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COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD


COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD PAUL G. TREMBLAY

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PRIME


COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD Copyright ©2004 by Paul G. Tremblay Cover design copyright © 2005 by Simon Logan. Author photograph copyright © 2005 by Mac Stanton. Cover art and interior photos copyright © 2005 by M. Lily Beacon. Stories previously published: “Perfect,” Vivisections, 2003; “Role Models,” Carnival, 2004; “The Pond,” Alternate Realities, August 2001; “Lies and Skin,” Razor Magazine, March 2004; “Meat’s Story (City Pier),” Lenox Avenue, March/April 2005; “Dole as Ribbit,” Lenox Avenue, May/June 2005; “The Harlequin and the Train,” Of Flesh and Hunger, 2003; “Cold,” Gothic.net, November 2001; “The Stairs,” Electric Wine, October 2001; “With More Than Eyes,” Gothic.net, September 2002; “Perception,” Fortean Bureau, February 2003; “4’33,” Gothic.net, May 2002; “So Many Things Left Out,” Book of Final Flesh, June 2003; “The Laughing Man Meets Little Cat,” Chiaroscuro, October 2002; “The Jar,” Brainbox II, 2001.

Prime Books www.prime-books.com


CONTENTS 9. Introduction, Stewart O’Nan 13. Perfect 21. Role Models 29. The Pond 33. Reaching 47. Lies and Skin 61. Meat’s Story (City Pier) 81. Dole as Ribbit 101. The Harlequin and the Train 115. Cold 127. The Stairs 131. With More Than Eyes 141. Perception 145. Annabel Leigh 167. Walls 173. 4’33


183. Hackin’ at the Peach 195. So Many Things Left Out 209. The Laughing Man Meets Little Cat 217. The Jar 229. Colonel Evans’ Last Mission


For Lisa, Cole, and Emma


INTRODUCTION Stewart O'Nan Welcome, kiddies. Welcome all you groovy guys and ghouls. That’s how my favorite comic books opened way back in the day—way back, I’m saying, before Vampirella came and changed the playing field (and the costumes!). The fanged, sardonic host in his ascot and tails swept you through the cobwebbed portal with a bow and then hectored you by candlelight, setting up the opening panels and closing down after the last frame with a string of morbid, horrible puns. See how life comes around? Now I get to be that guy. So welcome to (shivery organ music here) Paul Tremblay’s Compositions for the Young and Old. Okay, I know, it sounds like the book you took piano lessons from on wet Tuesday afternoons when you were a kid, but just wait. While there is one eerie little piece that incorporates John Cage’s silent 4’33”, this is not a quiet or safe collection of creaky etudes and it’s a rare story that ends with a minor chord. It’s a rare story that isn’t more than it appears. On the surface, one could envision this book as a 50’s skinny paperback with a spacey/freaky cover, maybe a school of mutant alien swimmers dragging down some poor wild-eyed guy beneath an endless pier, a futuristic city of spires rising luminescent in the background. It would cost all of 40 cents and share the same wire carousel next to the greeting cards with Charles Beaumont’s Beyond, or Richard Matheson’s Shock (and let’s not forget Shock II, Shock III or Shock Waves). But there’s more at work here than simple scares or thrills. 9


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In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about how stories need “lift”—a sense of the strange—to energize them. Paul Tremblay’s tales (because these aren’t any little sighing epiphany fictions, this ain’t no slice-o-life minimalism, these are some dire, flat-out, dare-you-to-laugh weird and disturbing tales) are all about lift. But what makes the lift work are his characters. He dares us to empathize with his people, or at the very least understand them. Here, lift is just another means to an end, and the end in most cases is deliciously chilling. Tremblay is especially fine with kids and the private worlds they make up, and the secrets they keep. Like Ray Bradbury or Stephen King, he’s got a real feel for families and neighborhoods and towns, and how they change as we change, how pieces of them die as we grow older. As a horror writer, he possesses the deadliest secret: he knows where we live. He is expert at taking us to places where the familiar and comforting give way to the strange and dangerous—those borderlines where anything can and will happen. Want to see something you’ve never seen before? Throw back the flap of the late-night carny tent and dig the amazing AMAZING. Want to look into the future? Come on down to Granny’s root cellar and peer into “The Jar.” Or maybe the past is more your speed. Ride along with the heroic fireman Ritchie in “Reaching,” or sit with an old soldier clutching to his fading memories and dignity in “Colonel Evans’ Last Mission.” Want to hear something really scary? Check out Ty Cobb’s trip to the doctor in “Hacking at the Peach.” It ain’t waiting room reading, that’s for sure. Or check out Mark Twain’s post-mortem writing career in “So Many Things Left Out.” Get the idea yet? If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention to the clues. Like Bradbury or Beaumont or Matheson or King, Paul Tremblay is a storyteller of the highest order—edgy, sensitive and fearless—yet he still understands what a lot of writers out there seem to have forgotten: stories are supposed to be fun. So welcome gentle fiends—I mean friends. Pull a comfy chair up to the fire. Never mind that fresh stain on the rug (wine, I assure you—see the wink of broken glass on the hearth?). An accident, clumsy me. Yes, sometimes the mounted heads seem to be watching us, but trust me, it’s an illusion. Sit back and relax. You’re in good hands. This won’t hurt a bit.

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PERFECT Billy sits under his bedroom window. Soft light from a yellow summer-moon falls on scarred legs, and fair skin glows like a dying neon sign. He rubs his wounds and wishes. He wishes he wasn’t so skinny and small for a seven-year-old and he wishes the other kids would stop calling him baby and he wishes . . . Billy traces his knees, the pink patches of new skin. A fresh color, a healing color, even pinker than his infant sister Emily who sleeps across the room in a wooden crib. He looks at his darkened Godzilla night-light. Mommy doesn’t let him use the night-light now that Emily is here. Billy walks his fingers below those mending knees and to the sides of his ravaged shins. Healthy skin gives way to a bumpy, alien landscape of scabs. A living Braille, thick and mottled. A boulder of shame weighs on him. Shame that he’s been so angry and jealous of Emily. Because Daddy said Billy was more than her big brother. He was her protector. Billy decides to share. He digs a fingernail beneath a scab’s brown edge. There’s pain, but it’s far away, and he focuses on the happiness once forgotten but brought back by the injuries. Blood leaks through the wound’s perimeter like the clot is a crumbling levee. He picks a postage-stamp-sized chunk of tissue. Blood trickles down his leg and onto the bed sheets. He’s not worried though. Billy knows the scab will grow back. It always does. He tiptoes to Emily’s crib, afraid to wake her. That would bring Mommy and he wants to share with little sis first. A mobile of teddy bears circles the 13


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crib like buzzards. Emily is asleep and breathing deep. Billy pulls back her blanket, exposing chubby legs—miniature pillows reflecting the moonlight. He places the scab chunk on Emily’s left knee. Sticky blood, not fully coagulated, pastes scab to flesh. Billy watches. And it looks so real. Emily stirs. Her hands flutter above her face in a meaningless dance, and she opens her toothless mouth, releasing a milk-starved tongue. Billy shoots a quick hand into the crib, pulls the scab off her knee, and rips it in two. Like a priest administering communion, he puts his used tissue into her little mouth. Billy is sharing like a good boy. Emily closes her mouth and gives him that toothless smile. A breathless beat of silences passes between brother and sister. Billy chews the other scab piece, and thoughts of the day’s joyous afternoon consume him. His perfect afternoon with Mommy. Emily coughs, and her chest hitches. *** “Mommy! I’m gonna ride my bike.” No answer from the hunched form sitting at the kitchen table. She was ignoring him, again. Mommy used to be his best friend. Billy and Mommy used to take walks and play hide and seek and watch Disney movies all the time. But now Mommy was different. She even looked different. Sitting there now, she was an old lady in black sweatpants and a baggy, gray sweatshirt. Long chocolate-brown hair, with which she used to tickle him, was tied up behind her head in a tight bun. And she didn’t laugh anymore, only stern orders and complaints from her once pretty mouth. “Mommy?” Still nothing. Billy walked out the door and to his bike. The training wheels had been off for two weeks and he was darn proud of that, but riding his fire-engine-red bike wasn’t making Billy happy anymore. How could he ever be happy again? So much of his life had fallen apart and wobbled out of balance in such a short time. Just two months ago, Daddy had passed away in a car accident on his way home from work. Billy knew that meant he died, but none of the grown-ups 14


ever said that word around him. They’d only used the odd phrase that sounded like Daddy had just run away or disappeared like a lost toy. Passed away didn’t explain why his Daddy was under the ground now, at least not to Billy anyway. Emily was born three weeks later. In the months preceding her birth, Billy had been excited, telling everyone that he couldn’t wait to be a big brother. But her birth didn’t bring happiness. One month after Emily, Billy’s family, minus one and plus one, had moved. Mommy had bought a townhouse, just three towns over. Billy didn’t like the new house all that much. Sure, there was more grass and quiet streets, which were great for tooling around on his bike, but he was starting over. And making new friends had never been easy. Billy jabbed at the kickstand and thought about how much he missed his training wheels. He pushed his bike up the townhouse-complex entranceway—a steep hill of fresh blacktop. He stopped about halfway up to catch his breath and rest his rubbery legs. He watched the bigger kids playing basketball at the far end of the complex. Billy knew to stay away from the game, unless he wanted to be picked on some more. As he reached the top, Billy was wiping away tears. He’d been crying quite a bit during the past two months, especially when he thought about Daddy. Why did it all have to change, and so fast? Billy couldn’t talk about this to anyone. He was friendless here, and that included Mommy. It was like Billy wasn’t there anymore, like he’d passed away with Daddy. Only Emily mattered to Mommy. Emily, Emily, Emily. Mommy clung to the baby like a raft, and Billy was set adrift and sinking. Hating Emily made him feel worse. Billy sat on the bike and pushed with his left leg. Teetering initially, he accelerated past the first row of houses, imagining he was a rocket blasting away from this place, shooting so fast he went back in time to how it used to be. Lost in his rocket, Billy forgot about the speed bump. He snapped out of the fantasy only to see his front tire hit the yellow-painted lump. Daddy used to say that you had to go slow over those sleeping policemen or they’d whack you. Billy jammed on the brakes. His rear-tire slammed into the bump and he flipped over the handlebars. He covered his head with pipe-cleaner 15


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forearms and landed skidding across the pavement. Billy struggled to his feet and tried to hold in the tears and pain, staring at peeled white skin on his throbbing and shaking knees. Blood beaded slowly at first—like Billy sneaking into class late to avoid his new classmates’ taunts—but soon gushed. He limped home, screaming. With Emily in tow, Mommy appeared in the doorway. Her slack expression changed to surprise, then horror, then realization. “Billy! Oh my God! My baby, what happened?” She ran outside and put Emily down on the front lawn. Despite the fire of scraped skin sizzling on his arms and knees, Billy’s heart soared when he saw Mommy put Emily down and come running for him. *** “Billy! What are you doing to Emily?” “She was crying, Mommy. So I . . . um . . . I picked her up.” “Just give her to me. Come and get me next time . . . oh please shush, Emily.” Mommy scoops the wailing Emily from Billy’s arms and goes to her bedroom. Emily’s sobs fade down the hallway like an echo in a canyon. Sweat soaks Billy’s brown hair. He lets himself breathe again, and he searches the crib for the piece of scab Emily coughed up. He finds it, wet and leaky, lodged against the baby monitor. Billy chews the piece and swallows. He tastes nothing, like chewing Styrofoam, but it makes him feel better. It reminds him. Mommy is back to ignoring him, but he knows he can change that. Billy picks off another scab. *** Mommy brought her injured son into the house. She tended to him with the love and care that he’d known before Emily and before Daddy had passed away. She washed his scrapes with water and kisses and it stung, but it also was a revelation. Mommy was back. 16


And they spent the whole day together. She rented his favorite Godzilla movie and they watched with Billy sitting on her lap, and they talked about Daddy and she tousled Billy’s hair and then they shared a cry, and she cooked his favorite macaroni and cheese dinner, and they played hide and seek, and she told him a bedtime story and he was an all-powerful wizard fighting dragons, and Billy fell asleep in her arms. But then a week passed. And his forearms and knees healed. Just seven-short-days later and only smooth, new skin remained of his injuries, and things were back to normal. The new normal. So again, Billy went to the top of the hill and stood next to his bike. This time, his thinking didn’t bring tears. This time it brought a solution. He could bring Mommy back. Billy figured he would be helping her too. She’d seemed as happy as he was a week ago. His solution would hurt, but it didn’t matter. Billy knew it was worth it. He jumped on his bike and aimed himself toward their driveway. Billy imagined he was another rocket. A rocket that was going to slam into the side of an enemy spaceship. *** Billy sits at the edge of his bed, beneath his window, watching new blood glisten. Mommy is yelling at Emily. He swallows another scab. It helps him remember the afternoon in detail . . . Mommy took care of him again. She rented two Disney movies, and she ordered pizza and took him out for ice cream, and they played with Emily together and Mommy gave hugs that lasted all day. But after listening to Mommy yell, Billy knows his Mommy is gone already. Does she know about Emily and the scab? It doesn’t matter. Billy knows it’s not Emily’s fault. It’s the fault of the ugly scabs. His Mommy leaves whenever they appear. He picks and swallows more. And he imagines Mommy covered in an invisible scab, a thick and ugly skin that hides his real Mommy. The one he loves. Billy needs to keep 17


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picking at the scabs. Mommy’s and his. He swallows. Mommy is crying but still yelling at Emily. Her ragged voice floats down the hallway like a damned spirit. Billy remembers how Daddy told him to be Emily’s protector. He knows that he must protect her from the scabbed Mommy. He eats the last of his scabs and knows what to do. *** Billy wakes with the lemon-yellow light of the morning sun. He pulls a white tee shirt over his head and jean-shorts over his legs. New scabs have already formed, but they won’t last. Billy shuts off the baby monitor. A cool morning. Goose bumps rise on his skin. Emily squirms in his cradled left arm. He knows that she must be cold since he only dressed her in a diaper and three big hats. The hats because her head needs the most protection. Billy rubs her chubby legs, hoping his aim is true. He takes a few deep breaths, trying to gather his strength after the struggle of carrying both the bike and his sister up the hill. It was hard work. Billy is a smart kid. He knows he does not have a permanent solution. He knows the happiness won’t last. But he must try to make it like before, even if it only lasts a short time. He straddles the bike with Emily sitting in the crook of his arm. And he pedals. Today, at least, their lives will be as perfect as a skinned knee.

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ROLE MODELS Pop sat on the porch, drinking his Jack Daniels again. Straight, no rocks, no glass. Without acknowledging his son, he tipped the black bottle to his lips. “I’m going to the carnival, Pop,” twelve-year-old Randy said. His puffy face was streaked with old tears, and he held a hand to his swollen eye. “Just don’t get into trouble down there. I used to do that shit when I was your age . . . ” Pop said, trailing off, like he ran out of breath. “Yeah, maybe I’ll start boozin’ so I can be just like you.” Randy walked off the porch hoping that comment hurt Pop a little. But the old man was so drunk, always so drunk, it was hard to tell. Maybe after tonight, it wouldn’t matter. “You don’t wanna be like me, kid. Trust me,” Pop slurred and the JD bottle dropped from his thick paw onto the porch. Its murky liquid ran across the wooden slats like mercury. *** Apitchman and two beefy goons checked every person at the front gate. Randy watched the carnies work while crouched next to the cotton candy stand. When a group of townies hovered around the entrance, Randy sprinted by, still small and quick enough for a simple dash-and-dive under the tent. Randy thought, If they let me join, maybe I could help ’em stop the sneaks. With a hunk of torn, red curtain over his buzz-cut head, Randy hunkered down between a tall pile of sawdust, the rickety stage, and the moldy white tent. This was the best hiding spot he’d ever found at a sideshow. 21


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Careful to only move his eyes, Randy scanned the sparse crowd sitting beneath the sagging tent. Dim lanterns and stage-lights bathed the crowd in equal parts dreamy-yellow and shadow. Sitting alone in the front row was Mr. Toms, Oxfell’s only substitute teacher. Young and quite fat, he dribbled popcorn and soda from his thick lips and onto his huge belly. Randy had only been in his class once, but he still had to be careful. He couldn’t be seen before the show started. This was going to be Randy’s first adults only sideshow. Two young women dressed in dusty overalls sat three rows back and to the far left of the stage, each with a fistful of blue cotton candy. They mustn’t have been from Oxfell as Randy didn’t recognize them. The group of townies swaggered into the tent and hung in the back, whooping it up and clanking their beer bottles, homemade no doubt. Randy didn’t know all their names, but had seen most of those guys at Pop’s chicken farm at one time or another. Won’t be seein’ none of ’em at the chicken farm anymore. Randy stretched his left hand to his bruised eye and stifled a pained yelp. Won’t be seein’ any of ’em. Especially that sumbitch, Pop. For an adults only show, the crowd was disappointing. He didn’t know exactly what to expect, but there was no one fancy out there in the seats. Just some local yokels willing to throw away a quarter to see some freaks and geeks. It didn’t matter though; Randy loved the sideshow the best. He imagined the empty chairs that peppered the crowd were wooden skeletons bent over themselves, ready to jump to life and give the marks the scare of their lives. Maybe they’ll let me work the sideshow . . . Those two goons from out front stood by the entrance while JB the Emcee, a skin-and-bones old man, danced through the sawdust-covered floor and nearly skipped onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to tonight’s special performance. Folks, we just ain’t messing around here tonight, and this ain’t your everyday sideshow.” He stopped and pointed a stick-like arm at one side of the crowd. “Now, those of you with weak bellies . . . ” and then, pointing at the folks on the other side, “ . . . and those of you with bellies that are weak, hey-hey! You all are warned.” He stopped again, placing a gnarled and tobacco-colored finger to his withered lips, and lowered his voice to a gut-whisper. 22


“JB the Emcee’s tent is not for the squeamish.” Randy was hooked, and he imagined himself in JB’s shoes, spinning his pitch to the crowd. Like a spider tickling its prey, JB’s thin fingers played on his red suspenders, bowing out the straps until they snapped back into his skinny chest. “This is life and death, folks. Light and dark. All the powers that be, rolled into one magnificent performer. His methods will disgust you, and his helpers will repulse you.” JB raised his skinny arms above his head. His bulbous nose danced beneath shiny gray-moon eyes. “But folks, JB will guar-an-tee you will be mesmerized by the one, the only, AMAZING!” A muscular young man walked onto the stage to luke-warm applause. He wore only black swimming trunks, and Randy guessed AMAZING was no older than twenty-five. And just like Randy, he had brown hair and blue eyes. Cigar and cigarette smoke filtered from the crowd and covered the stage in a haze as gray as AMAZING’s skin. The two women sitting behind Mr. Toms giggled and pretended to hide their eyes from the almost-nude man. The rest of the audience settled into their seats. Randy tried to imagine what was going to happen in the adults only tent, while hoping that the carnies would take him. They had to take him. Other than Pop, Randy had no one in Oxfell. Momma died while birthing Randy, something that Pop was all too happy to remind him. No brothers, sisters, or cousins. No friends really, because when Randy wasn’t in school or church, he worked the farm. The summer carnivals were the only times Pop let Randy go out on his own. The carnivals were Randy’s paradise. “I would like to call up the first of my guests,” AMAZING said. A shirtless and fat bald-man with a single snaggletooth poking out between his lips pushed a gurney with cages of rats, chickens, and snakes. “Open your minds, folks. This will be a singular experience.” *** Blood flooded the stage. Rat blood, chicken blood, snake blood, with feathers and shit all mixed in, making a soupy sludge that leaked off the stage and formed a tributary that flowed through the sawdust-caked ground and to the far end of the tent. Randy’s sneakers were sopping in the mess. 23


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An awed hush claimed the crowd. Despite the carnage, not a single member of the audience had left. Not even a twelve-year-old boy. “My final spell of the evening will be a solo act,” AMAZING said. His blood-smeared helpers walked off the stage: bald-man, now with a chicken foot partially hung out of a wide nostril, a midget and his set of menacing knives, and a masked, topless woman with sagging breasts who was patting a huge snake draped on her shoulders. They left AMAZING with only an empty gurney and a hatchet. Randy shifted in his hiding spot, daring to push the curtain off his head a bit to get an unobstructed view of what was about to happen. His eyes flickered from the half-naked woman to AMAZING. “There’s no set up or sales pitch from JB the Emcee to prepare you for my final act.” AMAZING held the hatchet in his right hand and placed his left on the gurney. Randy listened for a smartass comment from the townies, which was what usually happened in Oxfell. But there was nothing. Even Mr. Toms had stopped stuffing his face. The tent was silent, like Randy’s church before the reverend’s sermon. “So here we go.” With a swooping arc, AMAZING brought the hatchet down on his left wrist and separated his hand from arm. Screams filled the tent, Randy’s included. AMAZING remained silent and dropped the hatchet, then stretched his arms wide into a crucifix-like pose. Randy thought of the four-foot tall cross his Pop had in the barn, its Jesus contorted in agony. But the magician’s face was peaceful, even beautiful. And no blood spilled from his arm. Not a drop. Eyes now closed, AMAZING aimed the stump toward the crowd. More screams and moans and some quick ohmygods hissed like leaking tires. Then he bent his arm at a right angle and brought his forearm across his chest. While placing his right hand over the stump, AMAZING opened his eyes. And they were black. Randy brought his hands to his face and bumped his bruised left eye. AMAZING pulled his right hand away from the stump, wiggled his fingers, and splayed his hand high in the air like he was waving to the crowd. Blood left his wrist, but slowly, thick sap oozing from a tree. This wasn’t a geyser of blood. It had form. And it floated above the stage. 24


Randy stepped out from his hiding spot. He stood only a few feet from center stage and AMAZING. He watched the magician’s skin and muscle shrivel and deflate as the blood filled the air above the stage. Randy turned and faced the audience. Red beads, strings, and magical shapes danced and morphed, and living fantasies hovered above and among the astonished crowd: a grand banquet with frilly-dressed diners perched near Mr. Toms and pure rapture spread across his fleshy cheeks as he laughed and cried and laughed some more, and above and around the two women, who clutched to each other like scared kids, nude lovers frolicked on an amoeba-like cloud that was also a participant in their sex, and there was a frantic horse rider hanging upside down, galloping across the tent’s top and toward the slack-jawed townies in the back, and a pitcher and batter waged their own baseball game for the motionless goons by the tent flap. A different scene, a different art in blood for every crowd member. Randy looked back to AMAZING and the stage. Only the magician’s right fingers moved, twisting and clenching, and controlling his red marionettes. Then the man pointed a finger at Randy. Expanding above Randy’s head like a storm cloud, a red scene took form . . . A young boy wearing overalls sat in a cavernous barn. Stacks of red hay lined the forever-tall walls. There were horses with wings, furry pigs with snake-like necks, dogs with cow heads, and more whimsical versions of barnyard animals, all in miniature. The beasts rolled over the boy’s feet and between his legs before flying away or scurrying into the barn’s loft. Then the scene shifted. Dizzy for a moment, Randy fell to his knees. The barn was different, but familiar. It was Pop’s barn. Monstrous chickens flew out of a horse stall and attacked the boy, pecking and scratching his legs, arms, and face. A large man with muscles spilling from a torn tee shirt entered the barn and shooed the chickens out. It was Pop. He was hollering and swearing, and he had a bottle in his hand. Bigger than Goliath, a lurching Pop punched the red boy in the face. Reason didn’t matter. There had always been a new one with each day. Randy sank from his knees to a sitting position while covering his battered eye, tears rolling down his dirt-stained face. 25


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Pop took a greedy swig from the bottle and dropped it to the barn floor and he swung again at the red boy. Only, the boy ducked. Pop stumbled and fell to the ground, and didn’t seem so huge now. He rolled in the filth of the barn, and while trying to get up, he reached for the bottle. But whenever his thick fingers wrapped around the glass neck, he slipped and fell. He kept reaching and falling back down. The boy kicked the bottle out of Pop’s reach, jumped onto his father’s prone form, and wrapped little hands around his neck. Randy cheered, and the scene bubbled and transformed. A carousel filled with the dream creatures from the barn. An ornate and grand turning wheel laced with intricate sculptured horses, elephants, and rhinos. And the red boy was riding and waving and smiling. Randy jumped with open hands and arms, reaching for the vision of his paradise. His carnival. This red dream continued until Randy caught a flash of black from the stage. Tearing himself away from the nirvana above, Randy looked at AMAZING. The magician was a standing corpse. A dried husk. And sputtering from his hacked wrist, a living oil slick slithered toward the gurney and his severed hand. Once the black reached the hand, the red dream ended, everything returning into AMAZING’s body as if none of it had happened. It was that fast. After lifting the severed hand, the black recoiled and returned his once separated flesh. AMAZING extended his completely healed left arm and flexed. The crowd was silent for an awkward moment, as if in mourning, and then erupted with wild applause. AMAZING winked at Randy, who was now standing with his chest up against the stage. The rest of the crowd rushed the stage, some in tears, and each begged AMAZING to do the trick again. Like overboard sailors groping for a lifeline, they reached for the magician’s legs and feet. Mr. Toms quivered and whispered about the beauty of the show. Two of the toughest and meanest townies in Oxfell vowed that their lives would be empty unless AMAZING would give the show again. Randy only screamed the man’s name over and over. The two goons appeared on stage and knocked audience members away from the magician. But they returned, crawling and clamoring over each other. 26


A red-haired woman with a harsh but pretty face ran onto the stage and whispered into AMAZING’s ear. “Good night, everyone!” AMAZING yelled. The woman grabbed his arm and dragged him away. “Wait!” Panic filled Randy. He had to talk to him. He had to go with him. Randy scooted beneath the loose flap in the tent he’d used earlier and ran around to the front. There was an explosion of high-pitched sirens as five police cars rolled onto the midway. A flurry of deputies and sheriffs surrounded and cuffed JB the Emcee. Randy heard a Sheriff yell about how there would be no naked women sideshows in Oxfell, and he heard a Deputy repeatedly ask JB where AMAZING was. Randy sprinted back behind the tent and spied two figures jumping in an idling black Packard parked next to an elephant cage. He ran after them. Leaving Pop and the barn and Oxfell was going to be the easiest thing Randy had ever done. And it would be that much easier if he was leaving with him. Randy rammed into the idling car and banged on the tinted rear window. “Wait. Please, AMAZING! Take me with you!” The window rolled down, and the woman’s face peered out. Glinting in the interior light of the car, her red hair was an out of control fire and so was her smile. AMAZING leaned over her lap and mumbled something to her before looking at Randy. “Sorry, kid. I can’t take ya.” “But I have to get out of here.” He was nearly crying but fought hard against the tears. “I’m joining the carnival . . . and . . . I . . . I” AMAZING’s blue eyes suddenly filled with the black. His face was predatory but somehow sad at the same time. “Sorry, kid.” “But . . . but, I want to be like you,” Randy said. “You don’t want to be like me, kid. Trust me.” AMAZING pointed a finger at Randy and a stream of black slammed into Randy’s chest, knocking him off the car. As soon as Randy hit the dirt and grass, the Packard took off. Randy sat on the ground. Two police cars gave belated chase, and he watched until their taillights faded. You don’t want to be like me, kid. Trust me. 27


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On the ground between his legs was a small puddle of the black. It shimmered, actually glowing in the darkness. And it crawled toward his legs slowly. Randy wanted it but was also afraid. He thought about Pop and his dark liquid, the stuff that he gave his body to every day and every night. And Randy extended a finger to the puddle.

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THE POND I walk . . . Past the little league ’ball park and into the thick grove, past Climbin’ Rock, Toad Swamp, and Crooked Path, past Downy’s Field of tall grass as high as a wish, past the row of fallen trees given to rot, past where grown-ups would go, past where most kids dare is The Pond. No other name, really. Just The Pond. I walk . . . Me and my little brother Robbie and a toad he caught went to The Pond. We only wanted to see, to know. But Robbie wanted to go home when he saw The Pond and its brackish, ageless water cloaked with algae, lily pads, and scum as foamy as the head of a root beer float, and there were no bird calls, no frog croaks, no insect buzz, only a quiet weighing down on us like a secret. I don’t know why, but I got so angry, like I was gettin’ cheated. So I called him a lil’ baby and gave him a shove. We fought hard. I was bigger and stronger, and I stole the lumpy toad from him and chucked it into The Pond. A black lip rippled away from the small splash, like a warning. Robbie was cryin’ and he punched me right in the eye and I tackled him 29


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and we were at it again. Both of us muddied at the edge, until I pushed him into The Pond. Robbie stood only inches away and in ankle-deep water, a blank stare on his mud-caked face. White breath fell out of his slack fish-mouth and he looked past me and through me. “It’s so cold,” he said. He sank slowly, still only inches away in what I thought was ankle-deep water. He was motionless and expressionless, and again, quiet. And I did nuthin’. I walk . . . Awful nightmares then. I saw The Pond and its murky bottom lined with bloated bodies and bleached white skin and crumbling flesh intertwined in a loveless embrace and matted hair turned to weed and open mouths and swollen tongues and empty eye holes and Robbie, Oh my God Robbie, and I’m sorry. And there’s nuthin’ I can do. I walk. Past Climbin’ Rock, Toad Swamp, and Crooked Path, past Downy’s Field of tall grass, past the row of fallen trees as dead as a wish that didn’t come true, past where grown-ups will go, past where most kids dare. To the edge. To The Pond. To Robbie.

30


REACHING Now: A little boy and an old man A young boy, young enough to still believe his Dad is the coolest and that girls are gross and that he and his buddies will always be buddies, stands on a stranger’s doorstep. But the house isn’t strange. It’s one in the row that he and his buddies walk past every day on the way back from school. A hard, raw rain hammers the snow and ice-crusted pavement. The young boy jabs a numb, shaking, and red finger into the doorbell. He isn’t thinking about where he dropped his soaked gloves. The cracked and snow-beaten door opens. A large old man fills the doorway, wearing only a sleeveless and coffee-stained tee shirt and threadbare jeans. “Can I help you, little man?” White breath plumes from his mouth. The little boy’s teeth chatter, loud enough to be a go-cart engine. He says something in a flurry of Spanish and English. None of which the old man understands. But this old man understands the little boy is cold and saturated and now pointing to the river across the street. Through the rain, the river and its snow-covered ice seem miles away, and the old man paws at his bald head, searching for glasses that aren’t there. He steps onto the front stoop in bare feet, not noticing the cold, not listening to the percussive pleas from the little boy. Squinting, he says, “Jesus H. Christmas,” and sees black holes in the ice and a group of small shapes, impossibly small, flailing and waving. And splashing. And the old man understands. 33


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A small, arctic hand tugs on the old man’s pants, and the little boy is crying. The old man wraps his blubbery arms around the boy and carries him into his house and screams for his wife to bring blankets downstairs. He grabs the phone and dials 911. Then: Ritchie “Hey! Ritchie! I was only kidding! Wait up!” Ritchie didn’t want to wait up. He wanted that jerk to eat his dust, to be miles behind him, to be—to use a favorite phrase of Pop’s—hell and gone. Or, he’d settle for punching his big brother right in his big-dumb-fat nose. “Leave me alone, or I’m telling Pop!” Ritchie threw out the younger brother trump card but knew it wouldn’t work. Not this far from home. Not out here. Ritchie heard his brother stomping through the snow behind him, picking up the pace. Max said, “Stop being a baby. I was just kidding around.” Most of the time, Ritchie idolized his older brother, watching the same shows, rooting for the same teams, telling the same jokes, wearing Max’s hats and sweatshirts around the house even though they were clown-shoe big on him. But there were other times. Times when Max was with his friends, when Max would say mean things or give noogies and wedgies and dead-arms and purple-nurples. Today, it had been a snowball right in the face as Ritchie had walked down the front stairs of McKay Elementary. The packed ice had stung his eyes, and he’d dropped his tied bunch of books into a snow puddle. Ritchie had fought a losing battle with tears, and Max and his buddies had hooted and hollered. Today was no different than any of those other times. All Ritchie got from Max was I was only kidding. And he hated Max with an all-consuming hate that only brothers understood. Ritchie stopped, turned, and gave Max a gloved middle finger. “How’s this for only kidding, you jerk?” Max laughed and said, “Alright, I’m sorry, Ritchie! Now wait up!” Although Ritchie had his heart squeezed into the tightest ball of anger he could, it loosened a bit, and so did a smile and he yelled, “No way, asshole!” Half-giggling now, but an echo of not-too-distant tears was just beneath his laughter. 34


“What?” Max covered his ears and left his mouth open in a parody of surprise. “Oh boy. You’re gonna get it now, kiddo!” Ritchie mock-screamed, “Get away!” and pumped his already tired legs and arms faster. Getting it now would mean a tackle and tickles, or maybe a headlock, or maybe Max would throw him over his shoulder like a sack-o-potatoes and all of it would be okay because his friends weren’t around, and Max would be Max. But that didn’t mean he was just going to let Max catch him. After what Max had done to him, Ritchie planned on making big bro work for it. Maybe he’d even make it across the river before he got caught. Now: Don Approaching sirens fill the darkening afternoon sky. Two firemen run to the river. “Don’t wait for me, old timer,” Don says. Ritchie says, “I’m not.” Don watches Ritchie sprint down the gravel embankment that abuts a defunct shoe-factory and an abandoned warehouse that has been for sale almost twenty years. Despite the ice and snow and rain and the large coil of rope looped on his left shoulder, Ritchie reaches the river without falling. He is the first man on the ice, just like he’s always the first fireman of their unit at a scene or the first running headlong into a burning building or climbing up a tree or first man on the bus bound for NYC just one hour after the second tower fell. Don tries to follow Ritchie’s footprints but stumbles at the shore, falling to his knees. “Goddamn it!” Don gets up despite a numb left knee and limps after Ritchie, mumbling to himself, “Fuckin’ guy has twenty years and twenty pounds on me and he runs down the embankment like he’s a goddamn mountain goat . . . ” Ritchie yells, “Hey, sir! Hey! Move away! You’ve got some firemen here!” Forty feet from shore, two boys float on a chunk of ice, and there’s a bald guy lying on his stomach near the ice-break, tossing a rope. Ritchie sprints to about ten feet away from the bald guy, dives onto his stomach, and then shimmies forward, latching onto baldy’s leg. Ritchie yells, “Pull us ba . . . ” Trucks, with sirens roaring like angry elephants, line the street above the river and drown out Ritchie. Don doesn’t hear his partner but knows what to do. He runs then crawls on his stomach to Ritchie’s feet and grabs onto them. Rain makes digging 35


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his steel-toed boots into the ice an almost impossible act, but he manages footholds, and as he pulls, Ritchie pushes back with a free hand. After sliding a few feet, Ritchie kicks free and drags the bald man back, dumping him at Don’s feet. “Make sure he gets back to shore,” Ritchie yells, wild-eyed and rope already unslung from his shoulder. Don nods, although he knows he should be out on the thinning ice, pulling in the kids with the rope. He’s lighter and less likely to fall through. But he knows there’s no arguing with Ritchie right now, and he knows this is not part of an ego or a hero trip, this isn’t an act, this isn’t grandstanding or a publicity stunt. This is abandonment of self for others. And this is why Don admires Ritchie and why Don hates himself. He watches Ritchie’s first rope-toss fall short. Then he stares at the man at his feet. He’s old and wearing only a tee shirt and shivering and crying with a mouth wide enough for the siren’s wail. “Sir, I have to get you to shore,” Don says. He pulls the old man up, and they shuffle toward the riverbank where a dozen firemen and rescue workers have already gathered and stowed gear. Rain falls even harder, and Don slips and staggers with his cargo. He feels the ice softening and he thinks about what it would be like to fall through, to have the ice suddenly open beneath his feet and then be swallowed by the river, swallowed by the cold, and he wants no part of it . . . Ten feet from shore, a paramedic intercepts Don and swaddles the old man in a blanket. The old man bounces glances between Don and the paramedic like looking at either man for too long is just too much. He says, “I . . . I couldn’t help the others.” Don steels himself, leaves the old man with the paramedic, and turns to walk back to Ritchie and the kids, and he notices the other holes—two big ones and a small one—in different parts of the ice, not far from the floating ice-chunk and oh Christ, there’s more than those two kids down here. Out onto the ice again. Along the river are the city’s dead or dying factories and their soot-stained smokestacks and black-windowed warehouses and the run-down boy’s club where the kids played before walking onto the ice. And there’s this thought that is never far away and it accompanies Don’s first beer and his last and it’s there when his head hits the pillow, but 36


today, on the ice, he says it aloud, and hearing the words pushed by his shaky voice makes it worse. “I’ll never get out of this place.” Now: Bill Ritchie asks, “What did the paramedics say?” “The two boys you and Don pulled in will be fine, physically speaking, anyway,” Fire Captain Bill Gross says. “Sounds about right.” The sirens have quieted, but flashing red lights reflect off the ice and the black river-water. “How did I know you’d be first in the water, Ritchie?” “You’re a sharp one. Can’t get anything past you, cap’n.” Ritchie winks and grabs an orange, inflatable ice-rescue suit. “It’s a gift. But you know, Jill always says I’m duller than white rice.” “Well, Jill knows you better than I do, cap’n.” Bill watches his co-worker and friend of twenty-five years squeeze his still-fightin’-fit bulk into the one-piece suit. Bill ordered the new suits six months ago. He says, “Now, what you got there is 100% cell neoprene that provides optimum buoyancy, insulation, and protection from extreme cold water and ice conditions, features face seal and flap, attached five-finger gloves, waterproof zipper and sealed seams, reinforced knees and elbows, thick-soled boot with tread, SOLAS-grade reflective panels front and back, and integral chest harness with stainless steel D-rings front and back.” “You memorized that shit?” “It’s funny, I remember that but I forget my mother-in-law’s birthday or to pick up milk and butter and a few scratch tickets for Jill on the way home.” That must say something about what kind of husband Bill is, but heck if he knows. But after watching the ambulance leave with the two ice-chunk brothers in tow, Bill knows some things are easier to forget. “You won’t forget and leave me out in the river, will ya, cap’n?” “Nah, I won’t forget you. I’ve been married to you longer.” “Don’t get all mushy on me now,” Ritchie says, pulling on goggles then the face flap and seal around his bearded face. Bill sticks a leg inside his own ice-rescue suit. His body doesn’t quite fill out the suit in the same way Ritchie’s does. “I’m gonna look like a basketball 37


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in this thing. Now, I’m going in right behind you. Make sure you stay closer to shore until I’m in. The water depth ranges from five to eight feet out there.” “Right. How young are the three kids we’re looking for, Bill?” Bill thinks of his own teenaged sons and how much they love their Big Uncle Ritchie, and an image of his boys when they were as little as the ones in the river, giggling and hanging off Ritchie’s arms and shoulders like grapes on a vine, is something he cherishes a hell of a lot more than his captaincy, and yeah, some things are easier to forget. “Young, Ritchie. Too fucking young.” *** An early winter dark is fast approaching and rain continues to fall. Bill knows the three boys don’t have much of a chance based on the timeline. He knows this is more recovery than rescue. But he won’t say that to anyone. He doesn’t have to. Bill floats in the river, the suit holding him up like a secret set of hands, and he doesn’t feel the cold. But the murky water feels thicker, an insistent, probing pressure pinning air inside his chest. His arms and legs and everything else moves slower. And despite the bright orange of his suit, his own body disappears from sight, into the frigid void. Bill follows the ice-break perimeter, probing under the ice for the boys, then breaking the rain-softened ice around him, hoping to connect the three holes into a wide and clear search area. “You doin’ okay, Ritchie?” Ritchie is out further from shore, probing the ice in deeper waters. He expels a sharp breath along with a spray of water, like a whale spouting its blowhole. “I’m fine, cap’n. But nothing yet. It’s getting too deep out here. I need the rake.” “Right. Hey! We need two rakes out here!” Bill coughs and reaches under another section of ice, pawing the submerged surface like he’s checking under his office desk to see if any of his boys left a wad of gum. Bill feels and reaches nothing. Ritchie thrashes in the water then yells, “Fuck!” and pulls something red out of the water and flings it onto the ice-shelf. “What? What is it?” “Shit, shit, shit! It’s just a kid’s jacket.” Bill looks at the drenched coat resting on the ice like a dead octopus, and 38


he doesn’t want to believe there’s anyone small enough to wear such a thing and that anyone isn’t a kid at the bottom of the river. Ritchie jams his arm into the water hard, momentarily submerging his face, before bobbing back up. “Go easy, Ritchie. You’re no help to us if we have to pull you from the water.” “I need a rake right-fucking-now!” Someone on the ice yells, “I know, I know, here they are.” A rescue worker slides Bill a rake—a plaster hook, a tool normally used to tear down ceilings or walls; its wood handle is six-feet-long with a sharp prong and metal hook on its end. Bill wades over to Ritchie and gives him the tool. Ritchie submerges the rake and sends it under the ice. “Stay close, cap’n. I got ’em,” Ritchie says. Hand over hand he pulls the handle out of the water. Bill floats next to his partner, staring at the opaque surface and absently reaching his feet toward river bottom, but he touches nothing. To their right, a paramedic slides close to the ice’s edge. He says, “Get him over here as soon as you can, guys.” And then a small, bleached-white face with purple lips and closed eyes breaks the surface. This little, little boy has no coat but is wearing a Bob the Builder hat and somehow still has on his red mittens. Bill wants to ask, to yell, How in this fucked world did Ritchie pluck off his coat without losing the mittens? Where’s the fucking sense in THAT? But he doesn’t. He removes the rake’s hook out of the boy’s dinosaur sweatshirt and carries the light and limp and motionless form to the paramedic. And this is worse than any fire, worse than finding charred husks, burnt beyond recognition, worse than hearing the screams of the five men his unit lost four years ago. Staring into the maddeningly peaceful, porcelain-doll face cradled in his orange arms is somehow worse. Bill puts the boy onto a sled that the paramedics pull toward shore. They immediately start a frantic but futile resuscitation procedure. And Bill can’t watch. He turns back toward Ritchie and the river. Ritchie has already waded out deeper, prodding and poking under the ice. Then: Max Snow fell harder, with flakes as fat as honeybees. “Ritchie! Stop!” 39


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Max accelerated into a full sprint, fueled by more than panic, fueled by the assurance that little bro was too close to where the river wasn’t frozen and that he would fall through and it would be all his fault. “I’m not joking, Ritchie! Stop!” And then there was no creaking and groaning of ice, no sensation of sinking or lowering or the ground beneath his feet opening, no you’re going in kid announcement this teenager was supposed to hear. There was only the falling and numbing and wet and breath-stealing cold. Ritchie screamed, “Max!” and ran back. Max had managed to keep his head from dunking, but everything below his neck was under. Lifting his heavier-by-the-second arms onto the ice-rim, Max tried to pull himself up. The hole he’d punched into wasn’t big, but ice broke and disintegrated with each escape attempt, widening his trap. “Stay away, Ritchie. You’ll fall in too.” Max said, aware of how weak his voice already sounded. “Lemme help you.” Ritchie was crying and on his stomach and crawling with an arm outstretched. A short, thin, baby-brotherby-five-years arm. And seeing that would-be-hero arm reaching out to him, Max was sorry for everything he’d ever done and anything he didn’t do. “G-Go. Go get help, Ritchie. You can’t pull me out.” With elbows on the ice, Max tried again to pull himself up, but a bigger chunk of ice broke and his head went under. Max’s world disappeared and turned to cold and silence and black, and for an instant it seemed right. But he resurfaced and expelled a sputtering-engine breath, and winter air bit his wet skin, and his ears rang and pins-and-needles then numbness flowed into his extremities. Ritchie screamed and wailed. “Max! I can help you!” Max said, “Go on, you little goober. Go get Mom. Go get somebody. Please, Ritchie. It’s . . . it’s . . . too thin here. Just go get help.” Ritchie stood. And Max looked up at his little tease-tattle-talepain-in-the-arse brother but snowflakes kept landing in his eyes and he couldn’t see Ritchie’s face. Before Max said anything more, Ritchie turned and ran toward shore. And with arms sliding off the ice, Max watched his little bro running and running and across the ice to the shore and he watched him scuttle 40


up an embankment and onto the street and running and running and running . . . And he watched his little brother for as long as he could. Now: Laura “I know. I heard on the radio,” Laura says and walks to the front door. The hallway light is off. Her burly husband stands with his back to her, slumped in front of their coat rack, its wood skeleton empty except for a black fireman-issue raincoat. Her stomach drops because she knows this is not the night and there may never be the night to have the discussion, the last-gasp-hail-Mary attempt at convincing Ritchie to start a family, just one kid, just one baby. “They didn’t find him,” he says. Just one, Ritchie. For me . . . “Come sit on the couch, honey.” Laura grabs his red-raw hand and leads him into the living room, setting him on the couch. Ice still hangs off his beard, his cheeks are cold and wind-burnt, his eyes a million miles away. She tries to think of comforting words, but there are none. Only her afternoon spent staring into the mirror, staring at her graying brown hair and wrinkles and sagging skin on her neck, her once lovely long neck Ritchie used to decorate with kisses and nibbles, and shadows under her eyes, and then the rehearsing of I want a baby, Ritchie, I need one, look at me, this is my last chance, our last chance, I want a baby even if he/she only keeps me from staring into the mirror all day and nothing else. She feels Ritchie’s hand trembling. “We . . . we found . . . ” Ritchie pauses and shakes his head, wipes an eye hard with a palm, like he’s squashing a bug. “ . . . There was this one kid . . . and I pulled his coat up first . . . then him . . . and he looked, he looked . . . ” Ritchie stops talking, and Laura knows her wish, her last chance is as dead as the kids he pulled from the river. There will be no talking him into a family, not ever. And yeah, she is being damn selfish and she knows it and she hates herself for it, but her wish is still there. Ritchie explodes into tears, into sobs and moans. He buries his face in her chest. Laura has never seen her husband cry. There were no tears after the twenty-plus years of fires and fatalities. No tears at his mother’s and father’s and fellow firemen’s funerals. No tears when he got back from New York City and talked about seeing briefcases and shoes and wallets 41


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and picture frames and Beanie Babies mixed in with the stone, steel, and glass rubble. “It’ll be okay, Ritchie,” Laura whispers, then adds, “I love you,” and she does love him with all of the complicated meanings and twists that belong to the word, and she is crying with her husband but she’s not sure if the tears are for Ritchie or herself. She squeezes her eyes shut. Muffled in her chest, Ritchie says, “They didn’t find him.” Laura remembers the radio reported one boy was still missing and presumed in the water. “Honey, you guys or somebody will find the boy.” Ritchie burrows deeper into Laura’s embrace, and the tears come harder. Then: Mom Coated in thick snow, Ritchie stumbled through the back door and onto the porch. Taking small, unsure steps, he shuffled until his boots were on the hallway mat, covering the green WELCOME letters. Opening the kitchen door, Mom said, “How’s my little guy? Hey, is Max with you?” She stepped out onto the porch, grimacing as her stocking feet found a snow puddle. Ritchie didn’t say anything, his eyes somewhere on the floor. “I’m gonna kill him. He was supposed to walk you home.” Mom plucked the hat and other wintry articles from Ritchie like a bird choosing material for its nest. “Wasn’t he waiting for you after school?” Ritchie shrugged without picking up his head. “Well? Was he there? Was he there with his friends?” Ritchie nodded and said, “Friends.” “What? So you walked home by yourself. You know you’re not supposed to do that. Will you please look up at me?” Mom bent down to Ritchie’s eye level, lifted his chin, and inspected his chubby face. His cheeks were rose-red, and his eyes were glazed and puffy, like he’d been crying. So Ritchie was probably upset at Max for going off with his friends. Or more likely, they had teased and bullied him, and he had run home by himself. She wished Max would be nicer to him. Ritchie was only seven-years-old for goodness sakes. Mom and Dad would have to have a serious talk with Max. This kind of stuff had to stop. Yeah, she knew brothers would be brothers—God knows she’d had enough experience with them, growing up the only girl in a family of eight—but it still hurt to see it. Especially when the hurt was written on her little boy’s face. 42


Mom sighed and kissed a cold cheek, and said, “Alright, come on inside and we’ll have some hot chocolate.” He said nothing but latched onto Mom’s hip. “Who said anything about a free ride?” She picked up Ritchie and walked into the kitchen, smiling, though she knew these days, these Mom could make it alright with a pick me up and hold me hug days were numbered for Ritchie, as they were already long over for Max. “You feeling okay?” She pressed a hand against his forehead. “Maybe you’re coming down with something. Come on, I’ll take you upstairs for a nap. You can have the hot chocolate when you wake up, okay?” Ritchie said nothing. Now: Ritchie Pre-dawn and wearing the orange ice-suit and holding the rake and standing on the ice just above the breaks. No one else will be at the river until after first light. Ritchie thinks about history, his history. And he knows history doesn’t repeat. It continues itself. The rain ended early last night, and a cold front followed. A paper-thin sheet of ice covers the hole he and Bill forged yesterday. He taps the infant-ice with the rake. It breaks and sinks away into the murk. And as an adult—and until yesterday—Ritchie thought of the event as something that happened to him. Not something in which he participated. Not something he perpetrated. Ritchie slides feet first into the water, his suit keeping his head and shoulders above water. He slashes and breaks the ice around him, holding the rake in both hands, swinging it like a baseball bat. Around his frenzied form, the river churns and splashes as if angry to be awakened from its hibernation. Panting, his lungs ache from exertion and the cold air. He rests and floats and bobs in the disturbed wakes. And he doesn’t really remember the seven-year-old who all those years ago arrived alone on his parents’back porch, and he doesn’t remember why. Sunlight, weak and dim as if held back by the cold, sneaks into the cloudless sky. Ritchie wades toward an edge of the hole and slides the rake under the ice-shelf, stretching and reaching as far as the rake will go. And he thinks about the why, and why did he have to watch his brother, his hero, dying in the river, this same fucking river, and why did he have to land on his doorstep in complete and total shock and incapable of saying a 43


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goddamn word, and why didn’t Mom realize this, why didn’t she see there was something wrong with her little boy? And after he recovered, why couldn’t he have been just a little older and told her what happened and why did he have to believe with all his seven-year-old heart that Mom would blame him and cry and shout why, Ritchie, why didn’t you tell me earlier, why why why why? And with each passing minute, why was it that much harder for the little chicken shit to say anything, and why didn’t he say anything when Mom reported Max missing and when the police interviewed everyone in the neighborhood and when they didn’t find him and when those weeks became months became years so easily? And why was it so easy to believe it was all meant to be, just like his next quarter century of fires and disasters and rescues and recoveries? Still reaching and groping with the rake, Ritchie’s right shoulder dips under the ice, forcing him lower, the water covering his neck and touching his chin. He thinks about yesterday. He thinks about Don. Don helping to pull those two kids off the ice chunk, and Don’s drinking problem and penchant for mixing booze with his not-so-private pastime of punching the shit out of his cute, high-school-sweetheart wife, and how she’s even come to the firehouse looking for protection that she never gets. Ritchie needs to get deeper, to go farther, but the ice around the hole is too thick to break. With his arms still under the shelf, he digs the rake’s hook into the ice, inhales deep, and pulls himself under the water and beneath the ice. And he thinks about Bill, oh captain my captain. Bill running into burning buildings with him. Bill giving eulogies for fallen comrades. Bill floating next to him, plucking dead boys from the river. Bill and all those weekends spent with his wife and boys. Bill and his three-and-counting extra-marital affairs that only the boys at the station know about. The river is dead. Silt and soil and stray branches float as if trapped in amber. All is dark and he feels it. Water leaks through the perimeter of his goggles. Ritchie’s back and legs and head press against the ice ceiling. He loosens an air bubble, and using the rake and both arms to dig into the ice ahead of him, he stretches and pulls and reaches and reaches and reaches . . . . And he thinks about the old man who lives across the street from the river. The old man who called 911. The old man who was out on the ice by himself, trying to save five boys. The old man who, for the last decade, has been under suspicion of child-molestation but never caught. 44


Water fills his goggles, stinging his eyes, numbing his face. But he feels something brush against then press into his side. He releases the rake. And he thinks about Laura, his wife, and the baby they never had, the baby he insisted they never have, and he loves her and knows what it’s done to her but he can’t and wouldn’t change a fucking thing. And he thinks about everyone that he’s ever known, and he believes and he knows their good doesn’t exist without their evil, and he knows history continues itself. There is no sound, and he’s still pressed against the wrong side of the ice. He takes off his gloves and goggles and face seal and flap. Ritchie grabs a handful of the shape to his right, finding a small arm. And as Ritchie reaches and brings the too-small shape into his arms and chest, and as his mouth opens to a rush of water, he doesn’t feel the cold or the quiver in his muscles or the stitch in his chest or the fire in his lungs. He only feels his history.

45


LIES AND SKIN (co-written with Steve Eller) There was a man, the old joke goes, with skin on only one side. The outside. That joke runs through my head at times like these. But I know better. There’s skin. And there’re skins. A woman at the other end of the park bench has a paperback in her left hand, thumb holding the page as she reads, then sliding to the next. There’s a band of light skin on her third finger. Right palm resting on the handle of a baby carriage, she rolls it absently, back and forth. Her half of the bench is in the sun, shadows dappling her cheeks as a late morning wind stirs the leaves. I’ve already caught her, twice, glancing my way. The attraction is there—it’s always there—charging the air like a summer storm about to break. Maybe she thinks we’re made of the same stuff. I’m not so sure. There’s another old saying about opposites attracting. I’ve been hesitant to look directly at her. Afraid I’ll see straight through. Then I’d have to decide whether to tell her what I see, or swallow again. I try to keep my eyes on the patchy grass under my shoes or the water-blue sky between branches. The woman says, “Excuse me…” and it comes again “…do I know you?” *** 47


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“My name’s Kylie. Do you know this one? There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile. Right, mister?” The little girl laughed and danced rings around me. Her eyes were so open, channels straight into her brain. She thought I looked like somebody. Maybe her teacher. Or someone on television. “He went to bed and bumped his head…” she went on, “and… la la la… and smiled a crooked smile!” Giggling, Kylie jammed her fidgety hands into the folds of a tiny and still-somehow-too-big pink sweater. There was a cloud and an ice cream cone in the weave. “You have a pretty voice,” I said, “but I need to ask you a favor.” I couldn’t look at her anymore. My gaze flittered around the grocery store aisle, catching on my empty cart, then the faded tile. Landing anywhere but on those guileless eyes. “Sure, mister.” “Stop singing that song. Please.” Kylie huffed and tilted her head, long dark curls flopping on her shoulders, and asked, “Why?” “Because it makes me sad.” Then she shrugged, folding her matchstick arms across her chest. “Why?” I dropped two boxes of pasta into my cart. It was time to face her, and let her look at me. Kylie’s eyes narrowed. She wouldn’t think I looked like her teacher anymore, or someone on TV. I didn’t look like anyone. And she wasn’t old enough to… From around a corner, a man shouted, “Kylie! Get over here, right now, young lady!” Kylie’s father stalked down the aisle. He was a tight-faced man, average build and height, but plenty big enough to make his daughter quiver. And that had to be Mommy pushing a cart one step behind him, her face washed of color like rain-swept stone. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I thought he was Uncle Dan,” Kylie said, pointing over her shoulder, voice stretched as taut as tendon. “It’s all right,” I said, trying to blink the onrush of sight away. Trying not to be crooked. “She was just singing me a song.” Her daddy waved me off, then reached down and grabbed Kylie’s arm. Little bubbles of girl-skin between scarred knuckles. Scratchy music—there was a crooked man—played through a metal grille 48


in the ceiling. The sizzle in my ears could’ve been the crackling speaker, or the fluorescent tubes above my head. But it wasn’t. With one quick jerk, the little girl’s arm popped from the socket, trailing rainbow ribbons. Daddy growled and squeezed the arm until it shattered. More pieces spilled from her torn sweater, scattering across the floor. Cracks—tiny, then bigger, then way too fast—branched over Kylie’s face, and chunks of her fell. Her broken mouth sang along with the music—there was a crooked man—until she crumbled like ash from a cold fire. Daddy ground a scuffed boot in Kylie’s dust and grabbed his silent wife. He put her into the shopping cart, posing her like a mannequin. His fingers pressed her heart, and a hidden panel slid open. A square of cold darkness. Her husband snagged cans, boxes, and bottles at random and stuffed them inside her. When she was full, he scooped a handful of Kylie’s dust and sprinkled it over Mommy before wheeling his family away. And Daddy’s smile was a man’s smile. I abandoned my cart. I wasn’t hungry anymore. I wasn’t sure what crooked was anymore. *** I shrug and try to smile. Familiarity gleams stronger in the woman’s eyes. The only thing familiar to me is the itch inside my head. “I don’t think we’ve met,” I say. “I’m sorry.” “Hmm. I could’ve sworn….” Her voice trails off, like she’s run out of breath before her thought ends. “It’s a nice morning, isn’t it?” Her smile seems tired, but her eyes gather scattered sunshine. There’s only a touch of make-up on her face. I like that. I’d only glimpsed her from the corner of my vision before, but she’s older than I’d imagined. Admirable that she hasn’t tried to bury her age with drugstore colors. “Yes, it is.” The itch swells to a buzz, rising at the base of my skull, spreading through my head like a current. I’m looking too long, and it’s time to shut my eyes. Before I see. The woman is nodding, her lips scrunched like she has a mouthful of something and can’t let it out. But it’s already too late for that. It’s too late for both of us. “I’m Maggie,” she says, then points to the carriage. “This is Jake.” Those aren’t the words I hear. Did you know the higher the quality of a cloth, the quicker it soaks up blood? 49


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The cheap ones from the discount store don’t do a good job. Dip the bottom in, and it takes forever for the blood to creep halfway up. But throw it down and grab one of the good towels, the fancy ones from the bed-and-bath place. Blood crawls up the cloth like running flame. You know the kind. It always says ‘thirsty’ on the label. Closing my eyes doesn’t make the bad thing go away. That’s a lie for children. The woman’s husband is dead on the kitchen floor, red pumping from the holes in his head, soaking the grout between tiles. There’s a small opening on his left temple, and a huge, ragged one on his right, the same side as the spatter stain on the beige wall. She keeps grabbing towels and soaking up his blood, like she’s saving it, like after collecting enough she could wring out the towel over him. Then she could plug the shattered levee of his skull with her fingertips. And once it was all back inside him, everything would be all right. I could tell her what she saw in her kitchen that morning was just the other side. It was how her husband had always looked, and felt, on the inside. All of that was under his skin, and he’d simply let it out. Putting it back in would be the worst thing she could do. But I just swallow. “I’m Adam,” I say. Adam. Not my name, not that I’m sure anymore, but it’s one that seems to fit. I pick it more often than not. Maybe because it denotes a first. Or an only. “It’s nice to meet you, Adam.” She sets the book in her lap and extends her hand. I see a ghost image of the same hand, superimposed, dripping blood from shiny nails. Then it’s gone. I accept her touch, dreading it a little. Though touching has nothing to do with seeing. Her hand is warm and slight in mine, like cradling a sick bird. I loosen my fingers quickly. She takes longer. Panic scurries through my belly, and I want to jump up and run. But where would I go? Maybe back to wherever I’m calling home, if I can remember. It would be easier to leave this woman with her pain. I don’t need more. But there’s this odd thought. Can I ask her? *** I couldn’t get the little girl out of my head. Kylie. She’d glanced back at me over her hiked shoulder as Daddy dragged her away, the toes of her sneakers barely touching the ground. Her eyes were grey and gone, like a 50


steamed fish on a plate. There was no way she could’ve known what I’d seen. I wasn’t even sure who I’d seen. It could’ve been Kylie who’d peeled away, showing me inside. It could’ve been her father. In the end, it didn’t matter what either of us had seen. But—crooked. That’s what she’d said, the moment she’d looked at me. Crooked. Two of the three vanity bulbs were out over the bathroom sink. The lone survivor smelled like burning dust. I heard the TV in the living room. The attempt at distraction had been a failure. People were arguing on the tube, their tinny voices pinging against bare plaster. My face rose in the mirror as I leaned closer, like it was forming from shadow. What had Kylie seen? It couldn’t be this face. Nobody could see that. My hand came up, close to the hot bulb, ready to unscrew it. Or to crush the glass. Something to kill the last of the light. My fingers touched the smudged mirror instead, tracing the outlines of my face. There was nothing in the mirror. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Staring at my reflection wasn’t something I did very much, but today I needed to see my own skin. Lie and skin, I thought. This face always surprised me. Did I think of myself with a different one? Or did I give this face to someone else, a stranger? My reflection was what I saw. They saw something different. A person they found familiar, someone comfortable or safe. What they wanted to see. Was I any different? A mirror could lie, showing me what I wanted to see. Or maybe that made a reflection painfully true. Lying skin. Lies and skins. I should ask one of them, standing there, stripped of their own skins. What do you see? I need to know…. I reached for the bulb again, to choke the light out. My fingers got too close, and the hot glass singed me. I took a step back, and my face was a cloudy after-image of grey light. Then somebody knocked on the front door. *** I know all about the woman on the park bench. Maggie, her name is Maggie, I could use it, I could remember it. 51


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A single mother carrying a double burden. The weight of an all-too-recent past, and a leaden future. Maggie. And I think, maybe. “How old is Jake?” Maggie might understand. She could see. She could show. “He’s four months old,” she says, pulling the carriage closer. It doesn’t seem fair to keep going, since I’ve already seen through her. But fair isn’t part of my world anymore. “So does Jake look more like Mommy or Daddy?” I know how much this hurts her. I could hate myself if I knew who that was. Her face darkens, like the sun sliding behind a cloud. “People say he looks like his daddy.” She touches her lips with her thumb. “But I think Jake’s got my eyes.” Part of me, bitter and broken, wants to keep pushing. Is that what you tell yourself to get through? Do you think if you say it enough you’ll believe it? Maybe you won’t see blood pouring out of your husband’s head every time you look at your boy. She doesn’t deserve it. Nobody does. Or maybe everybody does. I’ll push her, just a little more. “I’m sorry. That was a bad question.” I try for sincere, even comforting. But I hear calculated and antiseptic, like a tired doctor’s bedside banter. “Yeah, it probably was.” Maggie tries on a different smile but it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t last. “Jake’s father died a few months ago. Sixty-four days, not that I’m counting.” She takes a moment, a deep breath. The truth takes time. “Actually, he killed himself.” Maybe… I slide closer to her. “I’m very sorry, Maggie.” “I am too.” She looks away. The book falls to the grass, and both her hands fall on the baby carriage. “I shouldn’t have asked.” “It’s not your fault, Adam. You couldn’t have known.” Maggie coughs and blinks too hard. Reaching into the carriage, she adjusts something near the baby’s head. Then her hands push the handle again, a little too fast this time. Like I’m pushing. “He’s a good-looking boy.” 52


“Thank you,” Maggie says, only it seems she’s speaking to Jake instead of me. Moments pass, slices of silence and squeaky wheels. Maggie leans back on the bench. She’s staring, like she’s about to tell me I’m familiar again. If she does, I’ll scream and scream and scream…. “Are you still married, Adam?” “Married?” Still? Everything stops inside my head. “Oh, I just saw your ring, and I thought…” Ring? “…and I assumed…oh no, it’s on your right hand. Looks like I’m the one with the bad question now. We’re not doing so well with the conversation thing, are we?” Maggie is still talking but I don’t hear. There’s a ring on my right hand. Was it there before? I don’t remember it. But that doesn’t mean anything. Maybe not. “I’m wearing a ring,” I say, my voice somewhere between curious and terrified. *** There was a monster at the front door. Tufts of green hair sprouted from its head, spilling over scaly silver ears. Its mouth worked, making sounds, showing rows of jagged metal teeth. Something lay flat in the palm of its hand, but I stared at the black lines spiraling down its wrist. They were like hardened veins, only on the outside. I stumbled back when the monster moved further onto the porch, almost into my doorway. The flesh clinging to its face flowed, a dead sea of red and white. But it was all a lie. Just like the face in my mirror. This wasn’t seeing. It was not seeing. The monster was a teenage boy. Hair dyed green and cut like a handful of straw. Out of the afternoon sun, in the shade of the porch, the silver scales were an array of earrings. Metal teeth were braces, black markings were tribal tattoos. But the face didn’t change; it stayed an ocean of red blotches and white points. “Oh,” the boy said, brow crunching, “did I already do this house?” 53


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“No. You’ve never been here before.” “Okay. Whatever.” The boy shook his head, like he’d just woken from an unsettling dream. He spotted the oversized candy bar in his hand, like he was seeing it for the first time. “I’m selling chocolate. For my high school drama club.” “I don’t eat candy.” Lying was a hard habit to give up. “How about some for your kids, then?” “I don’t have any children.” I wasn’t sure if that was a lie. Staring into a mirror was still easier than looking into another person’s eyes. And I could always smash a mirror. Or I could poke out my own eyes. I’d thought about it, but it scared me. Like torn muscle, they might grow back stronger. It was time for the green-haired boy to leave, but he lingered on the porch. His hand stayed up, displaying the candy, but his eyes narrowed like his mind had moved on to something else. His empty hand, tattooed like the other, rose to his face. Black-painted fingernails traced pocked skin, a Braille of acne, white fluid so near to breaking through. Inside, turning out. Touching his cheeks was an act of reassurance. Or a consolation. Who else would touch a face like that? “Look.” The boy’s fingers splayed across his forehead. “I’m just trying to sell some candy bars. We need money for costumes for this play we’re doing, and… you know, you look just like…” The center of the boy’s chest glowed. A pale yellow corona spread, its center burning brighter until strands of light streamed from his faded tee shirt. Like a hunk of the boy had given way, letting the sun behind him blaze through. But no wad of flesh had fallen, and no cinders piled at his feet. The light revealed a hole that was always there, covered in flesh. And more holes were coming. The boy flickered with pinpricks of light. For a moment, I mourned the pieces the boy had lost. But it was only the sun in my eyes, blinding me. When I could see better, I knew it was theft. The boy with the green hair was a patchwork quilt, threadbare. More gap than skin. Then the lights dimmed, and skin covered his holes again. The smallest ones healed quickly. They were only tiny things taken from the boy, barely missed. A slight, or a casual cruelty. The bigger holes took longer. The betrayals of trust, the harsh laughter that came after rejection. The largest, the one nearest his center, was the last hole to seal. That wound was deep, where the only hope for love had been stolen. 54


“It’s a dollar a bar, man. You want one or not?” The boy shrugged and turned away. He was whole again, but only on the outside. Hightop sneakers slapped sidewalk as the boy loped to the next house down the street. I wanted to yell after him, and tell him that it wouldn’t work. Hair dye and metal balls through skin weren’t enough of a distraction. Just more lies, more skins, to wrap up in. Hollow hopes. Nothing could actually become the cocoon it spun. I wanted to tell the boy that sleeping pills would taste bitter, and they’d cling to the sides of his throat. It was never a sure thing. He’d live for decades, scorned and scrubbed by strangers in some narrow, shit-stained bed, trapped in a prison of the flesh he hated. The boy disappeared around a corner. He wouldn’t change, any more than my reflection would, if I spent the entire day in front of the mirror—what do you see?—squinting under a weak bulb that showed nothing, and everything. I left the door open, turning back to my apartment. Empty walls, flea market furnishings, chattering television. It was all mine but didn’t belong to me, just like the face in the bathroom mirror. Home was a lie. Another old saying—home is where the heart is. Both were gone, for me. And then I was walking. Out the door, down the stairs, across the street. My head was down, and I saw nothing but grass. The town commons. I tried to keep my eyes on wet sneakers, dotted with green clippings, but my head wouldn’t stay down. Like my eyes had to see. A pure, morning sun burned; hiding nothing. A white-haired woman in a black power-suit walked briskly over asphalt, high heels snapping like the blood-crusted whip in her hand, meant for her aging, unmarried daughter. She sped past a young couple sitting on a blanket, who smiled as they fed each other bits of cheese. Both of them had rows of insect legs that twitched as they picked chunks from each other’s flesh. A young woman jogged behind them, her golden ponytail flopping. She was nothing but skin stretched tight across bone, and her body weakened with each step. Her stomach was empty, near to collapsing, but she still felt too full. When she reached the crest of a bridge, she passed a teenage girl whose hands were clamped to her ears. The girl had no voice, but still shouted you hate and I hate and we all hate! On the bank of the creek beneath the bridge was a toddler with a black electrical cord looped around his throat. He tossed a baseball with an older boy who looked just like him. Except for the snarling dog-mouth that split his face. 55


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And there were more and more and more. A few of them saw me. They waved, like they knew me. I collapsed onto a peeling park bench, and buried my head in my hands. When I looked up again, there was someone sitting beside me. *** “I…I didn’t realize I was wearing this,” I say, feeling awkward and freakish under her stare. Feeling crooked. “You don’t wear it all the time?” she says, leaning close, almost whispering, like she’s asking me to share a cherished secret. I wish I had one to give. Taking the ring off, I squeeze it in my palm, gold digging into my skin. “No. I don’t.” Jake starts crying in his carriage. His tears sound further away than the other end of a bench. Maggie says, “I think somebody’s awake.” She turns away and plunges her hands into the carriage. I open my fist and pinch the ring between two fingers, a smooth gold band with no frills, no inscription. Only my distorted reflection in the metal as I bring it closer… …and there’s a woman standing in a small, dark room. She’s young and plain but radiant when she smiles. When she smiles at me. And she’s wearing a white wedding dress but the veil can’t obscure her face, and no one else is around because this is her moment. No, our moment, and no one else’s, and she’s laughing, and I can’t hear it but I don’t need to. I know what she sounds like. What Jenny sounds like. Maggie says, “Jake, say hi to Adam.” I put the ring back on. Left hand this time. My hands fold, ring sinking into skin. Jake is baby-fat, milky white, wispy blond hair and saucer-big blue eyes. Fragile and beautiful, and Maggie looks more attractive and more damaged, holding him. Jake fusses and reaches for something invisible. “So, your wife is…?” Maggie asks, pushing me back. I deserve it. “Jenny’s gone,” I say. It could be a lie, but it tastes true in my mouth. “I’m so sorry.” 56


I shrug because I can’t remember if Jenny is someone I should mourn. Maggie says, “Seems this bench has seen some rough times lately.” She keeps pushing and it makes me nervous. I think about the ring and feel its weight on my finger and I don’t think I’m ready. “Jake’s a cute boy.” “Would you like to hold him?” I should say no, not today, not ever. I should run and never look back. “Okay.” Maggie scoots closer to me. In my head, I hear I’m the one who needs to be held but she just smiles and hands her twitchy son to me. My arms curl, cradling, like they know what to do. Jake is light, like his bones are hollow, like his skin is paper thin. Life will thicken it for him. Then, like everyone else he’ll be too heavy, unable to bear his own weight. I blink and tears are close, but I don’t know why. I never know why. The baby in my arms reaches for my nose… …and my eyes water because all the windows are open and the sunlight stings. It’s almost too bright to see. Half-blind, I walk through a living room. These walls are mine, but they aren’t bare anymore. My walls aren’t empty, they’re emptied. These walls are lined with pictures, once-smiling faces bleached by sunlight, features dissolved into their skin. The house is quiet except for my shoes clacking on hardwood. The light in the kitchen is unbearable, melting the vinyl floor. I close my eyes and wait for the light to die. It takes a long time. But everything happens eventually. When I can see again, Jenny is sitting at the table holding a baby. I smile, because the little boy is using two of her fingers as a pacifier. She doesn’t smile back. The baby isn’t moving and her fingers, down to the knuckle, are still in the baby’s mouth. The child isn’t moving but his throat is. It crawls where Jenny’s fingertips push the skin under his neck. “He wouldn’t stop crying,” she says. And he isn’t moving, except for his rippling throat. “I just wanted him to be quiet,” she says. “Just for a moment.” And he’s so still, except for the red streaks blooming in his eyes. There’s something warm and wet on my face. And on my hand. Tears on my cheek, a tiny mouth on my finger. I say nothing, swallowing, backing up. Light fills the kitchen again, more intense than before as Jenny yanks her fingers from his mouth and I can’t tell blood from nail polish. The baby doesn’t move and she rubs his baby-fat cheeks, milky-white, his wispy blond hair. The scene bleeds away into pure white light and I can’t see anymore. But I can hear. 57


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“Look,” Jenny says, “how peaceful. Adam looks just like you right now.” I can’t breathe; fingers wedged down my throat. “I just wanted to…,” Jenny whispers. “Like you always…” I look down, waiting for the infant’s skin to wither and fall away. Showing me what’s underneath, showing me what’s to come. But all I see is perfect pink flesh. My skin shimmers, next to Jake’s lips. But it’s an illusion. “I think he likes you,” Maggie says, voice near to breaking. She smiles again, and it fits her face this time. There’s nothing to ask her. Everything she could show me is in the mirror of her eyes. It makes sense, that I looked so familiar to her. To all of them. I see myself in her now. It’s the old joke again. The man with skin on only one side. The reflection in Maggie’s eyes makes the joke a lie. Skin has two sides, but only one can be seen at a time. If someone had only seen skin from the inside, their entire life, what would they think was right? “It’s me,” I say. “It was my fault.” “What?” Maggie’s hands come up, like she wants to take her son away from me. Then she steeples her fingers and pretends it was only a careless gesture. She’s seeing through me now, even if she doesn’t know it. “Jenny. My wife. She hurt… she… our child….” I don’t need special sight to see into Maggie’s head. She’s remembering: the headlines, the reporters, the endless experts on television pondering why a new mother would murder her baby. Some wiry-haired matron from a woman’s rights group, throwing terms around like post-partum something. I‘d looked so familiar to everyone. But it wasn’t all a reflection of their pain. They’d seen me on the news. “It wasn’t your fault.” Her hand is on my arm. A hand that cradled a dying husband. She knows pain and guilt. But nobody knows everything. Maggie hadn’t heard the things I’d said to Jenny. About how I wished the baby would be silent, just for a moment. Maggie hadn’t seen the cold fire in my eyes as I’d stormed out of the house that day. She couldn’t know how Jenny had done it for me. But who had Maggie’s husband done it for? I’d never dreamed Jenny was capable of such a thing. If only I’d been 58


able to see inside her, I’d have known what to do. I would’ve been able to save… “Here,” I say, trying to think of some reason to hand Jake back. “I think he’s hungry.” “Nah,” Maggie says. “Just tired and cranky.” She puts him back in the carriage and he stays quiet. The paperback book is open on the grass and she picks it up. Maggie stares at it, absently, flipping the pages with her thumbs. She knows as much about me as I do about her now. Like she’s seen through my lying skin. This might be too much, for both of us. I wonder if there’s anything left to say. Maybe there’s nothing left to do but bide time until our eyes close for good. Maggie gets up, and slowly walks away, pushing her son in his carriage. Her shoulders are hunched, and she looks so small. Each step, each turn of a wheel seems like forever. When she stops, I think I hear her take a deep breath. “Will you be here tomorrow?” she asks, not turning around. I can’t force any air up or down my throat. All I can do is nod. Maggie nods, too, and I hope she knows. Then she vanishes around the curved pathway. The midday sun is high in the sky. People bustle past my bench, all wrapped up in their skin and their skins. I can’t see through either. I only see them. My eyes are so tired. I stand up and walk through the park and toward home. I’m pressing my thumb against my ring, gold buried in skin, and my heart aches. And it’s a start.

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MEAT’S STORY (CITY PIER) My story begins with my parents. Yeah, I know, doesn’t everybody’s? I never knew my mother. She split when I was baby. So she’s really only the prologue of me. Then the early chapters are about my father, about him choosing booze and drugs over little things like food and clothes, about him using me and my birthday cake as drug-mules on my tenth birthday, about him and all those nights when he brought home whores and junkies, about how I’ll never forget the sounds they used to make, like dead people screaming…. So all those early chapters are about my piece-of-shit father Nah, fuck that. He only deserves one chapter. And let’s call it Trust. The cool thing about that title is that it’s ironic. My father never trusted anyone. Anyone. His son included. And with the passage of years and my current circumstances (which is me stuck hundreds of feet below City) I now appreciate the sentiment. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll skip through most of the early stuff. Because I know we all have similar early chapters. It’s the lucky ones who can forget. Me? I’ve never been all that lucky. *** Midnight. The usual rendezvous time. And I walked the beach a mile outside of City Pier. A dead night with no stars. Even at this distance, that floating mountain of City lights and omnipresent City smog blotted out 61


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the night sky. But like a sucker who keeps playing three-card-Monte even though he’s lost every hand, I kept looking for stars. The new client had beaten me to the beach and was waiting for me. Like he was supposed to. But he wore a tailored suit, cut tight to his lean frame. Black and probably silk, and probably illegal. That he was not supposed to do. My father used to say any man wearing a suit after dinner is as trustworthy as a cat in a canary house. Considering my son-of-a-bitch father kicked my ass to the City streets when I was thirteen that was some damn solid advice. Advice I didn’t heed. “You were told to wear comfortable clothes and nothing that would call attention to yourself, pal,” I said. Christ, how did he make it past the City border checkpoints in that suit? I knew those cops were dirtier than mud (hell, I’d paid them off on Harry’s behalf on countless occasions), but it was still shocking to be reminded that yeah, they were that dirty. Should’ve probably called the whole thing off. But this guy had the potential to be a huge client. So I had been told. “I am comfortable,” he said. “Your checkpoint pals didn’t so much as blink as I strolled by. And do you see anyone else around?” He ran a spidery hand through shoulder-length brown hair. Between the fog, odd lighting from City, and that curtain of long hair, I didn’t get a good look at his face, but I saw that smile. Like he was a little kid who knew he was going to get away with something and there was nothing I could do about it. Yeah, should’ve probably taken my scumbag-junkie father’s advice. Probably should’ve called the whole thing off. I said to the guy, “Don’t crack wise with me, pal.” Trying to reassert who was in charge, I grabbed his right arm—yeah, definitely silk, and definitely illegal—and added a growling, “Let’s go.” “Lead on, McDuff,” he said. I hoped Harry was listening. He never let me walk without a tap, but I knew he wasn’t always listening either. He’d been getting sloppy with success. Me and the new client walked along the ocean, with small waves breaking at our feet. Those waves never really changed size down here. They didn’t swell, even if there was a storm. It was like the bay water was a small-time burglar, trying to sneak up on you, trying his best to be quiet. 62


Hey, did I mention that my father burgled? That probably goes without saying. But we had to move from apartment to apartment because he kept ripping off our neighbors. The fucker was so lazy and stupid (or maybe he really didn’t give two shits) he’d steal from home. There’s probably some wisdom in that, but it doesn’t really matter. Alright, me and the client at the Pier: Even after all the years working for Harry, the sheer monstrosity of the Pier never failed to humble me, even depress me a bit. That maze of stripped but still standing sequoia trees, with those trunks as thick as buildings, with those branches molded into the intricate lattice of support beams and struts, that practically infinite network of wood that went for hundreds of feet above the water and for miles and miles along the jagged coastline… Seeing the Pier from the outside is different than being in it. I know. It’s like looking at a mountain-sized cathedral that you knew you’d never enter. You stood and stared at it, its odd beauty with its crazy angles stretching to the sky and you admired the mind-numbing design and you ached to go in and be part of it. But it also looked dark, alien, like it shouldn’t be there, and meeting the folks inside it or meeting the folks who had built it or meeting the reason, the why, the who this thing was built for was the last thing you wanted to do, and that was the only thing in your life that was a certainty. But you didn’t walk away. You just stood, stuck in an infinite loop, and stared and stared and stared…. That was what it was like to see City Pier from the beach. Being inside the Pier, inside the monster? You’re a hopelessly lost blood cell that doesn’t know if it’s in a vein or an artery or a capillary and can’t find its way to the heart. That dead forest beneath City. City, my home-shit-home, rested on the shoulders of the wooden giants, with its concrete and steel and plastic and lights and traffic and people and corruption. All run like a watch with an unwound spring. I had a real job as a City-cabbie, but could only depend on Harry for a steady paycheck. I’d been stiffed by countless fares and the cab company skimming too much from the top, and at some point the company was stiffed by the City selectman who regulated the cabs, and Mr. Selectman was collecting on a kickback that was never kicked back…. City slept, ate, fucked, and was fucked without any thought as to what was below. City operated on the out-of-site-out-of-mind principal, just ask recent deportees. 63


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All reasons why Harry had set up shop down here. Now, every client I’d even taken under City and into the Pier had some type of grandiose reaction. Dropped jaws were standard, projectile vomiting on a few occasions. For most the vision was too much. And it always worked to Harry’s advantage later when it was bargaining time. But this new guy had no reaction. He said nothing. He didn’t look up. He didn’t look out to sea. He didn’t run a hand along the wood. And he still had that goddamn smile on his face. That I’m-going-to-eat-you smile. My father once told me any man with a poker face away from the card table is as trustworthy as a dentist with a mouthful of gold teeth. I knew Harry was going to have to be careful with this guy. “Do you hear that?” I asked. Scratching and shuffling above. I craned my neck but didn’t see anything, including a reaction from Joe-emotionless. “Nope.” “This is your first time down here, right?” I said, almost screaming. “What do you think?” “Oh, it’s…um…neat.” His hands stuffed in his pockets. I stopped walking and pushed him against a post so large it would have taken me a full minute to walk its circumference “Look, pal. I don’t know what your act is, but show some goddamn respect. This is City Pier, remember? Does that ring a bell? City Pier has more wood than a so-called rain forest. City Pier has its own weather for Chrissakes. Down here, it rains on sunny days and doesn’t rain on stormy ones. Look above. That’s a cloud. A cloud of ocean fog mixed with the fumes of exhaust and sewerage and garbage that gets pumped below City, and I know you can smell all that.” I talked fast with my fat mug just inches from his. “Remember when I asked you if you heard something? And I know you did, pal. Those shuffling sounds above us were either rats or Pier Fellows, as I like to call them. Remember them? Homeless folk deported below City?” He didn’t move off the post and he didn’t push me away. Instead, he laughed and said, “Thanks for the civics lesson, chum. I was hoping to see a few of those unfortunates while I was down here. You know, a nice bedtime story for the wife and kids.” There were wild stories and legends of what went on under the Pier. Lots of crazy stuff floating around City. The most popular stories were about roving packs of cannibals. Most people wanted to believe that. It 64


helped them deal with City-life if they believed it was so much worse in the Pier. I knew better, of course, but I didn’t tell anyone different. So I said to the guy, “In my ten years of working down here, and despite all the homeless who get shipped down here every month, I’ve only seen a handful of them.” Of course, I lied. And I kept on lying. “And they ain’t pretty. Believe me. But I guess you, despite the fancy and illegal suit, wouldn’t look too good either if you lived on rats, pigeons, and whatever filth is pumped from above. “Down here in City Pier is its own world, pal. Act accordingly.” Yeah, I know. I probably laid it on too thick, and the guy could sense it. He was making me nervous, making me say and do things I’d never done with another client. I let go of his arms and let him step away from the post I’d pinned him to, and that fucker was still smiling. Christ, he looked young enough to be a sneering teenager, definitely too young to be some new, high-octane gunrunner that Harry had claimed he was. He said, “Now, can we go see Harry or do I have to suffer through more of your bullshit-documentary on life under the pier?” He sang the last bit with a weird accent. This guy had brass balls. We walked. Winding our way around the thickest posts, we headed away from the coastline cliffs to which Pier and City were moored, away from the sandy stretch of beach and out to sea. I expected a complaint when we stepped into the water. I got none. The shuffling sounds above increased. Some of the Fellows just taking a peak at what was going on. No different than any of my other client-trips to Harry’s. Even though he’d yet to show any signs of cracking, I took another shot at fucking with this guy. I said, “You hear that? The Fellows. They get a little excited when I hit the water with a client. Because if one of us can’t make that swim, if one of us drowns….it’s dinnertime, Fellow style.” I needed to see him sweat, to have this guy squirting in his pants, but not because it made my job any easier. His reaction wouldn’t change my paycheck. I just didn’t like this punk. I wanted to see him suffer, even in a small way. It would’ve made me feel better. “You’re boring me, Meat,” he said. I won’t make a big deal out of the fact that my father used to call me ‘Meat.’ I’ll only say again that I knew Harry was going to have to be real 65


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careful with this one. We waded in the shallow and warm bay water up to our waists. The gentle tap of ocean against wood echoed, almost musical, the plinks of a xylophone. I pulled out my water-proof flashlight, but it didn’t help much. Wood and water extended beyond us into darkness. “Are we there yet?” he said, whining in falsetto. “Bet you’re wishing that you didn’t wear the suit now, huh wise-guy? Almost there. Harry is about a five minute swim once the water is over our heads.” He stopped walking. “That, I will not do. No, sir. Harry didn’t say anything about swimming.” This was interesting. Harry always made it a point to let a client know about the dip, as he liked to call it. I couldn’t decide if Harry had forgotten to tell him, or that he’d done this on purpose, to push some buttons, to get an advantage. Either way, it was up to me to get this guy in the water. “That’s the deal, pal. We swim out,” I said and gave him my smile, my you-don’t-know-as-much-as-you-think-you-do smile. And it felt damn good. “Typical,” he said. “What’s typical?” “I thought I was dealing with a pro. The great Harry Faulk. And he goes and pulls this Mickey Mouse shit on me. A pro doesn’t leave out details. A pro covers all the bases.” “I don’t know what to tell you, other than get swimming.” He said nothing, but then he clapped his hands a couple times and let out a big laugh. This guy regained his composure awful quick. And there was that smile again, all teeth. He said, “I want a boat, fat-ass, or I ain’t coming.” Can’t say I liked the fat-ass comment, even if it was true. I said, “There is no boat.” “I’m not swimming stroke-one.” “What’s the matter, little boy? Are you afraid of the water?” I said it trying to keep this guy on edge. But it didn’t work. Because it sounded just like something my father would say. Something that sounded so mean but had long since lost its bite. So the guy said, “Nope. I dig the agua like a whore digs her heels.” “Christ, what’s the problem then?” “There’s lots of problems. If I’d known about the swim, we’d be all set. I would’ve had time to prepare.” 66


“You’re just going to have to suck it up. There’s nothing to prepare. Unless you want to leave your suit coat on the beach,” I said, and tried on a laugh. It didn’t fit. “How do I know that you won’t lose me on the swim? I mean, I know it’s unlikely given your ass-size, but you could be the husky-class breaststroke champion for all I know, and ditch me in the water like I’m some date that doesn’t put out.” “That’s not going to happen. But it might if you keep calling me fat-ass.” “Sorry to offend, Meat. But I’m not wild about the idea of being stuck in the water with no idea of what direction is what. You’ve already turned me around enough times trying to fuck with my sense of direction.” Okay, this guy was finally scared, finally in the right frame of mind. So I thought. “Look, you’re a client. We’re not enemies, kid. At least not yet.” “You don’t know that, do you?” “What are you saying?” “What I’m saying, what I’m talking about are the possibilities, Meat. And with this swim, there’s a whole slew of them I haven’t had the opportunity to consider.” He ticked off his points rapid-fire, pointing and grabbing his long fingers like they were trying to jump out of his hands. “How do I know you won’t ditch me? How do I know you won’t put a bullet in my head while I’m splish-splashing around? How do I know I won’t simply panic and drown under the stress?” “If you can’t swim, I can’t help you, asshole. But otherwise, fucking relax. I’m playing it straight.” The guy shakes his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. But what about you, Meat? Do you have your bases covered? Have you considered the possibilities? How do you know I’m not such a good swimmer that I could take you out, then move onto Harry. How do you know I didn’t slip a weapon past the checkpoints? How do you know I’m not here on Harry’s behalf, to take your place, to sink that stone who knows too much?” I knew the guy was stalling, but I have to admit, he had my head in a mess. I said, “I don’t waste my time with possibilities. I worry about something when it’s moved to probable.” “Here’s some advice, Meat: A man in your line of work gets hurt when they think only in probabilities.” My father once told me any man that can talk you into eating a pile of shit is as trustworthy as a kiddie-diddler on a Boy Scout camping trip. 67


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And this guy had me ready to chew on a mouthful. “Gee, thanks, dime-store Buddha. Are we going to do this or are you going to talk about more shit that will never happen?” “Hey, don’t misinterpret me, Meat. I didn’t say any one situation was any more likely than the other. As I said, I just like to make sure I cover all the bases. And I’m sure your employer does the same.” I said, “True enough. But you won’t be seeing….” A burst of static from my chest and then Harry’s voice poured out of the two-way tap: “No swim, no deal.” I laughed. “You heard the man. What’s it gonna be?” The guy extended a mock-chivalrous arm . “Lead on, McDuff.” I leaned into the ocean without dunking my head. I was a good swimmer. But I didn’t like to get my face or head wet. My father taught me how to swim by tossing me into the community pool. He taught me how to hold my breath by holding my head under water. I still remember the taste and sting of the industrial-strength chlorine they used to combat the bacteria and inevitable flood of kid piss. Mostly, I remember what it felt like having him holding me under, and I remember looking out of the water and seeing those balloon and dragon tattoos on my father’s arms (the same dragon tattoos that marked him and all his drug-dealing-buddies) looking all blurry and wavy, black dragon-head and green dragon-tail rolling over each other and around the balloons, like his tattoos were alive…. I heard the guy’s splash behind me, and soon he was swimming next to me. Five minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but it is when it’s a swim. Intimidating as hell with your head bobbing at the opaque surface and that endless web of wood sprawling into the darkness above and around you. Now, I was in good shape for the swim, his fat-ass comments notwithstanding. I’d done the swim maybe a thousand times. Harry and I were always tinkering with navigating my doggie-paddle to his cabin. We’d make new, subtle, always subtle, marks on the posts, a scratch here, a gouge there, a trail of breadcrumbs that we’d only know. But really it was just a safety net. I could’ve done that fucking swim with my eyes closed. A few seconds into our doggie-paddle, the guy made a quick splash, like he was punching at the water. 68


They must’ve been patting him down. Harry’s security. And no one got by his security, his engineered creatures, his bioforms (that’s what Harry called them), his aquatic Frankensteins. Those things checked the clients for weapons that could still function after a night stroll in the salt water. If they found anything, Charlie Client went under with a blub. I’d seen it happen a handful of times. No warning. No dying screams. No deal with Harry. I don’t know if they tore the thug to pieces and gnawed on ’em for a snack or if they just drowned the thug who resurfaced later for a little dead-man’s-float somewhere under the Pier. And I never stuck around to find out. The guy punched at the water again. “I knew you’d come around,” I said. Those things always freaked the shit out of the clients, and with good reason. Advantage, Harry. They usually didn’t touch me. Not sure if it was part of Harry’s design or program, or if they were just used to me. But I always sensed the wake of their movements underwater. Felt like the brine was grabbing at my ankles and legs whenever one swam too close. But every once and a while, one bumped into me. Quick, but more purpose than accident, like they were reminding me who and what was boss. They were spongy, but there was still the threat of power and violence. More splashing from my newly quiet friend. Man, those things were really giving him the once-over. I said, “Getting tired or are you just making waves for fun?” He probably was tired. That suit had to be weighing him down. The guy splashed me, like he was my punk little brother or something, and I swallowed a mouthful of water I wasn’t happy with that, but kept my mouth shut, figuring that no response was more threatening than anything I could say to him at that point. He said, “Figures Harry would make his clients do this swim.” I’d never thought of the swim as strange. I always thought of it as Harry’s big advantage. Hell, it was brilliant. How well would you be able to barter and dicker after the aquatic-rub-down, then being cold and sopping during your meeting with Harry, knowing you can’t go back to City empty handed, knowing you had to rely on me and Harry to get you out from under the Pier and back to City? 69


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Did I like Harry? Hard to say. We weren’t friends. Didn’t talk, didn’t hang out. During my years of employment, I’d only ever been in his company when with a client. So I sure as hell didn’t know the guy. But I always admired his ability to think a few steps ahead. That’s a rare thing. A quality I certainly don’t have, or didn’t inherit. We swam directly into a post that had a small group of seemingly random scratches (and the scratches were just above the water line, too close to the water to see from a boat). I slapped the post and said, “Almost there, my fishy.” We swam around the perimeter, and on the post’s backside, like an oasis, was Harry’s place. A log cabin, complete with smoking stove pipe peeking from the roof. About the size of a diner, anchored to a post, and a floating temporary dock surrounded the place like a wooden moat. “Thar she blows,” the guy said. “I was hoping to get molested some more by Harry’s underwater friends. Alas.” A floodlight aimed at us blinked on and the cabin’s door opened. Harry’s silhouette filled the doorway. I said, “Follow me to the dock. I get out first, then you. Then you walk, real slow, with me behind your soggy-suited ass to the cabin,” I said. The deck was a skeleton of wooden slats and boards, loosely strung together, and only wide enough for single-file walking. I’d fallen off the damn thing, more than once. I planted my hands on the deck and pushed my body out of the water, then swung my right leg onto the deck and stood. I said, “You climb up over here.” The guy slipped on his first two attempts but managed to roll onto the deck. He stood and his silk jacket and pants drooped and dripped like an old sponge. Only my skin was wet. I was wearing Harry’s specially designed clothes. Yeah, Harry was one smart fucker. Too smart for his own good. Kinda like a brainiac-kid in school who wasn’t afraid to tell you that he knew everything, but wasn’t smart enough to not have folks getting in line to prove him wrong, or knock the shit out of him. “Walk,” I said. And the client did, without a smartass comment, toward the door and Harry, who had stepped into the doorway and had a towel in each hand. “What a fucking idiot you are,” he said to the client. Harry wasn’t a tall guy, but he was wide, and built like one of the Pier’s posts. Thick and 70


olive-skinned biceps and forearms bulged out of his black tee shirt. His shaved head was an equally formidable muscle. Harry Faulk was once a famous molecular biologist and chemist and physicist. Then he became a government weapons designer and shill. Then he became legend, fable, a crime-boogeyman, living forgotten—except by the mob and gangs of City—under the Pier. Now he’s the most popular and elusive weapons dealer above or below City. The guy says to Harry, “I aims to please, Dad.” Dad? I wasn’t sure if this guy was for real or if he was just calling Harry the equivalent of Pops or something. Either way, I didn’t like it. Harry threw both of us a towel. Mine had a handgun inside. Small caliber, but loaded with hollow points. I slipped the gun under my shirt and belt. Harry sighed, loosing all his air. He sure looked like a Dad talking to a screw-up son. “What’s so important that you had to come out here?” The guy shook his head like a dog drying himself and then toweled off. “Aren’t you going to invite me into your office?” I couldn’t hold it in any longer. He’d worn my patience to a nub. Can’t say I’m the most violent guy you’d ever meet, but I’m not above it. So I rabbit punched the smartass right in the kidneys and he dropped to his knees. “Easy on my kid, Bill.” My father once told me never get between a father and his son, if you do, you deserve what you get. Another one of those pithy lessons that went unlearned. We all went inside the cabin, me bringing up the rear, just like always. Inside was a technological wonderland. Computers, centrifuges, incubators, conductors, magnetizers, closed circuit monitors, lab stations, hydraulics, a mini-cryogenic chamber, a wall-sized refrigerator/freezer, aquariums filled with tubes and off-color solutions, even an eye-wash station. All of it crammed inside the floating cabin. The computer-lined wall opposite the entrance could open like airplane hangar doors. Behind and pitched four feet higher than the floor was a hollowed out section of the anchor-post. Inside was a gaudy supply room, filled with experimental weapons and his rations, a full and functional bathroom, and a cramped sleeping space—only enough room for a cot and a clothing box. Tethered outside the cabin were two floating generators that ran—virtually silent—on a combo of vegetable oil and salt water, along with an inflatable but motorized-boat capable of transporting a 1000 lbs of cargo. 71


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Harry’s kid said, “Quite the setup, Pappy. I can see why you left Ma and me for this.” Still hadn’t heard the kid’s name, and I wasn’t about to ask. Harry was leaning against the fridge and looked like he was ready to shit a watermelon. Can’t say I blamed him. This kid of his surely didn’t come by for a game of catch. Harry asked, “What do you want?” If the weapons order was small enough, the client left with his purchase in his pocket. Otherwise, Harry arranged to boat some stuff over to a guy at the Pier Dump, then his Dump-guy shipped the stuff up to the City surface through the garbage lines. “Would you believe some fatherly advice? Or a hug? Whaddya say, big fella?” The guy opened his dripping arms wide and walked toward Harry. I stayed by the door with my hand in my pants and on the gun. “Jesus, stop! Right there! Goddamn, you’re getting water all over the place.” “I love you too, Dad.” Harry shook his head like he was looking at one of those abstract paintings that would never make any sense. He grabbed two towels off the top of the fridge and threw them at the kid. “Clean up your mess,” Harry said. “Hey Bill, you have any kids?” “None that I know of,” I said, trying my best to keep playing the heavy, the violent goon standing by the door just waiting for the high sign. Truth was, I wasn’t all that good at the rough stuff. And with Harry, it never really came up. Hell, I did more fighting with cab rides than with Harry’s clients. “Smart man, Bill. My advice is not to start,” Harry said and then folded his arms across his thick chest. “Yeah, Bill. Especially if you’re going to be a piece-of-shit father like mine,” the kid said. And for the first time that night, I heard a subtle change in his voice. I don’t know if Harry noticed, but I did. After years of riding in the cab and listening to thousands of conversations that weren’t meant for me, I picked up a few things—the nervous laughter and slight tone changes of lies, the weighty pauses of indecision and of lost hope, the cough and swallow of tough memories and fought tears and ass-kicked spirit. I heard the chink in this guy’s armor of sarcasm. I heard real emotion. And I had to admit, I felt for the guy. Similar background and all. Similar piece-of-shit father. But I wasn’t getting paid to feel. Harry turned to me and nodded. I pulled the gun out of my pants and planted the barrel in the kid’s spine. 72


My father once told me that any man whose work comes before his morals is as trustworthy as a thirsty dog in a roomful of toilets. Isn’t that a ball-breaker? My father flapping his lips about morals. This was the same guy who took my schoolbooks and sold ’em, the same guy who pushed drugs to the older kids while walking me to school, the same guy who begged money off my grandparents (his ill-fated in-laws), feeding them some tale-of-woe about how he couldn’t afford to keep their poor motherless grandson in City’s only private elementary school, which, of course, was a lie bigger than the goddamn Pier. How do I know? Well, Dad stuck a five-year-old me on the phone with Grammy and Grampy to tell them how much I loved Ms. Powell (yeah, Ms. Powell, the wanted-to-retire-ten-years-ago teacher in charge of a room of seventy five-year-olds; that blind old biddy never even knew my name) and how if I had to go to City School those mean City kids would make me cry (at least that part was true, because I was going to fucking City School and sitting in that room with Ms. Powell, and getting my head kicked in by the older kids, and everyday coming home in tears to find Daddy missing or passed out or fucking somebody or high or helping someone else get high). “So much for the father and son reunion,” I said, trying to sound mean. Harry pushed his face right into his son’s. “I’m a busy man, kid. And I’ll only ask one more time. What do you want?” The kid said, “What does anyone want? What I want is what you can sell me, Harry.” Now there was a sentiment my Daddy could relate to. Harry smiled that smile of his. That I-win-and-I-always-win smile. “Now you’re speaking my language. Okay, Bill.” I slowly took the gun off his back. “I knew you two would work it out,” I said. “It’s goddamn beautiful.” “Shall we peruse the showroom? Why not? We’re family, right?” Harry laughed. He’d noticed how affected his son sounded and, as usual, was ready to use any sign of weakness to his advantage. The kid peeked into the tanks and tapped his fingers on the blinking consoles and monitors. “I don’t think that will be necessary, old man. I know what I want and I doubt that you have it back there.” “You don’t know what I have back there.” “What I want, dear father, and all I need, is what’s out there,” the kid said and pointed outside. “I want one of those things that felt me up on the 73


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swim. Do I owe you any money for that lap dance, by the by? Man, those things had some magic fingers, woo!” Harry laughed, the SOB sounding just like my father. “My bioforms aren’t for sale, kid.” “Oh, I’ve got plenty of cash, old man. If it’s one thing you taught me: there isn’t anything that doesn’t have a price.” “So where’s the money coming from? Mommy?” “Nope. The lyin’, cheatin’, and criminal blood must run in the family, ’cause I’ve got a successful bizness of my own now in City.” The guy winked at me. Harry flinched, and I can’t be sure, but I think I saw rage-red bloom into his cheeks. He said, “Is that right? Doing what?” “Oh, I like to think of myself as the servant of the citizenry. Give the people what they want and all that fun stuff, right Harry? Whores, drugs, murder for hire, you name it. I must say, I far exceeded my own expectations with how fast and how easily I was able to establish myself and eliminate enemies with the help of your name and street-rep.” “Sounds like you already owe me, kid.” Harry was chewing on his teeth behind wire-tight lips. I’d never seen him like this. So angry. So not in control. The kid said, “Last chance to make a lot of dough, Harry. I want to buy one of those monsters.” Harry punched a few buttons on the consol and stepped away from the rear wall. “Hey, Bill, is this kid deaf or just fucking stupid?” “Maybe both,” I said still clutching my gun like it was a good luck charm, some damned rabbit foot or four leaf clover. “I do have more persuasion, and it involves both you and your breast-stroke champ,” the kid said. Harry folded those arms across his chest again. Background hum of machines and electricity filled the beat of silence. My father once told me only thing a man can really trust is his gut. My gut had a bad, bad feeling about what the kid was about to say. And damn, I hated it when my father turned out to be right. “Harry, be a good boy and type in surveillance code XA1633-L for that monitor over there. And please, give me some credit, I know any byte-head worth their salt can break into City’s closed circuit grid,” the kid said and then sat on a foam chair with a slosh. “Fuck you. No one gives me orders, here.” 74


“Well, as I mentioned before, it does concern you and your side of meat. Deeply.” Harry stomped over to a workstation sandwiched between aquarium tanks. After a surprisingly low amount of keystrokes the big monitor on the back wall filled with an image of a dank alley lined with garbage, and on the floor, a body. “Ten points to anyone that can name that stiff,” the kid said. “Santa Claus,” I said. An awful joke that did nothing to ease the tension that was almost as thick as the bravado in the room. Harry ignored me. “Julius Steps,” he said. “Holy shit!” I couldn’t stop myself. The most powerful drug-lord in City. Dead. “When the police find the carcass, they’ll also find a brilliantly manufactured cache of DNA evidence that points its amino acid finger at you two chumps. Now, I wouldn’t worry so much about the police as I would mob retribution. Those guys tend to get a little cranky when stuff like this happens. Sure, the cops will do the grunt work, but once forensics sells the info to the moles, it will be Steps’ boys who will come a’ callin’.” “You’re bluffing,” Harry said, and goddamn him, he was laughing. Jesus, I was expecting to hear proud of you, son spill out of his mouth. “No, I’m not. I won’t bore you with the details, but gathering the genetic evidence was surprisingly easy. A collection of hairs from Meat’s cab took care of him, and between Mom’s and my DNA, we were able to extract yours, dear father.” “That must’ve cost you a bundle,” Harry said. “If I learned anything from you, it’s money can buy anything.” “How sweet, a walking fucking greeting card,” I said with the gun aimed at his head. Damned if I was going to let the guy who just signed my death sentence leave Harry’s without a couple of extra holes. I knew I should’ve left this guy on the beach. “Let’s not do anything rash, Meat. If Harry cooperates, I’ll have the ingeniously planted evidence removed.” “Neat plan, kid. But you do realize this doesn’t affect me in the least. No one can get to me out here. Sure things get a little tough for poor, loyal Bill, but me? Nada,” Harry said. “That’s just great,” I said. “Somehow, I think business as usual would be adversely affect, father. But, I had a hunch you’d feel that way. To up the ante, so to speak, I’ve 75


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replaced your checkpoint cronies with cronies of my own. Surprisingly easy, old man. You’re getting sloppy. From now on, no one goes in or out of the Pier without me knowing, or without me giving the okey doke.” We were fucked. Harry said nothing, and walked toward his son. The kid stood. “I’ll say it again. I want one of those things, only one that doesn’t live in the water. I want you to make one that will protect my house or my office. Hmm, better make it two then.” Harry shrugged, “I’d love to help a kid in need, really I would, but it’s not possible. They only work in water.” “Come on. You’re telling me the great Harry Faulk—the genius hired and fired by the government, the same dirtbag genius who walked away from his family for his work—isn’t capable of making one of those things work on land?” “Can I shoot him please?” I said and I should’ve said more. I should’ve done something to keep Harry from continuing on his discourse. But I didn’t. And I don’t know why I didn’t. You know, maybe I was seeing too much of my old man in Harry, maybe I actually felt bad for this kid. Hell, I don’t know. Harry held up a stop-hand in my direction and yelled, “No, the great Harry Faulk can’t perform the impossible.” Spit flew from his mouth. And in that instant, he lost any semblance of composure or control. And his mouth runnethed over…. “They have to be in water to be controlled, shithead. The bioforms are hundreds of millions of manufactured machines each no bigger than a molecule, nano-tech that I wasn’t able to perfect until after City fired my ass, engineered primal sludge that only respond to the electromagnetic programs and pulses that I transmit through the simplest conductor, water.” Harry had fistfuls of the kid’s shirt, lifted him out of his seat for a close up. Harry’s voice growly and angry and loud. And out of control. “That’s all I need to know,” the kid said and kissed the tip of Harry’s nose. “Love ya, Dad.” The kid hit his own chest once and there was an electronic blat. Then he said, “Watch out for the monitor.” Harry’s eyes grew as big screens and let go of his kid. He said, “Shoot him,” and then he ducked and moved away. Before I could take aim at Harry’s kid (who was diving underneath a computer station), the monitor flashed a blinding white and exploded. A shockwave fist slammed into my chest and threw me against the door, 76


knocking the wind out of me and the gun from my hand. As I slid to the floor, clutching my aching ribs and breastbone, I heard two more muffled explosions outside the cabin and we were plunged into total darkness. Harry was screaming obscenities. A burst of orange flame engulfed the wall to my right. And there was a pounding on the floor from below. “See ya around Meat. Look me up and we’ll go out on the town, my treat.” Laughing, the kid kicked me aside and walked out the front door. I leaned out of the cabin and grabbed his leg. Funny, I noticed it was still wet. “Where you going? I thought you didn’t like to swim,” I said and coughed, my voice weak and raspy, like my old man’s voice. A spotlight shined on the doorway and I saw two small, metal boats docked on the floating pier, each boat manned by hulking shadows. “Like I said, Meat, you’ve gotta cover all the bases,” he said and kicked free of my hand. A scream and a loud crash behind me. I know the kid heard it too, because he turned toward the cabin. His face was a shadow so I couldn’t see his expression, but he paused and didn’t say anything. That means what it means as my old man would’ve said. Shards of wood and a cool splash of water danced on my back. I stood on wobbly legs and stepped inside Harry’s cabin. I had to shade my face from the light and heat as greedy flame engulfed Harry’s main workstation and much of the walls. But the fire didn’t hold my attention. The bubbling geyser of water in the middle of the floor was more interesting. More thuds and crashes from below and the entire cabin shook. Pockets of the remaining floor exploded. Snapping wood sounding like breaking bones. Harry was gone. And his technological universe was sinking but I couldn’t see them, Harry’s security. Can’t say I really understood all of Harry’s nano-tech spiel and I wasn’t sure why they were attacking the cabin (maybe it was a failsafe type of program, or maybe with a few frantic keystrokes Harry turned them into a self-destruct type mode, I really don’t fucking know…), but they were attacking. The cabin pitched toward the right, it was going down, and fast. I jumped out of the door and onto the floating pier, or what was left of it. More screaming outside of Harry’s cabin. One boat floated upside down to the left of me, with no sign of the crew and fist-sized holes in its belly. 77


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The other boat was still upright, it’s engine whining at full throttle, but not going anywhere, pinned against the Pier post and right next to the drowning cabin. The water around the post boiled with unseen activity. Harry’s kid and two goons were in the boat, screaming and firing weapons into the water. And I caught eye contact with Harry’s kid—and I remember having the crazy notion that I was looking in a mirror—before it happened… A swarm of shiny green and black and red and barnacle-covered and spongy-looking amoeba-esque appendages latched onto the side of the boat and pushed. The tin craft crumpled into the men, cutting them in half, and then folded into the Pier post like origami. As the boat disappeared into the water the hunk of wood under my feet cracked and popped. I jumped toward the drowning cabin and grabbed the black pewter door handle and hung on with everything I had. The cabin’s left end was out of the water as the right end sank like a five-hundred pound man who couldn’t swim. I pulled my feet onto the bottom section of the doorframe, gained my balance and scuttled like a crab onto the roof. I didn’t have much time and I only had one chance. The hollowed out post was a good ten feet way and the S. S. Harry was descending like a broken-cabled elevator. I took three desperate steps on the crumbling and melting roof and jumped, arms outstretched and eyes closed. Dipping my right shoulder, I landed and rolled into Harry’s supply room. “Who you callin’ fat-ass now, punk?” I yelled. The cabin and its fires sank, there was only darkness, and the calm rush and plink of the bay waters. *** My father once told me a man never counts his chickens before they’re hatched. Never really appreciated that saying to its fullest extent, until now that is. Turns out that Harry’s kid wasn’t bluffing about planting that DNA evidence on Steps. His boys have been by in their boats two nights in a row. And two nights in a row I watched the bioforms take them down. The next night some fool even tried to fly a helicopter between all the posts and struts but crashed it into the post next to mine. Yeah, I call this hollowed out pole, formerly Harry’s, mine. 78


Because I don’t think I can leave. Harry and I relied on our dirty checkpoint-cops to get us in and out of the Pier and City, and I have to believe they’re gone. So far, anything that hits the water is meat for the bioforms. They haven’t left (and I have no idea why they’re still functioning). There are no real tides to speak of, so no real change in water depth. Swimming out of here is not an option. I’m stuck above the largest bay in the world. I can’t shoot my way out. Bullets have no effect on the bioforms. How about climbing my way out? Word has it that no one has ever climbed out of the Pier. And climbing means scaling the mammoth posts and losing myself in the labyrinth latticework for God knows how long. And I risk loosing my base, my hollowed post and its supplies. While I know the cannibal stories are just that, stories, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain apprehension associated with encountering and dealing with the deported homeless population down here. There’s no safe, and likely no possible way to climb out of the Pier and into City. Looks like it’s too late to be thinking about the possibilities, just like Harry’s punk son told me. And now Harry, the cabin, and his work are all gone. Gone because of the return of his prodigal son, or something like that. There’s some wisdom in there somewhere, I bet. But I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Yeah, I know the supplies won’t last forever and yeah, I’ll have to try something. Maybe I’ll go hunting for the Pier dump and try and track down Harry’s other contacts…. But, for now I have my own private area, have food and water for a while, the Pier Fellows haven’t tried to get me, and I’ll get by. The last thing my father told me, and I remember because he was shutting the door on my face as he said it, was no matter if everything turns to shit, a man looks to the positive side of things. I wish he was here now. He’d be damn proud.

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DOLE AS RIBBIT My mother told me that when I got to heaven, I’d know everything. Sounds cool, right? But even as a kid, I got to thinkin’… That would mean folks in heaven know what’s going to happen to everyone and everything. No more surprises. Example: no fun to root for your favorite team anymore, you know the outcome. And what kind of conversations would you have in heaven? There’s no need for them since everyone already knows everything. So, even as a kid, I thought that heaven sounded damn boring. And it only gets worse. Now employing my adult faculties for deduction, let’s use my dearly departed Granddaddy as our next example. He was a sweet, sweet man who was friends with just about everybody. We’ll assume he’s inside the pearly gates and hence he knows everything. That means he knows what I’m thinking, he knows the violent and perverse urges we all have, the urges that folks who find a lawful place in society suppress for the greater good, or you can say they have morals if you want to be that way. So Granddaddy knows if I’ve been naughty or nice, like a dead Santa without the elves, reindeer, and gifts. He knows when his beloved grandson is jerkin-the-gherkin to the nekkid image of a neighbor or some stranger I passed on the street or Mrs. Hass from the church she’s got one hell of a rack, can I get a Halleluiah from the choir? He sees me choosing between the redhead and the blonde at the Boutique. He sees me skimming the collection plate if I need a little somethin’-somethin’ to make it through another night. 81


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What does Granddaddy think me of now, eh? I must be killing that wonderful bastard all over again. Furthermore, I’m hypothesizing that such omniscience is driving poor Granddaddy insane. Believe me, I know. It’s no fun knowing or seeing other people’s dirty laundry. Nope, omniscience doesn’t sound like heaven to me. I think most folks would agree with me on this one. But just about everyone who believes in God, believes He knows and sees all. And if so, wouldn’t it follow—and this is my biggest fear, bigger than me not saying the right things, bigger than my clothes being out of style, bigger than losing my hair, and yeah, bigger than death—that we’re all driving God insane? No, I’m not a theologian. But did I mention that I’m a Catholic priest? *** Human scum (and literal, damn place is grimy, dank, and disgusting) fill the police station’s foyer. “What can I do you for, Dickie?” I say to Detective Rollins, a hulk of a man with sweat to spare for the entire City. “I need you to work your magic, Padre,” he says loud enough to be heard over the bustling and hustling station. And it’s his dirty cops who are doing most of the hustling, if you catch my subtle-as-an-iceberg drift. I follow Rollins past a thick door, a checkpoint, and down a long, too well-lit corridor of plastic jail cells. My work clothes—you know, black shirt, pants, and shoes—are the only shadows in the place. Prisoners are naked, or if they’ve been in holding long enough, wearing white jumpsuits. They yell at me as I walk by: Father! Father! Help me, Father! Save me, Father! I’ve walked this gauntlet before and it seems everyone is Catholic when the chips are down. I wave a hand in their direction. Sometimes I do a quickie stations-of-the-cross, sometimes a simple bye-bye, sometimes a hand puppet. Doesn’t matter what I do, none of them know any better. On this day, I give them the finger. A round of Bless you, Father bubbles and echoes down the corridor. Shit, this side job is getting more depressing than my man-of-the-cloth gig. But I can’t argue with the pay. Through another self-locking door and we get to Rollins’ private office. 82


As brightly lit as the cellblock is, this room is as dark. No windows, and stacks of paper and food wrappers swallow his desk and computer console. Ceiling light-unit flickers like a strobe light. Sitting magneto-cuffed to a chair tucked between file cabinets is an unshaven and dirty man, maybe late forties. Torn and ragged clothes drip off his skinny frame, hair down to his shoulders, wide brown eyes, and a grin splits his face to his ears. I say, “How’s it hanging?” “Dole as ribbit!” he shouts. Rollins grumbles something at the man, then sits at his desk. Junk spills to the floor and he wipes his balding forehead with a dirty handkerchief. “Likewise I’m sure. Who’s your chum, Dickie? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this man was homeless.” “You don’t know any better, Padre. Take a look at the screen, will you?” Rollins points to a rectangular monitor that hangs from the ceiling like a bat. An image of a dank, anonymous alley sweating garbage, and on the ground, face down, a body. “Ah, I love this movie,” I say. “Ever heard of Julius Steps?” Rollins shuts off the monitor. “I’m a priest, not a moron.” Steps is or was the City’s drug lord. Powerful, feared, and unpredictable. He donates millions to an orphanage one week then shoots up Pier Temple the next. More than half the force is on his payroll, along with most of the incompetents at City Hall. Take my word. Not because I always tell the truth, but because my confessional is the grapevine. I know too much about what goes down above and below City. “Found dead last night. Stabbed ten times.” “Stabbed? Jeeze, a retro-crime. How chic.” “No vid of the perp. But plenty of DNA. Too much for my taste.” “How can there be too much of the old double-helix?” “We found hairs, dead skin cells, even the blood of two gentlemen. Some cabbie and Harry Faulk….” “Shit, this is getting interesting,” I say. Faulk is a weapons dealer that Rollins has been chasing for years, but never been able to find. “No kidding. Now why would Faulk come out of hiding to do that? Wait, let me put my psychic hat on. You don’t think it’s Faulk. You think he’s being set up. This bum…” “Dole as ribbit,” Dickie’s guest says, still smiling. 83


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“Gotcha, chum. So you found this bum in the alley with Steps. He’s a mushhead and you want me to work with him and see what I can see, so to speak.” “That’s about it. I thought you told me that you had to be touching the person to do your freak show?” Rollins leans back in his chair and pulls a can of water from his mini-fridge. “That wasn’t my freak show, Dickie. Just plain old deduction. Now, what’s Mushhead’s deal?” “This ain’t gonna be easy, Padre. He’s homeless and he’s been deported already.” “Are you saying this guy crawled up from the Pier?” Ah, the Pier: the giant wooden shoulders of our fair city, hundreds of square miles along the rocky coastline, sprawling two hundred feet above the ocean, that mind-numbing network of struts and posts and beams, a manmade forest pushing City to the clouds; there’s no known history of how or when it was built, or who built it, and why, but there’s a bunch of theories and legends and fables about its origin, and even a Pier-worshiping religion, which is a hell of a lot more popular than mine, and all of that Pier folklore is quaint and entertaining and about as useful as an abacas in our everyday City lives, and now the ass-kicker, if you’re homeless for more than forty-eight hours and you get caught in a street sweep, you’ll spend the remainder of your waning days below the City, crawling the latticework of the Pier like a spider, only the flies are just as big as you. And there has never been record of anyone crawling up from the Pier. Rollins says, “That’s what I’m saying. I was the first one there. I had to scan this guy’s eyes three times before I believed it myself. I left the crime scene with him, leaving the Simpson Evidence Unit…” “They’re Steps’ boys, right?” Rollins nods. “As dirty as they come. As soon as they heard Steps’ name on the radio, they came a runnin’ and took over the scene. But I got this guy out of there before they noticed. Padre, I need to know what this guy knows.” “Why give a flyin’ rat’s ass if Faulk gets pinned on this one? And I still don’t see why you think he didn’t do it. Unlike people, DNA doesn’t usually lie.” I look at Mushhead, he mutters the same phrase over and over. And yeah, it’s getting fucking annoying. “Can you shut his dirty-ass up for two seconds?” “Easy with the potty mouth, Padre.” He says it likes he means it, downs 84


his can of water, then throws some quick glances around his office. “Have you heard the rumors about some new street player? Another weapons guy to rival Faulk. Word is he’s selling people’s DNA, manufactured DNA.” “I hadn’t heard that yet, Dickie. Sounds like a folktale to me.” “We found some, two months ago on a murder victim. The DNA belonged to some small timer that works the Boutique, still haven’t found the guy yet. Just by chance one of the techs saved the specimen for training purposes. When he pulled the file and DNA evidence weeks later, pieces of the helix chain had deteriorated. We shipped it off to the government’s Alpha lab. They reported back that the sample was synthetic.” “Wow.” “Yeah, wow. And what a mess. Bad enough I’ve gotta worry about Steps’ boys making a bloody run through the City looking for Faulk. Now I’ve got some guy making up DNA and a horde of government clowns to deal with.” “Sounds like you’ve got your hands full of shit, Dickie.” Rollins stands and leans his fat butt on the edge of his desk. “I may be exaggerating here, but I think this case is going to decide the future of this department, even the City. I think the boys in the Simpson Evidence Unit are the ones synthesizing the DNA. They have a tidy bankroll from Steps and they’ve got unquestioned access to our labs. I think they took out Steps, pinned it on a rival crime boss, and are trying to be winners on both sides of the coin.” This is getting too complicated for me. I’m just an honest priest, living day to day with my tax break, plate skims, and Dickie’s freak show jobs. I say, “Slow down, Sherlock. Sounds like you’re making some connections that probably aren’t there.” He doesn’t listen to me. Instead, he points at Mushhead. “I need to know if he saw someone else, someone from the Simpson Unit kill Steps.” “Last time I checked, psychics don’t make good witnesses.” “I don’t need a legal witness, Padre. I just need to know I’m right. Then I can plant this seed with the captain and the government. Let them do the dirty work.” “Thin. Sounds very fucking thin to me, Dickie.” He hands me a wad of cash. Big as a baby’s head. More than he’s ever given me. “You just tell me everything you see.” “Right. And I suppose your story,” and Rollins flinches when I stress the 85


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word, “will be more believable if you supply Big Brother with Mushhead’s escape hatch, too.” “Yeah, something like that.” “What makes you think that I’ll tell you how this poor shlub escaped the Pier? Now, I’m no bleeding heart, but you know I have a problem with the homeless policy. Sort of comes with the white collar.” “I know.” “So why should I tell you where the escape hatch is? I generally don’t like to take a man’s only hope away.” Rollins clacks at his computer. The hanging monitor bursts to life again. “Because this poor shlub is a dirtbag.” On the screen is a shaved, cleaned, and younger version of Mushhead. Name, physical characteristics, and vital statistics. At the bottom of the screen is a NOTES section. It reads: Charged with the first degree murder of his eighteen-month-old son. Deadlocked jury never reached a verdict. Police instead deported him on a homeless charge. Rollins says, “The surveillance vid was ruled inconclusive and inadmissible. The jury couldn’t decide because of conflicting eyewitness reports. He was walking down the 3rd Street hill when he let go of the stroller. Two witnesses testified that he gave it a shove. A third and forth said he stumbled and lost his grip. But all testified that he didn’t try to catch the carriage, he didn’t try and chase after his son. He just stood and watched his boy rocket into the busiest intersection in City. “The D.A. knew he could get this guy on a lesser count, but went after murder one.” After a weighty silence, Rollins adds, “Padre, I know you don’t agree with shipping out all the homeless. For most, their only crime is bad luck. I can sympathize with you there. But this guy doesn’t deserve to be saved.” I don’t say anything because if what he says is true, he’s right. Rollins uncuffs Mushhead. “I’ll have one of my boys clean him up a bit before you leave with him.” “What? I’m not going anywhere with this guy.” “You can’t do it here. If an unfriendly comes by the office and finds you two, I’m cooked. In fact, you’ve been here too long already. You have to take him out of here, just until you get what I need. Padre, your pocket is little heavier than usual because if you get caught with him, I can’t help you out.” Any non-family member caught aiding, as City calls them, a wanton 86


vagrant—man, sounds like a dish I’d get at Ming’s—was subject to deportation. Even a priest. Sanctuary is outlawed and antiquated, almost as antiquated as the notion of a priest saving somebody. “It’s okay, Dickie. I’m used to getting no help.” *** Mom never dreamt I’d become a priest. She pushed me to become a cop. But after decades of secrets and pedophiles and scandals and two mass exoduses—no pun intended—of worshipers and clergy, becoming a priest was as easy as Sunday morning. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read the whole Bible. There’s only one Catholic Church in City compared to fifteen Temples of the Pier. But it’s a big sucker. A magnificent wood, brick, and marble cathedral, five stories tall. I do a morning and evening mass Monday through Saturday, only a handful of old biddies attend those, and then four Sunday masses. More folks attend the Sundays, but it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that most don’t want to be there: you’ve got the brats Grandma dragged to the service, they kick the pews and fold the prayer booklets into funky shapes, then you have the cold-fishes, the ones that just sit there and don’t say the prayers or sing the songs during mass, their faith doesn’t extend past the weekly ritual, the Sunday habit they just can’t kick even though they don’t believe in it anymore. Those people depress me. They’re too much like me. Four Dominican Brothers, each in their sixties, take care of the church maintenance, prepare my readings and homilies, and look after the rectory. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about them. But I will add that they don’t like me very much. I guess they don’t approve of my lifestyle. Can’t please everybody. I just hope none of the old boys come snooping into my room. I’m going to leave Mushhead here while I go blow off some steam at the Boutique. “Dole as ribbit,” he says. He’s lying in a pull-out cot that’s as far away from my bed as possible in my cramped room. His voice sounds weak, muffled by the brick walls. “Shut up,” I say through gritted teeth. I inspect my off-duty outfit. Black cowboy boots with a small gun tucked safely in the right boot, 87


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black-lensed night-glasses, blue jeans, white button-down shirt, and a black leather overcoat only partially cinched at the waist. Mushhead stops talking but is still smiling. Maybe his brain is fried on red-lion or zionblast or, my favorite, nephomene. Or fried on guilt. A man can hope…. I know I need to get this job done and him back to Rollins ASAP, but I can’t deal with him right now. I can’t. Just looking at him pisses me off. I know I should give him the benefit of a doubt, but Rollins has no reason to lie. He knows I’ll find the truth soon enough. And he knows if he fucks with me, I’ll take my gig elsewhere. So this means I have to plumb the mental depths of another human stain. Sorry folks, but the hard truth is that some lives have more value than others. And right now, I value Mushhead’s life about as much as the maggots that fill my rectory’s dumpster. Shocked? Don’t be. And don’t start crying about how some junky was spanked by his Mommy once so he just had to take down the liquor stand and shoot the register jockey between the eyes just to help rebuild his tragically low self-esteem. Reap what you sow, baby. We all have tough times and we all make hard decisions. You can’t tell me that some punk who preys on old ladies or a pusher who sells to kids or a man who kills his own goddamn kid has equal value to someone who lives right, or at least as close to right as possible in the fucking City. My scales don’t tip that way folks. Yeah, I’m a hypocrite. How about you? And what’s my value, you ask? Not sure. But I can tell you it’s more than this kid-killing fuck. Amen. I grab two handfuls of the musty, tweed sports jacket Rollins donated, and pull Mushhead close. “Listen to me.” Now that he’s cleaned up, he looks like a somebody, maybe a quirky professor that shows his pepper-gray streaks of hair with pride. But I still see a kid-killing scumbag. “I’m leaving. Need some me time, coppice? You are going to stay in your cot and not make a sound. Otherwise, I promise you’ll end up in a place that makes the Pier look like an amusement park. The North End Death Matches come to mind.” Of course, I’m bluffing, but like I said, this priest knows way too much about City and isn’t afraid to use that info. Maybe a little omniscience isn’t so bad. 88


He says nothing and I can’t read him. No idea if he even understands a word I’m saying. And I can’t see him, not yet. Maybe after some glass time with Sonya, I’ll be ready. I shut off my light and he’s a shadow in the corner of the room. *** Low clouds and ocean fog obscure the tops of the largest buildings. The sulfur smell of City mixed with brine increases on nights like this. Probably time to get the lungs checked out again. Starlight is only a rumor in City. I walk with purpose. Less chance of being hassled or hustled by the vendors that way. Buses as big as whales struggle down the cramped streets before beaching at street corners. Cabbies and cops dart through traffic like sharks on the prowl. Across the street, just two blocks from the Boutique and her lusty sisters and brothers that constitute the Zone, I see a Pier Wagon. Four cops swinging light-batons load another stunned and flash-burnt homeless person into the van. A group of kids applaud the Wagon show, but the adults walkin’ and workin’ the night streets turn their backs and tend to their own business. They know better. They know that they’re only one paycheck away from Pier life. Maybe I should just drop Mushhead at their heels and say Merry Fucking Christmas. But Rollins is paying big this time. And I need it. And it’s time to spend some of his money. The Zone. A dead end street that’s closed off to traffic. Neon signs hang off gutted and converted brownstones and leer through giant glass windows of the newer sex shops. Baiters stand in front, microphones in hand, selling their wares against a background of loud music. The vendors and dope dealers aren’t relegated to the sidewalk in the Zone. They set up camp in the middle of the street. Like always, the Zone is jammed with people but I don’t worry about being recognized here. It’s the type of place where folks agree to be anonymous. I walk past the Voyeur Dome, 2on1, The Animal Farm, and countless other places to the Boutique—the cleanest and safest and hence most expensive joint in the Zone. It’s not lost on me that I have to wade past the throng of humanity and past the rainbow of sexual flavors that cater to just about any legal urge to get to my paradise in blue. The dead end street funnels into the Boutique’s rounded and metallic 89


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façade. A blue, cursive neon sign hangs above a blue awning that stretches from one side of the street to the other. I think about what I have to do with Mushhead and decide that I’m really gonna splurge. There’s no line out front. Hopefully, Sonya is available. If she’s not, I’ll wait. I’m in no rush tonight. *** It’s hard to explain. Seeing, or my freak show as Rollins so delicately puts it, is like scaling a pyramid. When I first connect, a blur of images and thoughts invade my head and none of them make sense initially. Fantasies and memories blend, a slide show of a foreign life and mind. This is the base of the pyramid. Here I get a flavor for the person, what they’ve done and who they are and who they want to be. The slide show gains a focus, a purpose, as I climb the pyramid. I’m still me, analyzing and judging what I see. Snapshots and then entire scenes fit together and make sense. I climb higher until I’m no longer me. I’m the other person. I don’t notice the transition or remember when it happens, but really, there is no when as time doesn’t apply to the pyramid. This other person finishes the climb, getting me to the top, the vertex, and shows me what I need to know. Yeah, as I said to Rollins earlier, sounds very fucking thin to me. The short version is that somehow I see what I need to see. But I usually don’t like it. “Up against the wall please, John,” a bouncer says. I comply and he pats me down. “Easy big fella, don’t ruin me for Sonya. She’ll be disappointed.” He laughs a deep bass and gives me a friendly shove toward the pay-booth. Like the rest of the place, it’s bathed in a fluorescent, sky-blue light. “Who’s it going to be tonight, John?” Aubrey says. She’s a large fifty-year-old mother of four dressed in a flower-print muumuu. She came to my church once, just to see me in action. After I tried to get her into my confessional booth she said, “Father, there isn’t a man alive ready for that.” “Hi, Aubrey. I’m in a Sonya mood tonight.” She cocks her head like a dog that hears her name being called. “All done with Cleo are you?” 90


Cleo. When I was with her a month ago I made the mistake of taking a peek. I figured playing around in her head would give me more time, get my drift? Well, after seeing what her Daddy did to her, I can’t go back to Cleo. Make of that what you will. “I guess I have a new love. But I tell you what. I’m gonna break with tradition tonight and get me a red chip.” “Whoa Nelly. Didn’t know you were making that much, John. Why not go for the blue then?” Blue meant a private room and full-body contact. I think of Cleo and Mushhead, and figure I’m not ready for that. “Not tonight. We’ll take it one step at a time.” “You’re the boss. Four hundred.” I slide the cash into her glass-encased booth and she flicks a red chip into my palm. “Hey John, before you go. How about a cube? We’re running a ten dollar special.” Hard to say no to a Mom. Especially if it’s an upper. “What’s in it?” “Sugar mixed with zionblast. You’ll feel and see things you’ve never experienced before.” Zionblast. A hallucinogen. “No nephomene today?” “Nope.” “I’ll pass.” My boots crack like gunshots on the black linoleum. The main corridor is shaped like a smooth tube, and there’s Sonya’s station. Her metal door is flush with the corridor wall. Vacancy flashes in blue letters on the door. I knock twice and it opens. Down a dark set of stairs and into a small antechamber. A goon sits in the far corner, reading a newspaper. He doesn’t acknowledge my entrance. Blue light spills from the glass wall on the right. “John, I’m so glad to see you.” Sonya says, voice robotic through the intercom. “And it will be good to see you too.” A bedroom is behind the glass. Canopy bed and other pseudo-antiques that I couldn’t care less about decorate her station. Sonya is lying on the bed, shoulder length red hair draped across her pillow. “I’m quite excited to see that you upgraded to a red chip tonight. I’ve fantasized about this for weeks, John.” This time her voice is robotic in delivery. She’s reading prepared text. 91


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I hear the goon close his paper. I turn in his direction and he tosses me a condom. Only wearing a G-string, Sonya leaves her bed and walks toward the glass. “Will you take your glasses off tonight, John?” I shake my head, lose my jacket and loosen my pants. Maybe this is a mistake. But right now, I need an empty connection. I don’t want to see. You know, seeing isn’t something that just happens when I touch somebody. I have to concentrate for a connection. I can even hold it off. Just like staving off an orgasm, I fill my head with my own memories and thoughts and it goes away. I take the condom out of the wrapper. It’s extra thick and specially made for the Boutique, so I will not feel much of the real Sonya. But that’s okay by me. On the glass wall, just above my entry portal, is the chip slot. I insert the chip and put my hands on the cold glass. Sonya bends over an ottoman and positions herself against the glass. Her back to me, she says, “Next time I hope you’ll upgrade to a blue chip, John. Oh John. You’ll see, John…I’ll touch all of you then…Oh John…you’ll see…you’ll see….” *** Growing up, I took full advantage of my freak show. Hell, as a teenager I got more ass than the President. I’d know which girl would do what with me just by holding hands or slow dancing at my school’s Under the Sea Jubilee. Those were the days. But the fun ended when I saw some of those same girls getting abused by relatives and past boyfriends, when I hugged my older relatives and saw all their dirty secrets, when I was old enough to understand what I saw. And I swore off my freak show the day I graduated high school, after I hugged my mother, after seeing what my dead-beat Dad had done to her. And you don’t have to tell me that I’m hiding behind the collar, that my God gig is a lame attempt to fool myself into believing that good people exist and that I’m one. I know what I am. Now I only see for money. And all I get are Rollins’ prostitutes, pimps, 92


junkies, abusers and the abused, pederasts and diddlers-in-training, and now the murderer in my room. The walk back to the rectory is a long one, and it just got longer. There’s a text-message on my cell, it reads: PADRE. Code from Rollins. It means Houston, we have a problem. A gaggle of orange-clad people surrounds the rectory entrance, led by a bald fat guy, so fat he’s got rolls on the back of his head. The Simpson Evidence Unit. Steps’ boys or his murderers, either way, I don’t want to chew the fat with them right now. One of the Dominican Brothers is standing on the front stoop, blocking the doorway. I know he won’t rat me out. As much as the Brothers hate me, they’d never do anything to embarrass their church. Old habits die hard. I pull up my coat’s wide, leather collar around my face and creep around the church and out to the back entrance of the rectory. Running up the circular stairwell, the thought of handing Mushhead to the Simpson Unit is as tempting as Sonya’s ass, but I can’t. Because Rollins has always been straight with me. And I already spent half my paycheck. Echoes of the agitated conversation out front chase me to my room. Mushhead is still there, in the dark, sleeping in the cot. Not in a particularly playful mood, I put a hand over his mouth and slap his face hard. He wakes and mumbles, “Dole as ribbit,” into my hand. “Quiet, Mushhead, or we’re in a heap of trouble. Follow me.” *** Just one of the useful tidbits I’ve picked up over the years in the confessional booth is how to evade the City’s Eye. As far as law abiding citizens know, there’s video cameras everywhere in City, in streets, alleys, public buildings, and even the cabs and buses, and they’re constantly monitored. But I know where the hidden cameras are positioned and even where some don’t work right. I know how to walk along the facades of certain buildings or along the left hand or right hand side of curbs and sidewalks and along the gutters of certain streets. I know when to cross to another sidewalk, when to merge with a crowd, when to walk under the shadow of a lamp. To not be seen is a skill, folks. We’re heading toward the most dangerous area of City, the North End. 93


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A graveyard of slums and decrepit factories, skeletons of a bygone era. It’s where some homeless try their luck at evading the police, where fringe gangs hold their drug wars and gamble on Death Matches. Cops patrol the North End, but only when they have to. It’s the least monitored area of City. But the North End is where we need to go if I’m going to see. As we enter those mean streets, I pull out my gun. I’ve always believed in prevention. “Dole as ribbit,” Mushhead whispers and pulls his arm out of my hand. “You know where you are, don’t you, Mushy?” That’s right, I’d threatened to bring him to the Death Matches. Shit, he probably knows more than he lets on. I jostle him a little and say, “Maybe you’re not as fried as you look. If this shtick is supposed to make me feel sorry for you, you’re dry-humping the wrong leg, pal.” He drops to his knees and grabs handfuls of my coat, “Dole as ribbit.” Same shit, same smile, but he thrashes his head around like he’s afraid the sky is falling. I sigh and run a hand through my hair. “I’m not dumping you here, even though I should. We’ve got to lay low for a while. And I know the place.” We walk, passing old dumps and crumbling buildings. There’s an overturned baby carriage with two missing wheels. I look at Mushhead to see if he notices. No reaction. Rats and anorexic dogs scurry across our path, but we don’t see any people. We hear them though. Laughter and screams and gunshots rumble in the distance like an approaching storm. Down K Avenue, which was once the industrial livelihood of City. Megalithic factories line both sides of the street. Only a few streetlamps work. This is where many homeless go to hide. The cops had their monthly sweep here a couple of days ago so there’s a good chance the buildings are empty. Rollins gives me the sweep schedule when I say pretty please. “In here, Mushy.” We go left, walking beneath a burnt out lamp, into a doorway’s dark mouth. I grope the doorframe and find a box of matches, a gift handed down to the next generation of homeless. Ain’t that sweet? Word is flares and candles and even makeshift lanterns are left in doorways too, but these matches will get the job done. I strike a match. This room used to be the main lounge of a large business, but the carpet is worn to the floor in spots, the ceiling is bowed and has black lumps that look like tumors, the furniture is moldy and cracked. I find a candle on what used to be the main desk. 94


“Just our luck, Mushy. No waiting.” I motion forward with the lit candle but he doesn’t move. “Dole as…” I jam my gun in his face. “Yeah, I know. Now move your ass.” His lips quiver, making that goddamn smile dance all over his face. “Come on!” I shove him ahead of me, toward a hallway. “Quit fucking with me and we’ll be done. We can’t do it here. Too close to the street, someone might find us. We’re just going to go a little deeper.” He shuffles a few feet and stops, mumbling his phrase. “Son of a bitch, I’m not going to hurt you. Trust me.” I pocket my gun and grab his arm. “It’s not in my nature.” *** This is ridiculous. I’ve been sitting in the ruins of a men’s room, holding his hand for a goddamn hour and nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. As Clive, my estimable nephomene prescriber and provider, might say, I ain’t seen shit! My cell is vibrating in my coat. I don’t answer it. I know it’s Rollins. “I’m not fucking done yet, Dickie!” I let go of Mushhead’s hand and pace around the room, boots shouting on the tile floor. This has never happened to me before. I hold the person’s hand and study their face until I find something, a leaping point, something that I can connect to, and just go baby go. But with him, all I see…all I see is his dumb, drugged out, kid-killing face. This isn’t going to work. “Dole as ribbit.” He whispers the jumble like he’s saying please to a loved one. His head is bowed and a hand stretches toward me. The candle perched on the sink flickers and throws shadows against the wall behind Mushhead. I try to say something snide, cutting, rude, angry, profane, maybe even meaningful. But I only exhale, sit in front of him, and take his hand. His head lifts and his eyes are closed. On the wall, a halo of shadow rings his head. Tears leak and run down his cheeks and…

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PAUL G. TREMBLAY . . . Wood, wood, wood. Walking and climbing and crawling along beams and struts of the Pier. And there’s someone with him. No, not with. They’re fighting over a scrap of food, a still kicking and wing-flapping scrap of food . . . Dole as ribbit . . . Blood leaks from an arm, a woman’s arm. Her veins are black. Air escapes through her blue lips. She has a gaunt, sunken face, a ruined face that might have been pretty once. He shares . . . He shares . . . Churning ocean below and darkness above. He slips and almost falls. He can barely see. He climbs higher, higher, higher . . . Hands release the dirty and dark blue handle of a baby stroller. It rolls downhill, away from his still open hands. Rolling away and away until the carriage is the size of a small toy slipping between his fingers . . . Blackened mitts sift through a dumpster and there’s a ruckus behind him . . . Breathing hard and pushing against something very heavy, then pulling himself out of one darkness and into another, before stumbling onto a street lined with giant, dead buildings . . . Sunlight filters through wispy curtains. He’s in a small bedroom with bright-yellow wallpaper and puts a ring on her finger. And she’s beautiful . . . A dead man in an alley. Blood spills from his throat and chest . . . The yellow wallpapered bedroom, only it’s cluttered and faded and a small child is giggling. “Very good, Paul,” he says and laughs although his hands twitch like a roach’s legs . . . Hiding inside the dumpster he sees a large bald guy hunch over the body. He can’t see what the man is doing . . . And he can’t see . . . And he can’t see . . . And he can’t see . . . And he can’t see . . . And . . . He . . . And I see Linda and the holes in her arms. I was blinded by her beauty and need and I see all this now, written in the pale sticks she tries to hide from me. And I know I’m just as weak . . . A dragon crawls from under a dingy white tee shirt and around his neck. I stare at the tattoo and the dragon’s eyes are shut. He is standing in my doorway, holding a gun under my chin. He was our dealer. He is Linda’s everything now. He shoves me hard and I fall down the steps. Like Linda, I have no legal job and now no home and it’s only a matter of time . . . I’m doing my best to go clean. I could lose my job like I’m losing Linda. And Paul. He is chocolate brown hair and impish green eyes and chubby cheeks and all smiles. He’s eighteen months of joy and worry. We’re in his bedroom, patches of yellow wallpaper cling to the wall like old promises. Linda is downstairs, tearing the house apart, looking for what she needs. I need. I’m trying to read a JEREMY FISHER book, but my hands are shaking and my eyes blur . . . She let me. Linda let me take Paul for one last carriage ride through the park. It’s midmorning and the sun has managed to burn 96


through the fog. I put the carriage’s shade up because the sun is in his eyes. I can’t see him anymore . . . Paul jumps off my lap and points at the bespeckled frog, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and says, “Fog.” His voice is high-pitched and unsure and he puts his hand on his cheek. Green orbs hang on my response. I wonder if he sees me sweating. “Very good, Paul. That’s a frog. What does a frog say?” And he says, ”Ribbit.” And I say, “What does Paul say?” A glass something breaks downstairs. Paul doesn’t hear it because he’s giggling and he says, “Dole as ribbit.” I laugh and clap and cry and swoop him up in my scarred arms . . . I’m homeless and a junkie and no one will hire me or take me in or protect Paul. I can’t let Linda and her goddamn dealer raise him. They won’t do it. He’ll rot. I can’t let them. The carriage wheels squeak as we turn the corner and 3rd looks like a waterfall through my tears. I wipe my eyes on the back of my left hand and only my left and I stumble on a bottle and let go of the carriage. There’s an almost impossible moment of hesitation by the four-wheeled hunk of junk, before it rolls away. I don’t move, I only watch through my weak, jittery hands. I think about the City and all that can happen to Paul. I hear the wheels squeaking, but the sound fades with distance. And I watch. And there’s just so much murder and drugs and disease and disorder and cruelty and hate and I can’t save him. I never could . . . And I say, “Paul says ribbit? You’re the silliest little boy I know.” And he says, “Dole as ribbit! Dole as ribbit” . . . I’ve stolen his smile and keep it on my face. And he’s always with me, in my head and my eyes and my ears and on my lips and I’ll never. forget. I won’t let myself forget. It’s my heaven. It’s my hell. Dole as ribbit

The candle has burnt out. I come to in darkness, still clutching his hand. “Alright, you can let go now, Mushy,” I say. My cheeks are wet with tears. Finding the matches in my coat pocket, I light one. The orange light stings my 97


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eyes. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve got what I need.” “Dole as ribbit,” he says. *** I’m leaning on a railing at North End Point. At one time, this was a beautiful place with a small grass park and a spectacular view of the water. I can’t see much now because of the omnipresent fog and cloud cover but I hear the ocean below and beyond. It sounds gentle and far away. I dial up Rollins on my cell. “Where are you?” he asks. “Nowhere. Thanks for the warning, Dickie.” “What do you got for me?” “I got a lot. He saw the bald fatty from the Simpson Unit workin’ over the body.” “That’s what I needed to hear. What about the guy and how he got out of the Pier?” “He’s…” I hesitate, take off my night-glasses and toss them over the railing. I’m too high up to hear the splash landing. “He’s gone, Dickie. When I came to, he wasn’t there. And I didn’t see how he’d climbed out.” Rollins laughs. “Come on, Padre. Growing a conscience?” “Can’t get a lie past you can I, Dickie?” I say and then hang up. He calls back but I don’t answer. Still leaning on the railing, I get to thinking about heaven again. Maybe heaven is the antithesis of what my mother told me. Maybe we’ll forget everything that we ever knew, we’ll forget all the disappointment and pain and sadness and the everyday horrors that numbed us when alive. Maybe heaven is nothing, sweet oblivion. “Dole as ribbit,” I say. I wonder if I’ll remember that phrase in a year, or even a month. I think I will. A cool breeze licks my face and I think about the kid and Mushhead and why I let him go. Oblivion can’t be heaven. That’s too cynical, even for this priest. “What about a compromise, Ma?” I say. Maybe heaven is somewhere between knowledge and nothing, between right and wrong. Maybe heaven is a place called understanding. That’s a heaven I might be able to live with. 98


THE HARLEQUIN AND THE TRAIN I. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. One a month. One jumper, one roadkill of human proportion, one grand loser in the battle with momentum and physics, one person hit by the commuter trains every goddamn month. “You’re full of shit,” I said, then downed the sludge of my coffee. The gaggle of old boys in the station’s conductor quarters laughed. A guy named Earl—said so on his blue jumpsuit—said, “Another country heard from.” Another crone, Cecil, said, “No, it’s the truth, kid.” “Rudy, not kid.” These jerks still didn’t know my name. “Okay then, it’s the truth, Rudy.” I still didn’t buy it. Sounded like something big brother told little brother to keep the punk scared. These guys had been ribbing and teasing me ever since I got the job, which was nothing new. Acceptance had never come easy for me. High school, two plus years of college and conductor school, now work . . . I’d yet to find my place amongst the pack. “How come I never read about these accidents in the paper?” “I suppose at one time they ran the stories, but the Boston papers just don’t print that stuff anymore.” “Come on. Now I know you crows are pulling my chain. If it bleeds it leads, gentleman,” I said while spying my watch. I had to get ready for the morning run from Newburyport to Boston’s North Station. 101


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“Look, when anything happens that frequently, it stops being news. Sure, one low-life or freak a month jumps in front of a commuter train. Think about what’s in those papers today? Is there room for that kind of thing? No sir, that’s old news.” “Seems suicide just isn’t exciting enough anymore,” another one of the old boys said. I stood, ready to head to my train. “So, does this mean that all you experienced fellows have hit someone?” The laughter stopped, and each nodded. II. I’d only been a conductor for the MBTA Commuter Rail for two months. My route was the North Shore: Newburyport, Rowley, Ipswich, Beverly, Salem, Swampscott, Lynn, Chelsea, Boston. Up and down the forty miles of coastline. Morning rush hour and the train packed to capacity, as it was on every weekday morning. Thirteen cars, seven of them double-deckers, trailed behind my engine-car. I imagined the train as a bulging over-stuffed suitcase. I was riding a straightaway section of track between the North Beverly and Downtown Beverly stops. Rows of trees flanked the track, and behind the trees were homes of folks who probably cursed the trains every morning. I cranked the speed up to forty mph. We’re not allowed to go much faster than that. There are too many stops. I never did like the straightaways. And when I was on one, I tried not to stare at the tracks. Too monotonous just watching the slats and rails roll beneath the engine. Now, I was never worried about falling asleep or getting hip-no-tized like the geezers warned. It was just that if I stared too long, I’d get real down. Couldn’t help but feel like I was leading a train full of people to nowhere. Maybe it was that kind of thinking that didn’t exactly win friends and influence people. While doing my best to keep my eyes off the road, so to speak, I didn’t see it until it was too late. Too late for a train to stop, anyway. I looked up, and about four football fields away stood a lone figure, right in the middle of the tracks. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Teenagers playing chicken or other punks who threw rocks were almost a daily occurrence on the afternoon ride. But this early in the morning, it did strike me as odd. I blatted the horn three times, but the figure didn’t move. 102


And that figure was fast approaching the teeth of my engine. Only, I knew who was doing the moving. The MBTA frowned upon emergency stops unless there was indisputable evidence of a calamity about to happen, something like a school bus stalled on the track. Wasn’t that the MBTA didn’t care. Emergency stops were dangerous and, depending on the speed, often ended in derailment. I eased off the accelerator and onto the brake. But nothing jarring or anything the passengers would’ve noticed, pushing all my chips into the chicken game category. I knew even if I pressed the emergency hydraulics into action, the train wouldn’t stop in time. At that speed and with the amount of cars and cargo, it would take almost a half-mile to come to a complete stop. It was frightening to be in charge of all that locomotive power while still powerless in deciding the fate of the person on the track. To live or die wasn’t my choice. I felt the weight of the train rumbling beneath my feet. Trees and track whizzed by on the periphery, but I only had eyes for the motionless man. And as he got closer, I decided he was a man, dressed in black and white, and wearing a strange pointed hat. Closer. A thick, frilly collar around his neck. White face with red dots on his cheeks and one eye surrounded by black. Only seconds from impact, and I realized a clown, a harlequin clown, stood in the middle of the track. Lost in the rushing black eye, my stomach dropped and adrenaline flooded into my now shaking hands. I knew he wasn’t going to jump. In full panic mode, I yelled, “Off!” like I was yelling at my dog to keep his mangy butt off the couch. Impact. I heard bells jingle before cutting out. Black, white, and red smeared across my windshield and I kicked the emergency brake into action. The momentum of thousands of tons of locomotive sent me into the control console, pushing my face into the glass and smeared makeup and blood. III. Waves of heat from the engine and stressed brakes filled the cabin. Sweat poured as if my skin was a sieve. The radio crackled to life. Multiple voices and angry shouts of What happened? Where was the warning? buzzed through the speakers. 103


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“We hit somebody! We hit somebody!” I couldn’t bring myself to say I hit somebody. Looking at the gore smear on the windshield, my gut flipped. I crawled out of the engine, bent over, and puked. I didn’t dare look at the engine’s front, but swiveled my head left and scanned the length of the train. A small group of people emerged from the brush alongside the track and ran to the train. When they reached the track, they dropped to all fours and crawled like crabs along the rails and base of the train. The closest to me was a young blonde woman in a sundress. She picked a red chunk off the ground, put it in her mouth, and skittered back to the brush. The others did the same. An emergency window exploded open just twenty yards from where I stood, and a man in a suit spilled out. After landing on the gravel, he pawed at the wheels of the train. His left hand emerged with a strip of leaky meat. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to yell Hey but it came out sounding like a teary Help. The man in the suit, who had to be in his early fifties with a gut to show for his lifetime of office service, winked and stuffed the meat into his mouth. I watched a stream of red flow from between his lips, and I blacked out. IV. Hours after buses had transported most of the passengers away and the rest of the morning trains had been rerouted, I sat under the shade of a crooked pine tree, rubbing my beard stubble. “Looks like this was somebody’s idea of a sick joke,” Officer Shandley said. With a gloved hand, he held up what he was carrying. Broken in half, it used to be the plastic head of a mannequin. Some of the clown makeup remained. Mostly the black around the right eye. Inside the head, the plastic walls were stained red, and dried flecks of tissue clung like barnacles. “Glad I’m not completely crazy then. It really was a clown on the tracks.” “Yeah, and apparently this clown was stuffed with meat and other tissue.” “Other tissue?” “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said and paused, fiddling with the broken head in his hand, “but there were loops of intestine on your engine.” . . . other tissue. I felt dizzy again. I knew the intestine could’ve come from just about any animal, but in my head I could only see the harlequin exploding its carrion of human intestine onto my train. 104


“Do you know . . . ” He interrupted before I could ask what kind of tissue? “I can’t say.” Officer Shandley then grabbed my arm, but not in a threatening way. “Rudy, we interviewed the passengers, but no one admitted to seeing a man go out the window. And no one saw the other people you mentioned.” His statement and emphasis on other was a gut punch. After another long and uncomfortable pause on his end, I said, “What does that mean?” “It means we still have a lot of investigating to do.” Dark pools of sweat colored under his arms and around his collar. Officer Shandley was young, probably close to my age, though his tan face wore worry like a punishment. He pressed a card with his name and number into my palm. “We have your statement, but if you remember anything else important, call me.” “I will.” He turned and eased down the gravel embankment, toward the train. Much of the morning’s events was jumbled in my head, like the fading scenes of a nightmare. But the image of blood slipping between the businessman’s lips was as clear as a snapshot. As was the harlequin’s black eye. “Officer!” I jogged down the gravel slope and caught up with him. “Has this ever happened before?” He sighed, deflating his thick chest and curving his confident posture into one of a defeated man. Scanning the scene crawling with other investigators, Officer Shandley wiped his forehead on his sleeve and said, “No.” V. I stepped from my studio apartment and walked the quiet streets of downtown Rockport, a small coastal town, and wandered about antique shops and cafés, trying to do the impossible. Forget what had happened on the tracks. Work allowed a couple days of sick leave to get my head on straight, although I planned to take more time off. I didn’t think a couple days would cut it. Now, I could live with the accident, but seeing those people, those jackals, scavenging along the train and tracks . . . My window-shopping stroll wasn’t working. I decided to go back to my apartment and maybe take my dog Max to the park for some Frisbee. Across the street, a man emerged from a darkened storefront. Flanked by a clam box and taffy shop, that place had been empty for the two 105


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months I’d lived in Rockport. White soap stained the opaque bay window, and a large and rusty brass lock dangled off a gray, metal door. The man wore dark sunglasses and, despite the July heat, a black overcoat. Weaving through the metal chairs and tables in front of the clam box, he jogged about ten paces to the hairpin turn that marked the beginning of the downtown area. I took a few steps toward the strange man while staying on my side of the street. He looked familiar. And as I recognized him or I recognized that mouth, that mouth chomping on meat and seeping blood . . . a red car, something trendy, maybe a Volkswagen Passat, was traveling too fast for the usually tourist-crowded streets and it passed me. The man sprang off the sidewalk and into the curve, crouching low. He pulled something from inside his overcoat, dropped it in the left lane, and sprinted across the street, darting between two weather-beaten historical homes. In the left lane . . . it was short, maybe as tall as a toddler. Orange-flame hair, dressed in a mini-tuxedo, shiny black shoes. And it stood motionless. A wave of relief almost buckled my knees as I saw that the passing red car was in the opposite lane and it would miss . . . Screeching tires and a boat of a car plowed around the corner. Its monster hood and snarling grill shifted and pitched as its back-end fishtailed. The child-sized thing exploded on impact. Almost too much to see at once: streams of blood, arms and legs going their separate ways, flanks of mashed scalp, tissue, and clothing spooled across both sides of the street. The Passat pulled up next to the accident. A blonde woman in a sundress—no, not the same sundress but worn the same—jumped from the driver’s side and plucked an armload of gore from the street. She buried her face in it and dove back into her car. Again, there were others. Other vultures that appeared from between houses and buildings to pick over the bloody mess. Two men sprinted past me to the boat-car. They licked the hood like dogs drinking water. Hyperventilating and stomach churning, I ran toward the accident. None of them noticed. Some fought over scraps, but the tug-of-war losers quickly moved on to another meal. I saw a roving pack of wild eyes, wide and focused and cunning and wanting. Twitching hands groped the car and street. Smeared faces with stuffed, red mouths and knowing smiles. 106


An old woman staggered out of the boat-car and wailed like a siren. Now parallel to the accident but still on the sidewalk, something crunched under my foot. I staggered back and bent down. Plastic nose punched in, one eye missing, and beads of blood covered its painted freckles. I had stepped on the cracked face of a ventriloquist dummy. One big blue right eye was intact. Police and ambulance sirens joined the old woman’s cries. Someone shouted and they fled, disappearing into the Passat and into the homes and shops of Rockport. And I fled too. VI. I called Officer Shandley and left a message, simply stating that I’d witnessed the accident in Rockport. But he didn’t return my call. Maybe I should’ve called back and told Shandley about the man coming out of the abandoned storefront. Instead, I spent the rest of the day and early evening dozing on the couch and watching TV. I never settled on one show but flipped around the unending spectrum of channels. Twice, flickering images of hyenas and lions working an all-but-stripped carcass for meat filled my screen. Twice, I saw their eyes. Twice, I nearly dropped the remote while groping for the OFF button. Goddamn Discovery Channel. I fed Max, but I didn’t eat. 8 PM. I sat on the couch with the TV off and stared at the front door. Wondering if my locks were strong enough. Wondering if I would see hyenas and lions and their eyes in my peephole. I needed to get out. Get out of my apartment and out of Rockport. Windows down and with Max’s wind-blasted face resting on my shoulder, I drove down a rural stretch of Route 97, heading to Topsfield and my mother’s house. I didn’t want to be alone, and she was the only person who would take this loner in for a night or two. Darker than usual for an early July evening as a thick haze muzzled the night-sky and streetlamps were sparse on the woods-flanked section of road. Surrounding trees were hulking shadows. There was no one in front of or behind me and only a handful of cars had passed in the opposite direction. My headlights only illuminated the double-yellow line and a small swatch of worn and cracked road. 107


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I had the all-news AM radio station on and had yet to hear any report on the Rockport accident. Max left my shoulder and curled up on the back seat as I reached to change the station. Shiny eyes caught in my headlights, low to the ground, surrounded by a black mask. A raccoon straddled the centerlines, sitting on its hind paws. As I approached, it took two small steps to the right but still stared, caught in the glow. I don’t remember thinking or deciding or planning. I only reacted. At least, that was what I tried to convince myself afterward. Goosing the gas pedal instead of the brake, my engine revved. The roar of machine startled the raccoon, and it made a mad dash to the right side of the road. But it was too slow. I swerved and my right tire chewed up the coon with a loud thump before it got to the shoulder. Yelling like my team just scored the winning run, I jammed on the brake and skidded to a halt. Max was crying in the back seat. I snarled something that I don’t remember and jumped out of my car. I sprinted down the roadside, balanced on the thin white line of the shoulder, crouched low, scanning the pavement for any sign, any sign of . . . There, its splayed black form was flattened in the middle. I fell to my knees before the ruined creature and picked it up. Blood dripped onto my hands and legs and it felt warm and inviting. Crushed organ and bone had exploded through multiple rips in the black fur. Pink meat had ballooned out of its mouth. And for the first time that day, I was hungry. I heard Max howling from the back seat, at least, I think it was Max. Sweat and saliva dripping from my face, I lifted the broken beast to my mouth its head, start with the head as a car approached. High-beam headlights forced my eyes down into the newly illuminated animal in my hands and its dead black eyes, its victim eyes, its harlequin’s eyes. The car swerved and beeped and I threw the raccoon into the brush like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “What is going on?” I yelled, but the speeding car gave no answer. I staggered back to my car. Slumping into the driver’s seat, I pressed my head against the steering wheel, shaking and moaning and crying like Max had. Was I sick? Did I catch some crazy disease from them? 108


The smell of blood was still dizzying and thick, and despite the horror and disgust of what I’d almost done, I was hungry. I turned around and headed back to Rockport. And as I passed under street lamps, I couldn’t help but stare at the tear-stained eyes in the rear-view mirror. VII. The police hadn’t returned my call. And I didn’t call back. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. What I’d done, what I’d almost done, and maybe worst of all, the thought that nagged and gnawed, exactly what had I seen at the tracks and on the street? 2 AM. A light ocean breeze stirred among tree branches, tickling wind chimes and hanging wooden signs. Waves echoed off the wooden docks and piers. Downtown Rockport. I was alone. A crowbar tucked into the right arm of my long-sleeved tee shirt, a flashlight in my left hand. I felt staring and black and hungry eyes watching me walk the deserted streets. I couldn’t see them, but knew the hyenas and lions were there. The accident scene had been cleared. No yellow police tape. No chalk outline. I passed the empty storefront three times before working up the courage to peer into the dark window. Breathing fast as if I’d been jogging, I pressed my face against the glass but didn’t see anything through the soap stains. Signs creaked and wind chimes seemed to clang louder as I walked to the gray metal door. The rusty padlock disintegrated after a quick crowbar assault. I’d never been so frightened, so utterly disturbed. But I had to see. I had to know. Leaning my forearm against the door, it opened with a gentle push, and I crept inside. Sweating and shaking, I turned on the flashlight. A showroom filled with the ghostly white faces of harlequins and the demented red-freckled sneer of ventriloquist dummies. Rows and rows of clowns stacked and leaning against the walls. Dummies hung from the ceiling, each wide blue eye boring a hole into me. Another gaggle of dummies, each in various poses—some comical, some threatening, some perverse—claimed a small stage set up by the bay window. 109


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I wanted to scream and cry and run into the ocean until the brine was over my head and keep on running. But I also wanted to beat and smash and pulpify each and every harlequin and dummy in the room. I put down the crowbar and picked a dummy off the stage. I shook it. It was light and obviously empty. I worked my way deeper into the room, jostling past rows of harlequins, trying not to stare at their black eyes. A low hum of an air conditioner came from the back of the room. I followed. The air chilled my sweat-soaked skin and smelled heavily of pine, fake pine, as if those car fresheners filled the room. Adjacent to the wall-sized AC unit was a hallway. I entered. Dark wood, the same wood as the floor, lined the walls and ceiling of the narrow hallway. Toward its end, my flashlight reflected off the left wall. I ran my hand along the surface. Plexiglas. The flashlight reflected off the window without piercing through it. A few paces further down the hallway I found a thick metal door with a padlocked handle, and a lone switch at the end of the hallway. I flicked the switch. Yellow light spilled through the Plexiglas behind me. Tightening my grip on the crowbar, I peered into the window and saw a nightmare. It was only a glance, but enough to burn into my memory, enough to stain everything I thought I knew about people and myself, enough to send me running and falling into the society of harlequins and dummies, and running out the door and running and running . . . a small charnel room, not much bigger than my living room, gutted people hanging from hooks on red stained walls, blood and gore sluicing through the metal grate floor, skins hanging by chains from the ceiling, their former bodies stacked against the wall, arms and legs and heads and organs and muscles and meat and goddamn me, my stomach grumbled . . . and running though downtown, and wanting to scream You’re next! like a doomed Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers but having nothing in my throat but a wheeze, and past the beach and mansions, but not past my hunger, not the maddening and stubborn and undeniable hunger. XIII. I sat on my front stoop, trying to come up with a plan. Something. Anything. But I was lost. Max barked behind the door, so I opened it. He skittered into the 110


kitchen, still barking. On the floor and between my feet was a manila envelope. No address. I picked it up, resigned to continue the wretched chain of events that had been put in motion just a day earlier. Inside, a single sheet of paper. A typed list of locations, dates, and times. There were school bus stops, mail truck delivery routes, construction sites, street corners, highway stretches, subways, and even a zoo. And on the list: Rowley, MA. Track 2, mile 13.

7/10, 10:15 am

And there was one sentence at the bottom: All donations are encouraged and accepted. I knew donations meant a few different things. And I knew that insanity was when everything made sense. IX. Rowley. I parked two miles away on a dirt road I didn’t know was there, but found anyway. I cut through yards of homes that I’d only seen from my train. I found a worn path in the small forest that led to the track. I was alone on the path. But I wasn’t, really. Now, I sit in the bushes along a winding section of track I know very well. Ten yards away is the woman in the sundress. She’s beautiful. An overused adjective, but one that fits. Hair like a wheat field and eyes like the ocean. I crawl closer to her, and she smiles. Across the track I see an old retiree, a man in a suit, and a larger middle-aged woman. They’re waiting just like me. I’m waiting just like them. The harlequin stands in the middle of the track with the sun blazing behind it, which is nice because its face is in shadow. I know this all will be easier for me if it’s in shadow. At least for my first time. I crouch next to her. She smiles. Shy, coy, and damned pretty, and says, “Hi.” “Hi,” I say, reminded of how long it has been since I dated. Conductor school? College? Has it been that long? I hear the train coming. She stares at me. I know I should say something 111


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but I only think what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this and I want to laugh and scream and cry and my body shakes and I’m about to lose it . . . She says, “Want to get some coffee after?” A simple offer. Cliché of the romantically hopeful, really. An offer so optimistic and exciting and innocent. Only not so innocent when I focus on the last word. After. The train is closer. I relax and say, “That would be nice.” Tons of locomotive metal roars around the corner, and she looks at the harlequin, still smiling, but different. She’s says, “My name is Sheila.” I watch too. I hear the brakes scream and imagine it’s me. I say, “My name is Rudy,” as the train ploughs into the harlequin. A red detonation. Or is it a donation? Sheila giggles, grabs my hand, and pulls me from our hiding spot. We crouch, running alongside the braking train. Others leave their hiding spots. The world is chaos. Running people, rumbling earth, billowing smoke, the apocalyptic screeching and groaning of machine, a surprising amount of flesh spread over the area. I watch the hyenas. Fending for themselves. Fending for the pack. A balance that, for the first time, I understand. And yeah, insanity is when everything makes sense. Sheila presses a forearm-length tube of intestine into my hand. It’s warm and wet and I’m dizzy with hunger. I look at the faces of passengers pressing against the dirty windows as the train slowly rolls by. It’s almost stopped. And I know it’s a train full of people headed to nowhere.

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COLD It’s cold here. And I don’t mean a little chilly. Not the pleasant nip of a fall day that sends you scurrying to unpack the sweaters, not the raw shiver of an early spring rain—I’m talking a sub-zero, hard winter cold. The kind that settles in your bones no matter how many layers of clothing you throw on, no matter how many hot chocolates you drink, no matter how long you sit in front of the fireplace. It gets under the skin like a virus without a cure. Still snowing. And I haven’t heard a weatherman’s report for days, weeks, maybe even a month. God, have I been here that long? One day melding into the next like accumulating snow. I can’t stay warm. The cabin’s fireplace is useless. The orange flames only warm my skin. But what good is that? I sit in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a wool blanket. Still I shiver. Firelight licks the blood-stained log wall to my left. The red is crusted and flaky like old wallpaper. His body is in the corner, ruined beyond recognition. My body aches for his heat. *** I was bartending at The Depot. Red and blue lights, and an omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke filled the trendy and shadowy dive. I was looking for a bottle of vermouth when he tapped my shoulder and said, “John, call me.” His voice was so slight and warm, I wasn’t sure if a man or woman had spoken. 115


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I turned and saw a tall, thin man walking away from the bar, drifting through the crowd like a ghost. He wore jeans and a fleece jacket, which was striking compared to the usual wear of the yuppie clientele. Despite the trippy haze, I saw he had light and short hair, practically a buzz-cut. I watched him until he was lost in the crowd, but he never looked back. A white napkin with his name, scrawled number, and the message John, call me, rested on the cracked, wooden bar. I smiled, and figured he got my name from the hostess or someone else on the staff. Now, I’ve thrown away countless phone numbers, but I kept this one. And we talked on the phone three nights in a row, starting with the usually awkward get-to-know-me banter that settled into more comfortable conversation, but nothing too deep or personal, nothing to scare each other off. The baggage had to wait. On the fourth night, Leif brushed aside my attempts at wit and chitchat, just keeping me on the phone long enough to invite me to his log cabin in Brackenberry, Vermont, which was nestled between the base of Mt. Snow and a winding offshoot of Rock River. He wanted to go leaf peeping. Leaf peeping? Was there a more lame excuse to spend a weekend in Vermont? But I accepted. After I hung up, there were the nagging doubts. I hadn’t even seen his face. The image of his sleek body winding through the crowd was already fading like a dying candle. What did I really know about this guy? For all I knew, he was a homophobic lunatic enticing me to his remote cabin so he and his buddies could give me the redneck welcome. I’d been hurt before. But thinking of his smooth voice, I was ready to take a chance. So I was all for a getaway, a weekend in the woods. Alone. Just Leif and me. And screw the damn leaves. *** Verre Mont. The Green Mountain State. Verre fucking Mont. There’s nothing green about this place. All I see is the black of continuous shadow and stripped, gray bark sprouting dead, stick fingers and mountains covered in white, as if they’d erupted frozen ash. All the colors of death. The good guys shouldn’t have worn white hats in all those lousy cowboy movies. They should’ve worn red or green, or anything but that mindless, suffo116


cating white. If I could watch one of those movies now, I’d root for the guy in the black hat. At least the black hat never pretends to be something he isn’t. I walk toward Leif, his face opened like a flower, ribs peering from beneath tattered cobweb skin, swollen intestines and stomach pooling between his gore-smeared legs, and I know I wear the white hat. *** The ride from Cambridge took three-plus hours. Plenty of time to beat myself up, pound on the self-esteem a bit, and imagine the worst of all possible scenarios. I drove down his remote dirt road, trying to control my nerves by humming the banjo tune from Deliverance. It didn’t work. Flanked by trees dressed in autumn’s finest, the road squeezed down to one lane, funneled into a long curve, and after five uneasy miles, spit me out in front of his humble log cabin. A Jeep, azure blue, rested in the lot. I parked behind the Jeep and Leif was waiting in the front yard. He wore the same bright, lollipop-yellow fleece and blue jeans that he had at The Depot. Leif waved and walked toward me. His skin had a healthy golden sheen, matching the blond of his short hair. He was as Nordic as his name. High cheekbones and thin lips added an androgynous quality that worked, giving his unmistakably masculine face a genuine softness, a beauty. And his eyes were a blue dream. A somewhat awkward greeting of hands. “Nice to finally see you, Leif.” “Ha! Good to see you again, John. You made good time.” “Yeah, no traffic and your directions were great. Although your driveway was as advertised.” Leif laughed, white teeth almost splitting his face. “I told you it was rough. Come on, let’s get your stuff inside and go for a hike. It’s such a beautiful day, and the foliage is peak.” We hiked for hours, exploring the surrounding woods and the mountain’s rock base. Leif showed me animal tracks and talked about the deer, bears, and other wildlife he’d encountered in these woods. Now I wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, but his enthusiasm was contagious. We looped back across the dirt road and over a stream, heading toward the valley. 117


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The spectrum of foliage colors was kaleidoscopic. Leif talked more of the woods, and I listened and walked and lost all track of time. I was Alice following my graceful blond rabbit down a hole. With daylight fading, we came upon the stream again, and a small but ornate wooden bridge. A thick, dark-stained wood walkway and handrails with intricate carvings—swooping arcs and sharp slashes forming strange symbols—spanned the short distance across the stream. “John, look there.” Leif stepped onto the bridge and pointed across the softly running water. My gaze followed his long arm and found his cabin, only about a hundred yards away. “Wow! Nice back yard,” I said. Leif’s blue eyes glowed above his weather-rosed cheeks. “Now get up here and face the valley.” He smiled and pounded the railing. “Bossy, aren’t ya.” I walked onto the bridge and returned a warm smile, then turned to face the valley. Just below cloud cover, the setting sun bled into the trees and houses below. A fading pink hovered above the valley and it was like I was watching the beautiful death of the sun, the death of light. I fought tears and chastised myself. After such a wonderful day with Leif, why did I have to try and ruin it with such dark, destructive thoughts? For the first time that day, I felt the cold. The temperature had to have dipped below freezing. And I shivered. From behind, Leif slipped his arms around my waist and whispered in my ear, “I know you are cold. Tell me about it.” I wanted to say that I was okay, only my jacket wasn’t warm enough or my sweatshirt was too thin or my socks had holes, but I didn’t. And I didn’t know what I said aloud or what was just churning in my head, but I opened my mouth: I was raised in a strict Catholic family. The bibles and prayers and denial. The mortal fear for my soul when I noticed the boys instead of the girls. A ten-year-old kid who thought God hated him and cried himself to sleep and prayed he’d just be like everyone else. I haven’t stopped praying, really. My father caught me masturbating to a weightlifting magazine in my bedroom when I was thirteen. I’ll never forget the look on the old man’s face, like he was looking at something warped and broken and beyond fixing. He took the belt to me for an hour, and we knelt on the hardwood floor next to his bed and prayed for another three, Mom just crying in the kitchen the whole time. The old man never looked me in the eye again. 118


School wasn’t any better. The football team, my damned teammates, jumped me in the locker room, wrapped a white towel around my head, and took turns punching and kicking and hitting me with wiffle-ball bats and socks filled with change, this the day after I had shared my secret with my best friend, Tony. That bastard completely ignored me for the rest of high school. I left home after graduation, friendless and penniless, and I haven’t returned. Since then, so many failed and sabotaged relationships, none lasting more than a month or two, faceless and sometimes abusive lovers only further damaging everything about me . . . And as the last ember of light fizzled, I stopped talking. The darkness was almost complete; only speckled lights from the houses in the valley shone. I turned to face Leif, who remained silent. I shivered beyond any control of my body. Teeth chattered like castanets, and I wrapped my tremulous limbs around my chest. “You are so cold, John.” Leif bowed his head and pointed a glistening right index finger toward me. Between the darkness and my shaking, I did not see what was on his finger, but I felt its heat, and my body yearned for it. Snowflakes, like fat chunks of cloud, were falling. I took a step toward Leif and his outstretched finger. Steam billowed around Leif’s hand, that white mist swirling into the night sky like an ascending spirit. Leif touched my left cheek, drawing small circles with his finger, and rubbed the substance into my skin. There was pain, sudden and severe, like he’d placed molten lava on my skin. But it melted into a sleepy and sensual warmth that diffused throughout my head, neck, and body. Muscles hummed with a heat so intoxicating Leif had to grab my arm to keep me from falling. But falling didn’t matter. Nothing did. Only that I was warm, so warm. I licked my lips with a fire tongue. My feet would surely burn through the bridge and turn the stream into a boiling bath. All thoughts of snow and ice and loneliness and alienation and humiliation and everything that had ruled my life for so long, were gone. Banished by the warmth. Leif’s warmth. But as he led me away from the bridge and to the cabin I felt the snowflakes, like the icy fingers of reality, melting on the back of my neck. Inside. As ornate as the stream’s bridge was, Leif’s cabin was as plain and Spartan. The log walls were bare and a worn quilted rug partially covered 119


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the living room floor. A plaid pullout couch, oak table, and four stern chairs were the only pieces of furniture in the cabin. The one bedroom was empty, except for a folded pile of clothes, mostly sweaters and sweatshirts. I sat wrapped in a green wool blanket in front of the fireplace. The flames danced while I listened to Leif make preparations in the kitchen. I rubbed my cheek. The buzz of warmth had already faded like a distant memory. And I was cold again. *** I sluice my hands through his intestines, gathering tissue and still fresh blood on my fingers. Despite the elapsed time, there is no smell or appearance of rot. Only the coppery and carnal aroma of blood and meat. I kiss his ruined face. There is nurturing heat, but the nirvana is tempered. I know the warmth won’t last. But it doesn’t matter because, like a junky, I’ll be back for more. And Leif’s last words are still in my ears, carrying the weight of final judgment. *** “It stopped snowing, at least,” Leif said and he sat down and peered out the window next to the table. Huddled in a blanket, I sipped steamy broth and summoned the courage to ask him the question. “What did you put on my face?” Leif’s kind and smiling face morphed into an expression of concern that bordered on pain. His eyes turned down to the tabletop. “John, don’t.” He hesitated, and I thought that he would try to change the subject. But he didn’t. “You’re so . . . I can’t stand to see you shiver like that, so I gave . . . and I rubbed my blood on your face.” He looked up. And I saw a small scratch on his neck, just below his ear. “You did what?” “I gave you something that’s out of most everyone’s reach, something you’ve been searching for your whole life, something no one has ever given you. I gave you warmth, John.” 120


I wanted to be angry, to act indignant. Who did this freak think he was, putting his blood on me? Leif reached across the table and engulfed my hand in his long spidery fingers. They effused raw, primal heat. A forest fire raging on the back of my hand. “How?” I said. Void of any trace of anger, the single word leaked out of my mouth. “Does it matter?” Leif stood and walked around the table and crouched in front of me. He opened my blanket like a young bride-to-be opening an engagement ring jewelry box for the first time. “How, Leif?” “Even in that murky bar, I saw you needed me.” His slight fingers worked the fly of my jeans. “How?” “How did you keep from shivering all those years?” My pants and underwear were around my ankles. Gooseflesh erupted on my legs, the pleasure and want written on my skin. Leif took off his sweatshirt. The smooth, perfect skin of his face gave way to aged, scarred flesh of an old man, gray and leathery. Countless white slashes and gouges formed unique patterns on his chest. “How?” I whispered, repulsed and aching to be touched at the same time. “Does it matter?” No, mouthed my quivering lips but no sound came. Leif closed his eyes and eased my chill bumps with his mouth. I pushed him down into my lap, my hands shaking with pleasure, and cold. I was still so cold. My skin crawled as I felt the violence of heat leaving my body like an escaping refugee. The tips of my fingers were raw and red. My nose leaked and I licked chapped lips and my ears throbbed as if blasted by an arctic wind. I looked down. Leif’s blond head bobbed up and down, but I didn’t feel it. Leif’s mouth wasn’t enough. More scars zigged and zagged between his shoulder blades, down his spine, and onto his lower back. I traced the lines of long-dead skin on his back with an almost numb finger. But I felt the heat, his life-giving fires, broiling just beneath the thin layer of skin. I put both my hands on his back. Leif tensed but increased his efforts. I rocked back in my chair. My eyes crawled over each etching of past pain, and I needed to be a part of it. 121


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Like I was removing a layer of underclothing, my hands sank into his pliant skin and flesh. Leif moaned once but continued to work his mouth and tongue. Blood exploded around my hands and onto his back. The intoxicating heat that I’d experienced on the bridge returned and magnified, bringing me to the precipice of climax, where I stayed. I rubbed his blood on my face and arms, before ripping off my shirt and slathering my chest in his lava. I peeled back his layers of skin and tissue, fingering the sinewy fiber of muscle and tendon. And Leif kept at it, he didn’t stop. I brought my fingers to my mouth, sucking on the blood and flecks of flesh jammed under my fingernails; I needed his warmth inside me. The white of vertebrae peeked from beneath the gore as orgasm quaked through my body. Leif staggered to his feet, and I fell from the chair, still in throes of ecstasy. I landed facing the window. It was snowing again, and I closed my eyes. When they opened, I was lying on the snow-covered ground outside, still consumed in fever. I watched the white flakes fall out of the infinite black above, letting the minute ice sculptures land and melt on my face. Each flake was familiar in design. In each flake was the bridge. In each flake were Leif’s scars. And I melted them all. I awoke the next morning on the couch. Leif sat in the corner and watched me. He was dressed in only a white tee shirt and green boxers. His healthy glow had faded, and even his eyes were a paler blue. “Good morning, John.” He paused and coughed. “How are you feeling?” “Okay,” I said. Leif didn’t respond, but he also stopped looking at me, turning his face away. Snippets of the previous evening’s events flooded, coating me in horror and, goddamn me, want. “How, Leif?” “Does it matter?” I looked out the window. It had stopped snowing, but there was a fresh pack of white on the ground, extinguishing the foliage, extinguishing the color. A shiver passed through my body. I tried to blow warm air into my hands, but only a chill came from my lungs. I said, “It’s a bit cold, I’ll get the fire started.” 122


Leif said nothing. And he sat motionless in the corner, and I stayed in front of the mirthless fire, willing it to burn me. Every so often, I glanced in Leif’s direction but his eyes remained fixed on the floor. I was shivering again, the cold racking and convulsing my body. And I wanted Leif’s flames to lick me and turn me into his cinders. “Come here, John,” he said. He held out his left arm but still wouldn’t look at my face. “Take what you need.” I didn’t hesitate. I set upon his arm like a jackal. My teeth entered his flesh, stripping flanks of skin off his arm. I drank his fire-blood and painted myself with him. I tore off my clothes and took more than his left arm. Attacking his left leg with equal ferocity, I swallowed chunks of flesh and muscle. I copulated and climaxed in his jagged wounds. I rolled in his pool of blood like a pig in his own filth. I was carnality. I was flame. The fireplace raged with crackling, orange tongues, speaking a language that I understood. The defeated snow and winter winds pounded the cabin. I heard the flakes falling and gathering outside, and the fire next to me laughed and urged me to continue. And Leif said nothing. Once the pleasure reached its crescendo, I passed into sleep, again dreaming of the melting snowflakes, although this time each ice crystal was Leif’s face. Take what you need. We continued in this way for days. Or was it weeks? The passing of time was impossible to measure. There were no clocks, no sunlight. Only the snowstorm raging outside and the firestorm within. I ate or drank nothing but Leif. He never moved from the corner. Then, I awoke from one of my snowy dreams to his labored breathing. And I looked at him. Really looked at him. His arms stripped of flesh and muscle, only bone remained, his legs in tatters and his chest open, exposing the fragile contents. He looked at me. His eyes were blue tears shed for a world of suffering that would never be cured. And there was the shame and hatred and everything I’d felt since I was a ten-year-old boy. 123


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“John, I only have a question to ask. One that I thought I knew the answer to.” Broken voice wavering, I thought he was going to cry. “What is it, Leif?” I rushed to his side like I was some damned Florence Nightingale. He coughed and spit a wad of blood. He then bit his upper lip, as if gathering all the strength he had left. “Which side of cruel do you relate to?” Tears ran down my cheeks, turning to ice on my face. And the shivers and chills and cold, they returned with full force. I opened my mouth to try to give an answer, to try to say something that spoke to my humanity. “Shhh. No, John. Never mind. I know the answer.” And damn it, he smiled at me with blood-stained teeth. I stood and walked into the kitchen, I had to be out of that room, if only for a moment. I pressed my ice-covered face against the kitchen window, thinking about running outside and consuming all the snow, every damn flake, instead of taking Leif again. But I was so cold, so ruined, so weak. I ran to my beautiful Leif. He was dead. His eyes closed and his final smile gone. That peaceful, unblemished, perfect face hovering above his mutilated body. I knelt before him, soaking my knees in old blood and tissue, and that flame inside me roared. With it, anger toward Leif, toward what I’d become, toward what I’d always allowed myself to be. And I tore into his face. *** Which side of cruel do you relate to? I think of that question and have come to terms with the answer. I’m going to try to leave this place. I tried leaving the cabin yesterday. I tried finding the dirt road, but it wasn’t there. Giant fir trees now stand in front of the cabin like vigilant sentinels. I had enough strength to limp back and attend to my needs one more time. There is not much left of Leif. Only the toughest muscle fibers remain attached to his headless skeleton, like clumps of barnacle. But this morning I awoke with strange and thick scars on my chest, a simmering heat churning just beneath the surface. And there are no mirrors in this cabin, but my dark hair and eyes seem to be reflecting lighter in the snowy windows. 124


I’ve changed. And I am leaving today. I’ll head to the stream, across the bridge, and toward the valley. If I make it, I will look for that someone. That snowflake. That one of a billion, which looks the same yet is so different, falling to the ground in a moment of aching beauty before anonymously adding to the seamless white cover. And I will see that snowflake, eventually, melt away.

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THE STAIRS Sometimes the stairs are just there. Last month some appeared at the end of hallways, in the middle of the living room, at a busy street corner, and more leading into the wilted façade of that abandoned warehouse. And only I saw them. Sometimes when the stairs appear . . . They’re made of pine or oak, and the wood is usually rotten. Or they’re made of marble, tile, brick, cement, or even spidery wrought iron. Each set from a different time, different from mine. Each set wears darkness, thick and foreboding. And familiar. And I’ve yet to walk them. Sometimes the stairs call out to me . . . Voices speak without code. Convincing arguments to walk them, to place my feet on their countless platforms. Up or down does not matter. And I refuse to answer them. Sometimes the stairs remind me of her . . . Of my awful mistake, of the living room, the argument, and the conclusion. Of a secret we then shared. A secret place in that abandoned warehouse. And I can’t forget them. Sometimes the stairs are waiting . . . Like a warning, a fulfilled threat. Through the dark there are silhou127


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ettes, writhing and twisting, climbing and descending. On the stairs, grotesque formless creatures stare without eyes and accuse without tongues. And I can’t blame them.

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WITH MORE THAN EYES I asked him . . . Ever seen a UFO? Of course not, how silly. Only rednecks and losers believe in that. Or moral degenerates who don’t have a job and spend their day watching the home shopping network and Sally Geraldo Springer and soap operas and their ever-expanding waistlines. Just a sad, sad cry for help and attention, you say? You may be right. But have you seen electricity? How about sound? How about all those pretty folks in television and movies? Ever seen one of those real celebrities in the flesh? Ever think about how much of what you see is an illusion of light and sound? Ever wonder what really lies on the cutting room floor? I asked again . . . Ever seen a UFO? Okay, try this then. Have you ever seen a mother’s love? How about life? Or your child’s soul? *** I used to swim. My grandparents had a summer home in Myrtle Beach. My 131


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Granddad, an alternate on an Olympic team, taught me how to swim on the choppy Atlantic. Sometimes I daydream about letting the tide and the waves pass me along. Floating on my back, most of my head submerged, with only my face sticking out of the blue. My arms stretched away from my body, reaching and relaxing at the same time. The water is over my ears, and my eyes are closed. I hear nothing. And more importantly, I see nothing. *** Last week I read about a fourteen-year-old girl. Odd that I don’t remember her name. She saw the same image everyday in her mirror. A bloated and fat and disgusting and irredeemable creature. She still saw it when she weighed 78 pounds and her heart fluttered like a dying bird in her chest. I cry for her every morning. But still don’t understand. *** The night-table lamp is still on. He will read for another hour before turning it off. Hopefully sleep will find me before that. But the cruel truth is that hope is a four-letter word for tease. My head hits the pillow, and I stare at the dimly lit white ceiling of the bedroom. No cracks, no imperfections, just smooth white. With no real thought of sleep, I shut my eyes but they open soon after, and I see something. A ring of fuzzy red. Rose red, and fuzzy as in hairy, with random strands poking away from the ring. Mostly these hairs are on the exterior and away from the center of pure, clean, white ceiling. The image isn’t frightening, but I don’t like the stray hairs. Twitchy and chaotic and somehow, inadequate. The ring stays with me until he turns off the lamp. And still I don’t sleep because I hear her crying. *** 132


Johnny wakes up first. Always. Even before my husband Bill is up and out of the house and at the mystical, magical place that is referred to only as Daddy’s work. Johnny is four, and he crawls into bed next to me. If I’m lucky, he isn’t pee-soaked. I’ve never been a very lucky person. But I am five times blessed. Amy is up next. She’s six and heads straight for the television despite all the Dr. Spock-type parental intervention techniques that read great but never seem to work in my world. And my world is real. The twin’s baby-monitor then explodes with a mix of laughter and tears. One laughs, one cries, and it switches the next day, and the day after that and . . . They are two and a half, and both climb the walls like monkeys on caffeine. I was blessed doubly the day Jacob and Thomas were born. Kelly’s bassinette is in my bedroom. She’ll sleep for another hour, maybe. But I was up and feeding her only three hours ago. She’s a precious, fragile, and beautiful four-month-old. I never feel the exhaustion when she’s in my arms. My mother-in-law isn’t coming over today. She had been for the first couple months, but Bill stopped asking her to come. He said that she was too busy. I understand busy. *** I am a mother. Five times I was the gestation, the incubation. I was the feeder, the giver, the lover. Five times I was life. Five times blessed. *** Yesterday, Bill promised that we wouldn’t have any more children. He even said that he’d get a vasectomy. I laughed and patted him on the shoulder. I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. He’d said the same lie before the twins. And after. 133


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I tried to be a good wife and told him what he wanted to hear. I told him that Christians don’t get vasectomies. Christians don’t use birth control. But he pressed on, insisting that the first two months with Kelly were real tough, even tougher than the time with the twins. And by tough he was of course talking about my baby blues, though he’d never call it that. Postpartum depression is what he called it, like he was one of my big-shot doctors. But I just smiled at Bill and told him that I was a strong woman and that I handled it fine and I would handle it fine again if needed, if called. I love and tolerate Bill, but like all men, he just doesn’t understand. And he never will understand what it’s like. I am a mother. *** Snack time. Slices of toast and apples and juice poured into dinosaur-decorated sippy-cups and highchairs and runaway Cheerios and spills that rival the Valdez and wipe-ups and bibs and breastfeeding and crying and giggles and toys all over the floors and stacks of dishes and a wailing phone and my name over and over and over . . . Mommy. Bill’s mother-in-law was such a help. But I can handle it. I am a mother. *** I told him . . . Sometimes I wonder why I was so blessed. Five angels. Five beautiful lives. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a good mother. Sometimes there’s just so much. I asked him . . . Ever read about Susan Smith? Sometimes I think about her, and I want to shout and cry at the same time. Sometimes I get to thinking about how much her poor children suffered 134


in that pond, in the water, and I have to stop and weep and weep and . . . That woman was the monster. That woman was obviously under Satan’s influence. A person doesn’t need three nights of Bible study a week to know that. You see, the devil is always searching for weak people to devour. I pray for Susan Smith. She was no mother. *** Post-lunch. Miracle of miracles, all five crashed for a nap. This doesn’t happen often, and I find myself with free time. I look out the kitchen window and see the patch of grassy land that Bill promises to fill with a pool. But Bill hasn’t been all that reliable with his promises. I sit on the couch and flip to CNN—all news, all bad, all the time. I can’t watch for too long without getting depressed. Real depressed. Not that baby blues thing Bill and my doctor blow way out of proportion. They are men and don’t understand how wonderful it feels to carry that precious life inside, and when the baby leaves, there’s a void and the inevitable doubts and feelings of inadequacy. But I can handle it. I have before. And I will again. But what to do with this unexpected free time? My Granddad used to say that idle hands were for the devil’s work. *** After I had the twins, I had the baby blues bad. It made sense that after being doubly blessed the blues would be worse. And my world makes sense. During the first couple of months with Jacob and Thomas, I used to see things. I don’t exactly remember what those things were now, because I’m better. But I do remember the doctor asking why I thought some people saw things. Of course some people was me, but I ignored that jab and tried to answer him. 135


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I said maybe it’s not in their heads and they actually see it. It’s possible. I’m certainly not here to tell anyone that what they see isn’t real. Even if it isn’t real, what people see is what they have to deal with, so it doesn’t really matter what’s real then, does it? *** I saw the ring in the kitchen today. Kelly’s head was the center; the red stained her high chair. In the light of day, I see that it’s not a pretty red. It’s garish, like a whore’s lipstick, or blood. *** I keep in correspondence with the traveling preacher who married Bill and me. I have to, since Bill no longer trusts organized religion. He thinks the three nights of Bible readings we do in the living room is enough. I know it’s not. And I know I need help. I told Pastor Vuckovich about my problems, my concerns, my visions. He wrote:

Woman’s role is borne from the sin of Eve. Bad children come from bad mothers. Prozac. Zoloft. Haldol. Lithium. The drugs don’t help me. They certainly don’ t help my poor children. Only God can. *** I woke up thinking about that fourteen-year-old girl. What if I was her mother? What if I was her? What I don’t understand is that she had empirical evidence that contradicted what she saw. A scale. The physical measurement of her weight. She had to have known that what she saw couldn’t be. There had to be doubt. 136


Yet, she continued to starve and starve and starve. I admire the conviction. I envy the doubt. *** Bill first saw me in the water. I was swimming in a motel pool, which was nothing like the living organism that was the ocean. Despite the chlorinated water and the thrashing and shouting of teenagers and assorted tourists, I lost myself in countless laps around the pool. I didn’t notice Bill watching me until I climbed out of the water. I remember the small bikini I wore. Red and tight and scandalous and perfect for swimming. This was, of course, before the five little blessings that I’d do anything for and the stretch marks that accompanied them. Bill told me that he fell in love with the swimmer. I did too. *** Johnny trips and falls while playing tag with Jacob and Thomas. They know they’re not supposed to be running in the house, but I can’t stop them. I’m not . . . He cut his forehead on the corner of the coffee table and he is bleeding and crying and I should’ve had that corner padded. What kind of mother leaves such dangers for her children? I clean his wound and Kelly is crying in her playpen. She’s hungry. Again. The television is too loud and Amy sits only inches away from the screen. I have to yell and she cries and the twins cry because Mommy yelled and Mommy is angry. And Mommy is sorry. *** Bill only does what is good for Bill. I feel guilty saying that, but it’s true. Bill is naked and on top of me. But I feel nothing. No spiritual connection and no love. 137


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And physically, I don’t feel anything. I had an episiotomy when the twins were born. With Kelly, I tore again. It’s our first love making since Kelly, and I feel nothing. Only his bulk on top and the rhythm of the bed and I pretend I’m floating on my back with only my face out of the water but when I close my eyes I still see it . . . When he’s finished, Bill asks if I think the Lord will bless us again. I don’t answer. I turn my head and look at Kelly’s bassinette, and I hear her hunger cries. And I close my eyes and I still see it. *** Dinner. Cartoon-shaped pasta and more bibs and five angels seated around the worn kitchen table and my heart shatters like glass because they all look so gaunt, so hungry, so needy, and I know that I’m a terrible mother, an awful mother and I see that they are too skinny and I don’t feed them enough and I don’t love them enough and I don’t protect them enough and Goddamn me I don’t teach them enough and what hope do they have and they all ask where’s Daddy? and he’s late from work again and the tears come and they don’t stop and I don’t think they’ll ever stop and I see the red ring crown their heads like halos, like the crown of thorns and I’m drowning every day and I cry and cry and cry and cry . . . *** There’s this line in the Bible, I forget where it is exactly, but that is to be expected. I’m not myself anymore. The lines: Would it not be better for a person to be flung into the water with a stone tied to his neck than cause little ones to stumble? I am failing and I am failing them. And I must do something. I am a mother. *** 138


Ever seen a UFO? No? Me neither. Ever seen your child’s soul? I have. I see with more than eyes. Johnnyamyjacobthomaskelly’s perfect pure white soul enclosed in an awful blood red. An ocean of tainted blood. A monster of clots and evil and sin and my weakness . . . And I see it every night. And I see it every day. And I am the monster. And I am a mother. *** Bill left early for work. The kids are still in bed. But I’m up. I put all their toys away. I finish folding their laundry, even managing to sneak into their rooms and put away their clothes without waking anyone up. It’s a clean house. The bathtub is full of cool water. And it bears repeating that hope is a four-letter word for tease. But I am their only hope. And I am a mother. *** I used to be a terrible mother. I know my daughter-of-Eve weakness was exploited. They are free now of the burden that was me. Saved from the devil himself. And their freedom is my punishment, not theirs. The phone rings. I answer . . . The water . . . floating . . . the children . . . Bill asks what about the children? I answer . . . All five. I am a mother.

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PERCEPTION The thing is, the meaning of the story depends on your perception. Let the record show . . . “Eww, God! What the hell is this?” the woman yelled. Her name isn’t important to the story. “What? Where?” her husband answered, his name equally useless to what you get out of this tale. SETTING: A pond speckled with camps and cottages and cabins and RV’s and tents, surrounded by green mountains and miles of rural roads and equally rural people. None of that is really important to the story, either. Just dressing, trim, fat on the bone. The man sidled up next to his wife, and she had yet to step into the water. Gooseflesh rose on his skin as a late afternoon breeze reached across the pond. The woman bent and pointed at a red lump and breathed harshly through her teeth. Whether she was frightened or just repulsed is unknown to the teller. What is known . . . “Is that a leech? Oh God, tell me it’s not a leech,” she said. Voice inflected and pitched high. “Let me see. Nah, I don’t think so. Leeches are black, sweetie.” He rubbed his left shoulder. Loons cried in the distance for no apparent reason. He plucked two sticks from the sandy and debris-strewn shore and picked up the small, now squirming, red lump. INTERJECTION: We can surmise that the man didn’t think it was a 141


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leech but still wasn’t too keen on touching the thing in question. Another person may have reacted differently. “Oh God, be careful. Are you sure it’s not a leech? What if it’s just filled with blood?” she said and shuffled behind her husband. That was the third time she’d invoked the name of a believed higher power. Yet, we are unable to conclude with certainty that she was religious. That may or may not be important to the story. I digress . . . The man held the writhing red lump close to his face. WHAT WE KNOW HE SAW: Two-inch long, plump, red body, two rows of pinhead-sized legs, two antennae, two black-dot eyes, and a tan pincer/mandible. But that information is still just garnish to the main course. “I think it’s a caterpillar, sweetie,” he said, but the lack of enthusiasm in his voice would lead us to believe there wasn’t the conviction of true knowledge, or even belief, behind his words. We know he was wrong, but that doesn’t ruin the story. No sir-eee Bob. POINT OF FACT: That was his perception. The red lump being a caterpillar that is. A very important distinction, and more importantly, important to the story. “Jesus, you’re not throwing it in the pond, in where we’re swimming, are you?” she screamed and folded her arms across her bosom. Again, despite the religious speak, we know nothing of her spiritual life. Nor do we care to. At least in terms of the story. I’m not saying that to be mean. But there is a perception this woman has that is integral to our tale, and will be left to the reader. Don’t worry, it should be painfully obvious when I finish. “No, I’m throwing it into the bushes over there, where it can’t hurt you,” he said with a thick sarcasm that has been verified by the top academes and students of that culture. Then he threw the lump, or in his mind the caterpillar, smack into a dying birch tree. What happens next should already have been categorized and memorized. WHAT WE KNOW HAPPENED: The lump, the caterpillar—really names representing faulty perceptions . . . but that leads to a problem we’ll discuss at the end—landed inside an insect-eaten and fungi-worn crack of a sick birch tree. Lucky for us. Lucky isn’t a strong enough word, really. Miraculous fits much better, but again, depending on your perception, 142


maybe it doesn’t. As I was saying . . . lucky the lump had found the one galaxy, the one planet with the correct atmosphere and climate, with the specified air pressure and temperature and dew point and pollen count. Lucky it had landed on the shore instead of the water, which it goes without saying, would’ve killed it on contact. Lucky he threw it into the one form of vegetation with the right DNA, with the perfect ratio of healthy chloroplasts and recombinant fungi nuclei. Lucky that—and we can call our creator, the progenitor, the great one, by Its name now—BARRY had hit the fate lottery, had found the needle in the karmic haystack. BARRY then simply laid the eggs, and of course, there was the great spawning that has lasted ages, and the feeding . . . I’ll stop there because we know that story. Yes it’s all powerful, heady stuff. You laughed and cried, and it became a part of you . . . But I want you to try something new. Try thinking about that story, the oldest story, the story that if without there are no other stories . . . Think about the word of BARRY in the new light of perception. Now I know this is radical thinking. The elders won’t like it, nor will the priests, the shamans, or the TV executives. But bear with me. I might have stumbled upon something. I’m no great philosopher. And I haven’t composed a treatise or even a topic sentence. I’ll just say it as simply as possible. See what you make out of this . . . After pondering the plight of the man and woman and BARRY, I got to thinking . . . maybe—and I know this might sound crazy—there’s times when there’s no right or wrong, fact or fiction, smoking or non, caf or decaf. Maybe there’re times when there’re only different perceptions. So? What do you think? How else could one race’s miracle be another’s extinction?

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ANNABEL LEIGH 1. Driving through the center of Kinnsbrook, a struggling coastal port and Annabel’s hometown, Patrick tossed his glowing cigarette stub out the Camry’s window. He’d started smoking again. Indian Summer had given the waning tourist season another week of life, and the streets were crowded. Patrick drove by the small antiques store where he’d bought their colonial bed frame. He lit another cigarette. Patrick had to slow considerably as people crossed the street taking no mind of the sidewalks, or of anything else. He used to be one of them. Now he knew better. He remembered how he and Annabel used to say their love and lives were meant-to-be. Right, it was all meant to be. Patrick would have wagered that if he asked any of the couples wandering these streets, they’d espouse the same bullshit philosophy. Sure, everything happening for a reason was quaint if everything in your life smelled like roses, but what about when things went wrong, horribly wrong. Was it meant to be then? Was it meant to be that most of the fishermen of Kinnsbrook were going bankrupt? What about drunk drivers? Were they meant to be driving in the wrong lane? Was it meant to be that Annabel died in the car crash and he did not? Where was the fucking meant-to-be in that? 145


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2. “Patrick, so glad you could make it,” the real estate agent said and leaned on his idling Camry. “So this is it.” He hadn’t looked at the house yet. “I know it’s more house than you need, but I think you’re really going to like this place.” Tan blazer hung open like an invitation, and her wide smile fell somewhere between rehearsed and predatory. Patrick aimed his car between two stone pillars flanking the driveway’s entrance. The hewn white obelisks were over six-and-a-half feet tall, faceless sentinels ready to crush any offending vehicle. Patrick eyed the stones, which were just inches from his car doors, and he read the engravings.

A . . . was on the right obelisk . . .

. . . and on the left was . . .

The angels, not

L

Went

half so happy

envying her

in heaven,

and me—

The verses were familiar, but he couldn’t place them. He parked in the gravel driveway. Massive in height and sprawl, the house was a grand, weathered Victorian, painted a light sea-blue with fading yellow trim. Gaping windows peppered its monstrous façades. In the glaring sun, Patrick was barely able to see the eaved roof. At the end of the driveway was a cavernous barn that had been converted to a garage and was connected to the back end of the home, adding to the house’s never-ending feel. A white historical placard hung just to the right of the front door—a majestic blend of dark oak—stating that this house had been constructed in 1869. Besides the obvious signs of frayed and chipped paint, tired shingles, and moldy drainpipes, Patrick sensed the house’s age. Modern amenities and neighboring homes encroached like thieves on the home’s shrinking lot. Patrick imagined what the Victorian was like when it was originally built: a lone monolith erected upon open acres with only horse and buggy allowed on its dirt pathway. Now, there was a speed limit sign reading 35 across the street. A state highway, gas stations, and stripmalls were less than a block away. Patrick bet he would see the swarm of dirty neon signs from the second floor of the house. The realtor droned on about the updates the house had had and would need. Patrick nodded his head politely, said ‘Um’ and ‘Yeah’ at the appro146


priate times, but wasn’t really listening. He took off his fraying sports coat but was suddenly self-conscious of his growing paunch pushing against his white short-sleeved dress-shirt, and of his tie, which hadn’t seemed so out of fashion earlier that morning. An SUV pulled in front of the house. The realtor squealed and ran to greet her apparently affluent guests. Patrick stared at the obelisks—A.L.?—and ran a hand through his thinning hair, surprised but cognizant of how much he had lost. 3. The realtor led her tour into an impressive foyer, leaden with many options, including a large, winding staircase. The ceiling was twelve-feet high, and smooth, elegant molding, cream colored, traced the walls’ boundary. “Let’s start in here,” the realtor said. She entered the room on her left, high heels clacking on the hardwood floor. “Let’s call this the ballroom. Delightful isn’t it? This room is perfect for entertaining and imagine the size of the Christmas tree you could fit in here.” The sellers weren’t using the room, apparently, as there was no furniture other than two lamps and a large wicker chest. Next, they entered a sitting room, then across the main hallway to a dining room, living room, and a boarded up solarium that faced the driveway, before circling back to the front foyer. “Why don’t we go upstairs and then hit the kitchen and barn?” The realtor spoke directly to the young couple as if Patrick wasn’t there. He didn’t mind. The stairs creaked under their weight, the first interior sign of age. Winding at the top, the staircase led to an airy hallway, and to the right, a rotunda bathed in sunlight that leaked through a large bay window. The layout of the second floor was similar to the first, except the rooms were smaller. There were four bedrooms, and a fifth had been converted into a second kitchen. “Oh, you must see this!” They walked down a hallway lined with mirrored tiles. Patrick watched his reflection split and reform as he followed. The hallway emptied into a small enclave with three doors. Directly ahead was a decrepit bedroom, on the right was a small but full bathroom, and to the left was a dark stairwell. “These stairs would drop us off in the back foyer, next to the kitchen, if they hadn’t been boarded up. Fun, eh? Let me show you.” 147


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Patrick lingered at the stairs for a moment, feeling along the wall for a light switch. He didn’t find one. Back to the first floor and down the main hallway. The realtor stopped in front of a large cupboard adjacent to the kitchen and back foyer, and threw open its doors with the exuberance of a hammy actor. Shelves, painted a creamy yellow, claimed the right side of the cupboard, but on the bottom-left there were edges of two stairs, painted the same color. “The most recent owner blocked off the staircase. I’m not sure why, to be honest, but its restoration wouldn’t be much work at all.” Then they passed through the updated kitchen and into the damp and cavernous barn. Patrick wandered through a converted stable area and hayloft, before stopping in the main area of the barn that now functioned as a garage. Thick but splintering wood planks served as the floor, and sounded hollow in places. “Excuse me, but is there anything below the barn?” he asked. “Yes, the basement.” 4. The basement door, the same blue as the house’s exterior, was in the kitchen, next to a walk-in pantry. “This isn’t where I envisioned the tour of this grand old home ending, but per your request.” The young couple trailed behind as Patrick descended a rickety set of stairs into the dark basement. Only a single light bulb, swaying a foot below the ceiling, attempted to shed light. He couldn’t see very far behind the staircase, only outlines of shapes that he guessed were piles of wood, and the rest of the basement was immense, its dirt floor running the entire length of the home and barn. “Patrick, over here is an old well, still functional.” He kicked a small stone into the black mouth, about five feet in diameter. A distant splash. The couple joined them at the well. “That could come in handy for summers with water bans,” the husband said. The realtor agreed and heightened her sales pitch. Patrick walked along the foundation of the house, running his hand on the stone and mortar that had held up for over 130 years. He admired the granite and the lumpy, uneven foundation surface. This certainly wasn’t a gray cement slab built by some shifty contractor, and it wouldn’t crack and take in 148


water like a sieve when a Nor’easter hit. This foundation was built to last. Now standing in the middle of the basement, Patrick spied a giant furnace and water heater to his left. Wood, metal scraps, and other forgotten debris lay scattered on the floor and against the walls. He knew Annabel would’ve loved this old place. Patrick then caught a glimpse of a rectangular shape in the far left corner, and he walked toward it. He found a framed picture, a secret leaning backwards against the wall. He picked it up and turned it around: a portrait, though still too dark to see it completely. Patrick carried the picture under the light bulb. As the shadows pulled back like a curtain, Patrick stopped breathing. It was a painting of her. Annabel. The portrait had to be more than a couple of decades old, maybe even the better part of a century, cracked frame and faded oils as evidence to its battle with time. Yet it was her, his wife, Annabel, painted as a young woman. Her head slightly turned to the left, hair tied in a bun, bare shoulders, and a frilly blue dress, the same blue found throughout the house. There was no mistaking her sharp cheekbones that cut through stares, her shining mahogany hair, her alabaster skin that he ached to touch again, her deep brown eyes that made him think about love, lust, and sadness all at the same time. And there was her smile. Liquorice red lips, even more red in contrast to her milky skin, parting delicately, revealing equally white teeth. That smile so knowing and mischievous; he’d never seen another smile fit someone’s personality so perfectly. There was no sign of an artist’s signature or title. Patrick flipped the painting over and scanned its plain brown backing. There, etched in haggard black letters, as if written in coal, was:

Annabel Leigh The angels, not half so happy in heaven, Went envying her and me—

1924 A. L. The verses. Of course, how stupid he was for not recognizing the initials of his wife and the poem right away. He’d simultaneously poked fun of Annabel and feared the dark words belonging to Edgar Allan Poe. As a boy, he’d memorized the 149


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poem, ‘Annabel Lee,’ for an extra credit assignment, loving each lilt, each rhyme of the desolate piece. But after marrying a love by the name of Annabel Mary Leigh, Patrick would not think of the poem anymore and he wouldn’t even open a book written by Poe as if it would doom or jinx their lives. “What do you have there, Patrick?” the realtor asked. “Oh, I guess it’s an old painting. It was just sitting in the back corner there.” “Fascinating,” she said on autopilot. “You know, I never did ask who the sellers are.” “The owner, a widow, just passed away a month ago. Her son is selling it.” “Was her name Annabel by any chance?” “No. I believe her name was Elizabeth Purcell.” “Oh, thank you,” he said and placed the painting not back in the corner but against a patch of foundation that was in range of the weak light bulb. As he walked up the basement stairs, there were swirling thoughts of the painting, the poem, Annabel, and the house. Since his wife’s death, Patrick had cared about very little. Could this house change that? He had never believed in the supernatural. But that painting, the obelisks, and the poem. . . . Could he actually find her again, here? The realtor’s cell-phone rang as she entered the kitchen. “Excuse me just one moment.” The electronic ring broke through Patrick’s enthrallment, and he heard the young couple across the room. “This house is beautiful, honey, it really is,” the wife said. “I know, I know. So is this the one?” “I think so. I really think it’s meant to be.” They hugged. Patrick raised his voice from across the room, “Hi guys . . . ” A shared smile on the couple’s faces melted as they saw a checkbook in Patrick’s hand. Patrick handed a check to the realtor and said, “I’m sorry, but this house and you guys . . . it’s just not a fit.” He then looked directly at the young wife. “Unless you guys are up for a bidding war, I really don’t think that . . .

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5. . . . it was meant to be,” he said to his Annabel Leigh. He had always thought of his last name, Kelly, sounding foolish on her. “I’m moving . . . ” He stopped, as he found no other words appropriate. The irrational hope he had felt in the new house had faded. Patrick stood in front of her headstone, flowers in hand. This was only the second time since the funeral he’d been to the Mill Cemetery, the only one in Kinnsbrook. Countless family members surrounded her, as the Leigh family plot claimed most of the old graveyard. Annabel, being the most recent member to join the club, was buried on the highest tier of the terraced lot. Behind and below Patrick were five tiers, descending like stairs. And on the first tier, unseen by Patrick, was an ornate gravesite, flanked by two white obelisks. 6. Family and friends pitched in, each trying to add mirth to moving-day, but failing. While they hauled in the few belongings that didn’t sell at his moving-sale, Patrick wandered throughout his new home and eventually into the basement. Piles of wood and other junk remained, but the painting was missing. Patrick was happy and disappointed at the same time. After the move, Patrick cleaned up and headed upstairs to his new bedroom. He’d chosen the room directly above the ballroom and adjacent to the second kitchen to be his master bedroom. The day’s activities had exhausted him, and despite the early afternoon hour, he only wanted to sleep. As he stood in the doorway, he noted that someone had already made his bed for him. Probably his sister-in-law, she always meant well. The headboard of the queen-size bed was flush with the left wall and opposite a window. He hadn’t told anyone where to set up his bed, but this seemed as good a spot as any. Although Patrick still wasn’t used to looking at an empty bed. He then noticed a picture hanging on the wall above the bed. From the doorway, he only saw the weathered frame. He didn’t think he’d kept any of the paintings from the old house. In fact, he was sure he hadn’t. Taking slow steps into the room, Patrick knew what he would see. 151


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Annabel Leigh. In the full daylight, the painting was masterful. No wasted strokes, brilliant use of shade and color, and it was her. Did someone in the moving party bring it upstairs from the basement? They would’ve seen how much this woman looked just like his wife. None of them was that cruel. Or, maybe the hapless person didn’t see the resemblance. A few of his work buddies had only met Annabel when she was in her mid-thirties. The Annabel in this painting was in her early twenties, possibly late teens. A glow of youth was tangible. Patrick lay on the bed with his head at the foot, facing the picture. Maybe it wasn’t a bad place for the painting after all. 7. A repetitive whir of machinery echoed through the musty old building as years, decades, and even a century melted off The Whaler, Kinnsbrook’s newspaper. Patrick sat at the microfiche machine in the Kinnsbrook public library. He stopped the manic rush of images on February 4, 1869. A weekly paper then. Patrick scanned the year ’s fifty-two issues, looking for any sign of his new home. There, in the June 30 th issue, the jackpot. Scratching his head, he didn’t notice the light drizzle of hairs falling to his shoulders. Stenciled black advertisements huddled about crowded bylines: SHOE TYCOON CHOOSES KINNSBROOK FOR BUSINESS AS WELL AS HOME. Morgan Burgess, forty-five year old capitalist and entrepreneur, has purchased another sizeable parcel of land in Kinnsbrook. With the lot comprised of 15 acres by the Mill Wharf, he plans to construct a giant shoe making factory, complete with assembly line and jobs for willing locals. Having just moved to the town this spring, it seems this tycoon wants to keep his business close to home. . . .

Accompanying the article was a photo of the gruff man, Mr. Burgess, standing in front of Patrick’s house. Construction wasn’t complete; the builders had only erected the frame and some of the masonry, but he still recognized the house. He studied the picture. It was hard to see from the grainy photo, but the barn had yet to be adjoined to the house, and the obelisks weren’t there. Fast forward, he continued through the ages. 152


Two years later, he found photos of both the factory and house, in completion. The newspaper fawned over Morgan Burgess and his company for reviving the local economy. Before the factory, the sleepy town had relied on the notoriously fickle fishing industry. In its completion, the young house was glorious. Lush trees and land void of neighbors surrounded the home. Horses and well-dressed people roamed the ample grounds. Patrick smiled while reading the accompanying article that described the grand balls and parties catering to the dreams of wealth and prosperity. But death found the home too often in its first years. Two young daughters of Morgan Burgess died, both at the age of twelve, Abigail of smallpox and then Emily of consumption. Only his son born in 1880, Morgan Burgess, Jr., survived his childhood. The shoe factory continued to flourish until the death of its founder in 1898. Morgan Jr. took over the family business but with disastrous results. Patrick read a stream of editorials pleading with the new owner to modernize and improve upon the machinery. In a statement to the paper in 1915, Morgan Jr. said he was sticking with the methods that had built the family empire, which included staying with the now outdated method of manufacturing shoes. Despite the boon WWI provided, the business was drowning. Then, a marriage announcement in 1923. A scandalous one. Morgan Burgess, Jr., then 43 years old, wed Ms. Annabel Leigh, age 16 and from Plymouth. The Whaler was aghast at the folly of the failing businessman. There was a picture of the newlyweds marrying in front of the house. This stunning young girl looked just like Patrick’s wife. As far as he knew, none of his wife’s ancestors had ever lived in Plymouth. And did it really matter? She looked not related to but just like his Annabel. No more news until one year later. Annabel Leigh had drowned. There were no witnesses, and amidst the townspeople’s grumblings of foul play, the paper reported that she’d simply fallen off a downtown pier while taking one of her nightly walks. Although in the previous year the paper had ripped the wedding, the tone of the writers changed. Apparently, the town had grown fond of the tycoon’s young wife. The eulogizing articles described her work with charities and seemed to regard her as the local princess. She was buried in Mill Cemetery. Patrick continued searching. 153


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Six months later, Morgan Burgess Jr. disappeared. Patrick scanned the passing years, looking for any news of the missing man but found very little. The original article reporting his disappearance hypothesized that he too fell into the ocean and drowned, as, ever since his wife’s passing, he’d taken to her nightly walks. Although there was one letter to the editor that claimed the man had fled because of a guilty conscience. There was never an answer or a body found. There were no more Burgess heirs, and a rival company then purchased the shoe factory soon after and shut it down in 1933. Patrick shut off the microfiche. The research that had started as a lark swallowed the entire Saturday afternoon. And now he felt unease with the uncanny coincidence of history. He had hoped to find nothing, he supposed. That way he could’ve gone on believing it was his Annabel in the painting and she would return to him in the grand Victorian. It was the only reason he had bought the place. Grunting, he stood from the hard chair. His back ached and eyes watered from the day of research. He said, “Time to go home.” 8. After coming home from the library, Patrick ate some cold pizza, smoked three cigarettes, and listened to the radio. He remained seated at the counter with his back to the basement door. He listened to the first half of a college football game while thinking about the basement and what he’d found down there. Was there more? He really hadn’t explored the section that lay beneath the barn. But he tried to stop thinking about the damned place. There was nothing more down there of his Annabel. He had proved it at the library. It was all a coincidence. A damn, teasing coincidence. Patrick even tried to convince himself that the painting didn’t look exactly like his wife. He turned off the radio and heard a strange, faint sound floating up from the basement. A melody, high-pitched, metallic, and even child-like—was it London Bridge? Patrick stood and went to the door, but before opening it, he took two frenzied steps to the back foyer and grabbed his small gardening shovel that leaned against the coat rack. The simple child’s song continued, and he opened the basement door. Patrick was more annoyed than afraid. Annoyed with the house, its 154


history, and its secrets. He stood in the doorway and held the shovel like he was holding a tantruming child’s hand. The music echoed off the foundation. The light bulb glowed weakly, giving off the minimum light allowed in such a dark place. Beneath the lilting song, Patrick heard another sound. Low and sifting, with a distinguishable rhythm. He walked down the rickety stairs. There, in the middle of the floor, something writhed under the dirt. Was it a rat? He hated rats. A small patch of earthen floor, about six inches in diameter, vibrated and swirled. Black soil and dirt churned along with the song. Patrick went to the spot. Instinctual fear was creeping in, but he was still more interested in what was beneath the dirt than he was afraid. He was raising the shovel above his head when the music stopped and so did the churning earth. A spot of blue now peeked through the soil. The same blue as the house. Patrick bent and then let loose a sigh. Dropping the shovel, he dug and pushed the dirt away from the buried object. It was a music box, shaped like a treasure chest. Patrick stood with the box and walked under the light bulb. After brushing off the dirt, he found the box was granite, the same white granite as the obelisks in his driveway. My God, he thought. What is going on? A metallic ballerina dressed in a flowing, off the shoulder, blue dress stood on top of the box. Though crude and still dirt-encrusted, he saw the resemblance in the eerie, metal face. Black hair, white face, and red lips, Annabel. Engraved on the box’s body: And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Leigh Patrick twisted the metal knob on the side. The music played and the ballerina danced again, a metallic figurine forever pirouetting as the cover to the box opened . . . . . . his hands covering her eyes, Patrick led Annabel through the kitchen and onto the back porch. “Can I see yet? Ow!” She bumped into a kitchen chair. 155


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“Oops, sorry, honey. Almost there,” he said and tried not to laugh at his wife. “Going to the porch!” she announced. Patrick felt her wide smile under his hands. “Okay, you can look.” On the porch was a large telescope, and it faced the couple. Its lens cap was on, and taped to it was a note that read, “Happy 40th! Old woman!” Annabel squealed with delight and then playfully punched Patrick. “Old woman?” She was still smiling. “Pat, you’re the greatest!” She skipped over to the telescope, popped off its cap, and aimed at the stars. “I guess you won’t be needing the instructions.” “Wow, Pat, this thing is powerful.” He knew she only sort of heard him, but that was okay. Patrick tiptoed back into the kitchen and poured two glasses of wine. He watched her scan the sky. She rattled off names of stars and constellations that he’d never known existed. Then again, Patrick had never looked to the sky with the wonder that Annabel had. Patrick eventually walked behind his wife and put his arms around her waist. “Do you like it?” She turned away from the heavens and to Patrick. “I love it, and I love you.” They kissed and made love on the deck, beneath the stars that never rise. . . . *** Patrick awoke lying on the kitchen floor of the Kinnsbrook house with only a plastic lump in his hand. Was it a dream? No, it was too real. He had been there, back at his old house with Annabel. It wasn’t a simple replaying of memory, but he had relived the entire scene. He had felt it all. His bare feet on the stained back porch, the bittersweet taste of Merlot, the smell of cut grass, and, of course, his wife and her embrace, she was as soft as a daydream. He looked at the plastic object in his hand, the lens cap from the telescope. Shaking, he clutched it close to his face and, by God, he still smelled her on his hands. Patrick cried and inhaled. But the smell faded rapidly. And so did the memory. 156


Looking at the lens cap, Patrick tried to recall the telescope and its significance. Was it a gift? Was it his or hers? Like a drowning man swallowing his last gulp of air, Patrick tried to will the once vivid scene into his memory. He shook his head, and fists of rage and futility pounded the floor. Gone. It was all gone. All that was left was the lens cap, rendered practically meaningless. He vaguely remembered having a telescope in their house, but that was it. THINK, THINK, THINK! The goddamn cap was important and somehow attached to Annabel. This cap meant something. But what? He remembered finding a music box—and where is that now?—in the basement, and a twinge of the unrealistic pleasure that he’d experienced only moments later, but nothing else. He’d lost her all over again, but he did not cry. Patrick had sunk past tears. 9. Patrick slept through the night, not waking until 4 p.m. He was at Mill Cemetery by 4:30. With lens cap in hand, he visited his wife’s grave hoping it would trigger a memory. He squeezed the cap so hard its ridges indented red lines into his palm. Nothing. Patrick knew the cap had belonged to them but no longer had any other memory attached to the hunk of plastic. Only the gnawing insistence that he was missing something, something immensely wonderful. There were two other people in the graveyard, an older couple. The husband hunched and walked with a cane, the wife draped on his left arm. Two rows away from Patrick, they smiled at him. He returned his best effort, though wondered why they were so lucky. Why did they get to live their entire lives together? How did they win life’s lottery? What made them more important than Annabel and himself? Patrick turned away from the grave and saw the two obelisks on the bottom tier, below his Annabel. Patrick ran down the slope, adjusting an ill-fitting hat to his head. Of course, it was the other Annabel Leigh. Two blank obelisks flanked an ornate gravestone, which read: 157


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ANNABEL LEIGH 1907-1924 And neither the angels in heaven above, Nor the demons down under the sea, Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Leigh To her right was the presumably empty grave of her husband.

Morgan Theodore Burgess Jr. 1880-1924 Husband and Son Patrick hated them. Looking at the lens cap, he believed they were responsible for the previous evening’s events. He had been made to suffer enough already without tears from a bygone age visiting him. He had lost enough from his own plate, thank you, without that house, without them, taking more. Patrick looked up past five tiers of grass and stone to his wife’s grave. The sun was setting behind the graveyard, behind her lonely placard. Covered in dusk shadow, her stone was a head hanging between the obelisks. 10. The doctor had bad news. Annabel couldn’t bear children. She was inconsolable the whole ride home, even lashing out at Patrick while pulling in the driveway. He hugged her as soon as he stopped the car. Patrick then suggested she take a nap. Before relenting and going to bed, Annabel insisted they call an adoption agency and set up an appointment. Patrick gently brushed her head until she fell asleep. He watched his young bride sleep for quite a while. How was such a beautiful person, inside and out, unable to give life? It was so unfair. She would be a perfect mother. But he held out hope that they would be able to get a child through adoption. He shut the door and walked to the bathroom. Splashing water on his face, trying to cleanse away the day, Patrick saw a yellow shape in the wastebasket, a baby hat Annabel had bought after they’d decided to try to conceive. 158


She had been so excited to show him. Until today, the hat had perched prominently on the front-left bedpost. He remembered joking once before making love, “Gee, honey. No pressure, right?” Annabel had laughed and said with a fake western drawl, “That’s right, pardner. Time to saddle up and go to work.” The little lemon-yellow hat. Patrick picked it from the trash and put it in his pocket. *** He awoke on the kitchen floor, clutching a yellow babyhat. He drank from the sadness, but it was okay because they had shared it, and overcome it. The memory was a sourly pleasant one, one that had further established their relationship. But the scene faded like a setting sun. The light of memory melted toward the very borders, the horizon, and eventually, gone. Patrick screamed. A sense of loss, true loss, overwhelmed him. He was losing another piece of her, and of himself. The hat—a yellow rag furled in his hand, something they had once owned—now mocking in its insignificance. He remembered going to the basement and finding another music box. And he remembered its engraved verse. I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea: But we loved with a love that was more than love— I and my Annabel Leigh Patrick ran down the basement stairs. There, next to the first shallow hole, was a second. 11. This was hell. He had purchased the house with the insane hopes of being with his Annabel in some way, fantasy or real, it didn’t matter. Instead, he was losing her, memory by memory. The next week came and went, so did the next. 159


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Patrick went to work for those two weeks, but no more. Never a workaholic, leaving his job was easy. He then took a vacation and when those two weeks were up, he simply didn’t go back. Family and friends called. He said he was fine and spurned visits. He spent most of his time in the ballroom. He lined the front wall with the forty plus artifacts of his previous life, of their life, now rendered meaningless by the house. To have completely erased his memory would have been better. Better than living with the collected symbols of the past while only sensing that these damned things had once been special. Patrick was powerless to stop it. A new arrival came each night. One night he tried locking his bedroom door, the next locking the basement door, the next barricading the basement door with the kitchen table, the next sleeping in his car, the next trying to stay awake but failing, the next in a local hotel, and the next driving five hours north to a secluded lake in New Hampshire. None of it worked. He awoke each time with a piece of his now warped past in his hands while lying on the cold kitchen floor and with only the memory of digging in the basement and another unearthed music box. He’d seen every verse of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ engraved, some more than once. Or at least, he had the memory of the engraved verses. The boxes were always missing when he woke. In the ballroom, he sat in front of the impotent debris—clothing, jewelry, make-up cases, and more and more. He’d moved his mattress to the front of the pile and the painting hung above the shrine of powerless mementos. He had considered suicide in the past week but always seemed to fall asleep before he got serious, and then wake in the kitchen. Most of Patrick’s hair had fallen out. He’d aged a lifetime in the past month. Despite the small amounts of food he ate, his stomach stretched. Wrinkles like dry riverbeds gouged his skin. And the charcoal he wrote with had stained his hands black. He’d etched a meticulous basement map on the ballroom’s floor, marking where each hole was with a black blob, each approximately the size of the individual excavation sites. And on the wall above the fireplace he had written the poem in its entirety, but with Leigh substituted for Lee. The music again, floating down the front hallway. He hadn’t actually 160


remembered hearing the song’s siren call since that first night in the basement. Patrick staggered to his feet with a glint of hope. Maybe something new was happening. Or, maybe this was how it had happened before; he’d go and then would wake up in the kitchen without the song and with more loss. Patrick grabbed the shovel he kept by the fireplace and ran down the hallway. He had to stop this somehow. Sliding to a stop in the back foyer, he listened more closely. The music wasn’t coming from the basement but from the walled staircase. Muffled, the metallic lullaby chimed behind the yellow cupboard. He rifled through kitchen drawers and found a flashlight. He ran upstairs and down the mirrored hallway. A gray and dirty reflection darted along the mirrored tiles next to him. He unlocked and opened the stairwell door, and music exploded. Patrick turned on the flashlight and pointed the beam down the dark stairs. The music stopped. Breathing deeply, he stepped onto the staircase. The passage was a tight squeeze. Putting his shovel under his arm, he grabbed the handrail. Made of wood, it was moldy and cold, like touching something dead. He wiped his hands on his jeans and opted for the security of holding the shovel. Each step creaked, and he assumed the stairs were just as old and rotted as the railing. He laughed sarcastically as he imagined breaking through the staircase and landing in the basement, or worse, falling through to his waist and being stuck. Ten steps down and he was on a small landing, the presumed halfway point. Below, the stairs wound to the right and to the cupboard. His breathing increased and echoed off the walls. Then the door slammed shut, sounding like a dynamite detonation within the stairwell. Patrick dropped the flashlight, and it bounced on the landing then rolled down the rest of the stairs. The light was gone. He didn’t see a thing. Gripping the shovel with both hands, Patrick slid his feet on the landing, toward the upper staircase. Clink. Metal on metal. Patrick moaned as he heard the door lock. And there were footsteps echoing down the stairs. In the pitch black, Patrick swung his shovel. The footsteps, or more of a shuffling and sliding instead of walking, dragged along the rotting stairs and were getting closer. “GO AWAY!” he yelled. Self-preservation and icy fear replaced any 161


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thoughts of suicide. Patrick groped wall and handrail, and walked backward down the stairs. Patrick jarred his back against a wall. He turned around and searched with his hand, and plaster flaked off. He was at the bottom and against the back of the cupboard. There was nowhere to go. Patrick fell to his knees and felt the stairs, searching for the flashlight like it was a magic wand capable of saving him. It was right above him. And he didn’t want to think about what it was. Or who. He stood and there was silence before . . . MEEEEWRRRDAAAAWHHHH! A horrible voice muffled and gargled like an underwater scream. Patrick heard water dripping onto the stairs and walls. He swung his shovel in the darkness. He hit nothing. Water continued to drip and slosh, his bare feet getting wet. Then something touched his cheek. A hand maybe, but it felt like a moldy sponge with fat swollen fingers, soft, damp, yielding, and cold. Patrick screamed and turned to the drywall and smashed it with his shovel. Bits of plaster and wood bounced off his face and chest and he kept swinging. And he didn’t stop screaming. 12. His voice hoarse, Patrick sat slumped, resting against the back door that was directly across from where the cupboard used to be. Now there was only a pile of rubble at the bottom of the staircase. Patrick got up and limped toward the ballroom. Instead of walking down the front hallway, he entered the ballroom via the sitting room. Standing in the doorway, the fireplace to his right, his map of the basement floor lay before him. The black shapes demarcating unearthed music boxes and other charcoal drawings representing certain basement landmarks suddenly fit together. Was it the shock of the stairwell? The gurgled but familiar word still ringing through his ears? Or simply, he hadn’t seen the map from this vantage point? Words formed. Choppy and childish in script, but the message was there and undeniable:

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MORGAN BUR GESS AND HER He struggled to pick up a piece of charcoal while still holding his shovel. He circled the diagonal word, ‘MURDER,’ like a child solving a word puzzle. “MEEEERRRDAAAAHHHH!” The piercing cry shook the house, hammering down the front stairs. Patrick dropped the shovel and ran to the front foyer. He stood motionless. The front staircase was illuminated by chandelier. There, halfway down the stairs was Annabel Leigh. Not his, not her. His wife would never be so far gone from his memory that Patrick would not be able to recognize her. The Annabel from the painting—youth overflowing and a billowing blue dress—walked down the stairs. Water dripped from her red lips. And her eyes were smoldering brown rocks surrounded by eyebrows knitting a noose. Her eyes told him that she was not his wife. Water continued to spill from her mouth and cascade down the stairs. An ocean smell engulfed Patrick. “It was not me. I am not Morgan.” His used voice wheezed and throat burned. Her eyes softened. Mouth moving with only more water spilling instead of words. When no speech came, the furious, irrationally hating stare returned. Patrick understood then. He understood that he was lost to this house and to her fury. Misguided or not, justified or not, it did not matter. It did not matter because without his wife, Patrick was already lost. Annabel vanished, and a quake rippled through the house. Patrick attempted to open the front door, but it didn’t budge. He sprinted down the hallway, heading for the back door, when the hardwood floor cracked and opened around him like a gaping maw. He fell into the basement. His left arm bounced off the first floor while he groped for a lifeline. Patrick then hit the basement hard, unable to land standing. Each foot had planted in separate ditches, and his cranky knees buckled under his weight. 163


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The violent shaking ended. The basement light was on, the door was closed, and the lights on the first floor went out. Dripping water in the cellar’s front broke the silence. Patrick got up, cradling his left arm, and turned. Just in front of the wall, the earth was churning and vibrating much like it did when he had found his first music box. Only this time, a much larger area of dirt danced, about the length and width of Patrick. He didn’t have to dig as the ground exploded, spraying dirt throughout the basement. A gaping hole, cloaked in shadow, claimed the earth by the far wall. He brushed the dank soil from his face. Patrick knew what was in the trench. The long forgotten body of the son of a tycoon who had never been found. The hanging light bulb still swayed from the explosion of dirt, throwing light and shadows in equal portions. Within the grave he saw nothing. There was no body. Only an empty ditch. He heard the dripping water again, this time directly behind him. Two firm hands landed on his back and shoved him into the hole. Patrick fell face first. There was only darkness. He waved his arms like a wounded bird as he fell with wind licking his face. SPLASH. The sting of cold seawater chewed his submerged body. Salty liquid entered his mouth and lungs. Drowning in a black sea, Patrick struggled, but the water was so cold. His energy drained quickly. But as he grew weaker, new sensations surrounded him. He was barely able to move his hands and there was a great weight on his body. Patrick no longer felt wet, but there was still the horrible cold. He couldn’t breathe. A mineral smell and taste of soil replaced the salt and brine. And then a faint sound of falling dirt. Patrick was being buried alive in the grave meant for Morgan Burgess, Jr. Fitting, he thought in his final moment of clarity. While hoping that he could again find his love in this house, he’d lost more, every memory that was important to him, everything that had made his life special. It took all of her, and without her, he was nothing. Fitting then that he would become a physical part of the house that had already absorbed her and his very being, bit by bit. Memory by memory. In total blackness, the heavy dirt constricting his last breath in his body, 164


he stopped struggling and folded his hands over his heart, conceding that it was all meant to be. 13. History is a poorly healed wound. It only takes a couple of scratches at the scab to start the bleeding again. And the events preceding and following Patrick’s death scratched at Kinnsbrook deeply. A neighbor found Patrick’s body hanging between the tall obelisks. Two nooses, each anchored to the very top of the columns, had been positioned so that Patrick hung taut with his head floating between the stone pillars. The rigging of his body and the coroner’s findings of soil in Patrick’s lungs baffled the authorities. The amazing findings inside the home were leaked to the press. Wild descriptions of the excavated basement, the gutted staircase, and especially the ballroom ran rampant in the local newspapers. The Whaler reported the charcoal poem, and the map and its dire interpretation. Only days after Patrick’s death, articles peppered the old paper, digging up the specter of Morgan Burgess, Jr. and theories about what had happened to him and his young wife. A week later, there was even a report about a man in California who claimed he could prove that Morgan had fled to San Francisco. Speculation and legend continued to grow. Patrick’s part in Kinnsbrook’s lore ended in Mill Cemetery with his somber funeral. Despite the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death, his wife’s family was gracious enough to have him buried next to Annabel. Only friends and family were allowed to attend the service. And so, Patrick was laid to rest next to his wife . . . And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, In the sepulchre there by the sea, In her tomb by the sounding sea.

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WALLS Rain outside and in. Water drips throughout the all-but-abandoned office. Stephanie is the all-but. Water-stained ceiling tiles—the cheap Styrofoam-type bored office workers spear with pencils—sag and are yellowed, like a giant coffee cup with two-day old sludge eating through the container’s bottom. Liquid rust and decay splashes onto her rotting desk and graying head. Lights flicker on, then off, then off. Distorted images and other digital tics and sputters flash on her warped and lopsided computer screen. A whiff of ozone, and the hard drive grinds like gears chewing on its parts. She tries the mouse. Its plastic body disintegrates in her hand like used wax, and the pieces sink into a quicksand mouse pad. Around the room tiles and fluorescent-light fixtures crash, spilling the stilled workings of wire and fiber optics and the other assorted innards of high-tech commerce. And it all is ruin. Dead end job and her one-way, cul-de-sac life. All this she knows. All this is rote. Yet, sitting there in an endless dark surrounded by the dead and dying and obsolete, yeah, that is the word he-she-they used, Stephanie finds inspiration. She stands and wobbles like a foal. Leg muscles and ligaments and joints ache and burn and complain and communicate the painfully clear message you can’t, you can’t, you can’t do this. 167


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Her chair crumbles, and so does the doubt. Maybe, she will, for once, do. Stephanie extends her equally cranky and stubborn arms and gnarled fingers. She gives her prison wall a shove. The tan cubicle folds and knocks into its neighbors, toppling them like dominos. The desk caves in, piling at her feet. A hissing snake, the computer spits a red-spark tongue. Crumpled and on top of what used to be her desk, she eyes the letter, a decidedly pink slip. She wants to yell, I am not worthless. I am not obtuse or obscure or obsolescent or obsolete. I matter. Only, she says, “I am matter.” Her voice is a whisper, with all the certainty and force of a small child knowingly giving the incorrect answer to a simple question. And doubt re-addresses the student. Yes, Steph, you are matter. Weak, frail, and faulty. You’re of the same stuff as this office, the same stuff that rusts and breaks and rots and will be forgotten. Matter can’t be destroyed, but it can fade away. It can become . . . obsolete. She scans the room for upright cubicles, one where she can just sit back down and forget. But not this time. She will not forget herself this time. Stephanie screams and runs, plowing through a set of cubicles; their fiberglass bodies splinter, and their shards scrape her face. Two-inch high-heels break under her weight, buckling her ankles. Stephanie stumbles through the office debris and leaves her shoes, ignoring scratches and even the runs in her nylons, convinced that she’s stronger than this place. Steady on stocking-feet, she runs again, to the office wall. And through it. Plaster and insulation and wooden studs and wiring explode and part around her. Legs and arms pumping like a world-class athlete, Stephanie doesn’t slow. She maintains her speed and momentum and force despite a forehead gash, deep knee contusion, inhaled clouds of insulation, and broken finger. She breaks though the outer faux-brick façade of the office building and falls two stories to the pavement. Previously sprained ankles snap upon landing. A cloud of debris dances on her head, biting chunks from her scalp. She feels none of her injuries. She doesn’t feel the cold and needle-sharp rain falling from a smog-choked black sky. She doesn’t see the huddled city-eyes of despair and depression judging her. Stephanie runs across the street. Cars don’t swerve out of her way, but 168


they do miss. With ankles flopping disjointedly, she rockets toward the stone foundation of a high-rise mall, and she isn’t a wife or a mother, and she isn’t old or menopausal or frumpy, and she hasn’t lost her bloom, and she isn’t a secretary or unqualified or obsolete. Stephanie only knows that she, for once, is doing. Impact. Nose shatters along with the foundation. Blood fills her mouth and eyes. Collarbone breaks and so do both wrists. She passes through mortar and brick and steel, and penetrates the building. Her tattered green blazer and white blouse slough off like patches of dead skin. She runs through empty stores, smashing through bay windows and plastic mannequins and gaudy SALE banners and signs. The rest of her clothing falls off but she doesn’t notice. Nor does she notice any cuts or injuries because it’s not her anymore. She’s not weakened flesh, liver spots, cellulite deposits, sagging breasts, crow’s feet, wrinkles, stretch marks. She is more. She is action. Through the other end of the building and into the next. Cracked skull and punctured eyes and torn muscles and ruptured organs and broken bones, and she still runs through building after building throughout the city and into the suburbs, and there her bloodied and almost formless shape breaks through rows and rows of houses. She burns through ranches and split-levels and dormered capes and colonials. Stephanie runs and screams and laughs while forging her path into the houses of neighbors. They watch and yell things that she used to hear, even when it was just a whisper. Her ears were ripped off her body fifteen houses ago and she only hears herself. Stephanie finally stops running as she reaches her front lawn. Rain gathers in small puddles on the perfectly manicured grass, though she thinks she sees a weed sprouting by the mailbox. Stephanie eases onto the front stairs of their picturesque four-bedroom colonial, the behemoth house with its landscaped yard that is the prize and envy of the neighborhood. Her husband opens the front door, his jacket off and tie askew. He doesn’t say hi or are you alright or even what happened. He frowns and aims a black key-chain toward the driveway. The alarm to his Lexus chirps, and he smiles and walks back into their house. She follows. Inside, the wallpaper is peeling, furniture in ruins, water 169


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pours through gaping holes in the ceiling and walls, pictures of her children have cracked frames and spiderwebbed glass, and there’s an overpowering stench of damp and rot and decay. She doesn’t remember it being like this. Stephanie is swollen and bloody and unrecognizable, but not broken, not yet. She goes to her husband and takes his hand between her ruined mitts. She is breathless and tries to explain the rush, the freedom of her run through walls. Maybe it’s because she’s not speaking very well—she has no teeth and her tongue and lips are swollen balloons. But it shouldn’t matter. He should hear her. For once, he should be fucking listening. But he isn’t. And he tells her that he knew she wouldn’t keep that job, he knew she wasn’t qualified and her outdated skills were obsolete in today’s world and she’d been out too long and she was too old to be starting again and she didn’t know any better and just because the kids were out of the house that didn’t mean her place wasn’t where he said it was, and he laughs and tells her that it will be okay and she can have her old job back. Stephanie slumps against the cracked dining room wall. Her blood stains the plaster and what little shreds of wallpaper are left. Blinding pain explodes throughout her body as her flesh heals, but not correctly, not how it’s supposed to. Torn skin mends but leaves ugly scars and marks, broken bones grow past fracture lines and into distended joints, ligaments and muscles reattach but in the wrong places, punctures and tears in her lungs and stomach and other organs repair but leave their tissue functions dulled, eyes and ears come back but just out of tune and out of focus. Her original shape, naked and slumped and somehow older, leans against the dining room wall. Her husband is still talking. Stephanie nods and walks slowly to a closet. She is healed, but she is not. Moving, breathing, seeing, is agony. She pulls out a dusty vacuum, jams the plug into a warped outlet, and turns it on. The roar of the machine nearly splits her head, but it sucks up nothing. Mud-thick layers of dust and dirt and plaster remain on the moldering carpet. Useless. Obsolete. 170


And it all is ruin. All this she knows. All this is rote.

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4’33 He opens the door to In Your Ear, and the small brass bell rings like an intrusion. Jake jumps at the sound. His eighty-plus-year-old heart flip-flops. “What the hell do you need that thing for?” he says louder than planned, voice deep as a string bass. “Listen,” says the smiling young man behind the counter. Jake guesses the boy is a local college student. Seemingly the only type of person who works in this record store. In Your Ear is a quaint music-collector’s paradise Jake has frequented since moving to Boston. Yellowed Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Bela Bartok posters perch high on the walls like giants. Rows and stacks of records wind around the store in a maze of classical and jazz and blues. None of those damned CD’s in this place, just vinyl. All the masters rest in this graveyard, and Jake always comes to pay his respects. Hunched and gray, a leprechaun elephant, Jake ambles to the counter. Wind crashes against the front door, jangling that awful bell. Why oh why did some jackass put that bell on the door? he thinks. It wasn’t there yesterday. “I say why? Why would you put such an ugly sounding thing up there when surrounded by the black circles of the greats, kid? Shit, you might as well bang a gong during ‘Take Five.’” The college-boy smirks, like he knows something old Jake doesn’t. “Listen, Pops.” Jake listens and hears nothing. Two wooden-paneled speakers flank the register counter, but Jake hears no sound coming out. Maybe after all these years he is finally going deaf. Bound to happen. 173


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Wait. There is something. Whispering, is it? Yeah, almost like an anxious crowd waiting for the performer. Jake’s creaky but still-together mind turns, and he recognizes the work. Jake continues his walk to the counter, but his legs are shaky now. “Where did that come from?” “You know what I’m playing, don’t you?” “Cage. Four-thirty-three,” Jake says like he’s whistling past the graveyard. “I’m impressed.” The kid pushes long crow-like hair behind his ears. The bell rings again as a young woman leaves the store. Jake and the kid are alone. “My bell adds to the performance, don’t you think?” Jake ignores the question. “Let me see the sleeve, kid.” Louder and now agitated voices leak from the speakers and Christ, Jake even recognizes the performance. A white cover splashed with a charcoal drawing of a piano and a hunched male figure. The title of the record also in black: CAGE: NEW YORK CITY, 1954 “My God, my God. When was this released?” Jake’s arthritic hands quiver as he hands the cover back to the kid. “And turn off that damned record, please. Or I’m leaving and never coming back.” “Take it easy, Pops.” The kid does as is asked, picking the needle off the grooved vinyl. “Released this month. Only as an LP. Billed as a lost performance. Cage’s estate never even knew a recording existed, but they gave permission.” “Is that right?” “Yeah. Now why did I have to turn that off? I put the bell above the door just for this record. I wanted to add to the piece, Pops.” The kid laughs. But Jake doesn’t. “I quit playin’ after seeing this very performance,” Jake says. He wrings his hands and wipes at his mouth as if the words aren’t coming out right. Jake takes a deep breath . . . . . . Droves of the City’s elite filled Carnegie Hall. But I wasn’t one of them. Back then, I was this skinny kid from Chicago, good enough on the sax to squeeze out a living on Maxwell Street. That is if you call living free booze and sharing a one-room apartment with two other beatniks. 174


Anyway, there was some talk about some classically trained but experimental composer, John Cage. Word on the Chicago scene was the guy was out there. And I mean way out, taking improvisation to a new level. A Zen approach some called it. I’d heard Cage was all about letting the music happen. No structure. No bounds. No ego. No limits. Sounded like good jazz to me. Now I had also heard about a small show in the sticks of upstate New York, the audience turning angry mob over a Cage ditty called ‘4’33.’ I didn’t read the newspaper much back then, so I never got the straight scoop. Only second and third-hand scoop from those Clark Street reeferheads I used to hang with. So I sure as shit didn’t know what the real story was. But I can say this: there was a heavy vibe going around about whatever happened that night. One thing for sure, this guy was setting the button-downed classical world on its ear. I could dig that. And once I heard about the New York City premiere of ‘4’33,’ I busted tail, spending almost all my money, which wasn’t all that much, getting to the Apple. Giant place that Carnegie Hall. This place was no dive. This place was a palace. Red carpets, gold trim, and a sea of leather-covered seats spread out before the stage. Balconies sitting high like dark clouds just about busting with rain. Concave ceiling seemed miles away. As big as this place was, it had a mellow vibe. Intimate almost. My feet and hands were shaking and tapping just imagining sound filling every corner of the old place. For a ten-spot, a guy scalped me a ticket to the Cage gig, which was damn pricey back then. Not a bad seat, about fifteen rows back on the floor, center row, aisle two seats to the left. I drummed the chair in front of me with the white cardboard program and adjusted my wrinkled tie about a thousand times, nervous as a beer at happy hour. Kept expecting to get hassled or tossed because I wasn’t in a penguin suit. But as folks banged out the seats, I noticed a bunch of beatniks and avant-garde types mixed with the white-hairs and upper crust. There was the usual buzz that’s there before any gig. But it mixed with a vibe you’d find around a Three Card Monte table. I could feel some folks sitting around me thinking you can’t fool us, Cage, and we know you’re gonna try. Like they already hated what they hadn’t heard. 175


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This was going to be wild. Half the crowd ready to crown Cage as the new king, the other half fixing for a lynching. Splitting time looking at the Kong-like curtain and my watch, two folks came and filled the aisle seats to my left. A short older man poured into a black tux led a long and tall blonde to the seat right next to me. The girl’s legs stretched from Chicago to the bottom of Illinois. She wore this strapless white number that probably cost more than I made in a year’s worth of gigs, and it dripped off her too-skinny body like ice-cream off a cone in July. “Pardon us,” the man said as his date folded those legs into her seat. She didn’t say anything. Only fixed those sunken skull-eyes on her man. “No sweat,” I said. The chick was flying. I could spot a dyed-in-the-wool junky from twenty paces on a foggy, moonless night. Her high-class threads didn’t fool me. Her arms were so thin I had a hard time imagining blood having enough room to run through those pale sticks. The man must’ve seen me giving her a look, because he said, “Kind sir, please excuse the widow Mayes here. Though normally charming, she’s been through an awful time of it, especially with the wild accusations in the press.” He leaned a cane against his chair and stripped off some white gloves. Yeah, he had the slicked pepper-gray hair of an old codger, but the man’s creamy smooth face had no wrinkles. It looked unnatural, like the old bird was wearing make-up. “Dreadful business as I’m sure you’ve read, and I thought a night out would do her some good.” “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just in from Chicago. Only been in town since Tuesday. But I’m sorry you ain’t feeling well, miss,” I said, more than a little uncomfortable. She didn’t say anything. The man smiled and patted her hand, and those lights finally dimmed and the curtain rose. A black grand piano sat center stage, surrounded by radios, and what looked like large metal bedsprings. A tuxedo-clad David Tudor, the gig’s only credited performer, walked onto the stage to too-polite applause. Alright, this was going to be something. I unrolled the program and squinted in the dark. ‘4’33’ looked to be the halfway point of the gig. Man, I couldn’t wait. Tudor sat and just banged those ivories. No rhythm or melody. Then those radios turned on and off, more than ten of them blaring, each tuned 176


to a different station, one even blasting formless fuzz and scratches. Then Tudor high-tailed it off the stage and two men worked beat on the springs, pitching an eerie kinda sound that filled the Hall. Talk about a big mess. And it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. Man, it made me wanna pick up my sax and just wail and clack at the keys. Cage had actually created a new sound. A sound with a life all its own. And then there was ‘4’33.’ Chatter passed around the crowd, each saying the name of the piece that everyone came to see, to hear. Percussionists left the stage. The house lights turned up a bit, not painting us in the pre-concert glow, but just enough so we could see other members in the audience. Tudor went back to his piano to more applause, but he acted like he didn’t hear ’em. After the crowd burst, quiet. Now, folks usually hush up right before a number, but there’re still some jerks talking or laughing or knocking their beer glasses. But this was quiet with a capital Q. No one said a word. Tudor placed a score on the piano and sat at the bench. Lowering the keyboard lid, he then hung a wristwatch next to his eyes. Then he didn’t move, just sat staring at the watch. My butt squirmed in the seat. I watched other folks do the same and looking to neighbors with wha’ happening? all over their faces. I turned and saw the long, tall junky was still out of it, but her man was grinning like he’d just seen Jesus tickling his toes on the water. After what seemed like three days past forever, Tutor lifted the lid, turned a page on the score, and then lowered the lid. And again, back to staring at that damn watch. And then I knew. Tudor wasn’t going to play anything. That SOB Cage had composed silence. 4’33. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of no sound. And I have to admit, I was pissed. I came all the way to New York to hear this goddamn piece, and it was nothing. Carnegie Hall was dead quiet, but then again it wasn’t. Yeah, I sat there fuming and ready to fuss like the kid that didn’t get his lollipop, and even though there was the freaky scene of a pianist sitting there not playing a note, I tuned in and listened. I heard sounds of the street outside working into a strange rhythm, and adding to the beat were some angry whispers and some giggly whispers, and nervous feet shuffling on the floor and 177


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squeaking chairs and coughs and even the breathing of the folks around me. Tudor repeated turning the score page and the lifting/closing of the keyboard lid. “Third movement,” I said. By then, minutes, long minutes, went by and most of the crowd was way past whispering and damn near shouting. A bunch of well-dressed snobs bee-lined to the exits. Others stood and yelled and shook their fists. Balled up programs were tossed around like baseballs at Wrigley. And there were bursts of gut-bustin’ laughter. The kind you heard in a well-oiled bar. ‘4’33.’ It was timeless. I thought it would never end. And I couldn’t remember when it started. And even while the crowd was growing into a mob, I heard it. A sound that punched through my gut and into my backbone. A high-pitched moan, soft like a baby’s coo, and so out of place in that noisy joint. So weak. And so dead. I saw the high-class junky’s mouth moving like a beached fish sucking air. Yellow eyes rolled back into her head. Her escort in black had his left arm around her bird-thin shoulder, and his right hand emptied a needle’s payload into her arm. Veins bulged like snakes dancing under her skin. The man’s eyes were closed. His hand hung off her shoulder and waved in the air like he was some kind of bandleader. And I saw and heard her last breath. Tudor stood from his piano, and that crazy crowd didn’t know how to react. But boy, they were loud. The man removed the needle and quick, like he’d done that trick more times than a man could count, and he tucked it inside his coat pocket and shot up the aisle. Tudor jammed into the next piece, but I could barely hear it. The crowd was into the aisles and folks were shouting and shoving and even brawling. Me? I was screaming at a dead lady. Scuttling across her body like a crab, I was hoping she’d only blacked out. But my hand touched winter on her whiter-than-chalk skin. No need to check her wrist for any kind of beat. I kicked and pushed and hollered and waded my way to the main entrance/exit, and then jumped out onto a bustling Seventh Avenue. Goddamn, the City was growling. Blatting taxi horns, screeching tires, 178


and the rest of the ugly sounds that were the City beat up on my already messed-up head. Then I ran. And I really don’t know if I was looking for the man, a cop, or just running to be a million miles from Carnegie Hall and the dead girl, and that soundtrack of her death was playing an encore in my head. I took a left down West 56th Street and wrapped around the Hall. He leapt at me from a shadowy stage-door entrance. I hit the cement hard. Now, I may have been skinny, but I knew how to use my fists. I was a struggling jazzcat in Chicago, and this meant that dives that hadn’t earned the title of dive were my playing and fighting grounds, and not necessarily in that order. But that old man, he grabbed a handful of my jacket, lifted me out of the gutter, dragged me under the awning, and pinned me against the stage door before I even cracked my knuckles. A gleam of streetlight flashed, and he pressed a blade to my neck. “I’m so glad you came,” he said in that same polite tone he’d used earlier. His face was a blur in the alley. But I sure-as-hell felt that cold knife. I mumbled something, trying to sound brave. He asked a strange question. “What is an artist without patrons, jazz-man?” “How do you know . . . ?” He put some weight on that blade. “Please, I watched you judging tonight’s performance, and I know your type. Now, answer my question.” “I don’t need patrons, Jack.” “Wrong, jazz-man. Don’t fool yourself. Even when playing by yourself, you imagine playing for someone. So, the correct answer is nothing. An artist without patrons is nothing. Performance for no one is pissing in the wind, jazz-man. Art is communication on the highest level. You’d be wise to remember that.” “Thanks,” I said, still trying to act like the hero, even though I was ready to go cryin’ home to Momma. I figured I was dee-eee-dee, dead. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I felt a small leak of blood rolling down my neck. “I am not going to kill you, jazz-man. For you are to be my sole patron.” He paused. “I trust you will never forget this evening’s performance.” “No, I don’t suppose I will.” “Good,” he said and leaned in close, a flash of pointy nose and dark eyes just inches from mine. “Because you listened to the ultimate work of art, the ultimate musical piece. My collaboration with John Cage.” 179


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“Killing a junky doesn’t make you an artist.” He laughed. “That junky was a monster who had murdered three husbands just to fatten her bank account. Or shall we call it a dowry? Find yourself a New York paper during your visit to our fair city and read all you want about her. “Yet you are correct, the act of punishing her does not, in and of itself, make me an artist.” I heard footsteps on the street. But he kept talking. And no one came to my rescue. “Listen closely, my patron, to what my art has to say. . . . ” The man’s face was so close I felt his breaths. “Last year, I attended the first, and until tonight, the only performance of ‘4’33.’ After the shock of witnessing something so different, so completely revolutionary wore off, I have to admit to being depressed, even losing my will to create. A devastating moment, really. “I knew that I wasn’t listening to silence, as so many would say. Cage had created the ultimate work of music, the ultimate art. How could I go on trying to create something that would be destined to fail in Cage’s shadow? I was convinced perfection had been achieved. “’4’33’ is nothing, yet it has everything. A chunk of time without beginning or end. Every performance would always be different. Every performance would always be the same. It is an empty music sheet composed with the sounds of the universe, of life itself. “But I realized something was indeed missing. There can’t be life without death. Death, jazz-man. ‘4’33’ only needed the simple sound of death to be complete, to be whole, to truly communicate the universe in four minutes and thirty-three seconds. “Tonight, you heard the masterpiece.” He removed the knife from my throat and let go of my jacket. I slumped against the oak door, sliding to my knees. I watched him step back and adjust his tux jacket. And the woman’s dying moan filled my head. An awful sound that killed the music maker in my soul. He left me sitting in the doorway. And before leaving he said, “It has nothing. And now, it has everything. And this artist can finally rest.”

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*** His hands stop shaking. “Thanks for listening to old Jake, kid. See you around.” The college-kid watches the old man limp down the rows and out the store with a clamor of the bell that no longer seems like such a cool thing. The Cage record still spins on the turntable with the needle resting on the paper record label in the center. What did Jake call the records? Black circles. Hunks of etched vinyl. Circular grooves without beginning or end. He jabs at the record with the needle, finding ‘4’33’ at its halfway point. If such a thing really exists, he thinks. The kid knows he should be more skeptical. It’s the credo of his age. Skepticism and sarcasm first, belief much later. But he believes old Jake’s story. No one else is in the store. He pushes the digital volume-control to its limit. Distinct, but faraway conversations and comments from another time spill from the speakers. He hears a man say, “ridiculous,” and another man laughs. Or is it a woman? Listening closer, shuffling feet and jackets tickle his ear. Maybe, that low almost secret droning hum is the traffic outside Carnegie Hall. Then he hears a high-pitched moan, soft as a baby’s coo. This sound is barely audible, adrift in the sea of everyday noise. This sound doesn’t belong with the others. This sound distorts and clashes with the vibrant rush of the Carnegie Hall audience. And she sounds just like the old man said she did. The needle winds its way to the center, scratching the label. The kid puts the needle back on the record, back on one of 4’33’s countless grooves. Not at the beginning, and not at the end.

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HACKIN’ AT THE PEACH Ty Cobb. The Georgia Peach. One of the greatest baseball players to play the game. And one of the meanest sons of a bitch according to my Granddaddy, William ‘Pepper’ Schaefer. He played with Cobb from 1905-1911. During the off-season Granddaddy was a successful vaudeville performer and even invited Cobb on stage for a couple of acts. He never did consider the man a friend though. Not at all. Granddaddy took me to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, grand old Tiger Stadium, to see my first ballgame. Our seats were right behind the home dugout. I’ll never forget that day, sun shining and all my favorite players within arm’s reach, like seeing a daydream become real. But the Tigers weren’t as good as my little boy eyes said they were, and lost to Ted Williams and the Red Sox 9-3. My Granddaddy was madder than a fistful of hornets. When we got home he said, “That’s no way to play ball. Everybody swinging for the fences. No bunts, no base stealin’, no thinkin’. That Williams ain’t so hot. When Cobb played, he’d go from first to third on a grounder in the infield and then steal home with spikes high and sharp.” Teddy Ballgame was a secret hero of mine. It had to be a secret in my Detroit Tiger family. But, for some reason, I shook up that fistful of hornets by telling him that I enjoyed the game. Granddaddy grabbed two Cokes from the fridge, giving me the eye, and he smiled. His mouth was a rusty trap of stained brown teeth and 183


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not-so-silver fillings. Clumps of hair clung to his leathery scalp like fading clouds. “Now lookie here, boy.” He touched the side of his nose like he usually did before he spoke. And that bulbous nose of his showed the years of boozing and ballplaying, and in that order. “I hope you don’t think that flashy Williams kid is anywhere near as good, or as much of a character, as Cobb.” I said, “No, sir.” “Because he ain’t. Williams is a brash punk that Cobb would’ve beat into the ground like a tent stake.” Still a large and muscular man, he clamped a thick left paw onto my shoulder, just about knocking me to the floor. “You’ve heard all my usual spikin’, fightin’, and cussin’ stories, ain’t that right?” “Yes, Sir.” “Well then. I got a tale for ya that I ain’t told anyone. Not Grandma, not your Daddy, no one. It ain’t a nice story. It’s nothin’ that you’ll see in any book or newspaper.” He pulled me close, and I smelled the ballpark sausage and onion on his breath. “But it can be our tale, boy. “So, do ya wanna hear it?” His smile faded into a more serious and stern look. Must have been the same look he used to rattle pitchers in his day because it intimidated the heck outta me. But I still wanted to hear it. “Okay, boy.” He touched his nose again. “Storytellin’ time. First, you should know all them tall tales, even the ones I’ve told ya a thousand times, about Ty Cobb are true. Even the ones that aren’t true, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they were. “Now, I can guarantee that my story really happened. ’Cause I was there.” *** 1906. Spring training in Cobb’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The year before had been the Peach’s rookie year and even though he showed some flashes of being a ballplayer, he was still fightin’ for a spot on the club. Even at that young age, nineteen, I think, no one on the team liked him much. You just couldn’t kid around with the fella. Now, we usually gave rookies a hard time during their first year. Playin’ jokes on ’em and the like. Harmless stuff. But with Cobb, each barb and prank challenged his manhood, and he lashed out at everybody. It was like we were pokin’ a stick at a pissed off rattler. 184


A couple of veterans, Matty McIntyre and Ed Killian, yeah they were a couple of louts, they’d hide his clothes and saw his favorite homemade bats in half. Cobb would come runnin’ out the locker room, yellin’ with his southern drawl, lookin’ for a fight. That was another sore spot for Cobb. His southerness. Me and him were the only southerners on the team. And me being from Virginia, I really wasn’t as southern in my ways as he was. Lookin’ back, he was just a kid out on his own for the first time, and we didn’t help the situation too much. Though I tell ya, we toughened up that son of a bitch. Maybe we did too good of a job. Well, that spring of 1906 was a bad one for Cobb. First, his mother had accidentally killed his Daddy. A mess of an affair that I don’t want to get into, at least not until you’re older, boy. Anyway, Cobb missed the start of training camp because of it. He was broken up something fierce and embarrassed too. The papers made a big deal out of the whole sorry scene. So his frame of mind wasn’t all there to start the spring. He caught up with the team in the middle of our exhibition tour in Birmingham, and damn if that son of a bitch didn’t play his way onto the team, getting two or three hits a game and runnin’the bases like a jackrabbit. We continued tourin’ up north, playin’ exhibition games just about everyday. That two-week stretch was cold and rainy, just like March always was in the heartland. And Cobb got sick. By the time we reached Cincinnati, he had an awful case of tonsillitis. Cobb had only confided in me, as McIntyre had just about the whole team feudin’ with him. I told him to ask Armour for a couple of days off, but Cobb refused. He was too worried that he’d be givin’ the skip an excuse to cut him. So he kept playin’. But the tonsillitis got worse. It got to the point where Cobb only ate bread and milk because swallowing hurt too much. We finally had some scheduled days off when we hit dreary Toledo. That first morning we had off, I stormed into Cobb’s hotel room. “Come on, Ty. Let’s go,” I said. Cobb was curled up in his blankets with all the shades drawn. It was like I walked into a big old hole where animals crawled to die. “Leave me alone. I’ll sleep it off,” he said. His voice rasped like he’d been gargling bleach and chased it with rusty razors. “No way, Peach. Let’s go.” He didn’t fight me. I pulled the blanket off his bed. He had such a fever, 185


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grabbing his arm was like squeezing a hot water bottle. Cobb struggled to his feet, and I turned on a lamp. Good goddamn, I had woken a dead man. His fire-red hair dripped sweat, and his sharp blue eyes were as bloodshot as a drunk’s. “Damn, Peach. I’ve scraped better lookin’ things off my shoe.” I led him downstairs to see the hotel Doc. The infirmary was right next to the greeting desk. I knocked, with Cobb leaning on my shoulder, the big son of a bitch. You might not be able to tell from the old pictures, but he was a big man. Just over six feet, which was damn tall back then, and about a hundred-eighty pounds of spit-fire. I had to knock again. “Hello, anybody home? We got ourselves a sick man here!” An older man opened the door. Late fifties or maybe even early sixties. Skin as white as the belly of a fish, bald head with a few sprouts of hair growin’ above his ears, and dark eyes so brown they were black. Beady too, like a hawk’s eyes. And he was heavy, jowls shakin’ whenever he spoke. “Sorry, I was engrossed in my anatomy book when you knocked,” Doc said. He had a funny accent. He talked too well for Toledo. It felt wrong, as if this guy was trying too hard to sound like he was soundin’. “Come in, young man, come in.” I put Cobb down in a big chair next to an examination table. The infirmary was just a small office. Not much more to the room other than some bookshelves and a cluttered oak desk. Doc shook my hand and said, “Dr. Jonathan Wells.” “Pepper Schaefer. And this here unfortunate kid is Ty Cobb. His throat has been hurtin’ him something fierce for the past couple weeks.” I noticed it then but didn’t think all that much of it. Doc’s eyes widened like an owl’s when I had mentioned Cobb’s throat. “Really, the throat is such a troublesome area,” he said. Doc grabbed some stuff off his desk. Cobb tried to speak, but Doc shushed him. I tried to stay in the background. Doc turned a light on directly above Cobb and then put on that light-reflecting hat those docs wear. I don’t remember what those are called, but anyway . . . “Open wide,” Doc said. He pried and poked around Cobb’s mouth while cluckin’ and mutterin’ to himself, until he called me over. 186


“Mr. Schaefer.” “Call me Pepper,” I said. “I hate bein’ called Mr. anything.” “Pepper then. Come take a look at this if you please.” Cobb closed his mouth and whispered, “What is it?” “No, no, no, NO talking, Mr. Cobb. Please,” Doc said, and he again opened Cobb’s mouth and held down his tongue with that Popsicle Stick thing. I looked inside to see two bright red and swollen tonsils that almost filled the back of Cobb’s head. Christ, I even saw them pulsin’ with his heartbeat. “Damn, it’s a wonder he can even breathe.” Cobb whimpered and wheezed with his mouth held open, and I couldn’t understand him. Doc nodded to me and said, “Yes, right you are, Pepper. I’m afraid these will have to come out right away, right away. Today. Right now, in fact.” He ran back to his desk, knocking a stack of papers and books to the floor and then rummagin’ through a clanky top drawer. Cobb croaked like a bullfrog. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.” “Pepper, I need you to hold down young Mr. Cobb, as this will not be pleasant.” Doc had an apron on and held a small scalpel in his hand. “Doc, isn’t there anything we can give him for pain?” “There’s no time, and even if we did give him something, it doesn’t take well in the throat. As I mentioned, it is a problem area.” With that, and with me holding down Cobb’s shoulders, Doc cut into those swollen tonsils without any painkiller. Now you gotta remember, this was 1906, and we just didn’t know back then, boy. Neither me or Cobb had been to a surgery before. And whatever a Doc said, you did. I felt Cobb’s body tense as the scalpel cut into his throbbin’ tonsils. I tried not to look, but my damn eyes couldn’t stop lookin’ at the bloody mess. There Doc was, just hackin’ at the Peach, and he seemed as calm as a summer’s day. An amazing amount of blood filled Cobb’s throat, and it was enough to make me sick, boy. So I leaned back and focused on Cobb’s twitchin’ face instead. Boy he was tough, didn’t groan or shed a tear. All I heard from him was tired, watery breaths. We worked out a system where Cobb tapped my arm if the blood had filled his throat and he couldn’t breathe. Doc would let him up and Cobb then spit out a mouthful of blood and rested a bit. I also stopped Doc twice, when I thought Cobb looked like he was gonna pass out. Doc worked on him for two hours. 187


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“He’ll need to come back tomorrow. Let the area heal overnight, and then I can see if there is anymore that needs to be done,” he said while wiping bloody hands on his apron. I couldn’t speak. On the examination table next to Cobb’s head lay chunks of pulpy flesh and the red scalpel. I helped the half-conscious Cobb back to his room. He collapsed on his bed. I pushed him onto his side so if he bled some more, he wouldn’t choke on it. Boy, that was one of the worst things I had ever seen, but we still had to go back. Cobb brought his favorite bat with him that next morning. He was a very superstitious man and told me that it would bring him luck. I figured it couldn’t hurt. Doc was waiting in his doorway as we shuffled on down to his office. His eyes were wide again, lookin’ too eager, and as I stumbled in with Cobb, I saw the fresh and clean cuttin’ instruments already on the table. “Good luck bat, eh Mr. Cobb? Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you. Now, let’s see how our patient is doing.” He just about pried Cobb’s arm off my shoulder and put him in the chair himself. After a quick inspection, Doc sighed and said, “There’s still more, more to be done here.” Cobb slumped at the news, but didn’t fuss. Doc grabbed his scalpel again. This second session, I kept my eyes on Doc. That look of pure joy on his face, the kind Bible-thumpers get on Sunday, bothered me more than the bloody surgery. So I asked him a question. “You ain’t from around here, are you, Doc?” “Whatever makes you say that, Pepper?” he said and didn’t take his gaze off Cobb’s throat. “Your accent,” I said. He looked at me, and I thought I caught a flash of anger but brushed it off. It could’ve been Doc was burned ’cause I was askin’ him questions during surgery. “I was born in England but moved here shortly thereafter, Mr. Schaefer.” I knew there was something to his speech, and I also knew that he was pissed at me. It made sense not to rattle the cage of the guy doin’ the cuttin’, so I didn’t ask him anything else. The rest of the morning went like the first. Cobb gettin’ up to spit blood every once in a while. And after another two hours, Doc was done. “I’m sure we’re finished, but come back tomorrow, just to check up.” He then gave us the bum’s rush out the door. 188


Cobb stayed in bed for the rest of the day. Listening to myself now, I can’t believe what we did. I can’t believe we didn’t go to the manager or another teammate and talk about what was happenin’. But, you just gotta remember, boy, that despite some of the uneasy feelings I’d had, I didn’t know there was anything wrong. That next morning was the last we spent in Toledo. The team was supposed to be on a train headed for Columbus early that afternoon, but we went again to see Doc Wells. Cobb was awake when I went to his room, and he seemed to be feelin’ better. I looked at his throat best as I could in the dim light of his room and tried to say something soothin’. “I’m sure Doc will say you’re done.” “Yeah, let’s hope so, Pepper. But I’m still bringing the lucky bat.” Again, Doc was waitin’ and ready for us. Cobb was able to move and sit at the chair under his own power. I was sure Cobb was done. But after a quick look, Doc said, “Well, Mr. Cobb, there remains only a little bit of swollen tissue left. It shouldn’t take long to remove the pesky remaining tonsil.” Unbelievable as it sounds, Doc was soon starting a third butchery session. And on this morning, Doc seemed anxious. Sweat beaded on his head, his eyes crawlin’ around the room and his lips movin’ too, like he was mumblin’ stuff under his breath. “You okay, Doc?” I asked. He shot me a look with those horrible black eyes. I had just about made up my mind to put a stop to this. Doc or no Doc, I knew this wasn’t right. I let go of Cobb’s shoulders and saw his eyes were closed. The Peach had passed out. “Doc! Cobb is out!” I yelled, and Cobb didn’t even flinch. Doc pulled his scalpel out of Cobb’s mouth and said, “Pepper, go get me that glass of water over there on my desk. Quickly now.” His voice cracked, like the screeching of a cornered cat. I ran toward the desk, but for some reason that I still don’t remember or understand, boy, I stopped and turned back to look at Doc. And there he stood, with Cobb’s throat in his left hand and scalpel held high in the air with his right. He was gonna kill the Peach! I jumped and tackled Doc into the wall. He was raving like a mean drunk while I struggled to knock the knife out of his hand. 189


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“It’s still there! It’s still there! Don’t you see? It’s spreading! It’s spreading!” Now, I probably sounded like a madman too. I was yellin’ at Doc using language I can’t use in front of you, boy. I had never been so scared in all my life. I worked to pinnin’ Doc’s arms to his chest, and then I was kneeing him in the stomach. He was too old to take me, but I had a sense that he was a strong, strong man once. The scalpel fell to the floor. And Cobb gasped for air with blood spillin’out his mouth. My grip on Doc loosened, and he ran out of the office. I grabbed the lucky bat, went to Cobb, and helped him into the lobby where I spied a teammate loungin’ about. “Take Cobb upstairs, get ’im some rest, but make sure he gets on that train this afternoon or you have to answer to me,” I said and shook the bat like I meant it. I didn’t answer any questions and ran out of the hotel after Doc with lucky bat in tow. He was nowhere to be seen on those crowded Toledo main roads. I went back into the hotel and had the manager call the police. I met two of the Blue Boys on the hotel steps, and the three of us went to Doc Wells’ apartment that was only two blocks away. I told them my story as we jogged to Doc’s. He lived on the second floor of a ritzy apartment building, or as ritzy as downtown Toledo could be back then. The three of us stood outside his door for a bit. We heard coughin’ and chokin’ inside. The two cops banged on the door, but Doc didn’t answer. Taking turns smashing into the door with our shoulders, the cops even gave me a couple of cracks, seein’ as I was bigger than both of them, and I finally busted through the door. Doc stood in the middle of his dark apartment and in front of a full-length mirror. Old and yellowed newspaper clippings, each with blazin’ headlines, covered just about all the walls, and they lined the mirror’s frame. The cops rushed ahead of me but stopped when they saw Doc had a scalpel. Ignoring the cops, Doc smiled such an evil smile when he saw me. His mouth dripped blood. He was shirtless, and red stained that pasty British chest. I thought I might lose it right there, boy. Truth be told, I was no hero and I wanted nothing more than to run screamin’ from that place. And I still see those clippings and Doc’s smile in my nightmares. “It’s spreading, Pepper! Be careful. It used to only be in those whores 190


that I had cured. All those awful dirty whores back home. But they spread their disease, Pepper. They spread it all the way across the pond. I didn’t stop it, after all. And I’ll share a little secret; it was in Cobb too.” Even though his voice gargled with blood, I heard the accent change. He sounded like a cockneyed Brit, just off the boat from London. He said, “You should’ve let me finish. And now it’s in me, and I have to get it out.” Doc opened his clenched fist, and I saw a red lump of flesh that could only have been a tonsil. Boy, I’m not too proud to say that I didn’t lose my stomach right there on the floor. And I dropped the lucky bat. The cops approached slow, wavin’ Billy clubs all around. Doc screamed, “Let me get it out!” He jammed the scalpel into the base of his throat and sliced down his chest. I won’t go into it too much, boy, but there was a lot of blood. The cops jumped him, and I heard they managed to bandage him up without much struggle. I didn’t see that ’cause I ran from the apartment and back to the hotel like the devil was chasin’ me. Yup, I ran back to the hotel and sat on the front stairs. It was all I could do, boy. Eventually, other police found me and asked more questions. My teammates had already put Cobb on the train out to Columbus. I managed to convince the coppers they didn’t need to pester Cobb. I rolled into Columbus the next day. Cobb, incredibly, played seven innings and got a hit as we beat the American Association team. While still a strong, stubborn young fella, Cobb recovered quick. And boy, I never told him about what I found or saw in Doc’s apartment. I had my reasons. Like I said, Cobb was a superstitious man. If I had told him the truth about Doc Wells, I know it would’ve ruined him. No amount of knocking on wood and evil-eye protection would make a guy forget that. Believe me, I know. And he had another terrible time with teammates that year and he probably would’ve thought I was jokin’ him. Two years later, though, when he was a bonafide baseball star, I brought up the surgery, during a rain delay. Sitting next to Cobb on the bench, I told him a part of the truth. I said that Doc was placed in a mental asylum right after the surgery. The Peach looked at me with his wild, blue eyes and hook nose curled above a sneer and said, “Well, he got the job done, didn’t he?” 191


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I didn’t say anything more. I was convinced, and still am to this day, boy, the Peach was as crazy as that son of a bitch Doc. *** I had nightmares about Doc Wells for a week after Granddaddy told me the story. Horrible nightmares where Doc reached into my throat and pulled out my tonsils with his bare hands. Still, it was our story, and that made it special. I’m gonna tell my Grandson that story today. Right after the ballgame. Tiger Stadium is gone now, but the Georgia Peach and my Granddaddy will live on through all his stories. Including this one. You know, in thinking about that story over the long years, I have my own opinions, but I won’t tell my Grandson who I think Doc Wells really was. He’ll have to sort that out himself. Besides, that’s all a part of what Granddaddy called storytellin’.

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SO MANY THINGS LEFT OUT September 28, 1917 Momma died in childbirth thirty-seven years ago. So it was just Daddy and me for most of those years. He loved and raised me, his only child, a daughter, as best he could. Though I knew he wished for a son, a writer son. Maybe the next Mark Twain. Daddy owned just about everything Twain published, even the early volumes that he could only order through pre-publication. And he made me read them all. Many of those books are still in my Hannibal, Missouri home, in Daddy’s old bedroom. And in the same bedroom, I store the man, the former Samuel Clemens, the one-and-only Mark Twain, an animate fossil as dusty and silent as the books on the shelves. I open the bedroom door. Curtains drawn so only a sliver of sunlight enters, Twain is a motionless shadow lying on the canopied bed Daddy built. The same bed in which Daddy spent two long years dying. Consumption was what the local Doc said. There was nothing anyone could do. And there was nothing I could do except feed him, wash and tend his failing and fading body, listen to those watery breaths sink deeper with each day, carry the weight of his increasing dementia, and care for the house. And nobody helped this preacher’s only daughter until I hired Violet. I stand in the doorway watching Twain. No rise and fall of the chest. And no watery breaths. 195


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I once thought I knew death. It’s damn hot, and I turn and walk to the kitchen while fighting off a pair of stubborn flies, Indian Summer giving those pesky bugs a second life. And sitting on the kitchen table is a telegram and a New York Times the postman delivered this morning. I swat at the flies again and pick up the paper, finding the review buried inside. The New York Times, September 9, 1917 JAP HERRON. A Novel Written from the Ouija Board. With an Introduction on the Coming of ‘Jap Herron.’ Frontispiece portrait: New York: Mitchell Kennerly. $1.50.

Yeah, his all-important New York Times review is in. Notice I said his, not mine or ours contrary to what many folks might, or will, believe. But Twain did write Jap Herron. I read the first paragraph with a bullfrog-sized lump in my throat. The ouija board seems to have come to stay as a competitor of the typewriter in the production of fiction. For this is the third novel in the last few months that has claimed the authorship of some dead and gone being who, unwilling to give up human activities, has appeared to find in the ouija board a material means of expression. This last story is unequivocal in its claim of origin. For those who are responsible appear to be convinced beyond doubt that no less a spirit than that of Mark Twain guided their hands as the story was spelled out on the board. Helen Grace Emond and Violet L. Thatch, spiritualist, are the sponsors of the tale, Miss Thatch being the passive recipient whose hands upon the pointer were especially necessary.

The review is in all right. And it ain’t good. I know he’s received poor reviews in the past—heck, a library group from Concord, Massachusetts famously maligned his masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, calling it “trash and suitable for only the slums.” But this book is different. Seven long-hard-painful-dirty-dark years in the making, for all involved. Helen Grace Emond, who writes the introductory account of how it all happened, is from Hannibal, Mo., the home of Mark Twain’s boyhood, and in her the alleged spirit of the author seems to have put much confidence. Her long description of how 196


the story was written and of the many conversations they had with Mark Twain through the ouija board contains many quotations of his remarks that sometimes have a flavor reminiscent of the humorist’s characteristic conversation.

*** April 24, 1910 Mark Twain died three days ago. I’d known of his heart condition and impending death, and as a result, I was prepared. The press, often the subject of his sharp criticism, had fawned over Twain for the better part of a year like he was a dying prince. I suppose he was American royalty, even if he’d spent most of his life railing against society, particularly American society. Other than the poor and Negroes, it seemed we were nothing but targets for his scorn. But people like my Daddy ate it up because Twain left folks laughing without realizing how deeply he cut them. So it was easier to not feel guilty for what I was about to do. Sweating in my frilliest dress, I sat in the quaint but packed Presbyterian Church on the corner of 5th avenue in New York City. Another of the literati spoke on Twain’s behalf. The casket was open, and Twain wore his legendary white suit. Above, hiding in the aging wooden struts and support beams, was the foul-mouthed street urchin Violet had recruited. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was overlooking the funeral mass from his perch. After the church emptied, he was to climb down and deposit a root-bag into Twain’s mouth. I didn’t listen to the haughty words from any of the men who took their turns at the pulpit, and too eagerly for my tastes. My thoughts swirled with the Haitian tales and legends that Violet had brought back from her Caribbean jaunt. Only three days after the funeral mass, I traveled to Elmira, New York, a green place, without a hint of city foulness. I thought I’d never get New York City out of my lungs. Now, the ole Mississippi had its dank days where the smell of rot and silt cloyed to Hannibal like a skin, but it was nothing compared to the City stench. I understood why Twain and his family were buried away from the City, in Elmira. Much of the evening at the cemetery passed like a dream. At midnight, the boy and I found Violet, on all fours, chanting and 197


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gyrating above Twain’s flower-covered grave. She wore a thin, white, billowy frock that did little to hide what was underneath. When she stopped, she ordered the boy to drop his shovel and move aside the bouquets and wreaths. While he worked, she looped a necklace around my neck. A small root-bag dangled on a chain. It smelled faintly of clove, though with a touch of the sickly-sweet of rotted fruit. “You will wear this for as long as he is with you,” Violet said. Her pale skin reflected the moon above. “Quickly,” she said to the boy. He did as was asked, though not without issuing vulgarities. “How long will this take?” I whispered. Violet pointed at the cleared site. Earth undulated beneath a fresh layer of grass, then a dirt-smeared hand broke through the surface, then a shoulder, then his gray head . . . my view grew fuzzy until darkness absorbed me and I passed into it, without struggle . . . but I awoke soon after, and heard a sickening crunch. Violet helped me to my feet. Twain, white suit covered in soil, stood with the slack boy in his long arms. Dark liquid smeared his lips, and it seemed a considerable portion of the boy’s head was missing. I watched Twain dive into the boy’s face with a wide mouth. Violet had told me about our servant’s impending sacrifice, and I’d agreed to it without much fuss. But knowing and seeing and hearing were different things all together. And I passed out again. I awoke a considerable amount of time later, as Twain, with Violet watching like a schoolmarm, rearranged the flowers on his former grave. Violet removed a canteen and razor from her bag. “Look at him and point at the gravestone, please.” Still groggy, I did just that. Twain sat on the stone like an obedient pet. Violet set to shaving off the earth-encrusted moustache and clipping his hair. I stood and clutched the root-bag around my neck, thinking about the boy and the long trip back to Hannibal. Yet, much to my shock, the trip back from New York was uneventful. With a shave, haircut, and new clothes, no one looked twice at one of the most famous Americans. Twain looked like a sickly shufflin’ old man. Nothing more. And truth be told, he looked a lot like my Daddy. Violet, after collecting her considerable fee, and with the promise of more to come when my book was written, caught a ferry back to St. Louis as soon we returned to Hannibal. But that was all right because I didn’t need her in my house. She told me everything I needed to know, 198


God Bless her little-black-voodoo heart. Now, this might sound a touch strange, like I was a farm-wife who had nothing else to do but talk about how hard it was to raise her offspring, but there was no preparing for the real thing. Violet had told me the good stuff first. And the good stuff, the best stuff, was because Twain was freshly dead, I’d have access to everything that was in his head before he died. It was only a matter of the gettin’. But the how of the gettin’ was something that I’d have to figure out. So I tried just about everything to squeeze a story kernel from Twain that I could use and build into a novel that I could claim as my own. Yes, just about everything. I started with questions, which of course he didn’t answer. Not to say that he didn’t speak to me. Lord yes, he was a regular chatterbox if the situation was right. Mostly me saying a particular word would set him off. And I theorized that what he said was just something left over, ideas or thoughts already ground in his head before death. Although, more times than not what he uttered were words he’d already written. For example: The day after our return to Hannibal, I sat in the bedroom with ink and paper, just bustin’ to get at him. I ordered him to sit on the edge of his bed before mumbling a joke. “So how’s death treating you?” “All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’— a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.” Toneless, gravelly voice, with no inflection. Like air out of a balloon. A dead sound. With shaking hands, I scrawled down his words. I asked more questions, and he only repeated himself. Even after I stopped talking, he kept on repeating. It was too much. I screamed at him to stop and ran from the room. After sinking into a brandy-aided cup of tea, I realized his words were familiar and found the statement in Daddy’s leather-bound copy of The Tragedy of Pudd’n’head Wilson and the Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins. So I gave up asking direct questions and tried reading him his own passages, then works of other writers including my own failed attempts. I tried showing him pictures and newspapers. I tried evening and early morning walks along the Mississippi. I tried walking him by his childhood home. I pleaded with Violet to help, but she wasn’t answering my telegrams. 199


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Finally, after a frustrating year, I did indeed figure it out. At the end of my wits, I stuffed a pen into Twain’s hand and pointed at Daddy’s desk, a solid oak masterpiece he’d built just before his illness, the same desk I had occupied while tending to Daddy. I used to write while Daddy rested—my scrawling pen and his watery breaths weaving a strange background song I still heard at times—and then I’d read aloud to him when he was awake. He’d tell me, “It was good,” but that was all. And good from Daddy meant not good enough, never good enough, and I would never be his son and I would never be a writer and I was only good enough for his and the house’s caretaking. So, like a spoiled child, I demanded Twain sit at his desk and write my book. Twain didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at the pen or paper or desk or the bookcases filled with his own long-dead words. With his head angled toward the ceiling, pen fell to paper and he wrote. He wrote for almost ten minutes before dropping the pen and slumping in his chair. I had to help him to bed as his energies seemed drained. I read and reread and reread the page of writing, coherent writing and in that famous scrawl of his. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening scouring book after book and another week doing the same. And I never found it. He had written something original. Twain had written the opening to Jap Herron. For the next couple of weeks, I sat him at the desk with only pen and paper. And he wrote, continuing where he’d left off. But the session durations decreased with each day until he stopped writing, reaching a point where even rousing him from bed was a struggle. Another round of hurried telegrams and I spent the next month anxiously awaiting word from Violet. During that month, despite daily cleaning and care, Twain’s body was failing. Skin sagged and turned green in patches, emitting a most foul odor, an odor too similar to the sickness and suffering I’d already experienced, and I knew the Lord was punishing me, making me relive Daddy’s long death and I was drowning in the same feelings of inevitability and futility. That was until I received a short handwritten letter from Violet. And within the note was something all those Docs had never found for my first ailing patient, a cure: 200


Dear Helen, His ‘creating’ fiction is an unforeseen drain upon his energies. I’m afraid that for him to continue to function in the manner you described, he’ll need sustenance. Yours, Violet

I set to curing my new patient that same night. We walked off the riverboat and onto a sleepy dock that hovered above the murky waters of the Mississippi. The stranger I met onboard had my left arm hooked within his, feigning to be the gentleman he wasn’t. He joked and I laughed, but otherwise I remained silent, imagining each house we passed harbored a nocturnal spy. I wondered if anyone would miss him, a practically anonymous man from New Orleans, just one of a river filled with his ilk: gamblers and conmen. Men who lived without the forward thinking to see past the next hand of poker. Men who had no ambition, no desire of greatness. Men so different from Twain. Men so different from myself. This man seemed harmless enough, and harmless meant I was confident I’d make it home without a slit throat. I made it a point not to remember his name. While making our way across the wooden dock, I wondered if I would’ve married had I not spent all those years alone with a dying man. And now, a dead one. Once out of the dock area, my stowed carriage took us to the farmhouse. On the ride I allowed his wandering hands on my body, if only to enhance his state of pliant intoxication. It was all too easy. And I wondered what Daddy would’ve thought of this man. We ran like giddy children beneath a moonless but starlit sky and across my yard to the back entrance. Dressed in white, I imagined myself as a blithe spirit, a siren, leading this man toward his fate. Only I never believe in fate. I believed in doing-for-yourself. And I believed in death. We ran into the kitchen. I sat at the large oak table, and he approached like a wolf. “Oh, be a dear and get us a bottle of wine from the cellar. An occasion such as this requires it,” I said while unfastening two buttons on my blouse. 201


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With lantern in hand, he opened the cellar door. Darkened stairwell swallowed his light. As he descended he said something that I didn’t hear. And before the screaming—and there was a horrendous and awful amount of screaming and tearing and other sounds—it occurred to me that I had already forgotten what this man looked like. And after . . . Twain had seemed so weak, I hadn’t anticipated the violence or the volume of the occurrence in my cellar. A mistake I wouldn’t repeat. Shaking like a runt kitten, I sat in the dark kitchen and called Twain. He came. I couldn’t see the color of stain on his face and hands and clothes, but it had a smell. Still in the dark, I led him toward my washing room, stripped him, and bathed him in cold water that had been sitting in the tub since that afternoon. “There isn’t anybody that will miss him,” I said. Without emotion or inflection, a bloody mouth replaying a lost idea, Twain said, “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows anybody.” I slapped his cold face and growled through gritted teeth, “You are going to write my book.” “Well, my book is written—let it go. But if it were only to write over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can’t ever be used. And besides, they would require a library—and a pen warmed up in hell.” I cried and for the first time thought of using Daddy’s shotgun. He did not speak again that night. The next morning Twain’s skin had a healthier glow than mine. Honed by the passage of months into years, we had a routine. Changes of clothes, morning baths, dressing and stitching of any wounds or skin fissures, writing session, an assortment of house chores, my side-job of sewing shirts and trousers for the local parishioners of Daddy’s church—really nothing more than a show for the denizens of Hannibal; I didn’t need the money as Twain wasn’t the only one living off riverboat-wanderers the Mississippi provided—strolls around the farm to try to keep our muscles in working order, and at night, typed transcriptions of what he had written. Some days I made a game of speaking to him. I’d throw him a question or phrase and try to guess what his reply would be, and if he 202


happened to quote a familiar work, I’d try to find the words amongst Daddy’s Twain collection. Some days I let him roam the farm by himself, and I watched from the kitchen window. I could almost believe that he was alive, that he was a man sharing my home, sharing my life. Some days I avoided him and walked along the shores of the river, debating whether or not it was better to dump him or myself into the murky waters. But we’d done too much and gone too far to stop. Yes, this book he was writing had taken over my existence. Notice the writer’s choice of word. What I had certainly could not be considered a life. So most days, I gave myself to the routine. Just like with Daddy, it was what I knew. And Lord help me, it was comfortable. Five years passed in such comfort. I had hoped to be done with him. Certainly so that I didn’t have to keep killing. I didn’t rationalize that I wasn’t responsible for the deaths at Twain’s hand, for the fueling of his machine. Twain was nothing but a typewriter, a tool. Or a weapon. And I used him. But the how had changed. My intention to squeeze a story idea from him and write it myself didn’t happen. I had every intention of being a writer. I had every intention of achieving my own greatness, but with just a gentle shove in the right direction. I needed to be on Daddy’s bookcase. I tried and I tried and I tried to continue what Twain had started, to go off on my own direction, but I failed each time. Yes, I was tired from his constant care and trying to write seemed like another chore on the endless list of chores. But I know a true writer, a great writer, needs soul, and I’d poured most of mine into Daddy and sold the rest for Twain. And Twain, he was writing, very slowly, a complete novel. And it was too good. Living characters with plot and symbol and meaning and a style that was undeniably his. I wouldn’t be able to simply put my name on this book. I tinkered with the idea of tweaking the manuscript, to try and change its style and tone. But I couldn’t do that without gutting the essence of what made it literature, of what made it great. As Twain was close to finishing Jap Herron, I telegrammed Violet and told her of my predicament. She admitted to expecting a sooner return on 203


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the second half of her investment. To that end, she insisted I publish the book as soon as possible and with no delay for revisions. Violet temporarily relocated to Hannibal from St. Louis and set up a curio shop downtown, advertising her fortune telling and ouija board prowess. And Twain finished his book. *** The flies land on the Times, and I flick my wrist. “Shoo, now. Go on with you.” In an effort to settle my churning stomach, I swallow a quick shot of brandy. Then back to reading the review. The story itself, a long novelette, is scened in a Missouri town and tells how a lad born to poverty and shiftlessness, by the help of a fine-souled and high-minded man and woman, grew into a noble and useful manhood and helped to regenerate his town. There is evident a rather striking knowledge of the conditions of life and the peculiarities of character in a Missouri town, the dialect is true, and the picture has, in general, many features that will seem familiar to those who know their “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

If this book had been published when he was alive, would it be getting this review? Is it possible that Jap Herron just isn’t that good? Had it become so important to me that I could not tell? The humor impresses as a feeble attempt at imitation . . . Oh, irony of ironies. Now, I’m no fool and I sure-as-hell expected a healthy skepticism with the book’s publishing. But I thought it was so good, so authentic, so him, folks would come around to believing he wrote it. Looks like I was wrong. Just like I was wrong in thinking I knew death. If this is the best that “Mark Twain” can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary. 204


The flies are gone. I put down the paper and add more brandy to my tea. Beneath the pile of newsprint is a yellow telegram. I almost forgot about it. I read . . . It’s from Clara Clemens—Twain’s daughter—and Harper and Brothers publishers. They are serving me notice that they intend to go to court to cease continued publication of Jap Herron. I throw both newspaper and telegram into my wood stove. Walking to my bedroom, I sit at my cluttered desk with ink and paper. I write a quick note: Violet, I am sure you’ve received the news of the impending lawsuit. It is my decision to withdraw the book and destroy any remaining copies, and its author. I hope the splitting of the advance monies will suffice for your payment. Be well, Emily

After sealing the envelope, I stare at the reflection in my bedroom mirror. The woman that stares back is older than I expected. Worry lines and sagging features have replaced any promise of youth, and I know I’ve thrown away seven years. More than seven years, and so many things left out. Daddy’s shotgun hasn’t been fired in over ten years. I take it out and load both barrels, just like he taught me before he was sick, a lifetime ago. I hope it still works. Regardless, my life will change today. I remove my root-bag necklace and put it on my desk. It shrivels and emits a plume of dust. Now a dark lump, a black heart, I knock it to the floor and grind it under my heel. There is a stirring in his room and I hear his door open. But I am not afraid. Those filled with regret don’t know any other emotion. Twain stumbles into my room, tongue hanging out of his mouth and his limbs twitching with want. “You have more than earned your eternal rest,” I say. He stops and stares. Though I do not expect otherwise, there is no gleam or hint of recognition in his eyes. A look that has been with me for two lifetimes. 205


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“The report of my death was greatly exaggerated,” he says. Twain lunges toward me. Aiming the shotgun, I know this is something I should’ve done for my first dead man.

One Twain quote reprinted by permission of the publisher from MARK TWAIN – HOWELLS LETTERS: THE CORRESPONDENCE OF SAMUEL L. CLEMENS AND WILLIAM D. HOWELLS, 1872-1910, edited by Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson with Frederick Anderson, p. 613,Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1959 by the Mark Twain Company and Mildred and John Howells, 1959, 1962 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Copyright renewed 1990 by Elinor Lucas Smith. 206


THE LAUGHING MAN MEETS LITTLE CAT On no particular day with no particular weather, a well-dressed man penetrated the imaginary boundary of an un-particular small town. And we first called him well-dressed because at a glance his indigo-blue suit sure did look well. But if you got close, which not many folks did or do, or took special notice, which again, was not something that had been a regular occurrence in his lifetimes, you’d find frayed cuffs and faded patches of material that wore like healing scars. But there was always that smile of his. That could not be missed. Wider than an Iowa field and twice as corny. It was almost, almost mind you, the smile of an idiot. The utter buffoon who had no idea that he had a mouthful of shit, the same shit that someone in-the-know called cake, so all this utter buffoon could do was grin bufoonally. Then his laugh: deep, fatherly, knowing, comforting, telling the listener that this guy had something goin’ on. And the Laughing Man had something goin’ on. *** Ronnie Catalfomo sits on the cement front stairs of his uncle’s house—a quaint two-family that has been inhabited by Catalfomos for three, four, maybe five generations, depending who you ask. Little Cat is what everyone calls him. He is five-years-old. Limbs of a praying mantis, he weighs less than a sack of healthy potatoes. This small, small boy sits alone, knees to chest, fists in cheeks. He’s Pinocchio without a fancy cricket, the dying kid that didn’t get a homer from Babe Ruth, the orphan in line after please Sir, may I have some more. And Little Cat is crying his brown eyes out. Crying so hard and so


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loud that he doesn’t hear or see or sense the man standing at the bottom of the stairs. “Hey, kid, why so glum?” Right foot tapping up-tempo, hands jingling the change in his pockets, the stranger whistles a lilting melody. And laughs. *** An affluent neighborhood here and the wrong side of the tracks there. One high school boasting a rabidly populated PTA. Downtown with its barber shop, two salons, three restaurants, two banks, a hardware store, more trees than lampposts, one brand-spankin’-new mini-mall that was, of course, the sole reason behind the decline of western civilization according to the elder locals, and town hall with four prominently displayed American flags and flanked by the always green common. A particularly American small town. “Come on, now! Is there anywhere else you’d rather be?” He laughed after posing the question. Judi squinted, either shading her injured eyes from the bright mid-morning sun or the raw wattage of his smile. She said, “Anywhere else is exactly where I’d rather be.” She didn’t know why she had taken off her sunglasses and lumpy baseball hat for the weirdo sitting next to her on the bench. This oddball, this Cheshire-grinnin’-freak in an indigo-blue suit, leaned real close. More than likely, he was close enough to see the thick mat of foundation make-up that tried its darnedest to cover the purple, close enough to see red eyes that had cried for the better part of the morning, close enough that if Stephen had walked by, he’d probably beat her again, right there in the middle of the common. He fixed spotlight eyes and inhaled through his nose like he was smelling all the flowers in the common at once. “You know, you’re right. You and this place, just not a match, I guess. I bet you’d be happier, much happier somewhere else. And alone, too.” Judi watched the man swallow hard, like he had something caught in his throat, then the laugh . . . The laugh, the laugh, the laugh. As infectious as a baby’s smile. First, a soft giggle. Light, airy, a bit unsure, like a church laugh,


completely drowned out by his gaudy guffaws. An unsteady hand covered her mouth, trying to hold it in. Holding it in, holding it in, it’s okay, it was always okay, just a little trip down the stairs, an accidental bump on the head, a bee simply—always it was simply—stung her lip, a drop of the cigarette, yes it SIMPLY landed on her forearm, yeah the skin burned quick, that’s right, momma always said smokes were dangerous always such a clumsy chick . . . always holding . . . it . . . all . . . in . . . Still laughing like the wildest of wild men, he gently took her hand and moved it from her mouth. “Let it out. Your laugh is soooo beautiful.” And it came out. Loud and belly-shaking and tear-squeezing and red-faced and simply wonderful. And Judi was still laughin’ and rockin’ in her compact shitbox, which was suddenly not all that shitty, a good thirty miles down the interstate. *** “Hey kid, laughter is the best medicine,” he says. A cliché, yes. One that has been attributed to someone else. Maybe someone famous. Maybe someone not so. The Laughing Man doesn’t mind or care or even know. In fact, it would’ve tickled his oft-dancin’ uvula to know folks everywhere, at one time or another, have uttered the sickly-sweet phrases turn that frown upside down, grin and bear it, don’t worry, be happy et cetera, ad infinitum. Little Cat says nothing. Tears fall off his cheeks like lemmings off a cliff. The Laughing Man sits next to the boy, ditching his boisterous laugh for a smooth whisper, one with a smile. “Tell me about it, son.” His stomach grumbles, a cranky machine rejecting its fuel, and he knows he might not make it. This small, small boy might be too much. Little Cat speaks, telling him about it. *** After Judi, and after the a-day-too-old-milk aftertaste dissipated, there was . . . there was . . . . . . a tomboy girl, so tough and strong and mean-when-she-needed-to-be,


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and her dead dog, Champ, and the thick, syrupy sadness that lined his stomach after she hugged him. there was . . . . . . the hospital and a lonely old man who was rotting, and not just in body, in a distinctively un-private room, and who, quite literally, died laughing, and it tasted like a too-sour sherbet. there was . . . . . . an equally lonely old woman in an equally un-private room just one floor away from Mr. Sherbet, and there were more: a third on the third and a fourth on the fourth, and more and more and more, and the last was like drinking flat cola. there was . . . . . . a blond teen who was fired for no particular reason, a single mother who had had enough, an alcoholic at the end of his wine-soaked rope, a reviled teacher, an honest to goodness pariah, who punched her preternaturally wise-ass student but nobody knew she’d spent the night and the night before and the night before with her dying mother, and then a burly construction worker still bleeding from his favorite Uncle’s secret game. and he was just about full but then there was a small, small boy. *** Little Cat tells him everything. The Laughing Man breathes deep, sucks in. Stomach shucks and jives like he’s a kid who just ate an entire night’s haul of Halloween candy. Little Cat tells him every thing. An introduction to his parents: Mommy and Daddy. Kind folk. Poor in money, but nothing else. They didn’t hit or neglect Little Cat. No, they didn’t act inappropriately around their boy, either. They loved Little Cat


with every thing they had. Only, Mommy and Daddy Cat—the third or possibly fourth set of parents that had owned the house of Catalfomo—had the temerity, the gall, the cannolies to cap off a night out at dinner by themselves, their first such night in a year plus, with an auto fatality. Little Cat had heard the cop at the door use the fancy-sounding phrase that meant Mommy and Daddy were D-E-D, dead. Now meet the Grandfather: Papa Cat. He tried to explain why someone named Deewee—or D-W-I as it was spelled out—was driving in the wrong lane, just like they do in the old country. And he tried to explain why there wasn’t enough money to keep the house of Catalfomo that had stood for three, four, five, forever generations. And, Papa, he tried to explain to his Little Cat. And he tried. And why and why and why. Little Cat tells the Laughing Man all this and more. Maybe if he didn’t spend—and take—so much at the hospital, maybe if he didn’t fill himself on the tiny everyday sorrows that were so easy to laugh away but added up, yes, his bulging and bubbling stomach is picture-proof of that summation, maybe if he saw Little Cat first, maybe . . . maybe baby . . . Maybe the Laughing Man wouldn’t be choking. Stomach, then esophagus, then lungs filling with soupy-chunky-salty brine of a small, small boy’s shattered world. Maybe shattered beyond repair. Beyond his repair. Papa Cat calls his mewling kitten inside. A soft patter of paws climb the stairs, without even a glance back in his direction. The Laughing Man is bent over, hands on knees, fish-mouth gasping for air. He wants to say hang in there to say you are still loved to say IT will get better. But mostly, he wants and he needs and he craves a five-year-old’s laughter. But he knows. He wills his now oxygen-depleted legs to carry him down the sleepy street and past the common and town center and to the outskirts and away . . . . Blue and purple and black fuzzy spots cloud his vision. He stumbles and falls into a ditch adjacent to a nameless country road. Twisting onto his side, he jams a finger down his throat. An immense gorge rises and purges and purges, but not every thing, never every thing. He feels the accumulated sadness, an Everest of despair and doubt and loneliness and 213


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shame, and this is his hell because he knows, he knows he’s only a balm, a salve, a frail and decidedly non-permanent solution and he knows there will always be more than he can swallow and he knows and he knows he will never laugh again. But . . . The coughs and retching and convulsive nausea end with an acidic hiccup. He still can’t breathe and his vision fades and is he dying, again, but . . . a smile finds his purple lips . . . and a thought before he dies . . . I wonder where and when and if I’ll wake laughing. *** Meet Clancy Farnsworth: a fifty-something tailor with his own honest-to-goodness floundering business. A business that took the better part of his lifetime and two marriages to set on unsteady feet. Meet the American dream. Yet, despite the crushing weight of debt and piled bills, the looming weekend visit of awkwardness with his teenage son, Clancy is happy. And he is laughing. Laughing with a smiling stranger while repairing a tear in a tattered, indigo-blue suit jacket.

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THE JAR My granddaughter is coming over today. She’s such a peach. Red hair tied in ponytails, never wearing dresses but grass-stained jeans instead, freckles like cinnamon powder on her cheeks, and green cat-eyes just so full of wonder and mischief. Just like her Grandma. I’m still not used to being called that, especially since I still think about my Grandma every day. I live in Hyannis, a once modest summer-spot on the Cape, and it’s where I inherited my Grandma’s house but not her fortune-telling business. Too bad, hordes of tourists come here now with money burning holes in their pockets. No matter. This drafty old house wasn’t the only thing I’d inherited from my Grandma. When I was ten, I inherited the jar. *** My little brothers, my Mom, and I spent most of our summers at Grandma’s house. She lived in one of the few two-family houses in downtown Hyannis, only steps from the Cape Historical Society and the Little Red House candy shop, saltwater taffy being their specialty. Grandma used to do her fortunes, or as she called it, tellin’, on the first floor and lived on the second. We grandkids weren’t allowed on the first floor while she was tellin’. 217


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But Mom sure told me about it. She wouldn’t say anything to the other kids, but she’d always talk to me. Funny, her face crinkled up like she smelled something bad whenever she talked about Grandma’s tellin’. Still, she told me how Grandma used cards with strange pictures on them, or made some tea and looked at the leaves after the person was done drinking, or looked over the lines in a person’s hand, or sometimes she didn’t need any of those things, she could sit and tell just by looking at the person. I knew this morning’s tellin’ session had just ended because I heard her coming up the stairs. I always waited for Grandma to finish and wanted to be the first one to hug her when she came upstairs. “Where’s my little Samantha?” Grandma said, beaming in a flowing black frock, speckled with roses. Her long, gray hair wrapped in black scarves that dripped onto her big shoulders and chest. Her face had almost no wrinkles, but she showed her age in her brown eyes. The way they fixed on you, it was like she was seeing everything. And to me, she was beautiful. I ran into her arms. Mom said, “Why do you dress like a gypsy even though it is plain to see that you are as Anglo as the Queen?” She laughed at her own joke, but I wasn’t sure what was so funny. “Oh Deborah, mind your mother. Besides, it never hurts to advertise.” “You mean, false advertise.” Mom was still joking, but I saw Grandma’s body tense a bit. Grandma ignored her and just hugged me some more. “My little Sam, will you help your Grandma carry some jars down cellar?” She’d never invited me to the cellar. I was so excited, and it was all I could do to nod my head. Grandma hugged me one more time, and I followed her downstairs. Mom yelled, her voice chasing us like a threat. “That’s no place for kids. You be careful down there, Sam.” After a quick stop at the first floor kitchen, we walked down cellar with two jars in each of our hands. Down them creaky wooden stairs, watching my feet leave footprints in the dirt and dust. The stairs wound around a corner and spit us out onto a dirt floor. The walls were a mixture of rock and cement. It was cooler down here, and damp. “Watch where you step,” Grandma said. She walked past the quiet furnace and hot water heater to the back of the cellar. Balancing the two jars in one hand, I brushed red bangs out of my eyes and ran to catch up. 218


A giant bookcase covered the entire back wall of the basement. And her jars filled it. Grandma had already put back the jars she’d carried. She took mine, carefully eyed those rows and shelves, and sat them on the bottom shelf. “Wow, Grandma.” She chuckled. “Yeah, I’m an old woman that just can’t bear to throw things away.” “Oh hey, there’s your fruit preserves over there,” I said and skipped to the far side of the case, finding two rows of glass jars filled with colorful fruit chunks. Grandma smiled and pointed out the jars of herbs, tea leaves, seeds, roots, healing salves, home remedies, and even a section of nails, screws, and bolts. She’d named almost every jar. But there was one she passed right over, and it was on the very top shelf. “What’s in that old ugly one?” “Never you mind, Sam.” She said and was grinning like I just told her a corny kid-joke. “Huh? Oh, well, it sure looks old.” “Well, I will tell you a secret, Sam. That jar is a lot older than I am.” I giggled. “No it’s not.” I knew she was just joking me. The jar was nothing but a rusty orange tin can with the label peeled off. Besides those fruit preserves, her jars were nothing but used tin cans. But to Grandma, they were all jars, and the rusty orange one, the off-limits one, was just sitting alone on that top shelf. It really wasn’t all that different from the rest of them. But there was . . . “Okay, if it’s so special, how come you don’t even have a cover on it?” “Oh, I could never put a cover on that. The jar simply wouldn’t stand for it, my sweet Sam.” I got to thinking on that jar. Maybe it held coffee grinds at one time, or them salty peanuts my Daddy loved so much. But when I tried to guess what was in it right then, my mind went blank. I stood quietly next to Grandma for a bit, just trying to imagine anything, anything that might be in there. Nothing. Even though I was always making up stories for my little brothers and wrote down daydreams in my diary, my head was empty of ideas for the jar. I stomped my feet on the dirt floor and said, “No fair.” “Now, now, Sam. I know it doesn’t seem fair. And it isn’t. But that’s just 219


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it, honey. That jar, like life, isn’t fair.” Grandma smiled crooked, just like my friend Jenny did when she dared me to do something bad. “Come on, let’s go back upstairs. I’ve got another tellin’ to do at three.” “Samantha, do you want to come to the store with us?” I’d been upstairs for half an hour, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the jar. The rusty tin can colored like dead leaves. “No, Mom. I’ll stay here and listen to the radio.” My two younger brothers darted around and between my Mom’s legs, playing tag. “Hey, knock it off, you two. Okay, Grandma is downstairs if you need anything. We’ll only be gone a little while.” She left with my squirming brothers, holding their hands and barking orders at them. As soon as the Studebaker pulled out of the driveway, I was off the couch and creeping down the stairs. Grandma was only halfway through her tellin’ session so she’d never know I was down cellar if I was careful. I took off my shoes so they wouldn’t clap on the stairs. Shuffling down in my socks, I listened to Grandma’s muffled voice but didn’t make out what she was saying. In no time, I was in front of the doors, the heavy oak one for the first floor and the beat-up green cellar door on the right. Standing on my tiptoes to reach the latch, I unlocked the cellar door, barely keeping the jingling metal hook quiet. But opening the door was going to be tricky. Now it sounded like Grandma was standing right behind me. Holding my breath, I turned the brass knob and pulled, real slow. I opened the door, and it screeched like my old bike’s back tire. And Grandma kept on talking. She didn’t hear it. Not daring to open the door any farther, I snaked my arm into the cellar and felt for the light switch. Finding it, I flicked it on and shimmied through the partially opened door. Standing at the top stair, that old basement looked darker than it did earlier. I was scardy-cat nervous and felt the prickly hairs shoot up on my neck, but the jar led me down those stairs. I still heard Grandma doing her tellin’, but her voice was coming from farther away. The wooden stairs groaned under me, but it didn’t matter. I was sure she didn’t hear me. Sneaking past the furnace, I stopped in front of the bookcase of jars and eyed the rows just like Grandma had. The light bulb dangling from the cobwebby ceiling put everything in a dream-like yellow. Testing out a foot on the thickest part of the lowest shelf, I then 220


stretched as far as my little body could, toward that rusty jar. I just about wanted to shout I was so excited, and the jar was only part of it. I’d done stuff that little girls weren’t supposed to according to Mom, but mostly because a friend dared me. But this was my first time going against Grandma, so I felt kinda bad too, ashamed even, and it all made my head swim and fingers tingle as I clutched at the jar with my right hand. I thought I had a good grip on it, but as soon as it slid off the top shelf, it fell to the dirt floor with a clang and rolled up against the wall. I stopped breathing, expecting to hear my Grandma rumbling down the cellar stairs, and the worst part would be seeing the hurt on her sweet face. I waited, but nothing happened. She hadn’t heard it. I let out some held-in air and went after the jar, walking over to the shadowy area where it landed. The thing had no cover, so I figured that whatever was in it must have spilled out. But I didn’t see anything, only that rusty tin can lying in the corner. Was Grandma fooling me? The jar had to be empty. That jar, like life, isn’t fair. Grandma’s warnings rolled around my head, and I went to the corner, the jar’s open end up against the wall. Crouching just above it, I wiped my hands on my jeans and grabbed the thing with both hands. Rougher than sandpaper and colder than the freezer handle, rust flaked off onto my fingers. I tipped the jar upside down and shook it. Nothing. “What a gyp.” I wasn’t as disappointed when Mom told me there was no Santa Claus. I turned the jar over and had a peek inside, and its black mouth stared back. I didn’t see the sides or the jar’s bottom. I let out a giggle, the kind that doesn’t sound like you’re having all that much fun. What I was seeing didn’t seem right, it didn’t fit. I craned my neck for a closer look . . . . . . stick legs and twitching black bodies exploded out of the jar and onto my hands and arms and then falling to the floor. The jar was full of icky, yucky bugs, and all of them black. Beetles clicked and clacked against the rusty metal and floor. Fat roaches and ants with twitchy legs and feelers crawled up my arms. Flies and wasps buzzed my head. Hairy spiders with arms bigger than my fingers landed on the floor and crawled toward my feet. The ceiling light bulb flickered on and off. Bug shadows crawled on the wall ahead of me. I jumped backwards and felt the crunch and squish of all 221


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those bugs under my stocking feet. The little monsters covered the floor and worked their way up my legs. A large lump, as big as a nightmare, was under my jeans, just below my left knee. And it kept moving up. I screamed, and I screamed as loud and long as I could, and dropped the jar. Then everything around me flickered like the light bulb had, and kinda hitched, then shifted . . . . . . and the bugs were gone. The jar was on the ground at my feet, its top facing away. My head was all sweaty, and my heart pounded like it wanted to leave my chest. I might have reacted differently to the jar if I was older, probably would’ve just run screaming from the cellar. But I was only ten. And that ten-year-old world revolved around thumbing her nose at the grown-ups without getting caught. Staring at the rusty can, still recovering from the shock of my life, I knew I had to put the jar back. As much as the thought of touching that thing again just made me want to cry, I had to put it back. I bent down and stretched out my right hand like I was sticking it into a bear trap. Flicking it with a finger, I jumped back expecting another swarm of bugs. But the jar only swayed side to side. Okay, I just had to grab it and put it back. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the jar with both hands, holding it as far away from my body as I could, and turning it so it wasn’t upside down, then two quick steps to the shelf. But I caught a flash of color inside the jar. I knew I shouldn’t, but I had to look. Don’t look. Just put it back. I brought the jar closer, holding it just below my chin, and stared at two egg-shaped green eyes peering back at me in the darkness. I blinked . . . . . . and I was sitting on my bed, in my room, and in the dark. So dark, I only saw outlines of stuff in my room. “Mom? Dad?” I called out. No answer, just my wind-up Mickey Mouse clock ticking away on my nightstand and my heavy breathing. I fumbled for the lamp but didn’t find it. CREAK. Across from the foot of my bed, my closet door was opening. My eyes rolled, searching for any sign of light to latch onto. Metal coat hangers jingle-jangled, and the door opened, thudding against the wall. I whimpered like a puppy and just stared into the dark. Two green eyes and a set of huge white teeth appeared, and glowed. Growls and snorts and low, gut-dragging laughter drowned out the clock next to my bed. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. 222


The bogeyman cackled and jumped out of the closet, landing on the foot of my bed. I still could only see those eyes and its teeth. I buried my head under the sheets like I did most every night, but the bogeyman ripped them off me and stuffed them into its mouth, and there was chewing and tearing and swallowing. “Sam.” A soft voice right next to my bed. I turned and faced Grandma. I didn’t see her face, just her outline in the dark, and she didn’t sound afraid at all. “Drop the jar, sweetie.” At first, I didn’t understand. But I looked down and I was still holding the jar with both hands, resting its bottom on my lap. The bogeyman screeched and then crawled up the bed. Grandma grabbed the jar out of my hands and threw it against . . . . . . the cellar wall. I was sitting with my back against the shelves, and Grandma stood next to me. She reached out a hand and helped me up. So tired and scared, I looked around the cellar and saw the jar leaning against the cement bulkhead-stairs. While thinking about what just happened with the bogeyman, I shivered, but I wasn’t all afraid. “Sort of like that coaster down at the Willows. You tell everyone that you hate it and it’s too scary, but you still keep riding it.” That wasn’t what I had expected her to say. I was waiting for her to yell at me, tell me how bad I was for disobeying her, tell me how disappointed she was. Something Mom would say if she caught me. But Grandma was right. Looking into that jar was just like the Hyannis Willows coaster. While riding, I would be on the verge of tears rocketing around that creaky wooden frame, screaming through the sharp turns and sudden drops, imagining my car flying off the track and into the people below. But as soon as the ride was over, I’d laugh and get right back in line. I nodded my head. And I wanted to look in the jar again. Grandma smiled, but seemed sad. “Oh, Sam. Part of me was hoping you’d come and take a look, but another part of me was hoping you wouldn’t.” “I’m sorry, Grandma. I just had to, you know?” “Yeah, well. Now you’ve seen.” She still held my sweaty hand and led me out of the cellar. “Grandma, the jar.” “I’ll put it back later, it’s not going anywhere.” 223


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I stopped walking. “Well . . . um . . . can I look in it, again, Grandma?” That same kinda sad smile on Grandma’s wide face. “Yes, but not today. The jar, the fears it holds, takes a lot out of you, and you’re exhausted.” “I saw bugs the first time.” “I know, I was watching.” Grandma laughed when she saw my jaw drop. “Sam, my sweet, you need to work on your sneaking skills!” Grandma led me up to her apartment, laughing all the way. I fell asleep on her lap, thinking about the jar and what I would see the next time. About once every month, Grandma invited me down cellar with her and gave me another peek at the jar. In a year I saw more bugs, a thing made out of shadow, the Wicked Witch of the West, the roller coaster collapsing with me riding on it, my best friend Jenny turned into a big-toothed demon along with my little brothers, and a bunch of other monsters right out of my nightmares. And Grandma watched, taught me how to keep from being afraid, and when to drop the jar. The last time Grandma watched me look into the jar, I . . . . . . was standing, alone, in a graveyard. A forever-sea of green, with granite markers spreading as far as I could see. A cold wind passed, chilling my hands and icing the tears on my face. I fell to my knees next to a gravestone. It read: Samantha Greene 1870-1945 Beloved Mother and Grandmother I always knew that I was named after my Grandma, and that brought home the power of the image before me more than the endless graveyard. I let out a moan, and then there was a tidal wave of loneliness and loss and it was too much. A whisper, “Don’t forget to drop the jar, sweetie . . . . . . it’s okay, Sam. We’re back.” Grandma let me cry against her shoulder for a time. She tried to joke. “Jeez, I’m glad to know that I will be missed.” “Grandma,” I wailed. “I know, not funny. But when I do die, Sam, I want you to keep this jar, and do as you see fit.” 224


“Don’t say stuff like that, Grandma.” I turned my head to the dirt floor. For some reason, I didn’t want her to seeing me crying then. “Will you keep it, Sam?” Looking into that rust-bucket was about the last thing I wanted to do right then, but I answered, “Yes.” I picked the jar off the floor, careful not to look inside, and then put it on the shelf. “Grandma, I’ve never seen you look in it.” “You don’t want to see what I see.” Serious tone in her voice. She wasn’t joking anymore. “Yes I do!” “I simply don’t look anymore.” She folded her arms over her chest. Her sweet face was set and stern. “That’s not fair.” “Nothing is, Sam,” she said, but tousled my hair and led me up the stairs. “You’ll see what I see soon enough.” I tried to ask more questions, but Grandma just held up her stop-hand and clammed right up. Grandma had a heart attack and died a week later. *** I still have the jar. I never entertained the idea of getting rid of it, until yesterday afternoon. I saw what my Grandma saw. In the many but short years since she passed, I still used the jar. Although it was never as thrilling as that first year in Grandma’s cellar. The fears that played out before me became too realistic. The rush of the carefree fantasies of monsters and demons gave way to visions of death for my loved ones, atomic detonations, a stranger in a dark hallway with weapons of steel and flesh concealed, scenes of academic and employment failure and embarrassment, infidelity on the part of my lovers and my eventual husband, miscarriages, strangers kidnapping, molesting, and killing my children, the violent or sudden loss of my new family, and the repetition of those awful themes when my children had children. I can’t explain exactly why I kept looking. But I did. I suppose it satisfied a need to confront or imagine myself in the worst possible scenarios. The same dark urge that slows us down and cranes our necks at the scene of a car accident, even though we know actually seeing any of the gory 225


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results would haunt us for the rest of our lives. The same sadistic twinge that imagines our spouses are cheating, or our kids are doing drugs or having sex. It’s like continually licking a canker-sore even though it hurts. Because the hurt is proof that we care, proof that we’re still alive. But yesterday afternoon I looked into the jar and . . . . . . despite the complete darkness, my eyes adjusted to see a slab of dark oak just inches from my face. A coffin lid. And then there was nothing. Total and complete blackness beyond any shade of black I’d ever seen. There was no sound, not even the manic hum leftover in my ears that usually accompanied silence. I tried to scream. Nothing . . . . . . I dropped the jar and clutched my thudding chest. I knew I’d seen what my Grandma had seen. I understand why Grandma stopped looking. And I understand why she wanted to see what I saw. Her coaster had grown too big and she just wanted another trip around the kiddie-track. My granddaughter, named after me of course, is coming over for a visit in a few hours. Did I mention that she is ten-years-old? Just about old enough for the jar. And old enough to take me on one more ride.

226


COLONEL EVANS’ LAST MISSION For Azilda and Gaetan, Pat and Vera Hard rain falls throughout his funeral and follows them to the nursing home. Nurse Dunne sneezes and hangs Geraldine’s rain slicker in the bare closet. The old woman only has three dresses—red, blue, and black, each in the same style—hanging next to a moth-worn winter coat and a summer hat. Dunne wipes her damp hair from her forehead. I’ll never be dry again, she thinks and hopes her husband isn’t letting their three-year-old son play outside. Geraldine and her wheelchair are still sopping wet. “Let’s get you nice and dry, Geraldine.” Dunne walks to a linen closet. The brightness of the hallway lights stings her eyes. She grabs two white towels and sneezes, and drops a towel. Crouching, she hears a faint whisper floating out of Geraldine’s room. Delicate words just beyond her range of hearing. Is an aide checking up on the old woman? She didn’t hear anyone approach. Dunne walks into the room, and there is only the withered old woman and her wheelchair. “Colonel Evans was here,” Geraldine says. Nurse Dunne drops another towel. This is the first time in three years of employment at Shady Pines that she has heard Geraldine speak. ***


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INCOMING! BOOM! The explosion shook Private Arthur Evans to his gold fillings. He had never gotten used to the explosions. Not even close, Jack. But bullets were different. Hell, he could fall asleep in the middle of a machine-gun attack inside his own foxhole. That rat-a-tat-tat rhythm almost soothing. But those bombs, those earth-shakers, they still rattled him to the bone. BOOM! Evans ducked under a wood table. The enemy had him cornered, again, in a civilian house. Now, he hadn’t memorized the rules o’ war laid out by those goddamn-neutral-Swiss in Geneva, but someone was sure as shit breaking the rules. Evans had hoped for some sort of refuge here, here being a simple wood and shingle and plaster home that was country-miles from enemy lines. He just needed to rest his weary bones for a spell. And those weary bones used to be a young and tall and wiry soldier who’d actually signed up for this. Evans wished he could go back and knock the snot out of that kid and tell him, Hey kid, look where you got me: bald head, wrinkled skin, hunched back, and busloads of dead chums. But yeah, he was still fightin’. He had no choice. The fightin’ never stopped for our Private Evans. And he’d been fighting for as long as he could remember. He’d been part of countless companies and regiments and platoons and recon units and every other down-and-dirty job officers wouldn’t do. And everywhere and anywhere and anytime he went, all the grunts had called him Colonel. When it came right down to it, when the shit was thicker than his mother’s molasses, he was the leader on the battlefield. Not the spit and shine and scared-starchless officers. “Sheee-iiit, Evans knows more than a three star Colonel,” his first bunkmate once said. What was his name? Goddamn it! He couldn’t remember. Seemed he’d been forgetting just about everything. Partly why he tried this place out. To get some rest, to get that head screwed on tight again. But that enemy kept coming. And he wasn’t even sure who they were anymore. But they were squeezing off real bullets and lobbing live ammo at him. 230


Him being Colonel Evans. Him being the last man standing. Was that first bunkmate of his named Teddy? He wasn’t all that bright. Yeah, it was Teddy that had called him a three star Colonel. Evans

remembered

Hooch

hollering

over

the

noises

of

a

sizzling-bacon-pan battlefield and the laughter of his mates. “You fucking rube! A General has stars!” and Hooch laughing so hard his words slurred like he’d just emptied his whiskey bottle. Ah, Hooch, that sumbitch. He was always yelling at the enemy, trying to swear in German or French or whatever language he could spit out. Now he wanted to think more on that Colonel promotion. Did that happen in July of 1944, while pushing through the hedgerows just beyond Normandy beach? Or was it in September and that blood-drenched march to the Siegfried Line? Damn, was he even in France at all? Evans thought he remembered battles at the German border: the Hurtgen Forest and the Ardennes. It didn’t make a lick of sense, but he figured it didn’t matter in the end, fightin’ was fightin’. Evans wished Hooch was there now. Did that sumbitch go home? None of his old buddies were fightin’ anymore. They were all long gone and hard to find. And he was alone, alone, alone. Or worse, with civilians. Evans always seemed to find himself protecting civilians. People he didn’t even know. BOOM! The house danced a jig. Debris rattled against the windows like bugs smacking into a porch-screen, trying to find a way in. Evans was a good fighter, maybe even goddamn great. Couldn’t say he was proud of that. No way, no how. Scraping through skin and bone to overtake a chunk o’ rock, then hunkerin’ down like a pissed off rattler to protect that same shitty chunk o’ rock that no one would ever, ever, ever be able to use for anything, and yeah, there was serving your country and protecting your fellow man even if that fellow man was a stranger who appreciated your efforts about as much as the enemy did. None of that was a life’s work. No way. No how. Evans tried to think about anything else that he’d done in his life, a life that had lasted longer than most. And all he came up with, all he found, was the fightin’. 231


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Goddamn, there she was again. Jesus H. Christ if they didn’t wheel her straight into the line of fire. Those daffy medics left her all over the place, and unprotected. Hooch used to say, “Never leave yourself un-pro-tected! Know what I mean?” Evans didn’t remember his old buddy’s face, but he remembered those sayings. Oh boy, Hooch was full of them, and he ended a favorite saying or joke with a singsong ‘know what I mean,’ then whacked you in the shoulder just to make sure you knew what he meant. The shelling stopped with only scattered rat-a-tat-tat. “Know what I mean?” Evans said. He left his cover and belly-crawled to the woman in the wheelchair. Goddamn, he was too old to be hiding under tables. His back barked like a junkyard dog, and his knees were rubber bands. Why was she always showing up? She couldn’t be the same woman that he had been seeing at all these battles? It didn’t matter. He couldn’t leave her unprotected. He reached the woman and asked her a question. But Evans didn’t even hear what he was saying. And she said nothing. The glass window behind Evans shattered, those black bugs now flying through the porch-screen. A sniper leveled his rifle. *** Dinnertime at Shady Pines. Nurse Dunne and her aide Shelly gathered the troops from the Alzheimer’s wing for the meal. Six poor souls sat like run-down and low-batteried robots around a dark-stained oak table. Dunne loved her job and her patients, but she hated seeing them at dinner. While feeding and caring for them, she only thought of her mother sitting at this table with food and ramblings spilling from her mouth in equal portions. Mom had been recently diagnosed with the disease, and cherished images of her mother were tied to the dinner table. Mom’s turkey pie, split-pea soup, and chocolate chip cookies, all from scratch, bordered on perfection. Or used to. Mom was in the early stages of the disease, and here, at the dinner table, displayed in Technicolor, was her future. 232


Dunne tried to tuck those thoughts away and let the aide do her thing. Shelly was tireless. A pixie of a girl, her young face was all cheeks and smile as she told jokes, sang, and danced while helping out the residents. “Arthur! Come on back up,” Shelly said. “Colonel,” Evans said. “That’s right, that’s right. Come on, Colonel.” He ducked beneath the table at least twice a night. The old man reappeared with his napkin in his right hand and said, “Hooch, that sumbitch Hooch . . . ” then trailing off. Shelly bounced around the table, stuffed a corner of the napkin down Evans’ shirt, and patted his mostly bald head. Feathery wisps of white hair clung to his drying scalp like fading memories. “Know what I mean?” he said. “I sure do, Colonel!” She then tended to Evans’ neighbor, a widow, Geraldine. Evans always sat next to her while eating or in the common room, and he always held her hand; a fork in one hand and Geraldine’s delicate and withered hand in his other. Geraldine was more dependent than Evans was. She had to be fed, bathed, and tended to round the clock. And she never spoke. “Hey Geraldine, I’m back!” She gave Shelly no response, no flicker of recognition. Her expressionless face in that perma-squint, hiding her dark brown eyes behind wrinkled crow’s feet. Evans mumbled, “incomingincomingincominghoochhooch,” while eating, still engulfing Geraldine’s child-sized hand in his. Dunne cleaned up the other dinner patrons and shuffled them off to the common room while Shelly fed and entertained that favorite couple of the Alzheimer’s Floor. “Behind the catsup,” Evans said. He stopped eating. “What? The peas, Colonel?” Shelly asked while wiping Geraldine’s face. “Peas, yeah. The peas are shooting, shooting at me.” Shelly smiled a smile that only those that worked daily with Alzheimer’s patients understood. “No sir, don’t worry, Colonel. You’re safe here. They’re not shooting at anybody.” Dunne returned to the dining room. “peasareshootingatme . . . know what I mean.” 233


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“The peas this time, Colonel?” she said and exchanged smiles with Shelly. Yesterday it had been the beans. Dunne helped Evans to his feet while he still held Geraldine’s hand. His face suddenly grimaced, as if wincing in pain. “It’s okay, Colonel. You can still hold Geraldine’s hand. Help me wheel her down to the TV room,” Shelly said. “I’ve been shot. In the chest.” This was new to Dunne. His face returned to a normal blank expression. “Who shot you?” He didn’t answer. “Colonel?” Shelly said. “Know what I mean?” Shelly wheeled Geraldine away from the table, and Evans followed without further complaint. “Should I bring the Colonel to his room, Nurse Dunne?” “No, not yet. Let him watch TV with Geraldine for now. His family is coming for a visit later, so we’ll just get him to his room in . . . ” she looked at her watch, “about an hour.” Another patient was yelling for Dunne from across the hall. “All set, Shelly?” “All set, right guys?” Shelly said as she led Evans and Geraldine to the TV room. *** He didn’t see the sniper but heard the shot. And somehow his body had time to tense up before the bullet bullied into his chest. Evans was tough, Jack. He took the goddamn bullet standing, while protecting that civilian woman. Then he returned a little of his own rat-a-tat-tat. Christ, he was still kickin’. The bullet mustn’t have hit his ticker or something important like that. Blood colored the breast pocket of his olive-green uniform and there was a whole-heck-of-a-lot of pain. A hot stitch like a branding iron in his chest. But it couldn’t have hit his heart because he was still there, know what I mean? Hooch would’ve. He got plugged three times. 234


Or maybe four, or maybe fourteen . . . He didn’t goddamn remember. More bullets. The whine of flying and ricocheting lead buzzed his ears. Evans ducked and wheeled the woman out of the room. He was doing alright with that pain in his chest, but it was leaking down his left arm. And he’d have to stop the bleeding at some point. Where was the medic? Where was his troop? Hooch? The old woman didn’t say anything to Evans, and he pushed her down a long corridor. Didn’t he do this before? It felt like he had. Like he was having one of those French things, a deja vu. Well, when you’ve been fightin’ for a lifetime, you’re bound to repeat yourself. He figured the woman in the wheelchair didn’t have to say anything. She looked like a fighter too. Maybe that was why he wanted to protect her. But he felt kinda disappointed that this woman wasn’t someone else. Who the someone else was, who the other she was, he didn’t remember. Didn’t goddamn remember. Goddamn, goddamn, GAWDdamn! Maybe if he kept fightin’, he’d find her. Evans and the woman entered a big room that looked like Swiss cheese: holes and dust and debris and rubble. A broken TV, its shattered glass tube looking like an animal’s mouth, was on its back between two windows. Splintered wood and broken furniture and shattered glass all over the floor. Evans wheeled the woman behind a strewn couch and peeked his head over the cushions. The room was silent. And he sat. His chest still ached, and his left arm had gone all pins and needles on him. Maybe that bullet grazed his spine or something. No matter, he was still walking. Just like Hooch said, “If yer still walkin’, yer fine.” The last time he saw him, Hooch wasn’t walking. The last time he saw him, Hooch wasn’t fine. Goddamn, this was too much. How much fightin’ was left? How much could be expected of an old man? And that’s what he was, an old man. There wasn’t much left to him. Evans looked at the woman and said, “We are born in a clear field and die in a dark forest.” A Russian proverb his grandmother had taught him. Something he never forgot. 235


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He supposed Grandma was right. He’d been lost in the forest his whole life, his whole fightin’ life. Evans opened up his shaky hands and looked at the wrinkles and spots, those marks of time, the dirt from the forest floor. He grabbed the old woman’s hand. Although smaller than his, hers looked the same. He squeezed and tried to say something comforting, but there was nothing to say. His hands, they were so goddamn tired of fightin’. Was that all they had done? He wished she were here to remind him of the times when he wasn’t at war. He looked at his shirt, covered in blood. And that was it. No more. No way. No how. No more fightin’. Evans called for a medic. A young nurse led him to another room and told him someone would take care of the old woman. This nurse seemed familiar, but on the battlefield they all looked alike. He walked slow, with the nurse at his side. They said nothing to each other. They turned into a small bedroom. Evans dropped his weapon in the hallway. He’d had enough. No more. No more. He sat on the bed and looked at the small dresser next to him. On it was a picture, a picture of himself with a group of folks. It wasn’t his troop or any of his war buddies. Good-goddamn, she was in the picture! Evans, thirty years younger, was standing next to that woman. But he couldn’t remember who she was, or even her name, but he wanted her there with him. Maybe she’d tell him who she was. And maybe she’d tell him who the young kids were in the picture too. The old soldier lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. Pain still gnawed in his chest and arm, but it was alright. He had left his weapon in the forest and it was all alright. *** Dunne accompanied Tom Evans and his wife, Beth, to the Colonel’s room. “He might be sleeping, but let’s check.” Colonel Evans opened his eyes when they entered. 236


“Hey, Dad. How are you feeling?” Tom asked. “It’s me, Dad. Tom.” “Tommy?” *** The nurse brought two more civilians into his room. What was she thinking? They didn’t look like doctors. Christ, he needed a doctor. Couldn’t they see that he had a chest-bleeder? Why was the guy calling him Dad? He didn’t have any kids. He was only a soldier. A fightin’ man had no family other than his brother-troops. Evans looked at the picture on the dresser. Wait. There. The guy was in the picture. He was younger, but it was definitely him, know what I mean? And he was standing next to her. “Tommy?” *** “Yeah, Dad. It’s me.” “Who is she?” Evans said, and he sat up. Tom sat next to his father on the bed. “That’s Beth, Dad. Remember? My wife?” “No, who is SHE, whois she, whoisshe, whoisshe . . . ” *** What in the heck was this young fella saying? He hoped against hope against hope he’d tell him who the woman was in the picture. He tried to point at the photo with his left arm, but it wouldn’t move. CRASH! The window behind Evans shattered, and another sniper pointed a greedy-mouthed rifle into the room. That coward. That bastard was aiming for the civilian, the guy in the picture. No more, no more, no more . . . He leaned in front of the man, shielding him, and took another bullet. ***

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“DAD!” Evans slipped behind his son, grabbing his shoulders before falling face down onto the bed. Tom and the nurse quickly maneuvered the old man to a resting position, with his head on the pillow. “Dad, are you okay?” Evans was in obvious pain, his response barely audible. “I’ve been shot in the chest and . . . in . . . the . . . back.” His breathing was labored, and the color drained from his leathery skin. Dunne pressed the emergency button on the wall above the headboard and felt the old man’s pulse. “I think he’s having a heart attack.” *** Evans couldn’t hear the nurse but heard running footsteps in the hallway. They got him good this time. His heart flipped and spasmed. Evans even felt a lump of cold lead lodged in his heart. He knew the slug had entered his back and then cozied up in his ticker. Someone put an oxygen mask over his face, and strong hands eased him onto a stretcher. Finally someone was helping. His eyelids went heavy. Too heavy to open. “Hold on, fight it, Pops,” someone said. Tommy? Or was it the medic? Evans had fought for so long, so long. And now he only wanted to know who she was. *** Dunne rode in the ambulance with the Colonel. Evans wheezed into an oxygen mask, and irregular electronic beeps marked his faltering heartbeats. She called her husband from her cell phone to tell him that she wouldn’t be home until late. She told him about the Colonel. “Aw, I’m sorry, honey,” he said through a steady hiss of static. “Kiss Mom and Kevin goodnight for me.” “I will, love you.” She hung up. Dunne looked at the old man, unrecognizable, covered with equipment, and saw her mother. 238


She wasn’t pulling for the Colonel to make it, although she would miss him on her wing. *** Evans faded in and out. Outside, the fightin’ went on like a lightning storm. Explosions rocked the ambulance from side to side. Pings and rat-a-tat-tats and dented metal. It was only a matter of time before those goddamn bugs were through another porch-screen. Why were they still fightin’? Didn’t they know he was all done? He smirked, figuring that even a man that has been fightin’ for a lifetime can’t stop a war. They’d just go on without him. The ambulance doors opened. Somehow, they made it to a hospital. Medics danced like cobras, shouting foreign commands. Shit, maybe they were the enemy, he didn’t know. But a familiar young nurse was by his side. And even the pain was gone. But Evans knew that he was hurt, and bad, by the look this nurse gave him. Like she was looking at a dead man. Then again, it was a look that had been around him for as long as he could remember. Know what I mean? Was this Hooch’s hospital? Damn, he hoped Hooch was alright. The explosions still shook things up as he rolled down the hallway to the operating room. Now how was that right? He hadn’t memorized the rules of war laid out by those goddamn-neutral-Swiss in Geneva, but someone was sure as hell breaking the rules. Evans had hoped for some refuge at least here. HERE! He was in a hospital for Christsakes. What kind of animals attacked hospitals? knowwhatImean His heart hammered. But the timing was all off. Evans knew it was almost up. And he was in the dark forest. Where was she? Where was Helen? Did his company make it to the Rhine or the Elba? He remembered running water. The last thing Hooch had said was, “Goddamn war isn’t hell, regret is.” Odd that he’d say something like that while lying in chunks and pieces next to some nameless, useless, godless rock, clutching a picture of his 239


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wife. Evans wasn’t sure if he believed that sumbtich. Evans wished somewhere in his memory there was an instance of regret, of even a choice he made, but there was only the fightin’. And the search for her. The wheelchair lady or her. sweet Helen The rolling journey through the hospital ended. His gurney came to rest in a private room. There were no other casualties with him. A window to his left leaked sunlight. He got the sense that a long time had passed. A sense that he was in a timeless place. Had he been unconscious that long? He closed his eyes one more time. Voices filled the room, sad and young and somehow familiar. They were talking about him. These people knew him. Were they doctors? Some of the voices belonged to children. Where was she? Helen *** Dunne came back to the Colonel’s room to see his family. They were standing around the Colonel’s bed: Tom with Beth and his two sons Will and Arthur. The doctor came in and said, “I’m afraid that as a result of the major heart attack, Mr. Evans has suffered a significant amount of brain damage, mostly due to the length of time that he wasn’t breathing. We’ve closely monitored his brain waves in the last twelve hours, and there isn’t any activity of which to speak.” Nurse Dunne held Beth’s hand, who in turn clutched at her husband. The grandchildren were quiet, only staring at the floor. They decided to take the Colonel off the breathing machine. The doctor did not know how long it would take before he passed, minutes or hours was anyone’s guess. Dunne knew the drill well, as this wasn’t her first patient to end like this. The Evans family wasn’t going anywhere. The whole clan stayed hunkered in the sterile room, waiting to send off their loved one. She waited too. And the wait wasn’t long. Only twenty minutes after the doctor removed Evans from the 240


machine, the heart monitor’s steady electronic beeping grew erratic. His heart rate, displayed in cold, glowing green numbers, rocketed to ninety-two. “I think this is it,� Tom said. The family gathered around the bed holding hands and included Nurse Dunne in their circle. The grandchildren stood with their parents, and their eyes were on the Colonel, while Dunne closed hers. The numbers on the monitor slipped into the eighties, the seventies, and the sixties. Dunne listened to tears, personal prayers, and whispered goodbyes ripple around the circle. She said goodbye without moving her lips. And the machine beeped. . . . 58 . . . 54 . . . 48 . . . 41 . . . *** The sound of running water. Paris maybe, sitting on the shores of the Seine after victory or the blood of battle forever spilled. Was it the same sound? There was no victory without battle. Was she here? Evans felt warmth surrounding him like an adult hugging a child. His heart was a beating rumor in his chest. There was no more pain, just a weak beating, a gentle rhythm that you could fall asleep to, as . . . i t s l o w e d. Bleeding in his chest flowed

His scarred heart skipped

as the lodged bullet

like a stone skimming a pond

weakened the fist-sized muscle until . . .

until . . .

it stopped beating. Then he remembered everything . . . a three-year-old playing in the leaves with his parents and getting his first bee sting, his destroyed 241


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grandmother wailing at his grandfather’s funeral, healing kisses from his mother, his father’s stern disciplinarian softening only when his sole surviving son returned from WWII, meeting a brother, Tom Hooch Kelly, in Europe, and then losing that brother all too soon, know what I mean, the war and blood and tears, and after the war, oh yes there was an after, there was proposing to Helen on the shores of the Seine, tears at the miracle of the birth of Tom, oh how his son laughed at his nickname, burying his parents, and his first teaching gig, his first history class, dropping the eraser he was so goddamn nervous, telling stories, the shame and disgust when he hit a student the day he learned of Helen’s illness, the love, the frustration, the depthless ache of fightin’ and fightin’ and fightin’ that cancer with Helen and losing, and winning, the mostly painful and sometimes-sweet life of a single parent, the rejuvenating power of grandchildren, and the sorrow that never left him, the twilight years spent in fog while comforting a stranger in a wheelchair, and there was always his love for Helen, Helen Helen Helen sweet Helen, and . . . . IloveyouHelentommybethwillarthurandhelenohiloveyouhelen . . . echoed in his head and a last breath pushed through his lips. His body shuddered, and Dunne thought for a moment that she heard words floating in the room, somewhere, but it passed. Dunne left the room, trying to compose herself. She couldn’t leave yet as she had to say goodbye to the family, but she couldn’t cry in front of them. And now she needed to see her husband and her son. And her mother. She took off her gray cardigan sweater. The room had been warm. *** “Colonel Evans was here,” Geraldine says. Cold, hard rain continues to fall outside, blowing against the windows. Geraldine’s voice is strong, much stronger than Dunne would ever have guessed. “Oh . . . yeah,” Dunne says. The old woman’s eyes are as wide as a canyon. Expressive dark brown saucers painting her face with a lifetime of emotion. They remind Dunne of her mother’s eyes. 242


“He said it’s goddamn alright. Know what I mean?” Geraldine’s face, alive, even mischievous, does not let Dunne go. Geraldine winks. And then is gone. Dunne raises a hand to her mouth, and Geraldine’s eyes fade into the squint she has always worn at Shady Pines. Dunne knows there will be no more words. She wipes the wheelchair with the towel, never taking her eyes off Geraldine’s. She then gently wipes Geraldine’s face and head, catching as much of the rain as she can. An involuntary cry escapes, and she hugs the old woman, who doesn’t hug back. And for the first time in the ten years she’s worked Shady Pines, she cries in front of a patient.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Über-thanks to M. Lily “seismic” Beacon for sharing her art and enthusiasm within the pages of this book. Giant thanks to Lisa for her love and support, to Cole for all those pointy knees and elbows planted in my chest and groin, to Emma for all the face scratches, to Mom, Dad, Erin, and Dan for everything, to Steve Eller for his loyalty and for teaching me everything I know about writing, to Stewart O’Nan for his talent, kindness, and Red Sox obsession. Large thanks to Mort Castle, Brian A. Hopkins, Louis Maistros, Brett Savory, Jeffrey Thomas, and Poppy Z. Brite for their talents and willingness to share it. Assorted big thanks to Kelly Goldberg, Mike Kelly, Dan Keohane, Greg Lamberson, Kris Meyer, Seth Lindberg, Simon Logan, Kurt Newton, and Scott Thomas who have all given me equal helpings of critique and encouragement. And of course, thanks to Sean Wallace for believing in this project.


BIOGRAPHY PAUL G. TREMBLAY has sold over fifty short stories to various publications including Razor, The Book of Final Flesh, Brainbox II, and Punktown: Thrid Eye anthologies. He won the 2002 Chiaroscuro/Leisure short story contest

and

soon

after

became

a

fiction

editor

at

Chizine

(www.chizine.com). Other points of mild interest: He has earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Mathematics, which as we all know are prerequisites for fiction writers. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, two children, and Rascal the dog, and they often make fun of Paul when his back is turned. He is currently working on novels and breaking his record of 27 three-pointers in a row. He is tall, handsome, and has no uvula.

Fiction

links

www.paulgtremblay.com

and

other

tidbits

can

be

found

at


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