I S S U E
F A L L
2 0 1 1
EDITOR Colin Meldrum ASSISTANT EDITORS Michael Bagwell Charlene Logan Burnett Amanda DiSanto Emily J. Lawrence Rachel Lieberman Lisa McCool-Grime Hayes Greenwood Moore Micah Unice
MANUSCRIPT READERS Jeffrey Allen Zach Buscher Ryan Fowler Janet McClaskey Michael James Wilson
A cappella Zoo (ISSN: 1945-7480): a magazine of magic realism and slipstream. Founded 2008. Published semiannually in spring and fall. A cappella Zoo is an independent, labor-of-love publication. Issues are available online for free and in print at non-profit prices. Readers help support A cappella Zoo and its contributors by sharing favorite works with friends and colleagues. New submissions are welcome during our reading period months, currently May and November; guidelines available online. Copyright © 2011 All rights retained by authors/artists of respective works. Cover art by ANNA BRON for Take Up the Bonnet Rouge.
APOSPECIMEN AWARD WINNERS Selected as especially noteworthy contributions to this issue: Poetry: Ginny, ELIZABETH O‘BRIEN Short Fiction: Mescal Reposado con Gusano, ROBIN LEE JORDAN Shorter Fiction: A Theory of Music, WALTER BARGEN
When it happens, it feels as though his head is being forced through a keyhole. —Proximity
Wade was casual when he approached a woman on a busy street and told her to give him her money. —The Arc’s Descent
I bet the French love of gnomes is doing with their blood-red hats. —Take Up the Bonnet Rouge
It‘s too late. Last night, I saw it reach for his face. —Mescal Reposado con Gusano
When they move, from the clouds down to the ground, Melody refuses to look at her father. —Moving Down
Drill and saw. Black fingers on a flask. Teeth in a circle of repose. Touch his hand. —Factory
The phantasmagoria isn‘t scheduled to begin for another hour, so we have time for a walk. —What Follows Us
To Those Crawled Across in Sleep —from The Centipede Love Songs
I haven‘t kept count of all the times I‘ve stuck your nose back on. —Gumby Falls Hard DRAWING|
Tastes Like Feathers NELSON LLOYD
30 | Waving on the Moon TANIA HERSHMAN
46 | Painting God at Epcot ALEXANDER WEINSTEIN
61 | …Nothing to Lose But Your Chain Rules DAVID MISIALOWSKI
73 | Brunhilde’s Escape DANYA GOODMAN
82 | The Arc’s Descent ADAM KING
101 | The Sand Ship 115 | What Follows Us ADAM MCOMBER
145 | The Strong Salt Taste of Living Things ERICH WILLIAM BERGMEIER
153 | The Vampires in the Basement BILL JONES
28 | Omaha MATT DENNISON
45 | poem in which your hat is a boat HOLLY AMOS
60 | Teaching a Post Lunar World CAITLIN THOMSON
71 | Leaving La Dulce JOHN F. BUCKLEY & MARTIN OTT
81 | Behavior JOANNA PHAM
100 | Pick Up WILL CORDEIRO
114 | Gumby Falls Hard ELEANOR PAYNTER
131 | Factory UJJAL NIHIL
144 | The Bicycle Maker CINDY HUNTER MORGAN
150 | from The Centipede Love Songs DANIEL PORDER
15 | Urban Legends
32 | Trouble in Mind
JULIA A. ROSENTHAL
51 | Moving Down
65 | Take Up the Bonnet Rouge
74 | Fixing a Hole
ANTHONY J. RAPINO
86 | Proximity
104 | A Very Small Child Called Eugene
J. DAVID BELL
120 | Mescal Reposado con Gusano
ROBIN LEE JORDAN
136 | The Message from Nature
133 | A Theory of Music
13 | Nandie in the Wall
12 | Ginny
4 | A Giant in the House
SHOR TE R FI CT ION
SHOR T FI CT ION
C O N T E N T S ∙ ∙ ∙
A Giant in the House DANIEL PEARLMAN
he earliest I remember is that my father was so tall, so tall was he, that when he drew upright after bending over my crib his head seemed to scrape the ceiling, cracking the paint that sometimes flaked down onto my coverlet. When I rode his shoulders out in the busy street I looked down on a stream of hats that parted to stay out of our path, and I could reach up and just about touch the BB-shattered globe at the end of a lamppost, or peek into the fire-escape window of our upstairs neighbor, or wet my pinky on the tail-end of a cloud. And I never grew dizzy when gripping the freckled neck of my battering-ram of a father as we charged through pedestrians and the traffic that would halt for us on our way through the Brooklyn streets to the grocery store for milk and, only sometimes, a penny‘s worth of chocolates for me. Those rare chocolate treats I would suck on slowly, letting them melt into my fingers, hoping to prolong the sweetness of the silent hour before bedtime that I would spend curled up on the back-room floor observing my father humped over an uptilted desktop, lips always pursed, pen in hand, drawing something under the bright yellow light of a clip-on lamp, at work on something he never showed me, but which later—my mother it was must have told me—I found out was practice he had to do because my father was a Commercial Artist. How high off the floor was that desktop!—and higher still my father‘s intensely focused face, so near the dim bulb on the ceiling that I feared he‘d smash it every time he leaned back to examine his progress without ever once noticing that I was still there, not even when my mother slipped in to whisk me off to bed. So aroused was my curiosity, however, that one day I climbed up onto a tall stool next to the storage shelves that were fastened to the wall beside the desk. But before I could cop a clear view of those desktop hieroglyphics, down came much of the contents of a shelf, and a bottle of ink squirted black tears over the papers fanned out on the floor. The clatter brought my mother in. Moaning, she hauled me off the stool, warned me in a trembling voice never to mess with my father‘s things, ever ever again, and proceeded to clean up the wreckage I‘d caused while I sat nearby, frightened by her unrelenting sobs and fearful of the unimaginable consequences betokened by those hiccup-like shudders. Sobs that made sense to me when my father came home, found out what I had done, and vented his anger on her, not on me, using words I‘d
never heard before in an ear-splitting tone that made my now-voiceless mother shrink to a height much farther below the lintel of the door than she had ever loomed before. And from that day I rarely rode his shoulders again, and when I did I could no longer reach high enough to touch any streetlamps. Instead, I could now reach low enough, if I wanted, to knock hats off people‘s heads. But I was not interested in kicking at hats, and the reduced elevation seemed to have killed all the fun, to the point where I no longer missed those sky-high jaunts and preferred trotting around on my own two capable legs. I might have been five or six when my father brought home a full-page, full-color picture of Superman for me, my favorite hero in red, yellow and blue, soaring above skyscrapers and aiming for the clouds. I wanted to be like Superman, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, so I made myself a miniature city in a little cardboard box—a winter city blanketed in snow, lots of snow, which I procured by climbing up to the medicine cabinet in order to appropriate a box of serviceable cotton. I stuffed my little box abundantly with fistfuls of that soft white fluff, parting it in the middle for a street, and for houses and stores on either side I planted in the snowbanks some dice, matchbooks, gum-wrappers and a thimble, all of which together made a plausible-looking city if you happened to be flying over it. How proud I was, so very proud, when my father came home and I could show him my painstakingly, artfully-wrought winterscape! But just as I pointed to the Empire State Building—a wooden matchstick that I‘d found on the kitchen stove—my father noticed the scavenged box of first-aid cotton that I‘d discarded next to my sparkling diorama. His face turning red, in a booming voice he yelled at me for ―wasting‖ all that cotton, and just as I began to be struck with remorse, and before I could express one syllable of apology, down came his giant foot to squash my beautiful city back into pads of cotton, matchbooks, and crinkled candy wrappers. Too shocked for tears, I stayed huddled on the floor, watching him storm off into another room, his head far short of the top of the doorframe and his shoulders not anywhere as wide as Superman‘s. When the Nazis had been beaten, and I was ten, and my baby sister was already five, my father began to complain that our apartment was too tiny— as if finally he was listening to what my mother had been saying for years. He had spent part of the war checking for fire hazards in the Navy Yard, working overtime, and seeming hardly ever to be home. I contributed to the war effort by collecting tinfoil from cigarette packs and such and compressing hundreds of sheets of them into silver balls that would be used in making ammo to fight the enemy. My mother cooked cupcakes for me, read stories to me, and when she was alone, which was most of the time, except for me and my sister Sue, sang a lot to herself all through those happy years. What she also did was to scrimp and save from whatever my father left for us out of his weekly pay envelopes so that she could eventually make a
Daniel Pearlman ∙ 5
down payment on an actual house of our own. His own major interest during those years—and well after—was photography. He‘d spend lots of time among the camera equipment at Willoughby‘s, where he‘d buy whatever he liked, bring it home, but show it to no one. Then, after he‘d use it for a couple of weeks, he‘d pack it back up in its original wrappings, store it away out of sight on a shelf, and go out and buy something newer, with a faster shutter and a much more powerful lens. I don‘t recall seeing any picture he ever took except one with a self-timer taken of himself standing in the doorway between the living-room and the back room where he worked. This shot revealed him looking a full two feet shorter, I was much surprised to note, than the top of that very familiar doorframe. I did not think it was a trick of perspective. Our family friend for as long as I can remember was the postman Jimmy who lived upstairs and never married and took care of his mother who had always been a great help to mine. Jimmy offered to lend my mother the difference between what she had saved and the actual cost of the down payment on a house out in uncrowded Canarsie that she had long set her heart upon, convincing my father that this would be the solution to our need for more space, if we could afford it. I happened to be present when my mother happily informed him of Jimmy‘s generous offer. How amazed I was then to see my father‘s upper body stiffen, his lips twisting back in a sneer as he accused her of depending too much on a ―friend‖! When my mother cried out that if not for her they would have no friend at all, my father swung out at her and knocked her against the wall. She crumpled to the floor, pressing her lips tight against the whimpering that nevertheless gushed out through her nose. I froze, ashamed to see my mother sunk so low as to make my shrinking father still seem giant-like standing over her. Our little house in Canarsie had two floors, a basement, and a backyard, and except for a similar house next to it was surrounded by vacant lots, safe havens where I and other neighborhood kids liked to play. In a frenzied period of constructive zeal my father, following a stack of manuals purchased through some catalogue like Sears, built us a back porch and a shed in the rear of the yard. Over time the shed filled with piles of junk that he couldn‘t decide to get rid of and eventually the roof, built with bargain lumber, collapsed. During those first years in our new place my father couldn‘t get a job doing Commercial Art, and we lived hand to mouth on welfare checks, twenty-one dollars a month, but helped out by the occasional loan from Jimmy which my father knew nothing about—or perhaps wanted to know nothing about. With time on his hands between fits of construction within and outside the house, my father gave me an occasional lesson in Art, teaching me the color wheel, perspective, and other technical matters that have stood me in good stead to this day. Once he set me the task of painting, in watercolors, a potato. I sat out in the sun on our back porch for hours going over and over a muddy wet patch that at last I had made to resemble the model potato in
6 ∙ A Giant in the House
front of me. When he finally came out to check on my progress, he shook his head, tossed my effort aside, and in two minutes flat painted a potato that seemed more real than the one whose every shade and speckle had burned itself into my brain. He didn‘t tell me how to do it. He just did it, and I tore my own work to pieces and never again touched watercolors till Art class in high school. On that same day he did what he would do every couple of weeks— measure my height against the kitchen doorframe. When I asked him, for the first time ever, how tall he was, he said five feet eleven. I thought that was preposterous. Perhaps he‘d been that years ago, but I‘d read that people shrink as they get older. Still standing against the doorjamb, I raised my hand about six inches over my head and told him he was no taller than that. Whereupon he burst out laughing, so I appealed to my mother, who was standing nearby. Unsmiling, she asked him to stand in the doorway, as I had done, and allow her to take his measure. Growling, he retreated to his basement hideaway, a darkroom he‘d built for himself where he developed prints that no one remembers ever seeing. As soon as he disappeared, I looked at my mother and winked. I knew she had agreed with my assessment of his height. My own interest in photography evolved over the next few years to the point where my father at last admitted me to the inner sanctum, his tomblike darkroom in the basement, where he taught me how to develop film, make prints, and even use the enlarger he‘d bought a couple of years earlier, used very little himself, then stowed solemnly and respectfully away, packed precisely as it had been when he had bought it. Although he ceased taking pictures himself, he had accumulated quite a stack of photography magazines. Thumbing through a few that he had shoved to the back of a shelf, I found them heavily devoted to images of female nudes. ―This is Art,‖ he said, when he caught me scanning one of those glossy publications. ―You‘ll get to appreciate photography as an Art a lot more when you get older.‖ I started my photographic explorations with a box camera in front of whose cheap little meniscus lens I would ingeniously tape the lenses unscrewed from binoculars in order to take pictures of objects as small as a dead cricket, from only a few inches away, and wind up with surprisingly enlarged images of the original. Eventually I got as a gift, from Jimmy not from my father, a Zeiss-Ikon German bellows camera, somebody‘s warbooty maybe, and I thereby stepped up in technical sophistication to the point where I could manipulate lens openings and shutter speeds and achieve decent results even in indoor lighting conditions without the use of a flash, a luxury which I did not get to enjoy until my father allowed me to use his amazing Busch-Pressman press camera, unearthed from its original packaging several months after he had lost interest in using it himself. I must have been about twelve when, one ordinary afternoon while Jimmy and my mother were having coffee in the kitchen, I took pictures of
Daniel Pearlman ∙ 7
them and my sister Sue with my bellows camera, experimentally using halfsecond exposures to compensate for the low interior light. The bright idea occurred to me to ask my mother to sit on Jimmy‘s lap for a picture I thought would be comical. I didn‘t know why they both were so reluctant, but I wheedled and Sue pleaded and finally they caved in, laughing, to my request. When I got around to developing and printing that particular roll of film, I was so pleased by the results that when my father came home and found me in the darkroom I proudly showed him the whole series. But he was interested only in the one of my mother sitting smiling on our friend Jimmy‘s lap. ―Interested‖ in the sense that, his lips curling back into a wolfish snarl, he grabbed the print from my hands, rushed up the stairs into the kitchen—with me tremblingly clomping up after—planted himself in front of my mother, who was puttering about near the stove. Shoving the picture under her widening eyes, giving her time to take it in, he tossed it at the ceiling and shouted, ―You whore!‖ I had never heard him use such language. It grieved me to see my mother‘s pallid face as she stood in shock in front of the stove. Before stomping away upstairs, my father spun around and faced me. We stood there for a split second eyeball to eyeball. Literally. I mean I didn‘t have to look up. I realized, suddenly, that he wasn‘t any taller than I was. My mother meanwhile sank into a chair and remained oblivious to my choked, tearful apologies. I remember my parents‘ happiness the day my father got accepted into the powerful lithographers‘ union. That mood did not last long, however. He found himself being sent around on jobs in Manhattan for several months at a time, and he would always bitch when finding himself reassigned. I didn‘t understand this apparent contradiction between the security of union membership and his bopping around from job to job until I reached fifteen. That summer he got me a messenger job at the latest place he was working at. I would deliver to various printing companies large, floppy zinc plates with advertising images etched into their emulsions by an array of blinding arc lights. The images were brought to light by means of acrid chemical baths whose eye-stinging fumes stank up the place and had to affect the lungs of everyone who worked there—including my father, who sat bent over an upslanted desk here too, just like at home, under a light fixed to his easel, meticulously ―opaquing‖ out, with a fine paintbrush, unwanted areas on negatives that would then be clamped over the plates that were to be ―burned.‖ Luckily I spent more time outside the workplace than subject to that noxious atmosphere that no one there seemed to complain about. What I found out, in any case, was that this place, this and many others like it, was the glamorous center of the world of Commercial Art. I found out also why my father kept moving from shop to shop. One day after work we happened to be walking toward the subway together with the shop‘s big blubbery owl-faced boss, my father in the middle, I on the outer edge of the sidewalk. They were engaged in shoptalk when the boss, who could not care less that I was present, told him, ―Morris, we‘re in a
8 ∙ A Giant in the House
crunch to meet deadlines this season. You do quality work, Morris, but you‘re slow. In fact, you‘re too damned slow.‖ My father grunted something in reply, hunched his shoulders, turned beet red, and avoided looking at me. I cringed, feeling his searing humiliation, and when at last I turned to him, I could see the top of his down-turned head, which now unmistakably rose to just about the height of my shoulder. A couple of years later, when my sister was about twelve, she developed a variety of uncontrollable nervous tics that the doctors, according to my mother, labeled St. Vitus Dance. My parents sent her away for the entire summer to a relative in upstate New York, a vacation I did not begrudge her if it was essential to her cure. My mother said that her condition was probably due to a shock she‘d received from sticking her finger into a naked electric socket. I had no idea what bullshit all this was until one day, perhaps the day after Sue had been sent away, I overheard my mother and Jimmy talking alone, with considerable animation, in the kitchen. I had been in the darkroom and was about to come up the cellar stairs, but on hearing them converse in such urgent tones, I tiptoed up to the kitchen door and stood behind it listening. My mother bitterly spoke of wanting a divorce. My heart fluttered wildly and I was afraid my erratic breathing would give me away. Jimmy muttered in agreement, saying that any man who could do to his own daughter what my father did to Sue should live in a cage with animals and not among human beings. I tiptoed downstairs again and sat for a long time with my head in my hands in front of the empty developing trays in the darkroom. When I heard my father clomping down, I stood up to leave. When we passed each other by at the bottom of the stairs, I looked down at his shrunken head. I shuddered as my elbow grazed his shoulder. I was drafted into the army at age twenty-four. Fortunately I got out well before the call-up for Vietnam. During the two years I spent, mostly in an Intelligence unit at Fort Dix, I was comforted by a stream of letters from my mother and my sister. Finally, about a month before discharge, I received a letter from my father, written in a crabbed little back-leaning hand, and though I don‘t remember a single word of the perfunctory body of the letter, I recall that it opened with ―To My Son,‖ and I especially remember how it ended: signed ―Your Father,‖ with his full name, first and last, scribbled beneath, as if to prevent any mistake I might make regarding authorship. During the two years I was away, my mother had several times written telling me to expect a letter ―shortly‖ from my father, and this is my only recollection of the missive she‘d finally squeezed out of him. After marrying and earning a Master‘s in Art History, I got a job teaching at some hick college in Montana. My career took me farther westward, through a Ph.D. at Berkeley and into a tenured position within California‘s burgeoning state-college system. As our two little girls grew up, I rarely made it back East but stayed in constant communication with my mother and little sister. Shortly after my older daughter turned thirteen, my
Daniel Pearlman ∙ 9
mother wrote informing me that my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was undergoing massive chemotherapy. She wondered if I could take off a few days and come home because he urgently wanted to see me. That letter I did not answer, but the following one, which arrived a month later, I did. In this new one she told me that the progression of the disease was extremely painful, that I would hardly recognize my own father now, and would I please tell my ―boss‖ that I had a family emergency and needed to come home right away. I had seen my father a year before, looking the same as ever, when I paid my parents a visit after flying in to New York to read a paper at an arthistory conference. I had tried to dissuade them from coming in to Manhattan, but my mother dragged him in with her to sit in the audience and listen. As I read, I searched the auditorium and thought the seat beside her was vacant. It was just a trick of the light. The top of my father‘s head failed to rise above the back of his seat. I supposed that my droning had hammered him down into a doze. Heeding my mother‘s call, I informed my ―boss‖ of the situation and flew home. My bed-ridden, twisted, and shriveled father barely recognized his ―son.‖ The cancer had spread through his bones. I dared not shake his hand for fear of breaking his frail wrist. I told him not to give up, and that the therapy would soon show its effect. My mother told me that he had refused to enter a hospice, where the cost of care would have been zero and he would have been made to feel comfortable right until the end. But he was well aware that a hospice was antechamber to the grave. Since my mother could not personally provide the expert services he needed, he demanded private daily nursing care, and the upshot was the complete exhaustion of all their meager savings. On my leaving, he croaked out, barely audibly, ―I love you.‖ I gazed back at him and noted, without surprise, that from head to toe he was now reduced to a manikin about the length of a yardstick. I mentioned this observation to my mother, but she objected. ―No,‖ she said. ―Yesterday he measured exactly three and a half feet.‖ ―That was yesterday,‖ I replied. I flew back again, of course, for the funeral, understandably a closedcasket affair. I hadn‘t seen some of my father‘s relatives for years and naturally had little to say to them. I wanted just to get it over with and get the hell back home. My sister and mother were there in solemn black. My mother fought constantly to hold back her tears and her face looked wrinkled and prematurely aged. Before the actual ceremony began, the funeral director called the immediate family aside—me, my mother and sister—and drew us off into the corner where the simple varnished casket lay, and asked us in pseudo-sympathetic tones whether the three of us wanted to ―view‖ my father, right then, for the very last time. His downcast eyes and pinched lips suggested, without his saying so, that it would be a very bad idea. With a shudder, my mother and sister said no, just as he‘d expected, but I was extremely curious.
10 ∙ A Giant in the House
I had heard a muffled little chirping sound coming, it seemed, from right under the lid. Was it a pocket radio belonging to a member of the staff? Without further discussion, I lifted the full-length top and cast a frantic, wide-eyed gaze inside. The dark-walled interior was untenanted. My mother looked in too, then blinked at me incredulously, then let out a shriek, and wound up fainting in my sister‘s arms. We both had seen the same vacancy, of that I felt sure. Much less surprised perhaps than she, I bent down closer and looked in again, searching for something, anything, to justify the need for this packing crate. Did it have a false bottom? I wondered. The fluffy cottony wadding was all laid out like the batting one might use to keep a piece of delicate equipment from incurring damage during shipment. The parlor emcee was determined to snap the box shut, but I held it firmly open while I scanned the interior for whatever tiny creature might have caused the noise I‘d heard. Finally I saw it, lying stealthy and still except for the quivering of its hind legs, a fairly noticeable black spot against the white, velvet expanse of the undented pillow. It was playing dead, but I plunged down thumb-first into the back of the deceiving little cricket. As I snuffed it out I felt it crack, and only then did I allow the Master of Cemeteries to have his way with the lid.
Daniel Pearlman ∙ 11
Ginny ELIZABETH Oâ€˜BRIEN
They say her daddy stickleback, he make a warm nest for her of snot and clotted seaweed. He make a splinter bone cradle and inside put baby Ginny. He give her his cold blue eyes, his sea spray voice, and every word he sing he forge like a barnacle, warble each on the last. He give her the moon for a shipwreck legacy, he point it out up through the water, and Ginny teethe on sea glass, she peer at the briny string tangle. Ginny grow ripe with battered bottle secrets, grow strong like a flood of dark mystery. She sharp-teethed and vicious, pretty as you please with a mouthful of spiny green fangs. She have boyfriends, so many boyfriends, like drops in the ocean their bodies go blue and wonâ€˜t float up topside no more. She pull them to the depths, the smarmy deep, say a prayer quick for her daddy, that old stickleback eelgrass-loving man. They say on clear nights when heaven dip close like a shimmer projectory and the moon open wide like a cold green eye, lean out: in the shell-mash mirror of the upside down world you see her like a whisper on platinum her hair slick with fireworms, Ginny under water catching starfish, catching men their deaths.
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR POETRY
Nandie in the Wall MERYL FERGUSON
effrey found the possum on the way home from school. The crows had been at it, and the green loops of bowel stuck to the hot bitumen when he picked it up. Flies rose around him in a buzzing curtain. He placed the corpse in his schoolbag, on a nest of paper torn from his maths book. The flies came with him, crawling up his nose, walking across his lips with their carrion feet. No wind blew in the corridor between the whispering canefields, their green stems taller than his head. He could hear the tractor going in the distance over the zithering cries of the cicadas. Their old stone house crouched under the jacaranda, purple blossoms gone brown and rotting in the heat. Jeffrey slipped around the side of the house, through the little gate with its flaking rust, to the guava that shouldered up to the grey walls. He crawled in under the bush to the gaping hole in the wall. The possum split in two as it came out of his bag. The stink made him gag. He eased it into the hole, then wiped his hands on the stone. Sweat pooled in his hair, dripping down the back of his neck as he waited. He thought she might not come, that it might be too early for her. Then he heard the scraping sound of her, and little chips of mortar rained down on the possum. A shadow stretched down the inner wall. Nandie always came down the reverse of how she had gone in. First the right hand, then her head, her eyeballs dry and sunken, the lips pulled tight over her teeth. Then a shoulder, a dried-up breast, a rib that always scraped and caught on the bricks. ―Hey, Nandie,‖ he whispered. Sometimes she turned to look at him, her face upside down, her jaws moving as she fed. But today she pulled back, the possum gripped in her teeth, and disappeared back up the shaft. He waited a little longer, hoping to see the baby. He hadn‘t seen it for days, and it worried him. Was Nandie feeding it? Was she being a good mother? He realized the rumble of the tractor had stopped. Jeffrey grabbed his bag and shoved his way through the bushes, mouth dry. The dark shape of his father came out of the shed and headed up towards the house. Jeffrey stumbled, scrambled up again and ran around to the back of the house. His mother was taking the sheets off the clothesline. She sniffed, and
her nose wrinkled. ―Sorry,‖ he muttered, and fled into the house. He ran down the narrow hall, dived into his room and shut the door. The church was old, stone and glass and wood and cobwebs. Jeffrey‘s mum always hurried in, sat, prayed, and left again with her head down. Jeffrey‘s father stood proud, took communion and looked people in the eye. Jeffrey always sat at the far end of the pew, his parents a buffer between himself and the kids from his school, who kicked him and spat on him and called him Stinky. During the hot Sunday evening prayers, the angels would come down from the windows. They would pluck at his clothes with their claws, pinch his skin, prick and stick and nick like ants biting. Where’s your sister? Where? Where? Whisper, pinch, bite but he never told them. Not again. Not since they had come crawling and whispering through the cane and tried to take Nandie away. But she‘d fought them, fought them like a strong girl, not the quiet, miserable Nandie she had been. They had taken her arm, but she had fought to stay in the house. To stay with him. Jeffrey stared at the back of his father‘s head as they drove home through the night and the burning canefields lit up the sky. Jeffrey found a raven, hit by a truck and left on the side of the road in a flotsam of feathers. He slipped it in his bag to take home. The bag caught on the low fence as he climbed over, weighed down by its offering. His feet kicked up soot into the steaming air. The burnt stems clattered to each other, naked and black. Jeffrey stopped at the edge of the cane. Lights flashed red and blue against the walls of the house. His father sat in the back of a police car. Someone had stripped the guava away from the wall, and a policeman with blue gloves on reached inside the vent. Out came Nandie‘s arm, all dried and still. Out came her head, the gloves tangling in her hair. Jeffrey fled back into the cane, away from the house. He fell onto the hot, damp soil and cried and cried for Nandie with her dry bones and her empty face, brought out into the light to die for good. When the stars came out behind the smoke, he pushed out of the field and went down to the house, through the trampled garden and to the wall. He leaned against the warm stone under the dark windows. Something rustled in the bushes. The baby crawled out, all twig bones and teeth. Jeffrey smiled. She had been a good mother, after all. He lay the body of the raven down and the baby swarmed over it. Jeffrey didn‘t have a name for the boy. Brother or nephew, he could never work it out. It was just Nandie‘s baby. The little thing crawled towards him and he picked it up. The guava fruits shrivelled on their stems as he stood, the babe in his arms, and the smoke-dimmed stars came down to dance around him.
14 ∙ Nandie in the Wall
Urban Legends KATE RIEDEL
Cherche, du moins, dis-toi, par quelle sourde suite La nuit, d’entre les morts, au jour t’a reconduite? —Paul Valéry
ncident. Summerhill subway station, Toronto, Ontario, near midnight. There were two of them, unshaven and unwashed, their ragged clothes too warm for the weather. The older man stumbled, as if drunk—or, on closer inspection, perhaps sick. The younger man kept one arm around his companion, his free hand grasping poles to support them both against the constant movement of the train while he eased the older man onto a seat. The younger then slid off his backpack and braced it between his feet before sitting himself. The only other passenger got up and moved to the far end of the car. “The man in the middle is dead!” he whispered to me, and he hustled me off at the Rosedale station. Only, of course, he didn‘t, because the man wasn‘t in the middle, and he wasn‘t dead, and anyway that particular legend does not seem to have taken root in the Toronto subway. Toronto‘s subway doesn‘t seem to have any legends. The so-called ghost stations under Queen and Bay are real enough, as, apparently, are the bootleg keys that allow drivers to speed up the trains. That most suicides occur at Queen‘s Park station may also be true. The two men stayed on through institutional green Wellesley station; through College station with its hockey player murals, although the Maple Leafs are long gone from the Gardens; through Dundas, the train shuddering underfoot as it came to a stop, starting up with a rough whine. If the older man was sick, Queen, and St. Michael‘s Hospital, was a logical place for the pair to leave. But they stayed on. The car swayed around the curve between King and Union Station. At Union, an exit and influx of passengers, all of them avoiding the two men as much as space allowed. The older man kept his head down on his knees. The young man kept an arm around him, occasionally bending down to him with almost filial solicitude. Must be in his early twenties, I thought. About my height, skinny build under his too-heavy jacket. Lank brown hair; childhood blond often darkened to that colour. I couldn‘t see the color of his eyes.
St Andrew. Osgoode. St. Patrick, in shades of green, of course. They might have got off for University Hospital here, but didn‘t. The sound closes in on you through this section of the subway, where each track is enclosed in its own tube. Queen‘s Park. Mount Sinai Hospital, perhaps? No. Museum. St. George, around the curve and into the long brown nothingness that is Spadina north-south. Dupont station, on the University-Spadina line, is geographically opposite Summerhill on the Yonge line, and is twenty years younger than Summerhill, but looks older; the uterine-colored tile has not aged well. Just before Dupont the young man stood, slung on his pack, and helped the older to his feet. The train came to a stop between the faux Georgia O‘Keefe flowers, and the two got off. So did I. They moved slowly toward the escalator at the northwest exit. I took the escalator to the southeast and waited in the grimy glass cage at street level for a long time, watching its twin kitty-corner. If there were any section of the subway around which legends might have grown, surely Dupont Station was the place, but perhaps there had not yet been enough time for the screams of the Russell Hill crash to fight their way free from the walls in which they had been embedded like shotgun pellets. The two men never emerged. Finally I took the next train south to St. Andrew Station and walked west to my flat in an old row house on a neglected side street. Incident. Dupont station, north-bound. The height of after-work rush hour. A young woman with her little boy, maybe five years old, gets up from her seat and moves into the packed aisle, easing between the bodies— ―excuse me . . . excuse me . . .‖ Her little boy didn‘t have to say excuse me, he was small enough to duck under arms and around briefcases. ―Not here, honey,‖ she said, reaching for his hand. ―We‘re just getting ready to get out at the next stop.‖ But the child was swept onto the platform in the crowded exodus, and before she could reach the door it was closing. I had been standing beside the door and stepped out to let others exit. I caught the kid by his backpack and waved at the mother, pressed frantically to the closed door in the train pulling away, and pointed to the opposite platform. ―She‘ll be back,‖ I said to the child, who was trying to pull away from me. ―Let‘s go wait for her.‖ He didn‘t want to. I had to carry him up the escalator and down to the other side of the tracks and when I set him down he ran for the heartstoppingly narrow ―Danger, Do Not Enter‖ gate to the tunnel while waiting passengers watched, some disapproving, some amused, most blank-eyed. A woman with a TTC badge approached. I explained what had happened, and while she asked for my name and addressand stayed with us
16 ∙ Urban Legends
until the southbound train came in carrying the tearful mother, she seemed to believe me, even before the mother thanked me profusely. The mother and child appeared on the front page of the Toronto Sun the next day. Incidents spoke of—if only in a whisper—confirmed—if anything could be confirmed in the world I was trying to enter—the tentative, tenuous, possibility of connections that were there, could I only find them. But I maintain that I am not now, and never have been, a nut case, although my boss as good as called me one, the day he told me he wanted to transfer me to Edmonton. ―Why?‖ ―Because you make people nervous.‖ ―How?‖ ―By coming in to work as if nothing had happened. I don‘t want to cause you added pain, Charlie, but a man who‘s lost his only child—‖ ―Careless of me,‖ I said. ―That‘s exactly what I mean. But the company doesn‘t want to lose your skills and experience.‖ I accepted the transfer. Elaine did not come with me. We did not have between us what it would have taken to keep us together after the loss of Todd. She went into therapy, which I paid for. Even so, living frugally, I put by enough that, on the day that would have been Todd‘s twentieth birthday, I was able to move back to Toronto without having to worry about getting a job. Summerhill station looked much as I remembered, the cool, pale grey tile set off by bright red trim. The walls of most of Toronto‘s subway stations look bright and clean; the cracks and stains and grime only show if you look up or down. To the south the track was open to the sky all the way to Bloor, a square of green shining in a grey frame. Up at ground level, on Shaftesbury Avenue, the once-vacant lot on the southeast corner was now covered with row houses, with a concrete sound barrier cutting them off from the railroad tracks running east and west behind them. I returned to the station and asked the attendant at the window, ―How long have those row houses been there, across Shaftesbury?‖ ―Maybe two years,‖ she said. I didn‘t ask if there had been anything found when the construction company started excavating; if there had been, I would have heard. For a long time I mostly just rode the Yonge-University subway, Finch to Downsview and back again, wrapped in the constant hum of air conditioning, feeling the ba-bump, ba-bump heart-beat of wheels over rails. A subway car is never quiet. I imagine that, even in the yards at night, even when boots of the maintenance crews are not sounding through the cars, there are constant ticks and sighs as mechanical components cool.
Kate Riedel ∙ 17
I rode the front cars, standing at the leading window, watching the rails glitter and the lights flash by, the tunnels go from straight-walled to curved and back again, the growing brilliance of the station ahead another resurrection. I knew how the cars swayed going around curves at Union Station and St. George-Spadina, the way they speeded up, perhaps thanks to those bootleg keys, in the dark tunnels of the northern-most tracks. I changed trains frequently so I wouldn‘t attract notice. I stopped writing in my notebook after I caught a bored driver‘s attention. ―Writing a story?‖ he asked through the open door of the driver‘s box. ―Making notes for one,‖ I said. ―About someone who gets lost in the subway.‖ He laughed and reached for half of a sandwich that sat on a paper bag beside him. ―They‘d have to be pretty dozy to get lost on the TTC. Only two routes, not like New York or the Boston MTA. Hey, remember that song, ―Charlie on the MTA‖?‖ I said I did, but did not point out the difference between ―in the subway‖ and ―on the subway.‖ By that time I didn‘t need notes, I had all the lights and signals, all the switching tracks and service points memorized. I could hear the rattle and hum, feel the wheels under me, see the signals changing, the tracks glittering, in my sleep. The Metro Reference Library, just above the Yonge and Bloor station, had almost no information about Summerhill station, except that railroad baron Charles Thompson had once had a Regency-style cottage nearby, named Summerhill. All gone now, except the carriage house; the name Summerhill was now only a faint echo of elfland. The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, for whom, presumably, Shaftesbury Avenue, on which the Summerhill station fronted, was named, had been an advocate of child welfare, especially on behalf of child mine workers. As for Dupont, that could be translated as ―of the bridge.‖ The unsavoury flowers were called ―Spadina Summer Under all Seasons,‖ and those grimy glass exit shelters had been designed by a real architect. At the Toronto Archives, just north of Dupont station, the Toronto Transit Commission planning reports were all more concerned with ridership statistics and geology, and had no history, no maps showing the subway routes and their equivalent at street level. The tunnel south from St. Clair to Summerhill is different from all the others, almost a cave, with broad, sloping shored walls and no barrier between the tracks. ―Not a good place,‖ said a voice at my shoulder as we pulled into Summerhill. He was maybe twenty, a little taller than me, a little skinnier, cleanshaven, with earlobe-length lank dark-blond hair, hazel eyes verging on green. He wore a t-shirt and jeans, running shoes, and carried a backpack.
18 ∙ Urban Legends
―Boring,‖ he expounded, waving a hand at the sunlit green banks between Summerhill and Rosedale, Rosedale and Bloor. ―Cup of coffee?‖ he asked as he followed me off the car at Bloor. Never talk to strangers . . . After we were both seated with our coffee, I said, ―What did you mean about the tunnel between St. Clair and Summerhill not being a good place?‖ ―It‘s a fairly long tunnel, wide open, with no place, really, to hide. Sometimes there‘s machinery you can duck behind, and there‘s a service exit close to St. Clair, but otherwise the only way to get through without being caught is to get ahold of a maintenance vest and hard hat and act like you belong there.‖ ―I‘m not sure I understand,‖ I said. He grinned, showing small, even white teeth. ―Infiltration,‖ he said. ―Tunnel running. Tunnel Fox,‖ he added by way of a name. ―Charlie,‖ I replied. ―Charlie-on-the-TTC!‖ he grinned again. ―Infiltration?‖ I asked. ―Oh, yeah,‖ he said. ―How?‖ ―How—and where, of course—depends on the level of risk you want to take. F‘rinstance, you can get into the unused Bay station by tunnel, but if your timing‘s off by seconds, wham, you‘re road kill. The drivers hate that. Not that you‘d be around to care, of course.‖ ―I‘m not interested in Bay,‖ I said. ―But you‘re interested.‖ ―I need to think about it. Can I call you?‖ ―Nope. Unh-unh. I‘ll drop over sometime and we can discuss it.‖ ―Sure.‖ I wrote my address and phone number on a napkin and handed it to him. ―Be seeing you, then,‖ he said, and left. I finished my coffee, considered having something to eat, decided I wasn‘t hungry, and went up to Metro Reference to use the public internet. I found a surprising number of references to subway infiltrators and tunnel runners. Underground people. Who else lived underground? Tommyknockers, who warned Cornish tin miners of danger. Dwarfs. Kobolds. Also miners. Lord Shaftesbury had been particularly concerned about child miners. During the soil boring investigations for the Yonge Street Subway Extension, two till sheets separated and overlain by sand layers were encountered . . . That‘s how one of the planning reports in the archives described it. Not exactly mining country. Boggarts? They liked dark places. Fairies. The Sidh, who lived under the hills of Ireland.
Kate Riedel ∙ 19
Souls of the dead. Huldre, the mound people of Scandinavia, Eve‘s children hidden underground who still hope for salvation. They stole a girl, took her under the mountains, and the villagers rang the church bells for her, and she returned. We had never held a memorial service for Todd. Perhaps if a bell had tolled for each of his eight years... Hobbits. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit . . . When the knock came on my door I expected to open it to Tunnel Fox. Elaine walked in and sat in the only chair. She was a dozen years older, of course, than when I last saw her, a little plumper, but still Elaine. ―I saw the picture in the Sun,‖ she said. ―But I wasn‘t in it,‖ I said. ―Not in the picture. But naturally an incident like that would catch my attention, so I read the story. Your name was mentioned.‖ I hadn‘t thought of that. ―So you looked for me. Why?‖ ―We have a thing or two in common.‖ ―You‘re working?‖ I asked. ―I went back to school, got a job in tech.‖ ―You should have told me you were going back to school. I would have helped pay.‖ ―You did,‖ she said, with a ghost of the happy one-ups-manship grin that had originally attracted me. ―I figured that counted as therapy.‖ ―That‘s okay. That‘s good, really.‖ ―And you? You‘re awfully thin.‖ ―I‘ve always been skinny.‖ She stood and went to the small fridgeand took out its contents—a halffull litre carton of milk. ―So what are you eating? McDonald‘s, when you think of it?‖ She put the milk back and didn‘t quite slam the fridge door before returning to the chair. ―I‘m okay. Really.‖ ―I know you, Charlie. We were married for ten years, remember?‖ We‘re still married, I thought. I‘d never bothered to enquire about divorce, and, as far as I knew, neither had she. ―You were the one who put the computer-aged photo on the Child Find poster,‖ I said. ―Well, of course. I can‘t discount the fact that he might be alive. It‘s always there, just under the surface, maybe, but there. So of course I put his photo on the poster. Of course I still keep things of his—toys and books, in case . . . in case he might want them for his own children. But I have a wall between that and the rest of my life. There‘s a door in that wall that he can
20 ∙ Urban Legends
come through if he‘s still out there somewhere, but most of the time I stay on my side of the wall, because anything else is insanity.‖ ―I found out early on that no-one else was interested in my grief, and I wasn‘t willing to pay anyone to be interested,‖ I said. ―Charlie!‖ I‘d hurt her. I hadn‘t meant to. We sat staring at each other, Elaine stricken, me guilt stricken, and as we sat there came another knock at the door. ―Hey, dude,‖ said Tunnel Fox, holding out an orange vest with florescent yellow x‘s back and front, and a yellow hard hat. ―Got you a tunnel running outfit.‖ Elaine and Tunnel Fox looked at each other, and then Elaine stood, turned to me and said, ―Who the hell do you think you are, fucking Orpheus?‖ and walked out and slammed the door. I hadn‘t thought of that. Versions of the Orpheus myth could be found all over the world, including among the native nations who had once lived where Toronto now stood. I found that out at Metro Reference. But I was no Orpheus. Elaine had been Todd‘s singer and story-teller. I‘d been the one to take him to the zoo, to movies, to play T-ball. Elaine had been responsible for that computer-enhanced photo. Yet she had seen Tunnel Fox, and said nothing, except about Orpheus. Elaine had a wall with a door in it that Todd could come through, if he wanted. To hell with that. I‘d go through that door and look for him. ―Dude, that‘s not for beginners,‖ said Tunnel Fox. ―It‘s a death trap, most of it tube, full of curves.‖ ―I know. Square-cut beginning and end, tube in between.‖ ―Then why—Oh. Don‘t tell me you‘re one of those sickies who want to check out the Russell Hill accident site. There‘s nothing there, take my word for it.‖ I‘d been in Edmonton when the Russell Hill accident occurred. I‘d only read the file in the Toronto Archives after I had begun to suspect a connection between Dupont and Summerhill. ―Do you conduct tours?‖ I asked. ―Not of that site.‖ After a minute or so, ―Okay, your funeral. Let‘s go.‖ ―Any, uh, mole people?‖ I asked him as we got off at the north end of the Dupont platform. ―You mean like Clive Barker mole people? Or just homeless people camping out?‖ ―Either.‖ ―Neither. It‘s not like New York, where there‘s a lot of unused tunnels that are easy to get into.‖
Kate Riedel ∙ 21
Ignoring the few passengers on the platform, he strode to the ―do not enter‖ gate, lifted it and swung it open, said, ―don‘t forget to close it,‖ and went through. I followed, closed the gate, and descended narrow steps to a blackened walkway no more than eighteen inches wide. ―See the curve?‖ he said. It was about a platform-length away. ―That‘s where it turns tube. I hope you‘re up to it. There‘s the third rail. It‘s covered, but you never can tell, and there‘s enough juice to fry you.‖ He walked confidently forward, and I followed. ―Don‘t look back,‖ he said. And then, ―Oh, shit!‖ First the increased air pressure, then the light on the far wall, then the full glare of the headlights, the roar, and Tunnel Fox yelling, ―hug the wall!‖ There were only inches between me and that heavy string of metal and glass boxes on grinding wheels that roared by forever, the light from the passing windows, the occasional face looking out, the menacing rattle of the wheels, the sparks, the final backwash of air. ―Tunnel Fox?‖ I croaked, peeling myself from the wall. The overhead lights illuminated empty tracks. I called again. Waited. I turned back to the lights of Dupont platform, not that far away, although it seemed like miles before I finally put my foot on the top step and pulled myself, shaking, around the gate without bothering to open it. ―Whatsa matter, you can‘t read?‖ A large man in a safety vest with the TTC logo in plain sight stood in front of me. ―I thought I saw someone down there,‖ I said. ―Yeah,‖ poking my safety vest, ―so you came prepared with your Hallowe‘en costume. I could arrest you, ya know. But I got enough paperwork. Just don‘t do it again.‖ ―But there is someone down there.‖ ―Yeah, right. And you and your imaginary friend are on the next train outa here.‖ I didn‘t hear from Tunnel Fox. I scanned the newspapers to see if there was any mention of death or injury in the subway tunnels, but there wasn‘t. Of course, they minimize that as much as possible. They? The TTC, of course. I continued riding the trains, the rear car now, looking back. Then I would go home and look at the Child-Find poster. The picture showed a twenty-year-old man, as much so as a computer could make of a photograph of an eight-year-old boy. Incident, Summerhill station, early rush-hour . . . I tried to remember what Todd had looked like, the last time I saw him.
22 ∙ Urban Legends
Oh, I had a school photo of him in my wallet, but what had he looked like that day, just before the world fell apart? Had his blond hair been sticking up where I‘d tousled it? I sometimes did, that I could remember, how his hair felt under my hand. He had been wearing—I‘d repeated this often enough to the police—jeans, a red-andwhite striped t-shirt, dirty white running shoes (Nike) and white athletic socks, and he had a yellow Spiderman backpack. In the backpack was his math test, on which he‘d got an A. Besides his math and reading books, he‘d had a paperback copy of The Hobbit from the school book club, which he‘d just got that day. His first ―chapter‖ book that he had bought himself. He pulled it out and read the first paragraph aloud to me. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit . . . That day his hazel eyes were almost green, the way they got when he was especially excited, which he was, because he had the new book, and he‘d got an A on his test, and he was going to stay overnight with his friend Cody. Excited. That was probably why he‘d let himself get pushed out the door a stop early, at Summerhill instead of St. Clair. The last I‘d seen of him was the yellow Spiderman backpack. Not even his face, nothing to give me a clue to his feelings in those final moments. Nothing to remember except a small figure, blond hair sticking up, yes, above a yellow Spiderman backpack, caught in a crowd. I was left holding the bag packed for overnight with his pyjamas, and toothbrush, and change of clothes. I don‘t know what happened to that bag. Maybe Elaine, or maybe her mother, did something with it, finally. By the time I‘d hit the emergency strip the car was into the tunnel and I never saw him again. Never. That‘s quite a word, isn‘t it? I had listened to it rain all night, and now the grass and trees of Sir Winston Churchill Park steamed in the morning sun. The Russell Hill emergency exit came out into the park, in the ravine south of St. Clair Avenue. Above, beyond the wall of woods, I caught glimpses of houses high above me, and I could hear traffic, faintly. I had expected it to be discreetly hidden in the hillside, probably unmarked. But there it was, in plain sight at the end of a lane haphazardly paved with cement blocks. Large, square metal doors marked ―Russell Hill Emergency Exit. No Parking. Do Not Block Exit.‖ It looked like a dreary minor entrance to a forgotten corner of the Mines of Moria. A train rumbled faintly below, and I shuddered, remembering the terrifying proximity of that noisy, deadly mass of metal. I stepped up on a low concrete retaining wall, slipping on wet weeds and last year‘s leaves, and looked down through a large round grate. I could see walls and a platform below. Was that a child‘s running shoe down there,
Kate Riedel ∙ 23
perhaps, marked with a Nike swoosh? Surely not lost in the exit from the accident, that was far too long ago. ―Tunnel Fox?‖ I called softly into the grate. I heard voices on the path and jumped down. Two women smiled and said ―Good morning,‖ and I smiled and said ―Good morning‖ back, and headed south into an open grassy field with the sun high overhead, then down into more woods, and finally a tangle of residential streets where, by continuing downhill, I found my way to Dupont Street. Back at the entry to the Dupont station I stopped and looked up the hill, past the railroad tracks, to Casa Loma. Somewhere in the clippings in the archives someone had been quoted as saying, ―I don‘t know why they call it the Russell Hill Accident. Why not the Casa Loma Accident?‖ I walked back up to the Archives and sat on a bench for awhile, watching the railroad tracks and thinking. Then I trudged up and around the hill to Casa Loma, paid the price of admission, and, following the selfguided tour on the brochure they gave me, stepped into that incongruous vault called the Great Hall. The Pellatts, I discovered, had had a son. He must have grown up and had a normal and uninteresting life, as nothing more was said of him. In the library next to the Great Hall, old novels, histories, law reports, and textbooks lined up behind the glass doors of the bookshelves made it plain that the castle itself was only an empty shell on the hillside, a failed fantasy. If there was anything here for me, it would be in the long and twisted tunnel that joined the house and the stables. Pipes protruded along sweaty walls from which moisture trickled to the floor. I listened for subway trains. Nothing. At the stables, the high windows blocked out everything but trees. I returned through the tunnel to the world above. The sky had clouded over again while I was underground. I returned to the bench in front of the Archives, sat and gazed at the weed-grown lot at the top of the railroad embankment. The railroad track travelled east-west directly over both north-south subway lines, just north of Dupont station, just south of Summerhill, a horizontal slash across two verticals. Was that the connection? Pellatt had invested in railways, so had the builder of Summerhill cottage, and both had built in view of their investment. Had Thompson also had a son? I made my reluctant body stand, my now sore feet carry me to the underpass. Elaine had a wall with a door in it . . . The retaining walls would be a logical place for entrance to anything below. But the concrete was solid, the rust-stained white walls showed not even an outline of a door. I climbed the embankment to a patch of old asphalt and pushed my way around a hedge of sweet clover, chicory and Queen Anne‘s lace, past a
24 ∙ Urban Legends
jumble of broken bricks, through a gap in a rusty chain link fence, to follow the railroad tracks east. No entrance from up here. But I was trapped between the fences, so I walked on. Rain began to spatter on the rails and on my face. A grey bird with a long tail and white bars on its wings fluttered ahead of me from post to post along the fence, letting out a loud, almost angry ―chuck!‖ every time he took off for a new post. The rain was now a steady drizzle. At a break in the north fence the bird flew away. I slid down through wet weeds to a parking lot. The rain poured down now. I reached the next underpass, but it was too late; my shirt was clinging to me, my jeans were soaked, my shoes squelched. On the other side of the underpass I turned back west toward Spadina and the Dupont subway station. A wooden fence behind a gas station hid most of the embankment from view. No doors in this wall. When I went down the Dupont station escalator I left puddles of water behind me. But what’s this bit of seaweed beside these watery tracks? Don’t you know? That seaweed grows only on the bodies of drowned men . . . Rush hour. I had to stand, swaying from my arm stretched to the overhead rail. One or two people squeezed away from my dripping body, but I attracted no other attention outside of a few amused smiles. The rain had stopped by the time I got off at King Street and stumbled back to my room on aching legs and feet. It was nearly supper time, but I was too tired to eat, too tired to take a shower. I left my wet clothes in a pile on the floor and fell into bed. I dreamed about tunnels: subway tunnels, mine tunnels, tunnels full of shadowy figures engaged in dim and unidentifiable activities. Sometimes I only watched, sometimes I walked from place to place, following a high, thin whistling overhead, a whistle almost out of human ear range, almost but not quite a tune. Then I knew I was in the tunnel at Casa Loma. I followed the thin whistle down, down between the curving, dripping, mold-grown walls. The tunnel became a straight-away, disappearing into the black ahead, and I knew I was under the railroad tracks, going east, toward Summerhill. The walls glowed with luminescent fungus. There were people, or perhaps creatures, in this tunnel, some just ahead of me, some passing in either direction, none of them quite clear in my vision. Kobolds, perhaps, perhaps demons sent to waylay Orpheus. Perhaps children sent to work in the mines. The whistling became louder, less tuneful, an irritant. I sat up, naked in sweat-soaked sheets, and grabbed the telephone. ―Charlie-on-the-TTC? Tunnel Fox. I‘m at Summerhill.‖ He hung up. I fell from bed and stumbled to the fridge without bothering to turn on the light. The half-carton of milk had gone sour, but I‘d bought some orange
Kate Riedel ∙ 25
juice since then and I drank it all, straight from the carton, and hung onto the fridge until my stomach accepted the juice. In the half-dark I found dry underwear, socks, jeans, a shirt. My shoes were still damp but they would have to do. Transit pass. Keys. I had no idea what time it was, except it was night, with a few people still out and about under the streetlights. The subway crowd was thin, and at Yonge and Bloor the car emptied. I got out at Summerhill. No-one was there. He wasn‘t at ground level, or outside. I went back downto the north end of the platformand peered into the tunnel. A train roared into the station behind me. I boarded it and rode it through to St. Clair. I could see no-one on the way through the tunnel, and the St. Clair Station was also deserted. I walked to the south end, looked around, lifted the gate as I had seen Tunnel Fox do, opened it, stepped through, closed it behind me, descended the black steps, and followed the narrow ledge to enter the vast cave between St. Clair and Summerhill. The widely spaced lights were just sufficient to prevent stumbling over every shadow, every bit of trash, pop cans, bottles, chip bags. Lost bits of clothing, a sock here, the remains of a t-shirt there. A back pack, too old, too filthy for me to tell its colour. A rumble, bright light. I threw myself over a low barrier, bruising my shins, and against the sloping tunnel wall until the train was past. I could feel a tree root under me. I rose and scrambled back over the barrier. ―Tunnel Fox?‖ I called. Such a silly name, said aloud. But I called it again. Something moved, to the north end of the tunnel. Somebody. I turned away, toward the south, toward Summerhill. Don‘t look back. Let him follow. Except now he was ahead of me. I broke into a run, feeling where my shins had hit the barrier as I‘d gone over. That was when I started calling ‗Todd‘ instead of ‗Tunnel Fox‘. He trudged on, Spiderman only a shadow on the backpack that shone faintly yellow every time he passed under a light, just as the light showed his hair sticking up. He looked tired. How long had he been walking here in this dingy twilight? ―Todd!‖ Perhaps he, not I, was the one who must not look back. He was at the narrow walkway preliminary to the steps up into the coolly lit hall that was the Summerhill platform. My left foot slid on the ledge, threatening to send me sprawling onto the tracks, and there was a train coming, howling toward me.
26 ∙ Urban Legends
Don‘t look back. I stumbled up the steps, onto the platform, and the train roared past me, ground to a halt. I slid, and nearly fell. Someone helped me up, and I leaned against him as he propelled me into a nearly empty car where he made sure I was safely on a seat before sliding off his back pack and sitting beside me. The man in the next seat stood and moved to the other end of the car and I understood why as I dropped forward, my head nearly on my knees, and saw how filthy my shoes were, my jeans torn and begrimed, could the rest of me be any better? The doors closed, and Todd‘s childish face slid into oblivion, as I thought, perhaps I should have been looking outside, out in the green and blue and the sunshine. My companion put his arm around me, solicitously.
Kate Riedel ∙ 27
Omaha MATT DENNISON
When fathers stopped wearing fedoras at ballgames unity and chaos wrestled in the mud. •
When fathers stopped telling the old jokes quills grew on the tongues of their children. •
When fathers stopped strangling ice picks cars sank in a traveling darkness. •
When fathers stopped building bad-weather traps fish split themselves open for fun. •
When fathers stopped wiping the sky with red handkerchiefs marbles settled the war. •
When fathers stopped chasing parachute-suicides lawns carved the traveling salesmen. •
When fathers stopped leaning on enormous flap-wings history snuck under the fence. •
When fathers stopped counting jars in the basement hyenas licked cardboard hyenas. •
When fathers stopped carving urinals with ivy cakes nibbled once-trusting palms. •
When fathers stopped stuffing clowns into suitcases birds sang falderal! in the sun. •
When fathers stopped lassoing pig parts for war vets cats drowned the horizon's bathtub. •
When fathers stopped stealing cartographer headlamps newspapers taped their own wounds. •
When fathers stopped practicing hand-shadow puppetry brooms had a faint holiday. •
When fathers stopped riding banshees in goulash clocks turned on ugly balloons. •
When fathers stopped hoarding soup soap and quarantine ropes signed The Treaty of Knot. •
When fathers stopped hollering ravens! When fathers stopped drumming cathedrals When fathers stopped practicing bird dreams When fathers stopped shouldering trinkets When fathers stopped tripping on mufflers When fathers stopped breathing in cisterns When fathers stopped spitting out wrenches When fathers stopped pondering cheeses When fathers stopped bathing in coal bins cliffs healed themselves to the top fence posts unzipped the sky Aspnum gave birth to Charrsid worms laughed themselves into consorts garage doors snagged their own eyelids shoe boxes climbed all the light poles hellgrammites danced in the cupboard tug boats shrugged their conceits cowslips died of anemia •
When fathers stopped measuring castrate battalions trampolines called it a day.
Matt Dennison ∙ 29
Waving on the Moon TANIA HERSHMAN
hey‘re waving at us,‖ said Jorg. Morten peered at the grainy screen. She thought she might be able to see someone‘s arm moving. ―How do they know we‘re here?‖ said Jorg. ―Well, we are quite a large probe, if they‘ve got the right scope,‖ said Morten. ―Or maybe they wave at everyone?‖ Instead of carrying on the conversation, they went into Morten‘s pod, had sex, and then Jorg went off to paint his toy soldiers, or whatever it is that he did, Morten wasn‘t sure, even after nine years. She went back to sit at the console. Yes, it did look like someone waving. She tried to slide in closer, but something about the atmosphere on this particular moon held them back. She wished she could wave. She waved anyway. Then she felt stupid so she fiddled with her hair as if that was what she‘d always meant to do. She looked around to see if Jorg was there. I‘m an idiot, she thought, and decided to reassess their transit logs, just to pass the time. In his room, Jorg was painting toy soldiers. He had spent almost a decade working on this regiment. He was nearly done and as he sat with his fine brush, filling in the khaki of the officer‘s uniform, he wondered what he might do next. He wondered if Morten would want to see them. He wondered if she might laugh at the whole thing. Nine years on this mission and he really wasn‘t sure at any given moment what she might do. ―What do you think?‖ he said to the soldier, standing him on the desk. Then he remembered it was a Russian regiment. He didn‘t speak Russian. He dipped the paintbrush back in the khaki and picked up the soldier. On the moon, someone was waving. They waved a lot, to exercise their arms. And also, just in case. The waver wasn‘t sure if anyone was passing, at any given moment. The waver didn‘t know, because it had been so long since the stranding, whether technology had reached a point where this moon‘s surface might be seen from far far far away. It had been so long since the stranding that the waver wasn‘t sure even about self, what self might be, a he or she or an other, the waver had forgotten it all. But not how to wave. That still remained.
∙ ∙ ∙ On another moon, a couple stood, drinking early evening cocktails. ―Someone‘s waving over there, I think,‖ said he, who had implants to enable vision farzoom if required, as well as microscopic. ―How nice, dear,‖ said she, who was a little tipsy already, although she had been secretly practicing in the afternoons raising her tolerance, feeling a little foolish at how quickly she wobbled. ―I‘ll wave back, shall I?‖ he said, handing her the glass. He raised his right arm. ―Ahoy there!‖ and she, holding both glasses, looked around at their moon and sighed, because really, did life get any better than this?
Tania Hershman ∙ 31
Trouble in Mind JULIA A. ROSENTHAL
he 2:19 train to Hung Hom station roared past the estates and mansions of downtown Hong Kong. The towers rose over the tracks toward the cloud-dotted June sky like a forest of white brick, concrete and glass. From the train windows one could look up at the terraced balconies and see flashes of life inside each tiny apartment: a clothesline hung with towels, boxer shorts and a baby‘s footed pajamas, or a row of potted flowers blooming red and white. It was rare to see anyone out on a balcony. June in Hong Kong was a season of angry humidity and sudden rains. The effort of pushing through one or two crowded blocks to a bakery or noodle stand to buy dinner could make someone too tired to eat. To leave the sanctuary of air conditioning, even to hang up laundry, was to forget instantly what cool air felt like. Tony, alone, stood on the balcony of his apartment. His white shirt was limp and his face glistened with sweat. He lowered the cigarette from his mouth and leaned on the railing, watching the train pass. Under the train‘s tinted glass Tony could see passengers reading the flat Byron screens on their laps. Their fingers fluttered and their hands dipped over their Byrons. The devices read the motions of their hands like an attentive orchestra, translating the signs into a complex language of numbers, symbols and formulas. It was a language too multidimensional to be spoken aloud, a language of pure theory that had left words, and the human voice, behind. Tony could understand none of it. A year ago he would have watched the motions of the passengers‘ hands with fierce focus, trying to read a word or two in their gestures as the train‘s windows glided past below him. He no longer bothered. The motion sensors in a Byron screen were finely tuned machines, crafted to read the manual sign language that had replaced the human voice as a means of communication. Tony had once hoped that, if he studied the sign language closely enough, he could grasp its meaning just as a Byron‘s motion sensors did. He gave up this hope as he saw the sign language evolve in speed and complexity over mere months. No matter how closely he watched someone else‘s hands now, Tony‘s eyes couldn‘t read the meaning in their gestures the way a Byron screen could.
Tony‘s brain was an obsolete engine. He could feel it rusting daily from disuse, isolation, and the stupefying effects of heavy medication. His wife Winnie, an administrator at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, had been one of the first people to convert three years ago—before it was known as ―conversion,‖ when it was still considered an exotic strain of the flu. As Winnie had been one of the cases in the first wave, her loss of verbal language had been slower than most. She stopped speaking within weeks rather than days. But her grasp of the new language of numbers was immediate. It began with a leap forward in her ability to understand complex mathematical theory. A few weeks after her diagnosis, Tony woke one morning to find that Winnie had taken a pencil and corrected the errors in the formulas in his draft of an article for Finance and Stochastics while sipping her breakfast tea. Soon she was sharing one-line jokes with him that were nothing but mathematical symbols. They were a mathematician‘s jokes— both inside the math itself and above it—and so clever that Tony posted them on his office door at the university and listened to his colleagues laugh in the hallway as they read them. It wasn‘t long before Winnie was taking notes on hospital memos in a string of numbers and symbols that, to Tony, were opaque in meaning. She still scrawled one-line jokes to him, which he continued to post on his office door, but he no longer got them. As more of his colleagues caught the same virus Winnie had contracted, Tony heard them laughing at her jokes. Every time the sound rang in the hallway, he wanted to poke his head out and ask for a translation. But Tony knew it was useless. By the time the other professors in his department could understand his wife‘s new kind of humor, they had already stopped speaking themselves. A year ago Winnie still believed in him. She had argued with the specialists at Queen Elizabeth Hospital at his many appointments. Tony would sit next to Winnie, silent, as she rested one hand on his and signed over her Byron screen with the other hand. He would watch the patience in each doctor‘s face harden into irritation as Winnie refused to accept each new diagnosis. When they were alone, her deep brown eyes would look into Tony‘s and say: You’re brilliant. You’re the finest mind in mathematics in Hong Kong. I did this. We’ll find a way for you too. The red-flashing tail of the 2:19 train slid into the tunnel and disappeared. Tony tapped the cigarette against the railing. He remembered too late that the ash would fall onto Mrs. Yee‘s clean laundry hanging on the balcony below, which would start another door-slamming fight between her and Winnie. He went back inside the apartment. Tony‘s office had been their daughter Ada‘s bedroom before she left to study computer science at MIT. He no longer went to his faculty office in
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 33
the mathematics department at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The department head had gone to great—and condescending, Tony thought—lengths to make sure that Tony, as a tenured professor, felt welcome to pursue his research there. His teaching responsibilities had been quietly eliminated. Tony endured a semester of pitying smiles from his colleagues before he stopped going to campus. He preferred the natural quiet and solitude of the apartment while Winnie was at work. Tony sat down on Ada‘s narrow bed, his desk chair. He reached above his head to push a button on her old stereo. A compact disc began to spin. Dinah Washington‘s deceptively sweet voice sang of her troubled mind and her hopes for blue skies. Tony bent over the papers spread across his small desk. A Byron was at his elbow, its screen dark. He nudged it further aside. Tony turned to his computer. Nonparametric analysis, he typed in English. The search engine returned less than five hundred hits. Tony checked his notes. A few weeks ago, the same search had returned more than eight thousand pages. Before the onset of conversion, there would have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million. Tony reviewed the dates on which the first few pages of hits had been last updated. None had been touched within the last year. All article citations were in academic journals so minor that Tony had never heard of most of them. For all he knew, they had ceased publication and no one had bothered to go back and convert the archived articles from old-fashioned words. When he had run the search a few weeks ago, there had been a few major articles left in English. All had been taken down. No one was reading in that form anymore. Christ, Tony thought. These are medieval manuscripts now. He stared at the screen for a moment. Then he clicked on the icon for the translation engine his daughter Ada had coded for him. In the box Tony typed nonparametric analysis and routed the terms to the search engine‘s page, running the search again in mathematical translation. This time an avalanche of hits came back. The summary page, in untranslated form, was an indecipherable flood of numbers and symbols. Tony scanned them out of habit, looking for recognizable patterns, before he could stop himself. On first glance, the written version of the new language Winnie, and the rest of the world, spoke still looked like mathematical theory to Tony. Trying to read it in its raw form was, of course, futile. It wasn‘t oldfashioned theory at all. It was a new level of thought, a turn in the wheel of human evolution, that converted minds could grasp. Not Tony‘s.
34 ∙ Trouble in Mind
He directed Ada‘s engine to the first twenty pages and waited for it to churn the babble into something he could read and understand—and, maybe, turn into new scholarship. As he did, Tony lit another cigarette. He reached above his head and pressed the repeat-play button on Ada‘s stereo. Dinah Washington sang on. Tony felt the thin apartment walls tremble as Winnie opened the front door. He looked at the overflowing ashtray on his desk next to his papers, but didn‘t empty it. A moment later his Byron flashed. Tony picked it up. The Cantonese characters flowing across its screen were pale green; it was his daughter Ada calling. Hi, Dad! Tony unplugged his keyboard from the computer and connected it to the Byron. Hi, sweetheart! Tony typed. Ada‘s engine, also installed on his Byron, converted his words and sent them out. In a split second her response appeared, translated back into Cantonese. Guess what! I’m back! Just landed! Tony smiled. He typed back, his eyes on the Byron screen: Too busy to come and see us? No! I’m in line at customs. I’ll be there in an hour. His smile widened. Fantastic! How was Athens? Great. I love it. A photo of Tony‘s daughter flashed on the screen. A man Tony had never seen, a blonde who looked vaguely Scandinavian or Russian and who was a head taller than Ada, had his arm around her. Ada was leaning toward his shoulder and her hand rested on his. Tony had barely absorbed this image when more came. Ada climbing white marble rocks, her long black hair hidden under a hat in the blazing sun. Ada standing next to a group of grinning people in their twenties in what looked like an office. A view through a narrow window of a brightly lit street full of small cars and motorbikes. Tony couldn‘t keep up. Who’s the boy? he typed. Hans. He’s from Geneva. His dad’s a diplomat. They even lived here in Hong Kong once, back when we were kids. He used to speak Cantonese too! Tony typed: Is he there with you? No, he’s back in Athens. How did the project go? Tony typed. Still going. I’ll tell you everything when I get there. Oh—don’t tell Mom. OK? I want to surprise her. OK, he typed. I won’t say a word. I should sign off. She just got home. See you soon! On the Byron‘s screen, the conversation link with Ada vanished before Tony could type a goodbye.
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 35
Ada‘s departure for Greece a month before had been for a business trip scheduled to last only a few days. It had not surprised Tony when she simply failed to come back to Hong Kong, giving ―project delays‖ as her only reason. Ada loved travel even more than she loved solving technical software problems. Tony unplugged his keyboard from the Byron and reconnected it to his computer. He began typing again—he wasn‘t certain what—when the door opened behind him. A few moments passed without a sound. Tony raised his head and looked over his shoulder. Winnie stood in the doorway. Two cloth grocery bags dangled from her slender hands as she studied her husband without speaking. The V-neck of her beige silk sweater was patched with sweat. Strands of hair, a shadow of gray at its roots beneath its black sheen, clung to her damp forehead. Tony stood up and held his hands out for the bags. A year ago, even six months ago, he might have said out loud: ―Let me take those.‖ Now the sound of his voice, speaking words, made Winnie wince or look at him with a flat, quiet despair that was more searing than any cheerful smile from his colleagues at the university. It was easier not to speak at all. Winnie put the bags down slowly. She stepped into the small, cluttered office and into reach of Tony‘s outstretched hands. Tony felt her wrap her arms around him and draw him, still sitting on Ada‘s bed, close to her. He closed his eyes and pressed the side of his face against Winnie‘s stomach. They didn‘t move for several moments. Tony wondered if something catastrophic had happened. Not being able to ask in words, he stroked the small of Winnie‘s back, slick with perspiration through the thin silk sweater and high waist of her fitted skirt. He felt the rise and fall of her breaths against his cheek. It’s OK, Winnie, he thought. Whatever’s wrong, it’s OK. She reached up and turned the stereo off before she took a step away from Tony. Then Winnie bent to pick up the shopping bags. Without looking at him, she turned toward the kitchen. Tony stood in the kitchen doorway as he watched Winnie cook. Steam rose from a pot of boiling water on the two-burner stove, coiling into the curls of smoke rising from the tip of Tony‘s cigarette and lifting toward the low ceiling. Winnie‘s eyes were avoiding his. The blade of her chef‘s knife rocked back and forth on the wooden cutting board. Cloves of garlic were peeled with a single smack down to their creamy insides and turned into a finelyminced paste in moments. Winnie always moved with a furious grace in the
36 ∙ Trouble in Mind
tiny apartment kitchen, but tonight she was working with unusual focus. Her glance never left the cutting board or the stove. Tony wanted to tell her about Ada. It was clear that something was troubling Winnie; maybe the news would have made her smile. He had promised his daughter not to say a word, though, so he stood and smoked in silence. At last he coughed. Winnie looked up. She touched a button on a screen on the wall next to her. From the stereo speakers above their heads, the ripple of a Bach prelude played on a harpsichord filled the kitchen. Winnie slid her finger along the screen to nudge the volume up. Tony‘s doctors had suggested that he immerse his brain in instrumental music, along with the drug therapy, in an effort to synthesize the cognitive effects of conversion. The works of Bach, Mozart, and the twelve-tone school of Schoenberg were recommended in daily doses. Winnie couldn‘t stand atonal music, so she had loaded their apartment‘s digital musical library with the classical composers. Tony had grown to hate them all. Particularly Bach. He edged around Winnie without touching her to reach the screen on the wall. Tony‘s hand slapped it into silence. Over the cutting board the knife paused. Winnie‘s head turned. She pressed her lips together before she looked back down and resumed chopping. Tony‘s fingers rapped the screen. A moment later Dinah Washington was crooning, at high volume, through the steam and smoke of the kitchen. He crossed his arms and glared at his wife. Winnie grabbed a handful of green bok choy leaves and flung them into a stainless-steel strainer. Water shot from the faucet in a high froth as she shook the strainer vigorously, sending a spray over the front of her sweater. She slammed the faucet off and dumped the wet leaves onto the cutting board. Her knife lifted. Two strikes of the knife against the board. Then the blade clattered down on its side. Winnie was gripping her left hand. ―Fuck,‖ she whispered. A trickle of blood spidered down her fingers, then pulsed and flowed faster. Drops fell onto the cutting board as Winnie stared at her hand. Tony threw down his cigarette as he pulled Winnie toward the sink. She stood still and rigid as Tony rinsed her bleeding hand under cool water. He could feel her arm trembling under his as he examined the gash. It was crescent-shaped and bisected the back of two of Winnie‘s fingers just below the first knuckle. The water from the faucet flowed pale pink as it hit the sink‘s bottom. He was shaking too. It was the first time Tony had heard his wife say a word in three years.
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 37
Everything around Tony—Winnie‘s injured hand, the water splashing in the sink, the pot boiling on the burner a few feet away, the haze of the air in the apartment kitchen—seemed to shimmer for a moment as if reality itself were dissolving. What if some part of Winnie‘s mind could still think in words? Could he still reach it? Was there something primal, as deep as pain, that could undo the erasing of conversion and wake up the ability to speak again? Tony‘s heart was pounding. He wanted to turn to Winnie and grab her by the shoulders, look directly into her face and shout her name. Perhaps, if he could connect to that part of her—perhaps there was a chance Tony could break through the hopeless sadness that filled Winnie‘s eyes whenever she came home and saw him at the end of the day, still incapacitated, still unable to think like everyone else, still stubbornly uninfected and un-converted. The urge to yell Winnie‘s name filled him until he could hardly breathe with the effort of holding it back. Against his shoulder he felt Winnie‘s head droop as her body sagged. The sight of blood had always made her faint. Tony shook his head to clear it. He turned off the faucet and slipped one arm around Winnie‘s shoulders as he reached for a dishtowel to press against the cut. He rubbed her back as she leaned against the kitchen sink. The color slowly returned to her pale cheeks. When he took her hand and pantomimed wrapping a bandage around it, his eyebrows lifted in a question, she nodded. A moment later Tony was back in the kitchen with a box of first aid supplies from the bathroom. He dried Winnie‘s hand with the bloodstained dishtowel. With one fingertip he traced the lip of the cut with antibacterial ointment, then with a transparent strip of adhesive gel that sealed the rest of the blood beneath Winnie‘s sliced-open skin. Now all that could be seen were two dark red lines, like closed eyelids, beneath a wet smear of clear jelly. Winnie‘s brown eyes had been fixed on a spot on the kitchen wall just above Tony‘s head as he worked. He released her hands and turned to throw away the paper backing for the adhesive gel strip, which crackled in his fingers as he crumpled it. The sound made Winnie blink as if she were coming out of a trance. From behind Tony felt Winnie‘s arms curl around his waist. The warmth of her cheek rubbed against his shoulder. He stood still, holding his breath, waiting for Winnie to pull away. Her arms tightened as she pressed up against Tony. It had been a long time since Winnie had touched him with anything but pity. Tony could feel the weight of Winnie‘s slender body curving into his spine. He didn‘t need words. It wasn‘t sadness that was making her hold him now, but gratitude.
38 ∙ Trouble in Mind
And a stirring of an emotion he had wondered if he would ever see or feel from her again: desire. Inside her embrace, Tony turned to face her. Winnie‘s face was tilted up toward his. Her lingering kiss was sweet and coy, a kind he hadn‘t tasted in years. Tony kissed her back. Winnie closed her eyes, smiled, and kissed him again—harder this time. For a moment Tony wondered if there was another man. Then he didn‘t care. The knock on the front door of the apartment was loud enough to be heard over Dinah Washington in the kitchen. Tony lifted his head away from Winnie and looked toward the door. She slipped her hands into his hair and pulled his face back toward hers with a mischievous smile. He grinned at her, jerking his head toward the door. Winnie shook her head and stamped one foot on the kitchen floor. Tony could read her face. It’s just Mrs. Yee downstairs. Let her knock. She’ll go away. The knock came again, louder. Tony shook his head and pointed at the door. Winnie sighed. She gathered her tousled hair back up into a knot and walked toward the front door as she pinned it into place. Tony watched the movement of her hips—the sexy swing, just for him, that melted away with each step toward the door until her body was as smoothed and collected as the strands of hair underneath her fingers. He heard Winnie gasp when she opened the door and saw Ada. The square dining table was just big enough for the three of them to sit around it, elbow to elbow, in a corner of the living room, as they had done since Ada was a small child. Winnie had covered its scarred wooden surface with an embroidered tablecloth in honor of Ada‘s surprise return from Athens. The tablecloth was nearly invisible under a spread of plates, bowls, serving dishes and napkins. Next to each plate lay a Byron. Tony leaned forward and slurped noodles from his raised chopsticks. He was the only one eating. Winnie and Ada were arguing. Winnie, who sat across from Tony, had lowered her eyes to her Byron screen and was watching its numbers and symbols skitter by in Ada‘s pale green. The chopsticks in her right hand rested on her plate without touching any of her food. At Tony‘s left elbow, Ada‘s right hand was slashing at the air over her Byron, its motion sensors reading her rapid signs and translating them into the code that Winnie was reading. Ada was breathing hard. Winnie‘s breaths were inaudible.
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 39
The two women were still for a few seconds. One last jab from Ada. Winnie put her chopsticks down and lifted her hand over her Byron screen to reply. Ada‘s arms were now crossed and she was glaring at her mother. Tony watched as Winnie‘s wrist bent as gracefully as a classical dancer. Her response was slow, deliberate and full of fluid poetry. Tony tried to imagine Winnie‘s voice. I understand that you love Athens, Ada. But your life is here. What about the Ph.D. that you’ve promised to finish? Or: This boy. Hans. How can we give our blessing to you if you’ve never brought him here to meet us? Tony set his chopsticks next to his plate and rested his fingers on the small keyboard lying, tactfully out of sight, down in his lap. He typed as quietly as he could: Winnie? What’s going on? Winnie‘s Byron screen flickered with a new color—blue, Tony‘s translated message—a split second later. Her eyes twitched, but she didn‘t look at Tony. Her hand continued to flow through the steps of her response to Ada. Tony typed to his daughter: Ada? Is everything OK? Ada, who had been watching her mother‘s hands with an increasingly taut face as Winnie took her time to answer, looked down at her screen to see Tony‘s message. She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. Winnie finished her response with a gesture that looked like a mother smoothing the hair on a child‘s head. It was strange for a Byronic sign, of a type Tony thought he had never seen before. He wondered what it meant. Ada read Winnie‘s response in silence. She sat, her breathing low and furious as she stared at her half-eaten dinner. Then she straightened her shoulders and raised her hand to her Byron screen. At last Tony‘s Byron flickered in pale green Cantonese. Dad. What’s Mom told you? Tony typed back: About what? Winnie leaned toward Ada and shot her a dark warning look. Her eyes darted from Ada‘s face to Tony‘s. About what she heard from the doctors today, Ada signed. She hasn’t told me anything, Tony typed. Ada‘s hand flew in the air like a fencer‘s blade. On Tony‘s Byron screen, a few words appeared, garbled among strings of numbers and symbols. Slow down, Ada, Tony typed. Your translation engine can’t keep up. Ada‘s hand froze. Her eyes screwed closed as her fingers balled into a fist. She hit the table with such force that the plates jumped. Winnie stared at her, eyes wide with shock. Her eyebrows lowered in a stern reproach.
40 ∙ Trouble in Mind
Ada signed again. On Tony‘s screen flashed: 20%! I don’t understand, he typed. Tears were starting to trickle down Ada‘s cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of her left hand as she signed, more slowly now, with her right. Twenty percent. The estimate the doctors gave Mom for the chance that you’ll be cured if you go into the hospital. I’m not going into the hospital, Tony typed. Who says I am? When there was no answer from Ada, he looked up. Winnie and Ada were looking at him. Their hands were motionless. Tony typed: I don’t have the gene mutation. I can’t convert like you and Mom did. They’ve known this for a year, sweetheart. So what is this about going into— Ada‘s hand lifted again. Tony read: The doctors say there are too many words here. They say your brain doesn’t have a chance of learning how to speak like we do if you keep using words. What’s going to happen in the hospital, then? Tony typed. Full isolation. Drug therapy. Total language deprivation. Immersion in music. Mathematics. Some other experimental things. Surgery, maybe. Winnie was signing over her Byron, much faster now. Tony‘s screen flashed with pink Cantonese characters. Tony, Ada’s blocked me from your conversation and I don’t know what she’s telling you. Twenty percent? Tony typed to Winnie. Winnie leaned back in her chair. She looked at Ada for several seconds before she began to sign again, this time more slowly. I’ve met with the doctors doing the research. They’ve learned a lot about conversion since the last time you went in. How many people have had this treatment? Tony typed. It’s experimental. Not a large-scale study. How many? It doesn’t matter. Five? Is that what a twenty-percent cure rate means? Tony waited for an answer. His Byron remained blank. He waited, then typed: Ada said something about language deprivation. Winnie and Ada sat without moving. In other words, Tony typed, I won’t have her translation engine. They would take it away. Wouldn’t they? Winnie closed her eyes for a moment before she signed. You won’t need it. What if— Tony stopped, deleted, and tried again. How do I tell someone if I want to stop the treatment and get out of the study? Why would you?
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 41
What if it doesn’t work, Winnie? Tony looked up at her. Winnie‘s hand stirred. How long do you think Ada’s translation engine is going to work? It works now, he typed. What about a year from now? Winnie‘s hand was so low over her Byron screen her fingernails clicked on its surface. Ada built it right when her conversion started, when she still spoke Cantonese. When it breaks down, who’s going to fix it? Ada‘s green characters broke across Tony‘s screen. Mom, I told you. I can maintain it. I’ve got all my notes. Winnie‘s forehead bowed slightly as she leaned toward Ada and signed with one finger. On Tony‘s screen flashed in pink: Let’s see. Ada‘s hand swept over her Byron as she retrieved the comments in her programming code for the translation engine. She studied the first page. Tony could see Cantonese characters mixed with numbers and mathematical symbols. After a moment Ada waved the notes away angrily with a flick of her fingers. They disappeared from her screen. She signed, It doesn’t matter. I can still read most of this. Winnie was looking up at Ada, not down at her screen, as she signed, Really? Can you? Ada‘s eyes lowered. Tony could sense her body going rigid, as it did when she was a child and was about to explode into a tantrum. She was holding her breath. Winnie, he typed. The blue characters flickered as a string of numbers on Winnie‘s screen. She looked at him. You still speak Cantonese. Winnie‘s head tilted. No, I don’t. You did. In the kitchen, when you were cooking dinner. When did I speak Cantonese? When you cut yourself. I screamed. Winnie signed with her right hand as she glanced at the fingers on her left, where her hand rested on the table next to her plate. The adhesive had sealed the cuts closed so that only two faint red lines were visible above her knuckles. No. You didn’t scream. You said a word. I made a noise. You spoke, Winnie. Winnie sighed. She rubbed her temples with her left hand so that Tony couldn‘t see her eyes. Tony. I’m sorry. I can imagine how badly you must want to hear someone talk. But you know I can’t anymore. It hurt, and I made a noise. That’s all.
42 ∙ Trouble in Mind
Tony wanted to type, It wasn’t a noise. It was a word. His fingertips rested silently on the keyboard in his lap. Winnie‘s fingernails touched her Byron screen. Tony read in pink Cantonese: The study, Tony. Please say yes. I don’t know if we’ll get another chance. This isn’t a chance, he typed. It’s something. It’s better than living the way we are now. Is it? I miss talking to you. Yes. It would be better than this. For more than a minute, no one at the table moved. Ada‘s hand dipped over her Byron. In pale green Tony read: Mom. Tell Dad what happened to the other eighty percent. There was no response. Tony looked up. Winnie and Ada were locked in an unblinking stare. He pushed his chair back and, setting his keyboard aside, stood up. He walked away from the table toward the bathroom. Just before Tony closed the door, he glanced over his shoulder back at the table. Winnie‘s hand was raised. It flashed through the air and slapped Ada‘s cheek. The sound exploded inside Tony‘s head like shrapnel. He slammed the bathroom door with such force that the walls of the apartment shook. The knob clicked as he locked it. Tony turned on the light. In the vanity drawer was a pack of cigarettes. He opened the pack and lit one. Resting it on the edge of the sink, he opened the cabinet below and pushed aside bottles of shampoo, glass cleaner and bleach. Behind the plastic bottles his fingers found the smooth glass surface of another. Tony lifted out the bottle of whiskey. As he did, he heard something next to the bottle fall over with an unfamiliar thump. It sounded like cardboard, or paper. He set the glass bottle down on the floor and reached to the back of the cabinet again. This time he touched a laminated surface with raised characters. It was the cover of a paperback book. The book had been one of Winnie‘s from years ago. Humidity and age had warped the cheap paper into ruffles that would never lie flat again. The pages, foxed with mildew, stuck together. It was a romance novel, the kind that Tony had teased Winnie for reading. On the cover an almond-eyed woman in a tight silk dress, a Western depiction of a Chinese girl, was looking with demure fear at a man in a double-breasted suit ogling her. Trouble in Mind, the red-gilt stamped title blared in Cantonese and English. Tony filled the toothpaste-smeared cup on the sink and took a large swallow of whiskey that brought tears to his eyes. Then another, and
Julia A. Rosenthal ∙ 43
another. A dim memory of a warning about alcohol and drug interactions surfaced in the back of his mind. Tony drowned it with another gulp. He opened the small bathroom window. The humidity of the June evening in Hong Kong billowed into the tiny, tiled room like steam from a shower. Fists pounded on the bathroom door. Tony ignored them. He leaned out the window. Trains glided in and out of the tunnel to Hung Hom station, their windows gleaming like pearls in the falling light. Above the train tracks and the spires of apartment buildings glowed the neon signs of Hong Kong‘s office towers. While no one could read the words on the signs anymore, the companies in the towers clung to their oldfashioned names. Letters had become a visual symbol of longevity. Trust us, each sign flashed. We are old, strong, stable. We are words. The blues, greens and reds flickered in the night sky like dying stars. With his cigarette in one hand, Tony peeled the book open to the first page. The pounding on the bathroom door continued behind him. He would tell Winnie and Ada that he would go into the hospital. Twenty percent, he said to himself, are a hero’s odds. He imagined the relief and joy in Winnie‘s eyes when he told her. She and Ada would stop fighting. All of this would come to an end. But, not yet. Not until he had finished the book. Tony smoked, and read.
44 ∙ Trouble in Mind
poem in which your hat is a boat HOLLY AMOS
When I am in your hat starlight drops through Little points collecting in front of me Your hat & me a magnet for this kind of light I never learned to swim but I trust your hat Me & your hat & the light that stays with us I think we can do anything This night there‘s more of the light than usual Your hat is afraid & whispers with its many little voices I can‘t understand any of them
Painting God at Epcot ALEXANDER WEINSTEIN
ichelangelo‘s paintbrush comes to rest halfway between God‘s abdomen and himself. He retracts the brush then extends it again. He lies on scaffolding, and beneath him candles flicker; above him the Sistine Chapel is dry as bone. A sculptor stands a stone‘s throw away, his hammer ready to strike a chisel against the neck of his statue. His eyes are glassy as if filled with tears, and a small ironic smile breaks from his lips. At his side sits a painter facing a completed still life of a bowl of fruit, and in the corner, an apprentice mixes the paints. Color swatches hang on small scraps of muslin, dyed to appear aged, completely useless. Around the corner, machines are shutting down. A black newspaper editor yells towards the empty time machines that pass. Steam rises from his right. Mammoth wheels rotate, the metal gears of the industrial revolution churning. The newspaper editor looks out at the time machines with an empty stare. In this moment, before all the world turns dark, one can see his anguish. His press will never produce any real newspapers, and the paperboy—who holds the papers towards the brick façade of a Chicago tenement—will never tell anyone that the war is over. The steam stops, the gears whir to a halt, and the paperboy‘s arms come to rest midway between an embrace and despair. The time machines are motionless along the track, their small computer screens flickering off. And with a click, the world is pure darkness. The voices come echoing from below, traveling past the cave dwellers, up to the Romans and Greeks, and then on to the Hebraic scholars and the Benedictine Monks. ―All clear!‖ they yell. ―All clear!‖ the sculptor calls. ―All clear!‖ Michelangelo repeats. ―All clear!‖ the newspaper editor chimes in. Michelangelo stares into the darkness, imagining the unfinished painting above him. God‘s belly is nearly completed. He sighs. ―Well, that‘s it, then. No further today than yesterday.‖ He longs to close his eyes and put his hand across his face. Yes, he thinks, he would weep for a moment, then rise. But his legs have been dangling over the scaffolding for decades. They grew heavy long ago, then pained, knees groaning as angels sang above him, and now they are completely numb. He can feel where his thighs touch the plank, but there—at the edge of the wood where his legs reach out over the dark abyss—is a deep void where feeling should be. In the darkness he
imagines the hand of Man reaching for the finger of God. If he could, he would paint a hot dog in Man‘s hand. ―I can‘t stand this anymore,‖ he mutters. ―Imagine how I feel,‖ the sculptor says. ―All I want is to see her breasts.‖ Back in the Disney workshop where he was created, the sculptor had glimpsed the open pages of a technician‘s magazine. There, upon red silk, he‘d seen a woman in lace and witnessed her two voluptuous breasts. There is silence. The truth is none of the others knows what the sculptor is talking about. Michelangelo, who had once seen his maker eat a hot dog, replies, ―Yes, the long bun,‖ hoping this may be relevant. ―What are you talking about? I‘m talking about breasts. I can feel the round nipples at the apex of each mound when I bring my chisel down. But then my body stops, I return upright, I raise the hammer, I smile at the passing people. Oh, this damned neck!‖ He would send his hammer and chisel clinking down the tracks of the ride if he could. ―I have always considered the neck to be the most sensual part of a woman,‖ the painter says, but is unable to add anything more because he has no clue what a woman is. He has only heard the sculptor speak of women and necks and breasts and believes these must be some sort of fruit, like the bowl of apples and grapes he paints. In fact, the only object that has ever piqued his interest was a kiwi. His maker had peeled one in front of him, and he had seen the soft, green flesh beneath. His bowl of fruit, historically accurate to the Renaissance, is missing a kiwi. Instead there is an apple, a pear, a bunch of grapes. But that kiwi, with its prankster coat of fur that begged to be peeled, there isn‘t a day that the painter doesn‘t think fondly of it. ―I believe the most beautiful thing in the world is a kiwi,‖ he says. ―That‘s because you‘re an ass,‖ the sculptor says. ―You‘re just jealous,‖ the painter responds. ―While I‘ve been putting the finishing touches on my masterpiece, you‘ve been stuck with your neck. To never complete a work of art is a tragedy. I have compassion for you.‖ ―Masterpiece?‖ the sculptor says. ―You‘ve been painting a bowl of plastic fruit.‖ ―Really?‖ the painter says. He strains in the darkness to make out the bowl. ―No, I don‘t think so. Besides, what do you know of my painting? You can‘t see it.‖ ―Trust me, none of us envies you. We‘ve got larger visions than a bowl of fruit.‖ The painter is quiet. He sits in the darkness, feeling wounded anger. It is true, he thinks. Plastic fruit! Until this moment, he‘d considered his work great. Plastic fruit! Oh, the shame. Well, he can always begin on a new painting. And now, for the first time, he feels the sting of despair. His paints are all dry; there are no other canvases for him to work on. He couldn‘t even whitewash if he wished. He is stuck for eternity with a pittance to show for his life‘s work: a substandard still life of plastic fruit. ―Oh, my,‖ he says.
Alexander Weinstein ∙ 47
They are all silent now. In the darkness, the apprentice stands alone, trying to make the smallest movement with one of his fingers. Through the partition that keeps the Renaissance from the Industrial Revolution, they can hear the paperboy shouting at the newspaper editor. ―Tell us again about the people,‖ Michelangelo says to the sculptor. They have all heard the voices of the visitors who come hovering past their workshop. The oohs and ahhs, the babies crying, those prized moments when something of the larger world was revealed to them. Michelangelo has puzzled over the statement, ―The flight leaves at a quarter to seven,‖ for a decade now, and though its mystery eludes him, he feels he shares the sentiment. ―They look like us,‖ the sculptor says. ―Only their movements don‘t repeat. We‘re bound by the will of some larger force, but they have true freedom. Still, when they pass, they have a strange look in their eyes. It‘s as if they‘d rather be in here with us.‖ ―What do you remember of the outside world?‖ the painter asks. ―Blue,‖ the sculptor says. ―Yes, I remember it too,‖ Michelangelo says. ―I see it every day here above me. The sun was high, trees were in blossom, and then I saw this enormous silver globe rising above me. Painter, what do you remember?‖ ―The man who created me was eating a kiwi. His teeth sunk into the wet fruit beneath the fuzzy flesh. Oh, to simply reach out and peel away the fur, to take a bite . . . plastic you say, the treachery of it all! Michelangelo, why have they done this to us?‖ he cries. ―Why must we live these lives never again to see kiwis and breasts?‖ ―Because we were born into these immobile bodies to atone for some sin we committed long ago,‖ Michaelangelo replies. ―One day, if we live right, think pure thoughts, if we live in the vision of God, we will move again by our own accord. Have you all not sensed some greater power out there?‖ ―Yes,‖ the apprentice says, his voice suddenly coming alive. ―When I stand here, mixing these dry paints, I feel a greater force. While all of you have been working on your art, I‘ve been working to control my movements. Just yesterday I managed to slow down the speed of my paint stirring. I can‘t be sure it happened, but for a second I believe my hand slowed.‖ ―You fool, that‘s your oil leaking,‖ the sculptor says. ―There‘s a small drip running down your leg.‖ ―Call him a fool, but I‘ve felt it too,‖ the painter replies. ―Some great benevolent force watching over us.‖ ―Come,‖ Michelangelo says, ―let us pray to this being that we may free ourselves.‖ He gazes into the darkness, imagining God‘s belly; the sculptor stares at the neck of his statue; the painter looks at his plastic fruit. And now, from the darkness, small stars begin to emerge, and within these lights a figure materializes from the deepest reaches of their souls.
48 ∙ Painting God at Epcot
―I can see him!‖ the painter exclaims. ―Me too!‖ the sculptor says. ―My God!‖ Michelangelo cries. For indeed he, too, sees the shadow of the Almighty—he recognizes the benevolent grin, the stark white and black silhouette, the round head of some enormous deformed rodent looming above them all—and in that moment, Michelangelo has a clear vision of the future. ―It‘s all meaningless!‖ he yells. ―We‘ve had this same conversation since eternity! We must stop ourselves from starting up again! We must escape!‖ From throughout the geosphere, a simultaneous groan arises. The cries travel from the cave dwellers, up past the Romans and Greeks, to the Hebraic scholars and Benedictine Monks, every voice rising in protest. The newspaper editor joins in, cursing the fate of his press, the paperboy calls for his mother, and throughout the concave walls of the sphere come the futile laments of animatronic voices begging for freedom as the dim light dawns. Their cries spiral up and away and are replaced by the sound of the time machines. They whir along the tracks, their computer screens blinking awake. The candles flicker back on beneath Michelangelo. He raises his hand towards the belly of God, considering, then lowers it again. Down below, the passengers get on. They slide into their seats, two by two, leaning back against the hard plastic of their time machines. Here sits a man with his six-year-old son. The son points at the hunters, casting their spears at great wooly mammoths, and the father puts his hand around his son‘s shoulder. This is his court-appointed time with the boy. He looks over at the Roman figures that stand at attention, awaiting orders to get into their horse-drawn cart and leave. Their journey will never begin, the father thinks. Behind the man sits the author, the old fool, looking at the burning books of Alexandria. As he smells the library burning, he wonders why he should ever bother writing another story. What can he ever hope to add to the world‘s great literature? His stories: absurdist trash. Behind him sits a young woman, thirty-six and still single. She‘s tired of being alone and tired of being a manager at Starbucks. It‘s not a bad job, really, but what is she doing with her life? That was the unspoken question as she sat with her father in his lonely apartment. Sitting there, watching the US Open, she thought, I‘ll go to Epcot tomorrow. She remembers this ride from when she was a child. Back then her father had hoisted her from his shoulders and placed her beside him. She looks ahead at the man with his son and envies their happiness. The boy seemed so interested in the wooly mammoths. She preferred the sculptor and Michelangelo. Ah, but this part of the ride is new. The cart glides through the garage of Bill Gates. Here the inventor sits in front of a computer, an unfinished Coke bottle on the desk, forever alone, forever brilliant. No billions in my future, the woman thinks. My life will be day-in day-out lattes, mochachinos, and espressos. If the ride lingered for but a moment more she‘d be in tears.
Alexander Weinstein ∙ 49
But now the ride has reached its peak. Out into the vast expanse of the universe they all go: the author, the father, the son, the Starbucks manager, the teenage couple French kissing beneath the huge planetarium. They are at the apex of the ride, and above them a universe of stars twinkles. The round blue-green ball of Earth is projected against the roof of the geodome, spiraling strange and green like a vision from the moon, and, for a moment, they all forget about the world awaiting them outside. The father forgets that tonight he must return his son to his motherâ€˜s home and say goodbye; the Starbucks manager forgets the sound of milk frothing; the author forgets about yet another failed story; the lovers forget about kissing. Suspended high above the ground, lost in the depths of this enormous silver ball, a silence falls over them. To gaze at the Earth from such a distance is to momentarily be free.
50 âˆ™ Painting God at Epcot
Moving Down JP KEMMICK
hen they move, from the clouds down to the ground, Melody refuses to look at her father. She has done a thing to obscure her usually full lips, tucked them away somewhere so her mouth is narrow, obstinate and sullen. She sits on her cloud with her little sister, Britney, nestled in her lap and waits to touch down, like a low hanging fog, on their new life. Their mother died three months ago and the move is, in Melody‘s eyes, an abandonment, worse yet, to a place their mother would never have brought them. She had soft features: pillowy lips, full cheeks, a laugh that melded with the clouds, that rejuvenated them. Down below they would have called her full bodied, another thing Melody would hate about moving down from the clouds, even if she didn‘t know it yet, the necessity of labeling things. For a time after her death, the family had seemed allied in their grief, leaving little pock marks in the clouds with their tears. But now Melody feels like her father has drawn a line, has separated them into two camps. Along with her tucked away lips, Melody has cut her bangs into a hard line and arranged her eyes in a hooded, near squint-like fashion, a look she imagines will imitate the harsh, unforgiving life awaiting them below. Her father stands on his cloud, his arms crossed and his feet buried in the fluff, looking at his girls, how much they look alike, how much they are growing into their mother, like Russian dolls, one inside the other. The house, arranged by their father with the help of some supposedly trustworthy terrestrial liaison, is awful. The walls and carpet are white, but not white. Melody instantly thinks this about it, how dirty it is and how dirty everything is after a life spent in the pure white wisps of clouds. Even when the clouds would bruise with rain, they kept a pureness, perfectly hued in shades of purple, blue and black. Sometimes, like pretend gods, Melody and her friends would stand on the turbulent clouds during storms and, waiting for the telling electric tingle, pretend to throw the lightning bolts that shot down toward the earth. ―We can paint it, whatever color we like,‖ her father says. ―Blue?‖ he says, turning to Britney, but she is standing in the corner, her hand held up feeling where the two walls come together, how sturdy it is. They have never had walls before. Melody says as much. ―The walls, Dad. They just . . . they‘re so steady.‖ Melody is proud of her word choice. She is determined to expertly and lucidly explain to her
father the faults of every piece of their new life until he too can see what she sees and returns them to the clouds. This is her grand, rational plan. It is all she has. While her father and Britney are inside the empty house, Melody walks around its perimeter and notices a tree overhanging the roof. She suddenly has an overwhelming desire to be on the roof, to maybe somehow catch a cloud on its way back up. The tree has no low hanging branches and she tries to scrabble up its trunk, but the bark scrapes at her hands and arms and flakes off in pieces on the ground. She gives up, concedes round one to the ground. They buy things for the house. Beds and couches and plates and a table. Dressers and nightstands and a shower curtain with bright yellow ducks. Hard things all from big, square stores surrounded by big, hard parking lots. At one store their father piles some strange lumpy chairs into the shopping cart. ―Cloud chairs,‖ he calls them, but on their tags they say ―bean bag,‖ which is a poor substitute at best. They borrow a truck from someone their father has met and on the way to one of the stores Britney throws up because the truck smells like gasoline and because they are moving so fast. The house has only two bedrooms so Britney and Melody share a room. At night, they toss and turn on their new mattresses, fitfully searching for the comfort of their old billowy beds in the clouds. ―Brit,‖ Melody whispers. ―Yeah.‖ ―I can‘t sleep in this bed, can you?‖ ―No.‖ There is a pause after this affirmation. ―Sorry,‖ Melody says. ―For what?‖ ―Just . . . I don‘t know. That you can‘t sleep.‖ ―It‘s not your fault.‖ ―Okay.‖ Melody lies there for a minute more. On the tip of her tongue she has something about their mother, but she‘s not sure what it is. And she‘s not sure Britney is thinking about their mother and if she‘s not, a rare occasion, Melody does not want to bring her up. In the morning Melody tells her father that the mattresses will not do. She uses the word discontented. Her father takes back the mattresses and returns later in the day with two water beds. That night Melody and Britney toss on the high seas of their new beds, thinking they have moved not from the clouds to the earth, but to the ocean. ―He‘s trying,‖ whispers Britney. ―Yeah, sure,‖ says Melody.
52 ∙ Moving Down
∙ ∙ ∙ A few weeks into their new world their father gets a job. He says he will be putting together, and occasionally taking apart, buildings. Melody bites her tongue so she will not say out loud what she is thinking, how her father‘s job mirrors his life. He tells the girls this over a dinner of instant mashed potatoes and vegetables. Melody hopes he is not beginning to attempt to imitate the clouds in his cooking as well. She does not think he would stoop this low, but she is not sure. ―So, I‘ll be going to work Monday through Friday,‖ he says. He is clearly excited about this. Back in the clouds he had had a nervous energy, fidgety, always looking for some tangible thing to do. But in the clouds you didn‘t need to work too hard, you could take it easy. It was something of a family joke, their father‘s restlessness, but Melody remembers how sometimes her mother, in her eyes, seemed a little worried, like their father might go someplace else where his work ethic was needed. And now he has. ―Melody, I‘ll need you to look after your sister for a few more weeks until school starts.‖ Melody nods. She and Britney are always together anyway; this will be no great departure from the norm. Melody‘s eyes drift toward the wall behind her father where he has painted a few strips trying to decide what color to paint the walls. They are all bright colors but somehow they still seem dull; they are dull in the dim light from the twin bulbs over the dining room table. She draws back her focus to her father who opens his mouth like he is going to say something, but then just nods and stuffs in more mashed potatoes. Melody wonders if maybe he was going to mention their mother, something he has not done once since they arrived in this new hard world, seeming to think that if he could refrain from talking about her, she would slowly disappear from their collective memories. But one thing about living in a place with so many walls is that it is harder for things to leave, to dissipate. The girls have a vague understanding that they should be making friends, that future friends should be knocking on the door to invite them to play. With their father at work, they spend the day sitting on the front steps, staring out at the neighborhood, waiting for children to materialize out of the woodwork, or rather, in this neighborhood, the vinyl siding. But none do. For a while they play with some marbles their father brought back from the first day of work, an attempt at replicating the handfuls of hail they used to scoop from the clouds on cold days, but it‘s not the same. The houses in their neighborhood look mostly the same, and not too far away, behind a large, white plastic fence, there is still forest. Even outside there are walls, Melody thinks. Everything so separated. The only thing that had kept the clouds apart was the clear blue sky, and even then they had melted into each other in passing, refusing to stay apart for long. A single
JP Kemmick ∙ 53
car drives by, bass rattling from its trunk. Somewhere around the corner a garage door opens and closes. Giving up on company, they lie down in the front yard and stare up at their old home as it moves slowly overhead, like torn cotton balls in a breeze. Unaware of the terrestrial habit of plucking shapes from the clouds, they instead recall the powdery fluff on their bare toes, the way little puffs would cling to their hair and eyebrows. Their mother lovingly wiping them away. This is how their father finds them when he comes home from work, dropped off by a co-worker in a shiny red car. He walks across the yard to his daughters who are holding hands, staring longingly up at the sky. Little flecks of drywall cling to his hair and shirt. In the corners of Britney‘s eyes are a few tears, threatening to shake loose down her cheeks if she moves her head or blinks. ―Okay,‖ he says and lies down next to them. School starts and Melody tries to figure out what she is supposed to be doing. In the clouds they had been home schooled although they didn‘t call it that. It had just been learning at home, drifting in and out of lessons. Now there are stiff chairs and the slow moving hands of clocks. There are cute boys and some girls who seem nice, but none of them talk to her. After school, Melody goes home and looks in the mirror. Her eyes are hooded, her lips are chapped, she looks unsociable. This is why no one approached her with offerings of friendship, she thinks. She had adopted a brooding look for this new place, but she wonders if maybe it is time to give it up, to ease into a new style of, if not outright appreciation, then at least something that conveys she is open to the possibility. Britney fares better and during the second week of school is invited to a birthday party at a classmate‘s house. They still do not have a car so they all take the bus, which Melody feels is somehow embarrassing although she‘s not really sure why. They walk the few blocks from the bus stop to the party where one of the other moms graciously offers to give Britney a ride home afterward. On the bus ride home Melody and her dad sit in the back of the near-deserted bus facing each other. ―How‘s school?‖ he asks. ―Good.‖ He nods and looks out the window for a minute before saying, ―We should work on talking.‖ ―Okay.‖ ―Like when I ask, ‗How‘s school?‘ tell me something.‖ ―Uh, okay. I like art class. We‘re painting still life stuff. My teacher‘s cool.‖ ―Nice. Are you making any friends?‖
54 ∙ Moving Down
Melody shakes her head. She takes out a stick of gum, a habit she‘s picked up in the last week, and pops it in her mouth. She offers her dad a stick and he takes it. ―It‘s not like I‘m trying not to make friends. They just . . . I don‘t know. What am I supposed to do, like, walk around with a sign that says, ‗Friends Wanted‘?‖ The next day at lunch Melody somehow finds herself surrounded by girls. She wonders if her father has somehow sent them. She cannot remember if she sat down first and they sat down around her or if it was the other way around, only that there are suddenly a number of new voices, some of them directed at her. ―What‘s your name?‖ one of the voices asks. ―Melody,‖ another of the voices answers. ―She‘s in my math class.‖ ―You didn‘t go to school here last year, did you?‖ Melody waits for a minute, expecting another of the girls to answer this one as well, but then realizes this question is on her. ―No,‖ she answers. ―Where‘d you come from then?‖ ―Um, the clouds. We lived in the clouds.‖ ―No way, get out. You did not.‖ ―I did,‖ Melody answers, a little taken aback at this denial. And this history, and the opportunities it presents for further questioning, is enough for the girls to decide she is their new best friend. Their father goes to work. Britney and Melody go to sleepovers and to the mall. Sometimes Melody reminds herself that her mother died only a half year ago, that they have moved to a strange and uncomfortable new place, but it is hard to get herself to feel the same sadness anymore. She remembers her mother with a handful of cloud scrubbing at her face, bringing out the rosy sheen in her cheeks, but the memory makes her smile and she wonders at what point this switch occurred, when she could recall her mother and smile. Sometimes she thinks of reminding Britney of their mother, but she seems happy with her new friends, young enough to still forget. At some point, Melody realizes they will be staying. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had held out hope that they might be eventually leaving this new unyielding place, that some turning point would arrive in which it was obvious they could no longer survive in such a harsh environment. She quits pointing out to her father the numerous ways in which she feels trapped, all the ways that the down below is inferior to the up above. She tries to find the positives: the walls keep them warm, the hard school chairs makes her work on her posture. Sometimes though, she worries she‘s trying too hard.
JP Kemmick ∙ 55
One Saturday afternoon while Melody is hanging out with her girlfriends in the basement of one of their houses, a group of boys shows up, semimysteriously. They come galloping down the stairs and stand around awkwardly, hitting each other with pillows while the girls giggle. Within a week, through events she finds hard to track, Melody is holding one of their hands in the hallways at school, on the walk home afterward. His name is Miles. He has a big poof of blond hair that springs from his head like an explosion. Sometimes he wears an old jean jacket of his brothers sewn with patches of bands he doesn‘t know. He is always carrying a skateboard, although Melody has yet to see him ride it. Melody writes him notes and encloses them in little cloudy thought bubbles which she thinks is a pretty good approximation of how she feels: one foot in this world, one in the other. One night their father tells the girls that he is going to a movie with some friends. An hour later the phone rings and he picks it up, says a few words and then hollers up the stairs to the girls‘ room that he is going, he‘ll be back later. Melody stays awake until he comes home, which is past midnight. The following week he tells them that it was not friends in the plural, but a single friend, Stacey. He informs the girls that she will be joining them for dinner tomorrow night. ―I‘m going to make lasagna,‖ he says, like this is an important detail. That night Melody knocks on her father‘s partially open door. ―Come in,‖ he says. Melody pushes open the door. Her father is lying in bed, a book on his lap, dark swirls of chest hair like little whirlpools spiraling across his chest. ―Hey, what‘s up?‖ he says. Melody stands there a moment, her arms splayed between the doorframe, her fingers tracing the grooves in the wood trim. Finally she hurriedly says, ―I don‘t think Stacey is a good idea.‖ Her father stares back at her for an uncomfortably long time before saying, ―Well, I‘m sorry you feel that way.‖ It‘s not the blunt answer Melody was expecting and it catches her off guard. She lets her arms fall from the doorway to rest on her thighs. She bends and straightens her knees, then lingers for a second more before spinning on her heel and marching back to her room. At school, Miles tells her she should show up to dinner with a piece of duct tape over her mouth and although Melody appreciates the sentiment, sometimes she wishes Miles were more serious. She wants someone she can talk to about her mother, about the way a cloud feels on your cheek, about life beyond math class, beyond the inane teenage-rumors floating down the school‘s hallways.
56 ∙ Moving Down
But then he gives her a dopey little smile exposing his chipped front tooth, and she can‘t help but hug him, he‘s so cute. As promised, Stacey arrives that night. She is wearing jeans and a red turtleneck. Her blond hair is cut short and she wears dangly earrings. Melody had prepared herself to be, if not totally bitchy, then at least glum, but Stacey is nice and has a good laugh. She asks the girls questions in a way that does not reek of forced sincerity or careful consideration, something Melody has to give her credit for. Melody wonders what her father has told Stacey of her mother, if he has used his grief as a tool, if Stacey has imagined their mother at all or if she is just some distant figure in a world she has never known, will never know. Melody is curious if to Stacey, if to her friends, if to other people down here in general, her mother is actually nothing more than a cloud. Lately Melody has had a hard time distinguishing the two herself, her mother and her old home so inextricably tied together. Their father watches over it all with an eagle eye; even when he laughs, his eyes dart around the table, measuring the mood. The air around them is like crystal, clear and fragile. Everyone‘s movements are slow, considered and careful. After dinner, after Stacey helps with the dishes, their father walks her to her car and the girls watch discreetly from the window. He hugs but does not kiss her. Later, while Melody is brushing her teeth, her father walks into the bathroom. She turns to look from his reflection to his face. ―Stacey‘s all right, yeah?‖ her father asks. ―She seems nice,‖ Melody says as flatly as she can, toothpaste foam muting and rounding her words. ―Yeah. Good, good.‖ He reaches over and moves the shower curtain back over into the tub. ―I just wanted you to know that I, uh, that I am not, that I couldn‘t ever really replace your mother.‖ Melody spits out the toothpaste into the sink. ―Dad, don‘t.‖ It comes out sounding meaner than she had meant it to. But really, it is the kind of conversation that could unbalance what she is trying hard to keep stable. ―Yeah?‖ he says, his eyebrows raised. ―Well, we‘re probably going to need to at some point. But yeah, maybe not tonight.‖ Melody grabs a washcloth and starts scrubbing her face. ―Math test tomorrow, right?‖ ―History.‖ ―Right,‖ her father says, snapping his fingers. ―Alright, goodnight then.‖ Melody doesn‘t answer him and so he sighs and moves on to his other daughter. Melody can hear the light drumming of his fingers on the doorframe as he tells Britney goodnight. She glances at herself in the mirror
JP Kemmick ∙ 57
and is surprised by how upset she looks, like she has scrubbed one layer off her face to reveal another, angrier layer underneath. In bed at night Melody lets her sleepy mind wander into murky territory until it runs aground trying to understand her parents‘ love. There had always been an obvious affection, a playful thing, but now as Melody thinks back, she wonders if it could really be called love. She turns a corner in her mind and suddenly sees her father as carved from some heavy stone, his features chiseled, rough. No wonder he struggled to stay aloft in the clouds, to really love her mother, as hard as he tried. And then Melody feels ashamed for making assumptions about her father‘s heart. She hears her sister shift in bed and whispers to ask her what she thought of Stacey. ―I thought she was nice,‖ comes Britney‘s sleepy reply. They hear their father‘s steps in the hallway, then the soft click of the bathroom door. ―Nicer than I thought she would be,‖ Britney finishes. ―Did you think she was going to be mean?‖ ―No. . .well, maybe.‖ ―Why?‖ ―I dunno. Because Mom was so nice.‖ Their water beds slosh and gurgle. The wind dips a finger into the leaves outside, whirling them around. Melody wonders what her sister understands of the world, of its many gradations, of its complexities. She surprises herself by saying, ―Well, sometimes things are in between.‖ A minute of silence passes and then Britney says, ―Dad says you have a boyfriend.‖ ―What?‖ ―Dad says you have–‖ ―Well he‘s lying.‖ Melody‘s not sure why she refuses the claim. Maybe she is trying to save something for herself only, like Miles can be some unnecessary secret. ―Do you think Mom would like him?‖ Britney asks anyway. Melody turns over, slipping in between the waves of the water bed. ―I don‘t know. Probably. Goodnight.‖ ―Goodnight.‖ In the morning Melody wakes up to a crisp, chilly confusion. The bedroom window is open and Britney‘s hazy head is stuck out it, enveloped in a cloud, like their new home has somehow been transported into their old. The house breathes in the cold air and Melody shivers, asks her sister what she‘s doing. ―I‘m just looking.‖ ―At what?‖
58 ∙ Moving Down
Britney doesn‘t reply, just keeps her head out the window, moving it back and forth to scan through the fog. ―Brit, it‘s just fog. And it‘s cold out.‖ She gets out of bed and walks over to the window, folds her hands on her sister‘s head. ―What are you looking for?‖ she asks, even though, basically, she knows. Britney pulls her head back in out of the fog, a slight sheen like early morning dew in her hair. ―Nothing,‖ she says and then she closes the window. The fog huddles outside, rubbing up against the glass. Melody walks to school, the cars moving slowly past her in the street, their headlights dimly searching. Shapes loom like mirages in the distance. She is glad she lived not inside the clouds where everything was intangible and dull, but on their surface, where everything was bright and knowable. Miles‘ skinny frame emerges out of the fog at their customary meeting spot, his hand slapping the wheels of his skateboard. ―Hey,‖ he says. Melody takes his hand and squeezes it tight. She‘s not sure he can understand her world, her problems, but his hand is at least warm, comforting. The fog has subdued his hair so it appears frozen midexplosion. As they near the school, Miles lets go of her hand and pretends he is swimming through the fog. He almost runs into a mailbox and Melody thinks that this is the closest he, or anyone else, has come yet to understanding her plight.
JP Kemmick ∙ 59
Teaching a Post Lunar World CAITLIN THOMSON
I had to draw a picture of the moon for my children, charcoal etched on stone, my failure to describe stars an ongoing one. The many Suns of night? Lanterns so far away they appear to be fireflies? Bright holes? My eldest asks, How could you sleep? How did they stay up? To draw one would only confuse them further. Even the moon, an absent touchstone for me, is to them a myth. A bright gravity defying rock? My daughter traces the outline, comes away with black fingers.
You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chain Rules DAVID MISIALOWSKI
LATONIA (Uncanny News Service) ∞ — In an incorporeal yet dismal workshop in Hilbert‘s abstract n-dimensional configuration space, pi works unceasingly to maintain the ratio of any circle‘s circumference to its diameter in the Euclidean plane. Yet it gets no respect. ―Just because my value cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction, m/n where m and n are integers, does not make me crazy,‖ pi insisted in a recent interview. ―Nor does it make me flighty, overly emotional or prone to fits of weeping.‖ Like other notable numbers such as Euler‘s Number and the Golden Ratio, and lesser luminaries like the square roots of two, three and ninetynine, pi is irrational. And, in the cutthroat world of mathematics, such numbers are frequently targets of discrimination, with their judgment, their emotional stability and their very sanity often called into question. But the plight of pi and similar numbers whose decimal notations neither end nor repeat is symptomatic of wider systemic problems in the world of math, experts say. From the discovery of zero to the invention of the calculus, from Gödel‘s Incompleteness Theorems to set theory and beyond, there have been numerous upheavals and revolutions in the history of mathematics. But analysts say that the whole field is poised for the greatest revolution of all: a social revolution that will finally sweep away the barriers of bias and discrimination, and transform the very way that we think about and do math. Call it the new new math.
Separate and Unequal ―Mathematics is plagued with inequalities,‖ complained Prof. Carr Dynal, a simpering, seersucker-clad philosopher of postmodern mathematics in the Humanities Department of Vanderbilt University who, along with his bleeding-heart twin brother, Orr, edits the quarterly Journal of Mathematical Justice. ―We must find comprehensive solutions for them.‖ Inspired by revolts sweeping across the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring, irrational numbers have recently been clamoring for their rights: an Irrational Spring.
But irrational numbers are not alone in their grievances. Negative numbers, complex numbers and imaginary numbers have often been maligned and marginalized as well. ―Just imagine if you, all your life, were told, ‗You‘re less than zero,‘‖ Dr. Dynal said in his typical maudlin way, describing the plight of the typical negative number. ―There is no question that such hurtful statements can erode self-esteem and lead to social failure in adult numeric life.‖ The hypersensitive busybody burst into tears. Negative numbers typically congregate on the wrong side of the zero track, and suffer from high rates of alcoholism, poor employment prospects, substandard housing, and, in general, an ―existential sense of loss, absence, and dread,‖ Dr. Dynal noted. Imaginary numbers complain of a sense of ―denumberization,‖ and are often treated ―just as if we didn‘t exist.‖ And in America, which celebrates the down-home virtues of simplicity, complex numbers are prone to be sneered at for being ―elitists.‖ Even worse, as Dr. Dynal pointed out, there are actually hypercomplex numbers with foreign-sounding names like quaternions, octonions and sedenions. In an age of terror alerts, such numbers are often treated as distinct threats and are subject to numeric profiling. ―Americans don‘t need no complex numbers,‖ Sarah Palin recently declared in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. ―We need good, plain, old-fashioned normal numbers that people can relate to: one, two, three, four, and so on. And we can get by just fine with plain old, uh, arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and dividends. Especially dividends!‖ The Revolution to Come In the social revolution that lies ahead, Dr. Dynal speculated, ―hoitytoity‖ numbers will get their comeuppance. ―Take prime numbers, for instance,‖ Dr. Dynal said. ―A prime number is a natural number that has exactly two distinct natural number divisors: one and itself.‖ Being both natural and prime, Dr. Dynal said, has given such numbers ―an inflated sense of entitlement.‖ ―Oh, look at me, I‘m a prime number!‖ Dr. Dynal mocked. ―I‘ve got two distinct natural number divisors, one and myself, and I be all like, lade-da, I‘m so special!‖ But, Dr. Dynal pointed out, ―We‘ve known since Euclid that there are an infinite number of these pompous little buggers. They‘re as common as dirt. By contrast, there is only one zero. Yet zero is ignorantly maligned as ‗nothing‘ and the primes get royal treatment. It‘s a terrible injustice.‖ Dr. Dynal also assailed transcendental numbers as ―poseurs,‖ adding: ―The very name suggests a religious component, which to some extent makes them popular with Americans. But they are very hard to get to know: almost aloof. Even though they are far from rare, only a few classes are
62 ∙ You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chain Rules
actually known. This makes people suspect that unknown transcendental numbers are plotting to take away America‘s guns and increase the size of government.‖ Dissenting Voices Not everyone is moved by the issue of number inequality, however. ―Inequality is built into the very warp and woof of mathematics,‖ scoffed the curmudgeonly scholar Banzhaff N. Dex, a heartless, tyrannical Nazi of a mathematician at John Hopkins University who eats his students if they fail his classes. ―Unfortunately, all numbers are not equal. If all numbers were treated equally, you couldn‘t have fractions. You couldn‘t do math at all. You couldn‘t even count!‖ In his cluttered office, the rumpled, surly Dr. Dex, his shaggy gray eyebrows dancing above the lucid pinpoints of his Fascist eyes, munched on the boiled and salted testicles of a slaughtered freshman who had failed trigonometry, and spoke contemptuously of pi, which he labeled ―a publicity hound.‖ ―I‘d like to point out that we do not know for sure that pi is even a normal number,‖ Dr. Dex said with a grave grimace of utter disgust, as he wiped testicular matter from his lips with a napkin. ―We must ask: ‗In the case of pi, do the digit sequences of the same length occur with the same frequency?‘ We do not know the answer to that question.‖ He belched. Dr. Dex even questioned the very existence of pi: with Gregory Chaitin, he believes that irrational numbers have no basis in physical reality. A mathematical constructivist and a cannibal, Dr. Dex insists that only a finite number of computable steps can legitimately produce a mathematical structure that is isomorphic with a physical system that can be eaten. Collapse of Mathematical Meta-Narratives For his part, Dr. Dynal emphatically rejects the idea that numbers are inherently unequal. ―What really counts is not counting, but social justice,‖ he whined. Dr. Dynal believes that mathematical society as a whole suffered a devastating blow from Gödel's incompleteness theorems, ―which established inherent limitations of all but the most trivial axiomatic systems for mathematics.‖ He said that mathematical self-confidence was ―undermined‖ by this wholly unexpected discovery, ―which showed that Hilbert's program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics is impossible.‖ This discovery ―demonstrated that math has no meta-narrative,‖ the prating postmodernist pissant pontificated. But despite the challenges that they face, Dr. Dynal insisted that if numbers stuck together, real social change could happen. ―Functions of the world unite,‖ he pleaded. ―You have nothing to lose but your chain rules.‖
David Misialowski ∙ 63
Take Up the Bonnet Rouge CHANTEL TATTOLI
f you go to France you may see gnomes in the seniors‘ potagers—in with their fat turnips and pert jonquils. I bet the French love of gnomes is doing with their blood-red hats. They look like the hats the French donned in la Révolution, and it must be that some wore this bonnet rouge when they broke into Tuileries Palace. They‘d come for Louis, Marie-Antoinette, and the Enfants de France. There exists an anonymous oil painting of Marie and her children cornered by the mob that day on June 20, 1792. In it, they‘ve stuck the woolen bonnet rouge on the head of the dauphin, the King‘s son, who would not live to take the throne—there wasn‘t enough bread, and slight social mobility, and many had gotten wind of the newer philosophies and verily liked what they heard. But think, what the Queen would have looked out on from the scaffold: those red hats? Bunched here and there in the audience, like cherries? Everything about her was really decadent even if it wasn‘t true. Diamonds, champagne, sex, cake, cherries. Oh la la. The French regard for gnomes has been looked into by an anthropologist. Which—I‘m pretty sure—my Grand-mère would have pooh-poohed with such vehemence. I see her wringing her hands. Enough. Leave what’s sacré be. When Grand-mère‘s arms swung, a queue of lucite bangles on her wrists would cluck, critical, and despite their bad taste they were more like judges weighing in than biddies. (Always she wore some bracelets.) That the world would end once the Magic was killed off is what Grand-mère knew. She did not go for scientific inquiry, Eating at the caractère of the world, de plus en plus! Only children like I was then could appreciate magic, and us only sometimes. When a wave slaps you mid-laugh, like. She‘d pause. Well. It’s my point de vue, I’m saying. For all that she believed it was axiomatic. The anthropologist treats the affective relationship. Its therapeutic advantage is noted: the gnomes as interlocutors, as shrinks allowing for regression into childhood. It‘s normal to hear the old people chatting about their gnomes as they would about their children or their breast buddies. Normal, in fact, to see tins of sudsy water left out for the gnomes to bathe in. (In Germany they leave beer.) But there‘s been talk in recent decades about the abuses of the bourgeoisie. Le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ) was formed ad hoc to deal with these gross cases of exploitation. The group has
Illustration by ANNA BRON
freed some 6,000 in France alone (and spawned sister fronts in many European countries). To the parents of these there‘d been letters of goodbye, some nice: Dearest Mère/Père, I must leave you now . . . And some other, crasser things were said too: AWOL Motha’fucka!!!, for example. I see my grandmother again, spitting mad. Do they think they are Che Guevara, what? Her bracelets would chime in, like pundits in their own right. Sometimes gnomes are found. In Normandy, hikers spied daubs of bright color (cerise! lemon! cobalt!) through the dark green. They found two hundred decorated with pasta—lasagna slung over their shoulders, wearing necklaces of penne, farfalle glued beneath their chins—in case they became hungry and had forgotten how to glean from the land. Le Front had even painted on night-seeing spectacles. Summer of 2006, dozens of gnomes collected on the lip of a pool in Limoges. Notes in their owners‘ mailboxes read, ―What with the heat wave, they wanted some air.‖ Across Europe, gnoming has relocated tens of thousands back to the wild. Many go to the European Gnome Sanctuary, in Tuscany. There, the Barghigiani welcome the refugees, they‘ve propped open the doors of the Castle of Barga for them. In Barga, gnomes are at leisure on ledges and in ideal niches, no more to be harassed by motorized weeders, suffering trappings like pesticides and acid rain, not to mention the normal elements and the unfortunate velocity of streams of canine urine. Laboring in backyard gardens, ornamenting lawns day after day, no more—no more wantonly stripped of their dignité. From the Gnome Liberation Front‘s manifesto: ―Remember our Ancestors; the proud bulls that guarded the gates of the Persian Kings, the lions that keep watch over the palaces of the Chinese Emperors, and the most famous of all, the mighty Sphinx, enigmatic, imperturbable, who shall return as the King-Emperor of the oldest race of all to lead his Gnomic Hordes to our Final Victory [...]. Enough! Enough! Are we not made of stronger stuff than the soggy blood and fragile tissues of our oppressors?1‖ So many others remain enslaved and despairing, though. At any given time hundreds await retail in dank warehouses. Cheek-by-jowl, packed in rough crates, they twiddle their thumbs or try to shake fists at kismet‘s untowardness. Given little elbow room they just clench their hands and grit their jaws. ―What‘s in store for us?‖ ―We are, or shall be,‖ comes the reply. 1
66 ∙ Take Up the Bonnet Rouge
1998: Eleven gnomes hanged from a bridge in Briery. A note pinned to one‘s lapel said they couldn‘t stand it any longer. The event was part of a larger trend—while the statistics never garnered any attention—of Toulousian gnomes jumping out of their second-story and higher flower boxes into the Renaults and Peugeots zipping below, and in Paris and Nice too, jumping. Some gnomes stay behind to protest. No they won‘t end it, nor simply run away. They drop their spades and wheelbarrows and uptake signs— «KITSCH YOU SEE?». Their cheeks, rosy with humiliation before, now flush from uprooting their subjugators‘ flowers and smashing their glossy vegetables. «À LA FIN!!!» «FREEGNOME NOW.» «I'M NOT YOUR GNOVELTY.» Grand-mère would‘ve been up in arms. The people love them like their own petites. C’est la merde! It‘s a good reason my grandmother would be hostile to the recent gnoming stuff. When I was a kid, Grand-mère called long-distance to talk gnomes. I lived in Washington state and she lived on an island right off the Gulf Coast of Florida—Sanibel—the shell capital of the world because it sticks out like a sore thumb against the grain of the water. I spent my summers there. Her bungalow faced the ocean in the rear, where a tall seagrape hedge split the grass from the ecru hips of sand. Her lawn gnomes and plastic flamingoes were in the front yard, the birds hot pink, balancing expertly like ballerinas on one leg. At dusk, the flamingoes could be mistaken for the native roseate spoonbill, a rare bird, born gray like flamingoes and soon pinked from a diet of crustaceans that eat a dyeing algae. Grand-mère said the gnomes were coast guards. They rode flamingoes down to the beach in pointy red hats, and whenever sea turtles hatched and trickled to the water it happened under the watchful eyes of guardians, her gnomes. The fell swoops of seagulls were blocked. The blitzes of ghost crabs, checked. Wayward turtles—mislead by false moons—had themselves rotated by degrees and made beelines for the ocean. How happy the gnomes were for every turtle folded into those silver sheets. How the flamingoes‘ feathers bristled with a well-done job. When the last of the hatchlings were safe the gnomes made bonfires and brewed pineapple cider. They toasted, ―Reptiles live long. Smiles, longer still!,‖ and broke out fiddles whose bows were strung with the hair of mermaids, triangles, bent from the metals of sunken ships. They danced-danceddanced around the flames. If you were there, you might cry. Perhaps you’d laugh. Maybe you’d do both at the same time. Tears drip into your mouth and shock your tongue with their salt! Grand-mère adapted the story depending on what I needed. It tickled,
Chantel Tattoli ∙ 67
or moralized, or was steeped in psychology. This one time I wet the bed at an embarrassing age—then Felix the gnome drank too much cider and had an accident. Another time, when I transferred schools, Grand-mère called to tell me about a new gnome. Leopold. He came from the Midwest via FedEx and had never seen an ocean. ―Never?‖ ―Jamais!‖ Never. ―Only a great lake.‖ I could overhear the bubble wrap squeaking. Then the mechanizations of a camera over the line—I‘d get a photograph of this rookie in the mail. We worried how he‘d fit in. What if he didn‘t take to the job? Grand-mère reminded them the hatchlings were due. There wasn‘t much time to teach Leopold the ropes, hardly enough to learn to ride a flamingo properly. She‘d keep me updated, of course. As it happened, the others embraced Leopold. His maiden watch, oh, he delivered three turtles from certain death. ―You should have seen him!‖ Grand-mère sung. ―Go, go, gooo!‖ And then—a mediocre afternoon that coming summer—my grandmother died. Like that. The gnomes and flamingoes ―left‖ the day before. I was twelve. I‘d already mastered sarcasm, acquired cynicism, shed several downy layers of naiveté under which I found the winking black sequins of dark humor, and what turned out to be the premature stubble of disenchantment, what would ripen to jadedness. But when Grand-mère told me they‘d left for South America, I threw a fit. A letter had come from Ecuador, green sea turtles there needing assistance. So they went. ―You‘re lying,‖ I yelled. ―Vous êtes plein de merde.‖ I steeled, expecting to get slapped, but she tried to calm me down. ―They‘re good, ma chérie!‖ Grand-mère held my face. Her hands were like bookends trying to brace the million things pages say. ―You know them, they‘ll be fluent in Spanish by next Tuesday! Confiance en moi. Hm?‖ The silver bangles she had on slid down her forearms, burbling, backing her up. If the French woman divined her aneurysm and thought to tie up a loose end, she meant well. I know. But it was too bad all of them going like that. I had to continue the gnomes without her. And I kept them autobiographical. Editing them to parallel my own phases and touchstones, making my x coordinates correspond to their y coordinates at sharp right angels. We are kindred. I think they‘re a psychedelic bildungsroman, like my allegorical autobiography. When I streaked my hair with magenta in high school, the flamingoes debuted in spiked collars, airing nonchalance equal to my own. We could
68 ∙ Take Up the Bonnet Rouge
not give a shit! In conjunction with my adolescent angst, Jeremy wove, of all things, a thick daisy chain. He hanged himself at the height of orange blossom season, from a branch especially hung with flowerets. The gnomes were pot heads when I was in college. Leo became a full-blown junkie and Felix popped pills. I overheard them once. ―We doubled the survival-rate,‖ Leopold guessed. ―You got several on your first day out.‖ Felix spilled out a Xanax bar from a vitamin bottle. ―You wouldn‘t come down from your high horse.‖ ―Dude. I was on top of the world.‖ Felix swallowed the xannie, laughing. ―That time we thought we‘d gotten em‘all, but Jeremy saw a straggler, and a mean gull diving . . .‖ ―Dude! Jerry decked that son‘a va‘bitch in the nick of time! He was grinning ear-to-ear when he dropped that hatchie in the water.‖ ―Even though his knuckles were all bloody.‖ ―Even though!‖ ―Dammit, Jeremy.‖ Leopold grunted. The storybook immaculateness waned over time. Grungy salt-andpepper dreadlocks pocked out from beneath flaccid hats. The rosy faces leathered. They‘re shabby now but still winsome, smiling smiles, though yellowed, which are wide and real. They‘re taller. More ordinary all around, sort of just scruffy retired fishermen. You understand they aren‘t do-gooders. None of them weep when a hatchling is preyed upon—they care, but it‘s the melancholic way Peace Corps volunteers have, how inured they are and burnt out, partially numb. They go through the motions, maybe, but the truth is there—that hardly any of the hatchlings will survive to adulthood, and often, not even one. Resignation slinks into my bedroom and smothers my optimism, too. The gnomes and I sit in our ruts with lukewarm ambition and wait for Hope to show her face. Hope is a dear women in red-red lipstick in a 1950s leaflet. She stands akimbo on checkered linoleum and speak-bubbles boilerplate: Don’t give up! And, Every little bit counts! We grunt. After I started to work in photojournalism—this was later—I began to see them. They would turn up with street children in Thailand; in Bedouin camps in former Mesopotamia. In Moscow, in May of 1996, they sat in the loge at a ballet adaptation of Anna Kerenina. The light from the stage threw their silhouettes against the wall, and from across the theatre I saw a sharpheaded row like wrought-iron arrows, their hats starched for the occasion. Sometimes I get a feeling—my hair stands up—they are close. A red conical shape cut off on the periphery of one of my frames. In another, an elfin hand, extending from a dingy royal blue cuff, out of place. I catch glimpses in urban crows that leave me spinning. There are shadows.
Chantel Tattoli ∙ 69
I was recently doing a series on informal travel, when I met a backpacking clique outside of a hostel in Denmark. Was the stout, bearded figure at their feet a hallucination? No. They had a garden gnome with them—involving him in their pictures they said like in the movie Amélie. ―I know some roaming gnomes myself,‖ I said. They didn‘t get it but laughed politely. The photograph I took of them turned out my favorite of the series. Four Aussies, a Swiss couple and an Italian. They beam. Presently none can be thirty. Arms rest on each others shoulders; the ones in the fore dunk, the Swiss woman, cradling the gnome as classical as the one you probably imagine. Everyone‘s footloose and glad. Most days, that‘s the way I prefer to think of the gnomes. Them okay out there wherever it is they are, let‘s say Ecuador. Say tonight in Las Bachas, the turtles will hatch and begin a new generation. And the gnomes ride out and see them home. ―Qué será, será!‖ they say. What will be, will be! For once, Grand-mère and her bracelets would jibe. ―Qui vivra, verra,‖ she‘d pronounce. Time will tell. OK.
70 ∙ Take Up the Bonnet Rouge
Leaving La Dulce JOHN F. BUCKLEY and MARTIN OTT
Coyotes laughed before dawn as Martinez pushed the fake boulder aside and stepped inside the express elevator, turning the key in the slot again, submitting to the retina-DNA-neutrino scan again, rubbing his back again— stupid damn boulder—and whistling tunes for the forty-two seconds it took. He began his circuit of cleaning on Level 1, beginning with a brief hose down of the black fleet of sedans, hoping the antimatter sweep had been sufficient. He skipped Level 2 and the endless New Mexico mud from the cave boring expedition, skipping straight to his skivvies. He was weighed and provided with a registered, returnable, officially calibrated ion mop for swabbing floors in the Level 3 philosopher‘s stone lab. His predecessor was caught trying to smuggle out gold nuggets tucked in each armpit. Now everyone suffered, despite the screams of the service workers‘ union before the bribes took hold. On Level 4, he took his time scouring the paranormal wing as brain bioplasm and delta wave displacement caused dust to molt into metal shavings. He tried not to look at body bits in jars or into the renovated aromatherapy chambers, or worry about mutated rodents, but found serenity by stealing time with the love of his hours: his deep desert flower, Dolores, the finest in janitorial artificial intelligence, an Omicron-grade Cerebrobroom with a 170 IQ, an encyclopedic knowledge of postindustrial cleansers, a silvery voicebox, a penchant for obscure Neruda poems, and a secret compartment for crumb-free salami Lunchables. Dolores means ―sorrows,‖ and yet he felt entranced while cleansing the messy alien cubbies on Level 5, vacuuming the slug remains from snack attacks, steeling himself for the multi-limbed Twister game on the ―Nightmare Wing.‖ Here he would mount his trusty janitorial steed and spin through the twisting maelstrom of eyed tentacles, tentacled fangs, and fanged eyes stroking at him, all snared in a time-dilation field but aching for prey-touch, for ―left-middle feeler on pink‖ to be called. Martinez and Dolores pirouetted around unmentionable horrors to empty, yowling, non-Euclidean trash cans from R‘lyeh and wiped ichor
from four-dimensional windows. They kissed without entropy and fell for years into the air ducts below Level 7, avoiding the frozen cross-species embryo vats. Love would find a way even here, even as the sun swung their cave toward ice moons and gravity ceased to have meaning. He was alien to this place, to river bats undulating through liquid nitrogen mud, to itinerant molemen roasting their tinfoil hobo packs in magma pools, to stray plasmoid starchildren sucking ionized solar winds from magnetic bottles, to biomechanical cyberpriests giving last rites to wan quasar puppets, to the sublime union of opposites found near the core. Isnâ€˜t this every great American love story: the intermingling of differences and a journey to escape the doubters until the center holds? Day and night reverberate in the howls of coyotes grinding through tectonic friction, two figures emerging on a sunset plain, with motor thrum and a reason to run.
72 âˆ™ Leaving La Dulce
Brunhilde’s Escape DANYA GOODMAN
runhilde, the zoo‘s most duchess hippo, was rumored to last be seen near a clump of oak trees by I-95. We fret for the moistness of her skin, and we wonder about the hoof of a hippo. Can she withstand concrete? What if a shard of glass pierces her webbed toes? Nonetheless, she soldiers on. Heinz, her compatriot and consort, remains cowed in the lagoon, shunning the gate an errant zoo-keeper left to swing over night. We avoid his gaze, not wanting to remind him of his cowardice and his loss. Brunhilde, Brunhilde! We imagine him calling, his great teeth clacking in the sunlight. But no, he remains diminished, refusing even the frozen carp we tempt him with. So it is our voices instead, lacking Heinz‘s authoritative baritone, which call for Brunhilde. We split into even groups and tramp through the forest, being sure to stare suspiciously into every puddle. Brunhilde! We whisper, like lovers. Come back to us. Secretly, though, we each harbor delight that her proud and foreboding footsteps are now free to stomp on pasture and road alike. We leave offerings of salmon on our doorsteps, buckets of cool water. We hose our yards into refreshing glomps of mud, and in Brunhilde‘s absence, we roll in it ourselves. Cover ourselves in the muck until we are indistinguishable wet joyful creatures. Still, she does not return. As a city, bereft, we hunch ever-forward.
Fixing a Hole ANTHONY J. RAPINO
he hole wasn‘t there last night. Joe was sure of it. In an apartment the size of his, it would be hard to miss. Especially a perfectly circular hole located at eye level on the street-facing wall. Joe had just woken up. He stood—off balance, squinty eyed, and vaguely nauseous—in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. He said, ―Uh,‖ and wiped sleep-goop from his eyes. He walked across the room—past piles of clothes and empty beer bottles, past his worn couch and dusty-screened television—to inspect the wall. He reached out and ran his finger around the circumference of the coaster-sized hole. He said, ―Um.‖ The hole appeared to have been cut out with some kind of tool, maybe a Dremel. But the weird thing was the floor had no dust from the sheetrock. Okay, maybe that wasn‘t the weird thing. Maybe the weird thing was that there was a hole at all. And where was the piece of sheetrock that had been cut out? As he stared at the hole, another thought crept through his dream-dulled mind and caused him to shiver. Someone had been inside his apartment while he slept. It had to be. The hole didn‘t go all the way through to the outside. It was only a section of sheetrock missing; he could see the insulation still intact in the wall. Now he thought, Who’d want to steal a piece of my wall? It was a good question, but it wasn‘t the right question.
Joe‘s buddy, Sebastian, stood next to him, staring at the hole in the wall. Sebastian said, ―Um.‖ ―That‘s what I said when I first saw it.‖ ―Yeah, well. I‘m trying to acclimate.‖ ―That‘s not the right word. I think it means climate control.‖ Sebastian thought about this. ―Oh, right. I have one of them acclimating refrigerators.‖ ―Yeah, me too. Paid extra for it.‖ Sebastian turned to take a look at the refrigerator in the kitchen. ―You got ripped off. That ain‘t no acclimater.‖ ―Yeah. But about this hole.‖ They considered the hole with great concentration. Sebastian said, ―It sure is.‖ ―Sure is what?‖
―You know. Sure is a hole.‖ ―What do you think I should do about it?‖ Sebastian ran his finger around the edge. ―Well, you can‘t just fill it in with plaster. It‘s too big for that. You‘ll have to get some sheetrock and patch it.‖ He thought a moment. ―I have some scraps in the pickup. Plaster too.‖ It wasn‘t exactly what he‘d meant. He‘d still been more interested in figuring out how and why there was a hole in his wall. But patching it was at least doing something. It was a problem he could fix. So he said, ―Well, let‘s get to it.‖ The job went quickly. Sebastian was in construction, Joe was a carpenter, and this was, after all, just a quick patch. They‘d still have to sand the plaster and paint over it once it was dry, but the initial work was done. And feeling more accomplished than they usually would on a Saturday afternoon, they got started early on drinking. Sebastian flipped through the channels. Joe concentrated more on his beer than the ever-changing programming. In fact, Sebastian seemed to pay little attention too, mindlessly clicking away. Joe said, ―I still don‘t get it, you know?‖ ―What‘s that?‖ ―The hole. I checked the door before you got here; it was locked. How‘d someone get in? And why?‖ Sebastian settled on Comedy Central and put the remote down. ―Say, you want to get a hooker?‖ ―I‘m talking about the hole.‖ ―Yeah, so am I!‖ Sebastian cracked up, spilled some beer on the couch and his pants. Joe laughed too. Hell, it was funny. Funny to a point though, because he knew Sebastian was serious about the hooker. ―You‘re married.‖ ―No shit.‖ ―With two kids.‖ Sebastian tilted the can back and drained it. ―I‘m getting another. You want?‖ ―You can‘t keep cheating on her.‖ Sebastian waved him away and made off to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and mumbled, ―Definitely not an acclimater.‖ ―Your wife and kids, Bastian.‖ ―Your ass!‖ He came back and tossed a can to Joe. ―It ain‘t cheating if you pay for it. It‘s in the Bible.‖ ―That‘s the stupidest thing I ever heard.‖ Sebastian cracked open his beer and drank in huge gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stared at Joe. ―You think I don‘t know you got the hots for Margie?‖
Anthony J. Rapino ∙ 75
Joe stood like a jolt of electricity had gone through him. ―She‘s your wife, Bastian.‖ He shrugged and drank some more. ―Yeah, so? You dated her in high school too. Before me. Never got over her I guess.‖ ―It ain‘t true.‖ ―I know you‘d never do nothing about it, buddy.‖ He stood and put a heavy hand on Joe‘s shoulder. ―I‘m just saying it clouds your brain. Makes you think some side sex is a bad thing when really it ain‘t.‖ Joe was ready for this. In the past Sebastian had a way with confusing issues, and Joe inevitably would agree with the twisted logic of his friend. Like the time he‘d somehow justified stealing that generator from Hank‘s Hardware. He‘d explained to Joe that they‘d owed it to him for all those overtime shifts they‘d paid him a regular wage for. But this time, Joe was ready. And he was going to argue the point. He really was. But before he could get a word out, a loud thunk sound echoed through the apartment. It reminded him of uncorking a bottle of champagne. ―What the hell was that?‖ Sebastian poked a finger into his ear and worked it around. Joe looked past Sebastian. Not much passed through his mind in those first seconds. It was all too much for his brain to comprehend. Finally, he thought I guess we didn’t do a very good job. To Sebastian, he said, ―Our patch fell out.‖ Sebastian put his beer down and stalked over to the wall. Joe followed step by step, and they both inspected to newly-opened hole. ―Oh, man!‖ Sebastian stumbled in circles, looking at the floor, his hands spread almost as wide as his eyes. ―Where is it, Joe? Where‘d it go?‖ Joe looked around, not immediately sure what they were looking for. And then it hit him. The circle of sheetrock they‘d put in. It was gone. They both continued to circle the area, getting on hands and knees, looking under furniture, until Joe finally said the most intelligent thing of his entire life: ―I guess it went wherever the first piece went.‖ ―Where‘s that, Joe?‖ But he was all out of clever insights. ―Dunno.‖ They got up. Sebastian‘s dark stubble stood in contrast against his pale face. He hiked his jeans up. Joe opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. THUNK! Sebastian closed his eyes and shook his head. ―Nuh uh. No.‖ Below the first hole, a second one had appeared. This new one was also a perfect circle, only larger. The size of a Frisbee. ―I guess it‘s safe to say no one broke into your apartment.‖ ―Yeah. Guess so.‖ Sebastian left the room. When he came back, he was holding two beers, one of which he handed to Joe. They both drank, staring at the wall. Sebastian said, ―Should we patch them again?‖
76 ∙ Fixing a Hole
―I don‘t think we can.‖ He slugged the some beer, wiped his lip. ―Should we call the police or something?‖ ―What the hell are they gonna do?‖ ―Okay. Maybe the FBI then? They have like, the X-files type agents. They‘ll know what to do.‖ Sebastian snorted. ―Man. That was just a television show.‖ ―Yeah, but it was based on real events. They know all about this type of stuff. I‘m tellin‘ ya.‖ Sebastian drank some beer and nodded to himself. ―You might be right. I‘ll get the yellow pages.‖ Joe smiled. ―Good thinking.‖ Sebastian put his beer on the coffee table and left the room. Joe sat on the couch and put his feet up. Everything was going to be okay. They had a handle on this disappearing wall situation. And it was a good thing too, because if things kept up like this, he‘d be out a perfectly good wall in no time flat. And that wouldn‘t do. Work had been slow lately. He didn‘t have the money for necessary supplies. THUNK! Joe glanced at the wall and saw a third hole had appeared, this one a little smaller. He called into the other room, ―Better hurry it up.‖ Sebastian came in with the yellow pages, and sat next to Joe. He flipped through and ran his fingers up and down a few pages. ―There‘s no FBI in here.‖ His voice was thick with confusion. Joe snatched the book away, sure he must be mistaken. He flipped the pages over and looked for himself. ―Well, hell. What now?‖ Sebastian snapped his fingers. ―What does the F in FBI stand for?‖ ―Now there‘s a good question.‖ THUNK! ―Crap. Um. Okay, I think it stands for Forensic. Check that, quick.‖ Joe said, ―That doesn‘t sound right,‖ but checked anyway. ―Not here.‖ He pressed his fingers against his temples and squeezed his eyes shut. Of investigation. B. Bureau of investigation. F. ―Federal! It‘s the Federal Bureau of Investigation!‖ He flipped the pages too fast, ripping a couple out. He looked down the list. ―It‘s not here! It‘s not here!‖ ―Now what?‖ ―Now what? I don‘t know now what. That was my only idea.‖ THUNK! Sebastian jumped back and pointed at the coffee table. ―Look!‖ There was a hole in the table, two inches from where Joe‘s feet had been resting. They stood, and again were left speechless and staring. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! ―Aw crap, Joe. It‘s speeding up.‖ Sebastian backed away toward the door. He was shaking his head and muttering something to himself. His eyes had a strange look to them that Joe recognized, but had only ever seen on a deer he‘d shot.
Anthony J. Rapino ∙ 77
―Bastian?‖ He wouldn‘t make eye contact with Joe. He said, ―We gotta get out of here. We gotta leave, Joe. It‘s speeding up. I don‘t understand. I don‘t—I don‘t get it.‖ Joe looked around at his apartment. It was starting to look like a piece of swiss cheese. It was easy for Sebastian to say they had to leave. It wasn‘t his place being eaten up. But then, it wasn‘t really Joe‘s place either. He only rented it. And whatever was going on there, it was better to not be around. The whole place had started feeling strange. Electrified. The air smelled off, too. Like standing water. Sebastian started screaming in short bursts, like an alarm. It sounded awful and broken. It sounded like insanity. He was pointing at the far wall, behind the television. Pointing, a drawn terrified look on his face, and screeching over and over. Joe felt sick to see it. His first impulse was to run. Run past his friend, pushing him out of the way if need be, and never looking back. Predominant of all these thoughts was the last: don‘t look back. Because whatever was making Sebastian scream like that—and yes, he was still screaming in an endless loop—it would do the same to him. And even though he knew this, even though he knew the right choice was to run, he turned in the direction of Sebastian‘s pointing finger. There were a number of new holes that had appeared in the walls, floor, and furniture. They were of all different sizes and dispersed in no apparent order. But this isn‘t what caused Sebastian to scream. Something was looking through one of the larger holes. A wide, unblinking and jaundiced eye stared at the two friends. It took no more than a glance to see this was not a human eye. It was the size of a grapefruit and had three overlapping pupils. The skin around it was not skin at all and appeared to shift in shape as they watched. More eyes appeared in other holes and Joe lost all sense of himself. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! He hadn‘t registered the fact that Sebastian had stopped screaming. Not until he turned and saw three large holes had appeared in his friend‘s head. Sebastian still stood erect, but his face had lost all expression. His mouth hung open. Blood and drool dripped from his hanging tongue. And yet he stood. Behind the holes, where Joe should have seen brain, or skull, or blood, he only saw staring eyes. It was his turn to scream. More holes appeared in his friend, and Joe screamed through it. A long, dripping appendage poked out of a hole, and Joe screamed through it. Sebastian‘s body jerked and shivered, and Joe screamed through it. More of these strange protrusions pushed through the holes in Sebastian. He looked like a deformed marionette as the things inside tried to rip through poor Bastian‘s skin.
78 ∙ Fixing a Hole
The instinct to flee that Joe had earlier resurfaced, and this time, he obeyed. He put plenty of room between himself and his friend as he ran past and out the door. He stumbled down the stairs, taking them four at a time. He burst through the building‘s front door and ran for a block before his senses came back to him. The first thing he realized was that he could still hear the echoing thunks. The second was that the buildings—and yes, even the street and sidewalk—had holes of varying size in them. And the final thing was that he was being watched by disembodied eyes. He heard screams, some distant, some not. One man ran by, clawing at a hole in his arm, screaming like Sebastian had. Joe wasted no time and took off running towards Sebastian‘s apartment, where Margie and the kids were. The instinct to go to Margie was innate. He‘d always been the one to protect her. When girls at school had called her white trash, when her mother called her a little tramp and tried to send her away to be ―saved,‖ Joe had always been there. Even when Margie‘s father had given him that awful ultimatum—get the idea of marrying her out of his head or they‘d disown her—Joe did what he could to protect Margie from himself, so she could have a good life with someone smart who could support her. Then, like some cosmic joke, she ended up with Sebastian. None of that mattered anymore. Now he had to get to her and the kids. He had to protect her one last time. Holes popped into existence all around him, but as long as he kept moving, he thought he‘d be okay. It was something to do anyway. Something other than just waiting for a hole to appear in his body. He was breathing hard, sweat dripping from his armpits. The beer sloshed around his belly, but he kept going. A woman burst through a glass door to his right. She was clawing at her stomach, where a lumpy, amorphous figure squirmed its way out of her. Fine, he thought. That’s just fine. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this one out. He yelled out, as loud as he could, ―They‘re invading from the other dimension!‖ It wasn‘t quite right, but it was close enough for someone of Joe‘s intellect and possibly better than some brain surgeons, since oddly enough, the smarter the person, the quicker they lost their sanity. A giant hole appeared directly in front of Joe and he jumped, barely clearing the expanse. He came down hard and twisted his ankle, causing him to fall on his side and scrape his arm. He rolled onto his back. From the ground, he looked up, and any notion of making it to Margie disintegrated. There was no protecting her this time. A hole had appeared in the sky, and through it, a giant eye peered down. Joe saw one last, fleeting image of Margie. He guessed Sebastian had been right all along. Joe loved her. Loved every little curve. Lying on the ground, staring up at this giant disembodied eye, he had a momentary spark of brilliance, and it made him smile. Then he heard an especially distinct
Anthony J. Rapino ∙ 79
thunk that seemed to come from inside his head. A hungry slurp echoed throughout his mind, and the sense of being watched intensified to absurd heights. When the oddly-shaped body burst through his torso, he looked at it and wondered if they would have acclimating refrigerators in heaven. He thought they just might.
80 âˆ™ Fixing a Hole
Behavior JOANNA PHAM
A sycamore tree behaves the way she blushes and cries like a lily pad she lays her head on my stomach and listens for minerals.
A fountain; your fortune of feathers and mess. A strip of paint; dry luck footsteps and print. A sycamore tree behaves the way you blush and cry.
She feels for the bark, peels, and carves internal instructions that say:
Focus, focus. From the maple of his mouth I can hear it:
Step one Search of the stretch of sand that has not yet been synapse stained.
the rawness written on bark the richness in his name
Step two Smoothen it down.
bent initials carved in the shape of a crescent. A half
Step three Call it skin.
I will create land and She will give me the surface.
The Arc’s Descent ADAM KING
ade was casual when he approached a woman on a busy street and told her to give him her money. She reached into her purse like she was fishing for chapstick, and she came out with her wallet and handed it to him. ―Thank you,‖ he said. ―You‘re welcome,‖ she said, and they walked off like nothing had happened. From across the street he watched an old man get out of his car and struggle with groceries. The man fumbled with his keys and went inside, and Wade walked to the house and knocked on the door. When the old man answered Wade said, ―You want to let me in.‖ Wade hadn‘t showered in three days. He had five-day stubble and wore old, wrinkled clothes. He flexed his hands in anticipation. ―Come in,‖ the old man said. Wade smiled. ―Why don‘t you have a seat?‖ he said when they entered the living room. The man‘s face was blank. He sat on his couch. ―We‘re going to have a chat,‖ Wade said. ―I‘d like that,‖ the old man said. He put his hands on his lap. ―Where do you keep your valuable things?‖ ―My money‘s in my bedroom. In the third drawer in the bureau, folded into my slacks. Jewelry‘s in the bedroom, too.‖ ―Where‘s the bedroom?‖ ―Down the hall. Past the bathroom.‖ ―I think I‘m going to take everything,‖ Wade said. ―Okay,‖ the old man said. He didn‘t even turn to watch Wade go. Wade found over three thousand dollars in the drawer. He left most of the jewelry, but took some nice earrings with diamonds that looked to be at least a half carat, and what must have been a wedding ring. Antiques, both. When Wade came back to the living room, the old man still sat on the couch. ―What did you do to me?‖ he said. ―Nothing to worry about,‖ Wade said. ―I‘m not worried,‖ the old man said. ―Why don‘t you just forget about it?‖ ―I‘ll just forget about it.‖
―That‘s good,‖ Wade said, but he hesitated before leaving. Something about the old man bothered him. Wade sat down and waited, and when the old man came back, blinking, Wade studied him. The old man‘s face was silent and distant. After a time, he said, ―The better your life was, the worse it becomes.‖ He looked through Wade and the furniture, and the very walls. A blanket and pillows lay strewn on the couch, rumpled. An empty hospital bed sat in the corner, a thin layer of dust on its guardrail. Doilies on the arm of the recliner, a knitted afghan heaped on the floor. ―I don‘t care,‖ Wade told him, and the old man said, ―I know,‖ but he went on, anyway. ―I taught math for thirty years, and what I know is that the life of a human describes an arc. At some point I don‘t remember, I reached my summit. ―Her name was Cynthia,‖ he said. ―Fifty-three years. You look at things in retrospect, after. You see them differently.‖ He shook his head. ―How many people do you think find the person that they‘re supposed to be with? Statistically, I mean.‖ Wade narrowed his eyes. ―You know why I came,‖ he said. ―Our boy‘s name is Allen. He has her cheeks. Isn‘t that funny? He doesn‘t look me in the eyes, anymore.‖ ―Why are you telling me this?‖ ―I never wanted more than I had, and someone needs to know that. When it was almost done her friends from St. Mary‘s came. They brought soup, cookies, knitted oven mitts. They were paying their respects before she died. What I do now is wait.‖ His eyes focused for the first time on Wade, and he held his gaze with a fierceness that could only be the fury of supplication amidst pride. ―You want my things,‖ he said. ―Take them.‖ ―You can‘t be serious,‖ Wade said. The old man began folding the blanket beside him. He set the pillows neatly on top of it. ―I don‘t want to wait, anymore.‖ It was the man‘s very helplessness that commanded Wade. He gripped the edges of the seat and breathed deeply and said, ―You‘re dying,‖ and he watched the old man lie back on the couch and close his eyes. It was the kindest thing he had ever done. Wade lived in a motel whose owner couldn‘t be bothered to call an exterminator. The walls were cracked and water spotted, the edges of the furniture gnawed by rats. He lived on what he took from others. When he came home he opened a can of refried beans and plopped it into a bowl and warmed it in the microwave. He sat on his bed and ate it with a glass of cider whiskey. He turned on the television and got up and looked out the window for a long time, and he felt every second as it passed.
Adam King ∙ 83
At night he dreamed about the old man. He woke sweating and got dressed, and when he went outside it was still dark, the air cool and moist. When he was younger he liked to go out at night. He‘d pass through downtown and walk to the eastern edge of Ennington, where it was mostly woods, and he wouldn‘t come across another person for hours at a time. He would listen to the crickets and close his eyes and hear the wind. He was trying to work off nervous energy so he could sleep, but the longer the night pressed against him, the more nervous he became. He pressed his nails into his palms and clenched his jaw. It was a while before he came on another person, and by that time his anxiety was built up so that he walked straight up to the man and said, ―Your legs don‘t work.‖ The man collapsed. ―Stay quiet,‖ Wade said, the man entreating him with his eyes. How easy it would be to take this man‘s money and walk away. He‘d probably regain the use of his legs within a few hours. Instead he thought again of the old man, and of the way that goodness can become perverted, if you allow it to. ―Be calm,‖ Wade told the man. ―I‘m a doctor.‖ ―A doctor,‖ the man said. He wore a suit and expensive-looking shoes. His hair was perfect. ―You‘ve got an acute case of… gluteusitis. But I can fix it.‖ Wade bent to the man and pressed on his legs. He nodded and said, ―Um hum.‖ Then he said, ―Here it is,‖ and pressed on the man‘s leg again, and said, ―You‘re better,‖ and helped the man up. ―Wow,‖ the man said. ―How lucky that you were here. You saved me.‖ ―It was nothing.‖ ―It was amazing. I couldn‘t move.‖ ―Well,‖ Wade said. ―Saving people is what I do.‖ He walked off and didn‘t look back. The next night he came on a woman just outside of Druberry Park. ―You‘re falling,‖ he told her. ―Off a cliff.‖ The woman‘s eyes got big and she waved her arms and screamed. ―Take my hand,‖ Wade said. He said, ―I‘ll save you.‖ Mostly he saw the old man in his dreams, black immensities of mirrors and hurricanes. The wind shattering the mirrors. He looked into their sharp edges and could no longer see himself. Instead he saw the old man‘s gaze, a depth of unexpression passing judgment. ―Somebody stole your wallet. I‘ll get it back for you.‖ ―You‘re drowning. I‘m a lifeguard.‖
84 ∙ The Arc’s Descent
―You‘ve become blind. I can heal you.‖ Wade Lewis, worker of miracles. An article in the Sunday paper called him a ‗mysterious hero.‘ He clipped the article and put it under his couch cushion and then, because he was low on money, he went and robbed a woman. When he came home he took a shower. He put on his best outfit and thought about shaving but didn‘t. He looked in the mirror, fogged over by the shower, and through the opaque white he saw only himself and he was saddened. It was nearly two weeks before he went to the old man‘s grave. He sat beside it for a long time. He looked around and saw nobody so he bent to it and whispered, ―You‘re alive.‖ He waited. ―You‘re alive,‖ he said again. The sky the gray of dusk. Nothing stirring but the wind. Nobody calling but crickets. ―Be alive,‖ he said.
Adam King ∙ 85
Proximity JOSH DENSLOW
hen it happens, it feels as though his head is being forced through a keyhole. His organs pile up on one another as he‘s rolled into a cylindrical tube. Then the pain cascades from his skull down to his toes, like his skin is being seared. The sensation only lasts for a few seconds, but he‘s never gotten used to it. It‘s why he says he‘s never going to do it again. Every time. But the thing is, Neil Brigman can teleport. It just hurts like a bitch. And this time he has to. He locked his damn car keys in the house again. Well, not a house per se. More like the room above the garage at his mom‘s house. But whatever. He can‘t tell her. His mom just had the responsibility talk with him again last night. That‘s why he‘s going to this interview in the first place. Apparently, he can‘t work for Uncle Dalton for the rest of his life. He pulls off his tie, careful not to undo the knot, and then unbuttons his shirt. His dad tied this plaid tie for him about five years ago, and Neil just has to drop it over his head when he needs to wear one. Which is barely ever. The rickety stairs creak as he climbs up to his small studio apartment. He throws the shirt and tie over the railing and visualizes the spot between his bed and his computer desk. Really concentrates on it. The pain rips through him. It‘s as though every bone in his body has been broken at the same time. Then the slight shift. He isn‘t outside anymore. He unclenches his eyes and his teeth, his undershirt completely soaked through with his sweat, and he finds himself now standing in that spot he pictured between his bed and his computer desk. And sure enough, his keys are sitting right there next to the printer. He staggers across the room, his knees weak. Clutching the table, he whips open the small refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of water. Sweat pours down his legs. Should‘ve taken his pants off, too. He yanks the cap off the bottle and chugs the whole thing in a few big gulps. His eyes stop trying to jump from their sockets and decide to throb instead. He grabs a t-shirt he‘s thrown on top of the table and wipes off his face. The clock on the microwave says 2:10. He has to be at the police station in twenty minutes. If only he hadn‘t slept until 1:45, he wouldn‘t have been in such a hurry. And he wouldn‘t have forgotten his keys.
And he wouldn‘t have had to teleport. Small town police stations are great. This one tries as hard as it can to look important. The front archway is wide and imposing. Police cars are parked in a neat row out front, perfectly spaced and shining in new coats of wax. Neil walks in and is immediately recognized by Frank Palouzo. His nose is even redder than the last time he saw him. ―What are you doing here, Big Guy?‖ ―Didn‘t Dad tell you? I‘m here to interview for the dispatcher job.‖ ―You‘re as good as in then. So don‘t stress.‖ Frank grins at him from behind his desk. But that‘s exactly why Neil is stressed. He‘s going to get this job. His dad has been a cop here for twenty years. Pretty much everyone knows Neil already. He can hear his life locking into place and he doesn‘t like tight places. His dad‘s out on patrol so Neil doesn‘t see him before sitting down with Shirley. She used to come to all of his birthday parties when he was a kid. For a long time, she was the only black person that Neil knew. Today she‘s wearing bright red lipstick, most of it hanging out on her teeth. ―You don‘t stop by anymore!‖ she exclaims. ―I‘ve been busy.‖ ―Oh yeah?‖ She‘s not buying it. ―Are you even working now?‖ ―I collect quarters from washers and dryers. My uncle owns a selfservice laundry.‖ ―Norman owns a laundromat?‖ ―No, not Dad‘s brother. My mom‘s brother Dalton. And he doesn‘t call it a laundromat. I guess the word Laundromat was a trademark of Westinghouse, or something. It‘s like calling tissue paper Kleenex.‖ ―Sounds like he takes it pretty seriously.‖ ―He gets paid in quarters. He has to be serious about it.‖ ―You‘ll like this job much better.‖ But this job is eight hours a day, not like the one hour he spends emptying the laundry machines. And he‘ll be working with his dad. His dad‘ll be out cruising the streets in his squad car and Neil will be telling him where he needs to go. In a weird way, it‘ll be like Neil is telling his dad what to do. Like a faux boss of sorts. This does not appeal to him. And besides, should Neil really be working for the police? The first time he used his power for questionable purposes was the year after his parents got divorced. Breaking and entering. Well, no breaking. Just entering. He teleported into Tim Sommers‘s house and played his Nintendo when he wasn‘t home. By then, Neil had worked out the backpack system. Inside was his Thundercats thermos filled with water for the journey in and his Star Wars thermos for the journey out. He also put in one of his mom‘s light blue bathroom towels so he could soak up as much of the sweat as possible. It
Josh Denslow ∙ 87
wasn‘t like those first few times, in Kindergarten, when he‘d suddenly teleported home from school. He could control it now. The day before, Tim had invited everyone over to his house to show off his new game system. It was four kids crowded around him watching him play. He didn‘t give anyone else a chance to even touch the controller. Neil asked his mom for one and she said no way, not until he got his grades up. And suddenly, Neil figured out a great way to use his power other than to scare the crap out of his dog Mitzi and to sometimes skip the long walk home from school. He watched Tim and his parents drive away for a family dinner at Sizzler and then he concentrated on the space in front of Tim‘s TV. A moment later he was shaking off the pain and sucking all of the water out of the Thundercats thermos. He wiped his hands and face with the towel. He‘d never been in Tim‘s room without Tim being there. His dog, a boxer named Frederico, tapped around on the hardwood floor downstairs. Neil shut the door. It was exciting to be somewhere he wasn‘t supposed to be. He clicked on Tim‘s television and waited for a picture to appear. Then he turned on the Nintendo. The logo splashed across the screen. Neil picked up the controller and began to play. He didn‘t know they had come home until he heard Tim pounding up the stairs to play his video game before bed. Neil didn‘t have time to teleport. He grabbed his bag and ran into the closet just as Tim burst into the room. He froze at the sight of the glowing television displaying his game. ―Mom!‖ Tim yelled in fear. And Neil concentrated on his own bedroom. Add a beer gut, some acne scars and a chipped front tooth to young Tim Sommers and you get the Tim Sommers of now; who happens to be sitting across the booth from Neil. ―Have you seen these pornos where you can change the angle of the camera?‖ he asks Neil before downing the dregs of his beer. ―Sounds like we‘ve finally entered the future.‖ Barky‘s is packed with kids from the local community college with fake IDs. Neil doesn‘t recognize anyone though he‘s technically a student there. He just isn‘t taking any classes at the moment. This particular moment has been going on for two years. Neil and Tim say they‘re going to try out a new bar, but they never do. The beer tastes like pipe cleaner. The floor is so gummy that Tim once walked out with a condom stuck to the bottom of his work boots. The whole place smells like warped wood. Like broken teeth and bloody noses. But as their group dwindled, they craved some consistency. Some of the guys went to out of state colleges, one or two joined the army, and scarily enough, some of them were dads. Whenever these guys visited, or
88 ∙ Proximity
received a get out of jail free card from their families, they all knew they could find Neil and Tim right there in the booth at Barky‘s. Jeremy Barnes is working the bar tonight and he‘s acting like everyone there is over twenty-one. He‘s not really fat, but he has a solid gut that hangs over the front of his pants. His hair is perpetually dirty and his skin is dry and flakey. But maybe Neil is hyper-sensitive. The thing is this: Jeremy is dating his mother. The same guy that all of Neil‘s friends thought was so cool. The guy who‘d hook them all up with free shots. The guy who took pictures of Barky‘s customers‘ cleavage and hung them up in the men‘s room. The guy who lit his farts while standing on the bar. This classy fellow is his mom‘s boyfriend. ―You‘re staring at Jeremy again,‖ Tim says. ―No I‘m not.‖ ―I think you‘re obsessed.‖ Tim spins his empty glass around on the table. ―You‘re upset that this guy is putting his little pecker in the same hole that you jumped out of.‖ ―Don‘t be gross,‖ Neil says. ―Okay, then go and say hello to him. Stop being so creepy. And while you‘re up there, get me another beer.‖ Jeremy is desperate to be Neil‘s friend. He catches Neil‘s eye across the bar and ditches the college kids to say hello. The look is in full effect. Not the one he wears when he‘s the party all night, free-drink giving, lascivious barkeep. This is the unabashed, please-like-me look. He opens his eyes wide and pulls his mouth into a tight smile, an enormous dimple forming on his left cheek. And he‘s so nervous that he keeps tugging at the back of his hair. ―Whatever you want, it‘s on the house,‖ Jeremy says. ―I‘ll just have a beer.‖ ―How‘d the job interview go?‖ Neil can‘t stand that his mom tells Jeremy stuff about him. ―It went well.‖ ―I bet you‘ll get it.‖ ―That‘s what everyone keeps telling me.‖ Jeremy finishes pouring the beer and slides it across the bar. ―You want one for your friend?‖ Tim‘s looking at them from the booth, the plaid tie around his enormous head. ―No thanks.‖ Neil slaps a ten on the bar. ―Keep the change.‖ Jeremy rubs his hands together and clears his throat. ―So, we‘re going to be neighbors, huh?‖ ―What do you mean?‖ ―Oh, I thought she told you last night. I‘m, uh, moving in with your mom.‖ He tugs at his hair.
Josh Denslow ∙ 89
Neil‘s shoulders tighten and the beer sloshes around in the glass. Foam seeps between his fingers. So his mom is kicking him out so that Jeremy can move in. No wonder she had the responsibility talk with him. ―Don‘t worry, you don‘t have to help me move if you don‘t want.‖ Jeremy grunts, which is probably supposed to be a laugh. Neil walks away and slams the beer down on the table in front of Tim. ―What happened?‖ ―Jeremy is moving in with my mom.‖ ―No, I meant with the beer. Like half of it is gone.‖ ―What did you do with my tie?‖ Neil‘s throat is so dry he can barely push out the words. Tim reaches onto the seat next to him and holds up the plaid tie. Fucking Tim untied the damn knot. Things were better a few weeks ago. Neil‘s mom said she‘d met a guy in line at the bank. They‘d eaten dinner a few times and he made her laugh like crazy. Her words. Something Neil‘s father could never do, according to her. ―He was such a bore, wouldn‘t know a joke if it had a name tag,‖ she always said about him. ―And this guy‘s such an adorable burly bear.‖ How was Neil supposed to know it was Jeremy? Neil‘s mom arranged for them to meet over dinner at Jeremy‘s apartment prompting Jeremy to confess one night at Barky‘s. He had begged Neil to act like they didn‘t know each other. He didn‘t want to be the guy that Neil had hundreds of stories about. He wanted to stand on his own two feet. So Neil pretended they‘d never met, as if he hadn‘t been at Barky‘s the night before, drinking until he puked in Tim‘s mom‘s car. He and his mother took the stairs to the second floor. The carpet was so worn that the slats of wood were visible underneath it. Jeremy‘s apartment was threadbare and hastily cleaned for guests. Neil wouldn‘t want to see what was under the couch or crammed into closets. He had some movie posters on the wall with no frames: Raging Bull, A Clockwork Orange, and The Big Lebowski. He also had a plant that was desperately clinging to life. It sat in a large pot next to the television and was about five feet tall. Neil decided that was the spot. If Neil can‘t picture where he‘ll appear, he can‘t teleport. He can‘t leap somewhere he‘s never been. It was worth sitting through the watery spaghetti and Jeremy‘s inane attempts at conversation just to find that one spot. When he leapt into Jeremy‘s apartment the next night, he thought he‘d never recover. He actually left through the front door when he was done. It seemed to get more painful as he got older. When he was in high school, he could leap in and out of Target three or four nights a week without too many problems. He‘d fill a large trash bag with video games and movies and then sell them at school. As he approached his mid-twenties though, he‘d feel his bones aching sometimes days after a leap.
90 ∙ Proximity
Jeremy had an XBOX and at least twenty games that he kept stashed in a black TV stand. There was a pot, a pan, three cans of soup and eight boxes of macaroni and cheese all in one cabinet in the kitchen. The other four cabinets were empty. He had milk, butter and orange juice in the refrigerator along with a dozen half empty take-out containers. Clothes were stuffed into the six drawers in his room with no intelligent design. Also, nothing was folded. Three shirts were hung in the closet. But the bed was made. And Neil was sure that his mother had brought her own pillow. The bathroom was smudged and grimy. Two toothbrushes sat in a Barky‘s mug on the sink. The rug on the floor looked brand new, light blue and plush. Jeremy had a copy of On the Road on the toilet. Neil walked into the front room and sat on the tattered couch. It only took Neil eight minutes to look around the place, but it wasn‘t until he was staring up at Jeremy‘s ceiling that he‘d realized he was disappointed. He‘d wanted to find something that would make Jeremy look bad. There was only one thing he could do. Neil went back into the bathroom and emptied all of Jeremy‘s shampoo and conditioner. Then he squirted all of the toothpaste down the drain. Neil was going to pull out all of his floss but apparently the dude didn‘t use any. But that surely wasn‘t bad enough to get his mom to dump him. He wanted to do something to Jeremy‘s toothbrush but he didn‘t know which was which. Neil stepped into the bedroom and looked around. Then he turned quickly and went into the bathroom again. He moved Jeremy‘s bookmark back two chapters. In the kitchen, he dumped out the milk and the orange juice and returned the empty containers. But when he shut the refrigerator door, he noticed something he hadn‘t seen before. Mixed in with all the coupons and ads for food places was a small picture of his mother and Jeremy sitting at a table. She had her hand on his arm and his head was tilted slightly toward her. Neil pulled the picture out from under the Barky‘s magnet and slid it into the front pocket of his bag. Neil turns the key in the dryer and opens the front. He holds the ratty cloth bag open and lets the quarters fall into it; the dry slapping of the coins sounds like a river. Why would it matter if Neil was living on top of the garage if Jeremy was moving into the main house? He cinches the bag of coins and hefts it into the back room. He stuffs the bag into a large, rectangular safe bolted to the floor. He rubs his eyes and takes a deep breath before stepping back into the laundry area. The loud chirp of a siren blares outside and a quick burst of police lights streak across the walls of the laundry facility. Whereas Neil looks like he can‘t even lift half his own body weight, his dad looks like he could eat half of Neil‘s body weight in one sitting. He has big ruddy cheeks and small blue eyes. His mom always described his dad as
Josh Denslow ∙ 91
beefy, which seems pretty accurate. Though she always said it in a dreamy way. Before the divorce. Neil strolls up to the patrol car and his dad tosses him a long plastic bag. ―I brought you a sandwich.‖ ―Thanks.‖ ―I heard you met with Shirley.‖ ―Yeah, look Dad, I . . .‖ All business. ―Is Jeremy moving in with your mother?‖ How does his dad hear this shit? ―I ran into Tim at the 7-11.‖ Neil shoots a short burst of air through his nose. ―Tim‘s an asshole.‖ ―You know he eats the hotdogs there? I don‘t even eat those things.‖ ―I was going to tell you about Jeremy.‖ Neil tugs at his left elbow, the sandwich bag squished in his armpit. ―I just didn‘t realize your mom was that serious.‖ Neil‘s dad‘s eyebrows lower over his eyes. Neil‘s parents have been divorced for fifteen years now. But Neil‘s dad is carrying an eternal flame. Sort of pathetic. He sends flowers to her office on her birthday. He keeps in touch with her parents and her brother. As far as Neil knows, he hasn‘t dated anyone else. He has her picture in his wallet. ―I‘m sorry, Dad,‖ Neil says. ―If it makes you feel any better, Mom‘s kicking me out of the garage.‖ His dad‘s eyes light up briefly. ―You can stay with me, buddy. I‘ve got room.‖ Neil‘s dad‘s apartment is like a dumpster behind an Italian restaurant. Neil may not be the cleanest guy ever, but he does have standards. ―I‘ll work it out.‖ ―What do you think of Jeremy? Do you like him? Is he good for your mom?‖ Neil‘s chest tightens. ―I don‘t know. I think maybe he just likes her because of the boob job.‖ The words hang in front of him like a neon sign. ―I don‘t know why she ever did that.‖ A group of kids on skateboards cut across the parking lot, their shirts flapping behind them. Just before they turn the corner one of them yells ―Pig!‖ and they all laugh. ―I think you need to put Mom behind you. There‘s nothing we can do about it.‖ ―When I saw that she was calling the other day, I thought to myself, God, don‘t let me have a heart attack before I get a chance to speak to her.‖ ―Why did she call?‖ ―She wanted me to help get you this job.‖ Now it makes sense; she‘s using his dad. Of course he‘d try to help her out. ―She‘s trying to hijack my life. I thought things were fine the way they were.‖
92 ∙ Proximity
―Now you know how I feel.‖ Neil leans against the vending machine listening to the thumping of a washer. His sandwich sits next to him, unwrapped. The place is empty except for a man wearing purple sweatpants and sunglasses. He rubs frantically at the collar of a white shirt. After a few minutes he gives up and tosses it into a large trash can by the door. He catches Neil looking at him. ―My wife got me that shirt.‖ The brilliant idea hurtles from the trash can and smacks Neil directly in the middle of his forehead. When he gets home, there‘s a post-it note on his door. We need to talk. There‘s no way his mom missed his arrival, so he quickly puts a few things in his dresser and wipes down the small kitchen table. He‘s been living in the studio over the garage for so long that he can‘t imagine living anywhere else. His mom must have picked up on this sentiment, too. She probably pictures a fifty-year-old Neil climbing the stairs after another night at the bar. Neil shivers. As soon as he hears the first stair creak, Neil pulls open the door. The light from the main house casts a shadow across his mom‘s face, but he can tell she‘s wearing her serious face. This isn‘t going to be easy. ―You told Dad to get me that job?‖ Her hair is pulled back and she‘s wearing beige slacks and a light blue cardigan. She gets about halfway up and stops, her manicured nails red against the brown railing. ―It‘s a good job.‖ ―But you went behind my back.‖ ―As if you were going to take my advice.‖ She has a point there. ―You‘re pushing me out so Jeremy can come in and take over.‖ ―Oh honey.‖ She straightens her back as she huffs up the last few stairs. Neil walks into the room before she can reach him. ―This has nothing to do with Jeremy.‖ She leans against the door jamb, suddenly looking old and tired. ―Don‘t you want me to be happy?‖ She sure played that card early. ―Of course I do. I just don‘t know why I have to leave for that to happen.‖ ―I can‘t be fully happy until I know you‘re settled. We just want the best for you.‖ ―Now you guys are a we?‖ ―I meant me and your dad.‖ Neil‘s dad would probably shit if he heard her talk about him like that. ―I know I should‘ve told you about Jeremy moving in. But we had such a nice conversation the other night. And you sounded serious about getting started . . . I didn‘t want to ruin it.‖ ―Sure. I‘m a loser.‖ ―I‘m not saying that.‖ ―What about Jeremy? He‘s about the biggest loser I know.‖
Josh Denslow ∙ 93
She purses her lips. ―You don‘t mean that.‖ ―I‘ve known Jeremy for a long time. He‘s scummy. He‘s crass. He ogles girls. He wipes his boogers under the bar. For Christ‘s sake mom, the only talent he has is lighting his farts.‖ ―Jeremy confessed that you two knew each other already. And I‘m sure he does those things to get tips. Your friends like him. And I think you used to like him, too.‖ ―He‘s just a clown. Someone to entertain you. He‘s not someone who dates your mom.‖ ―Well maybe I could use a little fun in my life. I certainly don‘t expect you to understand that.‖ She stares at him, her sadness palpable. Then she turns and walks quietly down the stairs. ―Fine, I‘ll start packing,‖ Neil calls after her. But that‘s not what she wants to hear. Buying tampons is weird. Neil spends so much time building up the nerve, that he‘s disappointed when the cashier doesn‘t even blink. He also buys red lipstick and some cheap perfume. And a pack of cotton panties. He puts it all in his backpack with four bottles of water and a towel. He‘s ready to go right now. Neil‘s mom and Jeremy usually go out on Wednesdays. His mom calls it Movie Night. Neil pulls the blinds up and sits down at the table. From there, he can see the tail end of the driveway. Waiting is not his strong suit. About an hour later, he opens the bag again to make sure he remembered everything. He did. He‘s wearing a pair of faded sweat pants and an old Pearl Jam T-shirt from high school. Maybe he‘ll finally toss these clothes out when he‘s done. At about a quarter to six, as the sun falls behind the main house, Jeremy pulls up in his powder blue Volkswagon bug. He grinds to a halt and kills the motor. The sky is rippled with deep red stripes. He springs out, his belly tucked into a green button-up shirt. Neil watches him jog up to the front door and ring the bell. Jeremy rubs his hands together as he waits. Then he tosses a quick glance to the studio on top of the garage. Neil instinctually ducks even though he‘s pretty sure Jeremy can‘t see in. His mom opens the door, her hair bobbed, wearing dark blue jeans. She takes Jeremy by the arm and he leads her to the car. Opens the door for her. Jumps in on his side. Fires up the motor. Backs out the driveway. It was that easy. Now the hard part. Neil‘s a little afraid to do the leap. He‘s been talking himself into it all day. No time like the present, though. He hefts the bag onto his back and pictures that strip of carpet between the plant and the TV. He remembers it so well, it‘s like he lived half of his life there. The pain starts at his neck, but something is different. He throws up on his table just as his body rolls in on itself. He tries to stop it, but it‘s too late.
94 ∙ Proximity
A moment later, he finds his face pressed against Jeremy‘s dirty carpet, sweat dripping down his nose. He opens his eyes, sending waves of pain cascading over his scalp. Then he realizes he can‘t move his arms and that‘s when the panic sets in. He‘s going to die of dehydration. His stomach roils. His ears ring so loudly it makes him dizzy. He pictures Jeremy coming home to find him curled up and dead next to his television. Neil feels his legs come back first. He kicks them back and forth, hoping to roll himself onto his back. Then he finally feels his arms return. He heaves himself up onto one knee and yanks the back pack off. But his fingers are slower. The bag won‘t unzip. He gets to his feet, his knees wobbling, and stumbles into the small kitchen. The sink is only a few steps away. He shoves his head under the faucet and turns on the water. The water splashes down his cheek and into the desert of his mouth. He can‘t seem to get enough to go down his throat, but what does burns as it travels through his esophagus. Neil staggers backward and finally gets his bag open. He pulls out a bottle of water and gulps the whole thing. A dull ache permeates his every joint. His vision is blurry. He drinks another bottle of water and then stomps into the front room and sits on the couch. His breath rips through his throat. His eyes throb. As he waits for the worst of it to pass, his arms twitch spasmodically. But his heart rate finally gets back to normal. He has a terrible headache, but he can think clearly now. He‘s able to breathe without much pain, so he gets back to his feet and begins plotting. The panties should be on the couch. Another pair on the handle leading to the bedroom. Neil sprays the bed with the cheap perfume, as musky as the reptile cage at the zoo, and then leaves the bottle on the bathroom sink. He puts the lipstick on the nightstand. Then the kicker. A tampon in the bathroom trash. When he‘s done, all that‘s left of the pain is the throbbing in his eyes and a soreness in his joints. And the memory, of course. There‘s no way he‘s teleporting home. Neil lets himself out of the apartment, locking the door behind him, and walks to the diner down the street. Of course, after all his preparing, he forgot to pack his wallet. Now he‘s standing on the sidewalk in front of the diner and he could really use a drink. He digs in the front pocket of his bag for a few crumpled bills or some loose change, but instead finds the picture he stole from Jeremy‘s the first time he was there. He remembers being disgusted by how close Jeremy and his mom were sitting. But this time, he notices her face. The crinkles around her eyes from the full smile on her lips. She‘s forgotten all about keeping her crooked front teeth covered. She has one hand on Jeremy‘s arm and the other lightly grazing the back of his head.
Josh Denslow ∙ 95
Neil purses his lips and exhales loudly through his nose. Then his cell phone rings. He answers it without looking at the display, and even though he gets the same call every evening, he‘s not ready for Tim‘s peppy question. ―Feel like going to Barky‘s?‖ ―I‘m pretty sure that‘s my shirt,‖ Tim says as they slide into a booth. ―I left it at your house one time when I slept over.‖ ―You didn‘t even like Pearl Jam.‖ ―But Christine Evenson did, and I wanted to nail her. Also, you look like shit.‖ Neil rubs his fingers on the side of his mug. ―You okay, man?‖ Tim asks. ―I think I might have done something bad.‖ ―You mean how you stole my shirt? I forgive you.‖ ―What if I told you I came up with a way to make my mom dump Jeremy?‖ ―You could just tell her he lights his farts.‖ ―She knows already.‖ Tim shakes his head. ―He must be good in the sack or something.‖ ―Never mind. Forget I said anything.‖ Tim chugs his entire beer, then he wipes his sleeve across his mouth. ―So, be honest with me. Why don‘t you think your mom should date Jeremy? Does he not make enough money? Is he not attractive enough? Because he doesn‘t seem all that bad to me. In fact, he sort of reminds me of you.‖ Neil‘s bones ache and his eyes droop. He wipes condensation from the mug onto his eye lids. ―So what was your big idea?‖ Neil shrugs. ―Putting women‘s accessories in his apartment so my mom thought he was cheating on her.‖ Tim laughs. ―How‘re you going to get in?‖ ―I guess it‘s a bad idea.‖ ―I‘m not saying it wouldn‘t work. I just don‘t think you could figure out how to get in there.‖ ―Yeah. It‘s a dumb idea.‖ ―It would work like a charm though.‖ Neil‘s chest tightens, but he‘s pretty sure it‘s not from the leap earlier. Tim snags Neil‘s beer and takes a long swig. ―I wish my mom would ditch my dad and start dating Jeremy. And you can be sure I‘d be taking as much free beer as he‘d give me.‖ Tim drops Neil off at the laundry facility. After dumping the coin bag in the safe and checking in with Uncle Dalton, Neil steps outside and sits on the curb. He watches people walk in and out of the liquor store across the street.
96 ∙ Proximity
Maybe he should get drunk and pass out in the back next to the safe. Very tempting. But then a cop car pulls up in front of him, his dad‘s meaty arm hanging out the window. ―Sorry, no sandwich tonight. I was out on a call.‖ ―It‘s okay,‖ Neil says. ―You‘ll never believe this. That nutcase Jeremy called in a burglary. But instead of someone taking his stuff, they left new stuff in his apartment.‖ Neil swallows. ―What do you mean?‖ ―This is hilarious. He says someone broke in and put women‘s undergarments in his apartment. As if your mother is ever going to believe that.‖ He laughs and his chin wiggles from side to side. ―It was pathetic.‖ ―Maybe that really happened.‖ ―Come on. He cheated on your mom and she caught him. And he thinks that if he makes a fool of himself by calling the cops, she‘ll believe his bullshit story.‖ ―Are they going to dust for prints?‖ At this point, it would be a relief to get caught. ―Waste of taxpayer money. And get this. Says it happened before. Except the last time they emptied his shampoo and the food in his refrigerator. He didn‘t call that one in.‖ His dad‘s face purples, a poster child for impending heart attacks. ―So that‘s it? They won‘t even investigate?‖ ―Still no law against cheating, unfortunately.‖ Neil gets to his feet and leans against the car. ―You should call her.‖ His dad looks at him blankly. ―You should call Mom.‖ ―No, things are back to normal.‖ ―What do you mean?‖ ―Now we‘re both unhappy again.‖ His dad grins and smacks him on the arm. Neil takes a deep breath. ―I‘ve decided I want that job, Dad.‖ But he hadn‘t really decided it until right then. He hadn‘t even been thinking about it. His dad‘s face bunches up under his chin. ―You should‘ve called me, Neil. I sort of gave them the impression you didn‘t want it. They offered it to someone else.‖ Neil gives a short laugh. ―Just kidding, Dad. Can you see me doing that job?‖ ―I guess not.‖ His dad can‘t figure out if he should smile or not. ―I know Shirley was upset. She was looking forward to seeing you more often.‖ ―Tell her I‘ll stop by soon.‖ Neil‘s legs wobble. ―I should get going, Dad. Thanks for letting me know.‖ ―See you tomorrow, right?‖
Josh Denslow ∙ 97
―Same time. Same place.‖ And that feels terrible too. Neil tiptoes up the stairs. The main house is completely dark except for a dim light in his mom‘s room. He slips into his apartment and shuts the door. He doesn‘t turn on any lights and sits heavily on the bed. He wishes he could go to the main house and tell his mom that he got that job. That it didn‘t matter what was going on with her and Jeremy; he was going to start working. Go back to school. Find his own place. Just like they talked about the other night. Then he suddenly finds himself on his feet. He crosses the room and opens the door. The kitchen light is on now and his mother sits at the table sipping from a mug. Neil slips down the stairs and across the driveway. He hovers in front of the side door, debating if he should knock. He lifts his hand just as his mom looks up and catches his eyes. She looks tired but she still smiles. She gets up and walks across the kitchen to the side door. She unlatches the deadbolt and opens the door. ―What are you doing here?‖ she says. ―I was about to ask you the same thing.‖ ―I should‘ve listened to you. I think you were right about Jeremy.‖ The sweet smell of hot chocolate dangles in the air in front of her. ―I don‘t think I was.‖ She takes a step forward and puts her arms around him. Suddenly Neil wants to cry. He hasn‘t cried since his dog Mitzi died in eighth grade. But there they are. The tears desperate to push through. His mom lets go just in time and retreats into the shadow of the doorway. ―I‘ve never told you this before. And it‘s something I still can‘t explain to this day.‖ Her lips quiver. ―On your first day of Kindergarten, I dropped you off at the school. You were so upset. You begged me not to leave you there. I told you how much fun it was going to be. All the new friends you were going to make. But on the inside, I just wanted to scoop you up and bring you home with me. When I got in the car, I just stared at myself in the rearview mirror. I felt like a terrible mother. As if I‘d abandoned you.‖ Neil crosses his right arm across his body and pulls at his left elbow. ―But I swear to God, Neil. When I got home. You were there. You were there waiting for me. As if your love for me had brought you back home. We spent the day coloring and baking cookies. Then that night, when I tucked you into bed, I told you that you couldn‘t do that again. That you had to go to school.‖ Her eyes mist. ―Sometimes, I‘m able to convince myself that it never happened. But I know it did. Somehow, you made it across town faster than I could in the car. And you were waiting for me.‖ ―Mom, I . . .‖ His mom laughs loudly. ―I‘m crazy, right? Losing my mind.‖ ―It‘s a nice story.‖ She nods. ―Yeah. It sure is.‖
98 ∙ Proximity
Neil rubs the back of his neck and sighs. ―I better head upstairs.‖ ―Thanks, Neil. Thanks for coming over.‖ ―I was just worried about you.‖ She smiles again and puts her hand on the door, ready to close it. ―Give Jeremy another chance,‖ Neil says. She stares at him, her eyes two pinpricks in the dark. Then a flicker of recognition; as if she finally put a name with a face that had been eluding her. ―We‘ll see,‖ she says. Neil walks slowly across the driveway and up the stairs. He looks down at the main house to see that his mom is once again sitting at the table with her mug. He reaches out and grabs the handle for the door. But it doesn‘t budge. If he hadn‘t left his keys inside, he would have walked right in and turned on the lights. Then he would‘ve turned on the radio and taken a hot shower. He would‘ve put on a nice shirt and slacks and then driven over to Barky‘s. He knew Jeremy would be there. And Neil would walk right up to him and buy him a drink. But Neil was stuck on the porch.
Josh Denslow ∙ 99
Pick Up WILL CORDEIRO
Sun-slapped, the soap scum glares off buildings‘ pure, insubstantial rapture. A burnt out afternoon. Vertigo of circuit boards, an architecture swept aside. All ropes can ride the wind‘s impulse— a squeegee‘s psychedelia. Somewhere amid the feedback, interference . . . If only angels laser-beamed TV straight into my heart—ha!— but, no: gnats doodle messages behind my ears. The crowds below recoil through their buds and pods. Ah, June downtown: a sweet exhaust mirages through the oil-blistered air; late rallies on the floor, a cavalcade of molten cars. I stop resisting, and I can listen. The fillings in my teeth pick up the ping-sweep hearsay in cahoots with satellites that bounce back gameshows, softcore, Singapore soap operas—and the telepathy of every person singing, humming something softly in each head. This high, I hear the lonely stations past the grainy fields.
The Sand Ship CLAIRE MASSEY
e liked it when they built the ship. Before, there was just a big sandpit at that end of the playground. Sometimes it had dog dirt in it. But when we got there one Saturday morning, after we‘d been to the shop with Dad so we could get our sweets and he could get his paper and his can, there was a ship in it. Gypsy said it must have sailed there in the night. I told her they‘d built it during the week whilst we were at school. The ship was painted red. It had portholes in its sides. It had a gangplank, which you could walk along, up onto the ship without touching the sand. We claimed the ship. I said I would be the captain and Gypsy could be the crew. First I made her scrub the deck to get rid of all the sand so that we could lay our penny sweets out. I always got cola bottles, fried eggs and gummy bears. I pointed at a big fat seagull that was watching us from the fence and nicked one of Gypsy‘s flying saucers when she looked up at it. Dad sat on the blue bench over by the football pitch, reading his paper, so she couldn‘t tell on me anyway. A little boy tried to come up onto the ship, his Mum was at the other end of the playground pushing a baby on the swings, so I blocked his way. I told Gypsy to pretend she had a hook hand. He jumped down into the sand and ran right to the edge of the sandpit. He crouched there and stuck his hands in, started to dig. He kept looking up at our ship when he didn‘t think we were looking at him. I saw him pull something green from the sand. ―Ben, time to go,‖ his Mum shouted. He buried it again. Gypsy had to dig for a long time to find it when he‘d gone. It was our first piece of treasure. It wasn‘t like the glass we normally found at the playground. It was all scratched so you couldn‘t see through it, and it wasn‘t sharp but smooth like a stone. When Dad shouted us to go, we buried it and pressed two sticks into the sand on top of it. The next Saturday there were lots of seagulls perched on the side of the ship. They flew up into the air when the playground gate clanged shut and we ran round flapping our arms and squawking to keep them away. I told Gypsy to dig for our treasure and I ran up the gangplank. The ship had been attacked. There were drawings and writing all over the insides, done in black felt tip pen. When she saw them, Gypsy said they must be pirate names. There were cans, too, they looked the same as Dad‘s. I tipped one up and the last of the smelly brown liquid dribbled onto my fingers. They were sticky for ages, even after I‘d wiped them on my jeans. I told Gypsy to
come and throw the cans overboard. Then, because she still hadn‘t found our treasure, I went to show her where to dig. We couldn‘t find the glass. We shouldn‘t have left the X marks the spot on it, someone else must have dug it up. Sand hurts when it gets too far up behind your nails so I watched Gypsy dig deeper and deeper. She pulled a long dark rope of seaweed from the sand. It smelt funny, a bit like the fish section in Morrisons. Gypsy wanted to take it home but I wouldn‘t let her because it would have made our room stink. Other Saturdays, we found other treasures. Lots more glass, my favorite pieces were pale pink, and the best thing was the shells. When we took them to Dad he said they were cockle shells. Said the council must have saved themselves some money by lifting the sand from a beach somewhere. I laid the shells out on the deck to make pictures. Then, when it was time to go, Gypsy buried them underneath the gangplank. But every time she went to dig them back up they weren‘t there, they‘d been scattered all through the sandpit again. It was a hot day when Gypsy first started worrying about the sand. Dad had bought us Mr. Freezes, mine was a blue raspberry flavor one and Gypsy‘s was pink. I was making a picture of an octopus on the deck with the shells. Gypsy wouldn‘t dig for more, she said the sand felt funny, it kept moving between her fingers. She was sat next to me on deck when the boys came into the playground with their bikes. They circled round a few times then dumped them by the gate. They ran up and down the slide and pushed the swings so hard they flew up over the bar. When they ran up the gangplank Gypsy put her hands over my picture. ―What‘s that supposed to be?‖ I didn‘t say anything. Through the nearest porthole I could see Dad wasn‘t looking, he was reading his paper. I wondered if I should shout. ―Looks like a cat with a lot of dicks to me,‖ the shortest boy said. The other two laughed. Then the boy who hadn‘t said anything walked right up to the picture and stamped on it. Gypsy got her fingers out of the way just in time. He stamped and stamped and stamped until the shells were in tiny pieces that slipped into the cracks between the planks of the deck. When they‘d rode off on their bikes Gypsy tried to dig the slivers of shell out and one piece stuck in her finger like a splinter. She had to pull it out with her teeth. After that, whenever we got to the playground, Gypsy wanted to play on the slide, or the climbing frame, or, when they weren‘t tangled up, the swings. She didn‘t want to play on the ship anymore and she couldn‘t stand on the sand without falling over. I still liked the ship. I wasn‘t going to let some stupid boys take it. I guarded it from them and the little kids and the seagulls by myself. It was a drizzly, windy day when Gypsy saw the tentacle. She stood at the top of the slide and she screamed and screamed. I couldn‘t see anything. Dad came running.
102 ∙ The Sand Ship
On the way home Dad wouldn‘t hold her hand even though she was crying. He said she was stupid, that she‘d scared him half to death. It had just been a bit of black bin bag or something blowing in the wind. When the wind blew the ship creaked. I liked watching it make wave patterns in the sand. I wasn‘t going to give it up but it wasn‘t as much fun without Gypsy. I told her she could have two of my penny sweets if she came and sat on it with me, then I tried saying she could have half my bag. She still wouldn‘t come. It was a Saturday morning when there were no leaves on the trees. It had rained in the night. The sand looked wet. I jumped down into it from the ship and pretended I was sinking. I shouted ‗help‘ just loud enough so that Gypsy would hear but Dad wouldn‘t. She came running, but as soon as she stepped onto the sand I jumped back up onto the gangplank. I was laughing. She plunged downwards, so that only the top half of her was sticking out. She screamed and fought the sand, flinging her arms about. There was sand in her eyes and it coated her teeth and tongue. I screamed too. Dad‘s paper blew away in the wind. I saw it fly overhead with the seagulls. He left his can on the bench. He jumped in and managed to push Gypsy out onto the gangplank. We stayed there screaming until the old lady and the man with the dog came and told us to get down. Everyone says Dad can‘t have drowned in the sand, but he did.
Claire Massey ∙ 103
A Very Small Child Called Eugene J. DAVID BELL
ime for history, children,‖ Mr. Wightman said cheerfully. ―Please open your books to page twenty-five.‖ There was a rustle of thumbs on touchscreens. ―Mary, would you like to read?‖ A girl with precocious breasts and braces beamed and began. ―Chapter Three. The New Order.‖ She smiled at Mr. Wightman, who smiled back. ―Our nation‘s troubles began during the Snivel Gripes Era. At that time, the ‗monkey Apostle Martin Loofa Da King rose to prom . . . prom . . .‖ ―Prominence.‖ ―Rose to prominence by preaching that not only ‗monkeys but spix, chinx, mongrels, race traitors, kykes, faggs, and all other types of subhume vermin were entittled—‖ The class giggled. Mary colored. ―Entitled,‖ Mr. Wightman said kindly. Mary, blushing furiously, lowered her eyes and forged ahead. ―Entitled to protection under the Bill of Whites, a document inscribed by our Faultless Fathers for the greater glory of Anglosaxon peoples. Though this nox—nox—noxious ‗monkey, who had sunk so low as to preach to trashmen, was gloriously slain by Sainted Brother Ray, his venomous lies continued to spread. Exactly forty years after his miserable life was snuffed out, the nation elected its first ‗monkey president, the mongrel Black Muslim Barock Obongo, who set about enacting a radical social—socialist agenda aimed at toppling these You Whited States. In 2010, Obongo forced through the Healthcare Handout Act. This was followed by the Social Parasite Reform and Rehabitation—‖ ―Rehabilitation.‖ Mary took a deep breath. ―Rehabilitation Act of 2012, which extended full state support to all manner of subhumes: Mexigrants, crack-addict ghetto hookers and their spawn, and of course, mudmonkeys.‖ She paused, pouted at Mr. Wightman. ―This is hard!‖ The class, who thought Mary thought she was smarter than everyone else, laughed again. Mr. Wightman silenced them with a look. ―It is hard. But it‘s important. Why don‘t I take over from here?‖ Mary gave him a grateful smile. She was only ten, but she was pretty sure she was in love with him.
―As Obongo‘s virulent policies took hold,‖ Mr. Wightman read on, ―subhume dominance of YWS politics and culture became increasingly evident. Encouraged by lax enforcement of border patrols, crimigrants from such nations as Hatey, Mexigo, and New Orleans flowed into the YWS in record numbers. In the year 2020, the YWS census showed for the first time in history that the Anglosaxon race had become a statistical minority. That same year, the Anglosaxon people rose up in righteous protest by electing President Grand Wizard Prat Oberson in a landslide victory. (Allegations of election fixing find no support in the documentary record.) His ascension set off riots in ‗monkey ghettoes throughout the land, necessitating the declaration of martial law and the temporary repeal of the You Whited States Constitution. The following year, purges of race traitors in government, media, the arts, and the professoriate began, facilitated by the landmark 9-0 ruling by the Thomas Court that restored the hallowed tradition of lynching. (Allegations of the ruling being rendered at gunpoint find no support in the photographic record.) In the year 2024, after the mysterious disappearance of ‗monkey Justice Clearance Thomas, the Court reinstated the time-honored principle of Separate But Evil. ‗Monkeys and other subhumes were relocated to urban detention facilities and to reservation lands formerly occupied by Negative Americans. There, programs of humane sterilization and surgical reeducation were first introduced on a large scale. The results were satisfactory.‖ Mr. Wightman touched a button beneath his desk, dimming the blinds. Another button and the screen behind him hummed to life. From its depths emerged a creature, stooped, porcine, shuffling. A couple of the ditsier girls screamed. ―The mudmonkey,‖ Mr. Wightman intoned, ―was created by the Lord GOD as a degenerate subspecies of humanoid. The forehead is low and beetling, the cranial capacity small; the arms are long and dangling, and covered with fur; the snout is protuberant, the nostrils flaring, the lips simian and thick. As slaves they are capable of performing undemanding tasks such as nuclear and toxic waste site cleanup. But it is vital to lobotomize these workers lest their natural proclivity toward violence and rapine be directed against their overseers. For this reason, most municipalities prefer to use Mexigrant labor.‖ Mr. Wightman looked up. ―Yes, Tommy?‖ ―What‘s ‗simian‘ mean?‖ ―Like an ape or monkey.‖ ―But,‖ Tommy frowned, ―you told us in scilence class that the difference between monkeys and apes is that apes don‘t have tails.‖ ―That is correct.‖ ―So why don‘t we call them ‗mudapes‘?‖ The class laughed. Mary felt vindicated. ―That‘s an excellent question, Tommy,‖ Mr. Wightman said. ―But the answer lies in Sacred Scripture, The Book of Genetisis, Chapter Two, Verse Twelve: ‗And the Lord GOD
J. David Bell ∙ 105
created the mudmonkey to serve Anglo and Eve, male and female created He them, and they did caper and cater for their masters, and He saw that it was good.‖ ―But . . .‖ Tommy‘s face twisted. ―If the Lord GOD created the mudmonkeys to serve us, how could He have let them become more numerous than the Anglosaxon race?‖ Mr. Wightman shook his head. ―That, Tommy, is precisely why we must learn this history. Does anyone know the answer to Tommy‘s question?‖ The roomful of tow-headed children fell silent. At last Mary haltingly raised her hand. ―Because the Lord GOD was displeased with us,‖ she said softly, as if saying it were as awful as the thing itself. ―We let the ‗monkeys breed out of control. We violated the Word of the Lord GOD, and so He punished us.‖ ―By letting the ‗monkeys rise.‖ Mary seemed about to cry. ―By letting the ‗monkeys rise.‖ Mr. Wightman‘s eyes scanned the room. Had a pin dropped, it would have seemed an assault on a sacristy. ―History, children, teaches us lessons. We study history to avoid the mistakes of the past. What have I taught you?‖ ―Those who forget the past,‖ the children recited, ―are doomed to repeat it.‖ Mr. Wightman nodded. ―This is why it is so vital that you learn the history of your country. This is why our book, though hard, is so very important. The Lord GOD is a wrathful GOD, a whighteous GOD. Never again can we allow the ‗monkeys to rise. Never again can we neglect what our Faultless Fathers bequeathed to us: One Nation, Under GOD, with Liberty for Just Us.‖ Hands on hearts, the children echoed his words. ―Well, then,‖ Mr. Wightman brightened. The room lights returned, revealing his kindly face, banishing the grotesque figure from the screen. ―Close your books, everyone. Time for scilence.‖ The children stashed their palmbooks beneath their seats and leaned forward, elbows on desktops, chins in hands. Scilence was always fun. Mary‘s favorite picture in their Bioble was of the Garden of Hedon, where Triceratops and panda bears frolicked side by side. ―I‘ve got something special for you today,‖ Mr. Wightman announced. ―A live demonstration. How many of you have ever seen an actual mudmonkey?‖ One or two children raised tentative hands. The others tittered, wrinkled noses, made retching or potty sounds. ―You‘re in for a real treat, then.‖ Mr. Wightman rubbed his hands together. ―I‘ve arranged with Animal Control to bring one in, a juvenile,
106 ∙ A Very Small Child Called Eugene
pre-lobotomized, not dangerous. Better let some air in, though. They do stink.‖ The room tingled. Tommy and several of the larger boys sprang to the windows. Mr. Wightman opened the door and leaned into the hall. ―Okay, boys.‖ Above the heads of her fidgeting peers, Mary craned her considerable neck for a better look. Two Mexigrant men in pressed white pants and short sleeve, buttondown white shirts entered the classroom. Between them, a small dusky shape was visible. It moved with jerky reluctance, the source of which was soon apparent: around its thin neck, a studded collar; from the collar, a rawhide leash held by one of the keepers. The other gripped a stout black truncheon, which he tapped rhythmically against his palm in habit or reminder. ―Thanks, boys,‖ Mr. Wightman said. He interposed his body between the class and the creature, and, while the children squirmed and hopped in their seats, managed to extricate the leash from the keeper‘s hand. ―I‘ll take it from here.‖ ―¿Necesita ayuda?‖ ―No, no, we‘ll be fine,‖ Mr. Wightman smiled. ―I‘ll call you boys when we‘re done.‖ ―Gracias, señor.‖ The workers bowed and exited the classroom. Mr. Wightman turned to the class, smiling broadly. ―Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce. . . the mudmonkey!‖ All gasped as they got their first good look at it: smaller than any of them, with skin the color of tar and a little round head covered with tight wooly curls. It was not naked as in the diagram; it wore a ragged, mud brown top and trousers. Its arms were so thin you could see the knobs at its elbows, its feet unshod. Mary noticed, with revulsion, that its palms were not black but a slimy pinkish color, like the insides of the frog Mr. Wightman had dissected in scilence lab to show it lacked an immortal soul. The ‗monkey‘s eyeballs were shockingly white in the deep black mask of its face, its irises so dark they seemed nothing but flat disks floating in pools of cream. Tommy‘s hand was in the air, as always. ―This one doesn‘t have as much fur as the picture.‖ ―That‘s because this one is a juvenile,‖ Mr. Wightman explained. ―The fur thickens and coarsens as they mature.‖ ―Does it have a name?‖ asked Samantha, Mary‘s only real rival for Mr. Wightman‘s attention, her voice having dropped over the summer into the husky range. ―You can ask it,‖ Mr. Wightman responded. ―They can talk, you know. But speak slowly and distinctly.‖ ―You, ‗monkey,‖ Samantha hollered. ―What are you called?‖ The mudmonkey only blinked at her.
J. David Bell ∙ 107
―What-are-you-called?‖ Samantha said even more loudly. ―What-isyour-name?‖ The mudmonkey said something, too soft to hear. The children strained forward. Mr. Wightman jerked the leash and it spoke again. ―Eugene.‖ Its voice had a funny sound, like a dog trying to say words. ―My name Eugene.‖ ―The ‗monkey speaks!‖ Mr. Wightman cheered, and the class collapsed in laughter. ―Very good, Eugene!‖ He rummaged in his pocket, came out with a goldfish cracker, handed it to Eugene. The child took it but didn‘t put it to its mouth, holding it instead in a balled fist. ―Maybe we can get some more out of this one.‖ Mr. Wightman withdrew a handful of crackers. ―How old are you, Eugene?‖ ―Five,‖ Eugene said, accepting another cracker and squeezing it like the first. ―Five,‖ Mr. Wightman mused. ―Almost to the point where you could teach it some simple tricks.‖ He turned back to the ‗monkey. ―Tell us about the ho that birthed you, Eugene.‖ ―My momma—‖ ―Note how the ‗monkey uses the ghettoslang ‗momma‘ instead of the Proper Anglosaxish ‗mother,‘‖ Mr. Wightman told the class over his shoulder. ―Mudmonkeys have great difficulty forming the ‗th‘ sound due to the thickness of their lips and tongue.‖ ―My momma,‖ Eugene persisted, ―ain‘t no ho.‖ ―Of co‘s she ain‘t, Eugene,‖ Mr. Wightman chuckled, winking at his students. ―I‘s sho she be bein‘ a African Princess.‖ Eugene glared at him, the black disks of his eyes rolling in their white sockets. ―What about your daddy, then?‖ Mr. Wightman pressed. ―Did he read you an Uncle Reekus story last night?‖ Eugene was silent. ―The mudmonkey knows nothing of family,‖ Mr. Wightman informed the class. ―Without sterilization the females are prolific breeders, though typically they bear only one or two young per litter. But they exist in a permanent state of estrus, constantly luring the male of the species. The males play no part in the rearing of the young. Just like this one, they never know their sires. Could be one of a hundred.‖ ―My momma—‖ Eugene began again. ―In the absence of the father, the bond between dam and offspring is inordinately strong,‖ Mr. Wightman interrupted. ―But just you wait, children. In eight, nine years tops, this one‘ll be out there hunting down mates himself.‖ The black disks in Eugene‘s eyes expanded, taking up nearly all the space beneath his brows. A fine dust of crumbs leaked from his fist. ―My momma,‖ he said once again, quietly and distinctly, ―ain‘t no ho.‖
108 ∙ A Very Small Child Called Eugene
Mr. Wightman‘s mouth opened to offer a rejoinder, but before he could speak, something darted between his lips. ―Ow!‖ He spat into his palm, withdrew from his own saliva the darkened body of a bee, legs struggling as it dangled by a wing. As he inspected it, another bee, perhaps floating in through an open window, landed on the tip of his nose. ―Ow!‖ he cried again, swatting, dropping the leash. He stared in wonder at the squashed insect on his palm, then, for some reason, at Eugene. The next instant, the air around him was filled with the shapes of bees, their bodies darting, his hands flailing. Repeated cries of ―OW!‖ mingled with the screams of the girls, some of whom hid beneath their seats. ―Take back what you said,‖ Eugene commanded. It was almost possible to believe the bees had come from him, their bodies detaching from his like the fraying of a black fabric. They formed a cocoon around Mr. Wightman, shifting, kaleidoscopic. ―Stop! Shit!‖ he yelled, to the children‘s astonishment. ―Shit! Shit!‖ Tears streamed from his eyes, his face was a mass of red welts. ―Take it back,‖ Eugene said. The bees, as if responding to his voice, vanished as one. And now something else was happening, Mr. Wightman‘s body swelling, but not from the stings, more as if some enormous pressure were forcing him downward, flattening him, his face and chest distorting like a balloon you‘d squeeze between your hands. His eyes bugged, his lips turned inside out, his cheeks puffed like a toad‘s. All of the children, boys and girls alike, screamed as they watched their teacher succumb to whatever was compressing him, turning him into a fat, bloated shape no taller than the inky figure that confronted it. ―I done tole you to take it back,‖ Eugene growled. The disks were all you could see of his eyes. The pressure was so great Mr. Wightman‘s own eyes simply popped, spraying a viscous liquid on the children in the first two rows. But one final change was yet to come. The swollen flesh of Mr. Wightman‘s face began melting, dripping like wax. It pooled beneath what had been his feet, spread in rivulets that traveled the contours of the floor‘s linoleum tile. As the children watched, screaming, crying, some throwing up, the body of their beloved teacher became nothing but a pink puddle from which bleached bones reared as if in parody of a cross. Eugene raised a hand to his throat, tore the collar free. He faced the class. The disks of his eyes emitted a darksome glow. ―What have you done to him?‖ Mary shrieked. ―I dream he dead!‖ Eugene shouted back. His voice rolled like thunder. ―I dream it—and I done it!‖ The children galloped squealing from the room, except Mary, who flung herself over the putrescent form of her first love. ∙ ∙ ∙
J. David Bell ∙ 109
Let us take stock. We must be realistic; we must not hope for miracles. Much as we might like to view Eugene as history‘s necessary response to the YWS, even as a just God‘s appointed agent of retribution, there is little to justify such wishful thinking. Eugene, to be sure, is evidently possessed of some as yet unknown power, a power sufficient to finish off Mr. Wightman. But Eugene is a five-year-old child, virtually alone in a world that despises him, and his chances of overthrowing the system of which Mr. Wightman was representative seem slim at best. No, more likely he will be captured, caged, put to the uses of his oppressors or, failing that, tortured and killed. We must not expect miracles. History is not that kind. When he left the school, edging past the Mexigrants who lounged smoking on the front steps, he realized at once that he had no idea where he was. They had brought him in the Animal Control van; he had never left camp before. Eugene took in the trees and green lawns and pavement and flagpoles and buildings, and it seemed as if the whole You Whited States stretched before him, big and blank and unnavigable. He heard an alarm sound from the building, and though he was too young to grasp what had happened—that a teacher, seeing Mr. Wightman‘s class stampede down the hall, had gone to investigate and discovered the smear that remained of her colleague—he had lived long enough to associate sirens with danger, armed guards, the screams of inmates, the thud of clubs. But, being a five-year-old child, instead of fleeing he pronounced a single, plaintive word: ―Momma.‖ And he was home. He couldn‘t have said how it happened, whether the green-and-white world melted away, to be replaced by the familiar hunched shape of the barracks, or whether his body was lifted into the air and whirled from that place to this, or whether he had simply blinked and in that split second of interrupted time his surroundings had undergone a revolution. All he knew was that he was home, standing directly before the building he had left this morning, not even needing to slip past the fence and guard tower with its barbed wire and machine guns and tireless, invisible watchers. Just as his hatred for the mean man who had insulted his momma had built inside him until he felt it coursing outward with an intensity as strong and scary as a curse, his desire for her presence had thrummed through him in a single sustained note that made everything else go away. ―I done it again,‖ Eugene sang to the egg-reek air. ―I done it.‖ Eugene, it must be admitted, is beginning to come into his own. And his power is beginning to make itself clear. It appears that Eugene, by imagining a possibility, can bring it into existence. This, it seems, is what he meant when he said he ―dreamed‖ Mr. Wightman dead. For Mr. Wightman might have been swarmed by bees, squashed by a bubble of air, dropped in a vat of acid. Unlikely, but possible. Eugene might have found his way home. And so he did. Eugene is a nexus of the possible. Whether he is
110 ∙ A Very Small Child Called Eugene
capable of controlling his ―dreaming‖ remains to be seen. Whether, in so doing, he is able to tip history‘s rocking cradle, to bring about a world where his dreams will no longer be needed, is another matter altogether. For Eugene knows nothing of history. The You Whited States—or, more narrowly, the bleak ghetto it has carved out for him—is all he has ever known, all his momma and hers have ever known. From his momma he has heard certain names in bedtime stories: John Henry, Jackie Robin Hood, Oprah Win Free, Martin Loofa Da King. He likes the one about the man who died with a dream hammer in his hand. But when Eugene himself dreams, he dreams in the absence of history. At most, he dreams of being in his momma‘s arms. He dreams of her laughing, or smiling. He dreams of happiness, and he dreams of his happiness as hers. He does not dream of forces beyond the ghetto walls, within the ghetto walls, that would seek to set him free. Such forces there must surely be; but Eugene has not heard of them. Even a child, abuzz with the improbable, needs materials with which to work. How can he reach back, knowing no history, or forward, claiming no precedent, to remake that world from scratch? Eugene entered the barracks through the canvas tarp where once had stood a door. The stench of garbage met his nose. In the darkness that dominated the place, his eyes detected the piles of refuse and shapes of junkies who nestled there. Their sorrowful cries had sung him to sleep each night. Stepping carefully past, alert for claws or teeth, Eugene made for the stairs. The barracks, had he known it, had once been an elementary school, but the classrooms and gymnasium and offices and industrial arts studio had long since been subdivided into hovels for those who had not been murdered or deported or enslaved. Eugene‘s own space was on the second floor, in a room large enough to house a class the size of Mr. Wightman‘s but currently occupied by forty or more women and children. Empty window frames hung with canvas to keep out cold and soot; a scarred black slate dominated one wall, the faintest marks of white softening its surface. Above the slate an eyelet and cord could be pulled down to reveal an irregular outline, its puzzle piece shapes faded to a uniform beige and swarming with characters no one could decipher: ―A-L-A-B-A-M-A‖ and ―M-A-S-S-A-C-H-U-S-E-T-T-S‖ and many more. Sometimes they pulled it down simply to relieve the monotony of the walls. Bookcases and cabinets had been excavated for beds, their contents long since burned; inmates slept without discrimination, bodies piled beside or upon each other, children as likely to wake in some other‘s embrace as in their own momma‘s. They took watches at the open doorway to fend off marauders. Twice this year armed men had made off with what little they had; one of those times, while Eugene cowered in his momma‘s arms, the man had killed the door guard. They had taken her body to the landfill and tossed it atop the hundred years‘ trash. The floor echoed the flap of Eugene‘s feet. His stomach had taken up its regular whine. Some hardy roots could still be coaxed from poisoned
J. David Bell ∙ 111
soil, but mostly they relied on what they could scrounge: the bodies of rats and beetles, the crusts left behind by the perimeter guards, the offal that arrived weekly at the landfill. Eugene did not know it, would not have understood if he did, but women such as his momma carried on a trade with the more mobile Mexigrants and the occasional well-stocked black man and the odd experimenting Anglo who entered their territory. Though his dark skin and eyes suggested a certain lineage, Eugene might have been the product of any number of such transactions. His momma had never cared to work it out. He found her standing at the window in her sack-like shift, her arms wrapped around her middle, her long neck craned. She had been standing there since the truck took him away that morning, though she had not expected him to return. A lifetime in the camps had taught her that those who left seldom came back, and if they did, it was only months later, their shaved heads crossed by lumpy scars, their words dulled to brute monosyllables. When Eugene entered the classroom, she was sure she was seeing a ghost. ―Momma!‖ he cried, and, still worried that he‘d disappear or turn ghost, she ran to him. Eugene felt her thin arms go around his back, the bones at her throat lock with his own. Though she had avoided the particular form of despair that was more abundant than food in the camps, her eyes were hollow and her teeth nearly gone. Her hair was cropped close, an inadequate preventative against lice. Knowing no other, Eugene found her breath sweet. He smelled it now, as she breathed into his cheek. ―Baby,‖ she said. ―I done miss you so.‖ ―I miss you too,‖ he said, nuzzling. She held him at arm‘s length, her eyes darting across his face. ―I ain‘t seen no truck.‖ ―I ain‘t take no truck,‖ he said, smiling. ―I ain‘t need no ole truck no mo.‖ She shook her head. ―I come here myself,‖ he said proudly. ―After I kill that ole paleface man—‖ ―Baby?‖ ―I kill him!‖ Eugene crowed. ―He call you a ho, and I kill him!‖ She shook her head again, her eyes wide. ―Baby, you mus‘ be dreamin‘. . .‖ Eugene laughed. ―I‘s dreamin‘, all right! I done dream he dead, and he dead! I dream anything, Momma. I dream that ole man dead, an‘ I dream myself home. I dream . . .‖ He paused, his eyes searching hers. ―What you want me to dream, Momma?‖ Eugene‘s momma stared at him. Her tongue came out to lick cracked lips. Then she pulled him close again, and he felt her heart hammering against his breast.
112 ∙ A Very Small Child Called Eugene
The next thing he knew she had scooped him up and was running across the hall, down the stairs, out the back exit and onto the littered blacktop. At first he thought this might be some new game, but as they crossed toward the hole in the chain-link fence that led to the sewers, he heard the rising wail of the siren. Other human shapes in the same dark brown rags had left whatever occupied them—digging through garbage, fighting over needles or scraps—and were converging on the hole; only those too exhausted or doped to move lay in heaps barely distinguishable from the surrounding refuse or sat propped against buildings with cupped, useless hands palm up on their knees. Eugene‘s momma, having broken for the hideout before the sirens began to sound, was first to reach the fence; she ducked, placing a hand on her son‘s head to clear the jagged opening, then continued at a crouching run toward the nearest pipe. Eugene heard shouts, the crackling of gunfire, and his momma‘s gasp, then she stumbled and pitched forward onto a knee, her fingers tightening on the cloth at his back. She rose and began moving again, clutching him with one hand, bracing herself on the ground with the other. Eugene felt a sticky wetness begin to seep through his thin shirt as she scrambled for the opening. Just inches from the place she fell. Her hands, red with her own blood, tried to nudge him toward safety, then they too lay still. Other figures had outrun them by now and were leaping into the drain. Eugene ignored them. He rose from the ground beside his momma‘s body and faced the men in white uniforms who stood ranged across the blacktop. White uniforms, white faces, blue eyes hidden by mirrored visors, blond hair by peaked white helmets. Guns outstretched, the weapon that had killed his momma unknown probably even to the man who had fired that fatal shot. Eugene stepped through the fence and faced them all, a child armed only with a hatred such as he had never known. The origin and object of his dreaming dead in a ditch behind him, he called that hatred down, called it down in the name of the only one he had ever loved, the one the only world he had ever known had killed. Bullets whined only to clatter at his feet. An armored vehicle was yanked into the air, twisted like a wet rag, dropped on the soldiers‘ ranks. Some took up positions behind its crumpled shell; these Eugene ripped from their boots and helmets, shredded their pale insides, flung what was left to the wind. Those fleeing he squashed to the pavement or sent rocketing into the sky. When he was done the place was littered with carcasses. Not one had survived. In the silence that followed, Eugene returned to the ditch and knelt beside her body. He‘d never learned how to pray, and he was too numb to cry. So he bowed his head to her chest, laid his cheek on her bloodstained shift, and closed his eyes. He knew nothing of time. He knew only that, tomorrow morning like so many mornings, he would wake to find this wasn‘t a dream.
J. David Bell ∙ 113
Gumby Falls Hard ELEANOR PAYNTER
I haven‘t kept count of all the times I‘ve stuck your nose back on, or how often you‘ve taken my wrist, water soft, to reattach my hand. I‘m sorry when I try to massage your scalp, my fingers fuse to your blue cone locks, their perfect porcupine shape because you can‘t trim it yourself. Our unlaceable shoestrings match. I‘ll be with you ‗til we‘re both dried immobile. Until then, let‘s relish romantic stutter walks through primary color backdrops, when we drink from a river that stains our skin. How without spoons to eat from, we sometimes cup soup in our sleeves. Our roof never leaks. Nothing is permeable but each blade of grass, each window, reshapes at the touch. I love your time-lapse smile and our night ritual, smoothing out the day‘s wrinkles from our cheeks, rerolling limbs for sleep. That we don‘t have to close our eyes.
What Follows Us ADAM MCOMBER
London August 21, 18— cherton purchases tickets at the wooden kiosk in front of Lord Mayor‘s House and slips them into the pocket of his summer suit. The phantasmagoria isn‘t scheduled to begin for another hour, so we have time for a walk. A barker dressed in theater rags and corpse makeup attempts to draw a crowd for the show by announcing the details of his own murder. We cross the muddied street, leaving the barker and the carriage clatter of Knightsbridge behind, making our way into the silent depths of Hyde Park. I follow Acherton, observing the hard line of his shoulders and the strength of his pale neck. This is to be our final outing. To a casual observer, I suppose we might seem a pair of boyhood friends on a last lark. But it‘s far more painful than that. Acherton is to be married the following month, and he‘s made it clear we cannot continue our longstanding visits. ―I intend to become respectable, Tom,‖ he says, gravely. I cannot respond. How can I speak when I have known him for so many years, and the idea of life without him seems impossible? We find a quiet stand of yellow oaks near the pond. Acherton talks, and I listen. He avoids further serious topics. In his mind, all the serious topics have been dealt with. He tells me instead the history of the phantasmagoria, attempting the sort of exuberant tone that once charmed me. But he cannot achieve true levity. There‘s weight in his voice—gravity that pins us both to the Earth. ―The phantasmagoria is the newest thing from Paris, Tom,‖ he says. ―It‘s all done with mirrors and light. There are no actors. A projector is hidden behind a false panel in the wall, and a series of mechanical slides create the illusion of movement—a real moving picture show. They bring all sorts of ghouls and hobgoblins to life on the screen. You‘ll love it.‖ ―People pay to watch these horrors?‖ I ask. He shrugs. ―Horror stimulates.‖ I wish I could take his hand and ask him not to leave. But we were growing distant even before the announcement of his engagement. His visits to my rooms were becoming rare. He would say simply that we are putting boyhood games aside. This is to be an amicable separation, after all. I remain outwardly composed, glad to be wearing my coal-colored traveling
suit. Such clothing, I imagine, better conceals my feelings. Acherton is twenty-five, and I am a year younger. When he marries, I will be left a bachelor, aging alone in my rooms with no one to visit me. I wonder if it‘s possible that he does not care what becomes of me. He reclines in the grass, pale jacket open, necktie slightly loose. I can‘t help but admire the way he‘s grown his dark hair longer than fashion permits. At least he hasn‘t entirely surrendered to convention. He smells of French cigarettes and shaving talc, and I wish I could make a home inside his scent. I try to remember the first time we ventured into the leafy preserves of Hyde Park together. We were still boys at school, and I felt as though we‘d fallen into the wilds of some fairy book. We‘d been testing the boundaries of our physical relationship. In between our bouts of wrestling, Acherton attempted to frighten me by recounting the tale of a boy who‘d drowned in the big pond. He was Lord Croydon’s son, Acherton said. You’ve heard of Lord Croydon at school, haven’t you, Tom? I had, of course. Croydon was a retired dean and an antiquary, famed for his investigations into the Roman cult of Mithras. Traveling Roman soldiers were said to have brought the cult to London shortly after the death of Christ. Next to nothing was known about the ancient god of Mithraism other than that he held some terrible sway over his followers. Bloody sacrifice was common. Lord Croydon discovered a subterranean temple devoted to Mithras not far from the nave of Saint John‘s Cathedral. The temple was cut from the earth, decorated with odd blue tile that, despite its age, appeared almost liquid. There was a dark stain at the center of the temple—a memory of sacrificial gore. The god Mithras was represented as a boy emerging from a stone. His brow was pale and wide, and his eyes were large dark holes bored deeply into his face. The stony boy-god stared down at the stain with his depthless, hungry eyes. He seemed desperate—a lonely god of wrath, waiting for worship. Lord Croydon wrote that as he was dusting the surface of the god‘s face, he felt a power pass through him. ―Like an awful cosmic tide, pulling me out into a vast sea,‖ Croydon wrote. ―For a moment, I saw all of London in ruin. The only thing that moved in our precious city was Mithras himself. Free from his stone prison, he dragged himself down the empty streets, searching for what, I cannot know.‖ Croydon’s son didn’t care anything for ridiculous old Mithras or any other portion of his father’s work, Acherton said. He was like all the rest of us, Tom. The poor boy only wanted to fall in love. One has to imagine that his death in the cold water of the pond came as a terrible surprise. What were his last thoughts, I wonder? Something about a girl he’d never see again? Or a boy, I added without speaking. Acherton prepared for the climax of his story. Croydon’s son haunts the woods. I’ve seen him myself.
116 ∙ What Follows Us
You have not, I said, a bit offended that he‘d expect me to believe such a thing. I made better marks than Acherton in almost every class. He took a long drag from his cigarette and squinted at me as he exhaled. Oh, I’m afraid so. I was walking, trying to get my mind off school, and I saw a form ahead of me. I was annoyed, of course, hoping to be alone. It looked like another boy from our class up ahead in the shadow of the trees. But when the form turned to face me, I realized he wasn’t from anyone’s class. He had chalky skin and this awful mass of black hair that was wet and limp, as if he’d been for swim. And— And what? I asked. His eyes were, well, there were no eyes. Just fleshy holes. But he wasn’t blind. He could see me well enough. And he stood staring. Surveying me— to see if I had what he wanted. It was then that I understood he wasn’t a boy at all. What was he then? Acherton shrugged. Something that didn’t belong in the woods. A presence that had worked its way out of the past. Some people say Croydon’s son watches lovers by the pond—that he’s heartsick. I wanted to ask Acherton if Croydon‘s son would look at us. Were we to be lovers? But I held my tongue, of course. Instead, I drew myself close to him, and he put his arm around me, and we sat together like that in the darkening woods. But the thing I saw wasn’t heartsick, Tom, Acherton said. If I had to wager, I’d say he didn’t have any heart at all. Such memories of our history are painful, but I cannot help but think of the dead boy and Croydon‘s old god as I sit with Acherton. My mind casts forth, searching for distraction. Shadows of oak branches glide across Acherton‘s body like a conjurer‘s hand. I gaze up at the oak leaves. They‘ve started to change color but have not yet fallen. The pond itself has a leaden, blackish look. There‘s a woman walking her dog near the water, and she glances briefly in our direction. I wonder what she makes of us—two men in suits sitting in the shadow of the oak trees. Are we respectable? I am unsure of when precisely I begin to pray. I‘d been a rational atheist since a young age. Yet there in the woods, in that moment of duress, I find I cannot help myself. My prayers, at first, are strange and formless. I pray to the forest floor that it should leach my sorrow into the dark of its soil. And then I pray to the melancholy trees for the wisdom to let Acherton go. Before I can stop myself, I sense something unnatural happening. Something beyond my control. I imagine the energy of my prayers is beginning to coalesce somewhere deeper on in the woods—forming a kind of white and shimmering body behind the trees. It‘s a body made of prayers and desperate wishes. The body watches Acherton and me. I pray harder still and the body begins to breathe. I realize I‘m bringing the thing to life, but I cannot stop myself.
Adam McOmber ∙ 117
―Are you going to take Anna to the phantasmagoria as well?‖ I ask, almost breathless, trying to forget the thing in the forest. Acherton‘s expression softens as he looks at me. His sympathy makes me uncomfortable, and my woolen traveling suit begins to itch in the heat. ―I thought you didn‘t want to talk about Anna,‖ he says, checking his pocket watch. ―This is our day. Tell you what, Tom—let‘s go have a look at the magic lantern machine,‖ he says. ―Let‘s see the horrors.‖ He‘s pulling me up from the grass. I don‘t want to move into the trees. I fear the thing I‘ve conjured—the white body. It‘s not the dead boy. Nor is it the old god, Mithras. It‘s something beyond the two. A cosmic willfulness. Surely it will trap me, and once it has me, it will not let me go. Acherton and I are moving together like we used to move—almost as one body. We walk along the narrow path, and I can feel the presence following, passing stealthily between tree trunks. Stalking us. I turn to look. But the woods are empty. We cross back over Knightsbridge and enter Lord Mayor‘s House. The corpse in rags holds the door for us, grinning hideously. Once inside, Acherton and I stand together in the darkened hall, staring up at a large blank screen. Other patrons whisper around us in anticipation. The show begins with flickers of light. I watch as one awful image melts into the next. A bleeding nun descends the convent stairs. An imp rides a wooly he-goat out of Hell. There are writhing serpents. A blue specter manifests, swelling and contracting like a lung. None of it frightens me. I can think only of the thing in the woods. Near the show‘s end, the odd specters disappear and a primeval scene spreads slowly across the screen. Dark and curling ferns blot out a projected sun. The high, airy call of some long ago creature sounds from a distant corner of the hall. ―We are moving through time,‖ says the barker‘s voice. ―To an age when the great gods themselves walked upon the Earth.‖ Acherton leans close and whispers playfully, ―They‘re coming for you, Tom.‖ I close my eyes, press myself against him. He puts his arm around me like he used to do. It‘s dark enough in the theater so that no one will know. I allow myself to speak. ―Am I going to die without ever seeing you again?‖ I whisper. He does not answer. An image begins to rise from deep inside me. It‘s a flickering picture like the ones on the screen. I see a boy at school meeting his dark-haired friend for the first time. They read a book of poetry in the common room, shoulders pressed together. They laugh at the wistful romance of the lines, kicking each other‘s feet. It‘s a simple scene of youth. Nothing horrible. Then I watch as my younger self stands and walks away from dark-haired Acherton. I‘m holding the romantic book of poetry to my chest and wearing a half-smile. In that long ago moment, I believe I‘ve gained some control
118 ∙ What Follows Us
over life. There are no sacrifices to be made, no gods to fear. I wish, more than anything, I could tell my younger self about the horrors to come. There are so many temples waiting beneath the earthâ€”so many, they have made the Earth a hollow thing.
Adam McOmber âˆ™ 119
Mescal Reposado con Gusano ROBIN LEE JORDAN
September 14th, 2008 The willow‘s burnt fingers wrinkle the lake; red runs awash; somewhere a worm is digging It‘s too late. Last night, I saw it reach for his face; I saw him wash it down his throat. On a dock, one with lots of slats so that light shoots up sometimes, a moment of complete redness, and, yet, poetry is as useful as wishing yesterday never happened. Now, clarity will be needed, a careful detail of symptoms, of telltale signs that this, too, might be happening to me, to us. The poem was going to end with a confusion of up for down. I‘ve always known, I think, that it was coming to this. September 15th, 2008 Dad keeps it in the freezer . . . Sensing death‘s moonish face pressed to the sliding glass door, I should begin by explaining that mom thinks I don‘t care enough when things die. The basis of her fear was my tearless reaction to the death of Slippers: I was ten. It was particularly dark in the living room: a noxious mix of cigarettes, fried meat, cheap ketchup. I knew mom had taken the cat. At the far end of the couch, the pile of blankets he‘d been wasting away on was empty, only a dirty halo of matted black hair. During a commercial, I asked dad where Slippers was. He’s dead, he said in an exhale of smoke turned blue from a rerun of Cheers. Mom called our cats‘ skeletal transformations the ―wasting away disease.‖ She said she read that somewhere, but this is all I could find: Chronic Wasting Away Disease: Chronic wasting disease can affect a number of different species including elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and black-tailed deer. It is spread by close contact with an infected
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR SHORT FICTION
animal or by being exposed to an area contaminated with the disease. How exactly the disease spread to Wisconsin from the Western states is a mystery . . . An infected animal will eventually begin to show symptoms of the disease including weight loss, tremors, stumbling, unusual behavior, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, and excessive thirst or urination.1 That night, puff-faced, she croaked Slipper’s in heaven from the middle of the living room. Elle, who had just come in through the patio, enacted the appropriate reaction: facial avalanching, sobbing dash that nearly knocks over your father‘s tray table, belly flopping into bottom bunk. Mom turned to me then, but I just shifted a bit to see past her, looked up, then offered a bland, oh, wishing she‘d waited for a commercial. Just before she slammed the door to her own room, my mother squawked, you don’t even care! I could just barely make out the shape of my father as he snickered from his chair in the dark. Outside the trees shuddered, as if even they were able to cry. He‘s been in that chair all day. It‘s a loud sickness. He doesn‘t know that I could have warned him, that I had seen it, that I had known all along what it would do. September 16th, 2008 Looking back, I see I‘m going about this all wrong. Mrs. S says to start by situating the reader. Not that this is fiction class, or that there is a reader, and the whole school thinks Mrs. S is seriously delusional. Apparently, she let it slip to her 11:00 o‘clock class that she‘d seen the cancer all around her mother years before the doctors found it. Sometimes, she looks at me like she has a message she can‘t ever tell. Situation: We moved into a tiny apartment jutting off the indoor garage of a retirement home when I was in fifth grade. A gray metal door leads to the short hallway my dad uses as his makeshift knife-throwing arena. It‘s best to wait and listen before you come in. Dad is the twenty-four-hour handy man, or, as his nametag says, the main engineer. The garage makes your skin whirr at night—electric ladybugs. This might have something to do with the exhaust fans, but many of us, those that live here, know why the buzzing really happens. Before we moved to the retirement home, a man named Doc Shields lived in room 311. During meals, he sat by the same window with Mr. Frawley (deaf) and Mr. Edwards (lost his mind after he lost his wife) so he 1
Robin Lee Jordan ∙ 121
could read them the dinner menu. He liked to watch the ducks that nested in the bushes on the other side of the glass. Doc started drinking after his limbs began bloating. He came down to meals drunk and distracted, once rifling through the silverware drawer in search of bed. At one point, they say, his left leg was the size of a narrowwaisted woman. Soon, Doc stopped coming down for dinner altogether, stopped caring about the ducks. To this day, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Frawley sit at that table, quietly eating food they never really seem to like. Lymphatic filariasis is caused by a parasitic worm . . . Forty million have the symptoms of the disease. The most recognizable is elephantiasis, a swelling of the limbs. Shehu Iliya, who lives in Gwamlar, Nigeria, and has a severe case of filariasis, said people treated him as if he were dead. Funguses that erupt between toes stink and draw flies. Children can be mocking. Lovers can be cruel. 2 Late one night Doc made his way to the garage and his white Caprice Classic. They say that when he shot himself his brains burst through the roof of the car and splattered on the garage ceiling. They say the man who had my father‘s job before him had to spray it down. I think Doc never got in his car, though. How could he with legs like that? No, I think he splayed out on the hood and did it there. I like to imagine that right before he pulled the trigger, he thought about his ducks, their webbed toes. September 17th, 2008 I can see that I‘ve fallen off track. The point is Doc‘s brains most surely have added to the garage‘s vibrato. Whenever I walk through, my eyes wander to spot 311, where his gray stains quietly speckle the dull concrete ceiling. I point them out to friends. The apartment is growing more cavernous. Dad‘s heaving echoes. I tried to sneak to my writing spot on the lake, but mom caught me and told me to sit in the living room while she did laundry so I could run and get him things to vomit into: an old, pink Tupperware bowl, a pot with a rusted bottom. I‘m not scared of the garage. Sometimes at night I play hide-and-goseek down there with Ginger. She‘s a smart dog and can stay with her back turned. I crouch behind a car and wait for her to find me. I like the smell of the exhaust pipes. I hid out for a while, tonight, in the broken Corvette we keep down there. I used to do that when I was younger, to pretend what it must have felt like to ride in it. Mom was doing laundry in the main building. The 2
122 ∙ Mescal Reposado con Gusano
garage at night makes her uneasy, but she likes to avoid the lonely chatter of the residents, so she waits to do the washing until after nine, when they‘re holed up in their tiny, furniture-crowded apartments. The car‘s hidden under a beige cover like a burlap sack; a long sharp crack runs down the passenger-side door. Dad crashed the Corvette into a ditch a few months after he bought it with the money we won from the other car accident—the one that left mom‘s jaw shattered and wired shut for months. It is now un-drivable, but the horn still works. Reclined, this evening, in the driver‘s seat, I waited for the metal roll of the shopping cart mom stole from the grocery store to shuttle our laundry back and forth. She took longer than I thought; as I lay on the front seat, I could see Doc‘s brains and feel that familiar whirr squirm its way down the fronts of my arms. The leather creaked like the lap of an ancient father. I heard my mother approaching, and just as I felt her pass, I laid on the horn. It was loud, but I could hear her scream. September 18th, 2008 What I‘ve been meaning to say is my father is a drunk. Soon after we moved here, he began drinking booze with a worm in it. The words on the bottle aren‘t in English, but I find that I like the way they rhyme: Mescal Reposado con Gusano. I sing it when he brings it out. Although, if my mother hears, she scolds: Don’t encourage him. The famous “worm” that is found in some bottles of Mezcal is actually the larva of one of two moths that live on the agave plant. The reason for adding the worm to the bottle of Mezcal is obscure . . . As a rule, top-quality mezcals do not include a worm in the bottle.3 He keeps the bottle in the freezer. I see it lounging on its side. As with Doc‘s brains, I try not to look at it, but can‘t resist for long. I know it‘s to blame: for me not being any good at making friends, for the way things tend to hurl themselves through the air when my parents are in the same room, for my father punching holes in the cheap plaster and fake wood of our apartment bathroom and bedroom closets, for him pissing on the floor that time he played Life with my sister and me on the living room coffee table one of those nights my mother took classes for nursing school, one of those nights he got to get as drunk as he pleased. My father thinks the worm sickens me, and when he gets to the end of the bottle he makes sure I‘m around. (Or, at least, he used to.) I remember the first time he did it. Hey, he‘d called from his forsaken salmon pink chair. Reluctantly turning away from the elevator-of-blood scene in The Shining, one of our favorite movies, 3
Robin Lee Jordan ∙ 123
Dad chased us with the butcher knife again today! It was like bunnies twisted around in my chest. I was so scared. We got to the top bunk and he burst through the door! Just like the movie! All the neighbor kids want to play.4 I saw the worm wriggling between his teeth. He rolled it back and forth between his thin lips to make it look alive, then noisily slurped it down like my mother‘s spaghetti, which is good and spicy and which he probably couldn‘t eat now. Soon, I‘m not sure he‘ll be able to eat anything. Up until just a few days ago, every time I opened the freezer door it felt like that time mom asked me to unplug the Christmas lights from the socket on our wet porch. Logically, I knew it was dead. A bug couldn‘t live in liquor, but there were times when a chicken pot pie might shift in the freezer, when the worm might slip from the small slope of the bottle‘s neck, when it might have seemed as if it were trying to get a better view of me. The other morning I decided to prove once and for all what I had known all along. I grabbed the ice cream with my eyes fixed on the bottle. An ice tray slipped towards it; the worm shifted. I stopped and put my elbows on the freezer ledge and waited. Standing there, I began to think of Willie, the inchworm I was supposed to monitor for biology class last year. I wrote journal entries about his progress every day, from tiny green friend, to plump worm, to hazy cocoon, to brown moth with black designs like the eyes of a goat on its wings. Willie emerged from his cocoon this morning—he had huge brown wings with black, slitted ovals. Unfortunately, I forgot to transfer the cocoon into a larger jar as directed. Rebirth made Willie anxious. His wings were in working order, fluttering frantically in his tiny container. I grabbed the biggest jar in the kitchen in hopes of a quick transfer, but Willie scared me and I accidentally squashed him on the lip.5 I could feel the swish of our cat‘s tail against my shin; there was a soft mewing. The worm shook his tail end. I knew then what it was trying to do. September 19th, 2008 Five nights ago, the night it happened, was the same night my sister got her first period. My mother hadn‘t warned her, so I heard Elle screaming all the way down by the dock where I used to write poems. Startled from the sound, a white crane took to the air, its white streak like lazy lightning.
Childhood diary. Age 9? Willie notes. Age 16.
124 ∙ Mescal Reposado con Gusano
Mom hadn‘t come home yet, and my sister and I were playing Friday the 13th on the Nintendo with the sound off. My father muttered, drunk in his chair with a cigarette dangling off his lower lip, the burning end dipping close to his throat. A camp counselor was getting killed somewhere near the docks and an ax-wielding Jason could be expected to dart from either side of the screen at any moment. The girl was dying, time running out. My sister needed to save her. I didn‘t hear him get up. Hey Em, I turned to see dad waving the near empty bottle of Mescal Reposado con Gusano. It was immediately apparent to me what was to happen. The gray maggot-looking worm clung to the side of the bottle. As my father menacingly waved his booze in my face, the worm inched its way towards the bottle‘s mouth—determined. Jason killed the girl and my sister, so she picked a new life and tried again. My father took the bottle on a dizzying journey towards his mouth. You think it’ll lay eggs in me? Do you think they’ll crawl out when I’m asleep and infect the rest of you? Do you think they’ll wriggle in through your nose or mouth or ears? The brown liquor swept the scurrying worm up in its final wave, and all of it washed down his throat. He began the second part of the trick, but struggled getting the worm between his lips. His tongue darted inside his mouth; little bulges stressed his cheek as if something were trying to get out. Finally, the worm poked its head from between his teeth. As usual, my father pushed it gently between his lips and wagged it like a tongue, only this time I could see that the worm moved differently. This time I could see its tiny face reach for my father‘s mustache. And as another hockey-masked murderer burst from the woods, my father sucked his fate down with a drunken smile. And I said nothing. September 20th, 2008 Sleep deprivation, chaotic sleep schedules, fever, stress, magnesium deficiency, and alcohol intoxication can trigger sleepwalking.6 He‘s begun to do things in his sleep: swear at his poker buddies, demand brownies from Girl Scouts, whine that he doesn‘t want to go to church. He sleeps through dinner. Sometimes my sister and I pull up the kitchen chairs outside my parents‘ door and listen to him curse, laugh, scream. My mother shoos us away with a dishtowel, then makes us dry some of the glasses and clean the counters. Mom woke one morning to find a plastic bowl of milk in the oven, a box of cereal and a metal spoon in the microwave, the ice tray under the 6
Robin Lee Jordan ∙ 125
couch cushion, a knife in the freezer. Last night, I woke to him standing in the middle of our dark bedroom in his tattered underwear. He was looking at me, arms loose. I‘d been on my side and was facing him. The open door gave him an emaciated glow. What are you doing? I asked. His eyes widened and the room got darker, like a cloud had just passed over. Then he was leaving. Just sayin’ goodnight. He shut the door. That night I dreamt an elevator broke, stranding me in a small, red and gold hallway with one door. Expensive, wooden dollhouses were backed against the wall. I almost knocked, but a little girl I couldn‘t see pressed her lips to my ear and hissed, Get out of my room. September 22nd, 2008 Mom assumes it‘s his drinking. His chair stinks: a mixture of cigarettes, sweat, and something like vinegar I can‘t quite pin down. His recliner is covered in burns; he falls unexpectedly asleep even more now. When he vomits, it‘s never a lot, just a deafening retch and a thin, glittering mucus with little white specks. He still drinks. Occasionally, mom hides the bottle from him when he‘s asleep but after a half hour of incessant swearing and nagging, he‘ll struggle to stand and scour the apartment for it, shouting out in agony every time he has to bend down. His limbs hurt. Eventually, my mother retrieves it for him. I keep my eye on every new bottle. None of the worms have moved again; they are on to me, by now, I suppose. September 28th, 2008 The worst known case was an Egyptian woman whose leg weighed 130 pounds, more than the rest of her. It literally anchored her to the floor of her sister’s house.7 Dad stays home. Parts of him balloon. Sometimes a hand, other times a knee, an elbow, often times his feet. The skin chafes away to a painful shine; it cracks and bleeds. Days of maintenance are piling up at the home: toilets are flooding, fire alarms dying and beeping incessantly. The elevator has trapped residents twice. I sat across the coffee table from him this afternoon. He was in his chair with the recliner up, one knee propping his leg towards his face. The skin on his right foot and ankle was tongue-red and taut and he was digging around in an oozing hole just below his bunion with a sharp metal plaque remover he‘d gotten from the dentist. He pulled out white, round things, wiped them on a paisley-print napkin, occasionally gritted his teeth, and 7
126 ∙ Mescal Reposado con Gusano
muttered cocksucker. He said he could feel them beneath the skin; he said they hurt. He proudly displayed them. They say bunions are genetic. I looked at my big, crooked toes, each one pointing in the other direction as if wanting to walk away from each other, as if wanting to pull me right apart. Even if infected people have a proper understanding of the disease, the adult worms are frighteningly hardy, too big for deworming drugs to kill and too deep in the body to remove surgically.8 Today, after class, I asked Mrs. S if she was really psychic. She said that when she walks down the street, she sees swirls of light above everyone‘s heads like we‘re wearing halos of oil. She doesn‘t like it because of the brownish cream auras that scare her. I asked her to tell me what mine looks like, but she said she doesn‘t talk to students about their auras. I figure my aura is the color of Willie: bright green with the potential for browning. September 30th, 2008 His sickness has given the apartment a greenish glow. I‘ve been spending most of my time, after school, outside by the lake. Although, any sort of comfort is leaking from the edges of everything. Poetry already gone, and now today, for instance, I felt very aware of a bludgeoning. Sitting on a picnic table in the shadow of the only tree with sun still touching it, I became quite conscious of the peachy-softness of my seventeen-year-old head, particularly when met with a loose brick from a tall white building, or the wall of a gas station, or trees, too, could lose their branches. While I searched the sky for falling debris, a bell chimed but not how it was supposed to. All kinds of things are waiting in the wings. October 1st, 2008 Even the pets won‘t go near. At any moment, one of his appendages will explode in what I imagine will be a wet, disgusting mess that will make everything glisten. October 2nd, 2008 All night I wore headphones to drown out his howling. Mom finally called an ambulance. There‘ll be no more getting up. 8
Robin Lee Jordan ∙ 127
I watched from the window as they drove off. A red fox darted in front of the ambulance making it swerve towards the curb. The creature stood there for a minute, watching too, then ran in an ominous circle, viciously chewed at its leg, and slunk into the grass. October 5th, 2008 Red veins twirl up his leg; I think of barber poles. A simple procedure, they said, draining his leg. They said something went wrong—an infection. We didn’t know, they said, A nicked vein—blood poisoned. It‘s going after his organs one by one. It started at the kidneys. Staph, including MRSA, are notorious for infecting wounds. The symptoms of a wound infection may include pus, inflammation, and pain from the wound; red streaks on the skin running from the wound toward the heart; fever and swollen lymph nodes; black, dead tissue around the wound; and an unusual or foul odor coming from the wound.9 I‘m going to be Willie for Halloween—smashed fairy wings with eyes you would hate to see painted on them, splattered blood. October 20th, 2008 The doctors say nothing else of the infection, what they drained, but they say he‘s contagious. They wear masks and gloves and special shirts when they come in the room. We have asked if we should wear them too. They say no, but tell us to use the anti-bacterial hand gel when we leave. They‘ve put a hole in his neck that a white mist comes from. I‘m trying to read it like smoke signals. He‘s been in a coma for two weeks. Sometimes I can hear the crashing as something else inside him breaks. October 27th, 2008 He‘s been fired, so we‘re living in a tiny house in a town that used to be a summer getaway for Chicago gangsters. The lake there is too dirty to swim in. I drive an hour to get to school, and it keeps raining. My car slides off the road; I like the way it feels as the tires glide over the pavement, like I‘m flying. 9
128 ∙ Mescal Reposado con Gusano
I‘ve been hearing things at night. Sometimes a shushing in my ear, the aftershock of a scream, a scurrying in the closet. And again and again, from the corner of my eye, I see a child with brown hair just as she runs around the corner, down one hall or the other. I find my mom at the hospital to tell her about the costume party. She looks at me with real dismay. I’m not sure he’s going to make it, she says, He might die. I know, I say; I can‘t help myself. Then she storms out of the room, again. After she leaves, I sit beside dad and examine my toenails. The ones on my big toes have begun to brown and thicken. They have ridges and white streaks. I lift my bare feet and set them next to my father‘s. I‘d rather we change like Willie did. Blooming into dark winged things. October 31st, 200? i‘m on a beach walking towards tall waves the sun in some sort of eclipse so it seems there are two of them. they move closer together. everyone wants it to happen but it shouldn‘t. the hill to the west is covered in blankets and people. they smile and wait they are looking to the sky red balloons against the green a familiar whirr. the suns align the light snaps a burnt orange darkening the water. screaming. picnic spectators tumbling like black ants from something wet. this time i know what will save us. enough of them in the freezer eight maybe nine full bottles. i grab them all. the light is wrong and a smell now the type you can never put your finger on. i take my first swig of mescal eyes fixed to the dim outline of the suns then run to the nearest road and put the bottle to their lips i pour it into the mouths of teenagers, mothers and fathers, babies and grandmothers, family pets i pour it into the gaping jaw of a dead horse. i make them drink it all but each time i set the worm between my teeth i eat them for all of us no taste no texture. i saved all of them, but my father, i never found my father. 10 November 1st, 2008 When I breathe, I can smell it all around me; when I hold my breath, it seeps. Mars and the moon inch towards each other out the hospital window through the universe‘s bile. Maybe none of this matters; things will always find a way to occupy the space of another‘s; to fulfill each other‘s outlines, wings or not. 10
My mother woke me beside the dirty lake as the sun came up, took the bottle from my hands.
Robin Lee Jordan ∙ 129
He‘s still alive, unconscious, steadily ruined inside. I sense a whole family of them wriggling closer and closer to his panting heart. I look for them pushing against his skin. Sometimes, when his lips move, the hole in his neck gasps little O‘s of vapor. November 2nd, 2008 Bottom of his left foot ashy white. Left index finger like a crooked sausage, the tip pointing to the right. Sores on ass. My hair coming out in handfuls. November 8th, 2008 His right ear a raw meat purplish-red. His coughs, the crack of a gelatinous whip. His kneecaps the size of softballs, reflecting the fluorescents. His eyes flew open and he looked at me, then mouthed the word no. Dozens of white bumps down my arms that sigh when you scratch them. November 11th, 2008 His room is dark he‘s been dreaming of birds he‘s been dreaming that we‘ve all become birds and that I‘m caught in the tower of an ancient castle. He wants to warn me of something. His brow furrows. I know what else is to come. I know where all of this has been leading. I could warn the nurses. I could save all of us maybe. The screech of clean shoe-soles on tile. I could save all the feet, all the toes. A bright light breaches the doorframe. It creeps across the floor a cold streak illuminating my father‘s legs, my swelling wrist. I‘m singing a little song. His right foot is a funny red and fat fat fat propped on a pillow like an heirloom tomato, a rotten apple.
130 ∙ Mescal Reposado con Gusano
Factory UJJAL NIHIL
I Drill and saw. Black fingers on a flask. Teeth in a circle of repose. Touch his hand. Sound of drill and saw now has a seat in your skull. Hear it. It has ripped much and still no shed for you, if you think much. Touch his hand. The wedges of grease. Pass the flask. The owner of smoke and spool will sink in from behind the grids. Keep checking on the chimney mouth. Pick up a stone after lunch and roll it about. Touch his hand before the owner of smoke and spool sinks in and sneaks up from behind the grids. Say are you going home soon? Say the fruit cart is there outside the gates. Coal fingers on oranges and teeth burning to snap the juice. Go hide behind the slant of asbestos and eat one by yourself. Walk out in the sun for a while with the eaten orange within. When you rush back to a roll of sleeves, your skull bent under a ripple of cogs, see through the holes of some missing bolts: who else is looking around? who is looking back? II It‘s not easy to memorize a tree under scales of rubber oil but do it. When the hands and mouth don‘t come about there is no rib which stays still. You‘ll need to slip a wrench through your throat because all you have are tools. So many tools. Memorize that tree. The owner of smoke and spool will jump that pothole and he‘s allergic to the swarm of nylon. He will come through the frisky bog slapping his gumboots. Sleep early on the spool bits today. When the evening does want to be seen, the small tile can lead you on to the canopy of these machines. Be quiet. The slips are marked and visible. Their histories are flagged by their clothes. Be quiet when you want to watch the evening. You‘re not the only one.
III Streaks of beetle juice on posters of local heroes. You can rip them and sink in the spool bits. The heroes look back at you. Other hands slice the posters and tape the gush. It can be a gush of anything. They are with you. You‘re not the only one. In the phlegm cut water-tire below the posters, the hum of soft disease. The pitch in your eyes and ears and the hum of soft disease will guard you. Have you heard them say you might be going? Go and leave your throb behind the polyester map. Have you heard them say they might be going? Where does the owner of smoke and spool keep his pockets? Keep him away but be in him. If you hear the shutters creak at dawn stay taut and believe they‘re being chained and buried from outside, not lifting. IV You slick your burnt leather shoes behind the leg sleeve and walk. Snakes at the corner of rust and pods turning within their froth and wrecking their eyes above the wet brickpile. A truck of blood parked outside the spiked gates, feathers and soft entrails on the wheel. Go up. See. No one but smoke. On the walls the scrape of soft boys, screams of their hair shaking underwater. Hot lead singed limbs and a talon wrapped over it. Flies off. Boy taken by the bird the beak not the man this time. No man here this time. Go up. See. No one but scrap ghosts swarming the corners. No talk or hunt and voices of limbs edging, pushing on the machinery. Moth shutter and pieces of tar turned into crust. Running sun inside. This is your corner of the walk. Where you entered from. What was in your box could go into your mouth. It could be chewed and swallowed. Bend. Look if your work has left a sign of where it‘s gone.
132 ∙ Factory
A Theory of Music WALTER BARGEN
t was during the middle of the performance, the middle of a measure of composition that dragged on too long, when the bass drums became aroused and started to lead the band back from a funereal march, turning the gazebo into a cavalry charge, threatening to break down the surrounding palmetto and fluted railings, throwing into the fray a brigade of clarinets, squad of bassoons, company of French horns, and the belch of tubas. The audience startled from their slumber, opened their eyes to see the pruned trees and sharp edges of light cut across the rich green of the lawn, leaving the wounded glow of grass bandaged with afternoon shadows. Parasols scattered through the crowd like the frills of regimental colors. The spark of a red parrot, flitting from branch to branch, glided low over the long tables weighted with sweating punch bowls. It was a feathered streak of blood, though none of the audience noticed, attentive to their pastries and yet another song defending the empire‘s dashing elegance. The band conductor bowed to polite, persistent applause. When he straightened the double row of brass buttons, his jacket ignited with sun, bright as the flash of rifle muzzles. An elderly matron swooned in the heat and excitement, recalling her husband‘s stories of the Crimean War. She was the day‘s first casualty, though she was quickly revived and taken into the marble-columned mansion. The conductor raised his baton, vigorously drawing it across the air. The triumphant blare of the horn section declared their right to lead the parade of prancing plumed horses and festooned riders. It was at this moment in the march, in the middle of the concert, the middle of a hot afternoon, in the middle of the grand estate that stretched for miles, that the baton shot from the conductor‘s hand and sailed skyward in an arc, leading everyone‘s eyes to see the hot air balloon high over the music where its rider waved methodically from a wicker basket decorated with the royal colors. The china blue sky was enough to make those not ready to move, stand, and break into a cheer. Even the band dissembled, one instrument at a time, until the conductor was prodding a single tuba player, and then the pavilion fell silent. For a quarter hour the balloon didn‘t move. The men discussed the meaning of the persistent almost mechanical waving—was it a call of distress, an upward drowning in this pellucid air, or a distant salutation?
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR SHORTER FICTION 133
During further refreshments served on silver trays, the balloon remained stationary. A consternation grew, the waving could be tolerated no longer and a plan was proposed. A fakir, head wrapped in a white turban, wearing only a loin cloth that tied his emaciated ascetic body together, was called from behind the servants‘ quarters. In the magic of those days, he coiled a rope in front of him and began to play his hypnotic flute. Cross-legged, he caressed the serpentine-braided hemp threads, and with each higher-note the rope rose, undulated, and stiffened. It was said to be the longest rope in the world: what was left of the Gordian Knot, untied by the bodyguard Ahzad Bogosian after Alexander tired of hacking it with his sword. The horn section watched in amazement, but the musicians thought that even if the fakir does make a single rope twist skyward, they could make an entire empire march to tea and its glorious death. The rope, intricate as spun gold, reached the balloon, but the arm kept waving. Again there was discussion about why the basket rider wasn‘t climbing down. A boy known for his agility at chasing monkeys through trees was chosen to climb it. The fakir played on and the boy, hand-overhand, raced up the tenuous twined path. When he reached the balloon, he was puzzled. He quickly removed the sapphire stick-pin and slid down the rope, which collapsed in a great heap the moment he touched the ground, burying the frail fakir, breaking his ancient bone flute. The audience crowded in to see what it was the boy held. It was a greeting card cut in the shape of a hot air balloon with one moveable paper arm. The arm could be made to wave by pulling on a thin wire that passed through to the backside of the folded card. The boy showed them the pin that was used to fasten it to the blue sky. They squinted at the infinitely faceted sapphire and its nearly unbearable glitter. The boy gave it to the conductor in place of his broken baton. There was still the hanging wire, which theologians, after many interviews with the eyewitnesses, would declare an optical illusion and deny its existence. The wire‘s thin logic quickly rusted away during monsoon season. The arm did stop moving. How had the arm ever moved, the woman who had fainted and returned to the expansive lawn, wanted to know. The import of her question caused her to swoon again. She held heavily to a general‘s epaulets. A voice in the crowd answered wind, but what could account for the clock-like swinging? A clock-like wind? Another man asked if the boy had tried to puncture the blue sky with the pin? What‘s on the other side, he wanted to know. The boy hadn‘t thought of it. They all turned in unison and stared at the rope on the ground and then up to where the balloon had hung, their faces looking like white holes hovering over the lawn. Everyone knew there was no second chance; the flute lost, the rope fallen into another enigmatic knot. A woman ensconced in the middle of her hooped skirt noticed that no matter how close or far away she or anyone else held the card it remained exactly the same size, which was how it appeared above the gazebo earlier,
134 ∙ A Theory of Music
and the greeting remained unreadable. The face of the little figure in the basket was no more discernible at arm‘s length than it was if the boy ran across the lawn and held it in the shadows of the trees, or if she squinted at it from behind reading glasses. Confusion spread. A captain grabbed a gardener‘s shovel and started furiously to dig in the grass. Was there dirt below this dirt that his polished riding boots stood so proudly upon? Only the laced wrist showed against the shocked husband‘s red uniform as his wife‘s hand searched to see if her desire was real. A rider dismounted and shoved his white gloves into fresh horse droppings, then threw them down in disgust. A servant retrieved the soiled gloves and placed them on a tray. The brass-buttoned conductor could make out no more now with the card in his hands than when he first launched his tumbling baton up into the sky. He handed the card back to the boy, who took off running after a monkey stealing a cream puff from a serving plate. He dropped the paper balloon to climb a palmyra tree, leaving the arm to wave once more as it struck the ground. The card caught the wind and blew into a dense clump of bushes by the road, where it remained elusive and far away as ever. The conductor returned to the bandstand, reached into his pocket for the sapphire stick-pin that had grown larger in the conflation of the afternoon‘s events. He stood in front of his music stand, motioning for the band to begin. Once again left alone, framed by a flawless sky, the audience returned to their folding chairs. The tubas plodded through an elephantine beat as the arm in the bushes snapped its fingers.
Walter Bargen ∙ 135
The Message from Nature CURT SEUBERT
February 15, 2010 Dear Mr. Oliver, We at the U.S. Post Office would like to apologize for the delay in getting this letter to you. Though we do everything in our power to ensure timely delivery of the mail, certain unforeseeable events do sometimes prevent us from completing our solemn duty. Three days ago we discovered one of our postal carriers had been stealing letters from his mailbag and hiding them in his home. He‘d been doing this since 1968. There are no obvious connections between the letters, but rest assured we are conducting a thorough investigation. We found a letter addressed to you (or one of your relatives) at the bottom of the pile. We realize a 42-year delay is unacceptable in any circumstance. We only hope you do not view this unfortunate incident as symptomatic of a breakdown in our services. We scanned the letter and have attached it to the end of this email. SCAN<<<<<>>>>>SCAN April 15, 1968 Dear Mr. Oliver, We are looking for relatives of Joseph Oliver. He died last week. He worked as a janitor at Wimberly's Recreation Hall here in Savannah, Georgia for thirty years and lived at our family‘s rooming house for most of that time. He was very private. Few people visited him and he never mentioned family. We found a notebook next to his body. On the cover is a picture of two cherries sitting on some sheet music. The legend ―The message from nature: four seasons create a rich nature‖ is printed across the top. In a very shaky hand, someone wrote ―read live‖ on the inside cover. We think this may be the last thing Mr. Oliver wrote. The last page is stained with spilled ink. It‘s a collection of interviews and notes about a man named (if you can believe it) Buck B. Randy, but it reads like nonsense to me. None of us here know
what to make of it, so I decided to send it to you: perhaps some of these names and events have a better chance of resonating with a relative of Mr. Oliver than with a complete stranger. Enclosed is a typed copy of the notebook. <<<<<>>>>>
Buck B. Randy was an ugly fuck, but a better bassist and linguist there was none. Who else but Buck could have had such a formative influence on Donald Duck Dunn, Charlie Mingus, or Phineas Freak? Who else but Buck could have stuck a power line to his chest and disappeared in a scream and a flash, causing an increase in the world‘s background level of eroticism? I can‘t prove the connection (correlation ain‘t causation, as my thieving manager loved to say) but it sure was one hell of a coincidence. Buck was born April 2, 1908, on a farm in the great flatlands of Kansas. Though he had huge ears from ―straining to hear the music of the spheres‖ (so his sister claimed) it was his two massive front teeth you noticed first: brown and black with deformity and neglect, jutting out at a 30-degree angle from his gums, they were so long he couldn‘t hide them behind his lips. Those who failed to see the sadness in his eyes got the impression he was about to crack a smile. Tragedy marred Buck‘s childhood. He and his mother were struck by lightning while hugging outside during a thunder storm. The five-year-old Buck survived but saw his mother die in a scream and a flash. ―My last memory of her,‖ Buck wrote, ―was her head outlined in brilliant white light, her hair aflame, and an odd mix of happiness and pain in her beautiful smile.‖ Doctors claimed the boy a medical marvel and attributed the monstrous growth of his teeth to the electric surge. Buck and his elder sister stayed with their alcoholic father. ―We worked in the field while Pa tipped cider in the pantry,‖ she wrote. Physically and mentally abusive and believing God had a plan for everything, the father refused to spend extra money on Buck‘s teeth. As the boy grew bigger, the teeth grew larger, the boy more bitter, and the teeth more gnarled. Buck‘s fortunes changed shortly after his fifteenth birthday. His sister married well and, having long-noted her brother‘s sensitivity to sound (―He‘d cry in pain if a cricket got into the house but stand outside during windstorms to hear the whisperin‘ o‘ the land‖), sent Buck to the Pattomoca Music and Renewal Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois. At the PMRC, Buck realized his infatuation for ―fat-bottomed girls‖: what he affectionately called the stand-up bass. Three years later he made his first professional appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but concert performance would prove to be a short-lived career. Fellow musicians could keep their eyes locked on the conductor or on their sheet music, but the audience was not so lucky. ―It is the humble opinion of this
Curt Seubert ∙ 137
music lover,‖ wrote one critic in June 1926, ―that the contrabassist—though wisely positioned in shadow at the back left wing of the orchestra— rendered the performance unlistenable, as audience members whispered dismay or squirmed in their seats to avoid sight of that sweaty, rapt- and ratfaced boy and his horrid teeth. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s duty to future music lovers is clear: fire Buck B. Randy.‖ The conductor caved to public pressure. Buck spent the next several weeks fruitlessly petitioning to rejoin the orchestra. At a special performance of Japanese kabuki at the University of Chicago, Buck spied a way out of his dilemma: several people dressed in black costumes and veils adjusted props and set the background of each scene. Buck consulted a professor of East Asian Studies. They were kuroko. Everyone understood they were invisible. They could be ignored. Outraged stares and nervous giggles greeted Buck‘s arrival for concert practice the following week. He wore the black habit and veil of the kuroko. The conductor, Luis de Broglie, dismissed the costume as an even bigger distraction. He handed Buck a copy of his recently completed essay, Recherches sur la théorie des harmonia, and ordered him to leave. Several months passed before Buck gave the essay more than a cursory glance. Buck gave up on the world of classical music and contacted me, Joe Oliver, King of Jazz, about a gig. Buck‘s sister told a newspaper in 1953: ―He wrote me a letter around that time, begging forgiveness for playing colored music. Of course I understood he needed money. I remember his words clearly: ‗Playing this jazz, this nigger music they love so much here, allows me to survive. That is all. Please do not think less of me. Though such close association with these people disturbs me to the core, I will not squander my gifts or your generosity.‘ You couldn‘t help but admire such determination.‖ We niggers in the band didn‘t much mind this white boy wearing his little black veil, especially not after we learned that kuro meant ―black‖ and ko meant ―child.‖ We called him tar baby and kept his name off the playbills and marquees. Buck didn‘t mind. He‘d other plans to claw his way out of poverty. Buck absorbed tongues as easily as he did music. By night he played jazz and by day studied languages. At the conservatory, in the orchestras and the clubs, Buck met people from all over the world. By the age of twenty-one, he spoke fluent Spanish, German, French and Creole. He briefly worked as an interpreter, but his looks got in the way once again: no one wanted to speak through such an ugly face. He turned his energies to translating books on music theory, but found the silence therein dissatisfying. Of the nineteen books he translated, he underlined passages in only two. The first book was Heisenberg‘s The Physical Principles of Constructive and Destructive Harmonics. Buck underlined the following paragraph: ―The concepts of wave amplitude, electric and magnetic field
138 ∙ The Message from Nature
strengths, energy, density, etc., were originally derived from primitive experiences of daily life. These concepts are also widely applicable to light and even, as we now know, to matter waves. The results have been stranger than we expected. As is well known, there is always a small but finite probability of finding an electron at a great distance (say 1 cm) from the center of the atom. The potential energy of the electron is very great at such a point. However, we cannot measure this energy without changing the position of the electron in question, and thus altering its potential energy. Given this, we can understand that the bound energy of any body at rest is always much greater than that which can be calculated, and merely needs a certain harmonic key to release it. The Compton effect is one such key. The Compton effect has as its consequence that the electron is caused to jump from a state, say n=1000, to some other state for which n is, say, greater than 950 and less than 1050—and can never be calculated in advance.‖ The second was Dirac‘s linguistic analysis of the atonal framework of Mongolian throat-singing exercises. The passage is as follows: ―As a result of carrying out the exercises, the singer at once realizes that the arbitrary functions of the time signatures must mean that he is using a musical framework containing arbitrary features. As a result of this arbitrariness in the musical framework, the dynamical variables at future times are not completely determined by the initial dynamical variables, and this shows itself up through arbitrary functions appearing in the performance.‖ Buck found in Luis de Brogile‘s thesis, Recherches sur la théorie des harmonia, an unexpected concert with Heisenberg‘s assertion that an electron could be found at a great distance from the center of the atom. De Brogile postulated that matter exhibited properties of a wave. Even the most solid substances, according to de Brogile, were in a state of continual vibration. After reading Heisenberg, Buck had wondered what harmonic could set the outer-most electrons dancing. Dirac‘s wave-theory of matter provided the key: periodicity and resonance with the body wave. Buck began throat-singing lessons. His genius for sound showed itself once again. ―There can be no other explanation,‖ claimed Buck‘s vocal coach. ―Only the coincidence of his peculiar dental arrangement and his acute sensitivity to sound could have allowed such extraordinarily rapid mastery. His virtuosity amazed me, and the tones he produced—I wouldn‘t hear those again until the invention of synthesizers. To hear him sing was aweinspiring. To see him sing . . . well, you can imagine those huge ears red with exertion and his face glistening with sweat as he strained through the complex breaths. And those teeth . . . I swear I could see them vibrating. Just awful. Maybe that was it: that mix of awe and awful, that juxtaposition of horrid figure and beautiful vocalization. I am convinced that Mr. Randy alone was capable of singing a true lament to God.‖ Two recordings from this time (catalog numbers E3A2D0G4 and E3A2D0G3) still gather dust in the archives at the Library of Congress.
Curt Seubert ∙ 139
In the last months of 1929, Buck translated Heisenberg‘s formulations of complimentary waveform interference into a pentatonic series of arpeggios. When played on the contrabass in concert with an interweaving throat-sung melody, the resulting periodicity created an escalating series of standing waves in a glass of water twenty feet away. Unsure where this could lead, but encouraged by his early success, Buck shut himself in with his experiments. Outside his window, Chicago tore itself apart. Prior to the Great Crash, the city‘s population had exploded, but the Depression had taken all the jobs. Desperate, able-bodied men took to the streets demanding work. Gangsters fought for turf while unionists fought for humanity. City leaders wielded cops like sledgehammers. Emerging from his room months later, Buck found a world beaten into submission, chained down by depression, and silent with fear. Buck contacted me about a gig. I obliged by sending him to a speakeasy where the mayor, the chief of police, a few bankers, and a nice, little salad of prostitutes were on the lookout for something novel to spice up their monthly shindig. An August 26, 1967 interview with a 62 year-old Mrs. Whitlow provides a peek into Buck‘s early speakeasy performances: ―Well, we all laughed, didn‘t we? When a man wearing a black veil takes the stage and starts in on a solo jazz number . . . well, he‘s just inviting laughter, isn‘t he? But the jeering stopped as the tune changed. Us girls began to feel strange. He was singing, but without words, and the sound melted into the bass line. I felt like I‘d been sat down in a pool of warm honey. Girls crossed and recrossed their legs, squirmed in their seats, rubbed against the knees of their men. Through thick clouds of cigar smoke and the sweet scent of moonshine thrummed that weird music, dancing with the moans and musk of a dozen young women writhing against customers or against one another.‖ Mrs. Whitlow paused and a wry smile curved her wrinkled lips. ―I‘m not sure what the men felt. I didn‘t care. All I wanted was to love, to rub, to feel. ―You asked me before if I ever regretted becoming a call girl. Well, my answer is this: the biggest regret in my life has been leaving Chicago so soon after that party. I will die without feeling again a sensation as intense as that produced by that queer little man dressed in black.‖ Mrs. Whitlow‘s prediction undoubtedly came true: despite pages of musical score and three audio recordings, no one has yet been able to reproduce Buck‘s erotic harmonics. Back in Depression-ravaged Chicago you‘d hear some rich fool call out during a party: ―Let‘s get Randy here.‖ You might even see a man leer at a young woman and claim, ―I‘m Randy.‖ Why anyone would want to be mistaken for a buck-toothed, big-eared, skinny, sweaty, white boy, I couldn‘t understand. But this truth was clear: no matter the economy, rich, old men and their shriveled willies will pay through the teeth for one more
140 ∙ The Message from Nature
romp with nubile, young fillies. Buck‘s wallet swelled and every other musician in town (myself included) resented his growing fame, but he found no peace. Behind those incredible musical and linguistic gifts spun a dynamo of sexual frustration so powerful it couldn‘t be slackened by a dozen prostitutes. Simple ejaculation couldn‘t pacify Buck. Buck‘s entire being vibrated with the need to be desired. And quite unexpectedly, the repulsive little man found it within his power to produce the most intense, erotic desires in all of womankind. Buck retreated to his apartment, surprised, confused, but filled with hope. He would record this music and play the recordings at parties so he‘d be free join in the fun. But 1930‘s audio equipment wasn‘t capable of producing accurate (or even audible) bass tones. Our new bass player, Bill Johnson, invented the slap style of bass playing for that very reason. Buck tested catalog numbers E4A0D1G4, E4A0D1G5, and E4A0D2G0, at a speakeasy and was shocked by the severity of the disappointment. He found several guns pointed at him. He played his bass, sang his song, and soothed the angry beast. But his desperation increased. From behind his black veil, he‘d watched too many city fathers grope at bits of panty peeking out from the skirts of city daughters. He‘d watched too many beautiful girls offer themselves to rich, old men. He‘d watched too many orgies become masses of naked, sweating skin flowing around and over the floor while he, the source of it all, sat horny and alone. But not ignored. Catching sight of Buck‘s teeth had become a fetish integral to the festivities. This from a 1932 journal entry of the soon-to-be-Reverend Hooper: ―Sometimes his veil would puff out a bit, and you‘d catch a peek. That peek tantalized, titillated, made you want more. You wouldn‘t stare, though. If he‘d been sitting across the table, and he without his veil, you‘d do your best to avoid staring at his teeth. I imagine you might grow used to them. Given time, you might not even notice them. Yes: a peek excited; a stare revolted. His veil was love.‖ Buck abandoned his attempts at recording the music. Instead, he focused on intensification through electric distortion—first to his bass and then to his voice. His system amounted to little more than a microphone, an amplifier, and some old box springs. Regardless of how awful it sounded to the human ear, the modified vibrations heightened the erotic effect. Buck spent years refining his technique and equipment until both women and men were driven to extremes of desire. Under his ministrations, speakeasys devolved into babbling Bacchanals. Lust deepened to insatiable hunger. Partners beat, strangled, and cut each other. Over these violent scenes Buck performed, feverish with fear and excitement beneath his black costume. None of this reached the public eye. Performances were rare, the attendees select. Buck had earned enough money to retire but continued to play, driven by dark desires.
Curt Seubert ∙ 141
In 1933, Buck wrote: ―During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the sequel of my labor, and my eyes shut to the horror of the proceedings. But now I go to it restless, nervous, and filled with foreboding. When I play, I sit with my eyes fixed on the stage, fearing to raise them lest they should encounter the scene which I so loathe to behold. One time more I will go, though the thought sickens me. I will test my newest technique at the December speakeasy.‖ Buck would amplify the source of all these frequencies and harmonies. He would electrify his body. I found only one description of this performance in an unopened reel of footage forgotten or perhaps hidden in the archives of a downtown Chicago police station. It shows an interview with an unnamed woman who‘d been dumped on the steps of St. Regis Hospital. ―He came on to the stage just as he‘d done before, dressed in his black costume and lugging all that equipment. We waited breathless with anticipation, like a congregation desperate for blessing. His slightest movement echoed off the walls. Each lock snapping open on his instrument case rang out like a gun shot. He sat down on the stool and unbuttoned his shirt. He had a lot of chest hair, but he‘d shaved his nipples clean. He then clipped wires running from the amplifier to his nipples. He sat there for a long time. Behind the bass straddled between his knees, his chest muscles twitched with electric current. His veil swayed back and forth with his raged breath. As the silence stretched on, a sense of fear spread out over us. Someone‘s nerve cracked. A giggle sounded at the back. ―He lashed out, hands blurring, attacking the strings. The garbled notes twisted through the air, cavorting with the inhuman voice rising from a whisper to a wail. ―The world turned white. ―I woke in the hospital, covered in scratches and bruises. I‘d been raped several times. Someone chewed off my middle finger.‖ She holds up the stump for the camera to see. ―I feel as if I rose to Heaven only to fall back again.‖ Buck abandoned his equipment and scrambled back to his apartment. Manic-eyed and disheveled, Buck locked the door behind him and then went to the window and twitched the curtain aside. No one had followed him. His gaze drifted to the power line running just below the sill. He went to his workbench and put on a pair of electrician‘s gloves and picked up his wire cutters. Back at the window, he lifted the pain, grabbed the power line and began cutting. Let your mind‘s eye follow the shower of sparks down to the street as the surrounding buildings blinked into darkness. People stopped on the sidewalk. They looked up at an explosion of sparks. A few car horns sounded as the traffic lights died. Brilliant white light erupted from the windows of the twelfth-floor apartment. A piercing squeal started at the upper limit of hearing, to descend
142 ∙ The Message from Nature
and deepen like the whine of an incoming missile, transmuting into a scream of anguish and pain. Screaming, smoke rising from his flesh, tears streaming from his eyes, Buck stared into his mother‘s face—her hair aflame, her beautiful smile filled with love. Biting his lip to stifle the screams wrenching at his inside, he reached out and, with his calloused fingers, touched her cheek. Silence bloomed. Hundreds of windows exploded, shattered by the shockwave radiating from Buck‘s apartment. Slowly, though at the speed of sound, the shockwave traveled the world, reverberating and echoing from buildings, trees, and hills. And every person engulfed in that wave—whether man or woman, boy or girl—was lost in a desire to commune by touch and by kiss, in one of those rare, peaceful days in human history.
Curt Seubert ∙ 143
The Bicycle Maker CINDY HUNTER MORGAN
During the war, she learned how to knit bicycles out of all sorts of yarn. Scrap metal had to be saved for The Cause: radiators were made into rifles, old shovels turned into hand grenades, even old tires became gas masks. But she always had yarnâ€” balls of it lined up on pantry shelves that once held flour; skeins heaped in the bin by the kitchen where her husband once shoveled coal. On sunny mornings, she sat by the east window in the dining room, knitting tires from tangles of coarse, black yarn, stretching smooth, gray strands of cotton between wheel rims: spokes that would not rust. She used anything she could wrap around a needle. Her cousin in Alaska sent her qiviut from the musk ox, and her daughter plucked leaves from the ivy climbing up the chimney, then wound the long, tough vines loosely around old bricks. These she crocheted into handlebars, then made frames from grapevines of varying thickness and seats cushioned with tufts of moss collected from the forest. Everyone wanted her bicycles. Children rode them all over, pedaled them to places she could not imagine, came home rosy-cheeked, flush with stories about ice cream and peace.
The Strong Salt Taste of Living Things ERICH WILLIAM BERGMEIER
From the desk of Dr. Samuel Livingston, PhD. Prof. of Comparative Literature University of South Wyndham Falls Nov. 28th, 1982 Dear Sue Ellen Butter, I‘m sorry that your sister is dead. Even now, as I write this letter, I can‘t help but think of her rippling mocha arms, or the way the sweat would tickle down across her deltoid. I‘m reminded of her wig, of how it would hold the smell of her workout just long enough for me to suck it into my lungs when she got home. The slightest hint of soured milk in the back of the throat, below the glottis, where it could be held and savored. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it‘s the little things that I can‘t shake. The insignificant moments that choke me with grief. She mentioned you only once, Sue Ellen. In the dark, between the sheets, her hand wrapped tightly around my pulsing deformity: a curled and fingerless stump. She said that she‘d had a dream the night before, of you in the garden of your childhood home, dancing naked between belly-high blades of grass. There was smoke, she said, and through it the sun was just a pin-prick of light—tracing your shape with thick and milky strokes. It was how I pictured you from that point forward. The fact that you are twins made the details easy to imagine. I suppose I should tell you how we met, how she and I started on this torrid path together. I‘d been asked to read a few passages from my most recent novel, A History of the Esperanto Speaking People, at what was supposed to be a glamorous literary event. I found out only after I‘d arrived that it was being held in the smoldering armpit of the campus gym. A dark and sweaty hole. I remember the omens screaming out at me as I crossed the lot on foot, the ones that I ignored. A severed crow‘s leg lying curled up in the snow; chiaroscuro, like a splash of black paint. And the girl on the bench with the skulls on her mittens. I also remember the Dean of Modern Languages—that toad of a woman—and her shrill little laugh, asking me
how a man as forcefully handsome as myself (barring, of course, my ruined hand) could manage to arrive at such a prestigious function without a partner. She popped a slice of melon into her mouth, her fingers tip-toeing along my sleeve. In a matter of minutes she managed to land a whole slew of accidental touches, brushes, and squeezes, all of which she explained away with: ―Oh, I‘ve had too much to drink,‖ and ―What is this, polar fleece?‖ I stared past her, trying my best to avoid any encouraging eye contact, but nothing seemed able to shake her attentive grip. And then I noticed the way the others in the room were turning their heads, no longer fixing their tweed collars or pretending to appreciate an overused bit of literary insight. They were mesmerized. Torn from their humdrum existence by a majestic foreign body. It was your sister, as I‘m sure you‘ve guessed, skulking around the room and glaring at the ugly collection of bookish types that were sprinkled in between her free weights. Every muscle in her body had tensed, and I made mental notes of the following things: her six-foot-seven-inch frame, undulating under a purple leotard; her dominant, surgically enhanced lips; her legs like two halves of a Sopressata salami, split open by the grace of God; the name ―Mariposa,‖ stitched into the fabric above her muscletwisted breast. ―Hello beautiful,‖ I said. ―Fuck off,‖ she snapped, picking the leotard from her crotch. In the background the Dean‘s voice began to falter. Perhaps she had noticed how brightly my cheeks were flushing, or how the tips of my fingers had begun to tremble, and finally saw fit to retreat. ―I never did finish your book,‖ was the last thing I heard her say. I took Mariposa home that night (I‘m a bit ashamed to admit) and she almost fractured my pelvis against the plastic replica of Michelangelo‘s Pietà that I keep in my apartment. Are you familiar with the piece? She had me prostrated over the murdered Christ, my chest cold against his, and the whole weight of her body above me. It was then that I asked her, in between halted breathes, if she‘d ever felt anything so completely. She said that yes, she had, and that maybe I shouldn‘t ask such selfaggrandizing questions. After all, I was nothing but a deformed hack-writerturned-academic. A man who published a book once every four years to minor critical acclaim and almost no commercial success. There were no awards. No film rights sold. Certainly nothing to be proud of. ―But I‘m proud of you,‖ I told her. Or something to that effect. I may also have said: ―Rest your chin in the gaps between my ribs,‖ but this one is far less likely. In one version of this memory I actually say nothing at all, choosing instead to adore the quiver of her pectoralis major in the light of the moon, the way I sometimes did; the sweat like little bulbs in the socket of every pore. She was an honest woman. I‘ll give her that. She spent most of our first night together telling me about the other men in her life. To get it out of the
146 ∙ The Strong Salt Taste of Living Things
way, she said. There was one story, which stands out more clearly than the others, about a vigorous and brilliant senior citizen named Andre Andreyevich—the famous Russian man of letters who‘d published a couple of clever and controversial novels in his middle age. She talked about how she would rub her oiled hands over his balding scalp while he recited passages from one of his books. And how on warm summer afternoons they would wander out into the field behind his house and chase butterflies. At first her description brought out feelings of jealously in me. The idea that she had been with another writer (and a more successful one at that!) meant that I would constantly be falling short of his memory. But it also brought out great sympathy. Especially after Mariposa explained how profound an impact he had had on her life. How, in many ways, he had come to define it. It was Andre who first exposed her to the concept of the Succubus, the mythical exsanguinator. A beast that had destroyed his father outside of a used bookstore in the ministries district of 1960s Paris. It had attacked him from behind, as the Succubus is known to do, biting a hole in the skin of his lower back and then sucking on that hole with such force that his bones and internal organs were instantly pulverized and eliminated through the open wound. Like a vacuum cleaner sucking the air out of a garbage bag. When the police arrived, Andre‘s father, like every other victims of that horrible animal, was little more than a hollowed out pelt. Mariposa, as you‘ve probably guessed, was in love with Andre. So when he told her this story and asked her to help him track the Succubus, she didn‘t hesitate for a moment. How could she? She packed her bags and for almost a year they slept in cheap motel rooms and on the couches of friends, all the while cutting articles from newspapers that reminded them of the elder Andre‘s murder. You know how this story ends, of course. Probably better than anyone. Mariposa woke up one night with their wet sheets wrapped around her shivering limbs. Andre was lying flat on his vacant belly, drained of blood through an opening at the base of his spine. The Succubus was standing over him, its knees bent as if ready to pounce, but not pouncing. It just cocked its gory head—slime and bits of Andre dangling from the spaces between its teeth—and smiled. Then it reached its hand across the gap and began to stroke Mariposa‘s cheek. Lovingly. Carefully. My Petit Moitié was too terrified to fight. She panted and cried and took solace in the fact that she was being spared by a creature that was never this tame in its killing. But there was something else to that pause. She told me that she saw herself in that moment as both the traitor and the hero (Or was it the victim and the villain?) and that because of it she froze. She felt the lump of the gun against the skin of her thigh, but she couldn‘t bring herself to grab it. ―And ever since then you‘ve been hunting this thing?‖ I asked her, when I saw that she had finished. She pushed me back into the Pietà. ―No more talk,‖ she told me.
Erich William Bergmeier ∙ 147
Do you see now why I‘m writing this letter? *** I saw you, Sue Ellen, in a brothel on the banks of the Hu Ping River. We had connecting rooms and I watched you through the keyhole making love to a sailor. I saw him lift your thigh, turn you over, and in the heat of the moment talk about feline influenza and mammary tumors in mice. Do you remember that? When you were through with the act, you had him lie down in front of you, face buried in the pillow. The small of his back naked and clean and vulnerable. Both of you were breathing in unison, like two lungs being fed by the same nose. And then the mutation began. The edges of your mouth split wide open and your head became one enormous, ugly hole. A viscid paste collected around your now colossal lips, and your teeth grew long and jagged. When you bit down on him he tried to scream, but his lungs were shredded to confetti before it could be lifted above a whisper. The crumple of his bones echoed between the flimsy walls and his leftovers hung from your lips like a feeding bag of flesh. Your eyes alight with the life that you‘d just taken into yourself. You folded his skin like laundry and laid it on the nightstand. Two dollars and thirty cents left beside it for the maid. You put your dress back on and walked towards the door. I grabbed my Enfield revolver from the closet and ran shirtless into the hall behind you. This was my chance, I told myself, to make good on a promise. I followed you to the Rotting Lotus. Through the dark streets of Chiang Mai in the rain. You went in quietly though the back door and changed into a bejeweled green slip, a kind of tight paper gown with the mid-section exposed. Then you made your way to the left wing of the stage (the sailor‘s blood still decorating your mouth) and waited for your cue to go on. I was behind you at this point. On the other side of the curtain that was grazing your naked back. In the confusion of lights and sounds I was able to unclip my weapon, pull back the hammer, and hold the barrel just inches from the back of your skull. And you had no idea. You smiled and you waited, and when the moment was right you ran out on stage and ripped off all of your clothes. Without a sense of how close you‘d come to death. Without humility. I watched you from the shadows—your whole body jiggling and convulsing and moments away from transforming—and thought of Mariposa. The huntress, the love of my life. You are, after all, her double. I thought of that night in the kitchen with the hotdogs defrosting in the sink. When Mariposa stumbled in through the sliding door and started doing arm curls with the soup cans that I‘d left beside the stove. And when she saw that I was enjoying it, she peeled off her shirt and pants until she was just a mountain of muscle in a competition bikini. Eddie Fisher‘s ―I Walk Behind
148 ∙ The Strong Salt Taste of Living Things
You‖ came on over the radio and we stared at each other and smiled. She allowed herself to sway a little to the music. Her hulking frame transforming into something delicate and expressive, while I fought back a deluge tears. ―Will you dance with me?‖ I asked her. ―This ain‘t your fuckin‘ prom,‖ she said. Your arms were like rubber bands, the way they moved. Hello beautiful, I thought. Sincerely, Dr. S.A. Livingston
Erich William Bergmeier ∙ 149
from The Centipede Love Songs DANIEL PORDER
To Those Crawled Across in Sleep I‘ve even seen a landscape of your form, your firm breasts bronze foothills, or massive flags, no tents, some sagging air sucked out of everywhere by night blowing absences of air. Night is a tomb. Your hardwood floor beneath 30 feet clacks harder, a black gloss, a sun‘s funeral black. Electric lights (invented by you) shut off by you are broken, disconnected, despised, despised but still ―nice to look at‖ or ―just for show and tell.‖ I‘ve even seen a landscape form from your hands negative rivers winding, growing, never rising always risen, something pulled from your ―perhaps.‖ Perhaps gazing through you is architecture, an atom falling sometimes toward the ceiling. Up is too short a word.
To Those Who Crush Bugs The streets hum, sometimes buzz, you swat at a fly, miss, and this time I kill and consume it. The moon shatters in your window, sky stolen by all of me, none of you—where are the stars? Dear crescent smile, dear uneven tilting head gazing down: do you even know what I am? I know you, love. Long rain in bands rakes this air, your endless hair. Somewhere, somewhere you have seen these eyes, stood deep in them: there you are. ―There it is!‖ you cry, and enter Husband stage left, brandishing swatter. ―Stomp him!‖ someone cries—no, you cry. No, I run. I weep.
Daniel Porder ∙ 151
To Those Lovely Shadows My lady, she is the sun, she is she only by tilting my antennae up, lilting toward downward glares, husband’s shadow cast across her like a cross-out. In his dark I watch her, the beauty of bent lips—a sadness subsides within me, some pulse absorbing hers, some sonic boom or broken barriers between those opalescent eyes and my disgusting, putrid, Wanted ball-eyes, pest mandibles. How far is it, Lady? How far is it to yours, your bed, to his bed—disgustingly equal, like a number equaling zero—how long until I snap my venom just beneath his own putrid cave of wind, his rotting teeth, and zero him? My Lady, I do what I will do. Lady, say, ―I do,‖ and I will if done by you. You freak-show of minimal legs, mine in my gaze, my mirror where I trap you—how tiny—in my stare‘s glass jar.
152 ∙ from The Centipede Love Songs
The Vampires in the Basement BILL JONES
t was raining. We were having breakfast. ―You‘ve got a problem,‖ said Evans. (I should explain right now: Evans is a large talking cat—well, he talks sometimes—and our family pet.) Dad, Martha, and I looked at Evans. ―There are vampires in the basement,‖ the cat said. I thought it was looking to be one of those days: Dad‘s hair was sticking up North by North-East and refusing to settle down under hair oil and the working of a comb. This meant he had had a night of difficult dreaming and was a portent for a day of unusual surprises. (On other mornings Dad‘s hair stuck up North by North-West, which meant he had been dreaming about the past. This meant a quiet day for all of us as he headed into his study and worked on his memoirs.) ―How did they get down there?‖ we asked. ―It‘s very damp down there,‖ Dad suggested. ―Perhaps they drifted in as spores.‖ ―Or somebody let them in,‖ Martha said, looking at the cat. Dad and Evans disappeared into the study to discuss the situation. Martha and I tried to watch TV, but the vampires had got into the cables somehow and interrupted the programs. The vampires were in black and white and squeezed across the color screen. They mouthed words at us constantly, but we could not hear them through the glass. We soon had enough of this and turned the TV off. It continued to rain. Dad and Evans had still not come out of the study. It was time to consult the cards. Martha and I did not have a set of proper fortune telling cards. Instead we used some ordinary playing cards with pictures of British wildlife on them. Sometimes we mixed in cards from Top Trumps to make it more interesting. We then interpreted the cards according to the situation. (Hence: 10 of Clubs, the Common Shrew: small animals will bite your ankles, a series of minor annoyances. 8 of Spades, the Smooth Newt (Male): you will meet a slippery stranger. Top Trumps Super Cars, Jaguar XJS: you will make a speedy getaway.) But on this occasion the cards were quite predictable. First card, (present position): the 10 of Diamonds, the Common Clothes Moth. ―An infestation of the home,‖ sighed Martha. Second card (immediate influence): 5 of Spades, the Pipistrelle Bat. ―A creature of the night,‖ Martha groaned. And the third card, representing Destiny: the King of
Clubs, the Badger. ―Mishap, Debacle, Disaster,‖ Martha began. ―Ruin, Degradation, Despair, Death,‖ I continued. Evans and Dad came out of the study. Dad went out, saying only, ―I‘ll be back.‖ We noticed that his hair was now beginning to settle down. ―At least it‘ll stop raining,‖ said Martha. Meanwhile Evans curled up on a favorite chair and said not a word. He pretended to sleep. He slept on his head the way cats do when it‘s raining. There were a lot of questions we wanted to ask him, but he had gone back to being a non-speaking ordinary cat. It was boring and disappointing. ―Have you noticed that Evans only speaks when Dad‘s hair is sticking up?‖ asked Martha. ―Yes,‖ I said, ―I‘ve noticed that too.‖ ―I mean, I‘m not 100% sure,‖ said Martha, ―but I think it‘s something we ought to be looking into.‖ It carried on raining. We felt bored. We turned on the TV again. There was less vampire activity on it now. We watched the cartoons and thought about getting dressed and drawing the curtains. There was a knock on the door that led from the basement. ―Who is it?‖ we asked. ―The vampires,‖ came the reply. ―How many of you are there?‖ we asked. ―There are three of us,‖ came the reply. ―But no doubt that ginger cat has told you that already.‖ ―And what do you want?‖ we asked. ―We want to watch television, please.‖ Martha and I looked at each other. It was still raining. Evans twitched his ears. ―OK,‖ we said. ―But you promise you won‘t drink our blood?‖ ―Promise?‖ said the vampires. ―No.‖ And so we let them in. The three vampires sat on the sofa. Their faces were grey and their clothes were black. They sat politely with their hands on their bony knees and watched Saturday morning kids‘ TV. Martha looked at me and I shrugged back. The vampires didn‘t seem to be interested in talking to us at all. They only talked to each other. It seemed they had ambitions to work in children‘s television. They watched the TV very attentively and commented on the work of the presenters. ―How lively that young man is,‖ one said in his deep, rich vampire voice, ―and down with the kids.‖ ―And what a fine jumper he wears!‖ said the second. ―Ahh!‖ hissed the first, excitedly, ―and now for some car-toons!‖ The three vampires on the couch watched the cartoons as if they were the gospel truth. As if in real life people drove around in cars that bounced on their wheels, as if people got run over by steamrollers and got up again,
154 ∙ The Vampires in the Basement
as if in their moral world there was no shading between Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop. During the commercial break, the vampires got restless. ―What are these?‖ asked the first one. ―They‘re adverts,‖ I said. ―They‘re designed to sell you things,‖ Martha added. ―They seem to go on forever,‖ he said. ―Are you virgins?‖ the third vampire finally spoke. ―What lovely smooth necks you have. I feel hungry and aroused.‖ And the three vampires stood up and seemed to grow taller in an ecstasy of desire. They breathed in and sighed and stood behind Martha and moaned with their eyes shut. At any minute it seemed they would break into a frenzy of activity, swirling around my sister like a swarm of bats. Fortunately the commercials ended and another cartoon came on. The three vampires sat down and once again were glued to the TV set. ―How smart these parkland bears are!‖ the first vampire said. ―And how sassy! With their quick-fire wit they have an answer to everything!‖ said the second. We heard the key in the front door. But it was not Dad coming back, it was Ingrid. (Ingrid had started living with us as a student. Then she had seen an opening and elected herself as home-help. And after that, pretty promptly, she had promoted herself to all-round bossy-boots.) We heard her shopping bags rustle as she walked up the hallway and went straight to the kitchen. We heard the gurgle of water into the kettle and the click of the kettle being turned on. Ingrid came into the sitting room and pulled the curtains open. The vampires screamed horribly. But by that time Ingrid was back in the kitchen. With the kettle rumbling up to the boil, she doubtless couldn‘t hear a thing. The three vampires grimaced and put their hands up to their faces and howled and sobbed. To make matters worse, it had stopped raining and a bit of sun was coming out. Ingrid came back in. ―Where‘s your father?‖ she asked. ―And why are you still in your pajamas? And why are you watching TV? It‘s nearly eleven o‘clock. And why did you have the curtains drawn?‖ And, for the first time, she looked at us, and then down at the sofa. ―And what is that mess all over the cushions? It looks like ash!” she exclaimed. We didn‘t have answers to any of her questions. We looked to Evans for some help, but he lay curled up on the chair again (the same Evans who had leaped and danced on his rear legs and laughed a very human laugh as the vampires had screamed and howled and turned to dust). ―Don‘t know,‖ we said.
Bill Jones ∙ 155
Ingrid was just about to say something else when we heard the key in the lock. Dad came back in. Under his arm he had a bundle of stakes from the garden center. We noticed immediately that his hair had gone soft and floppy perhaps the result of having been out in the rain. ―What have you got those for?‖ asked Ingrid. Dad looked puzzled. Ingrid looked in the market bag he was holding. ―And we don‘t need any garlic. Let alone a whole bag of the stuff.‖ ―For the garden?‖ Dad said, a little hopelessly. He held up the stakes. ―Yes,‖ we said, trying to help. ―We were going to plant some fruit trees. And maybe sprinkle this ash . . . around . . . the bases . . .‖ Ingrid glared at each of us in turn. Dad stood stock-still. He ran his hand through his hair and looked at the cat. He looked at the cat as if he held the key to something, but not something he could quite put his finger on.
156 ∙ The Vampires in the Basement
NOTES ON CONTRIB UTORS Holly Amos (―poem in which your hat is a boat‖) received her BFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University and her MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bateau, Columbia Poetry Review, North American Review, and Phantom Limb. Walter Bargen (―A Theory of Music‖) has published thirteen books of poetry. His latest book: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009). Among his many awards: the Chester H. Jones Foundation prize in 1997, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1991, and the William Rockhill Nelson Award in 2005. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). ―A Theory of Music‖ is from the manuscript Tintinnabula. www.walterbargen.com. J. David Bell (―A Very Small Child Called Eugene‖) is a recovering academic whose fiction appears in such periodicals as Jersey Devil Press, Niteblade, Farspace 2, Rotten Leaves Magazine, and Cover of Darkness. He publishes fiction under a pen name so his colleagues won‘t know what he‘s up to. Erich William Bergmeier (―The Strong Salt Taste of Living Things‖) is a freelance writer and translator. His fiction has appeared in Basement Stories and M-Brane SF. Anna Bron (cover art) recently graduated from Sheridan College with a BA in traditional animation. She is a freelance illustrator and designer working from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her website: www.annabron.com. Raised in Michigan but now living in Southern California, John F. Buckley and Martin Ott (―Leaving La Dulce‖) began their ongoing games of poetic volleyball in the spring of 2009. Poetry from their collaboration Poets‘ Guide to America has been accepted by more than forty publications, including Confrontation, Evergreen Review, Glint, Grey Sparrow Press, Limestone, and ZYZZYVA. Will Cordeiro (―Pick Up‖) is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University studying 18th century British literature. Recent poems are published or forthcoming in journals such as Harpur Palate, Waccamaw, Leveler, Sentence, Verse Wisconsin, Carte Blanche, Spiral Orb, Third Wednesday, and The Prose-Poem Project. After a rather extended and varied second childhood in New Orleans (street musician, psych-tech, riverboat something-or-other, door-to-door poetry peddler, etc.), Matt Dennison (―Omaha‖) finished his undergraduate degree at Mississippi State University where he won the National Sigma Tau Delta essay competition (as judged by X.J. Kennedy). He currently lives in a 105-year-old house with ―lots of potential‖ and can be reached at email@example.com. His work has also been featured, along with an interview, at Emprise Review. Josh Denslow (―Proximity‖) lives in Dripping Springs, Texas with five dogs, three cats, two rabbits, and a hot wife. His stories have appeared in Black Clock, Upstreet, and Twelve Stories. He has written and directed five short films that have played at a few festivals, and he plays drums in the band Borrisokane. His short story collection
NOTES ON CONTRIB UTORS
Frequently Mistaken and his novel TOUCH are both looking for homes. They make a dashing pair. Meryl Ferguson (―Nandie in the Wall‖) lives in Australia, when she isn‘t living in her head. She is an avid naturalist (not the ones who run around in the nuddy, the other ones), a humanist and a pessimist, and staunchly defends her right to be so whenever she likes. Danya Goodman (―Brunhilde‘s Escape‖) is originally from Boston and misses the ocean. She is completing her PhD in clinical psychology while earning her MFA in creative writing at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on sexuality, gender, and relationships. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Anäis, Kiosk, The Midwest Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She wishes Brunhilde the best in her adventures, wherever they may be. Tania Hershman (―Waving on the Moon‖) is writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and working on a second short story collection inspired by spending time in a biochemistry lab. Her first book, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), contained many stories inspired by New Scientist articles. She has never visited a moon. She doesn‘t believe in writing only what she knows. Her website: www.taniahershman.com. Bill Jones (―The Vampires in the Basement‖) is an artist and writer living in Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. His handmade books are in collections in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Bristol, and his fiction has been published in New Walk Magazine. He also writes a website devoted to punning at www.hawkerspot.com. Robin Lee Jordan (―Mescal Reposado con Gusano‖) received her MFA in Poetry from Oregon State University. She‘s been published in 42opus and is a teacher, usually. This is her first fiction publication. JP Kemmick (―Moving Down‖) lives in Seattle where he volunteers at the writing and tutoring center 826 Seattle. He rides his bike. He does not blog at jpkemmick.wordpress.com. Adam King (―The Arc‘s Descent‖) is the 2010 winner of The Eric Hoffer Award for Short Fiction. Recently, he‘s been published in Best New Writing 2011, Crossed Genres, and A Thousand Faces. His website: www.adamkingbooks.com. Nelson Lloyd (art p. 2: ―Tastes Like Feathers‖), the fictional result of collaborations between Bob and Grace Nelson and Lloyd and Lola Lewis, resides with his double in a small house off Rogers Street in Bloomington, IN. His double does the laundry, washes dishes, mows the lawn, goes to work, eats food, and has relationships with material people. Meanwhile, the freeloading Nelson writes stories, draws pictures, makes films, and plays music—often late into the morning—with apparently no concern for his roommate‘s need for a healthy night‘s sleep.
NOTES ON CONTRIB UTORS Claire Massey’s (―The Sand Ship‖) short stories have appeared in an assortment of places, including The Best British Short Stories 2011 (Salt), Flax, Patricide 03: Surrealism and the Uncanny, Cabinet des Fées, and The Adirondack Review. She has a story forthcoming in Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds (Two Ravens Press) and two of her stories will be published as Nightjar Press chapbooks in 2012. Claire lives in Lancashire, England, with her two young sons. Adam McOmber’s (―What Follows Us‖) debut novel, Empyrean, is forthcoming from Touchstone in August 2012. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, This New and Poisonous Air (BOA Editions 2011). He teaches literature and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. His fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Third Coast, and Quarterly West. David Misialowski (―You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chain Rules‖) works as a writer and editor in New York City and is also a frequent contributor to The Galilean Library, an online forum and library devoted to the general humanities. Cindy Hunter Morgan’s (―The Bicycle Maker‖) work has appeared in West Branch, Tar River Poetry, The Literary Bohemian, Bateau, Sugar House Review, Weave, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. Last summer, her work was featured on a Michigan Poet broadside. She has worked as a reporter, gardener, writer, and bookseller. For ten years, she worked in the orchestra field, directing publicity for the Grand Rapids Symphony and, later, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. Ujjal Nihil (―Factory‖) lives in Calcutta, India. He has also lived elsewhere. Some of his new work has appeared in Abjective and elimae, among other journals. Elizabeth O’Brien (―Ginny‖) writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Swink, PANK, Versal, Juked, Flashquake, The Emerson Review, and other journals. She lives in Somerville, MA. Her website: www.elizabethobrien.net. A writer, educator, and translator, Eleanor Paynter (―Gumby Falls Hard‖) has roots in Texas, Rome, and New York, where she completed an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has recently appeared in elimae, Innisfree, New Madrid, Salamander, and Welter. She lives in the Netherlands. Dan Pearlman (―A Giant in the House,‖ first published in Nemonymous 10: Null Immortalis, June 2010) has published over fifty short stories and novellas in the general category of the ―Literary Fantastic.‖ His books of fiction to date are The Final Dream & Other Fictions (Permeable, 1995); a novel, Black Flames (White Pine Press, 1997); a second collection, The Best-Known Man in the World & Other Misfits (Aardwolf, 2001); and a second novel, Memini (Prime, 2003). Brain & Breakfast, a paperback novella (Sam‘s Dot Publishing), appeared in January, 2011. Joanna Pham (―Behavior‖) touched a dead bird at the age of five and has never been the same since. She lives in Salt Lake City with her pet canary, Augustus, and
NOTES ON CONTRIB UTORS
is pursuing her BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Westminster College. Her work has recently appeared in Ellipsis and elsewhere. Daniel Porder (―The Centipede Love Songs‖) is an NYC poet studying writing at The New School. He blogs at www.dcporder.blogspot.com. Anthony J. Rapino (―Fixing a Hole‖) lives inside his head with a few friends of varying origins. He occasionally consults these friends on life choices and often regrets it. His first novel, Soundtrack to the End of the World, will be available from Bad Moon Books in late 2011. Viable proof of his psychosis can be found on his website: www.anthonyjrapino.com. Kate Riedel (―Urban Legends‖) grew up in Minnesota and now lives in Toronto, Ontario. She has been previously published in A cappella Zoo, On Spec, Not One of Us, and Realms of Fantasy, as well as the anthologies New Writings in the Fantastic from Pendragon Press, and Lilith Unbound from Popcorn. Julia A. Rosenthal (―Trouble in Mind‖) is a freelance writer in Chicago. She draws ideas for her stories from the encyclopedia articles she writes for Salem Press. ―Trouble in Mind‖ was inspired by the films of Wong Kar-wai and a June 2010 trip to Hong Kong. Julia‘s fiction has been recognized by ChiZine and appeared in a 2011 anthology from Columbia College. More stories are forthcoming in Kaleidotrope and an anthology from India-based Zubaan Books. Curt Seubert (―The Message from Nature‖) is digesting and being digested in a small, dark room in Japan, having consumed an education rich in music, literature, philosophy, and physics. His writings have appeared amidst such beautiful settings as The American Book Review, The Fugue, Word Riot, Thirst for Fire, Down in the Dirt, The Medulla Review, art school halls and bathroom stalls. Chantel Tattoli (―Take Up the Bonnet Rouge‖) is an MFA Writing Candidate at SCAD. Her work has appeared or will at Witness, Redivider, PANK, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. Caitlin Thomson (―Teaching a Post Lunar World‖) writes about absence, usually in terms of the apocalypse. Her work has appeared in many places and is forthcoming in Anemone Sidecar, Menacing Hedge, Going Down Swinging, and the anthology Killer Verse. To read more of her work, visit www.caitlinthomson.com. Alexander Weinstein (―Painting God at Epcot‖) is the Director of The Martha‘s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and has been working as a creative writing teacher and freelance editor for the past ten years. He leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe and teaches writing at Siena Heights University. His fiction has appeared in Pleiades, Sou’Wester, Notre Dame Review, The Rio Grande Review, Hawai’i-Pacific Review, and other journals. His work deals with the trials and tribulations of modern life and other maladies of the pre-apocalyptic era.