Berkeley Fiction Review, Volume 24

Page 1

<>5?

/ BPp *

R

L

H

e

5

v

I

i

R

!

e

!

w

1

^v

iW I n


A V

a

A

O

N

a

i

I a

A

I a

O ^

a

I ^

a

> [

J a


B

F

E

I

R

R

C

E

K

T

V

E

I

I

L

E

O

N

E

W

U N I V E R S I T Y

C

A

L

I

F

O

R

Y

N

O F

I

A


B E R K E L E Y

I

1

F I C T I O N

R E V I E W

Managing Editors Sarah McClure Haufrect Julia Simon Associate Editors Michael Grisolia Jeremy Walsh

Assistant Editors Kessy Gbendio Victoria Wang Alicia Churchill

Layout Editor Cindy Leung

Cover art by Bret M. Herholz: "Polly" Copyright 2004 by Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction Review is not an official publication of the Associated Students of the University of California. These stories are works of fiction and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASUC or the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley Fiction Review is a non-profit publication. ASUC sponsored. Inquiries, correspondence, and submissions should be sent to: Berkeley Fiction Review, 10b Eshleman Hall Univ. of California, Berkeley CA 94720. The Berkeley Fiction Review is not responsible for unsolicited material. Member of CLMP Distributed by Ubiquity, Brooklyn, New York Printed by Alonzo Printing, Hayward California Cover art ISSN 1087-7053

Staff Christy Ball Mary Anne Bishop Traci Boyd Tracy Brown Benjamin Burner Melissa Chan Catherine Chang Ann Conkle LisI Duncan Amanda Evans Melissa Fanoe Chiara Gius Dave Hagar Jason Herberg Katherine Hutchinson Rose Jiang Maeve Johnston Alana Jordan VladKroll Caleb Leisure Perrine Leydier Juliana Lee JuanaLi

KimberlyLove Matthew Main Elizabeth McCarthy Dustin McVay Georgina McWhirter Amelia Mularz Arti Nehru Zahra Norbakhesh Elizabeth Normoy le Isabel Nguyen Chris Rhodes NimaSaalabi Steve Saldivar Matt Sander Kristina Selio Anne Shiau Meredith Sires Kasia Slaughter Sigrid Waggener Asma Stephan Timothy Wallach GiaWong Jessica Wong

Interior Art Michael Greenstein

Cover Art Bret M. Herholz


B E R K E L E Y

I

1

F I C T I O N

R E V I E W

Managing Editors Sarah McClure Haufrect Julia Simon Associate Editors Michael Grisolia Jeremy Walsh

Assistant Editors Kessy Gbendio Victoria Wang Alicia Churchill

Layout Editor Cindy Leung

Cover art by Bret M. Herholz: "Polly" Copyright 2004 by Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction Review is not an official publication of the Associated Students of the University of California. These stories are works of fiction and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASUC or the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley Fiction Review is a non-profit publication. ASUC sponsored. Inquiries, correspondence, and submissions should be sent to: Berkeley Fiction Review, 10b Eshleman Hall Univ. of California, Berkeley CA 94720. The Berkeley Fiction Review is not responsible for unsolicited material. Member of CLMP Distributed by Ubiquity, Brooklyn, New York Printed by Alonzo Printing, Hayward California Cover art ISSN 1087-7053

Staff Christy Ball Mary Anne Bishop Traci Boyd Tracy Brown Benjamin Burner Melissa Chan Catherine Chang Ann Conkle LisI Duncan Amanda Evans Melissa Fanoe Chiara Gius Dave Hagar Jason Herberg Katherine Hutchinson Rose Jiang Maeve Johnston Alana Jordan VladKroll Caleb Leisure Perrine Leydier Juliana Lee JuanaLi

KimberlyLove Matthew Main Elizabeth McCarthy Dustin McVay Georgina McWhirter Amelia Mularz Arti Nehru Zahra Norbakhesh Elizabeth Normoy le Isabel Nguyen Chris Rhodes NimaSaalabi Steve Saldivar Matt Sander Kristina Selio Anne Shiau Meredith Sires Kasia Slaughter Sigrid Waggener Asma Stephan Timothy Wallach GiaWong Jessica Wong

Interior Art Michael Greenstein

Cover Art Bret M. Herholz


A D V I S O R S

Faculty Stephen Booth

Publications Xavier Hernandez

F O R E W O R D

Now in its 21st year, the Berkeley Fiction Review, in a sense, has come of age. To celebrate this memorable year, we decided not to" take ourselves too seriously. This collection of stories is filled with hilarity and irreverence, in many different, but equally articulate styles. The humor of these stories ranges from the quirky and self-deprecating style of "Why Writers are Lonely" to the dark satirical tone of "Protection." Collecting these stories has taught us that laughter and great literature can congeal in various forms, and that writers today, though faced with a troubled world, still have not lost their sense of humor.

Alumni Matt Gough

Ironically, turning 21 brings with it a certain sobriety. Not all of the stories in this issue employ humor. Personal growth and internal turmoil over the process of starting over are prevalent themes in such stories as "Crimes Against Nature," "Dinner with the Mercers," and "Tracy." These stories and the others like them in this issue present a noticeably different way of dealing with their problematic worlds than their humorous counterparts. But the stories are not as stylistically opposed as one might think; all of the stories, be they witty or serious, present some sort of tension they negotiate in a unique way. We have found that this issue cleanly synthesizes humor and pain, and it goes down smooth. Five beers later comes the maudlin part: to all our authors, thank you so much for your patience, timeliness, and above all, your wonderful stories. To our staff, we appreciate your dedication and passion for the literary community. Our several years at BFR have been filled with humor, struggle, and personal growth, much like the themes of this issue. It has been our great pleasure to be a part of this publication, and to see ourselves reflected in this issue we give to you, our readers. (

Sincerely,

Sarah McClure Haufrect

Julia Simon


A D V I S O R S

Faculty Stephen Booth

Publications Xavier Hernandez

F O R E W O R D

Now in its 21st year, the Berkeley Fiction Review, in a sense, has come of age. To celebrate this memorable year, we decided not to" take ourselves too seriously. This collection of stories is filled with hilarity and irreverence, in many different, but equally articulate styles. The humor of these stories ranges from the quirky and self-deprecating style of "Why Writers are Lonely" to the dark satirical tone of "Protection." Collecting these stories has taught us that laughter and great literature can congeal in various forms, and that writers today, though faced with a troubled world, still have not lost their sense of humor.

Alumni Matt Gough

Ironically, turning 21 brings with it a certain sobriety. Not all of the stories in this issue employ humor. Personal growth and internal turmoil over the process of starting over are prevalent themes in such stories as "Crimes Against Nature," "Dinner with the Mercers," and "Tracy." These stories and the others like them in this issue present a noticeably different way of dealing with their problematic worlds than their humorous counterparts. But the stories are not as stylistically opposed as one might think; all of the stories, be they witty or serious, present some sort of tension they negotiate in a unique way. We have found that this issue cleanly synthesizes humor and pain, and it goes down smooth. Five beers later comes the maudlin part: to all our authors, thank you so much for your patience, timeliness, and above all, your wonderful stories. To our staff, we appreciate your dedication and passion for the literary community. Our several years at BFR have been filled with humor, struggle, and personal growth, much like the themes of this issue. It has been our great pleasure to be a part of this publication, and to see ourselves reflected in this issue we give to you, our readers. (

Sincerely,

Sarah McClure Haufrect

Julia Simon


S U D D E N

Contents

F I C T I O N

Why Writers Are Lonely Gary Buslik

13

Raid Rebecca Soppe

25

GailBartley

The Postcolonialist Tyler Dilts

31

Second Place "Bandog* Nicolette Severson

roommate Ginger Knowlton Third Place Sudden Fiction Winner

37

Irresponsible Aaron Hellem

40

Dinner with the Mercers J.D. Mader

48

Protection Stephen St Francis Decky

61

Running 0 Nicolette Severson Second Place Sudden Fiction Winner

65

Brief History of My Feet Ben Miller

68

Tracy Robyn Murphy

76

The Leather Coat Robert Mentzer

84.

Crimes Against Nature Gail Bartley First Place Sudden Fiction Winner

96

Winners of the Berkeley Fiction Review's Annual Sudden Fiction Contest First Place "Crimes AgainstNature"

Third Place ''roommate" Ginger Knowlton

Seventh


S U D D E N

Contents

F I C T I O N

Why Writers Are Lonely Gary Buslik

13

Raid Rebecca Soppe

25

GailBartley

The Postcolonialist Tyler Dilts

31

Second Place "Bandog* Nicolette Severson

roommate Ginger Knowlton Third Place Sudden Fiction Winner

37

Irresponsible Aaron Hellem

40

Dinner with the Mercers J.D. Mader

48

Protection Stephen St Francis Decky

61

Running 0 Nicolette Severson Second Place Sudden Fiction Winner

65

Brief History of My Feet Ben Miller

68

Tracy Robyn Murphy

76

The Leather Coat Robert Mentzer

84.

Crimes Against Nature Gail Bartley First Place Sudden Fiction Winner

96

Winners of the Berkeley Fiction Review's Annual Sudden Fiction Contest First Place "Crimes AgainstNature"

Third Place ''roommate" Ginger Knowlton

Seventh


Humid and Blue Willie Davis

99

Deer in the Road Ted Sanders

109


Humid and Blue Willie Davis

99

Deer in the Road Ted Sanders

109


W

b y

h

y

G a r y

W r i t e r s

a r e

L o n e l y

B u s l i k

illiam T. Whiting had a sinus infection. He guessed he had caught it at the post office, where a week ago he had handed a manuscript to an Arab-looking woman clerk whom he had not seen before. Normally he was not one to run to the doctor, but with anthrax on the loose he figured he'd better have it checked out. Even if it were not a case of chemical warfare, he had heard stories about virulent sinus infections causing epidural abscesses, resulting in permanent stupidity or death. Death, okay, but the idea of never being able to write another story again caused him great anxiety. It usually took a lot to get him to leave the house. He wrote every day, seven days a week, at least nine hours a day. Ten and eleven were not unusual, if his fingers were flying. By the end of his working day, there wasn't much to do but nuke himself some dinner, watch Jay Leno's monologue, think about what he was going to write the next day, and fall asleep reading. Three years earlier his wife, Carolyn, had divorced him and, his interest in dating being sublimated to his love of fiction, he had found little time or inclination to get into circulation again. He figured when his libido was ready, women would still be out there. But even now, three years later, he found little desire for anything but getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, making a cup of tea, and cranking up his word processor, from where, the next time he looked up, it was dark outside once more. He did think it would probably do him good to get away from the house once in a while—apart from trips to the post office—although going to the d,octor was not quite what he had in mind. Still, the more he thought about that new postal clerk, the more he was convinced that something was very wrong, sinus-wise. He seldom got sick, had caught three colds his whole adult life, never suffered from headaches or other common ailments, and shunned even over-the-counter 13


W

b y

h

y

G a r y

W r i t e r s

a r e

L o n e l y

B u s l i k

illiam T. Whiting had a sinus infection. He guessed he had caught it at the post office, where a week ago he had handed a manuscript to an Arab-looking woman clerk whom he had not seen before. Normally he was not one to run to the doctor, but with anthrax on the loose he figured he'd better have it checked out. Even if it were not a case of chemical warfare, he had heard stories about virulent sinus infections causing epidural abscesses, resulting in permanent stupidity or death. Death, okay, but the idea of never being able to write another story again caused him great anxiety. It usually took a lot to get him to leave the house. He wrote every day, seven days a week, at least nine hours a day. Ten and eleven were not unusual, if his fingers were flying. By the end of his working day, there wasn't much to do but nuke himself some dinner, watch Jay Leno's monologue, think about what he was going to write the next day, and fall asleep reading. Three years earlier his wife, Carolyn, had divorced him and, his interest in dating being sublimated to his love of fiction, he had found little time or inclination to get into circulation again. He figured when his libido was ready, women would still be out there. But even now, three years later, he found little desire for anything but getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, making a cup of tea, and cranking up his word processor, from where, the next time he looked up, it was dark outside once more. He did think it would probably do him good to get away from the house once in a while—apart from trips to the post office—although going to the d,octor was not quite what he had in mind. Still, the more he thought about that new postal clerk, the more he was convinced that something was very wrong, sinus-wise. He seldom got sick, had caught three colds his whole adult life, never suffered from headaches or other common ailments, and shunned even over-the-counter 13


Berkeley Fiction Review

medicines. He drank lots of juice, jogged three times a week in decent weather, did fifty pushups and a hundred half-crunches every other day, all year round. Mostly, though, he attributed his good health to not circulating among people he did not know. He checked in wheezily at the doctor's front desk. The receptionist was Asian, in her late forties, and somewhat mannish looking. She reminded Bill of the actor Henry Silva in the role of the Korean translator in the movie The Manchurian Candidate—one of a cabal of murderous communists who brainwashed captured American GIs. "They told you Dr. Kaiser is on vacation?" she said without looking him in the eyes, a bad sign. He nodded. "Dr. Siboney has quite a load this week. She's running a little late." The receptionist held up a box of Kleenex, offering him a tissue, but he refused. "Brought my own," he said, plucking a wet pink ball from his jeans. North Koreans were nasty, soulless little people, infiltrating doctors' offices and spiking tissues to offer to innocent sinus-infected Americans. Bill stared her down. You 'd like nothing more than to control the brain of a published novelist, wouldn't you? There was probably a bacterial strain, known only to a few evil scientists working in a remote laboratory near Pyongyang, that traversed the cartilage separating the sinuses from the brain, a bacteria whose penetration was assured by whatever precipitating agent was impregnated in this particular box of Kleenex. "Have a seat, and we'll call you when the doctor's ready," she said in English a little too perfect. He hung up his jacket, certain that when he retrieved it there would be a message in its pocket having to do with a hoard of priceless art buried by the Nazis in an abandoned Ural Mountains mine shaft during the closing days of World War II. He sat at the end of a yellow Naugahyde couch, near a table covered with magazines. It was possible the receptionist controlled a button to release a spring that would shoot through the skin of the sofa and inject him with a substance to make him obey whatever command they would give him after he typed the letter s on his keyboard. With his right hand he leafed through a Chicago magazine, being careful to use only his left hand to wipe his nose in case they had sprinkled invisible powder on the pages. He perused the personal ads in the back. One said a white divorced Christian man who liked cruising, reading, and traveling to exotic places was looking for a self-sufficient woman of the same persuasion who shared.the same interests. The word persuasion stuck out at William T. Whiting like a forehead boil. He knew that certain nefarious interests communicated with each other in carefully wrought code through innocuous-looking personal ads. For years he 14

Why Writers Are Lonely had studied these communiques and had developed a feel for the meaning of the cloaked missives. Christian was, of course, an ironic reference. Cruising meant that material (weapons-grade plutonium or time fuses, for instance) was being transported by boat. Exotic places was self-evident (North Korea). Reading probably meant that the recipient would get his instructions from a go-between at the Harold Washington Library (the first black mayor of Chicago himself being a victim of an undetectable neuro-activator that induces symptoms identical to massive coronaries—used effectively on Josef Stalin and routinely by the Mafia). Self-sufficient was merely a reminder that, in the unlikely event that an agent were apprehended, it was expected that he or, in this case, she would commit suicide before divulging any incriminating information. Recently Bill had been thinking about putting a personal ad in this magazine for himself. It wasn't that he had a burning desire to meet women; he just had a sense that it was something he should probably be doing. He liked women, for sure, but knew they would sap time and energy from his writing. Actually finding someone to date was a whole other monster. Who the heck wanted to flit around singles' bars or, heaven forbid, church socials? It occurred to him that what he really needed was to fall in love with either a good proofreader, editor, or, best of all, publisher. This would be a highly efficient way to spend the rest of his domestic life. The problem, of course, was that he lived in Chicago, not New York. He could have put a personal ad in New Yorker magazine, but, in the name of honesty and fairness, it would have to say something like: DWM looking for woman of any age, color, weight, religion, shape, or political affiliation who is eager to talk about my writing for the duration of your time on earth. Must be willing to commute to the Midwest on weekends and once or twice during the week if we get married. But he realized that an ad like this could easily be misinterpreted by sinister parties. He would probably unwittingly wind up dating an agent of the Peruvian Red Brigade and be kidnapped and held at machete point on a sacrificial altar at Machu Picchu. Which really would be down time, career-wise. A nurse opened the door next to the reception desk. "Mr. Whiting?" "That's me," he said, sneezing. "Come on in." He followed her to Exam Room 3 and hopped onto the examination table as instructed, wondering >if someone had actually cycled the sanitary paper. "Sinus infection?" she said, reading a form. "You're Dr. Siboney?" "I'm Vicki, her assistant. I'm going to take your blood pressure and temperature." And before he could utter another word, she shoved an electronic thermometer under his tongue, wrapped a blood-pressure sleeve around his bicep, 15


Berkeley Fiction Review

medicines. He drank lots of juice, jogged three times a week in decent weather, did fifty pushups and a hundred half-crunches every other day, all year round. Mostly, though, he attributed his good health to not circulating among people he did not know. He checked in wheezily at the doctor's front desk. The receptionist was Asian, in her late forties, and somewhat mannish looking. She reminded Bill of the actor Henry Silva in the role of the Korean translator in the movie The Manchurian Candidate—one of a cabal of murderous communists who brainwashed captured American GIs. "They told you Dr. Kaiser is on vacation?" she said without looking him in the eyes, a bad sign. He nodded. "Dr. Siboney has quite a load this week. She's running a little late." The receptionist held up a box of Kleenex, offering him a tissue, but he refused. "Brought my own," he said, plucking a wet pink ball from his jeans. North Koreans were nasty, soulless little people, infiltrating doctors' offices and spiking tissues to offer to innocent sinus-infected Americans. Bill stared her down. You 'd like nothing more than to control the brain of a published novelist, wouldn't you? There was probably a bacterial strain, known only to a few evil scientists working in a remote laboratory near Pyongyang, that traversed the cartilage separating the sinuses from the brain, a bacteria whose penetration was assured by whatever precipitating agent was impregnated in this particular box of Kleenex. "Have a seat, and we'll call you when the doctor's ready," she said in English a little too perfect. He hung up his jacket, certain that when he retrieved it there would be a message in its pocket having to do with a hoard of priceless art buried by the Nazis in an abandoned Ural Mountains mine shaft during the closing days of World War II. He sat at the end of a yellow Naugahyde couch, near a table covered with magazines. It was possible the receptionist controlled a button to release a spring that would shoot through the skin of the sofa and inject him with a substance to make him obey whatever command they would give him after he typed the letter s on his keyboard. With his right hand he leafed through a Chicago magazine, being careful to use only his left hand to wipe his nose in case they had sprinkled invisible powder on the pages. He perused the personal ads in the back. One said a white divorced Christian man who liked cruising, reading, and traveling to exotic places was looking for a self-sufficient woman of the same persuasion who shared.the same interests. The word persuasion stuck out at William T. Whiting like a forehead boil. He knew that certain nefarious interests communicated with each other in carefully wrought code through innocuous-looking personal ads. For years he 14

Why Writers Are Lonely had studied these communiques and had developed a feel for the meaning of the cloaked missives. Christian was, of course, an ironic reference. Cruising meant that material (weapons-grade plutonium or time fuses, for instance) was being transported by boat. Exotic places was self-evident (North Korea). Reading probably meant that the recipient would get his instructions from a go-between at the Harold Washington Library (the first black mayor of Chicago himself being a victim of an undetectable neuro-activator that induces symptoms identical to massive coronaries—used effectively on Josef Stalin and routinely by the Mafia). Self-sufficient was merely a reminder that, in the unlikely event that an agent were apprehended, it was expected that he or, in this case, she would commit suicide before divulging any incriminating information. Recently Bill had been thinking about putting a personal ad in this magazine for himself. It wasn't that he had a burning desire to meet women; he just had a sense that it was something he should probably be doing. He liked women, for sure, but knew they would sap time and energy from his writing. Actually finding someone to date was a whole other monster. Who the heck wanted to flit around singles' bars or, heaven forbid, church socials? It occurred to him that what he really needed was to fall in love with either a good proofreader, editor, or, best of all, publisher. This would be a highly efficient way to spend the rest of his domestic life. The problem, of course, was that he lived in Chicago, not New York. He could have put a personal ad in New Yorker magazine, but, in the name of honesty and fairness, it would have to say something like: DWM looking for woman of any age, color, weight, religion, shape, or political affiliation who is eager to talk about my writing for the duration of your time on earth. Must be willing to commute to the Midwest on weekends and once or twice during the week if we get married. But he realized that an ad like this could easily be misinterpreted by sinister parties. He would probably unwittingly wind up dating an agent of the Peruvian Red Brigade and be kidnapped and held at machete point on a sacrificial altar at Machu Picchu. Which really would be down time, career-wise. A nurse opened the door next to the reception desk. "Mr. Whiting?" "That's me," he said, sneezing. "Come on in." He followed her to Exam Room 3 and hopped onto the examination table as instructed, wondering >if someone had actually cycled the sanitary paper. "Sinus infection?" she said, reading a form. "You're Dr. Siboney?" "I'm Vicki, her assistant. I'm going to take your blood pressure and temperature." And before he could utter another word, she shoved an electronic thermometer under his tongue, wrapped a blood-pressure sleeve around his bicep, 15


Berkeley Fiction Review

and pumped—quite hostilely, he thought. Wasn't it strange that the one day in over six years he sought medical treatment was during the week that his own doctor, Jonathan Kaiser, happened to be at a "conference in San Diego?" Was it just a coincidence that this was the same week in which U.S. forces captured al Qaeda's number-two man, Abu Zubaydah, who happened to have so much information about future terrorist activity that torturing him was practically a national imperative? "Dr. Siboney will be right here," the nurse said, slinging the disposable thermometer tip into the wastebasket, stuffing the blood pressure apparatus into a wall bracket, and closing the door behind her. I'm not going to leave here alive. They 're going to vivisect me and sell my pulsing organs to that medical school in Grenada. The door opened, and in whirled Dr. Ela Siboney. William T. Whiting was stunned. She was beautiful. Not in the Miss America or movie star or supermodel sense of the* word, but almost. She was in her mid-thirties, slender, and her satiny blond hair fell across her shoulders like the train of a wedding gown.? Her nose was small but adequate, slightly flat, no waste. The flesh that was conserved on her nose had gone, instead, to her wide, full lips, reminiscent of stone carvings of ancient Egyptian princesses. Her neck was sinewy, her skin as smooth as Venetian glass, her smile dangerously bright, like a partial eclipse. And then there were those eyes. "Sore throat?" she asked, holding up a tongue depressor. "Not so bad," he said^not wanting to seem wimpish. "Let's have a look. Stick that pink thing way out." Twelve years earlier William and Carolyn had honeymooned on Petit St. Lucia, an island at the southern tip of the Caribbean. He had never before seen such crystalline sea, almost mystical in its translucence. Windsurfing in the wisps of breeze, looking down through the water to watch his own shadow gliding oyer alabaster sand, he had felt certain that the world was a safe and kindly place. In front of him stretched tourmaline horizon. Behind him, hibiscuses and bougainvillea exploded up the mountainside like fireworks. Above, tidbits of turquoisertinted clouds; below, honey-do Hoped Cream of Wheat. And that's exactly what it was like gazing into Dr. Ela Siboney's eyes. The exam room ignited in aquamarine. William could see the shadow of his desire skimming across her corneas. She checked his ears, his nose, felt his glands, listenedrto his heart. As he lifted his shirt, William sucked in his gut, grateful for all those half-crunches. "Sit up and let me listen to your back." He complied. "Take a deep breath." 16

Why Writers Are Lonely No problem. He had been breathing deeply since she had walked in. He only hoped she wouldn't need to feel his tumescent crotch, yoked painfully in his dryer-shrunken jeans. "Cough." He emitted a percussive, gut-aching, lung-searing hack from the most profound regions of his manliness—a slam-dunking, bean-balling, Hail-Marying, hat-tricking detonation. She told him he could tuck his shirt back in. She turned and made some notes on her clipboard. "I'll be right back," she said, her voice as sweet as ripe papaya. While she was gone, he fixed his shirt and thought about how to engage her in conversation that would lead to finding out if she were married or otherwise spoken foivHis heartbeat intruded on his thinking. It wasn't that he was shy; he was just so out of practice. Hot that he had ever possessed a great rap; love letters were more his forte. Still, if he let this opportunity go by, even at the risk of making a total fool of himself, he knewhe would regret it for the rest of his life. If there were such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. He had felt this kind of galvanic geyser only once before, when he had met Carolyn. Only his wife, whose leaving had caused him such grief, had produced this kind of Teslacoiled brain crackling. Perhaps in a previous existence he had known and loved Ela Siboney, and she had loved him. Not garden-variety love but Cathy-Heathcliff, CaesarCleopatra, Romeo-Juliet variety. Enriched-uranium, atomically charged, moltenlava love. Vicki brought in a stainless-steel tray, which she set on the desk. "Doctor will be right in." "What's that?" "Antibiotic." He smelled the sickening sweetness of wet metal. "A shot?" "Apparently you have one heck of an infection. She's going to give you some pills too." Dr. Siboney returned, holding the door open for Vicki. The nurse closed it behind her. "This'goes in your derriere, I'm afraid," said the doctor. "It'll only take a second." William bent over the table and pulled down one side of his jeans and underpants, the front getting hung up on his tumescence. She swiped his cheek with an alcohol swab, cool and pungent. "Haven't had one of these since I was a kid," he said. "I didn't think they do it anymore." "Okay,-all done." "Didn't hurt." Again, he tucked in his shirt. He turned around. "Vicki said 1-7.


Berkeley Fiction Review

and pumped—quite hostilely, he thought. Wasn't it strange that the one day in over six years he sought medical treatment was during the week that his own doctor, Jonathan Kaiser, happened to be at a "conference in San Diego?" Was it just a coincidence that this was the same week in which U.S. forces captured al Qaeda's number-two man, Abu Zubaydah, who happened to have so much information about future terrorist activity that torturing him was practically a national imperative? "Dr. Siboney will be right here," the nurse said, slinging the disposable thermometer tip into the wastebasket, stuffing the blood pressure apparatus into a wall bracket, and closing the door behind her. I'm not going to leave here alive. They 're going to vivisect me and sell my pulsing organs to that medical school in Grenada. The door opened, and in whirled Dr. Ela Siboney. William T. Whiting was stunned. She was beautiful. Not in the Miss America or movie star or supermodel sense of the* word, but almost. She was in her mid-thirties, slender, and her satiny blond hair fell across her shoulders like the train of a wedding gown.? Her nose was small but adequate, slightly flat, no waste. The flesh that was conserved on her nose had gone, instead, to her wide, full lips, reminiscent of stone carvings of ancient Egyptian princesses. Her neck was sinewy, her skin as smooth as Venetian glass, her smile dangerously bright, like a partial eclipse. And then there were those eyes. "Sore throat?" she asked, holding up a tongue depressor. "Not so bad," he said^not wanting to seem wimpish. "Let's have a look. Stick that pink thing way out." Twelve years earlier William and Carolyn had honeymooned on Petit St. Lucia, an island at the southern tip of the Caribbean. He had never before seen such crystalline sea, almost mystical in its translucence. Windsurfing in the wisps of breeze, looking down through the water to watch his own shadow gliding oyer alabaster sand, he had felt certain that the world was a safe and kindly place. In front of him stretched tourmaline horizon. Behind him, hibiscuses and bougainvillea exploded up the mountainside like fireworks. Above, tidbits of turquoisertinted clouds; below, honey-do Hoped Cream of Wheat. And that's exactly what it was like gazing into Dr. Ela Siboney's eyes. The exam room ignited in aquamarine. William could see the shadow of his desire skimming across her corneas. She checked his ears, his nose, felt his glands, listenedrto his heart. As he lifted his shirt, William sucked in his gut, grateful for all those half-crunches. "Sit up and let me listen to your back." He complied. "Take a deep breath." 16

Why Writers Are Lonely No problem. He had been breathing deeply since she had walked in. He only hoped she wouldn't need to feel his tumescent crotch, yoked painfully in his dryer-shrunken jeans. "Cough." He emitted a percussive, gut-aching, lung-searing hack from the most profound regions of his manliness—a slam-dunking, bean-balling, Hail-Marying, hat-tricking detonation. She told him he could tuck his shirt back in. She turned and made some notes on her clipboard. "I'll be right back," she said, her voice as sweet as ripe papaya. While she was gone, he fixed his shirt and thought about how to engage her in conversation that would lead to finding out if she were married or otherwise spoken foivHis heartbeat intruded on his thinking. It wasn't that he was shy; he was just so out of practice. Hot that he had ever possessed a great rap; love letters were more his forte. Still, if he let this opportunity go by, even at the risk of making a total fool of himself, he knewhe would regret it for the rest of his life. If there were such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. He had felt this kind of galvanic geyser only once before, when he had met Carolyn. Only his wife, whose leaving had caused him such grief, had produced this kind of Teslacoiled brain crackling. Perhaps in a previous existence he had known and loved Ela Siboney, and she had loved him. Not garden-variety love but Cathy-Heathcliff, CaesarCleopatra, Romeo-Juliet variety. Enriched-uranium, atomically charged, moltenlava love. Vicki brought in a stainless-steel tray, which she set on the desk. "Doctor will be right in." "What's that?" "Antibiotic." He smelled the sickening sweetness of wet metal. "A shot?" "Apparently you have one heck of an infection. She's going to give you some pills too." Dr. Siboney returned, holding the door open for Vicki. The nurse closed it behind her. "This'goes in your derriere, I'm afraid," said the doctor. "It'll only take a second." William bent over the table and pulled down one side of his jeans and underpants, the front getting hung up on his tumescence. She swiped his cheek with an alcohol swab, cool and pungent. "Haven't had one of these since I was a kid," he said. "I didn't think they do it anymore." "Okay,-all done." "Didn't hurt." Again, he tucked in his shirt. He turned around. "Vicki said 1-7.


\

Berkeley Fiction Review I'm getting pills, too." She didn't answer, only leaned back-against the desk and watched his face. Their eyes locked. He cleared his throat. His chest was suddenly tight, his saliva thick. "I feel kind of funny," he said. "Funny how?" "Weird funny. A little lightheaded. I'm having a hard time swallowing." "Why don't you lie down?" He did. "What kind of antibiotic was it?" he wanted to know. She came over, took his wrist with her fingers and, looking at her watch, counted his pulse. "How do you feel now?'-' she asked, her voice hollow and spiraling into a cosmic abyss. "Not so good." He was hearing his own voice from outside his body, the way you listen to arecording of yourself. At first he wasn'frsure it was himself speaking., "Not good," he repeated. His heart beat fromsomewhere in the back-of his brain, his breath was shallow and sharp. But when, panicked, he tried'to sit up again, she put her hand on his chest, a hand as heavy and hot as an iron. He pushed, but she easily held him down. "You're not going anywhere until you tell me what I need to know," she said, her voice not sweet anymore, but dull and flat, receding, approaching, receding again, "a voice he kept passing on a^meny-go-round., "Let's cut the bullshit, shall we," she snapped, the weight of her hand crushing him, "and get down to business." "What?" "I'll ask the questions." " I . . . can't breathe." She eased her hand a bit. "That. . . wasn't.. . antibiotic . . . was it?" he stammered. "It's puffer-fish poison. Ten thousand-times more toxic than cyanide. The same substance they use to make zombies." She glanced at her watch. "Ten minutes from now Willy Whiting as you know him will cease to exist. Ten minutes, do you understand?—unless I administer the antidote." He dragged his legs off the table. She took one step back to block the door. "Don't be stupid," she snarled. "They can't help you. Nobody can, except me." His feet slid to the floor, but his knees gave way. "What. . . what do you want?" he slurred, grabbing the strap that held the sanitary paper. She laughed, a hellish cackle. "What do I want?" He crumpled on the tile. "That's always the question, isn't it? 'What does she want?' 'What<does he want?' 'What do they want?'! You can't just leave us alone, can you? You have to know what makes us tick. You have to analyze and probe and authenticate and hypothecate. You can't let us just live our lives, can you, you meddling bastards? 18

Why Writers Are Lonely

You have to call us over like dogs, put us under your microscopes, inspect us for imperfections, skin us like animals, destroy us with your inane adjectives, your stupid similes. You have to make us accountable, even though we never asked to be part of your dreary, hopeless lives." He crawled across the floor and, curling like a hair, pressed himself into the corner next to a stainless-steel waste container. She held up her wrist. "Nine minutes, William. And I can't guarantee my accuracy. Puffer-fish poison isn't an exact science." "What do you want to know?" he gasped, sweat burning his eyes. "For starters, Willy boy, let's talk Web sites." "Web sites?" "Eight-and-a-half minutes." His ears whined like the sound of a taxiing jumbo jet. His lips stretched across his teeth. Dripping sweat spots, oblong and dark, were multiplying amoebalike on his jeans. "Web site?" he muttered again. She sliced her form at him. "Cuba Web site, Billy! March twelfth! March sixteenth! Eight minutes left, Billy!" Desperately he tried to recall. "Why did you go to Cuba.com?!" she demanded, standing over him. He remembered now. "You . . . you know where I Web surf?" he stuttered. "Never mind us. Start talking Cuba!" " I . . . I'm writing a story. I needed a scene in Havana.. .It was just a tourist Web site—" She brandished her form again. "And those books you borrowed from the township library? Havana on Foot? History ofColonial Cuba? The Cuban People, Past and Present?'''' She kneeled and glared into his face. "Three books for one scene?!" she growled. "You expect us to believe that?!" "It's true," he mewled. "Why are you doing this? What do you want?" She stood again. He was looking at her kneecaps. Her legs were smooth and thin and, indeed, too tan for April in Illinois—the tan of someone who had just returned from a forbidden Latin American country. "We know about the movie, too," she said. "Movie?" "Yes, movie! Movie! Movie!" She cracked her paper like a whip. "Big Tit Follies. The movie you rented from Progressive Video on March seventeenth!" "How could you—" "And the magazines you bought at the Mobil station minimart: Travel & Leisure and Jogging and PlayboyV The noise in his ears had become deafening—the plane taking off. "How could you know about all—" "Who are you working for, William? Who's paying your mortgage?!" 19

^


\

Berkeley Fiction Review I'm getting pills, too." She didn't answer, only leaned back-against the desk and watched his face. Their eyes locked. He cleared his throat. His chest was suddenly tight, his saliva thick. "I feel kind of funny," he said. "Funny how?" "Weird funny. A little lightheaded. I'm having a hard time swallowing." "Why don't you lie down?" He did. "What kind of antibiotic was it?" he wanted to know. She came over, took his wrist with her fingers and, looking at her watch, counted his pulse. "How do you feel now?'-' she asked, her voice hollow and spiraling into a cosmic abyss. "Not so good." He was hearing his own voice from outside his body, the way you listen to arecording of yourself. At first he wasn'frsure it was himself speaking., "Not good," he repeated. His heart beat fromsomewhere in the back-of his brain, his breath was shallow and sharp. But when, panicked, he tried'to sit up again, she put her hand on his chest, a hand as heavy and hot as an iron. He pushed, but she easily held him down. "You're not going anywhere until you tell me what I need to know," she said, her voice not sweet anymore, but dull and flat, receding, approaching, receding again, "a voice he kept passing on a^meny-go-round., "Let's cut the bullshit, shall we," she snapped, the weight of her hand crushing him, "and get down to business." "What?" "I'll ask the questions." " I . . . can't breathe." She eased her hand a bit. "That. . . wasn't.. . antibiotic . . . was it?" he stammered. "It's puffer-fish poison. Ten thousand-times more toxic than cyanide. The same substance they use to make zombies." She glanced at her watch. "Ten minutes from now Willy Whiting as you know him will cease to exist. Ten minutes, do you understand?—unless I administer the antidote." He dragged his legs off the table. She took one step back to block the door. "Don't be stupid," she snarled. "They can't help you. Nobody can, except me." His feet slid to the floor, but his knees gave way. "What. . . what do you want?" he slurred, grabbing the strap that held the sanitary paper. She laughed, a hellish cackle. "What do I want?" He crumpled on the tile. "That's always the question, isn't it? 'What does she want?' 'What<does he want?' 'What do they want?'! You can't just leave us alone, can you? You have to know what makes us tick. You have to analyze and probe and authenticate and hypothecate. You can't let us just live our lives, can you, you meddling bastards? 18

Why Writers Are Lonely

You have to call us over like dogs, put us under your microscopes, inspect us for imperfections, skin us like animals, destroy us with your inane adjectives, your stupid similes. You have to make us accountable, even though we never asked to be part of your dreary, hopeless lives." He crawled across the floor and, curling like a hair, pressed himself into the corner next to a stainless-steel waste container. She held up her wrist. "Nine minutes, William. And I can't guarantee my accuracy. Puffer-fish poison isn't an exact science." "What do you want to know?" he gasped, sweat burning his eyes. "For starters, Willy boy, let's talk Web sites." "Web sites?" "Eight-and-a-half minutes." His ears whined like the sound of a taxiing jumbo jet. His lips stretched across his teeth. Dripping sweat spots, oblong and dark, were multiplying amoebalike on his jeans. "Web site?" he muttered again. She sliced her form at him. "Cuba Web site, Billy! March twelfth! March sixteenth! Eight minutes left, Billy!" Desperately he tried to recall. "Why did you go to Cuba.com?!" she demanded, standing over him. He remembered now. "You . . . you know where I Web surf?" he stuttered. "Never mind us. Start talking Cuba!" " I . . . I'm writing a story. I needed a scene in Havana.. .It was just a tourist Web site—" She brandished her form again. "And those books you borrowed from the township library? Havana on Foot? History ofColonial Cuba? The Cuban People, Past and Present?'''' She kneeled and glared into his face. "Three books for one scene?!" she growled. "You expect us to believe that?!" "It's true," he mewled. "Why are you doing this? What do you want?" She stood again. He was looking at her kneecaps. Her legs were smooth and thin and, indeed, too tan for April in Illinois—the tan of someone who had just returned from a forbidden Latin American country. "We know about the movie, too," she said. "Movie?" "Yes, movie! Movie! Movie!" She cracked her paper like a whip. "Big Tit Follies. The movie you rented from Progressive Video on March seventeenth!" "How could you—" "And the magazines you bought at the Mobil station minimart: Travel & Leisure and Jogging and PlayboyV The noise in his ears had become deafening—the plane taking off. "How could you know about all—" "Who are you working for, William? Who's paying your mortgage?!" 19

^


Berkeley Fiction Review

\ "<

"I swear, I'm a writer." She laughed, the most bilious laugh he had ever heard. "Oh, come now, Bill. That's not even funny anymore. No one in his right mind would believe you pay your bills with that shit you call fiction." Again, the diabolical chortle. "Your handlers goofed big-time on this one, sonny. Obviously they're not smart enough to know the difference between 'art'"—she flapped her form once again—"and 'mental masturbation.'" "I am a writer. I am. I am." "You're playing both sides of the street, Billy boy, and that makes it personal." She bent down and got into his face. "On a certain level I can stand traitors. I don't like it, but it's business." Her breath stank like a dead mouse. "But lying to your own people... You make me want to puke. Come to think of it, I might not give you that antidote even if you do.talk within the next"—she glared at her wrist—"five minutes, fifteen seconds." "It's . . . true," he admitted at last, forehead on knee. "I'm a fraud." "A bad one." "That last book I wrote that went into a second printing . . . I don't know how it happened. Some kind of accident." "You're wasting precious time." " I . . . tried to fool my wife, too, but she got wise." "Who's paying your bills?' He mumbled something. "I can't hear you," she said. "Too weak > . . come closer." "Are you ready to talk?" He nodded. She kneeled again. "Closer." She turned her ear to his whisper. Her eyes were diverted for only an instant, but that was just enough. His arm sprung out and grabbed her throat. His limbs were as heavy as mahogany, but he still had enough strength to clamp an elbow around her esophagus. What's more, while he had been curled, he had sneaked his ballpoint pen out of his shirt pocket and now pressed it to her carotid artery. "You have your needles, and I have mine," he rasped. "Let me go," she pleaded. "You don't have much time." "We die together," he vowed. She tried to wrangle away, but he held tight. "Now you start talking," he demanded. "Who are you?" He could feel her fear under his flesh, could feel her go as cold as granite. "They murdered my husband and kidnapped my daughter," she wheezed. "Who, for God's sake?" 20

r i

Why Writers Are Lonely

"If I talk, they'll kill her." She quavered beneath his grip. "They've been watching you for a long time. Everything—" "Can they hear us now?" She shook her head. "We can work together," he told her. "No . . . I can't get you involved." "I'm already.involved," he said, realizing too late howtrite it sounded. "If you kill me," she pleaded, "my baby dies." They were locked together, flesh in flesh, fates ineluctably entwined. "It was a lie," she said. "That wasn't poison. It was floxicillin, an ordinary antibiotic. Let me go, and you can walk ou£ of here better than you came in." "Is Vicki in on it?"She shook her head. "They know nothing about it." "What about Dr. Kaiser?" "He' U be released safely and won't have any recollection of what happened." "How do I know you're not lying now?" "You don't," she choked. "It's just a matter of faith." He letup slightly on his grip. "Pure faith," she gasped. "What about the dizziness? The buzzing in my ears?" "Your imagination," she muttered. "Creative imagination." Really? It's possible she was just working him, flattering him. But then she whispered", "Check youcswatch-lt's past the time." Two minutes past. The noise in"his-.ears'had let up. His mindwas starting to clear. He loosened his grip. She broke .free and ran to the door. "Imbecile!" she cried. "Don't you know, they're always with you! You got away this time, but they'll beat you in the end!" She bolted out, the door swaying behind her. He staggered out of Exam Room 3, his vision still slightly blurred, but strength returning to his legs. He shuffled to the reception desk. The Korean woman— Henry Silva—handed him the yellow copy of the diagnosis form. "You don't have to pay us now," she said perfunctorily. "We'll submit it to your insurance company." He read the sheet. It said he had "rhinitis." He looked around but did not see Dr. Siboney. "Any questions?" the receptionist asked. He shook his head, shoved the form in his pockety and'left, his nose actually starting to feel better. William T. Whiting was not dying, apparently. He did not have Lou Gehrig's disease, a brain tumor, or kidney failure. It had not been puffer-fish poison'in the 21


Berkeley Fiction Review

\ "<

"I swear, I'm a writer." She laughed, the most bilious laugh he had ever heard. "Oh, come now, Bill. That's not even funny anymore. No one in his right mind would believe you pay your bills with that shit you call fiction." Again, the diabolical chortle. "Your handlers goofed big-time on this one, sonny. Obviously they're not smart enough to know the difference between 'art'"—she flapped her form once again—"and 'mental masturbation.'" "I am a writer. I am. I am." "You're playing both sides of the street, Billy boy, and that makes it personal." She bent down and got into his face. "On a certain level I can stand traitors. I don't like it, but it's business." Her breath stank like a dead mouse. "But lying to your own people... You make me want to puke. Come to think of it, I might not give you that antidote even if you do.talk within the next"—she glared at her wrist—"five minutes, fifteen seconds." "It's . . . true," he admitted at last, forehead on knee. "I'm a fraud." "A bad one." "That last book I wrote that went into a second printing . . . I don't know how it happened. Some kind of accident." "You're wasting precious time." " I . . . tried to fool my wife, too, but she got wise." "Who's paying your bills?' He mumbled something. "I can't hear you," she said. "Too weak > . . come closer." "Are you ready to talk?" He nodded. She kneeled again. "Closer." She turned her ear to his whisper. Her eyes were diverted for only an instant, but that was just enough. His arm sprung out and grabbed her throat. His limbs were as heavy as mahogany, but he still had enough strength to clamp an elbow around her esophagus. What's more, while he had been curled, he had sneaked his ballpoint pen out of his shirt pocket and now pressed it to her carotid artery. "You have your needles, and I have mine," he rasped. "Let me go," she pleaded. "You don't have much time." "We die together," he vowed. She tried to wrangle away, but he held tight. "Now you start talking," he demanded. "Who are you?" He could feel her fear under his flesh, could feel her go as cold as granite. "They murdered my husband and kidnapped my daughter," she wheezed. "Who, for God's sake?" 20

r i

Why Writers Are Lonely

"If I talk, they'll kill her." She quavered beneath his grip. "They've been watching you for a long time. Everything—" "Can they hear us now?" She shook her head. "We can work together," he told her. "No . . . I can't get you involved." "I'm already.involved," he said, realizing too late howtrite it sounded. "If you kill me," she pleaded, "my baby dies." They were locked together, flesh in flesh, fates ineluctably entwined. "It was a lie," she said. "That wasn't poison. It was floxicillin, an ordinary antibiotic. Let me go, and you can walk ou£ of here better than you came in." "Is Vicki in on it?"She shook her head. "They know nothing about it." "What about Dr. Kaiser?" "He' U be released safely and won't have any recollection of what happened." "How do I know you're not lying now?" "You don't," she choked. "It's just a matter of faith." He letup slightly on his grip. "Pure faith," she gasped. "What about the dizziness? The buzzing in my ears?" "Your imagination," she muttered. "Creative imagination." Really? It's possible she was just working him, flattering him. But then she whispered", "Check youcswatch-lt's past the time." Two minutes past. The noise in"his-.ears'had let up. His mindwas starting to clear. He loosened his grip. She broke .free and ran to the door. "Imbecile!" she cried. "Don't you know, they're always with you! You got away this time, but they'll beat you in the end!" She bolted out, the door swaying behind her. He staggered out of Exam Room 3, his vision still slightly blurred, but strength returning to his legs. He shuffled to the reception desk. The Korean woman— Henry Silva—handed him the yellow copy of the diagnosis form. "You don't have to pay us now," she said perfunctorily. "We'll submit it to your insurance company." He read the sheet. It said he had "rhinitis." He looked around but did not see Dr. Siboney. "Any questions?" the receptionist asked. He shook his head, shoved the form in his pockety and'left, his nose actually starting to feel better. William T. Whiting was not dying, apparently. He did not have Lou Gehrig's disease, a brain tumor, or kidney failure. It had not been puffer-fish poison'in the 21


Berkeley Fiction Review

\.

syringe, thank goodness. The sun glinted on his hood ornament. There were only a few scattered, copper-bottomed clouds in an otherwise parakeet-blue sky. His car interior was clean and smelled minty. Even when he rolled back his moon roof, he could hardly hear his engine, it was in such perfect tune. He was hungry. Since he had* contracted the sinus infection, he had eaten little, mostly soup-and hot cereal, but now, with the benign diagnosis in his pocket, he was feeling very hungry indeed. A couple of scrambled eggs with a side of pancakes seemed-just the thing. He pulled into an IHOP parking lot. Inside, he asked for a booth in the sunlight. "Bev will be your server,7' the hostess said, opening his menu-and pouring him a decaf. A minute later Bev arrived. She was not what he had expected. Bev was an older, frumpy sounding name, but the actual Bev.was in her upper .twenties and cute as could be. She was short with medium-length, raven-black hair.tie'd with pink bpws in pigtails. Farmer's daughter. She had a roundish (but not chubby) face, dark, sparkling eyes behind wire glasse's^'and pierced ears with pewter earrings. Unlike Dr. Ela Siboney, she radiated jolliness, bubbling when she talked. "Hi, I'm Bev," she said. "Have you had enough time to look over the menu?" William instantly decided he could like Bev a lot, especially coming off the grim experience of Dr. Siboney. He had the impression that Bev did^not take life seriously at all, that every day was a new adventure, that if she were going to be a waitress at IHOP, she was darned well going to be the happiest waitress IHOP ever had. "Maybe you could give me another minute," he said, fluttering the menu. "You bet," she said, cracking her knuckles. She nodded at the seat facing him. "Want me to wait here?" The notion surprised him. "Be my guest," he replied .amiably. She slid in across the table. "Everything tastes great," she promised. He closed the menu. "Can I ask you a question, Bev?" "Sure!" "What makes you so happy?" Without hesitating, she said, "Oh, not everything's the way it seems." "It's not?" She shook her head. "Life's not like our menu. You know, you see a picture of a tuna melt, you order a tuna melt, I bring you a tuna melt." "It's not?" "People aren't like that. Well, some people." "You're not a tuna melt?" "I'm more like mystery meat." She frowned. "Laughing on the outsidcbut living a life of danger and conflict." "What kind of danger?" "You really, really want to know?" 22

Why Writers Are Lonely "Yes, I do." She took a deep breath, leaned over the table, and whispered, "Well, for one thing, there are certain people who are trying to block me. Possibly hurt me physically." "Block you from what?" "That's the question, isn't it?" she hissed. "It always come's down to conflicts of interest." Her countenance changed.- She gazed into his soul. "Are you sure you want to get involved in my troubles?" "Maybe I can help." "Maybe." "Try me, that's all I'm saying." She glanced around, bit her lower lip, and, sotto voce, said, "They built this restaurant on a fortune." "Land value?" "I mean, actual treasure. My great-uncle Glenn Kirby, the infamous bank robber from the 1930s, buried a fortune in silver certificates on this very corner." She cast a glance at the pie cooler behind the register. Cupping a hand to her mouth, she said, "Pretty much right under the strawberry chiffons." "You're joking, right?" "What would a quarter-million dollars in 1936 be worth today? Not counting numismatic value?" "Good God." "Certainly worth getting a job as a waitress, wouldn't you say? To eventually marry the owner's numbskull son, take control over the operation, then one day decide to expand, a project that will involve digging up the foundation under the strawberry chiffons?" "You said someone wants to hurt you." Her forehead creased. "I discovered my great-uncle's diary in a locked trunk in my grandmother's attic, just before they tore down her house. That's how I found out about the money. The heck of it was, the lock wasn't as rusted as the hasp. Someone cut off the original and replaced it. They got to it before I did." She looked around. "Someone who's also working here now, would be my guess." She turnedback to him with a dagger stare. "Or, it could be a customer. A customer like you." "Me?" "When it comes to that kind of money, anything's possible.'' She glared at him accusatorially. "Let's face it, we all have rent to pay." He nodded. She sat back and folded her arms. "Well, then, we understand each other. But the truth is, I see in your face the kind of blind-faith stupidity I can work with." "Really?" 23


Berkeley Fiction Review

\.

syringe, thank goodness. The sun glinted on his hood ornament. There were only a few scattered, copper-bottomed clouds in an otherwise parakeet-blue sky. His car interior was clean and smelled minty. Even when he rolled back his moon roof, he could hardly hear his engine, it was in such perfect tune. He was hungry. Since he had* contracted the sinus infection, he had eaten little, mostly soup-and hot cereal, but now, with the benign diagnosis in his pocket, he was feeling very hungry indeed. A couple of scrambled eggs with a side of pancakes seemed-just the thing. He pulled into an IHOP parking lot. Inside, he asked for a booth in the sunlight. "Bev will be your server,7' the hostess said, opening his menu-and pouring him a decaf. A minute later Bev arrived. She was not what he had expected. Bev was an older, frumpy sounding name, but the actual Bev.was in her upper .twenties and cute as could be. She was short with medium-length, raven-black hair.tie'd with pink bpws in pigtails. Farmer's daughter. She had a roundish (but not chubby) face, dark, sparkling eyes behind wire glasse's^'and pierced ears with pewter earrings. Unlike Dr. Ela Siboney, she radiated jolliness, bubbling when she talked. "Hi, I'm Bev," she said. "Have you had enough time to look over the menu?" William instantly decided he could like Bev a lot, especially coming off the grim experience of Dr. Siboney. He had the impression that Bev did^not take life seriously at all, that every day was a new adventure, that if she were going to be a waitress at IHOP, she was darned well going to be the happiest waitress IHOP ever had. "Maybe you could give me another minute," he said, fluttering the menu. "You bet," she said, cracking her knuckles. She nodded at the seat facing him. "Want me to wait here?" The notion surprised him. "Be my guest," he replied .amiably. She slid in across the table. "Everything tastes great," she promised. He closed the menu. "Can I ask you a question, Bev?" "Sure!" "What makes you so happy?" Without hesitating, she said, "Oh, not everything's the way it seems." "It's not?" She shook her head. "Life's not like our menu. You know, you see a picture of a tuna melt, you order a tuna melt, I bring you a tuna melt." "It's not?" "People aren't like that. Well, some people." "You're not a tuna melt?" "I'm more like mystery meat." She frowned. "Laughing on the outsidcbut living a life of danger and conflict." "What kind of danger?" "You really, really want to know?" 22

Why Writers Are Lonely "Yes, I do." She took a deep breath, leaned over the table, and whispered, "Well, for one thing, there are certain people who are trying to block me. Possibly hurt me physically." "Block you from what?" "That's the question, isn't it?" she hissed. "It always come's down to conflicts of interest." Her countenance changed.- She gazed into his soul. "Are you sure you want to get involved in my troubles?" "Maybe I can help." "Maybe." "Try me, that's all I'm saying." She glanced around, bit her lower lip, and, sotto voce, said, "They built this restaurant on a fortune." "Land value?" "I mean, actual treasure. My great-uncle Glenn Kirby, the infamous bank robber from the 1930s, buried a fortune in silver certificates on this very corner." She cast a glance at the pie cooler behind the register. Cupping a hand to her mouth, she said, "Pretty much right under the strawberry chiffons." "You're joking, right?" "What would a quarter-million dollars in 1936 be worth today? Not counting numismatic value?" "Good God." "Certainly worth getting a job as a waitress, wouldn't you say? To eventually marry the owner's numbskull son, take control over the operation, then one day decide to expand, a project that will involve digging up the foundation under the strawberry chiffons?" "You said someone wants to hurt you." Her forehead creased. "I discovered my great-uncle's diary in a locked trunk in my grandmother's attic, just before they tore down her house. That's how I found out about the money. The heck of it was, the lock wasn't as rusted as the hasp. Someone cut off the original and replaced it. They got to it before I did." She looked around. "Someone who's also working here now, would be my guess." She turnedback to him with a dagger stare. "Or, it could be a customer. A customer like you." "Me?" "When it comes to that kind of money, anything's possible.'' She glared at him accusatorially. "Let's face it, we all have rent to pay." He nodded. She sat back and folded her arms. "Well, then, we understand each other. But the truth is, I see in your face the kind of blind-faith stupidity I can work with." "Really?" 23


Berkeley Fiction Review "Plus, I doubt if you have the balls to cross me. So now, Mr., u h - . . . " "Whiting. William T. . . . Bill." "Bill it shall be. Okay tnen, Bill, let me tell you exactly what I know so far...." Bill plucked his pen and spiral note pad from his shirt pocket, sat erect, tuned out the sound of clacking dishes and clanking silverware, focused intensely on Bev's voice, and began taking notes. R a i d

b y R e b e c c a

S o p p e

t is eight in the morning and the police have gone, leaving a fine dust of fingerprinting powder on the furniture and a patch of drying tobaccospit on the front step, and Rick and Jane's four-room duplex apartment is filled with bugs. Not the filth and pestilence kind of bugs - not the roaches and termites and kitchen ants that would require a regimen of costly visits from the Orkin man (at least Rick doesn't think so - he checked under the stove 2nd in the kitchen cabinets), -but the* fairly harmless, freeloading insects: the moths and flies and*Daddy-lohg-leg' spiders, the" lazy-footed millipedes and crunchyshelled ladybugs that wander in blindly through doors held open *too long or through storm-window gaps, or, in this case, through a three-foot knife-gash in the living room screen, the result of the early morning burglary. Rick had come home early, just after six, from the eleven-to-seven shift at the mobile home plant, -Friday paycheck in his pocket, six eggs waiting in the refrigerator, the sun risiflg in his rear-view mirror. He had pulled into the drive and had seen the mess through the window, the pulled-out drawers and the overturned couch-cushions, the rearranged shelves and the open'cabinets, and from then on he would swear that this was the moment — not when a stray dog cornered and bit Him in the schoolyard, not when his '78 Thunderbird did a 360 on an iced-over Mississippi River bridge - but this moment, just before he found his wife, still frozen in a deep sleep, not bound and gagged, not raped or killed in a struggle, when he was the most scared he'dfeen in his life. But Jane was fine - she' d slept right through the burglary, her aging, overfed cat curled lazily against her stomach. Rick got her up and they called the police, who had them make a list of everything that was missing. There was the cash out of Jane's wallet - eight dollars - and the cigarette money they'd been saving in a jar since they'd both quit. There was Rick's mother's gold crucifix and 24

25


Berkeley Fiction Review "Plus, I doubt if you have the balls to cross me. So now, Mr., u h - . . . " "Whiting. William T. . . . Bill." "Bill it shall be. Okay tnen, Bill, let me tell you exactly what I know so far...." Bill plucked his pen and spiral note pad from his shirt pocket, sat erect, tuned out the sound of clacking dishes and clanking silverware, focused intensely on Bev's voice, and began taking notes. R a i d

b y R e b e c c a

S o p p e

t is eight in the morning and the police have gone, leaving a fine dust of fingerprinting powder on the furniture and a patch of drying tobaccospit on the front step, and Rick and Jane's four-room duplex apartment is filled with bugs. Not the filth and pestilence kind of bugs - not the roaches and termites and kitchen ants that would require a regimen of costly visits from the Orkin man (at least Rick doesn't think so - he checked under the stove 2nd in the kitchen cabinets), -but the* fairly harmless, freeloading insects: the moths and flies and*Daddy-lohg-leg' spiders, the" lazy-footed millipedes and crunchyshelled ladybugs that wander in blindly through doors held open *too long or through storm-window gaps, or, in this case, through a three-foot knife-gash in the living room screen, the result of the early morning burglary. Rick had come home early, just after six, from the eleven-to-seven shift at the mobile home plant, -Friday paycheck in his pocket, six eggs waiting in the refrigerator, the sun risiflg in his rear-view mirror. He had pulled into the drive and had seen the mess through the window, the pulled-out drawers and the overturned couch-cushions, the rearranged shelves and the open'cabinets, and from then on he would swear that this was the moment — not when a stray dog cornered and bit Him in the schoolyard, not when his '78 Thunderbird did a 360 on an iced-over Mississippi River bridge - but this moment, just before he found his wife, still frozen in a deep sleep, not bound and gagged, not raped or killed in a struggle, when he was the most scared he'dfeen in his life. But Jane was fine - she' d slept right through the burglary, her aging, overfed cat curled lazily against her stomach. Rick got her up and they called the police, who had them make a list of everything that was missing. There was the cash out of Jane's wallet - eight dollars - and the cigarette money they'd been saving in a jar since they'd both quit. There was Rick's mother's gold crucifix and 24

25


Berkeley Fiction Review

Jane's Nike running shoes. There were videotapes and compact discs, the VCR, the computer software, a few books of Jane's that looked old and expensive. The thief had been discerning, selecting some CDs and leaving others, gingerly rooting through Jane's purse and leaving her wallet neatly folded in the bottom, lingering, as Jane imagined, over the photos of her childhood, the album pulled from a shelf and left open on the kitchen table. He had dimmed the halogen lamp in the living room that Jane leaves on when Rick is at work, and he had ripped the phone cord from the wall. He'd probably been watching and waiting, the police said, sitting outside in the dark until Jane went to bed, and if they caught him, when they caught him, he could be charged with home invasion on top of the burglary. The police then gathered up their supplies and their papers and left Rick and Jane alone in their invaded apartment, with Rick wondering at eight in the morning if he could switch to an afternoon shift, and Jane wondering if the thief had seen her undressing, and with the place a mess and slowly filling with bugs. So here they are, Rick and Jane, in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, their every move studied by dozens of compound eyes. Now it is time to divvy up the tasks associated with their situation, like Saturday-morning chores, the mowing and raking for him and the laundry for her. There is no discussion, no negotiation involved, no I'll trade you the kitchen floor for the shower and the toilet. There is only the deciding moment-when Rick hugs Jane, perhaps not tightly enough, and smoothes her hair, and he thinks Where are those insurance papers? just as she thinks Does he blame me for leaving the window open? and they turn into separate rooms to begin sorting through thettiings that the burglar left behind. Jane takes the kitchen, where she finds that the thief has stolen the bananas, and Rick takes the living room, where he checks through drawers to make sure the important papers aren't gone - the birth and marriage certificates, medical records, credit-card statements, old tax returns. "Jesus, would you look at all these bugs," he says, mostly to avoid saying something else. "They're everywhere," he says, and he's right - there are a lot of them, more than one might expect after just a few hours of ripped-open screen, and they flutter around in the kitchen light, or crawl up the walls in grand, languid fashion, or hide in shadowy places and spin intricate webs. When Rick says this, Jane makes a half-hearted gagging noise, then laughs and scoots over to the stove to have her own look underneath. It will be two hours before Rick and Jane get the apartment straightened up, and another hour and a half before Rick gets a new screen into the window, blocking the entry of any more insects. By dusk, he will drive to his parents' house in Salem for his old shotgun and shells, and the next morning he will take Jane out to his friend Bobby's place in the country to teach her how to shoot. Jane will hate the shotgun, the sulfur smell of hot gunpowder and the buck it gives her when she pulls the trigger, and she will take instead to alternating 26

Raid between a butcher knife and a baseball bat when Rick is gone, holding the knife in her left hand when she takes out the garbage and sliding the baseball bat under the mattress. In two days Rick will return to work, and at night Jane will lock all the windows and lie in their bed, pressed flat to the sheets by the summer heat, the air-conditioner off so she can hear every night noise, and she will drift off to sleep and then wake with a start, certain there is a bug - a hairy spider, maybe, or an inchworm creeping up her scalp. She will swat at her head and find nothing, and then she will roll over and return to sleep and it will happen again, and again, and then it will be a man creeping up to her in the bed, or the shadow of a man, the man who knows what she eats and what she reads and what she looked like on the night of her senior prom, the man who dimmed the lights and ripped out the phone cord and crept thrpugh her apartment and who might do it again, who might come back for the things he didn't take the first go-round, who might blow savagely in her ear Hello, Jane — forcing her to brain him with Rick's Louisville Slugger. These images will cycle in her mind - insects on the windowsill, crawling across the bedspread, a man on his hands and knees creeping across the bedroom carpet and in these days after the burglary she will get very little sleep. It will be a week until Rick notices how tired his wife looks, how old and crumpled, and he will ask how she's doing and she will sigh and spill the orange juice she's pouring and confess how afraid she is that the man will return. Rick will try to tell her that she's being silly, but he will also start looking into security systems that they can't afford and he will secretly, in indulgent daydreams, wish for this return. He will fantasize himself doing man-things like drop-kicking the intruder, and he will glare into the mirror while shaving, brandishing his father's dripping straight razor and whispering, "Come on, punk, try it again and I'lrfuck you up good." Rick will also notice how Jane slaps warily at the insects that continue to flit around their apartment: June bugs that bounce into the television and flutter against the walls, flies that zip past their ears, and moths that dive into the lamps so that there is always a broken bug body crisping on some light bulb and stinking up the rooms with the smell of burning toast and-singeing hair. He will note her disgust and will set himself to the task of eradicating this problem, purchasing a wide variety of insecticides of various typologies and potencies and lining them up on the kitchen counter below the hanging bar glasses according to the sizes and shapes of their containers. His strikes will be calculated and brutal, and he will always remember to put the fruit bowl in the cupboard first and cover the cat food with dishtowels. Rick will think Jane looks better, livelier, once he starts working on the bug problem, but then he will come home from work a month after the robbery and find Jane in the bathtub, smacking at flies with a green swatter while sitting in a tubful of dog dip, scratching. "I've got some sort of parasite," she'll say. "Bed 27


Berkeley Fiction Review

Jane's Nike running shoes. There were videotapes and compact discs, the VCR, the computer software, a few books of Jane's that looked old and expensive. The thief had been discerning, selecting some CDs and leaving others, gingerly rooting through Jane's purse and leaving her wallet neatly folded in the bottom, lingering, as Jane imagined, over the photos of her childhood, the album pulled from a shelf and left open on the kitchen table. He had dimmed the halogen lamp in the living room that Jane leaves on when Rick is at work, and he had ripped the phone cord from the wall. He'd probably been watching and waiting, the police said, sitting outside in the dark until Jane went to bed, and if they caught him, when they caught him, he could be charged with home invasion on top of the burglary. The police then gathered up their supplies and their papers and left Rick and Jane alone in their invaded apartment, with Rick wondering at eight in the morning if he could switch to an afternoon shift, and Jane wondering if the thief had seen her undressing, and with the place a mess and slowly filling with bugs. So here they are, Rick and Jane, in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, their every move studied by dozens of compound eyes. Now it is time to divvy up the tasks associated with their situation, like Saturday-morning chores, the mowing and raking for him and the laundry for her. There is no discussion, no negotiation involved, no I'll trade you the kitchen floor for the shower and the toilet. There is only the deciding moment-when Rick hugs Jane, perhaps not tightly enough, and smoothes her hair, and he thinks Where are those insurance papers? just as she thinks Does he blame me for leaving the window open? and they turn into separate rooms to begin sorting through thettiings that the burglar left behind. Jane takes the kitchen, where she finds that the thief has stolen the bananas, and Rick takes the living room, where he checks through drawers to make sure the important papers aren't gone - the birth and marriage certificates, medical records, credit-card statements, old tax returns. "Jesus, would you look at all these bugs," he says, mostly to avoid saying something else. "They're everywhere," he says, and he's right - there are a lot of them, more than one might expect after just a few hours of ripped-open screen, and they flutter around in the kitchen light, or crawl up the walls in grand, languid fashion, or hide in shadowy places and spin intricate webs. When Rick says this, Jane makes a half-hearted gagging noise, then laughs and scoots over to the stove to have her own look underneath. It will be two hours before Rick and Jane get the apartment straightened up, and another hour and a half before Rick gets a new screen into the window, blocking the entry of any more insects. By dusk, he will drive to his parents' house in Salem for his old shotgun and shells, and the next morning he will take Jane out to his friend Bobby's place in the country to teach her how to shoot. Jane will hate the shotgun, the sulfur smell of hot gunpowder and the buck it gives her when she pulls the trigger, and she will take instead to alternating 26

Raid between a butcher knife and a baseball bat when Rick is gone, holding the knife in her left hand when she takes out the garbage and sliding the baseball bat under the mattress. In two days Rick will return to work, and at night Jane will lock all the windows and lie in their bed, pressed flat to the sheets by the summer heat, the air-conditioner off so she can hear every night noise, and she will drift off to sleep and then wake with a start, certain there is a bug - a hairy spider, maybe, or an inchworm creeping up her scalp. She will swat at her head and find nothing, and then she will roll over and return to sleep and it will happen again, and again, and then it will be a man creeping up to her in the bed, or the shadow of a man, the man who knows what she eats and what she reads and what she looked like on the night of her senior prom, the man who dimmed the lights and ripped out the phone cord and crept thrpugh her apartment and who might do it again, who might come back for the things he didn't take the first go-round, who might blow savagely in her ear Hello, Jane — forcing her to brain him with Rick's Louisville Slugger. These images will cycle in her mind - insects on the windowsill, crawling across the bedspread, a man on his hands and knees creeping across the bedroom carpet and in these days after the burglary she will get very little sleep. It will be a week until Rick notices how tired his wife looks, how old and crumpled, and he will ask how she's doing and she will sigh and spill the orange juice she's pouring and confess how afraid she is that the man will return. Rick will try to tell her that she's being silly, but he will also start looking into security systems that they can't afford and he will secretly, in indulgent daydreams, wish for this return. He will fantasize himself doing man-things like drop-kicking the intruder, and he will glare into the mirror while shaving, brandishing his father's dripping straight razor and whispering, "Come on, punk, try it again and I'lrfuck you up good." Rick will also notice how Jane slaps warily at the insects that continue to flit around their apartment: June bugs that bounce into the television and flutter against the walls, flies that zip past their ears, and moths that dive into the lamps so that there is always a broken bug body crisping on some light bulb and stinking up the rooms with the smell of burning toast and-singeing hair. He will note her disgust and will set himself to the task of eradicating this problem, purchasing a wide variety of insecticides of various typologies and potencies and lining them up on the kitchen counter below the hanging bar glasses according to the sizes and shapes of their containers. His strikes will be calculated and brutal, and he will always remember to put the fruit bowl in the cupboard first and cover the cat food with dishtowels. Rick will think Jane looks better, livelier, once he starts working on the bug problem, but then he will come home from work a month after the robbery and find Jane in the bathtub, smacking at flies with a green swatter while sitting in a tubful of dog dip, scratching. "I've got some sort of parasite," she'll say. "Bed 27


Berkeley Fiction Review

Raid

bugs or something. They're biting me all over." Rick will urge her to see a doctor, but she will refuse, since his insurance from the mobile home plant doesn't cover spouses and she is only part-time at the library. They will wait for this biting to pass on its own, but within a week Jane will have scratched herself raw and rubbed at her face and licked at her lips until there is a red ring around her mouth that extends up towards her nostrils and halfway down her chin. She will complain of tiny burrowing bugs that dart across her flesh and change colors to avoid recognition, bugs that swarm all over her brush and jump out of the toothpaste, and Rick, baffled by this development, will ready himself with the Peterson Field Guide to Insects and an arsenal of lice treatments and insect repellent, but he will see nothing to classify or annihilate when his wife stretches out her infested limbs for his inspection. He will drive her across the river to a clinic in St. Louis, and after the exam the doctor will take him aside and whisper something about delusory parisitosis and psychic trauma and counseling, and Jane will begin seeing a therapist, a friend from grade school, and she will tell her therapist friend that since me burglary she's been feeling very organic. Jane will think she means that her body is like a soft and rotting chunk of wood, squirming with insects, but what she really means is that she has become a camper in her own home, that her seemingly indestructible fortress has revealed itself to be a flimsy tent and she must wave sticks from the doorway and build fires all around to keep the wild animals out, or else she is a cavewoman with no tent at all, her only protection a tiny-brained caveman who will club off their enemies and pick away at her lice with his newlyacquired opposable'thumb.

what he'll do to "any motherfucker who thinks he's going to rip off this house again." When he is finished and she is covered they will both sigh, and say "Hmmm," like they've heard something interesting, but what they will mean is Hmmm, like they've just seen the neighbor sunbathing naked in his yard and they don't feel very good about it. And'then there will be the night, three months after Jane's therapy starts, when Rick will feed his wife a sedative and head off to the bar, a little lonely and a little tired of playing nursemaid, and he will realize that he's forgotten to lock the door and then it will come back to him, this memory of the morning of the burglary. It will be like the memory of the grade-school classmate burned in a kerosene fire, the pucker-faced boy whom Rick couldn't look at without wanting to scream and run away. It will be like the dreams he -has of elderly women or little girls in pigtails plowed over in nearly-deserted streets by semis while he stands paralyzed at the opposite curb, unable to move himself to walk over and touch their broken bodies even if his assistance might save their lives. He will remember how he pulled into the drive the morning of the burglary, and how he saw his living room in disarray through the cut-open window, and how he stood on the porch, his hand on the doorknob, certain that his wife was dead or dying inside. He will remember this fear he had, and still has, even months after the incident,^ and will realize that it never was the kind of fear that told him Jane might be taken from his life, that the woman -he married might be gone, but rather it was the kind of fear that made him realize he'd have to be the one to go upstairs and find her there, his pretty wife, with her neck razored open and her skull beaten in, or her pajamas ripped off and her thighs dripping blood, or her face cut down to the bone and her stomach full of knife wounds. He will remember how he hesitated, took his hand off the doorknob and shoved it into his pocket, surveyed the block to see if anyone was around. He will remember how he walked down the drive to the mailbox, flipped the flag three times, found a halfsmoked cigarette butt in the mulch and lit it with his truck lighter, tossing the stub to the ground and unlocking the front door only when a jogger and his dog came up the street and it would have looked out-of-place for him to just stand there in front of his burglarized apartment. He will remember how he inched up the stairs, whispering "Jane," "Jane," his voice barely audible and his tongue slimy and swollen, and how he opened the bedroom door with his eyes shut, waiting for his nose to detect the smell of blood.

Rick will try to-talk her out of this condition. He will try to reason with her, to make peace between her and the hard-shelled insects that he is unable to crush with his chemical cocktails. He will even do research. "Did you know," he will say while making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "that the FDA allows a peanut butter sandwich to contain up to fifty-six insect parts?" He will gobble up the sandwich to demonstrate his surrender to the inevitable aand completely natural insect-human dynamic. "And a cup of raisins can contain up to thirty-five fruit fly eggs. Sayou see, it's you who has the upper hand here. It's you eating them, not the other way around." Jane will remain unconvinced. She will continue to itch, and to scrub the place sterile, and she will shave her arms and cut her hair to rid herself of the imaginary nits. She will want to sleep on the freshly 409ed kitchen counter to cool her shredded skin and to avoid the larva-sprinkled bed sheets, but Rick will refuse her this indulgence and they will fight and then make up with soft words and calamine lotion. This will become their new ritual, replacing the old fightover-money-or-in-laws-or-wandering-eyes scenario of their pre-burglary marriage, with Rick now massaging medicated salve into his wife's scabby flesh and Jane patiently listening to her husband's latest bug anecdotes, or to his plans to move them into a better neighborhood, or to his angry soliloquies detailing exactly

Rick will think about this all the way home, and when he gets there he will once again find Jane napping, unviolated, with her cheek ,on her arm and her feet poking over the edge of the sofa, but he will feel like crying anyway. He will lock himself in the bathroom and sit on the stool, watching a grasshopper wobble across the counter and weeping quietly with one hand pressed into his mouth. Jane will not wake and hear her husband corking his sobs behind the bathroom door, and Rick will never speak of the incident, never tell his young wife why he sweats in his sleep and spends his Saturdays changing oil and tuning up 29

28 k


Berkeley Fiction Review

Raid

bugs or something. They're biting me all over." Rick will urge her to see a doctor, but she will refuse, since his insurance from the mobile home plant doesn't cover spouses and she is only part-time at the library. They will wait for this biting to pass on its own, but within a week Jane will have scratched herself raw and rubbed at her face and licked at her lips until there is a red ring around her mouth that extends up towards her nostrils and halfway down her chin. She will complain of tiny burrowing bugs that dart across her flesh and change colors to avoid recognition, bugs that swarm all over her brush and jump out of the toothpaste, and Rick, baffled by this development, will ready himself with the Peterson Field Guide to Insects and an arsenal of lice treatments and insect repellent, but he will see nothing to classify or annihilate when his wife stretches out her infested limbs for his inspection. He will drive her across the river to a clinic in St. Louis, and after the exam the doctor will take him aside and whisper something about delusory parisitosis and psychic trauma and counseling, and Jane will begin seeing a therapist, a friend from grade school, and she will tell her therapist friend that since me burglary she's been feeling very organic. Jane will think she means that her body is like a soft and rotting chunk of wood, squirming with insects, but what she really means is that she has become a camper in her own home, that her seemingly indestructible fortress has revealed itself to be a flimsy tent and she must wave sticks from the doorway and build fires all around to keep the wild animals out, or else she is a cavewoman with no tent at all, her only protection a tiny-brained caveman who will club off their enemies and pick away at her lice with his newlyacquired opposable'thumb.

what he'll do to "any motherfucker who thinks he's going to rip off this house again." When he is finished and she is covered they will both sigh, and say "Hmmm," like they've heard something interesting, but what they will mean is Hmmm, like they've just seen the neighbor sunbathing naked in his yard and they don't feel very good about it. And'then there will be the night, three months after Jane's therapy starts, when Rick will feed his wife a sedative and head off to the bar, a little lonely and a little tired of playing nursemaid, and he will realize that he's forgotten to lock the door and then it will come back to him, this memory of the morning of the burglary. It will be like the memory of the grade-school classmate burned in a kerosene fire, the pucker-faced boy whom Rick couldn't look at without wanting to scream and run away. It will be like the dreams he -has of elderly women or little girls in pigtails plowed over in nearly-deserted streets by semis while he stands paralyzed at the opposite curb, unable to move himself to walk over and touch their broken bodies even if his assistance might save their lives. He will remember how he pulled into the drive the morning of the burglary, and how he saw his living room in disarray through the cut-open window, and how he stood on the porch, his hand on the doorknob, certain that his wife was dead or dying inside. He will remember this fear he had, and still has, even months after the incident,^ and will realize that it never was the kind of fear that told him Jane might be taken from his life, that the woman -he married might be gone, but rather it was the kind of fear that made him realize he'd have to be the one to go upstairs and find her there, his pretty wife, with her neck razored open and her skull beaten in, or her pajamas ripped off and her thighs dripping blood, or her face cut down to the bone and her stomach full of knife wounds. He will remember how he hesitated, took his hand off the doorknob and shoved it into his pocket, surveyed the block to see if anyone was around. He will remember how he walked down the drive to the mailbox, flipped the flag three times, found a halfsmoked cigarette butt in the mulch and lit it with his truck lighter, tossing the stub to the ground and unlocking the front door only when a jogger and his dog came up the street and it would have looked out-of-place for him to just stand there in front of his burglarized apartment. He will remember how he inched up the stairs, whispering "Jane," "Jane," his voice barely audible and his tongue slimy and swollen, and how he opened the bedroom door with his eyes shut, waiting for his nose to detect the smell of blood.

Rick will try to-talk her out of this condition. He will try to reason with her, to make peace between her and the hard-shelled insects that he is unable to crush with his chemical cocktails. He will even do research. "Did you know," he will say while making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "that the FDA allows a peanut butter sandwich to contain up to fifty-six insect parts?" He will gobble up the sandwich to demonstrate his surrender to the inevitable aand completely natural insect-human dynamic. "And a cup of raisins can contain up to thirty-five fruit fly eggs. Sayou see, it's you who has the upper hand here. It's you eating them, not the other way around." Jane will remain unconvinced. She will continue to itch, and to scrub the place sterile, and she will shave her arms and cut her hair to rid herself of the imaginary nits. She will want to sleep on the freshly 409ed kitchen counter to cool her shredded skin and to avoid the larva-sprinkled bed sheets, but Rick will refuse her this indulgence and they will fight and then make up with soft words and calamine lotion. This will become their new ritual, replacing the old fightover-money-or-in-laws-or-wandering-eyes scenario of their pre-burglary marriage, with Rick now massaging medicated salve into his wife's scabby flesh and Jane patiently listening to her husband's latest bug anecdotes, or to his plans to move them into a better neighborhood, or to his angry soliloquies detailing exactly

Rick will think about this all the way home, and when he gets there he will once again find Jane napping, unviolated, with her cheek ,on her arm and her feet poking over the edge of the sofa, but he will feel like crying anyway. He will lock himself in the bathroom and sit on the stool, watching a grasshopper wobble across the counter and weeping quietly with one hand pressed into his mouth. Jane will not wake and hear her husband corking his sobs behind the bathroom door, and Rick will never speak of the incident, never tell his young wife why he sweats in his sleep and spends his Saturdays changing oil and tuning up 29

28 k


Berkeley Fiction Review cars with an ever-changing group of acquaintances from work. He will never tell her the things he fears»about himself, and she will never tell him the things she has learned from the therapist, but things will settle just the same, with Jane's bug rash subsiding and Rick's nightmares at bay .and the uneasy feeling between them nothing more than an occasional pang from which they are easily distracted. There will be Jane's return to the library to think about, and Rick's promotion to line supervisor, and the finding and renting of a two-bedroom house on the quieter side of town, and then there will be the tasks - so many tasks! - associated with the packing and unpacking and the careful arranging of their old things in a place that is new. And then, even then, the bugs will still be there, decreased in number but increased in strength, stealthy insects that scramble from boxes and creep into i the darkest corners of Rick and Jane's new two-bedroom house. They will be carried in cartons, in the loose bindings of books, in the folds of the weddingnight linens. They will remain indefinitely, these bugs that creep across the windowsill and negotiate the Braille of the thick-plastered walls, these great-greatgrandchildren ten times over of the original bugs, or the new ones, the ones straight off a pants leg or fresh from the tiny hole in the bathroom screen. For Jane they will slowly become subjects for study, and she will spend the daylight hours after work with, a sketch pad and the Peterson book, and when she has. finished drawing and identifying an insect she will hang the sketch on the refrigerator, or else she wilLtake it to her therapist friend, who will offer her congratulations for getting back into the normal swing of things. But for Rick these bugs will be there to give him their trouble, their endless breeding between the floorboards a tiresome test, their annihilation a duty of husbands he may never fulfill.

30

T h e

P o s t c o l o n i a l i s t

b y Tyler

Dilts

rom his third floor window in Kinbote Hall, Dr. Hfuhruhurr (the humanities professor, not the noted neurosurgeon and medical school dean of the same surname, to whom, surprisingly, he bore no relation), gazed out over the quad, filling, on this first day of the fall semester, with the tan and lithesome bodies of students returning from summer break. His office was an ideal vantage point from which to survey the scene below, as it provided an unobstructed view of the* extended grassy expanse stretching from the surging fountain just outside the building to the tall oaks nearly a hundred yards distant that flanked the entrance to the library. On this day, a particularly warm and summery Southern California September Tuesday, Hfuhruhurr sat, leaning slightly forward, in his leatherette ergonomic executive desk chair, and wondered at the seemingly endless display of cleavage he beheld on the grass below. He saw, stretched out before him, a sea of breasts. Breasts of every shape, every size, every description—small breasts, large breasts, full breasts, flat breasts, wide breasts, round breasts, long breasts—here, at last, was true diversity in action (the university administration, in its unending zeal for all things diverse, would be, he thought, proud). There, for his eyes to take in, walking, sitting, strolling, lounging, hurrying, they were, either stationary or in glorious motion, everywhere. Of the veritable smorgasbord of snuggling-tighttops of every imaginable variety— tanks, tees, v-n&ks, spaghetti-straps, patterns, whites, pastels,"logos—each and every one would have been considered several sizes too small only a few short semesters ago, but now, they served as a powerful testament to the unfading and ever-present pulchritude of the California Girl. And from the professor's window, it seemed a preordained fact that indeed they all could be California Girls. There were other students visible there as well—young men, of course, and also the occasional young women who chose for one selfish reason or another, to keep 31

..


Berkeley Fiction Review cars with an ever-changing group of acquaintances from work. He will never tell her the things he fears»about himself, and she will never tell him the things she has learned from the therapist, but things will settle just the same, with Jane's bug rash subsiding and Rick's nightmares at bay .and the uneasy feeling between them nothing more than an occasional pang from which they are easily distracted. There will be Jane's return to the library to think about, and Rick's promotion to line supervisor, and the finding and renting of a two-bedroom house on the quieter side of town, and then there will be the tasks - so many tasks! - associated with the packing and unpacking and the careful arranging of their old things in a place that is new. And then, even then, the bugs will still be there, decreased in number but increased in strength, stealthy insects that scramble from boxes and creep into i the darkest corners of Rick and Jane's new two-bedroom house. They will be carried in cartons, in the loose bindings of books, in the folds of the weddingnight linens. They will remain indefinitely, these bugs that creep across the windowsill and negotiate the Braille of the thick-plastered walls, these great-greatgrandchildren ten times over of the original bugs, or the new ones, the ones straight off a pants leg or fresh from the tiny hole in the bathroom screen. For Jane they will slowly become subjects for study, and she will spend the daylight hours after work with, a sketch pad and the Peterson book, and when she has. finished drawing and identifying an insect she will hang the sketch on the refrigerator, or else she wilLtake it to her therapist friend, who will offer her congratulations for getting back into the normal swing of things. But for Rick these bugs will be there to give him their trouble, their endless breeding between the floorboards a tiresome test, their annihilation a duty of husbands he may never fulfill.

30

T h e

P o s t c o l o n i a l i s t

b y Tyler

Dilts

rom his third floor window in Kinbote Hall, Dr. Hfuhruhurr (the humanities professor, not the noted neurosurgeon and medical school dean of the same surname, to whom, surprisingly, he bore no relation), gazed out over the quad, filling, on this first day of the fall semester, with the tan and lithesome bodies of students returning from summer break. His office was an ideal vantage point from which to survey the scene below, as it provided an unobstructed view of the* extended grassy expanse stretching from the surging fountain just outside the building to the tall oaks nearly a hundred yards distant that flanked the entrance to the library. On this day, a particularly warm and summery Southern California September Tuesday, Hfuhruhurr sat, leaning slightly forward, in his leatherette ergonomic executive desk chair, and wondered at the seemingly endless display of cleavage he beheld on the grass below. He saw, stretched out before him, a sea of breasts. Breasts of every shape, every size, every description—small breasts, large breasts, full breasts, flat breasts, wide breasts, round breasts, long breasts—here, at last, was true diversity in action (the university administration, in its unending zeal for all things diverse, would be, he thought, proud). There, for his eyes to take in, walking, sitting, strolling, lounging, hurrying, they were, either stationary or in glorious motion, everywhere. Of the veritable smorgasbord of snuggling-tighttops of every imaginable variety— tanks, tees, v-n&ks, spaghetti-straps, patterns, whites, pastels,"logos—each and every one would have been considered several sizes too small only a few short semesters ago, but now, they served as a powerful testament to the unfading and ever-present pulchritude of the California Girl. And from the professor's window, it seemed a preordained fact that indeed they all could be California Girls. There were other students visible there as well—young men, of course, and also the occasional young women who chose for one selfish reason or another, to keep 31

..


Berkeley Fiction Review

themselves ignominiously covered. But to Hfuhruhurr, these ungenerous girls seemed somehow less visible, less tangible, (even when viewed through his new Bushnell Compact 7 x 24 Binoculars), and so he found himself focusing his attentions on the still glorious selection of mammaries displayed by those of the more sparsely attired before him. Was it, he puzzled, relishing his wonderment, that young women's breasts were actually increasing in size with the coming of each new academic year, or was it that the technology with which to display those breasts was advancing faster than the speed of light squared? Perhaps, he thought, it might even be that more and more parents were humoring their daughters* requests for high-school-graduation-gift breast augmentations. Whatever the reason, Hfuhruhurr was happy. Only his third year on the West Coast, and already he could not imagine another Ivy League winter. Ours is not to reason why, he thought, smiling, ours is but to look and sigh. And that is just what Hfuhruhurr was doing, sighing at a very particular blonde-locked student wriggling toward the building, her breasts finagled into a deep canyon flanked by a pair of scrumptiously towering mounds, when the phone rang. "Hfurhruhurr," he said. "Stephen," the voice said, properly voicing the "ffff' pronunciation of the abutted consonants. "Max here. Welcome back." Max, as the chair of the Retention, Tenure, and Promotion Committee, quickly had Hfurhxuhurr's undivided attention. "Thanks, Max. Glad to be here." "Glad to have you." "Glad to be had." Each man chortled. Hfurhruhurr appended the slightest bit of a guffaw as well. "We need to meet sometime this week," Max said. "RTP business." Hfurhruhurr thumbed through his appointment book. Both Tuesday and Thursday, his on-campus days, were booked solid. "Hmmmm," he said. "How about lunch Wednesday?" Hfurhruhurr bit his lip at Max's assertion of his place in the pecking order and said, "That would be super," in a modulation of voice so sincere he very nearly convinced even himself. Of course he resented being required to show up on campus on his off-day, but he knew tenure was near at hand and by far the shortest and most direct route to the prize, as perhaps was befitting the head of any committee whose title began with the word "retention," was an unbending path that led directly to Max's anus. * He was furious when he learned of the scheduling snafu. His afternoon Graduate Seminar on Postcolonial Discourse at the Close of the Millennium was the only class of the three he'd be.teaching this semester that he did not dread, 32

The Postcolonialist and the imbeciles in Academic Scheduling had assigned it to a dungeon of a room in the basement of the Humanities Complex. A classroom with no windows! How could he be expected to teach a graduate seminar with no windows! Hfuhruhurr stormed into the department chair's office. Eliza Hernandez, a rhet-comp Ph.D., smiled and waved him to a chair as she finished her phone call. Her short, dark hair hung in bangs, framing her face. "Hello, Stephen. How are you?" Her smile was beaming, and a casual observer would have no reason to believe she wasn't happy to see him. He mumbled a cursory greeting and explained at length the insult and indignity'Academic Scheduling had heaped upon him. He" used the word "Philistines" in describing that department's staff no less than three times. All the while, Eliza nodded and smiled. When he was finished, she looked him in the eye and said, "That's perfectly awful. What do you suppose we should do about it?" "I've been thinking about that and I've come up with a solution: there's a freshman comp class meeting in HU-202. That room is not ideal, but it's acceptable. We simply switch the room assignments." She thumbed through sheets on a clipboard with the latest class enrollments. "Well," she said, "that section has 25 students registered, your seminar has only 9. Don't you think a smaller class might be more comfortable in the basement room?"' "Of course a smaller class would be more comfortable, but I've checked the schedule thoroughly, and there simply isn't a smaller class. The comp class is the only class meeting at the same time in a room acceptable for the seminar, so they'll just have to make do." "I'm not sure I'm comfortable asking Terry to switch rooms..." "What do you mean ask? Terry's adjunct faculty. F11 tell him we're switching." "That's all right, Stephen, I'll take care of it." "Thanks, Eliza." He walked back to his office, his step a few pounds lighter. * Hfuhruhurr stood before the roomful of undergrads, huffing and overenunciating his way through the obligatory first day's roll call. He had little patience for difficult names. After all, he reasoned, his name was pronounced precisely the way it was spelled, so why shouldn't others be the same? He read the student's name on the Introduction to Literary Theory roster—Nguyen, thinking it odd the student would choose his class and not an Asian-American studies course. Perhaps, he thought, Vietnam's sta*tus as a former French colonial holding held some interest for the student. "New Yen?" he said, as if he were inquiring about freshly minted Japanese currency. A white woman, apparently in her mid-twenties, and, sadly, sans the de rigueur form-fitting push-up top, raised her hand and said, "When." 33


Berkeley Fiction Review

themselves ignominiously covered. But to Hfuhruhurr, these ungenerous girls seemed somehow less visible, less tangible, (even when viewed through his new Bushnell Compact 7 x 24 Binoculars), and so he found himself focusing his attentions on the still glorious selection of mammaries displayed by those of the more sparsely attired before him. Was it, he puzzled, relishing his wonderment, that young women's breasts were actually increasing in size with the coming of each new academic year, or was it that the technology with which to display those breasts was advancing faster than the speed of light squared? Perhaps, he thought, it might even be that more and more parents were humoring their daughters* requests for high-school-graduation-gift breast augmentations. Whatever the reason, Hfuhruhurr was happy. Only his third year on the West Coast, and already he could not imagine another Ivy League winter. Ours is not to reason why, he thought, smiling, ours is but to look and sigh. And that is just what Hfuhruhurr was doing, sighing at a very particular blonde-locked student wriggling toward the building, her breasts finagled into a deep canyon flanked by a pair of scrumptiously towering mounds, when the phone rang. "Hfurhruhurr," he said. "Stephen," the voice said, properly voicing the "ffff' pronunciation of the abutted consonants. "Max here. Welcome back." Max, as the chair of the Retention, Tenure, and Promotion Committee, quickly had Hfurhxuhurr's undivided attention. "Thanks, Max. Glad to be here." "Glad to have you." "Glad to be had." Each man chortled. Hfurhruhurr appended the slightest bit of a guffaw as well. "We need to meet sometime this week," Max said. "RTP business." Hfurhruhurr thumbed through his appointment book. Both Tuesday and Thursday, his on-campus days, were booked solid. "Hmmmm," he said. "How about lunch Wednesday?" Hfurhruhurr bit his lip at Max's assertion of his place in the pecking order and said, "That would be super," in a modulation of voice so sincere he very nearly convinced even himself. Of course he resented being required to show up on campus on his off-day, but he knew tenure was near at hand and by far the shortest and most direct route to the prize, as perhaps was befitting the head of any committee whose title began with the word "retention," was an unbending path that led directly to Max's anus. * He was furious when he learned of the scheduling snafu. His afternoon Graduate Seminar on Postcolonial Discourse at the Close of the Millennium was the only class of the three he'd be.teaching this semester that he did not dread, 32

The Postcolonialist and the imbeciles in Academic Scheduling had assigned it to a dungeon of a room in the basement of the Humanities Complex. A classroom with no windows! How could he be expected to teach a graduate seminar with no windows! Hfuhruhurr stormed into the department chair's office. Eliza Hernandez, a rhet-comp Ph.D., smiled and waved him to a chair as she finished her phone call. Her short, dark hair hung in bangs, framing her face. "Hello, Stephen. How are you?" Her smile was beaming, and a casual observer would have no reason to believe she wasn't happy to see him. He mumbled a cursory greeting and explained at length the insult and indignity'Academic Scheduling had heaped upon him. He" used the word "Philistines" in describing that department's staff no less than three times. All the while, Eliza nodded and smiled. When he was finished, she looked him in the eye and said, "That's perfectly awful. What do you suppose we should do about it?" "I've been thinking about that and I've come up with a solution: there's a freshman comp class meeting in HU-202. That room is not ideal, but it's acceptable. We simply switch the room assignments." She thumbed through sheets on a clipboard with the latest class enrollments. "Well," she said, "that section has 25 students registered, your seminar has only 9. Don't you think a smaller class might be more comfortable in the basement room?"' "Of course a smaller class would be more comfortable, but I've checked the schedule thoroughly, and there simply isn't a smaller class. The comp class is the only class meeting at the same time in a room acceptable for the seminar, so they'll just have to make do." "I'm not sure I'm comfortable asking Terry to switch rooms..." "What do you mean ask? Terry's adjunct faculty. F11 tell him we're switching." "That's all right, Stephen, I'll take care of it." "Thanks, Eliza." He walked back to his office, his step a few pounds lighter. * Hfuhruhurr stood before the roomful of undergrads, huffing and overenunciating his way through the obligatory first day's roll call. He had little patience for difficult names. After all, he reasoned, his name was pronounced precisely the way it was spelled, so why shouldn't others be the same? He read the student's name on the Introduction to Literary Theory roster—Nguyen, thinking it odd the student would choose his class and not an Asian-American studies course. Perhaps, he thought, Vietnam's sta*tus as a former French colonial holding held some interest for the student. "New Yen?" he said, as if he were inquiring about freshly minted Japanese currency. A white woman, apparently in her mid-twenties, and, sadly, sans the de rigueur form-fitting push-up top, raised her hand and said, "When." 33


Berkeley Fiction Review

"I'm sorry?" Hfuhruhurr said. "My name—I prefer it to be pronounced 'when.'" "Oh, very well," he said, making a notation next to her name. He wondered how a blue-eyed redhead came by the name Nguyen. He checked her finger for a wedding ring but saw none. "Nichols?" the professor said. * * * " . . . and it is precisely these ideals of Empire and Colonization from the last century that have given rise to today's cultural imperialism, so, as I'm sure is now quite obvious, Postcolonial Studies is perhaps the single most significant field of contemporary literary inquiry," Hfuhruhurr said. "Questions?" "When you say 'the last century,'""Ms. Nguyen inquired, "do you mean the nineteenth century or the twentieth?" "Well," he said, "what would you suspect?" "I would suspect," she said with a polite smile, "thatyou're referring to the nineteenth, but since that's no longer technically correct, I don't want to assume anything." "The common usage still refers to the nineteenth century as the last," he said, sounding a bit uncertain, more as if he were trying to convince himself rather than the c]ass. "Oh, thank you for clearing that up," Ms. Nguyen said. "See you all next time, time. Dqn't forget to .read the^orster." As the students rose and filed out of the room, Hfuhruhurr smiled at them and nodded, looking forward to the next academic year, when, with his tenure granted and his book, Imaging the Subjugated Imagination: Locating the Colonized Self in Sub-Tropical Postwar Anglophone Literature, published, he would be able to cobble together enough department service and release time to be freed of his undergraduate teaching duties altogether. After all, wasn't it a much better use of his and the English Department's valuable resources to share his complex and sophisticated research and theoretical work with those advanced grad students most able to form the beginnings of an understanding of it? It was, he thought, one of his more admirable qualities, his sincere desire to be of service to the University. * * * "The problem," Max said, over a particularly pungent bowl of some fowl-andnoodle concoction at Phuket-Thai (pronounced not as a cheeky thirteen year-old boy might hope, Hfuhruhurr discovered, much to his embarrassment), "is that a number of students from your last two Intro Theory classes have complained about unfair grading practices. They've written letters objecting to your tenure." He slurped up a stray noodle dangling from his lower lip. "Complaints?" Hfuhruhhurr was genuinely surprised. Of course many of his students had been unhappy with the grades they received in his classes, but 34

The Postcolonialist as he had so carefully explained to them in the simple terms he was sure they would be able to -understand, it was they who had earned the grades, not he who had given them. He was nothing if not objective. "Yes," Max said, "Complaints. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, but of course with the decision on your tenure coming so soon, we at least want to give the appearance that we're taking them seriously." "And are we?" "Are we what?" "Taking the grumblings seriously. The committee can't honestly believe I've any unfairness in my grading practices." Hfuhruhhurr paused a moment, waiting for some small indication of the correctness of his assumption. When none was forthcoming, he added, "Can they?" "Of course they can. They can believe whatever they choose. The prudent thing is to reduce any possible objections. Make approving your tenure the easy choice and get out in time for an early tee-off." "And how do we do that?" "We change the complainants grades. That will take the wind out of their sails. After all, it was only their own grades they were concerned with. Here," Max said, sliding a manila folder across the desk. "I had the office prepare the forms—they just need your signature." Hfimruhhurr skimmed the neatly typed forms, noticing that each of the grades had been changed to "A." He rubbed his chest over his heart, and his brow furrowed. He shifted a bit in his seat, bit his lower lip and looked at Max. "What is it," Max asked. "I don't have a pen." "Here," Max said, "Use mine." * * * "But," Ms. Nguyen continued, wearing jeans and a loose white shirt with each sleeve rolled two times, her red hair pulled into a tight pony-tail, "shouldn't we put any stock at all in V.S. Naipaul's recent assertions about Forster?" "I'm sorry," Hfuhruhhurr said, "You have me at something of a disadvantage. To what assertions are you referring?" "Well," she said, crossing her feet at the ankles beneath her "gray plastic classroom desk and searching the other faces in the room, "he just didan interview in the Guardian Unlimited? Online? Anyway, he said that Forster was a . . . " she shuffled through the pages in her folder. "I want to get this right. . . yes, here—Naipaul calls Forster a 'nasty homosexual' who exploited poor people and he says that A Passage to India is 'utter rubbish.'" She managed a faint smile, and looked to Hfuhruhhurr for some clarification. He stood mute for a few moments. Finally, he said, "I'm not familiar with that particular interview. Is that it there? Might I take a look?" He took the article, printed directly from the Guardian Unlimited website, which, along with a handful 35


Berkeley Fiction Review

"I'm sorry?" Hfuhruhurr said. "My name—I prefer it to be pronounced 'when.'" "Oh, very well," he said, making a notation next to her name. He wondered how a blue-eyed redhead came by the name Nguyen. He checked her finger for a wedding ring but saw none. "Nichols?" the professor said. * * * " . . . and it is precisely these ideals of Empire and Colonization from the last century that have given rise to today's cultural imperialism, so, as I'm sure is now quite obvious, Postcolonial Studies is perhaps the single most significant field of contemporary literary inquiry," Hfuhruhurr said. "Questions?" "When you say 'the last century,'""Ms. Nguyen inquired, "do you mean the nineteenth century or the twentieth?" "Well," he said, "what would you suspect?" "I would suspect," she said with a polite smile, "thatyou're referring to the nineteenth, but since that's no longer technically correct, I don't want to assume anything." "The common usage still refers to the nineteenth century as the last," he said, sounding a bit uncertain, more as if he were trying to convince himself rather than the c]ass. "Oh, thank you for clearing that up," Ms. Nguyen said. "See you all next time, time. Dqn't forget to .read the^orster." As the students rose and filed out of the room, Hfuhruhurr smiled at them and nodded, looking forward to the next academic year, when, with his tenure granted and his book, Imaging the Subjugated Imagination: Locating the Colonized Self in Sub-Tropical Postwar Anglophone Literature, published, he would be able to cobble together enough department service and release time to be freed of his undergraduate teaching duties altogether. After all, wasn't it a much better use of his and the English Department's valuable resources to share his complex and sophisticated research and theoretical work with those advanced grad students most able to form the beginnings of an understanding of it? It was, he thought, one of his more admirable qualities, his sincere desire to be of service to the University. * * * "The problem," Max said, over a particularly pungent bowl of some fowl-andnoodle concoction at Phuket-Thai (pronounced not as a cheeky thirteen year-old boy might hope, Hfuhruhurr discovered, much to his embarrassment), "is that a number of students from your last two Intro Theory classes have complained about unfair grading practices. They've written letters objecting to your tenure." He slurped up a stray noodle dangling from his lower lip. "Complaints?" Hfuhruhhurr was genuinely surprised. Of course many of his students had been unhappy with the grades they received in his classes, but 34

The Postcolonialist as he had so carefully explained to them in the simple terms he was sure they would be able to -understand, it was they who had earned the grades, not he who had given them. He was nothing if not objective. "Yes," Max said, "Complaints. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, but of course with the decision on your tenure coming so soon, we at least want to give the appearance that we're taking them seriously." "And are we?" "Are we what?" "Taking the grumblings seriously. The committee can't honestly believe I've any unfairness in my grading practices." Hfuhruhhurr paused a moment, waiting for some small indication of the correctness of his assumption. When none was forthcoming, he added, "Can they?" "Of course they can. They can believe whatever they choose. The prudent thing is to reduce any possible objections. Make approving your tenure the easy choice and get out in time for an early tee-off." "And how do we do that?" "We change the complainants grades. That will take the wind out of their sails. After all, it was only their own grades they were concerned with. Here," Max said, sliding a manila folder across the desk. "I had the office prepare the forms—they just need your signature." Hfimruhhurr skimmed the neatly typed forms, noticing that each of the grades had been changed to "A." He rubbed his chest over his heart, and his brow furrowed. He shifted a bit in his seat, bit his lower lip and looked at Max. "What is it," Max asked. "I don't have a pen." "Here," Max said, "Use mine." * * * "But," Ms. Nguyen continued, wearing jeans and a loose white shirt with each sleeve rolled two times, her red hair pulled into a tight pony-tail, "shouldn't we put any stock at all in V.S. Naipaul's recent assertions about Forster?" "I'm sorry," Hfuhruhhurr said, "You have me at something of a disadvantage. To what assertions are you referring?" "Well," she said, crossing her feet at the ankles beneath her "gray plastic classroom desk and searching the other faces in the room, "he just didan interview in the Guardian Unlimited? Online? Anyway, he said that Forster was a . . . " she shuffled through the pages in her folder. "I want to get this right. . . yes, here—Naipaul calls Forster a 'nasty homosexual' who exploited poor people and he says that A Passage to India is 'utter rubbish.'" She managed a faint smile, and looked to Hfuhruhhurr for some clarification. He stood mute for a few moments. Finally, he said, "I'm not familiar with that particular interview. Is that it there? Might I take a look?" He took the article, printed directly from the Guardian Unlimited website, which, along with a handful 35


Berkeley Fiction Review of banner ads, covered nearly two sheets of paper. "Hmmmmmm," he said. When he reached the end of the article he shook his head and read it again in its entirety. He stood in front of the class, puzzling over the papers in his hands. After a very long silence, a student in the back of the room said "Uh, Professor?" Hfuhruhhurr looked up. "Yes?" he said. "Uh, well. . ." "What?" Hfuhruhurr studied the confusion in the faces before him. A sea of uncertainty: "Oh, fine. Class dismissed." He gestured at the end of the simulated wood table surface next to his lectem. "Leave your essays here on the table on your way out." The students looked at their watches'and at the clock on the wall, their faces holding expressions of both relief and confusion. No one questioned the professor, though, or asked for, clarification. They simply gathered their belongings and quickly shuffled past the table and out the door. * * * The next afternoon, Hfuhruhurr sat in his office and punctuated his student body viewing with brief bouts of essay grading. Most of the papers were the indistinct, ill-conceived and poorly argued attempts common to his Intro to Theory classes. The paper written by Ms. Nguyen, .though, was something altogether different. She cited sources including Said, Baba, and the Naipaul article that had so distracted him in class the=day before in an argument that, though welldocumented, failed to convince Hfuhruhurr that A Passage to India was indeed, as Naipaul had referred to it, "utter rubbish." He simply wouldn't buy hercentral assertion that Fortser's status as a homosexual "other" was still essentially a highly privileged position and thus failed to give him any real or significant insight into the state of being of the colonized Indian subject. He tugged the cap off of his Flair pen and wrote a large "C" next to his brief comment on the Works Cited page of her paper. As he turned his attention toward the view once again, though, he thought of the upcoming committee meeting. He dug through his desk drawer and found a small green and white bottle of correction fluid and shook it vigorously. He painted the fluid delicately over the grade on Ms. Nguyen's essay and replaced it with a corpulent red "A." * * * The first chilly day of the fall came early that semester. The second week in October, freshly tenured, Hfuhruhurr looked out his window, and it was not without some sadness that he observed on the young women in the panorama before him the sudden appearance of sweaters.

r o o m m a t e

b y G i n g e r

K n o w l t o n

ovie The top of his awful crewcut pressed against her flesh when she woke from the stilled film. As if still sleeping, she pulled back, did not pull her sweater down over the white flesh. How she hated him through her controlled, lengthened breaths. bathroom She swore to herself while braiding pigtails in the crappy mirror. If she'd been here first, there wouldn't be a mirror at all - rather than this cheap gilt oval. He droned on from the other room about yellow legal pads and traveling through Asia to design his new company. With a companion, she knew he'd say. With a companion, he said. She swore at her reflection, spilled his acne medication into the stained plastic garbage pail. Nervous twitch. words Genuine hatred, due to him, of the phrase prepare a meal or even just meal. Eat dinner. Screw dinner, for that matter. Or colleague, atrocious when there exist friends, lovers, although that thought made her grab for the white stomach flesh. landlord He'd like to invite the landlord over for a glass of wine, or a meal.

36

37


Berkeley Fiction Review of banner ads, covered nearly two sheets of paper. "Hmmmmmm," he said. When he reached the end of the article he shook his head and read it again in its entirety. He stood in front of the class, puzzling over the papers in his hands. After a very long silence, a student in the back of the room said "Uh, Professor?" Hfuhruhhurr looked up. "Yes?" he said. "Uh, well. . ." "What?" Hfuhruhurr studied the confusion in the faces before him. A sea of uncertainty: "Oh, fine. Class dismissed." He gestured at the end of the simulated wood table surface next to his lectem. "Leave your essays here on the table on your way out." The students looked at their watches'and at the clock on the wall, their faces holding expressions of both relief and confusion. No one questioned the professor, though, or asked for, clarification. They simply gathered their belongings and quickly shuffled past the table and out the door. * * * The next afternoon, Hfuhruhurr sat in his office and punctuated his student body viewing with brief bouts of essay grading. Most of the papers were the indistinct, ill-conceived and poorly argued attempts common to his Intro to Theory classes. The paper written by Ms. Nguyen, .though, was something altogether different. She cited sources including Said, Baba, and the Naipaul article that had so distracted him in class the=day before in an argument that, though welldocumented, failed to convince Hfuhruhurr that A Passage to India was indeed, as Naipaul had referred to it, "utter rubbish." He simply wouldn't buy hercentral assertion that Fortser's status as a homosexual "other" was still essentially a highly privileged position and thus failed to give him any real or significant insight into the state of being of the colonized Indian subject. He tugged the cap off of his Flair pen and wrote a large "C" next to his brief comment on the Works Cited page of her paper. As he turned his attention toward the view once again, though, he thought of the upcoming committee meeting. He dug through his desk drawer and found a small green and white bottle of correction fluid and shook it vigorously. He painted the fluid delicately over the grade on Ms. Nguyen's essay and replaced it with a corpulent red "A." * * * The first chilly day of the fall came early that semester. The second week in October, freshly tenured, Hfuhruhurr looked out his window, and it was not without some sadness that he observed on the young women in the panorama before him the sudden appearance of sweaters.

r o o m m a t e

b y G i n g e r

K n o w l t o n

ovie The top of his awful crewcut pressed against her flesh when she woke from the stilled film. As if still sleeping, she pulled back, did not pull her sweater down over the white flesh. How she hated him through her controlled, lengthened breaths. bathroom She swore to herself while braiding pigtails in the crappy mirror. If she'd been here first, there wouldn't be a mirror at all - rather than this cheap gilt oval. He droned on from the other room about yellow legal pads and traveling through Asia to design his new company. With a companion, she knew he'd say. With a companion, he said. She swore at her reflection, spilled his acne medication into the stained plastic garbage pail. Nervous twitch. words Genuine hatred, due to him, of the phrase prepare a meal or even just meal. Eat dinner. Screw dinner, for that matter. Or colleague, atrocious when there exist friends, lovers, although that thought made her grab for the white stomach flesh. landlord He'd like to invite the landlord over for a glass of wine, or a meal.

36

37


Berkeley Fiction Review fires He'd announce, generally in the presence of others, that he'd have a fire waiting for her when she got home. He understood her desire to be alone, to hike miles until she couldn't walk clearly, admired her ability to tell him she didn't want him along for the walking. He'd go home and build fires, although it wasn't cold or half-cloudy. She'd be sick with the heat, open all five of her bedroom windows, never escape the heat nonetheless, walk around in her underwear even though she knew the neighbors were outside in the dark. dog His obsession with her dog was endless. He'd ask to take the animal out, or not ask. He'd suggest that they have coffee somewhere that the dog could go too. He'd fawn over the animal, turn it into an it for her when it was clearly a he, or had been. meal They went out for dinner because the kitchen was disgusting and she wanted it clean, so she left it clean and scattered ugly dishes on the table amongst the newspapers because she didn't want them on the open shelves, always in view. So out to dinner. He told the bartender (she'd insisted that they not sit at that little table in the window) about their dog; she stabbed the vegetables harder, said ridiculous things about the paintings on the yellow walls, muttered in the deepest parts of her stiff skull, rolled her eyes when he ordered her salad without nuts because he's allergic to nuts, not her. If he touched the salad she'd give it all away, she knew that. meal, again (wine) He'd suggested, in front of the bartender, that she have a glass of wine, which would have been so much like a meal. Red was her natural inclination. He ordered red wine too, the exact same vintage she'd asked for. She hoped to meet someone immediately tolerable, the short married bartender perhaps, and bring him home that evening to have loud sex that would carry through the hollow plywood door of her room. Erase the question the roommate had raised of whether they'd be involved had she not answered his ad for a roommate. He wanted to know if they'd have had meals together, drops of red wine hanging from his thick lower lip.

38


Berkeley Fiction Review fires He'd announce, generally in the presence of others, that he'd have a fire waiting for her when she got home. He understood her desire to be alone, to hike miles until she couldn't walk clearly, admired her ability to tell him she didn't want him along for the walking. He'd go home and build fires, although it wasn't cold or half-cloudy. She'd be sick with the heat, open all five of her bedroom windows, never escape the heat nonetheless, walk around in her underwear even though she knew the neighbors were outside in the dark. dog His obsession with her dog was endless. He'd ask to take the animal out, or not ask. He'd suggest that they have coffee somewhere that the dog could go too. He'd fawn over the animal, turn it into an it for her when it was clearly a he, or had been. meal They went out for dinner because the kitchen was disgusting and she wanted it clean, so she left it clean and scattered ugly dishes on the table amongst the newspapers because she didn't want them on the open shelves, always in view. So out to dinner. He told the bartender (she'd insisted that they not sit at that little table in the window) about their dog; she stabbed the vegetables harder, said ridiculous things about the paintings on the yellow walls, muttered in the deepest parts of her stiff skull, rolled her eyes when he ordered her salad without nuts because he's allergic to nuts, not her. If he touched the salad she'd give it all away, she knew that. meal, again (wine) He'd suggested, in front of the bartender, that she have a glass of wine, which would have been so much like a meal. Red was her natural inclination. He ordered red wine too, the exact same vintage she'd asked for. She hoped to meet someone immediately tolerable, the short married bartender perhaps, and bring him home that evening to have loud sex that would carry through the hollow plywood door of her room. Erase the question the roommate had raised of whether they'd be involved had she not answered his ad for a roommate. He wanted to know if they'd have had meals together, drops of red wine hanging from his thick lower lip.

38


Irresponsible neighbors have magazines. The last magazine I read was at the dentist office. I don't go there anymore. I have a mother out there somewhere who collects coupons and lumps in her breasts. I try to call her to tell her how Robert Johnson died, but her number is unlisted. She doesn't want strangers calling her. Last week I painted a house. Last week I had a dog and a goldfish. Last week I still had a full bottle of whiskey. I paint the neighbor's house and charge them 1100 dollars. They write me a check to get me away from their windows. It is a fair trade, I think. I cash the check and head down to the saloon. I love that I still live in a time where there are saloons. I throw down my 1100 dollars and ask ifl can run a tab. Icomplain that the jukebox doesn't have any Robert Johnson. The bartender says, "I think there's some Hank Williams." "I know," I say, "but it just isn't the same." I sit down at the bar and tell the lady on the other end that I play guitar. "That's great," she says. "I can play like Robert Johnson," I say. "Who the hellis that?" she says. "Are you married?" I ask. "Sure am," she says. "Do I know him?" I ask. "He's making your drink," she says. "You don't say." I move down to the end of the bar. I sit down next to her. -I show her my money. "I painted a house for this." "Getaway from me," she says. "Buy you a drink?" "No." "Do you want to go to bed with me?" The bartender strolls down to the end of the bar. "Are you hassling my wife?* "I'm trying to get her to go to bed with me. I think she'd like it if she gave it a chance." The bartender spits in my whiskey. "You don't know what you're missing," I say, hoping the bartender will open his bdttle of poison. He doesn't. He picks up the telephone. He calls the bouncer. The bouncer comes. The bouncer is a very large-man. I used to paint houses with him. He recognizes me. He never liked me. *He enjoys throwing me out into the street and beating the hell out of me. Withmy 1100 dollarslbuy some steaks to putonmy black eyes. Ibuymore whiskey. I check to see if the seals have been broken. They haven't. I ask the

I r r e s p o n s i b l e

b y A a r o n

H e l l e m

obert Johnson was still a kid when he died. He came orfto somebody's wife, so the husband poisoned Robert's whiskey. I drink whiskey, too. I give a little to the dog and the goldfish to make sure it isn't poisoned. They seem fine with it. They beg me for more. I don't give them any more. That wouldn't be very responsible of ihe. Since I movedjn here, I'm concerned with being responsible. In the past, I've been accused of being irresponsible. They won't let me see my son because I'm so irresponsible' They threaten to take away my dog and my goldfish because I give them a little bit of whiskey. I kindly point out to them that children in France are allowed wine at the dinner table. "Were the dog and the goldfish eating when you gave them the whiskey?" they ask. "We were preparing to," I say. "We'll have to consult the manual to see if before-dinner aperitifs are allowed," they say. They come back to take away my dog and my goldfish. They claim that before-dinner aperitifs are allowed, but that whiskey is not considered an aperitif. I am not allowed to see my dog and my goldfish because I'm so irresponsible. I drink my whiskey and hope that it's poisoned. I pretend to play guitar like Robert Johnson. I move my.fingers freely through the air as though they danced along the fret board. I pretend to come on to somebody's wife. I ask her if she comes here often. She asks me what I do. "I play guitar," I say. She seems more interested. "Oh yeah," she says, "my husband plays guitar. Maybe you know him." I turn off the television because nothing good is on. I pour more whiskey. I pour it into a glass and then drink it from the glass just in case they poisoned the mouth of the bottle. Sometimes that's how they do it. The neighbors have a dog. They don't ask me to take care of it when they go on vacation. I read their mail. I have to. I don't receive any of my own. The 40 ii i-fr.

41 A


Irresponsible neighbors have magazines. The last magazine I read was at the dentist office. I don't go there anymore. I have a mother out there somewhere who collects coupons and lumps in her breasts. I try to call her to tell her how Robert Johnson died, but her number is unlisted. She doesn't want strangers calling her. Last week I painted a house. Last week I had a dog and a goldfish. Last week I still had a full bottle of whiskey. I paint the neighbor's house and charge them 1100 dollars. They write me a check to get me away from their windows. It is a fair trade, I think. I cash the check and head down to the saloon. I love that I still live in a time where there are saloons. I throw down my 1100 dollars and ask ifl can run a tab. Icomplain that the jukebox doesn't have any Robert Johnson. The bartender says, "I think there's some Hank Williams." "I know," I say, "but it just isn't the same." I sit down at the bar and tell the lady on the other end that I play guitar. "That's great," she says. "I can play like Robert Johnson," I say. "Who the hellis that?" she says. "Are you married?" I ask. "Sure am," she says. "Do I know him?" I ask. "He's making your drink," she says. "You don't say." I move down to the end of the bar. I sit down next to her. -I show her my money. "I painted a house for this." "Getaway from me," she says. "Buy you a drink?" "No." "Do you want to go to bed with me?" The bartender strolls down to the end of the bar. "Are you hassling my wife?* "I'm trying to get her to go to bed with me. I think she'd like it if she gave it a chance." The bartender spits in my whiskey. "You don't know what you're missing," I say, hoping the bartender will open his bdttle of poison. He doesn't. He picks up the telephone. He calls the bouncer. The bouncer comes. The bouncer is a very large-man. I used to paint houses with him. He recognizes me. He never liked me. *He enjoys throwing me out into the street and beating the hell out of me. Withmy 1100 dollarslbuy some steaks to putonmy black eyes. Ibuymore whiskey. I check to see if the seals have been broken. They haven't. I ask the

I r r e s p o n s i b l e

b y A a r o n

H e l l e m

obert Johnson was still a kid when he died. He came orfto somebody's wife, so the husband poisoned Robert's whiskey. I drink whiskey, too. I give a little to the dog and the goldfish to make sure it isn't poisoned. They seem fine with it. They beg me for more. I don't give them any more. That wouldn't be very responsible of ihe. Since I movedjn here, I'm concerned with being responsible. In the past, I've been accused of being irresponsible. They won't let me see my son because I'm so irresponsible' They threaten to take away my dog and my goldfish because I give them a little bit of whiskey. I kindly point out to them that children in France are allowed wine at the dinner table. "Were the dog and the goldfish eating when you gave them the whiskey?" they ask. "We were preparing to," I say. "We'll have to consult the manual to see if before-dinner aperitifs are allowed," they say. They come back to take away my dog and my goldfish. They claim that before-dinner aperitifs are allowed, but that whiskey is not considered an aperitif. I am not allowed to see my dog and my goldfish because I'm so irresponsible. I drink my whiskey and hope that it's poisoned. I pretend to play guitar like Robert Johnson. I move my.fingers freely through the air as though they danced along the fret board. I pretend to come on to somebody's wife. I ask her if she comes here often. She asks me what I do. "I play guitar," I say. She seems more interested. "Oh yeah," she says, "my husband plays guitar. Maybe you know him." I turn off the television because nothing good is on. I pour more whiskey. I pour it into a glass and then drink it from the glass just in case they poisoned the mouth of the bottle. Sometimes that's how they do it. The neighbors have a dog. They don't ask me to take care of it when they go on vacation. I read their mail. I have to. I don't receive any of my own. The 40 ii i-fr.

41 A


Berkeley Fiction Review

Irresponsible

young lady at the liquor store what my odds are of purchasing a whiskey bottle with a broken seal. "That usually means it's poisoned," I say. "We don't sell any poisoned bottles of whiskey," she says. "Who would I talk to to buy one of those?" She shrugs. "Did you check the yellow pages?" I pour the whiskey into*a bowl and then lap it up like a dog. This is what irresponsible people do when they don't have any houses to paint. I put the whiskey bottles on the floor. I put the dishes outside. I put the garbage on the roof. I put the car in the neighbor's living-room. I let what remains of my 1100 dollars go. I let myself go. When the doorbell rings, I turn off the lights and pretend I'm not home.

There's a pain in my craw. There's no otherway around it: I've been poisoned. I throw up all over the living room. It blends in with the empty bottles and the cigarette butts. It smells like somebody's old dead cat. The room is rotting. There's no place to bury it. The neighbors have all moved. The property value has dropped. To keep up appearances, I've littered the front yards with broken down Fords and flat tires and fifty-gallon oil drums. I burn newspapers in the oil drums. In this kind of neighborhood, there should always be small fires. I sit out on the front porch. All of the new neighbors are Mexicans. They come over to make sure it's all right for their children to run around in my yard. They say, "Hola." I offer them seats because they, too, are out of work. We watch their children run around and scream. I paint the neighbors' house and charge them 1500 dollars. They pay me in cash because they're Mexican and don't know any better. I paint the oil drums orange so that I don't have to keep setting fires in them. It fools the Mexicans. They call the firemen. The firemen hurry over. They blast the oil drums with their fire hoses. They applaud and clap each other on the back. They think they've done this neighborhood a great service. I laugh so hard I cry. I wipe my tears with my newly acquired 1500 dollars.

)

My skin is starting to turn. It matches the skin of my Mexican neighbors. I know how to say "hola," and "i,que pasa?" I drjnk.-Mexican beer with formaldehyde that they bring over. We sit on my porch and drink cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde because there, is no work for us, no houses to paint no lawns- to landscape. We watch the firemen blast the oil drums with their fire hoses and smile. It is a perfect example of how things work. We drink beer and laugh out loud like crazy Mexicans. They ask me my name, "^,C6mo te llamas?" and I tell them my name is Pancho Villa. "Me llamo Pancho Villa." They laugh

and bring over more cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde. I let mariachi music blare from my living room. My Mexican neighbors show their approval by dancing all over my front yard. The firemen stop and watch-. My Mexican neighbors holler and laugh and dance like hogs on the high. My Mexican neighbors laugh and dance and struggle to find work and expect small fires to burn in their low-income neighborhood. We drink more beer and laugh. I can't help myself. I get up and dance, too, all over my front yard whooping and hollering and laughing like crazy Mexicans. At the grocery stores, my Mexican neighbors are turned away because they don't know any English. They ask me to teach them some helpful English phrases. "Back off buddy, I'm packing heat." They repeat the phrase with moderate difficulty. "How about a hummer, honey?" Again, with moderate difficulty. "You don't know what you're missing." More moderate difficulty. I tell mem to practice. "Gracias, Pancho Villa," they say, and we drink more cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde. The landlord calls looking for the rent. "No hablo ingles," I say. "Look buddy, don't jerk me around." "^Hablas espanol?" "Don't make me come down there." "Me llamo Pancho Villa." "I'm going to be really pissed if I have to come down there." "Adios." The landlord comes down. I hide among the laughing dancing Mexicans, and he doesn't recognize me. He mistakes me for one of the crazy Mexicans. He pounds on the front door. He makes all kinds of threats. One day .he comes down and changes the locks. He throws all of my crap into the street. My Mexican neighbors pick it all up and take what they can carry to the pawnshop. They don't have much luck. Most of it is trash. The landlord tapes a sign to the front door, a notice of eviction. I try to get in but my keys don't work and the windows are all barred. "Mi casa es su casa," my Mexican neighbors say. They take me in as though I were one of their many children. I head east to make my skin white again. I call people "Podner," and say, "Git," to all of the stray dogs and children. I need sustenance. I need whiskey. I need chocolate milkshakes and deep-fried mushrooms. I need mashed potatoes and key lime pie. I need a cigarette. I buy a shirt with a Confederate flag on the front so no one will think I'm a

42

43 ÂŁ


Berkeley Fiction Review

Irresponsible

young lady at the liquor store what my odds are of purchasing a whiskey bottle with a broken seal. "That usually means it's poisoned," I say. "We don't sell any poisoned bottles of whiskey," she says. "Who would I talk to to buy one of those?" She shrugs. "Did you check the yellow pages?" I pour the whiskey into*a bowl and then lap it up like a dog. This is what irresponsible people do when they don't have any houses to paint. I put the whiskey bottles on the floor. I put the dishes outside. I put the garbage on the roof. I put the car in the neighbor's living-room. I let what remains of my 1100 dollars go. I let myself go. When the doorbell rings, I turn off the lights and pretend I'm not home.

There's a pain in my craw. There's no otherway around it: I've been poisoned. I throw up all over the living room. It blends in with the empty bottles and the cigarette butts. It smells like somebody's old dead cat. The room is rotting. There's no place to bury it. The neighbors have all moved. The property value has dropped. To keep up appearances, I've littered the front yards with broken down Fords and flat tires and fifty-gallon oil drums. I burn newspapers in the oil drums. In this kind of neighborhood, there should always be small fires. I sit out on the front porch. All of the new neighbors are Mexicans. They come over to make sure it's all right for their children to run around in my yard. They say, "Hola." I offer them seats because they, too, are out of work. We watch their children run around and scream. I paint the neighbors' house and charge them 1500 dollars. They pay me in cash because they're Mexican and don't know any better. I paint the oil drums orange so that I don't have to keep setting fires in them. It fools the Mexicans. They call the firemen. The firemen hurry over. They blast the oil drums with their fire hoses. They applaud and clap each other on the back. They think they've done this neighborhood a great service. I laugh so hard I cry. I wipe my tears with my newly acquired 1500 dollars.

)

My skin is starting to turn. It matches the skin of my Mexican neighbors. I know how to say "hola," and "i,que pasa?" I drjnk.-Mexican beer with formaldehyde that they bring over. We sit on my porch and drink cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde because there, is no work for us, no houses to paint no lawns- to landscape. We watch the firemen blast the oil drums with their fire hoses and smile. It is a perfect example of how things work. We drink beer and laugh out loud like crazy Mexicans. They ask me my name, "^,C6mo te llamas?" and I tell them my name is Pancho Villa. "Me llamo Pancho Villa." They laugh

and bring over more cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde. I let mariachi music blare from my living room. My Mexican neighbors show their approval by dancing all over my front yard. The firemen stop and watch-. My Mexican neighbors holler and laugh and dance like hogs on the high. My Mexican neighbors laugh and dance and struggle to find work and expect small fires to burn in their low-income neighborhood. We drink more beer and laugh. I can't help myself. I get up and dance, too, all over my front yard whooping and hollering and laughing like crazy Mexicans. At the grocery stores, my Mexican neighbors are turned away because they don't know any English. They ask me to teach them some helpful English phrases. "Back off buddy, I'm packing heat." They repeat the phrase with moderate difficulty. "How about a hummer, honey?" Again, with moderate difficulty. "You don't know what you're missing." More moderate difficulty. I tell mem to practice. "Gracias, Pancho Villa," they say, and we drink more cheap Mexican beer with formaldehyde. The landlord calls looking for the rent. "No hablo ingles," I say. "Look buddy, don't jerk me around." "^Hablas espanol?" "Don't make me come down there." "Me llamo Pancho Villa." "I'm going to be really pissed if I have to come down there." "Adios." The landlord comes down. I hide among the laughing dancing Mexicans, and he doesn't recognize me. He mistakes me for one of the crazy Mexicans. He pounds on the front door. He makes all kinds of threats. One day .he comes down and changes the locks. He throws all of my crap into the street. My Mexican neighbors pick it all up and take what they can carry to the pawnshop. They don't have much luck. Most of it is trash. The landlord tapes a sign to the front door, a notice of eviction. I try to get in but my keys don't work and the windows are all barred. "Mi casa es su casa," my Mexican neighbors say. They take me in as though I were one of their many children. I head east to make my skin white again. I call people "Podner," and say, "Git," to all of the stray dogs and children. I need sustenance. I need whiskey. I need chocolate milkshakes and deep-fried mushrooms. I need mashed potatoes and key lime pie. I need a cigarette. I buy a shirt with a Confederate flag on the front so no one will think I'm a

42

43 ÂŁ


Berkeley Fiction Review

Mexican any more. f It's a woman. It's always a woman. This is one I used to know, though I doubt she'd ever.admit that. I knock on her door. She opens it. She glances at my shirt. "Oh god," she says. "You don't have to look so surprised," I say. I smile. "What do you want," she says, monotone as a newspaper headline. "Why do you have to be like that?" "It's late." "I haven't seen you in..." "Not long enough." "Can I come in?" "No." "Why not?" < "I'm busy." "Doing what?" "Getting ready." "For a date?" "Something like that." "Who is he?" "Some guy." "I just want to talk." "You look different. What's with the shirt?" "Can I come in?" She undoes the chain. "Just for a few minutes." Her living room is typical: clean and well mannered. "Do you have any beer?" "I don't drink anymore." "Mind if I sit?" "Only for a few minutes. I have to dry my hair." She goes into the bathroom. She turns on the hair dryer. "So why are you here?" she hollers, over the sound of the hair dryer. I get up and stand in the doorway of the^bathroom. She glances at me, a little uneasy. She continues to dry her hair. "Why are you here?"' she asks again. "I just wanted to see you." "What?" "I just wanted to talk." "About what?" "I don't know." "What?" "Will you shut that damn thing off?" She turns off the hair dryer. "What did you say?" "I said I just wanted to talk." 44

Irresponsible "I have to put on my dress," she says. "He'll be here soon." She starts tq close the door, but waits for me to move. "You mean I don^t get to watch?" "I'll be out in a second " I poke around through her mail and open her refrigerator. I check to see if she has any new messages. She steps out of the bathroom, hesitantly and even selfconsciously. I smile because she doesn't look in my eyes. I sit down. She puts on earrings and a necklace and a watch. "It's been a long time since I've seen you in a dress," I say. "It's been a long time since you've seen me," she says. "My craw hurts." "It serves you right." "Don't you have any whiskey?" "No." "Look at me." "You look different." "They turned me into a'Mexican." "That shirt's horrible." "A Mexican, for Christ's sake." "What do you want me to do-about it?" She goes into the bathroom for perfume. "You know what I need to set me straight?" She comes out. "What." "One of your old fashioned hummers." "Oh God," she says. She shakes her head. She looks terribly disappointed. "Get out," she says. She points at the"front door. "Can't I hang around and meet him?" "No,"'she says. She opens the front door. "Get out of here." I stand upland leave. "Don't come back here,"- she says, and closes the door. I hear it in order: lock, bolt, chain. I sit on the corner and wait for her dateio arrive. When he does, he does on time in a sport coat with flowers. He looks shined and shaved, and his expensive shoes clop on the sidewalk. He sounds like a racehorseÂťas he walks byme.*? ' "Hey, buddy," I say, "got a light?" "Sorry," he says, "but I don't smoke." I don't know any other women. I go to the bar instead. I 'order a whiskey. "Make sure it's poisoned," I say. The bartender chuckles, but doesn't take me seriously. It doesn't do my craw any good. I put a five on the bar. I put a quarter in the jukebox. I put my tongue into a strange woman's -ear. All I have left is my Mexican heritage. "iQue pasa?" I say to a bunch of rednecks sitting next to me. For my own 45


Berkeley Fiction Review

Mexican any more. f It's a woman. It's always a woman. This is one I used to know, though I doubt she'd ever.admit that. I knock on her door. She opens it. She glances at my shirt. "Oh god," she says. "You don't have to look so surprised," I say. I smile. "What do you want," she says, monotone as a newspaper headline. "Why do you have to be like that?" "It's late." "I haven't seen you in..." "Not long enough." "Can I come in?" "No." "Why not?" < "I'm busy." "Doing what?" "Getting ready." "For a date?" "Something like that." "Who is he?" "Some guy." "I just want to talk." "You look different. What's with the shirt?" "Can I come in?" She undoes the chain. "Just for a few minutes." Her living room is typical: clean and well mannered. "Do you have any beer?" "I don't drink anymore." "Mind if I sit?" "Only for a few minutes. I have to dry my hair." She goes into the bathroom. She turns on the hair dryer. "So why are you here?" she hollers, over the sound of the hair dryer. I get up and stand in the doorway of the^bathroom. She glances at me, a little uneasy. She continues to dry her hair. "Why are you here?"' she asks again. "I just wanted to see you." "What?" "I just wanted to talk." "About what?" "I don't know." "What?" "Will you shut that damn thing off?" She turns off the hair dryer. "What did you say?" "I said I just wanted to talk." 44

Irresponsible "I have to put on my dress," she says. "He'll be here soon." She starts tq close the door, but waits for me to move. "You mean I don^t get to watch?" "I'll be out in a second " I poke around through her mail and open her refrigerator. I check to see if she has any new messages. She steps out of the bathroom, hesitantly and even selfconsciously. I smile because she doesn't look in my eyes. I sit down. She puts on earrings and a necklace and a watch. "It's been a long time since I've seen you in a dress," I say. "It's been a long time since you've seen me," she says. "My craw hurts." "It serves you right." "Don't you have any whiskey?" "No." "Look at me." "You look different." "They turned me into a'Mexican." "That shirt's horrible." "A Mexican, for Christ's sake." "What do you want me to do-about it?" She goes into the bathroom for perfume. "You know what I need to set me straight?" She comes out. "What." "One of your old fashioned hummers." "Oh God," she says. She shakes her head. She looks terribly disappointed. "Get out," she says. She points at the"front door. "Can't I hang around and meet him?" "No,"'she says. She opens the front door. "Get out of here." I stand upland leave. "Don't come back here,"- she says, and closes the door. I hear it in order: lock, bolt, chain. I sit on the corner and wait for her dateio arrive. When he does, he does on time in a sport coat with flowers. He looks shined and shaved, and his expensive shoes clop on the sidewalk. He sounds like a racehorseÂťas he walks byme.*? ' "Hey, buddy," I say, "got a light?" "Sorry," he says, "but I don't smoke." I don't know any other women. I go to the bar instead. I 'order a whiskey. "Make sure it's poisoned," I say. The bartender chuckles, but doesn't take me seriously. It doesn't do my craw any good. I put a five on the bar. I put a quarter in the jukebox. I put my tongue into a strange woman's -ear. All I have left is my Mexican heritage. "iQue pasa?" I say to a bunch of rednecks sitting next to me. For my own 45


Berkeley Fiction Review

good, they pretend to ignore me. I say it louder: "jQu^pasa!" They turn and look at me. "What?" they say. "lQu6 pasa?" "You're a long way from home," they say. They stand up. I stand up. "Me llamo Pancho Villa," because I don't care, I'm ready to start some shit. They line up-Jn front of me. "^Que" pasa, putas?" I say. They drag me outside and kick the hell out of me.

Right before summer. A good season for business. Mac and T are up on the roof doing a re-shingle job. I'm no good with shingle. Justpaint. Ipaintwhile they re-shingle. Mac and T are big black guys who call each other Motherfucker and give me orders as though I were Mexican. They talk about white women who were too small or too tight to take their big dicks. They hold up their hands in the air to show approximations. Vic got me this job because he knows that I get scared around big black guys. He knew I wouldn't say shit, and that I'd work and-take my orders like a Mexican. Ipaint. But I don't listen. I dream about a girl. Not her, but her sister. Theone with the big tits and nice full lips. She's on her knees. I'minmyrecliner. I've got whiskey and the Cubs game on the television. She gives me a hummer and doesn't wash up afterwards. Her: she stands underneath my ladder. I look down her blouse because it's so open and easy. I think she wants me to look down her blouse. Her breasts are huge-like two big bags of flour. She looks up at me with those hubcap eyes, and I know this is one white woman who could make room for Mac or T. I know she'd make room for me. "Not now, darling," I say, "I have to finish this coat first." Mac's head peers at me from the top of the roof. "Who the hell you talking to, man?" "Me llamo Pancho Villa," I say. "You one crazy gringo," Mac says. " We go to the bar when we're finished. Mac and T look for women to fit into. I stare into my glass. I try to talk the pain out of my craw so I can drink my whiskey. "This isn't poisoned, is it?" I ask the bartender. She smiles. She doesn't trust me. Nobody in the bar does. They look at us and see_two niggers and a spic. They circle around us. There are too many to count. They tell us we're not welcome here. Mac and T don't say anything. They're*big, but they know they're outnumbered. They hang their heads, and stare at the floor. 'They stand up to leave. "We're not going anywhere," I say. 46

Irresponsible "Don't do this," they whisper, "you're drunk." I am drunk. I'm also tired. I'm hurt. I'm dizzy. I'm sun burnt. I'm ready. I'm ready for something. Something different. My hero's death. "We're not leaving," I say. The alpha male of this group of Nazis pokes his finger into the middle of my back. "Who the hell are you?" he says. "Me llamo Pancho Villa," I say. I turn around and crack him in the jaw with my highball. There's so much breaking and crunching and shattering that I can't tell which is my glass and which is his teeth. I don't remember what happens next.

We sit around in the sun. We let the beer dehydrate us. We don't care. The Old Lady Bossman won't be back until Monday, and there's no way in hell she can expect us to work the entire weekend. Instead we tell stories about women we fit into and whiskey we drank. Mac and T take turns telling the one about how Pancho Villa cracked the redneck Nazi in the jaw with a highball glass. They stand up and reenact it In'slow motion. They make me show'them my scars, fresh wounds that have only now started to scab, black and bluet and red gashes where they beat the hell out of my face with the big rings on their fingers. Nobody ca*n tell what color I am anymore. Mac and T tell the story once a day. Then once a week. Then every other week. Then once in a while. Then none at all. We forget about it and replace it with other stories. We talk about women "big enough or loose enough' orwilling enough. We talk about the ideal woman, who could and should walk out of the house and give us each a hummer right here on the front lawn while we sit in our chaise lounges and drink^eer. Idaydfea^nofplacestolive. I put pennies in my pocket. I put my money in the bank. I put my name on a car loan. I put a ten-dollar bill into a birthday card for my son, and then put the birthday card into an envelope, and then put a stamp on the envelope, and then put the envelope into the mailbox. I put whiskey uvmy craw so it won't hurt. There are a few hours each night when it doesn't hurt. But in the moraing/it'-s back. I should see* a doctor. I try Advil, Bayer, and beer. It's not so bad, I guess. It's just one of those things I live with.

47


Berkeley Fiction Review

good, they pretend to ignore me. I say it louder: "jQu^pasa!" They turn and look at me. "What?" they say. "lQu6 pasa?" "You're a long way from home," they say. They stand up. I stand up. "Me llamo Pancho Villa," because I don't care, I'm ready to start some shit. They line up-Jn front of me. "^Que" pasa, putas?" I say. They drag me outside and kick the hell out of me.

Right before summer. A good season for business. Mac and T are up on the roof doing a re-shingle job. I'm no good with shingle. Justpaint. Ipaintwhile they re-shingle. Mac and T are big black guys who call each other Motherfucker and give me orders as though I were Mexican. They talk about white women who were too small or too tight to take their big dicks. They hold up their hands in the air to show approximations. Vic got me this job because he knows that I get scared around big black guys. He knew I wouldn't say shit, and that I'd work and-take my orders like a Mexican. Ipaint. But I don't listen. I dream about a girl. Not her, but her sister. Theone with the big tits and nice full lips. She's on her knees. I'minmyrecliner. I've got whiskey and the Cubs game on the television. She gives me a hummer and doesn't wash up afterwards. Her: she stands underneath my ladder. I look down her blouse because it's so open and easy. I think she wants me to look down her blouse. Her breasts are huge-like two big bags of flour. She looks up at me with those hubcap eyes, and I know this is one white woman who could make room for Mac or T. I know she'd make room for me. "Not now, darling," I say, "I have to finish this coat first." Mac's head peers at me from the top of the roof. "Who the hell you talking to, man?" "Me llamo Pancho Villa," I say. "You one crazy gringo," Mac says. " We go to the bar when we're finished. Mac and T look for women to fit into. I stare into my glass. I try to talk the pain out of my craw so I can drink my whiskey. "This isn't poisoned, is it?" I ask the bartender. She smiles. She doesn't trust me. Nobody in the bar does. They look at us and see_two niggers and a spic. They circle around us. There are too many to count. They tell us we're not welcome here. Mac and T don't say anything. They're*big, but they know they're outnumbered. They hang their heads, and stare at the floor. 'They stand up to leave. "We're not going anywhere," I say. 46

Irresponsible "Don't do this," they whisper, "you're drunk." I am drunk. I'm also tired. I'm hurt. I'm dizzy. I'm sun burnt. I'm ready. I'm ready for something. Something different. My hero's death. "We're not leaving," I say. The alpha male of this group of Nazis pokes his finger into the middle of my back. "Who the hell are you?" he says. "Me llamo Pancho Villa," I say. I turn around and crack him in the jaw with my highball. There's so much breaking and crunching and shattering that I can't tell which is my glass and which is his teeth. I don't remember what happens next.

We sit around in the sun. We let the beer dehydrate us. We don't care. The Old Lady Bossman won't be back until Monday, and there's no way in hell she can expect us to work the entire weekend. Instead we tell stories about women we fit into and whiskey we drank. Mac and T take turns telling the one about how Pancho Villa cracked the redneck Nazi in the jaw with a highball glass. They stand up and reenact it In'slow motion. They make me show'them my scars, fresh wounds that have only now started to scab, black and bluet and red gashes where they beat the hell out of my face with the big rings on their fingers. Nobody ca*n tell what color I am anymore. Mac and T tell the story once a day. Then once a week. Then every other week. Then once in a while. Then none at all. We forget about it and replace it with other stories. We talk about women "big enough or loose enough' orwilling enough. We talk about the ideal woman, who could and should walk out of the house and give us each a hummer right here on the front lawn while we sit in our chaise lounges and drink^eer. Idaydfea^nofplacestolive. I put pennies in my pocket. I put my money in the bank. I put my name on a car loan. I put a ten-dollar bill into a birthday card for my son, and then put the birthday card into an envelope, and then put a stamp on the envelope, and then put the envelope into the mailbox. I put whiskey uvmy craw so it won't hurt. There are a few hours each night when it doesn't hurt. But in the moraing/it'-s back. I should see* a doctor. I try Advil, Bayer, and beer. It's not so bad, I guess. It's just one of those things I live with.

47


Dinner with the Mercers

D i n n e r

b y

J D

w i t h

t h e

She smiles rarely, and then only with a smirking, remonstrative twinge. She is wearing blue polyester pants that used to belong to Harry and a red t-shirt that was purchased for Freddie to grow into, but that he will never wear because he is afraid of dinosaurs. Harry will be home in one hour. Steven will follow shortly after that, always punctualat exactly seven o'clock. And little Freddie needs to be fed, worn out, and cleaned up in the meantime so that he will be fresh for Uncle Steve's arrival, and ready to go to sleep shortly thereafter. "Steven is not Freddie's real uncle. He is not Laura-or Harry'sbrother. Harry and Steven were friends in high school. They went to the same university, lived together after college, got jobs, developed drinking problems, and eventually grew up. Harry quit drinking heavily when he met Laura. Steven has developed the hobby to the point of precision, and Steven is also a regular dinner guest, the only true "friend of the family." At any rate, Harry will be home soon and there is much to do, beginning with the answering of questions. "Momma, what's it for?" Laura glances over to the yellowing high chair and follows Freddie's threeyear-old finger until her eyes rest on the mixer by the microwave. "That's the mixer Freddie, it helps Mommy cook." "Why does it help?" "Because that's what it's for." "Why Momma?" For a moment Laura looks at the window. The early evening sunlight is still dripping through the panes. It was the windows that first drew Laura to the Tanners'house. And the walls. The windows are almost imperceptibly wider at the bottom, a result of the glass settling over time. The walls are sturdy, walls that can hold nails. This was important to Laura for some reason, and it overshadowed Harry's warnings of drafty winters and oppressive heating bills. Looking back to the high chair, Laura speaks softly, "It helps me save time, honey. It helps me fit everything in." Laura turns back to the stove with its giant pot of mashed potatoes and feels herself shudder involuntarily. A cold creeping feeling starts in her lower back. Ever since her son was born, these ghost moods come in with a whisper. Sometimes the episodes are more frequent, as has been the case of late. It is a feeling of desperation with no direct cause; a fear that she will start screaming and not be-able'to stop, followed by the sensation that she has been'duped by existence; that things are not as they seem and that she is nearly on the cusp of discovering what really lies behind the facade of daily banality—nearly there, always teetering, never falling into epiphany. She worries that she is going insane and that she will damage Freddie in the process. That" she will begin to forget his meals, or let him play in the street. In the worst times she worries that this is what she wants: to have to make that sad, sad 911 call. She thinks that perhaps Freddie's death will return her to a state of natural grace, the way she

M e r c e r s

M a d e r

n top of the hill, at the end of the street, surrounded by oak trees, sits a stately home that watches over the newer houses down below. It is an old building, the only old building in the neighborhood. Once, it stood proudly, surrounded by fertile fields. Now it is a farm manor with no farm to supervise, prefabricated suburban tract homes resting where the white corn grew for so many years. These little homes were built in 1965 when the Tanners were forced to sell their land. Eventually they were forced to sell the house as well, and the Mercers moved right in, but by then all that remained of the land was the. old oak trees and two modest yards, one in front and one in back. The house is still surrounded by trees, but too few of them to serve as an adequate shield, to block the view of the tan and beige houses down the hill. In the kitchen of this old house, Laura opens the oven door to check on the pork roast. She then remembers that her new oven has an interior light and quickly closes the door, illuminating the darkening meat inside with the flip of a half-red switch. She is repelled by the bubbling flesh while at the same time irresistibly drawn to it. This is a particularly nice roast, one that the butcher saved especially. Laura can't remember the butcher's name, yet he always greets her with a hearty "Good day, Mrs. Mercer!" Laura thinks about this now and feels ashamed. Briefly. Remembering that she needs to check the temperature with the meat thermometer, Laura opens the oven door again. Damn, she thinks, now the roast will be too dry. The roast will not really be too dry. In fact, it will be wonderful. It always is. Laura is tall and very thin. She has dark brown hair and eyes. The latter are big and round, like the eyes of a doll that has been on the shelf for too long. Her nose is small and hooked, which, complements her small, recalcitrant mouth. 48

49 1


Dinner with the Mercers

D i n n e r

b y

J D

w i t h

t h e

She smiles rarely, and then only with a smirking, remonstrative twinge. She is wearing blue polyester pants that used to belong to Harry and a red t-shirt that was purchased for Freddie to grow into, but that he will never wear because he is afraid of dinosaurs. Harry will be home in one hour. Steven will follow shortly after that, always punctualat exactly seven o'clock. And little Freddie needs to be fed, worn out, and cleaned up in the meantime so that he will be fresh for Uncle Steve's arrival, and ready to go to sleep shortly thereafter. "Steven is not Freddie's real uncle. He is not Laura-or Harry'sbrother. Harry and Steven were friends in high school. They went to the same university, lived together after college, got jobs, developed drinking problems, and eventually grew up. Harry quit drinking heavily when he met Laura. Steven has developed the hobby to the point of precision, and Steven is also a regular dinner guest, the only true "friend of the family." At any rate, Harry will be home soon and there is much to do, beginning with the answering of questions. "Momma, what's it for?" Laura glances over to the yellowing high chair and follows Freddie's threeyear-old finger until her eyes rest on the mixer by the microwave. "That's the mixer Freddie, it helps Mommy cook." "Why does it help?" "Because that's what it's for." "Why Momma?" For a moment Laura looks at the window. The early evening sunlight is still dripping through the panes. It was the windows that first drew Laura to the Tanners'house. And the walls. The windows are almost imperceptibly wider at the bottom, a result of the glass settling over time. The walls are sturdy, walls that can hold nails. This was important to Laura for some reason, and it overshadowed Harry's warnings of drafty winters and oppressive heating bills. Looking back to the high chair, Laura speaks softly, "It helps me save time, honey. It helps me fit everything in." Laura turns back to the stove with its giant pot of mashed potatoes and feels herself shudder involuntarily. A cold creeping feeling starts in her lower back. Ever since her son was born, these ghost moods come in with a whisper. Sometimes the episodes are more frequent, as has been the case of late. It is a feeling of desperation with no direct cause; a fear that she will start screaming and not be-able'to stop, followed by the sensation that she has been'duped by existence; that things are not as they seem and that she is nearly on the cusp of discovering what really lies behind the facade of daily banality—nearly there, always teetering, never falling into epiphany. She worries that she is going insane and that she will damage Freddie in the process. That" she will begin to forget his meals, or let him play in the street. In the worst times she worries that this is what she wants: to have to make that sad, sad 911 call. She thinks that perhaps Freddie's death will return her to a state of natural grace, the way she

M e r c e r s

M a d e r

n top of the hill, at the end of the street, surrounded by oak trees, sits a stately home that watches over the newer houses down below. It is an old building, the only old building in the neighborhood. Once, it stood proudly, surrounded by fertile fields. Now it is a farm manor with no farm to supervise, prefabricated suburban tract homes resting where the white corn grew for so many years. These little homes were built in 1965 when the Tanners were forced to sell their land. Eventually they were forced to sell the house as well, and the Mercers moved right in, but by then all that remained of the land was the. old oak trees and two modest yards, one in front and one in back. The house is still surrounded by trees, but too few of them to serve as an adequate shield, to block the view of the tan and beige houses down the hill. In the kitchen of this old house, Laura opens the oven door to check on the pork roast. She then remembers that her new oven has an interior light and quickly closes the door, illuminating the darkening meat inside with the flip of a half-red switch. She is repelled by the bubbling flesh while at the same time irresistibly drawn to it. This is a particularly nice roast, one that the butcher saved especially. Laura can't remember the butcher's name, yet he always greets her with a hearty "Good day, Mrs. Mercer!" Laura thinks about this now and feels ashamed. Briefly. Remembering that she needs to check the temperature with the meat thermometer, Laura opens the oven door again. Damn, she thinks, now the roast will be too dry. The roast will not really be too dry. In fact, it will be wonderful. It always is. Laura is tall and very thin. She has dark brown hair and eyes. The latter are big and round, like the eyes of a doll that has been on the shelf for too long. Her nose is small and hooked, which, complements her small, recalcitrant mouth. 48

49 1


Berkeley Fiction Review was before, not always watching the clock and counting backwards. She feels the silence in the room, and then realizes that she is staring at Freddie, and the'discomfort in his eyes makes an audible slapping sound when it comes into contact with her recognition. "What happened Momma? You're sad?" Laura sweeps the little boy out of the high chair with guilty shame and recalls with relief the feelings of love his warmth brings to her. "Nothing happened, baby. Daddy will be home soon. And Uncle Steve is coming over. And you're covered in sand and ketchup as usual, so it's time for your bath." The door slams at 6:00 and Harry stumbles in carrying his briefcase like a football and cursing the cold with jovial frustration. He is dressed in his usual business attire: gray suit, black woolen overcoat and tweed flat hat. The hat is off now and Harry shakes the dampness out of his limbs, finishing with a grand sweep of red, chapped hands through his thinning brown hair. He is a shade" over 6 feet tall, attractive, and athletic, with just enough of a bulge in the middle to convey that he is no longer forced to practice sports with his previous zeal and success. "Laura? Son of my father's son?" There is no answer. The grandfather.'s clock in the corner is, however, making its usual groaning sound. "Laura, Freddie, any pet we may have acquired recently...anyone? Once more...hello, is there anyone home?" There are further thumping sounds as Harry does his best to spread his belongings across the wide wooden entryway. It is his briefcase knocking over and shattering the antique ceramic table lamp that gets Laura's attention. "Oh shit. Goddamnit. Laura, stay upstairs honey. I don't want you to have to see this...Laura, I mean it. There's blood and bodies everywhere. Grab the young'n and lock yourselves in the upstairs closet. Get my gun out from under the bed." He is sweeping up the broken bits of the lamp and singing an Irish chantey when Laura appears at the top of the stairs. One look tells Harry that his singing is not going to be appreciated as the whimsical and charming gesture he intends it to be, and he looks down sheepishly. "L..uhhh...well, the thing is that it attacked me, baby. I was just walking by, going to fix that creaky cupboard you've been mentioning, and the damn thing just up and goes for my throat. But I beat it back with my briefcase..." Harry strikes a noble pose, finishing an octave lower,". ..and with the top of this umbrella, I took its life." "Harry, why do you have to break something every night when you come home?" "No, I'm OK, but thanks. And I don't always break stuff. Sometimes I 50

Dinner with the Mercers break stuff. I want our son to know that it's all right in this house to break stuff. That we don't get mad at people for accidents. Even ifthey have a lot of accidents. Is this ringing a bell?" This is a specialty of Harry's, this affable avoidance. It has worked for many years; for Harry's whole life. It becomes less effective with every use, its power weakened by half with each sheepish grin, but Harry has used it sparingly with Laura. Later, she will realize with sudden clarity that Harry is full of shit; that he is not as great and saintly a man as he seems. Still pretty good, but not great. Steven has already come to this conclusion and has accepted it as inevitable. At timds he is convinced that he saw it all along. And after.all, it just makes Harry like everyone else: mortal. You can't blame someone for not being as great as you thought he was. "Oh, I swear. I'll clean it up. Go take a shower. Steven will be here in an hour. And shave." Laura cleans up the broken pieces while thinking about how much she loves her Harry. On his way to the master bedroom, Harry passes Freddie who is naked, covered in soap, and running back and forth down the hallway. Just as he is about to enter the bedroom, Harry is jumped from behind. "Dad! I ate ketchup, Dad! I played and then I ate ketchup!" Harry does not approve of the bowls of ketchup Laura feeds Freddie on occasion/and is thinking of how to register his displeasure when he remembers the fallout from the tiny glass of scotch he and Steven slipped to Freddie several months ago, and decides that he cannot argue the ketchup from a position of power. By the time he has stumbled into the room and wrapped a towel around Freddie, he has forgotten it besides. Freddie is, according to Harry and no one else, the spitting image of his father. Everyone else sees Laura in the boy, but, looks aside, it cannot be denied that the two male Mercers share a special bond. And, if it canhe said that Harry is seen upon first glance as a most powerful and overwhelming man (which it can), then it should come as no surprise that to Freddie he is a magnificent and benevolent god, that every morning when Harry leaves the house Freddie's heart is broken, and that every homecoming is a ticker-tape parade. In fact, this evening is unique in that Harry made it inside the house unaccosted. Most days, Freddie is waiting in front of the house on the steps when the brown station wagon pulls up to the curb. For these reasons, Harry's fall will be the longest and most painful in the eyes of his son; the disillusionment Freddie feels will impact the rest of his life. But there are a good fifteen years before then, and right now the important thing is to get Harry showered and dressed or he will not have time for his pre-Steven scotch. The warm water is flowing around Harry's head as he reaches down and turns off the left faucet. The plumbing groans like a fat man and his brain is 51


Berkeley Fiction Review was before, not always watching the clock and counting backwards. She feels the silence in the room, and then realizes that she is staring at Freddie, and the'discomfort in his eyes makes an audible slapping sound when it comes into contact with her recognition. "What happened Momma? You're sad?" Laura sweeps the little boy out of the high chair with guilty shame and recalls with relief the feelings of love his warmth brings to her. "Nothing happened, baby. Daddy will be home soon. And Uncle Steve is coming over. And you're covered in sand and ketchup as usual, so it's time for your bath." The door slams at 6:00 and Harry stumbles in carrying his briefcase like a football and cursing the cold with jovial frustration. He is dressed in his usual business attire: gray suit, black woolen overcoat and tweed flat hat. The hat is off now and Harry shakes the dampness out of his limbs, finishing with a grand sweep of red, chapped hands through his thinning brown hair. He is a shade" over 6 feet tall, attractive, and athletic, with just enough of a bulge in the middle to convey that he is no longer forced to practice sports with his previous zeal and success. "Laura? Son of my father's son?" There is no answer. The grandfather.'s clock in the corner is, however, making its usual groaning sound. "Laura, Freddie, any pet we may have acquired recently...anyone? Once more...hello, is there anyone home?" There are further thumping sounds as Harry does his best to spread his belongings across the wide wooden entryway. It is his briefcase knocking over and shattering the antique ceramic table lamp that gets Laura's attention. "Oh shit. Goddamnit. Laura, stay upstairs honey. I don't want you to have to see this...Laura, I mean it. There's blood and bodies everywhere. Grab the young'n and lock yourselves in the upstairs closet. Get my gun out from under the bed." He is sweeping up the broken bits of the lamp and singing an Irish chantey when Laura appears at the top of the stairs. One look tells Harry that his singing is not going to be appreciated as the whimsical and charming gesture he intends it to be, and he looks down sheepishly. "L..uhhh...well, the thing is that it attacked me, baby. I was just walking by, going to fix that creaky cupboard you've been mentioning, and the damn thing just up and goes for my throat. But I beat it back with my briefcase..." Harry strikes a noble pose, finishing an octave lower,". ..and with the top of this umbrella, I took its life." "Harry, why do you have to break something every night when you come home?" "No, I'm OK, but thanks. And I don't always break stuff. Sometimes I 50

Dinner with the Mercers break stuff. I want our son to know that it's all right in this house to break stuff. That we don't get mad at people for accidents. Even ifthey have a lot of accidents. Is this ringing a bell?" This is a specialty of Harry's, this affable avoidance. It has worked for many years; for Harry's whole life. It becomes less effective with every use, its power weakened by half with each sheepish grin, but Harry has used it sparingly with Laura. Later, she will realize with sudden clarity that Harry is full of shit; that he is not as great and saintly a man as he seems. Still pretty good, but not great. Steven has already come to this conclusion and has accepted it as inevitable. At timds he is convinced that he saw it all along. And after.all, it just makes Harry like everyone else: mortal. You can't blame someone for not being as great as you thought he was. "Oh, I swear. I'll clean it up. Go take a shower. Steven will be here in an hour. And shave." Laura cleans up the broken pieces while thinking about how much she loves her Harry. On his way to the master bedroom, Harry passes Freddie who is naked, covered in soap, and running back and forth down the hallway. Just as he is about to enter the bedroom, Harry is jumped from behind. "Dad! I ate ketchup, Dad! I played and then I ate ketchup!" Harry does not approve of the bowls of ketchup Laura feeds Freddie on occasion/and is thinking of how to register his displeasure when he remembers the fallout from the tiny glass of scotch he and Steven slipped to Freddie several months ago, and decides that he cannot argue the ketchup from a position of power. By the time he has stumbled into the room and wrapped a towel around Freddie, he has forgotten it besides. Freddie is, according to Harry and no one else, the spitting image of his father. Everyone else sees Laura in the boy, but, looks aside, it cannot be denied that the two male Mercers share a special bond. And, if it canhe said that Harry is seen upon first glance as a most powerful and overwhelming man (which it can), then it should come as no surprise that to Freddie he is a magnificent and benevolent god, that every morning when Harry leaves the house Freddie's heart is broken, and that every homecoming is a ticker-tape parade. In fact, this evening is unique in that Harry made it inside the house unaccosted. Most days, Freddie is waiting in front of the house on the steps when the brown station wagon pulls up to the curb. For these reasons, Harry's fall will be the longest and most painful in the eyes of his son; the disillusionment Freddie feels will impact the rest of his life. But there are a good fifteen years before then, and right now the important thing is to get Harry showered and dressed or he will not have time for his pre-Steven scotch. The warm water is flowing around Harry's head as he reaches down and turns off the left faucet. The plumbing groans like a fat man and his brain is 51


T Berkeley Fiction Review

Dinner with the Mercers

shocked into overdrive by the sudden frigidity of the stream. This is a ritual, rituals in Harry's life that he seldom enjoys, yet always feels compelled to succumb to. In fact, there are several rituals that must be performed in the shower. For instance, Harry is one of the few people in the world who washes his hands in the shower. He washes his hands before he washes his face. Then he washes his hands and washes his hair. Then he washes his feet and washes his hands before washing his entire body. He wets himself, turns the faucet away, covers every inch of his body in suds and then turns the hot fountain towards himself again. But we are past that. Harry has already cleansed himself. He is now spending a few minutes with the hot and cold water before he feels that it is time to get dressed. Harry takes exceedingly long showers. In the kitchen, Laura has entitled herself to a second glass of cold pink wine. She is not a drinker by nature. In fact, were she to think about it (which she will not), she would realize that she only has a drink on the nights when Steven comes for dinner, and then only in the kitchen by herself, where we now find her. She is sitting at the table by the window, and Freddie is in the back yard running in circles. Laura watches herself in the drops of condensation that run off the sides of her glass. She. is at once enthralled and horrified by the fun-house images reflected back at her. As is often the case with naturally beautiful and sad women, Laura is not vain. She looks in the mirror as much as is necessary to apply makeup, but this is the first time she has really lookedat herself in many weeks. It would be an oversimplification to say that she was always this aloof. The reality is that Laura gave up on being pretty the day that Freddie was born. The cruel irony— that she doesn't see the beauty wrought by her motherhood, the stately profile framing her surprisingly malevolent eyes—is merely one of the many cruel ironies that have made up her privileged life thus far.

is on very loud in' Steven's car. It is set to the classical station. He drives through the outskirts of the city on his way to the suburbs, as always a little sad that the difference between them is so staggering. He trembles slightly as he passes the industrial graveyards with their dreadlocked and screaming monks; the men left to waste in the wasteland that was once their livelihood. But the radio is a consolation, and Steven smiles as he and the scotch hear the first few tentative salutations of a forgotten symphony. People on the street stare at Steven as he drives slowly by. They are intrigued by him and a bit afraid. He is not particularly menacing in appearance—thin, 5'10", and dressed in a simple black suit. There is nothing unusual about his dress, except for the blood red poppy pinned to his lapel. He is good looking in the way that old scholars can be—craggy-faced and gaunt, but with a regal countenance. He is smirking softly and involuntarily. No, they do not fear Steven in the typical sense. Instead, it is a fear born of reverence. None of those swinging their heads on the street would be able to put it into words; they know only that he is definitely not like them, and the fact that he is not like them makes them uncomfortable. He is a modern day Ichabod Crane. They picture him in the front of an old schoolroom, they feel the children's fear as he picks his staff from the corner of the room. It is a natural and carnal fear, a prickling of the subconscious. If they ever talked to Steven they would adore him instantly. They would respect him. They would hang on every muttered word. They would feel smarter, safe and humbled in his presence, but they would no longer fear him. They would simply think that he is a mighty strange, though'agreeable, fellow. And they would be right. Standing in front of his closet, Harry is struck again by how little he cares about the clothes he wears. His apathy is evidenced by the racks of gray and black suits—one brown suit, pairs of slacks encompassing all the myriad shades of oatmeal, primary-colored golf shirts, and one Hawaiian shirt that Laura will never allow him to wear. This prohibition has always struck Harry as ironic considering her constant jibes about his humdrum wardrobe, but he senses that there is something in its exception that he should understand, and, since he doesn't understand, he leaves it be. Harry has been standing in front of the closet for a full two minutes thinking about how much he hates having to dress himself when he notices an outfit laid out on the bed. It consists of khaki pants and a rust-colored short sleeve shirt. Laura sometimes does this and usually it annoys Harry, but tonight it is a relief. Harry slips into the clothes and heads downstairs to pour himself a drink.

An old red car pulls up to the stop sign at Tenth and Barrister. It is a small imported sedan, the kind of car that looks especially silly painted red. Inside it, Steven is trying to convince himself that he should not take a drink from his flask, that it is a weakness, this need to drink before he can see his friends. But, as is always the case, he realizes that if he does not drink he will merely spend the rest of the drive thinking about whether or not he should have, so he eases the pewter top onto its hinge and pours the warm scotch down his throat. The flask is back in his pocket as he pulls away. All this took less than two seconds, not even enough time for the black sports car behind him to honk its impatient horn. Steven looks forward to his meals with the Mercers. He secretly dreads them as well. In fact, he will spend the evening alternately overjoyed and repulsed, and whether he leaves on good terms will have little to do with the night, and a lot to do with the frequency in which Harry replenishes his highball. The radio something in her, her mouth begins to salivate: She feels frantic and becomes concerned that

In the kitchen, Laura takes the roast out of the oven for its final glazing. She brushes on a combination of honey, butter, and mustard and lightly peppers the surface of the browning pork. The smell of the cooked meat awakens

52

53 & ,


T Berkeley Fiction Review

Dinner with the Mercers

shocked into overdrive by the sudden frigidity of the stream. This is a ritual, rituals in Harry's life that he seldom enjoys, yet always feels compelled to succumb to. In fact, there are several rituals that must be performed in the shower. For instance, Harry is one of the few people in the world who washes his hands in the shower. He washes his hands before he washes his face. Then he washes his hands and washes his hair. Then he washes his feet and washes his hands before washing his entire body. He wets himself, turns the faucet away, covers every inch of his body in suds and then turns the hot fountain towards himself again. But we are past that. Harry has already cleansed himself. He is now spending a few minutes with the hot and cold water before he feels that it is time to get dressed. Harry takes exceedingly long showers. In the kitchen, Laura has entitled herself to a second glass of cold pink wine. She is not a drinker by nature. In fact, were she to think about it (which she will not), she would realize that she only has a drink on the nights when Steven comes for dinner, and then only in the kitchen by herself, where we now find her. She is sitting at the table by the window, and Freddie is in the back yard running in circles. Laura watches herself in the drops of condensation that run off the sides of her glass. She. is at once enthralled and horrified by the fun-house images reflected back at her. As is often the case with naturally beautiful and sad women, Laura is not vain. She looks in the mirror as much as is necessary to apply makeup, but this is the first time she has really lookedat herself in many weeks. It would be an oversimplification to say that she was always this aloof. The reality is that Laura gave up on being pretty the day that Freddie was born. The cruel irony— that she doesn't see the beauty wrought by her motherhood, the stately profile framing her surprisingly malevolent eyes—is merely one of the many cruel ironies that have made up her privileged life thus far.

is on very loud in' Steven's car. It is set to the classical station. He drives through the outskirts of the city on his way to the suburbs, as always a little sad that the difference between them is so staggering. He trembles slightly as he passes the industrial graveyards with their dreadlocked and screaming monks; the men left to waste in the wasteland that was once their livelihood. But the radio is a consolation, and Steven smiles as he and the scotch hear the first few tentative salutations of a forgotten symphony. People on the street stare at Steven as he drives slowly by. They are intrigued by him and a bit afraid. He is not particularly menacing in appearance—thin, 5'10", and dressed in a simple black suit. There is nothing unusual about his dress, except for the blood red poppy pinned to his lapel. He is good looking in the way that old scholars can be—craggy-faced and gaunt, but with a regal countenance. He is smirking softly and involuntarily. No, they do not fear Steven in the typical sense. Instead, it is a fear born of reverence. None of those swinging their heads on the street would be able to put it into words; they know only that he is definitely not like them, and the fact that he is not like them makes them uncomfortable. He is a modern day Ichabod Crane. They picture him in the front of an old schoolroom, they feel the children's fear as he picks his staff from the corner of the room. It is a natural and carnal fear, a prickling of the subconscious. If they ever talked to Steven they would adore him instantly. They would respect him. They would hang on every muttered word. They would feel smarter, safe and humbled in his presence, but they would no longer fear him. They would simply think that he is a mighty strange, though'agreeable, fellow. And they would be right. Standing in front of his closet, Harry is struck again by how little he cares about the clothes he wears. His apathy is evidenced by the racks of gray and black suits—one brown suit, pairs of slacks encompassing all the myriad shades of oatmeal, primary-colored golf shirts, and one Hawaiian shirt that Laura will never allow him to wear. This prohibition has always struck Harry as ironic considering her constant jibes about his humdrum wardrobe, but he senses that there is something in its exception that he should understand, and, since he doesn't understand, he leaves it be. Harry has been standing in front of the closet for a full two minutes thinking about how much he hates having to dress himself when he notices an outfit laid out on the bed. It consists of khaki pants and a rust-colored short sleeve shirt. Laura sometimes does this and usually it annoys Harry, but tonight it is a relief. Harry slips into the clothes and heads downstairs to pour himself a drink.

An old red car pulls up to the stop sign at Tenth and Barrister. It is a small imported sedan, the kind of car that looks especially silly painted red. Inside it, Steven is trying to convince himself that he should not take a drink from his flask, that it is a weakness, this need to drink before he can see his friends. But, as is always the case, he realizes that if he does not drink he will merely spend the rest of the drive thinking about whether or not he should have, so he eases the pewter top onto its hinge and pours the warm scotch down his throat. The flask is back in his pocket as he pulls away. All this took less than two seconds, not even enough time for the black sports car behind him to honk its impatient horn. Steven looks forward to his meals with the Mercers. He secretly dreads them as well. In fact, he will spend the evening alternately overjoyed and repulsed, and whether he leaves on good terms will have little to do with the night, and a lot to do with the frequency in which Harry replenishes his highball. The radio something in her, her mouth begins to salivate: She feels frantic and becomes concerned that

In the kitchen, Laura takes the roast out of the oven for its final glazing. She brushes on a combination of honey, butter, and mustard and lightly peppers the surface of the browning pork. The smell of the cooked meat awakens

52

53 & ,


Berkeley Fiction Review

Dinner with the Mercers "So," says Laura, when she has absorbed enough gluttonous appreciation of her meal to satisfy her insecurity, "Harry tells me you're on the brink of celebrity at the university?" Steven takes a long drink from his highball and frowns slightly. "Um, well, Harry has-a tendency to exaggerate. What he means is that I am presenting a paper in a week on the mating habits of swallows. We've been doing research for almost three years now, and we've discovered some interesting things. For instance..." "Looking up at the two blank faces, Steven remembers again that outside of the biology building, no one cares about his work. They are impressed only by others' recognition for it. "But yes, Harry is right. This is an important conference and an important paper. It could mean thousands in research grants." Harry looks up from his plate. "And..." "And if-all goes well I will most probably be appointed head of the department." Laura leans back in her chair and smiles her first real smile of the evening. "That's wonderful Steven, I'm so happy for you. You've had this coming for a long time." "Yes, well, it will be interesting to see. How is Freddie?" Harry looks over at his friend as Laura begins to speak; smiling as he observes the tension flow out of his thin body. Steven's features collapse like a hot air balloon whose flame has been extinguished and he leans back in his chair. Laura will speak about Freddie for the rest of the dinner. Discreetly, Harry refills Steven's glass. For all that has been said about Harry, he is occasionally a perceptive man, and he knows how hard it is on his friend to be forced into the limelight; however momentarily.

Harry will surprise her. Harry, however, is in the den opening a bottle of single malt scotch given to him at work as reward for a job well done. Harry tries to estimate one and one-half shots of liquor into his glass. He ends up with the better part of four. As he takes a sip of the scotch, Harry feels momentarily saddened. In the old days, he and Steven were rapscallion princes, gods who walked as men and frequently walked into bars only to be forced out, broke and singing, hours later, and sometimes even the next day. Harry takes another sip and decides that it is for the best. After all, look at him: wife and kid, good job, vacation days. All Steven ended up with was his work and the bottle. Yet the jealousy remains, even as the clock strikes seven, in communion with the braying of the front door buzzer. Steven is standing on the stoop and looking straight through the beveled glass. He watches Harry approach the door, his body distended by the glass, his big grin, however, still recognizable. ".Steven, you're looking lovely as always," Harry drawls as he opens the front door. "I am lovely," mumbles Steven, "I am also thirsty." The men step in through the door, and the slamming of the old mahogany brings Laura out from the kitchen. "Hey Steve. Let me go gather up the boy so he can make a nuisance of himself." To punctuate her terse greeting, she coughs, turns, and heads back into the kitchen while the men exchange a look, one of the many to come throughout the course of the evening. Freddie comes running into the den full speed, skidding to a stop in his stockinged feet. "Uncle Steve! You're here! J ate ketchup for dinner!" Steven picks Freddie up and hangs him upside down by his ankles. Freddie swings back and forth until they both fall down. They wrestle on the floor until Laura takes Freddie's hand and leads him away. ***** The men are on their second drink and Freddie is in bed cursing the unfair world when Laura brings out the roast, the potatoes, green beans cooked with bacon and onions, a fresh loaf of honey wheat bread, sweet butter, salt and pepper, and a pitcher of ice water. It is 8:30. They are right on schedule. "This looks great, Laura," says Steven as he stands and raises his glass. "To friends, good health, and late summer breezes." They all clink glasses. Laura smiles shyly, and Harry makes a guttural assertion that he agrees and that, were he able to hold his liquor better, he would say so even more eloquently than his friend. They all pick up their forks at the same time. Laura eats daintily, picking at the plate of food like she is sick of its company. Harry and Steven attack their plates. It is ten minutes before another word is spoken^

In the kitchen, after dinner, Laura cleans the dishes while polishing off the last of her bottle of pink wine. She is not drunk, has felt mildly inebriated only once throughout the course of the evening, and then only when her stomach was empty. Laura has never been legitimately drunk. She's been giddy drunk once. She's made a few-brash liquor-induced comments in her life, but she has never really seen what alcohol can do, at least not firsthand. Steven and Harry, however, are closing in on the level of drunkenness where one is forced to make the decision to keep drinking and really make a time of it, or to put the scotch away in favor of water. Both men desire the former, but Harry will, in fact, switch to ice water shortly and be spared a hangover. Steven will continue to'drink, though the decision is easier for him as he is rarely hung over, and never from liquor. After drying the last dish, Laura sits down heavily, again in her spot by the window. The dinner was, of course, well received. The roast was juicy and the vegetables fresh. The bread was a bit hard, but that can easily be excused. Some 55

54 L


Berkeley Fiction Review

Dinner with the Mercers "So," says Laura, when she has absorbed enough gluttonous appreciation of her meal to satisfy her insecurity, "Harry tells me you're on the brink of celebrity at the university?" Steven takes a long drink from his highball and frowns slightly. "Um, well, Harry has-a tendency to exaggerate. What he means is that I am presenting a paper in a week on the mating habits of swallows. We've been doing research for almost three years now, and we've discovered some interesting things. For instance..." "Looking up at the two blank faces, Steven remembers again that outside of the biology building, no one cares about his work. They are impressed only by others' recognition for it. "But yes, Harry is right. This is an important conference and an important paper. It could mean thousands in research grants." Harry looks up from his plate. "And..." "And if-all goes well I will most probably be appointed head of the department." Laura leans back in her chair and smiles her first real smile of the evening. "That's wonderful Steven, I'm so happy for you. You've had this coming for a long time." "Yes, well, it will be interesting to see. How is Freddie?" Harry looks over at his friend as Laura begins to speak; smiling as he observes the tension flow out of his thin body. Steven's features collapse like a hot air balloon whose flame has been extinguished and he leans back in his chair. Laura will speak about Freddie for the rest of the dinner. Discreetly, Harry refills Steven's glass. For all that has been said about Harry, he is occasionally a perceptive man, and he knows how hard it is on his friend to be forced into the limelight; however momentarily.

Harry will surprise her. Harry, however, is in the den opening a bottle of single malt scotch given to him at work as reward for a job well done. Harry tries to estimate one and one-half shots of liquor into his glass. He ends up with the better part of four. As he takes a sip of the scotch, Harry feels momentarily saddened. In the old days, he and Steven were rapscallion princes, gods who walked as men and frequently walked into bars only to be forced out, broke and singing, hours later, and sometimes even the next day. Harry takes another sip and decides that it is for the best. After all, look at him: wife and kid, good job, vacation days. All Steven ended up with was his work and the bottle. Yet the jealousy remains, even as the clock strikes seven, in communion with the braying of the front door buzzer. Steven is standing on the stoop and looking straight through the beveled glass. He watches Harry approach the door, his body distended by the glass, his big grin, however, still recognizable. ".Steven, you're looking lovely as always," Harry drawls as he opens the front door. "I am lovely," mumbles Steven, "I am also thirsty." The men step in through the door, and the slamming of the old mahogany brings Laura out from the kitchen. "Hey Steve. Let me go gather up the boy so he can make a nuisance of himself." To punctuate her terse greeting, she coughs, turns, and heads back into the kitchen while the men exchange a look, one of the many to come throughout the course of the evening. Freddie comes running into the den full speed, skidding to a stop in his stockinged feet. "Uncle Steve! You're here! J ate ketchup for dinner!" Steven picks Freddie up and hangs him upside down by his ankles. Freddie swings back and forth until they both fall down. They wrestle on the floor until Laura takes Freddie's hand and leads him away. ***** The men are on their second drink and Freddie is in bed cursing the unfair world when Laura brings out the roast, the potatoes, green beans cooked with bacon and onions, a fresh loaf of honey wheat bread, sweet butter, salt and pepper, and a pitcher of ice water. It is 8:30. They are right on schedule. "This looks great, Laura," says Steven as he stands and raises his glass. "To friends, good health, and late summer breezes." They all clink glasses. Laura smiles shyly, and Harry makes a guttural assertion that he agrees and that, were he able to hold his liquor better, he would say so even more eloquently than his friend. They all pick up their forks at the same time. Laura eats daintily, picking at the plate of food like she is sick of its company. Harry and Steven attack their plates. It is ten minutes before another word is spoken^

In the kitchen, after dinner, Laura cleans the dishes while polishing off the last of her bottle of pink wine. She is not drunk, has felt mildly inebriated only once throughout the course of the evening, and then only when her stomach was empty. Laura has never been legitimately drunk. She's been giddy drunk once. She's made a few-brash liquor-induced comments in her life, but she has never really seen what alcohol can do, at least not firsthand. Steven and Harry, however, are closing in on the level of drunkenness where one is forced to make the decision to keep drinking and really make a time of it, or to put the scotch away in favor of water. Both men desire the former, but Harry will, in fact, switch to ice water shortly and be spared a hangover. Steven will continue to'drink, though the decision is easier for him as he is rarely hung over, and never from liquor. After drying the last dish, Laura sits down heavily, again in her spot by the window. The dinner was, of course, well received. The roast was juicy and the vegetables fresh. The bread was a bit hard, but that can easily be excused. Some 55

54 L


T^ 1 Dinner with the Mercers

Berkeley Fiction Review even like their bread crusted with a hearty shell. Still, there is something about the evening that continues to leap around just behind the gates of Laura's subconscious. She does not know, or knows but does not remember, that this is an anniversary. Several years ago, on this date, the lives of Harry, Laura, and Steven were changed forever. The fact that not all of them were in on the secret means little, for Laura was not the one left in the dark. Of course she remembers the important thing, that it happened. She remembers that it happened every morning when she awakes. It is always with her. What she does not remember is that it happened precisely on this day, September 26th. Wisely, she forces her mind to other matters. In her heart Laura feels that she should go and check on Freddie, but she is tired. She has checked on him every night since his birth, with nothing ever amiss. Surely he will last the night, despite her absence? Yes, he will. He must. Laura props her right elbow on the edge of the table and rests her chin in her hand. As she stares at the red, white and brown tartan print of the tablecloth her eyes begin to blur. The checkered squares become oblong spheres. They melt and fade into one another, the design becomes three-dimensional. She feels she must blink and set things right, but resists the urge. Past the three-dimensional squares, Laura sees individual stitches, only briefly, before they are transformed into shapes. At first the images are soothing: a rabbit, a stand of deer, a church complete with steeple; but as her eyes fade further out she sees dark forests, starless nights, barren dead limbs reaching out from the sides of trees, and finally a group of children, playing, wandering, shouting, and now they are screaming, and Laura shuts her eyes hard. When she opens her eyes again several minutes later, the room is too bright. The light is unnatural. She feels the hairs on the back of her neck stiffen, she wants to stand but can't, she thinks that she should scream, but there is enough sense left in her to realize that this cannot happen. What would it mean? Harry and Steven would come running in, and she would be left, in the cold, harsh light of her own kitchen, to explain to them and the empty bottle of wine that she is not drunk, not in the least, that, in fact, she thinks she may be insane. It would never do. It would ruin the dinner and the evening. Her hands begin to shake as she looks around the room. Fanciful pot holders, knick-knacks, functional steel appliances, frilly nonsense decorations, a china hutch, paintings of flowers, jars with flowers painted on them, a toothpick holder shaped like a woodpecker— these are all items that have been -in her kitchen for years, but she does not recognize them. She knows what they are for, she knows that they belong to her, but it almost seems as if she has never looked at them before. They appear sinister, and she feels a tear roll down her cheek, hears it drop onto the tablecloth. A second later she hears Harry's voice, and realizes that he has been calling her for quite some time. She has no urge to reply, and soon enough he stops calling. Laura's head sinks further.

I

Harry is in the middle of a story, but Steven is not paying attention. He looks attentive, his eyes are locked on Harry's, but his mind is wandering. People perceive Steven as a good listener because he doesn't interrupt, merely stares with soft eyes and nods occasionally. All too often, however, this is because his thoughts are elsewhere. Tonight, he is especially distracted. Laura seemed even moodier than usual. Harry doesn't seem to notice her moods, but it always disturbs Steven to see her pretty face so pale and her eyes so lost in imagined horror. ".. .to the store after work. $5.99, can you believe mat? I couldn't, I still can't. Makes me feel like one of those old men that sit on the benches at the VFW: "Remember when a pack of cigarettes was a nickel? And a movie, two cheeseburgers, two malts, and a rubber cost a dime?' I don't want to be that old yet, but it seems like I can't help it. Pretty soon I'll be yelling at the neighborhood kids to stay off my lawn..." A thought strikes Steven and he nods his head more emphatically. Could it be? Yes, it must be. It was around this time, years ago. Jesus, no wonder Laura is upset, Steven thinks. He feels hot and flushed; he is afraid Harry will notice, but Harry continues on, oblivious. "...like it's some kind of big joke, right? Haha, very funny, yes sir, that's a good one sir, and I can't even stop myself. Used to be I would have told him to go fuck himself, we'd have loaded up the van and tore on out of town. We'd have found some kind of abandoned campground to crash in. Things have changed, I guess. It's got to be for the better, right? Well, there's no point thinking about it if it's for the worse. The deed is done. I was looking in my closet today, Steven. Do you know how many pairs of gray slacks I have? Four. I think they're all identical. I have this one shirt, though, but Laura..." Steven can't bear to look Harry in the eye, so he looks at his glass. The melting ice cubes are swirling in his scotch. He takes a drink and shudders. Once again he is struck by the urge to bare his soul. Harry would understand. Harry would listen and realize that things worked out for the best regardless, that it doesn't change anything. Steven's head jerks up and he looks at Harry. No, he wouldn't. He wouldn't understand. And why should he?"Steven wants to excuse himself. He wants to^stand in the bathroom and splash cold water on his face. He wants to drag his hands down his face and look at his reflection in the mirror. He wants to pull down his cheeks and look at the inside of his lower eyelids. He wants to see how bloodshot his eyes are, but his foot is asleep and he knows that he would not be able to walk. ".. .right in my face. I felt like someone had pulled my pants down right there. In front of the whole office. I envy you Steven, in the lab, no one bothers you, no one makes you sort out their mistakes. You go home, you get drunk, you do what you want. I, on the other hand..." Steven begins listening when Harry mentions the lab and is instantly disgusted by Harry's maudlin ramblings. Harry gets on these martyr trips 57

56 L


T^ 1 Dinner with the Mercers

Berkeley Fiction Review even like their bread crusted with a hearty shell. Still, there is something about the evening that continues to leap around just behind the gates of Laura's subconscious. She does not know, or knows but does not remember, that this is an anniversary. Several years ago, on this date, the lives of Harry, Laura, and Steven were changed forever. The fact that not all of them were in on the secret means little, for Laura was not the one left in the dark. Of course she remembers the important thing, that it happened. She remembers that it happened every morning when she awakes. It is always with her. What she does not remember is that it happened precisely on this day, September 26th. Wisely, she forces her mind to other matters. In her heart Laura feels that she should go and check on Freddie, but she is tired. She has checked on him every night since his birth, with nothing ever amiss. Surely he will last the night, despite her absence? Yes, he will. He must. Laura props her right elbow on the edge of the table and rests her chin in her hand. As she stares at the red, white and brown tartan print of the tablecloth her eyes begin to blur. The checkered squares become oblong spheres. They melt and fade into one another, the design becomes three-dimensional. She feels she must blink and set things right, but resists the urge. Past the three-dimensional squares, Laura sees individual stitches, only briefly, before they are transformed into shapes. At first the images are soothing: a rabbit, a stand of deer, a church complete with steeple; but as her eyes fade further out she sees dark forests, starless nights, barren dead limbs reaching out from the sides of trees, and finally a group of children, playing, wandering, shouting, and now they are screaming, and Laura shuts her eyes hard. When she opens her eyes again several minutes later, the room is too bright. The light is unnatural. She feels the hairs on the back of her neck stiffen, she wants to stand but can't, she thinks that she should scream, but there is enough sense left in her to realize that this cannot happen. What would it mean? Harry and Steven would come running in, and she would be left, in the cold, harsh light of her own kitchen, to explain to them and the empty bottle of wine that she is not drunk, not in the least, that, in fact, she thinks she may be insane. It would never do. It would ruin the dinner and the evening. Her hands begin to shake as she looks around the room. Fanciful pot holders, knick-knacks, functional steel appliances, frilly nonsense decorations, a china hutch, paintings of flowers, jars with flowers painted on them, a toothpick holder shaped like a woodpecker— these are all items that have been -in her kitchen for years, but she does not recognize them. She knows what they are for, she knows that they belong to her, but it almost seems as if she has never looked at them before. They appear sinister, and she feels a tear roll down her cheek, hears it drop onto the tablecloth. A second later she hears Harry's voice, and realizes that he has been calling her for quite some time. She has no urge to reply, and soon enough he stops calling. Laura's head sinks further.

I

Harry is in the middle of a story, but Steven is not paying attention. He looks attentive, his eyes are locked on Harry's, but his mind is wandering. People perceive Steven as a good listener because he doesn't interrupt, merely stares with soft eyes and nods occasionally. All too often, however, this is because his thoughts are elsewhere. Tonight, he is especially distracted. Laura seemed even moodier than usual. Harry doesn't seem to notice her moods, but it always disturbs Steven to see her pretty face so pale and her eyes so lost in imagined horror. ".. .to the store after work. $5.99, can you believe mat? I couldn't, I still can't. Makes me feel like one of those old men that sit on the benches at the VFW: "Remember when a pack of cigarettes was a nickel? And a movie, two cheeseburgers, two malts, and a rubber cost a dime?' I don't want to be that old yet, but it seems like I can't help it. Pretty soon I'll be yelling at the neighborhood kids to stay off my lawn..." A thought strikes Steven and he nods his head more emphatically. Could it be? Yes, it must be. It was around this time, years ago. Jesus, no wonder Laura is upset, Steven thinks. He feels hot and flushed; he is afraid Harry will notice, but Harry continues on, oblivious. "...like it's some kind of big joke, right? Haha, very funny, yes sir, that's a good one sir, and I can't even stop myself. Used to be I would have told him to go fuck himself, we'd have loaded up the van and tore on out of town. We'd have found some kind of abandoned campground to crash in. Things have changed, I guess. It's got to be for the better, right? Well, there's no point thinking about it if it's for the worse. The deed is done. I was looking in my closet today, Steven. Do you know how many pairs of gray slacks I have? Four. I think they're all identical. I have this one shirt, though, but Laura..." Steven can't bear to look Harry in the eye, so he looks at his glass. The melting ice cubes are swirling in his scotch. He takes a drink and shudders. Once again he is struck by the urge to bare his soul. Harry would understand. Harry would listen and realize that things worked out for the best regardless, that it doesn't change anything. Steven's head jerks up and he looks at Harry. No, he wouldn't. He wouldn't understand. And why should he?"Steven wants to excuse himself. He wants to^stand in the bathroom and splash cold water on his face. He wants to drag his hands down his face and look at his reflection in the mirror. He wants to pull down his cheeks and look at the inside of his lower eyelids. He wants to see how bloodshot his eyes are, but his foot is asleep and he knows that he would not be able to walk. ".. .right in my face. I felt like someone had pulled my pants down right there. In front of the whole office. I envy you Steven, in the lab, no one bothers you, no one makes you sort out their mistakes. You go home, you get drunk, you do what you want. I, on the other hand..." Steven begins listening when Harry mentions the lab and is instantly disgusted by Harry's maudlin ramblings. Harry gets on these martyr trips 57

56 L


~ r Berkeley Fiction Review

sometimes. Steven usually humors him, but not tonight, not after he has realized what Laura could not. He feels drunk for the first time, drunk with an alcoholic's rage. "Harry, don!t be such an fucking ass. I go home, to my shitty little apartment, where there i s no foodj no family, no nothing. I read until I'm too drunk, and then I watch TV. I'm so jealous of you sometimes that I want to kill myself, or you. You bitch about it, but you know how good you have it. .And I know; you just want me to reaffirm that you're a lucky man, so I'll do it. You're lucky. You have a great job, a great house, a great wife, and a great kid. So, just give it a fucking rest now." Harry's face flushes. Of course, Steven is right. He just wanted to hear the words, to be. comforted. He looks away ashamed. The men sit in silence. Thelonius Monk fills the room. Steven shakes his head. "Shit, I'm sorry Harry, I just got a little carried away. Here." Steven pours two shots of scotch. "Here's to talking out of our asses."

Dinner with the Mercers removing his clothes and Laura sitting up in bed. As he watches, they embrace, and Steven looks down, ashamed. He starts back toward the door for a moment and then resigns himself, as he has for years, to the inevitability of life's secret betrayals. He lights a cigarette and looks at the other window, dark except for a Mickey Mouse night light, and silently wishes his son pleasant dreams.

Upstairs, Freddie wakes momentarily. He sits up in bed. On the edge of his fuzzy recognition he feels the noise that startled him, but he cannot place it and is asleep again before his head comes to a full rest on the pillow. In the bathroom, Laura shoves the pill bottles back into the medicine cabinet and closes the door. She listens for„Freddie and, hearing nothing, unscrews the cap on the bottle of sleeping pills. She shakes four of them into her hand. Laura discovered long ago that the more you take, the better you sleep. And not only that, but the hour beforehed is spongy and pleasant. She takes the pills into her room and swallows them, one at a time, with the glass of water which sits perennially by her bedside. She smoothes the silk nightgown over her stomach as she lies down; her hands circle her breasts as her thoughts wander. Once again she is visited by the almostmemory, something from the past. But by now the.pills are beginning to dance with the wine, and she relinquishes her thoughts and lets the day scatter likefhe pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that no one wants to play with. Downstairs, Steven is patting his pockets and trying to remember what was in each of them when he arrived. Harry is standing awkwardly, still smarting a bit from Steven's reproach. Steyen quickly decides that he will/etrieve.the imaginary losses some other time. He hugs Harry briefly, still disturbed by his recognition of the significance .of this day. The door closes and Steven watches Harry's distorted image through the thick glass as he.walks up the stairs. He feels momentarily lost beneath, the towering house, which looms above him. It is a sturdy house, just as Laura has always said, but tonight.it seems almost fragile, ready to crumble at any moment. The moon is full and white, and it casts a reproachful light on the quiet street as Steven steps off the porch toward his car. He shjuffles a bit, but stumbles only once. He stofs,,briefly, halfway down the walk and turns to face the house. In the upstairs window he-sees Harry 58

59


~ r Berkeley Fiction Review

sometimes. Steven usually humors him, but not tonight, not after he has realized what Laura could not. He feels drunk for the first time, drunk with an alcoholic's rage. "Harry, don!t be such an fucking ass. I go home, to my shitty little apartment, where there i s no foodj no family, no nothing. I read until I'm too drunk, and then I watch TV. I'm so jealous of you sometimes that I want to kill myself, or you. You bitch about it, but you know how good you have it. .And I know; you just want me to reaffirm that you're a lucky man, so I'll do it. You're lucky. You have a great job, a great house, a great wife, and a great kid. So, just give it a fucking rest now." Harry's face flushes. Of course, Steven is right. He just wanted to hear the words, to be. comforted. He looks away ashamed. The men sit in silence. Thelonius Monk fills the room. Steven shakes his head. "Shit, I'm sorry Harry, I just got a little carried away. Here." Steven pours two shots of scotch. "Here's to talking out of our asses."

Dinner with the Mercers removing his clothes and Laura sitting up in bed. As he watches, they embrace, and Steven looks down, ashamed. He starts back toward the door for a moment and then resigns himself, as he has for years, to the inevitability of life's secret betrayals. He lights a cigarette and looks at the other window, dark except for a Mickey Mouse night light, and silently wishes his son pleasant dreams.

Upstairs, Freddie wakes momentarily. He sits up in bed. On the edge of his fuzzy recognition he feels the noise that startled him, but he cannot place it and is asleep again before his head comes to a full rest on the pillow. In the bathroom, Laura shoves the pill bottles back into the medicine cabinet and closes the door. She listens for„Freddie and, hearing nothing, unscrews the cap on the bottle of sleeping pills. She shakes four of them into her hand. Laura discovered long ago that the more you take, the better you sleep. And not only that, but the hour beforehed is spongy and pleasant. She takes the pills into her room and swallows them, one at a time, with the glass of water which sits perennially by her bedside. She smoothes the silk nightgown over her stomach as she lies down; her hands circle her breasts as her thoughts wander. Once again she is visited by the almostmemory, something from the past. But by now the.pills are beginning to dance with the wine, and she relinquishes her thoughts and lets the day scatter likefhe pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that no one wants to play with. Downstairs, Steven is patting his pockets and trying to remember what was in each of them when he arrived. Harry is standing awkwardly, still smarting a bit from Steven's reproach. Steyen quickly decides that he will/etrieve.the imaginary losses some other time. He hugs Harry briefly, still disturbed by his recognition of the significance .of this day. The door closes and Steven watches Harry's distorted image through the thick glass as he.walks up the stairs. He feels momentarily lost beneath, the towering house, which looms above him. It is a sturdy house, just as Laura has always said, but tonight.it seems almost fragile, ready to crumble at any moment. The moon is full and white, and it casts a reproachful light on the quiet street as Steven steps off the porch toward his car. He shjuffles a bit, but stumbles only once. He stofs,,briefly, halfway down the walk and turns to face the house. In the upstairs window he-sees Harry 58

59


Al,l^''>lj'i*i.i.i.tjili|i|il.ti

_r/•!(',jv//

^ P r o t e c t i o n

b y

i ^ w i s ^ ^ i i i M

X

-,._.

v

.

iiiiufififiii/'jit'jii'',it

Stephen

St Francis

D e c k y

e doesn't want the cat. In a fit of weakness, he feels sorry for the thing: It's lost and caught outside in the middle of a bad storm, howling and meowing while the lightning flashes and the thunder pounds. To make it worse, the cat takes to him right away—nearly jumps into his arms when he corner down the steps and mutters, "Hey," into the bushes beside the building. Upstairs, it laps up a bowl of milk and 3 slices of cheese. "You ain't stayin'," he tells it. "Soon as this shit clears up outside, you're gone." The cat licks his face, pees on the carpet, then later shits in the bathtub. "Pain in the ass," he mutters, looking out the'window the following morning and seeing the clouds still rolling overhead, the ground soaked and puddled from the downpour. After work, he stops for cat food, buys kitty litter and a little mouse full of catnip to keep the thing from fucking with the curtains and the furniture. The cat gets storied on the mouse, falls asleep with his eyes opened and his tongue hanging out. When it awakens, it eats a little then goes right back to the mouse. Bernie conks out on the couch watching him climb the curtains and is awakened later by an odd pain in his chest: Looking down, he finds the cat spread out on his stomach, sucking his left tit. "Are you fuckin' kiddin'?" he howls, lifting the thing into the air. "No more a that shit. I ain't your Mommy." He picks up the mouse from the floor and tosses it into the trash, tells the cat: "No more catnip for you, you get too sloppy." The cat meows and rubs against the trash can 'til it falls over. Bernie lifts him up to his face and tells him, point-blank: "You can't stay here if you're gonna act like an idiot. You need a job." He places the cat down on the coffee table then

61


Al,l^''>lj'i*i.i.i.tjili|i|il.ti

_r/•!(',jv//

^ P r o t e c t i o n

b y

i ^ w i s ^ ^ i i i M

X

-,._.

v

.

iiiiufififiii/'jit'jii'',it

Stephen

St Francis

D e c k y

e doesn't want the cat. In a fit of weakness, he feels sorry for the thing: It's lost and caught outside in the middle of a bad storm, howling and meowing while the lightning flashes and the thunder pounds. To make it worse, the cat takes to him right away—nearly jumps into his arms when he corner down the steps and mutters, "Hey," into the bushes beside the building. Upstairs, it laps up a bowl of milk and 3 slices of cheese. "You ain't stayin'," he tells it. "Soon as this shit clears up outside, you're gone." The cat licks his face, pees on the carpet, then later shits in the bathtub. "Pain in the ass," he mutters, looking out the'window the following morning and seeing the clouds still rolling overhead, the ground soaked and puddled from the downpour. After work, he stops for cat food, buys kitty litter and a little mouse full of catnip to keep the thing from fucking with the curtains and the furniture. The cat gets storied on the mouse, falls asleep with his eyes opened and his tongue hanging out. When it awakens, it eats a little then goes right back to the mouse. Bernie conks out on the couch watching him climb the curtains and is awakened later by an odd pain in his chest: Looking down, he finds the cat spread out on his stomach, sucking his left tit. "Are you fuckin' kiddin'?" he howls, lifting the thing into the air. "No more a that shit. I ain't your Mommy." He picks up the mouse from the floor and tosses it into the trash, tells the cat: "No more catnip for you, you get too sloppy." The cat meows and rubs against the trash can 'til it falls over. Bernie lifts him up to his face and tells him, point-blank: "You can't stay here if you're gonna act like an idiot. You need a job." He places the cat down on the coffee table then

61


Protection

Berkeley Fiction Review points to the door. "From now on your job is to protect this place. Anybody walks in that door, you attack: Go for the eyes, the balls, whatever it takes." The cat licks his hand, sits back on its haunches and meows. This fucker's gotta go, Bernie thinks, but after a week of coming home to the cat and waking up with it curled up next to his chest, he has to face the facts: Even if he still doesn't like the thing, he's already gotten used to having it around. ********** The cat plays rough. One of its favorite activities, Bernie notices, is attacking things: Throw a sock across the room and the cat will dive for it. Or just leave some object lying on the floor—a beer coaster, a broken camera, anything: The cat will pounce on it, do its best to tear it apart. "We're gonna harness your, ah, obsession," Bernie says, intent on making the cat functional. He uses himself for a practice-dummy, hiding behind walls and praising the cat for finding and attacking him: The more furious the attacks, the greater the praise. On the rare occasions the cat runs away, Bernie gives him a brief scolding. '.'None a that shit." there is a connection between the cat and himself that he can neither ignore nor comprehend. When he speaks, he notices, the cat consistently meows in response. Often, he finds himself responding to the cat, using a diversejnix of squeaks, cat sounds, and physical motions. The natural language barrier between them is bridged by a more formal and primitive understanding of tone, inclination, and eye contact. He is watching the cellar-dwelling Phillies get their asses smacked by; the Astros when the cat starts hissing. "The fuckin' Phillies," he groans. "Mrrow." "I never seen a team so fuckin' bad in my life." "Mrow." He glances over and finds the cat staring back at him, his eyes yellow with venom. Yeah, you know, he thinks, and the cat hops up onto his lap and turns to the screen. "Mrow," it says. It doesn't take long for the scene at the stadium to get ugly .and boring. By the 7th inning both Bernie and the cat have fallen sound asleep with an occasional round of boos and hisses echoing from the shitty t.v. speakers. **********

62

Over the next few weeks, they practice attacks at the door: Bernie going out and changing in the hallway, covering his face with a ski-mask, then busting back into the room, growling like an animal. The cat, at first, attacks from whatever position he happens to be in at the moment; after several practices, however, he learns to hide himself in a high spot - on a shelf, a table, or the back of the.couch from which he can jump onto Bernie's back or face with a ferocity and suddenness that consistently takes the man by surprise^ As the intensity of the attacks increases, Bernie adds layers of padding to his arms and a hockey mask tcprotect his face. "Awesome," he says later, while mixing up fresh meat with the cat's food. "How 'bout 'sit'—can you 'sit'?" The cat learns this one too, and at night when Bernie goes to sleep, he makes a habit of settling on his owner's chest and staring down into his eyes until they both nod off together, simultaneously dreaming of food, the apartment, and the absence of each other's presence. ********* It's a Tuesday, another month later, when the smoke alarm in the apartment goes off for no reason. Bernie isM work, hammering away at a pile of paperwork. The other tenants in his building hear the noise and call the landlord, who lives less than a block away. "Don't call the fire department yet," he says. There's a fine for false alarms in this town and he's been through this kind of problem before. When he gets to the building, he notices right away that there's no smoke, no odd smells in the air. Using his own key to the place, he enters Bernie's apartment and seeks out the alarm. "Goddamn thing," he mutters, grabbing a chair from the kitchen table and pulling it down from the ceiling. He sniffs the air here, glances at the stove, sees no flames, nothing weird. Goddamn false alarm, he thinks. The cat is sitting atop the refrigerator: He's healthier and stronger now, has never been fixed, never had his claws snipped. The landlord nqtices him just as he strikes—his gray, furry ass wiggling a split-second before he dives down with his claws^out, his front paws shredding down the landlord's face as his teeth dig for the man's throat. The landlord yelps, manages to bat the cat down to the floor, but the cat is quick: He climbs the man's legs in a flash, goes all the way up and over his back until he is at the face again, screeching and slashing its claws over the man's cheeks, clipping an eye, tearing a swatch of flesh from his forehead. The landlord runs from the apartment with the cat still clutching at his back. Blinded in one eye and numbed by the shock of the attack, he loses his balance on the steps and takes a dive, landing head-first on the hardwood floor below.

63


Protection

Berkeley Fiction Review points to the door. "From now on your job is to protect this place. Anybody walks in that door, you attack: Go for the eyes, the balls, whatever it takes." The cat licks his hand, sits back on its haunches and meows. This fucker's gotta go, Bernie thinks, but after a week of coming home to the cat and waking up with it curled up next to his chest, he has to face the facts: Even if he still doesn't like the thing, he's already gotten used to having it around. ********** The cat plays rough. One of its favorite activities, Bernie notices, is attacking things: Throw a sock across the room and the cat will dive for it. Or just leave some object lying on the floor—a beer coaster, a broken camera, anything: The cat will pounce on it, do its best to tear it apart. "We're gonna harness your, ah, obsession," Bernie says, intent on making the cat functional. He uses himself for a practice-dummy, hiding behind walls and praising the cat for finding and attacking him: The more furious the attacks, the greater the praise. On the rare occasions the cat runs away, Bernie gives him a brief scolding. '.'None a that shit." there is a connection between the cat and himself that he can neither ignore nor comprehend. When he speaks, he notices, the cat consistently meows in response. Often, he finds himself responding to the cat, using a diversejnix of squeaks, cat sounds, and physical motions. The natural language barrier between them is bridged by a more formal and primitive understanding of tone, inclination, and eye contact. He is watching the cellar-dwelling Phillies get their asses smacked by; the Astros when the cat starts hissing. "The fuckin' Phillies," he groans. "Mrrow." "I never seen a team so fuckin' bad in my life." "Mrow." He glances over and finds the cat staring back at him, his eyes yellow with venom. Yeah, you know, he thinks, and the cat hops up onto his lap and turns to the screen. "Mrow," it says. It doesn't take long for the scene at the stadium to get ugly .and boring. By the 7th inning both Bernie and the cat have fallen sound asleep with an occasional round of boos and hisses echoing from the shitty t.v. speakers. **********

62

Over the next few weeks, they practice attacks at the door: Bernie going out and changing in the hallway, covering his face with a ski-mask, then busting back into the room, growling like an animal. The cat, at first, attacks from whatever position he happens to be in at the moment; after several practices, however, he learns to hide himself in a high spot - on a shelf, a table, or the back of the.couch from which he can jump onto Bernie's back or face with a ferocity and suddenness that consistently takes the man by surprise^ As the intensity of the attacks increases, Bernie adds layers of padding to his arms and a hockey mask tcprotect his face. "Awesome," he says later, while mixing up fresh meat with the cat's food. "How 'bout 'sit'—can you 'sit'?" The cat learns this one too, and at night when Bernie goes to sleep, he makes a habit of settling on his owner's chest and staring down into his eyes until they both nod off together, simultaneously dreaming of food, the apartment, and the absence of each other's presence. ********* It's a Tuesday, another month later, when the smoke alarm in the apartment goes off for no reason. Bernie isM work, hammering away at a pile of paperwork. The other tenants in his building hear the noise and call the landlord, who lives less than a block away. "Don't call the fire department yet," he says. There's a fine for false alarms in this town and he's been through this kind of problem before. When he gets to the building, he notices right away that there's no smoke, no odd smells in the air. Using his own key to the place, he enters Bernie's apartment and seeks out the alarm. "Goddamn thing," he mutters, grabbing a chair from the kitchen table and pulling it down from the ceiling. He sniffs the air here, glances at the stove, sees no flames, nothing weird. Goddamn false alarm, he thinks. The cat is sitting atop the refrigerator: He's healthier and stronger now, has never been fixed, never had his claws snipped. The landlord nqtices him just as he strikes—his gray, furry ass wiggling a split-second before he dives down with his claws^out, his front paws shredding down the landlord's face as his teeth dig for the man's throat. The landlord yelps, manages to bat the cat down to the floor, but the cat is quick: He climbs the man's legs in a flash, goes all the way up and over his back until he is at the face again, screeching and slashing its claws over the man's cheeks, clipping an eye, tearing a swatch of flesh from his forehead. The landlord runs from the apartment with the cat still clutching at his back. Blinded in one eye and numbed by the shock of the attack, he loses his balance on the steps and takes a dive, landing head-first on the hardwood floor below.

63


Berkeley Fiction Review

Sensing trouble, the cat makes a run for the opened front door and disappears. ********* Bill in the first-floor apartment tells the police later that he heard shouting and then the THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of the fall. The landlord's neck had snapped on impact^ but the blood and the slashed eye are something else altogether. "You hear anything like a fight? A wild animal?" an officer asks. "I wasn't really payin''attention," Bill tells him. "There's a cat up there, though, he howls whenever Bernie's out." Bernie takes a call from the police at work. They're at his apartment when he gets there: A photographer is taking shots of the blood on the floor in the kitchen. "I only had 'em a coupla months,-"1-Bernie says. "I didn't even want 'em, I just felt bad, he was outside cry in'." "He bite you before, attack you for no reason?" Bernie holds out his hands and pulls the sleeves up to show his arms: Not a scratch in sight. "He was shy and quiet and pretty much left me alone. The landlord ... I don't know, he musta provoked 'im somehow. Either that or he was drunk." He's got a good job, a clean place, good references. The cops give him some shit about restraining pets and harboring rabid animals. Bernie tells them, "The guy had no right bein' here in the first place. He shoulda called the fire department, that's the law. He" shoulda called me too, and he didn't. You wanna arrest me 'cuz a cat attacked a guy who basically broke into my house, and probably instigated the fight in the first place?" The cops tell him they'll get back to him. "Let us know if it comes back," they say, and Bernie nods, more pissed about missing half a day at work over this than anything. That night, half-drunk, he tip-toes down the stairway and goes out onto the front steps. The sky is clear, the moon bright and a thousand tiny stars sparkling all around "Hey," he says softly, and hears a rustling in the bushes across the lawn. The cat's head pokes out, looks both ways, then runs toward the steps. "Asshole," Bernie says, and lifts him into his arms. "Murderer." The cat licks his hand. Bernie carries him up the steps and gets his dinner ready, along with a bonus bowl of milk.

64

R u n n i n g

b y Nicolette

/

S e v e r s o n

he woman's motions were weary but deliberate as she put a gallon of milk in the cart. She looked at the baby gurgling contentedly and handed him a teething ring. She swallowed distantly, pushing the cart down the next aisle. In the checkout tine the baby began to whimper. She shook his rattle at him and patted his head, but he began to break into loud cries, and she could feel everyone's eyes. Now he was screaming. The bagger looked at her sympathetically. "I'll take him for a spin around the parking lot, if you'd like," he offered over the screams. "That would be wonderful," she replied gratefully. She glanced at her baby bag in the cart as it was swiftly wheeled away, the baby's wails fading. Three boys crouched around the comer of the supermarket, smoking cigarettes and striking poses of feigned maturity. The smallest one sat a little bit apart, smashing a butt with his shoe and examining the filter. The larger two began to laugh as they watched their classmate emerge from the store, pushing a shopping cart with a-screaming'baby.-"Its okay, it's okay," he kept saying, as the baby's screams reverberated with the bumps in the pavement. The two boys instinctively put out their cigarettes and began to approach him, the third trailing behind uncertainly. The boy pushing the cart saw them and his eyes dropped with a visible pang of self-awareness. "Don't," he pleaded hollowly as they came nearer. One of the boys lunged forward, grabbed the purse in the cart and, turning to the others, yelled, "run!" They bolted across the parking lot. At the edge of the lot, the smallest boy turned in time to see a glimpse of a woman, her arms full of groceries, standing beside the boy and the cart with the baby. She looked out across the black asphalt, her face blank with loss. She did not see him. After they successfully escaped, the three boys met under a nearby freeway overpass. They dumped out the contents of the bag, and groaned in unison when 65


Berkeley Fiction Review

Sensing trouble, the cat makes a run for the opened front door and disappears. ********* Bill in the first-floor apartment tells the police later that he heard shouting and then the THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of the fall. The landlord's neck had snapped on impact^ but the blood and the slashed eye are something else altogether. "You hear anything like a fight? A wild animal?" an officer asks. "I wasn't really payin''attention," Bill tells him. "There's a cat up there, though, he howls whenever Bernie's out." Bernie takes a call from the police at work. They're at his apartment when he gets there: A photographer is taking shots of the blood on the floor in the kitchen. "I only had 'em a coupla months,-"1-Bernie says. "I didn't even want 'em, I just felt bad, he was outside cry in'." "He bite you before, attack you for no reason?" Bernie holds out his hands and pulls the sleeves up to show his arms: Not a scratch in sight. "He was shy and quiet and pretty much left me alone. The landlord ... I don't know, he musta provoked 'im somehow. Either that or he was drunk." He's got a good job, a clean place, good references. The cops give him some shit about restraining pets and harboring rabid animals. Bernie tells them, "The guy had no right bein' here in the first place. He shoulda called the fire department, that's the law. He" shoulda called me too, and he didn't. You wanna arrest me 'cuz a cat attacked a guy who basically broke into my house, and probably instigated the fight in the first place?" The cops tell him they'll get back to him. "Let us know if it comes back," they say, and Bernie nods, more pissed about missing half a day at work over this than anything. That night, half-drunk, he tip-toes down the stairway and goes out onto the front steps. The sky is clear, the moon bright and a thousand tiny stars sparkling all around "Hey," he says softly, and hears a rustling in the bushes across the lawn. The cat's head pokes out, looks both ways, then runs toward the steps. "Asshole," Bernie says, and lifts him into his arms. "Murderer." The cat licks his hand. Bernie carries him up the steps and gets his dinner ready, along with a bonus bowl of milk.

64

R u n n i n g

b y Nicolette

/

S e v e r s o n

he woman's motions were weary but deliberate as she put a gallon of milk in the cart. She looked at the baby gurgling contentedly and handed him a teething ring. She swallowed distantly, pushing the cart down the next aisle. In the checkout tine the baby began to whimper. She shook his rattle at him and patted his head, but he began to break into loud cries, and she could feel everyone's eyes. Now he was screaming. The bagger looked at her sympathetically. "I'll take him for a spin around the parking lot, if you'd like," he offered over the screams. "That would be wonderful," she replied gratefully. She glanced at her baby bag in the cart as it was swiftly wheeled away, the baby's wails fading. Three boys crouched around the comer of the supermarket, smoking cigarettes and striking poses of feigned maturity. The smallest one sat a little bit apart, smashing a butt with his shoe and examining the filter. The larger two began to laugh as they watched their classmate emerge from the store, pushing a shopping cart with a-screaming'baby.-"Its okay, it's okay," he kept saying, as the baby's screams reverberated with the bumps in the pavement. The two boys instinctively put out their cigarettes and began to approach him, the third trailing behind uncertainly. The boy pushing the cart saw them and his eyes dropped with a visible pang of self-awareness. "Don't," he pleaded hollowly as they came nearer. One of the boys lunged forward, grabbed the purse in the cart and, turning to the others, yelled, "run!" They bolted across the parking lot. At the edge of the lot, the smallest boy turned in time to see a glimpse of a woman, her arms full of groceries, standing beside the boy and the cart with the baby. She looked out across the black asphalt, her face blank with loss. She did not see him. After they successfully escaped, the three boys met under a nearby freeway overpass. They dumped out the contents of the bag, and groaned in unison when 65


Berkeley Fiction Review

all that fell into the dust were some diapers, three baby toys, and a notebook. One of the boys flipped through the notebook distractedly. "Boring," he soon concluded, and tossed it down the dirt incline already strewn with trash. They each smoked another cigarette before walking their separate ways home. The smallest boy gave the other two enough time to be far away before turning back. He recovered the notebook, stuffed it under his sweatshirt; and began the long walk back to the army base where he lived with his >father. That night in bed he read through the journal entries and half finished poems that filled the notebook. He was sure he had never read anything like it. The next day he returned to the supermarket and sat on the side curb, but all day she did not come. The next day was the same, and he sat, endlessly repeating in his head his favorite lines from the notebook that he had memorized. On the third day, she came. She had the baby on her hip and looked hurried. He watched her ordinary face in wonder. He was able to follow her car on foot back to her house three blocks away. He noticed that often at night a dim&edroom light was on until very late, and he presumedshe was filling a new notebook. He would sometimes sit behind the hedge, whispering towards her bedroom window her words that he now possessed. It took him awhile to work up the courage to knock on her door. Wherthe did it was raining, and he stood on her doorstep shivering. "Can I help you?" Her voice was thin, tuneless. "Hello, I'm new to the neighborhood, and I'm knocking on people's doors ib see if they have any side jobs needing to be done." It was his rehearsed speech. "Lean do a lot of different things," he added hopefully. The woman studied his eager face. "Sure," she said, though she did not know why. She couldn't afford to pay anyone. Nevertheless, she led him into the backyard in the rain, to a little run-down tool shed. "This needs to be cleaned out," she said. "It's full of cobwebs and trash from the last people." She looked at him and her mouth dented her cheeks in what may have been a smile. He was to return the next day to begin. The boy worked diligently and nearly finished the work in-one day. He knew that she would be at work all the next day when he returned. The next morning in the shed he cut bits of colored paper and used magic markers as he hadn't since he was a little boy. He taped and glued and hung paper until the walls and ceiling were covered. In the middle1 of the room, propped on a chair, was the returned notebook. When the woman returned from work, he called her politely to the shed. When he opened the door, she gasped. Your love decorated me, it said across the back^vall with multicolored letters. You were the essence. I was just a nonentity set adrift, said another wall. Across the bdttom of the floor read you were wrong, it's always a crime to be shieldedfrom affection. The woman's face was shrinking

66

Running with horror. She covered her face with her hands as if to hide. "Why..." she moaned. Once again the boy ran from her. Soon afterward the boy and his father were relocated to an army base out of the state. When the boy lost his virginity, he turned to the girl afterwards and said, "your love decorates me." She laughed and said, "you're weird." The.woman often thought of the boy. She hoped she never saw him again. Still, she sometimes prayed that her own son would grow up to have that much concern for her.

67


Berkeley Fiction Review

all that fell into the dust were some diapers, three baby toys, and a notebook. One of the boys flipped through the notebook distractedly. "Boring," he soon concluded, and tossed it down the dirt incline already strewn with trash. They each smoked another cigarette before walking their separate ways home. The smallest boy gave the other two enough time to be far away before turning back. He recovered the notebook, stuffed it under his sweatshirt; and began the long walk back to the army base where he lived with his >father. That night in bed he read through the journal entries and half finished poems that filled the notebook. He was sure he had never read anything like it. The next day he returned to the supermarket and sat on the side curb, but all day she did not come. The next day was the same, and he sat, endlessly repeating in his head his favorite lines from the notebook that he had memorized. On the third day, she came. She had the baby on her hip and looked hurried. He watched her ordinary face in wonder. He was able to follow her car on foot back to her house three blocks away. He noticed that often at night a dim&edroom light was on until very late, and he presumedshe was filling a new notebook. He would sometimes sit behind the hedge, whispering towards her bedroom window her words that he now possessed. It took him awhile to work up the courage to knock on her door. Wherthe did it was raining, and he stood on her doorstep shivering. "Can I help you?" Her voice was thin, tuneless. "Hello, I'm new to the neighborhood, and I'm knocking on people's doors ib see if they have any side jobs needing to be done." It was his rehearsed speech. "Lean do a lot of different things," he added hopefully. The woman studied his eager face. "Sure," she said, though she did not know why. She couldn't afford to pay anyone. Nevertheless, she led him into the backyard in the rain, to a little run-down tool shed. "This needs to be cleaned out," she said. "It's full of cobwebs and trash from the last people." She looked at him and her mouth dented her cheeks in what may have been a smile. He was to return the next day to begin. The boy worked diligently and nearly finished the work in-one day. He knew that she would be at work all the next day when he returned. The next morning in the shed he cut bits of colored paper and used magic markers as he hadn't since he was a little boy. He taped and glued and hung paper until the walls and ceiling were covered. In the middle1 of the room, propped on a chair, was the returned notebook. When the woman returned from work, he called her politely to the shed. When he opened the door, she gasped. Your love decorated me, it said across the back^vall with multicolored letters. You were the essence. I was just a nonentity set adrift, said another wall. Across the bdttom of the floor read you were wrong, it's always a crime to be shieldedfrom affection. The woman's face was shrinking

66

Running with horror. She covered her face with her hands as if to hide. "Why..." she moaned. Once again the boy ran from her. Soon afterward the boy and his father were relocated to an army base out of the state. When the boy lost his virginity, he turned to the girl afterwards and said, "your love decorates me." She laughed and said, "you're weird." The.woman often thought of the boy. She hoped she never saw him again. Still, she sometimes prayed that her own son would grow up to have that much concern for her.

67


A Brief History of my Feet

A

B r i e f

H i s t o r y

o f

m

camouflaged cookie cutter slicing off legs and arms, a lucky rotten break for had he not lost those limbs and been carted away to the hospital ship Templeton he likely would have perished (he never used the word "died" always "perished" with extra emphasis on the d that made it sound like a t) perishTUHl in the Battle of the Bulgur, not as famous as the Bulge but nearly as ugly, silos bombed by Germans and hand-to-hand combat ensuing in waist-deep wheat, machine guns jammed with kernels so knives the weapon of choice, throats slit and you can imagine the rest, an awful mess which turned many survivors into pacifists, including PFC Betteman with Mona Lisa hair who eventually married a Christian Communist and with her founded America's first Presbyterian Kibbutz, the pair spending most every Saturday in Tirade Park, standing on a tower of Tide detergent boxes and lambasting veterans like Dad who gladly sold his life story to Hollywood then uttered not a peep when the facts were entirely disregarded by 16 screenwriters with one agenda—to pack the script of Comeback Street with scenes trumpeting the notion: Life Is Sacrifice and Sacrifice Is Glorious, which of course it is not, sacrifice is an article of speech in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language with a specific meaning like any other noun or verb, a definition informing the reader that sacrifice is a surrender, a destruction or terrible trial that in Dad's case was all the more trying because he had made not the ultimate sacrifice but the penultimate sacrifice and so lived to behold his mutilation irf'the mirror, left leg gone, right leg gone, left arm gone, right arm gone, complete cancellation of left right left right left right which begot another greater cancellation as the whole time I was growing up there was a movie screen at the head of the dining room table and a Super 8 projector between the salt and pepper shakers, bitter angry frustrated Dad insisting Mom and I break bread with his merry screen persona played by burly Brando wannabe Kenton Starling, P.G Marshall narrating the fairy tale story of the grotesquely well-adjusted quadruple amputee who leads the intensive care choir in the singing of the entire Messiah and at night enchants nurses by reciting verses with an 18 inch tongue, the lengthened'strengthened tongue that according to the Army doctor was ...one brave body's miraculous way of compensating for lost appendages, a tongue which curled and unfurled to mimic the idiosyncratic punctuation of E.E. Cummings and foreign locales mentioned in the travel writing of Henry James: Tuscan hills, Medici castles, London bridges, Prague spires, even the complex spigotry of Versailles fountains, SHAMELESS SPECIAL EFFECT! PINOCCfflO'SNOSEONLYLOWER! HOW HARD STARLING HAD TO WORK TO OPERATE THAT SVENGALI EXTENSION! the cotton-filled rubber tongue which soon enough supplanted in my consciousness the real Dad drawing the disability check—the man who was now but a faint foreign noise in the rear of the theater the apartment had become.

y

F e e t b y B e n

Miller

promise to be as concise as I can Dr. Murray but even radical abridgment of my toeful tale yields a hefty narrative by any standard, which I'm sure doesn't come as news, you more than anyone aware of the magnitude of the saga unveiled when even the most modest pair of shoes is slipped off, each fallen arch a Paradise Lost, every battered heel an Owldyssey, hundreds of aching Homers hobbling through this neodesic Palace of Podiatry daily, a five dollar co-pay packing the waiting room bleachers with moaning security guards, groaning exterminators, prima ballerinas droning dreary or punning third person cheery about ...how nice it would be to land on ones feet and not regret it, so many teensy-weensy bones to pick on that ten-toed wall chart, more bones in one foot than the torso entire, enough to make an inquiring mind wonder if 10,000 years ago feet weren't ten times as large, an anatomical parts kit stocked with extra skulls femurs patellas collarbones ribs with which to repair a crushed skeleton after a Tyrannosaurus terror attack, not that there aren't other reasonable explanations for the complex structure, it's also occurred to me that humans may have been handless feetless crawlers until one dawn a flock of turtledoves descended from heaven, landing on the dragging stumps, splayed feathers transforming into digits—ENOUGH your lips read ALREADY—by this tired time of the evening you've no energy for philosophy, just want the facts, so here they are: First corn, age three, young I know but my baby shoes weren't polka dot booties but size one hob nail boots Mom mail-ordered from Olde English Footwear and Dad tied real tight with his teeth because he had lost both arms and both legs in WWTI when a troop transport overturned on a muddy road, six soldiers crushed and Dad's vitals spared by a torso-length trailer dent that functioned like a 68

69 1


A Brief History of my Feet

A

B r i e f

H i s t o r y

o f

m

camouflaged cookie cutter slicing off legs and arms, a lucky rotten break for had he not lost those limbs and been carted away to the hospital ship Templeton he likely would have perished (he never used the word "died" always "perished" with extra emphasis on the d that made it sound like a t) perishTUHl in the Battle of the Bulgur, not as famous as the Bulge but nearly as ugly, silos bombed by Germans and hand-to-hand combat ensuing in waist-deep wheat, machine guns jammed with kernels so knives the weapon of choice, throats slit and you can imagine the rest, an awful mess which turned many survivors into pacifists, including PFC Betteman with Mona Lisa hair who eventually married a Christian Communist and with her founded America's first Presbyterian Kibbutz, the pair spending most every Saturday in Tirade Park, standing on a tower of Tide detergent boxes and lambasting veterans like Dad who gladly sold his life story to Hollywood then uttered not a peep when the facts were entirely disregarded by 16 screenwriters with one agenda—to pack the script of Comeback Street with scenes trumpeting the notion: Life Is Sacrifice and Sacrifice Is Glorious, which of course it is not, sacrifice is an article of speech in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language with a specific meaning like any other noun or verb, a definition informing the reader that sacrifice is a surrender, a destruction or terrible trial that in Dad's case was all the more trying because he had made not the ultimate sacrifice but the penultimate sacrifice and so lived to behold his mutilation irf'the mirror, left leg gone, right leg gone, left arm gone, right arm gone, complete cancellation of left right left right left right which begot another greater cancellation as the whole time I was growing up there was a movie screen at the head of the dining room table and a Super 8 projector between the salt and pepper shakers, bitter angry frustrated Dad insisting Mom and I break bread with his merry screen persona played by burly Brando wannabe Kenton Starling, P.G Marshall narrating the fairy tale story of the grotesquely well-adjusted quadruple amputee who leads the intensive care choir in the singing of the entire Messiah and at night enchants nurses by reciting verses with an 18 inch tongue, the lengthened'strengthened tongue that according to the Army doctor was ...one brave body's miraculous way of compensating for lost appendages, a tongue which curled and unfurled to mimic the idiosyncratic punctuation of E.E. Cummings and foreign locales mentioned in the travel writing of Henry James: Tuscan hills, Medici castles, London bridges, Prague spires, even the complex spigotry of Versailles fountains, SHAMELESS SPECIAL EFFECT! PINOCCfflO'SNOSEONLYLOWER! HOW HARD STARLING HAD TO WORK TO OPERATE THAT SVENGALI EXTENSION! the cotton-filled rubber tongue which soon enough supplanted in my consciousness the real Dad drawing the disability check—the man who was now but a faint foreign noise in the rear of the theater the apartment had become.

y

F e e t b y B e n

Miller

promise to be as concise as I can Dr. Murray but even radical abridgment of my toeful tale yields a hefty narrative by any standard, which I'm sure doesn't come as news, you more than anyone aware of the magnitude of the saga unveiled when even the most modest pair of shoes is slipped off, each fallen arch a Paradise Lost, every battered heel an Owldyssey, hundreds of aching Homers hobbling through this neodesic Palace of Podiatry daily, a five dollar co-pay packing the waiting room bleachers with moaning security guards, groaning exterminators, prima ballerinas droning dreary or punning third person cheery about ...how nice it would be to land on ones feet and not regret it, so many teensy-weensy bones to pick on that ten-toed wall chart, more bones in one foot than the torso entire, enough to make an inquiring mind wonder if 10,000 years ago feet weren't ten times as large, an anatomical parts kit stocked with extra skulls femurs patellas collarbones ribs with which to repair a crushed skeleton after a Tyrannosaurus terror attack, not that there aren't other reasonable explanations for the complex structure, it's also occurred to me that humans may have been handless feetless crawlers until one dawn a flock of turtledoves descended from heaven, landing on the dragging stumps, splayed feathers transforming into digits—ENOUGH your lips read ALREADY—by this tired time of the evening you've no energy for philosophy, just want the facts, so here they are: First corn, age three, young I know but my baby shoes weren't polka dot booties but size one hob nail boots Mom mail-ordered from Olde English Footwear and Dad tied real tight with his teeth because he had lost both arms and both legs in WWTI when a troop transport overturned on a muddy road, six soldiers crushed and Dad's vitals spared by a torso-length trailer dent that functioned like a 68

69 1


Berkeley Fiction Review

Ingrown toe nails, age seven, a result of wearing the same hobnail boots I wore as an infant, you heard correctly: the same miniscule boots because I believed tiny feet would make me worthy of being related to the lushly abbreviated hero on the big screen who turned every disadvantage into an exhilarating advantage, wooing then marrying a physical therapist with legs enough for two people, the ceremony held at St. Hatrick's Hockey Cathedral (the most violent church in New York City and so by far the most appealing)—bruised minister in the face-off circle dropping a small circular bible—#34 best man and #62 bridesmaid guarding goals filled with presents knocked into the net by athletic usher #12—Rear Admiral with the heavily decorated rear saluting from the penalty box and propounding over the P.A.: To gain respect an authority figure must be truly wicked or genuinely good, as Americans are not Buddhists and despise the middle way white at the same time epitomizing it.—organist playing a rousing recessional while elated relatives in the stands chanted LET'S GO YANKS! LET'S GO YANKS! at the newlyweds skating'toward the locker room where a healing wedding feast awaited on a bencli— lineament cake, aspirin casserole, caviar in tooth guards atop shaved rink ice, crabstuffed bandages—or I should say the bride skated with a rope around her waist that yvas attached to a rose-festooned sled carrying a pill of a hero waving a pink scarf of a tongue that in the next scene resembled a pulsing Tour de France calf as it pedaled pedaled pedaled a one pedal recumbent bicycle past skyscraper lobbies gleaming like gold rail cars, up Madison Avenue and down 63rd Street to crumbling dump called Hotel Steam Heat that needed a verbal savant on the staff to go along with mutes Stiff, Stuff, Drift, Duffy and a sputtering chandelier with tiers of steam exuding candles, HIGHLYDECORATED CONCIERGE: MORE THAN LANGUAGE SPOKEN read the condensation pimpled plaque affixed to the four-foot-tall velvetlined egg cup from which the war hero delivered such vivid directions to tourists that by the time the tongue finished loop-de-looping the awed natives of Indiana and India felt certain they had seen a sight superior to Lady Liberty's torch and so saw no reason to leave the hissing premises, shopping instead at Way Too Much For Way Too Little gift shop, dining on blackened round steak at Overdone's Restaurant, drinking thin whiskey at Cal's Colored Water Bar and pouring so much cash into the coffers that as the film ended these triumphant words flashed across the screen: Thanks to Glen Rafferty, the humble Hotel Steam Heat achieved the. highest percentage profit margin of any hostelry in the city, surpassing even The Plaza and The Carlyle. First infected blood blister, age eleven, a byproduct of fleeing down alleys to avoid strangers as displeased as you look, Doctor, now that I've slipped my five inch feet out of the padded full-size boots I years ago began wearing over the size one hobnail boots to save Mom the hassle of being reported to the Department of Child Welfare, bound-feet considered a cultural sin second only to clitoral removal, but in my case not spirit-crushing or permanently heartbreaking, for I didn't come 70

A Brief History of my Feet here alone, in Tooth Whitening Hall right now is the common law girlfriend I met nine years ago through a Web support group for the beleaguered offspring of American heroes—closet dwelling sons of Generals and egoless firemen's daughters such as Tonia with her blank smile, gandering neck and scar tattoo the exact width and length of the burn her father received from a falling beam while rescuing an infant from a flaming day care fortress, guilt the solid foundation on which her life was built until she, like me, shed that shiny coagulated coat of Newsweek articles and... more about that later, in terms of the blister what you need know is that it was the first of dozens of that formed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst..., inflicting pain that not only proved beyond a shadow how worthy I was to bear the Rafferty surname but also at times sang louder than even the brassy sassy soundtrack of Comeback Street, broaching questions such as: Might suffering in a few rare cases have no melody attached and not be for the best? Could resilience in isolated instances be proof of insensitivitieness rather than courage? Was victory in certain circumstances more shameful than defeat?-troubling questions T dismissed immediately only to confront anew as I walked to and from school, cats spooked by my tilting tiptoe steps and dogs answering the howls of pain that ultimately debunked the cheery bleary moral of Comeback Street, teaching me that meat comes out of a meat grinder, not ideas like "Heroism" and "Justice" and "Democracy" but bloody bits of human meat that used to talk and love and sing, people become the very least they can be. First foot-length callous, age 14, dodging the red grapes Mom threw in lieu of alligator tears she would not let herself cry because Life is Sacrifice and Sacrifice is Glorious, grapes propelled not only by grief over those alien noises in the bedroom but also her own painful past, born after 40 days and nights of labor that killed both her mother and her father (the only Dronx General instance of a husband dying of sympathy for his wife), responsibility for raising the orphan falling to a bachelor uncle Ump who made a living converting newsstands into chicken coops and as a hobby collected pins and needles that were spread all over the apartment and made sitting anywhere dangerous, which was why at the bittersweet age of 16 she snuck into Magedlan Army Base disguised as burlap sack of potatoes and proposed marriage to a GI. who loved starch and eagerly followed her to a fence on the other side of which stood the unkempt preacher she had rented for no more than the grapes she later cried cost, globe grapes bouncing off my face (each rebound leaving in its wake the false sensation of an acne crater) as well as hitting walls, windows, surgical supplies, saltine boxes, fruit crate furniture, neighbors waddling down the hallway: Mr. Simpson who muttered: .../ hear you, I hear you, I really do...', Twangy Mrs. Tempting who spoke in tongue-twisters: Imirfor your information is farther father byfar...Lurid lords of liquidity light my pilot fire...; mustachioed Mr. Grandisbn, President 71


Berkeley Fiction Review

Ingrown toe nails, age seven, a result of wearing the same hobnail boots I wore as an infant, you heard correctly: the same miniscule boots because I believed tiny feet would make me worthy of being related to the lushly abbreviated hero on the big screen who turned every disadvantage into an exhilarating advantage, wooing then marrying a physical therapist with legs enough for two people, the ceremony held at St. Hatrick's Hockey Cathedral (the most violent church in New York City and so by far the most appealing)—bruised minister in the face-off circle dropping a small circular bible—#34 best man and #62 bridesmaid guarding goals filled with presents knocked into the net by athletic usher #12—Rear Admiral with the heavily decorated rear saluting from the penalty box and propounding over the P.A.: To gain respect an authority figure must be truly wicked or genuinely good, as Americans are not Buddhists and despise the middle way white at the same time epitomizing it.—organist playing a rousing recessional while elated relatives in the stands chanted LET'S GO YANKS! LET'S GO YANKS! at the newlyweds skating'toward the locker room where a healing wedding feast awaited on a bencli— lineament cake, aspirin casserole, caviar in tooth guards atop shaved rink ice, crabstuffed bandages—or I should say the bride skated with a rope around her waist that yvas attached to a rose-festooned sled carrying a pill of a hero waving a pink scarf of a tongue that in the next scene resembled a pulsing Tour de France calf as it pedaled pedaled pedaled a one pedal recumbent bicycle past skyscraper lobbies gleaming like gold rail cars, up Madison Avenue and down 63rd Street to crumbling dump called Hotel Steam Heat that needed a verbal savant on the staff to go along with mutes Stiff, Stuff, Drift, Duffy and a sputtering chandelier with tiers of steam exuding candles, HIGHLYDECORATED CONCIERGE: MORE THAN LANGUAGE SPOKEN read the condensation pimpled plaque affixed to the four-foot-tall velvetlined egg cup from which the war hero delivered such vivid directions to tourists that by the time the tongue finished loop-de-looping the awed natives of Indiana and India felt certain they had seen a sight superior to Lady Liberty's torch and so saw no reason to leave the hissing premises, shopping instead at Way Too Much For Way Too Little gift shop, dining on blackened round steak at Overdone's Restaurant, drinking thin whiskey at Cal's Colored Water Bar and pouring so much cash into the coffers that as the film ended these triumphant words flashed across the screen: Thanks to Glen Rafferty, the humble Hotel Steam Heat achieved the. highest percentage profit margin of any hostelry in the city, surpassing even The Plaza and The Carlyle. First infected blood blister, age eleven, a byproduct of fleeing down alleys to avoid strangers as displeased as you look, Doctor, now that I've slipped my five inch feet out of the padded full-size boots I years ago began wearing over the size one hobnail boots to save Mom the hassle of being reported to the Department of Child Welfare, bound-feet considered a cultural sin second only to clitoral removal, but in my case not spirit-crushing or permanently heartbreaking, for I didn't come 70

A Brief History of my Feet here alone, in Tooth Whitening Hall right now is the common law girlfriend I met nine years ago through a Web support group for the beleaguered offspring of American heroes—closet dwelling sons of Generals and egoless firemen's daughters such as Tonia with her blank smile, gandering neck and scar tattoo the exact width and length of the burn her father received from a falling beam while rescuing an infant from a flaming day care fortress, guilt the solid foundation on which her life was built until she, like me, shed that shiny coagulated coat of Newsweek articles and... more about that later, in terms of the blister what you need know is that it was the first of dozens of that formed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst and healed and burst..., inflicting pain that not only proved beyond a shadow how worthy I was to bear the Rafferty surname but also at times sang louder than even the brassy sassy soundtrack of Comeback Street, broaching questions such as: Might suffering in a few rare cases have no melody attached and not be for the best? Could resilience in isolated instances be proof of insensitivitieness rather than courage? Was victory in certain circumstances more shameful than defeat?-troubling questions T dismissed immediately only to confront anew as I walked to and from school, cats spooked by my tilting tiptoe steps and dogs answering the howls of pain that ultimately debunked the cheery bleary moral of Comeback Street, teaching me that meat comes out of a meat grinder, not ideas like "Heroism" and "Justice" and "Democracy" but bloody bits of human meat that used to talk and love and sing, people become the very least they can be. First foot-length callous, age 14, dodging the red grapes Mom threw in lieu of alligator tears she would not let herself cry because Life is Sacrifice and Sacrifice is Glorious, grapes propelled not only by grief over those alien noises in the bedroom but also her own painful past, born after 40 days and nights of labor that killed both her mother and her father (the only Dronx General instance of a husband dying of sympathy for his wife), responsibility for raising the orphan falling to a bachelor uncle Ump who made a living converting newsstands into chicken coops and as a hobby collected pins and needles that were spread all over the apartment and made sitting anywhere dangerous, which was why at the bittersweet age of 16 she snuck into Magedlan Army Base disguised as burlap sack of potatoes and proposed marriage to a GI. who loved starch and eagerly followed her to a fence on the other side of which stood the unkempt preacher she had rented for no more than the grapes she later cried cost, globe grapes bouncing off my face (each rebound leaving in its wake the false sensation of an acne crater) as well as hitting walls, windows, surgical supplies, saltine boxes, fruit crate furniture, neighbors waddling down the hallway: Mr. Simpson who muttered: .../ hear you, I hear you, I really do...', Twangy Mrs. Tempting who spoke in tongue-twisters: Imirfor your information is farther father byfar...Lurid lords of liquidity light my pilot fire...; mustachioed Mr. Grandisbn, President 71


Berkeley Fiction Review

A Brief History of my Feet

and only employee of Drainpipe Federal Savings and Loan, who behind an impressively lettered door (DFSL Means Security Reliability Convenience) boiled $20 bills in a paraffin solution, money paranoid people had entrusted to his care, waterproofed cash he stashed in gutters all over the borough while disguised in a meter reader's dolorous uniform.

ENGINEERINGMARVEL!—WASACTUAIXYASERJESOFCHEAPDISPOSABLE TONGUES SNATCHED OFF THE GREEN ROOM PILE when the inevitable accidents happened, meltage due to heat from the camera lights and tearage caused by the strain of method acting expression, CUT', yelled the director and a bevy of assistants converged on the Brando wannabe, one fanning as another lifted the desiccated appendage so a third could slice it off with scissors.

First ankle bunion, age 14, due to skipping school to accompany Mom to the armory where she worked mornings because she didn't have to, putting together CARE packages the Red Cross air-dropped on busy intersections where stranded starving pedestrians had been waiting weeks for the WALK signal to blink, each cigar box containing an inflatable pillow, 10 ccs of morphine, flare to signal worried relatives, dried fruit, nut-studded energy bars, vials of dehydrated tap water, mint toothpicks, retractable toothbrush, fingernail-sized compass, tampons and a synopsis of a Ph.D. thesis on stasis entitled Patience: the Lost Ideal, everything fitting thanks to the expert dexterous packers, creme de la creme of compartmentalizers who had perfected the art during dire personal circumstances, deftly hiding belongings as Atilla the debt collector pounded on the door or stowing all manner of emotion when a 200 pound buzzard landed on the tar paper tenement roof, grown intent children of Our Mother of Trauma sitting shoulder-toshoulder-to-shoulder at folding tables, all energy flowing into fingers that plucked toiletries from wicker baskets and tucked—tucked—tucked and by tucking and plucking imbued every plucked tucked object with a personal aura, so much so that whenever Ifindan old CARE package at a rummage sale and pry off the lid, it's as if the fatal clothes folding accident never happened and Mom is staring at me again—syringe mouth, flaring nose, puckered apricots for eyes.

First barefoot steps the next morning when I hobbled into the bedroom to inform Dad that his screen self had died a long overdue death in my mind, Hotel Steam Heat sold to investors who changed the name to Hotel Canterbury and ripped down the hissing chandelier and installed stained glass windows and placed woodcuts of Bishops on walls and thyme-scented soap called Hope on a Rope in shower stalls, the old staff fired without notice: Stiff, Stuff, Drift, Duffy and SCREEN TCt/who could find no other job but that of garbage arranger at Rotten Kills Landfill, plow affixed to the tongue-powered rickshaw that shoved tons of reeking crap into an eon-deep hole until the- passage of a Federal law stating ALL CITIZENS MUST HENCEFORTH LIVE WITH THE FOULNESS THEY CREATE, which closed the landfill and forced SCREEN YOU to write a humiliating letter to the V.A. asking that disability payments proudly deferred ...be undeferred. a missive promptly answered ...payments once deferred can never bi undeferred... bad news that translated into empty cupboards of little concern to your beautiful spouse who dined next door with her dashing lover the transferred Virginia cavalier, a sordid affair that led SCREEN YOU to file for a divorce not granted, Judge Ely scolding: Appreciate what you have. Who else would marry a poached egg? words that stung and stung and stung until a rye whiskey called Glissando was discovered, drinking a habit late in entering life's plan but soon the main focus of existence, income to pay for the pints coming from a variety of odd jobs: taster at a dog food factory, administering last rites to envelopes at the dead mail office, ticket taker at the Dronx Botanical Garden until drunken SCREEN YOU posted a sign reading: TODAY IS FLOWER PICKING DAY! TAKE ALL YOU WANT ! and visitors filled satchels with rare monotone plants that thrive in smog and excessive moonlight—gray tulips gray roses gray dahlias—a scandal that rendered SCREEN YOU entirely unemployable save as a landscaper for a slum lord, scrawling grass graffiti on the courtyard concrete and nesting in the basement with a hyper-articulate bald prostitute named Ilduh who possessed tobacco-specked tooth stubs and no sympathy for anyone other than herself: You only lost arms and legs. My wounds are invisible and constantly changing shape, shrinking and expanding. How does one recover from the amputation of a soul? One doesn 't. Thoughts and feelings—the Metal of Being.1—pouring like sand into the spiritual hotel glug glug glug glug glug glug glug glug... nights become weeks, His and Her Hallucinations of defecating scarecrows—chess master roaches—sidewalk

First bout with arthritis, age 19, after nervously wiggling my toes for a week while watching and rewatching the sequence in Comeback Street that most thrilled and terrified me, the scene in which the concierge upon his egg cup throne tells an ambitious bell boy: Don t waste another penny on night classes. I'LL TALK YOU TO A DEGREE FROM YALE, tentacle-tongue sculpting campus cupolas...spires... pillars...statues...dorms...wet girlfriends and noose-like professorial visages encircling the proxy freshman wondering what manner of loquacious beast he has unleashed in his impatience to get ahead and whatever caused him to agree to let his mind to be raped by a drooling unspooling grandiloquent illusion, NO!, the bell boy didn't'think this, the bell boy was happy: grinning and nodding as directed by the script, it was ME IN THE DINING ROOM WHO FLINCHED WHEN THE CAMERA ZOOMED ON THE BARNACLE-LIKE TASTE BUDS, ME WHO SHIVERED and for the first time noticed rips in the latex, damp cuds of putty and stuffing, tongue cage bending, crumpling and moments later appearing intact again, which could only mean THE PROP LONG PERCEIVED TO BE A SINGLE ENTITY—FAUSTIAN 72

73 , L


Berkeley Fiction Review

A Brief History of my Feet

and only employee of Drainpipe Federal Savings and Loan, who behind an impressively lettered door (DFSL Means Security Reliability Convenience) boiled $20 bills in a paraffin solution, money paranoid people had entrusted to his care, waterproofed cash he stashed in gutters all over the borough while disguised in a meter reader's dolorous uniform.

ENGINEERINGMARVEL!—WASACTUAIXYASERJESOFCHEAPDISPOSABLE TONGUES SNATCHED OFF THE GREEN ROOM PILE when the inevitable accidents happened, meltage due to heat from the camera lights and tearage caused by the strain of method acting expression, CUT', yelled the director and a bevy of assistants converged on the Brando wannabe, one fanning as another lifted the desiccated appendage so a third could slice it off with scissors.

First ankle bunion, age 14, due to skipping school to accompany Mom to the armory where she worked mornings because she didn't have to, putting together CARE packages the Red Cross air-dropped on busy intersections where stranded starving pedestrians had been waiting weeks for the WALK signal to blink, each cigar box containing an inflatable pillow, 10 ccs of morphine, flare to signal worried relatives, dried fruit, nut-studded energy bars, vials of dehydrated tap water, mint toothpicks, retractable toothbrush, fingernail-sized compass, tampons and a synopsis of a Ph.D. thesis on stasis entitled Patience: the Lost Ideal, everything fitting thanks to the expert dexterous packers, creme de la creme of compartmentalizers who had perfected the art during dire personal circumstances, deftly hiding belongings as Atilla the debt collector pounded on the door or stowing all manner of emotion when a 200 pound buzzard landed on the tar paper tenement roof, grown intent children of Our Mother of Trauma sitting shoulder-toshoulder-to-shoulder at folding tables, all energy flowing into fingers that plucked toiletries from wicker baskets and tucked—tucked—tucked and by tucking and plucking imbued every plucked tucked object with a personal aura, so much so that whenever Ifindan old CARE package at a rummage sale and pry off the lid, it's as if the fatal clothes folding accident never happened and Mom is staring at me again—syringe mouth, flaring nose, puckered apricots for eyes.

First barefoot steps the next morning when I hobbled into the bedroom to inform Dad that his screen self had died a long overdue death in my mind, Hotel Steam Heat sold to investors who changed the name to Hotel Canterbury and ripped down the hissing chandelier and installed stained glass windows and placed woodcuts of Bishops on walls and thyme-scented soap called Hope on a Rope in shower stalls, the old staff fired without notice: Stiff, Stuff, Drift, Duffy and SCREEN TCt/who could find no other job but that of garbage arranger at Rotten Kills Landfill, plow affixed to the tongue-powered rickshaw that shoved tons of reeking crap into an eon-deep hole until the- passage of a Federal law stating ALL CITIZENS MUST HENCEFORTH LIVE WITH THE FOULNESS THEY CREATE, which closed the landfill and forced SCREEN YOU to write a humiliating letter to the V.A. asking that disability payments proudly deferred ...be undeferred. a missive promptly answered ...payments once deferred can never bi undeferred... bad news that translated into empty cupboards of little concern to your beautiful spouse who dined next door with her dashing lover the transferred Virginia cavalier, a sordid affair that led SCREEN YOU to file for a divorce not granted, Judge Ely scolding: Appreciate what you have. Who else would marry a poached egg? words that stung and stung and stung until a rye whiskey called Glissando was discovered, drinking a habit late in entering life's plan but soon the main focus of existence, income to pay for the pints coming from a variety of odd jobs: taster at a dog food factory, administering last rites to envelopes at the dead mail office, ticket taker at the Dronx Botanical Garden until drunken SCREEN YOU posted a sign reading: TODAY IS FLOWER PICKING DAY! TAKE ALL YOU WANT ! and visitors filled satchels with rare monotone plants that thrive in smog and excessive moonlight—gray tulips gray roses gray dahlias—a scandal that rendered SCREEN YOU entirely unemployable save as a landscaper for a slum lord, scrawling grass graffiti on the courtyard concrete and nesting in the basement with a hyper-articulate bald prostitute named Ilduh who possessed tobacco-specked tooth stubs and no sympathy for anyone other than herself: You only lost arms and legs. My wounds are invisible and constantly changing shape, shrinking and expanding. How does one recover from the amputation of a soul? One doesn 't. Thoughts and feelings—the Metal of Being.1—pouring like sand into the spiritual hotel glug glug glug glug glug glug glug glug... nights become weeks, His and Her Hallucinations of defecating scarecrows—chess master roaches—sidewalk

First bout with arthritis, age 19, after nervously wiggling my toes for a week while watching and rewatching the sequence in Comeback Street that most thrilled and terrified me, the scene in which the concierge upon his egg cup throne tells an ambitious bell boy: Don t waste another penny on night classes. I'LL TALK YOU TO A DEGREE FROM YALE, tentacle-tongue sculpting campus cupolas...spires... pillars...statues...dorms...wet girlfriends and noose-like professorial visages encircling the proxy freshman wondering what manner of loquacious beast he has unleashed in his impatience to get ahead and whatever caused him to agree to let his mind to be raped by a drooling unspooling grandiloquent illusion, NO!, the bell boy didn't'think this, the bell boy was happy: grinning and nodding as directed by the script, it was ME IN THE DINING ROOM WHO FLINCHED WHEN THE CAMERA ZOOMED ON THE BARNACLE-LIKE TASTE BUDS, ME WHO SHIVERED and for the first time noticed rips in the latex, damp cuds of putty and stuffing, tongue cage bending, crumpling and moments later appearing intact again, which could only mean THE PROP LONG PERCEIVED TO BE A SINGLE ENTITY—FAUSTIAN 72

73 , L


Berkeley Fiction Review

tombstones—a U.S. president the hue of asparagus soup—prison bar tree branches—harps strung with human guts—horrid visions nearly as horrible as the disgusting reality of day-to-day survival, sucking tourist cocks in alleys and subway tokens from turnstile slots,* tokens stowed in a filthy suede neck purse worn to a casino called Commuter's Paradise, where SCREEN rOt/perishTUH! of UH! heart UHIttack after betting 16 tokens on 32 black, dead dissipated hero head wafting to and fro like an empty plastic bag on a windy morning, discarded body-litter catching on the roulette wheel and spinning around and around and around and around and around and then, Doctor, the sheets rustled and from underneath came a whisper: You're right. I've been a fool. WHAT IS always trumps WHAT ISN'T

A Brief History of my Feet wanted to get the honest opinion of a realist like yourself, a man who sees hundreds of patients each week, a practical professional who is probably wondering why I've just pulled a bottle of muddy water out of my backpack: why? because you* ve got to see this to believe it, the way I track: wet boots not leaving tread marks on the floor but full-size footprints, toes and all.

First "ten mile walk, age 25, around and around, and-around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and abound and around and around and around and around a warped copy of Nat King Cole Sings Phil Flowers as favor for Mr. Grandison, President and only employee of Drain Pipe Federal Savings and Loan, who I found in the hallway one day staring-sadly at an album a relative had borrowed and left on a radiator, deformed vinyl he believed was irreparable but which I did repair with my-deformed feet.jeceiving'such gratitude I knew I had finally discovered my calling, a noble vocation that would BRING ME INTQ DAILY.CONTAGT WITH OTHER AVID RECORD LOVERS WHO DESPISE DISTORTION AND EMBRACE THE STARK COMPLICATIONS OF CLARITY, librarians, music scholars and radio disc jockeys I initially reached with a series of Billboard ads-(DON'T TOSS THOSE DAMAGED DISCS! SEND THEM-TO'MR. FLATTENER!) and later through rampant word-ofmouth, novel techniques evolving to solve novel problems, silk slippers smoothing delicate audiophile-grade vinyl, hiking boots for tougher plastics, stomp step to remove water warp, slide step to eradicate heat warp, double hop step to eliminate the warp resulting from over stacking, an adventure'in learning that continues to this day, though with the advent of the compact disk and digital downloading my clientele now consists primarily of D.J.s, last week Richard Retro who spins only 78s delivered 100 platters to be repaired and Snickers-in-the-Rough drppped off 500 rave-damaged discs, which isn't what brings me here today—damage, I mean—heels and arches are in good shape—salt bath every night, acupuncture weekly at Needle Nook, massage once a month at Rub You Rub You Rub You— after so many years in the business I'm well aware of my. limits and abide by them, no more than 1000 trips around a record per hour, but I am puzzled by the reaction.of jny feet to-Dad's recent quiet passing at the age of 72, probably this symptom is of no concern„at least that's what a dozen other podiatrists have told me, a.delusional Dr. Addison eVen labeled the phenomenon:-One, body's miraculous way of compensating for an aborted childhood. Which is why \ 74

75


Berkeley Fiction Review

tombstones—a U.S. president the hue of asparagus soup—prison bar tree branches—harps strung with human guts—horrid visions nearly as horrible as the disgusting reality of day-to-day survival, sucking tourist cocks in alleys and subway tokens from turnstile slots,* tokens stowed in a filthy suede neck purse worn to a casino called Commuter's Paradise, where SCREEN rOt/perishTUH! of UH! heart UHIttack after betting 16 tokens on 32 black, dead dissipated hero head wafting to and fro like an empty plastic bag on a windy morning, discarded body-litter catching on the roulette wheel and spinning around and around and around and around and around and then, Doctor, the sheets rustled and from underneath came a whisper: You're right. I've been a fool. WHAT IS always trumps WHAT ISN'T

A Brief History of my Feet wanted to get the honest opinion of a realist like yourself, a man who sees hundreds of patients each week, a practical professional who is probably wondering why I've just pulled a bottle of muddy water out of my backpack: why? because you* ve got to see this to believe it, the way I track: wet boots not leaving tread marks on the floor but full-size footprints, toes and all.

First "ten mile walk, age 25, around and around, and-around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and abound and around and around and around and around a warped copy of Nat King Cole Sings Phil Flowers as favor for Mr. Grandison, President and only employee of Drain Pipe Federal Savings and Loan, who I found in the hallway one day staring-sadly at an album a relative had borrowed and left on a radiator, deformed vinyl he believed was irreparable but which I did repair with my-deformed feet.jeceiving'such gratitude I knew I had finally discovered my calling, a noble vocation that would BRING ME INTQ DAILY.CONTAGT WITH OTHER AVID RECORD LOVERS WHO DESPISE DISTORTION AND EMBRACE THE STARK COMPLICATIONS OF CLARITY, librarians, music scholars and radio disc jockeys I initially reached with a series of Billboard ads-(DON'T TOSS THOSE DAMAGED DISCS! SEND THEM-TO'MR. FLATTENER!) and later through rampant word-ofmouth, novel techniques evolving to solve novel problems, silk slippers smoothing delicate audiophile-grade vinyl, hiking boots for tougher plastics, stomp step to remove water warp, slide step to eradicate heat warp, double hop step to eliminate the warp resulting from over stacking, an adventure'in learning that continues to this day, though with the advent of the compact disk and digital downloading my clientele now consists primarily of D.J.s, last week Richard Retro who spins only 78s delivered 100 platters to be repaired and Snickers-in-the-Rough drppped off 500 rave-damaged discs, which isn't what brings me here today—damage, I mean—heels and arches are in good shape—salt bath every night, acupuncture weekly at Needle Nook, massage once a month at Rub You Rub You Rub You— after so many years in the business I'm well aware of my. limits and abide by them, no more than 1000 trips around a record per hour, but I am puzzled by the reaction.of jny feet to-Dad's recent quiet passing at the age of 72, probably this symptom is of no concern„at least that's what a dozen other podiatrists have told me, a.delusional Dr. Addison eVen labeled the phenomenon:-One, body's miraculous way of compensating for an aborted childhood. Which is why \ 74

75


Tracy

That just made me want her more.

T r a c y

b y R o b y n

M u r p h y

he first thing I noticed when Tracy came into our lives was that she had the eyes of a martyr. She was one of those rescued greyhounds | the ones who ran madly around a race-track for the first three years of their lives, then get dropped into the rescue societies as soon as their leg and hip joints start swelling and snapping from ill-use. I was sitting in my friend Adina's kitchen and trying not to choke on the thick Turkish coffee that she insisted on brewing for us when I saw the long black shadow of Tracy's body slide around a corner. "How long have you had a dog?" I asked Adina, not certain whether to be hurt that she had not shared the news with me or embarrassed that I had so dominated the conversation with my own difficulties that she hadn't been able to squeeze the words in before now. Deciding to feel hurt and place the blame on Adina was hardly a novel decision for me, since I had so much guilt from dealing with Jack that there wasn't room for any more. "Three days, and it's not working out," Adina replied, flicking the ash from her cigarette onto one of her china saucers before it could fall to the yellowed linoleum floor. Tracy walked towards us with all the agility and grace of an arthritis-ridden grandmother, and placed her gray-shot muzzle on my knee. Enormous watery brown eyes looked up at me, and I wondered whether she expected me to stroke her silky ears or beat her. Her whip-like black tail never moved from between her legs, and her bony body almost rattled as it shook. Cats won't act like this - if a person hurts them, they'll blame all people and never look for human love again. It's dogs that keep trying. "I'll take her," I said, even though it had been over fifteen years since I'd owned a dog, and I hadn't wanted another one until that moment. "She's old," Adina warned. "I only took her because she's going to die soon." 76

The car-ride home was uneventful. Tracy stretched herself out in the backseat and never made a sound. Whenever I stopped at a traffic light, I would twist around to make certain that there really was a dog back there, and that I hadn't just dreamed up everything. Each time, she would lift her head up to look me in the eyes. The rest of her body remained utterly still, as though unattached to her head. I'd never met a dog before whose tail did not twitch and shiver with every action the rest of its body took. It made Tracy seem less like a canine and more like my Aunt Joanne after she was paralyzed from the neck down and became so depressed that by the end of her life she would communicate only through eyeblinks, like some strange lizard. One blink meant yes, two blinks meant no, and three blinks meant that someone had to change her bedpan. Tracy's hip joints were her main problem, and she needed my help to get out of the car. The heavy clouds promised rain, but she refused to be rushed as she carefully nosed her way along the driveway until she reached the lawn. Then she investigated the untended grass that Jack hadn't mowed in almost four weeks. We'd reached an impasse where I had decided that there was no way I would remind him to mow it, and he had just as stubbornly declared that he wasn't going to mow it until I told him to. After the first two weeks, we'd taken to pulling the curtains on weekends so that the sight of yet another stupid standoff wouldn't stare us in the face. The hints of our neighbors were becoming less and less subtle as they viewed our untended lawn and marriage with evident distaste. Jack and I were left to chew over our guilt that we couldn't keep our conflicts hidden under layers of habit and hospitality, like every one of the neighbors did and most of our parents had. The polite way to end a marriage was to keep a sham going for years, then finally admit defeat when the husband packed all of his clothes into his car and drove away to find an apartment in the city, leaving a note with the babysitter for his wife to find when she got home from work. Seeing Tracy walk painstakingly through the tall grass made me nervous, and triggered thoughts of Lyme Disease. I hustled her inside, or at least tried to. Navigating any stairs was an exercise in patience and pain for her, as her abused hipbones scraped against each other with each upward step. There were only four steps leading up to our front stoop, and they were nice and wide, but it still took her ten minutes to get up them. The house I'd lived in for eight years seemed entirely different with Tracy exploring it in^her ^unassuming manner and at her turtle-like pace. For the first time, it was applying to a whole new occupant - the couch that Jack and I had bought because it matched the wallpaper would now be poked by Tracy's wet nose. Its worth would be devalued by how easily her black hairs showed up against the powder blue cushions. The ugly rug in the kitchen that Jack's mother made for her senior arts and crafts class was now a wonderful place for Tracy to lie as she watched me. 77


Tracy

That just made me want her more.

T r a c y

b y R o b y n

M u r p h y

he first thing I noticed when Tracy came into our lives was that she had the eyes of a martyr. She was one of those rescued greyhounds | the ones who ran madly around a race-track for the first three years of their lives, then get dropped into the rescue societies as soon as their leg and hip joints start swelling and snapping from ill-use. I was sitting in my friend Adina's kitchen and trying not to choke on the thick Turkish coffee that she insisted on brewing for us when I saw the long black shadow of Tracy's body slide around a corner. "How long have you had a dog?" I asked Adina, not certain whether to be hurt that she had not shared the news with me or embarrassed that I had so dominated the conversation with my own difficulties that she hadn't been able to squeeze the words in before now. Deciding to feel hurt and place the blame on Adina was hardly a novel decision for me, since I had so much guilt from dealing with Jack that there wasn't room for any more. "Three days, and it's not working out," Adina replied, flicking the ash from her cigarette onto one of her china saucers before it could fall to the yellowed linoleum floor. Tracy walked towards us with all the agility and grace of an arthritis-ridden grandmother, and placed her gray-shot muzzle on my knee. Enormous watery brown eyes looked up at me, and I wondered whether she expected me to stroke her silky ears or beat her. Her whip-like black tail never moved from between her legs, and her bony body almost rattled as it shook. Cats won't act like this - if a person hurts them, they'll blame all people and never look for human love again. It's dogs that keep trying. "I'll take her," I said, even though it had been over fifteen years since I'd owned a dog, and I hadn't wanted another one until that moment. "She's old," Adina warned. "I only took her because she's going to die soon." 76

The car-ride home was uneventful. Tracy stretched herself out in the backseat and never made a sound. Whenever I stopped at a traffic light, I would twist around to make certain that there really was a dog back there, and that I hadn't just dreamed up everything. Each time, she would lift her head up to look me in the eyes. The rest of her body remained utterly still, as though unattached to her head. I'd never met a dog before whose tail did not twitch and shiver with every action the rest of its body took. It made Tracy seem less like a canine and more like my Aunt Joanne after she was paralyzed from the neck down and became so depressed that by the end of her life she would communicate only through eyeblinks, like some strange lizard. One blink meant yes, two blinks meant no, and three blinks meant that someone had to change her bedpan. Tracy's hip joints were her main problem, and she needed my help to get out of the car. The heavy clouds promised rain, but she refused to be rushed as she carefully nosed her way along the driveway until she reached the lawn. Then she investigated the untended grass that Jack hadn't mowed in almost four weeks. We'd reached an impasse where I had decided that there was no way I would remind him to mow it, and he had just as stubbornly declared that he wasn't going to mow it until I told him to. After the first two weeks, we'd taken to pulling the curtains on weekends so that the sight of yet another stupid standoff wouldn't stare us in the face. The hints of our neighbors were becoming less and less subtle as they viewed our untended lawn and marriage with evident distaste. Jack and I were left to chew over our guilt that we couldn't keep our conflicts hidden under layers of habit and hospitality, like every one of the neighbors did and most of our parents had. The polite way to end a marriage was to keep a sham going for years, then finally admit defeat when the husband packed all of his clothes into his car and drove away to find an apartment in the city, leaving a note with the babysitter for his wife to find when she got home from work. Seeing Tracy walk painstakingly through the tall grass made me nervous, and triggered thoughts of Lyme Disease. I hustled her inside, or at least tried to. Navigating any stairs was an exercise in patience and pain for her, as her abused hipbones scraped against each other with each upward step. There were only four steps leading up to our front stoop, and they were nice and wide, but it still took her ten minutes to get up them. The house I'd lived in for eight years seemed entirely different with Tracy exploring it in^her ^unassuming manner and at her turtle-like pace. For the first time, it was applying to a whole new occupant - the couch that Jack and I had bought because it matched the wallpaper would now be poked by Tracy's wet nose. Its worth would be devalued by how easily her black hairs showed up against the powder blue cushions. The ugly rug in the kitchen that Jack's mother made for her senior arts and crafts class was now a wonderful place for Tracy to lie as she watched me. 77


Berkeley Fiction Review

That's what she did. She watched. Every movement I made was monitored by an uncannily attentive set of canine eyes. Tracy never followed me when I left one room for another, but I'd look down later from a task and unexpectedly find myself meeting her eyes. Unhurried, unassuming, and patient. Waiting for me to do something, but I wasn't sure what. It had its eerie moments at first, until I became used to having a silent audience for every action. That first afternoon, I discovered that being unable to get to me frightened her. When I closed the bathroom door, she stood on the other side and whimpered until I broke and let her in. I'm sure that any dog trainer would've told me not to encourage a bad habit by giving in to her, but her whimpers weren't like those of a dog who is begging for something - they were whimpers of sadness that seemed like they would go on forever. The worst part was that she seemed surprised when I eventually opened the door, and that was why I never tried to lock her out again. Maybe it was at the racetrack that she came into the belief that no one would ever respond to the distressed noises she made. Hearing her whimper reminded me that she assumed that I was like everyone else. Jack didn't say anything when he came home to find her parked on the living room floor. It was either the sheer unreality of a dog mysteriously finding its way into our home, or our new habits of treating each other like ticking time bombs. We' d exhausted open arguments and therapy at that point - the conclusion that we were going to leave each other seemed foregone by all of our friends and family. The idea that we could keep our marriage together if neither of us brought up the subject of separation must've occurred to each of us individually, but it was something we practiced with an intricacy and partnership that would've impressed members the modern ballet. I complained incessantly about the disintegration of my marriage to every person I could think of, but around Jack I became utterly silent on the topic, and he returned the favor. As it was, the topic of Tracy was avoided from dinnertime until we were upstairs preparing for bed. We sat on opposite ends of the bed and changed into our pajamas with our backs firmly facing each other. Jack stared straight ahead, at the wall, when he talked to me. There was a mirror on my side of the room, and I used it to shamelessly spy on him. "If you haven't taken her to the vet, yet, I'll make an appointment for her tomorrow," he said. The back of his neck was covered in a sea of freckles. I knew they covered his entire body, and in happier times I used to tease him by trying to count them. They were all pale brown, and fairly discrete, except for one dark one that was placed precisely one-quarter of an inch above his groin. I had no freckles, and I used to touch the dark one lightly when he was asleep, wondering if its color made it any different from the rest. "Thank you, that would be nice." I turned my bedside light off, and he turned off his. We each lay down on.our side of the bed and waited for sleep. The 78

Tracy bed was large enough that the long stretch of no-man's-land between us prevented any accidental brushing of flesh, and all we could do was strain to hear each other's movements. The slightest movement made the sheets crinkle and rub. I stared at the ceiling and prayed that for once I would be able to fall asleep on my back, without flipping from side to side. This was the longest part of my day, when I knew that he was there in the darkness, listening and interpreting every uncomfortable twist. Sometimes it took hours for me to fall asleep, and when I woke up my back would be such a tangle of knots that even my chiropractor (whose children I was surely sending through college) told me to just give up and sleep somewhere else. If either of us had been the philandering sort, we could've gone and slept at someone else's house. The thought had occurred to me once, when a client asked me to go have a drink with him, but then I imagined Jack getting even. I imagined him going to the house of one of his cute young associates - getting a better night's sleep there than he ever had when sharing a bed with me. The thought of him hogging someone else's covers had kept me from ever returning any other amorous glances. I broke first, and rolled to my right. Then Jack adjusted his pillow loudly, and I pulled the sheet tighter around my shoulder. He kicked off the comforter. I rolled to my left. He loudly got up to get a drink of water. I took the opportunity to switch my pillow for his, under the assumption that he had probably taken the good one again. He came back and folded his new pillow over to try and get neck support. I pulled the comforter back up.-He rolled over and took most of the sheet with him. I rolled back to my right to try and take some sheet back. The fact that we ever fell asleep at all was something of a miracle. That was why when I woke up to the sensation of Tracy's cold nose pressing against my palm, my first shock was that I'd actually been asleep. The glowing digits of the clock on Jack's side revealed the time to be 2:35am, and his gurgling snore made it clear that he had also somehow found sleep. "What's wrong?" I whispered to Tracy, as though she could actually answer. It was possible, of course, that she had become lonely in her doggie-bed downstairs in the kitchen, but that alone didn't explain why she had woken me up. Even after only an afternoon's acquaintance, I had figured out that she instigated physical contact only rarely. In the dim light of the room, her black body was just another shadow, and only by squinting could I make put the glassiness of her eyes. Silently, she pressed her nose against my hand again. In the urgency of the gesture, my foggy brain finally figured out what she needed. One half of my mind was wailing at the thought of venturing outside at this hour, while the other half was grateful that she had been well-trained enough that she hadclimbed a whole flight of stairs instead of spawning Lake Tracy downstairs. I tried to get out of bed without waking up Jack, but he seemed hyper-aware of every creak from the aging springs. His snoring abruptly stopped, and he sat 79


Berkeley Fiction Review

That's what she did. She watched. Every movement I made was monitored by an uncannily attentive set of canine eyes. Tracy never followed me when I left one room for another, but I'd look down later from a task and unexpectedly find myself meeting her eyes. Unhurried, unassuming, and patient. Waiting for me to do something, but I wasn't sure what. It had its eerie moments at first, until I became used to having a silent audience for every action. That first afternoon, I discovered that being unable to get to me frightened her. When I closed the bathroom door, she stood on the other side and whimpered until I broke and let her in. I'm sure that any dog trainer would've told me not to encourage a bad habit by giving in to her, but her whimpers weren't like those of a dog who is begging for something - they were whimpers of sadness that seemed like they would go on forever. The worst part was that she seemed surprised when I eventually opened the door, and that was why I never tried to lock her out again. Maybe it was at the racetrack that she came into the belief that no one would ever respond to the distressed noises she made. Hearing her whimper reminded me that she assumed that I was like everyone else. Jack didn't say anything when he came home to find her parked on the living room floor. It was either the sheer unreality of a dog mysteriously finding its way into our home, or our new habits of treating each other like ticking time bombs. We' d exhausted open arguments and therapy at that point - the conclusion that we were going to leave each other seemed foregone by all of our friends and family. The idea that we could keep our marriage together if neither of us brought up the subject of separation must've occurred to each of us individually, but it was something we practiced with an intricacy and partnership that would've impressed members the modern ballet. I complained incessantly about the disintegration of my marriage to every person I could think of, but around Jack I became utterly silent on the topic, and he returned the favor. As it was, the topic of Tracy was avoided from dinnertime until we were upstairs preparing for bed. We sat on opposite ends of the bed and changed into our pajamas with our backs firmly facing each other. Jack stared straight ahead, at the wall, when he talked to me. There was a mirror on my side of the room, and I used it to shamelessly spy on him. "If you haven't taken her to the vet, yet, I'll make an appointment for her tomorrow," he said. The back of his neck was covered in a sea of freckles. I knew they covered his entire body, and in happier times I used to tease him by trying to count them. They were all pale brown, and fairly discrete, except for one dark one that was placed precisely one-quarter of an inch above his groin. I had no freckles, and I used to touch the dark one lightly when he was asleep, wondering if its color made it any different from the rest. "Thank you, that would be nice." I turned my bedside light off, and he turned off his. We each lay down on.our side of the bed and waited for sleep. The 78

Tracy bed was large enough that the long stretch of no-man's-land between us prevented any accidental brushing of flesh, and all we could do was strain to hear each other's movements. The slightest movement made the sheets crinkle and rub. I stared at the ceiling and prayed that for once I would be able to fall asleep on my back, without flipping from side to side. This was the longest part of my day, when I knew that he was there in the darkness, listening and interpreting every uncomfortable twist. Sometimes it took hours for me to fall asleep, and when I woke up my back would be such a tangle of knots that even my chiropractor (whose children I was surely sending through college) told me to just give up and sleep somewhere else. If either of us had been the philandering sort, we could've gone and slept at someone else's house. The thought had occurred to me once, when a client asked me to go have a drink with him, but then I imagined Jack getting even. I imagined him going to the house of one of his cute young associates - getting a better night's sleep there than he ever had when sharing a bed with me. The thought of him hogging someone else's covers had kept me from ever returning any other amorous glances. I broke first, and rolled to my right. Then Jack adjusted his pillow loudly, and I pulled the sheet tighter around my shoulder. He kicked off the comforter. I rolled to my left. He loudly got up to get a drink of water. I took the opportunity to switch my pillow for his, under the assumption that he had probably taken the good one again. He came back and folded his new pillow over to try and get neck support. I pulled the comforter back up.-He rolled over and took most of the sheet with him. I rolled back to my right to try and take some sheet back. The fact that we ever fell asleep at all was something of a miracle. That was why when I woke up to the sensation of Tracy's cold nose pressing against my palm, my first shock was that I'd actually been asleep. The glowing digits of the clock on Jack's side revealed the time to be 2:35am, and his gurgling snore made it clear that he had also somehow found sleep. "What's wrong?" I whispered to Tracy, as though she could actually answer. It was possible, of course, that she had become lonely in her doggie-bed downstairs in the kitchen, but that alone didn't explain why she had woken me up. Even after only an afternoon's acquaintance, I had figured out that she instigated physical contact only rarely. In the dim light of the room, her black body was just another shadow, and only by squinting could I make put the glassiness of her eyes. Silently, she pressed her nose against my hand again. In the urgency of the gesture, my foggy brain finally figured out what she needed. One half of my mind was wailing at the thought of venturing outside at this hour, while the other half was grateful that she had been well-trained enough that she hadclimbed a whole flight of stairs instead of spawning Lake Tracy downstairs. I tried to get out of bed without waking up Jack, but he seemed hyper-aware of every creak from the aging springs. His snoring abruptly stopped, and he sat 79


Berkeley Fiction Review up in bed. He stared at me, then at Tracy, as I struggled into a pair of sneakers r and sweatpants. "Go back to sleep," I hissed. "I just need to walk Tracy." If Tracy had come into our lives three years earlier, when we were still happy (maybe not blissfully so, but certainly the idea of divorce had never been approached) he would've done just that. During my first brief pregnancy, before the miscarriage, I'd been overcome with insomnia and had begun going on walks during the small hours of the morning. I'd roam the neighborhood for hours, sometimes even going on long drives in my car. The sun would just be coming up when I'd come back, and I'd find Jack just as I'd left him, blissfully huddled beneath all of the sheets, snoring. "I'll go with you," he said now. Later, bundled in sweatpants and jackets, and shivering in the cold spring night, we walked side-by-side behind Tracy as she made her unhurried way through the perfectly manicured lawns of our neighbors. For a dog who had been in such need, she was able to wait until presented with just the right target - in that night's case, the little plastic jockey perched on Reverend Stewart's lawn, four houses down from ours. On the walk hoipe, Tracy's steps seemed lighter, and Jack and I giggled in a mixture of sleepdeprivation and giddiness at the very idea of debasing the Reverend's statuary. That was the first of our late-night walks with Tracy. We went through the day bleary-eyed, and that night had an early dinner before heading off to bed before the nightly news. Our precautions of walking Tracy and not leaving a night bowl of water proved in vain, as once again I felt her cold nose pressing into my palm just after two a.m. Jack and I stumbled after her, watching as this time she homed in on the plastic garden gnome who guarded Mrs. Baker's petunia patch. Every night, it was the same ritual, but with a different lawn decoration. We, started leaving our sweatpants and sneakers out to make it easier to find them in the dark. Summer arrived, and we opened every window in the house to try and encourage some cross-ventilation and end the stifling misery that the hot weather brought. In better times we'd avoided talking about the possibility of installing central air-conditioning because it would lead to a depressing look at our checking account. Now, the subject was avoided because it might cross over into the taboo thought of whether we'd be living together in this house much longer. Maybe we'd be living in separate apartments by winter, struggling to remember how to deal with ornery landlords and pest infestations. We talked about Tracy instead. "Do you think all the heat is bad for her?" Jack asked. It was a Saturday, and there would be no escape to our air-conditioned offices today. We'd retreated steadily from the heat, and by noon were sitting on opposite ends of the kitchen, 80

Tracy

slumped against the cool tile floor and holding dishtowels filled with ice cubes against our sweaty foreheads. "Only if she gets dehydrated." I replied. We stared at her, trying to discern whether she looked stressed and heat-stricken. Tracy had been emptying her water bowl hourly, but apart from a necessary increase in her potty breaks, had shown no real ill-effects. She looked back at us, and yawned. Perhaps she thought that we needed entertainment. "I could put some ice cubes in her water." Jack offered. "She might choke on them," I snapped at him, then regretted it a minute later. He was just trying to contribute. Silence stretched out between us as we struggled to make our brains work in the heat. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of the ice-cubes in our dishtowels rubbing against each other were all the filled the room. Five minutes passed, and it appeared that the topic had been abandoned, just like everything else. "Crushed ice-cubes could work," I surprised us both by saying. In my dream I was back at the ICU, sitting in the hospital chair and staring into the plastic incubator at our baby. I'd reached my bare hands into it, and in my dream I was afraid of being punished for doing that. The nurses wouldn't let us touch her without plastic gloves on, because she was so prone to infection. Her- skin was so thin that I could see her lungs, like two blue tea bags. The baby was making whining noises, like a dog, and it wasn't until I'd woken up that I realized that that part was real. Tracy had gotten about halfway up the staircase before her hips refused to do anything more. That's where I found her, too far up to risk going back down; and too far down to finish the trip. She stood utterly still, whimpering with pain and loneliness until Jack picked her up and carried her downstairs. We didn't realize-that she was also whimpering with shame until we felt the dampness on the insides of her back legs.

The greeter at the entrance of Costco opened her mouth to protest, but we refused to meet her gaze and she just watched us enter. A large group followed us in with a large computer box and indignant looks on their faces, and she had tc choose between challenging us or checking a returned item. A task outlined b> her handbook won out, and she turned away from us withobvious relief. Jack pushed the shopping cart while I walked alongside, trying to help steei by tugging on the front in the way that I knew he-hated, but was unable to stop myself from doing. Tracy sat quietly in the main basket, exhibiting no surprise as though she was pushed around in shopping carts every hour of every day. She was calmer than we were - we'd gotten past the greeter, but we were certain tha a manager would be on the hunt for us soon.


Berkeley Fiction Review up in bed. He stared at me, then at Tracy, as I struggled into a pair of sneakers r and sweatpants. "Go back to sleep," I hissed. "I just need to walk Tracy." If Tracy had come into our lives three years earlier, when we were still happy (maybe not blissfully so, but certainly the idea of divorce had never been approached) he would've done just that. During my first brief pregnancy, before the miscarriage, I'd been overcome with insomnia and had begun going on walks during the small hours of the morning. I'd roam the neighborhood for hours, sometimes even going on long drives in my car. The sun would just be coming up when I'd come back, and I'd find Jack just as I'd left him, blissfully huddled beneath all of the sheets, snoring. "I'll go with you," he said now. Later, bundled in sweatpants and jackets, and shivering in the cold spring night, we walked side-by-side behind Tracy as she made her unhurried way through the perfectly manicured lawns of our neighbors. For a dog who had been in such need, she was able to wait until presented with just the right target - in that night's case, the little plastic jockey perched on Reverend Stewart's lawn, four houses down from ours. On the walk hoipe, Tracy's steps seemed lighter, and Jack and I giggled in a mixture of sleepdeprivation and giddiness at the very idea of debasing the Reverend's statuary. That was the first of our late-night walks with Tracy. We went through the day bleary-eyed, and that night had an early dinner before heading off to bed before the nightly news. Our precautions of walking Tracy and not leaving a night bowl of water proved in vain, as once again I felt her cold nose pressing into my palm just after two a.m. Jack and I stumbled after her, watching as this time she homed in on the plastic garden gnome who guarded Mrs. Baker's petunia patch. Every night, it was the same ritual, but with a different lawn decoration. We, started leaving our sweatpants and sneakers out to make it easier to find them in the dark. Summer arrived, and we opened every window in the house to try and encourage some cross-ventilation and end the stifling misery that the hot weather brought. In better times we'd avoided talking about the possibility of installing central air-conditioning because it would lead to a depressing look at our checking account. Now, the subject was avoided because it might cross over into the taboo thought of whether we'd be living together in this house much longer. Maybe we'd be living in separate apartments by winter, struggling to remember how to deal with ornery landlords and pest infestations. We talked about Tracy instead. "Do you think all the heat is bad for her?" Jack asked. It was a Saturday, and there would be no escape to our air-conditioned offices today. We'd retreated steadily from the heat, and by noon were sitting on opposite ends of the kitchen, 80

Tracy

slumped against the cool tile floor and holding dishtowels filled with ice cubes against our sweaty foreheads. "Only if she gets dehydrated." I replied. We stared at her, trying to discern whether she looked stressed and heat-stricken. Tracy had been emptying her water bowl hourly, but apart from a necessary increase in her potty breaks, had shown no real ill-effects. She looked back at us, and yawned. Perhaps she thought that we needed entertainment. "I could put some ice cubes in her water." Jack offered. "She might choke on them," I snapped at him, then regretted it a minute later. He was just trying to contribute. Silence stretched out between us as we struggled to make our brains work in the heat. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of the ice-cubes in our dishtowels rubbing against each other were all the filled the room. Five minutes passed, and it appeared that the topic had been abandoned, just like everything else. "Crushed ice-cubes could work," I surprised us both by saying. In my dream I was back at the ICU, sitting in the hospital chair and staring into the plastic incubator at our baby. I'd reached my bare hands into it, and in my dream I was afraid of being punished for doing that. The nurses wouldn't let us touch her without plastic gloves on, because she was so prone to infection. Her- skin was so thin that I could see her lungs, like two blue tea bags. The baby was making whining noises, like a dog, and it wasn't until I'd woken up that I realized that that part was real. Tracy had gotten about halfway up the staircase before her hips refused to do anything more. That's where I found her, too far up to risk going back down; and too far down to finish the trip. She stood utterly still, whimpering with pain and loneliness until Jack picked her up and carried her downstairs. We didn't realize-that she was also whimpering with shame until we felt the dampness on the insides of her back legs.

The greeter at the entrance of Costco opened her mouth to protest, but we refused to meet her gaze and she just watched us enter. A large group followed us in with a large computer box and indignant looks on their faces, and she had tc choose between challenging us or checking a returned item. A task outlined b> her handbook won out, and she turned away from us withobvious relief. Jack pushed the shopping cart while I walked alongside, trying to help steei by tugging on the front in the way that I knew he-hated, but was unable to stop myself from doing. Tracy sat quietly in the main basket, exhibiting no surprise as though she was pushed around in shopping carts every hour of every day. She was calmer than we were - we'd gotten past the greeter, but we were certain tha a manager would be on the hunt for us soon.


Berkeley Fiction Review

We maneuvered past twenty-gallon cans of pineapple slices and ten-packs of toothpaste. Everything was a bargain as long as you wanted a lot of it. We'd decorated our house out of the halls of Costco, and once a year I still drove down here to buy the super box of sanitary napkins that was so huge and unsightly that we concealed it in the linen closet, camouflaged under a pile of towels. The veterinarian had broached the subject of euthanasia in today's visit, something I knew that he'd been working his way toward ever since-Tracy became stuck on the stairs. Even after Jack and I moved to the downstairs fold-out couch, to the anguished dismay of both our chiropractors, Tracy's range of motion was still receding. Now there were needles filled with pain-killers that had to be injected into her hips and shoulders once a week. Her nightly walks had become agonizing to watch. We finally-found the right aisle, and we stared at the assortment of lawn ornaments in front of us. One by one, we lifted them out of their boxes and held them before Tracy for her perusal. Mushrooms, flamingoes, gnomes, jockeys, and deer were all sniffed at and ignored. It was the last box that yielded a brown plastic squirrel clutching a yellow nut like a prize that seemed to excite her. She gave it a small lick just as a manager came hurrying around the comer to ask us to leave. When we got home, the first thing we -did after unloading Tracy from the car was to install the squirrel. The shin-high grass concealed the yellow nut, and our excitement dissipated as it sat there in forlorn concealment. Tracy walked right past it without bothering to give it a sniff, and I carried her inside to get her dinner as Jack finished unloading the car. As I placed-the filled dog dish in front of Tracy, a loud noise and the sharp smell of gasoline made us both jump. I looked out,of the window and saw Jack pushing the lawnmower that had languished for months in the garage. The paint on the plastic squirrel was beginning to peel off from Tracy's nightly attentions by the time the anniversary of the baby's death came around, just as the leaves wer&starting to turn. We tried to ignore the date, but his parents sent flowers and the priest from the church that had raised money for the hospital bills kept calling and leaving condolences on our answering machine. The first message came so early that it woke us up, and we lay on-our separate sides of the fold-out couch and listened as a man .with no children quoted psalms at us. Jack skipped breakfast and went straight to work while J called in sick and spent the day in my pajamas with the shades drawn. I stroked Tracy's head and pressed my face into her fur while I tried to remember everything I could about the baby I'd had for three-days. I took her birth certificate, hospital bracelet, and death certificate out of the box I kept hidden under the sink, behind the dishwashing flakes where Jack wouldn't find it, and held the sum of her life achievements in my hands before I tucked them away again. 82

Tracy I went to bed early, but I woke up when Jack came home. We avoided looking at each other, and I pretended to fall back asleep while he changed out of his rumpled suit and into his pajamas. As he carefully inched his way into bed, trying not to disturb me, I smelled the alcohol on him and wondered if he'd ever made it to the office. When Tracy woke us up to take her outside, we didn't talk about what we'd done with our days. We just pulled on our sweatpants and sneakers, and Jack picked Tracy up to carry her outside. Walking across the kitchen floor was becoming a more and more daunting task for her pain-filled shuffle, and we'd moved her food and water dishes to the living room so that she wouldn't have to move any more than necessary. Outside, Jack placed Tracy gently down next to her squirrel, arid she hobbled a bit as she tried to squat, and failed. Her urine trickled down her legs and tail as she looked up at us in misery. Jack carried her back inside, and we sponged her off with warm water. I made coffee and we drank it black as we sat at the kitchen table in the predawn light and watched the sun rise. Jack broke the silence first. "I'll make an appointment with the vet," he said. I nodded. I woke up at 2:30am, that first night without Tracy. I waited for the cold nose in my hand for several minutes, not remembering that we'd left her body with the vet. "Are you there?" I whispered, looking for her slinky body. "Yes," Jack said, not realizing that I hadn't been talking to him. I'd been listening so hard for the sound of Tracy's toenails clicking on the wood floor that I hadn't realized that he was awake. That's when I remembered that she was dead, and I must've made some kind of sound, because he reached over across the no-man's-land. I felt his fumbling hSrid brush against my shoulder, then my elbow, before it finally groped down my arnr and found my palm. It had been months since my hand had been touched by anything except Tracy's cold nose, and I lay still and shocked. His hand lay on my'own, unsure and limp, until I gripped it and felt its warmth, and the sweat that coated it.

83


Berkeley Fiction Review

We maneuvered past twenty-gallon cans of pineapple slices and ten-packs of toothpaste. Everything was a bargain as long as you wanted a lot of it. We'd decorated our house out of the halls of Costco, and once a year I still drove down here to buy the super box of sanitary napkins that was so huge and unsightly that we concealed it in the linen closet, camouflaged under a pile of towels. The veterinarian had broached the subject of euthanasia in today's visit, something I knew that he'd been working his way toward ever since-Tracy became stuck on the stairs. Even after Jack and I moved to the downstairs fold-out couch, to the anguished dismay of both our chiropractors, Tracy's range of motion was still receding. Now there were needles filled with pain-killers that had to be injected into her hips and shoulders once a week. Her nightly walks had become agonizing to watch. We finally-found the right aisle, and we stared at the assortment of lawn ornaments in front of us. One by one, we lifted them out of their boxes and held them before Tracy for her perusal. Mushrooms, flamingoes, gnomes, jockeys, and deer were all sniffed at and ignored. It was the last box that yielded a brown plastic squirrel clutching a yellow nut like a prize that seemed to excite her. She gave it a small lick just as a manager came hurrying around the comer to ask us to leave. When we got home, the first thing we -did after unloading Tracy from the car was to install the squirrel. The shin-high grass concealed the yellow nut, and our excitement dissipated as it sat there in forlorn concealment. Tracy walked right past it without bothering to give it a sniff, and I carried her inside to get her dinner as Jack finished unloading the car. As I placed-the filled dog dish in front of Tracy, a loud noise and the sharp smell of gasoline made us both jump. I looked out,of the window and saw Jack pushing the lawnmower that had languished for months in the garage. The paint on the plastic squirrel was beginning to peel off from Tracy's nightly attentions by the time the anniversary of the baby's death came around, just as the leaves wer&starting to turn. We tried to ignore the date, but his parents sent flowers and the priest from the church that had raised money for the hospital bills kept calling and leaving condolences on our answering machine. The first message came so early that it woke us up, and we lay on-our separate sides of the fold-out couch and listened as a man .with no children quoted psalms at us. Jack skipped breakfast and went straight to work while J called in sick and spent the day in my pajamas with the shades drawn. I stroked Tracy's head and pressed my face into her fur while I tried to remember everything I could about the baby I'd had for three-days. I took her birth certificate, hospital bracelet, and death certificate out of the box I kept hidden under the sink, behind the dishwashing flakes where Jack wouldn't find it, and held the sum of her life achievements in my hands before I tucked them away again. 82

Tracy I went to bed early, but I woke up when Jack came home. We avoided looking at each other, and I pretended to fall back asleep while he changed out of his rumpled suit and into his pajamas. As he carefully inched his way into bed, trying not to disturb me, I smelled the alcohol on him and wondered if he'd ever made it to the office. When Tracy woke us up to take her outside, we didn't talk about what we'd done with our days. We just pulled on our sweatpants and sneakers, and Jack picked Tracy up to carry her outside. Walking across the kitchen floor was becoming a more and more daunting task for her pain-filled shuffle, and we'd moved her food and water dishes to the living room so that she wouldn't have to move any more than necessary. Outside, Jack placed Tracy gently down next to her squirrel, arid she hobbled a bit as she tried to squat, and failed. Her urine trickled down her legs and tail as she looked up at us in misery. Jack carried her back inside, and we sponged her off with warm water. I made coffee and we drank it black as we sat at the kitchen table in the predawn light and watched the sun rise. Jack broke the silence first. "I'll make an appointment with the vet," he said. I nodded. I woke up at 2:30am, that first night without Tracy. I waited for the cold nose in my hand for several minutes, not remembering that we'd left her body with the vet. "Are you there?" I whispered, looking for her slinky body. "Yes," Jack said, not realizing that I hadn't been talking to him. I'd been listening so hard for the sound of Tracy's toenails clicking on the wood floor that I hadn't realized that he was awake. That's when I remembered that she was dead, and I must've made some kind of sound, because he reached over across the no-man's-land. I felt his fumbling hSrid brush against my shoulder, then my elbow, before it finally groped down my arnr and found my palm. It had been months since my hand had been touched by anything except Tracy's cold nose, and I lay still and shocked. His hand lay on my'own, unsure and limp, until I gripped it and felt its warmth, and the sweat that coated it.

83


The Leather Coat

T h e

b y

L e a t h e r

R o b e r t

C o a t

M e n t z e r

And so in a certain department there served a certain Civil Servant, a Civil Servant who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as in anyway remarkable. —Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat" all me Metalhead Eddie, the name I've been called behind my back since I was in high school, when I first started wearing a leather jacket, first experimentally grew my hair over my collar. I have eliminated the middleman: I call myself Metalhead Eddie to save everyone the trouble. I am the comic-book nerd of popular stereotype: large and soft around the middle, dressed in a multi-zippered leather jacket with wild red hair and thick glasses, an avid gamer, a collector of all manner of pop detritus, a heavy metal fan, a Trekker, a man immersed in the massive universes of sci-fi and fantasy. I started dressing this way in high school to attract attention, to provoke staring and name-calling, to cement my status as totally, officially ostracized. I hear them say it under their breath when I walk into B. Dalton Bookseller in Eastwoods Mall: here comes Metalhead Eddie. I ask them about an expensive book of art by H. R. Geiger that they do not stock. I wear my leather jacket and my red hair is over the back of my collar. The people in the mall give me a wide berth. If someone from work saw me here, in my leather coat and with my hair down, they wouldn't even recognize me. In chat rooms, my handle is MTLH3DEDDIE. During the day I tame my hair into a ponytail, leave my jacket behind and go to work for GlobalRe Inc, a reinsurance agency, meaning we sell insurance to people who sell insurance. Selling insurance, after all, is far from risk-free. Bad things happen and you need to be prepared to pay your claims. Anyway that is what GlobalRe salesmen tell insurance companies, most of whom make their living saying the same things to their clients. At work people give me a wide berth in a different way: they ignore me. My job here is to make other people's copies. I don't talk to them and they don't talk to me. I stand in front of the copy machine, watching the yellow light sweep

back and forth underneath the closed (and always closed, when copies are being made) cover. I make people uncomfortable. My people skills are not what they should be: too many hours playing Tekken and listening to MStorhead, I suppose. I should probably small-talk with GlobalRe people when they come around to the copy room, but I don't. Some days I'd say it's because I don't feel like it; some days I'd say it's because I don't know what I'm supposed to say. The way my presence makes the copy room uncomfortable is radically opposite the way Rob Schneider's idiotic "making copies" character made the fictional copy room uncomfortable on those Saturday Night Live sketches in the unfunny late-80s episodes. I don't say, "Steve...Steverino...the Stevester." I don't say anything. Maybe I nod. Trust me: it gets tense. As I said, my people skills, with people I don't know, aren't 100% up to speed. I will be the first to admit it. But it's not like anybody at GlobalRe has exactly bent over backwards to make sure I'm feeling at home.

Tonight I arrive at Michelangelo's earlier than usual to find Mark hunched over the table, slouching forward and down looking over some of the maps he has drawn. He is DM for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign my friends and I hold at Michelangelo's Pizza on Thursday nights. It is basically like writing a fantasy novel in a group as you go along. My character, Tennaguar, is a member of an elite adventuring party, fighting on the side of Lawful Good. I estimate that Mark is not taller than 5'3". He is a programmer and is small in arms and chest, too, and even in his voice, which is thin and nasal. He wears a goatee and an earring. He says that he only looks small to me because I am over six feet tall and not exactly lean, but I disagree: he is small, and also squirrelly. I sit down. "Are more people coming?" I say. "Justin and Darcella?" "They're going to be here when he gets off work," Mark says, pretending it's an innocent question. Mark starts talking about movies. He is the kind of guy who has endless* stores of movie trivia, the eternal champion of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. He is the kind of guy who, when one of us says, "Max's dad in Rushmore," looks up from his Dungeon Master's Guide just long enough to say "SeymourCassel." Truthfully all of us are sort of like this, with our geeky D&D volumes, our mental libraries of Simpsons quotes and sci-fi mythologies. Aren't we a little old for this? We will never be too old for this. Soon a few of our other people push open the heavy door and enter, bathed in white sunlight, a reminder of how early it still is. We order pizza and start playing; soon Justin and Darcella arrive, both dressed in black t-shirts and jeans. "Hi Eddie," Darcella says.

84

85 ,L


The Leather Coat

T h e

b y

L e a t h e r

R o b e r t

C o a t

M e n t z e r

And so in a certain department there served a certain Civil Servant, a Civil Servant who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as in anyway remarkable. —Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat" all me Metalhead Eddie, the name I've been called behind my back since I was in high school, when I first started wearing a leather jacket, first experimentally grew my hair over my collar. I have eliminated the middleman: I call myself Metalhead Eddie to save everyone the trouble. I am the comic-book nerd of popular stereotype: large and soft around the middle, dressed in a multi-zippered leather jacket with wild red hair and thick glasses, an avid gamer, a collector of all manner of pop detritus, a heavy metal fan, a Trekker, a man immersed in the massive universes of sci-fi and fantasy. I started dressing this way in high school to attract attention, to provoke staring and name-calling, to cement my status as totally, officially ostracized. I hear them say it under their breath when I walk into B. Dalton Bookseller in Eastwoods Mall: here comes Metalhead Eddie. I ask them about an expensive book of art by H. R. Geiger that they do not stock. I wear my leather jacket and my red hair is over the back of my collar. The people in the mall give me a wide berth. If someone from work saw me here, in my leather coat and with my hair down, they wouldn't even recognize me. In chat rooms, my handle is MTLH3DEDDIE. During the day I tame my hair into a ponytail, leave my jacket behind and go to work for GlobalRe Inc, a reinsurance agency, meaning we sell insurance to people who sell insurance. Selling insurance, after all, is far from risk-free. Bad things happen and you need to be prepared to pay your claims. Anyway that is what GlobalRe salesmen tell insurance companies, most of whom make their living saying the same things to their clients. At work people give me a wide berth in a different way: they ignore me. My job here is to make other people's copies. I don't talk to them and they don't talk to me. I stand in front of the copy machine, watching the yellow light sweep

back and forth underneath the closed (and always closed, when copies are being made) cover. I make people uncomfortable. My people skills are not what they should be: too many hours playing Tekken and listening to MStorhead, I suppose. I should probably small-talk with GlobalRe people when they come around to the copy room, but I don't. Some days I'd say it's because I don't feel like it; some days I'd say it's because I don't know what I'm supposed to say. The way my presence makes the copy room uncomfortable is radically opposite the way Rob Schneider's idiotic "making copies" character made the fictional copy room uncomfortable on those Saturday Night Live sketches in the unfunny late-80s episodes. I don't say, "Steve...Steverino...the Stevester." I don't say anything. Maybe I nod. Trust me: it gets tense. As I said, my people skills, with people I don't know, aren't 100% up to speed. I will be the first to admit it. But it's not like anybody at GlobalRe has exactly bent over backwards to make sure I'm feeling at home.

Tonight I arrive at Michelangelo's earlier than usual to find Mark hunched over the table, slouching forward and down looking over some of the maps he has drawn. He is DM for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign my friends and I hold at Michelangelo's Pizza on Thursday nights. It is basically like writing a fantasy novel in a group as you go along. My character, Tennaguar, is a member of an elite adventuring party, fighting on the side of Lawful Good. I estimate that Mark is not taller than 5'3". He is a programmer and is small in arms and chest, too, and even in his voice, which is thin and nasal. He wears a goatee and an earring. He says that he only looks small to me because I am over six feet tall and not exactly lean, but I disagree: he is small, and also squirrelly. I sit down. "Are more people coming?" I say. "Justin and Darcella?" "They're going to be here when he gets off work," Mark says, pretending it's an innocent question. Mark starts talking about movies. He is the kind of guy who has endless* stores of movie trivia, the eternal champion of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. He is the kind of guy who, when one of us says, "Max's dad in Rushmore," looks up from his Dungeon Master's Guide just long enough to say "SeymourCassel." Truthfully all of us are sort of like this, with our geeky D&D volumes, our mental libraries of Simpsons quotes and sci-fi mythologies. Aren't we a little old for this? We will never be too old for this. Soon a few of our other people push open the heavy door and enter, bathed in white sunlight, a reminder of how early it still is. We order pizza and start playing; soon Justin and Darcella arrive, both dressed in black t-shirts and jeans. "Hi Eddie," Darcella says.

84

85 ,L


Berkeley Fiction Review

"Darcella," I say. "Justin." Mark talks movies some more and soon more people arrive. My friends lean heavily over the table or slouch low in their seats. On the other side of the table Darcella threads her stick-thin arm through Justin's. I am having fun, I say to myself. I am having a fun night out with friends.

The next morning at work I am nearly lulled to sleep by the hum of the copy machine. I have come to hate and dread .our Thursday night D&D sessions because I can't stand seeing Darcella in her thick black eyeliner sitting with her new boyfriend Justin, who is also my friend, or was, or in any case is someone who belongs to the large, loose group of gaming friends that I also belong to. I left the game early last night and when I came home I kicked the wall and my furniture to get out some anger. The-copy room is filled with the warmth of the machines' yellow lights sweeping across the glass, with the machines' steady drones and rhythms and the acrid smell of toner. On the.deep-green formica marbleized countertop, Pitney-Bowes scale for outgoing mail, straight-edge paper slicer, paper clips and pens and rulers in an organizer. Around,two walls: counters, cabinets containing paper of different colors, envelopes of several sizes,,a first aid kit. Against the back wall, alphabetized mail-cubbies. Today makingÂŤcopies I think about what would happen if I wore my leather jacket to work one day, shaking my hair out of its ponytail, coming to work not as Ed Mohler but as Metalhead Eddie. I amuse myself by imagining the way the people at GlobalRe would respond if I did that. It would be like when the ugly girl in the teen movie takes off her glasses and lets her hair down, only instead of looking suddenly-beautiful, I would be suddenly-weird-and-frightening. And obviously my supervisor Damon Nelson would send me home and request that I not return, but the great thing about this daydream is I know that technically Damon Nelson couldn't fire me. Because the truth is that although I work here, I am not an employee of GlobalRe. I am a temp trapped in temp-to-perm limbo. I have no official connection with the company, though I have been told cheerfully that my name resides on a waiting list, that I will be notified when a position becomes open. They have my application on file! The result is that I sort of'have a job: I make photocopies, send faxes, collect a fraction of a GlobalRe employee's pay and no benefits; each day is the same: photocopies, faxes. I haven't so much as called in sick in two years and I don't think my boss could say one thing about me. I don't exactly get the sense I'm being groomed for bigger things. It is a joh, though, and it js not so easy to find a job these days. I have a desk in a room with a shitty computer, no nameplate, no files or anything. Internet access makes it just bearable, and I spend huge portions of my day surfing fan-sites and news-sites and writing email. 86

The Leather Coat

My emotions toward the job vacillate between numb acceptance and tense hatred such that in my car in the mornings I feel bile burning the back of my throat. Paper jam in tray two. I snap the plastic door open, pull the jammed paper out of the silver copying apparatus of spinning silver wheels. The paper tears a little as I tug it out of the machinery. Gladys Kestlebaum from Accounts Receivable comes into the copy room to get her mail. I do not make eye contact with her and she does not acknowledge me. The yellow light sweeps back and forth. Gladys sneezes and immediately apologizes for it, nervous as a cat. Gladys Kestlebaum is probably 30 years my senior. I tell her it is okay. I tell her bless you, but I stutter on it. There is a kid who works here named Melvin Hammond who is just out of college who doesn't exactly ignore me. He parties and calls me "dude," wants to talk about women, drinking. Today he enters the copy room with deep bags under his eyes, carrying the enormous plastic cup of soda that he often has with him: it looks like some kind of prop, some kind of parody of a giant soda. In turn, he acts like a parody of someone who drinks a soda that size. He is too much. I cannot shake the feeling that he is making fun of me. He is exactly the kind of guy who picked on me throughout my childhood—throughout my life. "Dude, you are dead on your feet," he says, tapping me on the shoulder. "I didn't get a lot of sleep," I say. I mumble. He ticks off a list of the bars he went to while he pulls envelopes out of his mailbox one at a time; I turn away from him and look at the wall above the copy machine. I don't bother to say anything about bars. "Seriously," he says, on his'way out. "We ought to go out sometime. Sometime after work we'll have to have a drink." Yeah, right, I think. Anytime. In the bathroom, I write Who will insure the reinsurers? on the wall above the toilet paper rolls. DamonNelson calls me aside. My appearance. I should really make sure I do get a chance to shave in the mornings. If I could tuck in my shirt a little bit more thoroughly. If I could keep my hair ne'atly back. We have had this conversation before, Damon and I: I say, yes sir, no you're right, I will. I defer.- There is peculiar warmth in the interaction: Damon is friendly,-even fatherly. He's got some helpful advice for me about how I can better succeed in the business world. Really take pride in your appearance! That's what the management here really wants to see! We shake hands. He is probably right, I think. I hate him, I think. My question is how come Melvin Hammond, red-faced,"decently-built adult ADD "case, is considered well-adjusted while my friends and I are stuck in some kind of high-school nerd stereotype?* On one hand, it really doesn't matter: I like

87


Berkeley Fiction Review

"Darcella," I say. "Justin." Mark talks movies some more and soon more people arrive. My friends lean heavily over the table or slouch low in their seats. On the other side of the table Darcella threads her stick-thin arm through Justin's. I am having fun, I say to myself. I am having a fun night out with friends.

The next morning at work I am nearly lulled to sleep by the hum of the copy machine. I have come to hate and dread .our Thursday night D&D sessions because I can't stand seeing Darcella in her thick black eyeliner sitting with her new boyfriend Justin, who is also my friend, or was, or in any case is someone who belongs to the large, loose group of gaming friends that I also belong to. I left the game early last night and when I came home I kicked the wall and my furniture to get out some anger. The-copy room is filled with the warmth of the machines' yellow lights sweeping across the glass, with the machines' steady drones and rhythms and the acrid smell of toner. On the.deep-green formica marbleized countertop, Pitney-Bowes scale for outgoing mail, straight-edge paper slicer, paper clips and pens and rulers in an organizer. Around,two walls: counters, cabinets containing paper of different colors, envelopes of several sizes,,a first aid kit. Against the back wall, alphabetized mail-cubbies. Today makingÂŤcopies I think about what would happen if I wore my leather jacket to work one day, shaking my hair out of its ponytail, coming to work not as Ed Mohler but as Metalhead Eddie. I amuse myself by imagining the way the people at GlobalRe would respond if I did that. It would be like when the ugly girl in the teen movie takes off her glasses and lets her hair down, only instead of looking suddenly-beautiful, I would be suddenly-weird-and-frightening. And obviously my supervisor Damon Nelson would send me home and request that I not return, but the great thing about this daydream is I know that technically Damon Nelson couldn't fire me. Because the truth is that although I work here, I am not an employee of GlobalRe. I am a temp trapped in temp-to-perm limbo. I have no official connection with the company, though I have been told cheerfully that my name resides on a waiting list, that I will be notified when a position becomes open. They have my application on file! The result is that I sort of'have a job: I make photocopies, send faxes, collect a fraction of a GlobalRe employee's pay and no benefits; each day is the same: photocopies, faxes. I haven't so much as called in sick in two years and I don't think my boss could say one thing about me. I don't exactly get the sense I'm being groomed for bigger things. It is a joh, though, and it js not so easy to find a job these days. I have a desk in a room with a shitty computer, no nameplate, no files or anything. Internet access makes it just bearable, and I spend huge portions of my day surfing fan-sites and news-sites and writing email. 86

The Leather Coat

My emotions toward the job vacillate between numb acceptance and tense hatred such that in my car in the mornings I feel bile burning the back of my throat. Paper jam in tray two. I snap the plastic door open, pull the jammed paper out of the silver copying apparatus of spinning silver wheels. The paper tears a little as I tug it out of the machinery. Gladys Kestlebaum from Accounts Receivable comes into the copy room to get her mail. I do not make eye contact with her and she does not acknowledge me. The yellow light sweeps back and forth. Gladys sneezes and immediately apologizes for it, nervous as a cat. Gladys Kestlebaum is probably 30 years my senior. I tell her it is okay. I tell her bless you, but I stutter on it. There is a kid who works here named Melvin Hammond who is just out of college who doesn't exactly ignore me. He parties and calls me "dude," wants to talk about women, drinking. Today he enters the copy room with deep bags under his eyes, carrying the enormous plastic cup of soda that he often has with him: it looks like some kind of prop, some kind of parody of a giant soda. In turn, he acts like a parody of someone who drinks a soda that size. He is too much. I cannot shake the feeling that he is making fun of me. He is exactly the kind of guy who picked on me throughout my childhood—throughout my life. "Dude, you are dead on your feet," he says, tapping me on the shoulder. "I didn't get a lot of sleep," I say. I mumble. He ticks off a list of the bars he went to while he pulls envelopes out of his mailbox one at a time; I turn away from him and look at the wall above the copy machine. I don't bother to say anything about bars. "Seriously," he says, on his'way out. "We ought to go out sometime. Sometime after work we'll have to have a drink." Yeah, right, I think. Anytime. In the bathroom, I write Who will insure the reinsurers? on the wall above the toilet paper rolls. DamonNelson calls me aside. My appearance. I should really make sure I do get a chance to shave in the mornings. If I could tuck in my shirt a little bit more thoroughly. If I could keep my hair ne'atly back. We have had this conversation before, Damon and I: I say, yes sir, no you're right, I will. I defer.- There is peculiar warmth in the interaction: Damon is friendly,-even fatherly. He's got some helpful advice for me about how I can better succeed in the business world. Really take pride in your appearance! That's what the management here really wants to see! We shake hands. He is probably right, I think. I hate him, I think. My question is how come Melvin Hammond, red-faced,"decently-built adult ADD "case, is considered well-adjusted while my friends and I are stuck in some kind of high-school nerd stereotype?* On one hand, it really doesn't matter: I like

87


Berkeley Fiction Review

the way I feel when I put on my leather coat. I like playing role-playing games, video games and comic books; I like the friends I hang out with. On the other hand, we can't escape it: we are nerds. What everybody thinks of us shapes what we are. At home tonight, I will put on something heavy, maybe Tool, and I will turn it up and bang my head a little bit and let my hair spill all over my face and curl into the air. Anger. Hard guitars, dark themes, anti-society. I will look at myself in the mirror and snarl and I will think: this is who I am. The copy machine spits a paper into one of the trays and the tray moves ceilingward with a mechanical hiccup so the machine can spit a paper into the next tray. The wobbly mechanical rhythm, the warm hum. The machine stops. Paper jam in tray two.

I sit down in front of my computer at home. I go to one of the chat rooms where people know me. I like this kind of socializing because it cuts out all the bullshit about appearance, stuttering, social convention: chat rooms have their own social conventions but they are not about preconceived ideas about who's cool; it's just about what you're interested in. MTLH3DEDDIE is active on several different gaming and sci-fi boards. There's a girl from Denver named ANNAKHMATOVA who I've been talking to a lot lately; -she told me her name refers to a Russian poet but that she chose it mainly because her own first name is Anna. I knew her a little even when Darcella and I were going out, but lately we've been getting a lot closer and talking more often. She isn't in the room when I log on but she usually comes around later. We've gotten to be good friends. She's mentioned talking on the phone sometime so I know I'm not the only one with thoughts about furthering the relationship. Internet relationships go slowly like that: first you know^omeone from general chat room conversation or BBS posts, then maybe sometime you chat privately and then you-start meeting just to chat; then maybe weeks or months later you start to talk on the phone. You usually exchange photos sometime in there, like around the time you start to chat privately. Weeks or months or years later maybe you visit the person. And by that time, you already know them; you're already close emotionally before you even hold hands with them. Going slowly like that is good for some people. Darcella wanted everything to be bjg and dramatic. Toward the end we had loud, angry fights, and when I wasn't as loud or angry as she was she got angrier and meaner. But it was really hard when she broke up with me because I've never been in love with anyone else. I am 27 years old. I have had a couple of longdistance relationships with women I met online that felt very intense, bu(-they never got to the point where either one of us got on a plane, and I have had a handful of mostly very confused sexual experiences with several women, but truthfully I feel that Darcella Stubbs is the only woman I have biblically known. 88

The Leather Coat I am peripheral to the small group of gamers in this town, and before Darcella I was immune to (or excluded from) its incestuous tendencies, the endless permutations. Darcella and I dated for nearly eight months, consummating about a week after getting together and with wild frequency thereafter until the day thatshe surprised me by telling me that it was over. Darcella's position in the group is powerful: she is starkly goth, pale and ghostly; she has a love of attention and a mysterious way of getting men to do things for her. She is also vicious with social politics: of late I have found myself excluded from most games and gatherings other than the traditional Thursday nights. Since we broke up I have had to go on seeing her and now I see her with Justin. I've only been allowed to talk about it in a weird euphemistic way: the break-up was mutual, it was what had to be done, we are both growing. "I'm glad we stayed friends," I said, to general approval, even as Darcella picked up with Justin suspiciously soon after our break-up. Such is the fear of Darcella that when I wanted to vent, even male friends like Mark tended to become evasive, noncommittal, not wanting to "take sides," meaning they had already taken a side and it wasn't mine. But here is something Darcella said the last time we talked on the phone. She was talking about her new relationship with Justin, how she wanted me to know that she still cared about me but that she had to be with Justin right now. When she first got together with him I had a big swell of feeling for her and I tried to convince her to get back together with me instead. At my lowest point I asked her whether she ever thought breaking up with me might have been a mistake. She said, "Inside I'm happy but I'm being honest sometimes I have certain doubts. I might act one way but I don't necessarily feel that w^y, or not only that way." There was a long silence and I thought about it. These are the kinds of things that she would say to me, making me think maybe we would get together again. "Yes you do," I said. "What you feel doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what you do."

At the comic book store I spend more than I should on some rare stuff. At the store I am excited; at home I leave the books out on my coffee table for a week and then file them away without really looking at them. After work I turn the music up in my car, screaming along until my voice is raspy and hoarse, my throat raw. I hit the steering wheel with my hands. I download an entire season of Deep Space Nine. It does not take long with my incredibly fast connection. I watch the download progress bar tick away the percentage-downloaded, filling up like an hourglass.

89


Berkeley Fiction Review

the way I feel when I put on my leather coat. I like playing role-playing games, video games and comic books; I like the friends I hang out with. On the other hand, we can't escape it: we are nerds. What everybody thinks of us shapes what we are. At home tonight, I will put on something heavy, maybe Tool, and I will turn it up and bang my head a little bit and let my hair spill all over my face and curl into the air. Anger. Hard guitars, dark themes, anti-society. I will look at myself in the mirror and snarl and I will think: this is who I am. The copy machine spits a paper into one of the trays and the tray moves ceilingward with a mechanical hiccup so the machine can spit a paper into the next tray. The wobbly mechanical rhythm, the warm hum. The machine stops. Paper jam in tray two.

I sit down in front of my computer at home. I go to one of the chat rooms where people know me. I like this kind of socializing because it cuts out all the bullshit about appearance, stuttering, social convention: chat rooms have their own social conventions but they are not about preconceived ideas about who's cool; it's just about what you're interested in. MTLH3DEDDIE is active on several different gaming and sci-fi boards. There's a girl from Denver named ANNAKHMATOVA who I've been talking to a lot lately; -she told me her name refers to a Russian poet but that she chose it mainly because her own first name is Anna. I knew her a little even when Darcella and I were going out, but lately we've been getting a lot closer and talking more often. She isn't in the room when I log on but she usually comes around later. We've gotten to be good friends. She's mentioned talking on the phone sometime so I know I'm not the only one with thoughts about furthering the relationship. Internet relationships go slowly like that: first you know^omeone from general chat room conversation or BBS posts, then maybe sometime you chat privately and then you-start meeting just to chat; then maybe weeks or months later you start to talk on the phone. You usually exchange photos sometime in there, like around the time you start to chat privately. Weeks or months or years later maybe you visit the person. And by that time, you already know them; you're already close emotionally before you even hold hands with them. Going slowly like that is good for some people. Darcella wanted everything to be bjg and dramatic. Toward the end we had loud, angry fights, and when I wasn't as loud or angry as she was she got angrier and meaner. But it was really hard when she broke up with me because I've never been in love with anyone else. I am 27 years old. I have had a couple of longdistance relationships with women I met online that felt very intense, bu(-they never got to the point where either one of us got on a plane, and I have had a handful of mostly very confused sexual experiences with several women, but truthfully I feel that Darcella Stubbs is the only woman I have biblically known. 88

The Leather Coat I am peripheral to the small group of gamers in this town, and before Darcella I was immune to (or excluded from) its incestuous tendencies, the endless permutations. Darcella and I dated for nearly eight months, consummating about a week after getting together and with wild frequency thereafter until the day thatshe surprised me by telling me that it was over. Darcella's position in the group is powerful: she is starkly goth, pale and ghostly; she has a love of attention and a mysterious way of getting men to do things for her. She is also vicious with social politics: of late I have found myself excluded from most games and gatherings other than the traditional Thursday nights. Since we broke up I have had to go on seeing her and now I see her with Justin. I've only been allowed to talk about it in a weird euphemistic way: the break-up was mutual, it was what had to be done, we are both growing. "I'm glad we stayed friends," I said, to general approval, even as Darcella picked up with Justin suspiciously soon after our break-up. Such is the fear of Darcella that when I wanted to vent, even male friends like Mark tended to become evasive, noncommittal, not wanting to "take sides," meaning they had already taken a side and it wasn't mine. But here is something Darcella said the last time we talked on the phone. She was talking about her new relationship with Justin, how she wanted me to know that she still cared about me but that she had to be with Justin right now. When she first got together with him I had a big swell of feeling for her and I tried to convince her to get back together with me instead. At my lowest point I asked her whether she ever thought breaking up with me might have been a mistake. She said, "Inside I'm happy but I'm being honest sometimes I have certain doubts. I might act one way but I don't necessarily feel that w^y, or not only that way." There was a long silence and I thought about it. These are the kinds of things that she would say to me, making me think maybe we would get together again. "Yes you do," I said. "What you feel doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what you do."

At the comic book store I spend more than I should on some rare stuff. At the store I am excited; at home I leave the books out on my coffee table for a week and then file them away without really looking at them. After work I turn the music up in my car, screaming along until my voice is raspy and hoarse, my throat raw. I hit the steering wheel with my hands. I download an entire season of Deep Space Nine. It does not take long with my incredibly fast connection. I watch the download progress bar tick away the percentage-downloaded, filling up like an hourglass.

89


Berkeley Fiction Review

Anna and I begin to talk to one another more frequently and our conversations get longer. We email interesting links and I'm-at-work letters to one another. I ch'eck'out a couple of books of poems by the real Anna Akhmatova. The Cyrillic characters are' on the left side of the page and the English translation on the right. I look'back and forth from one to the other, I guess hoping to infer some connection. At some point I begin to understand that I do not like my friends. The idea occurs to me. At firsH reject it out of hand, but I think about it later while sitting on my couch eating chicken fingers, and it begins to take on some of the qualities of a revelation. The truth is: if would explain a lot. I am in the pizza place rolling dice; I am at my office staring at my computer screen unblinking until my eyes sting; I am at home at my computer still in the chat room talking to Anna at 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, only 12:30 for her, typing back and forth with her even as my eyes start to unfocus and flutter and close and my head begins to nod. Talking to her is my favorite thing in my life. We Spend hours. She sends me her phone number and we start spending hours on the phone, planning when we could meet. She wants me to come to Denver, and while I do not want her to see me here, Denver is so far away. In the mornings in-the elevator I slump against the wall and close my eyes.

The office feels empty this morning and I sense that there is a meeting to which I am not invited. The Muzak plays. I walk by the meeting room, trying to look in through the glass beside the window, and I catch Melvin Hammond coming out of the bathroom. "Dude, can you believe this shit?" he says. "No," I say. "Ridiculous." "What is?" "This security, shit!" I raise my eyebrows at him. "You haven't heard this yet? GlobalPass, it's a security card. They are tightening this place down!" I don't say much of anything. Oh," I say, and "That sucks." "Anyway, dude, I guess our plan to steal all'the coniputers and stuff out of this place over the weekend is off, now." I don't know what to say because I never know how to talk to Melvin, but a thought flickers across my mind: that, strange as it seems, maybe Melvin is actually trying to be nice to me. Maybe this is his idea of workplace camaraderie with someone else who, like him, is a little younger than everybody else, who doesn't have a family and a mortgage. I tell him not to give up so easily. I tell 90 _JL

The Leather Coat him he hasn't even thought of cutting a hole in the skylight and rappelling into the lobby. He laughs. There jsn't a skylight or a lobby. There are fingerprints all over the copy machine's glass. Who does this? I Windex it and rub the glass with a paper towel; it squeaks musically. The copy machine's yellow light sweeps back and forth like a sprinkler. The tray hiccups and shifts toward the ceiling. It is afternoon. I get a note from Damon Nelson telling me to see him. I walk down the narrow corridor in between cubicles, taking up most of the space in the aisle (hey, I'm big but not that big: truly, these are narrow aisles). The people in their cubicles have the glazed look of intentness and the rapidly clicking mouses of individuals who are playing computer solitaire. Roly-poly Gladys Kestlebaum, walking toward me, stands aside by stepping into someone's cubicle. We don't say anything to each other. Damon Nelson's office has windows facing out into the office. The blinds are closed and the door is closed. I knock. "Just a moment, please," Damon says. I stand with my back to the wall. Somebody tries to shuffle past me and has to go sideways, crab-scuttling. I wait for a long time. I wonder whether I should knock on the door again. I'decide: no. Finally I am called in. "Yes?" Damon says, facing his computer, away from me. "You wanted to see me?" Turning from his computer, "Oh, Ed. Hello! It's about the. new security system." He pauses and I don't say anything. "Ed,Ijustwantedtoletyouknow that we won't be issuing you a GlobalPass Card, so you're going to have to use the intercom to enter the building. Kathy will buzz you in. These are some security precautions that we're taking, no big deal. Kathy will buzz you in in the mornings, when you come back from lunch, whatever. If you want to take a coffee break at Starbucks, that's fine, we don't mind that, it's great! And Kathy will buzz you back in, easy, no problem. The security system will be armed after-hours, so the place is closed to our non-permanent employees after hours, but then I'm sure you're not going to be hitting me up for extra hours, right?" "I'm temp-to-perm," I say. "I realize that. I am aware of that. It's simply that as it stands, you know, right now, just for now, you are, as you know, non-permanent." The word he wants would be impermanent. But then aren't we all? "These are just some security precautions that we're taking."' "Right, but—" I say." As I was saying, if you should need to stay late you'll just have to make it clear to one of us and we'll make sure that someone is here to let you out of the building." "Okay, I understand that," I say. I feel like I'm talking back to the teacher in high school, but I go on: "But understand thatl've been working here for almost two years now on a temp-to-j?erm basis." 91


Berkeley Fiction Review

Anna and I begin to talk to one another more frequently and our conversations get longer. We email interesting links and I'm-at-work letters to one another. I ch'eck'out a couple of books of poems by the real Anna Akhmatova. The Cyrillic characters are' on the left side of the page and the English translation on the right. I look'back and forth from one to the other, I guess hoping to infer some connection. At some point I begin to understand that I do not like my friends. The idea occurs to me. At firsH reject it out of hand, but I think about it later while sitting on my couch eating chicken fingers, and it begins to take on some of the qualities of a revelation. The truth is: if would explain a lot. I am in the pizza place rolling dice; I am at my office staring at my computer screen unblinking until my eyes sting; I am at home at my computer still in the chat room talking to Anna at 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, only 12:30 for her, typing back and forth with her even as my eyes start to unfocus and flutter and close and my head begins to nod. Talking to her is my favorite thing in my life. We Spend hours. She sends me her phone number and we start spending hours on the phone, planning when we could meet. She wants me to come to Denver, and while I do not want her to see me here, Denver is so far away. In the mornings in-the elevator I slump against the wall and close my eyes.

The office feels empty this morning and I sense that there is a meeting to which I am not invited. The Muzak plays. I walk by the meeting room, trying to look in through the glass beside the window, and I catch Melvin Hammond coming out of the bathroom. "Dude, can you believe this shit?" he says. "No," I say. "Ridiculous." "What is?" "This security, shit!" I raise my eyebrows at him. "You haven't heard this yet? GlobalPass, it's a security card. They are tightening this place down!" I don't say much of anything. Oh," I say, and "That sucks." "Anyway, dude, I guess our plan to steal all'the coniputers and stuff out of this place over the weekend is off, now." I don't know what to say because I never know how to talk to Melvin, but a thought flickers across my mind: that, strange as it seems, maybe Melvin is actually trying to be nice to me. Maybe this is his idea of workplace camaraderie with someone else who, like him, is a little younger than everybody else, who doesn't have a family and a mortgage. I tell him not to give up so easily. I tell 90 _JL

The Leather Coat him he hasn't even thought of cutting a hole in the skylight and rappelling into the lobby. He laughs. There jsn't a skylight or a lobby. There are fingerprints all over the copy machine's glass. Who does this? I Windex it and rub the glass with a paper towel; it squeaks musically. The copy machine's yellow light sweeps back and forth like a sprinkler. The tray hiccups and shifts toward the ceiling. It is afternoon. I get a note from Damon Nelson telling me to see him. I walk down the narrow corridor in between cubicles, taking up most of the space in the aisle (hey, I'm big but not that big: truly, these are narrow aisles). The people in their cubicles have the glazed look of intentness and the rapidly clicking mouses of individuals who are playing computer solitaire. Roly-poly Gladys Kestlebaum, walking toward me, stands aside by stepping into someone's cubicle. We don't say anything to each other. Damon Nelson's office has windows facing out into the office. The blinds are closed and the door is closed. I knock. "Just a moment, please," Damon says. I stand with my back to the wall. Somebody tries to shuffle past me and has to go sideways, crab-scuttling. I wait for a long time. I wonder whether I should knock on the door again. I'decide: no. Finally I am called in. "Yes?" Damon says, facing his computer, away from me. "You wanted to see me?" Turning from his computer, "Oh, Ed. Hello! It's about the. new security system." He pauses and I don't say anything. "Ed,Ijustwantedtoletyouknow that we won't be issuing you a GlobalPass Card, so you're going to have to use the intercom to enter the building. Kathy will buzz you in. These are some security precautions that we're taking, no big deal. Kathy will buzz you in in the mornings, when you come back from lunch, whatever. If you want to take a coffee break at Starbucks, that's fine, we don't mind that, it's great! And Kathy will buzz you back in, easy, no problem. The security system will be armed after-hours, so the place is closed to our non-permanent employees after hours, but then I'm sure you're not going to be hitting me up for extra hours, right?" "I'm temp-to-perm," I say. "I realize that. I am aware of that. It's simply that as it stands, you know, right now, just for now, you are, as you know, non-permanent." The word he wants would be impermanent. But then aren't we all? "These are just some security precautions that we're taking."' "Right, but—" I say." As I was saying, if you should need to stay late you'll just have to make it clear to one of us and we'll make sure that someone is here to let you out of the building." "Okay, I understand that," I say. I feel like I'm talking back to the teacher in high school, but I go on: "But understand thatl've been working here for almost two years now on a temp-to-j?erm basis." 91


Berkeley Fiction Review

The Leather Coat

"Well, as you know, with temporary employees, we evaluate their on-the-job performance and hire those who show extraordinary performance as positions come open, which currently there are not any, unfortunately. As you know, when an opportunity comes open we do consider our non-permanent employees. But that is not the reason for this meeting, Ed, as you well know. The purpose behind this meeting is for me to inform you that you will not be receiving a GlobalPass card, and the reason for that is because as of this time you are not a permanent employee here. So are we on the same page here?" cheerily, in a distinctly meeting-ending tone. "I quit," I say. Except I don't really say it.

This last part I omit in telling Melvin Hammond. He thoroughly enjoys the rest of it, though, and tells me that it would be the perfect way to quit. I think: no. Quitting would be the perfect way to quit.

I have people over to play Tekken. We choose our players for each game, each player with his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses, each with a secret weapon accessible through precisely the right combination of buttonmashing. For example: Yoshumitsu the kangaroo's Skull Splitter is l-H2,l+2_u+l+2,l+2 and Bryan Fury's Doom Knuckles are b+2_b+2,l_b+2,f+l. Sorry if you don't understand my notation but that's the only way I can describe it. No one beats me at Tekken. I have-been to tournaments where professional gamers played. I won in the first round and got beaten pretty badly in the second. Some of those guys are like chess grandmasters: inhumanly good, a totally different species of good. I am great at Tekken in the sense that when people come over to my place to sit on my couch and play I don't lose. I play and they pass the controller around the circle, around and around. Darcella and Justin are both there, and Mark and several others. Justin is the worst-Tekken player and I don't enjoy beating him as much as I am bored by having to play him. Obviously I don't showboat quite as much when I play Justin or Darcella as when Lplay Mark for instance. "Your couch feels like a beanbag chair," Mark says as I come back from the kitchen with waffle-pattern pretzels for everyone. "So sit on the floor," I say. "You choose my character," I say. For some reason Mark likes to use Kuma, the giant bear, and Panda, the giant panda bear, who are both basically useless unless you know the Infinite Bear Combo, and Infinite Bear Combo is not an easy one to master. Mark chooses Kuma for me and Kuma for him. He is purposely being annoying. Soon Mark is mashing down on his controller, moving it left and right like he's water-skiing with it. My Kuma is beating the hell out of him. I lean back. "This time I'm going to beat you using only right-punch," I say after the first round. Right off the bat he tries the Infinite Bear Combo (poor Mark: so predictable!) but he screws it up and I dodge neatly underneath him. I am only pressing A this game: right-punch. I duck his punches and jump over his kicks. My A-button clicks like a mechanical pencil. My Kuma's hand flies out in front of him and punches Mark's Kuma neatly in the body many times until Mark's Kuma finally dies. I like Tekken because it is about reflexes and body-memory: some combinations I can use but couldn't recite back to you. My fingers know that Ogre's Bear Swing

At the end of the day Melvin Hammond renews his offer to buy me a drink and to my surprise, I accept. Melvin talks and talks. He has mapped out his career at GlobalRe, planning each incremental step up to more responsibility, more money, more prestige. I am tipsy so I decide to tell Melvin Hammond about my plan to wear my leather jacket to work and freak everyone out. I have thought about it'many times: I will ring the bell outside and Kathy will buzz me in and I will step into the elevator and ride up to the third floor—but when I step off the elevator I won't be just the big, weird, quiet copy-room guy but truly imposing, impressive, in my black leather jacket, my hair long and big. Melvin roars with appreciation and gets excited about the idea, adding details, imitating the way different people in the office would react. Everyone will think I've lost it, like maybe I have a gun or something, and poor Gladys Kestlebaum, if she sees me, will nearly have a heart attack. But I won't do anything to Gladys Kestlebaum: maybe at the most I'll walk up to her and whisper in her ear: "I've always loved you." And then I'll stomp through the office like Godzilla and everyone will look up at me from the games of solitaire they were playing on their computers and they won't even recognize me at first. And then when they do—hey, is that the copy room guy?—they'll see me as if they've never seen me before. I will make my way through the narrow corridors and everyone will clear out of my way, and when I get to the VP's office I won't even knock: I'll throw open the door and catch him with his pants down doing whatever he does in there, and-I'll grab him by the collar and lift him up. I won't even say a word to him, I'll just look at him and make him look at me. I won't threaten him or harm him but I will force him to make eye contact with me. I will make myself present to him. And then I'll leave the office, and the office will never be the same again, and maybe in my place they'll hire another poor temp-to-pernr sucker but /won't be coming back to GlobalRe ever again. I will run away to Denver, and when I finally meet Anna it will be as if we've known each other forever, and we'll move in together, we'll get married, and we will live happily.ever after. 92

93 L


Berkeley Fiction Review

The Leather Coat

"Well, as you know, with temporary employees, we evaluate their on-the-job performance and hire those who show extraordinary performance as positions come open, which currently there are not any, unfortunately. As you know, when an opportunity comes open we do consider our non-permanent employees. But that is not the reason for this meeting, Ed, as you well know. The purpose behind this meeting is for me to inform you that you will not be receiving a GlobalPass card, and the reason for that is because as of this time you are not a permanent employee here. So are we on the same page here?" cheerily, in a distinctly meeting-ending tone. "I quit," I say. Except I don't really say it.

This last part I omit in telling Melvin Hammond. He thoroughly enjoys the rest of it, though, and tells me that it would be the perfect way to quit. I think: no. Quitting would be the perfect way to quit.

I have people over to play Tekken. We choose our players for each game, each player with his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses, each with a secret weapon accessible through precisely the right combination of buttonmashing. For example: Yoshumitsu the kangaroo's Skull Splitter is l-H2,l+2_u+l+2,l+2 and Bryan Fury's Doom Knuckles are b+2_b+2,l_b+2,f+l. Sorry if you don't understand my notation but that's the only way I can describe it. No one beats me at Tekken. I have-been to tournaments where professional gamers played. I won in the first round and got beaten pretty badly in the second. Some of those guys are like chess grandmasters: inhumanly good, a totally different species of good. I am great at Tekken in the sense that when people come over to my place to sit on my couch and play I don't lose. I play and they pass the controller around the circle, around and around. Darcella and Justin are both there, and Mark and several others. Justin is the worst-Tekken player and I don't enjoy beating him as much as I am bored by having to play him. Obviously I don't showboat quite as much when I play Justin or Darcella as when Lplay Mark for instance. "Your couch feels like a beanbag chair," Mark says as I come back from the kitchen with waffle-pattern pretzels for everyone. "So sit on the floor," I say. "You choose my character," I say. For some reason Mark likes to use Kuma, the giant bear, and Panda, the giant panda bear, who are both basically useless unless you know the Infinite Bear Combo, and Infinite Bear Combo is not an easy one to master. Mark chooses Kuma for me and Kuma for him. He is purposely being annoying. Soon Mark is mashing down on his controller, moving it left and right like he's water-skiing with it. My Kuma is beating the hell out of him. I lean back. "This time I'm going to beat you using only right-punch," I say after the first round. Right off the bat he tries the Infinite Bear Combo (poor Mark: so predictable!) but he screws it up and I dodge neatly underneath him. I am only pressing A this game: right-punch. I duck his punches and jump over his kicks. My A-button clicks like a mechanical pencil. My Kuma's hand flies out in front of him and punches Mark's Kuma neatly in the body many times until Mark's Kuma finally dies. I like Tekken because it is about reflexes and body-memory: some combinations I can use but couldn't recite back to you. My fingers know that Ogre's Bear Swing

At the end of the day Melvin Hammond renews his offer to buy me a drink and to my surprise, I accept. Melvin talks and talks. He has mapped out his career at GlobalRe, planning each incremental step up to more responsibility, more money, more prestige. I am tipsy so I decide to tell Melvin Hammond about my plan to wear my leather jacket to work and freak everyone out. I have thought about it'many times: I will ring the bell outside and Kathy will buzz me in and I will step into the elevator and ride up to the third floor—but when I step off the elevator I won't be just the big, weird, quiet copy-room guy but truly imposing, impressive, in my black leather jacket, my hair long and big. Melvin roars with appreciation and gets excited about the idea, adding details, imitating the way different people in the office would react. Everyone will think I've lost it, like maybe I have a gun or something, and poor Gladys Kestlebaum, if she sees me, will nearly have a heart attack. But I won't do anything to Gladys Kestlebaum: maybe at the most I'll walk up to her and whisper in her ear: "I've always loved you." And then I'll stomp through the office like Godzilla and everyone will look up at me from the games of solitaire they were playing on their computers and they won't even recognize me at first. And then when they do—hey, is that the copy room guy?—they'll see me as if they've never seen me before. I will make my way through the narrow corridors and everyone will clear out of my way, and when I get to the VP's office I won't even knock: I'll throw open the door and catch him with his pants down doing whatever he does in there, and-I'll grab him by the collar and lift him up. I won't even say a word to him, I'll just look at him and make him look at me. I won't threaten him or harm him but I will force him to make eye contact with me. I will make myself present to him. And then I'll leave the office, and the office will never be the same again, and maybe in my place they'll hire another poor temp-to-pernr sucker but /won't be coming back to GlobalRe ever again. I will run away to Denver, and when I finally meet Anna it will be as if we've known each other forever, and we'll move in together, we'll get married, and we will live happily.ever after. 92

93 L


Berkeley Fiction Review is u/f,N+l+2, not my mind, and that is a fun feeling. I don't care about the violence and-usually I don't work out my issues through video games. Tonight is a special case. Mark passes the controller on. Out of the corner of my eye I see Darcella take Justin's hand. They are getting ready to leave, together, of course. The truth is on one level I hardly even care anymore. The sooner they leave the better, on one level. "I'm going to beat you using only left-kick," I say. My leather coat gives me powers as surely as my D&D character Tennaguar's invisibility cloak or his beast-claws spell. Every day of middle school I was afraid of getting picked on by other kids and afraid of getting called on by teachers. I don't know if I can describe the way it felt when I grew.to six feet tall my freshman year of high school, when I donned black t-shirts and metalhead garb and seized the double-edged type of power thatxomes from frightening other people. After one year of high'school—after one week of high school—it was obvious that I would never be cool. But when I first wore a leather coat to school, October of sophomore year, and I walked-into the student lounge with my friends and felt the jocks and girls staring at me with just the faintest worry that I might flip out .on them, and it felt like: you value these things, so I value these other things. You wear white, my friends and I wear black. I would go across the street fronuthe school with my outsider friends and we' d all stand in a tight circle, our shoulders almost touching, smoking cigarettes and talking about how*dumb and lame all the normal kids were. We don't want to be you: we're the opposite of you. So, it's a coat. I know it is just a coat. Tell me you never felt a piece of your identity tied up with a piece of clothing. You never put on a new sweater and felt like people looked at you differently. Tell me that confidence isn't in some way a magical quality. My life, like yours, isfilledwith small rituals and daily superstitions. I wore my leather coat when I called irfto my temp agency and told, them that I would not be going to work for GlobalRe anymore. I wore my leather coat when I put my apartment in boxes, when I called Mark and told him that Tennaguar was becoming a contemplative, pursuing a more solitary and mystical form of spiritual pursuit, and that his adventuring days—at least in this campaign, at least with these players, as I did riot tell Mark—were over. Anna and I have discussedjour plans atlength and we want to be sensible about this: right now we know one another intangibly, as spirits, and it will take time for us to'become accustomed to each other's bodies. We will continue to move slowly, incrementally, carefully, but we can only do this if we live in the same city. Secretly I am hoping that things move very fast, as they often do when you have confidence in what you're„doing. Road signs catch Khe light and float across the windshield like ghosts across 94

The Leather Coat an elongated movie screen; streetlights pass overhead like shooting stars. The driver of a car in front of me drops a cigarette onto the road, trailing red sparks as the car's tail-lights shrink in the distance like dull red eyes. I pass a truck transporting an Amoco gas-station sign, the big oval logo that will go on its station's steeplish tower, iconically enormous when you get right beside if. The road's yellow and white reflectors shine in my headlights like the lights of a runway; I put in music but I keep it low, the music mingling with the low tones of the engine. The sky lightens from city-amber to blue and then black, starry. The darkness becomes immense. I am wearing my leather coat, my good luck charm. Many perils await me and there are many battle's with evil yet to be fought. I am ready.

95


Berkeley Fiction Review is u/f,N+l+2, not my mind, and that is a fun feeling. I don't care about the violence and-usually I don't work out my issues through video games. Tonight is a special case. Mark passes the controller on. Out of the corner of my eye I see Darcella take Justin's hand. They are getting ready to leave, together, of course. The truth is on one level I hardly even care anymore. The sooner they leave the better, on one level. "I'm going to beat you using only left-kick," I say. My leather coat gives me powers as surely as my D&D character Tennaguar's invisibility cloak or his beast-claws spell. Every day of middle school I was afraid of getting picked on by other kids and afraid of getting called on by teachers. I don't know if I can describe the way it felt when I grew.to six feet tall my freshman year of high school, when I donned black t-shirts and metalhead garb and seized the double-edged type of power thatxomes from frightening other people. After one year of high'school—after one week of high school—it was obvious that I would never be cool. But when I first wore a leather coat to school, October of sophomore year, and I walked-into the student lounge with my friends and felt the jocks and girls staring at me with just the faintest worry that I might flip out .on them, and it felt like: you value these things, so I value these other things. You wear white, my friends and I wear black. I would go across the street fronuthe school with my outsider friends and we' d all stand in a tight circle, our shoulders almost touching, smoking cigarettes and talking about how*dumb and lame all the normal kids were. We don't want to be you: we're the opposite of you. So, it's a coat. I know it is just a coat. Tell me you never felt a piece of your identity tied up with a piece of clothing. You never put on a new sweater and felt like people looked at you differently. Tell me that confidence isn't in some way a magical quality. My life, like yours, isfilledwith small rituals and daily superstitions. I wore my leather coat when I called irfto my temp agency and told, them that I would not be going to work for GlobalRe anymore. I wore my leather coat when I put my apartment in boxes, when I called Mark and told him that Tennaguar was becoming a contemplative, pursuing a more solitary and mystical form of spiritual pursuit, and that his adventuring days—at least in this campaign, at least with these players, as I did riot tell Mark—were over. Anna and I have discussedjour plans atlength and we want to be sensible about this: right now we know one another intangibly, as spirits, and it will take time for us to'become accustomed to each other's bodies. We will continue to move slowly, incrementally, carefully, but we can only do this if we live in the same city. Secretly I am hoping that things move very fast, as they often do when you have confidence in what you're„doing. Road signs catch Khe light and float across the windshield like ghosts across 94

The Leather Coat an elongated movie screen; streetlights pass overhead like shooting stars. The driver of a car in front of me drops a cigarette onto the road, trailing red sparks as the car's tail-lights shrink in the distance like dull red eyes. I pass a truck transporting an Amoco gas-station sign, the big oval logo that will go on its station's steeplish tower, iconically enormous when you get right beside if. The road's yellow and white reflectors shine in my headlights like the lights of a runway; I put in music but I keep it low, the music mingling with the low tones of the engine. The sky lightens from city-amber to blue and then black, starry. The darkness becomes immense. I am wearing my leather coat, my good luck charm. Many perils await me and there are many battle's with evil yet to be fought. I am ready.

95


Crimes Against-Nature

C r i m e s

b y

Gail

A g a i n s t

N a t u r e

Bartley

o one knows why Jason cuts down trees. It's not like he's a logger. "What's a thirteen year old doing with a chainsaw anyway?" asks the neighbor lady whose elm he sliced in half. His punishment is a lecture from the cop who writes up his ticket, plus twenty hours community service, clearing brush with a bunch of other delinquents. Four hours into the first day, Jason chops down a juniper pine, which is nothing like an elm. "Jesus-f-Christ," says his Dad when the patrol car drops Jason off at home. The cop leans out his window, admiring a rack of antlers hanging over the garage door. "Nice." Jason's Dad reaches up, touching a tip of dead bone. "October '97, over on Wildcat Creek. Haven't hit a damn thing since." He glares at his son. Two weeks later, in Juvenile Court, the judge squints at Jason like he's the smallest letter on the eye chart, trying to read him and getting nowhere. Finally, he slaps Jasomvith six months probation, more community service, and a warning to stay away from trees. Jason's not really listening, though. He's checking out the judge's robe, wondering what it's like, wearing a costume to work. His probation officer is a surprise. Big pink glasses and pictures of beadyeyed bunnies all over her office. She's also got linebacker's shoulders swelling beneath a purple polyester blazer, and could probably kick Jason's ass around the block. "So what's,the deal with trees?" she asks, spinning a square of pink Post-It notes. It might be a chamber loaded with bullets. Jason shrugs. "The guy told me to cut it down." The probation officer examines Jason through her spooky glasses. "I heard a 96

kid dared you to do it so you did." Jason looks at her for a second. It's like staring into the sun. The next day is July 4th. Jason spends it with his friend, Zach, shooting off stolen fireworks in a half-built subdivision. It's almost dark when Jason sends up a bottle rocket that lands in somebody's dried up shrub, setting it on fire. He panics. The shrub owners are home and Jason can see them floating from room to room like bored fish in a ranch-style aquarium. Then Zach appears with his Super Soaker gun and drowns the flames in a barrage of water, cackling to himself, Rambo-crazed on Mountain Dew. Heart pounding, Jason jumps on his bike and peddles home through the dark streets. As he turns up the dirt driveway leading to his Dad's trailer, something bonks him .gently on the head. Looking down, he spots a pinecone. Overhead, a giant ponderosa creaks ominously in the wind. Safe at last in his bedroom, Jason climbs to the top bunk where he prefers to sleep, above the fray of his Dad's beer-stained moods and cone-throwing trees. The next morning, he's back clearing brush with the delinquents. There are only a handful of girls-and Jason can't believe he didn't notice her earlier. "Princess" says her tee shirt, spelled out across her breasts in rhinestones. She's whacking branches off a pine tree with an ax, sweating and swearing. "Freaking freak tree." Enchanted, Jason steps forward. "Sucks, huh?" The princess turns, blinding him with the sparkle from a matching rhinestone" stud in her perfect, angry nose. "I totally hav6 blisters already. And these stupid gloves they made me wear. They're probably like, full of criminal germs and shit." She shakes her blond hair. Jason's world shrinks and shrinks until he is a toy soldier at her feet, ready to die for the cause of her bellybutton. As she gives her ax another futile swing, her shirt rides up and there it is, an inny, pierced with a regal gold ring. "Here," he s'ays. "Let me." „ S.he surrenders her ax with a shrug, watching as Jason hefts it over his shoulder. One mighty blow and the tree groans, mortally wounded. "Dude," she breathes. "No way..." But Jason swings again, the princess's warning just a whisper in the breeze, one tree closer to whatever he's becoming.

97


Crimes Against-Nature

C r i m e s

b y

Gail

A g a i n s t

N a t u r e

Bartley

o one knows why Jason cuts down trees. It's not like he's a logger. "What's a thirteen year old doing with a chainsaw anyway?" asks the neighbor lady whose elm he sliced in half. His punishment is a lecture from the cop who writes up his ticket, plus twenty hours community service, clearing brush with a bunch of other delinquents. Four hours into the first day, Jason chops down a juniper pine, which is nothing like an elm. "Jesus-f-Christ," says his Dad when the patrol car drops Jason off at home. The cop leans out his window, admiring a rack of antlers hanging over the garage door. "Nice." Jason's Dad reaches up, touching a tip of dead bone. "October '97, over on Wildcat Creek. Haven't hit a damn thing since." He glares at his son. Two weeks later, in Juvenile Court, the judge squints at Jason like he's the smallest letter on the eye chart, trying to read him and getting nowhere. Finally, he slaps Jasomvith six months probation, more community service, and a warning to stay away from trees. Jason's not really listening, though. He's checking out the judge's robe, wondering what it's like, wearing a costume to work. His probation officer is a surprise. Big pink glasses and pictures of beadyeyed bunnies all over her office. She's also got linebacker's shoulders swelling beneath a purple polyester blazer, and could probably kick Jason's ass around the block. "So what's,the deal with trees?" she asks, spinning a square of pink Post-It notes. It might be a chamber loaded with bullets. Jason shrugs. "The guy told me to cut it down." The probation officer examines Jason through her spooky glasses. "I heard a 96

kid dared you to do it so you did." Jason looks at her for a second. It's like staring into the sun. The next day is July 4th. Jason spends it with his friend, Zach, shooting off stolen fireworks in a half-built subdivision. It's almost dark when Jason sends up a bottle rocket that lands in somebody's dried up shrub, setting it on fire. He panics. The shrub owners are home and Jason can see them floating from room to room like bored fish in a ranch-style aquarium. Then Zach appears with his Super Soaker gun and drowns the flames in a barrage of water, cackling to himself, Rambo-crazed on Mountain Dew. Heart pounding, Jason jumps on his bike and peddles home through the dark streets. As he turns up the dirt driveway leading to his Dad's trailer, something bonks him .gently on the head. Looking down, he spots a pinecone. Overhead, a giant ponderosa creaks ominously in the wind. Safe at last in his bedroom, Jason climbs to the top bunk where he prefers to sleep, above the fray of his Dad's beer-stained moods and cone-throwing trees. The next morning, he's back clearing brush with the delinquents. There are only a handful of girls-and Jason can't believe he didn't notice her earlier. "Princess" says her tee shirt, spelled out across her breasts in rhinestones. She's whacking branches off a pine tree with an ax, sweating and swearing. "Freaking freak tree." Enchanted, Jason steps forward. "Sucks, huh?" The princess turns, blinding him with the sparkle from a matching rhinestone" stud in her perfect, angry nose. "I totally hav6 blisters already. And these stupid gloves they made me wear. They're probably like, full of criminal germs and shit." She shakes her blond hair. Jason's world shrinks and shrinks until he is a toy soldier at her feet, ready to die for the cause of her bellybutton. As she gives her ax another futile swing, her shirt rides up and there it is, an inny, pierced with a regal gold ring. "Here," he s'ays. "Let me." „ S.he surrenders her ax with a shrug, watching as Jason hefts it over his shoulder. One mighty blow and the tree groans, mortally wounded. "Dude," she breathes. "No way..." But Jason swings again, the princess's warning just a whisper in the breeze, one tree closer to whatever he's becoming.

97


H u m i d

a n d

b y "Willie

D a v i s

B l u e

Author's Note: This story is beautiful It deals with an aspiring writer facing the following obstacles; he is scornful, envious, and untalented. I should warn you ahead of time that this story has a lot of pathos. Be prepared to think thoughts like, 'Hey, he's an all right guy. Why can't he catch a break? Why is there so much pathos in this story?' While, at times, this story appears too light, rest assured that it is permeated by a subtle sense of longing and regret Unfortunately, you are probably too stupid to understand it. AAA The Heaventree of Stars Hung with its Humid Nightblue Fruit -James Joyce t was Manny's favorite line in world literature and he was determined to turn it into an epigraph. He had had favorite lines before, but none could match this. The very idea of night being hung from the stars made him grit his teeth with awe and envy. Then there was that word heaventree. It sounded so sweet and natural-rolling off the tongue that he could hardly believe people tried describing the star's in different ways. (Although, sometimes Manny thought heavenorchard was more appropriate on account of there being so many of them). There was also the way the sentence sounded so smooth; all the H's flowing together. There was a certain dignity to H's that Manny respected, even when they were silent. Once, before he'd fallen deeply and jealously in love, Manny thought that sentence was the only thing he cared about as much as himself. Every word had the proper weight and no amount of criticism could destroy it. The only problem with the sentence is that it didn't work as an epigraph to Manny's novel. He scribbled furiously—trying to make his characters more humid or heavenly—but nothing seemed right. He knew the basic plot details, but it still lacked the certain je ne sais quois1 needed to make it a masterpiece. It revolved around the adventures of Jesse Carpenter, *a thirty-three year old fisherman and societal outcast. Jesse has several interior monologues about the importance of faith, the value of artistic purity and of the many rich metaphors involved in fishing. As the novel opens; a three year-old Jesse catches his first fish, a Kingfish, 99


H u m i d

a n d

b y "Willie

D a v i s

B l u e

Author's Note: This story is beautiful It deals with an aspiring writer facing the following obstacles; he is scornful, envious, and untalented. I should warn you ahead of time that this story has a lot of pathos. Be prepared to think thoughts like, 'Hey, he's an all right guy. Why can't he catch a break? Why is there so much pathos in this story?' While, at times, this story appears too light, rest assured that it is permeated by a subtle sense of longing and regret Unfortunately, you are probably too stupid to understand it. AAA The Heaventree of Stars Hung with its Humid Nightblue Fruit -James Joyce t was Manny's favorite line in world literature and he was determined to turn it into an epigraph. He had had favorite lines before, but none could match this. The very idea of night being hung from the stars made him grit his teeth with awe and envy. Then there was that word heaventree. It sounded so sweet and natural-rolling off the tongue that he could hardly believe people tried describing the star's in different ways. (Although, sometimes Manny thought heavenorchard was more appropriate on account of there being so many of them). There was also the way the sentence sounded so smooth; all the H's flowing together. There was a certain dignity to H's that Manny respected, even when they were silent. Once, before he'd fallen deeply and jealously in love, Manny thought that sentence was the only thing he cared about as much as himself. Every word had the proper weight and no amount of criticism could destroy it. The only problem with the sentence is that it didn't work as an epigraph to Manny's novel. He scribbled furiously—trying to make his characters more humid or heavenly—but nothing seemed right. He knew the basic plot details, but it still lacked the certain je ne sais quois1 needed to make it a masterpiece. It revolved around the adventures of Jesse Carpenter, *a thirty-three year old fisherman and societal outcast. Jesse has several interior monologues about the importance of faith, the value of artistic purity and of the many rich metaphors involved in fishing. As the novel opens; a three year-old Jesse catches his first fish, a Kingfish, 99


Berkeley Fiction Review and has an epiphany. (Like this fish, thinks Jesse, we are pulled by other men's hooks; the thinkers the swimmers and the kings alike. But what paltry revenge— what sense of spiritual revival—can be gained from draining the waters, when time turns us all, on either side of the pole, into salt for the ocean?) • Celia, Manny's sister in law and the only person that knew the details of the plot, argued that Jesse was too young to think such thoughts. "I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe it's just me, but I don't see a three year old saying this, even to himself. I mean, I know that kids are capable of real insights, but what if you made him a little older? Like, maybe seven." Manny lashed out at her then, saying that Jesse was no typical child but an artist in the purest sense. He told her that he had read a book about a similarly unrealistic child called The Biography of Arthur Rimbaud and then laughed until breadcrumbs squirted from his mouth and stuck to the outside of his lips. Finally, he lectured her on the significance of the number three until she acquiesced. He was pleased with his reaction and felt good for the rest of the day, but he hadn't actually written that scene or any other. He did, however, have three hundred twenty four pages of notes dealing with different structural and thematic aspects of the novel. The writing would be easy after that. The basic plot-revolved around Jesse's social, sexual, and spiritual awakenings. Childhood is lonely for Jesse, and other children bully him for his refusal to conform to societal norms. Conform, damnyou, his tormentors yell as they beat him bloody with thorny switches. Why arentyou conforming? Jesse takes his punishment stoically, contenting himself with a life of fishing and meditations on the fleeting nature of mankind. At age thirty, his mother, exasperated with his aimless wandering and refusal to conform, kicks him out of the house for approximately a month and a half. Maybe a little less, she-screams in tearful remorse, as he walks out the door. Maybe a month and a third. Jesse dedicates his time in exile to finding his father. Previously, he had only heard about his father through reputation and legend and, at times, had doubted that he existed at all. During his search, he stumbles upon Maggie, a dark-eyed and barefooted girl from the village. After several scenes spent staring deep within each other's souls, they both fall helplessly in love. Right before the affair can be consummated, however, Maggie breaks down sobbing. I can t do this, she wails. I'm already married to your older brother Herold. The plot fades out there. Manny thought about it until his brain was sore, and he couldn't come up with an ending. Obviously, there had to be some sort of betrayal, and he wanted the number thirteen involved. He knew Jesse would die by the novel's end, probably through drowning. Still, nothing seemed definite. He huffed and threw his notes across his desk. 'T11 have you yet," he called, then stomped off towards the phone. After three long breaths and a practice, Hey, how s it going? he cracked his knuckles and called his brother's house. 100

T

Humid and Blue Celia picked up the phone, and her voice sounded so soft and comforting that Manny forgot his lines.2 "Is this you, Celia?" He unbuttoned the top of his shirt and tried to concentrate. "I hope I didn't wake you?' "Why would you wake me?" she said. "It's two in the afternoon." "I know it is," he said. He could hear her smacking her gum into the receiver and began imagining her spearmint breath. "Hey, how's it going?" "It's good," she said. "I was hoping it would be good. Things are good with me,' too." "Ray's at work," she said. "But I'll tell him you called." He bit his lower lip and tried to keep his voice steady. "Actually, I was wanting to talk to you." "Go ahead and talk." He imagined her smiling as she said that and assumed it would be inviting. "Well, I've just had an artistic breakthrough. Over the last couple of days, I've been making tremendous progress on this book that I'm writing." "The one about Jesus?" "It's not about Jesus. I've told you that." He caught his breath and lowered his voice. "It's about the suffering of modern man in a destructive and uncaring world." "I'm sorry," she said. "I forgot."3 "Anyway, you've been a big help when I've needed to talk about this—you being an artist yourself and all. I was wondering if perhaps you'd like to meet with me and we could discuss some of it." "I'd like that," she said. "Come over tonight and we can talk about it." Manny put down the phone, smiling so widely that his chapped lips began to crack. "Tonight's the night," he yelled at his wallpaper. "Tonight's the night." 'Manny had first met Celia at a protest in front of City Hall on the fourth of July. His older brother, Ray, had called him and told him to come downtown immediately. When Manny arrived, Ray punched him in the shoulder and pinched his cheeks. "I have some big news," he told Manny. 'Tirf in love with that girl over there." He pointed to a prim and pale blonde with a bullhorn in one hand and a bucket in the other. She stood just outside a circle of people carrying picket signs. "We're going to get married," Ray said. She turned towards Ray and waved furiously, flashing a generous, openmouthed smile. After he waved back, she composed herself, took a deep breath and dumped the bucket of red paint on three old men walking in front of her. "What's she doing?" Manny asked. "They're animal rights protestors," Ray said. "She's turning the tables on them." He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "God, that woman is fearless." "Why red paint?" Manny said. "Is it some kind of metaphor?" 101


Berkeley Fiction Review and has an epiphany. (Like this fish, thinks Jesse, we are pulled by other men's hooks; the thinkers the swimmers and the kings alike. But what paltry revenge— what sense of spiritual revival—can be gained from draining the waters, when time turns us all, on either side of the pole, into salt for the ocean?) • Celia, Manny's sister in law and the only person that knew the details of the plot, argued that Jesse was too young to think such thoughts. "I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe it's just me, but I don't see a three year old saying this, even to himself. I mean, I know that kids are capable of real insights, but what if you made him a little older? Like, maybe seven." Manny lashed out at her then, saying that Jesse was no typical child but an artist in the purest sense. He told her that he had read a book about a similarly unrealistic child called The Biography of Arthur Rimbaud and then laughed until breadcrumbs squirted from his mouth and stuck to the outside of his lips. Finally, he lectured her on the significance of the number three until she acquiesced. He was pleased with his reaction and felt good for the rest of the day, but he hadn't actually written that scene or any other. He did, however, have three hundred twenty four pages of notes dealing with different structural and thematic aspects of the novel. The writing would be easy after that. The basic plot-revolved around Jesse's social, sexual, and spiritual awakenings. Childhood is lonely for Jesse, and other children bully him for his refusal to conform to societal norms. Conform, damnyou, his tormentors yell as they beat him bloody with thorny switches. Why arentyou conforming? Jesse takes his punishment stoically, contenting himself with a life of fishing and meditations on the fleeting nature of mankind. At age thirty, his mother, exasperated with his aimless wandering and refusal to conform, kicks him out of the house for approximately a month and a half. Maybe a little less, she-screams in tearful remorse, as he walks out the door. Maybe a month and a third. Jesse dedicates his time in exile to finding his father. Previously, he had only heard about his father through reputation and legend and, at times, had doubted that he existed at all. During his search, he stumbles upon Maggie, a dark-eyed and barefooted girl from the village. After several scenes spent staring deep within each other's souls, they both fall helplessly in love. Right before the affair can be consummated, however, Maggie breaks down sobbing. I can t do this, she wails. I'm already married to your older brother Herold. The plot fades out there. Manny thought about it until his brain was sore, and he couldn't come up with an ending. Obviously, there had to be some sort of betrayal, and he wanted the number thirteen involved. He knew Jesse would die by the novel's end, probably through drowning. Still, nothing seemed definite. He huffed and threw his notes across his desk. 'T11 have you yet," he called, then stomped off towards the phone. After three long breaths and a practice, Hey, how s it going? he cracked his knuckles and called his brother's house. 100

T

Humid and Blue Celia picked up the phone, and her voice sounded so soft and comforting that Manny forgot his lines.2 "Is this you, Celia?" He unbuttoned the top of his shirt and tried to concentrate. "I hope I didn't wake you?' "Why would you wake me?" she said. "It's two in the afternoon." "I know it is," he said. He could hear her smacking her gum into the receiver and began imagining her spearmint breath. "Hey, how's it going?" "It's good," she said. "I was hoping it would be good. Things are good with me,' too." "Ray's at work," she said. "But I'll tell him you called." He bit his lower lip and tried to keep his voice steady. "Actually, I was wanting to talk to you." "Go ahead and talk." He imagined her smiling as she said that and assumed it would be inviting. "Well, I've just had an artistic breakthrough. Over the last couple of days, I've been making tremendous progress on this book that I'm writing." "The one about Jesus?" "It's not about Jesus. I've told you that." He caught his breath and lowered his voice. "It's about the suffering of modern man in a destructive and uncaring world." "I'm sorry," she said. "I forgot."3 "Anyway, you've been a big help when I've needed to talk about this—you being an artist yourself and all. I was wondering if perhaps you'd like to meet with me and we could discuss some of it." "I'd like that," she said. "Come over tonight and we can talk about it." Manny put down the phone, smiling so widely that his chapped lips began to crack. "Tonight's the night," he yelled at his wallpaper. "Tonight's the night." 'Manny had first met Celia at a protest in front of City Hall on the fourth of July. His older brother, Ray, had called him and told him to come downtown immediately. When Manny arrived, Ray punched him in the shoulder and pinched his cheeks. "I have some big news," he told Manny. 'Tirf in love with that girl over there." He pointed to a prim and pale blonde with a bullhorn in one hand and a bucket in the other. She stood just outside a circle of people carrying picket signs. "We're going to get married," Ray said. She turned towards Ray and waved furiously, flashing a generous, openmouthed smile. After he waved back, she composed herself, took a deep breath and dumped the bucket of red paint on three old men walking in front of her. "What's she doing?" Manny asked. "They're animal rights protestors," Ray said. "She's turning the tables on them." He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "God, that woman is fearless." "Why red paint?" Manny said. "Is it some kind of metaphor?" 101


Berkeley Fiction Review

Humid and Blue

"She's a Republican performance artist," Ray said. "The first of her kind. She's like Joan Baez, but for our side." Two men wearing black turtlenecks and thick glasses walked up behind^her, strumming acoustic guitars. She arched her back, crossed her arms and began singing, How many roads must a man walk down before the hobos stop bothering him. Manny watched the way her mouth formed every word. It turned down slightly during the pauses, making frown lines run down her chin. During the choruses, she'd tilt her head up and push out her pink apple cheeks, giving the sort of knowing, unforced smile that reached every- corner of her face. Manny watched her through squinted eyes, trying to drown out the crowd's heckling and Ray's constant singing along, so he could make a complete connection with her. By the time she started her next song, Life Begins at Conception, Whore, Manny was hooked. He saw she was a true artist, picking her words with precision and framing them with a type of delicacy he'd never seen before. Even better, that sugary voice came out of a startlingly English face that was made Manny dizzy with thoughts of getting cold kisses from stern, feminine lips. She was also a better artist than he was. It killed him to admit that, even to himself, but he had no choice. That had never happened before4. Of course, he knew the world had better artists, but he assumed they were dead or European. Now he saw there was a local mind much stronger than his and she'd be spending every night nibbling the lips of his dimpled, thicknecked brother. The thought of being the second best artist in the family made his cheeks burn with jealousy and desire and he knew he had to possess her. It wouldn't be easy, but there was simply no other way. By the time of the marriage, Manny and Celia had become good friends. He would come over to her house and they'd talk for hours about art and politics. He showe^d her stories he'd written in college and she played him all her new songs. Once, after she'd played him This Land is My Land, Mexico s Your Land, he clapped and wolf-whistled, and she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. Manny felt her hand brush against the side of his knee. She spoke in a slow, breathy voice, about how illegal immigrants were polluting the culture and how we should replace the Texas border with a moat. Every word sounded like love. The relationship wasn't perfect. Manny thought she used words like "babykiller" and "Indian giver" to often. He also never warmed to her habit of comparing everything he wrote to The Fountainhead. For his part, he never suppressed his urge to yell at her when she misinterpreted his work. After she read his short piece, "Waiting for the Bus"—about two tramps waiting for the 316 G Bus that never comes—she had said it reminded her of Waiting foj- Godot. He grabbed his coat and stormed out of the house. It was the closest he'd been to falling out of love.5

Still, this was all part of the madness of art and Manny was prepared to forgive a lot. Even at his most frustrated, she never seemed far from perfect. He liked to 'think of her as a long-suffering queen Gertrude, who would one day leave her husband for his brother whom she'd always"loved. Sometimes at night, when her image was strong enough to keep him awake, he'd clasp his hands together and swear to himself that these were more than just idle thoughts. 6 When Celia opened the door, Manny saw she had written Unions Kill on her forehead in a shade of pale red lipstick that brought out the freckles on the bridge of her nose. Her hair was pulled back so it curled up behind her ear, punctuating her high cheekbones. "You really look lovely tonight," he said. "Thank you." She dabbed her forehead. "Don't worry about this. I was just working on a new song." She walked towards the kitchen, but signaled for him to wait in the living room. "It's sort of an Appalachian number called 'My Daddy Owned a Coal Mine.' It's a little gritty, but I think you'd like it." "I'd like to hear it sometime," he said. He walked the length of the room, chewing on an overgrown thumbnail. "Make me a drink, will you?" he called to the kitchen. "Make yourself one too, but remember I'm bigger than you, so I should get the lion's share." Moments later, she brought out two coffee mugs full of generic orange juice and top shelf vodka. "So what was this about your book? You said it was big." "It's big, all right." He clapped his hands together and let out a clipped laugh. "I've finally done it. It took me a while, but I've done it." "You've started writing?" "Not as such," he said. "But that's not a problem anymore. I've figured out the ending."7 "That's great," she said. She took a small sip of her drink, grimaced, and put it back on the coffee table.8 "What happens?" She ran the back of her hand across her lips. Manny took a long pull from his screwdriver and stared hard at Celia. A table lamp lit up the back of her head, bringing out the lines around her eyes. He'd never noticed them before. They were light enough to disappear when she changed expressions, but he knew where they were going. He took another drink and looked right past her, to their empty gray walls. For the first time, he had the advantage of her. He knew exactly how she would look five years from now— wrinkles stretching from eye to ear and from nose to chin. It made her look so wonderful now. She was still young and tight-skinned and falling just far enough to show that the beauty was real. "I don't know if you know this," he said, "but when I was eight I ran away from home." He didn't know why he was telling her this, but he couldn't stop speaking. "It was for this girl named Abby who was pretty and Swedish and had one of those big necklaces with all the whistles and plastic and stuff."

102

103 1


Berkeley Fiction Review

Humid and Blue

"She's a Republican performance artist," Ray said. "The first of her kind. She's like Joan Baez, but for our side." Two men wearing black turtlenecks and thick glasses walked up behind^her, strumming acoustic guitars. She arched her back, crossed her arms and began singing, How many roads must a man walk down before the hobos stop bothering him. Manny watched the way her mouth formed every word. It turned down slightly during the pauses, making frown lines run down her chin. During the choruses, she'd tilt her head up and push out her pink apple cheeks, giving the sort of knowing, unforced smile that reached every- corner of her face. Manny watched her through squinted eyes, trying to drown out the crowd's heckling and Ray's constant singing along, so he could make a complete connection with her. By the time she started her next song, Life Begins at Conception, Whore, Manny was hooked. He saw she was a true artist, picking her words with precision and framing them with a type of delicacy he'd never seen before. Even better, that sugary voice came out of a startlingly English face that was made Manny dizzy with thoughts of getting cold kisses from stern, feminine lips. She was also a better artist than he was. It killed him to admit that, even to himself, but he had no choice. That had never happened before4. Of course, he knew the world had better artists, but he assumed they were dead or European. Now he saw there was a local mind much stronger than his and she'd be spending every night nibbling the lips of his dimpled, thicknecked brother. The thought of being the second best artist in the family made his cheeks burn with jealousy and desire and he knew he had to possess her. It wouldn't be easy, but there was simply no other way. By the time of the marriage, Manny and Celia had become good friends. He would come over to her house and they'd talk for hours about art and politics. He showe^d her stories he'd written in college and she played him all her new songs. Once, after she'd played him This Land is My Land, Mexico s Your Land, he clapped and wolf-whistled, and she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. Manny felt her hand brush against the side of his knee. She spoke in a slow, breathy voice, about how illegal immigrants were polluting the culture and how we should replace the Texas border with a moat. Every word sounded like love. The relationship wasn't perfect. Manny thought she used words like "babykiller" and "Indian giver" to often. He also never warmed to her habit of comparing everything he wrote to The Fountainhead. For his part, he never suppressed his urge to yell at her when she misinterpreted his work. After she read his short piece, "Waiting for the Bus"—about two tramps waiting for the 316 G Bus that never comes—she had said it reminded her of Waiting foj- Godot. He grabbed his coat and stormed out of the house. It was the closest he'd been to falling out of love.5

Still, this was all part of the madness of art and Manny was prepared to forgive a lot. Even at his most frustrated, she never seemed far from perfect. He liked to 'think of her as a long-suffering queen Gertrude, who would one day leave her husband for his brother whom she'd always"loved. Sometimes at night, when her image was strong enough to keep him awake, he'd clasp his hands together and swear to himself that these were more than just idle thoughts. 6 When Celia opened the door, Manny saw she had written Unions Kill on her forehead in a shade of pale red lipstick that brought out the freckles on the bridge of her nose. Her hair was pulled back so it curled up behind her ear, punctuating her high cheekbones. "You really look lovely tonight," he said. "Thank you." She dabbed her forehead. "Don't worry about this. I was just working on a new song." She walked towards the kitchen, but signaled for him to wait in the living room. "It's sort of an Appalachian number called 'My Daddy Owned a Coal Mine.' It's a little gritty, but I think you'd like it." "I'd like to hear it sometime," he said. He walked the length of the room, chewing on an overgrown thumbnail. "Make me a drink, will you?" he called to the kitchen. "Make yourself one too, but remember I'm bigger than you, so I should get the lion's share." Moments later, she brought out two coffee mugs full of generic orange juice and top shelf vodka. "So what was this about your book? You said it was big." "It's big, all right." He clapped his hands together and let out a clipped laugh. "I've finally done it. It took me a while, but I've done it." "You've started writing?" "Not as such," he said. "But that's not a problem anymore. I've figured out the ending."7 "That's great," she said. She took a small sip of her drink, grimaced, and put it back on the coffee table.8 "What happens?" She ran the back of her hand across her lips. Manny took a long pull from his screwdriver and stared hard at Celia. A table lamp lit up the back of her head, bringing out the lines around her eyes. He'd never noticed them before. They were light enough to disappear when she changed expressions, but he knew where they were going. He took another drink and looked right past her, to their empty gray walls. For the first time, he had the advantage of her. He knew exactly how she would look five years from now— wrinkles stretching from eye to ear and from nose to chin. It made her look so wonderful now. She was still young and tight-skinned and falling just far enough to show that the beauty was real. "I don't know if you know this," he said, "but when I was eight I ran away from home." He didn't know why he was telling her this, but he couldn't stop speaking. "It was for this girl named Abby who was pretty and Swedish and had one of those big necklaces with all the whistles and plastic and stuff."

102

103 1


Berkeley Fiction Review

Celia laughed. "I had one of those." "Well, she had two of them," Manny said. "And she sometimes wore them both at the same time. Plus, she always came to school wearing all these bracelets going up and down her arm. At least five every day. I remember that because she always rattled when she walked and whenever I heard that, I couldn't think of anything else. My grades started dropping because of it."9 "Oh God," Celia said. She leaned forward and smiled. "She sounds wonderful." "She was wonderful." Manny felt his hands trembling and hid them under his legs. "Even more wonderfurthan I'm making her out to be." He knew she was listening to him now like she'd never listened before "So that year, when I come back from Christmas break, she's not coming to class anymore. I asked one of her friends- what happened and it turns out that her father had been transferred to Portland." "Oh God." "I know," he said. "Anyway, this just kills me, obviously, because I thought that I was just enamored with this girl, but it turns out I was in ihe ninth circle of love. I mean, I was just miserable with every part of life. I wasn't eating and I couldn't concentrate. I was a wreck." Celia crossed her legs and put both hands on her front knee. "So after a couple months of moping, I realize I've got to do something." The frantic edge had left his^voice. "I wanted to take a bus or a train or something, but I didn't have the money and there was no way I could borrow it. So I packed a small suitcase and decided I was going to hitchhike there." "Jesus," she gasped. "Manny, that's so dangerous." "Yes, I know that now," he said, "but then it never crossed my mind. So, I go T>ut to the first big road I see and stick my thumb out, because I just assumed that every car was going to Portland10. I get picked up, thank God, by this old Spanish woman in one of those frilly yellow dresses. She asks where I'm going and, without even really thinking, I tell her everything. I hadn'ttold anyone else that I even liked this girl, but I was.so excited that I couldn't hold back. About halfway through, I look up and I see she's crying. She's not wailing or anything, but the tears are really pouring. I ask her what's wrong, but she just says 'Finish the story,' so I keep telling it and then when I'm done, she just wipes her face, pulls over, and drops me off. All I could think then was that she was crying for my mother. That made me sad so I called her and told her to pick me up." He stopped and took another drink. "Now, I like to think she was crying because most people don't know what to do with love. They think it's more common than it really is so they get lazy with it. I was just a boy, but I was acting on it and I honestly think she was just proud of me." Celia took a deephreath and ran her finger.along the couch cushion. "God,

104

Humid and Blue Manny," she said, "I had no idea." Her smile turned softer now, with her lips barely open and her eyes turned down, like she was waiting. "That's really a wonderful story, you know." "-I know it is." The hum of the heater filled up the room. "The thing is," he said, "I want you to marry me. I know you're already married, but that can be taken care of. Just trust me on this, it'll be best for both of us." Her eyes darted around the room and her face slowly stiffened. "I'm not sure I know what you're saying." "I'm saying that this is how the novel ends." He put his hand on her shoulder and tried to hold her gaze. "Jesse meets Maggie again and they can't help themselves this time. They know they're the only ones witiVa real sense of the sublime and they realize that they love each other for that. They run off and get married, and they're really, genuinely happy. I meanj-my God, I can't even tell you how happy they are." He dropped his hand from her shoulder and took another drink. "And, possibly, later, thirteen townspeople gang up and kill Jesse. Probably by drowning, because that would fit with the whole fishing motif. You know, fisher of men and all that." Celia swallowed and crinkled her forehead. "Did you just propose to me?" "Yeah, sure did," he said. "In that scene I just described there, I was actually talking about us." "Where he drowns?" "The scene before that," he said. "Where they get married because of all the sublimity. That was us. You were Maggie and I was Jesse." ' "I thought we all were Jesse." "In a sense, we are," he said. "It's just that in a more particular way, I'm Jesse. At least as far as the-marriage part is concerned." "Oh God." She walked past him and went to the kitchen. "This is a really bad idea, Manny. Really bad." Manny heard the door swing open behind him and turned to see Ray carrying a bag of groceries. "Hey, it's..Manny," he said. "I didn't realize you were coming by." Celia hurried over to him and threw her arms around his shoulders. "I'm glad you're home," she said. "Something's come up and I want you to help straighten it out. Your brother—who was drinking and may*be sleep deprived— has just asked me to marry him." Ray looked back and forth at them both. "Why is he sleep deprived?" "I'll tell you why," Manny said; He rose from the couch and finished his drink. "Because I'm up all night, constantly thinking about her. rm,sorry, I know you're married, but I just can't help it." Ray turned towards Celia "Unions kill?" he asked. "It's nothing," she said. "It's for the act."

105


Berkeley Fiction Review

Celia laughed. "I had one of those." "Well, she had two of them," Manny said. "And she sometimes wore them both at the same time. Plus, she always came to school wearing all these bracelets going up and down her arm. At least five every day. I remember that because she always rattled when she walked and whenever I heard that, I couldn't think of anything else. My grades started dropping because of it."9 "Oh God," Celia said. She leaned forward and smiled. "She sounds wonderful." "She was wonderful." Manny felt his hands trembling and hid them under his legs. "Even more wonderfurthan I'm making her out to be." He knew she was listening to him now like she'd never listened before "So that year, when I come back from Christmas break, she's not coming to class anymore. I asked one of her friends- what happened and it turns out that her father had been transferred to Portland." "Oh God." "I know," he said. "Anyway, this just kills me, obviously, because I thought that I was just enamored with this girl, but it turns out I was in ihe ninth circle of love. I mean, I was just miserable with every part of life. I wasn't eating and I couldn't concentrate. I was a wreck." Celia crossed her legs and put both hands on her front knee. "So after a couple months of moping, I realize I've got to do something." The frantic edge had left his^voice. "I wanted to take a bus or a train or something, but I didn't have the money and there was no way I could borrow it. So I packed a small suitcase and decided I was going to hitchhike there." "Jesus," she gasped. "Manny, that's so dangerous." "Yes, I know that now," he said, "but then it never crossed my mind. So, I go T>ut to the first big road I see and stick my thumb out, because I just assumed that every car was going to Portland10. I get picked up, thank God, by this old Spanish woman in one of those frilly yellow dresses. She asks where I'm going and, without even really thinking, I tell her everything. I hadn'ttold anyone else that I even liked this girl, but I was.so excited that I couldn't hold back. About halfway through, I look up and I see she's crying. She's not wailing or anything, but the tears are really pouring. I ask her what's wrong, but she just says 'Finish the story,' so I keep telling it and then when I'm done, she just wipes her face, pulls over, and drops me off. All I could think then was that she was crying for my mother. That made me sad so I called her and told her to pick me up." He stopped and took another drink. "Now, I like to think she was crying because most people don't know what to do with love. They think it's more common than it really is so they get lazy with it. I was just a boy, but I was acting on it and I honestly think she was just proud of me." Celia took a deephreath and ran her finger.along the couch cushion. "God,

104

Humid and Blue Manny," she said, "I had no idea." Her smile turned softer now, with her lips barely open and her eyes turned down, like she was waiting. "That's really a wonderful story, you know." "-I know it is." The hum of the heater filled up the room. "The thing is," he said, "I want you to marry me. I know you're already married, but that can be taken care of. Just trust me on this, it'll be best for both of us." Her eyes darted around the room and her face slowly stiffened. "I'm not sure I know what you're saying." "I'm saying that this is how the novel ends." He put his hand on her shoulder and tried to hold her gaze. "Jesse meets Maggie again and they can't help themselves this time. They know they're the only ones witiVa real sense of the sublime and they realize that they love each other for that. They run off and get married, and they're really, genuinely happy. I meanj-my God, I can't even tell you how happy they are." He dropped his hand from her shoulder and took another drink. "And, possibly, later, thirteen townspeople gang up and kill Jesse. Probably by drowning, because that would fit with the whole fishing motif. You know, fisher of men and all that." Celia swallowed and crinkled her forehead. "Did you just propose to me?" "Yeah, sure did," he said. "In that scene I just described there, I was actually talking about us." "Where he drowns?" "The scene before that," he said. "Where they get married because of all the sublimity. That was us. You were Maggie and I was Jesse." ' "I thought we all were Jesse." "In a sense, we are," he said. "It's just that in a more particular way, I'm Jesse. At least as far as the-marriage part is concerned." "Oh God." She walked past him and went to the kitchen. "This is a really bad idea, Manny. Really bad." Manny heard the door swing open behind him and turned to see Ray carrying a bag of groceries. "Hey, it's..Manny," he said. "I didn't realize you were coming by." Celia hurried over to him and threw her arms around his shoulders. "I'm glad you're home," she said. "Something's come up and I want you to help straighten it out. Your brother—who was drinking and may*be sleep deprived— has just asked me to marry him." Ray looked back and forth at them both. "Why is he sleep deprived?" "I'll tell you why," Manny said; He rose from the couch and finished his drink. "Because I'm up all night, constantly thinking about her. rm,sorry, I know you're married, but I just can't help it." Ray turned towards Celia "Unions kill?" he asked. "It's nothing," she said. "It's for the act."

105


Berkeley Fiction Review

"That's right," Manny yelled. "The act that an artist puts on and another artist relates to. You're just not an artist, Ray, and you don't deserve an artist wife." "Come on, Manny," Ray said. He moved into the living room and set the groceries down. "We've been over this. You can't call yourself an artist when you haven't actually done anything artistic. All you do is drink and talk about some gigantic novel that you're going to write, and occasionally you come over here and hit on my wife. Frankly, I hadn't realized it had gone this far." "This novel will be written and it will be gigantic." His voice had turned cold. "And you're dangerously close to talking yourself out of the acknowledgements." He took a deep breath and put his finger in his brother's face. "Iama = writer,by.theway. I'm trying to heal the mind of the world. What do you do that's so special? When have you tried to help people?" ll "I'm a pediatrician." "Of course," Manny said. "You help kids with colds. What's little Timmy going to do if our conquering hero doesn't stop him from sniffling." He put his drink down and began working on Celia's. "Besides, I bet as soon as those kids are better, they've forgotten all about you. What's that old saying about a child in need?" Ray looked at Celia and shrugged. "Is a child indeed? That doesn't make any sense, Manny." "No, I'll tell you what doesn't make any sense," Manny said, "Celia staying with you when she could be with me. I honestly can't figure that out." Celia walked over to Manny and patted him on the back. "You know, I think you're fine" she said. "Butyou'rejustnotforme. Even as an artist* I just don't get a lot of the stuff you talk about. It just seems blasphemous." She began guiding him towards the door. "But look, you'll find someone. You just have to keep focused, like you did with that Swedish girl when you were eight." "Not that again." Ray walked over and opened the door.12 "When he was fifteen he saw this TV special where this kid runs away from home to follow a girl. Since then, he's been pretending it happened to him." Manny opened his mouth to protest, but he didn't speak. There was no point, anymore. He was tired and defeated and they were ready to talk about something else. He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded goodbye, and turned around. The door slammed shut before he left the porch.

Humid and Blue of a perfect woman: complete with a face full of angles and a sharp, devastating smile. Jesse would have no need for that. In the distance, Manny saw a plastic fire truck turned over on its side. It reminded him of pretending to go to-Portland and he began to get nostalgic for his childhood. He thought briefly that Jesse might open an orphanage. He could raise "a batch of likeminded children who would spread his word to the nonbelievers. Maybe a whole army of fishermen-artists would rise from the woodwork and rout the infidels out of their homes. Manny blew out a deep breath and dismissed the idea. It meant that Jesse would be dependent on others and that couldn't happen. Jesse was an artist and Manny saw that artists, apparently, had to go it alone. He made a mental note to change Maggie's name to Judith. Manny walked past his old high school and past the house where his mother grew up. He walked past the blue basketball courts with the netless rims where he and Ray used to -play. The walk was soothing him and he felt the night moving further away with every step. He kept walking until he came to the arboretum where he had taken the first girl he'd kissed. It was late and he was far from home but he felt fully at ease and didn't want to move. He lay down on the grass and closed his eyes, thinking, This is how it-ends. Jesse Carpenter, after a novel-long search for a shred of decency in this dungheap of existence, would escape into the night. There he would unwind his life's supply of memories and dream of all the dead parts of the past. He'd realize that the nighttime "was an artist's only true companion. Throughout all the false friends and falser women, he could always take comfort in the fat, motherly night to hide and sustain him. Then he'd throw his arms to the sky to be embraced by a heaventree of stars hanging with its humid nightblue fruit. Manny threw his arms upwards and opened his eyes. He rolled his head back and forth, trying to take it all in at once. It was too cold to be humid and clouds covered almost all the stars. The day's pollution had just risen, making the sky look closer to orangegray than nightblue. Manny closed his eyes again, then opened them hoping for something new. "Be that way, then," he yelled up to the missing heaventree. "Be as nonexistent as you want." He stood up and dusted himself off. "There'll be other lines." He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked off to stare at different parts of the sky, hoping to make sense out of them13.

'He walked for hours through the darkest and emptiest streets he could find, trying to make some meaning of the night. The novel needed a new ending and there was no avoiding that. It had been foolish to think that Jesse would fall for Maggie's siren songs. He could be tempted, of course, but his instinct would save him. Eventually, he would see she was a simple soul shoved into the form

106

107


Berkeley Fiction Review

"That's right," Manny yelled. "The act that an artist puts on and another artist relates to. You're just not an artist, Ray, and you don't deserve an artist wife." "Come on, Manny," Ray said. He moved into the living room and set the groceries down. "We've been over this. You can't call yourself an artist when you haven't actually done anything artistic. All you do is drink and talk about some gigantic novel that you're going to write, and occasionally you come over here and hit on my wife. Frankly, I hadn't realized it had gone this far." "This novel will be written and it will be gigantic." His voice had turned cold. "And you're dangerously close to talking yourself out of the acknowledgements." He took a deep breath and put his finger in his brother's face. "Iama = writer,by.theway. I'm trying to heal the mind of the world. What do you do that's so special? When have you tried to help people?" ll "I'm a pediatrician." "Of course," Manny said. "You help kids with colds. What's little Timmy going to do if our conquering hero doesn't stop him from sniffling." He put his drink down and began working on Celia's. "Besides, I bet as soon as those kids are better, they've forgotten all about you. What's that old saying about a child in need?" Ray looked at Celia and shrugged. "Is a child indeed? That doesn't make any sense, Manny." "No, I'll tell you what doesn't make any sense," Manny said, "Celia staying with you when she could be with me. I honestly can't figure that out." Celia walked over to Manny and patted him on the back. "You know, I think you're fine" she said. "Butyou'rejustnotforme. Even as an artist* I just don't get a lot of the stuff you talk about. It just seems blasphemous." She began guiding him towards the door. "But look, you'll find someone. You just have to keep focused, like you did with that Swedish girl when you were eight." "Not that again." Ray walked over and opened the door.12 "When he was fifteen he saw this TV special where this kid runs away from home to follow a girl. Since then, he's been pretending it happened to him." Manny opened his mouth to protest, but he didn't speak. There was no point, anymore. He was tired and defeated and they were ready to talk about something else. He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded goodbye, and turned around. The door slammed shut before he left the porch.

Humid and Blue of a perfect woman: complete with a face full of angles and a sharp, devastating smile. Jesse would have no need for that. In the distance, Manny saw a plastic fire truck turned over on its side. It reminded him of pretending to go to-Portland and he began to get nostalgic for his childhood. He thought briefly that Jesse might open an orphanage. He could raise "a batch of likeminded children who would spread his word to the nonbelievers. Maybe a whole army of fishermen-artists would rise from the woodwork and rout the infidels out of their homes. Manny blew out a deep breath and dismissed the idea. It meant that Jesse would be dependent on others and that couldn't happen. Jesse was an artist and Manny saw that artists, apparently, had to go it alone. He made a mental note to change Maggie's name to Judith. Manny walked past his old high school and past the house where his mother grew up. He walked past the blue basketball courts with the netless rims where he and Ray used to -play. The walk was soothing him and he felt the night moving further away with every step. He kept walking until he came to the arboretum where he had taken the first girl he'd kissed. It was late and he was far from home but he felt fully at ease and didn't want to move. He lay down on the grass and closed his eyes, thinking, This is how it-ends. Jesse Carpenter, after a novel-long search for a shred of decency in this dungheap of existence, would escape into the night. There he would unwind his life's supply of memories and dream of all the dead parts of the past. He'd realize that the nighttime "was an artist's only true companion. Throughout all the false friends and falser women, he could always take comfort in the fat, motherly night to hide and sustain him. Then he'd throw his arms to the sky to be embraced by a heaventree of stars hanging with its humid nightblue fruit. Manny threw his arms upwards and opened his eyes. He rolled his head back and forth, trying to take it all in at once. It was too cold to be humid and clouds covered almost all the stars. The day's pollution had just risen, making the sky look closer to orangegray than nightblue. Manny closed his eyes again, then opened them hoping for something new. "Be that way, then," he yelled up to the missing heaventree. "Be as nonexistent as you want." He stood up and dusted himself off. "There'll be other lines." He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked off to stare at different parts of the sky, hoping to make sense out of them13.

'He walked for hours through the darkest and emptiest streets he could find, trying to make some meaning of the night. The novel needed a new ending and there was no avoiding that. It had been foolish to think that Jesse would fall for Maggie's siren songs. He could be tempted, of course, but his instinct would save him. Eventually, he would see she was a simple soul shoved into the form

106

107


Berkeley Fiction Review

(Endnotes) 1 Why don't you get a French-English Dictionary and look it up, mouthbreather? 2 Hey reader, look over here. Over here, reader. 3 A fun part about being a writer is that you get to manipulate people's emotions. For instance, I could write something like "Children." Right now, you're probably thinking, 'That's sweet, I like children. Thanks, writer, forgiving me suclra wholesome thought.' But I could just as easily say, "Children having children." Now you're probably thinking, 'Hey, they're too young. Why aren't they using protection?" 4 You know what? ThaJ's what. 5 Stop mpving your mouth when you read. It makes you look even dumber 6 Page Break 7 This story is written in 3rd person limited. That means you only know what Manny knows. So you could ask, "What's Celia thinking?" I know, but there's no way I'm telling you. All right, I'll tell you. She's thinking about the time that she was held hostage by Russian terrorists and how she was able to escape using only a piece of wire and a rolling pin. From that experience, she learned that-existence itself is a blessing. Perhaps, that would have been a better story than this one. Still, I think I gave you enough clues to figure that out.

YOU10

1 am currently building tension in this story. When building tension; a writer has to be very subtle. You non-writers—or morons—don't have to worry about that. If you wanted to build tension, you would simply say something like: "Hamlet, I am.. .THY FATHER'S SPIRIT!!!" A good writer (e.g. me) knows not to overplay his hand. I would simply say, "Hamlet, I am thy father's spirit' he said tensely." 1 ' Before I wrote this scene, I asked myself, 'How would Shakespeare have written this?' Then I wrote it that way. '12 Stop judging me. 13 Someday, Reader, I hope to meet you face to face, and you can have the opportunity to apologize to me for misinterpreting my story so badly.

108.

D e e r

b y

T e d

i i j

t h e

R o a d

S a n d e r s

only have a second. I guess this is my life flashing before my eyes. I'll try to tell you about most of it but it'sall pretty new because I never drove a car upside-down through the air before. I've not bothered to believe in God but as I'm launching at seventy up from the guardrail like a stunt guy who meant to, as I start my slow spiral up off of everything and over the edge of the embankment, I see how it's going to go for me and I'm calm, I'm potent, filled with a panic so pure it picks apart each instant like the finer and finer veins from a leaf that's nothing but. I cling to the steering wheel because why wouldn't I, and it's wobbly and loose with the slump of tires not used to being pointless, and I wish like I felt like I was driving across the sky but instead I feel like I'm holding the jolting brain of a giant overturned bug. My hands twitch to turn the wheel all the way and back again, just because they maybe can, but I think-I'm afraid that when they come to scrape me out they might see the wheel whete it shouldn't be, and I'm not sure what they'd make of that. Sd I keep that mother'going as straight as I can while the horizon eats me up. There's music playing—one of Kathy's CDs, i think. I barely know the song and don't 4ike it much. I think*about changing it but that means choosing another. It seems like a lot of pressure to me now. It gets easier to forget about it after I take atiny, busy trip: I discover and discard a little flush of pride because our CD player works upside-down. My blinker is on, 'too. I don't remember doing that, but I must have. I start to turn it off because it seems like the wrong one to be blinking, but then I realize itrwon't be wrong anymore if I make it all the way around to<right-'side-uf). I make that another goal of mine, but frankly I'm skeptical. Mostly I just try to drive straight ahead. I keep my hands at ten and two. 109


Berkeley Fiction Review

(Endnotes) 1 Why don't you get a French-English Dictionary and look it up, mouthbreather? 2 Hey reader, look over here. Over here, reader. 3 A fun part about being a writer is that you get to manipulate people's emotions. For instance, I could write something like "Children." Right now, you're probably thinking, 'That's sweet, I like children. Thanks, writer, forgiving me suclra wholesome thought.' But I could just as easily say, "Children having children." Now you're probably thinking, 'Hey, they're too young. Why aren't they using protection?" 4 You know what? ThaJ's what. 5 Stop mpving your mouth when you read. It makes you look even dumber 6 Page Break 7 This story is written in 3rd person limited. That means you only know what Manny knows. So you could ask, "What's Celia thinking?" I know, but there's no way I'm telling you. All right, I'll tell you. She's thinking about the time that she was held hostage by Russian terrorists and how she was able to escape using only a piece of wire and a rolling pin. From that experience, she learned that-existence itself is a blessing. Perhaps, that would have been a better story than this one. Still, I think I gave you enough clues to figure that out.

YOU10

1 am currently building tension in this story. When building tension; a writer has to be very subtle. You non-writers—or morons—don't have to worry about that. If you wanted to build tension, you would simply say something like: "Hamlet, I am.. .THY FATHER'S SPIRIT!!!" A good writer (e.g. me) knows not to overplay his hand. I would simply say, "Hamlet, I am thy father's spirit' he said tensely." 1 ' Before I wrote this scene, I asked myself, 'How would Shakespeare have written this?' Then I wrote it that way. '12 Stop judging me. 13 Someday, Reader, I hope to meet you face to face, and you can have the opportunity to apologize to me for misinterpreting my story so badly.

108.

D e e r

b y

T e d

i i j

t h e

R o a d

S a n d e r s

only have a second. I guess this is my life flashing before my eyes. I'll try to tell you about most of it but it'sall pretty new because I never drove a car upside-down through the air before. I've not bothered to believe in God but as I'm launching at seventy up from the guardrail like a stunt guy who meant to, as I start my slow spiral up off of everything and over the edge of the embankment, I see how it's going to go for me and I'm calm, I'm potent, filled with a panic so pure it picks apart each instant like the finer and finer veins from a leaf that's nothing but. I cling to the steering wheel because why wouldn't I, and it's wobbly and loose with the slump of tires not used to being pointless, and I wish like I felt like I was driving across the sky but instead I feel like I'm holding the jolting brain of a giant overturned bug. My hands twitch to turn the wheel all the way and back again, just because they maybe can, but I think-I'm afraid that when they come to scrape me out they might see the wheel whete it shouldn't be, and I'm not sure what they'd make of that. Sd I keep that mother'going as straight as I can while the horizon eats me up. There's music playing—one of Kathy's CDs, i think. I barely know the song and don't 4ike it much. I think*about changing it but that means choosing another. It seems like a lot of pressure to me now. It gets easier to forget about it after I take atiny, busy trip: I discover and discard a little flush of pride because our CD player works upside-down. My blinker is on, 'too. I don't remember doing that, but I must have. I start to turn it off because it seems like the wrong one to be blinking, but then I realize itrwon't be wrong anymore if I make it all the way around to<right-'side-uf). I make that another goal of mine, but frankly I'm skeptical. Mostly I just try to drive straight ahead. I keep my hands at ten and two. 109


Berkeley Fiction Review

Stuff tumbles around inside the car. I'm not spinning fast enough for it not to; I'm a little off my ass myself. Things Kathy's hung from the mirror—a tiny cloth bag, some beads, a stone—they swim like birds, unsure how to fall or even whether to, tethered as they are. They thunk desperately against the windshield, but they're not in much danger of escaping just now. A skittery sound patters all around me too, as the floor empties itself on the way to becoming the ceiling. We went to the lake last summer. Camped on the dunes. There's sand up my pants to the knees. My arm is suddenly wet, doused with a cold that creeps across my palm. Because I'm not burned, I don't realize right away: the lid's come off my coffee. Thinking of it now I almost regret I didn't drink more of it. It makes me think of a briefer moment, the accelerating second that led to this one. I wonder how far back down the road it should have come in order for my coffee to be scalding me now. I wonder if it would have mattered. Swerving in and out of control down a highway at night is scary. Scarier than this. I was awfully afraid for myself before I left the ground; there was a deer in the road. A funny thing is that there was a deer-crossing sign, too. 'There was a deer-crossing sign and about a hundred yards after that there was a real damn deer. A buck, like the one on the sign. Only this one was just standing there—not like the one on the sign, which looked to be running like hell. I guess I wish I'd gotten a little more truth in advertising there, or maybe a little less. Anyway I didn't hit that deer. I did find a way past him to where I am now. I was in the other seat when Kathy hit a deer. Onetime. It wasn't much like this. That time, the deer came sprinting out from Kathy's side of the woods and ran up alongside us, frantically blind, headed where we were headed. Kathy turned the wheel just as the deer was at the front bumper, and the deer peeled away at the same moment, but not before she touched us. We saw the shadows of her ribs in the headlight, and the brief dimple the corner of the car made in her hide. She ran back to the trees. We pulled over cussing and glad. I found hairs in the trim of the headlight. I feel a fleeting stab of light-headed disappointment. I don't blame myself, considering. It's all because my rearview mirror, spinning with me now, |s supposed to be a backwards place. I know that it is. But as I look into it—maybe to see that deer—I see that the world back there, faded but still faintly sunlit, is tumbling around in the same direction as the one I'm headed into. It seems wrong, but almost right away I realize it's not, and the normalcy steals a little wonder from me. I otherwise feel like the water in a twisted rag, wrung out slowly by the conspiring disagreement of the ends. I look at the side mirrors, but they both give up the same poor view. Also they are not the kind of mirrors in which objects are closer than they appear. It's hard to say what I think about that. Anyhow I give up on the mirrors. It isn't too hard because the windshield 110

Deer in the Road like always is my own private movie screen, and right now there sure is a damn compelling show on. For a little while I'm rapt, I'm glued to the view, Vmpart of the action. I'm headed downhill into a concrete creekbed, a sloping shallow V. It's coarse like a cat tongue, and dry with a stain that says I came at the wrong time to find water. I see the flattened shapes and shadows of all the crap at the bottom, leering in the wash of my headlights. Thick black weeds groping out of cracks, battered hides of paper and a puzzling sheet of plastic, and a fine selection of all the things people drink from. I'd wonder how each of them got here but I'm already going over them, mostly. I'm going to make it to the far side, which lies like a wall from where I sit dropping out of space. It'll be ahell of a crash, and how's that for vain? I'm close now and something heavy rumbles across the ceiling over my head, grazing my hair, making me want to flinch. I know right away it's the shoe. The shoe was in the car when we bought it from the lady at a senior day care. Kathy said let's leave it there, and it was good to. An old man's shoe, a right shoe, black and broad and round at the toes and wrinkled at the knee like a neck. The tread, over its life, had left itself behind in bits, but the shoe was still substantial. Grown top-heavy over time, I realize. Full of weight. It's the loudest thing around me now, and I remind myself without looking that it's only overhead and not above me. But none of that will matter for long. I spin my way and the shoe tumbles on by the other, looking for a place to settle. We're a bit past straight upside-down, and I wait for a new sense of rising, but either I'm coming down too fast or I've got too much faith in my demise—I feel like I'm only going round. I won't make it even close to all the way upright. I'm sorry about Kathy's car. And then I'm there. The headlights swallow their spill in the instant before they're destroyed themselves, and I'm startled by the dark. I can't see what hits exactly first but when it does I hear the resentful bark of wounded metal. It's a little anti-climactic, but as the rest of the car begins to barrel on into itself where its nose has come to rest, that one sound becomes a hundred becoming a thousand and then crueler noises are wrenched from more vital expiring metaj organs. The steering wheel lurches, possessed—seizing in my hands. I watch how the hood crumples toward me, a jagged wave in ruined shallows, looming in my view though it's not what will kill me. I feel pain in my legs and I know there's no room for them where they are anymore. I come to a strange place I'd scarcely considered, where I'm still moving but nothing in front of me is. Something strikes me in the head, I'd like to know what. The steering wheel collapses. Elephants on my chest. And the last thought I make as I'm crushed by what's carried me is I wish

111


Berkeley Fiction Review

Stuff tumbles around inside the car. I'm not spinning fast enough for it not to; I'm a little off my ass myself. Things Kathy's hung from the mirror—a tiny cloth bag, some beads, a stone—they swim like birds, unsure how to fall or even whether to, tethered as they are. They thunk desperately against the windshield, but they're not in much danger of escaping just now. A skittery sound patters all around me too, as the floor empties itself on the way to becoming the ceiling. We went to the lake last summer. Camped on the dunes. There's sand up my pants to the knees. My arm is suddenly wet, doused with a cold that creeps across my palm. Because I'm not burned, I don't realize right away: the lid's come off my coffee. Thinking of it now I almost regret I didn't drink more of it. It makes me think of a briefer moment, the accelerating second that led to this one. I wonder how far back down the road it should have come in order for my coffee to be scalding me now. I wonder if it would have mattered. Swerving in and out of control down a highway at night is scary. Scarier than this. I was awfully afraid for myself before I left the ground; there was a deer in the road. A funny thing is that there was a deer-crossing sign, too. 'There was a deer-crossing sign and about a hundred yards after that there was a real damn deer. A buck, like the one on the sign. Only this one was just standing there—not like the one on the sign, which looked to be running like hell. I guess I wish I'd gotten a little more truth in advertising there, or maybe a little less. Anyway I didn't hit that deer. I did find a way past him to where I am now. I was in the other seat when Kathy hit a deer. Onetime. It wasn't much like this. That time, the deer came sprinting out from Kathy's side of the woods and ran up alongside us, frantically blind, headed where we were headed. Kathy turned the wheel just as the deer was at the front bumper, and the deer peeled away at the same moment, but not before she touched us. We saw the shadows of her ribs in the headlight, and the brief dimple the corner of the car made in her hide. She ran back to the trees. We pulled over cussing and glad. I found hairs in the trim of the headlight. I feel a fleeting stab of light-headed disappointment. I don't blame myself, considering. It's all because my rearview mirror, spinning with me now, |s supposed to be a backwards place. I know that it is. But as I look into it—maybe to see that deer—I see that the world back there, faded but still faintly sunlit, is tumbling around in the same direction as the one I'm headed into. It seems wrong, but almost right away I realize it's not, and the normalcy steals a little wonder from me. I otherwise feel like the water in a twisted rag, wrung out slowly by the conspiring disagreement of the ends. I look at the side mirrors, but they both give up the same poor view. Also they are not the kind of mirrors in which objects are closer than they appear. It's hard to say what I think about that. Anyhow I give up on the mirrors. It isn't too hard because the windshield 110

Deer in the Road like always is my own private movie screen, and right now there sure is a damn compelling show on. For a little while I'm rapt, I'm glued to the view, Vmpart of the action. I'm headed downhill into a concrete creekbed, a sloping shallow V. It's coarse like a cat tongue, and dry with a stain that says I came at the wrong time to find water. I see the flattened shapes and shadows of all the crap at the bottom, leering in the wash of my headlights. Thick black weeds groping out of cracks, battered hides of paper and a puzzling sheet of plastic, and a fine selection of all the things people drink from. I'd wonder how each of them got here but I'm already going over them, mostly. I'm going to make it to the far side, which lies like a wall from where I sit dropping out of space. It'll be ahell of a crash, and how's that for vain? I'm close now and something heavy rumbles across the ceiling over my head, grazing my hair, making me want to flinch. I know right away it's the shoe. The shoe was in the car when we bought it from the lady at a senior day care. Kathy said let's leave it there, and it was good to. An old man's shoe, a right shoe, black and broad and round at the toes and wrinkled at the knee like a neck. The tread, over its life, had left itself behind in bits, but the shoe was still substantial. Grown top-heavy over time, I realize. Full of weight. It's the loudest thing around me now, and I remind myself without looking that it's only overhead and not above me. But none of that will matter for long. I spin my way and the shoe tumbles on by the other, looking for a place to settle. We're a bit past straight upside-down, and I wait for a new sense of rising, but either I'm coming down too fast or I've got too much faith in my demise—I feel like I'm only going round. I won't make it even close to all the way upright. I'm sorry about Kathy's car. And then I'm there. The headlights swallow their spill in the instant before they're destroyed themselves, and I'm startled by the dark. I can't see what hits exactly first but when it does I hear the resentful bark of wounded metal. It's a little anti-climactic, but as the rest of the car begins to barrel on into itself where its nose has come to rest, that one sound becomes a hundred becoming a thousand and then crueler noises are wrenched from more vital expiring metaj organs. The steering wheel lurches, possessed—seizing in my hands. I watch how the hood crumples toward me, a jagged wave in ruined shallows, looming in my view though it's not what will kill me. I feel pain in my legs and I know there's no room for them where they are anymore. I come to a strange place I'd scarcely considered, where I'm still moving but nothing in front of me is. Something strikes me in the head, I'd like to know what. The steering wheel collapses. Elephants on my chest. And the last thought I make as I'm crushed by what's carried me is I wish

111


C O N T R I B U T O R S

Gail Bartley, a writer in Bend, Oregon, studied fiction and screenwriting at the Writer's Voice in New York City. Her screenplay Goodnight Irene is currently in development with Cosgrove/Meurer Productions, Los Angeles. This is her first story to be published in a literary magazine. Gary Buslik writes travel articles, short stories, and novels. His latest novel is The Missionary s Position (Sunny Books). His stories and essays have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Hoyden's Ferry Review, Puerto deTSol, Laurel Review, Troika, and other magazines. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Willie Davis may be the most handsome artist in Kentucky. While only a fledgling writer, he has already received notice for being better looking than Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. He hopes to one day look better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. When not writing, he spends his time gazing in the mirror, and shaking his head in wonder. Willie Davis, a native of Whitesburg, Kentucky, has recently had his work featured in LEO Weekly Magazine. Stephen St. Francis Decky lives in Massachusetts and studies Celtic languages. Tyler Dilts received his MFA in Fiction Writing from California State University, Long Beach, where he now teaches writing in the English and Theatre Departments. He is a winner of the Associated Writing Programs' Intro Award and his fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, including RipRap, The Circle, and Puerto Del Sol. His short story, "Thug: Signification and the (De)Construction of Self," was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2003. Michael Greenstein studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His ink drawings have appeared on the covers and within a number of fine literary magazines from across the country. Michael lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Aaron Hellem currently resides in North Carolina, but is emigrating North where he'll be attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for an MFA. He received his BA in English from the University of Montana. He has fictions forthcoming in WoW and Arnazella. Bret M. Herholz resides in Worcester, MA. My work has been featured in three issues of The Mystery Review, Dark Horizons Magazine, Otherwords Sci-Fi Magazine, The South Boston Literary Review and I currently have an illustration featured on author Laurie R. King's official site. My illustrations have been displayed at several galleries in the Worcester area. I have written a short story "Old Scores" for Outpost Gallifrey's Doctor's charity anthology Missing Pieces. When I am not drawing or writing, I teach youth art classes at The Worcester Art Museum. Ginger Knowlton's prose poems and flash fictions have been published in journals such as Swerve, Double Room, Poetry Midwest, Segue, and Tarpaulin Sky, and her paintings are held in various private collections. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute. She teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. JD Mader is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State. This is his first published work of fiction. A resident of San Francisco, he also writes music and nonfiction. Robert Mentzer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he works for an adult literacy program and writes about hip-hop for a weekly paper. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Sycamore Review and Post Road. Ben Miller's stories and poems have recently appeared in Raritan, Carolina Quarterly, Quick Fiction, Rattapallax, American Letters and Commentary, Sentence, Gargoyle, Barrow Street, Quick Fiction, The Call Review, Sentence and Painted Bride Quarterly. Awards include a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His nonfiction regularly appears in The Common Review, a publication of The Great Books Foundation. Robyn L. Murphy was born in Connecticut, but presently lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she attends Carnegie Mellon University. This is the first time that she has been published.


C O N T R I B U T O R S

Gail Bartley, a writer in Bend, Oregon, studied fiction and screenwriting at the Writer's Voice in New York City. Her screenplay Goodnight Irene is currently in development with Cosgrove/Meurer Productions, Los Angeles. This is her first story to be published in a literary magazine. Gary Buslik writes travel articles, short stories, and novels. His latest novel is The Missionary s Position (Sunny Books). His stories and essays have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Hoyden's Ferry Review, Puerto deTSol, Laurel Review, Troika, and other magazines. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Willie Davis may be the most handsome artist in Kentucky. While only a fledgling writer, he has already received notice for being better looking than Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. He hopes to one day look better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. When not writing, he spends his time gazing in the mirror, and shaking his head in wonder. Willie Davis, a native of Whitesburg, Kentucky, has recently had his work featured in LEO Weekly Magazine. Stephen St. Francis Decky lives in Massachusetts and studies Celtic languages. Tyler Dilts received his MFA in Fiction Writing from California State University, Long Beach, where he now teaches writing in the English and Theatre Departments. He is a winner of the Associated Writing Programs' Intro Award and his fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, including RipRap, The Circle, and Puerto Del Sol. His short story, "Thug: Signification and the (De)Construction of Self," was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2003. Michael Greenstein studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His ink drawings have appeared on the covers and within a number of fine literary magazines from across the country. Michael lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Aaron Hellem currently resides in North Carolina, but is emigrating North where he'll be attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for an MFA. He received his BA in English from the University of Montana. He has fictions forthcoming in WoW and Arnazella. Bret M. Herholz resides in Worcester, MA. My work has been featured in three issues of The Mystery Review, Dark Horizons Magazine, Otherwords Sci-Fi Magazine, The South Boston Literary Review and I currently have an illustration featured on author Laurie R. King's official site. My illustrations have been displayed at several galleries in the Worcester area. I have written a short story "Old Scores" for Outpost Gallifrey's Doctor's charity anthology Missing Pieces. When I am not drawing or writing, I teach youth art classes at The Worcester Art Museum. Ginger Knowlton's prose poems and flash fictions have been published in journals such as Swerve, Double Room, Poetry Midwest, Segue, and Tarpaulin Sky, and her paintings are held in various private collections. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute. She teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. JD Mader is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State. This is his first published work of fiction. A resident of San Francisco, he also writes music and nonfiction. Robert Mentzer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he works for an adult literacy program and writes about hip-hop for a weekly paper. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Sycamore Review and Post Road. Ben Miller's stories and poems have recently appeared in Raritan, Carolina Quarterly, Quick Fiction, Rattapallax, American Letters and Commentary, Sentence, Gargoyle, Barrow Street, Quick Fiction, The Call Review, Sentence and Painted Bride Quarterly. Awards include a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His nonfiction regularly appears in The Common Review, a publication of The Great Books Foundation. Robyn L. Murphy was born in Connecticut, but presently lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she attends Carnegie Mellon University. This is the first time that she has been published.


V Berkeley Fiction

Review

T

Ted Sanders is a writer and student living in Urbana, Illinois. His first publication was a story that appeared in a recent issue of The Georgia Review. Nicolette Severson is a recent UC Berkeley graduate from the Religious Studies Department, where her emphasis was Indo-European Mythology. She currently lives with her fiance in Marin County. "Running" is her very first short story publication. Rebecca Soppe grew up in southern Illinois. She received her MFA from the University of Florida, and she currently teaches at the' University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares and is forthcoming in the Bellingham Review.

S u d d e n

F i c t i o n

C o n t e s t

$ 2 0 0 Prize for First Place

Winner

First, Second, and Third Place will be published in Issue 25

Guidelines: • $ 6 e n t r y fee + $ 4 e a c h a d d i t i o n a l e n t r y • M a k e check or m o n e y oder payable to B F R S u d d e n F i x • 1000 w o r d s or less • Typed, double-spaced • I n c l u d e a b r i e f c o v e r letter & S A S E for list o f winners• Submissions will not be returned

Send submissions Sudden Fiction

Contest

Berkeley Fiction c/o 10 Eshleman University of Berkeley, C A

to:

Review Hall

California 94720-4500

D e a d l i n e is O c t o b e r

3 1 , 2 0 0 4

Winners will be notified b y the end of January 2005


V Berkeley Fiction

Review

T

Ted Sanders is a writer and student living in Urbana, Illinois. His first publication was a story that appeared in a recent issue of The Georgia Review. Nicolette Severson is a recent UC Berkeley graduate from the Religious Studies Department, where her emphasis was Indo-European Mythology. She currently lives with her fiance in Marin County. "Running" is her very first short story publication. Rebecca Soppe grew up in southern Illinois. She received her MFA from the University of Florida, and she currently teaches at the' University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares and is forthcoming in the Bellingham Review.

S u d d e n

F i c t i o n

C o n t e s t

$ 2 0 0 Prize for First Place

Winner

First, Second, and Third Place will be published in Issue 25

Guidelines: • $ 6 e n t r y fee + $ 4 e a c h a d d i t i o n a l e n t r y • M a k e check or m o n e y oder payable to B F R S u d d e n F i x • 1000 w o r d s or less • Typed, double-spaced • I n c l u d e a b r i e f c o v e r letter & S A S E for list o f winners• Submissions will not be returned

Send submissions Sudden Fiction

Contest

Berkeley Fiction c/o 10 Eshleman University of Berkeley, C A

to:

Review Hall

California 94720-4500

D e a d l i n e is O c t o b e r

3 1 , 2 0 0 4

Winners will be notified b y the end of January 2005




Fiction by: Gail Bartley Gary Buslik Willie Davis Stephen St Francis Decky Tyler Dilts Aaron Hellem Ginger Knowlton J.D. Mader Robert Mentzer Ben Miller Robyn Murphy Ted Sanders Nicolette Severson Rebecca Soppe Interior Art Michael Greenstein Cover Art Bret M. Herholz