this flat out changed his life. Naked and looking ridiculous, he never felt more alive as he vigorously kissed Sunny. Each of their kisses smeared their makeup on one another until their faces were a swirling mess of vibrant colors. Every time Flip Flop kissed and caressed a different part of Sunny’s naked clown body, she would blow into a kazoo that buzzed increasingly louder and louder.
Flip Flop felt like he was having an out of body experience. He was outside his own body and couldn’t look away at the sight of himself dressed like a clown making love to this ravishing clown girl. Flip Flop sprayed a bottle of seltzer water on Sunny before she reached beneath her bed and flung a foot long banana cream pie into his ugly clown face. Sunny’s stereo continued to blast circus music as she ran to her bedroom dresser and now pulled out a whoopee cushion.
Soon she was on top of him again with the inflated whoopee cushion beneath his back. As she rode him harder and harder the whoopee cushion made a sputtering farting sound. Normally he would find all of this terrifying and awkward but God help him at that moment it felt like the funniest, sexiest thing in the world.
“Fuck yeah, that’s it Flip Flop you dirty pervert clown. Oh God, now say ‘fuck you, you stupid fucking clown!’”
“Fuck you, you stupid fucking clown!”
Afterwards with the whoopee cushion and pies spent, Allison had removed her Sunny gear and was snuggled up on Calvin. He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. He was careful that he kept his rainbow wig and red nose on.
“You can take that off now you know,” Allison smiled lovingly at him.
“Just a little longer,” Calvin said in a monotone voice staring blankly at the ceiling.
The fantastic sex didn’t prevent Calvin’s phobia of clown’s from disappearing. Almost every night Calvin had dreams of being chased by a tiny car full of terrifying monster clowns laughing a high pitched giggle as they chased and tried to eat him. Soon almost every morning Calvin was waking up to the sound of his own screams. To his utter astonishment, following his screams he almost always found himself with an erection.
Then one day everything changed. To his growing horror, Calvin realized revelation that he wanted more. His feelings for Allison hadn't changed and he still wanted her but now even her most erotic moves as Sunny weren't enough for him. For the next month all Calvin could think of was clown sex. Calvin had become addicted. Everywhere he walked he couldn't stop seeing ordinary people in the street as clowns having sex with one another.
At the convenience store where he bought his coffee every morning, the cashier had turned into Clarabell the Clown. Clarabell winked and asked if Sunny’s clown car had room for one more. Calvin blinked and realized that the cashier was just giving him change. During his lunch break, he walked past a businesswoman talking on her cellphone while two construction men were working nearby. A chorus of squawking clown horns boomed inside Calvin’s head. When he turned around he saw the woman and construction workers had been replaced by the clowns Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum getting it on with Grandma the Clown.
Horny clowns were everywhere. Calvin started screaming.
After work he would race home and took care of his blue balls but could only finish if he saw himself in the mirror wearing the wig and nose. He was losing control of himself and the only thing that scared him more was that he didn’t care. Night after night he tried to find as much clown porn on the internet as he could but surprisingly there was a scarce amount.
Calvin knew he that his obsession was getting worse too. Soon he began searching the Internet for when the circus was coming to Philadelphia. Surely they must have some girl clowns? They’d see that he was a kindred spirit and they could live out the exciting, dangerous life of a clown affair. The thought made him anxious and excited. Calvin was disappointed to see that the circus had just wrapped up a two night performance in Philadelphia.
Missing the circus was soon going to be the least of his problems. Life was about to get much worse for Calvin.
One day he walked over to Allison’s apartment. He had his gym bag full with his Flip Flop costume and a bottle of Chianti that he hoped to split with her. If nothing else, Allison provided him with a sense of love and appreciation that he wanted to be sure to reciprocate. When he arrived outside her apartment complex he saw her waiting for him there.
Maybe it was the wet mascara running down her face or the venom in her eyes but somehow Calvin knew that she wasn’t happy.
“ I don't know what to say. I’m so furious with you you son of a bitch,” Allison said through her gritted teeth.
“ Whats the matter honey?”
“Screw you, you don’t get to call me that. I know what you did. I have the screenshots.”
She pulled out her smartphone from her pocket. On the screen was a screenshot of a profile from the dating app Shpongle that had Calvin dressed up as Flip Flop the clown without a shirt on. The profile read ‘Flip Flop’ and the bio wrote: “Just looking for a lady clown to fool around with. Yes this is for real.”
“Where did you get that?”
“ My friend Rachel saw it when she was on Shpongle and she thought she recognized you. Even when she said the name “Flip Flop” I felt sick but I told her she was wrong. Good thing she saved the screenshot. I fucking loved you Calvin, how could you do this to me?!”
“ Exactly, I love you too! None of that means anything! Those girls aren’t the clown that I fell in love with!”
Allison’s face looked flabbergasted for a moment before switching back to rage. She clenched her fists and her small body was shaking, Calvin had never seen her this angry before.
“It’s over you bastard!” The last word broke out into a sob as she slammed the door and ran up that stairs.
Calvin must have rang her buzzer and tried calling her phone a couple dozen times but the same results every time; no answer. The person he cared about the most was heartbroken and hurt in a way that could impact how she had relationships for the rest of her life. He had thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to him and worst of all now he had no one to have clown sex with.
With his relationship to Allison destroyed, Calvin entered into a deep depression. He didn’t see clowns everywhere he went now. Everyone now looked like the same dull human shaped blob. Calvin went to work, ate and slept all on autopilot. He let his beard grow and stopped taking care of himself. All his friends and family knew was that Allison had broken up with him because he cheated on her or something. They tried to help him back on his feet but he didn’t want to be helped.
At night, as he lay on his bed unable to sleep he looked over to the closet. Inside the Flip Flop costume lay dormant but continued to silently torment him. Every night he could hear the high pitched giggling of clowns coming from behind his closet door. In his head he fought with himself over what to do with the Flip Flop costume. Half of him wanted to burn it, throw it away, never look at it ever again. The other half didn’t want to do any of that.
Days passed and all Calvin could do was go to work and try to get by. After much discipline along with some trial and error, Calvin gradually stopped needing to wear the rainbow wig and red nose to get himself off. Four months after Allison broke up with him, Calvin was slowly putting his life back together. He was doing better at work, hanging out with his friends and family and doing things that made him happy.
Calvin still missed Allison and regretted how things had ended but he had come to accept that his relationship with Allison was over and it was time to move on. When he was comfortable enough to date again he went back on Cherub. A few days of matching up with a handful of girls and somewhat flirty conversations, Calvin set up a date with this girl who seemed pretty cool named Monica.
Monica wore dark rimmed glasses, had red hair and worked as a pharmacist. had an interest in being a theatre arts major and she had done improv in college but blushed when she reminisced about it as she thought she wasn’t very good. Calvin thought it was cute how she tried to hide her Mid-Western accent to sound more businesslike. He smiled as he learned of her plans to run in an upcoming 5K marathon and to someday visit her dream destination of Paris, France.
She laughed at his dumb jokes and after a couple more drinks they were both pawing at each other. Their first night together was nice, Calvin felt a huge sense of relief to normally hook up with someone after months of having to get dressed up before hand. It wasn't the same spark he had had with Allison but Calvin was happy to be in a normal relationship and was willing to see where it went. Calvin wasn't sure if he should tell Monica about how he was still overcoming his last relationship which left him both terrified and aroused by circus clowns
Then one night when they were at Monica’s apartment and her roommates were gone for the weekend, Monica leaned in close and whispered into Calvin’s ear.
“I’ve got a surprise for you tonight. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. Just promise me you wont laugh.”
“Er, I promise?” Calvin didn’t like where this was going at all.
“Be right back,” Monica winked and went to her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
There is a feeling that can only be said in French but Calvin couldn’t remember what is was called. His felt the familiar pounding of his nervous heart.
“God help me,” Calvin thought. “If she comes out dressed as a clown I am going to shit a brick.”
Calvin wasn't sure what to expect. He suddenly felt like the walls were closing in. He nervously ate some of the croissant she had out for him. He was reaching for his second cookie when Monica’s bedroom door open and music filled her apartment. It was the sound of an accordion that made Calvin think of the Eiffel tour, baguettes and wine.
A long slender leg wrapped in black tights stepped out from behind Monica’s bedroom door. Soon after, Monica sprung out from behind the door. The accordion music continued Monica skipped around her living room. She was wearing black skin tight suspenders on top of a black and white striped shirt and two white gloves on her hands. Monica had painted her face white with two red dots on her cheeks and red lipstick on her lips. She had tied her hair into a braid and on top of her head she wore one of those flat black French hats. Calvin thought they were called berets.
After a few seconds of this the music stopped and Monica put her hand on the wall behind her as she leaned back and seductively looked at Calvin. She didn’t say anything but Calvin got the message.
After all, she was a mime.
Sasha had a rare heart disease that had always caused Darnell to want to stick by her side. Through thick and thin. But this day was different. Darnell never liked to argue with her. But it was unavoidable. She had accused him of cheating with one of the cheerleaders.
“Babe, I swear nothing happened, I was just helping her with homework.” Darnell grasped his face. Sarah stormed past him, rambling on about the situation.
“I saw how she was looking at you, that wasn’t very friendly.” Sasha fought back tears in every word she spoke.
This continued for almost another half hour. Darnell decided to storm off before things got out of hand.
Sitting at practice, he felt he should have called. Went back to check on her, or something. Midway through the practice, one of the teachers came storming through the gym doors. “Coach!” The teacher stumbled in frantically.
“What seems to be the problem?” The Coach looked up from the playbook confused.
“We need Darnell, it’s an emergency.” The teacher pointed in Darnell’s direction
Darnell looked up overhearing his name. The coach approached Darnell slowly. Before the coach got to Darnell, he stood up. “What seems to be the problem coach?” Darnell’s voice cracking with fear.
“It’s Sasha… she’s in the hospital,” The coach looked away fearing to look Darnell in the face.
His body froze. His spine felt as though it was slowly breaking off, piece by piece. Darnell couldn’t get any words out. He just ran past the coach. He jumped into his car and began driving. His mind racing, millions of different scenarios racing through his mind. He cut through traffic. The wind beat across his face. Slicing through the wind, he finally made it to the hospital.
The closer he got to the doors, the worse he felt. He began to blame himself for the current situation. If only he had made up with her sooner, maybe she wouldn’t have needed to go to the hospital. “Hello Doctor…. Ramirez” Darnell read her badge frantically.
“Yes, are you here visiting?” Doctor Ramirez asked.
“Sasha Bennett?” Darnell could only get out her name. The doctor wrote him up a pass and gave him Sasha’s room number.
Going up the elevator, Darnell tried to clear his mind to the best of his abilities if no success. He approached the room. The vibe the hospital gave off did not help. Old gurneys and desperation could be smelt from the entrance. Darnell walked in and saw her. Her body looking limp.
“Hey babe.” Sasha looked over, seeing Darnell standing in the entrance. Darnell walked to the bed slowly. “How… when did… are you okay? I’m so sorry I left how I did.” Darnell dropped his head in shame.
“Listen. I’m only here for a regular monthly check up. This isn’t your fault. You can’t blame yourself for everything when it comes to me. I’m a big girl who can handle herself.” Sasha grabbed Darnell’s face reassuring him she was fine.
Darnell’s heartbeat slowed a little. A little bit of the guilt was lifted off of his shoulders. “I promise not to leave your side like that ever again.” Darnell gripped so tight and didn’t ever want to let it go again.
Tyler Selby grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where the sunsets are beautiful and the playgrounds are devoid of grass. He spends free time playing video games and taking long walks on virtual reality beaches. He looks forward to more published pieces and is honored at the opportunity here at Scarlet Leaf Review. You can find him on Twitter @TylerVSelby.
The beasts came from all sides, one after another. James ducked behind a piece of broken building, hard snow clinging to his pant legs as he regained his balance. Peering through what remained of a window, he saw the last building left standing after 10 years of acid rain. Vines crept up the walls, and the asphalt of the road had all but melted away. Patches of grass poked through the snow, worn by the tracks of passing animals. He readied his rifle and dug his boots into the ground with a crunch. “Almost there.”
James creaked open the double doors, sweeping the empty lobby with his rifle before closing the door behind him. He took a bike lock from his bag, circling it around the door handles and locking it with a key he tossed to the side. Shadows fly across the windows, creatures clawing and banging the door to get inside. James hurries across the lobby to the stairwell, its guardrail all but rusted away. After sprinting up the stairs James comes to a long hallway, littered with medical supplies and hospital beds. He walks by dozens of rooms, stopping at the only one with its door closed. James breathes heavily and sits down outside of the room. He takes a bottle out of his pocket, the label ripped off, then drops a pill into his hand and finally his mouth. He swallows, then his head drops down and he falls asleep.
When James wakes up, the hallway has changed. The walls are a pristine white with a bright blue strip running across the walls. The floors are clear, the ceiling lights glint off of the polished floor, signs of a recent mopping. The absence of people still haunts the place though. James rises to his feet and sighs, knocking on the closed door in front of him.
“How long are you planning on standing there?” someone asked.
James forces a smile and enters the room. “Hey there, good-looking, been a while hasn’t it?”
Claire watches James sit down in a chair, a warm smile on her face. “Took you long enough, Hun, seems to get longer every year. You know you don’t have to keep—”
James looks up at Claire with a tinge of pain in his eyes, silencing the thought. He attempts to steer the conversation in a different direction. “I’ve been turning on the radio every night. I’ll find someone else in this mess, right?”
“I know you will honey. You just have to keep looking.”
Downstairs a claw begins to scrape through the doors, itching to get at the lock.
James lays his head in his hands and begins to cry. “Goddammit.”
“Come on, Honey, you can’t keep doing this. You come here every year, risking your life for what? To see me one last time?”
“Yes! You were the one thing that kept me going, the one thing that told me everything was going to be okay! And then you weren’t there. So yes. I’m going to keep coming back, again and again, until I’m killed by those things or my age catches up to me.”
An eye protrudes from the door, sounds of scraping claws getting louder.
Claire looks at James with a similar sadness. “Listen. There’s something you need to know. This is the last time you’ll be able to see me like this. It’s not your fault okay?”
“What do you mean, the last time? I can’t lose you now. P-please.”
“Do you remember what my face looks like? The tattoos on my arms? How about what color my eyes are? Honey, you’re forgetting what I look like, and the only reason you remember what I sound like is because you hear me in your dreams. It’s been 7 years. Time to move on.”
James’ crying turns into a sob, pulling his hat down over his face. “I didn’t…” He pulls a makeshift bouquet of flowers from his bag, a sweet bundle of yellow and purple. “—Get to give you your Christmas present! Here, Y-your favorites.” He bends over the table next to Claire and places the flowers in a vase next to her.
“I love you, so much. And that’s why you need to stop torturing yourself like this. I need you to talk to real people now, help each other live. It’ll be a while until you get to see me again, but I’ll be waiting, ever so patiently. Go live again, for me this time. Don’t miss this chance.” Claire begins to fade from view, the room fading into a twisted version of itself.
Skin tears off of the creature, reaching through the small gap.
“No. Please God, not yet.” The pearl white of the room crumbles away, ceiling panels hang down and the light above fizzles out. As Claire fades from view James takes the old dusty sheets that Claire had just been sitting in and holds them close to his chest. The first light of day seeps through old curtains. The dust blankets the room, not bothering James. A sound comes from the radio sitting on the table.
The sunlight scorches the beasts, their pained screeching heard scurrying away into the shade.
“Oh fuck, does anyone copy? Please, anyone!” a man says.
James rushes over to the table, wiping tears from his eyes. “Yes, I copy, I copy! What’s happening?”
“We have a group, we’re holding the Bringston Bridge, but not for long. Jesus we need help down here!”
“Hold tight, I’m on my way.”
“What’s your name?”
“James. It’s James Teynor.” He cocks his gun, giving one look back at the room’s table, seven vases all filled with increasingly old bundles of flowers, some completely empty, failing the test of time. He kisses the door of the room labeled Claire Teynor and runs down the stairs towards a bridge in the distance.
Taylor Martin grew up smack in the middle of Baltimore and DC. A few of Taylor’s other works have been published to Literally Stories and Adelaide. When not writing, Taylor spends his time behind the wheel of his car, enjoying the road and exploring the country on the tarmac. You can follow him on twitter @t_mart_17
Funeral for an Asshole
Oh brother, Will thought, knowing better than to believe the act. In his head He listed all the insults his big sister used to call him: Baby, Wimp, Loser, Brat, Shrimp, those are the things she desperately wanted to say but couldn’t. For a theater major your acting really stinks. Will looked around the room. Everyone seemed saddened by Tammi’s fake testimony, which baffled Will.
He looked at all the gullible attendees, unsure as to whether he liked any of them. Grandpa Gary wasn’t much fun to be around, constantly complaining and telling people how to live their lives. His neighbor, Mrs. Sue, was a gossiper who didn’t know how shutup. His brother James would beat him up all the time, and wouldn’t stop until Will paid him. Will passed James by, stopping for a moment to look at him, spotting a bulge in his left pocket. Will reached in and snagged his wallet. You can keep your license and credit cards, Will opened up the wallet and sifted through it. But I want my money back. Will pulled out 32 dollars, then slipped it back into his pocket. James noticed nothing.
“I’ve really enjoyed hearing all the good things you’ve all had to say about Will,”
Will heard the voice of a young man from the stage just as he was flipping off Cousin Judy. That’s for breaking me Wii remote.
“But let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that Will was an asshole.”
Will snapped his attention to the front of the room, as did the audience, all shocked by the opening of his speech
“As his best friend since 4th grade I have the authority to say that.” Ben smiled, trying to reassure the crowd that he meant well.
Off all the people in the room, yes, Ben did have the authority to call Will and asshole. And Will had the authority to call Ben an asshole. Will understood this perfectly, the audience didn’t.
“He’s the kind of guy who’d tie up your shoelaces and laugh as you fell, then tie up your hands so you couldn’t get up.” Ben said. He sounded like he was doing a stand-up routine or a roast rather than a proper eulogy, which he knew Will would prefer over some sappy, made up stories. “Will never tipped when we went out to eat, Will was never wrong, at least according to him. Will loved to say he was funny, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard him say. Will cheated on practically every test I watched him take.” Ben let out a snicker. “That’s how we became friends.”
Will remembered the day very well. He’d leaned over to ask for the answer to a math problem. 121 divided by 11.
“11, just like your IQ,” Ben whispered, watching as Will decided whether he was being helpful or insulting him. Will’s confusion delighted Ben, Ben’s sarcasm made Will laugh, the rest is history.
“But, like any friends, we had some feuds.” Ben said, voice lowering quite a bit. “We’d just had one when.” He couldn’t finish. It all came rushing back to Will.
“Too easy, give me a challenge for once.” Ben said, being a sore winner after beating him, just like he was the last 5 times.
Will sat quietly on the couch, the hood of his hoodie flipped up, and his expression grim.
“No, I’m done.” Will stood up.
“Well, guess that makes me better than you in every wa-”
“Ben,” Will said, his back turned. “Please stop.”
“Awww you poor poor baby, getting his butt whooped in smash.”
“I said quit it, I’m not really in the mood for being belittled today.”
Ben tried to be considerate. “Look, I know you’re upset about Betty cheating on you but you’re being a wuss about it. You have to move on you’re better than her.” Ben flipped up his hoodie and impersonated Will. “Life sucks and I hate everyone, even my best friend who’s the kindest person I know and also a genius.”
“Fuck you man, I’m going home.” Will walked towards the front door.
“Oh come on man,” Ben followed him out. “You know I’m just-”
“You’re being a dick, I’m done with it.” Will said as he laced up his shoes.
“Well fine, but while you’re gone learn to grow a pair.”
Will stormed out the door, the cool night covering the neighborhood in darkness. The only lights were a pair of headlights moving down the street, Will didn’t notice them as he crossed the road.
“Part of me thinks it’s my fault Will’s gone.” Ben sniffed and sobbed as he tried to speak. “It’s not, it just feels like it.” Ben extended his right hand forward, as if he were giving the audience a handshake. “But just like Will, I need to learn how to move on.” Will knew exactly what Ben was doing, booking it down the aisle so he could grab Ben’s outstretched hand. Just before he did, Will caught a glimpse of Betty sitting in the front row. Will looked at her for just a moment, then back to Ben. They began doing their secret handshake.
Grab hands and dab up, thumb war to fist bump which turns into a jellyfish. Back around and cowboy gun, shoot, blow, and holster.
“I’m sorry, and I’ll always be sorry.” Ben said, looking up to the ceiling as he walked off the stage.
Will laughed, following him off. He placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Why’d you look to the sky?” Will said.
Ben lowered his head, pressing his hand against his shoulder which had just gone cold.
“You and I both know I’m going straight to hell.”
Ben looked to his left and made direct eye contact with Will, who was glowing more than usual. The audience was too busy listening to the next speaker to notice Ben’s stunned reaction.
“It’s not your fault I’m gone Ben.” Will pointed to Betty, sitting respectfully in the front row. “It’s hers.”
Living in the Dark
Jin-Kyong lay wide awake on her floor mat, not feeling tired at all. But there was no point in getting up now. There was nothing to see or do in the darkness which surrounded her. And even if she did, she’d need a candle, for all the electricity was shut off at nine o’clock. Of course, her stomach felt empty, as it had always. All her life, there had never been enough food. But their remaining corn rice — that was, corn ground into rice-sized grains — needed to be saved for breakfast. At least things were not as bad now as she was told they had been in the years before her birth, a time known as the Arduous March.
Of course, she knew why there were food shortages. It was because of the Miguk-nom, who had divided her country and enslaved the people of the South. But the Miguk-nom could never win. Her people had Juche, self-reliance, and their unwavering faith in the Outstanding Leader of the Party. The Miguk-nom could make them suffer, but still they would survive and fight back. They would never surrender. And eventually, someday, their motherland would be unified again under the glorious leadership of their Outstanding Leader.
Tomorrow would be Jin-Kyong’s first day in the People’s Army. She was looking forward to it. There would probably be more food in the army, she supposed. And she would be a part of her people as they struck back against the Miguk-nom. That would show them for what they had done to her country! The Miguk-nom thought they were so powerful, but they did not know the strength of her people and of their unshaking faith in Juche!
But hadn’t the war been over for more than sixty years now? That was sixty years in which the Miguk-nom had known the strength of her people, and yet they had not given up. Unless another war started, all they could do was maintain the status quo and that was no proper way to get revenge. That status quo hadn’t dissuaded the Miguk-nom for sixty years, so why would it start now? She reminded herself that the Outstanding Leader was all-knowing and all-wise. He knew the best way to take revenge. She just had to maintain her faith that he knew what he was doing. Maybe victory wouldn’t come tomorrow or even in ten years, but it would come someday through his glorious leadership.
She wondered if she’d even get to see a Miguk-nom. She supposed the best chance she had would be sitting across a table from one at the Joint Security Area. It was hard to imagine a Miguk-nom sitting at a table, all calm and civilized. After all, she’d grown up seeing posters which depicted them as vicious, deformed barbarians. She supposed they must be at least somewhat civilized to have built all their helicopters and tanks and so forth. It seemed strange that a race of such bloodthirsty savages was capable of acting civilized. Not that that would fool her, of course, since her people knew their true colors well.
Jin-Kyong’s eyes bore into the darkness, but still saw nothing. In such complete darkness, doubt and uncertainty began to descend over. She suddenly found herself questioning everything she knew. The Party used to say that life was better in the North than in the South. After everyone learned it was the other way around, the Party admitted that point, but said their brothers and sisters in the South still longed to be free of the Miguk-nom, still wished to be cared for by their beloved Outstanding Leader. If the Miguk-nom were so evil, why would they make life good for the people under their rule? If the Outstanding Leader was so great, why was there so much hunger and corruption?
No, she couldn’t think such things! It was a crime to doubt her Outstanding Leader for even a moment! Jin-Kyong’s heart quickened. Even inside her head and in a pitch black room, was it safe to think such a thing? Why, if she said such out loud where the police could hear, her whole family would be disappeared, probably killed, and rightfully so. Wasn’t that the way the world was supposed to work? Wasn’t that what she had been taught all her life?
Though she couldn’t see it in the dark, the wall had side-by-side portraits of the Outstanding Leader’s father and grandfather. The Great Leader, the founder of their country, had been dead for over twenty years and the image of him on the wall was an inanimate object, but she still felt ashamed to be doubting his grandson while under his benevolent gaze. Surely he would be disgusted with her for that. How could she be so ungrateful for everything he had given her and her people? What was wrong with her? Was she insane to have thoughts like this? Or...
Or did everyone have those thoughts? Maybe no one actually believed what the Party said, but simply repeated it out of fear. There was no way to know. She was scared to even think that, let alone ask someone out loud. For that matter, was anything the Party said true? Maybe the Miguk-nom didn’t actually exist. Every sacrifice they had made was for the impending war, but the war wasn’t happening. Would there ever be a war? Was it all just an excuse? Did a world outside of her country even exist? How could a society like that come into existence in the first place? Why would millions of people agree to let a small number of liars control their every thought and feeling?
No, she must be insane. She lay there in the still darkness, unable to know anything for certain. She would have to hide her insanity from everyone, she thought as her heart pounded uncontrollably. She would have to make all the normal, healthy people think she was one of them, that she still had true and complete faith in their Outstanding Leader. Maybe if she tried really hard to make herself believe it, she would redeem herself and then she would no longer be crazy.
This fictional story does not depict an Orwellian dystopia of the future or a totalitarian regime of the past. It depicts North Korea, a country which today is shrouded in darkness both literally and metaphorically.
“It’s enough!” he exclaimed.
He’s a War Veteran that’s in his late 40’s and is trying to live a calm life in a country town, away from all nightmares he lived in the war. He saw too many people die, some he killed himself, but the worst was his childhood friend’s death, caught in an explosion and died in agony. After he returned home, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and an early stage of schizophrenia. But he always refused to do therapy and decided to deal with his own way.
“I told the sheriff that he was up to something. But he said I was being paranoid. And even dared to ask if I was taking my pills regularly! I’m not crazy!”
He finally reaches the door, with a kick knocks it down and storms into the house. However, he finds no one. He investigates the house trying to find any sign of Mr. Martinez’s whereabouts. He crosses the living room decorated with an old purple sofa and some tacky pictures on the wall and over a wooden center table. Then, he goes through a hall that leads to the garage, the kitchen, and the stairs. In the kitchen he found four bottles of vodka on the table, what reminded him of the bottle of whiskey he just drank. He hears a noise from below. Hiding in the basement, huh. Coward.
He goes down to the basement, a dark and messy place, full of stuffed animals of all kind. So, he finds Mr. Martinez and his family, a wife and a son, hidden behind a stuffed bear. He throws the bear aside and confronts his neighbor.
“Finally found you, bastard!” Cain starts.
“Please, calm down,” Mr. Martinez answers.
“Calm down?! You’ve been spying on me! I hear noises around my house and see shadows at my windows. And tonight, when I looked at the window, I saw you jumping the fence!”
“I don’t know what you are talking, but we won’t bother you anymore. Just let us be, please.”
Cain looks down the scared kid behind the father.
“How are you doing, kid? Scared?” he says smiling.
“Stay away from him!” Mr. Martinez yells, pushing Cain back and making him fall on his ass.
“You’re dead!” he says as he stands up.
He goes in Mr. Martinez direction, ready to punch him in the face. But suddenly, Mr. Martinez changes his form and becomes an ugly monster, a shapeshifter with a brown hairy skin, big claws and teeth, a normal human height, and a frighteningly human face. Before Cain can react, the creature jumps on him and they roll on the floor assaulting each other. Then Cain hits it in the belly with a knee and then punches it in the face, taking the monster off him. He leaps to his feet and pulls out his pistol, hidden on his back, quickly firing at the creature. But because of alcohol and fear he hits only 3 times, on the leg, the belly and the shoulder. He throws the pistol into Creature's face and rushes off trying to think of a plan. The Vodka!
He hurries to the kitchen and with pieces of his shirt and the vodkas he prepares 4 Molotov cocktails. Then he waits for the creature, hearing its footsteps getting closer. So, the creature appears.
“Come get me, freak!” he says, lighting the cocktails.
He throws the first one, but the creature dodges it and the cocktail hits the floor in the hall behind it. He throws the second one and misses again. The creature gets closer and Cain throws the third one, but the creature intercepts it with a chair.
“I won’t miss this time!” he yells, throwing the last cocktail. It passes inches from the creature's head and hits the wall behind it, the fire quickly spreading through the house’s old woods. The creature jumps on him, throwing both of them through the backdoor, it falls over him and holds him tight. The creature prepares to finish him when suddenly an explosion occurs in the house, the fire reached the propane cylinder next to the gas oven. The entire house shakes and they can see the fire spreading even faster, already reaching the first floor.
It distracts the creature and gives Cain the opportunity to reach a knife hidden in his right boot, and when the creature jumps on him gain, he cuts its throat deeply. The creature falls with a shocking look on its face, the blood flowing from its throat, and finally dies. Cain falls down exhausted.
A few minutes later, he hears the sound of sirens, the police have arrived. Was about time, he thought. The sheriff and 4 other cops with guns in their hands find Cain and his nemesis’ body. However, after quickly looking the situation they aim their guns to Cain.
“Stay where you are! You’re under arrest!” the sheriff says.
“Arrested?! I just killed a monster!” Cain answers in shock, but when he looks to where the creature’s body lays, he notices it is a human body, Mr. Martinez’s body. “It was a shapeshifter! It must have turned back into human form before dies!”
“Shut up, bastard! Throw away your knife and don’t resist.”
“I can prove it! Just look inside the house! In the basement!” but the moment he says it, the house collapses and the fire consume everything.
“It’s enough! Take him in!” the sheriff says to cop next to him.
“Shut up, freak!” the sheriff interrupts. “Keep your explanations to the judge!”
Cain gives up as he realizes nobody believe him. And now, even he doubts himself.
M. E. MISHCON
TOBY TUCKER HECHT
WILLIAM KEVIN BURKE