Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist, editor and photographer based in New York City. Fiction published and forthcoming include The Ampersand Review, The Solidago Journal, Paraphilia and Visions Libres.
Rochelle stared at her father. He was tired, aged and she felt it unwise for him to stay awake to write something he could do with ease in the morning—Daddy was exhausted and looking a little dog-eared.
“Sure,” said Rochelle. Stay up all night, she thought. It won’t do you a bit of good.
“I’m going out to the beach for a while, Daddy.”
“Have fun, dear daughter.”
“You too, father dear,” said Rochelle, already heading out onto the porch.
She sighed. 1996 must have been a good year for him. He wrote his first novel and his daughter Rochelle was born. He was likely hopeful—knowing him, unrealistically so, since he dreamed as much as Rochelle often did. He was a young man on the verge of discovering his limits, which then were wide open as the sky. Of triumph, making it, moving forward with the books in the stores and seeing his photograph on the back cover.
Later, while watching the breakers crash on Folly Beach, under the moonlight of a cloudless sky, Rochelle sat on the sands mused on how it must to have been for her father, to have reached the pinnacle of literary success, not realizing that it was really mounting a molehill and quickly sliding back to where he was before; although a little wiser, and still dreaming.
Daddy was like a breaker, never a wave, cracking, not crashing upon the shore, a promised white cap that never appeared except for a brief moment, and collecting foam upon the sandy shore. Fading back he did, silently. Receding into the ocean to become another wavelet, smaller with each passage as the tides—like cultural tastes and the onrush of history—irrevocably changed; becoming more of a challenge with each novel he completed and sent off to a series of agents, repeating the process until there were no longer any efforts to write anymore, at least for publication.
Grimacing, Rochelle felt sad for him, but she was only an observer with the awareness of an adult, too old to shed tears about it but feel the empathy of watching Daddy become more withdrawn and knowing that while he remained, one day eventually, Rochelle realized, he won’t be.
Rochelle knew her mother left when she was three, and when asking about it later, all Daddy did was go into a file cabinet and pulled out a legal folder containing the papers from the divorce and custody proceedings.
After reading them, she never asked again.
Her father never remarried, though did date. Some Rochelle liked, others she ignored. After she graduated college, Daddy moved south to Charleston, South Carolina, while Rochelle stayed in New York.
Now established with a career, Rochelle spent two weeks in Charleston with him, staying at his beach house on Folly Beach, and taking in the waves in peaceful reflection.
Daddy was the memory keeper for both of them, having collected everything of his daughter. From prenatal sonogram prints, her school records and essays, and all the photographs, Daddy kept them all in several folders, carefully arranged on a shelf in the front room, which also served as his writing study and library.
These artifacts appealed little to Rochelle until her visit the previous year. She became curious about her past, namely her aged grandmother in Texas. She could not remember meeting her, and asked him about her. About herself, Rochelle knew everything. Of her father and his family—there was nothing.
“Not much to say, except she’s alive and totally out of it,” was his reply.
“How come you never talked to me about your childhood?”
“There was never much I wanted to say about that, either.”
Rochelle saw the expression on his face, and decided against proceeding further. Thinking about it, listening to the roar of the Atlantic, there were the novels he wrote, and so when she returned to them for information, there seemed to be broad, vague hints of his past. She did know his father left before Daddy was born, and had died in Ely, Nevada sometime in the early 1970s. That was from a death certificate in a folder along with some papers involving her grandmother’s commitment to the nursing home. Daddy’s birth certificate was in that file, too. One intriguing entry was her grandfather’s occupation was listed as a freelance writer. Yet, through all the Internet searches she made as a consequence, Rochelle found nothing published by the man. It was as if he jumped in a hole, and took it with him until he died in Nevada. Daddy did admit that his mother received letters from him after he had left, but those letters were gone by the time he was able to go through her papers after she had had her stroke.
Rarely was there mail in Daddy’s mailbox, but this time a letter arrived; a thick packet, addressed from the nursing home in Texas. Daddy grimaced as he went through the papers, before sharing them with his daughter.
There had been a change in grandmother’s condition. A turn for the worse, a slippage toward the landing at the River Styx, near death and a reminder to her son that he had medical power of attorney, along with various forms to fill out and sign.
“I got several calls about this, and asked for them to send the paperwork,” Daddy said. He paused for a moment, adding, “Do you realize I have seen her only 19 times since I was 23 years old? And five of those visits were to her nursing home. As I told you, I go once a year—not that it makes much sense. She has been out of it since the stroke. Several of her friends visit with her, as does my cousin Bernadette.”
“You should see her, now. I only met her twice, and don’t remember,” said Rochelle. “So I am going with you. I also like Bernadette. I like your family.” She emphasized your. Rochelle hardly met any of Daddy’s relatives, either.
Daddy seemed the perpetual loner, and his literary output was reduced to an occasional short story—he worked on one a month—selling a few in online journals and the occasional print magazine, yet he admitted he had not started a novel in years.
Dad had done some checking on the computer and Skyped with the doctor in charge. Rochelle left him alone; she spent her life keeping her head low in these personal situations. It was none of her business. No need for the other to know everything; this was one of the aspects that anchored a good relationship between them. They were just very private people.
Rochelle felt visiting his mother would improve Daddy’s mood, including trying to get over the fact that all of his novels were long out-of-print. Thinking of that, she browsed Amazon to check on the prices for used copies of his books—at least Daddy’s oeuvre was collectable. The prices had stayed steady in the last year, though on occasion there was a great bargain for library discards, and sometimes Rochelle bought one to give as gifts for friends, or reading copies for her. The library stamps fascinated her. She got his second book from a library from the London system. Daddy did have a contract there, with a trade paper edition of all the novels in book shops and online in the United Kingdom and the European Union. Daddy was translated into eleven languages, and his biggest audience was in Poland, Brazil and Argentina. So, he was not a total failure, nor patently obscure; in fact, in certain parts of the globe, Daddy was quite highly regarded in literary circles, and in the latter two countries he was often invited to literary conferences. He also entertained thoughts of leaving America for good, and see out his days on Copacabana or Ipanema in Rio.
Rochelle never knew how to react when he spoke of it. She hoped it was fanciful talk. It wasn’t because of any dependence, she liked the aging writer, and Daddy was the link to her history, and the only relative she remained on speaking terms with.
She had her friends, dear and close, but father is father, and blood and heart, and the one who could do anything for Rochelle when her back was against the wall. So, when Daddy suggested that they should travel to Texas to visit his mother, Rochelle automatically said yes, though she had to call her office and ask to use up her remaining personal time without being docked. When she called, the boss understood, because Rochelle, later telling her father to his amusement, knew how to cry well.
“That’s a Texas thing, you know,” he responded, smiling.
Both were excited, but pensive as they rode the train from Florida to Texas. They whiled away the time reading, journaling and playing Pyramid in the club car. Rochelle composed a poem while crossing Alabama, her first in several years. The poem was about the thunderstorm outside her window, and the mysteries of her family, particularly the woman she was to visit. Ever since Daddy reminded Rochelle of her grandmother’s existence and the oft-confounding ambiguities surrounding her grandfather’s life and fate, she wondered often of these family roots that seemed to stop at impenetrable boulders an inch deep. Though, as Daddy reminded her, Grandma was in bad shape, she wanted to see for herself, and hope that somehow there was something in finally meeting her grandmother for the first time in memory, that would fill the often vast gaps in who she was.
It was not as if Daddy was holding anything back. He did not know much, and father was not given to bullshit. He showed her everything he had, and in terms of information, it was a rather thin hand, indeed.
Ever since she learned about her grandfather, for example, Rochelle wanted to discover everything there was to know about him, his wife, and the human figures who laid behind them. She wanted to know family, and thin old Xeroxes of documenting limited information only increased her curiosity. She hoped the visit would help, at least if she was given access to medical records, or if Grandma actually spoke. Daddy told her not to expect that to happen, but Rochelle held hopes.
What did she know of her grandmother? She knew, unlike her father, that she was raised by both parents, born in Staten Island in the early 1920s, and moved to New Jersey while she was attending middle school. After graduating high school, early it seemed, at age sixteen, grandma went to nursing school at Bergen Pines Hospital, and went into service as a hospital laboratory technician at Bellevue Hospital shortly before Pearl Harbor. She got married then had two kids. She told Daddy at the time he published his first novel that the man beat her.
He was going through an old photo album, and came upon photos of a stout man wearing a gas station attendant’s cap. He gave them to his half-sister a decade later. In keeping with the Lyvere family tradition of absence with mild indifference, neither Rochelle nor her father kept in contact with his half-siblings, though on occasion the sister does visit grandma. Daddy knew this only by assumption.
Donna Lyvere raised the children on her own, until she met another bad man. What is known is the second husband, Daddy’s unknown Dad, disappeared into a country that long ago ceased to exist.
After a week of hard traveling that included an 18-hour wait on the Louisiana-Texas state line because of a train breakdown, they arrived at the tiny Missouri Pacific station in Austin. Despite being worn down from the journey, from there, Rochelle and her dad took a taxi to the nursing home south of Austin, to Buda.
Rochelle had not been to Texas since she was a little girl and memory, though dim, remembered a more placid place, less urban than it was now upon their arrival. As Daddy spoke on the ride down I-35, the changes from his life there were far more pronounced, dramatic, and ill-defined as a poor draw from Tarot. The country was gone in so many ways, replaced by traffic jams, and the idyll was reserved for the privileged. The long ago decades of Daddy’s youth were far behind him, and as Rochelle watched him stare sadly out the taxi window, the sense of loss was spied in his deepening brow. As expected, no tears shed—Daddy told her he stopped crying long ago because there were no more tears that could be shed. So in the arid, urban plain of suburban Austin, Daddy sat in this desert.
When they arrived at the nursing home, Rochelle was struck at the number of men and women in military uniforms. The home was part of a complex that included the barracks of the Texas Rangers, Daddy explained, commandeered because of the border troubles with Mexico and the proliferation of the drug gangs moving further north as a consequence and profit from the collapsing political situation of the neighboring nation to the south.
The soldiers clustered in the parking lot in the shade cast from a truck, sweating in their desert fatigues. The summer heat got to everyone and there was no existing fabric, even the naked skin, that was immune under the high heat from the Texas summer sun.
Daddy commented sourly at the irony of seeing a tank parked nearby, close to the barracks opposite the nursing home. He kept his voice low to be out of earshot of the soldier lolling against a cracking stucco wall beside the entrance to the atrium. This was a different world—not Florida, or New York—and Rochelle understood that you spoke differently and quietly about such things. They read newspapers politically and between the lines and knew what was really going on in this place. Things change rapidly, and Texas is an entirely different country than the one they left, even if it nominally remained part of the States.
As they walked towards the glass double doors, Rochelle took note of the fading copper tin sign above: _AND_DALE C__TE_ F__ SEN_OR_. Originally read a tad awkward, when deciphering it—Rochelle questioned why the institution was just named “senior center.”
“Landsdale,” Daddy muttered.
On entering, both father and daughter choked; the hallway reeked of urine. Rochelle immediately noticed the stains on the wall, and both stepped gingerly around the sticky dark pools of drying piss collecting on the filthy gray and white tiled floor. The patients moved slowly, like the Christmastime motorized dolls Rochelle used to see in the New York department stores. Except for color seasonal costumes, the patients were dressed in stained white linen gowns and flower patterned housedresses. The men seemed to be in baggy ski pants of an assortment of primary colors and white button down polo shirts, usually untucked in. Daddy remarked they were doing the Thorazine shuffle, implying that this was as much a mental institution as a senior home.
As they passed one woman, Rochelle noticed that her hair was cropped close to the skull, and moving in circles by the acrylic enclosed front desk, twirling a lock of imaginary hair, while beaming—her smile a slash across a frog-like visage, the appearance of which momentarily startled Rochelle. She moved closer to Daddy, who could not help but hold his nose at the stench inside the lobby.
Another patient earnestly pushed an imaginary broom through the lobby, his head down as if deep in thought, another stood, leaning with his face against the wall, his feet still walking in step, like a toy windup robot from oldest Tokyo. When Daddy looked at her, both shared a knowing, yet guilty, smile.
When they reached the main booth, they caught the window clerk quite openly picking her nose, compulsively even when Daddy made eye contact with her. Both made an attempt to ignore the behavior while Rochelle stood behind her father. Daddy brusquely filled out the multiple forms the clerk provided at the counter. After signing off, they stood in the waiting area; both reticent about sitting on the furniture.
They did not wait long before a man arrived, wearing a military uniform.
He reached out with his hand to Rochelle’s father. “I’m Major Thompson—sorry, I am Doctor Thompson,” he said, shaking Daddy’s hand. “I should explain the uniform. State law requires everyone belonging to the State Guard to wear it while we are under the state of emergency. I am your mother’s physician.”
“Yes, thank you for the emails, sir,” Daddy said.
Rochelle observed Doctor Thompson as they spoke; tall, African American and younger than Daddy—rather split age-wise between father and daughter. Her first impression behind the sincere smile was a sense his dedication to his work was constantly challenged, considering the circumstances of being on the edge of a possible war that she and her father were only slightly aware of because of the happy talk the dominant national media put on the situation. They knew more from reading online articles through the few online international news sources that had somehow remained uncensored, but those stories leaned toward the government line, and so they were unaware of a lot, obviously. A military base next to a decaying nursing home, and a doctor in an officer’s uniform is not something they expected while riding the train from Florida.
Rochelle turned to watch the imaginary sweeper move his invisible broom making the motions of sweeping into his magic dustpan, wondering how soul-destroying working here would be.
She turned her attention to the conversation.
“Yes, I understand,” Daddy said.
“Yes, Texas is Texas,” said Doctor Thompson. “We’re allowed some degree to act independently in this situation, and so it’s all hands on deck, as it were. So far, thankfully, no excitement here since we are further north than the Valley, although at times we have had some issues. I assure you that all the patients, including your mother, are in no danger.”
“Thank you,” Daddy said. Rochelle saw the worried expression on his face.
The Doctor turned toward Rochelle. He smiled. “You must be Ms. Lyvere, I presume.”
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
“I am very pleased to meet you. You also look so much like your father,” said Doctor Thompson as they shook hands. “I am so glad you could make it. I noted in your grandmother’s case that you have never visited the facility before.”
“Yes, this is true. I was five when she was admitted.”
“That’s a very long time. Your grandmother is one tough and brave lady.”
“That she is. Thank you, sir.”
Rochelle was a bit intimidated by the uniform, but his physician manner slowly eased her mood. Still, she couldn’t get over the smell, or the clearly declining conditions of the facility. Things were not good in the so-called heart of Texas. Rather poor, in fact. Rochelle could understand up to a point why things were happening the way they were, but there comes a boundary to cross when both were owed an explanation, and hopefully, a means to a solution.
She had a feeling there was more of the former, but precious little of the latter. Such as it were, this was the way things have been for most of her adult life, and pondering the stench, the man with the invisible broom and the nose-picking clerk, she drew the unpleasant conclusion there was little to do here. At least at this time, and so Rochelle began to stop considering strategies—which were pipe dream fantasies, anyway—and expect the half-truths and rituals of evasion from Doctor Thompson, though spoken totally within the confines of ethics. At least, she figured, the doctor was aware, and would be as honest as legally possible with both of them. Such is life in interesting times, and unavoidable is the progression of decline. Much like the receding of Atlantic waves, with the exception that in time, nothing ever returns; it all moves forward, but in their case, a pulling back, exposing the desolation of fragments expressing accomplishments and glories gone away, leaving ruins to ponder.
The doctor led them through the lobby and down the side corridor to his office. When ushered in, they were struck at the Spartan cleanliness, smelling of Fabuloso cleaner. This was to be expected, considering that Doctor Thompson was, for at least the near future, a military man, an officer, and also a doctor. But as Rochelle scanned the room, she was taken with how purposefully utilitarian every object with the Doctor’s sanctum seemed. There was no clutter, but a great deal of empty space. Yes, Doctor Thompson had his neatly framed diplomas, and a wall bookshelf devoted to medical knowledge, but his stained oak desk was spare with one telephone, a thick file in a gray folder, probably that of Donna Lyvere, and his civilian nameplate. Beside the desk was his tan computer, which, judging by the model, was at about a decade old. There were two chairs facing the desk, and they sat as the doctor walked around before pulling up his chair.
Doctor Thompson folded his hands together in front of his face while staring silently at Daddy for a few moments. He pulled down his right hand and opened the file.
“In utter confidence, I must apologize for the conditions your mother is under care with, Mr. Lyvere. Along with key staff, I have done everything possible and taken every effort—some beyond a boundary—to ensure the best in health care for the patients. I have, but failed, to transfer your mother and others to a general facility in Austin that I believe would provide superior care than here at Landsdale, but unfortunately, as I wrote in our email exchange last week, the situation precludes a possibility.”
Rochelle noted that deep down inside his soul, Doctor Thompson’s medical degree was a second choice. Man was erudite, all right.
He continued. “However, I am not giving up. I am taking further measures to improve the quality of care. The problem is I have a terrible trouble keeping maintenance staff. As you realize we are in a serious situation. But I am waiting for an approval for my request to order the soldiers stationed next door to work here when not on duty. Beyond that I cannot speak further about the situation, except to say that I have been diligent in my efforts, and as I said—I don’t give up.”
“I appreciate that, Doctor,” said Daddy. “You are only being fair, and my daughter and I appreciate the honestly.”
Doctor Thompson leaned back in his leather chair, folding his hands again. “I appreciate that more than you may ever. Ever spent a lifetime being lied to?”
“My experiences were different, but I understand bullshit. We live in a world full of it.”
“We certainly do. I noticed you were both surprised, horrified at what this place looks like.”
“To tell you the truth, at her last visit your sister suggested arson. But not before evacuating the patients.”
“She has power of attorney, so she gets the right of having the big mouth.”
“I responded with the issues of gasoline rationing. Imagine that—gas rationing in Texas.”
“It’s happened before. When I was a teenager I worked at a gas station during one of the oil crises. Before your time.”
“But not like this.”
“You can imagine the paperwork.”
“If you have paper to fill out. I’ve been using scrap in Florida for manuscripts for a year now.”
Doctor Thompson smiled sardonically, and returned to the folder in front of him.
“Let’s get down to business. Your mother has been here for quite some time. Multiple strokes twenty years ago left her without speech and she remained semi-comatose for the first two years at Landsdale. Fortunately, she did regain consciousness, and though she has been unable, despite intensive therapy, to speak, she has been able to function, but has had limited mobility and unable to function outside of managed care.”
“I know we are going over everything.”
“Yes, leads to a point.”
“At her age, she is amazing. She has a will to live I have never seen in my experience.”
Rochelle could hear her father’s thoughts: “And, for what?” Rochelle assumed in hearing his voice.
“That she does,” Daddy said, instead. That was true, too, Rochelle thought.
Then Daddy added, “But it does seem she is rotting away here. Partly my responsibility, but I do not have power of attorney. My sister does.”
“Yes, she does. But, as you will see later, I do not think your mother is rotting away. I know Landsdale looks bad, and I do want her transferred, but when you both spend time with her you’ll come away feeling better. At least that is my hope.”
Doctor Thompson paused, “Also, this could be the last time you see her. She’s 98, you know.”
Rochelle saw Daddy begin to turn sideways in the chair, a sign when he was feeling confused and perplexed, becoming uncomfortable in a situation, and knowing him as well as she did, he likely had a growing sense of guilt. This was likely what motivated him to ask her to come here. It was likely her last chance to see her grandmother, as it would be for him. And yes, she has been rotting away in this dump for nearly 20 years, a fact that she found astonishing. At least her aunt visited on a regular basis—Daddy paid his respects semi-annually until a few years ago. She understood it had become difficult both financially and politically because of the situation, but Donna Lyvere was forever his mother, whatever the issues that remained between them.
Doctor Thompson sighed, his breath hissing through his teeth. He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. He seemed more tense than relaxed.
“Well, I should tell you why I have taken such a personal interest in your mother’s case, Mr. Lyvere. There was an improvement—not expected, yet it has happened before with other long-term patients with her medical history. But not at this age, or stage in her medical condition.”
“You’re going to tell me she can talk,” Daddy said.
“She hasn’t, but she might. The speech therapy failed years ago, but in the last month she has been able to verbalize simple words, but in her sleep. That’s why I requested your visit, and yours, too, Ms. Lyvere.”
“Did I ever tell you the story of the first time I saw grandma after the first stroke?” Daddy said to Rochelle, as they sat together on a worn leather couch in an interior waiting room, down the hall from Dr. Thompson’s office.
“Not that I can recall,” said Rochelle.
“It was at my Aunt’s house; she was staying with her before the second attack. She was still able to speak, but her memory was going. She sat in a chair, with a pen, her hand shaking, with an old tin TV tray in front of her. She had a pen, and a small spiral notepad—a reporter’s notebook.”
“She would ask me questions, and I would answer them. Very simple facts: your name, for example. What was her favorite childhood memory, which she had told me. Things like that.”
“I would tell her. She would write them down. Then she would look up, then down at the page again, and stare at me, and ask me to repeat the questions.”
“’Please tell me again,’ she said. ‘I want to remember.’”
“You never told me that story,” said Rochelle.
“Yes, and that was 20 years ago. Dear God.”
Daddy stretched out his legs and ran his hand through his gray hair.
“I know you want to do this, dear daughter, but father dear may not be ready for this.”
“You will. You’ve had to deal with shit before.”
“Not quite like this.”
“I know you, Daddy. You will.”
“Thanks, I guess.” Daddy smiled a little as they waited for the call that Donna Lyvere was ready, after her physical therapy session was finished.
When grandma was ready to be seen, Doctor Thompson requested Daddy visit his mother alone first. While she waited, Rochelle recalled her clearest childhood memory. Grandma was only known to her as a shadow in her sister’s house, which was in Tyler, Texas. A mid-century ranch-style home was what she remembered, with a disused living room, and curtains closed over every window to keep out the heat. Rochelle found it strange, this house in the darkness, but this was mid-summer in East Texas and somewhat dangerous to go out into the sun.
Aunt Dilcy and her would sit at the kitchen table and do arts and crafts. One afternoon, the day before they were to return to New York, Rochelle and Aunt Dilcy created crosses with palm fronds. When they came to one, her aunt put it aside, telling her, “Let’s leave this one unfinished. Someday you will come back, and we can finish it together.”
This never happened. Rochelle never returned to Tyler. Her aunt had died a year later, so it remained unfinished. Rochelle kept the cross wrapped in a napkin and placed it in a book on her shelf in New York. Manhattan Transfer, by Dos Passos to be exact—between pages 232-233.
The doctor came by. “It’s time for you to see her, Ms. Lee.”
Rochelle followed him down the corridor, and entered the room. Daddy was at the door, and led her gently by the hand into the room. Rochelle noted this was something he had not done since before she was a teenager.
Grandma Donna was well-cared for. Her aunt spared no expense in making sure the room was dealt with, probably paying cash under the table to the attendants to make it so. The room was private, small, and neat. Framed photographs, dusted and straight, were placed strategically throughout the light blue walls, and bluebell patterned curtains framed the single window. Her walker was next to her neatly made bed, and Rochelle made note that the comforter matched the wall color, and that the air conditioning worked. The room smelled of artificially scented lilacs, accentuated by cleaning supplies, again, likely Fabuloso. This was a relief; a vast improvement on what her father and Rochelle had witnessed elsewhere in the nursing home.
Beside the bed was a mahogany wardrobe, opposite it, tautly hanging from the wall, was a floor-length mirror. At her right was another set of curtains, and beside it the door to private bathroom.
Daddy gestured toward the curtains, “She is over there. Grandma shares a terrace. Are you ready to meet her?”
“Sure,” Rochelle said, taking a deep breath.
Daddy let go of her hand to open the curtains, and turned the handle of double French doors, leading out into the light. They stepped onto the terrace, Daddy closing the doors behind them. The terrace was large, the same size of the room where Grandma lived. Persian rugs covered the concrete flooring, and at the center were several white wicker chairs around a square metal and glass table.
Grandma looked at Daddy, who looked like Rochelle, particularly the Lyvere bump on their noses. She was old, but her hazel eyes unglazed, staring intently at Rochelle, while gripping her black metal cane with weathered, veined hands. Rochelle and her father sat wordlessly on either side of her. Doctor Thompson advised Rochelle to wait for Grandma to acknowledge her before speaking. Rochelle studied her grandmother’s face; despite the nearly two decades of relative isolation, several strokes and diminished mental and physical capacity, there was a flame. Not a fire, or of anger, but quiet, appraising.
Rochelle smiled at her. Grandma returned the gesture, nodding slightly.
Until Doctor Thompson said it was time to leave the three generations of Lyveres sat together around the table under the turning of the overhead fan, without speaking.
As they rose to leave, Grandma struggled to speak, grabbing Rochelle and pointing at Daddy.
“Oh, I get it,” said Doctor Thompson.
“Yes, she looks like me,” said Daddy. “The family curse.”
Grandma laughed, her head bobbing.
After two more visits to the senior center, they bid goodbye and returned to Florida. Rochelle had an additional week before returning to New York. Both realized that they learned nothing new, and Grandma Donna still refused to speak. But Daddy felt more at peace, while Rochelle had more questions.
The night before Rochelle had to take the train home to New York, father and daughter sat on a sand dune, watching the breakers. “You know, the moral of the tale is the quest is the point of the journey, not the destination.”
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Rochelle.
“Nothing is. I am as lost in the mystery of my past as you are in yours.”
“I will still look for your father.”
“I know you will, but at least you found my mother. Or what remains of her. One must say she is spirited, and though you and I found the whole thing strange and for me uncomfortable, I am not sad about it—Mom and I were never close, but at the very least I was able to get her to see the future she had missed. She deserved better, but this was the best I could do.”
“Change the subject. Are you still thinking of leaving for South America?”
“I’d like to. I have the money to leave, and there are teaching positions open. I’d rather not, though. You know—if something happened.”
“I know,” said Rochelle, her eyes following the crest of a larger than normal breaker rise and crash to the shore under moonlight.
Steve Colori was born in 1986 and during undergrad he developed schizoaffective disorder. Over the years he has worked hard to overcome the disorder and help others while doing so. Steve Colori has published twelve essays with Oxford Medical Journals, he has written freelance for Mclean Hospital since 2011, and he has a memoir available on Amazon, "Experiencing and Overcoming Schizoaffective Disorder". He writes regularly for The Good Men’s Project in the Health & Wellness Section. Steve has also been lecturing Mclean Hospital's Harvard Resident Doctors since 2012. To read more of his work please visit SteveColori.com
What Drives the Wind?
Holding hands, we crossed the street near the elementary school. The crossing guard smiled as we passed the young kids with their little backpacks and sneakers walking beside their parents.
“Today’s the day he gets out of jail,” Charlotte said. Tears were running down her face.
“We can’t do anything about that.” I said. We stepped into the park where the leaves on the trees were burning red, yellow, and orange. The fire filled my eyes. It was a different fire than I used to light. We walked for several minutes.
“He killed my Chloe,” Charlotte said.
I let my tears run with hers. My heart was calm. “What do you want from him?”
“I want him dead!!!” she cried. “I want him dead,” she sobbed as she dropped to the ground. I sat beside her and put my arm around her. “Why are you so calm?” she asked. Her blonde hair was moving with the wind.
“I don’t wish him dead.”
“What do you mean?” Charlotte asked.
“He was in a rush to get to work.”
“He was in a school zone, Larry. A God damn school zone.” The wind howled softly.
“He tried to kill himself,” I said.
“Why didn’t he succeed?”
“It wasn’t meant to be.” I sniffled and stared at a tall oak. I clasped my hands together.
“Something has to happen,” she said.
“Chloe wouldn’t want us mad. She was such a happy girl.”
“She always drew sunflowers in green crayon,” Charlotte cried. “Why do you forgive him?” she sobbed.
“I was sick with guilt and anger and everything wrong with the world,” I said.
“But he’s responsible.”
“I was too.”
“How can you say that?” Charlotte asked while looking at me.
“I’m the one who let her cross the street,” I replied.
“I know that. It’s not your fault though.”
The leaves rustled by crinkling forward and around us and swirling in all different directions.
“Why don’t you hate him?” she asked.
“He was a doctor. He was on his way to work to save people.”
“He killed our daughter.”
“I couldn’t let go until I forgave him.” Charlotte turned my face and put her forehead against mine. Her eyes were shut and I shut mine.
“I love you,” she said. “I love you so much.”
Jonathan Trosclair is an aspiring writer and musician residing in Lafayette, Louisiana. His writing has previously been featured in the Southwestern Review and the e-zine Beguiled. In 2012 he won the Judge Felix J. Voorhies Award for Creative Writing while attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is currently working on a novel.
Mrs. Greene used to model for Victoria’s Secret, but the boys, in an act of decency almost inconceivable for their age, decide to keep it, yes, a secret. Of the two that know, it’s Miller who feels like he can stare out of the window in Biology without consequence now. The knowledge makes him untouchable, a little cavalier. But Robin is less sure. He struggles to correlate this information with the names of the types of clouds, the idea that the moon is a virgin, defecation, ejaculation, Greek myth, child labor, and child birth; does not see how these things can possibly be related but also doesn’t see how it would be possible for them to exist without somehow being so.
At a red light on the way to school a man jogs out in front of the pickup with his hands splayed, the index and thumb of each touching to make a signal. This man has a hostile expression, and he seems to run in place for a few seconds to make sure they see it. “What the hell,” says Robin’s dad. The jogger is balding, is thin and pale, and wears a revealing muscle shirt like something a body-builder would best be found in. But on this man the garment hangs loose, fabric snapping in the strange wind as if he had been emboweled suddenly, prepared with modern speed for burial in the old ways. He carries on to the other side of the street and doesn’t look back. “It means pussy,” Robin says.
Harsh look from his dad meaning, Yes but I don’t want to hear you say it. It’s a morning filled with symbols.
On campus wary steps on his still healing leg. He stops, a couple cold drops dousing and sliding down his cheek. Janis had walked into the big stately doors beneath the iron sky just as he climbed out of the truck. The long dark lawn dotted only with a few milling groups. Smell of rain and something burning. “Three o’clock,” from his dad.
Janis has a tattoo and this makes his heart race.
Inside, the school is humming from fluorescent light as well as the general anticipation that comes before a rain. Robin sees Miller and they take up together, walking down the hall lined with lockers. “You see Janis?”
“Saw her coming in.”
“She’s wearing a skirt today.”
“Yeah,” Robin says.
Miller and Robin are both white boys in a mostly white school. The place is also largely Catholic, although only from an inertia running off of parents just as disinterested in regular practice as the children are, some little pool of faith slowly draining itself into obscurity. Robin himself went through a period of obsession with the Mother Mary and certain of the saints and likes to look at pictures of cathedrals, specifically ones taken in the evening. But like any young person he loathed the mass, its stillness and bad feelings. True, the smell of dust and wax and smoke not totally unpleasant, but too arcane how the flavorless host is kept out of sight until ingestion, as if being observed before showtime would sap whatever power the turning from bread to gore embodied.
Far down the hall Greggory stands and does a slow head turn to stare at Robin. He is flanked by two lean, brutal-looking boys, all wearing soccer socks under nikes, hoodies, always shorts even when it gets cold. Miller glowers and Robin tries not to limp.
None of the boys know where on Janis’ body her tattoo is and, though he is ashamed to admit it, the mystery of it makes him happy.
The majority white factor often gets cited by his father as a good bit of luck. Frequent addendum is the inevitable vindication, “So long as they work, I got no problem with them,” from which it can be gleaned that all morals flow out of how one views money. Taxpayers, practically mythic, are often evoked as withered saints, “entitlement” being a very favorite word of abuse around the household. And Robin gets so mad he wants to abandon the man. There is a toxic regularity to their conversation, an obstinacy of topic and dedication to hatred that has grown hard to stomach. Robin feels like this is the same sort of attitude that led to his mother leaving.
Christina, a band geek, tries to get his attention at lunch and eventually he gives it. “Your leg?” she asks, showing concern that does move him.
“Fine,” he shrugs. “I’m out for the season though.”
“Yeah.” Her face falls back to her plate. But of course there is something more. “So. What really happened?”
There is a pause, a moment for which Christina could be forgiven if she related it to a slackening before a musical swell, the calm before the big moment, but “I wonder what everyone thinks,” is all Robin says. Then a nod. A bite of apple.
Third block Janis gets in a shouting match with Mr. Mankis, at one point calling him “pear-shaped.” Robin is in the classroom next door and so can hear parts of it. Some of the students laugh and Mrs. Greene does her teacher thing, quiets them with little more than looks, cooing but stern, ensures order is restored to her kingdom by turning on some disarming music full of strings and woodwinds that blocks out anything beyond their walls. Robin tries to think of who he knows in Janis’ third block, who he can ask. But just then it starts raining and his knee flares into an apical pain worse even than when it first happened. With water slapping hard at the window and Mrs. Greene reminding him of that whole other world, he wonders if this is how it’s always going to be from now on.
After third block Robin goes limping down to the gym lockers. Only a few people around, but he has solitude in mind and so walks on, out the door to an alcove made from probably unintended angles of brick and cement where he finds the Algebra teacher, Mr. Wales, smoking a cigarette.
“Oh,” says Robin.
“What are you doing back here?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
They both turn out to look at the rain. Robin and Mr. Wales had always had a tacit sort of respect for one another, the elder of them affecting the archetype, a tough-but-fair teacher who has set expectations and Robin being a smart and mostly pacific kid. This though, is a new kind of encounter for them both.
“Not gunna tell on me are you,” as way of conversational favor.
“Nah,” Robin says. “Never poke a sleeping giant.”
Out in the wash, a white SUV in miniature breaks through the pines. They watch it. Robin knows it is Janis’ mother’s car. Probably she got suspended.
“How long you been teaching here, Mr. Wales?”
Small issue of breath meaning a long time. “I remember when they had this as a shotput and archery field,” gesturing to the muddy expanse of grass and chainlink fence. “No one here is interested in that anymore.”
“I’ve never seen anyone do that stuff except on TV.”
Nods. “And once a flood came, ‘79 probably. Whatever year they decided to turn over the Panama Canal. The school was one of the only two-story buildings in town at the time and so people got evacuated to it. Wound up being historic. Ten inches of rain in 24 hours. You can google it, it’ll come up. My house is low in the valley so we came. I was a teacher then too, Civics all the way back when. I remember walking through the halls with the power out and everyone holding or doing things by the light of these long, white candles from the emergency closet,” spreading his hands apart to show length, his cigarette smoking as if one were indeed held there, lit and casting. “Everyone quiet like someone told them not to talk. It was a real eerie experience. They seemed more like shapes than you felt they were people that night. Or at least the same people you saw every day. The rain hitting and them so quiet you couldn’t hear talking. They were like a collection of just shadows. Yeah. Silhouettes. Was odd. Sometimes I remember about it from nowhere like I’m right back there, just going to a meeting or eating lunch. Lot of the past will do that though.”
Robin had never heard him talk so much, and was eager for this link to what seemed like antiquity. “What happened to your house?”
“Got ruined. Took on more mud than water. Then the property wasn’t worth anything after everyone got reminded that living on the side of mountain is prone to such conflicts. Those between man and nature. Insurance moved out too, but we rebuilt. Raised ourselves off the ground a little more, used more cement in the foundation.”
“Sounds kind of fatalist.”
Mr. Wales shrugs, “You get to figure those things out.”
“You still run two miles every day?”
“Every day.” He looks over, downward. “Speaking of. How’s that leg?”
“Hurts in the rain.”
“How long’s it been?”
“I haven’t been counting.”
“Yeah.” Then, stubbing out the cigarette, “Well I guess you know about bad things now, the way they come up.” His head tilts, a manner of care not typically observed in this man, the creases around his mouth seeming more deeply etched than normal in the gray light, “And I don’t think there’s good in everyone. Some people belong in the Dark Ages. Woulda been right at home throttling brains out, tearing down what’s been built. Just pulling out the last bricks. There’s layers to it and old as I am I’ve not seen the bottom. Even the barbarians were afraid of someone, it was someone worse than them pushed them west and started the collapse. That said I think it’s alright to be careful, but I wouldn’t take it far enough to where it could be called anxious.” Robin doesn’t know if he understands. “I warn against that,” Mr. Wales nods, is quiet, though not waiting for a response. “Well. I’ll see you second block tomorrow. Favor that leg.”
The white SUV is already making its way back, an albino creature singled out. Now alone, his vision shakes and by the smell Robin knows the bacteria are breeding out in the rain, already profligate and making many more. Those words had not been a teacher’s words. A crier. Or a liar. Some intercessor come from up high, the only two-story building in town, or maybe from down in the valley like he’d said. Robin looks at an ember of the cigarette not yet extinguished. He is having visions of his leg split open again. Curled skin and the bone bare. His own flesh scent. His own shock at the sudden change. He feels that he is breathing in clouds of badness, a flock of vast chaos funneling through like the mudslide down the mountain, seeking basin among his organs. He is anxious. And what could quell? Where is any bastion?
Embarrassed, vulnerable, as though against his deepest instincts, he knows that he believes in love, and that in this he might be deeply, fatally flawed.
Next morning the man ambushes them again at the same intersection, this time extending his middle finger, perhaps, Robin thinks, favoring a more direct approach. But then his other hand makes a telephone that he puts up to his left ear, mouthing “CALL ME,” with a hateful expression, again obscuring his overarching message: neither son nor father know who this man is, or what his phone number could possibly be. Robin guesses that for his dad, the man probably represents an incredible insult, a sign of shifting values tending evermore towards anarchy, irreverence, and liberalism. For Robin himself the man is merely something else to be assimilated into the tight vicious circles that life has been revealing itself to be.
Because things are shifting. He feels like it’s like the air itself and it’s heavier and indifferent all of a sudden. Trees have been vanishing from the lawn. Someone breaks the school’s windows at night and they are found taped up the next day with visqueen. Never repaired, just patched, the plastic either being sucked at or pushed out by the outside wind. A plume of woodsmoke every day from beyond the stands of the soccer field. You can smell it. The particulate matter in your lungs. And kids have been saying that Mrs. Greene is full of cancer. That this is why she looks so tired now, why she has been missing days. In all these things, Robin cannot help but draw inferences about much wider subjects.
Miller is absent that day though Janis is unexpectedly back at school. She moves with classless indifference, that sort of worldliness Robin feels he won’t obtain for another ten years and with it on full display she approaches him in the hall. Some subtle lip balm. Lashes uncared for. “Wanna walk me to class?”
He meets her eyes and for a moment actually considers refusing. “Where you going?”
“Alright,” he says. They walk to Mrs. Greene’s class together. The secret near constantly being thrust back into view, he now actively wishes he had not found the magazines in the attic, the slumbering issues that had been kept and forgotten in a box of mother’s old things, allowed to wrinkle from the humidity, fade to pastel, and then to wake mean and hungry, ruining some easy, hallmark movie moment of a boy looking through an elsewhere parent’s belongings. Just back to reality. Look, this is what’s waiting. This is what stares back when you go seeking, when you fossick through the castoff to find what was supposed to be forgotten. And worse still he had shown another pair of eyes.
“I guess you won’t be playing soccer anymore this year.”
“No,” he says. “Pretty upset about it. But not as much as I thought I’d be.”
“Sucks. I’m sure we won’t go to state again this year anyway. Lightning never strikes Byrd High twice.”
“Not yet at least.”
“Mm,” she hums. They walk.
“I caught Mr. Wales smoking yesterday.”
“I knew it,” she grins. “I always see him walking around to the back.”
“He didn’t seem to really care.”
“He wouldn’t. He knows he’s the best teacher here. They couldn’t touch him.”
“Yeah.” Up the stairs, its echoes and bustle. “So what happened with you yesterday?”
“What do you mean?” and it is not a show.
“With Mr. Mankis.”
Memory dawns, she shrugs. “You heard about that?”
“I heard it from next door.”
A smile, eyes easily downcast and her face in that moment moves him over long plains, into more blood-worthy rhythms of life. “He wasn’t pulling any punches yesterday.”
“I went too far. And I only say that because I feel like I’m smarter than him, you know. I mean everybody does. I should have acted like I know that cus he’ll never admit he’s wrong. But I had to give in eventually anyway because I’m a kid of course. Got suspended for the day. My mom chewed him out a little so that felt good. But then she chewed me out the whole way home.”
“What started it?”
“Nothing. Bullshit. Uniform stuff.”
They are almost at the classroom. “Greggory called yesterday,” she says gently. “What did happen out there, Robin?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“Can’t be everything.”
“It might be.”
“And you won’t tell me.”
“We’re here,” he says.
She gives him a strange look, equal portions cruel estimation and careful thirst, then even stranger, a kiss, cheek-wise. “You gunna be an island forever?” before disappearing into the room.
But there is, opposite the dark anxious pit, a brilliance of his nerves. Shaving what happens from matter into light, sunwhipped beams to stand in for the steady nervous little animal wishing to go down on her, to hold her eye and be the leopard bored in her branches. He is foolish, knows he is foolish and anyway wants to see what inch of her bark has been carved already. The rumors drift that the tattoo is of an emerging city, or otherwise it is of a woman, draped in furs on the beach, lazy and not quite supine, receiving to her court the young girls in the form of the white birds she has turned them into. Let that look back, he thinks, because it is the sole response his flitting mind has been attuned for, greedy, base as it may be.
Amid the dim gray and the dim yellow light of Mr. Wales’ classroom and the hum of the overhead projector that this teacher will not stop using despite its being held barely together by all-purpose glues and replacement parts from distinct decades, Robin turns back to see Greggory extend his hand, form it into the shape of a gun and pull its trigger once, then twice. It’s algebra talk from the front, pyramids and angles, work to do. “Kill yourself,” the boy mouths, sharp faced. A cleated sphinx.
There come weeks of rain. His father begins to take a different route to school. In order to make things simpler for himself, to give category to the enigmatic, Robin decides that the hostile jogger they see no more is a lunatic doomsday-predictor, an out of his mind Mr. Wales, and that after his morning run he must take up a street corner, and on some manner of found platform decry the coming flood to a throng that will not listen though it pours all around them. He augurs first about hooded figures, then of the injustice done by men such as Robin’s father, bystanders such as his son, and about the very shape of the precipice their continent will be carried over by these unparalleled currents. There was presage in the last, mere glimmer of what will now befall. But still none watch for the force he brings word of. Nor will they repent of the sins that lure it.
When the rain finally stops, Robin burns the Victoria’s Secret magazines in the firepit in the backyard late, late at night. Thin curls of ash running lambent orange circuitry before turning to powder in his hand. A constellation overhead he does not know the name of. Knee pain subsiding. Big and white above him the moon indeed a virgin, coasting, still making no sense to him. Perhaps that is what Janis’ tattoo depicts; all is likely. And turning it over again, for some hundredth of a time, Robin concludes that although an unfortunate portion of isolation has always been his, he is really much more of a peninsula than an island, and that this is a good thing. A bastion. In his eyes the fire, consuming itself, is fed another magazine to furl. Miller will be very angry with them, that deep in the night they surrendered this upper hand so willingly.
Mike Hantman lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University and is currently teaching and writing. In his free time, Mike can be found hiking with his dog Jayne or hanging out with family and friends.
The Trials of St. Clarice
This all started after class. I followed Clarice up to a spot on the hill where we collapsed and she smoked cigarettes. St. Clarice. At least when you know that you can’t really understand someone, you can begin to appreciate them as something different. Not a partner, per se, but a deep indulgence. You can take them in on your own terms without worrying about the connections, or the pleasantries.
St. Clarice pointed her chin up and blew thin veils of smoke in front of her eyes. She puffed her cheeks erratically and stared at clouds. She’d lie down on her back with her knees bent, and she’d let her ass slide down the hill towards her feet. Her skirt would get bunched up and if you made the effort to look, you could see the tip of her panties. I didn’t. Just out of the corner of my eyes. She wouldn’t even care, she’d react but it wouldn’t carry any weight. Still it might lead to other things. Maybe.
“Everything is totally random. The style barks at you – you can’t watch without feeling that you’re being sucked into someone’s ego.”
She was talking about Godard’s Bande A Part. Cinema. French New Wave. The way the post- modernist movement was marred by the sheer dramatic effort against conventionalities. The random moments which notoriously clipped through these projects carried explanation outside of the feeling of the films.
I turned my head and looked at her through the blades of grass surrounding us.
“So you’re hesitant about this stuff, huh?”
“It’s not so much hesitant,” she said. “I mean this one wasn’t so abstract, like maybe this was Godard before he got really Godardy, y’know. There’s not all that over the top experimental stuff, aside from the minute of silence and the dancing thing and some of the narration. But there’s still just that surreal quality in it, in the way they move and act - like the fake shootout Billy the Kid thing, or where they run through the Louvre or when they keep switching seats.”
I had the feeling Clarice was at the beginning of a sort of love affair with this New Wave stuff. She was being cautious though. She had been hurt, duped before by the likes of Burton, Spielberg, and Hughes, all when she was younger. She couldn’t just go into something that moved her, she had to test it first, make sure it held some water. So she was tearing this stuff apart before it consumed her.
“I think you like it,” I said, being surprisingly casual about the whole thing. She turned her head towards me, meeting my eyes with hers.
“Yeah?” she said. “I dunno, maybe.”
She rolled on her side and propped her head up with her elbow on the ground. “What do you think about it?”
“I like the dancing,” I said.
She smiled. It seemed like she was in the middle of some thought, which she soon abandoned, sighing and putting out her cigarette. She rolled to her side and sunk her head into my shoulder, mulling around for a while. Then she slowly rolled on top of me, and started to kiss me lightly on the lips. I didn’t really react to it at first. For a second it became something deeper, but just as I began to apply some pressure of my own she rolled off of me and back onto the grass.
“Ok,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Just, it was interesting,” she said. “Something interesting.”
And that was Claire. That was part of her, a piece that always sticks out in my mind. I don’t know where I’m going with this. The whole thing just exists in my head, but I come back to Claire and all this shit with her and I don’t know how to tell it. There’s a story in there that makes me look good and makes her look like some sort of bitch but I think it misses the point. It falls victim to her notion of just telling the story the way you or the crowd or whoever wants it to be told and not something else, something that may have actually occurred. And if it didn’t occur then it existed, in me at least. And it’s hard to dig through this stuff and know what was really happening, what I was thinking and what parts of me reacted to whatever happened. But I’m going to try and make some sense of it, even though I don’t fully know why I want to, why I want to dredge up this old shit that seems like it wasn’t particularly important in the long run, like a blip on the screen.
And I’m also not sure, exactly, in trying to remember all this, where I came in on what emotions. That is to say, it’s hard to know when exactly I felt what about Clarice, when it began to change, and so on. When I was detached and when I was enamored. These things change in little microscopic spurts that I couldn’t, or at least haven’t, not having the foresight to know I would be trying to recall these events in detail, been able to record or remember. So I just have the events, and the knowledge that I began with a sense of distance, without knowing that I would fall deeply into some sort of enamored state, that none of my early pessimism or practicality would help this unfortunate emotional overhaul, and that it would turn back into distaste, not so much that the emotion dissipated, but rather, it turned into a thing I could no longer stand, too awkward, embarrassing and perhaps even painful. Just be aware that while all the activity up front is proceeding, behind it there’s this little emotional ballet performing in the back of my mind, driving me through these motions, drawing me from distance to passion and then being overwhelmed by a kind of negativity.
But I’ll get to all that. First let me get into how we met.
I met her halfway through her freshman year, when I was still in the dorms. Ben was my roommate back then and he had been hanging out with this girl Sarah, who was Claire’s roommate. Sarah was cute and bubbly and she seemed to like college so far and made an effort to talk to you and all that stuff. We went down to the Terrace, where most of the freshman lived, to hang out with her and a few of her friends. It’s kind of a thing, there’s always a bunch of freshman drinking and hanging around the dorms before they really get to know anyone else. Older guys see this as opportunity, so there’s usually sophomores and a few juniors going around, talking about their connections. Sarah’s friends were there and a bunch of other kids who had gotten to know each other were there and Claire was there. She had just cut off most of her hair and people were going around, rubbing her head and stuff like that, saying, “St. Clarice shaved her head!”
At some point, Ben and Sarah went into her room and I was left by myself with all these other kids. A group of them were sitting around in the lounge, moving from room to room drinking. I didn’t say much during the night, I was mostly drinking by myself, sticking to the corners of rooms, but I must have made an impression on Claire because she kept looking at me with this bewildered look, like something was happening. Anyway, halfway through the night one of her friends comes up to me and tells me to stop making so much noise. It’s an old joke that everybody uses and I can normally see it coming when I’m being kind of quiet. It’s annoying but I smiled anyway and gave a halfhearted apology.
“You’re so quiet,” she said. “Just c’mon, tell me what you’re thinking about.”
“I don’t know,” I said with a polite smile.
“He’s being modest,” Claire said. “I think he has all the answers.” And she smiled at me, and I stepped back into myself for a second.
Later we went out to smoke cigarettes and Claire sat next to me and there was a penetrating silence between us.
“So,” she said, swing her legs back and forth, looking down at the ground. “So, why do they call you Preston?” She looked towards me and took a drag of her cigarette.
“That’s my name,” I said.
“But why do they call you Prestooone?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s from this movie from the nineties,” I said.
“Hmm,” she said. “Does it get annoying?”
“I can relate.”
“What’s wrong with your name?” I said.
“Seriously?” she looked me with a hint of self-amusement. “Hello Clarice,” she said in a Hannibal Lector voice.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “But they don’t call you that.”
“No,” she said.
“They call you St. Clarice right?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I took a drag and there was silence between us.
“Why do they call you that?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Just a name.”
“You don’t know?”
She shook her head. One of her friends passed by us and I stopped her for a second.
“Hey,” I said. “Why do they call her St. Clarice?
She tilted her head and gave me a drunken smile. “Because she’s a saint,” she said.
Her friend moved away and Claire took a long drag and turned to me.
“You can just call me Claire if you want to get on my good side,” she said.
“Ok,” I said. “And you don’t have to call me Prestoone,” I said.
“Well I have to call you something.”
“You can just not say it like that,” I said.
“But that’s the problem,” she said. “Your name is too much like your nickname.”
We went on, finishing our cigarettes and talking about my name. She eventually decided to call me Blinky, for my unflinching habit of constantly blinking. For I while I thought there was something between us but later in the night I lost track of her in the crowd. At the end of the night she went and hooked up with this punk rock kid who wore tight jeans and had a Mohawk, so I didn’t really make much of it.
A few nights later Ben and I went to their room to watch a movie. I don’t remember what it was but it was probably Old School or Super Troopers or one of those other movies you watch a thousand times in college. About halfway through Ben and Sarah stepped out, presumably to go up to our room, and me and Claire were left watching whatever was on. Claire asked if I liked it and I said it was alright.
“You don’t have to like it,” she said.
“I mean it’s Ok for what it is but it’s pretty stupid,” she said. “We don’t have to just sit here and wade through the whole thing for no reason.”
“I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Come on,” she said.
“I mean I hate that, don’t you? Don’t you hate it when you say one thing about how Ferris Bueller’s kind of stupid and people look at you like you’re on some crazy rant. Like you’re a buzz kill, or weird, like you just offhandedly mentioned your abortion or something?”
For the record I’m pretty sure she never had an abortion or offhandedly mentioned it to people, but I didn’t have the balls to follow up it up. I knew it was a joke but there’s still that slight curiosity, like why of all things would she say that. It was the way she evoked this thing, this weird curiosity that makes you wonder about her. You either take it or leave it. Love it or hate it.
“You don’t like Ferris Bueller?” I said.
I smiled at her.
“I heard Ben say that you know everything about movies.”
“A little,” I said.
“So then be honest about it. Don’t just give me generic shit about whatever. Like who’s good?”
“Who’s good?” I said.
“Yeah, who do you like?”
“I like Tarantino,” I said.
She bobbed her head around a little, half smiling and half frowning, mulling this over until something seemed to spring into her mind.
“Have you ever seen Chunking Express?” she asked.
“What is it?” I said.
“Wong Car Wai. Tarantino does the introduction for it. It’s like, one of his favorite movies.”
“Ok,” I said.
“You wanna watch it?”
“Sure,” I said.
And she popped it in and it was good. It’s these stories about lonely people, one of them is a cop who gets dumped and eats canned fruit every day until he gets over this girl, the other one’s about a girl who sneaks into this guy’s apartment and cleans it for him.
We didn’t talk much during it, Claire sat in her bed and I was on this chair in the middle of her room, but it felt good. Sarah came back about twenty minutes before it ended and I stuck around to see the end, despite heavy signals that she wanted me to leave. After it was over, I told Claire it was good and she said she thought I would like it. And then I took off.
We hung out a few times after that and she always held me to my shit when we talked about movies, which was fun in a way. We’d have our own isolated, uncool conversations while other people talked about parties and drugs and things like that. It wasn’t a long time though before Ben and Sarah stopped hanging out and after that I didn’t see Claire as much. I didn’t really have a reason to I guess. I asked Ben what he thought of her once and he told me that her friends talked endless shit about her when she wasn’t around. It didn’t really set anything off in me though, it seemed like it might have been just a kind of typical college thing.
Still I’d run into her from time to time and we’d talk a little bit. And she’d always call me Blinky, and there was something to that. It gave her a reason to be excited, like she could call it out in the middle of a crowd and it almost seemed to reveal some sort of deep connection to the people around us, and maybe to us to, like an old friendship, even if there wasn’t really any great history behind it. It made it special when we ran into each other, there was this energy to it, this tone and feeling, as if we were into something deeper than typical bullshit, something shared. We didn’t fade into each other’s everyday personas, something came out of us, even if it was just a minor thing, so we never fell apart despite the fact that we had never really been that close to one another.
The next year we had a film class together in the spring and we started to hang out again. By then she started to shorten my nickname. It went from Blinky to Blinks, maybe to B-man, I’m not sure, if that one was in there, I’m pretty sure it was intentionally stupid, stupider, and eventually she settled on B, letting the joke evaporate from the presence of the outside world so it only existed between us.
She had longer hair by then, still shortish, but down to her neck, with a purple strand running through her bangs. And it began to dawn on me that she was quite pretty. There was this genuine enjoyment I felt around her but I still never thought anything serious would happen between us, if anything happened at all.
I used to be prone to this kind of instantaneous falling in love that happens when you become intensely preoccupied with one person for some stupid set of reasons. Y’know, you see a girl reading Slaughterhouse Five in the rain and she has curly hair and boom. That kind of shit. It seemed to either happen or not happen, and it wasn’t really that way with Claire. We just got along. There was this easiness about us, this odd kind of comfort that seems to lead to something which could actually happen more often than the actual head over heels bullshit that people tend to romanticize. So I didn’t really know what I was doing, or what I wanted, but this thing just came over me.
And all of these little traits that she had that might have seemed like imperfections to someone else became perfect to me. She had this perfect casual demeanor, this perfect irritability and this way she could be weird but serious, kind of nice but not fake. She had this small layer of baby fat around her stomach that seemed to compliment her perfectly, and these perfectly round cheeks, they made her seem like she was real, pretty in a human sense.
There was a thing between us, our way of hanging out, and those who didn’t know us thought we were an item. When we hung out, it felt almost like we were going against all the other stuff that usually surrounded us, hype and excitement and all that shit. We’d just exist, we’d just be in a kind of state. We could talk or we could shut the fuck up and simply be around each other and take things in. Like Uma says in Pulp Fiction, you’re really comfortable around someone when you can stop bullshitting and be quiet for five seconds. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain this stuff, it’s hard to impart what it’s like to be around someone, what someone really feels like, because it’s almost separate from what’s communicable. It’s not something you can really tell in a story without getting bullshitty, without talking about some warmth or eyes like flower petals that cut through you or something like that.
So we hung out after class a lot and talked about movies and stuff. I learned what she was into. She liked Jarmusch, Wong Kar Wai, loved Wes Anderson, liked some of Burton’s older stuff but she was beyond him now. She hated Spielberg, hated Camron, couldn’t stand Titanic. She was surprisingly cold on Scorsese, she said he had no center, no emotional core, didn’t like Hitchcock or Coppola all that much and was mixed on Tarantino, though I had tried to bring her around on that. In response, she tried to convince me about Wes Anderson, though less emphatically. Maybe she liked to talk about him, but in some part I think she wanted to win me over. She was especially proud of The Royal Tennenbaums, which we watched in her dorm after coming down slightly from all the surrealist stuff.
I’m not sure she wanted something else. What we did was have these conversations about whatever unimportant thing floated around us and we attached ourselves to them. She came out by bullshitting, by giving me her secret opinions about nothing and I grew towards that. She didn’t really pull punches, I don’t think, but when I look back at her, I see her wincing, almost hurt by my caustic little opinions and I feel some regret, but I feel regret about everything so who knows.
Later that night I went to a club and was bored. It seemed like there was nothing going on there. I stood in a corner and drank and waited to leave. After we left the club, we went back to the dorms to hang around with a few kids, we drank more and a few guys smoked some weed. I walked around Claire’s hallway a little bit and then went back to hang around with some of the guys who lived on the same floor. Around four I walked back to Claire’s room and saw her standing in the hall with a couple of her friends.
“It’s Blinky! B!” she said with a drunken slur, and she came over to hug me. She seemed happy to see me and I was happy because of that, though it probably would have been tampered if I knew where she had been that night.
“Come on,” she said. “Hang out with me.”
We went into her room and she stumbled around.
“So tell me about things,” she said happily.
“They’re fine,” I said.
I was pretty drunk myself but I wasn’t stumbling drunk like her. I don’t get that way much, I was just sort of out of myself, being carried along by whatever.
“How was the club?” she asked.
“It was shitty,” I said.
“Aaamazing,” she said. She laughed a bit to herself.
“C’mon,” she said. “We can watch a movie.”
“We can watch, umm, I don’t know, let’s not do any surrealist shit. Too surreal. We can just watch something stupid,” she said. “Jill, Um, Jilly has a bunch of dumb shit. She has Old School, and Mallrats.”
“So like, “I said. “Like really good movies.”
“Or she has a bunch of John Hughes shit!” she said. “She has Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller and all that shit!”
“I know you like Ferris Bueller,” I said.
“Fucking Ferris Bueller!” she said. “Fuck that, let’s watch Breakfast Club.
She put it on and I sat down to watch it, even though I was drunk and tired and out of it and I didn’t really want to watch a movie right then.
“You can sit on the bed with me,” she said. “You’re always on the chair, you can move up here if you want, it’s more comfortable.”
So I did. I lay down next to her and we watched the movie and slept together. We didn’t sleep together, we didn’t fuck, but I passed out in a kind of prone position and she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and her arms curled around me.
There’s some quote or something, I don’t remember it, but I heard it and it made me think of this, about how sleeping, actually sleeping with someone is the most intimate experience you can have. It’s definitely not the best experience, not the most fulfilling or anything, but maybe because of that it makes you feel something. All your stuff is in check and you resign yourself to just lying there and saying, “Fuck it, this is fine. You’re fine.” It leaves you with weirdness too, as if you had hooked up or something, only it might actually be weirder because you’re still not clear about just what happened. What anything meant. You don’t know what was affection and what wasn’t, what type of thing this or that was.
The next morning we woke up and her roommate was there. It was pretty awkward, she smiled at me and asked me how I was. There was an avoidance of my presence in her room, either because she didn’t want to pry into things when I was there or because she seemed so sure that nothing had happened. I said I was good and she looked at me with these sort of mournful, pitying eyes. Claire and I didn’t talk that much and I left without really saying anything particular, I wasn’t sure if there was anything I was supposed to say or not, anything that might have made some sort of good statement instead of just being weird or something.
We didn’t see each other the rest of that week. I didn’t stop by her room and she didn’t call me. I got on with things. I started to think about what I would say to her when I saw her, if I should say anything, if there was anything worth saying. I wasn’t sure if this was one of those things where you have to suck up and be a man, that kind of thing, take the hit if it’s coming, or if it was one of those things where you can’t stop yourself from doing something stupid, something you convince yourself is a good idea that in reality isn’t. Ultimately it didn’t matter either way, things ended up resolving themselves.
On Saturday I went to this party at a frat house. It wasn’t really a big party, there were enough people there but it wasn’t huge or anything. I wandered around the house when I got there, then got drunk in the kitchen with these kids Mitch and Dan, they talked about jam bands and did shots and then we parted ways. I walked through the halls and I saw Claire, kind of surprising, standing next to this big guy with black hair. She looked at me and waved and I waved back, and then I stood there for a few second before I decided I had to leave her point of focus. I grabbed another beer from the kitchen and drank half of it by myself and then convinced myself to go back out into the hallway. I walked around a bit, glancing towards Claire and the guy a few times and she caught my eyes. She tilted her head and smiled and waved me over.
“This is Blinky,” she said to the guy after I had ambled my way over and was standing on the side of him and Claire.
“Blinky?” he said.
“I call him Blinky,” she said. “Or Blinks, or B for short.” She took a sip of her beer and brushed some of her hair back.
“Why is he Blinky?” he said.
“Because,” she said turning towards me, “Look at him, he can’t stop blinking. Look he just did it!”
“Preston,” I said to the guy and nodded.
“He just did it again,” she said.
“I’m Blake,” he said before turning back to Claire.
“Blake takes a lot of film lit too. He was telling me about Raging Bull.”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s never seen it, which is fucking ridiculous for someone doing film studies.”
“She’s not really into Scorcese,” I said.
She bobbed her head around. “I don’t know,” she said. “I mean he can be alright.”
“You’ve gotta see it,” he said. “The way he shoots it. And DeNiro in it, he’s ridiculous. He’s just, I can’t describe it, you’ve seen it right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How would you describe DeNiro in it?”
“He’s raging,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s right, he’s just like this guy who’s always enraged. He’s raging, he’s like this raging…”
“Bull?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s like a raging bull. That’s it.”
I shot a calm, cold and derisive look at Claire. She took it in and then shook it off, smiling again. Then Claire wrapped her arms around him, leaned upward, her head slightly tilted, and kissed Blake with such passion that I started to look away, but couldn’t. She untangled herself from Blake and said, “We’re gonna watch it. You can come if you want.”
“Yeah man,” he said. “You should hang out.”
I looked around at the two of them, his smile and her kind of nonchalant calmness.
“I’m alright,” I said. “I’ve seen it.”
Claire tilted her head down in a kind of pitying way.
Part of me wanted to go along, like it would be harmless or something, but it was a part of me that I didn’t want to indulge, all insecurity and passive aggressive obsession. I felt like I wasn’t part of what was happening, a third wheel - I would have just gone along to cock block Blake and it would have just built up resentment, not from him, I didn’t give a shit about him, but from Claire, like she would have seen me for what I was.
I felt like shit and I wandered around the party for a while longer, had a few more beers and then hung around outside, on the edge of a group of people but basically by myself. I kept thinking I’d see Claire and Blake heading out, I wanted to see that, but I never caught a glimpse. By the time I went back in the house, I didn’t see them anywhere and I left pretty soon after that.
That week I skipped class. The week after I went but she wasn’t there, I don’t really know why. The third week we saw each other and there was some sort of warmness between us, but something was gone, or something new was between us, some invisible thing that we couldn’t talk about even if we knew what it was.
Not to get all Annie Hall on you, but I did see her one more time the next year. I probably saw her more than that, I definitely did, but there was one more time I really remember. It was outside of the main hall on campus, I had a class and I ran into her on my way there. She was standing outside, she looked pretty much the same except the streak in her hair was gone, and she said, “Holy shit, Blinky!” in a calm tone. She hugged me and smiled and acted really nice towards me, asked me how my year was going and what I was taking and all that stuff. I asked her the same stuff and it was a nice conversation but it still felt more like I was catching up to someone then reconnecting really. After a while I told her I had to get to class and she smiled and nodded.
“It’s good to see you,” she said. “You should call me or we should hang out or something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’d be great.”
And that was pretty much it.
I haven’t really heard much about her since then. I’ve tried to look her up on Facebook but nothing came up, I doubt she has a page, it doesn’t really seem like her. I heard from Ben that she might have gotten married, so maybe that’s why she doesn’t come up but who knows? He’s told me a lot of stuff that’s turned out not to be true. I don’t know why all this stuff has churned up in me recently, why I’m thinking about her now. I watched the Darjeeling Limited, one of Wes Anderson’s new films, a couple of months ago and it made me think of her. I was curious what her opinion might be, how she’d react to what seems like it might have been his most human endeavor yet, maybe not in terms of style but content. Most people put it aside but she might have found something special in it.
I don’t know why I went through this whole thing, why I wanted to, but I did. It seems like I had a love story on my hands, even if it wasn’t about love overcoming things or people coming together despite odds or anything like that. Maybe it’s more like what first love can do to you, or how hard it is to get something right if you encounter it, or how hard it is to even know if something was there at all. I’m past the statute of limitations on really caring but it still hangs around, a thread in my subconscious that wonders about it. There are times when I feel like I almost miss her, before I realize how stupid that seems. There are more times when I’m just sure that I didn’t really know her, or that I just knew a part of her, and she knew a part of me, and both of those parts where things we each specifically created for each other.
Over the past few years I think I’ve done a lot to find myself, if only in a circuitous way, for all the good it’s done. I’m not sure if you can ever really find yourself as yourself, but sometimes you find a reflection in other people and maybe that does something, I don’t know. I went out with a girl a few weeks ago, maybe months actually, and it seemed pleasant but vacant. That’s how it seems more often than not nowadays, pleasant but vacant. I gave her a bunch of stories from my past, a careful summation of myself, and she did the same, but there’s just the feeling that nothing new comes across, we could have just as easily been a thousand other people telling the same stories. And so you think back on this person you were, and wonder if you ever really were that person, or how much of that person is you, and for all the flaws you have in your past iteration you wish you could get to know it a little better, just to know what the hell brought you to wherever you are, and you wonder if some version of yourself isn’t floating around in someone else’s mind, affecting them in some way, drawing one thing into another.
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
Okay, I’m here, what’s the emergency?
I needed to talk with someone who has my back before I go out and commit some kinda’ mayhem that me and Annabeth would never forgive.
What’s going on?
I’ve had it. It’s all bullshit.
Chill, I’m not the enemy. What’s bullshit?
Anything, everything, democracy? Please. As if we really have a say as to what asshole in Congress decides to reduce our coverage while he is covered up the yin-yang even when he leaves office.
You’re pissed at Congress? What are you the naïve good fairy turned rancid?
I quit my job.
Hold up! You liked that gig and the paycheck which keeps you in significant goodies. What happened?
How do you know anything happened? Maybe I just had it.
What it? You’re making me crazy.
It, shit, four years never late didn’t even take sick days but did take vacation. Vacation, two weeks, they act like it’s a favor. Two fucking weeks? France gives 5 weeks, New Zealand, the Maoris with faces tattooed like Mike Tyson, 7 weeks, and Americans, wow we get two weeks. Is that weak or what?
You quit over vacation time?
No, it’s a little more complicated.
I’m going sit down and listen. Fill me in. Why did you quit a job you really liked and paid a bundle?
Okay, okay, this morning, I’m in the office even early which is usual for me and Rachel saunters in...
Rachel, the one with black curly hair who you want to fuck?
Just a fantasy, you know.
What happened with you and Rachel.
Nothing. She ambles over to the desk near me, wearing a pair of I think you call the color ecru pants that are hugging her butt like it’s saving her from drowning.
I’m an ass man so I get the imagery. What happened, you pat that pulchritude or...
No. No way. I don’t touch unless I get an invite. I just said those pants are great, Rachel, your butt looks sensational in those pants. Punto. Period. Nothing further, she smiles, nods, sits down and goes to work as do I.
Come lunch time my intercom buzzes, the Supervisor wants to talk to me. Okay, I figure maybe a raise or more responsibility.
Somehow this is going into the toilet, isn’t it?
Mr. Hackford-Bishop has a look on his face which is less than amiable. Who the fuck has last names with a hyphen anyhow. Is it a gay thing?
Is he gay?
As a holiday fruitcake.
He says that I have been reported to have made an inappropriate sexist remark to a colleague and he intends to enroll me in the Sensitivity-Trainings which I am scheduled to attend once a week in the evenings for three months.
You’re kidding. You sure you didn’t pat that butt?
I was beyond belief. I told hyphen man all I said is that your butt looks good in those pants.
Reasonable. What did he say?
He made a sound as if he bit down on a pit of a prune to help him with constipation telling me that my remark was blatantly inappropriate. That’s the word that faggot used, blatant.
Weird times we’re living in. What was your response?
I said give me a break. Even you gay people to which he stiletto’s me with you have a problem with gays and I said hell no, different strokes and stuff but what I meant I said to him was that you gay dudes are into butts, right, so when you see a man togged out in spandex hugging his gluts don’t tell me you don’t salivate, I said to him.
Methinks your rationale didn’t go down all that well with him.
He replied as if I was an alien, speaking ever so slowly and enunciating like only faggots on the rag do. Thursday from 7 to 10, three months, Rachel will give you the address.
That’s cold. Apparently you didn’t go for it.
Go for it? I said Rachel can take the address and shove it up her beautiful butt, and you too you hyphenated faggot, blatant that! And I walked, went to my desk, picked up some personal shit, passed Rachel and said a sweet goodbye.
A sweet goodbye? I’ll bet. What did you drop on her?
Have a life you deserve you cunt. Sweet enough? I need a brew, want one?
Nothing beats cold beer.
Except two cold beers. And a joint.
Roll it tight.
Tighter than a nun’s pussy. Talk to me about something.
Anything other than the hypocrisy of the human condition which is beyond redemption. Here you go, toke this baby.
Uhmmm...sweet smell of access. Good shit.
The best in the West. Talk to me, brother but don’t be bogarting the joint.
Okay, okay...here you go...talk about hypocrisy, how about my ex calling me for some financial help. Can you believe it. Married only three years and two months, she took me to the cleaners but I’ll bet half of it went to her bitch of a lawyer and now she wants help. Fuck her.
I remember when you two split. It was tough. You loved her, didn’t you?
I still love her. I just don’t like her.
Well you adjusted in time.
Yeah...me and me are doing just fine. You gonna’ share the wealth.
Here you go.
Better. Speaking of which you ever check out liberator.com?
Were we talking about what?
Matters not...liberator.com. Know it?
Yeah, their prices are too high. A yard and a half for a vibrating butt plug. Give me surcease.
They got a black granite job for eighty.
Black granite’s cool. I had a ring like that until someone ripped me off.
How can someone rip off a ring without you knowing it? You still got your fingers so...
No, it was in the spa. I left in the locker.
It’s called a locker because you’re supposed to lock it.
Duhh...I liked that ring. Black onyx, an original. It looked good on my finger.
You believe in reincarnation?
You mean what happens to us after we die?
Only kinda’ reincarnation I know. This shit is getting to me on the good side.
Infuckingdeed. What were you saying? And stop laughing.
Reincarnation stuff. You into it?
I don’t know. I’m a what you see is what you got. If it doesn’t register on one of my four senses I pay it no mind as if it doesn’t exist which it probably doesn’t, you know what I’m saying.
Five senses. You said four. Five: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
Well my nasal passages are so often blocked up smell is on hiatus so like I was saying if I can’t see, hear, touch or taste the puppy, if it doesn’t resonate it doesn’t exist for yours truly. You believe in that shit?
Yeah well, if you’re into karma like what you reap and shit you know if you fuck up you got to pay maybe even in another lifetime like that dude who ripped you off might come back as...
Well if that motherfucker who swiped my ring reincarnates as a frog destined to swim in fetid waters, I’m down with it.
What would you have done if you caught him ransacking your locker?
I’da’ straightened him out in no uncertain terms to get his clammy paws out of my locker!
If he was six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier?
Call the attendant.
Not try and punch him out?
When it comes to a severely over-matched disparity on the physique side I am your sui generis ninja specializing in cowardice.
Talk your shit.
Good smoke helps.
Suppose you had a gun.
Hey, man, coming out of the spa all I had was a towel wrapped around my butt.
Why do we do that?
Get out of the sweat box wearing a towel covering our dick as if we’re ashamed of the fact that it shrunk up in the heat.
Wesley Snipes got three years for tax evasion, Trump’s tax evasion makes Wesley small change.
The brother got slam time while Trump got Prez.
Gives a person pause.
He should get time just for that piece on his head.
Another brew, another joint?
Don’t have nothing but a yes from this corner. I read about this 13-year old genius saying that we are on the verge of solving the energy crisis without using fossil fuels.
You’re going to believe a 12-year old...
Thirteen. He said that we’re approaching the most important advanced stage since the industrial revolution.
Advanced, shit. I think we’re in the advanced stage of human ignorance, advanced stage of stupidity, advanced stages of ugly to the max. Makes me crazy. I understand those freaks who go out and just shoot everything in sight. Here we go.
Salud. It has little to do with who they’re shooting at.
Eggfuckingzackly. They’re shooting at the shadows that never manifested into a hoped-for reality.
Talk your shit and keep rolling.
If I wasn’t so sane I would in a Nano-second hustle over to the office and erase hyphenated fag.
Just wound the bitch so she’ll have to limp her way through life and every time she walks up the stairs she’ll think of the dude she ratted on.
How many guns you have?
Besides my Kel-Tec semi piece?
Me, I’m thinking of getting the bad boy. They got a sale, $449 plus 5 free mags.
You talking about an AR-15?
With tiny bullets, needle-nosed suckers weigh less than four grams.
Those babies travel faster than the speed of sound.
How you know that?
I read in the Guns ‘n Ammo mag. You think I only surf the Net? I read, baby. It’s three times as fast. By the time he says give me your...
Rip open a cavity inside the flesh of that zombie asshole who shoulda’ known better.
It is designed to kill in a the shortest amount of time. Protection, baby, macro protect!
Speaking of, do you wear condoms?
Can’t, no way, it feels like those rubber gloves women wear when washing the dishes. Protecting me from feeling anything, particularly the pussy juice which makes the in ‘n out worthwhile if you know what I’m saying.
What if she insists.
Why would she do that?
You know, protecting from getting with a baby and shit.
I had a vasectomy.
You never told me that. When?
How’d that effect your sex life?
Perfect. I used to carry a document straight from the doctor’s office around at all times and if the woman doesn’t believe me I show it to her and we get it on natural like the way it’s intended supposed to be, you know what I’m saying.
Toke this motherfucker! Me, I’m more comfortable, more at home with my semi. Legal in most every state to carry concealed weapons...have to pass on the assault rifle, though. It spooks me, bad vibes.
How do you figure?
That dude, Omar Mateen, can’t forget the name, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Oh yeah, I read about that shit-bag on Yahoo. He had an assault piece he bought in Florida.
Better than Facebook.
Facebook has too much personal dumb shit. I like the news straight out. Like 49 killed, 53 wounded. Pass on the rifle, too much history. Besides I can do the do with my piece as if I was Clint Eastwood on crack if the opportunity presents itself.
Ever feel like offing some motherfucker just on G-P, like Mr. Hyphenate?
Lotsa’ times but as a response to something specific like a dude telling me that my full house was not equal to his straight. We went at it until it was declared we split the pot. I egressed my butt out of there going to my crib grabbing my piece and actually drove back looking for that scum but he was long gone. I coulda’ wasted him with little effort believe you me.
I sometimes feel like a cartoon character wanting to wreak vengeance on the wrong-doers, you know. Like when I call Directv service ending up talking to some Philippine dude who insists on reading down from his fucking list having nothing to do with what I’m calling about.
Or how about those Indian dudes, I mean calling about an American issue on my American Internet I get this phony accent, hello I’m Jack...Jack your ass, you’re Bikram or somebody.
And if your question does not fit his list he tells you to hold for a supervisor. I once held for five minutes for a super-fucking-visor who never came one the line. Share the blunt, baby.
Here you go. The other day getting gas, the automatic shit choked up and froze. My credit card stuck in the slot, no gas flowing, the world has come to an end. I went to the booth dealing with a woman who had blue hair flopping around a fat face and two tattoos peeking out from the top of her tits resenting me from taking her away from texting on her cell. Can you believe it, Miss FatFace gave me a hard time as if I was responsible for the fucked up pumper. I’m telling you it was good I didn’t have my piece because the way she acted in a rude get out of my face ‘tude, I could have disappeared her blue haired butt from this grateful planet.
So you are comin’, right?
Annabeth said she never got a response back from you.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
The shit is melting your brain. Wake the fuck up, man, we’re getting married.
Oh, that Anna yeah.
Beth...Annabeth. She sent you the invitation with a self-addressed envelope even with a stamp and a small form to fit in it saying yes you’ll come, no you won’t and even four lines for other. She designed it herself. She never heard from you and needs the information, for the caterers you know, how many people.
Ah, right, yeah, sorry, so you two are really getting married, okay.
Yeah, we do good with each other.
You gonna’ tell her about quitting your job?
Yeah, of course, she got my back. With my computer programming skills I’ll land a new spot in a New York minute.
You gonna’ tell her the details about why, you know Rachel’s butt and stuff.
No need to overwhelm her with information of a questionable nature which she mos def does not require. I just needed a change so I split. Okay with you?
Wouldn’t have it any other way. Do you fight, have arguments? Shit that bothers you about her?
That’s the thing. It took some getting used to like when she sneezes I mean it’s like a 100 mph blast could break through walls.
Doesn’t get to you, on the real side?
Listen if a woman could get used to the way my feets sweat, like a pint a day, a sneeze blast ain’t no big thing believe you me.
I hear a but though...something you’re not saying.
We’re great...I mean she says on good days we feel like fresh warm bread sprinkled with garlic salt. She talks like that sometimes. Did you know that a person cannot tickle himself.
I never thought about that.
Me neither but Annabeth knows some shit like the largest cell in the human body is the female egg but the smallest, get this, the smallest is the sperm.
So much for male dominance, huh.
When we first met I asked her what do you do and you know what she said?
Not really, no.
She said It’s what I don’t do that’s important. What do you think about that? I was hooked from the get-go. I am so stoked.
Two of us. So you two never argue, fight, have disputes? You telling me everything about you and Anna is just...
Okay, that’s better. For a minute or two I thought you were smoking some delusional shit. What?
Well...it’s Mister Herz.
Uh oh, milk is turning sour. Who the fuck is Mister Herz, an ex or somebody?
No, Herz in German means heart. It’s her monster fucking Great Dane of a dog who shares our bed.
You don’t like dogs?
That’s one of the first questions she asked me and I said yeah, sure, I love dogs.
But Mister Hurt?
Herz. I have to fight her for...
What can I tell you. I walk her to pee and poop and most of the day she lays around sleeps.
On your bed.
Or if I’m watching TV on the couch, there she is. She likes me. Maybe too much but you know Annabeth loves that beast like even more than...
More than you?
No, I was gonna’ say more than life. You know, a saying.
Is Mister Hurts...
Going to be at the wedding?
So what’s up with you not sending back the invite?
Oh...okay...listen...I’m for you...I got your back but...how can I explain this...I’m a loner, a sort of urban recluse...I like solitude, I don’t feel all that comfortable with more than two peoples at a time which includes me but...
What are you saying? It’s a little envelope with a form Annabeth designed herself. Mail the gismo. It already has a stamp on it.
It’s just, well weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, anniversaries...those are things that say this is what’s going down and I have to come with the attitude of the event, you know...damn this shit got me on another plane, what was I saying, oh yeah, happy birthday smile and even wear one of those stupid hats, or sad faced condolences at a funeral and say the right things in a somber voice...I...it makes me feel like a programmed computer with no options of just...I’m not good at small talk and...listen even if I don’t attend your wedding, I’m laying a gift on you. How about a toaster?
Annabeth doesn’t like you all that much.
How can she like or dislike, we met only once.
Twice. In the coffee shop.
I remember that, yeah, we just met, first time.
And then at the movies.
I was coming out, you two were going in. We started to talk and Anna, yes, beth, said the movie’s starting in five minutes to which I said they play twelve minutes of coming attractions and shit to which she said I enjoy them as much as the movie and she pulled you in so that doesn’t really count as a meet to judge me. What did she say? Exactly?
Okay, her words not mine. She said your friend feels like something’s missing inside of him. As if he’s a skeleton in search of flesh.
She said that shit about me?
Annabeth has a way of talking she does. Don’t take it personal.
If it’s about me it is personal.
Maybe you should fill out the little form saying yes come to our wedding, she’ll change her mind I’ll bet.
A skeleton without flesh?
Not without. Searching for flesh.
Oh yeah, that’s a lot better. Fuck me.
You should come.
I don’t think so.
Just show up enough to show you celebrate your best bud going for it, you don’t even have to stay all that long. Come on.
Weddings, anniversaries, funerals...
You are equivocating me getting married with a funeral.
Just saying, you know.
Fuck you and just saying.
Are you hungry?
I can eat.
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
The Christmas Gift Of A Child
Nuri and Nadya were gypsies. They sat at the front of their gypsy wagon, which at one time had been brightly colored and festively decorated, like they use to be, but now, like them, was old, weathered and worn out. Their nag of a horse pulled them onward somewhere on the back roads of Alabama this Christmas Day 1832, and within their home on wheels lay their daughter Drina, who had just given birth to a son. She lay there and wept, for her baby was dead.
Nadya, a midwife, had no problems with the delivery that morning. Drina was fine, but for some reason, unbeknownst but to God, the child had died and Drina believed that the child had died because God was punishing her for her sin, her sin of having a child out of wedlock.
Though the child was part gypsy, that part did not show, for the dead boy had light skin and blondish hair. Drina, a young woman of dark beauty with black enchanting eyes, long flowing raven hair and a flawless olive complexion looked nothing like her son. That was because the child’s father was Swedish for when the gypsy family was in Baltimore, Drina espied a young Swedish boy, literally just off the boat, and upon seeing him became enthralled with him and his Nordic features. She had to have him and did so many times.
The inevitable happened of course. The boy moved on with his parents and Drina moved on with hers. She was left with her pregnancy as a reminder of her sin and being now deep in the rural south there was no priest to hear her confession. So she had carried her sin, literally and figuratively, inside her.
“We must bury the child Nuri,” said Nadya as Drina slept in the back.
“But where? If we try to bury a blonde baby in a cemetery here, people will think that he is not ours and that we stole him. No telling what may happen to us then wife. Besides these people would never let us gypsies bury our dead among theirs.”
“Well we cannot bury him in the woods husband,” said Nadya. “Evil spirits will come forth and steal his soul. Wild animals will dig him up and feed on his flesh and bones. God will punish us if we do not see to a Christian burial.” Much of the old couple’s religious beliefs were still rooted in the myths, customs and legends of their old country of Romania and thus they remained somewhat superstitious. They blended those beliefs with their understanding of Catholicism only to get themselves more befuddled.
Nuri tried to think of an answer as the wagon bounced along but nothing came to him and after a while he did what many us do when we do not know what to do. We turn to God. So he said to his wife, “God will provide us with an answer.”
And soon God did. For they came upon a young woman sitting by the side of the road nursing a baby.
“Here is God’s answer,” said Nuri to his wife. Yet he did not know exactly what that answer was as he stopped the wagon and looked over at the young girl, a child herself, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, small and dainty, plain looking with mousy brown hair, in drab clothing, a white girl.
“Merry Christmas young lady. May I be of service to you on this the most blessed day of our Lord’s birth? asked Nuri as he crossed himself and raised his eyes heavenward in thanks.
The young girl was fearful of gypsies, for she had been taught to be so, but she was in desperate need of help as she was famished for she hadn’t eaten in two days and was exhausted from running away from home and giving birth. She did not have the strength to go one step further so she answered, “If you would be kind enough sir to take me and my child to the next town it would be deeply appreciated.”
Now Nuri knew that taking in this child with a child was a dangerous thing to do for as said before many people believed that gypsies stole children. Yet he believed that this girl was truly sent by God so he welcomed her into his home.
“My name is Drina,” Drina said introducing herself as the girl and her baby entered the wagon.
“My name is Mary Elizabeth,” she answered.
“Oh may I see your baby please?” asked Drina upon seeing Mary Elizabeth’s child.
She received no answer.
“Please,” she begged. “My baby is dead. See.” And she held up her dead child for Mary Elizabeth to see.
“Why have you not buried this child?” Mary Elizabeth asked her.
“Because we are gypsies and we have no place here to bury one of our own. Please, please let me hold your child,” repeated Drina, desperately needing the reassurance that this baby was in fact alive.
“Did you want your baby?” asked Mary Elizabeth ignoring her request.
“What?” answered Drina taken back by such a question.
But before anything else could be said four horsemen appeared. They rode up beside the wagon and stopped it. The first horseman then in a bellowing voice asked of Nuri, “Have seen a young girl hereabouts, possibly with a baby?”
“No I have not,” lied Nuri hoping that they would not look inside the wagon, hoping that the baby stayed quiet, hoping that they would go away.
“Well there’s a father and his two sons back there a piece looking for his daughter. She’s run away and they’re offering a reward for her return. So if you happen to see her it just might behoove you to tell him.”
Nuri said nothing.
“He’s the one that owns that big cotton plantation you just passed a few miles back.”
And then, to Nuri’s dismay, the baby let out a squawk, a loud awful shrieking squawk heard by all.
“That sounds like a baby. You gotta a baby back there?” asked the first horseman.
Nuri did not answer and looked away.
That was answer enough for the horseman.
“I should have know better than to trust you damn lying thieving gypsies. I’m going back there and take a look for myself. Stand aside,” he ordered as he dismounted and marched over toward the wagon’s door.
Now Mary Elizabeth had heard all that had been said, so quickly she handed over her baby to Drina and whispered to her, “Go out there and show them my baby. Tell them he’s yours for I am fearful of men such as these. Please do this that I ask of you.”
Now Drina wanted to hold the baby, to know that it was alive, so she took the covered up child and exited the wagon promising to do that what was asked of her.
“This is my child.” she said as she came out.
Her inquisitor snatched the child from her, pulled back the blanket that covered the baby’s face, studied the child for a few moments, then covered the baby back up and handed the child back to Drina. Without another word he remounted and with the others rode away.
Drina retreated to the safety of the wagon where Mary Elizabeth grabbed the baby back from her, never having given Drina a chance to see the child’s face.
So the crisis passed for the gypsy family. But their problem was not yet solved, only complicated by this girl now with them, and after a while Nadya said to her husband, “We must get rid of that girl. She will only cause us further trouble Nuri.”
“She has told us that she only wants to go as far as the next town and we have given her our word that we would take her there. We will do so.”
“But husband what if we encounter strangers again or her father?”
“The girl is clever if not deceitful. She fooled the horseman. She can do it again.”
But Nadya would not let it go and they argued loudly and bitterly for sometime until both of them gave up, disgusted that the other would not budge.
As said their conversation had not been in whispers. It had been quite heated and loud and as the windows of the wagon had all been open Mary Elizabeth had heard it all. She knew that she must do something soon for her father was sure to find her eventually anyway. She knew that she was doomed to return home and she did not want these people, these gypsies that had taken her in and befriended her to suffer any consequences for their acts of kindness to her, for she had changed her ways of thinking as to gypsies.
Now three different men approached from afar. Mary Elizabeth looked out the wagon window. “Here comes my father and brothers,” she announced.
Her mind raced as she thought of what to do. She was tired and exhausted and really did want to go home now but not with this baby. The problem was the baby. Then it came to her and she said to Drina, “You do not have a baby. I do. You people have been kind to me by taking me in. It is Christmas. I give you a Christmas gift, my child. Here take him,” she said and handed Drina her baby.
“But,” stuttered Drina flummoxed as she received the child.
“But nothing, I do not want this child. He is a curse to me. Please accept him as my gift to you. My father approaches and though he will accept me back, he will not accept this child.”
“But I have no gift for you in return,” said Drina.
“Oh but you do. You too have a child. A child that I need. A child that needs to be buried. Give me your child and I will see that it is done.”
Drina did so.
The wagon had stopped now, the riders almost there. Mary Elizabeth got out carrying the dead child and went over to Nuri and Nadya.
“I have given your daughter my son,” she told the old gypsy couple. “I did so because it is God’s will.” She said this because she knew from the gypsies prior conversations that she had heard they would believe this. “And your daughter has given me her child in return to have baptized and buried properly. This too is God’s will. My father is here now. I am going home. I will trouble you no further. I thank you for your kindness.”
The old gypsy couple stood there stunned. They could think of nothing to say as the three men dismounted.
The daughter ran to the father, arms extended, offering him the child.
“My baby died Father. Please forgive me.”
The father took the child, saw the blondish hair and pale skin. He showed the child to the two brothers one of which said in response, “Didn’t I tell you that she was seeing that Jennings boy? Didn’t I?”
To which the other brother replied, “Well that doesn't change anything as far as I’m concerned. She was still messing around with that yellow mulatto boy Gabriel too. Chances were just as good that he could have been the father and then Pa would have had to sold him and the baby down the river.”
“Hush sons. Rejoice for my daughter was lost and now she is found. Come daughter let us go home and bury this child next to your mother.”
“Here old man,” said the father flipping Nuri a coin. “Merry Christmas.”
Nuri made no attempt to catch it and let the piece of silver fall by the wayside and be swallowed up in the dust of the road.
The father took his new found dead grandchild with him, his daughter riding with one of her brothers and they left.
Drina came out of the wagon now with her new son and went over to show him to her folks. She uncovered the boy’s face for them to see. He was neither white nor black but the sum of each. He could pass for gypsy. Drina clutched the child to her bosom. Drina wept.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Squatting on a rice paddy dike behind our bamboo shack, with a hot sun overhead, I wonder at the quiet here among the green rice shoots waving in the gentle breeze like little green fingers. The difference now compared to that long ago war when paddies such as these were for sitting ducks can’t help but make me realize how things can change with place and time. Now I am unafraid, relaxed and content. I milk this feeling and tell myself that it must all be in my head.
Remembering back to those days when I was young and passing through the other paddies of that war torn place, I try to give some air to that shut-away part of my mind. But before I can indulge this opportunity I hear my young girlfriend call from the back window of our shack, “Chuckie, we eat now. We have good rice, very tasty.”
Her voice peaks and dives upon the wind like that of a barn swallow approaching its nest. It lifts me in a way that only an old man who is undeserving can know. It’s like those miracles that come to those who have passed so far and still have not been beaten down. But it is something that can not be shared, something that is rooted in those other paddies of long ago.
“OK,”, I yell, “I am hungry and it is good when we eat. Just wait a little bit and I will be there.”
With a last sweeping intake of the paddies and the coconut palms that border their far reaches I tell myself that this is the best of all possible worlds. For now that seems certain, but the years that are spread before me do not vanish at a far point like those spread behind. And I must consider this. What will happen when it must end. But I know that ten million zips couldn’t kill me back then, now all I have to do is to calculate the odds of this situation and play it cool. My ex-wives thought that such and such an action would put them on a steady and known kind of course. Then when things went bad it would be easy for them to know the proper moves…..they thought. But I played it cool then as well and here I am in the high cotton once again.
The girl’s name is Mila, a Filipina, and the bamboo shack we live in belongs to her father who lives in another area of Cebu with the rest of her family. They think I am going to take her back to the United States when I go. I try to think so too, because that is the best way to stay cool. But I know it is a lie, that a beauty such as hers can not be held by an old man like me in a land where there is more opportunity and life is not so cheap. Her family thinks that surely I will try to keep these undeserved fruits for that seems to be the way of many of the people that live where I come from. And likely Mila and her people have heard this. There are many old war dogs that come to this country for young wives. So for now Mila and I live together here in the Philippine Visayas as if a new life is but around the corner for us all. But there are really no more new lives for this old man crouching on a muddy dike among the mosquitoes. Only in my thoughts can I capture those times when such was true. Times when many better than me were denied that possibility…. for ever. I will not tell Mila or any of her family this. That would not be cool. Yes, here it is beautiful, fresh and new for now, but not the best of all possible worlds. Only the vision with my clever cover can be that. And if that is what it takes, I know how to do it just fine. My teachers were all so clever as well.
I struggle from my haunches and yell towards the little shack, “I am coming sweet thing, kaon, let's eat.”
As I follow the cross work of dikes back toward our shack the noise of the nearby highway grows louder as passenger jeepneys, motor scooters, and other vehicles pass by. Then comes the rhythmic clip clop of a horse pulling a passenger cart or tartanilla. When it draws closer I recognize the driver, a young man who lives with his girl and a couple of kids on the ground under another stilted shack just down the road. Not long ago when I was passing by there with my bottle of rum he invited me into his shade. We sat on old bottle crates and for a while shared my rum. Then he gave me a crab that he had caught at the tidal flats just beyond the marshes that border the sea there. Dressed in rags, his girl and a couple of kids stood off at a far corner post and silently watched us. It isn’t every day that a rum swilling white man drops by, and they were probably wary. Or maybe they were just poor. I have seen the same hollow eyes and blank faces on some Appalachians where I grew up. The girl and kids remained there until I left, gathered around that corner post as if it were a living totem. Later I threw away the gift crab I knew to come from where a sewer empties into the sea.
As I am coming over the small concrete wall that separates our place from the rice paddies the tartanilla draws even and the young driver throws his hand up. I return his gesture and pause to watch his skinny horse pull him and his passenger on down the road at the steady clip clop pace that keeps the reins lightly resting in his hands and not snapping at the horse’s rump. I can smell the freshly cooked rice and yell my arrival as I top the steps to the front door.
“That smells good, I think that you are an expert rice cooker.”
Mila replies with a knowing smile, “Chuckie, I like to do for you, and I do good, yes?”
She is framed by the back window and the rice paddies beyond as I cross the bamboo slatted floor and take her in my arms. Lifting her to the sill of the window, I nuzzle my body between her legs. “Oh baby, like no body I have ever known, you are good to me.”
She looks dead on me with her sparkling brown eyes. “Is that why you will take me to America, Chuckie? Are the girls there not as good to their men?”
“Many of them are not,” I say, “and it seems that those are always the ones that I end up with.”
“Maybe you do things that make them mad, and that is why they are not good to you,” she says.
“Could be. You know we can’t always make others happy. Sometimes things just seem to get out of control and we are not prepared for it, and we do and say things that are wrong.”
Mila seems to consider this for a moment then slides from the window and starts placing the food on the nipa mat that is spread on the floor. The aroma of hot steaming rice and fish soup drifts up to the thatched ceiling and the far corners of our little shack as we settle down to eat. Nearby, our neighbors along the road send up their sounds of clinking spoons and bowls to mix with our own. I must try to keep it this simple.
That night as we lie on our sleeping mat in the dark, except for the burning glow of lion tiger mosquito coils, I reach for Mila and for the first time ever she hesitates.
“Chuckie, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, I guess so. I just hope it’s not about where we are going to live when we get to America.”
“No it’s not that. It’s just some of the people that my family knows say you will not take me to America. That you're only using me to take care of you while you’re here. Then you’ll leave and forget all about us. They say unless we are married I have no protection from such a thing.”
“Whoa, wait a minute, do you feel like you need protection from me? Haven’t I always treated you good?”
“Yes, but I have a cousin it happened to and she told my father that she’s not the only one that it’s happened to. Do you think we could get married, Chuckie? You know, just so everybody would quit talking about it.”
Knowing that this is something that I am not prepared for, and that I will have to do some figuring about this I put an end to this conversation.
“I think maybe we can, but it will take some time and planning. There’s nothing we can do right now about it so why don’t you bring that beautiful little body a little closer my way.”
Mila slips her hand over my stomach , “accidentally” rubbing her forearm along my erection.
“Ok, Chuckie. We will have fun and I will continue to be good to you but we have plans to make someday soon.”
After that night things take on a different light when it comes to me and Mila. Mila doesn’t mention it that much more but her father and the rest of her family seem to take it as a commitment. They make a show of giving little gifts that are intended for our later life together in America.
I pretend that our travel to the United States is just a matter of time. Time to get married, get the visa for a spouse and the other paperwork that is necessary for such a trip. I act as if there is no hurry while I avoid the wedding announcement and start planning my departure from the Philippines. I know it is time to ditch this whole scene and head out when one day Mila’s father stops by for a visit, bringing plans for our wedding.
Jose Albelgas is a retired seaman, having worked the boiler rooms of many different inter-island ferries during his career. A straightforward and kind man, Jose is going to help things along and make an honest woman of his daughter by ushering us as quickly as possible to the altar. It seems the only reason he has allowed, and even helped along, our living together is because he has great respect for Americans and their history. When he was a boy during the second world war and the occupation by the Japanese he witnessed the return of the Americans to liberate the Islands. Ever since then he has felt anger toward the Japanese and imbued in his family the same attitude along with an abiding respect and affection for Americans. Having recognized this in him and his family pretty quickly, I was not one to pass up opportunities to live higher up on the war reputation of the generation that preceded me. I pretty much had my pick of his two beautiful daughters and although we haven’t really won a war since then, back in the states where I am from, we are now somehow considered heroes. It was easy to take this fairly current event and spread it over my existence to certify my right to the pickings from these people who come from a lesser God. In this respect Mila is my trophy, however brief such an award might be. And when Jose arrives that day at the little shack between the highway and the rice paddies it is my cue to cut them loose.
Sitting in the back window that overlooks the patchwork of paddies, smoking some of the weakest weed in Asia while Mila cleans up after the morning meal, I hear the jeepney stop in front of our place.
“Maayo” sounds the voice of Jose as he approaches the front door.
Mila quickly dumps the tray of bowls into the pump basket and breathlessly says, “Put some clothes on and throw that marijuana out the window, Papa’s here.”
While quickly pulling on some shorts I say, “Cool it Mila, Jose knows I smoke. As long as I take good care of you he doesn’t care, even pretends to smoke sometimes with me. But he never inhales, just being sociable I guess.”
“That’s right, but there is a side to Papa that you don‘t know. Don’t be too confident.”
Mila crosses the room and opens the door to the bright tropical light and the figure of Jose, a dark form against the sunlight. He is tall for a Filipino, with short cropped hair and dressed in his favorite peasant shirt and trousers, while shod in ordinary sandals made from the same material as the millions of others seen throughout the Islands. Jose, once he left his maritime uniform behind, was never inclined to dress any other way. Before either Mila or I can say anything Jose zips into the house, lowers himself to the floor mat and says, “I have wonderful news. My younger brother, Mila’s uncle, a priest in Negros Occidental, will be traveling to Cebu next week and he said that he would be honored to join you together in Holy Matrimony. How lucky can we get? Pretty good huh?”
I feel my stomach knot up to the extent that I almost double over before I catch myself and slowly sink to the floor facing Jose.
Jose, while observing my reaction, not missing a thing, smiles a little and says, “You I will help during this important time Chuck. The family will take care of everything. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“That’s very kind of you”, I say, “but I am thinking, not so soon. I haven’t even transferred any money from the US to my bank account here to pay for the wedding.”
I have no US bank account but it is all I can think of to say to try and delay what is happening. I see Mila frown and wonder if she knows I am lying. I can’t remember if we have talked about my money or not. I am starting to think that I might have to make a hasty retreat from this situation before it gets completely out of hand.
The sunlight slants through the window of our shack and strikes the side of Jose’s face in such a way that, with half of it cast in shadow and the other half in light, it morphs into a likeness of the face of a dead Viet Cong I had carried out of the bush long ago in those other rice paddies. Suddenly confused and no longer able to control what is happening before me I say nothing and let whatever will happen, happen. Jose carries on about how I have nothing to worry about and how it is all going to be taken care of while I just silently sit there and Mila smiles. After all the talk we have some coffee and a peanut butter sandwich. Then Jose leaves with a final flourish of, “Never mind, I will take care of it.”
That night while Mila sleeps I gather some things that I have previously stowed away, along with my remaining money, and sneak out the door, around back past the toilet, and over the cement wall into the rice paddies. Under a large moon with my mind full of the shapes reflecting off the paddies, sometimes paired with shapes from those other paddies, I cross the fields to the main highway that lies beyond.
As I leave the doctor’s office I am dazed, what some people no doubt would call shock. I can remember feeling like this only a few times in my life, usually after the loss of a loved one. But it has been so long since those days that it practically feels new. Maybe this is just the way a body protects one from those things that it is too weak to experience at the moment. It gives time to come around to those inevitable thoughts that are bound to follow.
Ever since I returned to Seattle from the Philippines a little more than a year ago I have been feeling unwell. At first I thought it was just because of the way that I had left that country and that it was actually just a mind-body thing where the specks of guilt that I sometimes feel cause some sort of general malaise and that I will get over it soon enough. But the symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, and most recently, a slew of infections that I had never had before force me to see the doctor to try to get rid of this downright depressing situation. And now after several visits I have a finding of what is wrong with me. As my daze seems to clear some I run over in my mind the conversations with my doctor and the doctor that he had referred me to.
Doctor Neal is an elderly man, a little older than me I suspect and he is a bit brisk and to the point when it comes to his demeanor and interpersonal interactions. In other words, he is not what many would call a doctor with a great bedside manner. I recall sitting there in the small examining room when he quickly entered carrying what I assumed was my file.
“Not feeling too bad today I take it,” he says, “your labs are not all that bad and after some consultation with a doctor I want you to follow-up with I think I can tell you what is most likely bothering you. But I want you to see the specialist immediately to confirm what we both suspect is the problem. Then we can be more sure and start a regimen of treatment.”
I can feel the tightness in my throat as it seems to increase to the point that I have to clear my throat before I can speak.
“What kind of specialist, what’s wrong with me?”
Doctor Neal immediately looks uncomfortable, something that he seldom allows himself to be and this further increases my apprehension.
“Well I am not certain, you understand, but I think that you may have leukemia.”
“You mean cancer, I have cancer, something to do with my blood?”
“Yes, but don’t panic. Doctor Smithers, that’s the oncologist I want you to see, is a very good doctor and he has had some remarkable results treating patients like you. Presently he has a clinical trial that I think you might qualify for but you really need to discuss this all with him.”
By this time I am entering that unworldly limbo, numb feeling, yet the fear and anxiety are as real as the air I am breathing.
“When can I see this Doctor Smithers,” I say.
“As a matter of fact, you can see him right now. He’s not doing office visits right now but he is in and I called him. Since you are a potential candidate for his trials he can see you now. Here is his card, he’s on the next floor and he’s waiting for you now.”
As I enter the office Dr. Smithers is sitting behind his desk with several files scattered out before him. It is a regular office with a large desk and a few chairs no different than most run of the mill offices. There is nothing to indicate that it is part of a medical practice and he is dressed only in casual clothes. There is no white jacket.
“Please have a seat, Chuck,” he says and indicates a padded chair in front of and a little to the side of his desk.
After I am seated he picks up and opens one of the files in front of him.
“Well Chuck, I know that Dr. Neal was a little vague with you. That’s because he has only my recommendations to go by. But I have done the full work up of your blood as well as the confirming tests and there is no doubt that you have leukemia…….but there is also no doubt that you can fit into my clinical trial and may benefit from it.”
Then he fixes his eyes on mine and in their reflection I can’t help but feel Bob Dylan’s lyric, ‘now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud.’
Fully overwhelmed by all that is taking place I manage to say, “I have no idea of what you are talking about. Am I going to die? Can you cure me? What do I have to do, what do you have to do? Medicare is all I have to get by with.”
Dr. Smithers explains that the patients in his clinical trial only have to pay a small appointment fee and that the bulk of the expenses are covered by the drug company whose drug is used with the experimental therapy. He explains that by volunteering for the trial and allowing the data from my treatment to be used as a measure of the therapy’s success I can gain access to the treatment at minimal expense. It seems that the trial is based upon three basic groups of patients. One group is the experimental group which will receive the new drug and a bone marrow transplant from an immediate member of their family, preferably from one of their children since this group has so far had significantly better outcomes. It is this group and the use of their children that has instigated the study. The second group receives the new drug but no bone marrow transplant or chemotherapy. This group has a slightly improved rate of response but it is not high enough to be significant. And the third group receives only the standard chemotherapy and its rate of response so far has been comparable to the second group. Then at the completion of the 24 week trial all patients are evaluated and their treatment from then on will follow according to their prognosis. Those showing no signs of improvement are discontinued from the study and put on a maintenance schedule with the hope for some sort of spontaneous recovery. Just another way of saying that a miracle is needed for their survival.
“It sounds like the only ones that have a chance are the ones with children who can donate bone marrow,” I say.
Dr. Smithers folds his hands into a tepee under his chin and looks to the ceiling.
“Yes, but some surprising things can occur during these trials so we encourage all our subjects to have a positive attitude.”
“Which group would I be in?”
“Well since it seems that you have no children or immediate family it could not be group one. Actually that is the group where our need for subjects is greatest. While our results with that group are very encouraging, our sample size is still lacking. I think you would best fit into the second group where you would receive the new drug but no other therapy. I might add that if we could achieve remission in your case and, since the drug does not kill off sperm, if you were to have a child, we could switch you to group one with a running start. Group three has no such possibility but some of the subjects have attained remission.”
Dr. Smithers gets up from his desk and walks to the window overlooking one of the city parks below. He seems to search the grounds for some known element as he says, “I would like to see you back in this office in one week if you would like to proceed. Think about it carefully. I have prepared a packet of material to help you with your decision. If you decide to join this study there is an appointment schedule and instructions in the packet.”
Now outside on the street I sink down onto the bench at the bus stop with a heaviness that I rarely have felt. Of course I will take the trial. There is no decision here. No option. Only the placing of one foot in front of the other as I move through the fog that has suddenly and overwhelmingly enveloped my world.
The loud blast of an air horn brings me out of my trance to see the number sixty bus stopped in front of me with it’s door open. As I get on and tag my card the driver says, “I thought you might be deaf. I ask you twice before I hit the horn.”
“Deaf would be a blessing,” I mumble as I pass him toward the empty back of the bus.
Depression sets in pretty fast and for the next couple of days it’s about all I can do to make and eat a couple of sandwiches and trudge the short distance to the post office and back. Thoughts of where I scattered my mother's ashes, far away in West Virginia, beset me. All those things we tell ourselves that we will think about later seem to be sitting in my lap. Could it be that I will have to hire someone to put me away when the time comes. Maybe one of the veterans groups would do it. But I do have a little saved and no one to leave it too. The thought of the American military and its culture, bedecked in military garb, chanting verses of a Greater God with greater firepower, doing me in provides no relief for me this time around. There’s got to be a better way. A better way that, ultimately, I will never have to conclude was a success anyway. One foot in front of the other.
I notice the Philippine stamps on the letter immediately upon opening my post office box and, although there is no return name, I recognize Mila’s writing. I had completely forgotten about that part of my life but now it seems to blaze up in front of me. I did what I thought I had to do then, but now there is a big tug of remorse about it all. When I open the envelope I find that it only contains a photograph. I pull the picture from the envelope and notice first the writing on the back. Written in large block English letters, it says, “Eat your heart out.” Turning it over I can see that it is a picture of Mila holding a baby. The child is white.
At it’s zenith, the sun is hot and the rice stalks are high in the paddies behind Jose’s native shack. Inside, where there is some semblance of shade under the grass roof, Mila’s cousin and her Australian husband are seated on one side of the floor mat while she and Jose are seated across from them on the other side. There is a large bowl of steaming rice accompanied by a hot pot of fish soup and slices of steamed bitter melon in the center of the mat. Sweating freely, they eat the rice and bitter melon from the communal bowl with their fingers and occasionally dip portions of soup from the pot with small cups. The smiles on sweaty faces might seem incongruent in any other place but here they brighten the shadowed interior of the bamboo shack. And their conversation between bites of food and sips of soup is light and happy. The coos and little noises and gibberish of a baby child can be heard coming from the small nipa basket in the corner. The child is a boy, the son of Mila’s cousin and her Aussie mate. It is easy to tell that the kid is a Filipino mestizo for his skin is so light that he could almost pass for white. The Aussie, who is almost the same age as Jose, suddenly leans forward, extends his arm across the food, and puts his hand on Jose’s shoulder.
“Say mate, did you find the proper place to honor the picture of my son and your daughter, Mila?”
Mila and Jose exchange a long look and when they finally both break into a wide smile the Aussie must ask again.
“Well man, come on mate, is there a secrete going on here, did you………… or did you stick it in a book somewhere and forget about it?”
Jose chews and swallows the last of his bitter melon and says, “No doubt amigo, no doubt. It is in the perfect place and will never be forgotten.”
His voice is laced with an irony that creates a silence among them. Then slowly he takes his cup and in turn fills everyone else’s cup with more soup as they watch, somewhat amused. Lastly, with his cup raised, Jose makes a toast.
“To all those foreigners, like you my amigo, who help the Filipino people and love their Filipina wives, God’s speed and prosperity…….and to all those foreigners who use us while pretending to help, may they get their account called before them by God’s speed as well.”
Later as they all sit out back and watch the rice being winnowed on the paddy dikes by small brown men, the sun sinks behind the coconut trees. And pakikisama, or the ability to get along and respect each other, rules the approaching darkness.
Marcetta Davis is currently living in small town of Live Oak, Florida. She currently is in college studying Creative writing at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fl. She works during the day as a preschool teacher and at night goes to college online. Her dreams is to put out stories for Pixar, Disney and Lucus films. Her influences are Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, and George Lucus. Marcetta enjoys the Golden Age of Hollywood and inspires her constantly. She hopes to someday see her stories come to the silver screens around the world.
How to Save My Life
It was a cold and dank morning in New York City, when Alexander and his energetic five year old daughter crossed the street. It was a day that Alexander had been dreading for months, he was facing his now ex-wife Ava and the son he thought was his. As they entered the Apartment complex, Lilly grabbed his hand and just smiled totally oblivious to the situation that would someday present itself. They entered the elevator with a walk of dread for one and a light bounce of excitement for the other.
"Daddy, which floor are we going to again?" Lilly asked in a needy voice. She was so excited to see her mother and her brother. The excitement was essentially killing her on the inside. While the first question left her small occupied brain, she wondered how many floors high this building was. In her mind this was seeming like forever. She then looked at the buttons on the elevator fingering them " Do you think Jacob will like the cars that I picked out?"
Alexander looked down at his little girl that he loved with all his heart. " I think he will love to have the cars and playdoh for his birthday." He loved the way that Lilly was a perfect blend of Ava and him. He had sat down with her and talked with her about what was going on. He wondered exactly how much Jacob and Lilly understood of the situation. He knew one day he was going to have to tell Lilly about Jacob. He knew the dark secret could destroy them all in one blow.
Lilly looked at the elevator buttons changing before her eyes and this seemed to calm her down. In a quiet tone, she innocently asked "How long are we going to live like this Daddy? Don’t you miss Mommy and Jacob? I don’t like two houses." She had a million questions running through her little mind. If you could open her brain you would see a hamster on a hamster wheel running wild.
Alexander was taken with the questions. How do you tell a five year old that this is permanent and that you can not forgive her mother. He was now watching her make silly faces and trying to entertain herself in the elevator. " Sweet girl, this is forever. There is a lot that you will know later but not right now. But I do love your mother, she gave me the best gift in the whole world."
"What is that, Daddy?" Lilly said with a toothy grin that stretched across her face.
"It is you, you are the best thing that your mother could have given me." He looked at the little girl tugging at her red coat and reached for her little hand. He shifted the gifts in his tired arms. He softly sang to her " You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. When your not happy my skies are grey. You'll never know dear how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away."
The little girl looked at the man that was now looking weary and worn by the world. His starch white collar and blood red tie that matched his tear stained face. She knew that her daddy's heart was broken into a million pieces and it was displayed on his face. She hugged his leg and held on for dear life "I love you Daddy and it will be ok, I promise" Lilly said in a mumble.
He did see a ray of light in his little Lilly's eyes and he fell in love again. Lilly had the same chocolate brown eyes as her mother, Ava. She had the same overgrown heart, in fact he always told Ava that what she was. The ultimate thing that hurt him was the fact that Ava was unfaithful to his commitment and their family. Then she lied about Jacob and he had his heart about like Lilly did. It crushed his world when Jacob's father turned up trying to be the Father of the year. His whole world rose and set on Lilly and that is all that mattered to him.
The elevator gave a sudden jolt as if to bring reality to his execution feeling of a mind frame. His world no longer seemed so dreadful and horrible, it actually was brighter. He realized that the little girl beside him was not actually sent for him to love, but she was actually sent to save him. He glanced and looked at the little girl bouncing around the elevator singing her ABC's. He knew one day that he would have to explain to her the real truth about her parent's relationship and Jacob, but it was not today. It was a new day and she was his breath of fresh air. The cold steel doors opened up as if to say it is your new day. He reached over and grabbed the small white gloved hands and the walked toward Ava's new apartment. He smiled at her and happily thought " We are going to be ok."
David J. Coppola studied at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, earning a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications and Journalism in 2000. Currently he continues to reside in the Garden State with his wife, in the wonderful town of Summit. Professionally he works in television production, as he has done so for over a decade. With a penchant for visual storytelling and a boundless imagination, he has always held a passion for writing. As a new author, David has brought forth his passion in his debut story: The Wise Man, The Rock And The River. “Being published,” he says, “Is absolutely a dream come true.”
The Wise Man, The Rock and The River
IT WAS UNBEARABLY HOT. The sun’s scorching rays were relentless, and the sky had been cloudless for far too long. The crops were in peril, and the livestock were fading fast. The last rain had fallen six months ago, but it felt more like six decades to the villagers of Kayland. The duration, however, no longer mattered, for the end result would be the same: the eventual ending of this small town and its inhabitants. Malnourishment and disease had become their reality. What was once a prosperous land of optimism brimming with fruits rich in vitamins, healthy livestock, and a harmoniously blended harvest was headed toward devastation.
The drought had also changed the Kayland villagers’ perspective of Joe—the person the villagers looked to for leadership, guidance, and stability. Prior to the drought, Joe had been a man full of hope, but this prolonged dry spell had changed both his faith in life and his ability to lead. Unfortunately his change of heart also affected the faith the villagers placed in him. No longer did they view him as their fearless leader.
Aside from harming Joe’s village and its inhabitants, the drought had also stolen the sole thing he loved most in this world—his Annabelle. The day he lost her, he composed his thoughts in a journal; words he wished to share with her again one day, perhaps in another life, another world. He stowed this journal in one of his canoe’s nooks. One day he would release it into the river where her ashes peacefully lay:
You were taken from me far too soon, and today, a part of me has passed on as well—a part I shall not recover until the day we meet again. You were my air to breathe, my life to live, my love, my world. I will think of you with every waking moment, and dream of you with every hour of rest. I hope you find happiness in the life thereafter; the same happiness you enlightened me with every day.
THE SKY WAS REMARKABLY CLEAR that morning. The sun was so bright and rich it failed to look like sun anymore. It was more like an interminable, fiery orange flash. One couldn’t lift the lids of his eyes for more than half a second before having to turn away, blinded by its power.
The sun had bleached the short locks of Joe’s light brownish hair and eyebrows to a permanent pearly white hue, and deeply bronzed his once fair skin. Joe, a tall slender man whose age now shown, had become a shell of his former vibrant self. One of the village’s last remaining fishermen, Joe headed out for the daily catch on the K-River—a long narrow waterway cut in a perfectly straight line running through the center of the village, its two ends jutting off the center to form their own separate passageways of water, and all perfectly angled to showcase the beautiful ocean to the east of the village—a once eager estuary named solely for its aerial geographic shape. If you were to look directly down from the tallest of trees, the river formed a symmetrical K, and this astounding K shaped river that nature had provided over time belonged to the inhabitants of Kayland.
Joe’s canoe was twenty feet in length. Long and slim, it had three sectioned compartments. Joe rowed from the far back, the middle was reserved for an additional villager, and the far front housed his nets. Unfortunately Joe’s partition was the only animate part left in the canoe. The rest lay dry, barren, and empty from months of inactivity. The drought had slowed the fishing in the village to a crawl. As the river increasingly depleted, it became warmer and lower than in days past. Joe paddled out along the western part of the river’s straight narrow passageway. In certain spots amidst the riverbanks, the waters were beginning to become so shallow they were giving way to the stone riverbed. In other spots, petrified branches and fish were revealing their deadened images.
In the not too far distance, Joe noticed something very unusual. A large conglomerate rock was jetting up out of the water, pushing aside the slow moving current. It was not this protruding rock, however, that appeared unusual for there were many of these rocks in the K-River. Rather it was the old man who sat perched upon the rock who captured Joe’s attention.
The man, many years older than Joe had ever projected for his own lifespan, had a long wrinkled face, flowing, cloud white hair, and an overgrown salty-beard. He donned a deteriorating red cloak, the hood of which was pushed back by the abundance of his wild curls. In one hand he clutched a long wooden staff with a rounded tip that ran the distance from the old man’s shoulders to his sandaled and weathered feet. A fused image of a sea serpent coiling itself down the length of the staff seemed to be sculpted out of a hardened clay material of which the serpent seemed to grasp. The old man’s flakey dried out hands tightly gripped the staff, using it to maintain balance atop the pointed rock.
Joe was slowly approaching in his canoe, and when the proximity between him and the mysterious gray-haired figure closed to about twenty feet, Joe let out his oars and slowed his course. When they were within five feet of one another, the old man turned his gaze toward Joe, and inquired in a soothing tone, “When will the rains return to this dry and dying land?”
Baffled by the old man’s presence, Joe drifted by in silence. Who was this enigmatic man? He knew everyone in the small village of Kayland, but this man was unfamiliar to him. As Joe drifted down the river, the old man on his conglomerate rock slowly began to fade from his view, but Joe’s wonder persisted. Unfortunately so did the famine. By day’s end, Joe’s fishing nets were still mostly empty. His catch would be insufficient. The dozen or so meager tilapia would fail to feed the entire village.
That night Joe sat by his campfire, hungry and helpless. The smoke from the embers rose high into the starry night. It was amazing how much the dark seemed to mask the severity of the drought. For a blissful moment, you could actually lose yourself in its bleakness and forget about the blazing air that was waiting to consume you as you awoke in the morning.
Behind him, some of the remaining livestock were grazing on the dried out grass near his campsite, and further away in the darkness of the low-lying brush he could see the seething, glowing eyes of the night’s creatures. They slowly and methodically paced under the cover of trees. Most likely they were waiting for the next victim to succumb to the heat, so they could feed and live to see another day. Natural selection had its own meaning here in Kayland.
There was an exceptionally bright crescent moon above Joe as he sat pondering his thoughts. The shine of the fire highlighted his cheekbones, which were beginning to slump slowly into his face. As he lay on his back staring up into the clear night, the roar of his famished stomach lulled him into a very deep sleep. The embers of the fire cracked and finally cooled. Unfortunately the dark mask of night would soon again reveal itself to the torrid sun.
OVER THE NEXT FIVE DAYS something very peculiar began to unfold. Each day as Joe fished the scalding waters of the K-river, he saw the old man balanced atop his rock. Every day the old man would ask Joe when the rains would return, and Joe would simply drift past in wonder. On the sixth day, however, the peculiarity of these events would turn into something quite unexpected.
The sixth day began exactly as the previous five days. The sun was high, permeating its now all too familiar unrivaled sear along the plains of Kayland, and the K-river was warm to the touch and becoming shallower by the second, as was the expression on Joe’s face. For him, the sixth day was one day closer to his own demise. He was falling direly ill. The drought had finally taken its toll on him, and Joe awoke weak from the dry months. Barely able to dress himself, he wearily stumbled up from his camp and into his canoe. He pushed off the scorched banks, and headed out once again onto the blazing K-river.
The river was becoming discolored from the amount of death beneath it. It resembled a pod for dead fish and animals, and had fallen so shallow it now slumped into itself, like an evaporating cup of water. Dried out branches from the mangrove forests that surrounded the K-River had fallen like pixie sticks along the shoreline, creating an obstacle course of the water. Joe did his best to row down far enough to cast his nets, but his efforts were futile. His strength was quickly waning. Succumbing to the parched weeks and months, Joe unwillingly dropped an oar into the water, and unable to maintain his balance, fell oddly face first into the dried out nets aboard his canoe. He did his best to get back up, but his efforts were in vain. He could only manage to turn himself onto his back, as his right shoulder and arm were trapped in the mess of the net. As he turned, the lone oar dropped softly into the river, and the canoe took its own course.
The canoe drifted along with the current in a slow spinning motion while Joe remained locked into position by the tangled web of the net. As he lay trapped in the dried out empty nets—a veritable mess of emptiness—Joe recalled how full of blissful bounty they had once been, a bounty that had sustained a village of people. Indeed, the irony of the situation was not lost on him.
The canoe continued to float down river while Joe lay powerless. Further and further he sailed away, unable to do anything but gaze up at the fiery sky, and wait for unconsciousness to overtake him. In a rare moment of serenity, he reflected on the past. He spoke aloud to himself in a soft and wilting tone:
“Regrets are something people should never leave upon their shoulders, but sadly it is what I leave upon mine. Elected as the leader of this land, I knew my responsibilities to my people, and stood beside them through every challenge the earth presented. However I failed them when the most horrific of challenges befell us. The drought brought with it great adversity, the likes of which none had ever experienced, and in its face, I faltered. When my people lost hope, I, too, lost mine. When they looked for an encouraging and forceful figure, they found only a fleeting illusion of hopefulness. When my villagers needed a voice, I was silent. I failed to be the man they needed me to---”
Joe’s words were quickly and harshly interrupted by the loud bang of his canoe crashing against a large river rock. The impact of the collision projected him through the air. He landed face first atop the rock, the rigid contours of the stone mercilessly scraping his face and elbows. His pain was deep, but he managed to turn himself over, only to be greeted with the mangled remains of his canoe. It was damaged beyond repair, and pieces of it had been flushed out into the river. Jolted by the course of events, Joe generated the necessary adrenaline needed to prop himself up to survey his surroundings.
Perhaps this is the old man’s rock, Joe thought with a twinge of hope.
Much to his chagrin, the old man was nowhere in sight. Alas there he sat, battered and bruised, stranded atop a rock in the middle of a scalding river, in the heat of a blistering drought without a trace of hope.
A THUNDEROUS SOUND arose in the near distance. It carried with it so much bass and depth the tops of the K-River were forced into a rippled frequency. That ripple soon churned the waters into a pounding and pulsing pool of white caps and wakes. The sound continued to thicken by the second, and the louder it grew, the stronger it felt. Trees began to rattle and sway, swiftly shedding their leaves. The livestock began charging about, frantically searching for cover, and the stone riverbanks began to crack and crumble under the water.
An earthquake, Joe thought, but then quickly realized this was no quake.
The myths and tales were true. Joe had heard the stories, but he had never seen him in the flesh. The trees now began to bend awkwardly and effortlessly as Rousty, the legendary great Bengal tiger pulverized his way across the plains of Kayland. With each long stride, he notched a hole in the ground three feet thick, leaving behind a debris-filled, smoky wake, and a village of astonished witnesses.
Rousty was no ordinary tiger. He was the rarest of breeds; a true freak of nature. On all fours, he was easily twenty feet in length and ten feet in width and girth, but if he stood on his hind legs, he was immeasurable. Rousty was a behemoth beauty of the animal kingdom. His coat was a burly, glowing orange, and broad, black pointed stripes were artistically positioned and blended across his immense body. An intense white hue colored the tips of his powerful, muscular limbs, and an incandescent yellow tint filled out the rims of his large, stalking eyes, which were quite possibly focused on a meal cowering atop a rock.
Rousty continued his charge across the plains with reckless abandon, and upon reaching the water’s edge, thrust himself powerfully yet gracefully into the air; a cloudless, teaming bluebird sky as his backdrop. It was truly picturesque.
An enormous splash ensued after Rousty landed on all fours in the river, shooting the steaming water up into the air like a volatile geyser. The force of gravity pulled the water back down to the earth, covering and coating the Bengel tiger’s muscular frame. When the last of the water finished its return, Rousty violently oscillated his body, drying his remarkable coat. As he whipped his body around, he glimpsed Joe.
Rousty’s trip to the K-River had affected his temperament. His movements had considerably slowed. He leisurely approached Joe, moving ever so slowly through the fevered currents, hunching himself close to the water’s surface. With each sleuthing step, Rousty grew ever closer, appearing larger and larger to Joe until he finally approached the rock upon which Joe desperately lay.
This was the defining moment of Joe’s life. As Rousty strategically positioned his colossal head above his own, Joe mustered all of his remaining strength, and looked up at this figure with utter amazement. The bridge of Rousty’s snout was wide and colorfully blended in varying hues of orange, the thick black stripes surrounding his eyes and mouth were masterfully aligned, and his long course whiskers were a stark pure white. He was indeed a living, breathing work of art.
Immaculate, sublime, and very dangerous, murmured Joe to himself.
Rousty let out a mighty roar, once again shaking his surroundings. He exposed his long, stout, treacherous canines, and then quickly snapped his mouth closed. On the verge of capitulation, Joe resigned himself to the inevitable. Rousty opened wide, and Joe’s world faded to black.
IT WAS EERILY DARK AND COOL. There was a pungent musty odor in the air, and the immediate perception of the present was quite contrary to the past. The here and now had an inviting, biting chill, unlike the feverish blister that had once been Joe’s reality.
What exactly is this place? Joe wondered. Is this life after death? Is this my new reality?
Before he could collect anymore of his thoughts, or even force open his eyes, a voice called out from the distance, “Wake up…Wake up!”
Not sure if he was in the present, or in the life thereafter, Joe inquired, “Who’s there?”
The voice did not respond, but instead its owner shook Joe by the tops of his shoulders to fully awaken him. Slowly but surely Joe was able to open the lids of his recently chilled eyes, but focusing them proved challenging. Eventually the image of the face that belonged to the voice came into vision.
“The old man? The old man from atop the rock?” Joe shouted.
“Indeed Joseph, it is I, Fabian,” he concurred. “Though, most call me The Wise Man. Please feel free to do the same. Fabian has such a sour ring to it, don’t you think?”
Awestruck, Joe replied, “Agreed. The Wise Man it is.”
As it turns out, he was not eaten by Rousty the great Bengal tiger, but rather rushed to safety by the beast. Unbelievably so, Joe had been carried a great and laborious distance within the refuge of Rousty’s ever expansive jaws to the great beast’s sanctuary—his den. It was truly unbelievable!
Rousty’s den was a cavern that began where the K-River ended. Over time, a small streaming layer of the river had eroded, exposing enough of the limestone bedrock for it to give way to a hollowed entrance. Once inside, the cavern tunneled down hundreds of feet below the bedrock. It was here, in the deepness of the cavern where the two men and the Bengal tiger safely resided.
The cavern had a mystical air to it. A small, narrow, yet powerful shimmer of light weaved its way all the way down from the cave’s entrance, softly illuminating and revealing the mastery of its interior. The eroded walls gave way to rigid but elaborate rock siding. In some areas, they were almost florid in design. The teeth of the cavern walls were treacherous, yet inviting—ingenious patterns had been etched upon them; masterpieces frozen in time. The air in the cavern glistened from a small, sprinkling of precipitation from a bending stream cutting along the cave floor. The stream had a bluish tint that metamorphosed to an emerald green as it ventured along to the dimly lit end of the cavern.
“Magic,” Joe whispered to himself.
“Not quite,” said The Wise Man. “It simply has to do with the absorption of light, and its connection to the minerals beneath the surface of the stream. But this on the other hand…” The Wise Man gently tapped his staff twice onto the base of the cave, “is something altogether different.”
What happened next was something that could not be as simply explained. In a timed succession, the unlit portions of the cave became softly illuminated, revealing more of the wondrous hideaway. This time, however, the light was not borrowed from the Sun’s rays, but by several classically crafted sconces lit by the summoning of The Wise Man’s staff. This new light blended with the blue and green hues that irradiated from the stream running along the cave floor. It was an enchanting scene, comparable only to that experienced when viewing the theatre of stars. The difference being that this milieu was in the here and now, whereas the galaxy of stars was billions of light years away. Weak and lightheaded from his injuries, Joe was in a euphoric state, mesmerized by what had just been revealed to him.
“Amazing,” Joe frankly stated. “This cave is just…”
A thunderous groan interrupted Joe, and the sconce at the cave’s far end revealed the source of the loud disturbance—none other than Rousty the great Bengal tiger.
His deafening snarl shook the cave to its core. The walls and ceiling violently pulsated for a short period followed by a torrent of dust and debris.
“Silence!” Bellowed The Wise Man.
Some of the soot began to clear as he gripped his staff tightly holding it high above his head. Rousty obediently reverted back into his corner dwelling, his beaming yellow-rimmed eyes squinting tightly and ominously in Joe’s direction.
“You would never have known that beast just carried me many a mile to safety,” Joe said.
“He is an ornery creature,” The Wise Man rebuffed. “He did a great deed, but it doesn’t mean he is generally fond of things.”
“Understood,” Joe amiably agreed.
The sconces had all been lit, and a cast of light unveiled a rowed section of the cave that was still gleaming and swirling with the most enchanting of synthesized colors. Rousty was lounging in a corner surrounded by a wealth of food. Cattle, hen, and chicken were among the vast array of livestock that Rousty had corralled to the cave from the plains of Kayland. The great Bengal tiger feasted on a raw slab of meat. It seemed impossible to believe that this pulverized patty had once been a cow peacefully grazing upon the village green. His large head jerked while he twisted and wrenched the deadened meal in his powerful paws. Within seconds there was nothing left of the poor cow but a measly flank of rib and a ripped portion of painted red snout, compliments of Rousty.
The Bengal tiger finished his meal, and proceeded to contently brood.
Joe watched in awe.
“It’s incredible,” he commented. “We are in the midst of a drought. My village has been hard-pressed to find food and cooler grounds, yet this lone beast has had the foresight to fend for himself, finding a richness of nutrients and a secure dwelling without help from a single soul.”
“Will,” The Wise Man uttered.
“Will?” Joe was seemingly confused. “I have will, and it has failed to help my village during this tumultuous time.”
“You had will, Joseph…but you lost it,” corrected The Wise Man.
The Wise Man took a step closer to Joe and crouched down beside him. Joe sat, propped up by the cave wall under one of the lit sconces. The wick of its inner candle cracked in his ear. The soothing tone of the stream below was the only thing that calmed him.
The Wise man continued, “I am here to help you find what has been lost, and to help you see that to which you are now blind.”
“Where are you from Wise Man?” Joe inquired.
“From a far away land, from a time other than your own. I drift through continents helping those who have lost hope. My life’s mission is to guide the lost toward the key to life.”
Joe sat dejected, “What is the key to life, Wise Man?”
“Belief,” he answered. “You know the word Joseph, but you must look deep within yourself to find its true meaning.”
At once, The Wise Man swiped his staff closely along the cave wall. A miraculous surge of intertwined colors followed in the wake of his motion, like a guiding ray. The heated embers forged the following into the rock behind them:
Belief in oneself is belief in others
With a rapid swipe of his staff, the words soon cooled and dissipated with a loud patter.
Joe could not believe what his eyes had just witnessed. He craned his neck to get a closer look at the words before they disappeared:
Belief in oneself is belief in others
When the cave wall resumed its original texture and grade, Joe implored, “Please Wise Man, explain to me your reasoning behind this magical proclamation!”
“Belief Joseph, can make the strong stronger and the wise wiser. It can also break those who are breakable. You must look deep inside to discover what it ultimately defines without looking past the simplicity of its definition. In this land, belief is anything and everything you and your people seek. Belief is the faith and confidence you lost in the midst of this drought, and that which your villagers lost in you. Fear has replaced faith, and the more you cling to this fear, the greater it becomes. Eventually you believe in fear so much, every challenge seems insurmountable.” The Wise Man paused momentarily, stroking his beard, then pointed at Joe, “That is what happened here, Joseph. The drought has gone on for so long that you believe it will never end. You fear it will never end, and with every passing day, that fear grows, trumping any glimmer of hope you and your people once possessed. I cast before you these words because you must shift back into belief mode before fear destroys all of you.”
The Wise Man rose up from the floor and once again swooned his staff across the cave wall. This time his motion was more forceful than before, and the tone of colors more vibrant. The same words appeared in its wake, but the characters were larger and crackling louder than before:
Belief in oneself is belief in others.
The Wise man turned toward Joe, the glow of the words flickering softly behind him casting a shadowy figure along the wall—reminiscent of the pictures cast upon a screen from an old movie projector, “You must believe that you can overcome this drought, Joseph. If you believe strongly enough, you can conquer the fear, this monster that has killed your faith. If you can do this Joseph, your people will follow in your belief, and together you will survive and find true conviction. Believe you will overcome this, and the fears will subside. Belief will become your greatest ally—your true strength over fear.”
The sizzle of the words once again cooled and vanished as swiftly as they had appeared. This new way of thinking filled Joe with a sense of empowerment, but he needed time for it to marinade. He gave The Wise Man a forced, accepting nod, and out of the corner of his eye caught a glimpse of Rousty, who was still crouched in a crook of the cave. Joe had forgotten the beast was there amidst all of the wizardry The Wise Man had been conducting.
Joe quietly laughed at the notion: forgetting about the hulking creature who had epically saved my life when he could have easily ended it.
Rousty behaved during The Wise Man’s remarks. He had not interrupted, but rather lay stoically silent, keeping his internal chaos in check. Perhaps he was aware of the magnitude of accounts that had been explained to Joe.
“It’s almost like he knows,” Joe said with wonderment.
“Maybe…it just may be…he does,” replied The Wise Man, his eyes twinkling.
Joe sat bemused with his eyes closed, nervously rubbing his fingers together before directing his gaze toward The Wise Man.
“I want to believe we can overcome this great obstacle, and perhaps we will, but the loss of my Annabelle is a mountain I fear I will never be able to climb,” admitted Joe. “I cannot see past her death. A great part of me died that day. It is an unforgettable void that cuts deep within my soul, and has come to define my every thought and move. I am afraid it has left a wound that will never heal.”
The Wise Man gently offered, “Your Annabelle is gone, Joseph, but do not allow her death to be for not. She loved you as you loved her, and she would not want to see you lose this battle, to lose Kayland. She would want you to believe that you can shift the energy of the villagers, and steer their spirits toward survival. Annabelle may no longer physically be here, but she can still help you. As long as she is still in your thoughts, she remains here with you. Look for her Joseph, and you may find all that you need.”
A singular tear formed on the lid of Joe’s eye; a tear born from the vast emotions now churning in his consciousness. An array of palpable memories of his time together with Annabelle flooded his mind—a touch of her hand, the warmth of a kiss, the feeling of safety when they held one another. It felt so real. With one blink, the tear left his eye, and ran along his dry, stained face. It was the first bit of moisture he had felt in seemingly forever. It was also the first bit of hope he had felt in many months.
“Where to now?” Joe inquired in a voice filled with faith and surety.
“We rest,” said The Wise Man. “You need to regain your strength, Joseph. The strength you have lost in these waning months must be restored, and your confidence must be renewed. It is integral you trust yourself. We will dine tonight on the livestock Rousty has provided from your village, and drink the clear, cool water from this cave’s stream. Tomorrow you will awaken a new and improved man, and we will voyage back into Kayland where you will address your people in the village’s town center.”
“Of what will I speak?” Asked a baffled Joe.
“Confidence,” answered The Wise Man. “You must instill a sense of confidence back into your people. Give them a reason to go on, and assure them together you can survive and thrive in this forsaken land. Fear not, Joesph, you will find the confidence to speak these words. Believe me,” said The Wise Man.
Joe fell silent. Could he really save his people and believe in himself? He rested his head on the cave wall, filled with thoughts of what had been and what would be….
THAT NIGHT THE WISE MAN effortlessly stoked a fire he had created from sticks and stones strewn about the cave. As promised, the men dined on the livestock Rousty had retrieved, and washed it down with the crisp water from the stream that sinuously flowed along the cave’s floor.
The Wise Man pointed to the ground, “The Emerald Stream, Joseph. Drink from its drenched vein, and you will be empowered by the richness of minerals and myths it harbors.”
“This stream is another power you set before me?” Joe questioned.
“Not quite. It has been here for eons. Look upon it as others before you have—as an enchanted boost you desperately need. Eat, Joseph. Drink, Joseph.”
Joe graciously did as commanded.
During their dinner, The Wise Man gave Joe a narrative; one Joe could take to heart or discard. The choice was his alone.
“Earlier I spoke with you at great length on the significance of belief. What I am about to share now is a tale passed down to me from many generations ago—a tale of the most unique of beliefs. Take from it what you wish, Joseph,” said The Wise Man in earnest. “You see, there are some on this earth that believe so strongly in themselves, in their capabilities, thoughts, and values, that they actually can distort their physical appearance through perception. They can make others perceive them as larger, stronger, and more powerful than they actually are—a veritable deception of the mind through the potency of self-belief. Only an extraordinary few have this capability, as it is a daunting and incredible feat to master, but such beings do in fact exist.”
“How do you know this to be?” Asked Joseph.
“I have witnessed some of these people in action,” assured The Wise Man. “This ability, however, can be used for whatever reason the beholder desires—good or bad, and for that of savior or sinister evil. The Wise Man paused before sharing the next bit of information, “These select few can be either of human or animal form, and are called The Mandis— the believers of all beliefs.”
Joe’s nerves had actually dehydrated him, baking his mouth shut and thickening his saliva. He drank down a large cup of water for replenishment then quickly refilled his cup from the crispness of the cool stream.
“You have now been presented with all of the facts,” The Wise Man continued. “We will rest here tonight, and at first light head back into Kayland.”
The Wise Man crouched down beside Joe, using his staff for balance.
“Only one thing left for you to do,” said The Wise Man.
With a forceful thrust he stood and wound his staff in a circular, methodical motion. Around and around spun his staff, quickening with each revolution. Slowly but surely his movements once again conjured the colorations, resembling a coronation high atop The Wise Man’s head. The colors became so vibrant they began illuminating the surrounding structures. The Wise Man cracked his staff of heavy hues in a whip-like motion toward the adjacent cave wall where Joe sat.
The colorations hurled their way through the air, smashing the sediments of the wall and evoking a large crushing blast.
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
The words forged upon the wall sparkled and snapped like fireworks in the night, narcotizing Joe, the soft glow of the words lulling him into a trancelike state. The Wise Man sought out a quiet corner of the cave. It was time for repose. The glow of the words had fallen dim, and Joe, still sitting along the cave wall, felt at peace. For the first time in a long time, his belly was full and his thirst was quenched helping to further lull him into repose. It had been a grueling day and his eyelids very heavy, but he desperately fought off sleep, wanting instead to calculate the day’s events.
As dim as the cave was Joe could still make out Rousty lying in his makeshift den in the far right corner where the light of the sconces cast the brightest light. Joe watched as the beast relentlessly tossed and turned himself, nestling his portly neck along the cave floor searching for the perfect position, which he eventually found. A completely contented Rousty opened his jaw wide enough to fit a village hut, then proceeded to emit a noise comparable to that of a large orca whale calling out for her lost young. In Rousty’s case, he was merely yawning.
Better than his growl, Joe thought.
With everyone now settled in for the night, Joe turned his attention to the languid emerald stream running below his feet. It emanated a very subtle soothing splashing sound as it casually wound its way around the cave. The absorption of the coined light that narrowly shone down during the day was beginning to radiate a beautiful cascade of green-hued rays that rose off the stream and coalesced into a smoky apparition.
More streaks began to ascend, amalgamating with the apparition that had begun to take shape a few feet above the stream. The figure appeared vaporous, cloudy, a bit out of focus.
Or, is it in focus, thought Joe. It’s gone….no…no...it’s there again. Is this really happening, or am I dreaming? Finally it took shape. It was a woman’s face. She is so beautiful. Her eyes are so green. Her scent is so reminiscent. It can’t be…it’s not possible!!! Annabelle.
“WAKE UP JOSEPH,” The Wise Man implored, tapping his staff softly on Joe’s forehead. “You were talking in your sleep. You’ve been out cold all night. It’s time for the journey to begin. Let’s go.”
Joe could not discern whether what had just transpired held a sliver of reality, or was simply a hallucinatory manifestation of his past. It felt real, but was it? It had been so long since he had shared any type of emotion with his Annabelle that at times he couldn’t remember what their shared emotion had felt like, but during those fleeting moments he had felt her, within reach. He had felt the love that they shared, and it overpowered him.
“We go now!” The Wise Man shouted, interrupting Joe’s thoughts.
Beast and man stood before him, ready to begin the all-consuming expedition back to Kayland, and to faith. Rousty squatted patiently alongside The Wise Man, saving the last bit of his primal vigor for the trek that awaited all of them. While Joe appreciated the Bengal tiger’s demure behavior, there was something strange about his appearance.
“He looks…ehh…smaller?” Joe observed.
The Wise Man offered, “Perhaps the only time you have had the good fortune of close proximity to him was atop that rock when you were nearing your own demise. You were weak at that point, and perhaps confused.” He slowly gestured toward the beast, miming a reveal, “I believe small is not the operative word for a creature of this sizeable mass, Joseph.”
“I didn’t mean…ehhh…he is small. Just that he seems to have shrunk a size,” Joe managed.
“Nonsense,” The Wise Man proclaimed. “Now, let’s head out.”
AND SO THE JOURNEY back to Kayland commenced. The Wise Man and Rousty had played their parts, fulfilling their roles of the two inspirers. Rousty had even gone so far as risking his own life to save that of another. It was now up to that other to save himself and his land. Whether or not Joe had enough belief and courage to make the quest and galvanize his people was immaterial at this point.
Refreshed, the trio ascended up and out of the cave speedier than they had descended. Upon reaching the plains of Kayland, they were quickly reminded of the power of the unbendable sun. It appeared softer than before, but that was an illusion. The lack of moisture resulting from the harsh heat of the sun permitted the strength of its rays to pound onto their skin without mercy. They could do nothing else but walk squint-eyed for the first mile.
Being removed for a single day from the oppressive heat and other unpleasantries that plagued Kayland was enough time away to be seemingly startled by them. The insects hiding in the trees that soldiered Kayland were buzzing, hissing, and clicking uncontrollably at a high clamorous pitch. They shielded themselves beneath the foliage in a last ditch effort of salvation. Their coalesced screams were unnerving and frantic, but understandable. It was their final cry for hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.
The breeze coming out of the north was meager at best, and seemed to further baste the temperatures, as it only served to slowly push around large chunks of heat. Nevertheless, the mere sound of that breeze helped Joe cultivate a state of calm. That subtle sound of the breeze rustling the leaves on trees had always provided Joe an escape from reality, but such escape was no longer possible. The sheer existence of the situation was enough to nullify all serenity.
The branches of the mangrove forest began to snap without any assistance. Some loudly detonated, succumbing to the pressures of the heat. As each branch burst it would fall, leaves and all, into the boiling riverbank. From their path around the K-River, the three travelers could see miniature plumes of dust emanating from this rare phenomenon. Kayland, for all intents and purposes, was giving in… the drought was winning.
Joe walked along, shaking his head and incredulously exclaiming, “I’ve never seen…I mean…I would have never believed this type of apocalypse could ever and would ever happen…especially in Kayland.”
These words resonated with The Wise Man, who was also now walking in a half-daze, “Life begins and ends throughout the course of every generation, Joseph. At times, it creeps away quietly into another existence, and at other times, it leaves in awe. What you are witnessing now is life’s final gasp for air, its final rush of adrenaline.”
THE TOWN CENTER FINALLY CAME INTO VIEW, and The Wise Man pointed to it, “That is where you will make your speech to your people.” He pointed again, “And there,” he said, directing his fingertip toward a small pulpit within the town center where a few survivors had gathered to pray, “Is where you will speak to those that remain. Upon that pulpit you will stand and instill the confidence they desperately need.”
Joe understood what needed to be done, the truth was, only those villagers possessing the greatest of hope and desire to live would survive the hard times that lay ahead. Taking charge, as leaders must, Joe led The Wise Man and the great Bengal tiger down the heated hill. It was somewhat steep, and angled in a way that required the group to rely on their heels for grounding and balance. Slowly and steadily they made their way, leaving behind the bangs and cracks of the destructing mangrove forest, a grave reminder that time was not on their side. The difficulty of the formidable task that awaited Joe was bad enough, but now the hands of time were moving in both a direction and at a speed that worked against him, against all of them.
“It can be done Joseph,” The Wise Man declared. “Believe.”
Joe’s heart began pounding full tilt. He could not discern if it was the gravity of the situation or the intense climate.
Detecting Joe’s anxiety, The Wise Man offered, “Feels like a monster inside of you trying to beat its way out, doesn’t it Joseph?”
Joe looked towards The Wise Man with a pained expression.
“Let the beast out Joseph, and you will conquer,” soothed The Wise Man.
The hill planed into a straightened stretch. The town center was only a few hundred feet ahead, and Kayland’s remaining villagers had already begun to fill the square. Muffled sounds of prayer could be heard, and beyond the hill, the K-River churned and boiled. A literal vapor of steam swirled into a corona over the water’s edge as the river further disintegrated.
No longer looking at what lay behind, the two men and beast made their way into the town center. Then suddenly…
An enormous shadow fanned over the square, leaving in its wake a sharp draft that nearly thrust aside the villagers.
The shadow appeared again, but this time it enveloped the square, and the violent gust of wind struck everyone to the ground. After the villagers recovered, there was a dead silence, and then…light.
High above in the sun-drenched sky a large sunless image began to careen downward, headfirst, in a death-defying dive. At first, no one could make out the shape of this ghastly figure, but as it plunged further downward, it began to take the form of a bird. Although it was still high above the earth, it was indeed a colossal, feathery creature. As the savage bird plummeted through the air at breakneck speed, it pinned its massive wings back alongside its dark body, but before crashing to the ground, it straightened its body to an upright position and let out two sharply tapered expansive wings. With a few quick thrusts of those incredulous wings, the being slowed itself, gracefully landing on giant talons. The crowd stood silent, awestruck with fear.
The Wise Man spoke one single word, “Fradarian.”
JOE GLANCED OVER at The Wise Man with disbelief, “You know this thing?”
The Wise Man explained, “Yes, we have met during my journeys across time. But Fradarian is not a thing, Joseph. He is a fabled entity, a member of the elite Mandis. He draws on the fears and anxieties of others in order to maintain his imposing, hateful projection.”
Imposing indeed, thought Joe, as he watched Fradarian thrust his stone colored talons deep into the burning soil, his dark chest bulging as he assertively pinned back his massive tapered wings.
Fradarian was a gargantuan jet-black hawk that stood four times taller than the ordinary man. The darkest of hues colored his bulky body clear up to his head, where his feathers glossed to an obsidian flare. If it was possible to delve darker into the color of black, it was managed at this point. You could literally lose yourself in the obscurity of darkness. If you stared into Fradarian’s dim brown-rimmed eyes, you would be met with cold grit and determination, their hauntingly black pupils churned slowly and evenly, a maze of pure hatred.
At first glance, Fradarian’s bill seemed out of place with its faded yellowish hue, but not to worry, the gloss of black reappeared at the bill’s tip, which was marked with scars from years of battle. It was impossible to imagine that any being could inflict harm on this evil death machine. However, life, as it always does, left a few scars as a reminder that none of us are completely invincible. Fradarian like every other living creature had his war wounds, and he wore them upon his beak which housed centuries of knowledge and maturity—the kind that guides one through the thickest of fog, and endures the most punishing of conflicts. Fradarian was a survivor, and he truly despised anyone and everything that figuratively and literally stood in his way. In this case, that anyone was Joe.
Fradarian stood between Joe and the gates of the Kayland Square, wherein stood those villagers who represented the hopes of Kayland. Behind Joe was what remained of his homeland: a smoldering heap on the verge of distinction. Joe anxiously scanned the area for The Wise Man, as he was no longer standing beside him, but Rousty and The Wise Man had retreated to the banks of the K-River, signifying that it was Joe’s battle to fight, and fight it he must, alone.
Sensing Joe’s desperation, The Wise Man stepped off the riverbank and walked slowly back to him, “Go forward Joseph, and you will restore hope. Be pushed back, and Kayland’s hope will be lost forever.” The Wise Man’s voice grew increasingly louder, “I willed you to this point, but my will ends here. Your shoulders will now bear your peoples’ fate.”
Upon finishing his words, The Wise Man retreated back to the water’s edge with Rousty following closely behind, laying down his guard. Both were anticipating Joe’s next move.
Fradarian’s massive vociferation pierced through the hills of Kayland. Joe, whose attention was focused on the Wise Man’s departure, was completely unnerved by the shrillness of Fradarian’s cry. Wanting to get away from the evil bird, Joe cautiously took a long step backward, but Fradarian took a longer step forward, toward Joe, his sharply wielded talons digging ever deeper into the earth, emitting a crumbling tone as they granulated the soil beneath. This process continued for what seemed to be an eternity—Fradarian advancing step by pulverizing step, and Joe attempting retreat. Then, something quite amazing began to happen. As Fradarian progressed forward, his size increased. His height amassed to an even higher elevation, and his body swelled to epic proportions. Fradarian had become an amplified extension of his former self, and the transformation had transpired in an instant. Emboldened by this feat, Fradarian let out a cry of victory.
The shrill of this howl was utterly deafening, and Joe attempted to cover his ears, but the thunderous shriek pierced through his hands like a determined arrow. His eardrums sharply and painfully vibrated, forcing Joe to the ground in crippling agony. From his hunched position, he could feel his auditory nerves beginning to numb. The sounds around him began to muffle. The ringing in his ears was relentless, and confusion soon enveloped him.
How could this be possible? Pondered Joe.
A voice called out from the distance. It appeared distorted, as his ears were in the process of readjustment, attempting to juggle the ringing and muffling sensations pulsating through his inner ear canals. It took a few moments to locate the frequency, but Joe eventually realized it was the voice of The Wise Man shouting from the river’s edge.
Realizing his first few attempts were futile, The Wise Man shouted once more. “Fradarian is feeding off your anxieties and fears, Joseph! Your despair is his drug! Remember the Mandis, Joseph, of which he is a part…the malevolent part! He will use your pain as power! The more you fear, the more he will grow! You must find calmness and confidence! Trust in yourself…believe!!!”
The Wise Man’s words had temporarily diverted Joe’s attention away from Fradarian, during which time the beast had progressed his course. The menacing creature now stood directly in front of Joe. Sensing his presence, Joe reverted his attention back to the foreground. Nearly twice the size, mass, and anger of his former self, Fradarian’s hulking image towered above Joe. He appeared deranged and demented, glaring at Joe with hatred and contempt. Joe’s expression, on the other hand, was void and blank. Fradarian had indeed fed off of Joe’s fear.
The bird had the upper hand, Joe lamented.
Fradarian’s wings had also grown in power and size, and one was cocked back and triggered. Upon impact, it propelled Joe off of his feet, hurling him through the air. How far he traveled was anyone’s guess, but the crash to the ground left an indentation on the hill, knocking Joe into unconsciousness.
WHEN JOE AWOKE he was no longer in Kayland, and the ground beneath him was cool to the touch. The landscape was stark, desolate, level, and vast. It was also green, but strangely void of trees, water, or life. Joe sat atop a river-rock, yet there was no river. The rock was eerily similar to the one The Wise Man had been perched upon when Joe first saw him. The sun here was bright, but not blinding, for which Joe was extremely grateful. The warm breeze that swirled around him was also comfortable in temperature, and its subtle noise soothed his traumatized ears. Joe realized that all of the elements surrounding him were simple and harmonious.
I am dead, he thought. I must be dead. What happens next?
THE DELICATE WHISPER of the warm breeze resonated softly upon Joe’s ears, as he watched a human figure emerge from the horizon. As the form moved closer, Joe could begin to surmise it was that of a beautiful woman. She was tall and slender, and the sheen of her light-brown hair wonderfully reflected the soft light illuminating her from behind. Unfortunately the soft glow of light concealed her facial features. Joe, however, could distinguish the shape. It appeared modest and perfect, but her eyes and nose were hidden by the glare. The glare began to subside as she moved closer, and Joe glimpsed the most alluring green eyes. It was Annabelle!
The rush of emotions flooded his mind and soul. He simultaneously cried and laughed, instantly filling the void in his heart and the pit in his stomach.
“My love!” He exclaimed.
She smiled in her signature delicate manner. It was so simple and angelic, illuminating all of her beaming qualities in one subtle and gentle motion. Overcome with affection, Joe reached in for an embrace. He closed his eyes, and opened out his arms, anticipating her soft touch, but when he closed his arms, he felt...nothing. Annabelle was no longer standing in front of him. She had literally vanished, the loneliness and the barren light was all that remained.
“No! No!” Joe bellowed. “Have I not gone through enough pain, enough suffering?” He thrust his fists down on the tops of his thighs, wailing inconsolably, “Why? Why? Why?”
His cries suddenly came to halt. Annabelle was now behind him. Joe, desperate and confused, turned to face his greatest love. He lifted his hand to caress her face, but quickly stopped himself, the realization washing over him that she was only an apparition, a fleeting illusion.
“ Am I in a dream, Annabelle?” queried Joe.
“Of sorts,” she began, “but you are not dead, just unconscious. It is not your time yet, Joe. In fact, at the moment, you are in the battle of your life.”
“But I cannot win this battle Annabelle, not without you. You were my everything, my life; without you, I have nothing.”
“It is true that I have passed on to another time, but I am always with you,” Annabelle promised. She touched his forehead, then his heart. “I am here, and I am here.”
She lifted up his chin so their eyes could meet, “I am always with you, Joe. As long as you believe and keep me in your thoughts, I will be with you forevermore. So, you can win this fight…with me. Go now, knowing that no matter how far apart our worlds are, we are always close.”
Annabelle reached in and sealed her words with a kiss. This time, Joe could feel her lips. They were so warm and gentle. The brilliance of every memory they ever had together enveloped his mind and his heart. He was once again whole.
“Go, Joseph. Your people need you. They need you to be brave. I need you to be brave. Believe in yourself, as I believe in you,” encouraged Annabelle. Her words and touch went far beyond mere encouragement, and her brief visit inspired him beyond measure. He was enlightened and emboldened, and his strength had been restored.
THE GROUND BENEATH his heals was warm again, and the air had returned to a thick mass of smoldering heat signifying he was in Kayland. Sitting upon the hill that Fradarian had cast him, Joe fought to steady himself. The sounds of the frightened villagers ringing in his ears, and the vibration of wretched beast’s massive talons crunching into the earth was impetus enough for Joe to arise.
The evil bird angrily stomped toward Joe, determined to finish the job. Feeding off of the momentum he had earlier secured, Fradarian’s size once again swelled with each thundering step. His mentality also underwent a transmutation. He was now completely unhinged, recklessly and wildly flapping his wings, his crazed eyes jostling around in his head like coins in a jar. The wicked beast could taste Joe’s demise, and his determination was set to a boil. He continued to rumble his way towards Joe, his steps increasing in frequency, leaving in his wake a plume of dirt and dust. With a full head of steam, he closed in for the kill. Cocking back a colossal wing to deliver one final blow, Fradarian heaved his ever-expanding body toward his victim…but this time, Joe was ready.
INSTEAD OF COWERING in fear, Joe cocked his own fist. His future now rested solely on instinct. Annabelle’s visit had changed the trajectory of his earthly course. Although unclear to him at the moment, he had a new set of ambitions, and one of them was to survive. Fradarian was a rogue comet, and he was headed directly for Joe. Thrusting his wing forward with an unbending force, the crazed bird descended upon his pray, unprepared for what await him. Without realizing what he was doing, Joe punched his cocked fist forward with the type of vigor he never imagined he possessed, and just like that, two polar powers converged.
Joe’s fist was swift to the task, enabling him to land the first shot of this battle. He walloped Fradarian’s right leg, shattering it in two. The deranged creature attempted to land on his left leg, but the awkward imbalance sent him tumbling uncontrollably, and finally hitting the ground with brutal impact.
Fradarian’s screams of pain matched the intensity of his screams of power, the shrill of his call violently echoing through the air. The villagers who had gathered in the town square stood in awed silence. Joe too, was in awe of his newly discovered powers.
AS FRADARIAN LAY CRIPPLED in agony, Joe stood above him trying to comprehend what had just transpired. He glanced down at his fist in disbelief, pondering how he could be capable of such power, but his ruminations were short-lived. A searing pain at the center of his core overtook him. His organs began to pulsate, his fingers stiffened, his shoulders pinned forward, and his blood began to literally boil. The peak of his pain, however, was centered in the pupils of his eyes.
What is happening? Joe wondered with terror.
Abruptly the acute pain dissipated leaving Joe completely numb. Then, as Fradarian had, Joe began to grow in all directions. He grew tall, he grew wide, and he did so with the greatest of strength and surety, quickly transforming into a mass of fury and keen instinct. Joe now stood many lengths and widths above his old self, but most importantly he stood ready for action.
Joe’s brain swiftly processed the phenomenon that had just occurred, and he immediately realized the gravity of his newfound physical prowess, “I am…I…I am…” stammered Joe in disbelief.
“…part of the Mandis, Joseph,” The Wise Man said, finishing his thought. He had moved in, and was standing beside a mystified Joe. “You have been all along,” The Wise Man continued. “The power of the Mandis lives in your heart and soul, and flows through your veins, but in order for it to surface, you needed to believe. Not only are you a part of the Mandis, Joseph, you stand above it. Every century or so, a chosen one is blessed with such unfathomable ability that he or she actually surpasses the Mandis. The chosen few who possess these skills are called the Mena. You, Joseph, are the Mena. However in order to retain this supreme status, you must always believe.”
Joe nodded. Everything that had transpired finally made sense, “I believe,” he declared with conviction.
“Then finish the job you were born to finish,” commanded The Wise Man before quietly stepping aside.
Only an empty indentation remained where the nearly defeated Fradarian had lain. In the few moments it took The Wise Man to explain to Joe the magnitude of his newly found talent, the vile creature had regained his strength, and was now standing behind Joe, seething with rage. Joe was not surprised by Fradarian’s rapid recovery. After all, he was part of the indestructible Mandis. Joe could feel the murderous beast’s warm breathe on the nape of his neck, and knew what was coming next.
Generating power from the hatred that still corroded his bitter soul, the malicious creature balanced himself upon his able leg, and plowed another dire blow against the back of Joe’s head. Unfortunately for Fradarian, the form of Mena was impenetrable, and his wing disintegrated upon impact. The depraved beast had never been in the presence of Mena; neither had Joe, for that matter, and the look of astonishment on both man and bird spoke volumes. Fradarian immediately realized who he was up against, and braced himself.
The loathsome creature knew he was no match for the Mena, and Joe’s senses were quick to feed off the presence of weakness, resulting in further bodily expansion. Fradarian was dumbfounded at the turn of events. Never for a moment, had the abominable bird imagined that he could feel vulnerable in any way, shape, or form. At the seemingly pace of light, Joe was evolving into a Herculean mass of epically unfathomable proportions, while the pernicious bird began to shrink. His fear of Joe had caused his self-inflated presence to narrow.
The moment had finally arrived for the newly formed physically impressive heap of power and good to destroy what remained of the black-hearted bird. With a hulking fist Joe powered a pulverizing blow, plunging a hole straight through the evil beast’s body. The bird squawked out a final wretched sound and then sunk over Joe’s shoulder. He retracted his arm, and Fradarian lifelessly fell to the ground. Good had prevailed over evil.
Lying helpless and defeated, the ire in Fradarian’s menacing black eyes began to dissolve away, until only an empty white remained within the dim brown rim that had once surrounded those diabolical black pupils. Without warning, as was customary in matters of this nature, something remarkable began to happen. Fradarian’s form began to rapidly shrink. The figure of the once seemingly invincible great black hawk had transformed into a common warm-blooded, egg-laying vertebrate, no larger than your average bird.
Joe reached down and scooped Fradarian’s inanimate body into his palm. On bended knee, he studied his eyes, and watched as the final bit of life left the malevolent creature’s physical form. Suddenly a shadow emerged over Joe’s shoulder. It was that of The Wise Man.
“Now you know all there is to know, Joseph,” he began. “Fear can be defeated, if you believe. The power, might, and size fear projects can be diminished, if you believe. If you believe, the projection of good has no boundaries.”
Peripherally Joe glanced something scurrying toward him in haste. Turning, he saw that it was a fuzzy, small domestic short-haired cat with a furry, rust-colored coat, a white puffy chest, and soft paws. Its tail was striped in the same warm rust coloring and ended in a pointed white tip. He jumped up into Joe’s other palm.
“And who might you be?” Inquired Joe of his fuzzy new friend. The cat let out a tiny purr and gently brushed up against Joe’s fingers.
“He doesn’t seem oddly familiar to you, Joseph?” Probed The Wise Man.
“Not in the least,” replied Joe.
The cat let out a minuscule, yet formidable hiss.
“No, it can’t be…” Joe said incredulously. “Is this…Rousty?”
“Indeed he is, Joseph,” The Wise Man said.
“But he is so…”
“Little?” The Wise Man once again finished Joe’s thought.
“Well, let’s just say that Rousty has let his guard down for the moment, so is appearing in his normal form. The Mandis does not discriminate against animals,” disclosed The Wise Man. “Rousty is part of the Mandis…the good part. He was one of your guides.”
As if on cue, Rousty jumped out of Joe’s palm, and headed toward the banks of the steamy K-River. Fradarian, on the other hand, was beginning to set into rigor mortis, so Joe released him down onto the warm grass.
“This creature,” The Wise Man proclaimed, gesturing toward Fradarian’s stiffened corpse, “was a representation of the great fear felt by millions of people throughout many realms for numerous centuries. For all intents and purposes, Fradarian was an insurmountable task, but one you have successfully completed by overcoming your fear through belief. You now believe in your abilities, judgments, courage, and strength, and your people, as a result of the awe-inspiring phenomenon they witnessed here today and through the leadership you will bestow upon them over the course of many years to come, will also rediscover their own beliefs. My work here is done.”
The Wise Man gave Joe one last reassuring glance, and then made his way toward the riverbank to join the short-haired cat who was playing in the heated grass. Placing his cloak over his head, The Wise Man led Rousty into the distance, the cat ebulliently shuffling around his feet. After a few steps the pair stopped, turned, and The Wise Man asked Joe one final question:
“How do you feel Joseph?”
Standing in the shadow of his own lengthy image, Joe turned the question over in his mind, then responded, “Tall…I feel…tall.”
The sky exploded in a thunderous clap, and the clouds quickly rushed in to form a beautiful grayish hue. The beloved rain had finally returned to Kayland.
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
What If Mary Had Chosen Otherwise
You see the oddest things at Christmastime in America. The bigger the city, the stranger the sights.
I was driving downtown to buy gifts for the family and enjoying bouquets of beautiful people bundled in big coats and colorful scarves. They were clustered on corners and shopping in good cheer amid petals of snow dancing in the sun.
One of the people was a beautiful young lady who had stopped to take issue with an old woman in a shawl picketing Planned Parenthood. The old woman was picketing on a motor scooter designed for the elderly. She held a sign bigger than she was and kept motoring back and forth. She was as resolute and granite-faced as my Aunt Polly who had been renowned for protesting any injustice she had perceived.
Saving the seals wherever human beings might be clubbing them to death had been very important to Aunt Polly. She left all of her money to an organization devoted to saving the seals.
On this day, however, the beautiful young lady who had taken issue with the old woman on the motor scooter was livid. She marched behind the scooter and yelled at the old woman, pounding her fist into her palm and screaming things I could not hear. The old woman appeared oblivious to the chaos in her wake. Maybe she was deaf, I thought, like my aunt. That can be an advantage when loud people disagree with you.
The letters on the sign were huge but I couldn't read them so I drove around the block and found a spot at the curb. It was then that I realized that the sign said, "What might have happened if Mary of Nazareth had been pro-choice?"
Now I understood why the young lady was ranting and raving and why the old woman kept motoring to and fro. At Christmastime in America people get excited, more so than usual.
When I got home I hid my packages and told my wife at supper what I had seen. I also told her that if Mary had chosen otherwise, I wouldn't have had to go shopping today.
That's obvious, she said.