I RO UBLERS S T O R I E S
R O B WA L S H
I RO UBLERS S T O R I E S
R O B WA L S H
[a journal and press]
[a journal and press]
Box 82588, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15218 www.caketrain.org © 2013 Rob Walsh. Cover image “Storm” © 2012 Sébastien Plisson. Used by permission. Printed in the United States of America. ISBN
The Fall D-Age
More Like May A Hole
My Wife the Officer
He Lived on Loverâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Peak The Two
After the Playpen Was Built The Dog
The City of Sheldon Don Wayne
The Lesser Reflection The Great Artifact
it made a sound that pulpy objects falling great dis-
tances normally make. An observer said there was nothing special here. The observer pointed at the man, whose head the object had fallen on, and said that wasn’t special. He had even worn a hat. The observer pointed out how much cushioning the man’s hat provided and used her other hand to dismiss what several people were saying. Against her advice, the crowd came forward as if they were going to encircle the man. The observer made a different signal, almost a wave. The man was sitting on the curb and groaning like any man in his position would groan. She made a different signal, like clapping but much faster. The observer’s bracelets shook while
she made signals and clanged together so much that silver and gold paint began to fleck away and settle on her clothing. Move along, the observer told the crowd, conducting them away with hand and arm signals. There was nothing special here, and nothing was developing. The object broke apart and splattered like any pulpy object dropped from that distance or from a comparable distance would splatter. Her bracelets were clanging violently together. Later, over drinks the observer was buying for the man, she and he discussed how smart it was to wear a hat. If the man hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t, he would probably still have pulp in his hair. The observer told the man she was a microbiologist who knew how fast the chunks would have rotted. For almost a month, she had been watching him with binoculars, the observer added when they had gone back to her place; did that scare him? The next morning, she made him an omelet and admitted the fall was really quite special. No one had seen anything like it before. Of course the crowd was staring at him deservedly. He needed to know she made her comments and signals to protect him from the crowd. Of course the fall was special, but if the crowd were interested enough in what fell on the man, they would have encircled him. The observer had never seen anything like it fall on a man, she admitted at the supermarket.
A long time ago, she had gone to dinner with another man after a pot fell on him and she had conducted the crowd away and prevented him from being encircled. But that man looked so different up close. He had so many religious beliefs and wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t at all what she expected. Another time, it was Christmas Eve, and a holiday catalogue dropped from the seventh story onto a man and crushed his windpipe so that later, when they were eating dinner, she could barely understand him. These were nothing like what fell on the man, she said, and they were meaningless and meant nothing to her. The observer really was a microbiologist, she insisted at an aquarium, standing in front of a fish the man was trying to look at, she really was, that was really her job, and the man believed her. Soon the observer and the man had a plant. In her career as a microbiologist, she told the man, she had learned all about plants and about how often they were to be watered. If she wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t a microbiologist, she might not have recognized a mole on the manâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s back, how the mole was getting bigger, gradually, gradually darker, and using microbiology she could detect gradual increases that another woman, say, a consultant, would not be able to detect. If she worked as a consultant, for example, she would never have pushed him to see the doctor about the mole.
Long after the mole was removed, the man was leaving work when he saw her observing him through binoculars. It was definitely her, perched on the scaffolding of a building opposite the building where the man worked, but that wouldn’t happen again, she promised. The observer watched the man invent new ways to cut his food, focus so much on cutting his food, become so often engrossed with cutting his food that he didn’t hear what she was saying. Here, she would bring up the fall: how special it was, how clever he was to wear a hat like that. She had almost never seen anything like it fall on a man. Once, the observer had seen a cat fall on a man’s head, but this man hadn’t planned ahead and guarded himself by wearing a hat, and anyway, the cat just sort of deflected off of this man’s head and twisted, landed on its feet, of course, and ran off down an alley. The observer met her second husband, as a matter of fact, when the cat fell on his head and he needed someone to conduct the crowd away. The truth, since they trusted each other, she added at a bar, was that she really wasn’t a microbiologist but a consultant. Okay, she added at her sister’s wedding, that was a lie. She actually worked in explosives. She watched her sister dance with her father, and she turned to the man and asked, did he remember when they first met?
How many days ago it was? Did he know that in the moment the pulpy object was falling, she watched it rotate and, using her knowledge of explosives, was able to determine it was the worldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s third-most explosive object? The second, she indicated, was her heart, lest the man ever leave her, and the first was the gun she had purchased.
they woke up again, and it was the baby again, this time
touching the motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s neck. More than touching, she told the father. This time she had been scraped. Only lightly scraped, the father said, who had been lightly scraped by the baby before. The father got up and removed the baby back to the baby room. THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby woke them at five, this time hold-
ing the fatherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hand. By now, the baby should know better, they agreed. It was C-Age. It was D-Age, the father corrected her.
She said she of all people should know the baby’s age, but the father was insistent. They turned on the bedside light. The mother got out her ledger and thumbed through it. There, he pointed over her shoulder. D-Age! By now, the baby should know much, much better, they agreed, staring at the little baby impressions its feet had left on their carpet.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby woke them at six, this time by rub-
bing the father’s neck. It had learned how to rub like that at school. All that erasing, the father said wearily after depositing it back in the baby bed. The mother looked around for her cigarette. It wasn’t on the father’s side, and she had looked everywhere on her side. Meanwhile, there was no way they were getting back to sleep unless they had a snack. A special dish, the father said. Yes, that was a good idea. It was exactly what the mother felt like. They woke the housekeeper, Dirl, and encouraged her to cook one of the special dishes from her homeland. It would be perfect if Dirl would serve a special dish to them on trays, with some wine. Dirl, they both said affectionately as Dirl did what they paid her to do. Dirl, they said as she hunched and moved sideways to fit through the door. Dirl, they often said in tiny, slick voices. When Dirl finished serving them, she passed sideways from the room, and they
watched her tend to the baby. She gave it something to drink from its little baby cup, and it quieted right down.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby had them up at seven, this time
touching the father’s nose. He was convinced the baby had touched his nose. Convinced, he repeated, although he woke up after the fact and couldn’t prove it. He touched his nose softly. Sometimes, when it’s dark, spiders crawl onto your nose, the mother offered. She knew from experience the baby’s little fingers could feel just like spider’s legs. The father was softly touching his nose and blinking a lot. Maybe it could have been a spider, the father said, looking at the baby. The mother put out her cigarette and called for Dirl. It was better if the father stayed in bed this time and let Dirl remove the baby.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby woke them at eight. The mother
pulled away and touched her nose softly. The baby stared at them from the mother’s side of the bed, wearing its baby shirt inside-out. They waited for Dirl to come pick up the baby, fix its baby shirt, and give it a little baby toy to roll back and forth. Five times in the next hour, Dirl passed sideways into their room, bringing and removing trays from a five-course meal that was a specialty of her homeland. Dirl, they said affectionately with
each course. They put their hands on Dirl’s hands as she left with the trays and let their fingers trickle past her matted hair. Soon, they were discussing a school the father had heard of, a special school, one the mother hadn’t heard of but would like to know more about. At this school, the father said, they take babies like ours and give them all kinds of advantages over other babies. We might never see the baby again, however, the father said. While they were discussing the school, they noticed the baby across the hall, reading a little baby book which was mostly pictures. When the baby looked up, they quickly turned away.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby had them up at nine, trickling its
fingers through the mother’s hair. She gently prodded the father to wake him. Look, she whispered. The baby was touching her hair while she whispered. This time, they had caught it in the act. The father slapped the baby’s hand away, picked the baby up, deposited it in the baby room.
IT HAD THEM UP
at eleven the next night. Before the parents
went to sleep, they had been talking about how the baby wasn’t so bad and had many good parts, about how it looked official in its baby clothes, how it had started doing cute things to a butterfly it captured and stored in its baby cage, and more, including its
potential for excellence, and even more, the mother said to the baby after it had gotten them up. The baby looked chastened. The baby is looking chastened, the father whispered. The mother nodded and was pleased. They pressed a button that was recently installed, and Dirl arrived, removed the baby. Dirl, they said affectionately as she moved sideways from the baby’s room. Dirl returned, hunching and moving sideways in the doorframe. They couldn’t pronounce a certain dish, so they pointed to it on a menu. The mother looked around for her cigarette. Later, when the mother was looking under her bed sheet, she saw the baby look under its bed sheet. When she looked under her pillow, the baby picked up its pillow and looked under it. The baby picked up its jar, then the mother picked up her jar—and there was the cigarette. Dirl, they said. Dirl was simply the best housekeeper, the father told Dirl a few minutes after pressing the button. It was that simple. Dirl looked at them. That’s all they wanted her for, the mother explained. Across the hall, the baby was eating with baby chopsticks, some kind of Asian food Dirl must have ordered.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
it had them up at twelve, this time climbing
into the bed and wedging between them. The mother and father could not get over the sight of the baby in their bed. The mother
kept pressing the button. She was shaking, the father noticed. The creases and bunches of quilt left an impression of the baby after Dirl came and removed it. The mother was still pressing the button. The father gently pulled her hand away. Dirl, they said sweetly. Dirl passed sideways into their room, holding some baby medicine she still had to administer to the baby. By all means, they said, go ahead and finish giving that to the baby, they could wait. Soon, a man arrived and was admitted to their room. He laid a case of glossy material at the foot of their bed, produced pictures of the special school, of the new buildings, everything brand new. He mentioned some other babies that went to the school. The father hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t heard of those babies, which surprised the man and the mother too, for she thought everyone had heard of those babies.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
the baby woke them at one. The father was
exhausted, just really exhausted, he said, picking the baby from between them, holding it up and close to his face. Exhausted, the father told the baby close to its face. Dirl was answering a lot of phone calls around this time, but when they asked who it was and what it pertained to, Dirl always said only that it was some man, and that it pertained to the baby.
Across the hall, the baby was using little baby nail clippers on its toes. They watched it for a while until it looked up. They looked down, pretending to read. THE NEXT NIGHT AT TWO,
the baby woke them. The mother
pressed the button and reminded Dirl to also bring a silver hand mirror. The mother looked at the bags she was getting under her eyes. She finished with the mirror and handed it to the father, who looked at his bags for a while. They put the mirror down and stared at Dirlâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s back as she carried the baby away. The baby would make a great fit at that special school and would accelerate past other babies it was currently in competition against. The mother took a long inhalation of smoke. Of course, if the baby went to that school, they would never see it again. Where did she put her cigarette? the father wondered. When he reached toward a canister it might be under, he put himself in range of some clothes that had fallen on the floor. He picked those clothes up, rolled them into balls, and shot them at the hamper. The mother touched his cheek and said that was good shooting. Practice, he explained. He turned and touched her cheek. THE NEXT NIGHT AT THREE,
it was the baby again, trying to
push over the obstacle they ordered Dirl to build. The obstacle was far too mature for the baby to get around.
THE NEXT NIGHT AT FOUR,
the baby had gotten around the ob-
ject, or maybe under it, although the father didn’t see how either of those was possible, he said in confusion but also with some admiration for the baby and however it had solved the obstacle. AT FIVE THE NEXT NIGHT,
having once again bypassed the
obstacle, it was now wedged between them. It still had its backpack on, full of baby pencils and baby notebooks that stuck into the father’s chest. Why hadn’t Dirl removed the backpack and put it into baby pajamas like they paid her to do? Dirl? Dirl didn’t answer when they sweetly posed this question, and when they began to sweetly pose it again, Dirl cut them off with a grunt, turned to carry the baby away over her shoulder, but the mother and father realized that everyone was entitled to forget once in a while and thought no more of that aberration.
THE NEXT NIGHT,
their clock was melting. They had no idea what
time it was when the baby was standing there, with its little pink baby extinguisher, and it had put most of the fire out by whatever time Dirl arrived with a normal extinguisher. It was hard for them to think of sending the baby to the special school after it put out the fire. For whatever reason it had even
stopped waking them up. Maybe the smell of burnt plastic furniture was keeping the baby away. Could the baby have evolved? Could this be the start of a new Age, the one they were waiting for? Or could Dirlâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s latest obstacle be truly impassable? There was still a resinous dust on everything, which was discouraging.
MORE LIKE MAY
HER DOG WAS MISSING.
Someone had stolen her dog.
All the dog food was missing too, they said as she ran through the house, overturning everything the dog might be hiding under. The leash had also been taken. They held her hand and said it seemed as if someone had sprayed the house, so that even the dog’s musky scent could be stolen. She sobbed, mumbled something that sounded like police. But they couldn’t just call the police about an animal, they explained to her. Just like if the animal were sick, they couldn’t just call 911. The police were for people. There were separate domains and organizations for animals.
She wasn’t sounding like May, they told her. May would never talk with any sort of filtration, and that police idea wasn’t anything May would have come up with, not in a million years. The water for a calming tea would be ready soon. In the meantime, they advised her, she should sit on the sofa, and soon, they reminded her, she must change for work, and while she was working, they promised her, they would create fliers and paste them around the neighborhood. On her way out, they observed, she knocked over a chair. In her rush to go outside and begin searching, she hit the chair with the arm the tea was in, sending the tea sloshing over the rim, though her grip on the mug was unbreakable. Even on May’s worst day, she never knocked anything over. They remembered it well: May was carrying a planner on her worst day, and when the news came, she flipped it open and made a list of the feelings she was feeling. This one is very different from May, they said, watching her recede, listening to her sobs drift farther down the street.
A MAN CLAIMED TO KNOW
something of her dog’s whereabouts.
Did her dog like to get its stomach scratched? the man asked. He invited her to sit on a crate next to his own, where he gave a description that was close to her dog, including a color that was the color of her dog’s collar. She only had to buy him a sandwich if she wanted the rest of his information.
That man was filthy, they told her. Only homeless sit on crates, they said, pulling her off the crate. She needed to come home, help them prepare fliers, and not venture into any more neighborhoods May would never be caught dead in. May would never talk to a man wearing gloves with the fingers cut off, they told her, and if she gave him a sandwich, he would turn around and trade it for drugs. Fliers, they reminded her. Fliers were the way to get her dog back.
HE WAS BARKING.
One eye spilled open through a heavy crust.
Her dog was barking melodically. Her dog was ringing. The melody continued, then changed into what it really was. She jerked up in bed and answered the phone. It was the same man. Did her dog really like to have its stomach scratched as much as she claimed it did? She pulled the covers down and looked around for a clock. In that case, he said, he knew where her dog was, and he gave her the address of another, more secluded corner where she could meet him for this information. Come alone, he said. AT THE CORNER,
the man was standing between two other men.
Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s so cold at night, Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m forced to put up with these two, the man explained, huddling for warmth between the other men. Buy him a coat, the man suggested, and he would tell her everything. Few clothing stores were open at this time of night, but the man
knew of one. The other men didn’t want to let him go, didn’t want to relinquish his body heat, but he kicked loose, smiling at them as he walked away. This is the place, he said. It looked less like a clothing store than it did like an alley that dead-ended against a chain-link fence. He pressed his dirty, cut-off glove against her mouth. He pressed the rest of himself against her body as they sunk into the fence. Soon they were hitting the back of his head, and they kept hitting until he rolled off of her, groaning. Did she see now? they asked her. The man began to scream, and they hit the front of his head with their tools until he stopped screaming, stopped moving. Now did she see? they asked while helping to pull her sweater back on and reorganize her hair. There, there, they continued, brushing his dirt from her. She must have known that May would never sneak out like that. Presently, they advised her, she needed to stop struggling so they could wrap her in a blanket. It was a warm blanket, one May had ordered online. The entire transaction took less than a minute. This was due to her membership and the type of account she had, they didn’t know what you called it, but all of her billing and shipping information was preformatted. Let’s do this, they said: let’s introduce her to May. May would teach her not to fall for men’s schemes, they went on, indicating with their eyes the man lying sprawled at their feet, his clothing
ripped down the center in the manner of a husked vegetable or something that has emerged from its early stages and left a cocoon behind. May, they continued, was so tight body-wise because training in the theater was exacting and gave her a lithe figure. Men were always scheming and trying to figure out how to trap her. The only way for most ordinary men to even conceive of a date with May was if she were behind bars in some kind of sick basement shrine. From under the blanket, while they were talking, she started mumbling again, kept repeating a sound that sounded like police, and they really hoped she wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t thinking of calling the police about her dog. If she insisted on bothering the police with certain things, they explained, the police would commit her to an insane asylum. If she wanted to call the police so they could arrest the man, they said, if that were the case, that was good thinking. May would have thought of calling the police to clean up that piece of filth. But they had been driving away for at least ten minutes now, were even pulling into the driveway now, and the man must certainly have regained consciousness and gotten away by this point. THE NEXT MORNING,
the man called her at work. He apologized
immediately. For last night, of course, he said. He said he wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t planning on doing that to her, but she was so pretty and she smelled so nice, it came over him all at once. He really did want to help her find her dog. The dog, he said, whose name rhymed with clover.
Her dog’s name did rhyme with the word clover. Also, if the man saw correctly, he said, while the abductors were stuffing the dog into a small box, it had a very short tail. Her dog had a long, full tail. Bear in mind, the man said, it was dark at the time and he, her last hope, had been sort of drunk. He did know that thing about its name, he reminded her. The muscles in her arms were flexing; soon the arms were corded with veins, and they did not look like her arms at all, but arms that were ready to do something that no one would consider plausible, such as lifting a wrecked entanglement off of a pinned motorist long after the medical people had conceded his life. That sort of thing. He asked her to meet him at the food court of the mall, where she could feel assured, he said, there were so many people around, he wouldn’t dare try anything.
SHE SET THE TRAY DOWN
in front of the man. He seemed
pleased with the selection of food she had bought. She probably couldn’t tell he was smiling at the moment, he said, because his face was beaten in so badly last night. Even his gold tooth was lost. But he wouldn’t press any charges if she would only buy him one more small thing: a milkshake. He had never, in his entire life, had a milkshake. Could she believe that? They stared at each other. The air from people walking past stirred his long white eyebrows. The rest of his face was
perfectly still. It was as if a type of competition had begun to influence how they now looked at one another. When she returned with the milkshake, he was being dragged away by the police. There were certain women, they said after the police had dragged him away, who returned to abusive situations out of an attraction to violence. She could do better than this, they insisted, pointing to the empty seat where the man had been sitting. But instead of making fliers, here she had returned to an abusive man. Clearly she was attracted to suffering and dismay. She was pretty, and she smelled like a million dollars! they assured her. If she only had more confidence, she would never settle for a man like that. Even if a rehabilitated version of a man like that walked up to May, she would immediately get him with her pepper spray. They were very concerned about her, and this led one of them to tear the receipt into small threads of paper while frowning at the containers of food on the tray. Being a star in the theater means that May has no time for violence! Take Grant, they said. Did she remember Mayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s last boyfriend, Grant, who used to be a lawyer? Did she know that May was so unattracted to violence that when Grant laid a hand on her which was even the slightest bit violent, infused by his passion to know her whereabouts at all times, which put the slightest bit of
unnecessary pressure on her wrist, breaking the skin and causing a small eye of blood to peek out, she pressed charges? Soon after the story reached the papers, he was disbarred. Fliers, they reminded her, but she showed so little interest in the fliers that finally they agreed to hire a detective. The detective was looking everywhere, they said, and they showed her a signed letter from the detective, on the detective’s letterhead, confirming that he was looking everywhere.
THERE WAS A BRIGHT LIGHT
glaring past her curtains and
keeping her awake at night, but it was only the moon, they assured her. When she did sleep, she clawed her pillow, just like she used to claw her dog’s stomach, his favorite place to be scratched. The detective caught her scratching and took the pillow away. The last person in the world, they reminded her, after kissing her cheek and tucking her in, who would stay up all night pretending a pillow was her lost dog was? Was who? The next morning, she tried to force all the fliers into a bin. She seems dissatisfied with the artist’s rendering, they said softly in a tone of resignation but also disbelief, for this was an artist who had established himself. What she needed, they said even more softly so that she might not hear, was a distraction. Anything to make her forget about her dog.
A gala? It had worked before. That was it. They were going to have a gala, just for her. How did that sound? Now they were talking loud enough for her to hear again.
THEY MADE SURE
to insert details about the gala into almost every
conversation with her from that point on, especially those involving her dog. First, she needed a gown. She could have the best gown, any color or style, one that would make Henryâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s jaw drop. At the gown store, there were so many beautiful gowns. She could get lost in all the frills of these gowns, they thought, and in a way, she did, at least for an afternoon. Was she going to take Henry? they asked her. They watched her looking at herself in the mirror and imagined Henry beside her, considered what this could look like. Time winded faster, and finally, they had found the perfect gown. They all said it looked lovely. She modeled it before the mirror, did a little twirl and raised her hands to her face. The gown hung in her closet, and in the days leading to her gala, whenever she was tempted to cry or pretend an object was her dog, they opened the closet and compelled her to look in. Was she really going to take Henry to her gala? they often asked. She had been committed to Henry for so long, they reminded her. She had been committed to Henry for as long as they knew her.
They loved Henry. He was such a nice man, a nice little man. Henry was one of the nicest little men. They knew things between her and Henry were getting serious, more serious than ever, but they wanted her to be sure. With men it was important, if nothing else, to be sure of them. A number of problems could grow from one speck of doubt. More and more people these days seemed to have read this book that argues that the heart is incapable of certainty. Henry was hard to account for on certain evenings, wasn’t he? He just dropped off the map! Who knew what he was doing? He hardly ever gave a straight answer, never revealing who he voted for, and was just so short, after all, whereas all of May’s boyfriends were over six feet. Then they said, Where is your gown? Her gown was missing. Someone had stolen her gown. DON’T WORRY,
they said as they unlocked the closet opposite her
closet, the one May used to use. Here was an even better one. This gown was just something else, they said about May’s gown. May had even worn it to her prom. The gown she had chosen from the gown store was missing because it had been stolen, they explained again, very slowly, uncertain of whether she understood them. She put on May’s gown. Soon they were driving somewhere, but she must not look out the window, they told her. There were so many trees out there, and while some would tell her the trees were
beautiful, she must remember, they said, that trees were apartment complexes for insect life. Nothing was more inscrutable than the daily routines of insects, and such things were best left unconsidered, they assured her. A light appeared through the trees. Finally there was the sound of car doors unlatching. It was an excellent night for a gala, they might have acknowledged, insofar as it was the opening of Mayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s new play. THE LIGHTS DIMMED.
Henry was sitting next to her. Why did he have a puckered expression? they whispered. Was Henry all right? His lips were not always puckered, neither was his brow. Something was different, they whispered to her. Look here, they said, look at what the orchestra is doing. Now even his eyes seemed to pucker. He might be trying to hold something in, they advised her. Weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll talk about him later. Now look at this. May jumped across the stage. The spotlights joined together and she stopped and began to sing.
NOT EVEN MAY
had found the right man yet, they told her. It
surely takes a lot of time and work to find the right man. They were being hard on Henry, they whispered, only because they wanted the best for her.
Two muscular men were lifting May into the air. She and Henry really didn’t date anymore, they observed. Henry just came over with Chinese food and they sat in front of the TV. Real dates with some other men would give her a fresh perspective. If she wanted a date with that man, they whispered, pointing to one of the muscular men holding May aloft, they could probably arrange it. May dates all the time, scheduling them well in advance in her planner. She was presently dating men named Mitch and Terry. Mitch was a sweetheart, they continued, but of course so was Terry. Sometimes May wondered, in fact, whether Terry wasn’t too much of a sweetheart. May didn’t have room anymore for all the stuffed animals Terry bought her, so she donated them to a children’s hospital. Terry was always perfectly accommodating, they whispered, yet sometimes May felt besieged by Terry’s accommodations. Mitch, on the other hand, had a vulgar streak. Mitch was nearly always a sweetheart, they continued, but every so often his tone would change and become vulgar. Don’t get May wrong, they whispered, vulgarity can be exciting, especially in certain situations, and Mitch knew just what situations to be vulgar in, yet Terry’s sweetness shouldn’t be underrated, they noted. It was impossible to find a man as sweet and accommodating as Terry, but May defied possibility.
May told Terry to bring her a glass of water, and Terry asked did she mean sparkling or non-, and she said non-. Terry asked ice or no, and she said ice, they whispered, and Terry said he had chilled glasses in the freezer. She said she’d go with that then, and Terry asked lemon? and she said no. Since Terry was a chef, he had a huge refrigerator and stood there with the door open, so that only his ankles were visible from the sitting area. From behind the door, he said what about lime or orange? She said a thin wedge of lime. If it were Mitch, and the situation presented itself, he’d bring her whiskey. She’d ask for water and Mitch would bring her whiskey, but only in certain situations, only when whiskey was what she secretly wanted all along. Whenever May tasted whiskey, she thought of Mitch. No one really knew what Mitch did for a living. He always answered evasively. She would order a lime water from the waiter and Mitch would tell the waiter to scratch that and bring two whiskies, and during dinner Mitch was always whispering in her ear, they whispered to her. He’d whisper the things he wanted to do, the things he’d do to May at home or in the restroom if he couldn’t wait. Mitch and Terry were very different lovers, they continued. Perhaps loving was where they differed most. Mitch was urgent; Terry took his time. With Mitch haste was the desire, a hasty gratification. The desire for Terry was duration. Terry would ask had it
been long enough, and May would always say yes, and Terry would say no, I should probably go longer, and he would keep saying I should probably go longer, they said. It got to the point where he would almost chant it, I should probably go longer, I should probably go longer, eyes glassy, having all but forgotten about the woman below him. Mitch was also a talkative lover, but trafficked strictly in vulgarity. Mitchâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s talk was urgent, they observed, and he used exciting slang.
THE WOMAN HAD SPENT
four shovels and two years digging
the hole. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s dug, the woman thought. She smoothed interior lumps and dents with shovel number four. There, she thought. Now it is a hole in every way. The woman invited her friends to come look at the hole. Her friends arrived. They stood at the rim and peered down. The woman took their arms and led a tour of the hole until her friends had peered into it from every side. The friends wondered how the hole could be used. A friend suggested the hole could be used as a bunker. The woman could collect a surplus of items and attach a lid to the holeâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s entrance,
such that if danger approached, or if the woman had reason to believe danger would soon be approaching, she could dash into the hole, secure the lid. A different friend suggested the hole be a trap. When danger approached, the women could defend herself with offense: conceal the hole with a collapsible layer of sticks and leaves, the friend instructed, then bait yourself on the far side. With little effort, the hole could be finessed into a crater. If she only reduced the depth, the hole would resemble the impact of a fallen meteor. Or the lair of an animal! The hole could invite a wild animal, a bear or a wolverine, if she added tunnels and made the entrance less steep and gaping. It would need a bridge sooner or later. As with any expanse, people would eventually demand to span it. Or if she built cells, lined the bottom with hay, rats and bones, it could be a dungeon. By reaching an agreement with the state, it could be a prison, the first of its kind. Or if many people died in the hole, after fighting an important battle, then plaques and statues should fill the hole in memoriam. Had she come across any cultural artifacts while digging? If so, a friend had a relative in archaeology who could make an excavation site of the hole.
We all like trees, but underappreciate them. Weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll make it an arboretum for trees that donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t require light and dedicate ourselves to preservation. We like birds, underappreciate birds. Weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d prefer to study birds nesting in a tree than a tree itself. It will become an aviary for nocturnal species. Or an homage: we could identify an artist we all admire and incorporate a characteristic of his or her style into the hole. If she only dug a little deeper, she could probably get away with calling it a chasm. And if she dug deeper still, for a few more years, it might even be considered an abyss. The woman had not thought about doing things to the hole. She had wanted the hole for its own sake. A hole appended is no longer a hole but something defiled. The woman told her friends their ideas did not suit her current needs, insofar as they ruined everything. Another friend said a pool would be good. Wow, the woman muttered, palming her temples. How could it remain a hole if it became a pool? she asked in frustration. Another of her friends said a sanctuary was what it needed to become. The dimensions and spirit of the hole could stay intact while they built and erected altars, lit candles, left offerings. The friend said druids and certain other native tribes would burrow
sanctuaries deep underground to elicit the favor of powerful earthen gods. The woman, having expended two years and the money for four shovels, wondered what kind of favor powerful earthen gods might bestow upon her. Surely it would be greater favor than her friends would receive, if the earthen gods existed. Much greater, surely, as her friends had contributed nothing to the hole. Surely the earthen gods, possessing perfect sight, would identify the friends as mere opportunists and justly redirect all favor to the hole’s executor. The woman said no. Nothing with altars could be a hole, nothing with offerings and lit candles could be a hole. The suggestion of a sanctuary was the worst one yet, the woman said, because its promises were meant to tempt her away from the facts of the matter. The woman studied her friends. The woman thought that these friends were really more like acquaintances. She frowned at the way they crowded the hole’s rim. Now they were few, but soon, she knew, the acquaintances would double, then quadruple, and even distant acquaintances of the acquaintances would come to stand at the hole’s rim. They would perhaps crowd her to the edge of the picture; they would perhaps unify and strong-arm her from her own picture, the woman realized. I have been acquainted with you all for some time, since I was young, the woman said, since a time before the hole. Many of you
have done things that pleased me or have given me items I liked having. Post-hole, the woman said, I have improved, and I have learned that your gifts and compliments were never measures of friendship, but charms meant to weaken my guard. The friends stepped forward. What? they asked. That is close enough, the woman said. You have insinuated yourself close enough to the hole. Your weights and types of shoe have already damaged sections of the holeâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s rim that I will now be up all night restoring. For future reference, the woman said, if you get the urge to visit me and the hole, please control it. The woman did not really need all night to restore damaged sections of the rim. She packed the earth until it was packed, waited, pretended to pack it more, waited, and went indoors once all straggling acquaintances had left. COME MORNING,
the woman found the following items in the
hole: a newspaper, a feather, a receipt. The woman removed these items and piled them outside of the hole. The paperboy was likely responsible for the newspaper. An errant throw by the careless paperboy, she thought. Another explanation was that an undisciplined dog carried his masterâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s paper from one location, probably a porch, and dropped it into
the hole. The woman looked for dog hairs or paw impressions, found none. No tooth marks in the paperâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s protective plastic seal. The paperboy, then. The feather was a crow feather. The receipt was from a butchery. Two loins and one shank of pork. Who did the woman know who ate pork? Practically everyone. Practically everyone in her neighborhood and beyond. She knew certain religions forbade the consumption of pork, but the people she knew in these religions? No, they were eating pork at every turn. The woman went inside her house and returned with a box of envelopes and stationery. Inside the hole was a new feather. Now she understood. She understood that the hole must not go unsupervised. Local crows have shown they canâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t be trusted for five minutes not to shed feathers into the hole. My presence here will scare the crows away, she thought. If the crows insist on flying overhead, I can catch the feathers in their descent. Then in time, when the crows see their efforts to pollute the hole have gone in vain, they will leave, find another hole to target. The woman started writing notes on her stationery. Dear Paperboy, one began. Dear Pork Eater.
ITEMS FOUND WAYS INTO THE HOLE
while the woman slept.
The woman would wake in fright, needled by worry, and stagger into the hole to search for items. No friends had returned. The woman was glad. If they ever return, the woman thought, there will be more of them. Perhaps, she worried, they are recruiting, gathering toward a figure large enough to commit a true and terminal strong-arming. Perhaps they are even now on their way. The woman tried not to think of this. If the woman thought of it inadvertently, or if she thought of similar topics inadvertently, she knew how to begin forgetting: she would walk to the hole’s rim, peer down, and lose herself in the dark breadth. A MAN ARRIVED.
I’ve been noticing your hole! the man said. The woman looked up at the man. Angelo, the man said, exposing his palm to her. I have a nice firm handshake. Go ahead, shake it, shake my hand to know what kind of honest man you’ll be dealing with! The woman looked at the hand. Dealing? she thought. The man explained he worked for a disposal company that was interested in renting the hole as a waste-containment unit;
his company was interested in extending a generous offer, but only for a limited time. The woman laughed. The woman fell on one knee in order to laugh better. You would turn the hole into a dump? she laughed. You are not smart, are you? Not a dump exactly, the man said. A waste-containment unit, for waste his company was less-legally encouraged to dispose. It would only be a rental, the man assured her, for the waste will one day disintegrate. Granted, you may have to be patient, as we’re talking half-lives, but when that one day comes, the man assured, all rights to the hole revert back to you. The woman said no.
WHILE THE WOMAN WAS LYING
by the rim, contemplating
sleep, beams of light shone into the hole. Do not put light into the hole, stranger! the woman yelled. My mistake! And I’m no stranger, unless you’ve forgotten me already, Angelo said, averting his flashlight. Which is possible, even probable, for I’ve been told my face is the spitting image of an average-looking man! The woman looked at his face. Angelo, Angelo said, finding her flaccid hand and pumping it. Pleasant night! I was in the neighborhood, strolling, when I happened to see this big hole and wondered: is this the same hole I had
just spoken to a nice and reasonable woman about renting? Sure enough! Leave, the woman said. Did the woman like sums of money? Angelo asked. Briefcases worth? The woman said no.
IT WAS DAWN
when Angelo and another man shook the womanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s
shoulders. She woke. Did we wake you? Angelo asked. The other man was quiet. The woman looked at the men madly. She brushed them aside, went into the hole, collected items which had snuck in during the night, piled them outside the hole. Meet Grady, Angelo said. Grady will do most of the waste transporting and installing and is a good young kid, responsible, orderly, wears a neat haircut, clean. He cleans himself more than me even, and I shower twice daily, Angelo said. The woman looked at Angelo, Grady, back at Angelo. Angelo told Grady to wait in the truck. Grady left. The woman said no. What did I say? Did I even say a limited-time offer? Angelo said. The woman said leave.
Did you like that kid, Grady? Strong, right? Muscley? Healthy? Smells nice? Straight? About your age? Never had a problem with that kid, always on time, understands the delicate nature of the waste we’ll be containing here. The woman said leave. Take a peek at the contract! Angelo said, retreating, lobbing a clipped packet over his shoulder and into the hole. The woman went into the hole, retrieved the packet. She placed the packet among items piled outside the hole: shrink wrap, a sandal, leaves.
HER FRIENDS WERE WAITING
for her to wake. They had a gift.
It wasn’t much, her friends said, offering a small box. It wasn’t much, but they had made it. She watched her oldest friend cup the box and take a step forward. Her friends took time to make the small box themselves. Making something is more meaningful than purchasing it, her other friends said, pushing the oldest friend closer. They liked what she had done with the hole. The woman squinted at this comment, knowing she had done nothing to the hole, had only been maintaining the hole, and her friends would never understand this. Nothing can be done to the hole, she reminded her friends. They tried to put the box in her pocket.
The more her friends thought about it, the hole could be one thing. It could have always been just one thing. Just a perfect wastecontainment unit, that was a perfect use for the hole, her friends said as if it was the woman’s idea. They crowded closer. The woman withdrew a step. There was a loud whistle and the friends dispersed. ANGELO RETURNED.
Right where I left you? Angelo said. Get a
chance to do some reading? Or perhaps you had a chance to do some signing? The woman looked at Angelo. At a measured distance behind Angelo was Grady, looking unintelligent and very patient. You’re probably wondering, what’s Grady standing next to? Angelo said. And why is there a bow on its handlebars? Wheel it here, kid. Is this what you were wondering about? With that glazed look? Touch the seat. Gel seating, reflectors. Ten speeds. A basket I had to buy separate and attach myself, for when the rider is traveling with a cumbersome object, such as a briefcase. You want to take it for a test drive? Why don’t you have it out for a test drive, and Grady and I will stay and guard the hole? The woman turned away and peered into the hole. Every look I devote to them, the woman realized, every look I ever devoted to them, I could have devoted to the hole.
the woman’s friends, mother, father and sister—a
trim and competent professional—to the hole. The crowd of friends parted so her family could step forward. Look who I ran into! Angelo said. The woman kept her eyes pinned to the hole. Your family wants to say they love you and other things, Angelo said. Her family said yes, they did love her, and they also felt she should rent the hole to Angelo, for his offer was most generous, foolishly generous, and since it was for a limited time, her family said, she had better act fast. The woman looked up, away from the hole. She saw her friends and family crowd closer to the hole, her sister dressed in suit and sunglasses. The woman squinted. She withdrew a step. Her family said not to squint and withdraw. They said to advance. Come to them, they said, for they had a copy she could sign, and then afterward they could hold hands, they could hold hands in a triumphal circle, just like the old days. The woman withdrew until she hit bottom. At the bottom of the hole, she sat and waited. It took a feather a while to float down, but a sandal came much faster, and faster still came the waves of green slime.
|A B O U T
T H E A U T H O R|
Rob Walsh has lived recently in Seattle, Providence, and Seoul. This is his first book. More information can be found at rob-walsh.com.
FICTION $9 US “Very seldom anymore do I come across a book that makes me feel like everything—anything—is possible. Troublers does. Walsh’s tautly elegant language renders a world at once iconic and strange, one in which every action and sentiment seems lovingly considered, mercilessly dissected, and expertly defamiliarized. A terrific first book, Troublers points to a new way of doing literature.” Brian Evenson, author of Windeye “Walsh’s stories are so odd and wonderful that they seem to have been treasured from some heretofore nonexistent Eastern European country that should now, finally, be properly celebrated.” Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances “In Troublers, Rob Walsh entertains marvelous, profound little dances which never fail to twirl you somewhere you’ve never been. In his world, ‘heartless betrayal is both the engine of modern television and a kind of stainless upholstery to which no ethical principal can stick.’ But inside Troublers’ beautifully rendered exterior lies a heart so pure. ‘Let’s poke the thing!?’ as Walsh directs.” Terese Svoboda, author of Bohemian Girl “This hilarious collection may likely be the most honest portrait of human behavior you will ever read. Using the fantastic as pitch and the sinister as yaw, each story steers you on a hovering journey over the bumbling, spellbinding fields of all that we lose and fail to understand.” Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls “Troublers wields a pace of the impending. Declarative, modest, wry. Like Faulkner, Walsh layers and interlaces, envelopes us in heat and dryness and longing.” J.A. Tyler, author of Colony Collapse
Box 82588, Pittsburgh, PA 15218 www.caketrain.org Cover image by Sébastien Plisson