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.
Letters From A Civil War Soldier
I was never a soldier but I helped one once. The how and the why of it I still do not understand.
There was a church down the road from the farm on which I grew up. Membership therein had declined to the point where the few remaining churchgoers agreed to disband and go the other Presbyterian church nearby. They voted to give the church ground and cemetery, consisting of two acres with a dilapidated hundred plus year old church and a likewise old manse to the township. This way the township would be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery and not the disbanding members. The township agreed to do so provided however that the old church and manse were torn down first.
That’s how I became involved in all this. Mr. McMinn, the richest church member had graciously agreed to tear everything down for all the lumber that he could salvage and agreed to clean up the mess. He hired me, since I lived just down the road, to help him salvage all the “good sticks” (the good lumber) therein and anything else of value.
I sometimes worked by myself after school and weekends but Mr. McMinn would randomly stop and check on me telling me what to save, how and where to stack it, what not to bother with, what to throw out, what to burn, and generally boss me around.
He thought a lot of himself as he farmed a substantial amount of ground and a had a couple of small businesses on the side. Money was everything to him.
He gave me precise instructions on how to remove the wainscoting in the house.
“Antique people pay big money for old wainscoting,” he informed me.
And that’s when it happened. As I removed some wainscoting I saw what appeared to be two
letters stuck to the wall that must have fallen in the a crack between the wall and the wainscoting years ago. They were very old looking, yellowed, wrinkled and appeared somewhat water stained. Just then I heard Mr. McMinn grind his old stick shift to a halt. Before he get out and to the manse I impulsively jammed the letters in the inside pocket of my farmer’s jacket and quickly zipped it shut. I knew that if he saw them, he would demand that I hand them over to him and probably say, “People pay big money for old letters. Give them to me.” I don’t know why I did what I had just done but somehow I felt those letters were meant for me, not him.
“How’s it going?”
“Looks like you’re doing a good job on this wainscoting. I should get big bucks for these pieces. Let’s load these in the truck and I’ll drop you off at home. It’s getting cold and late.”
That night in the privacy of my own room and unbeknownst to anyone I examined the letters.
One had been opened. The letter was inside. The envelope was addressed to Mary McQuaid, Orion, Illinois. The return address was unreadable, but it looked like it might be an army address
of some kind. A penny postage had been cancelled and a date of 1860 something was stamped
through it. I gently removed the letter as though it were an ancient sacred document of some unknown origin waiting to be discovered and interpreted. The ink had run and faded but it was readable in that elaborate cursive style of the 1800’s. The paper, yellowed and wrinkled, made those little crinkling noises as I ever so carefully straightened it out. I remembered that there’s a Mary McQuaid and a George McQuaid buried right here in the cemetery and that there’s still McQuaids in the area. In fact the Frank McQuaid family had lived in the old manse right up to a couple of weeks before we started tearing it down. They moved to Sherrard a few miles from here. I wondered if I should give it to them. But I decided no and began to read.
I know that you didn’t want me to join the army. I know that you think this war is senseless and stupid and a waste of life. I know that you grew up in Kentucky, that your family owned slaves and saw nothing wrong with slavery. But after Pa died you married Reverend George, surely you knew you would have to leave Kentucky and go north with him to his people and church in
Illinois. You knew he was a man of God and an abolitionist. I’m sorry if I agree with him and not you but this is a wrong that must be righted. Slavery is an abomination, a crime against one’s fellow man. It can not be permitted.
Mother I’m a man now but I realize to you that I will always be your little boy. After Tommy died I’m all you have left and I know that you don’t want to lose me, that you couldn’t bear the loss of your only remaining child, but if you could find it in your heart to forgive me it would bring me great comfort and relief for we will be going into battle soon and I want all to be patched up and made right between us if I should meet with a terrible fate.
I stopped. I was starting to cry. A couple of my tears now dotted the letter and mingled with the tear spots of his mother. I read on.
I have made a new friend, Henry Fielding from Ohio. We have made a pact. If either of us should die in battle, the other is to write the survivor’s family and relate how we died a brave heroic death for the cause of freedom for all. We march, we stop, we muster, we fall in, we fall out. I don’t even know where we are. We just follow orders and wait. I’ll be so glad when the fighting starts and we can get our first battle under our belts. I so desperately need to test myself.
Please mother I beg of you. You don’t have to agree with me but would you please acknowledge my right to make my own decisions. I am not your little boy anymore but your young man.
Please let all be forgiven between us.
Your loving son, David.
I wiped my tears and thought to myself, I should not have read this. It’s personal, very personal. I had no business intruding into this family’s life no matter how old the letter.
The other letter laid before me. It was unopened. It was addressed to Pvt. David Brown, obviously her son. A smeared address appeared with numbers of an army unit and some post
office box in Washington D.C., the stamp was on it but it was never mailed. No way would I open this. Her unknown response was sealed forever. But why didn’t she mail it? What if it was
her letter of forgiveness? The letter that would have made everything right. I had to make up for
my intrusion, my transgression somehow. I would mail it even though I knew it would accomplish nothing except for me to redeem myself and remove the temptation to open it.
Of course I couldn’t put this letter in our RFD mailbox for Mr. Burgess our mailman to pick up.
He would want to know what this was all about. I would mail it tomorrow from Orion in a communal box when I went to the library on a school project. And I did.
Then a about a week later on a Saturday morning I was working alone at the manse. I saw
Mr. Burgess pull up to the McQuaid mailbox that was still there. He honked and signaled me
“Do you know where the McQuaids moved? I’ve got this really old looking letter for a Mary
McQuaid. At least that’s what it looks like it's says,” he said as he handed me the letter for my
perusal. It looked old and exactly in the same condition as the first two that I had found. Is this a
third letter? Another letter from son to mother?
“They moved to Sherrard.”
“Well I’ll have to forward it. Take another week to get there.”
“I should see the McQuaids at Beulah Church tomorrow. I could give it to them,” I stammered. I wanted that letter.
Mr. Burgess hesitated and then said. “ Well alright, I know that I shouldn’t do this but you deliver it, what the heck, after all you’re a Boy Scout and scout is trustworthy,”
Mr.Burgess was my scoutmaster and I was almost an eagle.
But I wasn’t trustworthy. I couldn’t resist. Why give it to the McQuaids, even if these Civil War McQuaids were the ancestors of the now Sherrard McQuaids. They wouldn’t understand what
was going on. They wouldn’t care about this like I did.They’d probably want to know more and I
didn’t want to explain. They’d probably just throw it away anyway. This was my doing. I started it. I was entitled to finish it. This letter was meant for me I rationalized, not them. So I, the trustworthy scout, opened it that night and read it.
Dearest Mother: Got your letter yesterday! What a relief! It means so much to me that we have
patched up all our differences and that all is forgiven between us, and especially so now that we have gone into battle today for the first time. Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that this is not my
handwriting. I am dictating to Henry for you see today I have fallen in battle. I have been shot in a couple of places and poked through to the hollow with a bayonet. Do not bring my body home for burial as part of this battlefield is to be dedicated as a national cemetery and I wish to rest here with my fallen comrades. I love you so much mother. I could not have had a better mother.
Thank you for your blessing and forgiveness. Tell George I love him, to keep up his work and that I have not died in vain. Give my meager worldly possessions to the church. I …..
Mrs. McQuaid it's me Henry. Your son has just passed. You raised a fine young man. He was so proud of you and always spoke highly of you. You should be proud to have a son who was willing to stand up and fight for and die for his principles. I know that I am honored and proud to have had him as my best friend. Today he saved my life, twice. I will see that he is buried in this
hallowed ground and send you his few possessions. You have my deepest sympathies.
I looked down at the letter. Like the first one now the last one was also tear stained.
Like I said the how and why of it I do not understand.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.
T F N
I guess I was no more than five or six when my father sat me down on the first Saturday in May to watch the Kentucky Derby. He was in one of his frequent pedantic moods and determined to explain the whole business to me, from the antebellum lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home” to why the man with the long bugle wore a red coat to what odds like 7-2 meant. He was a schoolmaster by profession and it was rare that he went off duty at home. He was big on Learning Experiences and on the lookout for Teachable Moments. My mother wasn’t like that at all; still, she seemed to find my father’s earnest parenting endearing, perhaps because it was so seldom practical, like hers.
The big horses with their tiny, colorful riders were being slowly paraded to the starting gate, almost all escorted by more commonplace, but still pretty, horses ridden by bigger, less tense people in comfortable clothes on larger saddles. Western saddles, my father pointed out. He explained that it wasn’t the jockeys who needed the company but the three-year-old thoroughbreds who needed calming from their stablemates, which sounded to me like playmates. I knew better than to raise questions but I didn’t see why they both couldn’t use the company— the jockeys and the horses. After all, they must all have been jumpy with this big race ahead of them. Even then I thought like that. Typical.
The TV commentators focused on each of the contenders in turn. They spewed information about the horses, the horses’ parents and records, their riders, trainers, owners, home stables, how much moisture they liked on a track, and, of course, the odds on whether they’d win the race. These men knew so much that, for a while, my father gave up and I could just look. One of the three-year-olds had gleaming shanks and long, graceful legs. This animal was so beautiful even the jaded track commentators had to lower their voices and admire; he was that majestic. They referred to the horse as a chestnut gelding. My father didn’t say anything about what gelding meant but did explain that chestnut was the horse’s color, a rich, deep, glistening brown that was more-than-brown.
This was the memory that came back to me when I walked into Rheinach Hall the first week of my senior year and caught sight of Diane Victoria Mulhorn’s hair. It was that same, magnificent, riveting color, chestnut. I was sufficiently enlightened to be aware of the sin of objectifying a female—worse, only a part of one. Freud might have designated my susceptibility to long hair as an instance of trichophilia or hair fetishism, but I didn’t care to analyze my feelings or speculate on their origins. My attraction was simply a personal fact, like my being a white, American, and male. I gave no thought to how hard it must be to care for such hair, to wash, dry, and brush it, to carry it around all day knowing people noticed it and some of them must want to touch it, how such a magnificent mane could be a spur to both vanity and self-doubt. I hadn’t yet any idea what was under that hair but love is a close cousin to curiosity: attraction turns into the wish to delve. The nascent scientist admires the butterfly, its flight, its iridescent colors, and is driven to find out how the wings work. Love and science both want to penetrate. “Even in the desire for knowledge,” wrote Nietzsche with a wicked smile under the big mustache, “there is a drop of cruelty.”
It’s been more than six years since I ignored the opening lecture of the Law and Society course because all my attention was focused on Diane Victoria Mulhorn’s hair. Neither of us was taking the class out of interest, but to fulfill a new requirement in something called Social Consciousness. I was getting my degree in Philosophy. My Legal Studies minor was meant to deflect some of the ridicule attracted by my major. Diane was a double major, and her two concentrations were in my opinion ill-matched: History and Public Relations.
Her hair was long, straight, glossy as the thoroughbred’s, and I could almost feel it, as if my eyes were fingers. Does it mitigate my crime that I stared with reverence rather than lust? Or that, after falling for her hair, I did the same with the rest of her?
Diane broke it off with me three weeks before graduation. What if we’d made it to commencement? Would we then have commenced hand in hand down the same rose-strewn path? Maybe then we wouldn’t have commenced down our separate, stonier ones. I doubt another three weeks would have made any difference.
After the bust-up, I threw myself into finishing my senior thesis, less out of diligence than obsession and grief. During the day I managed fairly well but almost every night brought another welcome/unwelcome dream. The meaning of some was all too obvious but others were ambiguous, obscure: Diane as a nurse, teacher, go-go dancer; Diane furious, friendly, indifferent, cruelly teasing. I can still remember two dreams in which she spoke French, a language she didn’t know but I did.
It was thanks to knowing French that I found a summer job as a research assistant. Professor Kardin was writing a book that had a long section on Samuel Johnson’s parliamentary reporting. He explained why this was tricky. Dr. Johnson seldom attended the debates, preferring to make up the speeches in a coffee house. In those days there was no official record against which to compare Johnson’s version of things. When Professor Kardin and his wife visited Paris that spring, he’d hit on a brilliant idea of how to get an objective account of what was actually said. The French would, of course, have been keenly interested in what the Whigs and Tories were saying to each other. He went to the Quai d'Orsay and, thanks to the influence of a colleague at the Sorbonne, secured a microfilm of letters written by the French hireling who attended parliamentary debates and took notes. With a laugh, he said that the spy’s letters were still marked “Classified”—thus the need for the well-connected colleague and the concealable microfilm. My job was to translate the letters. The Frenchman’s elegant handwriting was as admirable as his inventiveness. Every one of his reports to Paris concluded with a novel way of asking for more money.
The summer felt interminable. I took long bike rides and went home for the July Fourth weekend. My friend Bill invited me to his family’s L. L. Bean summer house in Maine for an August weekend. It was a matter of killing time, earning a little money before I began post-graduate study, and not thinking too much about Diane Mulhorn.
I’d gotten into a good Ph.D. program and, charged with displaced energy, unwilling to pine, I resolved to get my degree in record time and then become an adult. When September came that’s just what I did. I finished my course work and then the thesis so rapidly that the faculty seemed more suspicious than impressed. And then I found a publisher. I never expected to hear from Diane Victoria Mulhorn again, certainly not because of a tome on a subject unpopular even with experts in the field.
My monograph is typical of its genre, the revised doctoral thesis aimed at the elusive security of tenure. The editor at the university press that took the manuscript at the urging of my thesis advisor (bless him) insisted I write a new introduction, cut down on the footnotes, replace the and in my original title with the standard academic colon. So the book’s called Trivalent Logic: The Uses of Subversion. When Bill said it sounded pretty dry, I told him that the title sounded even more repulsive in German: Dreiwertige Logik: Die Verwendung von die Untergrabung. It will be at least a year or probably two before the thing’s formally reviewed, if it’s reviewed at all. But it has been listed on Amazon. That’s how Diane learned of it and broke the radio silence of half-a-dozen years during which the scab formed, hardened, and was picked off, six years in which I secured a doctorate, a job, and a publisher. Also, I married Delia Decairie.
Delia grew up in Atlanta and came north because her father insisted she get a Yankee education. We met at a party thrown by a couple just the obverse of ourselves: Susie was the academic, Dick the business type. Delia had stayed in the north, taking her business degree and herself to a job with Bank of America. That I had a Ph.D. in philosophy made me exotic in her eyes rather than ridiculous; I suppose her MBA did the same for me. Curiosity again, delving, then blooming. After all her years in Yankeeland, Delia doesn’t have much of an accent left; however, her diphthongs do tend to lengthen when she gets emotional—seductive, angry or, especially, jealous. I’ll be keeping Diane’s email to myself.
“Hello, Ferguson,” Diane’s email begins. Ferguson. This was her final nickname for me. There had been others but they were endearments. Ferguson was a reference to an old joke I told her about a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who, commanded by a uniformed immigration officer to give his name, is terrified and mumbles “ikh fargesn” and so got himself renamed Ferguson on the spot. Diane didn’t call me Ferguson to remind me of things I’d forgotten but that I forgot important things.
“Congratulations on the book,” she writes. “The bio note on the back says that you’re an assistant professor and married, so congratulations on all that, too. I presume the book’s your dissertation. At a whopping $176.95 a pop, I don’t imagine the press anticipates it’s going to sell like hotcakes. And there’s no picture on the cover, just words. I bought it anyway, for sentimental reasons. It arrived today and I’m almost up to the introduction. I notice there’s no dedication. Is that because you forgot, Ferguson? You really ought to have dedicated it to somebody; I once read it’s bad luck not to. You should have dedicated it to your wife. Or maybe to me. After all, didn’t I teach you a little about subversive logic? In my fashion?”
There was a lot more than chestnut hair to admire about Diane Victoria Mulhorn, to wonder at. Here’s a handful of adjectives (in alphabetical order): ambitious, complicated, contrary, decisive, elusive, exasperating, exciting, gorgeous, insecure, intelligent, kind, sexy, sweet, tough. As I say, lots to be dazzled by but—no use denying the facts—it started with the fifty minutes I spent staring at the back of her head.
What to do after those fifty minutes? I needed to find out if she had a serious boyfriend. We were seniors; for all I knew, she might be married. But if she was approachable, how was I to go about it? I wasn’t any less shy than I’d been in high school and just as undistinguished in the dating department. Beauty simply scared me. That chestnut hair was as intimidating as it was attractive. Both at once. One because of the other.
I conducted some research of the junior-high variety, putting feelers out to my little network. Nobody knew anything about her first year; reports said she’d dated a lot her second year but there’d been nobody serious. In her junior year, though, there was a long-term boyfriend but the relationship apparently didn’t survive spring break.
You’d think there’d be nothing easier than to strike up a conversation with a classmate. What couldn’t you ask about Law and Society? Can you have one without the other? Did you think the lecture on privacy could have used more examples? Why don’t we hear more about how society writes its laws or who pays for them? Easy, but still, I couldn’t pull the trigger.
About once a week I had dinner with my freshman roommate Mike, a pre-law student masquerading as an English major. Over one of these meals, I began on my problem with D. V. Mulhorn. It was embarrassing. He laughed at me and said that I talked about this girl the way philosophers do about their arguments; that is, in a lot more detail than anybody wants. “Love turns people into bores,” he teased. “You, anyway.”
“Thanks very much,” I grumbled.
“Look,” he said, “that hair of hers?”
“You may think her perfect, superlunary, of virtue all compact and so on; but, in my experience, girls with hair like that care about it quite a lot.”
“You think a woman who doesn’t care about her hair is—what?”
“A trivial woman? Oh no. Nope. All I’m saying is that she’s aware of her hair and its effect on guys like you. I’m not saying she’s vain or that she grew it that long just to get attention. But what do I know? I certainly don’t know her. But then you don’t either. Who’s the trivial one, a woman who prides herself on her hair or a man who’s obsessed with it?”
“Obsessed? You think I’m obsessed?”
Mike shrugged. “Look, you want to get closer to her, take a risk. Compliment what drew you to her in the first place.”
“And how do I do that without looking like a superficial oaf?”
“That presupposes you aren’t a superficial oaf.”
The next night Mike came to my dorm room with a Xerox of W. B. Yeats’ poem “For Anne Gregory”. I didn’t know it was famous but I could see why it deserved to be. Where Yeats had written yellow, Mike had crossed it out and penciled in chestnut:
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow chestnut hair.
“Give it to her. And do it with a sheepish grin; you’re a natural at sheepish. What’ve you got to lose apart from self-respect which you don’t have much of anyway? Besides, you’ll find out if she’s got a romantic streak and a sense of humor. And, I’m guessing, if she’s. . . you know. . . interested.”
I thought it was a cheesy idea and, if I’d known how famous the poem is, cheesier still—derivative and high-risk. Also, over the last century the poem’s message had grown ambiguous, maybe even offensive. So I put it away in a drawer. I did eventually give it to her though, once we’d become an item, enclosed with the silver and turquoise bracelet I bought her for Christmas. She glanced at the poem and smiled indulgently/ruefully, then said that if I’d given Yeats to her in September she’d have sent me packing, pronto.
I had no problem talking with Diane about her history courses but there was some abrasion over public relations. It’s sophistry, I’d say. Ever hear of the real-world? she’d reply. Reality? PR’s all about illusion, I’d scoff, and she’d taunt me with cynicism: Reality, illusion—what’s the difference? It’s making a bad cause look good, I’d classically accuse. You get to dress well and it pays, she’d point out. I’d try flattery: PR’s beneath you. And it’s so incredibly easy to get an A, she’d crow.
Inevitably, she wearied of defending what she was studying and took to mocking what I was, singling out my favorite class for special ridicule. I’d been mildly interested in the required symbolic logic course I took as a sophomore and so I talked my way into a graduate class on advanced logic and got hooked. At the end of the second week I persuaded the professor to let me write my senior thesis for him. For me, advanced logic was the intellectual equivalent of chestnut hair. And, like any addiction, it came with consequences.
In our last semester Diane was kicking back while I was buckling down. She wanted fun and attention; I wanted to work. So, we fell out of sync. That’s the simplest and least disturbing hypothesis about what doomed us—doomed me, anyway.
It was on February 15 that she first called me Ferguson. I’d forgotten Valentine’s Day.
I tried to defend myself but I had an ass for a lawyer. “That was very, very bad,” I admitted. “But I remembered your birthday and Christmas. At least.”
This argument was met with an icy stare from the bench.
“Hearts all over campus, candy in every shop, flower stalls on the corners. The whole world’s shouting that it’s Valentine’s Day and you still forgot. Christmas? You don’t get any credit for Christmas and, as for my birthday, I reminded you about it three times.”
I tried to atone by taking her to a new French restaurant, the most expensive place I could think of. But just a week later I forgot to ask how her European history midterm had gone. Ferguson.
It got worse—that is, I got worse. I missed our “six-month” anniversary, neglected to text her even once over the long weekend she spent with her friends on the Jersey shore, failed to notice that one of her favorite novelists was reading on campus. A disinterested observer might conclude I was just heaping up straws until I got to the last one.
It was mid-April and we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a week. I’d been working flat out on the thesis but, when I came up for air, I missed her the way a diver misses sky and sun. I got up early on Saturday and put off phoning for as long as I could, which wasn’t long at all.
“You woke me up,” she declared without either rancor or interest.
“I want to see you. Need to.”
“That so? Okay. You can buy me a gigantic latte at Renzo’s in like half an hour and then I’ll tell you a story.”
She’d put on jeans and an old, stained sweatshirt. Her hair needed washing; it was flat, stringy. I’d never seen it like that before and, with a jolt, realized this was because she didn’t care. A bad sign. She rubbed her eyes and took a big gulp of latte.
The story was about her parents. She hadn’t told me much about them and I hadn’t asked. Logic notwithstanding, I was one of those romantics who imagine that the objects of their affection floated in from the sea on a half-shell, born the moment they’re first seen. If I thought about Mulhorn mère et père at all it was simply as abstract parents: middle-class, standard-issue, essential yet insignificant.
The story began without any preamble.
“My mother was dentist. She practiced for years and years and made a good income, more than my father. He’d trained as a social worker and burnt out fast. As a teenager his hobby was collecting coins. He subscribed to numismatic magazines and enjoyed looking through them the way other boys did Playboy, I suppose. He did a little trading, nothing much. At some point Dad decided that he liked silver dollars more than his desperate clients—the poverty, messed-up kids, the drugs and crime and hopelessness. So he quit his job and set up as a coin dealer. Mom ran the house, did the disciplining, cooked, shopped, cleaned. Dad was much happier and busy in a good way, always on the phone or the computer, going off to coin dealer conventions. It was funny in a way. He was immersed in money but didn’t make much. I suppose the old coins were like works of art to him. He left more and more stuff for my mother to do—the bills, the insurance, their social calendar, dripping faucets, peeling paint. ‘You take care of it,’ he’d say blithely. And Mom did take care of it. All of it. At dinner he’d talk about his day with enthusiasm and never ask about hers. Looking at coins was interesting; looking into mouths was disgusting. At some point—maybe after he’d forgotten their anniversary—she stopped telling him much of anything.
“One afternoon while Mom was fixing dinner and I was doing my algebra homework, Dad opened the local newspaper and read that real estate taxes would be going up five percent. According to the article, this was because the town manager had proposed the increase at a council meeting and argued for it so forcefully—the starving schools, the potholed roads—that they gave in, almost unanimously. ‘Who’s this town manager?’ he demanded. And that’s how he found out.”
I saw where this was going. I could tell Diane wasn’t about to point out the moral for me.
“Your mother was the town manager?”
“She’d quit being a dentist and didn’t mention it to him?”
“Come on. You’re exaggerating.”
She leaned back—that is, away from me.
“Freud had this theory,” she said.
“I thought you despised Freud.”
“I do. I mean, penis envy. Right. But that doesn’t mean I think he’s necessarily wrong. About everything, I mean.”
“So you pick the parts you like?”
“Of course I do. I pick the parts that’re right.”
I thought this over and said, hesitatingly, “So you think you like me because I remind you of your father but now you’re raking me over the coals for being like him?”
She sipped her latte. “Maybe.”
I threw up my hands.
“I’m a person, a woman,” she said, “not a logician. Don’t go looking for consistency in all the wrong places.”
I thought the story about her parents was improbable, invented or at least dolled up, but knew better than to say so. I took another tack. “You’re proud of your mother, aren’t you?”
“More proud than of your father?”
“I’m proud of my father too. For other things.”
“Other than what kind of husband he is, I suppose?”
“I told you. Mom did discipline. What Dad did was unconditional love. He had the time for it. He’s a perfect father, up to a point. But everybody’s everything only up to a point.”
I foolishly tried a weak joke. “Did he remember your birthday?”
She replied sharply. “He always does. And without any reminders.”
I thought I got the point. Diane Victoria Mulhorn would not be marrying an inattentive man, one like her father, or me. Even unconditional love wasn’t enough.
“And so? I’m not forgiven, am I?”
She sighed, exasperated and/or resigned. “If there’s such a thing as a confirmed female bachelor then I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m going to be.”
Exasperated and resigned. Despising and adoring her father. Admiring her mother and rebelling against her. Vain about her hair and indifferent to her appearance. Fascinated by the historian’s inquiry the truth, drawn to the public relations expert’s dexterity in falsifying it. Attracting, repelling. A person, not a logician.
And which was I? Both? Neither? Something else?
Trivalent, or Three-Value, Logic undermines classical logic by adding to its two values (true or false) a third (neither). T, F, and N. Diane Victoria Mulhorn isn’t wrong; she really did teach me something about it. She taught me that N can mean any number of things.
N can mean “I haven’t got a clue.”
N can mean “Perhaps.”
N might mean “not defined.”
N could even mean “nonsense. . . arrant poopwhistle!”
N can mean “both true and false, a little of each.”
N can mean “one or the other” (“Amanda isn’t nice but she’s not nasty either”).
N can mean “not knowable” (“What was there before the Big Bang? If there’s an all-powerful, all-loving God, why are these children getting slaughtered?”)
Introducing N into classical logic disrupts its purity, saturates it with uncertainty, sows contradiction, paradox, confusion. Introducing N into classical logic renders it unserviceable by drawing it nearer to the way things actually are. Still, nobody likes it. Even the cybernetic geniuses haven’t found a use for it.
Diane’s email concludes this way:
“You’ll be horrified to learn that I’m not only working in public relations but have turned out to be rather good at it. In fact, I’ve just opened my own outfit. Good client list, four employees, all nice, smart kids. No philosophy majors. I do a lot of pro bono work to make up for the pro nobis kind. I’ll assume you haven’t Googled me, even though I’ve Googled you. So, click on the link below to see what my hair looks like these days and the stuff under it.
“PS - My mother retired to take care of my father full time. Dad’s forgotten almost everything.
“As for me, I remain a confirmed female bachelor. Am I happy? Happy in my unhappiness, never lonely in my solitude? TFN. How’s that for an answer, Professor?”
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Kris Whorton has called the South her home since the late 90s. She currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the University of Tennessee. Her fiction has been published most recently by Driftwood Press where she also served as a guest fiction reader. She currently reads for Indianola Review. She has also published poetry with American Muse, Facets-magazine, and Pinball Publishing, and her Creative Non-Fiction has been anthologized.
Three Greek Words
In Amsterdam we get stoned and end up back at our boat hotel’s tiny room with bunk beds. One minute we’re just inside the door, laughing and lurching because of the mild rocking of the boat, and then we’re on a bunk together and Peter is on top of me. We’re not laughing anymore and Peter says, “Christina,” and kisses me and I kiss him back. It’s almost chaste, a closed lip kiss as though neither one of us is sure what we’re doing. We’re friends, have been for years, through high school and now our last summer before college graduation.
We kiss again and again and fumble to undress each other, quickly. We’re laughing and kissing in the cramped space of the lower bunk. Then we’re naked, or nearly so. I still have my underwear on, but his body is against mine. It is odd, wrong, and horrible in the way nudity is between people who should never see each other naked. But we don’t stop. My brain and my body can’t decide what they want. Here is skin against skin, smooth and unknown, but the room is too close; there’s no air, no window to open, just a tiny porthole revealing black sky. We work together, get my underwear off and the moment things should stop goes forward until he is inside of me. At first I am too surprised—in the moment my brain remembers it is Peter—and I start to laugh, an almost choked sound, but the rocking of the boat or us moving makes me sick. His face is in my hair, he’s kissing my neck, gently biting, tongue in my ear, and I can’t think. Then he pulls back just enough so he can kiss me on the mouth again or just look at me, but I don’t want to see him, not above me, not with the expression of joy and something more, maybe gratitude.
Maybe it is the pot thinking for me, making me think instead of just feeling. His hands move over me with tenderness, as though I am a rare piece of marble he can’t believe isn’t flesh and my body betrays me, hungry as it is for release. I pull him deeper into me because right now it doesn’t matter who he is; all I want is the waves of my body letting go.
And after, when he falls asleep on me and slips out, I edge my way out from under him. What have I done I think as I feel around the floor to find my underwear and bra, then my shirt and skirt. Still dizzy, I climb to the top bunk. His bunk. The porthole faces the harbor and all I can see as I fall into a woozy sleep is blackness and white lights in the distance. Out there is nearly endless sea, and a place I could be away from him and the morning.
When I wake up he is watching me sleep. “Breakfast?” he asks with false ease. I’ve seen him do this before when he’s unprepared for something.
“Coffee,” I say. “I feel like shit.”
He agrees and I climb down, groaning. He embraces me as though he’s helping me stand in the small space, but I’m not ready for the too long press of his body against mine, the vulnerability in his eyes and I fake smile, lips pressed into a line as I turn away quickly and open the door to step out into the hall.
After Amsterdam, nothing else happens, at least no sex or kissing. No touching. We go out of our way not to touch. Saving money is still important enough for us to share rooms, but we always get twin beds in the hotels that mark our nights as we make our way south. By the time we get to Athens nearly two weeks later, we’re friends trying to pretend like nothing happened.
Between museums, historical site visits, and shopping, we’re meeting Peter’s relatives. There’s a never ending stream of them and they all seem to want me to be Peter’s girlfriend. He assures me he’s telling them we’re not and after the first few times, I try to ignore them. Already I’m tired of his awkward laugh and the way I feel his eyes on me when he thinks I’m not paying attention.
The city is endless, noisy, and dusty and when we visit the Acropolis, the city spreads to the horizon in every direction. Athens glimmers in the heat like a mirage, blurred at the edges, faded and distant and unknowable. It seems vast and filled with secrets I will never learn.
I follow Peter to a taxi stop and get out when he does. The building looks like all the other I’ve seen of the city, white or tan and I don’t realize it isn’t his cousins’ apartment, the place we’ve been staying until the door is opened by a thin, sharp eyed woman in her thirties. She smiles and steps back, they hug, and Peter says, “This is Christina.” I think he is introducing me to her.
For a few moments we stand in her living room which is spotless and somehow devoid of any sign of personality—like a show home living-room or a hotel room—before she gestures for us to follow her to the bedroom with its double bed, unmade, and discarded clothes. Although I see only women’s clothes, blouses, skirts, an emerald colored sweater, a red bra draped on the chair, the dresser top, half of the bed I look around for something more. The room, the whole apartment seems incomplete as though it is waiting for something. There is one photograph on the wall, framed and hanging on the other side of the bed. It is a couple perhaps, both dark haired, his, perhaps curly. I stand in the doorway, Peter sits on her bed and the woman moves to the closet keeping her back to us, talking over her shoulder to Peter, ignoring me, as she takes her blouse off.
I wonder if she’s just home from work, headed to work, headed out. Home for the night. Are we having dinner with her? Staying the night? I say Peter’s name and maybe he doesn’t hear me because he doesn’t answer. They’re still talking but he looks at me and says something. She is wearing a pink bra and her back is narrow and freckled. Peter looks at me and back at the woman. After hearing his awkward laugh so many times, I think he is assuring her I’m only his friend. They could just as easily be talking about which blouse she should wear or what she’s been doing since he saw her last. Suddenly she is talking faster and then ushering us out as she buttons her blouse and I’m wondering why we went there at all. Peter says, “I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Is she an old girlfriend?” I ask, although I don’t know why; she’s probably ten years older and Peter hasn’t been to Greece since he was fifteen. He smiles as though the idea pleases him, but he shakes his head.
We leave Athens on an early flight to Crete and stay with Peter’s sweet house dress wearing great Aunt Eleni, and his jovial, balding Uncle Antoni. A seemingly endless stream of cousins drop by the first day. There are too many people in this family tree; it must sprawl like the ancient olive trees we passed on the way from the airport. After two hours I am tired of trying to follow the conversation. I feign fatigue, the need for a nap, and once in the room we’re to share, I listen through the closed door to them talking in the living room. The voices change as people come and go but the words don’t and I stay in the room because I’m tired of having everything translated for me.
The first day we have lunch at the limani, the ancient harbor, and watch fishing boats come in as we eat fried calamari with fresh lemons. We sit on a bench on the limani and watch the purple blue water shift and change colors in the sunlight. We shop downtown and in the old town and old women dressed in black scold me because I am wearing a sundress and showing too much skin. I learn this only after I’ve heard tsktsk a handful of times and noticed their looks of disapproval. Life is slower on the island and I find myself relaxing. The air smells of jasmine and sun warmed earth; it buzzes with the sound of cicadas. They fill every moment, every thought with the chatter of thousands of voices. The sky is the purest blue of cornflowers. Peter and I walk home, talking about friends at home, classes we’re taking; the old ease that has held us together for so long seems like it is back.
A man stands on the sidewalk outside the the jasmine covered gate at Eleni and Andoin’s house. “Niko,” Peter says, picking up his pace. The man, a god with the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, an aquiline nose, and black curly hair like hyacinth clusters hugs Peter and then turns to me. Niko is so handsome he is a cliche but no less real, an Adonis or Achilles if Homer had described their beauty. He actually kisses the back of my hand and says my name like it is something precious. I can't understand his other words but the way his eyes hold mine as he asks Peter questions about me, compliments my beauty, which Peter translates for me, makes me pay attention. For the first time in weeks, someone looks at me for me, not as Peter’s girlfriend or friend.
“A relative?” I ask. Peter doesn’t offer anything about Niko except to say, “No.”
I don’t ask anything else about Niko, although I want to know everything. “He’s come to take us to the beach,” Peter says.
We hurry into the house and I change into my suit in the bathroom. When I go back out, they are waiting next to his car and when Niko turns to me, his face lights up. I feel shy as we get in it, curious about where we’re going, and pleased he wants to take us. As Niko drives us through a part of town that seems unfamiliar, I understand Hania is bigger than I thought it was.
We stop at the gas station. As he fills up, I do the calculation for gas price per liter, how liters compare to gallons, and how much he is spending. I’m appalled. At home it would cost an eighth of what it is here. When I whisper to Peter that we have to give Niko money, Peter says, “It is his gift to us. To you.”
When Niko climbs back in the car, I say, “Efkaristo” and his name and he smiles. It has been the easiest word to learn and the one that people seem happiest to hear.
Then we travel to the west end of the island an hour and a half away with the sound of the wind through the car. As Niko drives he glances at me in the seat next to him and talks loudly to Peter who sits in the backseat. The landscape is more open than the hill where Peter’s aunt and uncle live above town. It is dotted with the clusters of shops close to the road and farther out and between the small towns, rolling green hills, rocks, sheep, low stone walls, clusters of olive trees and the occasional vine row. We pass a few old men on bikes and they’re so far from anywhere it is hard to imagine where they’re going. An old woman, her dress and headscarf all in black, sits outside a stone house with a lamb in her lap. There are mountains, soft humps like animals sleeping in a field, to the south as we drive on.
Finally, Niko says, “Falassarna” as we crest a ridge to see the stunning blue sea spread before us like hope. A sharp peaked island sits about a 1/2 mile off the coast and we drop into a valley with a tan beach and incredible turquoise water close to shore. It is like a postcard, a perfect easy place to be.
We park, gather our things and trudge across the sand to the beach. Once our towels are out, we strip to our suits. I lie on my stomach, face turned away from Niko who has spread his towel on one side of me. Peter puts his on the other side.
I avoid Peter’s eyes and can’t look at Niko so close up but I feel him. Heat tickles low in my belly and I imagine pulling him into the water, kissing him, and the feeling the press of him against me.
Peter gets up and says he’s going to walk down the beach and I keep my head down as he walks away. Niko doesn’t say anything. After a few minutes I study the line of the island, imagining what I would say if I could speak Greek. Do I care to know what kind of work he does or where he grew up? Do I even want to get to know him? Mostly I wonder what it would be like to feel him inside me. Then I feel his lips, the lightest brush on my shoulder, like a burn. He kisses my shoulder blade next, my back first above and then below the string of my bikini top. His lips press the small of my back just above the line of my bottoms. Each time he presses his lips against my skin, I feel like I’m being branded.
He says my name softly, his breath in my hair, his hand on the small of my back as light as a bird. The press of his fingertips under the edge of my bottoms makes me ache. I imagine how his mouth would taste, and the shape my name made in his throat, and on his tongue.
I want to pant from the heat of him being close, roll onto my back and pull him onto me. I want to lose myself in him, but I suddenly feel too proud to give in. I shift to my side, shade my eyes and look at him. He smiles, leans in to kiss me and I although I’m not sure why, I pull away and say the second of the three Greek words I know. “Oshi.” No.
His eyes hold mine and then he smiles and nods. “Ok,” he says in English.
We stay on the beach side by side and my mind literally feels empty as I turn my head away and rest it on my crossed arms. All I can here is the waves washing in. There’s no talking, no cicadas. Nothing. The near silence is a relief.
When Peter comes back he sits down, looks at Niko and me not looking at each other and asks, “What happened?”
“Nothing,” I say and we all look out at the water or the island or the sky.
The waves roll in. The sun, a pale Niko says something and Peter nods. They are ready to go. I say, “Neh,” because I do understand this exchange and yes is the right answer. We pack up our towels and Niko reaches out to help me. His hand is warm and dry. He holds my gaze and my hand and again I feel the pressure of wanting him in my belly. Peter is watching us but I don’t look at him. Back at the car, the softness of the light says day has already shifted to evening.
We drive back to Hania in silence. And as is always the case, going back seems so much faster. At Theo Andoni’s house we thank Niko who kisses my hand as he did the first time I met him. For just a second I wonder if I should have kissed his mouth at the beach or let him kiss me. He smiles and says, “Goodbye Christina.”
It sounds so final. “Is he leaving?” I ask Peter.
“Yes, he’ll go to his apartment.”
“In Athens,” Niko says and I realize he understands everything Peter and I have said in front of him.
“You know English,” I say.
“Why do you talk to him instead of me?” I ask, gesturing at Peter.
“I don't want to say something wrong. I don't use it but every few years,” he says. I don't believe him but I smile.
“Goodbye,” I tell him and I thank him again, this time in English. That night before bed Peter sits on the edge of my bed. At first I think we’re just making plans for the next day, and although it is odd he’s sitting where he is instead of in his own bed on the other side of the room, I don’t think anything of it until he tries to kiss me and I turn away. The silence in the room expands. Peter doesn’t apologize or move to his own bed. He doesn’t even laugh awkwardly. That alone makes me look at him. He reaches out and traces my jaw with his finger, his eyes on his finger, not my eyes. I don’t shy away, although I want to, but I think he is going to say something, explain himself, tell me something important. Instead, his mouth moves into a tight little smile and he says goodnight.
Later when I try to sleep, I think about Niko’s lips on my skin, and the pink of his mouth. The words we could have said and still can. I check my shoulder and the middle of my back in the mirror the next morning expecting to see some mark from his lips. Instead of the red burns, the smudges I expect, I see faint brown marks, freckles or moles but nothing more. The next few days I wonder about his apartment in Athens and where he lives when he’s in Hania, when I’ll see him again, and what will happen. Peter and I ride rented bikes, visit the limani and the harbor front restaurants, and avoid thinking about going home and back to college. Our last year, our future, everything seems so uncertain.
The night before we’re scheduled to fly home aunt Eleni prepares a feast we’ll eat on the roof under the arbor. She spends the day making all the foods I have come to love. There are platters of roasted chicken and Dolmas with squash flowers and tomatoes and peppers, Moussaka, Tiropita, Spanikopita, baklava, cakes and Turkish coffee. The kitchen is a potpourri of savory and sweet, garlic, oregano and stewing tomatoes, butter and honey and cinnamon. The arbor is strung with white lights interwoven with the grape vines that have grown there for at least fifty years.
As the sun drops below the horizon and the cicadas quiet, I carry the platters up and place them on a long table. Small clusters of people I’ve never seen stand talking, drinking, and laughing. On the third trip up, I see Niko with one group, a beer in his hand. When he sees me, he sets his beer down, crosses to me, and takes my hands. He kisses me next to my mouth, a lingering kiss that makes my cheeks warm. Uncle Andoni turns on a boom box and everyone begins to dance. I move into Niko’s arms, pressing close to him, so relieved to feel the hardness of his body against mine.
My body thrums in his arms and I study the pulse at the base of his throat, wishing I could bury my face in the space between his shirt and neck, feel his skin against my mouth. He smells musky like spicy olives and rosemary. Peter sits at a different table. When Niko and I finish eating, I lean close and quietly tell him we should go, that I want to stay at his apartment tonight. He nods.
“You understand what I want,” I say. Niko nods, but he’s looking at Peter who is moving from group to group chatting and smiling.
“Neh?” I ask and he looks at me and nods again.
Uncle Andoni passes out glasses of Retsina and I say no each time someone approaches with shots for us. Niko drinks one after another. His body is turned to me as he talks to people who come to sit across from us. The music plays on, people laugh and talk and I don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying. I’m waiting for a chance to leave, trying to imagine how we can get out without Peter’s aunt and uncle, and everyone else knowing. Another glass of Retsina ends up in front of me and I ignore it, although everyone around me is drinking the liquor like it is the sweetest nectar. When Peter sits down, he puts a beer in front of me and holds one for himself. He’s drunk.
Niko pushes the Retsina closer to me and I say, “Oshi” and push it back. The one sip I took at lunch our first day on the island was enough to convince me I would never fit in if this is considered delicious. Peter says my name and when I look at him, he says my name again but doesn’t look at me. The woman next to him says something to Niko and they continue to talk. I hear my name several times; the woman, her maybe husband, Niko and Peter trade it back and forth, but somehow I know they aren’t talking about me.
“Who are they talking about?” I ask. Nobody answers and Niko won’t look at me. I lean closer to Peter and ask him again, quietly this time. He makes a show of listening to the others then smiles and points at Niko. “His wife,” he says.
I look at Niko and back at Peter thinking I must have misunderstood. Peter nods.
“He’s married?” I whisper. Niko stops mid-sentence and turns to me. He shakes his head once but I know he isn’t saying “No” so much as “I’ll explain.” But I don’t need an explanation to see it is true.
“Yes,” Peter says. He smiles and leans back. I have only seen him look this pleased when something less than wonderful has happened to someone he dislikes. “You met his wife in Athens,” he says.
I sift through my memory of all the people I met in the city. His wife? I’m stalling really because I don’t know what to say. There were women we talked to in shops and at houses, at the museum, and the party his cousins had. There was the lovely Electra who had a boyfriend. Christina. And the odd, empty feeling apartment with the clothes all over the bedroom. The two men’s shirts in the closet. The questions. The freckles. The photo of a couple. Of course.
Aunt Eleni walks up to the table and stops next to Peter. She hold a tray of Spanakopita and I know she is telling him to ask if I want more, but part way through the words I now realize I recognize from hearing so many times her question turns into a different one. The look on her face tells me she is worried I’m sick. She leans in to set the tray on the table and Niko shakes his head. He answers quickly, his tone dismissive and then his voice is light, a quip and everyone laughs.
My cheeks burn as I smile at Aunt Eleni. It feels so forced I can’t imagine how I must look. Leaning close to Peter, I say, “Jesus” under my breath. “You could tell I liked him. Why didn't you tell me?”
He frowns and picks at the label on is bottle. He seems bored with me, with all of this. “Would it have mattered?” he asks. I’m not sure what to say except yes. Peter shrugs.
“Do I speak Greek? Does he speak English to me?” I ask. Peter shrugs again. I move to stand up but Niko says, “Wait” and presses my hand onto my thigh with his hand on top as though it will keep me from going. I look at his hand in my lap. His touch doesn’t feel the way I remember from the beach.
Looking at Niko’s hand on top of mine, Peter leans in close and says, “It didn’t mean anything to you.”
I almost tell him it did, does. He does. I have always cared about him. I almost tell him he didn’t care about me that way either, but I understand what he means. The edge that has been there these last weeks isn’t about me not wanting to kiss him or have sex with him again. It’s about the fact that it happened in the first place. That I let it and knew he was thinking it would mean something more. That I knew, somehow, in some part of me, that every time he’s explained who I am, he has hated me and loved me.
There aren’t words when we need them, or the right ones anyway. Even if we know the language, we can’t always say what we feel, what we mean, and want. We don’t even know. I have to leave, get out, be alone.
“Tell them Thank You and I'm sorry but I'm not feeling well,” I say, but I can’t look at anyone. Peter or Niko can surely do that for me. Maybe someone else speaks English. I stand up, and move across the roof as quickly as I can. The music plays on. People laugh and talk as I pass. The lights woven through the grape arbor are bright until I reach the stairs and take the first step, black as a pit, and trust I’ll land right.
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
(Photo: Carol Bales)
A Barn Red ’53 Ford in the Sixties
Jim Clowes had a red '53 Ford that looked terrible. The paint on the car was almost all gone, although there were still patches of paint mixed with patches of rust. The clunker was an unsightly quilt in their small town surrounded by family farms. Even in the Sixties, few people in this rural area had ever seen a car as rough as this one.
Jim had a small pension and couldn't afford a better car. He and his wife Emma would sit on the porch day after day in the summer talking about anything. Emma would use the hand fan that had Eagan Funeral Home on it to keep the flies away and to stir whatever breeze there was during the late summer.
Billy Goelz was a neighbor boy in high school and he would pass by often and hear Emma tell her husband, "Jim, that car is embarrassing.”
Sometimes she said “disgusting” instead. Once Billy heard her say something far worse but he just kept walking.
Jim was used to Emma’s critiques of the car and would say, "Well, Emma, what can we do about it? We ain't got the money to buy another car and this car ain't worth us paying to have it painted. But it gets us where we have to go. That sure beats walking.”
Emma didn’t like that answer and she would just shake her head. She would say over and over, "It sure is a shame to be old and poor…my, my, my.”
Every once in a while Billy Goelz would join the old couple on their porch to pass the time of day. Sometimes he was able to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. But most of the time not because Emma was fixated on that car.
One morning Emma decided to do something about the car. She had bought a gallon of red barn paint and two brushes, a big one and a finer one. She didn't sand anything on the car. She just started painting the car barn red. When she got through, the paint job didn’t look professional enough for Emma so she put on two more coats. If anything, the car looked worse. Jim was beside himself, but Emma was determined. So Jim just sat on the porch with his head in his hands. Not even a cigarette would help.
When Billy went away to college in September, Jim and Emma were still driving the car and people were still laughing at them. One weekend when Billy was home from school, he saw another '53 Ford in town, still in decent shape, and he thought about that poor old car Jim and Emma were driving. But when Emma died and Jim passed away a month later, the old car went to Wally's Junkyard. In the long run, though, that clunker taught Billy Goelz a lesson he never forgot.
One day, when Jim and Emma were still alive, Billy and a group of his friends were sitting under the oak tree in his front yard when the old couple drove by the house. The boys were all laughing at the car when Bill’s dad, sitting on the front porch and smoking his pipe, spoke up.
"Well, Bill, where’s your car? Be sure you can do better before you judge somebody.”
Billy, of course, had no car and neither did any of his friends. All of them were college students at a state school. They depended on their parents and odd jobs on campus for tuition. They were all just scraping by like many students in the Sixties.
It took five years but Billy got his degree in animal husbandry. He got a good job, raised a family and made a nice living. He drove a Buick. It was a nice family car, nothing fancy, and he traded it in every two years. But never again in his long life did he ever laugh at anyone he saw driving an old clunker. And every time he visited a farm on business, he’d often see a faded red barn that reminded him of Jim and Emma and their ’53 Ford. Some lessons, Billy had learned, stay with you for life.
Adreyo Sen is based in Kolkata, India. He has an MFA from Stony Brook, Southampton. His interests are in magic realism, fantasy, social satire, and all things Dickensian.
In the early seventies, Peter Gupta was in his third year of college – and hating it heartily. In the evenings, he would retire to the coffee house, being a fairly predictable intellectual of the Kafka-loving variety. There, he would gaze bitterly into cup after cup of coffee, before setting his constitution straight with a cutlet.
Peter Gupta was a literature student. A mediocre one, given too much to daydreaming. Bewildered by scansion and iambic pentameter, Peter Gupta longed to write, to feel the muse chew with fury at the already chewed-up end of his pen.
All that Peter Gupta had imbibed from the Dickens texts taught at Presidency was an appreciation for the immense scope of the novels, the huge and intricately populated canvas the irascible novelist had created from a vacuum. Peter Gupta, too, longed to imagine into reality a universe of his own, a Kolkata transformed into the playground of demons and gargoyles and precocious children with the faces of Egyptian gods.
In fact, he had expended many cheap notebooks on his attempts to flesh out his ideas. But he was held back by a hole in his imagination, a hole the approximate size and shape of Professor Banerjee’s posterior, a posterior which seemed to quiver with indignation when the good Banerjee fulminated against the values of the youth.
The problem was this. Every story – and in this, Victorian sentimentality collided with Peter’s beloved Bollywood movies – needs a hero. Peter wanted his to be larger-than-life, to be the sort of person whose fair (Peter couldn’t imagine a dark-skinned hero) face radiated authority and goodness, whose virtue was imprinted into every lineament of his countenance. Peter couldn’t start his novel without fixing his hero with his mind’s eye.
Inspiration came to him via the muse so often found rubbing her seductive shoulders against Old Monk and Haywards 5000. Only, this time it took a circuitous route. Peter had been confiding his troubles to a bottle of rum, when his stomach sternly reminded him of the need for solid sustenance. He essayed forth in the direction of sinfully fried things.
“What’s all this?” said a stern voice, as he meandered down a street that seemed to dance up and down.
It was the voice of the Law. The officer grabbed our skinny protagonist by his polyester collar and hauled him to the Park Street police station.
“I suggest you cool your ardor,” said the desk sergeant, looking tiredly at him.
Peter sat on a wooden block, thankful that he hadn’t been thrown into one of the cells. He looked around. And then his eyes fell on the man sitting opposite him, a handsome man, a fair man, a man with laughing, wise eyes and a firm chin, the sort of man who could lead thousands into battle, or bully a smile back onto the lips of a child who had just dropped her ice cream. In short, the perfect man. His protagonist. His Superman, that is a Superman who owed less to Nietzsche than to two American malcontents.
“Everything all right, friend?” said the man, laughing.
Peter nearly swooned at the warm friendliness of the voice.
The rest, of course, is history.
Peter Gupta didn’t eschew alcohol. If anything, he drank more frequently. But he was always sure to keep a goodly supply of chicken egg rolls nearby. More importantly, and more to the point, Peter Gupta finished his magnum opus a year later. His great first novel, about a savior who springs out of the litter of clay tea pots at a busy intersection to become the symbol of hope for a charcoal city hounded by desperate criminals and even more desperate apathy. It ran to over a thousand pages and was made into a trilogy starring an angry young actor with a powerful baritone.
Very soon, Peter Gupta acquired an expensive fountain pen. And then the first color television in his neighbourhood. And then a wife with a fondness for gold jewelery. Sitting in the little terrace room in his new house in Ballygunge, Peter wrote novel after novel, reaching the productivity of the sidekick of a certain fictional detective. Each of the novels featured the same protagonist, modeled on the wonderful creature Peter had seen at the Park Street police station. In one novel, this Alo foiled the dastardly attempts of a trio of desperate criminals to steal the smile of Mona Lisa, a luscious house maid. In a much more recent novel, Alo shattered the dark plot to adulterate the exotic and faintly ridiculous nature of a termagant firebrand with an infusion of a sensayuma, whatever that might be. In yet another, in the midst of a fabric crisis, Alo brought much comfort to a chapter of geriatric astronomers by flying to Sweden and returning with a year’s supply of diapers.
By 2014, Peter Gupta was rather tired. He had written over eighty novels, each of which had been roundly condemned by the British Guardian for facileness of plot and praised by India Today for freshness. He had been given a permanent seat at Flury’s and received daily visitations from floppy-haired young men who were absolutely convinced that he needed a secretary. His wife now resembled a chandelier. He was a rich man, but he didn’t like to travel. In fact, he’d never stepped out of Kolkata.
And he was especially tired of Alo. Dratted man! He wished he had never come up with him. Now, how to end him?
And this was when Peter Gupta envisaged the dark shadow that would emerge in the very last Alo novel, the shadow that would extinguish his tiresome protagonist. The Shadow. The most evil, vicious criminal there ever was. A depraved, vicious psychopath. Yes, much like the Joker. Peter was a fan of the Batman movies, the new ones that is, having reached them via his worship of the leggy Anne Hathaway.
Of course, Peter was a man of influence now. Which was how, on a Friday morning, the Commissioner of Police undertook to take him from his house to the same Park Street police station that had midwifed his literary success.
“An honour, sir,” wheezed the commissioner, “an honour.”
“Yes,” said Peter absently, his eyes arrested by the man lolling vulgarly in rags on the bench opposite the duty desk, his filthy hands cuffed to the wall. Never had he seen a more disagreeable face, pitted and discolored, with a fierce scar bisected by a red and malevolent eye. The lips seemed distorted permanently into the sort of terrible sneer with which Wodehousian aunts greeted the impecunious suitors of their invariably short daughters.
The man looked up and caught Peter’s eyes. He smiled. He spat, catching the tip of Peter’s shoes.
` “What, friend?” he laughed, “Everything all right? Long time, no see.”
A few weeks later, Peter finished the manuscript for a children’s book featuring talking dolls and a discarded paper cup. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to prevent irony from seeping into the story. You could say he finally had the seepage problems that plagued most homeowners in his city. Even more unfortunately, his wife, infuriated at her husband’s vacillation, sent off his manuscript to his publisher. It fetched a good price and the book sold rather well, if to a niche audience comprised of sarcastic twenty-something women who slept with teddy bears and worshipped Tina Fey.
Peter, so long a writer, is unable to stop writing. He continues to write about the dolls and the cup and, now, a discarded chapstick. His new fans are rabid and very determined. He is afraid to step out of his house. Fortunately, he can play Pokemon Go on his phone.
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 Ghost of Baron Von Something R. Other
“Yep there use to be a coal mine back there on my property. You boys have seen the filled in shaft holes in the ground, those depressions five or six feet deep, and the coal slag piles back there when you’ve been mushroom hunting haven’t you?”
The two twelve year old boys nodded their heads yes in unison.
“There also use to be a road back to it from where you cross the Coal Creek bridge. It went about a half mile or so back to the mine. ‘Course the road isn’t there any more. Been plowed over and farmed for seventy some years now. Mine been closed longer than that. Only the name remains, The Baron’s Mine.”
Newt Bailey knew the boys were hooked from the look on their faces. That they would beg him now for the rest of the story. “Yep only the name. Oh yeah and of course the Baron’s ghost still remains out there,” he added with a twinkling smile. “Don’t want to forget him now do we?
Say you boys aren’t thinking about going back there this Friday the thirteenth on Halloween are you?”
“Yeah we’re kind of thinking about it some. But we want to hear the story about the Baron’s ghost that’s suppose to live back there before we decide,” answered one of the boys.
The boys sat there enthralled, dieing to hear old Newt Bailey tell the local tale about the ghost of the dead Prussian Baron. The Bailey family had been one of the first settlers in the township and old Newt Bailey had lived and farmed here all his life. He knew all the local lore and legends.
“Okay here goes guys,” he said settling back in his rocker, the boys sitting directly in front of him, leaning forward, hanging on to his every word. “The mine was owned by one Baron Von Something R. Other. He was called that because no one can remember how to pronounce his long German name. He never came to this country but he’s the one who set up the coal mining operation back in the 1890’s or so. He was from Prussia which is in the northern part of Germany, the area around Berlin I believe.
Well the story goes that one day one of his descendants, who inherited the land, came over from the old country to see what his relative had left him. He was a Baron Von Something R. Other too. This was back in 1915 or so when World War I was going on full blast in Europe. There was strong anti-German feelings something fierce in this country at that time because of all the so called atrocities the Germans were believed to have committed when they invaded Belgium.
Well there was this miner who worked at the mine back then, a Belgian by the name of Camiel Dhooge, who had family over in Belgium. He believed that the Germans had in fact committed atrocities because he kept getting all these terrible letters from his family about all the tragedies and hardships they were enduring. One day he got one that said his brother had been killed by the Germans. Well this sent him over the top and some say drove him mad.
So the Baron comes to this country while the war is going on and goes out to view his mine wearing his fancy Prussian gold buttoned, medal decorated, spiffy military uniform and one of those Prussian helmets on his head with a spike on top of it. You boys know what I mean don’t you? You’ve seen pictures of them haven’t you?”
The boys nodded yes.
Well the Baron goes out to see his mine and Camiel sees him and finds out who he is. So he gets the Baron off by himself and starts to give him a piece of his mind as to what he thinks about Germans. Then before you know it, the two of them get into an argument and start fighting. Next thing you know the Baron is dead, a hole in his head. Camiel had driven his pick axe right through that hard helmet and into his brain. Claimed it was self defense as the Baron was trying to butt him in the belly with the spike on his helmet. The State’s Attorney didn’t believe him though and charged him with murder because everyone knew that Camiel hated Germans. Well his attorney got him off. Got the jury packed with Belgians. But that wasn’t the end of it. Oh no, not as far as the Baron’s ghost was concerned. Every so often he’s seen back there in the woods, wandering around the mine area, looking for revenge.”
“We heard that he comes back around Halloween,” said one of the boys. “Is that true?”
“That he does son. The Baron was killed in October sometime, know one remembers the exact date but it was during the Oktoberfest that the local Germans held back then and the Baron was known to tilt back a few steins of beer. He was probably drunk when he went out there and got himself killed.
My father bought the land from his estate and closed the mine. It was pretty much played out anyway. It was no big mining operation by any means. They only tunneled in as far as the light and air held out. No deep intricate hive of tunnels or anything like that. My father used the mining grounds as pasture land for his stock cow herd and I’ve used it the same way too ever since.”
One of the twelve year old boys couldn’t wait any longer and interrupted Mr.Bailey. “Tell us Mr.Bailey about when you were kids and the ghost of the Baron tried to kill you and your friend.”
Newt Bailey smiled, tooth sucked in some air and said, “Well okay but it’s kind of a scary story fellas so be forewarned.”
“We’re don’t scare anymore. Tell us,” demanded the same boy.
“We were about your age then,” continued Newt. “And one Halloween my best friend, Bill Schroeder, dared me to go looking for the Baron with him on Halloween night to see if all those rumors we had heard were true or not. Bill claimed that the ghost wouldn’t harm us because he was German and wouldn’t harm me because I was his friend. It was darker than pitch that night, no moon, no stars, just blackness. Well I had to go since he dared me. So we go to walking around back there in the mine area that night and Bill keeps hollering out in German, ‘Baron woher sind sie?’ Laughing and joking the whole time. His father had taught him a little German. That means, Baron where are you, in German. Well sure enough before too long we hear some noise off in the dark come crashing through the brush toward us, and Bill, to the day he died, swore that he heard the Baron answer, ‘Ich bin hier Wilhelm.’ That means I am here Bill.
What I heard though was a lot of noise, snorting, gasping sounds, and some stomping. I didn’t hear any German words. The sounds kept coming closer and sounded like something big was advancing toward us. Well of course being dumb kids we panicked and took off running and screaming and ran right into one of those big old deep shaft holes that I just told you about. We fell about six feet to the bottom, then the bottom gave way, scared the B’Jesus out of us. We thought that we were sliding down an old coal mine shaft right into the bowels of Hell but we only dropped about another four or five feet. After we brushed off all the debris, we looked up. There ten feet above us, against the moonless, starless, pitch black night was the Baron’s ghost bobbing up and down. We took to praying and our prayers must have been answered because he finally went away. But we were still trapped. The sides were too steep and slippery for us to climb our way out.
Well after a couple of hours we heard some barking dogs getting closer. Bill said that the Baron was now sicking the hounds of Hell on us. Probably big fanged humongous German Shepherds or Doberman Pinschers he said. Pretty soon they were right above us, barking and howling their lungs out. I recognized the dogs from their howling. So I hollered back up at them, Baron, Dhooge stop it! My father had a sick sense of humor when he it came to naming our dogs. We were saved. Hallelujah! My father had ‘scent’ the dogs out to find us. And thank God they did.
Next thing we know there’s flash lights blinding our eyes and our fathers are chewing us out something terrible. They pulled us out, drug us home, and tanned our hides but good. I guess the Baron had a good laugh on us that night. I wouldn’t recommend going out there this Halloween boys, unless you want to meet the Baron of course. He’s still out there.”
“Is that really a true story Mr.Bailey?” questioned one boy in disbelief.
“Well son, it’s truly a story that’s for sure,” answered Mr. Bailey hoping to keep the legend alive and thinking that there’s no sense in telling these boys that the ‘ghost’ he saw that night was really the white face of his father’s Hereford bull against the pitch black sky, bobbing and waving his head up and down, for if he did, then it wouldn’t truly be a story, it would be fact.
Kyle Perdue was born and raised in Carlsbad, California. He is currently studying marine biology at University of California, San Diego. He finds writing to be very therapeutic and amongst all of the scientific thinking he does at school, it is something he can always look forward to. His favorite writers are Bukowski, Turgenev, and Hamsun.
Two women in the next room talk of love over recurrent glasses of wine. As their discussion unravels and it gets quite emotional; I can hear one of them pushing through the tears as she explains her story. This event sparks an unforgettable experience I had many summers ago, when I had incidentally gotten wrapped up in a drug feud and, more importantly, met whom I consider to be the most remarkable woman I have ever met— in appearance and manner. I wish she sat alongside me now, but I only occasionally glance over at a napkin stained with a wet circle, accompanied by an uncharted series of books I haven't yet started. The story goes something like this:
There was an ocean, a patio, and a small house. It was a one story, with a light blue body and a yellow roof. The patio leads right onto the sand, which stretched into the beach and eventually the water. Most of the time it was pretty windy, and the sun would beat down on umbrellas that had been there for I don't know how long— too long. They were all the same kind of umbrella, equally spread out projecting from the sand to the sky in different angles due to the wind. There wasn't anything around the house except tall grass that went for miles and a white picket fence that eventually ended at a point where there was a lighthouse. This lighthouse was usually locked, but some were known to have ascended it’s exclusionary stair-set and peer out the top, looking over the Eastern horizon.
The house used to belong to my uncle; when he passed I got a phone call about his will, and was told he left me a house on the opposite coast, a beautiful one-story right on the ocean. I was proud that he left it for me, for we had always been very close. No one had known that he owned this house, not even me. A secret life, my uncle lived.
Sometimes I went for a week or two, but mostly I stayed for months at a time. It was nicest in the fall when the greenery turned to oranges and yellows but I was usually there in the summer, when the water was warm and the sun had come out of hibernation. It was a nice and cozy house, but the salty winds had worn it down. The paint was cracked and the inside was dusty and beaten. Some days I biked down the coast and some days I walked along the sand with a twig, but most days I tried working on the house— I wasn't much of a handyman but I was getting better. I stocked the kitchen with various imported beverages I’d gotten from the port: all kinds of wines, liquors, beers. There were some from Africa, Bulgaria, Belgium, Chile. I think there must have been a drink from every part of the world in there. If I were ever to be robbed the thief would have tripped on his feet trying to leave. These drinks came in handy while I worked on the inside and outside of the house. I would put on a record and take slow sips of something. Outside on the patio there were two chairs that faced the ocean. One was green and the other was blue. In between them was a small table with many ring-stains, and an ash tray where my uncle smoked cigars.
I will admit, sometimes it got quite lonely in this house on the beach. It was nice and I could get my work done; no one was there to bother me. And having worked hard on year studying at the University I was currently attending, these beach-side getaways were a gratifying necessity. I was studying marine biology at the time, but that is not something I wish to discuss. I wrote on the side: short stories, poetry, maybe a novella if I ever got so lucky (I always wanted to write a novel but was never good at finishing the things I started). It was a hobby, but sometimes I sent stuff in to journals and magazines and they would kindly sent back a rejection note. Something along the lines of: “We appreciate you considering This Literary Journal, however, this doesn't fit what we are looking for at this time. Best of luck in the future.” I guess it just wasn't for them.
A couple miles South of the small house was a port, small and quaint. It was filled with tourism and hardy marine folk, the kind with tattoos who owned the day and night; they worked hard in the long hours of sunlight and drank well into twilight, cursing and fighting and fucking. Boats and ships came into the harbor of this port. Some carried people, others had trading items: food, livestock, silk, linen, electronics. Like the tide carrying the water, herds of people would come into the town for weeks at a time, then retreat back into the sea. They took pictures and purchasing postcards, did tours and ate fish. Little did I know that upon one of these boats, with crossed legs and gentle lips, sat the girl of my dreams.
Many days I went into the port and walked around, browsed the shops and talked with the tourists. There was a good bakery shop that sold bread, pastries, coffee, and espresso. I liked to sit outside and watch the town move; it was a living thing. Each resident had a purpose, like organs to the body. Even the tourists were necessary, peppering money into the market and driving slowly, somehow always in your way. The lady who owned the bakery was from Germany. She was big and round, and constantly sweating. Her name was Olga. She was really very nice. Her husband was even bigger than her. They were like European sumo wrestlers. She greeted me every time I came in with a smile and a big hug. She gave me free coffee but I paid for the bread, oils, and sweet delicacies. I had my proper seat outside that faced the town. Vines hung above my head on the balcony where Olga and her husband lived. No wonder they were so big, they lived directly over their own bakery. The sweet aroma of their limitless inventions flowed out the bakery door and into the window of their home, teasing those food-pregnant bellies. There were flowers scattered around the bakery patio: lilacs, roses, orchids, and my personal favorite: lilies. It was a nice spot.
If it were nighttime, and the small house got too quiet, I switched my drink from Olga’s coffee to the bottle, where the barkeep was a tall and slender Italian. He seemed malevolent with his creepy walk and thin goatee. There were several pubs and bars in the port, but I preferred his, named: “Bubbly Tavern.” Inside it was dim and the tables were made of wood. The only light allowed to enter came through stained glass that emitted beams of deep blue and sea green. For the small size of the port-town, the nightlife got crowded and wild. There were a few times I awoke on the sand just outside the town, with a group of people, unaware of who they were and how I got there. I’d slip away and retreat back to the small house, where I would cook eggs and bacon with toast and sausage— reviving my deathly state.
Sleep was never a strong suit of mine back home, but here on the Eastern sand, I could snooze for a lifetime. It was partly because of the state of serenity the house had to offer, along with the caressing hand of solitude offered by its location on the shore. The only sound you could hear was the wind creating ripples in the sand, and the waves crashing onto the shore like they’d been lost at sea forever. In this particular summer getaway, I was sleeping in one morning when there was a knock at the door. I was nude so I put on a robe and answered. There was a yellow haired man in a blue uniform with a pouch full of letters.
“Letter for Chase Boneby.”
I took the letter from his grip.
“Thank you,” I said, then closed the door.
I walked into the kitchen, put the letter on the dining table, and went back to bed for an hour. After that I opened the letter. I was surprised to see it was from my mother:
I am writing to let you know your father has been admitted to the County Hospital. It is nothing serious, just a minor car wreck. He will be okay, he has only cracked a few ribs and broken his arm. You see his Alzheimers has been in full swing these past few months, he can’t even remember who I am. Or I wonder if he’s faking? He never seemed to know who I was before. But that’s neither here not there. I guess he was at a traffic light and someone rear-ended him, but because of his Alzheimers the other party is trying to sue us. Can you believe the people of this world, Chase? Anyways, I hope you are enjoying your uncle’s estate. I really would like to hear from you, please do write back. A mother needs to know her son is alright.
Tears wet the page and rolled onto the wooden floor. I couldn't help it. I folded the letter, put it back in its envelope, and tucked it away with the others. I liked how she called it an “Estate.” I guess it was, because of its acreage.
Days on the beach front seemed to roll slowly by. Weeks here felt long and drawn out, like the little motionless sand dunes that mimicked gently crashing waves. Sometimes I’d grab a blanket and a few bottles of wine and head out onto the sand. I liked to drink straight from the bottle. The sand was a humble yellow and always felt velvety soft under the tough bottoms of my feet. You could dip your foot in and depending on the time of day it would warm you or cool you down. I’d sit, or lie, and write on a notepad. Thoughts usually poured out of me like blood from a deep cut. They all seemed to be about women, I tried to write about nature and other things but usually when it all unfolded out of my head it was about women. Their looks, actions, and behaviors. I don't know why, maybe my tongue was hungry from neglect. Every now and then I read some school materials like textbooks and journal articles. As I said, I was studying marine biology; it was fitting to be sitting on the beach while I did this. Often I would look out during my readings and see the spouts from a whale. I asked myself which whale that should be, this time of year in the Eastern waters. I hadn't a clue, which motivated me to read more (only slightly, for I was no fan of school).
One particular Saturday evening I was sitting on a blanket and gulping wine. I don't remember what kind of wine it was, nor does it matter. Wine to me was wine, and after the second glass it all tasted the same. The only difference was in the hangovers. Anyway, I was sipping wine when I noticed a woman walking along the water’s edge. She had dark brown hair, almost purple, it was subject to the wind; her eyes were a devastating blue, the kind that melted men and froze your tongue. Her fair skin lifted the hairs on my neck, and she had on a white undershirt and a black button down sweater, unbuttoned. She wore tight blue jeans and was carrying her black shoes in one hand. Her walk and tone was so pleasant, and she jumped every now and then as to avoid getting too wet from the water. When she got kind of in front of my area, she looked over and smiled innocently, and didn't look away for some time. It was late on in our encounter that I realized my jaw was hung open and I hadn't waved. I quickly waved and smiled. She looked away. The whole thing was delightfully gleeful, and overrode my body with a feeling of jubilance; I felt like I was six years old again. For the rest of the day she came into my mind. I couldn't do anything. I was losing my mind. It was lost unto her. She’d make me clinically insane, I remember thinking. I couldn't even sleep.
The next morning I had to get coffee from Olga. I went in and got a big sweaty hug and a coffee. I sat in my spot and watched time pass. I wondered what I would say if I saw that girl. I envisioned kneeling at her side and telling her that I love her and I’d never been in such a state of euphoria in my life. Then I thought that might be a little bit creepy, it’s not the eighteen hundreds anymore, unfortunately. It was just then that the yellow-haired mailman came up. He had a mustache this time. I was in a deep trance of thought when he walked up.
“Letter for Hans,” he said.
I was not looking at him, but at nothing, still thinking of the moment at the beach.
“Are you Mr. Hans?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said still looking forward.
“Okay.” He placed the letter on the table next to my mug of coffee.
Moments later I looked at the letter and realized what happened. I stood up quickly and waved the letter in the air, trying to yell after the mailman. It was too late— he had already gone. I sat back down to enjoy my coffee but in doing so it had spilled all over the envelope. I tried to wipe it off with some napkins and noticed it was half-open. I know it’s immoral to open other people’s mail. But then I opened it.
It has come to our attention that you will be trying to supply the town with the same drug we notoriously supply them with. We know that you are aware of our presence and our importance in this town. The following words should not be taken lightly.
Have you ever heard the story of the snot-nosed kid, Mr. Hans? Well, the snot-nosed kid was a curious and motivated kid. He went everywhere he was not supposed to go. He thought he could do whatever he wanted. Nobody wanted the snot-nosed kid around but he didn't care. He just kept meddling. Then one day, the whole town got together and burned him at a stake. You are the snot-nosed kid, Mr. Hans. If you think you can come into this town and run our drug off the market, you too, will be burned at the stake. It would be in the best interest of your well-being if you did not let that happen.
You have been warned,
I put it back in the envelope and took it to the post office.
“Why has this been opened?” They asked me.
“It was like that when I got it.” I answered.
Then they took it into a room in the back and I left. It worried me that I had read it. I didn't know who these people were, but they didn't seem like people to mess with. That night I sat by the fire and had tea and tried to relax.
The next morning I biked to the lighthouse. I had never been inside; it was always locked with a big chain around the door. At the bar I had heard stories upon stories of people making it inside and climbing to the top. I brought a flashlight because some said it was completely dark inside other than at the summit where the spotlight was. Others said it was haunted, filled with heroin junkies, an ex-psychiatric ward, alien nesting grounds, I think I’d heard every story that was possible about the place. Someone even once said it was a Chinese military ground. What would the Chinese be doing out here? Anyways, I got there, and it was locked again.
It was a several days after I saw the purplish-haired woman and a couple days after I read that strange letter when I was looking at a map. It was on my dining table with its corners draped over the sides. I had a magnified glass and was looking at where I could drive to. My uncle had left an old beat up car with a man named Stan in the port-town. I didn't know until I had gotten a letter that morning that he wrote me prior to his death. There was a mix up at the post office, as they had put it, where something had happened with one of their employees and they were very apologetic of getting the letter to me late. My uncle was clear in the letter that he wanted me to obtain this car and park it in front of the small house where he said it belonged. But before that, I thought I could make use of it, and venture somewhere while I had the time. There was a point about an hour north of the port-town and another hour North of that there was a cove. Inland of the cove was an old art museum in a town with many vineyards. This area was supposed to be well known for its beauty. The cove, also, I’d heard, had many distinct kinds of marine animals and plants.
So I walked the several miles into town and looked at the letter for reference on where to go for the car. “Wegner’s Auto Garage.” I walked in and a muscular and greasy man greeted me.
“Ah, Ritchie’s nephew.”
“How’d you know?” I asked him.
“He spoke a lot of you.”
“Right this way.”
I followed him and he gave me the keys to the car. It was covered.
“Listen, stop by sometime. We’ll have a drink and talk about Ritchie.”
“Sure,” I said.
He opened the garage and went back into his office. I uncovered the car and it was mustard yellow. On the side read “Fiat 500.” It looked like a very small cab. I drove it out of Wegner’s shop, through the town, and toward the main road.
The main road was a two-lane road. I took it an hour to the point and I had a coffee. Several people on the way ran in front of the car and stuck there finger in the air, as if to hail me like a taxi. I swerved around them giving them the finger. The point was just that, a hundred or so foot cliff on the edge of a peninsula. It was nice but less nice alone. I needed a companion. A woman companion. Where was my woman companion?
Another hour and I was at the cove. The road leading to it was closed. Everything was always closed. I parked and got to the cove by foot. No one was there, it was beautiful. I got to see hundreds of sea lions in their natural state. They didn't see me; I had snuck up on them. Many of them were asleep, bathing in the sun with their whiskers finally resting. Beauty, but umph, what a stench. It smelled of raw sewage and shit. I stood a while breathing in the magnificent sights, not literally, of course. I couldn't handle it for long. I went back to the car and drove to the art museum.
“Twenty dollars,” a young adult with a small head and thick-rimmed glasses said.”
He was in one of those glass windows with the metal circle to speak through.
“I’m a senior.” I said.
“You don't look like a senior.” He said shortly.
He was right; I was only twenty-two. With my beard and dry skin I looked thirty.
“I have that disease where you don’t age,” I replied.
He looked confused.
“Oh . . . okay, sorry.”
I took my stub and went inside.
For a while I was alone. I looked at a painting of a woman in blue, standing at a fountain. She had a blue umbrella and it was raining. She faced me and her eyes were looking directly out of the painting. There was a city behind her and people in suits with briefcases were walking left and right. In one corner there was a couple picnicking in some grass. The girl in the couple was the same girl who was subjected, the one with the umbrella. There was another couple sitting on a bench holding hands. That girl was her too. There were two more of her: one working at an ice cream stand and the other tossing a coin in the fountain. The men were different, though. The piece was titled “Vagina.” Next to it was a small table with three quarters and a pen on it. Titled: “Life.” The piece next to this was another painting. It appeared to be me standing and looking at the painting. I quickly turned around and nobody was there. When I looked back at the piece it was different. It was a peanut that had a face talking to a grape that had a face. They were at lunch and on their plates were small people. I needed to sit down. It was all too much. I also needed a drink. I found a seat on a small bench just beside the two paintings. A man in a spiffy vest came up to me with his chest puffed with air and his chin high. He walked with both elbows up and his hands in front of his chest. His pencil mustache that curled up at the ends glimmered under the museum lighting, just like his leather shoes.
“Sir!” He yelled.
I looked at him, surprised and angry because it startled me. I thought of bum-rushing him and right hooking him right in the jaw.
“That is a piece from the collection ‘Art You Wouldn't Think is Art’ by Lord Cecil Gregory Drake. I demand you get off that piece instantly!”
I leaned forward and peered down under the bench and a price and info tag was dangling, then swayed as I lifted my rear from it.
“Oh,” I said, “I thought it was a normal bench.”
I noticed past the museum employee was a bar. It looked neat, like an old bar from the nineteen thirties, small and quaint.
“Say,” I began, “can I get a drink?”
I motioned to the bar and passed the employee, still gawking at the bar’s elegant appearance.
“Sir!” He yelled again. “That is yet another piece from the collection ‘Art You Wouldn't Think is Art’ by Lord Cecil Gregory Drake.”
I rubbed the back of my neck and lifted my eyebrows. Guy must think awful highly of himself to be called “Lord.”
“Can I interest you in a full tour, Mister . . .?”
“Well that’s an odd name . . .”
I said nothing.
“I’m alright. Thanks, though.”
He nodded his head and was gone.
I examined the bar further. I saw a glimmer of a bottle. When I tried to snatch it, it wouldn't move. It was ceramic— an imposter. Lord Cecil had gotten me again.
I moved into another room where nothing was. There was a marbled floor of blackened white checkers, a high ceiling, and the sound of an organ playing from somewhere. Each window had linen curtains that went up to the ceiling and the room was lined in gold trim. On the right side, about halfway up the wall was a balcony. Nothing was on the balcony and it led somewhere but that somewhere was very dark.
As I stepped in, I noticed a huge set of marble doors on the other side; the door knobs were round. I walked toward them, each step echoed in the unclear and unsure room. I gripped the round knob, turned, then pushed and it took me to another strange room. Each wall was a color, including the floor and ceiling. Colored lights shined onto each. There was green, orange, purple, red, blue, and cyan. Sculptures of various shapes and sizes lined the outsides of the room— all facing inwards. The organ music was louder, very loud, and I realized there was a woman sitting at an organ hammering her fingers to the keys. I took a few steps toward the center of the room and it ceased. She straightened but didn't turn.
“Hello.” She said calmly.
“Sounded nice.” I said.
“Nice? That was Nikolai Mentura’s ‘Fleeting Hearts and Racing Windows.’ ”
She turned and rose. She wore a shining black dress and all of her dark hair was swooped to one side and held by a black pin. Her black lipstick and eyeliner emphasized her fair complexion as she walked toward me.
“Want to play a game?” She asked.
“What kind of game?”
“I go hide and you try and find me.”
“Hide and seek?”
“No, I go hide and you come find me.”
“Hide and seek.”
“The fire of the ice.”
“Okay so I am going to go hide— this museum is big, so good luck. I could be anywhere.”
She went through another set of doors and was gone. I fiddled with the organ and looked inside its interior while I let her hide. I didn't know if she was serious, but I was feeling adventurous.
After a few minutes I went through the doors and walked around. I was in a long hallway with doors on either side and in between the doors were displays of marbled heads and knights in armor. It was dim, and one light flickered. There was a scuffle in the first door on the right so I went in. What I found was an old man in a wheelchair who was trying to put clothes on. He was bare naked and his white goose skin dangled above his feet. His penis looked like an acorn— a white acorn. I immediately shut the door. Further down the hall was a door that was a different color than the rest— red. I tried and it was locked. I went into the one across the hall and a middle-aged man sat sipping tea at a long and furnished wooden table. A white table cloth ran along its top. Alongside his tea he had a plate of linguine, and a napkin was tucked into the collar of his shirt under a light beard that was a different color than his hair. The man looked up at me and gestured toward the seat opposite the long table.
I pulled out the chair and there was a stuffed bear, almost life size. Its head drooped.
“You can move Bear.” He said.
I placed the bear gently onto the ground and sat down.
“Put him in a chair. His favorite chair.”
I looked around and the room was full of chairs: big, small, tall, blue, skinny, silver, jagged. I got back up and picked up the bear. Then I looked at him for some sort of guidance. He gave none.
“His favorite chair.”
I put him in the silver chair and looked at the man. He shook his head, huffing and puffing. I tried the rusty chair. He gasped and shook his head again. I looked at the red chair and then back at the man, who lifted his chin and opened his eyes wide. I knew it was the one. I began to sit down as I said:
“Never have been a fan of red, myself.”
“You are missing out then. It’s the color of love, wine, and blood; all things that make us different from the stones that sit in the roads and the plants that pucker to the sun and sway in the wind. These are the things that really make us living.”
He lifted a tea kettle into the air.
“Sure.” I answered.
He poured some into a small white ceramic cup with a gold handle that sat on a small plate then got up and walked it over to me. I took a sip and burned my tongue.
“It bites,” he said as he walked back to his chair.
“What is it you do here?” I asked him.
He swirled a mass of linguine around his fork and lifted it above his plate then said,
“I own the place.” He threw the linguine into the back of his throat.
“The whole museum?”
“The East Wing, the Center Hall, the West Wing, and the many acres surrounding the building, but not the translucent garden; yes, the whole museum, you could say?”
Then he took a mouthful of linguine and the sauce dripped down his chin. I took more and more sips of tea while we talked. I can’t remember what we conversed about after that but I remember seeing something strange. A while into our talk I noticed someone had been walking around the room, opening windows and lighting candles. The figure would brush by my shoulder and go to the door, stop, take a deep breath, and then turn around and fiddle around in the room some more. I never looked at the person directly but they came in and out of my peripheral vision. Finally a loud noise made me look at them; they must have dropped something, a plate. They dropped a plate. I turned and saw the bear, bending over and picking up several fruits.
“Apologies, sir,” it said.
I turned back to the man, my jaw hung down.
“Now, don’t fret child, what you see is simply the absinthe toying with your perception. Fun, isn't it?”
He took another fork full of linguine and stuffed it into his mouth then grinned. I wanted to take his fork and pierce him in the neck. I looked down at my tea and the cup was empty. I had drunk all of it, every last drop. The candles in the middle portion of the table flicked on without hesitation, and the table cloth hardened like clay. The man across from me wasn't a man anymore; he was fluid with the atmosphere. His head melted with the air and the room instantaneously filled with colors; I saw him drift away, becoming smaller and smaller until he disappeared. It didn’t phase me as though it would have if were sober. Something yearned in me to disappear into the colors too but I could feel myself whole, a fabric of the tangible dimension. I stretched my hands toward his dissipation, but nothing happened. Then the room began to do backflips— one minute the floor would be the ceiling and then the ceiling the floor. On one turn around the ceiling was invisible and I could see the blue sky peeking into my junky mind. This was all before I passed out.
I woke up choking. Water had hit me in the face and gone into my nostrils where it travelled down my throat. On bended knee the man handed me his dirty napkin.
“Wipe yourself off, you dirty drug-addict.” He said.
I passed out again, and the last thing I saw was the bottom of his shoe as he stepped over me.
The second time I woke up he wasn't around. I left the room and glanced at a clock in the hallway and was surprised to see not much time had passed. It was still the afternoon. I tried the door at the end of the hallway, expecting it to be an exit, or a staircase or something, but what I found was both alarming and exciting. The woman who had been playing the organ was lying bare naked on a bed. She was on her side facing me, stroking her leg with a finger and smiling. The room was pure black and white: the floor was white and there was a giant black rug that led up to a black bed with white sheets and white pillows. Under all that swooped hair she smiled at me and with black-painted lips she said,
“Oops, you found me . . . Now make a kitty purr.”
Then she gestured me toward the bed with her pointer-finger. It curled toward her chin and led me in. She was looking right into my eyes and it all became very intimate; it was not clear to me I was about to be seduced; I was in a trance. I began to slowly advance the bed in a trance when the door behind me burst open.
“What’s going on in here?!”
It was the man who had drugged me. His face immediately reddened and he began fiddling his hands while looking down at the floor, ashamed.
“Ah, darling,” he said, still looking down, “I told you not to force our visitors to play hide and seek.” Then he looked at me, “You’ll have to forgive me, sir, she is mentally unstable and likes to play all of these weird games during the day.”
Where was I? What kind of museum was this? Who were these people?
“Put something on!” He shouted at her. Then she began crying and ran out of the room.
What is wrong with these people? I thought.
“That’s okay. I was just leaving anyways.”
I started walking in the direction I came and he followed.
“Listen, if you ever want to stay here a few nights, no charge, you’re more than welcome. Our door is always open.”
“I might take you up on that.”
“It’s just that, we don’t get many visitors and she gets lonely, and I haven't been sexually active for so long.”
“Like I said, that’s okay. Don’t worry. I just need to leave. Now.”
I quickened my pace. When I got to the door I waved goodbye, hopped in the Fiat and started home. It had been quite the adventure.
The next few days were uneventful. I cleaned the house, watched the ocean, and cooked dinners. The backyard of the house had a small chicken coop with a few sheep, one cow, and three turkeys. Sometimes they woke me up at dawn, other times they must have been as hungover as I was. These chickens laid the most soft of eggs that seemed to melt in your mouth. Every now and then one was sacrificed for its muscle. There were a few small rice plants that were harvestable when they glowed yellow and began to droop. I was not a good cook, but I respected its art, for who didn't love to eat? Chicken and rice soup was one of my specialties. Under my flame it tasted like shit but I had gotten so used it that I learned to enjoy it.
One night after a not-so-steady amount of drinking I was walking to the beach to look at the moon. I had started at Bubbly Tavern and somehow ended up at another pub I didn't know. Someone bought me a drink there, and I tried my best to be coherent but the conversation just didn't work out. The next thing I knew I was walking through the park coming up on the fountain; I was sobering up at this point. The park was very small: there were four white arbors that served as entrances to its symmetrical arrangement. Each arbor gave way to a dirt path, lined by colorful and aromatic flowers hidden among bushes. In the center was the fountain, and like any park, it was littered with trees and grass. No one was out tonight, or they had seen me coming and carefully scurried away. But I walked through the park and exited back on the road. I was walking along and noticed that in one wooden house at the top window, that window just underneath the peak of the roof, there was a bright yellow light on. A silhouette stood there at its side. I looked away when moments later a voice called to me. It was the silhouette. I looked up and the light blinded me; I could barely see it.
“What are you doing?” It asked.
It had a nice melody to it, as if it were singing instead of talking. Perfect pitch.
“Walking down to the ocean,” I answered. “I wanted to look at the moon.” My hand was blocking my eyes from being pierced by the light.
The voice giggled.
“Do you know the time?” It asked.
“No, it’s probably around eleven o’clock though?”
It giggled again.
“Hang on! I’m coming down.” The silhouette shut the window, seemed to undress, redress, then run out of the room. I looked toward the front door and a magnificent creature emerged into the night. She was wearing a white dress harboring blue flowers, and small brown shoes. I looked up at her face and it was the girl I’d seen the day at the beach— which seemed like years ago— but in reality was no more than four days ago. She laughed. The same feeling of ecstasy melted my internal body like the time it had that day on the sand. I could feel my body fall into itself where I lay a pool of skin and blood and eyes. It nearly sobered me up.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“Yes . . . I was just . . . Thinking.” I replied. I had nothing to say; it was always that way. Before or after an encounter with a girl like her I always had something intelligent or charming to say, but when I looked them in the face my body became still and my conversation numb. That was why I liked to drink with women. It greased the gears and provided coal to my engines. Luckily, she saved my dismissiveness with a cheerful proposition:
“Well, let’s go look at the moon!” She said cheerfully.
I liked how she was comfortable to approach me the way she had. And she was shameless in talking and accompanying me to the beach.
We walked on in a nice kind of silence. She was the kind of girl you felt like you had already known for years— easy and amiable. When we arrived at the ocean she pulled out a blanket she had hidden under her shirt for warmth. She fanned it up and down until it fell naturally on the sand, then she took my hand and pulled me to sit. I sat and took glances at her when she wasn't looking. She pulled a blue candle out from her pocket, and put it in front of us. A few matches were sacrificed until one finally popped under the safety of her hand, then ultimately gave its life to the wick of the candle. I pulled a bottle of wine from my coat pocket, one I had stolen from the unknown bar as I was leaving. I told myself I’d pay them back if I ever were to return, in one of my many future drunken visits. I never did. The cork was already a little bit protruded so I bit down hard and twisted. Wine flowed into my mouth and down my esophagus where it warmed my belly. I lifted the bottle to her and she took it in both hands and hit it like a champ— a big gulp followed by a smile.
“I just moved here.” She spoke.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“Wintermare. A town just south of the capitol.”
“I know Wintermare. I have run a few deliveries out there.”
It was true. When I worked for the government they had me riding all around the State, dropping off items and packages. It wasn't all bad. Just then she did something peculiar, she placed her hands flat on the ground and lifted herself closer to me. I could feel the warmth of her body in my core, and smell the wine from her glass. It was all very euphoric. I looked at her and she giggled then placed her small hand in front of her face and shyly looked down. I’d yet to see her in a bashful state and, it was quite surprising. She seemed to me a confident girl, while full of life also a bit young; obviously emanating with sheer and unimaginable beauty. I always felt a man needed no more than a woman, a bottle, and a good place to be— somewhere scenic that made the weight on your heart even heavier. It was all about weighing your heart down with things, until you died a heavy corpse.
Just then we heard a yelling from down the beach. From the darkness submerged a small and plump man, balding above round spectacles. He was waving a note in his hand.
“Madame Pomme! Madame Pomme!” He yelled.
I looked at her, and she didn't look the slightest bit worried by his entrance.
“Yes, Hector?” She asked.
“Your mother wishes to speak with you at once. She has said that she does not condone your little bon voyage and you are needed at home, where she can speak with you.”
She got up and nodded my way, but before getting too far she turned back and ran at me, she hugged me and said goodbye. Watching her attractive actions and the way she moved through the atmosphere like a thick paintbrush on a canvas I was mesmerized; I simply sat and enjoyed the view. She turned as she was leaving.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“Oh . . . Yes. Goodbye!” I smiled.
She laughed. I looked back over the water with the wine bottle still in my arms. Her blue candle had burned itself into obscurity; a pool of blue lay at the base of the blanket. I finished the wine, folded her blanket and took the candle. On my walk home I stopped by her house and left her blanket on the front doorstep.
It was a sleepless night again. As soon as I thought I was about to drift into a nice dream, I’d toss and turn with that girl on my mind. It was agony. Not only could I not fall asleep because of her, if I got halfway there, into that partly-dreaming bliss I would see her face, and it would start all over again. I got up and smoked some hemp, then eventually woke up the next morning in a daze.
Over the next few days I wrote a lot. Everywhere I walked I was smiling glazed in a mentality that I had conquered my own life; all that needed to be done was done. The previous events that transpired had set the stage for a grand finale in which I would close the curtains confidently myself. I lived in a state of both peace and anxiety to see her again. I walked into town and had to try not looking around desperately like a dog seeking a bone. A dark haired woman appeared from in between two wooden cabins and turned quickly, walking several yards ahead— I was in her wake. I stretched my neck right, then left, and tipped myself from toe to toe trying to make out the face of this woman. Could it be her? The hair was similar: long, straight, and dark with a hint of cherry. She turned slightly. It wasn't her, the nose was different. I was a hound for love. I stopped at Olga’s. As I walked up for a coffee I realized my heart was already sputtering and my toes tapping, if I had a coffee I might just die. So I got an herbal tea and sat in my chair, under the vines. I watched the people pass as they do. Nothing was happening, at least in my mind because I only wanted to see one person. Suddenly something fell from high above. It hit the tough pavement with a loud thud, which was followed by many screams. People began to run away and some even dropped everything they were carrying. It took me a couple seconds to realize something was off. Something clicked in my head and I noticed the town had lost its tranquility; the daily regiment of the town had come to a halt. I stood up and looked over the railing that contained rows of red and orange roses to find a man. He lay in a pool of blood and his body was mangled, twisted the way a body is not meant to go. He was in a nice suit. A coin bag poked from his pocket. A ragged man ran up, picked it like an apple, and was gone as quick as he’d come. I ran up to the body and turned it upside where a note came out of his hand. I pulled the note and read it:
Your time has come, Mr. Laugholin. Think of yourself as the chess piece that one uses off the start of the game: a pawn. Yes, a pawn. Because that is all you are. Now look behind you.
I looked up to the roof of Olga’s home but only saw the glare of the sun. I fished around in the man’s pockets and found a lure, one token, and another little note that was torn but the end was still legible. It was signed by who other than Mr. Hans— the man who’s letter I had read at Olga’s shoppe the other day. As the authorities approached me they cornered me into the wall of the shoppe and began their interrogation. After many attempts at speaking slowly with wit it was finally clear to them that I had nothing to do with the murder (or suicide) that had occurred. They let me go but I did not show to them the notes I had in my pocket. I never thought the port-town police did a respectful job. Several times I’d seen them beat the homeless, rob the poor, and walk into any building as if it were their own. I was lucky to get away from them that day.
I turned and went into Olga’s. Both incidences had happened near her shoppe: the letter for Hans and this murder (or suicide). I think suicide had been ruled out because of the suspicious note. She hugged me as I tried to speak and my words were pushed out faster:
“Olga, have you ever known a man by the name of Mr. Hans?”
“Oh, yes. A good customer— spends many shanks every time he comes in.”
“What’s he like?”
While I was asking her all of this, I suddenly realized— what am I doing? I’m going to get myself killed. She continued to answer my questions.
“Wealthy. Doesn't talk much. Comes in, gets his coffee, and leaves. Actually, come to think of it, he looks a lot like you. Same face, and hair.”
“What about a ‘Miss H?’ Ever meet a woman who goes by ‘Miss H?’ ”
“No, don't think so.”
“Okay, thanks, Olga.”
She smiled and there was food in her teeth. I left and tried to forget about the whole thing.
I decided to stake out the shoppe and wait for Hans to get thirsty. I looked for the man who looked like me. But first, I had to let things settle. If Hans was wrapped up in all of this then he wouldn't be so dumb as to show up right after this murder. So a few days went by and I was back at the shoppe, waiting. Where is the man who looks like me? The bastard wrapped up in all of this. I though about the courier who had given me his note by accident. I began to think of the girl with the candle: Madame Pomme. I wondered what her first name was— I bet it was beautiful. As I started to doze I saw some feet scurry by. Nice leather shoes. I looked up and a man with a suit and briefcase entered into Olga’s. He had a striking resemblance to me, almost identical if I had gotten a clean haircut. He too had short red hair and a red beard, only, his mustache was red; mine was white. He then exited the shoppe and I tailed him. He headed toward the harbor where trafficking ships and boats weaseled in and out of town. We turned a corner and I heard a “hello” from somewhere. As soon as I had, I knew who it was. My tailing was over. I looked over and there was Madame Pomme, as brilliant as ever, wearing a dirty red dress. I looked back at Hans and he was still heading to the harbor but he looked back and we made eye contact.
“Madame Pomme. How are you?”
She ignored my question and went straight into an explanation.
“I was walking to send something off at the post office when I noticed a crowd stirring at the beach. There were cameras and shouting. I went over and there was this huge hunk of flesh— a beached whale— it was just sitting motionless on the beach. I got furious that everyone was just standing there so I went over and tried to wrestle it back into the water. It wouldn't budge! Then I got angry at it and kicked it. As soon as my foot hit that blubber it ricocheted back and I left. People began laughing. So now I’m going to the launder to get a change of clothes. Want to join?”
“Sure.” I said and gave one last glance toward Hans who was now long gone. I didn't care though, Madame Pomme was all I wanted. She looked good in that dirty red dress, she looked good. We started walking and she began talking.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about you.”
“I’ve been thinking of you, too.”
“How come you never came by my house after that night on the shore?”
“I don’t know— didn't know if it was appropriate.”
“Do you always think so much?”
“I think so.”
“This way.” She said.
We went into a small store.
“This is my launder, Jerome. Jerome, this is . . .”
The launder gave me a petty look and shrugged me away.
“Madame Pomme, I have your linens.”
We left the snide little launder’s shop and I followed her to her house.
“Come in.” She said. “I’ll show you my room!”
Inside the house there was an elderly woman in a rocking chair. She rocked back and forth and her face was vacant.
“This is my mother’s friend.”
“Don’t bother, she doesn't know what is happening. She's a vegetable.”
The downstairs was small and crammed but had a warm coziness to it. We went up the stairs and into her room. It too was small and smelled nice. A typewriter sat by the window and her bed was messy and undone. She went into her closet and tried shutting the door but it never fully shut. It slowly swung back open, but only a little. She began undressing and changing into cleaner clothes. I glanced in the closet and saw her leg; never have I ever been so enchanted and charmed by something as simple as a leg. I don’t know if I am crazy— I think I am— but I couldn't look away. She looked at me and began laughing, then she began telling me a story but it was hard to focus on her words. It was about how her grandfather was in the military and travelled from town to town many years of his life. He kept falling in love in different places until one particular love made him abandon the military. He had told her he couldn't be away from her for a single day, so he left his barracks one night, changed his name, and altered his appearance. It didn't work; he was arrested and sent to prison, but when he got out the woman still waited for him all those years. That woman was her grandmother. She went on to tell me they were still alive and she sees them sometimes. She then said something that surprised me.
“Do you think you and I could have a story like that?”
“I . . . I hadn't thought about it.” I replied.
She walked over and fell onto me. Her whole body was in my lap and she laid looking up at me through some of her hair. We looked into each other’s eyes for moments and then kissed. I got excited, obviously, and then she pulled away. She lifted herself up, or maybe it was I that did . . . smiling, and explained that she had a dinner to get to. “A matter of business,” as she put it, and when I was leaving she said,
“Stop by again soon, please.”
I nodded and walked to the door.
“You seem shy and I don’t want you to be shy.” I caught her saying as I closed the door.
I walked down the stairs and out the front door with a large grin on my face. I felt like running all the way home without stopping, so I did. I was sweating profusely through my shirt as I got home. I poured some wine and took a bath. I tried to read but could only write. Everything that came out was happy and it was weird. Usually my writing was dark and sad, this stuff was joyous. I had three published poems that I never let anyone know about because if they read them they’d want to admit me to a psychiatric ward; they seemed like things a man about to commit suicide might say. But isn't that what makes good writing? The emotion? I thought so, for the most part. I was never into the story as much as what the writing was expressing. My favorite writers were all crazy. They were alcoholics, sex-addicts, didn't waste time with small talk; people who never settled and had to keep moving on from thing to thing and place to place. That was the thing about writing: all you had to do to make your writing a little bit better was live life experimentally. In a way, say yes to everything, for you could die tomorrow. Take as many experiences as you can to your grave. Wrap yourself in them, and then be lowered into your new abyssal home. And most important: never give up. Moving on is very important, but do not give up.
Anyways, there I was in a state of immense happiness. I thought my future looked very promising. I had a romantic interest, in this rare case that went both ways. All I needed to keep living on was to see her more and more.
The next day I woke up and shaved my face. A massive amount of hair clogged the sink. I had to work a few hours on it. I looked at my hairless face for some time in the mirror. I hadn't shaved in nearly five years! What a change.
Then I left the house. I found a very small-sized wooden boat. It was in bad shape but I climbed in anyways. My weight pushed the boat more into the water which began taking me out into the ocean. I grabbed the paddles and did some backstrokes while looking at my Uncle’s house. Even though he had given it to me in his will, it’d always remain his; I had never thought it to be my own. I looked left down the coast and the search light from the lighthouse was circling. I dipped the right paddle in and the boat veered right, pointing toward town.
Halfway there I saw a bait ball of fish and birds: the feast and the feasted. A small fishing vessel slowly approached and took advantage. A man in a white hat waved at me. I kept paddling. There was a slight salty tailwind that aided me; I barely had to row. The town looked much bigger than it really was from the sea. The tourists coming in on boats must have gotten overwhelmed at first sight, then disappointed by the illusion of grandeur. Two jetties poked out from the town and that’s where boats and ships went in between to make it into the harbor. The tailwind was so strong that I accidentally overshot these jetties. I was landed on the shore to their North, where a small and isolated house sat wallowing. At first I thought it was an abandoned house, with it’s boarded windows and crooked terrace, then I saw myself come out the front door, myself with a beard again? It was Hans! He came out with a man who's face was covered in shadows. His hat was pulled down far and his coat was pulled high. They walked off the patio and turned toward town with their backs toward me. I was just far enough that they didn't notice me. I could only hear bits and pieces of their conversation, something about a daughter they were seeking. I went to the front door and quietly opened it. Nobody was there. The inside was a little bit more tidy than the outside, it looked like it had been worked on a bit, but overall it was still pretty shanty. I was creeping around not seeing much of interest when I got to a locked door. I was about to kick it down when I saw a key sitting on top of the door pane. I snatched the key and opened the door quickly, my adrenaline had mixed with my curiosity and made an interesting cocktail of impatient wonders. There were all of these boxes of cocaine and some weapons sitting about, with one dirty mattress that lay in the corner. I heard voices coming inside the house and quickly left the room and went back toward the front door then dropped myself behind the couch. It was the same two voices as before: Hans and shadow-face.
“Look, if Miss Harriot tries anything, we take advantage of her family ties. If she doesn't care about family, we’ll go after her directly.”
It struck me, “Miss Harriot;” I remembered the “H” at the bottom of those letters, like the one addressed to the man I found mangled from gravity on the floor outside Olga’s Bakery. They moved toward the cocaine-room. I leapt up and ran out of the house and toward town.
Arriving into town I was frantic. The adrenaline had induced some sort of quivering in my spine, and I could not walk right. I don't even know where I was headed when Madame Pomme approached me with a gay look. Just then all my worries were vanquished; I forgot all about Miss Harriot and the cocaine and the dead body and the two men.
“Much sweat is on your brow. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter, anymore . . .” I replied.
“Come with me,” she said, “I want to show you something.”
I followed her again to her house where we went into her room. The typewriter was still there by the window.
“This is a poem I wrote about you when I first saw you.” She said.
I took the paper from her hand.
“I wrote it there,” she pointed at the typer, “you were walking by and I could see you through the window. We hadn't yet talked. I liked your style and your appearance. Then I saw you at the beach and you saw me.”
I could feel heat flushing into my face and lead was placed onto my chest as I read it:
there was a man who walked outside my door today
he walked in brown shoes
and his pace was quick
yet I somehow knew he was going nowhere
I saw him
but he didn't see me
his face appealed to me
as did his demeanor and cloth
I picture one day we’ll talk in this very room
and I will show him this poem
he’ll read it and maybe think it is lame
or maybe he will like it
maybe we won’t even ever meet
“Amazing.” I said, throwing my arms around her and kissing her.
“But you didn't think it was lame?”
“No— no. It’s great.”
After that our passion was an uncontrollable tornado to her fancy and well-made bed. It was calm and vicious, lovely and wild. She was wild. She was love. We both slept well into the morning, where I had to leave so she could be of aid to her grandmother’s friend, the vegetable.
I went through the next weeks with a coat of sweetness on my skin. I wore love on my sleeve. I was untouchable; nothing could harm me. I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. I went to the lighthouse with a saw. I sawed through the chains on the door and went in. What I saw was magnificent. I saw an ordinary lighthouse, as clean as a whistle. I took the stairs up and grew anxious to take Pomme there for a date. Wine and Pomme! Nothing more was needed! Wine, Pomme, a view! Oh, she is going to love this, I thought.
After the lighthouse, nothing truly interesting transpired during this happy time, and by the end of the second week I grew mentally and physically sick at having withdrawals from the simple sight of Pomme. I ventured a countless amount of times in these weeks to her home. She was never in. I was vomiting sleeplessly, I couldn't eat, I could not think correctly. I was feverish and thought of submitting myself to the Port’s one and only insanity ward. I heard a creak in the patio of the house and my eyes darted to the front door. Pomme? I said aloud. Is that you? I became doused in fear and angst that maybe I hadn't seen her in town or on my beach because she didn't want our romance to emanate and grow into a blossoming flower in the full swing of Spring, like I did. I began analyzing every moment I had with her. Every word that was shared, every mannerism she portrayed, and every single breath she took. Where had it gone wrong? What did I do? Was there a moment in which she changed? Her attitude, her tone, herself? I could think of none. Only one thing was certain: I was losing my mind and I desperately needed to find her to find it.
Then one Saturday I had a feeling. I woke differently. I put on a coat and ran out the door. I walked into town on the beach and made it to the bakery. From the bakery I went to Pomme’s house and knocked on the door. No answer. I peeked in the window in an agitated frenzy. I went back to the bakery and sat. What felt like an eternity went by when I saw someone I recognized. An expressionless woman turned a corner, heading in my direction. She strode quickly with fingers wrapped around her wheels-for-legs and her hands shooting forward; with each thrust she went a whopping ten feet. It was Pomme’s vegetable . . . grandmother’s friend. I leapt from my chair in excitement. Yes! Lead me to my love, vegetable! My mouth became watery, I could taste the luck that had just fallen into my lap. I felt like vomiting with joy. A copper taste flushed my taste buds and I swallowed. I threw a hand in the air, thanking the Gods above. The vegetable seemed to be in a frantic hurry. She drooled from her mouth all the while winning whatever imaginary race in which she was competing. I followed her up and down roads, past the snobby little launder’s store and the park and the main church. She went up a ramp and into the police station where I left her alone. I waited for minutes tapping my toes on the pavement and looking around worriedly when she came out with a policeman. The policeman and her took off at a gallop down the road. They led me to Pomme’s house where I heard the police officer yell. I ran inside. I went up to her room and saw her. She lie on the floor in a pool of blood. A small knife handle was in the center of the red mass. Her white dress was dark red and pink. Her wine-colored hair was red and wet, and her eyes looked fake. They looked sad, like they were expecting someone to burst in and save her before she die alone in a puddle of her own blood. Her mouth was open and her lips were dry and cracked. I could smell her scent and feel her breath. I could sense her spirit was in the room, it tugged at my sleeve and asked me where I was. It tortured me with questioned me on why I hadn't stopped in sooner. It cried out to me and embraced my whole body with an abrupt squeeze. I fell to the floor and knelt in the blood. I hugged the lifeless corpse and screamed that I was sorry and that I loved her. I wept like a baby. I cursed and I shouted to the Heavens and I rocked her body back and forth, trying to convince myself she was only sleeping. She was only sleeping! She was dreaming of me. We were on a cruise, just the two of us and we were laughing and smiling and talking of how we would grow old together. I would retire and no longer have to be away and we could spend every second together. We looked out at the water from our cruise and reminisced of how we had met in a shanty port-town. We told all the staff of the cruise, we bragged to them at how we fell in love at first sight. How she’d written a poem of me, and I had of her, without knowing it we had written of each other. I loved her poem. I loved it with every cell of my heart. I looked up near the window and there the poem was, sitting aside the typewriter. I took it off the shelf and went back to Pomme. I took her cold hand and pressed it on the page, the blood had made an outline of that sweet, small hand. I hugged her and the poem. Then I was kicked out of the room and the house by the policeman. I gazed up at her window as I left, there she was. She was sitting at the typer looking out the window. She was letting her fingers do the thinking and she was looking across the street smiling. I looked across the street. I saw myself walking quickly, going nowhere with my brown shoes. I began to cry heavily and I looked at her. She looked like a rose, she looked like an apple, she looked like all of my future and all of my past, she looked like my love. Blood began oozing from her mouth and she became sad. I ran home again, this time out of anger and confusion.
I left on the first cruise out the next morning. I hadn't slept. My mind was racing. I took out the poem from my bag. The red hand-print made me cry. I didn't read it just yet. I put it away and wept for a while.
Upon returning to my parent’s house my mother and I embraced for a long time. I told her of what had happened. I told her to sell the Estate; I’d never return. I noticed my father out in the backyard looking around at the garden. I went out. He was speaking to an orange tree. Then he looked at a carrot patch.
“Yes, yes.” He said to the carrot patch, not noticing me. “I feel the same way, but the color purple is much too enticing.” He then looked back at the orange tree and said,
“Sure, I will tell them for you. Anything for you.”
I cleared my throat and he turned and looked into my eyes.
“Ah, Nicholas, just place the bags in our room while we check-in.”
I hugged him; it was all too much for my weak mind to process.
I went into my room upstairs and pulled out the poem again. It wasn't the poem. It was something else.
Pomme, my sweet little Pomme. I know we haven’t talked in ages, and that is probably my fault, but you must listen to me. Mommy has messed up. She has messed up real bad. Some people are looking for her. And these people know of mommy’s daughter. They will come for you, there is no doubt. But they will not find you. You will be gone. You must pack your things and head for the West Cape. I will come to you at once when this is all over. I will come get you and hug you and keep you safe for the rest of your life. You’ll always be my little girl.
I crumbled up the paper and threw it at the wall. Then I went and grabbed it again. There was a red hair stuck to it. It was the hair of a beard, I could tell. I touched my hairless chin. Hans. My fists clenched and my teeth gritted. A terrible thought occurred to me: could Pomme distinguish Hans from me? Had she thought it was me with the knife? My anger was then consumed by sadness. I wanted to commit suicide but I was too weak. I’d never have the answer.
I went back to the port town a week later and searched endlessly for Hans. I was going to kill him. I had a knife similar to the one I saw in Pomme’s chest. I never saw him. I sat at the coffee shop every day for a month. Nothing. I went back two years after that. Again, nothing. Eventually, my vengeful feelings were vaporized; I no longer needed to kill Hans to feel better, I learned I would never feel better. I would wait out my life in a bitter excitement to die and see Pomme in Heaven, if there is one.
I still have her blue candle, the one she lit the first night we formally met; a relic upon which I bestow my most childish and true feelings of what I can only imagine is love. It sits on my most endeared shelf, withered and worn from years of neglect; having not been touched, but stared at until the tear shed from my eye slowly unravels itself into my once again untrimmed beard. And I don’t know if I have or ever will own anything as confusingly capricious; in terms of emotional display— for nothing else that’s tangible can make me quiver with thoughts I don’t nearly understand, other than that burned-out candle that was left with me on the night I fell in love.
Marelize Roets is a globe-trotting member of the only white tribe in Africa. She is rapidly gaining her ten thousand hours of experience writing, pursuing her degree in creative writing in Orlando, Florida. She lives her life by making bad decisions until someone comes from the future to stop her.
Summer sat on a tawny leather couch. Her skinny legs dangled as she swung her feet back and forth. Diplomas from different universities hung on the walls and the room smelled like wood cleaner. Pictures in plastic black frames faced away from her on the desk. A stack of faded green files lay in a neat pile to the one side and some books were alphabetically ordered on the other. She leaned back and mouthed the words imprinted on a golden plate on the door to her right.
Doctor E. L. Richardson.
The red on her lips smudged as she bit the bottom one. She looked down at the violet-colored chipped nail polish on her fingertips. She flinched and curled her hands into fists.
“Summer, so sorry to keep you waiting,” said Dr. Richardson as he hurried into his office. He closed the door behind him and sat opposite her.
She smiled shyly and twirled a strand of mousey-brown hair around her finger.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
He held a small yellow notepad and a pen ready to scribble his observations. He peered at Summer. The tips of her fingers were covered in tiny red dots. He furrowed his brow and made note of the dots.
Strange red dots on fingertips.
“I made a new friend,” said Summer. She opened her fists and thrust her hands outward.
“That’s good, Summer,” he said. “How does that make you feel?”
“Good,” she said. She let her hands rest on her dangling legs.
“What is your new friend like?”
“Perfect,” she said, biting her lip. She lifted her chin and looked up to the ceiling.
“What else can you tell me about her?”
“My friend is not a her,” she said, giggling.
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Richardson. “Is your friend a boy?”
“My friend and I learned how to sew,” she said, ignoring his question.
Summer pushed her thumb against her index finger and glared at the tiny red dots.
“I would take the string and push it through the small hole. That’s called threading the needle,” she said, motioning with her hands. Dr. Richardson scribbled in his yellow notepad.
Strange red dots on fingertips from sewing?
“It was difficult at first because I have never sewed before,” she said. “But I’m really good at it now.”
“What were you sewing?” asked Dr. Richardson.
“It took a while to get all the pieces I wanted,” she said.
“Pieces for what, Summer?”
“First, there was Paul. He had the nicest hands,” she said, looking at her own.
Dr. Richardson squinted and tilted his head. He remained silent.
“Then there was Erin from the Laundromat. She had the nicest neck.”
“Are these your friends, Summer?” he asked, scribbling in his notepad.
Avoidant personality disorder?
“Then there was Ryan. He liked to go to the gym. He had the nicest arms.” Summer’s eyes glazed over as she described each body part.
“Then there was Fay. I didn’t like her. She said mean things about me but she had the nicest lips.”
Dr. Richardson continued to scribble in his notepad.
Avoidant personality disorder?
“How do all your friends make you feel, Summer?” he asked.
“Then there were the triplets: Eric, Christian and Tracy. They were the easiest because they lived together. Three of the nicest parts in one place.”
“What did you like about them?”
“Eric had the nicest eyes and Christian had the nicest hair. Tracy had the nicest legs,” she said.
He remained silent.
“You can’t just use any thread, you know? I had to find the right one. A strong one,” she said.
“Summer, what did you--” A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. He continued to scribble in his notepad.
“It took a while to get all the pieces I wanted,” she repeated.
Dr. Richardson remained silent. Summer pushed her thumb against her index finger and glared at the tiny red dots.
“Dr. Richardson,” she said, biting her lip. “You have the nicest chest.”
From the writer’s novel The Short End of the Double-tree.
“Mom, do I have to go?”
“Yes, Agnes is your cousin and we all have to go.”
“She’s just a second cousin. I shouldn’t have to go for just a second cousin, besides, she’s just ten years old. We were never close.”
“Stop complainin’ and get dressed. You’re goin’.”
This Sunday, Seth Fleming’s daughter Agnes was to be baptized at the Lighthouse, more commonly known as the Nuthouse. Seth was the cousin of Hank and Bud Fleming and he worked for Worley’s farm supply in Choctaw. Seth’s family lived across the line in Davis County near Zeb’s Crossing, and were among the faithful in the Lighthouse, where Preacher Joe was pastor. All the Flemings, and Sliegh and Bessie Worley were compelled to attend. Jeanie had grown up going with her grandmother to a sensible rural church and for several months since moving back to Choctaw had been attending church with Sliegh and Bessie’s granddaughter Alice and her family. Jeanie had always been an obedient child and never complained, but this was too much.
At the Worley household, things weren’t much better.
“You could tell them I’m sick and can’t come,” Sliegh said.
“Would you really want me to tell a lie for you?” Bessie replied.
“No, you know I wouldn’t, but maybe just this once. It’s just a little white lie,” Sliegh teased.
“Go read the paper or do something.”
“I think I’ll take a little stroll while you finish getting ready.”
Sliegh walked along the dirt road to the Crossing being careful not to kick up dust on his best Sunday suit. The thought of spending at least two hours in the Lighthouse made him shiver, and with the baptism, the ordeal would probably last longer, so Sliegh needed a little nip for reinforcement. The uncontrolled religious rampage bothered him of course, but knowing that Preacher Joe, the pastor, was just a con artist and religion was his scam bothered him more. He had to control himself among Brother Joe’s nutty flock for two hours or more. Brother Joe was Sis Bradley’s son so she would be in church and the pool-room would be closed. Sliegh didn’t want moonshine anyway. Though Prohibition had ended more than a decade in he past, and bonded liquor was available, blue laws made Sunday sales illegal, but Sliegh knew all the bootleggers.
“Bill Hardman might have a little something,” Sliegh said to himself.
Bill was sitting on his front porch when Sliegh walked up.
“Hello Sliegh, what are you doin’ in the Crossing. You ain’t goin’ to church?”
“We aren’t going to our church this morning, we’re going to the lighthouse.”
“You picked a good day for it. Sister Gussie’s in fine voice, she’ll be shoutin’ down the house. They’ll be walkin’ the bench tops and swingin’ from the light fixtures,” Bill laughed.
“Ooooh,” Sliegh groaned, “You don’t know anybody who has a little nip, do you?”
“No Sliegh, I can’t think of anyone who would still have some. You might check around; you never know.”
“I’ll look around the Crossing anyway. Maybe there’s some you don’t know about.”
“I hope you find some, you’re goin’ to need it.”
Sliegh groaned and walked on. He went to the homes of all the bootleggers but all had sold out.
“I may as well go home. I won’t find anything this morning,” Sliegh mumbled.
Sliegh was walking back through the Crossing when he saw Lukey sitting on the bench in front of the blacksmith Shop.
“How’s it going Lukey?” Sliegh said.
“Doin’ aw right Mr. Sliegh, how ‘bout you?”
Sliegh could tell by Lukey’s speech that he had imbibed.
“Where did you get a bottle, Lukey.”
“From Bill Hardman,” Lukey said.
“He told me that he didn’t have any,” Sliegh said.
“Well I just left his place and he had plenty.”
Sliegh walked back to Bill’s home. Bill was still on the porch.
“Why did you say you didn’t have anything to drink when I asked you? Lukey said you do.”
“You didn’t ask me if I had any, Sliegh.”
“I did not fifteen minutes ago,” Sliegh protested.
“No Sliegh, you didn’t ask me if I had any, you asked me if I knew anybody that had any, and I told you the truth. I didn’t know of anybody who had any.”
Sliegh just groaned and walked home. It was time to leave for the Lighthouse and he was out of the mood for a nip now anyway. Bessie was ready when Sliegh arrived. She was sitting on the front porch swing.
“I guess we can’t get out of going. I’ll bring the car around,” Sliegh said.
When they turned into the church parking lot, Sliegh saw Hank Fleming’s pickup truck. Jeanie and Jim were in the back.
“Hello Jeanie,” Sliegh said, “does your family come to church here?”
“Hi Mr. Worley.”
“That’s better. What are you doing here?”
“Agnes is my cousin. I had to come, under protest.”
“Me too, but don’t tell Seth.”
“I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me.”
“Are these your parents?”
“Yes; this is my mom Cora and my dad Hank.”
“I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Fleming, Mrs. Fleming. We all love Jeanie very much. You’re related to Seth?”
“Seth’s Dad’s cousin. We’re all from Davis County.”
“We think highly of Seth. He does our deliveries from the store. He asked us to come to his daughter’s baptism so of course we came. I didn’t know Jeanie was related to him though.”
“I didn’t know where he worked. He still lived in Davis County when we moved away from Choctaw.” Jeanie said.
“He came to work for me when I opened the store in nineteen twenty-four, that’s over twenty years. When I didn’t make much during the depression and couldn’t pay much, he stayed with me and accepted that ever I had. I made it up to him later though. He has a ten-percent interest in the business on top of his wages. You don’t often find man like Seth.
“You sure don’t,” Cora agreed.
Hank just frowned.
The musicians and choir were already in their places when the Flemings and Worleys walked in and sat on the back pew. Bud and his family sat across the aisle. Brother Joe entered from the front and waked to the pulpit.
“Beloved, we are so happy you came to worship with us today.”
“He hopes we brought our wallets too,” Sliegh whispered.
“Sliegh, hush, someone will hear you,” Bessie said.
Jeanie tried to cover her snickering, but couldn’t.
“Today is a special occasion,” Brother Joe said. “We are baptizing the daughter of one of our most faithful members. Agnes Fleming has been coming to this church with her daddy Seth and mother Irene since she was a baby.”
“In spite of all I could do to prevent it,” Sliegh mumbled.
“Sliegh,” Bessie said, and elbowed his arm.
Jeanie snickered again and Cora gave her a hard look.
“Beloved, before the singers come around, I want to read you a letter I got from Preacher Bennett, the missionary we support in Africa. He writes, ’My dear friends, brothers and sisters at the Lighthouse, I have a prayer request about a pressing need. My old truck broke down and I have no way to travel to preach to the heathen. I know the people of the Lighthouse can’t afford to help me, but you can pray that some rich church will meet my need.”
“We may be poor but we ain’t that poor,” someone called out from the congregation, “I think we should get his truck fixed.”
The crowd responded shouting amen and glory. Brother Joe took out a handkerchief and wiped away the tears that weren’t in his eyes.
“My heart is moved. I knew the Lighthouse people would come through. We’re going to pass the plates for a special mission offering to fix his truck.”
“Did you notice that the letter was written on paper with the Lighthouse letterhead?” Sliegh whispered.
“Sliegh, hush,” Bessie said.
Jeanie just snickered.
The plates were passed then the singers took the platform. These were professional singers and musicians that traveled with Preacher Joe in his tent crusades. Brother Joe had them come once in a while to the Lighthouse. Shallow, emotional songs were the order of the day and the congregation responded with crying and shouting. Some did holy dances while others passed out in the spirit. After this group sang several songs, the plates were passed again to raise money for war orphans in Hawaii. Joe said he would visit the orphanage and deliver the money in person when the war ended..
The choir sang and several groups and soloists followed them, the plates were passed again for tithes and offerings to support the Lighthouse, then Brother Joe walked to the pulpit.
“Beloved, I have a special message for you today. The reason the big churches don’t get blessed is they don’t have faith. The reason we are blessed at the Lighthouse is we have faith, and we prove it by our prove-your-faith offerings. It won’t do any good to talk to the people in the big churches, but you can talk to your friends that go to the small country churches and tell them that if they want to be blessed, they must prove their faith. Some will say that they give to their churches. Tell them that their churches are not doing anything to reach the heathen. If they want to be blessed they need to make prove-your-faith offerings to Preacher Joe Evangelistic Association. We preach crusades all over the country and starting this past winter, I made my first mission trip to the heathen islands to preach to the head hunters and cannibals.”
“Heaven help the poor cannibals,” Sliegh whispered.
“And head hunters too,” Jeanie mumbled.
Brother Joe’s missionary journey to the heathen isles was to the casino in Havana.
Brother Joe then read his text from the Bible, which had nothing to do with his sermon, and began to preach. He huffed and puffed, panted and chanted, whispered then shouted, drank water, and wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief. Sometime he was on his knees sometimes he jumped up and down. He ran back and forth in the aisle amid the shouting, crying, and holy dances. After his sermon ended, he passed the plates again for those who may have come in late. Then Agnes was baptized.
After the delirium, the Flemings and Worleys talked for a moment in the parking lot.
“Jeanie, we enjoyed having you with us last weekend with the girls. I hope you will come with them again,” Bessie said.
“Thank you for having me. I love the stories Uncle Sliegh tells. He should write them in a book.”
“Don’t encourage him, he’s bad enough now,” Bessie said.
While Bessie spoke with Hank and Cora, Jeanie whispered to Sliegh.
“Alice told me that her dad said it is wrong to hate, but he thinks God might make an exception when it comes to Brother Joe.”
“Ssssh,” Sliegh responded. “Bessie might hear you.”
“I did hear you and when Arthur comes home I’m going to get after him about saying things like that. Imagine a pastor of a church saying such things.”
Sliegh winked at Jeanie then whispered, “If Arthur didn’t have a sense of humor he couldn’t live with Sara.”
Jeanie laughed and climbed in the truck.
“I’ll see you next Sunday, bye,” Jeanie said.
“Here?” Sliegh teased.
“No, the church in Choctaw. But it would be kind of entertaining to come here again.”
Andrew Marinus writes mostly speculative fiction, with an occasional comedy article at Cracked.com. He lives in Vancouver BC.
“When the Music's Over”
An empty 2:05AM parking lot is all geometry – white lines on black pavement, angles of light cast from the orange, high-mounted halogens. It’s the magic hour when the whole glass carnival of a city goes silent and still, jutting out towards the stars.
Alice and Junior face each other . Alice contentedly rocks on her feet, still coming down from an earlier ecstasy trip. “Virgil, give us a song we can move our feet to.” Junior, rigid and uneasy about his first dance lesson, takes a sip from his mickey of whiskey and looks to back where his chalk sits on the pavement, below his unfinished scrawl: THEY SAY THAT LIFE’S A GAME, AN-
Not too far away Virgil and Mal stand under a light post, holding twin beers. An open eight-pack sits by their feet, half empty.
Mal prods Virgil. “You should play Cap. Beefheart for his first dance lesson. “Gimme Dat Harp Boy”, maybe?”
Virgil shakes his head, using his free hand to scroll through the songs in his ancient screen-cracked iPod. “I figure we should help him out rather than pull the rug from under him.” He hits play and a restrained ballroom-type waltz begins.
“Okay dude,” Alice says to Junior, “Put your hands on my waist. Lower.”
Virgil and Mal observe without comment as the duo trips into action. Alice’s voice instinctively drops its regular ‘skateboard girl’ casualness for something more precise and instructive: “You start by moving your foot here... and when my foot goes here... there you go... and here... that’s it...”
Stumble. “Dammit I'm too uncoordinated for-”
“The key is to get out of your own way,” she tells him patiently. “Let yourself flow in-sync with the music. Your feet know what to do all by themselves.”
Junior’s awkward undulations fall into line. Their dance floor spans four parking spaces’ worth of tarmac.
Then Alice’s phone starts beeping out an “Under My Thumb” ring tone.
“Sorry, I kind of have to take this.”
Breaking away from Junior, she answers her phone. “Ja, mein herr?”
Noise. Her father sounds like he’s been up waiting for her for four or five hours, sitting in a chair by the front door with nothing to do but froth. Alice throws in a few “hey”’s and “wait a minute”’s, but mostly just waits patiently for him to run out of steam. When he does, she moves in with clipped tone – “I’m seven-fucking-teen, dad. How many years do you think a kid should go before being let out of the cradle?” Junior returns to scrawling out his graffiti, a little bummed but smiling at her gall.
A loud minute later, Alice hangs up, swears once, and looks up to the night sky.
“What’d that dick have to say?” Virgil calls, sympathetic.
“Nothing worth remembering.”
Junior's not even halfway done his chalk stanzas when the gun goes off. It’s a Webley-Fosbery, an antique automatic revolver from 1915, and it's poking out the back window of a dark blue pickup at the end of the lot. A bullet flies out. The barrel chunks itself back into place, fires. Fires. Fires.
Something rasps by Junior’s ear. A window shatters three blocks back. Ricochet tings off a lamp-post next to Mal. Alice’s head puffs out in a spray of red. Asphalt crackles four blocks away. The tail-light of a car at the other side of the lot spatters plastic-
Mal steps behind the post next to him without thinking. Virgil drops down without thinking. Alice slumps to the pavement without thinking, with a sickening crunch.
Junior’s body tries to move, but there’s no cover anywhere near. Still bullets though, BLAM – BLAM – BLAM. The first is a rustle of air, the second clangs off Mal’s post again, and the third slaps away a chunk of flesh from Virgil’s upper arm.
One second of frozen silence, and then the blue pickup shifts into Drive. The tires burn out against the pavement before they catch and launch the truck forwards.
Virgil looks down at his bulleted arm, mouth agape. Mal, still standing behind the pole, asks, “You all right, man?”
Junior looks a dead girl in the eyes. She's on the ground not five feet in front of him, shattered cell phone next to one limp arm. Where her nose should be, there’s a big red hole. Her blood trickles to the pavement.
“Hey!” He stands up and sprints after the truck.
For five seconds it looks like he might make it, tenth-grade-decathalon-third-medalist legs pumping hard behind him. Then the driver sees him in the rearview and shoves the gas pedal down. The truck belches forward.
“License plate!” Junior shouts, “One! Three! Seven! R.! F.! L.!”
Mal searches himself for a pen. The truck makes a right turn behind a building, and it’s gone.
Junior stops running, but doesn’t want to turn around and come back to face the blood on the pavement.
Virgil cuts loose his first cry of pain. Mal asks, “What was that plate number again?!”
From a muffled street somewhere, there is the two-second hurricane crash of vehicles slamming into each other. Then horn.
Standing still, Junior flashes on the bullet-hole through the middle of Alice’s last, perplexed face.
He sprints down the street, cuts past block after block, paved slabs and painted lines angling into one another ahead, falling apart behind. Red lights. Green lights. Yellow lights. At every intersection he looks in both directions for any sign of a crashed car. After ten blocks, the constant car-horn drone is splitting his head apart.
Rounding the next street, he finds a grey shitbox Volkswagen mashed up against a crumpled, darkened streetlight. It was felled by an impact to the driver’s side. Even a block away, Junior can see the semiliquid red mass spilled out the driver’s-side window.
The truck is gone, but there’s busted glass and a dark blue side view mirror lying in the road.
Junior stops twenty steps short of the wreck, heaving in breath. The point of impact was right about where he’s standing.
He ran a red light and smashed through someone else. And just... kept going. Junior shuts his eyes and inhales deep, through his nose – a calming technique.
The air smells like machine oil.
His eyes snap open and fixate on the pavement. There's shrapnel and litter – and an oil slick.
Down the road a ways, there's another oil slick. And one more further up the road, near the leftmost path of a fork in the road.
Junior stands there, looks at the oil, at the corner, at the Volkswagen driver. When his breath’s halfway back to normal he starts after the oil-smell, nose to the air like a bloodhound.
Somewhere behind him, a police siren warbles into life.
What exactly are you doing right now? The cops don't need your help... most dead kids played 'detective' too, you know.
Four blocks of oil slicks away, he finds the dark blue truck steaming next to the sidewalk, crumpled engine ticking as it tries to cool. Unoccupied. In the box, there’s a half-dozen ejected bullet casings.
He dumped the bullets. Did he reload more?
Who does this truck belong to?
The shattered passenger’s side window renders the locked door useless. In the glove compartment there are papers identifying the truck’s owner as Gerald Orr. In the backseat, there’s a paperback copy of The Long Walk, split in the middle like someone’s constantly flipping back to the same part. And there's bloodstains all over the upholstery.
Shooter in the back. Driver in the front. Two people.
Within walking distance of you. Right now.
To his left, past a curve in the road, a crosswalk starts beeping. Junior’s head swivels around and he takes a step in that direction.
What’s the point? You got one’s name and you can I.D. the car. They can keep running all they want; won’t stop the cops from catching up.
He looks at his watch. 2:23am. Sunday morning.
He does the math. Twenty-nine hours and thirty-seven minutes from now, you’ll be sitting in Home Ec.
But she won’t.
His legs move. Momentum builds up, fast. Stars and streetlights accelerate past his eyes.
The key is to get out of your own way... let yourself flow in-sync with the music...
He turns a corner and the moon swings between buildings.
Your feet know what to do all by themselves...
After pulling his shoes off on impulse, his socked feet on the pavement are utterly silent. A satellite blinks overhead, drifting from one glass horizon to another.
Up the street, footsteps clap against the pavement. Shadows pass under street lights. A voice layers itself over everything: “-two spics and a fucking nigger and you gotta hit the one white girl? Boy, you better learn to shoot better or I'm gonna tan your ass with a belt sander, you hear?”
There's a sob, something unintelligible. Junior’s steps falter. The sob is male, pained, young. Kid-young.
“Fucking press down harder and less blood will come out!”
Junior approaches the figures. One’s a bulky monstrosity in crisp khaki pants and a turtleneck. Several steps behind him is this small curly-haired boy maybe twelve years old, one arm held gingerly by the other. A rough-looking revolver is tucked in the back of his plastic belt. He struggles to keep up with dear old Dad.
“Crying from a broken arm... If your mum was still alive, she’d be fucking disappointed, get me? She wanted a man, not a boy.” He’s beating his kid – swinging belts and backhands into the skin with every word.
Thirty steps behind the boy, Junior moves like dead air, legs mechanical. He doesn’t really want to keep going. A kid with a gun in his hands and this man's voice in his ear... trapped in the same house til he's eighteen...
The boy asks softly, “What’s going to happen to the truck-?”
“Why don’t you shut up about the truck, huh? I know the guy at the impound. It’ll be fine.”
The cops’ll still find it within blocks of the Volkswagen. Your name... you’re not getting away from this. Child services can take the kid-
“Shit...” Something metal falls to the father’s feet. He stoops to pick it up. Junior only gets one look at it glinting in the streetlight, but it stops him fast as a landmine.
It’s a brass police shield.
So Alice’s body just became an unsolved statistic, and the kid isn’t going anywhere.
Junior stands in place for ten long seconds watching the shadows huff and puff along the pavement. His eyes measure things not readily apparent, and then he ghosts after them.
Sock-footedly silent, he comes up behind the father-son team and snags the gun from the kid's belt. The kid cries out. Dad turns around. “Who- You let him-?!”
Junior steps into the road, moving the kid out of his line-of-fire. Points the gun. The Dad's Adam's apple bobs as he looks down the barrel. He's got sallow yellow skin and the kind of self-satisfied pudge that comes with being a wealthy antique gun collector. And now he has the cop shield out again.
“-listen you will be FUCKING YOURSELF if you do this – YOU SHOOT A COP, THE REST WILL-”
Junior lines the sights up with the Dad’s head.
Mal crests over the rise behind Junior, wheezing.
In an instant, the Dad’s voice takes on a voice of cool authority. Waving the cop shield, he says, “Police! Sir, I need you to phone 911 right now – this kid with the gun carjacked me and my son. Oh my god, he shot a girl...”
Junior’s eyes sag. He looks at Mal. Mal swallows, closes his eyes, and says, “Okay.”
He looks at the Kid. The Kid looks down at the pavement, supporting one broken arm with the other... and shrugs.
Dad sees it and goes quiet.
Mal and the Kid both cover their eyes.
Junior aims for the mouth. The Dad’s cheek puffs out and skull fragments spray out the back of his head. The hole in his brain feels itself and a shrill scream comes out what's left of the Dad's mouth.
The gun’s an automatic, so it doesn't stop after one bullet. Junior’s finger responds by clamping down on the trigger. Staccato shots veer all over, tear holes through the man's turtleneck. Dark fluids spatter in the orange streetlight. The Dad's scream cuts off like an unplugged alarm clock and he slumps to the sidewalk one limb at a time. Last to fall is his hand, reaching towards his son.
No one moves. No one claps.
Junior’s hand aches around the emptied gun. He looks at it, then tosses the gun into the gutter.
“Kid, the cops – actual nice cops – are going to come here in a few minutes and take you places. Your Dad was a bad person. We all know bad people sometimes. You gotta get over that shit, forget it.”
The Kid’s twelve-year-old eyes don’t react. He hasn’t looked at the dead Dad behind him yet. Will he look back at all?
His dull, innocent face...
...Alice’s dead, innocent face.
“But,” Junior says slowly, “if you ever forget her... I’ll kill you.”
He turns and walks to Mal.
The Kid calls softly. “Am I broken?”
Junior shrugs. “Today, maybe. Tomorrow you don’t have to be. It’s something you gotta work at.”
Then he and Mal walk – past the next block, over a rise, and the Kid’s gone.
Police sirens mill about in the distance. Mal huffs and puffs. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Track and field medalist.”
“Did you have to be so rough on him?”
Junior adjusts his glasses. “He wouldn’t look at his dad. Means he would push away thoughts of Alice, too. Young, he can form whatever self-serving rationale he wants – soften the hit – all smiles and pleasantries...” He blinks. “I want him crippled. Just a little bit. For her... I mean it's not like he'll go to prison or anything. He’s under eighteen.”
“Same deal for you.”
Silence proliferates. They arrive at Junior’s shoes. He slides his feet in, takes a step, then halts.
“Wait, you just ditched Virgil to deal with the cops by himself?”
“He told me to! Figured you were going to get yourself shot.” There is a long pause. “Are you... okay? After, like, shooting a guy?”
“He deserved it.”
“Not what I asked.”
Junior looks down at his hands. “You know when you crumple an empty beer can and throw it in the trash – it felt kinda like that.”
He rubs the index finger on his right hand. The trigger finger.
“Except you get beer all over your hands. And you're wearing your best shirt, so you don't want to wipe them off on that, so you're looking around for something to wipe your hands with, but there's nothing, and you can feel the beer getting sticky, flies buzzing around your head like vultures-”
Sirens edge over the sound horizon, sweep inexorably towards them.
“So what happens now?” Mal asks.
“A lot of bad noise. And a phone call home. Jesus-” Junior's body deflates. “Mum and Dad...”
“I can call them first. Explain things...”
Enough walking – they stop at a bus-stop bench. The cops will readily come to them.
“Was he really a cop?”
“Yeah. The worst kind.”
“Why'd he start on us?”
“He didn't like the look of our skin colour.”
Mal looks over in disappointment. “That's it?”
The squad cars blare into their street. Headlights reflect off Junior’s glasses. He speaks in a rush: “Take some pictures of me, my face. That way any bruises they give me during arrest-”
“No cell phone,” Mal says dismally.
“Well. Shit.” Junior thinks a moments, then takes off his glasses and hands them over. “Take these, so they don't get broken. Can't afford another pair.”
Mal takes and tucks them into his jacket. “Don't worry. You're under eighteen, too.”
Junior nods without enthusiasm. What can they give you? Community service? Mental hospital? What will everyone say, knowing you’ve killed someone?
Time’s up. Tires roll over the curb, and the first cop steps out of his vehicle, wrath in his eyes, gun out of holster. And all at once, Junior sees the world like some senseless, layered shape, with an ooze of malice poured across and through it, perpetuated down generations of people – wrongs righted with murk, leading only to more murk.
Junior raises his hands in surrender without being asked. The cop doesn't slow.
A second cop leans out the window of the squad car and announces crisply, “Officer Nash, what are you DOING?”
Bad Cop Nash looks around awkwardly. To have assumed his partner was a certain kind of person, who would keep quiet, and to be absolutely shafted like this... His body goes cold, and he is unable to process how to react. “Uh-”
“Take your hand off that pistol.”
Nash looks down, slides the death-stick back into its holster, looks up, and aggressively avoids eye contact with anyone.
A long silence develops as Nash hopes Good Cop will take the reins, and Good Cop steadfastly refuses to acquiesce. Junior and Mal exchange glances.
Nash breaks first. “Identify yourselves.” Can't even bring himself to shout anymore.
“Ed Simmons, Jr.” Junior points to his friend. “Malkovich Leward.”
“What connection have you to the bodies?” Nash can't figure out what to do with his hands. He gracelessly points over his shoulder with one thumb. “Back there?”
“Do you not listen to the police feed?!” Good Cop shouts, exasperated. He yanks the dial on the police radio up and turns on the megaphone with a squawk of feedback. Then a dispatcher's voice says, “-blue pickup truck wanted in connection with fatal hit-and-run and shooting. Two young civilians may be in pursuit-”
Good Cop finally steps out of the car. “Put your hands down, kid. Nash, go report that we've found them while I take a statement.”
All it took was one level-headed officer to put an end to this cycle of malice, and it took nothing more than a few well-placed words.
Junior examines Good Cop. He's got kaleidoscope eyes, bright throughout, coated with temporary outrage. His eyes say, there are lines you don't cross when you wear a gun at work, you arrogant rookie. And then his mouth opens and says it aloud to Nash, who climbs into the cruiser without looking back.
“Okay,” Good Cop pulls a notepad and pen out of one pocket. “Sorry about that. Just tell me what happened.”