THE RED EARTH CREATIVE WRITING MFA OKLAHOMA CITY UNIVERSITY
© Red Earth Review, 2014
All Rights Reserved.
RED EARTH REVIEW
Editorial Board Alysha Beers Wilma Whittaker Josefine Green
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Guest Editor Julie Hensley
Red Earth Review is published once a year in July. For submissions, consult our website for guidelines and deadlines. Please email questions or comments to email@example.com. We do not accept print or email submissions; directions for using our submissions engine may be found on our website. http://bit.ly/RedEarthReview. Submissions sent outside our open period or sent by mail or email will not be considered or returned. Red Earth Review is available in print and as a PDF document. Print copies are $12 each and the PDF may be downloaded for free at our web site http://bit.ly/RedEarthReview or viewed at Issuu: http:// issuu.com/redearthreview. Contact us by email or by post to order print copies. Red Earth Review The Red Earth MFA @ OCU English Department, WC 248 2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493 Cover Art: People Get Ready © Wilma Whittaker, 2014. Note: All Red Earth MFA student submissions are referred for blind review by our guest editor, whose selections are final. © 2014 by Red Earth Review, a publication of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University. After first publication, all rights revert to the author/artist. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Red Earth Review Staff, of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program, or of Oklahoma City University.
AUTHORS & TITLES CREATIVE NONFICTION ROBERT REBEIN Biscuits and Meth
FICTION BENJAMIN ARDA DOTY The Answer to the Whole Problem
ELIZABETH GENOVISE Heron in the Garden
CAROL JOHNSON The Trouble with Starlings
CHRISTOPHER LINFORTH Diminuendo
ELIZABETH MCCULLOUGH The View from Mount Pisgah
MITZI MCMAHON Moon Time
GLENN ERICK MILLER Waiting for Bobby
RON MORITA What He Has to Do
CASEY PYCIOR Hands Clean
NED RANDLE Wild Bill
KELLY STONE GAMBLE The Choosing Game
L.E. SULLIVAN The Exhibit
STEVEN WINGATE 32lb. Manila
POETRY PAUL DAVID ADKINS After Returning from the War, I Listen to a YouTube clip of LibertyChickLive
LES BARES Heaven in the Altiplano
ALLIE BATTS I’ll Hang Tighter to Your Memories than Rose Did to that Piece of the Titanic 129 DOUG BOLLING Highway 8
SHEILA BONEHAM To a Kurdish Child
CLAUDIA BROOKE Bedroom Poem #1
KEVIN BROWN Implicit Memory
JERROLD BRUNOE Love Poem # 36: Letter to Brunoe from Berkley
DARRELL DELA CRUZ Console
KURTIS DELOZIER I Am Tantalus
TINA EGNOSKI Indecent Heat, No Underthings
BRETT FOSTER Oxford-Palo Alto-Jeff City
TRINA GAYNON Urban Walk: Albany, California
JAMES GRABILL The Idea of More Gasoline
JOHN GREY Global Warming Nostalgia Style
PATRICK CABELLO HANSEL No Country for Young Men
LINDA G. HATTON Petting Caterpillars
KEVIN HEATON Where I’m From
LOUISA HOWEROW Garden Without Bees
SCOTT JESSOP The Long Wind
TIM KAHL Kegger at the Comfort Inn
ROBERT KENDRICK detroit rock city
CINDY E. KING KOS
MERCEDES LAWRY Mourning
ROSS LOSAPIO Burning Centralia
MARY MACKIE Fantom Mother
BETH MCDERMOTT The Last March
JOHN GRAVES MORRIS The Origin of the Cat Woman
TEDDY NORRIS Little Red Riding Hood Meets a Foot Fetishist
ED O’CASEY Telemetry
JAMES PENHA Lead
ANDREW PRESTON Her Father Calls
MICHAEL KARL (RITCHIE) Meditations on Lightning
PEG ROBARCHEK Shelling
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR. City Circle Light
SIMON ROGGHE & ZARINA ZABRISKY This Poem is not about Horses
DANIEL RUEFMAN Stretch Marks
MIRIAM SAGAN Mohave
GERARD SARNAT Mt. Koya Daybreak
ANDREA SCARPINO Excerpt
ALEXANDER SHAFER When You Break Glass
MARIAN SHAPIRO The Death Of Your Wife
MATTIE SMITH Why Is Everything Ovarian Alien?
RON WALLACE Before Turning Twenty—1973
CHERYL WEIBYE WILKE Not who she is
Issue #2 July 2014
Biscuits and Meth I no longer recall what compelled me to drive out to the Gunsmoke Truckstop that Sunday afternoon in May, but it could not have been need of a job. I had been working on my father’s farm west of town the last six summers running, and the same job was still there waiting for me if I wanted it. But maybe that sameness was the problem. Maybe at that point in my life—the summer between my junior and senior years of high school—I was in need of a change, a break in the monotonous pattern my life had fallen into long before: football in the fall, basketball in the winter, working for my father all spring and summer. Maybe, without even thinking it all through, I had decided to break out into the wider world about which, at that point, I still knew very little. The Gunsmoke sat on a wide gravel lot on the southern edge of Dodge City. Just to the north was Maupin Truck Parts with its selfproclaimed “largest inventory of new and used truck parts between Kansas City and Denver,” while to the south there opened a lonesome stretch of highway that had been built more or less on top of the old Western Trail used by cattle drovers bringing herds north from Texas in the 1870s and 1880s. By no stretch of the imagination was this a busy road or a busy part of town. The Hitchin’ Post Truckstop, on East Wyatt Earp Boulevard, saw far more traffic in both cars and trucks. By comparison, the Gunsmoke had a sleepy, rural feel to it. Its stock-in-trade was not midnight travelers or cross-country haulers (unlike The Hitchin’ Post, which was open 24 hours a day, the Gunsmoke closed at 10 p.m.), but rather the small army of bull haulers and refrigerated trucks (”reefers”) that serviced the area’s feedlots and beef packing plants. On the Sunday I showed up out there, the place had a definite ghost-town feel to it. Dust devils swirled in the gravel lot, where perhaps four tractor-trailers sat idling. Only a half dozen or so flatbed ranch trucks filled the parking spaces in front of the restaurant, a brown metal building with the word G U N S M O K E mounted to the roof in big white letters someone had cut from plywood with a jigsaw. I remember thinking, I just wasted a trip. There can’t possibly be any work here, and even if there is, whoever does the hiring is going to be at home taking a nap about now . . . Nevertheless, I pushed through the front doors of the brown metal building and asked a tired-looking woman at the hostess station where I could find the manager. “Which one?” the hostess asked, yawning. “Restaurant or filling station?” “Filling station,” I answered, for it had never occurred to me to apply for a job in a restaurant.
“That would be Merv,” she said. “Head down the sidewalk on the north side of the building and you’ll find him in his office. If you hear snoring, just cough or clear your throat. That’s what I do.” The wind kicked up sand all around me as I made my way down the walk to a second set of glass doors, through which I found an unmanned cash register, a couple of large arcade games (Pac Man, Donkey Kong), and a bank of pay phones with a couple of rickety tables set before them. At the back of the room, halfway between the phones and the register, a partially closed door led to a small office from inside of which came a groggy voice. “Hello? Can I help you?” “Yes,” I answered. “I came to ask about a job.” At this, the door to the office was pulled open from within, revealing a crumbled looking man with a brown, leathery face and striking, pale blue eyes. “A job, huh? Well, I wish I could offer you a job, but business has been terrible slow of late.” “That’s okay,” I said, turning to go. “What’s your name?” the man asked, holding me there with his eyes. “You look familiar.” “Rob Rebein. You probably know my dad . . . “ “Harold or Bill?” “Bill.” “Well, sure, I know Bill,” he said, using the heels of his cowboy boots to wheel his chair out of the office far enough to shake my hand. “Mervin Sinclair.” “Good to meet you.” He fixed me again in those pale blue eyes. “Why aren’t you working for your dad? Didn’t have some kind of falling out, did you?” “No,” I said. “Nothing like that.” “Are you still in school?” “Yeah, for another month.” “What else you got going on? Are you running track? Playing baseball?” “No, just school,” I said. I was wondering why we were even having this conversation when the man rolled back into his office and moved some coats and a stack of shop rags from a large Naugahyde couch. “Come in and have a seat. I was just getting caught up on the paper. What do you read, the Wichita Eagle or the Hutchinson News?” “The Eagle,” I said, although in truth I read neither. “Here you go, then,” he said, handing me a fat stack of newsprint. I sat down on the too-soft couch and began reading the sports section. Meanwhile, Merv leaned back in his swivel chair and put both feet on his desk, the sports section of the Hutch paper open before him. Every once in a while he would grunt or shake his head. Otherwise all was quiet but for the rustling of newsprint. 2
“Ready to trade?” he asked after ten minutes or so. “Sure.” We traded sports sections, and silence descended for another ten or fifteen minutes. Then, yawning and pretending to consult my watch, I rose and said I had better get going. “All right,” Merv said without looking up from his paper. “What time does school let out these days?” “Two forty-five.” “How long do you think it would take you to get from there to here?” “I don’t know. Fifteen or twenty minutes.” “That’s fine,” he said. “See you tomorrow around three o’clock?” And so it began. In the weeks to come, I met a rogue’s gallery of truckstop regulars: diesel jockies, tiremen, janitors, waitresses, cooks and dishwashers, farmers and ranchers, custom cutters, oil exploration crews, hitch hikers, the guys from Maupin Truck Parts. To my young eyes, used to so much sameness, all of these people were interesting and strange. Indeed, they seemed almost cartoon-like. There was the 300-pound sixth grader, son of one of the janitors, who could play Donkey Kong for hours on a single fifty-cent credit, fueled by nothing but cinnamon rolls and Dr. Pepper. There was the seventy-year-old waitress whose battered station wagon was so full of old newspapers, clothing, and assorted other junk that it was impossible to see in any of the car’s windows but the front windshield and the driver’s side door. There was the owner of the local Cadillac dealership, who liked to boast that in ten years of coming to breakfast at the truckstop he had “never driven the same car twice,” and the knife-wielding prostitute who insisted, no matter how many times she was caught plying her trade, that she was “just a broke college student looking for a ride to Tulsa.” Everyone had a story to tell or seemed to be acting out some part that had been assigned to them. Merv, for example, was the henpecked former truck driver who had been “grounded” after a long career on the road by Jeanie, aka “The Queen Bee,” his buxom, redheaded wife of forty years who ran the restaurant side of the business. There was something decidedly theatrical about this marriage/managerial team. Whenever they fought, which happened at least once a week, every part of the exchange was carried out in public and included an extensive cast of bit players and extras. A waitress would show up at the filling station and announce to Merv (and anyone else who happened to be there at the time) that Jeanie wanted to talk to him over at the restaurant right away. There were certain “issues” they needed to discuss. “Issues,” Merv would mutter from behind his newspaper. “Is that her word or yours?” “Hers.” “Well, you can go back over there and tell Mrs. Queen Bee . . . “ 3
All this was not said so much as “acted out” for the benefit of anyone who might be listening at the time. Even we lowly diesel jocks had our roles to play. There was Gavin, the junior college student who showed me how to pump diesel and fix tires, whose mother was a war bride from Germany who professed not to understand “deese Americain cheeeeldren wit deeer drugs und whathave-you . . . “ Or Monty, the chain-smoking, acne-scarred tireman, who had dropped out of high school after knocking up his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, and who now worked a “daily double,” pumping diesel and fixing flats from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and working as a short order cook in the restaurant from 6 p.m. until almost 11. I myself was not on the job more than an hour before a role was assigned to me. I was the “new guy,” often the “fucking new guy,” a jock from a decent family who had taken a job at the truckstop for reasons that were not at all satisfactory or clear. “He’s a goddamn football player, for Christsake,” I overheard Monty saying to Gavin shortly after I was hired. “What the hell is a football player doing working here? I fucking hate football players! Fucking made my life miserable from sixth grade on! And now we’ve got one working here, at the Gunsmoke?!” But all of these people, myself included, were mere bit players compared to the true stars of the truckstop—that is to say, the drivers who frequented the place. Truck drivers might have occupied a lowly position in society as a whole, but in the world of the Gunsmoke, they were kings, undisputed masters of the universe. Everything we did, and most everything that happened at the Gunsmoke, revolved around them. I soon learned that there was no such thing as a typical trucker. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There were rich truckers (the kind who owned their own rigs) and poor truckers, fat truckers and skinny truckers, young truckers and old truckers, male truckers and female truckers (albeit far fewer of the latter), white truckers and black truckers, dirty truckers and fastidiously clean truckers, born again truckers and wildly blasphemous truckers, cowboy truckers and those who preferred track suits and sneakers, illiterate truckers and those with Master’s degrees and even PhDs . . . And yet, for all of the outward differences, there was a remarkable uniformity about these men. When asked why they had chosen the trucking life, with its filthy bathrooms, bad food, and long periods away from home, most offered up the same tired platitudes: “I’ve got to be free” or “I’m not fit for a regular job” or “I don’t know— just lazy, I guess.” They tended to think of themselves as misfits, as rebels. What they did was not work, per se. It was more of a calling or a lifestyle, like being a biker or a cowboy or a country-and-western singer. Indeed, from what I could see, most did not think of themselves as truckers at all, but rather as free spirits who just happened to drive a truck. 4
Yet for all their freedom-loving, rebel talk, most of the truckers I met at the Gunsmoke were slaves to something or other. A clock was always ticking somewhere nearby; there was always some place else they were supposed to be—if not right at that moment, then soon soon soon. “They’re expecting me at the feedlot right now.” “Supposed to be in Memphis by morning.” “Got to be in L.A. by Friday and New York four days later . . . “ The pressure to make these deadlines was enormous, and the obstacles standing in the way were many. Miles. Traffic. Road construction. Weather. Flat tires and other mechanical failures. The speed limit. The max weight limit. The difficult math of keeping a logbook with at least some resemblance to reality. The need to eat, to shower, to sleep . . . Different drivers dealt with the pressure in different ways, but from what I could see, they all felt it, most of them intensely. Although we saw our share of long-haul reefer drivers, the majority of the truckers who frequented the Gunsmoke were bull haulers—shortto middle-distance truckers who delivered live cattle from feedlots across the southern plains to the packing plants east of town. In theory, bull haulers worked regular hours and slept in their own beds far more often than reefer drivers did. However, in my experience, this difference was mostly an illusion. Driving twenty hours straight was the same fate whether you crossed four states doing it or never left the same four counties of Kansas. Either way, you had to stay awake and arrive where you were supposed to be on time. Then too, both reefer drivers and bull haulers “cooked” their logbooks, broke the speed limit and the max weight limit with impunity, and regularly ingested whatever drugs they could lay their hands on: caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, prescription pain killers, marijuana, speed, cocaine, and, perhaps most of all, a brownish, powdery substance they called “crank” but that nowadays goes by the name of methamphetamine, “meth” for short. I came into this knowledge gradually. When I first started working at the Gunsmoke, it was Gavin the drivers knew and trusted, not me. I remember one day we were fixing a flat on a trailer belonging to an older driver we called the “Silver Fox” on account of his graying crew cut, pressed blue jeans, and the sparkling condition in which he kept his truck. Halfway through the job, as I was waiting for the patch glue to dry, I saw Gavin and the Fox disappear into the cab of the Fox’s truck. Soon Hank Williams’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” was blaring from the cab, and when they emerged, five minutes later, they did so accompanied by a great, billowing cloud of marijuana smoke of the kind you might see in a Cheech & Chong movie, both of them laughing and horsing around. I was stunned. It was not the fact that Gavin had gotten high at work, or that a truck driver who was about to haul a large and dangerous load had done the same. No, it was the kind of driver combined with the kind of drug that shocked me, for in my mind, men like the Silver Fox—early 5
sixties, crew cut under cowboy hat, wire rim bifocals, pearl button shirt, etc. —simply did not smoke marijuana. Instead they delivered lectures, often as part of a church or Boy Scout meeting, about marijuana being a “gateway” drug. And yet here my own eyes and ears were telling me that that wasn’t necessarily true—at least not at the Gunsmoke. When the Silver Fox drove off that day, and I asked Gavin about it, he just shrugged and gave me a cockeyed smile. “Shit, all these drivers are pot heads, even the ones that look like your grandpa. It takes the edge off all the crank and speed they do.” Exhibit A in the case of Truckers as Drug Addicts was a man named John Massey. Massey was a legendary figure at the Gunsmoke, a bull hauler who was also an OCD-grade clean freak. “Goddamn, you could fucking eat off that boy’s shit wagon” was a phrase we often heard about Massey’s truck, “shit wagon” being a bull hauler’s term for cattle trailer. The man was a walking catalog of contradictions. Though tall at 6’2”, and wide in the way of NFL linemen, he also possessed strangely small feet and hands, an anomaly he drew attention to by wearing highly polished Ostrich skin boots and making sure that his fingernails were always manicured. But even this was only a small part of the Massey legend. For on top of everything else, Massey was a notorious crank addict. He kept a film canister full of the stuff in his breast pocket at all times, and he liked to pull it out in front of anyone who might be lounging about the station and slowly tap tap tap the brownish powder into an open can of Mountain Dew. That done, he’d stir the concoction with a swizzle stick, toss off a hearty laugh, and drink the stuff down in a single shot, an action he dubbed “doing a Dew” long before there was a national ad campaign featuring the phrase. “Where in hell are you hiding old Gavin?” Massey would sometimes ask as he prepared to do a Dew. “Ah well, you snooze, you lose. Here goes nothing!” When finally I asked Gavin about this tendency he had to disappear whenever Massey was around, he turned white as a sheet, then related how he had once “done the Dew” with Massey, and the result had been twenty-four hours of sleepless terror during which he feared that his heart would explode inside of his chest. “Now, every time John comes in, he wants me to do another Dew with him. Can you believe that shit? Calls me a pussy when I won’t do it! Fucking insane!” Not all drivers were John Massey, of course. One in particular stands out in my memory as a kind of anti-Massey—or at least that’s the way I saw him at the time. His name was Earl Pickens, and he was the owneroperator of a sparkling new Freightliner conventional with aluminum wheels and an extra-large sleeping quarters. He owned a second truck, too, almost as nice, which he hired another man to drive for him. But the 6
defining part of Earl’s character, at least as I saw it, was the fact that he did not drink or take drugs. “Those days are behind me, thank the Lord,” he would say, lighting a fresh Marlboro from the embers of the one he’d just finished smoking. “At one time, I was as bad as any of these idiots you see around here— worse, probably. I had pills I took to sleep, pills I took to wake up, and a third kind of pills I took to regulate any disputes that arose between the first two. Between that and the two liters of Smirnoff I poured down my throat each and every day, I guess you could say I was one of them ‘chemical people’ Mrs. Reagan is always talking about. Ha ha ha.” A reefer driver, Earl spent a lot of time waiting for one or both of his trucks to be loaded at the beef plant, and he liked to spend this time smoking and drinking coffee in the filling station. We often shared a table on slow Saturday nights or Sunday mornings, me catching up on my homework, Earl reliving the biggest successes and disappointments he’d experienced in twenty-five years of going down the road. As a result, I soon knew more about the basic contours of Earl’s life and his views on the world than I knew about members of my own family. “I come from nothing, son, just your everyday, ordinary, run-of-themill Oklahoma sharecroppers,” he liked to say, his brown eyes spectacularly shot, his long face a mass of loose wrinkles like a bloodhound’s face. “My daddy drank himself to death before the age of fifty, same as his daddy and all his brothers, and I was well on the way to joining them when I quit.” “How did you do it?” I would ask, anxious to keep the conversation going. “Same as Johnny Cash—got religion. Believe me, if there had been any other way, I’d have taken it, but you better know that there wasn’t.” Earl’s basic view of other truck drivers was that they were stubborn, stupid, and headed straight to hell, and yet he had great affection for them, too. If he and John Massey crossed paths, for example, as sometimes happened, he would joke around with him, maybe rib him about his weight. “John, if you get any fatter you’re gonna have to carry one less animal in your trailer just to be on the right side of the max weight. Ha ha ha.” Only when Massey was gone would he shake his head and say, “My God, what a train wreck!” or something similar. With me, however, he was always curiously deferential. “Son, you’re on the right track,” he’d say, nodding at the books I had spread out before me. “You know how old I was when I quit school?” “No, Earl. How old?” “Fourteen. It was the summer after eighth grade. You know why I quit then?” “Let’s see. Got your driver’s license?” “Ha! Little genius, ain’t you? What grade you in?” “Senior.” 7
“Are you a drinker?” “Some.” “Do any drugs?” “Pot, on occasion. When it’s offered and I’m in the mood for it.” “Uh huh. You’re what’s called a recreational user. For me, it was always more like a job. Eighty, ninety, a hundred hours a week. Not pretty, I’m here to tell you.” Looking back, I’m not sure how seriously I took any of this talk of Earl’s. On the one hand, I looked up to the guy in a vague sort of way. On the other, he was just another of the Gunsmoke’s innumerable characters. After a while, listening to him go on and on about his life and the ways of the road was like watching TV or listening to the radio. It was entertainment—something to be witnessed, enjoyed in the moment, and then forgotten about. One night, six or seven months after I started at the truckstop, I was offered a closer look at that whole “world of the road” Earl was always talking about. It was around nine o’clock on a Saturday night, and I had just finished fixing a trailer tire for a young bull hauler I’ll call Donny since I’ve forgotten his actual name. As I was writing up his ticket, Donny, who was in his late twenties and sported shoulder-length dirty blond hair beneath a straw cowboy hat, emerged from the men’s room and did an unsteady jig on the station floor. “Whooeee, I got to pick up a load of fats over at Liberal in two hours and I am already soooooooo fucked up.” “I can see that,” I said. “Say, why don’t you come along with me?” he asked out of the blue. “Hell yes! You’re getting off soon, right?” “In about an hour,” I said, very noncommittal. “Perfect!” Donny said. I had been to Liberal many times to play football and basketball. It was a flat, dirty town with even less to recommend it than Dodge City. “Thanks anyway,” I said. “I think I’ll pass.” “Oh, come on,” Donny said. “Be a friend. I’ve been up for two days straight, and it’s my last load of the night. Fucking Gavin would do it! Hell yeah! Gavin’s taken plenty of rides with me.” For reasons I still don’t understand, this logic won me over, and an hour later, I found myself climbing into the passenger seat of Donny’s purple, ten-year-old cabover Peterbilt. “That’s it, that’s it, get on up here,” Donny said, “just take that stuff at your feet and toss it into the sleeper.” The truck’s interior was upholstered in red Naugahyde held together in places by strips of gray duct tape. Despite the dozen or so wintergreen air fresheners dangling from passenger-side sun visor, the truck smelled strongly of sweat, beer, cigarettes, and marijuana. Assorted debris was strewn about the cab—dirty clothes, back issues of porn magazines, crumpled cigarette packages. “Reach in the glove box and 8
bring out old Walt, why don’t you,” Donny said as we wheeled out of the lot and headed south on Highway 283. “Walt” turned out to be a wellseasoned meerschaum pipe with the head of Sir Walter Raleigh carved into its bowl. It was already loaded to the brim with weed. “You smoke pot out of this thing?” I asked. “Why, yes I do,” Donny said. “Now fire it up, why don’t you.” I did as I was told, and soon we were flying down the southbound highway accompanied by Neil Young’s Harvest album. We passed through the Big Basin near St. Jacob’s Well, rolling ranch country with virtually no one on the road but us. We had not gone twenty miles when Donny pulled over at a gas station in Minneola, Kansas, emerging a minute later with a fresh pack of Marlboros and a couple of quart bottles of Coors. “Here you go,” Donny said, handing me a bottle. “Little something to wet your whistle.” By the town of Meade, where we stopped to take a leak and where Donny loaded up on four more quarts of Coors, I was having trouble forming coherent sentences. I would start saying something, but then the point of it would become lost on me, and I would have to pause or start over. “What are you, some kind of lightweight?” Donny laughed. “This isn’t even my good dope. This is just my on-the-job dope.” “Well, okay, but . . . uh . . . “ “Lord Almighty,” Donny said, shaking his head. An hour later, we pulled into a line of trucks on a sand road with deep ditches on either side. In the distance, perhaps an eighth of a mile away, I could see the floodlit hardpan of a feedlot—pen after pen of fat cattle with a feed mill rising up in the background like a skyscraper. Every time the trucks in front of us in line rolled forward, we followed suit. Meanwhile, Donny did two lines of crank off the glossy cover of a porn magazine and shoved AC/DC’s Back in Black into the cassette player. The ominous opening of “Hells Bells” filled the cab. “Reach for Walter, if you would.” “Donny, I . . . “ “Don’t worry, boy. I ain’t gonna ask you to talk or anything. Ha ha ha!” When our turn to be loaded arrived, Donny backed the truck up to the concrete ramp and put on galoshes and a pair of filthy coveralls he kept stowed away in a side compartment of his rig. I stayed in the truck, watching in the rear view mirror as Donny and another man pushed fifty or so fat cattle up a muddy ramp and into topside compartments of the double-decker trailer. The cab of the Peterbilt rocked back and forth on its baffled shock absorbers like a boat in high seas. That was 50,000 pounds of prime U.S. beef they were loading back there. It was a live and moving thing, a bawling, breathing, kicking, pissing, shitting thing that could crush a man out of nothing more than awkwardness or a moment’s alarm. And back there among them, yelling and cursing, sliding around 9
on shit-coated galoshes, half-drunk and stoned out of his mind, there was Donny. So this is the great American trucker at work, I thought. Holy cow! Old Earl was right after all . . . After the truck was loaded and weighed, and Donny had stowed away his galoshes and coveralls, we started back down the road to Dodge City. “Hell, it ain’t even twelve-thirty, and we’re already loaded and headed home,” Donny rejoiced. “We’ll have these doggies dropped off by two-thirty, the truck put away by three. After that, it’s party time!” On the way back through Meade, Donny bought two large Cherry Cokes in Styrofoam cups and laced each drink with copious amounts of Jack Daniels. By the time we hit the outskirts of Dodge, I was as drunk and stoned as I had ever been. Rather than taking me on the last part of his run, Donny dropped me off in the parking lot of the Gunsmoke, and I crawled into the back of my Pontiac Firebird and quickly passed out. When I awoke, around eight the next morning, I was already two hours late for work. “Well, well, will you look at what the cat dragged in,” Merv observed from behind his Sunday paper. “So tell me, how was Liberal?” “You know about that?” I asked, feeling like I might throw up right there on the station floor. “Of course I do,” Merv said. “Donny was in for biscuits and gravy two hours ago, and didn’t he have a tale to tell.” In the fall of my second year at the truckstop, Gavin left town for college in Wichita. In a single stroke, I went from being “the fucking new guy” to being, after Monty, the most experienced hand at the Gunsmoke. The sports I had played in high school were now a thing of the past. I attended classes at Dodge City Community College weekday mornings from eight until noon. Afternoons, evenings, and weekends I spent at the truckstop, saving up money for a Gavin-like escape. Counting overtime, I was grossing close to four hundred dollars a week, of which I managed to spend perhaps twenty. Much of the time, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, I was essentially getting paid to do homework. It was a very sweet deal, and like Gavin, I probably would have continued with it all the way through my sophomore year of college, had something not happened to destroy the detached, ironical lens—All the world’s a stage, etc.—through which I saw the place. Sunday morning was always my favorite time at the Gunsmoke. There was no business to speak of, and usually I had knocked out all of my homework the day before, leaving me nothing to do but lounge around the office reading the Sunday papers with Merv. We had an established routine. On the way to work, I would stop by Daylight Donut on Wyatt Earp Boulevard and pick up a dozen chocolate long johns with crushed peanuts on top. Upon entering the station at 6:15 or 6:30, the 10
first thing I would hear would be Merv’s high pitched voice asking if I had remembered to “bring the goodies.” “Got ‘em right here,” I’d answer. However, on this particular Sunday, Merv failed to deliver his line. Instead of dozing in his office, he was sitting at one of the tables beneath the pay phones, all of the station lights switched off, staring out the front windows at the trucks lined up in the gravel lot. “What’s going on?” I asked, setting the donuts on the counter next to the cash register. “Oh, that’s right,” Merv said in a squeaky whisper. “You didn’t work last night, did you?” This was true enough. Instead of going out after work, as was my habit, I’d had Monty cover my shift so I could attend a rock concert in the Civic Center with a girl I’d met at the community college. “Yeah,” I said. “So?” “Earl Pickens,” Merv said. “He stormed into the restaurant at the height of the dinner rush, raving like a lunatic, and before it was over he threw up all over Jeanie’s floor. Monty and I had to drag him out of there —it took both of us just to get him to stand up—and what do you know, he threw up over here, too. Right about where you’re standing.” I looked down at the square red tiles at my feet, still not getting it. “He threw up? Wait a minute. Are you telling me . . . “ “That’s right,” Merv said, nodding out the window at where Earl’s Freightliner idled in the darkness. “I don’t know when or why he fell off the wagon, but by the time he rolled in here last night, old Earl was already drunker than shit.” It took a moment for this to sink in. Unlike Merv, I had never seen Earl drunk. In my mind, he was still the good Earl, not the bad Earl people at the Gunsmoke liked to tell stories about. “What’s he doing now?” I asked. “Sleeping it off?” “Ha!” Merv laughed dismissively. “Guys like Earl don’t sleep it off. They pass out for a time, and when they wake up, they go right back to it, full-tilt and balls-to-the-wall. Give him an hour, and old Earl will be in here raising hell all over again.” “I wonder what brought it on?” I asked. “Shit, who knows,” Merv said, looking at his watch. “Could have been almost anything. Most of the time, these guys don’t even need a reason.” Around seven-thirty or eight o’clock that morning, Merv managed to get Earl’s wife on the phone. Apparently, Jeannie had been calling her periodically throughout the night, but she hadn’t been home to pick up. Now she was, and Merv ran down the whole situation for her. There was a lot of Yes, ma’am and No, ma’am and I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, ma’am, but what it finally boiled down to was Merv making a promise we’d keep Earl at the Gunsmoke until she had time to find a 11
replacement driver for Earl’s load and make her way up from Oklahoma to get him. The trip was five hours, give or take. “Five hours!” Merv said, after he had hung up. “We’re supposed to babysit that drunken lunatic for five hours? Lord help us . . . “ We sat around for an hour or so then, talking about it between ourselves as well as with various truckstop regulars who drifted over from the restaurant, where the Earl situation was a topic of hot debate. There were those who believed that Merv had had no right to call Earl’s wife, and that by doing so he had violated some unwritten part of the trucker’s code. Others believed just as strongly that Merv had acted correctly. After all, there was a load of frozen beef sitting on Earl’s truck even as we spoke, and someone, somewhere in America, was expecting that load to be delivered. Still others ignored this question altogether and focused on what should be done now, while we waited for Earl’s wife to make it up from Oklahoma. “If it were me,” stated a fat, bald farmer, “I’d grab a bottle of booze or some tranquilizers and have them ready for when old Earl wakes up. The sooner he passes out again, the better off we’re all gonna be.” Each of these views, or maybe the mere fact that they were being aired at all, disgusted me on a level I find hard to explain. Just listening to them felt like a betrayal to me. I wanted to tell them all to shut their mouths. I wanted to open the door to the station and yell, “Get the hell out of here and go back to the goddamn restaurant where you belong!” Most of all, I wanted to call them all out for the hypocrites they were. Had none of them ever fallen or made a mistake? Did every last thing that happened at the Gunsmoke have to be rehashed and scrutinized? I didn’t say any of this, of course. Instead I just sat there, biding my time, until finally the chorus grew tired of repeating itself and headed back to the restaurant, where an entirely new audience—the after-church crowd —awaited them. After a while, Merv joined them, too, leaving me with strict instructions to call over to the restaurant should I witness any movement in Earl’s Freightliner. And so it happened that I was by myself in the station when Earl stumbled in through the door to the tire shop. How he got back there—or out of his truck without my noticing—I have no idea. “Earl,” I said. He stopped where he was, weaving slightly, his deeply bloodshot eyes empty of recognition. His longish brown hair, which normally would have been combed back and under a cowboy hat, was plastered flat on one side of his head with what I guessed was vomit. “Earl,” I said again, louder. This time his eyes changed slightly, lighting up for a second before his eyebrows came down and they darkened again. “What you looking at, boy?” he asked, slurring the words so badly that it came out sounding more like “Whuuurrrloooookisshhinglya, baaaaa?” 12
I said nothing—could think of nothing to say—and a moment later, he wheeled to his left and disappeared into the men’s room, where I could hear him puking over and over again. When he emerged a few minutes later, he was angry and incoherent, ranting and raving about matters that made no sense at all. He stumbled over to the bank of pay phones as if he would make a call, then decided against it and fell into a chair at one of the little tables by the window, the same chair he had sat in on so many other Sunday mornings, sipping coffee out of thermos cup and smoking one cigarette after another while I read the paper or did my homework. “Your wife’s on her way up,” I said. “Merv called her.” Earl just looked at me out of those terrible bloodshot eyes of his. “What you got to drink in here?” he asked, but again it sounded more like “Whaaaasshhaagoturrdrinnnkkinnneerr?” “Nothing,” I said. “It’s Sunday.” This was a lie. Although he himself rarely drank, Merv always kept a bottle of Seagram’s gin in a desk drawer in his office. I found it hard to believe Earl didn’t know about this phantom bottle, but apparently he didn’t. “Sumbitch,” he said, still slurring his words. “You think you got it all figured out, doncha? Fucking college boy!” “No,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t think that at all.” I waited for Earl to say more, but apparently he was done talking. Not long after this, Merv and a couple of his farmer friends came over from the restaurant, and together they managed to half-walk, half-drag Earl back to his truck. He stayed there for the rest of the morning. I have no proof of this, but I think someone slipped Earl some pills or another bottle of booze, because when his wife finally arrived from Oklahoma driving a baby blue Cadillac, and Earl was handed down from the Freightliner like Jesus descending from the cross, he was unconscious again, completely passed out. I stood there watching along with half the restaurant as his boots were pulled off and he was put to bed on a blanket in the Cadillac’s back seat. Before he’d even been properly tucked in, the replacement driver Earl’s wife had brought with her from Oklahoma was already wheeling the Freightliner out of the Gunsmoke’s gravel lot, bound for wherever that meat was supposed to be already. That was the last I ever saw of Earl. After he sobered up again, he started trading at the Hitchin’ Post, on the other side of town. As for me, in May of 1984, exactly two years after I’d been hired at the Gunsmoke, and with three months left to go before classes started at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, I gave notice at the truckstop and went back to work on my father’s farm west of Dodge City. It was the same job I’d left behind—long hours spent in the cab of a four-wheel-drive tractor, a Royals double-header droning in the background—but that was okay with me. By then, I’d had enough of that whole theater of the absurd that 13
was the Gunsmoke, and a little dose of solitudeâ€”of boredom, evenâ€” was a welcome thing.
BENJAMIN ARDA DOTY
The Answer to the Whole Problem When Orhan came home one day, his father had a hundred pound dog of yellow and brown fur and completely dark eyes, a little of the Anatolian Shepherd breed in it, panting in the middle of their tiny white kitchen floor. He opened the door to the kitchen, and there the dog was with its long tongue dangling out because it was hot. Orhan let a sound out that was neither moan nor word, but a long sigh, as if a locomotive had come to an unexpected stop, all of it indicative of his confusion by the appearance of the dog, especially since he had known his father to hate most animals, including dogs. “There is a dog in the kitchen,” said Orhan. “A dog.” “Pistachio, meet my son. Son, meet Pistachio,” said his father, crouched over, on the balcony filling a bucket with soapy water from the hose. His father had thinned dramatically, and his jeans, held to his waist with a belt, tightened to the lowest notch, were now big for him. His father came over to Pistachio and guided her out from the kitchen to the balcony, where his father ran the water from the black hose over the dog’s body and head. “What are you doing?” “Can’t you see?” Sleeves rolled up above his elbows, his father got on his knees and sponged Pistachio from the black bucket of soapy water. His father meant to keep the dog, which had clearly been on the street for some time, perhaps its entire life. It had fleas, scabs, and who knew what other pestilence. It was emaciated and female by the appearance of its many sagging tits. A worn out mother, thought Orhan. He opened the refrigerator door and closed it. He had meant to pour himself a glass of water. He walked back to the balcony where all of this was going on. “You’re keeping the dog?” he asked. “It’s my home,” his father said. “Can you take care of it?” His father’s hands caressed the soapy mane of the dog. “Don’t you have to guide some tourists?” Orhan made his living as a part-time tour guide. He pieced together the part-time into full-time. He moved from hotel to hotel in Pammukale and gave private tours. In part of the summer, he’d go to Santorini, but most of the time, he’d travel wherever he could find work in Turkey. He had returned four days ago. Orhan left his father with Pistachio. He went into the bedroom to find more appropriate clothes for his date with Mesut. His father’s whistling carried from the porch all the way to the window. He took out a 17
long-sleeved shirt with white diamond shapes bordered by purple. He exchanged his white pants for dark jeans, the pockets patterned by stitch work that looped into crazy eights. He kept, however, his white scarf, the signature piece of his wardrobe. At the door from the kitchen to the balcony, again, Orhan observed his father working, this time, on the dog’s ears. Pistachio’s tongue drooped and a smile crossed her face, at least the upturned ends of her mouth made him think so. Never before had it probably received this much attention. “What do you mean to do with the dog?” he asked. “Keep it. I told you.” “Where is it going to sleep?” “With me.” No living thing had shared his father’s bed for five years since his mother had left them. The event was unprecedented. “It needs to go to a vet.” “Doctors, what can doctors do?” Orhan didn’t think the answer was fair because the doctors had done a lot for his father. They had surgically removed the tumor in his prostate. At this rate something other than cancer would kill him. “You mean to keep the dog then?” “You don’t ask about my company. I don’t ask about yours.” The dog was going to stay. That much was sure. “You hate dogs.” “I had a dog just like this one when I was a boy in Karsular.” His father had nothing but nostalgia for what, Orhan imagined, had been a hard life in a village. It was never a good idea to get his father talking about Karsular. Never a good idea. Nothing satisfied Orhan more than to give tours if the alternative was to be at home, even though he had returned partly of his own volition. He waited for fifteen minutes for Mesut to arrive at the Coffee World in the mall. In Denizli, the mall was the only place where modern civilization and shopping reigned like drag queens. Otherwise, it was dirty streets, the dust blown in from the mountains and exhaust fumes everywhere, and dull, morose-colored buildings in a city that made its wealth from the production of textiles. Orhan put his single life at two years, if you didn’t include the month with the deckhand from Cypress, and the funny thing was that he’d almost grown accustomed to being alone, in a sense. Maybe, he was getting older. Next year, he would be thirty-two. He had moved in with his father three-and-a-half years ago after the diagnosis of cancer. It had seemed his father needed him as much as he needed a cheaper place to live. Mesut came walking with his hands in his pockets, which made his boney shoulders shoot up. He had on a plaid red-and-green shirt, and his hair curled into a perm. His glance kept focusing on the empty space in 18
front of his white Converse. Orhan immediately recognized this goofy, nervous demeanor as something like his own. “Did you order something?” asked Mesut. They kissed each other on both cheeks, which was customary between Turks, even between men. It was obvious with the half-filled cup of cappuccino on the table that Orhan had. Orhan called the waiter to get Mesut something. They talked of inconsequential topics the first few minutes: which was better, Coffee World or Starbucks. Meaningless topics, but even meaningless conversations revealed a universe of explanation. Orhan noticed that they had a similar way of sitting down, arms close to the ribs and one hand over the other, which suggested they were mimicking each other. To a casual observer, they might have seemed oddly paired. Mesut, tall and thin, and Orhan dopey and short with a little girth. They talked of trivial matters. Then when a group of young soldiers walked by, Mesut made a comment about his days in the military. Each of them had spent at least eighteen months in it, the required time each male had to give the Republic. Orhan glanced at the young soldiers. One, who made eye contact with him, glared. Orhan turned his head away and ignored the hostile look. “The worst outfits in the world,” he said, a dry taste in the back of his mouth. “Rigid and the same.” “I still have my uniform,” said Mesut. “You kept yours?” “I was actually proud of my days in the army,” said Mesut. Orhan thought of his days in a different branch of the military. He had finagled his way to an appointment as secretary for a forward admiral in the navy. It had been a posh assignment, relatively speaking. It had put him for two months on the coast, right on a beach, away from military exercises and any fighting. Shirtless men all day. Still, he hated those days. “You were?” asked Orhan. The short questions dropped clumsily. To think he thought it had been going well. “Yes. I was actually good at it. I could shoot a rifle.” Mesut sipped on the black coffee he had ordered. “I never killed anyone, though. I have never pointed a muzzle-end on anyone.” “A sharp-shooter?” Orhan giggled when he said this. The giggling was involuntary, embarrassing, part of his giddiness when he became nervous. “I was, really, good at it,” said Mesut, who gave, at most, a modest smile, “but I was not a sniper. I don’t want you to think that.” His glance flitted away. “It’s difficult to hold a rifle. I couldn’t hold anything straight. I couldn’t be straight.” Orhan laughed and embarrassed himself again, doing what he could to salvage the operation. He sat upright. He 19
composed himself and looked down at his palms. “My hands would only cramp when I tried. I was only good at holding a pen in an office.” It was over, he thought. Mesut smiled again. Orhan looked up and recognized the smile. It was apologetic in every way, nearly forced. Yet at the end of their date, it was Mesut who made the invitation for Orhan to meet with him again. The last twenty-four hours had been full of surprises. Orhan didn’t know what to make of Mesut, but in the evening, he settled into his double-bed with thoughts he couldn’t share with anyone. In the morning, he’d be driving to a hotel where he’d guide five to six Russians through the ruins of Heiropolis, a UNESCO world heritage site that once had grown to 100,000 inhabitants thousands of years earlier. They’d get an early start, and Orhan would have to get to the bus at six to make it over to a fellow friend of his who would lend him his Toyota. He went to sleep, but at three or so in the morning, a dog’s howl from his father’s bedroom boomed through the walls in the apartment. Orhan slammed his father’s door open. The arms of this father’s silhouette were wrapped around Pistachio’s neck. “Sshh, sshh,” whispered his father into the dog’s ear. “What is going on? My God, what is going on?” said Orhan. “I have to get up in the morning.” “She’s not bothering anyone,” said his father. “Not bothering anyone?” “No one.” “No one?” “You’re just like your mother was.” “How’s that?” “Always roaming around the apartment in the middle of the night.” “I wasn’t roaming around the apartment.” Pistachio growled. Orhan saw the dog’s large profile in the bed. “I can’t believe there’s a dog in bed with you.” Pistachio continued her menacing grumbles. “Sshh, sshh,” whispered his father. “That’s an ungrateful son for you.” Orhan said nothing else and returned to his bedroom. He tried covering his ears by wrapping a pillow around his head. His father’s voice traveled through the wall. It wasn’t the first time voices traveled through the wall. His father and mother were always loud enough for Orhan to hear. Then the voices had disappeared when his mother left. The black t-shirt one of the the Russian women wore had Sublime written in English across it. Under it was an image of the sun with burning rays of light. In Orhan’s understanding of the word, sublime 20
meant something that had to be subtle, but the image was nothing but outstanding, stretched as it was around the woman’s considerable breasts. When Orhan, tired of the Russian tourists, returned home, his father was gone. Pistachio lay on the tiled floor of the kitchen panting. Where his father was, Orhan didn’t know. Pistachio looked up once and then lowered her head back to the floor. “You need to go to the vet,” said Orhan. “You’re disgusting.” Pistachio said nothing. “You don’t understand what I’m saying, do you? I don’t understand what I’m saying either.” They would have to pay for a vet. It would be expensive. “Don’t howl at night,” he said. “Don’t fucking howl when we are sleeping.” Pistachio didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. Orhan made himself a sandwich and served a third of it to the guest. Pistachio ate from a plate on the floor, as Orhan watched television. When his father came home hours later, Orhan asked, “Where have you been? Pistachio and I have been wondering.” “Visiting your mother.” “Mother?” “Why haven’t you gone to see her lately?” “I’ve been meaning to.” “She’d like a visit from her son, once in a while.” Orhan didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what difference it would have made. The trip took at least an hour to make, anyway, in one direction. “How is she?” “Fine. You two getting along?” He looked at Pistachio and then Orhan. “Just perfectly.” Six tours and four days later, Orhan met Mesut. From the mall, where they had met last time, they took a bus and then a shared taxi to a place on the outskirts of Denizli that Mesut’s uncle kept. Mesut had felt some need to show Orhan his skill with a rifle. It was an odd date, unlike any Orhan had been on in the past, stirred by the conversation at the mall. Orhan didn’t see himself in a position to refuse the invitation. The shack was perched on a hill top, at the end of a gravel road. Mount Honaz looked over everything. Orhan had put on an old pair of jeans and a Colors of Bennington t-shirt. Under a light blue jacket, he wore his singular white scarf. He’d collected over ten in his wardrobe, all of them of that one single color. The empty landscape of the plateau contrasted the bustling inner environs of the mall. Mesut warmed water for tea on his uncle’s stove. He explained how his uncle would, sometimes, come up here with the 21
family to picnic when the city became too busy to be enjoyable. He had to, sometimes, get away himself to think, he said, in the quiet the place offered. Mesut seemed older now and less nervous than when they had met for coffee at the mall. His hair wasn’t permed, and he wore a sleeveless army green vest with numerous pockets. Their conversation drifted from the Russian tourists to Mesut’s work as a cabinet maker for an Alevi in the central business district. “I envy you,” said Mesut. “Why?” asked Orhan, glass of tea in his hand. “You travel. You get to meet people.” “It’s not so glamourous. I live with my father. I can’t even make enough money to have my own place. I’m too old to do that.” “You’re not too old.” “How old are you?” “Twenty-seven.” This was about what Orhan had guessed. Mesut leaned over the table in the shack and kissed Orhan on the cheek. “Would you like more tea?” he asked. “No,” said Orhan, who blushed, even though it was no kiss on the lips. The entire exchange had been awkward. He thought, perhaps, that Mesut was testing his limits. Then, Orhan became the person most people knew him as, the boisterous tour guide, who smiled all the time and had something to say about every corner of the world. The token fag, who was himself the spectacle, but none of this mattered now to him. “You don’t want to kiss me? You know you can if you want.” Orhan was sitting. Mesut leaned down and gave him a little peck and then a second. “Let’s go outside,” said Mesut. Orhan and Mesut were quiet for a moment outside of the shack Mesut’s uncle kept. They walked over to a raised platform on the ground. Mesut left Orhan and then returned with a clean and polished rifle in his hands. The sky seemed without a sun, but bright nonetheless. “This is mine,” said Mesut, smiling less apologetically this time. “It cost me two months of working.” He glanced at his possession a long time. It was a gleaming rifle with a cherrywood stock. Orhan didn’t like weapons, but he took Mesut’s smile as a positive sign, even though the kisses had been awkward. “I used to hunt with my father and uncle when I was a boy,” continued Mesut. “That’s why I became good at it. Wild pigs and such.” “You’re going to shoot me?” said Orhan. He didn’t know why he said it when he did. He liked this boy, but hated weapons, from pistols to rifles. “No, why are you being so silly? I’m going to show you how to shoot.” Mesut pointed to a target in distance. The target was a bull’s eye 22
with several bullet holes. “We have to come out here. We can’t do this in the city.” “You do the shooting. I’ll watch.” Orhan went along with what Mesut was going to demonstrate. Mesut lay on his stomach and cocked his head up once to smile at Orhan. Mesut perched the rifle against his right shoulder and cocked the rifle. Orhan thought the boy was only showing off. Mesut’s right eye followed the barrel of the rifle. One shot went off. It made Orhan startle. Then a second and third shot followed. Mesut rose from the ground, the dust of the plain and plateau on his clothes. Orhan followed Mesut to the target. Mesut pointed to the holes that he had made. “Bravo, bravo,” said Orhan, clapping his hands. Orhan didn’t even see Mesut looking at him first before he kissed him more fully this time. “Now, your turn,” said Mesut. Four years ago, Orhan’s mother had disappeared. She left the apartment. Some doctors had said dementia, some schizophrenia. Even delusions brought on by early Alzheimer’s. None of the answers sufficed to encompass the severity of the break his mother had from reality. For all purposes, she was as much a mystery to the psychiatrists as she was to her own relatives, which didn’t mean, however, that they didn’t try all sorts of antipsychotic medication. His father had tried to keep her from leaving, at least that’s what he understood from his father. She got out of bed and walked out the front door of the apartment, descended the stairs and walked the streets in her underwear. She tried boarding one of the first busses in the morning. “I’m going home,” she told the bus driver who helped her. To this day, they had no idea what she had meant. When he visited her at the hospital, Orhan started their conversations in the same way. He brought a small bouquet of roses, which seemed to brighten her mood. “Mother,” he’d say, “you look beautiful today.” The ends of her mouth would turn up into a smile. Her black hair would be a mess in a pony-tail. She’d be in a white night gown she had worn most of the day. “Look at these flowers. Look at them. They can go into the vase you have in your room.” She’d continue smiling. Most of the time, she wouldn’t recognize him. Sometimes, she would, perhaps convincing herself. “I’m your son. Remember me. Remember when you’d take me to the market every Sunday with you, and you would let me bargain with the sellers?” “Of course,” she’d say, positive most of the time.
Orhan would brush her hair if he could. He’d watch television with her in the lobby with the other patients. He’d look for signs that she loved him. Orhan didn’t want to go crazy and didn’t want to be stuck. He lay on the ground of the plain where Mesut had fired. The dirt had a grainy, gray color, which would now be in his clothes and lungs. He tried holding the rifle, a foreign object now after so long since he had shot one. The metal was warm, and his hands were sweaty. He could smell the gunpowder from when Mesut had fired the rifle. “Relax,” said Mesut. “It’s okay.” “What if there’s a bullet still in the rifle,” said Orhan. “There isn’t.” “I’m terrible at this.” He felt his own hands shaking. It was amazing that he had survived at all, eighteen months in the navy, even with his hands, most of the time, with a pen or a keyboard. “No, you’re not.” Mesut got on the ground with him and tried to adjust Orhan’s hold on the rifle. “Relax. Now, tighter,” said Mesut, squeezing Orhan’s arms. “Just follow the muzzle, follow the target. Don’t worry.” Mesut held his arm as he aimed. “Don’t worry if you miss.” Orhan liked the feel of the hand on his arm and the other on his shoulder. He was unbelievably nervous. “Squeeze.” Orhan’s heart raced. He squeezed. “Good shot,” said Mesut. Orhan had no idea where the bullet had gone. Orhan rolled on his back to look up into Mesut’s face. Mesut pressed his lips with as much force as the stock of the weapon that had nearly taken Orhan’s arm off. Orhan felt Mesut’s hands working on the buckle of his pants. A Denizli rooster, known for its harmonious, deep voice, crowed off schedule. The hours of the afternoon, somehow, disappeared with the sun behind the mountains around Mount Honaz as evening came upon them. A dog, not Pistachio, howled far away. When Orhan arrived home the next day, his father asked no questions about where he had been. His father had no questions whatsoever anymore about what Orhan did in his private life. In fact, they rarely talked anymore at length. They ate meals separately, and when they did eat together, it was quietly. Yet when Orhan arrived home, a renewed confidence informed his perspective on everything. His father was in the living room. Pistachio was at his father’s feet. Orhan sat down diagonally from his father on an old recliner. His father watched television and hardly acknowledged Orhan’s presence. Orhan 24
petted Pistachio’s lower back as a gesture of kindness. His father didn’t avert his glance. Orhan never knew if it was feigned indifference or genuine disinterest. Orhan imagined it was a little of both. “You should have a dog,” said Orhan, breaking the silence between them. “Really?” said his father, eyes glued to the television. “You need the companionship, but Pistachio needs to go to the vet. Something’s wrong with her.” “What’s wrong with her?” “Look at her skin. She needs a vet.” “I already took her to an animal doctor.” This surprised Orhan. “Good,” he said. “I always took your mother to the hospital.” Orhan didn’t understand why his mother came up in all these comparisons. She was his mother. Pistachio was a dog. “Visit your mother, son. You never go to visit her.” He turned his glance from the television. There had been a time when Orhan would visit his mother more than his father did. “She’s been gone a long time.” “You’ve been gone a long time.” “She’s not there anymore.” “You always give up. That’s what I always knew. Even when I had the cancer and you looked at me. Even when you were a child. I’d think, that’s my boy, my only son. He’ll grow up to give up on a lot of things.” His father turned up the volume on the television. Orhan never knew what he watched all the time. “Women, too.” His father laughed. This is how their relationship seemed to be, more and more, these days. Orhan didn’t even mind the little jabs. He was forgiving. His mother had gone, at least mentally. Years ago, her mind had severed itself from her body. She went crazy, and they put her in an institution inside of the city, between a tire factory and a stretch of apartment buildings that developers hoped to level when they could find a way to legally vacate the tenants. When Orhan visited his mother, there was no clearly visible sun. The gray sky, however, had hints of blue, which matched the pale azure color of the paint still left on the buildings the hospital occupied. At the entrance was a security guard inside the door, and a long bench where visitors waited to be seen by a receptionist behind a small booth. He gave his name and the name he had come to visit, Ebru Dudak Reza, his mother’s, who had given birth to him late in a life when she had believed she would have no children. He wasn’t sure when the moment was that he came less frequently. He travelled a great deal. He was most alive when he wasn’t at home. When he had been growing up, it had been the opposite; his mother had 25
been his best friend. She took him to get Kahramanmaraş ice cream on Fridays when his father worked; she took him shopping on Sundays at the open market; she let him cook with her—she was a superb cook; she made him a part of every aspect of her life; and, when he had trouble in school, bullying, say, she covered his eyes with a hand and asked, “Who’s better than everyone else? Who gets great marks in school? Who is the best boy a mother could have? Who knows right from wrong? Who knows that God will right things in their own way? Who?” On and on. “Who?” He would answer that he was. “That’s my son,” she would say. Once a year in July, he and his mother would board a shared taxi and then bus for Göreme, where they would have lunch at a café and watch the hot air balloons, purple, red, yellow and many other colors float up into the sky. Until he was fourteen, they had done this. Not until he was a grown man, though, had he taken a flight with her on a green-colored balloon. The ends of her mouth had crooned into a smile as wide as the horizon on that clear day, as they saw for miles the cultivated fields of the plain, Cappadocia and the scattered dwellings, as small as moles and pimples, which dotted the face of the land. Her laugh, leaving her little left to say, had been a joy, he remembered. It had been small payment back for all of those years of her love. Orhan now went down a long white hall with windows that looked upon a small garden enclosed by the building’s walls, a flower garden that, today, only had marigolds blooming and zinnias a meter from it. It was hard to tell what was worse: the pungent sting of ammonia or the faint odor of urine underneath it. The staff workers wore scrubs and the doctors white coats, but all the doors he passed through were either locked or monitored by a security guard standing or sitting in the chair. All along the white hall were benches on each side where patients and visitors could congregate, but only a man with his legs folded sat as he kneaded his black prayer beads. Who knew what sort of madness lay in the institution as one went past further locked doors and security guards? This was his mother’s world. He brought a bouquet of carnations, not roses, and even this choice seemed to say something about what he expected to happen with his mother. Before, he’d fight back the urge to cry when he came and when he left, but now, he felt no urge. Beyond the white hall in a room where patients sat in a corner of an auditorium, as if they were at the cinema, around a television, he finally made out his mother’s back. He walked up to her. He touched it. “Mother,” he said, “how are you?” Startled, she turned at the touch of his hand. She was still in one of her nightgowns, even though his father regularly brought her different clothes to wear. “Let’s go sit by the tables, mother,” he continued, whispering. He tried taking her by the hand. 26
“No,” she said and pointed to the television. “Let me watch this.” Streaks of gray and white jetted through her messy hair. Each time he saw her, she was getting older. It was a comedy sketch with an overweight character with too much body hair and a uni-brow many Turkish audiences loved. Orhan found a chair behind her and waited. She laughed along with others at certain moments on the screen, her laugh a little later than everyone else’s. Thirty minutes or so passed. When the show was over, he guided her away from the chairs around the television. They sat down outside, he presented the flowers, and he went through the explanations of who he was again. “I know who you are,” she said, interrupting him. So she did. And what was it that she remembered? Unlike him and his father, she had light-blue, nearly translucent, eyes, which those of her descendants from the north, even possibly beyond the Black Sea, had. He couldn’t tell if she looked through him or at him, if he was foreign or close. A faint smile crossed her face, and he wondered if it was one of recognition. He looked at her ghostly eyes, but nothing registered past the smile. He texted Mesut outside of the walls of the hospital, but this, like the other communications, went unanswered. Mesut had stood him up at the coffee shop. Love could be a deceit, a self-deceit especially in a land where all men who loved other men bore their want in patience and secrecy. Yet Mesut met Orhan outside of the workshop of the Alevi, where Mesut expected to work a week longer, after which, he would start a new position, better paying, at one of the textile factories. The twenty-minute bus ride felt twice as long. Orhan had gotten him on the phone and insisted they meet. They stood outside the workshop now, which had a modest sign that simply read Cabinet Maker in wooden block letters on plywood that had been painted black. The smell of lamb on the grill emanated from the bufé next door, but Orhan had no appetite to whet. They walked. “I care about you, Orhan,” said Mesut. “I really do. It was shitty for me not to have met you. I just didn’t know how to tell you.” “Tell me what?” Orhan walked with his hands clasped together behind his back. He looked forward, somewhere ten feet in front of him. He tried pondering, as a business man does his business. Mesut was talking to him, as they walked several city blocks, for no purpose other than to let Mesut not feel so bad about breaking up with him. Several dates and a sexual encounter, and nothing more, thought Orhan. He hadn’t had sex as fast as that with anyone before Mesut, who talked on and on to the point that Orhan couldn’t believe his own ears. 27
“I don’t know,” said Mesut, “I don’t know if I even like men. Maybe I like men and women. I wanted to try with you. I always thought I was bisexual.” “You shouldn’t try with people like that. I’m not an experiment.” The workshop occupied an older part of the city. The concrete cracked in most places where they walked, the slabs of concrete uneven. Orhan had broken his wrist once on a street like this after, of all things, tripping and using his hands to brace his fall in a game of hide-and-seek. He had been nine or ten, always, it seemed, not cut out for the world of normal people, clumsy at it, at best. “You’re not an experiment. You’re a great person.” Orhan was on the verge of asking him why he was all alone if he was such, to quote him, a great person. They rounded the last corner before coming back to the front of the workshop. Mesut fiddled with his hands, right thumb rubbing the crook between the thumb and index of the other, as if there were an itch. “You want me to go now,” said Orhan. “You are waiting for me to leave because you can’t tell me to get out of your face.” “That’s not it. I want us to still be friends.” Orhan left Mesut standing where he was. Not even with a good-bye. Not even with a begging look of longing from his eyes to Mesut’s. Why was it that those who broke hearts thought they could be friends? Expectations couldn’t be raised so high only to be brought so low. Mesut didn’t love him. Nobody did, he thought. He wiped some tears with the underside of his palm as he walked away. All this only confirmed what he was. And, what was he? He was an ugly fag, and that was it. His mother barely recognized him. He was an attraction, an amusement of a different sort when foreigners visited Turkey. Even his own countrymen found him amusing. Repugnant, sometimes, especially to himself. Pistachio had her chin on his father’s leg. The dog had now been around for three weeks, hours at his father’s side and now with her own bowls for food and water on the kitchen floor. Her skin, his father assured him, was taking care of itself with a pill he administered to Pistachio every night. After several days, Orhan was, finally, in a talking mood. He had nowhere else to be that evening. No friends or lover to meet or tourists to entertain. “Do you still love her?” asked Orhan. “Your wife?” His father’s brows furrowed. His father’s attention briefly left the television. Even Pistachio’s head rose from his father’s leg. “What question is that? A man always loves his wife.” “Really, Dad?” he said. “She barely remembers who you are, who I am.” “Son, is this about one of your lovers?” “No.” 28
“Your mother might have left us a long time ago,” his father said, “but we haven’t.” His father petted Pistachio’s head with his right hand, and in that response, Orhan thought, was his father’s answer to the whole problem of love. It was why he still had his son living under his roof, and why that dog, loyal to a fault, it seemed, found its place on his father’s lap. Orhan rose to retire elsewhere, maybe go out on his own even though he had no definite place to be. Before leaving his father, he petted Pistachio’s head. “See,” said his father. “That’s not so hard, now is it? I think you two are getting along fine.”
Heron in the Garden Each Saturday that Heron comes home from Whitsun College to visit with his parents, he can’t help but note the painful contrast between his mother’s garden and the gardens at his school, which is a sprawling campus set in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. He can remember being six or seven and finding this garden beautiful, fascinating even, with its mixed flowers and translucent stones and little gnomes peering out from behind shrubs. Today, as he pulls into the driveway in the car he spent the last three years working to buy, his mother stands up from a patch of weeds and waves. “Your father’s cigarette smoke is what kills ‘em,” she says as Heron comes up the walk. “My flowers. I swear, weeds grow just because they’re dirty-natured like smoke and they love it.” “Aw Mom, come on.” Heron rubs her shoulder and grins. “You know that’s not even possible.” “Bet you ten dollars it is. How was your week?” “I’m starting to like my composition professor,” he tells her. “The one I wasn’t too sure about? He’s turning out to be pretty amazing. He read one of my essays out loud to the class on Thursday.” “You’re kidding me. Which one was that?” “The one I wrote about Dad and me. ‘How to Survive in the Wild with Grace.’” “That’s incredible, honey. You have to tell your father. And how’s your roommate? Benjy?” “Ben, Mom. He only goes by Ben.” “Oh, right. You told me that. He still okay to room with?” “He’s fine.” His mother points at the porch steps. “You set down. I’m gonna grab you some limeade. Your father’s out getting the car looked at again. Somethin’s wrong with the muffler. It sounds like a train coming down the line.” Heron sits on the concrete steps and his mother lets the screen door slap behind her as she goes into the house. He is trying not to cringe at the way she speaks, which for the first time in his life has begun to trouble him. Whenever he comes home, he can’t help but imagine his friends at Whitsun—a private liberal arts school he never could have afforded without a scholarship—reacting to the words, “You set down.” He wonders what they would think about this front yard. The backyard is a whole other story: along the treeline are ancient models of backcountry shelters his father taught him to make when he was a boy, along with a sharpening block and a proudly-displayed board of ropes and cords Heron made out of tree fibers, also under his father’s instruction. Back 30
when the old man was younger and didn’t smoke so much, he made it his personal mission to pass on to Heron everything he knew about the mountains, including how to live in them. Heron’s childhood and early teen years were spent pitching tents, hiking the national park trails, fishing in trout streams, and hunting. He laughs quietly to himself now, remembering the mixed expressions on his classmates’ faces as Dr. Weston read his essay: they were piqued, but confused. What he’d shared with them was a part of his life he knew he had nothing to feel shame for. But this house . . . he shakes his head, imagining what his roommate might say about the yard. Not that he has thoughts of bringing anybody here, to the old duplex in Townsend’s backwoods, where the people who share a wall with his parents sell drugs out their back door. He glances over at the neighbors’ matching porch, and, as if on cue, the door opens. The drug dealer’s girlfriend dumps her baby daughter on the concrete landing and then goes back inside, slamming the door. Heron waits a few beats before climbing down his own porch. He doesn’t know exactly how old the baby is—she might be a year old now—but she is young enough that she can’t hold her head up very well. Heron has never heard her cry, and suspects it is because she already understands it to be a pointless exercise. The drug dealer and the girlfriend do this all the time—sit her on the porch and then leave her there—and the first time he saw this, Heron could only stand there and stare in disbelief. What hurt most was that she just stayed where she was, head down, the posture of her unformed body the very picture of defeat. Heron has seen the drug dealer grab her up roughly by one arm; he’s seen the man practically throw her into her car seat the rare times they went anywhere with her. But even this was not as horrible as seeing her just sit there, a little hopeless lump on the concrete, and so he’d gotten into the habit of going over there and picking her up, and taking her around his mother’s garden. At the beginning, he was terrified that the drug dealer would come out and shoot him. But nobody ever noticed, or if they did, they didn’t care. So he learned to relax a little, and speak to the baby in low tones as he showed her things. Now, he crosses the short distance between the porches and lifts the child off the concrete, feeling her hands grabbing up fistfuls of his shirt as he adjusts her in his arms. He carries her into his parents’ garden and makes for the scraggly crabapple tree where his mother’s chimes hang. Murmuring, he tinkles the chimes for her, and is satisfied to see her reaching out for them, her blue eyes brightening. She makes some burbling noises and he wonders when she will start using words. “The poor thing,” his mother says from behind him. She sets his glass of limeade down on the tiny rock bench beside the crabapple tree 31
and reaches up to rub the baby’s head. “Why do people like that have children, I wonder.” “You know why,” Heron says bitterly. “For the checks.” His mother shakes her head. “It’ll be fall soon. We’re almost into October. It’ll be too cold for them to leave her out there like that.” “I saw him wrench her arm once, you know that? He’s disgusting.” “I know.” Heron bounces the baby gently as she continues to explore the chimes. He has thought many times about calling DCS and filing a report on his neighbors, but is terrified for himself: what if they have guns? Surely they would know who made the call, having seen him walking around with their child for months. “I hate it when it gets cold,” his mother goes on. “My garden looks terrible then.” Heron laughs, and she looks at him in confusion. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s just—well, it’s not exactly an English garden even in summer, right?” His mother hesitates, then smiles faintly. “Not exactly.” “I’m just teasing,” Heron says quickly. But his mother’s attention is on the baby, and he has the same sensation he has nearly every weekend he visits now: that he can’t seem to stop himself from saying cruel things, or at least thinking them, and he isn’t even sure why. “How are things with that girl?” his mother asks. She opens her arms for the baby and Heron hands her gently over. “Alyssa. We’re going to the homecoming dance together,” he says, and he can feel the back of his neck reddening. This has been the talk of Whitsun all week: the fact that Alyssa Harding, the most desirable girl on campus, chose him for the homecoming dance. His roommate has referred to the situation as a cosmic miracle. “You really like this one, don’t you?” “She’s gorgeous. I never knew anyone like her. She’s a business major. She’s from the coast.” “Hm. She must miss the ocean.” “I guess so.” “Does she know much about the mountains?” “Hardly anyone does at Whitsun,” Heron says with a laugh. “We’re right there in the middle of the Smokies and nobody’s been on a trail before. But I’m going to show her some things.” “You should.” His mother hands the baby back, and Heron hefts her partly over her shoulder, feeling the little head come to rest near his neck. “She’s an angel,” he says quietly. “Alyssa?” “This one,” Heron says, patting the baby. “I wish we knew her name.” “Good luck askin’ them. I wouldn’t dare.” 32
Heron’s father’s ancient pickup coughs its way up the driveway and comes to an abrupt halt. “Carson, it still sounds like shit,” Heron’s mother calls out. “Oh, don’t I know it.” Heron’s father moves heavily out of the truck and embraces both Heron and the baby. “Good to see you, son. You look —just great. Good to see you with her, too. The little thing misses you when you aren’t here.” “Go on, set her back over there, hon,” his mother says. “Let’s go inside a minute and have a snack or something. Carson, did you know his professor read his essay out loud to his class? The one about all the things you taught him.” His father, red-eyed from last night’s shift at the Mayfield factory, grins at him. “Hell, son. I hope you didn’t use my name. Go on, put that baby down. She’ll probably be here when you come back out.” Reluctantly, Heron brings the baby back to his neighbors’ porch, and as an afterthought grabs his Whitsun sweatshirt out of his car and arranges it underneath her so that she is not sitting on the concrete. He touches her smooth cheek and she gives him what he hopes is a tiny smile. When he turns around, his parents are waiting for him, and he follows them inside. The kitchen is a mess. Molding garlic on a string over the sink, piles of dishes, brimming ashtrays everywhere, stacks of Tom Clancy novels forming small cities on what was once the breakfast table. His father sits down in his rocking chair beside the kitchen counter and his mother goes into the refrigerator and starts rummaging around for snacks. “So the professor read your essay,” Heron’s father says, folding his hands in his lap. “That is something. What did everyone think?” “I don’t think they’d heard much like it ‘til then,” Heron tells him, grinning. “Good. Maybe you can teach them something.” “You’d be the one teaching them, Dad. It’s all stuff you told me. I even used your line: Learning how to survive to save only yourself is never enough. If all you do is rescue yourself, you aren’t saved at all.” His father swats at the air, as if at a fly. “Come on. You better not tell ‘em you’re gettin’ ideas from an ignorant old man. I didn’t even get through high school math, you know that?” Heron says, “They don’t need to know that. You still know things nobody else does.” His father harrumphs and then looks at his mother. “Do we have any coffee for him? He’s probably drinking coffee now.” “I’m fine,” Heron says. “Actually, I need to go grab some more clothes out of my room before I forget.” “It’s your room, son,” his father laughs. “It’s not like you need permission.” 33
In his old room, Heron turns in a circle. The threadbare rug, the old posters on the wall from teenage obsessions of his, the sagging bookshelf that reveals the whole of his literary journey, from CS Lewis’ Narnia to Steinbeck’s California—a journey taken more out of desperation than out of a real love for the literature. These books were his only way out of this place when he was younger, other than those trips to the rivers and into the backcountry with his father. He reminds himself that this duplex, this neighborhood, is not going to be his life anymore. Now that he is on the track he’s on, he is guaranteed something better than this. There will be no factory jobs like his father’s, no trailer park girls having his children, no babies being left on porches next door. Quickly, he rifles through his bureau drawers and finds the sweaters he knows he is going to need soon at Whitsun. Secretly, he is hoping to end this routine of coming home every single Saturday, and he doesn’t want to need anything from here. He kneels there holding one of his old sweatshirts and breathes in the mixed scent of cigarette smoke and cheap detergent. It is a smell that he loves but cannot admit to loving, and, as he holds the shirt to his face, he is overcome with the same panicked confusion that has been taking him in strange moments out of the blue since he started at Whitsun. Then he recovers himself, and returns to the kitchen, where he coaches himself not to say anything about his father’s coughing, or the trashy novels on the table, or the sound of a shotgun going off in a distant neighbor’s yard. He blinks back the sudden wetness in his eyes when his father asks, in deeply respectful tones, what he is learning at Whitsun, and what the instructors are like there, and what it looks like on campus with the leaves starting to turn—as though it is Heaven itself Heron has been disappearing to all this time. When he finally does leave, the baby is gone from the neighbors’ front porch, and so is his Whitsun sweatshirt. The following Saturday is the homecoming dance, and Heron tells his parents he has too much to do and can’t come home for his usual visit. His mother tells him, “I was hoping you’d help me in the garden, but I want you to have a good time. Show that pretty girl somethin’ she ain’t seen before, like you told me.” “I will,” he promises, and he means it: he has special plans for Alyssa. He is going to take her to the most beautiful place he knows, a secret place he has visited alone many times since his early teens, when his father showed it to him. The place is called Look Rock—a white lookout tower perched high above the western Smoky Mountains, at the top of the winding Foothills Parkway road above Townsend. He has already explained to Alyssa that after the dance, they will go back to their dorms and get some sleep, and then he will pick her back up before dawn so they can make the drive to the secret place. But she knows nothing 34
more than this, and the mystery of it all is lending an air of both romance and authority to Heron, which he would enjoy immensely if his roommate weren’t so bitter about the whole situation. Adjusting his suit in front of the floor-length mirror in their dorm room, Heron sneaks glances at his roommate, who is hunkered over in the bucket chair next to his bed, wearing the blue JCrew pullover he always lounges in. Ben is making his way through the assigned reading for their Political Economy class, a highlighter in hand, but hasn’t turned a page in twenty minutes. He does not have a date for the homecoming dance—a fact they have both managed not to address over the course of the past week. “Alyssa Harding,” Ben says at last, snapping the textbook shut. “You know, I’ve been trying to figure it out, how you of all people pulled it off. And I think I know.” “What do you mean?” Heron meets his roommate’s eyes in the mirror and their gaze holds. “It’s all that mountain-boy crap. The way you dress—those shirts? Where are you getting them from? And your accent, and all this talk about the country, and camping by the river, and Hemingway-type shit that girls go crazy for. That business in your essay in Weston’s class. That’s why they’re all into you. That’s why you’ve got Alyssa hooked on you and you’ve barely seen her outside of class.” It is the most Ben has said to him in one sitting since their first night in this room. For a moment, Heron studies him in the mirror. Ben says, “I hit the jackpot, huh?” “No,” Heron says. He takes his suitcoat off, feeling suddenly overheated. “It’s not true. I talk to Alyssa all the time.” Ben laughs. “Notice how you make no move to contradict anything else I said.” “I meant, none of what you said is true. I’m not putting on an act.” Still laughing, Ben tilts his head back and looks at the ceiling. “Oh, right. Heron, if you really were some country boy, you wouldn’t have gotten into this place to begin with. And look, what’s with the name, anyway? Is that another thing you just put on? Nobody names their kid after a bird.” Heron sits down slowly at his desk. “It was my mother’s idea. She loves to garden. She told me that her perfect garden would always have a heron in it, so she gave me the name.” “Wait, you’re serious?” “Serious as a heart attack,” Heron says, then bites his lip—it is one of his father’s clichés, and it embarrasses him every time it slips out. “Okay, okay, let’s say that’s really your name. But how long can you keep the rest of it up? This country-boy adventurer crap.” Heron reaches for his suitcoat. “I have to go. I have to go pick her up.” 35
“Whatever you say. Go easy on her.” “Right.” In the car, Heron reviews the conversation word for word. The idea that after all of his hard work to fit in here, the others might think the truest parts of himself were actually the projected ones—he can’t wrap his mind around it. He wonders if Alyssa thinks the same way Ben does, and believes that all of his stories, his efforts to bring what he knows into their world, are merely calculated attempts to win others’ attention. He refuses to believe this. Since arriving here, he has felt certain that he could pick and choose which parts of himself to keep and which to discard. He could leave behind the embarrassing facts of his upbringing, but hold onto the things he loved, like the knowledge his father passed on to him, and the awareness of the land’s beauty. This last, he knows, is what really matters: his sense of having an inside understanding of the mountains. Any time in his life that he has felt insecure, the intimacy he has with that beauty has been a rudder to bear him through the moment and back to himself. The scissoring of trout in amber water, the way yellow leaves make figure eights as they fall from poplars, the velvet sleep of a fawn curled up in dewy grass—these things make him feel pure and infallible. As he pulls up in front of Alyssa’s dorm, he feels sure of himself once more. He is positive that Alyssa is interested in who he really is. She knows that he is different from the others at Whitsun, and her interest in him is proof that Ben is wrong. Predictably, Alyssa takes center stage at the homecoming dance, in a pale pink dress that flutters at the shoulders and falls gracefully along her hips. Her heavy blonde hair is partly taken up in a silvery band of some kind, and every time they dance, the light trembles there. Other students flicker around Alyssa like moths drawn to a lamp, and Heron can’t help but bask in the attention, though he knows it is only by proximity that he has earned it. They speak little; each time Heron tries to talk, Alyssa leans in close and shushes him, telling him to just move with her. He can hardly say no, and they sway through one song after another as other couples move around them. Only when they take a break for drinks does Alyssa initiate conversation: “So when the dance is over, we split? And what time do you pick me up again?” “Five AM,” he tells her, grinning around his water glass. “Oh my God,” she moans. “Why does it have to be before dawn?” “You’ll see.” “Do I stay in my dress? Or are you expecting pajamas?” “Do whatever you want.” “I’ll stay in my dress. Might as well get some use out of it. I’ll never wear it again.” 36
“Good. I’ll stay in my suit. Just try to get some sleep before I come get you.” “I’ll do my best.” She takes his elbow and nudges him back toward the dance floor. “Ready?” The song is a slow one, and Heron tries to create a little gap between them as they move so that he can talk to her. “Alyssa,” he says quietly, “tell me something.” “Sure, Heron.” “Do you think my name is made-up?” She laughs, her head rocking back a little. “I always wondered.” “Well, it isn’t.” “Okay.” “I’m from Townsend, right by the national park. That’s where we’re going. Have you been out there?” Her brow furrows. “I think so. Maybe a picnic or something when I was a kid?” Heron takes a breath. “It’s kind of rough around there. I mean, past the town itself. It’s, you know, the backwoods.” “Are you trying to scare me? Are you taking me to some trailer park or something?” She says this laughingly, but he sees a hint of alarm in her eyes, and he tightens his hold on her waist. “No, of course not,” he says. “Why would I do that?” “You know, I bet I know where you grew up. One of those big chateau-looking houses that are way up on the mountainsides by the national park? I can remember them. It was like somebody started off building a log cabin and then decided to make a castle instead.” Heron knows which houses she is talking about—they are actually on the eastern side of the park, far away from Townsend—but he has seen them, too, and as a child often imagined what it would be like to live in such a place. “Will you show me?” Alyssa persists, her face turned up to his. Her skin is flushed in the warm light of the dance floor, and flawless as wax fruit; her eyes sparkle. “Maybe a different night,” he tells her. “We have something else to see first.” They dance, and Heron tries to focus only on the smell of her hair and the feel of her body against his. At five o’clock in the morning, Heron returns to Alyssa’s dorm, and she is there, sitting on the curb in her pink dress. “This is crazy,” she says excitedly as she climbs into the car. “I know. Did your dorm monitor see you?” “No way. I’m way too slick for her.” Heron laughs. “Of course you are. You cold?” “I’m okay. How long of a drive is this?” 37
“About a half hour. Not too bad.” “All right.” They are quiet as Heron navigates first the highway and then the smaller, winding roads leading into Townsend. When they start the sharp ascent up Foothills Parkway’s hairpin turns, Alyssa sits up straight and tries to peer into the darkness outside her window. “This road is scary,” she murmurs. “It’s okay. I’ve driven it a lot.” “Can your engine handle this?” It embarrasses Heron that his engine is in fact audibly struggling, but he smiles. “It’ll be fine.” The climb is long and Heron takes the curves slowly and with his brights on, watching constantly for deer. He tells Alyssa a story about hitting a deer once in his father’s pickup truck, and then bringing the deer home with them afterwards, and then stops when he realizes how quiet she is. “You brought it home? To do what?” she asks at last. “Well, to eat it. It’s the law in Tennessee that if it’s a fresh kill, I mean on the road, you can take it home with you.” “You just hauled roadkill back with you and what, skinned it right there on the porch?” Alyssa is laughing, her voice bright and pealing through the car like bells. “Oh my God. You are so full of shit, Heron. I love it.” “I’m not making this up,” he insists, but she squirms over to his side and puts her head on his shoulder. “I love your stories,” she says reassuringly. Heron is quiet. They are nearly to the top, and his determination to prove Ben and his own nagging suspicions wrong is overwhelming. He sits up high in his seat, squinting at the road, looking for the spot. When he senses it ahead of them, he slows the car dramatically. “Are we there?” Heron brings the car to a careful stop in the grass on the side of the road. “We’re here. Normally we’d park at the campground on the other side of the road, but the government had to shut it down because there wasn’t any funding for it,” he explains. “Come on.” Alyssa points at the woods—black, opaque—and says, “You’re kidding, right? There could be bears. Or all kinds of scumbags doing God knows what in there.” Heron laughs. “There won’t be. Just come on.” He coaxes her out of the car, and the moonlight washes over the pale pink of her dress as she lets him take her hand. He helps her up the narrow trail that moves gently uphill through the woods, and he tries not to notice when she curses under her breath—something about her shoes. She seems nervous. But to Heron, the woods are welcoming, embracing them; the silence of their 38
walk is a kind of meditation or prayer, readying them both for what is to come. Finally, he can see the lookout tower ahead of them—an unlikely thing, a shocking thing if you weren’t looking for it, especially in the moonlit dark, with its spirals pearly white. It is like a great conch shell deposited atop the mountains by some colossal wave. He feels rather than hears Alyssa’s gasp. “It’s a lookout tower,” he explains softly. “Anyone can come up here, but hardly anyone does. I think people just don’t know it’s here.” Alyssa holds tightly to him as they begin the ascent to the lookout. Heron knows just how high up they are, but decides not to tell her, wanting her to see for herself when the first light comes. It will stun her —this much he is sure of. It will shatter her and put her back together again, as it did him the first time he saw it. They stand together with their elbows propped on the ledge, peering out into almost complete darkness; there are just a few scattered lights from Maryville and other towns in the distance. It is much colder here than it was in Townsend, and Heron takes off his suitcoat and drapes it over Alyssa’s shoulders. She adjusts it and he thinks he sees her smile. Then she says, “So what are we doing up here again?” Her voice is surprisingly loud, and a little shrill, a thing Heron has never noticed before. But he rubs her shoulder and says reassuringly, “It’s going to be worth it—you’ll see. Just wait a little while.” Alyssa makes an impatient movement under his shoulder. “I wish you’d just tell me.” “I can’t. That would ruin it.” “You sound so excited.” Something in her tone troubles him, as though she is implying that his excitement is somehow infantile. The same anxiety he felt with Ben in his dorm room rises up in him and he has to fight to swallow it back down. “I am excited,” he says with an effort. Alyssa says nothing. Heron is relieved. Their voices up here sound too loud to him. Intrusive. Like the world of night that orbits this tower has its own demands, and might depart from them with all its beauty if they break its unspoken laws. He knows that to really see what’s about to happen here, you have to be silent. “Wait a minute,” Alyssa says. He feels her hand move against his back, then up under his shirt; the coolness of her skin sends a tremor through him. “You don’t have devilish plans for us, do you? So soon?” Confused, Heron opens his mouth to respond, then stops as her hand comes around in front and dips just below the waistband of his dress pants.
It is a thing he has fantasized about more than once. But instead of arousal, he feels a kind of panic—like they are about to miss out on something terribly important. “Hang on,” he says, tugging on her hand. “Just hang on. Just wait. Watch the mountains.” In the darkness, Alyssa’s silence is unreadable. Heron tries not to think about this as he scans the horizon. And then, there it is: the first rose-gold spark, like a tiny flame burning in a single tree on a distant mountain. His hand tightens around Alyssa’s. The spark takes. The trees around it seem to blaze softly, and as it always does, this first sighting shakes him deeply. It is as human and hopeful as a campfire in the wild, as rich in faith as a man of some ancient time praying to a sun god. Then the flood begins: rose around the rims of the sky, rose brushing the tree tops, rose falling into the ravines and calling up the mist. Swaths of precipitation disguised as low clouds flirting with the earth fill the coves and valleys. Every few minutes, another version of the world is revealed, which is the way Heron imagines creation to have looked to God in those first few hours. Violet and amber and blue pour down the mountainsides like the sky’s overburden and pool in the rivers. And when the sun ascends the staircase of Mt. LeConte and pauses on the landing, it erupts into a six-pointed star whose brightness knocks both Heron and Alyssa back a step. The light is so utterly clean, so perfect, it sears Heron’s heart. He has to tear his eyes away from it all to look at Alyssa. What he sees on her face staggers him. It is the same polite but frozen expression he has seen on people’s faces when talking to salesmen over the phone, or trapped in some taxing conversation with a complaining relative. She is struggling to look interested and impressed, and of course, all that really shows is impatience and confusion. “You do this a lot?” she asks finally, offering him a small grin. “Sometimes.” He tries to grin back. It feels so false, it seems like it has to be ugly, but Alyssa’s smile widens. “So now are you going to tell me why we’re up here?” She pulls him toward her, hands on his waist. In the new light, her makeup is dry and caking around her eyes, and he can see that the color of her skin is not really hers, but a shade of cream or powder she has applied and must apply every day. “We should get going,” he says. “Your roommate’s going to be worrying about you.” “Are you serious?” She shakes her head. “You really are something, you know that? You’re a nut.” She says this playfully and reaches up to tousle his hair, but he can tell that she is as irritated as he is. Their walk downhill through the trees is rushed, nothing at all like the climb up, which now seems to have happened years ago. 40
They drive back to the college in yet another near-silence. When he pulls up in front of Alyssa’s dormitory, she hesitates before getting out of the car. “That was fun,” she says at last. “Yeah.” Then she is gone, moving up the walkway with her purse slung over her shoulder and her pink dress trailing behind her, the hem dirtied from their brief hike to the tower. Watching her, Heron again has the sense of panic, only this time it is different: it is he alone who has missed something, or is about to, and he isn’t even sure what it is. He only has the sense of having made a grave mistake. That sun over those mountains . . . something so sacred, he thinks, should not be spent the way a cheap candle is spent on a birthday cake. The flame snuffed out like any other, and attended by so little reverence. He knows it is irrational—maybe Alyssa is right, and he is nuts—but he wants to go back to the tower, and apologize somehow. But to whom? He is driving toward his own dormitory, but at the last minute makes a left and heads for the highway toward his parents’ house. This is what he will do, and it will take away this awful nagging feeling. He will have breakfast with them, and make up for not visiting them yesterday. He will help his mother in the garden. He knows something is terribly wrong as soon as he turns onto his parents’ street. An ambulance, red lights flaring, is parked between their house and the neighbors’, and there are a lot of people standing around in their driveways, looking on. For a moment he thinks it is his father: he’s had a heart attack. Please God, no. But then he sees both of his parents, also standing outside in the garden, in their bathrobes. He swings the car against an open stretch of parkway and leaps out. “What happened?” he demands of his mother, who stands within the circle of his father’s arm. “Oh, honey.” Her eyes are red; she is actually wringing her hands, a thing he has never seen her do. “I wish you hadn’t come.” “What is it? What—” And then he looks at the neighbors’ house, and he knows. The paramedics are closing up the ambulance, and two police cars are making their way up the street. The ambulance goes abruptly silent, and then pulls out into the road, leaving the scene. “They found her dead in her crib,” his mother explains, her voice breaking on “crib.” “At least that’s what they told 911. They just got up this morning and she wasn’t breathing.” Heron watches as four police officers move past the crowd and into the duplex. They seem collectively disgusted, as though they have seen all of this before. “They killed her,” Heron says through gritted teeth. “My God, they fucking killed her. They starved her or suffocated her or hit her with something. I know it. I know they did.” 41
“Calm down, Heron,” his father hisses. “The cops are here, all right? They’re here. They’re gonna ask them all about it.” “It’s not enough,” Heron cries. “They killed her, Jesus Christ! You know they did.” As if hearing him, one of the officers reappears, and moves directly toward them. “You live here?” he asks, gesturing at their house. “Yes,” Heron’s father says. “You ever see anything that looked like abuse going on over there? Did you ever see either one of them rough-housing that little girl or hurting her in any way?” “I can’t say I did,” Heron’s father responds, “but my wife and I seen them leave her on the front porch a lot of times. Just settin’ there by herself.” Heron’s fists are clenching and unclenching. The officer looks at him. “And you?” “He’s always known somethin’ wasn’t right there,” his mother interrupts. “He used to carry that baby around so somebody would hold her. He kept an eye on her back when he was here.” “And you don’t live here anymore?” the officer asks, pulling out a notepad. “No,” Heron says with difficulty. “I’m at college.” “Whitsun College,” his father adds. “You knew they were hurting her? And you never called child services?” the officer demands, leaning closer. Heron has no idea what this could mean for him, if he were to admit that yes, this is exactly what he knew, and exactly what he failed to do. In a rush, he imagines the worst: his scholarship gone, his schooling over. Minimum-wage jobs, a trailer park. A return to this place, maybe for years. His old room with its cheap posters and nubby carpet. “I don’t know about them hurting her,” he says at last. “They would just leave her on the porch, like my dad says.” He can feel his mother’s eyes on him but he stares straight ahead, at the officer, who meets his gaze for a moment and then writes something on his pad. “We might come back with follow-up questions,” is all he says before turning around and going back into the house. Heron watches him go, if only so that he can avoid looking anywhere else. But eventually, he has to face his parents, and to his surprise, they are also gone, moving back into their house. He stands there in the garden and looks down the street and sees the rest of his neighbors, still hovering in their driveways, silent. He looks toward the highway, in the direction of his college, and sees only the flat, dulled light of sun filtered through heavy clouds he hadn’t even seen coming.
The Trouble with Starlings Clint removes himself from atop Latrice, and the rush of cool air gives her goose bumps. Even his departure from her body—sometimes slow, lingering, sometimes like he’s bungee jumping or something—is different from Don’s. She rolls over, back to Clint, and curls into the square of afternoon sun that falls on the bed. Clint pats her on the swell of one hip. “We could do this all the time if you’d just say the word.” She closes her eyes. “What makes you think I want to do this all the time?” He tries to roll her over, but she resists. Finally, he succeeds in turning her toward him, but not in unwinding her body. She retains her curled-up position, and he tilts her chin. She looks at him from the corner of her eye at first, then full on. “Why you want to do me this way? Ain’t I been good to you?” The pin-point blackness in the center of his pale eyes gets bigger as he looks at her, and she wishes she could hold on to that power she has over him, take it with her to use on everybody else. When she doesn’t answer, he squeezes her arm, hard. “Hey. Haven’t I?” “Yeah,” she says, drawing the word out until it seems three miles long. Unpredictable. Maybe that’s why she likes him, why she’s here, naked, in broad daylight. He pulls her closer, but she wiggles out of his arms and retrieves her clothing from the floor. “I got to go,” she says as she steps into her shorts, then the loose cotton top. “Don will be back from town before long.” Slipping into her cork sandals, she stands on one leg to buckle the left, then the right, and goes toward the door. Clint’s voice catches her before she can leave the room. She turns, hand still on the doorknob. “Oklahoma’s not the center of the earth, Latrice. There’s a big, wide world out there.” He lights a cigarette and runs his hand through the curly black hair on his chest, pats his flat belly once, twice. His gaze wanders to her face, then slowly down to her feet and up again, leaving eddies of pleasure in its wake. “I can show you things your dull as dirt husband never thought of.” “Probably so.” He pulls on the cigarette and squints through the smoke. “I’m going. With or without you.” She doesn’t answer, and as she slips away, she feels his eyes upon her, a feeling so tangible she thinks they must be leaving shiny tracks across her skin, like the slugs on the back steps. The supper table is silent, Don and Clint intent on the meatloaf, sliced tomatoes, corn and biscuits and gravy. From time to time, Don breaks the silence with questions for Clint. “You get that fence mended 43
in the south pasture?” Or “Why don’t you have the Jacobsen boy come and help stack the rest of that hay tomorrow? Weather says rain Friday.” Latrice pushes food around on her plate and looks from one man to the other, studying Don’s placid motions as he moves his food from plate to mouth, finishing one food before starting on the next, and Clint’s spasmodic, hell-bent-for-leather style—corn in gravy, meatloaf on top of that. Maybe that was the difference between them, in a nutshell. Method and madness. She smiles a little, looks down at her plate. After she finishes the dishes, she wanders out to the front porch, pushes herself in the swing with one bare foot. Twilight creeps over the distant green hills as if trying to sneak up on the house. Everything moves so slowly here—Oklahoma time is somehow slower than time anywhere else. Not that she’s been to so many other places, but now and then she thinks she will die with the god-awful slowness of it all. “Latrice? Come here. Got somethin’ to show you.” Don is a silhouette in the doorway, the light surrounding him like a halo. He doesn’t move until she does, and she follows him through the house into the garage workshop. He drags a lopsided bar stool across the oily concrete floor. “Sit,” he commands. She perches there, one long leg crossed over the other, and twists a piece of hair around her finger, tilting her head to one side, watching him work. His hands move over the wood in the same way they move over the flank of a good horse. Or a good woman, she thinks. Steady. Predictable. She thinks of Clint’s hands. They could slide, caress—or they could slap. “Latrice!” Tangled in her thoughts, she tries to remember what it is she came in here for. “What?” she asks. “What?” “Trying to show you something is all.” “Sorry.” She tries to look interested. “Is it a birdhouse? That what you’re making?” “More or less,” he says, and grins, not at her, but more like through her, past her. It’s new, this grin. It’s an I’ve-got-a-secret grin. An I-knowsomething-you-don’t-know grin. “What kind of bird is it for?” The grin again. “Bothersome ones.” He tightens an intricate set of pulleys that holds up a heavy bar. When he pushes on a piece of wood, the bar falls, swiftly, and would have caught his finger but he’s too fast. A heavy piece of twine is attached to the bar, and he threads it through a hole in the side so that it hangs down. He pulls it and the bar raises, catches on the piece of wood that acts as a trip. He fastens the front of the structure to the rest of it. “Reckon that’ll get the little bastards?” Latrice frowns. “I don’t get it. Who’s gonna be poking their fingers in a bird house?” 44
Don chuckles, a sound both familiar and worrisome, like gears grinding. “Nobody. But starlings will stick their heads in there to get at the food.” She stares at the contraption, eyes narrowed, for a very long time, and he stands silent, as if waiting for her response. Finally, she looks up, breath caught in her chest. “It’s a—what do you call it—a guillotine,” she whispers. “Nope.” He runs his finger along the edge that falls when the switch is tripped. “Can’t cut nothin’ with that. But a bird sticks his head in there, ‘n that thing falls on him, he ain’t going anywhere.” He goes toward the door. “Come on. Let’s put it up.” She follows more slowly. “But then what? Somebody got to let ‘em loose?” “Nope.” He pulls a ladder from the side of the garage and hauls it across the scraggly grass to the yard light pole. After he mounts the wooden structure onto the pole, he backs down the ladder, stands and looks at his handiwork. Latrice stares at it, too, frowning. “I don’t get it. A bird goes after some food, that thing falls, and they’re stuck? You can’t just leave them there.” Don pulls her to him, still looking up the pole. “After they break their own necks trying to get out, I come along and pull this”—he stretches on tip-toe to grab the twine—”and they fall out. I’ll just put a box here to catch them, then throw them in the compost pile. A month or so and there won’t be anything left but beaks and feet.” A sense of unease skitters across her shoulders. She looks up at him, back at the bird trap. “But why? They don’t hurt nothin’.” He laughs, gears grinding again, and his voice hardens. “The hell they don’t. They steal my shit—dog food, blackberries right off the vine, even garbage from the compost pile. Then, after they eat my berries, my garbage, my dog food, they shit on my truck. I’m tired of looking like some kind of idiot, driving around with bird shit all over my truck.” He shrugs. “If the rest of them are stupid enough to put their heads in there after the first one, they’re too stupid to live, way I figure it.” “Oh.” She looks at the hands that built the trap that will kill the starlings. Method. Madness. Maybe they were just two sides of the same coin. That night in bed, she turns to him with a hunger that surprises her. Later, she lies curled on her side, sleepless and watchful as the moon moves across the sky, from the east pasture to the hayfield. When it reaches its zenith, she hears the scratching on the door that is Clint’s signal, but she doesn’t move. Instead, she rolls toward Don and fits her body to his. Soon, she hears Clint’s footsteps, the soft thud of the front door and the sound of gravel under truck tires. She snuggles closer to Don. 45
Driving with one hand on the steering wheel, Phillip Kavanagh placed the other on the radio dial, tuning the radio to WNIB. The speakers spat out static, and Phillip blamed the neighborhood kids who had broken his aerial the day before. He knew they saw him as a loner, the weirdo who lived on the block. He reassured himself he didn’t care as he left Chicago and took the back roads, relying on his knowledge of the state to zip through the dark terrain—a land sometimes lit by a neon sign for a truck stop or a spotlight on another WELCOME TO. He smirked when he read the town names and the small population numbers. Even when he made quick stops in Pontiac for gas and Mt. Vernon for coffee, he could not wait to continue. By dawn he saw the sign for Clarksville—a town he thought was south of Randolph—and he re-checked the address written on the reverse of his contact’s business card. Milo had told him the house of Oskar Vesely, the once-famous Czech violinist, would be easy to find. Phillip pulled over his aging Buick sedan and studied the road ahead. The asphalt glistened from the early morning dew and cut through fields of corn, ending somewhere in the flattened green hills. There was something unnerving about the farmland, he felt, something about the Stradivarius that awaited him being in such a culture-less area. Most of his career he bought and sold modern reproductions and the occasional late-model Amati. This 1698 Stradivarius was known as the “Baron Knoop,” one of eleven Stradivari violins once owned by the collector Baron Johann Knoop, a man of mixed Russian and German stock, who helped run his father’s vast empire of cotton mills. A mile up the road, Phillip stopped at a two-pump gas station to buy a packet of cigarettes. The attendant was a burly man who wore a feedstore cap with the brim pulled low. He gave Phillip directions and told him the two towns were in fact one community, divided by a dried-up river, and the place he was looking for was on the outskirts of Randolph. Phillip gunned the engine and drove in the direction the attendant had advised. A single-lane road led him into the countryside and eventually to a large house painted white and bordering a fallow field and a small thicket. After parking in the gravel drive, near to the sagging front porch, he studied the pleated shades pulled down throughout the first floor. He rolled down his window to take a closer look. The place appeared deserted, or at least temporarily abandoned, and he eyed the house number to confirm it was the right address. He watched for any sign of movement. A lone whip-poor-will called somewhere in the distance, although he could not place where. 46
He exited the car and walked across a narrow streak of flagstones. He knocked on the door and straightened his necktie as he waited. A thin, underweight woman with curled hair opened the door. She was of a similar age to him—her late fifties—but she had youthful eyes and wore a cream satin dress and a pearl rope necklace. Her arms were crossed tightly and her face had an expression of fright as though she knew Phillip, yet did not want to see him. He attributed this, he realized, to her complexion scrubbed clean, not a sign of makeup, and he imagined how the woman would look if she wore mascara or scarlet lipstick. “Is Mr. Vesely home?” “I’m sorry,” she said, her tone flat and hard. “No visitors today.” “I’m here about the violin.” “Mr. Kavanagh?” “Yes,” he said, fishing out a business card from his wallet and presenting it to her as if it were an exotic gift. She studied his name for a moment and then allowed him into the hallway. She led him to an anteroom and instructed him to wait. She walked through a pair of white French doors, turned to the left, and disappeared from his view. Phillip paced up and down. His soles clacked on the varnished floor and drew attention to his nervousness. He had waited his whole life to hold a violin like the Baron Knoop, an instrument that had only been touched by a handful of people. He refocused his thoughts on the framed photograph displayed on the marble plinth in the corner. The sepia-toned picture was decades old. Standing in front of the Tonhalle in Zurich was a young girl, who he assumed was the woman, and a dour-faced man easily recognizable as Oskar Vesely. The woman reentered the anteroom and crossed her arms. “I’m afraid my father can’t see you.” “The appointment was arranged.” “I’m sorry. Things will be better tomorrow.” “It won’t take long.” “No,” she said, scratching the fleshy part of her palm. Half-smiling, she appeared to want to backtrack on her tone and compensate for her words. “I don’t want him to be disturbed.” She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a sound. “Is everything all right?” “Yes,” she said. “But you have to leave.” As she closed the door, he was not sure what to make of this turn of events. He knew Oskar Vesely was old, somewhere in his eighties, and probably suffered from the diseases of old age. Phillip’s own father had died from the repercussions of senile dementia and he remembered the pain of those last months in the hospice, his father asking for a cold glass of water over and over, and how, when he finally refused, his father said he was a lousy doctor. 47
Phillip drove into town and checked into a sixty-dollar-a-night motel. The long two-story strip had faded pastel walls and a shared concrete balcony that overlooked a large parking lot. He lugged his brown leather suitcase inside and inspected his room, finding a twin bed with bluefrilled sheets. He placed his case next to the nightstand and glared at the television set bolted into a monstrous steel stand. When he noticed the amateurish watercolor above the headboard, he grabbed the pine frame and flipped it around. In the bathroom, he splashed cold water onto his face and stroked his chin as he considered shaving. Flinty gray hairs dotted his five-o’clock shadow, and he searched his case for his razor. “Damn it,” he said, finding it missing. He slammed the case shut, his mind returning to his father. Before seeing Oskar it had been many months since he had thought of the hospice. In the time after his father’s passing he had tried to grieve by visiting the grave, but he felt a crippling hollowness on every drive to the cemetery. For six months, he regularly saw a therapist to talk things through. The sessions had not worked— only throwing himself into discovering rarer and rarer violins had some effect. Milo’s locating of the Baron Knoop had struck Phillip as cathartic. But here in the hotel room his emotional progress had fallen away, grudgingly replaced by the last memories of his father’s death. To clear his head, he decided to take a walk downtown. He passed an Art Deco theater undergoing renovation. Two men in beige coveralls were bolting the words CLASSIC FILMS to the front of the marquee. A light drizzle began to fall, and Phillip scanned the stores to find a place to wait out the shower. He entered a gift shop as the rain pelted against the window and distorted his view of the men dashing for cover. Browsing the aisles he found English-style teapots, white doilies, and buttercupyellow fondue sets. On the shelf of the back wall was a cheap pine violin. He looked to the storeowner—a woman in a pilled winter sweater and busy with a middle-aged couple selecting tablecloths—and picked the violin and bow up. He blew dust out of the F-holes and wedged the violin between his chin and neck. The cold chinrest felt familiar and reassuring and he rested the bow on the strings, inhaled a deep breath, and eked out a few notes. Softly he drifted into playing Paganini’s “Caprice No. 13,” trying to find the finesse he once displayed. He stopped a minute into the piece. The sound was coarse, grating to his tuned ear. “You’re good,” said the owner. “No,” said Phillip, startled. “Not really.” “You played as the heavens came down.” He tried to give the violin to the woman. “It was wonderful! Truly wonderful. Are you sure I can’t persuade you?” she said. “I picture you enjoying this.” He considered her question then returned the violin. “It needs to go to a better home.” 48
Farther down the street, Phillip purchased a razor and a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste from a drugstore on the corner. The cashier told him this was the first real rain for a month. “Thank God,” she added, “my yard looks like the Dust Bowl.” He asked her about a decent place to get a coffee, and she told him JOE’S a block over was all right. At the diner, he ate steak and eggs and drank several cups of black coffee as he deliberated his chances of assessing the violin the next day. He worked on commission, finding rare violins, occasionally cellos as well, and evaluating them for auction. In his line of work, one or two sales a week were enough to keep his modest greystone in Logan Square and to attend concerts and recitals at Orchestra Hall. He had been a keen violinist in his younger days, even deemed brilliant. But still part of the rank-and-file—never first chair. At one point, when he lived in Cleveland, he had envisaged a life working in a Midwest orchestra, performing the standard repertoire. An endless repeat of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, he felt, would have eviscerated his love of music. His habit of collecting sheet music, blitzing the parchment with his pencil annotations, expanded his interests into the esoteric, the obscure, the neglected, and he discovered Goldmark’s Violin Concerto, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, the romantic orchestral work of Gottschalk, and Rochberg’s Slow Fires of Autumn. On the way back to the motel, ahead of him, he saw the flat concrete bridge that joined the two towns. He considered exploring the dried riverbed and seeing if he could discover the cause, but he thought better of it and retreated to his room. There, he hung his suit over the air conditioning unit bolted beneath the window in the hope the chilled air would keep it fresh. He called Milo and left a message on his answering machine, asking his advice on how to deal with Oskar Vesely. He perched on the foot of the bed. The cheap linen reminded him of the last vacation he took with his ex-wife, Vanessa, a five-day break to a health spa in central Ohio. They spent most of the time apart; she splurged on full-body massages and tennis lessons with the club pro, while he took long strolls in the wooded grounds. By the time they returned to Cleveland, it was clear to him the marriage was over. He carried this memory into the shower, and it bugged him, even later when he switched on the television and smoked a cigarette. Phillip had tried other jobs after he had ended his performing career. He offered private violin lessons to high schoolers, instructing them in the finer points of bowing and finger positioning, but stopped when the teenagers’ lack of talent or poor work ethic disheartened him. Vanessa, who worked in medical billing, found him a filing clerk position at her company. He lasted a month before he accepted a new job at a regional production company, scoring commercial music for radio and television. A dozen years later he quit that job, too, and the relationship, and started 49
his own business. Now he was knocking on Oskar Vesely’s door, which —until recently—seemed quite unimaginable. In all earnestness he hoped he would see the woman again. Her slack pale skin and pointed nose reminded him so much of his ex-wife that he found it uncanny and in a sense attractive. The woman carried herself with a sensual air, quite unconsciously, and he wondered if she were married or if she had paid any attention to him the day before. He was unsure. Reaching for his necktie, he touched only starched shirt. His tie, he remembered, was on the nightstand—looped and knotted with a Windsor. Embarrassed as the woman opened the door, he rubbed the nub of heavy jowl under his chin. Her eyes widened as she recognized him. “Good morning,” he said. “Come in,” she said. “Mr. Lorenz advised us you would return.” Phillip nodded, mystified as to why Milo had called here and not his motel. He followed her down the hallway—past the oil landscapes and framed newspaper reviews of Oskar Vesely’s performances. There was also a large family portrait picturing Oskar’s five children and a dozen grandchildren. He knew a great deal about Oskar’s career: his work with the New York Philharmonic, his later years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his famed solo recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas. He also learned a long time ago that Oskar married four times. His first wife had died in the pogroms after the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia. Oskar fled the country with an uncle and had settled in a studio apartment on the Lower East Side and taught at Julliard until the war ended. This story was well known—the subsequent relationships were more opaque, mired, as they were, in rumored infidelity and domestic violence. Instinctively, Phillip caught up to the woman so that they walked side by side. “Are you Karolina?” “No, that’s my half-sister.” “I’m sorry.” “Anna.” She turned to him and looked coolly into his eyes. “Now my father is hard of hearing. He has been for many years. So you will have to speak clearly and loudly.” “Of course.” They went into the large drawing room, which contained several sturdy bookcases, a teak sideboard that ran half the length of one wall, and a solid marble fireplace. Oskar was sitting close to the stone hearth, in a stately leather chair, with a book open in his lap. On the side table next to him was a brass reading lamp angled toward the pages. He wore a gabardine suit and sported a froth of wispy gray hair that diverted attention away from the brown liver spots on his forehead. Phillip, though, was drawn to the dark violin case behind the lamp. He felt lightheaded in the presence of the Baron Knoop. “Father, this is Mr. Kavanagh.” 50
Glancing up for the first time, Oskar cleared his throat into his fist and looked at Phillip over the rim of his half-moon glasses, his rheumy eyes probing for meaning. Anna stood next to Oskar, stooped down so their faces were level, and spoke softly into his ear: “He’s from the auction house.” Phillip stepped forward, wanting to clear up the misconception. “Not quite,” he said. “I’m an independent evaluator. I work with Staunton’s from time to time.” “Leave us,” said Oskar to his daughter. “Father…” For a second the two were stalemated. The tension reminded Phillip of his wife and their arguments, their incompatibility. “Find something else to do,” he said, waving her away. His cheeks reddened and he flipped through the pages of his book. Straightening up, Anna sighed. She opened her mouth as if to argue back, but no words came out—just the soft edge of a sad breath. “I’m sorry,” she said, and left the room. “I’m not sure what that was about, but I am very honored to—” Oskar glanced over, his expression one of surprise that Phillip was still there. “Are you a religious man?” he said. “Intermittently,” replied Phillip, unsure how best to answer the question. Emitting a croaky laugh, Oskar clapped his hands together. “Can I ask what you are reading? Is it the Bible?” Oskar appeared thrown by the question, as if he had not quite heard Phillip’s words. He lifted up the book, which Phillip could now see was Moby-Dick. “I wanted to read it one last time,” he said, easing the novel back to his lap. “I wish I had the time to read more.” Pinching the glasses off the bridge of his nose, Oskar held them at a distance, trying to examine Phillip in a new way. “Staunton’s,” he said. “That’s on Main, near the theater.” “Chicago. Wicker Park, to be precise.” The place names seemed to reverberate within Oskar’s mind and he repeated “Chicago” in a soft voice. He added, “I performed there on several occasions.” “Yes, in the seventies.” “Dangerous place,” said Oskar, replacing his glasses. “One of the worst I’ve been to.” “Things are better now,” said Phillip, watching Oskar dog-ear his page and close the book. He drummed his fingertips gently on the cover, and Phillip tried to figure out the pattern of the beats. “I gather.” Phillip was impressed by Oskar’s level of English. There was only a hint of an accent, as if Oskar’s upbringing were a faint memory. He 51
recalled a controversial statement Oskar had made in a magazine interview—was it six years ago?—about the Czech Republic, that the new country was not worth visiting. The remark, he remembered, was uttered shortly after Oskar’s retirement. His final shows had been criticized for the less-than-perfect performances and in particular the critics had derided the deterioration of his playing. Phillip was not sure how the two incidents were connected, but he suspected Oskar’s comments were the last blast of his spotlighted ego. “Sadly,” said Phillip, “I wasn’t able to see you in concert. I was working in Cleveland.” Oskar touched the violin case, stroking the surface. His hands were ridged with blue veins, though the ones on his left were scabbed. “There comes a time in every man’s life when he must part with that which he loves,” he said. “But that time is not now.” “I don’t understand.” “I apologize for wasting your afternoon, Mr…” “Kavanagh.” “Yes, Kavanagh. Give my regards to Mr. Lorenz.” He returned to his reading of Moby-Dick, his finger tracing the lines. Phillip considered sitting down in an attempt to regain Oskar’s attention, and he hovered by the chair for a few seconds, before changing his mind and leaving the room. On the way out, he saw Anna by the telephone stand, pretending to search through the directory. Her lips were pursed, and when he reached her, she attempted a weak smile. “Is everything all right?” she asked. “He doesn’t want to sell it.” “I was afraid he might say that.” “He didn’t even take the violin out of the case.” “My father is a difficult man, as you saw. The thing is he can’t bear to touch it. In case it is his last opportunity to play.” “That may be true, but I have a business to run.” “I understand. I will talk to him.” Back at the motel, Phillip informed the manager he would be staying another night. He decided to buy a new suit. Something stylish that would impress Anna and mask the growing bulge of his potbelly. It had been many years since he last purchased a suit. He had felt little need post-marriage. If he managed to bring the Baron Knoop to auction, it would be the biggest sale of his twenty-year career. A modest estimate placed the violin at five-million dollars, and his five percent commission equaled quarter of a million. His job was to appraise the workmanship, check to see if the violin was damaged in any way, and further to authenticate the provenance. To be sure it was a genuine Stradivarius and not a later copy or fake. On Main Street, he located a tailor who could alter an off-the-rack three-piece suit to fit Phillip’s slightly disproportionate body. His legs and arms were gangly, which often meant 52
his thin, bony wrists stuck out an inch too far. The tailor measured Phillip, said the suit needed only minor adjustments, and would be delivered to the motel in the evening. By the time Phillip arrived at Oskar Vesely’s house, the rain had morphed into a downpour—easily dropping an inch on the parched lawn. He watched the wipers clear the windscreen, the motion spiking a fascination with the temporary quarter-circles. Although he was concerned with what lay in the house, here he enjoyed a Zen appreciation for the simple rat-a-tat noise of the rain. It was only when he noticed the car was running low on gas that he thought of dashing for the front door. He stepped out, dodged a gathering puddle, and strode up the path cursing the weather and his lack of foresight in not bringing an umbrella. As he reached the porch, Anna opened the door. There was a slight puffiness beneath her eyes. “Sorry about the weather,” she said, letting him past. “It’s been a strange year.” She went to the closet and removed a towel. She handed it to Phillip, who proceeded to pat dry his face and then his suit and shoes. “Thank you,” he said, returning the towel. “That was most kind.” “Flashy suit,” she observed, directing him down the hallway. “Did your wife pick it out?” Phillip grinned. Although he felt a little foolish about that part of his life, he was flattered that she discovered his effort. The jacket, he found, was a reasonable fit—but the pants cinched his waist. “No, this was all me. It’s been a long time since my ex-wife has warranted a say over my clothes.” “I’m sorry,” she said, embarrassed. “It was rude of me to pry.” “Don’t worry about it—we divorced eons ago. I bought the suit in town. Merriman’s. Do you know it?” “Yes, vaguely. I’ve not been in the store.” Anna peered through the top pane of the French doors and rapped sharply. The drawing room was blighted by stale, smoky air from the fire. Oskar appeared to be asleep in his chair, and Phillip went to the fireplace and rubbed his hands together to warm them. Large yellow flames flickered in the blackened arrangement of tipi logs, and, breathing in the cloying air, he wondered how long it had been since the windows were last cracked. Anna gently squeezed Oskar’s palm. His eyes opened and he glimpsed Anna and then Phillip. Mindful of their last meeting, Phillip sat in the armchair opposite Oskar and attempted to maintain eye contact. “I don’t need a towel,” said Oskar, his voice more alert than Phillip would have supposed. “It’s not for you, Father.” “Then take it away,” he said, shaking his head. “Mr. Kavanagh is here.” 53
“Then brew the tea.” Phillip drew his shoulders together and leaned forward, trying to get a read on Oskar. He is enjoying these delays, he sensed. “I realize time is short and I would like to—” “I’m eighty-one,” he said. Phillip was puzzled. “I’m not sure what you mean.” “I’m eighty-one-years-old,” Oskar explained. “Tea is one of life’s pleasures. Time should always be made for it.” “Yes, very well,” he replied. He nodded at Anna. “I will have a cup.” “We have Assam and Ceylon,” she said. “Either is fine. Whichever you are drinking.” Anna mouthed an inaudible yes, and she headed to the recessed archway in the far corner. Moby-Dick was on the table next to the violin case. If this was a game, Phillip thought, he would play it with small talk. “I see you’re still reading Melville.” “I fear I always will be.” He raised the book, spun it around, and fingered the page number. “I had forgotten how long and digressive it is. The last time I read it I was on tour in Europe. The late eighties, I think.” “A strange period,” noted Phillip, “what with the Cold War and—” “All I remember are the long journeys through pure civilization. Trains. Such splendid trains. This book lasted me until Zurich.” Anna returned to the drawing room with a silver tray. Atop it were a china teapot with a blue-and-white garden design, two matching cups and saucers, and a plate of kolache. The crusts of the round pastries were golden brown and the fat centers were filled with generous dollops of bright red fruit. “Anna was with me. It was our first trip with just the two of us. Do you recall that European tour?” “I don’t think you finished your book.” “Perhaps you’re right,” said Oskar, spying the baked treats. “What are those?” “Strawberry,” said Anna. “Your favorite.” She placed the tray on the sideboard and poured the tea and then set aside the kolache on small, square plates. Her movements, as she brought Phillip and Oskar a cup and a plate each, were graceful as though she had once trained as a ballerina. Oskar refused to take his drink. “I don’t want tea.” Anna was still for a moment. “Are you sure, Father?” “Yes,” he said, glaring at the kolache. “Are you joining us?” asked Phillip, trying to break the tension. “This is a business matter,” barked Oskar. “Anna is not important.” Phillip was shaken by Oskar’s statement. He could not figure out the nature of their relationship. He wanted to say a few words—to bolster Anna’s side—but he felt constrained by his position. Virtuosos, he knew 54
from experience, were often temperamental and self-obsessed. He wondered if there was another reason, a connection to Oskar’s cognitive degeneration. His father had acted similarly, berating him for bringing the wrong colored grapes or switching the TV channel away from The Price Is Right or Jeopardy! Anna snatched her father’s plate. “Excuse me,” she said. She swept out of the room without closing the French doors behind her. Without another word, Oskar opened the case and lifted out the silk bag that protected the Baron Knoop from being scratched. He slid the violin out and held it firmly in both hands. The maple construction was coated in a rich, walnut oil varnish. Phillip was aware of the idea that this added volume to the sound and produced an exquisite resonance. Though this was hard to prove, he liked to believe in the magical craftsmanship of Antonio Stradivari. Thinking back, he had heard the difference in Oskar’s recording of Pisendel’s concertos, the brilliance of three men’s achievements coalescing in fine unison, and he wished he could again listen to the concertos, to have Oskar pick out his favorite sections. Oskar held the violin under his chin and stared down the strings. “May I hear you play?” “No,” said Oskar. “That would not be wise.” His face turned to disgust, as if such an act were an abomination. Shoring the violin in his lap, he eyeballed Phillip. “I would like the violin in the hands of a deserving man, a young musician who could benefit the most.” “Of course.” He balanced his plate on knee and waited for Oskar to relinquish the Baron Knoop. “It takes years to appreciate the sound,” Oskar reiterated. “To hear the nuance of the note.” “Is price important?” “I am merely a caretaker,” he said, shifting in his chair. “The Baron Knoop has been looked after by better men than me.” “Surely not.” Oskar smiled at Phillip’s transparent flattery. “I’ve had offers over the years. Mostly from businessmen who wanted to place it in a bank vault and let the violin sit there, un-played. They were only interested in letting the violin accrue in value.” “A caveat could be appended to the sale—a legal stipulation that qualifies the purchase.” Oskar slid the violin into the bag and carefully placed it in the case. He closed the lid and clicked shut the lock. “I can take it to the auction house today,” Phillip continued. “Take it?” he replied. “I could never let this violin go.” The words made no sense. Had Oskar said never? thought Phillip. “You just mentioned that…” “It’s cold,” Oskar said. “Throw a log on the fire.” 55
Although Phillip estimated the room’s temperature to be above seventy-five degrees, he acquiesced and slung a burl of oak on the fire. He rested a hand on the mantelpiece and watched the shower of sparks fly up. Soon he heard the reassuring pop and hiss of the dried sap meeting the flames. He turned to Oskar, who was fiddling with the lamp —flicking the switch on and off—and showed no interest in the fire or him. He thought of asking Oskar if he were all right or if he needed anything, even medication. That would be a bad idea, he knew. He left the room feeling more beguiled than before, and he looked for Anna in the hallway and the anteroom and then went up the stairs and called her name. He entered a high-ceilinged room with oak beams latticed in the corners and a glaze of white stucco on the walls. There was a single bed with a chintz duvet folded over to reveal pale lemon sheets, and a closet, the mirrored doors open, full of A-line dresses, frilly white blouses, and dark pantsuits. His interest was taken by a large bookshelf filled with records, and he flipped through the albums, seeing Oskar dolled up in black or spotlighted at the front of a seventy-piece orchestra. His hair was dark and thick and slicked straight back, and his face was serious as if he commanded the other musicians. When Phillip had finished with the records, he felt a great loss inside of him; a biting reminder that this was a life he could have led. He sat on the bed to rest for a moment and soon found himself smoothing down the duvet. There was a Haggadah on Anna’s nightstand, he noticed, a deluxe Maxwell House edition printed on thick cardstock and enclosed within a blue cover. He flipped through the pages wondering how much of her Jewish past she embraced, if she thought about what her father had gone through in Czechoslovakia, and whether she was ever angry that he would not return to his homeland. Replacing the book, Phillip went to the window and saw Anna inspecting the stalks of a rosebush. She walked barefoot across the lawn to the thicket and leaned on one of the posts that marked the property boundary. She enjoyed the shade of a leafy hickory and the breeze that ran through her hair. When she turned, he jerked away from the window feeling guilty and went to his car. Phillip pushed the MENU button on the remote and flipped through the channels, wasting time into the afternoon. He wanted to listen to music other than classical, to find a mess of contemporary cultural noise. Meaningless static. News about next year’s millennium celebrations splashed across the screen. The program reported on what the future held for the country and how it would cope with a changing world. Soon he was sick of the talk of a new century, a new time—and he decided on an old-fashioned stroll, which, after a three-block loop, returned him to the gift shop. The violin was gone. Phillip speculated it had been sold to a parent hopeful his child would turn out to be the next Mozart, even though it was the wrong instrument. The equating of classical music with 56
the Austrian wunderkind had annoyed him for years and drew him to memories of his early career and Vanessa, whom he met at a college recital. In the campus chapel, she had approached him after his performance and told him how much she had enjoyed his delicate playing of Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto. They dated for eighteen months while he built his career: practicing for hours; attending rehearsals, performing at shows. Money was tight, yet he often thought of these moments as his happiest. Once they married, they lived off Buhrer Avenue in a Victorian house with a leaking asphalt roof. They rescued a patchy-haired Golden Retriever from the pound and most mornings, before the city was awake, he would walk the dog to Tremont Park and let it run loose through the long grass. Vanessa would embrace Phillip when he returned, the leash wrapped tight around his wrist and the dog at his heel, and over breakfast they would plan, dream of their future together. How the years had slipped away, he was not quite sure. Vanessa still worked in medical billing, he knew, but at a new company in Columbus and she was now a regional manager. Even after their marriage ended they would talk every month or so, run through old times and then wait for the inevitable shift to how their lives were diverging. In their last telephone conversation she had asked why he was still alone, why he hadn’t found anyone else. He had no answer for her and now as he drifted out of the gift shop, he recalled the kids in the neighborhood and his reputation as a loner. He purchased a bottle of cheap Scotch at the corner liquor store and skulked back to the motel. Inside, his old suit hung off-kilter above the air-conditioning unit, the left shoulder erect from the wire hanger, while the right drooped and flapped in the frigid air. He questioned his impulse to have worn such a threadbare suit, and annoyed at his self-pity he ripped away the brown bag sheathing the bottle and twisted off the metal cap. Wistfully he sniffed the glass lip and gulped down two shots, enduring the burn in his throat and in the pit of his stomach. He was sick of his old suit, in the wallowing of his past, and he took it to the dumpster behind the motel. He tossed his jacket in first, then the pants. One leg hung out like a flattened dead eel. The idea came to him to light the pant cuff with his Zippo and he watched the cotton smolder, fiber by fiber, into a glowing arc. He heard a shout from one of the motel rooms and in a panic he swatted at the small flame, feeling the crisp blistering of the charred cotton on his skin. Later in the night a knock came on the door, and he opened it, slightly groggy and half-expecting to find the police. Anna was standing underneath the bright glare of the security light, which threw her face into sharp relief. She was wearing a hound’s-tooth skirt cropped below the knee and a blouse with a shallow V that hid her cleavage. “May I come in?” she said. “Yes, if you’d like.” 57
“I’m glad I caught you.” He offered her the room’s sole chair and he went to his nightstand and quarter-filled two Styrofoam cups with Scotch. “Thank you,” she said, taking one cup. “It’s nothing special.” He rubbed the red welt on the side of his hand and then feeling self-conscious sunk his hand into his pocket. “I’m sure it’s fine.” Anna examined the exposed back panel of the painting above the bed. “Why is that picture turned around?” “Bad art,” he said, detecting the wisp of a smile on Anna’s face. But then she closed her eyes, as if to purge his last words. When she reopened them, she dug out a tissue from her pocketbook. Her eyes were wet. “I’m sorry about my father,” she said, weighing the tissue in her hand. “The truth is we need to sell the violin to pay for his medical costs.” “My family went through something similar. They were tough times. If I can be of any help…” “I don’t need you to get mixed up personally with this. I just need a lump sum. The sooner, the better.” “I see,” said Phillip. Anna folded the tissue into a small square and tucked it under her cup. She touched her earlobe, massaging the gold stud between her thumb and forefinger, “This is an ugly room.” Phillip grinned. “It matches the painting.” “Will you come back?” she asked. “I understand your situation, but I have business in Chicago.” “That’s to be expected,” she said, returning the cup. “I can recommend someone.” “That would be helpful,” she said, an air of regret coloring her words. As Anna stood, Phillip smelled the jasmine soap on her skin and the sandalwood perfume on her nape. He missed the small touches that women enacted, the unconscious effort they went to. Anna’s reluctance to accept his help beyond his middleman role frustrated him. Perhaps, he reasoned, he needed to approach the situation in a different way. “Do you want to go somewhere?” he asked. “Get a proper drink.” Her eyes looked directly into his and a shy smile curved her lips. While they walked to a local bar, Anna worried aloud about her house—how she spent half the day cleaning it and dealing with the bills. Her tone was matter-of-fact, the details just details, but now unloaded on a new audience. He listened respectfully, glad she trusted him enough to tell him her problems. At the end of Main Street, Phillip jerked his head toward the Landmark, a refurbished turn-of-the-century inn with lead glass windows and dull mahogany furniture. He ordered two Tom 58
Collinses, and they sat at a booth overlooking the span of downtown stores. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a bar,” Anna said, stirring her drink with a plastic mixing straw. The strong light revealed faint traces of acne scars on her cheeks and how she had tried to hide the marks with a fine, powdery foundation. “Your father must keep you busy.” She picked up her glass, studied the tiny chip in its brim, and replaced it on the coaster. “I’ve been organizing his papers, trying to collect a record of his past.” “That’s important,” he said, sipping his drink. It was weak, and he wondered if the bartender had used rail gin. “For him, that’s true. I’ve wrestled with his past so long that I’m sick of it. My whole life has been about my father. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” “I’m not the judging sort.” “Truth be told, I should have left years ago. Even before his sickness, things weren’t all right. He still treated me poorly—kept me on a tight leash. Of course, I’ve thought about leaving before. But it’s too late now, and I don’t want to worry him. He’s given me so much, especially after Mother died. We traveled half the world together, and I have so many fond memories. Barcelona. Osaka. Milan.” Anna smiled, almost apologetically, and then shook her head as if to dislodge her outward display of emotion. “Sometimes he mistakes me for Karolina. She’s the lucky one. She lives in Texas and has a family of her own.” “Which part of Texas?” Anna appeared not to acknowledge his question and her gaze focused on something out of the window. In front of the theater two young boys were slinging a baseball to one another. A woman of no more than thirty was studying the renovation schedule until she noticed the velocity of the ball, and she hustled the children away from the glass doors. “The town looks different from here,” she said, after a short while. “It’s no Chicago,” he said, watching the boys obediently follow their mother. Anna refocused on Phillip. “Do you like it there?” “It’s better than where I used to live. But big cities are big cities and I’ve lived in them all my life. They’re what I know.” “I hope you stop by tomorrow.” “I can’t promise anything.” Anna gazed down into the well of her drink. “I should go.” They strolled to the motel in silence. Anna went to her car and unlocked the driver’s-side door. He stood there, hands behind his back. His head was buzzing from the alcohol. She came to him, kissed him on the cheek, her hands on his chest. He couldn’t think of anything to say, 59
and she got into her car and sped out of the parking lot. That night he slept in snatches. In his waking moments, he questioned whether Anna was attracted to him. Why had she kissed him? Was she thinking now about that moment too? If she had cared, he surmised, she would have said so. Or he would have. He tried to remember the first time Vanessa had been affectionate, when he was nineteen and had never been on a date. There was a movie theater and black coffee at a diner, and they had kissed in the gritted light of a train car and made love in the tiny apartment he rented on campus. Nothing else came to him, not what they had talked about underneath his sheets or how she had left his place and walked all morning. His memories were fading, like the wiped silver on a collection of antique Daguerreotypes, and he knew as he passed out that his life had fallen short. A bank of thin cloud flattened the sky and left a gray light upon Phillip’s view of the motel. He started his car, reversed out of the parking lot, and thought about his long drive to Chicago. He took a road that ran parallel to the river and saw the previous day’s rain had formed a new stream. The swollen water rushed through the mud, turning rocks over, and carried away years of sedimented waste. If he ventured to Oskar’s, he was unconvinced he would get the violin or even be recognized by Oskar. He discerned, though, it was worth the effort to handle the Baron Knoop, and to talk again with Anna and to apologize for not having said anything. Parking in the gravel drive, he saw Anna pruning a rosebush at the side of the house. She wore oversized khaki pants and a lime green sweater, her hands coddled in thick gardening gloves. She cut a halfdozen stems and snipped off the prickles. Her posture was stooped and, as she stood up straight, she held the small of her back and her face twisted into an ugly wince. Phillip stepped out of his car and waved. Anna bundled the flowers, along with the gloves, into a string bag and tossed the shears into a patch of dirt. She gestured to the porch, and he went over to meet her. At the doorway, she held the bag in front of her like a shield. She opened the door, allowing him to enter first, and then stamped her boots to rid them of the clogged earth. Phillip was unsure what to say. As Anna came in, he stood still in an attempt to stall, to discover what was going on between them. “The roses are late for the season,” he said. “We had an Indian summer.” “I have something for you,” said Phillip, remembering. “Oh?” “To sign,” he said, pulling out an envelope. “It’s an insurance document for transporting the violin.”
Anna opened the envelope and removed the letter. She scanned the words. Then she leaned the sheet of paper on the telephone stand and dashed off her signature. “About yesterday,” he said, folding the piece of paper and putting it inside his jacket pocket. “I’m not sure what I said…” “Things, for me, are difficult.” “I understand.” She began to walk down the hallway. “We can talk about this later,” she said. Phillip followed her. “All right, but—” Anna halted as though something had frightened her. Phillip was about to ask what was wrong, but he now realized she had heard the violin. The faint music was quiet and slow as if Oskar were building to something great, something transcendent. Phillip opened the French doors and looked in. Oskar was standing, his feet together and back straight, his eyes closed. He drew the bow slowly over the strings, caressing, almost languishing, in the beauty of the instrument. There was a slight shakiness to some of his bowing, tremors of doubt and fatigue vibrating through the air. Most of the notes were crisp and formed in Phillip’s mind, drawing a sore lump in his throat, and for a few heartfelt seconds he tried to work out which piece Oskar was playing. His thoughts went to a libretto by a fellow Czech, Pavel Haas, and, as he tried to recall the name, Anna stood beside him—her breath on his neck. She linked fingers with his, and he felt she had roused from a deep slumber and made a choice. He tried to listen to the music, to confirm that his intuition was right, but he could only hear what Anna was saying, and he found himself repeating her words that this was a new beginning.
The View from Mount Pisgah The graveside service for Naomi Gibson’s husband, Boone, had been brief. The Rogers family had sung “Abide With Me,” and one of the elders had led a prayer appealing to the Almighty to welcome his good and faithful servant into the joy of his Lord. That this servant had never been particularly good or particularly faithful was a fact everyone seemed content to ignore in light of the occasion. The preacher, typically not one to let an opportunity for exhortation slip past him, had satisfied himself with summarizing the deceased’s time on Earth generously and briefly and leaving the rest to God. As was their custom, the members of the congregation returned home with Naomi after the funeral. Some of the ladies had prepared a buffet lunch. Afterwards they all sat with Naomi for a decent interval, quietly discussing tobacco prices and the new superintendent down at the high school, who had moved into a big house in the next county over. At last the preacher rose from his chair and brushed the crumbs from his slacks. As if at a signal, the rest began helping each other with wraps and tucking purses under their arms, and within minutes a slow line of cars was heading back down the gravel road to the town in the holler. Naomi’s daughter Sally had seen the mourners out. She began collecting cups and saucers from the front room. She carried them into the kitchen and offered to wash up, but her mother said she preferred to do it herself. “I like the time to think,” she said, before she remembered that she would now have plenty of time for that. “I know where everything goes.” Sally sighed. “I reckon I better get going then, Mommy. I have to get back to the kids, Dan’s mother doesn’t have much patience with little ones.” She looked closely at her mother. “You’ll be all right?” Naomi nodded. She thought Sally looked tired. She said, “It’s a long drive.” “I’ll be back to see you soon. When I can.” Naomi waited for her to say something about her father, but Sally merely bent and kissed her on the cheek. She left the house with quick, sharp steps. Naomi listened as the front door opened and shut. She heard gravel crunching under the wheels of her daughter’s car and then the sound faded. The silence that had been lurking in the back rooms during the visiting time now spread throughout the house. Naomi made a circuit of the front room, replacing cushions, straightening the afghan draped over the back of the sofa. She regarded the afghan for a moment, then went to the linen closet and pulled out a sheet-wrapped bundle which she carried back to the front room and unfolded on the sofa. Inside the bundle was a lacy cotton bedspread 62
Naomi’s mother had crocheted for her and Boone as a wedding present. It had covered their bed until one night Boone caught it with his boot and tore it. Naomi had washed and mended it and stored it away. From then on she covered the bed with quilts pieced from scraps. The bedspread had yellowed slightly but the thread was still sound. She refolded the spread to hide the mend and arranged it carefully over the back of the sofa in place of the afghan. The oak table in the kitchen was covered with half-empty casserole dishes and pie pans. Cigarette butts lay curled like dead insects in dessert plates. Naomi put an apron on over her good black dress and began covering the leftover food with aluminum foil that was satiny with washing and reuse. She scraped the dishes into the slop bucket and washed them in a plastic dishpan. Then she wiped the table with the dishrag, rinsed and folded it, and laid it by the sink to dry. Naomi picked up the bucket and stepped down into the back porch. She closed her eyes for a moment just as she always did, to feel the difference in the air, cool and still. Years ago, when her parents were alive, this had been the sleeping porch. Now a freezer chest squatted where her daddy’s old iron bed had stood. Sally bought the freezer for them after graduating from college. She had gotten a good job with a bank in Knoxville, and one of her first purchases had been this freezer. When it arrived, they had pretended to be pleased, but the truth was the two of them no longer needed it. Now it held some cartons of ice cream and frosty loaves of bread and hummed idly at odd times of day, like a stranger in the next room. A sweater hung on a nail next to the door. Naomi shrugged it on and changed her shoes for rubber boots. She pushed the door open and looked out over the back lot. The yard around the stoop was bare earth, scratched lifeless and packed hard by generations of barn fowl. A dominicker tottered by, muttering and crooning to herself like a distracted old woman. Naomi recognized her as one that hadn’t laid an egg in a month. She was looking shabby, with a raw place on her back where the rooster had trod her. Naomi looked up at the half-plowed field on the ridge above the house. The last furrow ended in a welter of ruts where the tractor had overturned, trapping Boone. She had been working in the house that morning, and had barely been conscious of the clank and rumble of the tractor and plow. By the time she had registered its absence and climbed up to the site of the accident, it was too late. Boone had suffocated. She had not been sure who to call under the circumstances, so she called the preacher. He had sent Jim Parsons and his son up from the holler along with a sheriff’s deputy and the coroner. Jim had a four-wheel-drive truck with a winch. He and his son hitched it up to the tractor and pulled it upright while Naomi waited in the house. The deputy and the coroner had taken care of the rest. Back at the house, Jim’s son stuck out his hand 63
to take the twenty dollar bill Naomi had offered, but Jim said they were glad to be able to help and didn’t expect any pay. As they walked back to the truck she heard him say to the boy, “I ought to smack the tar out of you.” In the old days they used to plow that ridge with a mule. Sadie had been born the same year as Naomi, and she had lived to be fifty, old even for a mule. Naomi reckoned she had thought about Sadie every day since she died. A good companion and a hard worker. A mule had more sense than a tractor, and Sadie had had more sense than some people. Naomi picked her way with the slop bucket down the rutted track to the hogpen and barn. The sow lurched to her feet when she heard the slop pouring into the trough. She lumbered over to the trough and began swinging her snout back and forth over the mess, looking for the best place to begin. The pen was jerry-built out of old barn timbers, tobacco sticks, and faded plastic roof panels. It hadn’t been cleaned out in years, and the manure from the pile in one corner was oozing out into the yard. Naomi turned around and looked back up at the house, empty bucket in hand. She closed her eyes and saw it as it had been in her parents’ day. The house fresh-painted. Peonies in bloom. Her father up on the ridge with Sadie. Her mother hanging sheets on the line. She could hear the wet slap of the sheets. She could hear her mother singing an old hymn— Work, for the night is coming, When man’s work is o’er. She felt her mother’s hand, cool and damp from the sheets, touch her cheek. Naomi wiped her eyes and looked down at her own hands, turning them over and back. Life was long. It was longer than she had ever been led to believe, and she needed a way to bide the time. She went into the barn and found a shovel leaning in a corner of a stall. Its handle was so smooth with use it was hard for her to keep hold of and the blade was as ragged as a torn fingernail. She carried it out into the yard. As she approached the pen, Naomi surveyed the mountain of manure. She stopped to lean on her shovel. There was a picture in her Bible that she especially liked, of Moses leaning on his staff. Naomi always thought Moses looked weary but determined in that picture, as though he already suspected that a secret grave and not the Promised Land waited for him at the end of the journey. He resigned himself to going along with whatever the Lord wanted anyway. She took a grip on the shovel and, without expectation, pushed and slid the blade under the mantle of dung and pried up a good piece.
The underside of the crust was light brown, surprisingly dry and crumbly. Naomi bent down and inhaled the rich earthy smell. Where the manure had been, tiny blades of yellow-white grass lay curled, waiting patiently for the sun.
Teddy sits cross-legged on her bed and flips through the Schwinn catalog, wishing for the umpteenth time it was September. Though four months away, it’s when, best she calculates, she’ll have enough money to buy The Madison. She thumbs the curled corner of page 16, her eyes on the bike’s glossy green frame, but in her mind she’s cruising down Hamilton, the sun warming her cheeks, the bike’s stainless-steel-spoke wheels gobbling up pavement as she passes houses, the 7-11, the Piggly Wiggly with its roly-poly, smiling pig. She closes her eyes and sees herself heaving a last wave at the rosy-cheeked pig, riding off under skies so blue they look fake, pressing forward and never looking back. A car horn intrudes and the vision dissolves. Teddy opens her eyes, lets her gaze linger on her collection of U.S. Olympic athletes, torn from magazines and taped in neat rows on her wall. She flits from one milkmustache smile to the other and wonders how they did it, how they got away. She snaps the catalog shut and sighs. Right now she’d settle for being able to ride across town to her friend Melissa’s house. The car horn honks again and she looks toward the window, wrinkling her brow, still not used to the noise of the neighborhood. Teddy and her father moved in a year ago, exactly six months after her mother stood in the living room doorway, an oversized, battered suitcase in her hand, a pink sweater draped over her shoulders. She’d looked at Teddy, her eyes full of something Teddy couldn’t name, then turned around and walked out the door. Teddy ran to the window, willing her mother to stop, to turn around, but she’d hurried down the walkway, her pink-sweatered back rigid, and disappeared into her car. When moving day came, her father tried to engage Teddy, but she’d remained glum, refusing to participate. Their new house turned out to be only half a house, a duplex, and was hardly big enough to turn around in. But, according to her father, the price was right. He’d given her the master bedroom as a peace offering, said they would paint it any color she wanted. She didn’t care what color it was as long as it wasn’t pink. She hears her father in the bathroom across the hall, getting ready to leave. He works second shift at the Insinkerator plant—a big, sprawling complex she passes every day on the school bus. She listens to the pushpull of drawers opening and closing and weighs the risk of cornering her father to ask about going to Melissa’s house tomorrow. Being allowed to do anything has become a battle, a battle she always seems to lose, so she’s taken to strategizing. She concentrates on his movements—the rapid succession of creaking floorboards, the thud of bottles on the dresser—and determines he’s in a rush, which means he’ll say no. She runs her finger along the blunt edges of the Schwinn catalog, her mind 66
skipping ahead to September. With a bike of her own, it’ll be simple: post a note on the fridge and go. Voices outside draw her attention and Teddy scrabbles over to the window with Rocky—a stuffed tiger she’s had for as long as she can remember—in tow. At 12, she knows she’s too old to have a stuffed animal, but she can’t let go yet. She peers through the screened opening, sees a big, boxy car in Mrs. Chandler’s driveway. Mrs. Chandler lives next door in a bungalow the color of old lace. From her bedroom window, Teddy hears her in the early hours refilling the bird feeders or sweeping the walkway and steps of her wide front porch. When she first met Mrs. Chandler, she thought the old woman a little odd, eccentric. She was always offering concoctions made with comfrey leaves or nettles or evergreen bark: potions to heal a scrape, to soothe an upset stomach. Teddy accepted them to be polite, halfheartedly stirring or applying or ingesting. But after the milky yellow pimple ointment worked, Teddy decided, weird or not, Mrs. Chandler knew what she was doing. Teddy pushes away from the window, stretches her legs out. She tugs her spiral notebook closer—the one she’s written M A T H in curlicue letters across the top front with a fat, black Magic Marker from art class, the one she carries with her everywhere. Her eyes catch the doodling along the bottom edge, the concentric circles drawn with a red felt pen, and she’s reminded of the spot of blood she found last night in her underwear. This is the third such discovery in as many weeks: always bright, always fleeting. She makes a mental reminder to ask Melissa’s opinion tomorrow, then flips to the back section of the notebook. Here, hidden among a host of clear, blank sheets, is the ledger-like page she uses to track the money hidden under her mattress. Trailing her finger down the page, she stops at the total: $139.73. She sags against the wall; even with the weekly $10 she earns pulling weeds for Mrs. Chandler, $249, plus tax, is a long way off. She hears her father clap and cheer for Ron Santo and then the Cubs’ game, broadcasting from the radio in her father’s bedroom, is suddenly quiet. Teddy scrambles to hide her notebook. Some sections, like the one containing details about her crush on John Bosch, are in a code she made up—she’d die of embarrassment if anyone ever found out. There are other things, too. The after-high-school-graduation list is now several pages long, though some items are crossed out: going to Paris (she can’t imagine ever saving enough money), and being a nurse (the sight of blood makes her queasy). But it’s the money page that she’s most worried about. The perils of public financial disclosure are firmly entrenched. At least once a week her father serves up the reminder alongside her bowl of breakfast cereal: poor folks are those who count their money; fools are those who let the neighborhood watch while they do it. But keeping a running total motivates Teddy; she likes looking at the numbers, likes 67
watching them grow. Besides, carrying the notebook with her is easier than dragging the plastic Ziploc bag out from under her mattress all the time. The doorknob rattles and her insides seize. She lifts the blanket at its edge, slides her notebook underneath just as the door swings open. She clutches Rocky and attempts a neutral expression, pretending indifference at having her space invaded. “I’m off,” her father says, his hair still damp. His navy work shirt is freshly pressed and tucked into blue jeans with thinning knees. His eyes jump from her desk to her nightstand to her lap. “You have homework?” Teddy shrugs. “A book report for English class.” He releases the doorknob, points his chin at her. “Get started then.” “I’m going to Mrs. Chandler’s first.” Her father lifts an eyebrow. “There’s no need for you to spend so much time over there. Stay home, focus on your schoolwork.” “But I’m supposed to pull the weeds!” Her official weed-pulling agreement with Mrs. Chandler is for Wednesdays and Saturdays, though Teddy’s decided the weeds follow their own timetable. “Make it quick,” he says, eyes lingering on hers. “There and back only.” She lets her gaze drift to her lap. “I know.” His steps retreat down the stairs and when he reaches the ground floor, Teddy scoots to the edge of her bed. She considers putting socks on, dismisses the notion as too much trouble, and slides her bare feet into dingy white tennis shoes. She gives Rocky a quick kiss and snugs him between her pillows. Instead of grass, Mrs. Chandler’s yard is filled with gardens. Beds bursting with bright, cheery flowers mix with patches of vegetables, some of which Teddy’s never heard of and can’t imagine eating. Clay pots packed with exotic-smelling herbs line the walkways like sentinels. Teddy leaps over the red-rover bed—a nickname she’s given the small oval plot where only red flowers bloom—and sits down alongside the daisies. Leaning over, she plucks inch-high carpetweed from the bed, maneuvering around the thick orange Gloriosa’s stems to get it all. A butterfly darts into view; she rests back on her heels and watches it float from the white Ox-Eye to the pale purple Shasta Daisy. It flutters around her head, making Teddy grin, and then moves on. She stands and gathers the clumps of pulled weeds into a pile. When she’s done for the day, she’ll use Mrs. Chandler’s wheelbarrow to collect the scattered piles and deposit them in the compost bin. Raising her arms above her head, she stretches and considers which bed to attack next. She decides on the lilies and makes her way along the bricked walkway. The path, with its graceful curves, meanders throughout the property and was constructed using three different colors of brick. The pattern reminds 68
Teddy of the patchwork quilts decorating the living room walls of Melissa’s house. She walks past butterfly houses and hip-high bunches of scarlet Columbine. When she reaches the lilies, she finds bumblebees buzzing in and out of the opened blooms, their fuzzy bodies coated in orange pollen. She squats for a closer look and is both repulsed by and fascinated with her intimate view. “Hello, Teddy.” Startled, Teddy tips backward and plants both palms in the dirt. She turns to find Mrs. Chandler behind her, a walking stick in one hand and a bundled napkin in the other. She stands, brushes her hands on her jean shorts. “Hi.” “Thought you might like a snack,” Mrs. Chandler says and offers the napkin. “Fresh from the oven.” Teddy takes a bite and smiles. Snickerdoodle. Mrs. Chandler had welcomed them to the neighborhood with a plate of warm snickerdoodle cookies; they’d been her favorite cookie ever since. Mrs. Chandler shuffles over to a nearby wooden bench and eases herself down onto it. A lilac-scented breeze lifts the brim of her soft, floppy hat and she flattens her palm against the top of her head to keep the hat from taking flight. She gives Teddy a tired smile. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” “It’s early release day.” Mrs. Chandler shakes her head. “Don’t know who comes up with such things,” she says, “nor how you kids keep up with it all.” Teddy lifts a shoulder, lets it drop. She licks her fingers and smiles. “Thanks for the cookies. They were good.” She balls up the napkin and slides it into her pocket, intending to add it to the compost bin. “There are more in the house if you want them.” She wiggles her walking stick back and forth for several beats and then lets out a sigh. “Guess I’d better go check on my tomatoes,” she says, pushing up off the bench. “Thinking of soup for supper, watercress and potato.” She pauses, looks back at Teddy. “I’ll have plenty if you want to stay.” “Can’t,” Teddy says. “Dad’s expecting dinner.” Her father sometimes comes home on his dinner break. He says he enjoys spending his break with her, says it’s good for them to spend the time together. She thinks he’s overly strict and comes home on break just to make sure she hasn’t gone off somewhere fun. “Okay. I’ll let you get back to your work.” Mrs. Chandler heads toward a vegetable patch along the side of the house, her walking stick echoing a hollow thump on the bricks. The bees have moved on and Teddy tugs a few clover stragglers from the lily patch. She works the surrounding beds and after thirty minutes opts for a break. She finds a bench and leans up against it, her legs splayed out on the path. The sun warms her head and shoulders and after several minutes, she tilts her face skyward. Bright splotches of color— 69
red, yellow, orange—appear on the insides of her eyelids and she watches, enjoying the show. In the distance she hears the ice cream truck, its Turkey in the Straw song faint but growing louder, and her mouth waters at the thought of a Fudgesicle. She resists the temptation, not wishing to dip into her savings. The thought of her money spurs an image of her soon-to-be-bike, which spawns a reminder of all the things she can’t do, and irritation at her father flares. She sits with this, feels the injustice of being housebound, of being treated like a baby. At home in the kitchen, Teddy pulls a box of macaroni and cheese from the cupboard. She thinks it’s a lousy substitute for lasagna, which is what Melissa’s having for dinner, but her repertoire is limited. Her father won’t eat frozen pizza, and ice cream sundaes aren’t allowed as the main course. She’s learned a few dishes from Mrs. Chandler, but she lacks the confidence to try them on her own. She puts the water on to boil and then retrieves a package of hotdogs from the refrigerator. Twenty minutes later, when her father walks through the door, supper is ready. “Smells good!” her father says. He tosses his keys onto the counter, then washes his hands at the kitchen sink. His shirttail hangs down his backside. They sit at the small, nicked table on chairs whose blue gingham cushions have faded to near white. Her mother purchased the cushions right after Teddy was born and refused to get rid of them, said they were a reminder of a bright moment in her life. Teddy thinks this is mostly baloney, but likes the way they feel beneath her so is willing to let them stay. She shovels a mound of macaroni onto her plate and points her spoon at the bowl of sliced bell peppers. “Got that from Mrs. Chandler’s garden today.” “Peppers don’t agree with me,” he says. “You go on, enjoy ‘em.” He jumps up, rotates the knob on the TV until he finds a channel airing the sporting news. The volume remains down, but as he sits, he keeps an eye on the updates flashing across the screen. Teddy dips hotdog slices in a circle of ketchup before popping them into her mouth, one by one. She chews slowly, wondering how best to approach her father. Outside, a lawn mower starts up and she follows the noise as it settles into a close-away close-away rhythm. She takes a swig of lemonade and clears her throat. “Can I go to Melissa’s tomorrow? They’re having a yard sale,” she says, her words tumbling over each other, wanting to get it all out, to make her case even as she sees his head begin to move back and forth, “and her mom said I could bring some of my old stuff to sell.” She pauses, waits for him to respond. Her father drains his glass, sets it down with a clunk. “I have to work tomorrow. First shift.” He fishes a toothpick from his breast pocket and slips it between his lips. “Overtime. Can’t pass that up.” He leans back, 70
laces his fingers behind his head. Half moons of dried sweat pucker the fabric under his arms. She feels herself tense, readying for a fight. “Please, Dad? Her mom said I’d be a big help.” Her father snorts as he abruptly stands and gathers his dishes. “You can help me around here by doing your chores.” Teddy jumps up, gathers her plate and glass, follows him to the sink. “I’ll do them tonight.” She watches him collect his wallet, his keys, knows her window is closing. “I haven’t been over there in a long time.” She cocks her hand on her hip. “I’m tired of sitting around here doing nothing.” He turns to her, puts his hand on her shoulder, and lowers his head a notch. “You should enjoy your time with no responsibilities. Having to work and pay bills is no picnic, let me tell you.” She ducks away from his hand, tells herself to keep pushing, to wear him down. “She’s my best friend and you never let me hang out with her. Tomorrow’s Saturday!” “I don’t have any way of getting you there,” he says, his voice tight. “I have to work, remember? To pay for the food, the roof over your head.” He flicks his hand around the kitchen, up at the ceiling. He opens the back door, dismissing her. “Maybe her mom can pick me up.” Her father gives the door a hard shove and it slams against the wall, rattling the house-shaped keyholder. “Enough!” His face twitches. “You’ll stay here where I know you’re safe, and you’ll be happy about it.” Teddy holds herself very still in an attempt to keep from crying. She wants to beat her balled fists against his chest, wants to grab the pan with crusted-over macaroni and fling it at the wall. Instead, she turns and stomps out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom, making sure her feet pound each stair tread with everything she’s got. When she gets to her room, she slams the door for emphasis. She throws herself on her bed and wraps her arms around Rocky, burrowing her face in his worn, matted fur. The tears come, huge, angry sobs that make her breath catch in her throat. After several minutes, the tears lessen and she gets up, grabs a handful of tissue, and blows her nose. She returns to the bed, sprawling across it, allows her breathing to normalize. Turning onto her side, she lets her eyes roam over the pictures tacked to the corkboard above her desk: the Statue of Liberty, her and Melissa at last year’s May Day Festival, her mother holding a bouquet of pink roses, her dark, curly hair framing her smiling face. Closing her eyes, she listens to the sounds: the hum of her clock radio, a siren in the distance, children playing two houses over. She becomes aware of a familiar swishing sound and realizes Mrs. Chandler must be out on her porch, sweeping the day’s dust away. Inching over to 71
the window, Teddy watches as she stacks willow-bark gathering baskets, one inside the other, and places them atop the white side table where the two of them sometimes sit and sip iced tea. Her apron, with its ruffled bodice and old-fashioned curved edges, reminds Teddy of the aqua blue apron her mother used to wear, the one she’s seen in pictures of her mother’s life before Teddy was born. She feels a niggling deep inside, feels the ball of emotion surrounding her mother threatening to bubble open, so she takes a last swipe at her nose with the crumpled tissue and scuttles off the bed. Downstairs, the dirtied supper dishes beckon, but she ignores them. Outside, the sun has begun its descent, though the air is still warm. She approaches Mrs. Chandler’s house, sees she’s in her rocker, and feels instantly soothed by the slow back-and-forth motion. “Hello, Teddy,” Mrs. Chandler calls out, her smile wide and welcoming. “Did you come for more cookies?” “Yes, please,” Teddy says and takes the porch steps two at a time. She helps Mrs. Chandler up and out of the rocker, then slides a wroughtiron chair from its tucked-in position under the side table and plops down. Mrs. Chandler is back in a minute carrying a plate heaped with cookies. She plucks the gathering baskets from the table and places them on the floor, then sets the cookies down in their place and joins Teddy in a matching wrought-iron chair. “Help yourself.” Teddy grabs one from the bottom of the pile because it looks to be the biggest, and they sit in comfortable silence as she eats first one cookie, then another. “Those are good cookies, aren’t they?” Mrs. Chandler says, breaking a small cookie in half for herself. “This was my mother’s recipe.” She finishes the cookie, her hand cupped beneath her chin to catch the crumbs, and then continues. “My mother taught me something else, something you might be interested in.” She flings the crumbs over the railing and brushes her palms together. “Something you could learn about and earn a little extra money at the same time.” Teddy snaps to attention. “Ever hear of moon time?” Teddy scrunches her nose, shakes her head. “You know it by another name,” Mrs. Chandler says and hesitates half a beat. “Your monthlies, menstruation. Your period.” She grabs the remaining half cookie and takes a bite. Teddy feels Mrs. Chandler’s gaze on her, expectant, watching. “In the back, running along the fence are big, white flowers,” Mrs. Chandler continues, her tone light. “You know which ones I mean?” Teddy nods. “Those are moonflowers. Know why they’re called that?” “Because they’re white?” Teddy offers. 72
Mrs. Chandler smiles. “They bloom at night, when the moon’s out.” Teddy gives her a lopsided grin. “Who looks at flowers at night?” “Come over sometime and see for yourself,” Mrs. Chandler says, giving Teddy a mischievous wink. “You know, we’re like the moonflower because of the moon’s influence on our monthly cycles.” She answers Teddy’s doubtful look with a nod. “It’s true. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding moon time, or menstruation.” She bends closer to Teddy, drops her voice a notch. “But what most folks don’t realize is that a woman’s menstrual blood is the most nurturing substance on Earth.” Teddy pulls back, feels her cheeks flush with warmth. She feels slightly uncomfortable and unsure but there’s something else: a sense that she’s being let in on a great secret. She watches as Mrs. Chandler removes her floppy hat and fiddles with its lavender bow. “I stopped having my moon time years ago,” Mrs. Chandler says, her voice soft. “But my oldest, Suzanne, jumped right in and helped out. Until last October when she moved away.” Her voice falters and she looks away. Teddy follows her gaze to the red hibiscus and the butterfly feeding on its nectar. Mrs. Chandler squares her shoulders and turns back to Teddy. “How would you like to take her spot and earn twenty-five dollars a month?” Teddy’s not sure she understands and the question hangs in the air while she replays the conversation in her head. “What did your daughter do, exactly?” “She gave me the blood from her menses every month to nourish my vegetables and flowers.” “How?” It’s out before she can stop it. “She’d give me her used sanitary napkins,” Mrs. Chandler says. “That’s not the only way, though,” she adds, her voice trailing away. Teddy drops her eyes. She feels queasy and wants to leave. “It’s not as absurd as it sounds,” Mrs. Chandler says, her voice quiet. Her eyes are on her lap. “It’s natural, part of the cycle of life.” The sun has dropped behind the houses, filling the sky with long stripes of auburn-streaked clouds. Teddy knows her father will be calling soon to check on her. She looks at the hibiscus, at the plate of cookies, at the box elder tree in the corner of the yard—anywhere but at Mrs. Chandler. She’s not sure what to say, what to do. Finally, she pushes back her chair and stands. “I have to get home.” She takes a step back and adds, “Thanks for the cookies.” “Any time, Teddy.” She fluffs her thick, white hair with her fingers. “Think about my offer,” she calls out. The sky is a cornflower blue, with just the barest hint of brightening on the horizon, when Teddy finally manages to open her eyes. She’d set 73
her alarm the night before for 6 a.m., sure that would give her enough time to confront her father again. She’d spent an hour on the phone with Melissa last night, getting the low-down on the happenings with the yard sale. In her mind she’s compiled a list of things she no longer wants or needs—clothes she’s outgrown, board games that no longer hold any interest, her roller skates—things she knows will earn her a fair amount of money to put toward her bike. She rolls over, squints at the clock and sees it’s already 6:30. She bolts out of bed, finds her father’s room empty, and runs downstairs. Nothing. She checks the street, hoping she’s wrong, knowing she’s not: her father’s Buick is gone. Sinking to the floor, she cradles her head in her hands and rocks from side to side. When the motion slows, she leans back and fights the urge to bang her head against the wall in defeat. She thinks about returning to bed, about pulling the covers over her head and staying there all day, about the possibility of staying there until she’s eighteen. Frustration gives way to anger and she hops up, begins pacing in the small space. Her rage mounts and the chill she’d felt moments earlier is gone, replaced with a warmth that keeps her legs moving, her mind churning. She thinks about calling Melissa, about challenging her father and going anyway. She stops moving long enough to glance out the window and sees the eastern sky is smudged with pink. She clamps her eyes shut, but her inner screen fills with the pink of her mother. Confusion mixes with the anger, swirling and bouncing until her insides threaten to implode. She takes a deep breath and pushes all the air out, repeating the process and, slowly, her anger dissipates. In her bedroom, Teddy pulls on a pair of shorts and digs a t-shirt out of the drawer. She eases her notebook from the desk drawer, fingering the pages until she finds the ledger. Last night’s entry is still fresh: $149.73. She rolls her shoulders, tries to escape the certainty that the money from the yard sale would’ve really helped. Outside her window, she hears the soft clack-clack of sunflower seeds filling a birdfeeder and knows Mrs. Chandler is up and about. She goes to the window, kneels on the floor and rests her arms on the worn sill. With her eyes, she seeks out the row of moonflowers in Mrs. Chandler’s backyard, finds them standing tall, their white, saucer-shaped petals closed against the day. They look strong and delicate, all at the same time. She imagines night falling, imagines the blooms opening, gingerly at first, gaining confidence with each degree of darkness, imagines the power of defying the expected. The sun, higher on the horizon, promises a warm day. Teddy pushes up from the floor and stows her notebook in the desk drawer, covering it with newspaper clippings and old school assignments. She runs a brush through her hair, ties a sweatshirt around her waist and heads next door. “Good morning, Teddy,” Mrs. Chandler says, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she wipes her hands on her apron. 74
Teddy offers a small, one-handed wave and pauses on the walkway. To her left, just beyond the porch, is a bed of butternut squash, its silky leaves wet with dew. She takes a deep breath to compose herself and then meets Mrs. Chandler’s gaze. “Can you tell me more about moon time?” Mrs. Chandler beams. “I sure can,” she says. She leans forward and, using a rolling motion with her hand, urges Teddy up the porch steps. “Would you like to come inside?” Teddy nods and, with a quick glance back at her house, steps into Mrs. Chandler’s living room. The space is warm and inviting, and it smells heavenly—a mix of honeysuckle and cinnamon. Mrs. Chandler turns to her. “Would you like something to drink? I have freshly squeezed orange juice.” “Yes, please,” Teddy says. Mrs. Chandler trundles off toward the kitchen and Teddy lets her eyes roam the space: honey-colored walls, dried flowers and fresh herbs bundled and hanging in the windows, a floral-patterned couch and matching chair sit opposite a small TV. Draped over the back of the chair is a lightweight quilt, the pink squares in its pinwheel pattern glowing as the sun alights on it. She walks to the chair, runs her fingers over the sunwarmed quilt and readies herself.
GLENN ERICK MILLER
Waiting for Bobby
The last time I saw Bobby Moran was a Thursday morning in early July. I was headed to my summer job at the school’s day camp. It was eight twenty-five, I know, because I’d already figured out during that first week of walking to work that if I reached the Nice n’ Easy on Wilson Street by then, I’d be in the school gym to meet my group of rowdy 4th and 5th graders at eight-thirty, and not a minute sooner. Bobby stumbled out of the convenience store, a half-case of Genesee Light cans under his arm, stopping underneath the striped awning as if to get his balance. When he saw me, he touched the tip of his Blue Jays cap and smiled. “Morning, Amy,” he said, his voice low, as if there was someone he didn’t want to wake up. Then he dumped the beer in the back of his tiny pick-up and climbed in the cab. A tangle of fishing poles hung out over the rusted tailgate, and they waved as the truck bounced out of the parking lot toward the pier. The next afternoon, two boys spotted Bobby’s rowboat while they dared each other to jump from the old railroad bridge. The boat was caught up in some weeds deep inside Jefferson Harbor, the namesake of our tiny inlet town on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. On Saturday, Mom took my younger brother Zack and me to dinner at the Lighthouse Inn. There we overheard that Matt Crouch, the sheriff’s deputy, who was only five years older than I, had gone to Bobby’s apartment on Baker Street earlier in the day. No one answered when he knocked, but the door was open, so Matt went inside. There was nothing amiss, and people at the Lighthouse were swearing that Bobby had seemed as normal as ever lately. By the time we finished our blueberry pie that night, the news had spread: the search would begin in the morning. More than once since my father left, Mom had shown me her 11th grade yearbook, the same year I am now. There on the “Under the Sea” prom page was a picture of Dad, Mom, Bobby Moran, and some short girl with big hair named Annette. Mom wasn’t with Dad back then; she was with Bobby, and at some point, the currents of their lives shifted, tossing them around and rearranging them. At these times, I knew my mom wanted to wonder out loud if the wrong two had ended up together, but she would just bite her lip, close the book, and pour herself some white zinfandel from the box in the fridge. The night we found out about Bobby’s disappearance, after Mom went to work the late shift at the hospital, I sat on the couch in the dark, her unopened yearbook in my lap. Zack had turned off the stereo in his room by then, and all I could hear was the hum of the fridge. I turned toward a new sound, of our calico Buttons padding his way across the linoleum floor to his water dish. On the end table beside me 76
was the only picture of Dad left in the house, and though it was dark, I had stared at it long enough to have the image burned into memory. I could see the four of us in that photograph, standing on the front steps of our house, lined up and stiff, like pins waiting to be bowled over. Sunday morning, I stayed in bed for a long while, eyeing the fairytale-themed wallpaper border that lined my room, its edges covered by posters of Mean Girls, Titanic, and other movies. The cool, confident stares of teenage stars were slowly covering the pink-and-purple Disney princesses with the big eyes and demure smiles. It was easy, I thought, to just disappear, to just let yourself be covered up and to not be there anymore. But it wasn’t a sad thought. Everything and everyone moved on. I thought of Dad leaving, walking out on us, and found myself wondering again if he wanted to come home. And then I thought of Bobby and wondered the same thing. Mom was making sandwiches when I walked into the kitchen, my hair wet from my shower and a toothbrush in my mouth. “Good morning, honey,” she said, her voice perky. “Before we go, will you please write a note for your brother? I’m sure he can manage on his own for a few hours, but I don’t want him to worry when he wakes up.” I spit in the sink, but before I could protest having to go while Zack got to sleep late and spend his morning playing video games, my mother explained that she thought it might be too much for him if they did find Bobby. It was best if he stayed home. I wrote the note and scribbled a silly map of how to get to the harbor from our house. “Just in case we get lost, too!” I wrote. I added a smiley face in case he didn’t get the joke. A crowd gathered in Veteran’s Park, in the shadow of the Memorial Pillar, a crayon-shaped hunk of concrete that sat atop a series of square bases. As Matt Crouch, or Deputy Matt as he was called, spoke, I scanned the two dozen or so names engraved into the concrete, of the men from Jefferson Harbor who had died in wars, from the war of 1812 to Vietnam. It was a short list, and, I imagined, the only copy that existed. Most of us huddled into the pillar’s shadow for relief from the sun. Temperatures crawled into the mid-80’s already, and it was only 10 AM. “It’s the humidity that gets you,” I heard a few others mumble. When Deputy Matt finished telling us all about the logistics of a search party, he wrapped up his talk with “Now let’s all work together, folks.” His jaw was set, and his gray uniform was still stiff and dry. He wore it better than the other two officers, both twice his age. They fumbled about with their patrol dinghies at the boat ramp a hundred yards away, looking back at us and shaking their heads as if to say that searching should be left to the professionals. 77
I recalled what my mother said in the car when I asked why we were helping out with the search. “Because that’s what you do in a situation like this.” Now, a half hour later, I thought of asking her how many search parties she had been a part of because I couldn’t remember her going off to search for anyone. But it was hot, and I decided not to push her buttons. Matt’s brief speech energized the forty or so residents of Jefferson Harbor who had shown up. Their chatter grew louder, and their laughter reminded me of a festival. Matt walked through the crowd, forming teams of four and five and assigning them letters. He placed me and my mother in Group D with Mr. and Mrs. Secor, both retired teachers. I had taken 11th grade history with Mrs. Secor that year, her last at the school. She smiled at me, her blue eyes rising above her bifocals. “Hello, Amy,” she said and she held out her hand. Both our hands were sweating, and the shake was loose and slippery. As Matt walked through the groups one last time, he stopped and put his strong hand on my shoulder. It was cool and dry. “You okay, kiddo?” he asked. I wasn’t sure if he thought I looked sick from the heat or just upset because we might find a dead body. “Yep,” I answered, taking my time with the word. I didn’t want him to move his hand. “Atta girl,” he replied, then he walked on, the black stripe of his pants darting in and out of the crowd which by then had grown as Sunday mass let out and church bells began to ring over the harbor. Matt took the influx in stride and quickly formed another several parties. Mr. Secor asked how my junior year had been, what colleges I was going to apply to, and if I knew Bobby Moran. I knew of him, I said, choosing the only question of his that I wanted to address. “He’s around the pier a lot, heading out in his boat or just casting from shore.” My mother shot me a glance. I shrugged. “It’s a small town, Mom. It’s not like I went out of my way to spy on him.” She looked hurt then, and I wondered if she had ever made excuses to find herself down by the pier or driving by Bobby’s place. Mr. Secor cleared his throat and tied his windbreaker around his waist. “That Bobby sure did like to fish,” he said, nodding. “And drink,” my mother added, her voice impatient and no longer perky. “That too.” The search parties spent two hours walking along our assigned stretch of shoreline on the harbor. No one talked much. In between searching for clues that we didn’t yet know existed, I watched the others —four dozen people wandering slowly over uneven rocks and under thick branches that curved out and then down toward the bay’s surface, making a rough canopy above the shallowest waters. 78
“That’s the best fishing,” my father had told me once, “right where the trees hang out over the water. Just fling the line into that gap. That’s where they like to hide. That’s where they feel safe. None of them like being out in the middle, not really. It’s scary out there.” I remember his voice, how the doubt about these truths seemed to deepen the longer he rambled on, until he cleared his throat and was quiet after that for a long time. I had just turned 16 then, and this had been a last-minute bonding opportunity, I soon realized. I was being buttered-up, slathered with sweet cream like a filet about to be tossed on a grill. There was a new bike, too, with 21 gears, though I bent the derailleur one day and none of us knew how to fix it, so I was back to walking. And after the bike, there was a trip to the amusement park at Darien Lake for the whole family, all four of us. Despite the heat, the long lines at the rides, and burning my fingers making s’mores in the crowded campground, I loved every minute of that trip, especially when my parents almost held hands. Then it was over. A few days after the camping equipment was stored away in the garage and Dad had handed me his antique oil lantern as a parting gift—as if to say, “you’ll need this to find your way,” he was gone. He needed his space, he said, he felt weighed down, he wasn’t in love with Mom anymore, but he would always love us and see us all the time. He swore it. When his car reached the end of the driveway, I hurled the lantern at him. It crashed just short of the car, then rolled down the rest of the asphalt slope like a severed head. Mr. Secor waded into the water and peered into that gap where Dad had claimed the fish hid. “Keep your eyes peeled, everyone. This would be where anything of interest might turn up,” he said, wiping his brow with a blue handkerchief. Like Mom, he sounded like he’d done this before. Maybe he had. Maybe they all had. Bobby couldn’t have been the first one who’d gone missing in the bay. Early explorers and even a few of those soldiers listed on the Memorial Pillar had probably drowned out there, but there must have been others more recently—a drunk water skier or a young boy who wandered too far out onto thin ice. It would be easy for people to wade too far into the harbor and get caught in the undertow or fall off their little boat and not be able to get back in. I scratched at a black fly bite on my forearm, feeling bad for letting my mind wander. So I did as Mr. Secor said, figuring he just might be an expert at searching for lost people. “A piece of clothing,” he was saying. “Anything might be a clue to help us narrow the search.” We all listened closely and stepped into the water. It was cold despite the heat. I’d heard it never got really warm because the harbor was connected to Lake Ontario, and that was fed by the other Great Lakes, and then it emptied 79
into the St. Lawrence. So the water was always on the move, never sitting still long enough to warm. “Walk slowly now,” my mother added. “Don’t stir things up too much. And watch your step, Amy. We don’t want to lose you.” I was glad Zack wasn’t there, and I regretted leaving any suggestion that he should join us. I’d be worried about him if he was with us, though he would tell me not to be. I’d grown used to taking care of him that year. Since Dad left, Mom took on extra shifts at the hospital, and I cooked us dinner every night. And we usually had fun, laughing at Punk’d on TV while we slurped spaghetti with garlic butter. But lately, he was getting mean, making fun of my attempts to make him snacks. “Graham crackers and peanut butter? What am I, ten?” he scowled, brushing his bangs down over his eyes. And if we reached the bathroom at the same time, he wouldn’t be playful and push me aside. He would punch me hard in the arm and skulk away, giving up. If he was there with us at the harbor, he’d be the one to wade too far out. At a break in the trees, Group D climbed the bank and rested for a few moments in the shade, water squishing from our shoes onto the dry grass. “You and Bobby, you graduated together, right?” Mrs. Secor asked my mother. My mom shook her head and turned toward the water. “He was a year ahead of me,” she said, her voice quiet. “But we dated a little. He took me to his prom.” Then she squinted her eyes. “You knew that already.” “Oh, I can’t keep track of everyone who ever dated, you know. Thirty-five years is a long time. A lot of students passed through those halls.” I thought of the prom picture in my mother’s yearbook. “Then you fell in love with Dad,” I pointed out. Mom sighed. “Yes, we’ll call it that.” She pulled a few blades of grass. “And that was the end of me and Bobby.” It was quiet for a few moments. I wished I hadn’t brought up Dad, and I was glad when Mom changed the subject. “1980 was his year, the year of the Miracle on Ice,” she said, her voice brighter. “You remember it like that?” Mr. Secor asked, smiling and straightening his back. “How could I not?” my mother laughed. “Everyone and their brother talked about it that way, as if graduating in the same year that the U.S. beat the Soviets somehow made them hockey heroes, too.” Mr. Secor helped his wife to her feet. “Well, he did have a good senior year himself, if I recall. That boy sure could skate. I remember him training out on the bay when it froze.” He nodded toward the water. “He would sprint for hours around all the ice shanties.” 80
Mom checked her watch. She had promised me we’d only be out here for a few hours. “Yes, he did have a good year. One hundred and two goals. I don’t know why I remember that.” She jumped to her feet, and I followed. “And then it all went downhill from there,” she sighed. We were quiet, then I chuckled when I realized we were all staring back at the water, as if willing Bobby to rise. Zack and I spent every other weekend with our father at his tiny cottage outside of town. It was down a gravel road, past the military housing. “I want to be closer to the water,” he told us, though we never knew him to fish much even with all his new-found free time. His rental was tucked into a stand of young poplars, a two minute walk to the harbor’s backwater. It was a stale view. We would stand beside him, stuck at the water’s edge because there was nothing to do. The seaweed was too thick for swimming. “Snappy turtles will take your little toes clean off,” he joked. Zack never laughed, and the most I could muster was a crooked smile. He couldn’t afford a boat, not with the rent and what he gave to Mom every month to take care of us. Soon after he left us, he was hopeful that he’d get the supervisor position at the paper mill—the last mill still open in the area. “More hours, more money,” he sang, goading us to dance jigs with him. “And that means a boat of our own and ice cream every Saturday night—even in the winter.” He didn’t become supervisor, so the three of us would just wander along the weathered dock and look at the half-dozen run-down row boats. Sometimes we’d pick through the rocks there and try to skip them along the water’s surface. None of us were very good at it, though, and we’d walk back to my father’s place and order pizza. Dad let us watch a lot of TV. That evening, after the search, the house felt emptier than usual. It had been a year since Dad had moved out, and I’d gotten used to the void for the most part. But with Bobby Moran still missing and Mom off to work another night shift, the house felt like a cavern, as if I had shriveled in the day’s heat and was now no bigger than a raisin. I wandered the house in the dark, feeling my way down the stairs and through the living room, then the kitchen. When a car passed, its lights swung through the rooms. I imagined a lighthouse scanning the harbor, though I knew ours hadn’t been in use for decades. If he was out there, Bobby would be floating alone in the dark. Maybe he’d reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence by then. How fast would a body move, unseen? I closed my eyes against the cars’ lights and saw Bobby dipping and surfacing again, up past Wellesley Island, then Montreal and Quebec City, some ancient current calling him all the way to the ocean. 81
Monday, I woke to my mother’s crying. I could tell the sun had just risen because the light was weak and reddish, bathing everything in a humid glow. “Red skies at dawn,” I whispered. I rose slowly and crept to the door. Mom’s sobs were interspersed with low moans. If she had sobbed like this when Dad left, I never heard it. Or maybe she had been too busy back then trying to shush Zack and me and soothe our pain and confusion with hugs. Now, it was her pain and hers alone, and she let herself cry. I slipped out of the house, having decided to skip work at the day camp, and I headed to Veteran’s Park on my own. There was another meeting of potential search parties beneath the Memorial Pillar. Deputy Matt looked the same as the day before, crisp and dry. I lingered near the edge of the park and could hear him giving out the same instructions, the same pep talk, as the day before. It was easy to spot Mr. and Mrs. Secor in the crowd since there were only half as many people as the day before. People had to work, I knew, but I also wondered if folks in town were already giving up on Bobby. He was a has-been. High school hockey star, part-time mill worker, fulltime drunk. Bobby was just another guy who fished all day, a reminder of what happened when you didn’t take hold of your own potential and drive it straight out to the interstate and far away toward better things. As I watched the search party begin to fan out toward the shoreline, I thought of my dream the night before, of Bobby floating on the current, sliding past cargo ships and under the U.S.-Canadian bridges. It was a different kind of exit, but an exit just the same. And what would become of the empty space he left? At some point, another senior would break his scoring records, and his name would be replaced on the big board outside the school gym. His house, too, would be emptied of his things—donated or boxed up and stored in a relative’s attic. The landlord might lay new carpet, then a new tenant would move in. Eventually, any reminders that he ever lived would fade away. The air was sticky, and the red skies thickened with black clouds. I imagined the kids at the day camp complaining of the heat and filling their bottles from the school’s water fountains. The other counselors would be splitting up my group among themselves, maybe grumbling about my absence—or maybe barely noticing it—as they planned for a day of indoor games. I climbed over a low stone wall at the western side of the park and started down a weedy path to the shoreline where I headed away from the park. This was where the land turned out, away from the safety of the harbor and toward Lake Ontario itself. Waves lapped and then crashed on moss-covered rocks, as if they couldn’t agree how to attack the shore. Some of them fell passively into the gaps while others smashed and punched at the shore. 82
I knew I wanted to find Bobby; I just wasn’t sure why. Maybe I wanted to be the one to find him, to thread together his last moments of being alive with the last moments after he died. Maybe I’d understand him then, why he did the things he did even though they left so many people disappointed and alone. It would have been a sort of closure—the kind that I thought Mom needed, the kind that happened when Mom had finally packed up the last of Dad’s things a few months after he left. It was a box of old shirts wrapped around a set of four matching beer mugs he sometimes used to make root beer floats for all of us on stifling summer nights. That was all that was left, and when Dad had picked up those things one day when we were out, and when we came home from K-Mart with a new set of drapes for the living room and new sneakers for my brother and me, we knew it was over. He was completely gone. I stood there for a long time, scanning the water for any sign of Bobby—the tip of his head maybe. But the waves were short and choppy, and they mesmerized me. It was too hard to keep track of them all. I then looked down the shore both ways. Each view was the same. Scrub brush, then a drop off of a few feet, then some dark, wet sand at the bottom of the slope, then the slimy rocks, then the water. I found myself trying to estimate how many blades of grass there were, how many rocks, how many grains of sand, and how many waves that appeared and disappeared like blinks of an eye, like the beats of a heart, drumming on and on and on. I felt dizzy. I slumped backward against the slope, the tall weeds at my back and the slick rocks at my feet. The waves kept coming. I listened to them for a long time, watching the sun disappear behind a tall bank of clouds. Then I slept. I woke to a voice cutting through the rising wind. “Over here!” it called. It was Zack. When I opened my eyes, I knew that hours must have passed. The clouds had turned black and tumbled over themselves to become an avalanche of storms. I stood, still dizzy despite my sleep, and I clambered up the slope. In the distance, I saw figures jogging across the park, but not toward the harbor. They were jogging toward me. There were three of them. Zack stopped. “Over here!” he shouted again. I walked to him. He grinned. A gust lifted the hair from his forehead to reveal a field of pimples. “It’s gonna pour,” he declared, looking toward the horizon. My mother appeared behind him. I expected her to yell. I expected her to say that she had been scared half out of her mind when the school called to tell her I hadn’t shown up. But she didn’t. She just stood there among the tall grass that bent to the rising winds, and she put one hand on her hip and the other to her 83
forehead, her body sagging a little. Then she turned to look behind her, toward my father, who was still running to catch up.
What He Has to Do The itch of lice, a threadbare wool uniform which tickled on a cold November morning, the pinch of falling-apart shoes two sizes too small, and the stink of fifty-six thousand farm boys who relieved themselves any time the urge came to them vanished when the first Rebel shell screamed overhead. Matching his pace to the others’ fast walk, Zack looked down the second of three blue lines undulating over rolling grass. Half a mile distant, Missionary Ridge rose like a green five-hundred-foot wall, its crest dotted with puffs of smoke. Occasionally while sleeping under the stars or gazing at clouds rolling past on the prairie, Zach felt naked, exposed to God’s all-seeing eye. The sensation came back to him, but it was the enemy on the ridge who watched. He visualized Sara’s blonde braid, swaying like a cow’s tail as she walked among scraggly apple trees on the hill behind their one-room log house. There was a thump and a squeal like a pig’s. Fleeing into dreams, Zach became a boy on a farm too small to support a family but whose chores were never done. His father, a mean, intense bull of a man, had disappeared one Indian summer day. For two years the heavy work had fallen on a petite woman and a ten year old boy. When his father returned with a knife scar across his throat and deep lines between the eyes, all he said was, “A man does what he has to do and lets God take care of the rest.” A ragged volley interrupted his reverie, and a ball buzzed past like an angry bee. Wails and explosions melded into a deafening roar. A gray cloud grew over the rifle pits at the base of the ridge. Zack plunged into acrid smoke and continued blindly, struggling to stay even with the men on either side. Another volley thundered, less intense than the first. After some fifty paces the ground fell away, and he stumbled into a hole. At the bottom lay a barefoot young man in butternut rags, the left side of his face gone. Bluebellies milled about, some firing up the ridge and others crouching in the trench, which provided minimal protection from the enemy on the high ground. Zack sat beside the dead man, took off the ragged wool cap that he had found trampled on the road during the chaotic flight from Chickamauga, and wiped his brow. “Form a firing line!” bellowed the lieutenant, out of sight on the right. Zack spat and took out his canteen. The third line emerged from the mist. A knee jostled his elbow, spilling water on his shirt. “Son of a whorehouse pimp,” snarled Zack, shoving the intruder. “What you doing down there, wagon dog?” said a bearded soldier, joining the chaotic gaggle.
Rifles flashed on the ridge, and balls thudded into the dirt. Emitting an incoherent gurgle, the bearded soldier fell with blood spurting from his throat. Others lay on the slope firing back, hastily plunging a ramrod down a rifle barrel, or cringing. The only one upright was Lane—who any moron could see was under age—holding the tattered regimental flag. There was fear in his eyes, and Zack wondered whether he was too petrified to lie down. He recalled the starving time, when the enemy cut the Army’s supply line and he went foraging every night. The area around the camp had been picked clean, but there was loot to be had around Chattanooga if he was willing to fight for it. Rebel campfires in three meandering lines on the ridge had seemed so close that Zack could reach out and squeeze one in his fist. He had heard a scuffle and a voice nearly as high as Sara’s. Praying that some scared sentry wouldn’t blow his brains out, he ran forward with a shout. He found Lane lying in the road, clutching a few grains of corn he had stolen from the horse feed. For a month, the boy had followed him like the lice in his pants. Zack had cuffed him many times and called him every foul name he knew. Eventually, because he had grown fond of having his shoes clean and his canteen full, he had said a few words to the boy. Zack had been forced to enlist after blinding an eye of a rich man’s son in a fistfight, but Lane had volunteered. His father had gone missing at Shiloh. He talked endlessly of reaching Atlanta and the prison camps beyond. Often the boy would look at him moon-eyed. The stare brought out feelings Zack was ashamed of, and he would walk away until the sensation subsided. Lane loved tinkering with gadgets. Zack had forbidden him from touching his rifle, but he had fixed others that were prone to misfire. He was going to apprentice himself to a mechanic and someday would start a company which made stagecoaches pulled by a kerosene engine. Zack would be his foreman. Muskets boomed. Zack sprawled with his head in the grass, trying to avoid the insects zipping past. “Stand fast, and form a line!” bellowed the lieutenant. “Blind as a headless chicken,” said Zack to his lucky rifle with the Z carved into the stock, which had been with him through two years of dust, terror, and longing. A shell whistled overhead and exploded behind them. Even Grant, who was a known drunk, couldn’t have come up with something this stupid. Union artillery was too far away for effective support, but eventually the enemy would find the range. There was a piercing scream. The flag was gone. Feeling cold inside, Zack crawled until he came upon Lane, who was lying with the flag draped over him. “You fixing to nap till this hellfire is over?”
Lane looked past him, eyes wide with awe. “Take good care of the colors. I got this pain in my side that hurts like the Devil.” “Man’s got to be crazy to be a color bearer.” Zack brushed long blonde hair from the boy’s forehead. “A bull’s eye for the whole Rebel army.” “You’re a good man, Zack. You take care of them.” “All I want is to get back to the farm and see the apple trees bloom one more time.” “I’ll meet you after I rest in the shade of those trees.” Putting his hand down to comfort the boy, Zack felt wetness. He lifted the flag and saw glistening intestines like a mass of snakes. The shriek was so loud that he thought a demon had escaped from Hell. As if in a dream, he found himself running up the slope. Instead of his rifle, he was carrying the flag. From behind him came a shout which turned into a roar.
Hands Clean The scream of the jet engines filled Ben’s ears as he stepped down the terminal stairs and onto the tarmac. The line of people walking ahead of him, mostly businessmen, led to a puddle-jumper that couldn’t have held more than fifty people. As he got closer, the line abruptly stopped, and he almost bumped into the man in front of him. Ben noticed everyone looking toward the cargo hold just behind the wing, and then he saw what had halted the line: two baggage handlers were loading a glossy black coffin—his father’s coffin—onto the conveyor belt that poked into the belly of the plane. His father had always said that when the time came all he needed was a pine box, but Ben had never been sure how serious he was. The people ahead of Ben glanced quickly at those in line around them before looking back to the coffin. His father would’ve hated the attention, but it seemed no one could take their eyes off of it. It didn’t help that the weight made the conveyor belt sluggish, slowing and then jerking forward a couple of inches like some kind of strange dance. Ben wondered if the baggage handlers might try to push it along, but they only stood and watched like everyone else. After the coffin was safely out of sight, the line started moving again, and except for the flight attendant greeting everyone at the top of the steps, the boarding process was subdued. Ben had only flown a couple times, but he could tell everyone was quiet because of what they’d just seen. He tried not to let it show on his face, but he felt everyone staring at him as he made his way to his row near the back of the plane; it was like he had a sign around his neck. Part of him wanted to stop in the middle of the aisle and announce the details: that it was his father in the coffin, that he’d had a heart attack and died four days before, and that he was taking his body home to St. Louis. But he didn’t. Instead, he walked on, head down, while everyone stared. The plane was divided with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other, and when he’d looked again at his boarding pass he’d hoped he was in seat “C” so he could sit by himself, but of course he was seat “A.” He found his row and stuffed his carry-on in the overhead bin and his laptop bag under the seat in front of him and sat cramped against the window. Looking out the porthole, Ben watched two luggage handlers on the tarmac toss bags onto the conveyor belt, the same one his father’s coffin had ridden. They yelled back and forth to one another over the roar of the engines, and though Ben couldn’t hear what they were saying, he saw one of the men laughing so hard he had to stop to catch his breath. Ben wanted to know what the man had said that was so funny. As the bags disappeared beneath him, he wondered how everything was organized in 88
the cargo hold. Was his father off in the corner by himself, or was luggage stacked up next to him? He wondered what the other passengers were thinking. He was certain it didn’t make them comfortable; after all, people don’t like to be reminded of death, especially while boarding an airplane. He wondered if any of them secretly hoped their bags wouldn’t touch his father’s coffin. A man Ben guessed to be in his forties in brown pants and a brown and black hound’s tooth blazer sat in the seat next to him, and his cologne filled the space between them. It was strong, which made Ben think it was cheap. The man took a moment to situate his briefcase under the seat in front of him before nodding at Ben. “Business or pleasure?” “Business,” Ben said, still looking out the window. Outside, the baggage handlers had loaded the last of the bags, and the one who had been laughing backed the baggage conveyor away from the plane and swung it around in the direction of the next gate. It moved behind the plane and out of his sight. “Aren’t we all,” the man said. “What kind of business you in?” Ben looked at the man. “Family business.” “Ah, the very best kind of business. ‘Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.’ Right?” he said, nudging Ben with his elbow. “You know, The Godfather?” Ben faked a smile. “No, I work in the construction business with my father,” Ben said, surprising himself. His father had been in the construction business—he’d run a handful of crews building houses in Wichita—but Ben had only worked for his father once, the summer before his senior year of high school, and he’d only worked as a laborer. After majoring in Graphic Design and dreaming of running his own design firm, Ben’s portfolio was full of the ads he’d designed for The 316, a free weekly alternative paper he’d worked on for the past three years, and little else. He’d done some freelance work, but not enough to build a business on. Though his job at The 316 was unimportant and anyone who had basic computer skills could do it, his father told everyone he met his son was a freelance graphic designer and that he was starting his own company. He’d told Ben that as long as he was doing freelance and building a potential client list, he would help pay his rent; he didn’t want anything to keep Ben from reaching his goal. But the jobs had stalled, as had his inspiration, and Ben hadn’t worked on anything outside of the paper in over a year; he hadn’t been able to tell his father. “Really? My father worked construction too. Of course he’s retired now. What kind of construction do you guys do?” “Residential.” “I’ll be damned. So did my father. I’m Paul Winthrop.” He extended his hand. 89
“Ben Russell. Russell Construction.” They shook hands, and Ben saw Paul’s eyes glance down at his hand. Paul hesitated a moment and smiled, tight lipped, before letting go. Ben cupped his hands together in his lap. “So, what’s taking you to St. Louis?” Paul asked as the flight attendant began the preflight instructions. “A trade show.” Never in his life did his father go to a trade show, but it was all Ben could think to say. Things seemed to be snowballing, and he began to fidget in his seat as the plane backed away from the terminal and taxied toward the runway. “How many crews your father have?” Paul asked. “Three. And he still works with one of them every day.” It was true, or had been; the guys on the crew respected that their boss—a man twice their age—could out-work them on a daily basis. The engines began to roar and the plane jolted forward and gained speed down the runway. Paul was saying something about how his brother started working with their father when he was in high school, and how his father eventually gave him his own crew, but Ben could only think of his father below in the dark blue suit and maroon tie he’d only worn twice—to his own mother and father’s funerals—jostling in his casket in the cargo area with everyone’s luggage, and he gripped the armrests as the plane lifted off the ground. He looked out the window at the ground rapidly falling away. As they ascended over the suburbs north of the airport, he wondered how many of the houses below his father had built. “Don’t fly much?” Paul asked. “No. I hate this part.” Paul kept talking about his father and brother and their business, but Ben wasn’t paying attention. As the plane bounced and shook during its ascent, he hoped his father’s casket was secured below. He had an awful vision of the casket lid rattling open and his father’s body falling out and rolling around among the suitcases and bags. He squeezed his eyes tight but couldn’t make the image go away. “I guess you don’t have to worry about that, do you?” “What? Worry about what?” Ben opened his eyes. “Being the son that didn’t work for his dad.” “Yeah. No,” Ben said, reaching up and turning the knob to increase the air flow on his face before re-gripping the armrest. “How’d you end up working with your father?” Paul asked. Ben took a deep breath. He didn’t want to talk anymore, but he didn’t know how to end the conversation. “I worked as a laborer for him in the summers during high school.” The one summer he had actually worked for his father had been miserable. Not wanting the rest of his crew to think he was taking it easy on his son, Ben’s father was harder on him than any of the other guys. Looking back, Ben realized his father was 90
trying to break him. After spending the better part of his first day looking first for a board stretcher and then a left-handed hammer—then the rest of the day being ridiculed for it—Ben had actually gotten the hang of the job rather quickly. He struggled the first couple of weeks with the lumber and got yelled at a lot for being slow, but he started to catch on and was able to anticipate what came next in the building process and have the lumber and tools ready where they needed to be. Watching his father work, and working with him, Ben got to see him as a man, not just his father. Even then he knew it was something many sons didn’t get to do. “During the summer after high school he sat me down and asked me if I’d like to join his crew full-time as just another one of the guys, and I’ve been working for him ever since.” After he said it aloud, Ben understood for the first time it was what he’d wished had happened. He wouldn’t have said yes—he was going to college—but he’d wanted to know his father thought he was man enough to do the job. “Well, that’s good. You should be proud,” Paul said, pulling his briefcase out and opening it. Hoping this signaled the end of their conversation, Ben followed suit, taking his laptop bag out from under his seat and getting the copy of The 316 he’d picked up at the airport. He flipped through the paper, but the ads rarely changed week to week. He found a new one he’d worked on near the back. The Artichoke: Home of the Famous #8! The background was green, and the text across the top was crisp white. Celtic knots were in each corner, and there was copy at the bottom about the hours, phone number, and website. It was clean and tight, but plain and predictable. He looked over at Paul who had stowed away his briefcase and had reclined his seat. His eyes were closed and his head lolled to the side. What were the odds that Paul’s father had been a construction worker too? Ben thought. Of all the flights to St. Louis and all the seats on the plane, he had to end up next to me. And why hadn’t he said anything about the coffin? Ben was sure he’d seen it. As the plane reached its cruising altitude and leveled off, the captain came on the intercom and told the passengers the flight was on schedule and that they’d be landing in about fifty minutes. The seat belt light had been turned off, and Ben folded the paper and slipped it into the pocket it front of him. He reclined his chair and closed his eyes but knew he wouldn’t sleep, even though he hadn’t slept much more than a couple hours in the past few days. Talking to Paul reminded him of the ride home with his father after his last day on the job. When they pulled into the driveway his father turned off the truck and looked at him. The cab of the truck had smelled thick with sweat and sawdust. “I’m proud of you, son,” his father had said. “You worked your ass off this summer. I tried to get you to quit, but damned if you didn’t. Hell, I might’ve even hired you,” his father had joked. “But I hope I got it out of your system. Go to college and get a good job that works your brain, not your body. Keep 91
those hands clean. I’ll be damned if I’ve dirtied mine for all these years to see my only son dirty his.” Ben opened his eyes and looked at his clean, clipped nails and smooth straight fingers. They hadn’t been dirty a day since that summer ten years ago. He remembered that after a full day on the job with his father he’d felt alive in his exhaustion; it was as if his body was grateful. He’d liked knowing that what he was doing mattered. There were times during the day when he’d pause and look at the house going up around him, and he would think of the family that would be living in it when it was finished. They’d built four houses in that subdivision that summer and Ben knew exactly where they were; every so often, in the years since, he’d drive through the neighborhood. He loved looking at the houses and the lives they contained and knowing he’d played some small part in all of it. After the plane had landed, taxied to the gate, and come to a stop, the cabin filled with the jingles and buzzes of cell phones being turning on. A long line quickly formed as the people in the back of the plane got antsy and retrieved their bags from the overhead bins and stood in the aisle. Paul, who had finally woken up when the plane landed, got his briefcase out from under the seat in front of him and stood in line to exit the plane. “Enjoy the show. I hope you find something useful.” Ben waited in his seat until there was no one else on the plane behind him before he gathered his bags and exited the plane. Inside the airport, Ben spoke to the woman at the desk in front of his gate and she directed him to Guest Services, where he was told it would be approximately an hour’s wait while they unloaded his “cargo” from the plane and readied it for transport. They would page him when everything was ready. Ben had arranged for a funeral home to pick up his father and take him to the cemetery. For the first time in nearly a week, he didn’t have anything to do or anywhere to be, so he started walking. At the third Starbucks he saw, he stopped for a cup of coffee; he seemed to be the only one in the entire airport not moving. Old people rode along in the airport courtesy golf carts to and from their gates; business people walked briskly, paying little attention to their surroundings; pilots and flight attendants pulled their wheeled carry-on bags behind them; a young mother struggled to keep her three kids together while she pushed a cart full of their bags; and one man ran at a dead sprint dodging and weaving through the crowd on his way to his gate. In the time it had taken him to drink of cup of coffee, hundreds of people had passed and he wondered if, like him, any of them were there because their father had died. After answering the page from Guest Services, he was escorted out to where his father was being loaded into a large cargo van. The casket was on a cart, and Ben stood off to the side and watched as two airport 92
workers wheeled it to the back of the van. The driver climbed out and helped them guide the casket onto a set of rollers and the three of them slid it into the van. The driver was wearing dark blue pants and a white shirt and his long hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He nodded at the airport workers, and when they turned away, Ben heard one of them ask who was pitching for the Cardinals that night. The driver climbed into the back of the van to secure the casket and then closed the back doors and asked if Ben wanted a ride to the cemetery. “We gotta make another stop,” the driver said, “but it’ll save you getting a cab.” Ben got in and put his laptop bag and his small carry-on in the space between the seats. When the driver started the van, the radio blared some kind of earsplitting death metal. He pushed the eject button on the radio and the screaming guitars and garbled lyrics silenced and the CD slid out. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t usually have passengers who mind.” Ben shifted in his seat. “Yeah,” he said. Once outside the airport, the driver reached for the pack of cigarettes that were on the dash. He fished one out of the pack, lit it, and rolled down his window. “Smoke?” “No, thanks.” The driver tossed the pack onto the dash and it slid all the way to the windshield. He took a long drag, laid his left elbow on the door, and when he exhaled the smoke swirled around the cab of the van and Ben watched it disperse into the back, but when he caught sight of his father’s casket, he turned his head sharply toward the front. Ben knew the driver noticed, but he made no indication, only smoked. He’d seen the casket at the funeral and again on the conveyor belt at the airport and only a few minutes before when it was loaded into the van, but seeing it in this context was disturbing. Ben did his best to keep facing forward; he tried to focus on everything outside the van. He didn’t know where they were going. His father had grown up in St. Louis, but Ben had only visited twice, both times for funerals; first his grandfather and then a year later his grandmother. As far as Ben knew, the funerals were the only two times his father had been back since Ben’s mother had left them. This was the third time for both of them, and it was for another funeral. After driving for ten or fifteen minutes, they pulled behind a building with a long concrete ramp leading to double doors. The driver backed the van up near the ramp and got out without saying anything. Ben leaned forward as far as he could to follow the driver in the side mirror. When he disappeared behind the van, Ben looked in his own side mirror. He watched as the double doors opened and two men appeared pushing a stretcher that held a black body bag. A third man in a white coat came out and handed the driver a clipboard. He quickly wrote something and handed it back. The two men then guided the stretcher down the ramp, and as they got closer to the back of the van Ben leaned farther forward 93
to watch them until he finally lost sight. The rear doors of the van opened and Ben sat back in the seat and listened as the men loaded the body bag next to his father. He heard the men speaking Spanish to each other as the doors closed and the cab of the truck was silent except for the idling engine. He looked over his shoulder at the body bag next to his father’s casket and it surprised him how it looked exactly like the ones on TV and in movies. When the driver opened his door and got in, Ben turned quickly in his seat. The driver looked at him. “It’s okay, man. Stare all you want. Dude ain’t gonna mind.” The driver reached for another cigarette and lit it. As they drove, Ben noticed that the area they were in looked affluent. The houses, though they appeared older, were bigger, the yards and landscaping nicer, and the side streets were lined with large mature oaks and sycamores. It reminded Ben of the old, wealthy College Hill neighborhood in Wichita. Though he still didn’t know where they were, he assumed they had to be nearing the cemetery. The driver turned down a side street across from what looked to be a new outdoor shopping district designed to look old-world and rustic with fountains and sculptures and stores with fancy-sounding names Ben had never seen. On a corner lot a few blocks into the neighborhood sat one of the larger houses on the street, and in the backyard stood another old oak tree, only this one held one of the biggest tree houses Ben had ever seen. It was painted and trimmed just like the house, and it had a large wrap-around deck. Ben kept his eyes on it as they passed. “Did you see that?” he asked the driver. “Those kids are out there all the time.” The driver spoke without looking at Ben. “You ever have a tree house?” “I grew up in the city, man, in an apartment. We didn’t have a yard, and we sure as hell didn’t have any trees.” “I did. Have a tree house, that is. Dad built it for me when I was in grade school. He was a carpenter, and he let me help him build it. It was the best. It wasn’t as nice as that one back there, but it had a rope ladder and a pole to slide down on.” He stared out the windshield. It was weird to be talking to the driver this way, but the story spilled out of him. “We spent almost every afternoon out there from the spring to the fall. We played checkers, talked about sports and school and cars, and sometimes cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and camped out in the tree house. It was our thing, you know?” The driver nodded but kept his eyes on the road and smoked. A few blocks later, an old cemetery with a long stone wall and a large wrought iron archway appeared before them and they turned in under the arch and headed up the drive toward the main building. Large red brick with white columns and white trim, it looked relatively new compared to the rest of the cemetery. The driver dropped Ben off at the 94
front of the building. “I’m sorry, man, about, you know. . .” he said and gestured with his head toward the back of the van. Ben nodded at the driver. “Thanks.” He closed the door and as the van pulled around the corner to the rear of the building, Ben heard the music start up. Though Ben knew he would see his father’s casket at least one more time, it was an odd feeling watching the van drive away. As uncomfortable as he’d been on the plane and on the ride from the airport, he knew what he was doing was useful; it had purpose. Now, the trip was over, and his father would be in the ground soon. After finalizing the paperwork for the burial, the funeral director, a man close to Ben’s age but with shoulders stooped in a kind of permanent bow of sympathy, told Ben that his father’s casket had been placed in an adjoining repose room and asked if he wanted a moment before the casket was sealed permanently. Following the funeral in Wichita, Ben had made up his mind he didn’t want to see his father in the casket again, but as soon as the director asked him, he said he would. His father’s casket sat on a catafalque over which a dark red sheet had been laid. The director opened it, told Ben to take as much time as he needed, and quietly left the room. Ben felt no need to talk. At the funeral he had thought he would pour his heart out to his father, but he hadn’t, and here he had a second chance and still no words came. His father’s face looked waxy and unnatural. At the funeral, he hadn’t understood why everyone kept telling him how good his father looked, how the mortician had “really captured him.” Ben looked at his father’s hands resting on his stomach. They were his father’s hands, large and thick-knuckled, with scars and unhealed cracks and cuts from just last week that even the make-up couldn’t cover, but there was something that didn’t seem right. At the funeral, he couldn’t place it, but in the dim lamp light of the room, Ben saw what it was: his father’s nails had been manicured. Each nail had been cleaned and clipped and buffed so smooth they reflected the light. Even the black half-moon of his recently smashed thumbnail shone brightly. A short laugh escaped Ben’s mouth before he could check it. What would his father have said if he knew his nails had been manicured? He smiled and the moment passed. Ben reached out for his father’s hands, and though he had touched them at the funeral and expected it, the cold stiffness was unsettling. As he turned to leave, he found the funeral director was stooped in the back of the room, and Ben wondered how long he had been there. The director stepped past to close the casket lid and Ben opened his mouth to speak, to say goodbye to his father, but again nothing came out. In the late afternoon sunlight among the endless rows of headstones, Ben stood at his father’s grave at the Russell family plot and listened to 95
the elderly pastor perform the burial rites quietly and without emotion. His father would have wanted a priest and Ben thought he had requested one, but the funeral director had either ignored his request or was unable to oblige. He didn’t have the energy to get angry; it wasn’t as if having a priest there would change anything. With no one other than the funeral director present, the pastor seemed to be going through the motions, and before Ben knew it, he heard him say “Amen,” and he was finished. The pastor stood a moment at the foot of the grave before wobbling over to Ben. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, squeezed slightly, and then, with the funeral director’s help, walked to the golf cart that sat waiting on the path. After helping the pastor into the cart, the funeral director approached Ben and told him his bags had been taken to the new Marriott a few blocks away where a room had been reserved for him. Ben thanked the funeral director; he hadn’t thought that far ahead. He sat on the edge of the Russell headstone and watched the pastor’s robes flowing in the breeze as the golf cart drove away. The sun grew larger as it slowly dipped toward the horizon. The air had cooled, and when he stood up, he felt the stiffness in his body. Standing before the hole in the ground that held the casket that held his father, he moved his foot, and though in the dying light he couldn’t see the dirt fall, he heard it tick against the top of the casket. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, and turned and walked up the path toward the entrance. He walked past a groundskeeping shed and two men were sitting on buckets smoking cigarettes. When he passed they looked down at their feet, and Ben knew they’d been waiting for him to leave. It was dusk by the time Ben passed the main building and walked under the wrought iron archway and out onto the street. He knew someone would’ve given him a ride, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone. The hotel was just a few blocks away, and he wanted to walk. Retracing the way the driver had brought him to the cemetery, he approached from the back the large tree house he’d seen earlier; now the entire structure was outlined and lit with strands of white Christmas lights. It shone brightly in the dark tree and appeared larger and more magnificent than before. Children’s laughter called out into the night. Ben stopped before he reached the circle of light cast down by the tree house and thought about what he’d told the driver when they’d passed by earlier. Everything he’d said was true; only he hadn’t told the whole story. One day at the beginning of seventh grade he’d asked a few of the boys in his gym class if they wanted to come over to play in the tree house with him and his dad. At that time he’d probably outgrown the tree house, but it served as the location for him and his father to connect. But what twelve or thirteen year-old boy is going to understand that? He was made fun of mercilessly the rest of the day, and when his dad got home 96
from work and called up to his room, Ben had yelled down at him that he never wanted to step foot in the tree house ever again. Early the next morning—it was a Saturday—he woke up to the whining of a circular saw followed by the savage banging of a hammer. Looking out the window, he saw a ladder leaned up against the side of the tree, and cut and splintered lumber covered the grass around the trunk. He’d watched as piece after piece of the tree house fell to the ground. It was like the tree was shedding wood rather than its leaves. He’d wanted to stop his father, but it was too late. After his father had finished dismantling the tree house, he picked up his tools and put away his ladder before coming inside. “You’ve got a mess outside to clean up,” his father had said, and as he passed Ben in the hall by his room he’d noticed his father had been dripping with sweat and covered in sawdust. When he had gone outside to pick up the remnants of his tree house, he remembered fighting back the tears as he looked up and saw two boards still nailed to the tree. He wasn’t sure if he father had forgotten them, though that was unlikely, or if he’d left them on purpose as a reminder of what had come to an end. His father had later apologized, of course, and once much later, after a few too many beers, he had cried and asked Ben to forgive him for tearing the tree house down the way he had. It was the only time Ben had seen his father cry. Embarrassed both by his crying and for having caused it, Ben hadn’t known what to say, so he’d only sat and waited for his father to stop. Ben stepped out of the shadows and walked through where the tree house threw its light onto the sidewalk. A little boy stuck his head out of one of the windows and looked at Ben. Ben started to wave, but the little boy disappeared inside before he could finish the gesture. He stood a moment in the glow of the tree house before walking back into the growing darkness where, a few blocks farther, the brightly lit shopping area welcomed him through the trees.
My neighbor Wild Bill constantly fought a losing battle against the spurge and clover and chick-weed that invaded his lawn. He would bounce around his yard in a motorized wheelchair armed with, among other weapons, a two gallon tank sprayer balanced on his lap filled to the brim with Weed-B-Gon or Roundup or some other deadly elixir and attack resilient remnants of odious weeds or seditious grass that survived an earlier offensive and any new invaders that made inroads overnight. Wild Bill enlisted his battle plan almost daily in the high heat of summer; he never caught onto, or simply ignored, the natural fact that lawn weeds had inexhaustible resources. Moreover, he wasn’t aware that the pokeweed and shepherd’s purse were aided in their conspiracy by the neighborhood kid with his mechanized cavalry who mowed the unkempt vacant lot down the street and then wheeled his contaminated Toro to Bill’s yard. The kid constantly sowed seeds that fell from the undercarriage of his mower onto Bill’s lawn, where they took root and grew like St. Matthew’s good seed falling on good soil. I called my neighbor Wild Bill, but never to his face. I rarely referred to him as Wild Bill to my wife, but I often repeated the name to myself as I watched him roll recklessly about the yard in pursuit of his vegetative adversaries. I thought, given the abundance of arable yard space, the heat, the humidity, along with the lawn boy’s covert aid to the enemy, Wild Bill’s quest seemed sadly Quixotic. However, I did not call him Wild Bill as a result of his irrational fixation on killing weeds or his madcap operation of his motorized chair. An early incident earned him the sobriquet, at least in my mind. I moved to the neighborhood some months before Bill, when my wife and I decided to downsize and buy a home in a more modest neighborhood. I had retired from my job as an accountant for a small manufacturing company and wanted to conserve resources. Our two children were married and living out of town, so we didn’t need as much space. We drove leisurely along a tree-lined street in a neighborhood that felt comfortable and discovered, due to the vagaries of death and the economic downturn, two acceptable houses for sale sitting side-by-side. The houses were nearly mirror images of each other, as is the style in such neighborhoods; sturdy, unassuming, functional. The house we chose had been partially modernized in fits and starts and wore new, but cheap granite countertops and replacement cabinet facings in the kitchen, selling points for my wife. Being a bit handy I promised in my retirement I would spruce up the baths, lay new tile, paint the walls, order new carpeting and, in general, tidy up the place. We didn’t need much, I
reminded her, since we promised ourselves, like so many newly retired do, to travel more, particularly to visit our children. I myself appreciated the yard, which had been well-kept by the prior owner and was covered in moderately thick and weed-free bluegrass shaded by a plethora of severely pruned ash trees and dated blue Pfitzer junipers. The yard was not large and required nothing from me except normal mowing and maintenance. It was late spring after we were comfortably settled in, and while I was dusting some elderly rose bushes in the front landscaping, I watched a procession of pick-up trucks and panel vans and passenger cars roll up in front of the house next door. The men and women who piled out of the vehicles were sponsored by a local veterans group, I later learned through strategic neighborhood gossiping, and they rapidly engaged in a flurry of purposeful activity, unloading tools and lumber and other materials. As the days passed they seemed to move about in well-coordinated maneuvers—measuring, sawing, hammering and cleaning up. I surreptitiously watched them work as I washed my car or mowed my lawn or pruned my flowers. Over the course of a week or so they built a sturdy wooden ramp from the driveway to the front porch and fashioned an enlarged front entryway. They built a smaller ramp from the back patio to the back door. That’s what I could see from the outside. I was informed through clandestine reports from the FedEx driver that the workers widened the door into the master bedroom and equipped the bathroom with a roll-in shower. This was confirmed by the well-worn fiberglass bath tub and shower combo that appeared in the driveway waiting to be hauled away. Bill and his wife moved into the house in mid-June. He mostly kept to himself, staying inside during the heat of day, only coming out early in the morning after his wife left for work, or late in the evening as the evening sun was setting. We had little interaction, he and I, save a simple wave or friendly hello. I knew his first name was Bill; I couldn’t make out his last name, if he said it, as his words were drowned in a pool of mumbles and spit when we introduced ourselves across my driveway. As I came to understand his story, as told by his wife to my wife over neighborly coffee, Bill lost his legs in Fallujah to an improvised explosive device several years earlier. Bill’s exotically beautiful, but charmingly batty wife, Magdalena, would scramble the acronym and occasionally lament, in hushed tones, that the IUD really ruined Bill’s life. She and Bill had no children, and she intimated that they likely never would as a result of Bill’s unfortunate run-in with the IUD. It wasn’t long after our mutual introduction when Bill began his morning ritual, rolling out the back door and down the ramp toting his sprayer, his wheels thumping across the clumps and cracks in his uneven lawn as he saturated each stand of dandelion or purslane or wild carrot with his poison. If Bill caught sight of me he would wave the sprayer wand in an abject salute, but for the most part, he was too self-absorbed 99
to pay attention to anything but the battle at hand. Although he often rolled back up the ramp appearing discouraged and dejected, I admired his tenacity and dedication to duty. I took to calling him Wild Bill on the Fourth of July when, after dark he parked his wheelchair in the backyard, sans weed sprayer, and while sipping from a twenty-four ounce can of Budweiser, fired round after round from a forty-five caliber automatic pistol at the neighborhood fireworks bursting overhead. Someone on the block called the town cops and they relieved Bill of his weapon until after the holiday. I never referred to him as Wild Bill to his face, however, and particularly not when he is heeled. Wild Bill wanted a yard like mine, he confessed to me one evening as he sat under an unkempt pin oak just across the property line sipping Budweiser from a twenty-four ounce can. I was inwardly embarrassed by his comment, realizing that since I had moved in before him he had no idea the lush lawn on my side of the line had nothing to do with my meager ministrations. Nevertheless, I said nothing to disabuse him of the notion. As he continued to rail against his pathetic stand of grass, I learned he regarded the yellow nutsedge and dandelions and purslane to be natural terrorists intent on taking over his entire lawn. He was intent on killing them all. And then there were the moles. Moles follow grubs, they say, and I suspected my late June grub treatment forced a migration of the larvae across the property line, hailing a labour of the furry little fuckers to follow. In any event, sometime after the Fourth of July incident, I heard Will Bill wailing and cursing in his backyard. I walked behind his house and found him face down on the ground, with a front wheel of his wheelchair axle deep in a soft mole run. Bill was wet around the waist from spilled beer and had worked up a frothy sweat trying to right himself. I pulled the wheelchair out of the hole and gingerly grasped the reeking Bill under his arms and lifted him into his chair. His damp tee-shirt clung to his belly and I could see the outline of the .45 tucked into his waistband, the handle readily accessible. Bill’s only comment was “thanks”. But I could sense he was profoundly embarrassed by having his fastidious old neighbor pick him up and I have to admit, I was embarrassed, too. I told him it was no problem and I went about my business, leaving Will Bill to curse the weeds and the grubs and the moles and all the other incubi that bedeviled him. A few days after the wheelchair incident I was in my front yard, broom in hand, silently sweeping grass clippings from the sidewalk, quietly considering colors for our bedroom walls when all of a sudden the peaceful morning air was fractured by the harsh POP! POP! POP! of Wild Bill’s .45 auto. Startled, I dropped flat on the ground, scratching my cheek on rose thorns, hugging my green grass in terror. I lay there for a 100
minute trying to calm myself; I reached down and felt my trousers to see if I had lost my water. I slowly crawled across the driveway and around the side of my house, staying close to the ground. My heart leapt and heaved and I flopped on my belly each time I heard another shot fired. When I made my way to the northwest corner of my house I looked up from the ground and caught sight of Bill sitting bolt upright in his wheelchair, a can of Budweiser in his left hand and his automatic in the right, firing point blank into the dry mole mounds, making the dirt and dust fly, as he cursed and spit and taunted the animals to come out and fight. “Stick your goddam head out, you furry little cocksucker!” Wild Bill wailed. “Come on! Fight fair you blind bastard! I don’t have any fuckin’ legs!” As I watched, Wild Bill pulled the trigger a couple times more but I heard only metallic clicks. The magazine was empty. Bill popped out the clip and threw it at the dirt. Then he threw the can of Budweiser. He drew back his arm as if he was going to throw the .45, but he slowly laid it down on his stumps and wheeled toward the house, up the ramp and through the back door. Bill hadn’t seen me, I surmised, since he hadn’t turned around and I was in shadow of my house, on my belly. I stood up and looked down to see piss darkening the crotch of my khakis. I gingerly walked around the house to my front porch. I sat down on the wicker divan, pulled the damp cotton away from my thighs and stared at my lovely lawn. I thought about Wild Bill and his yard and the weeds and the moles that vexed him, and the .45 and the gunshots and the piss in my pants. I engaged my old accountant’s mind and figured I was about thirty years older than Wild Bill. At times like that an old man thinks about when he himself was younger. I also thought about the incubus that bedeviled me since I was a teenager. It was January of my senior year in high school when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive. I reminded myself, sitting there on my front porch, past middle age, paunchy and piss covered, that when my time came, I followed the prudent course, like so many boys my age did, and went to college after I graduated high school and got a goddamned student deferment and lived a soft goddamned life and retired and now I spend my goddamned days dusting rose bushes and mowing my perfect goddamned lawn and sweeping up dry grass clippings and painting bedroom walls various goddamned pastel colors. And on top of that I found myself falling down and pissing my pants from fear at the sound of a gun fired into dirt by a legless man in a goddamned wheelchair. Sitting there on my porch waiting for my trousers to dry, feeling the slight sting on my face where the rose thorn scratch already had formed a thread-thin scab, I decided to enlist in Bill’s battle to defend his yard. I got up and drove to the hardware store and bought a set of mole traps and several cartons of poison pellets. That evening, after the sun set, after Bill 101
finished his last beer and wheeled himself inside and I could see his television glow through his front window, I crept about in the moonlight mounting the mole traps one at a time on the mole runs and mounds, setting the spring, and moving on to the next. I strategically placed them around the perimeter of his yard, a steel phalanx guarding his grass. I poked holes in the runs and mounds and filled them with poison pellets. In the morning I sat on my back porch having my coffee and watched Bill over the top edge of my newspaper. He stopped at the top of his ramp and surveyed the field. Finally he rolled down the ramp and toward the nearest trap. He studied the apparatus for a minute and looked over at me. I waved. “Had some extra mole traps,” I said. I laid down my paper and walked across the property line and stood next to Bill’s chair. “Nice,” he said. “Skewers ‘em right through the gizzard when they set it off.” “Nice.” “By the way, Bill,” I offered, “You’re never going to get rid of those weeds if you keep having that kid mow your lawn. He keeps seeding it from the vacant lot down the street.” Bill sat there silently working the information over in his mind. “Makes sense,” he finally said. “I’ll mow your lawn.” “I can’t let you do that.” “Sure you can.” “I’ll pay you.” “I need the exercise. I’m getting to be an old fat ass.” “I don’t think I can…” “You can do me a favor in return.” Again he quietly contemplated my comment. “Name it.” “My wife and I go out of town fairly often to visit our kids. I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood but you. I’d feel better if I had somebody to keep an eye on the place while we’re gone. Keep an eye on the house; that sort of thing. Someone I can count on. You know?” Bill again sat silently arranging his thoughts, and then nodded his head in agreement. “Oh, I know,” Wild Bill said with a slight smile. He patted the waist band of his trousers and started his wheelchair toward his ramp. “There aren’t many guys left like you and me. Guys you can count on,” he said over his shoulder. “You know?”
KELLY STONE GAMBLE
The Choosing Game I down my first beer of the day and motion for another. “Three’s your limit.” Troy sets a bottle in front of me. “I didn’t know I had one.” A few months ago, his presumption that I needed a limit would have irritated me, but now I find it comforting that someone is looking out for me, even if it is the bartender at the Hideaway Shack. “Anne? Cowboys or Indians?” Stanley is a regular, almost a fixture. He’s been here every time I have, sitting on the same barstool at the end of the L-shaped bar. Four Yankee Candles of different flavors light the bar, their scents mixing with the smell of stale cigarette smoke and cheap cologne. The aging jukebox only plays country music—sad country music. Scribbles in black Sharpie cover the once white walls and ceiling, the names and comments of patrons past and present. My name is written in small, block letters under a scratch that says, “Do it for ewe.” I wouldn’t say I’m a regular, but I do come here often. “I’m thinking,” I say. I am thinking, but not necessarily about the Choosing Game. “Indians. I’m a Chiefs fan,” Ebben replies, then tips his beer bottle toward Stanley. Ebben owns the bar, a gift to himself, he says, after the loss of his fourth wife. The first three didn’t die, they just left. The last, however, blew her brains out in his living room, right after shooting his dog. He regrets not taking the dog with him that day. He doesn’t say much about the wife. Rene sits down beside me; I know she won’t be there for long. She can never sit still, talks fast and scratches her arms all the time. “Damn, girl, what happened to your hand?” I put my right arm at my side. I had forgotten about my hand, the pain numbed by the alcohol, my mind on other things. She grabs my wrist and lifts it above the bar as if to assess the damage. It’s swollen and purple, but already turning yellow at the edges. “It was an accident. I wasn’t paying attention.” “You really should see a counselor.” Rene bounces off her bar stool and begins dancing around the bar. Last year, I’d started seeing a therapist. Three times a week, while Jack was away, I would sit in an office overlooking Schifferdecker Park, tell my problems to a woman who didn’t have any answers, and watch the children outside the window push each other on a roundabout. Around and around that small circle they would go, never leaving the spot where they began.Two months ago, Jack punched me so hard on my left temple that I fell on our coffee table, catching my right eye at about 103
the same angle. Two black eyes, swollen to the point that I could barely see for three days. That’s when I took off my wedding rings. And I quit going to the counselor. I had passed the Hideaway Shack many times in the past few years, a small house on the highway that had been converted to a bar. It looked rough, but I knew I could take a punch, and on the day I decided to stop, I needed a beer. Now three times a week, I come here. Troy is my therapist, a barstool my couch. Stanley and Ebben are always here, Rene on days when she isn’t passed out somewhere. And there are others. I’ve learned their stories over the past few months. They still don’t know mine. It’s like a knitting circle in a bar, without yarn or needles. Group therapy, at a fraction of the price. Round and round we go, never leaving our small circle. Stanley works nights and drinks days. He lost his only son five years ago in an accident that still hasn’t been explained. A hit and run at night, no reason for the boy to be out walking, no reason for the car to have swerved off the road so far to hit him. His loneliness is hidden much better than his sorrow. My first day here, it was Stanley who needed to talk, and I was the ‘new kid’. At fifty, I don’t feel much like a kid, but I’m young enough to be one of Stanley’s. He told me his story through choked tears, and I bought him a shot of Jack. “Excuse me.” A man I don’t know sits on the stool next to me, his arm brushing against mine. Eight empty spots at the bar and he chooses the one to my left, in my space, but I don’t feel uncomfortable by his closeness. There is a familiarity to his presence. I smell his cologne, a musky sweetness that forces me to inhale. I’m glad I bathed today. Although he looks to be about my age, he still has a full head of hair, dark brown and curly. Even in the dim light of the bar, I can see his eyes, a jade so pale that they are almost gray. I study him, maybe a second too long. “What can I get you, Pardner?” Pardner is one of the terms Troy uses to address someone he doesn’t know. I don’t know if this is a word he has used all of his life or one he picked up since moving to the Midwest, but his thick Eastern accent makes it sound like ‘Podna’. “Bud. Draft,” he says, “and it’s Cole.” Cole. There was a Cole in high school, short, redheaded guy with pimples so thick they overwhelmed his freckles. This was not him. Age may change people, but it’s hard to hide age worn acne scars and the pale skin of a redhead. No, this Cole is new and fresh. He makes circles on the bar with his finger. I look at his hand. No ring. As Troy sits the mug in front of him, I smile, almost mechanically, as if I’d done it a thousand times before. 104
Rene has eased her way on the other side of Cole, leaning on the barstool, half sitting, half standing. “Hey, there, new guy. Wanna buy me a beer?” She licks her lips in what looks like her attempt at seduction. “Back off, Rene.” Troy shoos her away like a fly. “She has no manners.” Rene cackles and walks to the end of the bar, draping her arms around Stanley and Ebben. She whispers something in Ebben’s ear, and he motions to Troy for another beer. I can’t keep from glancing at Cole. Flawed perfection, I think. A beautiful specimen of a man, but flawed. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be here. I’ve aged well. My skin is smooth and when I remember to color my hair and take the time to put on a little makeup, I’d say I don’t look too bad. Save for the one deep crevice that runs between my eyes, I look closer to forty than fifty. That one wrinkle doesn’t bother me; I’ve earned it. Jack used to call it my thinking line—”you are always thinking,” he would say. Sometimes, it seems, for the both of us. Troy pops the cap on a bottle and places it in front of Rene. The waxy smell of black cherry drifts toward me from a nearby candle. Broken hearts and lonely nights spill from the jukebox. It’s all very predictable, and my life has been far from that for a long time. I find comfort in that, but am a bit anxious about how at ease I am with this stranger. I take a long drink from my bottle. “Do I know you?” I say. He faces me and smiles, a gap between his two front teeth. “Ask me again next week.” A pleasant ache, low in my stomach, one that I haven’t felt in years. I down my beer, not taking my eyes from him. Cole. “Troy, I think you are going to have to up my limit.” “Uptown or downtown?” Stanley asks. Ebben gets off his barstool. “Neither.” He adjusts his hat and follows Rene toward the back door. “I’ll take country.” “Blind or deaf?” Stanley says. “Deaf.” Ebben has returned from his trip out back with Rene and assumed his place at the bar, always the second stool on the far end, next to Stanley. From their position, they can see everyone sitting along the long side of the bar. “No more jukebox if you pick deaf.” Rene comes out from the ladies room, still buttoning her jeans and joins Ebben and Stanley. “No pretty girls if I chose blind. And besides, I’m still banking on that whole love at first sight thing. Can’t do that blind.” Ebben winks at me and smiles. “Are they always like that?” Cole watches the three at the end of the bar, but I know he’s talking to me. Yes, they are always like that. “I wouldn’t know,” I say. 105
“There’s no such thing,” Cole says a little under his breath. He exudes confidence, a boldness in his actions, however seems hesitant to join in the game and express his true feelings amongst a group of strangers. I remember my own reservations the first time I came to the Hideaway Shack, which have slowly waned over the past months, but not without a little encouragement. “No such thing as love at first sight or no such thing as love?” I ask. He takes a long drink from his mug and licks his lips. “Love has nothing to do with sight. It’s the things you don’t see that are most important. I would think the blind have a better grasp of the concept.” He turns to me with his eyes shut and feels around on the bar until he finds my hand. I don’t pull back. “Blind.” I say to Stanley. “How about through sickness and in health or until death do us part?” Rene is standing with one hand on her hip and is smiling her blackened smile as if she is very proud of her contribution to the game. Rene looks to be in her forties, but is more like in her late twenties. Her parents died when she was young and she was in and out of Foster Care until she ran away at thirteen. She’s been turning tricks in bars since she was a teenager, is addicted to meth and God only knows what else. “That isn’t a choice, Rene. Those two go together. You can’t have one without the other,” Stanley says. “Sure you can,” Ebben and I say at the same time. “Until death do us part,” he says. I nod my head. Once you’ve lived with a sickness, death is the easy part. Jack and I had met when I was a month out of high school. Twice my age, he was closer to my mother’s years than mine. Tall and handsome, one of those guys that is so charismatic you can’t help but like them. Everybody’s buddy. Every girl’s dream. He had a good job, a big truck and owned his own home. I was waitressing at the highway truck stop and he came in for lunch one day. He left me a five dollar tip and wrote “see you tomorrow” on the receipt. And he did. And the next day, and the next day. We married six months later—to love, honor and cherish, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. We loved, honored and cherished for close to thirty years. Then the sickness came. We didn’t have any children; not that we didn’t try. It just didn’t happen, and neither of us were much concerned about it. Well, when I was younger, I thought having children was just supposed to happen, but as I got in to my thirties and I still didn’t have any, I accepted that different things are meant for different people. Jack and I were in love, we were enough for each other.
Now, I long for children—adult children I can lean on, someone to help me, someone to cry with. Selfish, I know, but there are worse things than dying. “How about you, new guy? Give us a choice.” Ebben motions for Troy to give Cole one on the house. “Let me think. Okay. A good meal . . . ” He moves just a fraction closer to me. I can feel the heat from his body. “Or good sex?” “That’s a no brainer,” Rene says. I wonder if she’s ever had a good meal, or good sex. “All sex is good, so I’ll take a 20 ounce T-bone,” Ebben says. Stanley laughs and jabs him in the side with an elbow. “Pfft. You’d be lucky to get a bowl of beans. I’ll take the meal, too. The good stuff you have to pay for, and I think the meal might be cheaper” Cole looks at me. I don’t hesitate. “Sex.” He smiles and nods his head. A year ago, I had started to fantasize about sex with my husband. We hadn’t been together in over a year but it had always been good prior to that. He just wasn’t interested any more. I hoped that would pass, and it did. Then I was scared. He went through a period of wanting sex all the time. Rough sex. We weren’t making love, it was as if I were being raped by a stranger every night. I cried myself to sleep and prayed it would pass. It did. Six months ago, I learned the art of masturbation. It relieves the tension, but I long for a warm body. Not Jack. He slipped away from me about the same time I bought my first dildo. But a warm body. Any body. Until death do us part. I hate to admit that I would welcome his death, but in a way, I would. I never even considered having an affair. Then Cole sat on the barstool next to me. I know he needs something. And so do I. Cowboys, Indians. Uptown, downtown. Blind, deaf. Life is all about choices. “Truth or dare?” Rene says. The game is getting old. No one answers. She says it again, louder, pleading like a child. I feel sorry for her so I answer. “Truth.” “You are married?” Rene says to me. It’s more of a statement than a question, and very unusual for the group. I guess with Cole here, I am no longer considered the new addition. I don’t want the questions, but maybe it is time for me to spill. Maybe that’s what I recognize in Cole, not a long lost love waiting to be found, but like me, someone searching. Maybe he’ll buy me a shot of Jack before the day is over. The bar is silent, the jukebox has played its last song. “It depends on your definition, I guess.”
Rene wipes her nose and then waves a hand in the air. “You must live with a guy, I’ve seen you in here beat up enough. I just want to know if you are married to the asshole or not.” Troy stops cleaning the bar. “Rene.” I never considered they might think I was an abused wife, looking for some relief in a bottle. I guess that is exactly what I am, although I have neglected to think of myself in that way. I’ve seen myself more as a lonely and frustrated housewife, involuntarily abandoned by the man that had promised to never leave. I nod my head. “I am married. But, my husband is not a wife beater. At least, not in the way you think.” “That’s what they all say.” Ebben seems angry about my reply. “He has Alzheimers. Sometimes, he gets frightened . . . ” Troy puts another bottle in front of me. I guess my limit has been increased. I can’t explain to the group how the emotional pain exceeds the physical. I’m exhausted from the work involved in caring for Jack, and feel selfish about my longing for a closeness that will only come from outside my home. He’s my husband, I try to remind myself, but he isn’t Jack. “Three times a week, he goes to an adult daycare.” I wave an arm in the air. “I choose to spend that time here, with you all.” When he first started going to the center, it was a relief, a chance for me to get a few things done and to have some time to myself. But being alone just gave me more time to think, and I have spent too many days and nights trying to understand. “Anne, I’m sorry,” Troy reaches across the bar and grabs my bad hand. I wince from the pain and he pulls back. “So,” I turn back to Rene, “it depends on your definition. On paper, yes, but Jack left a long time ago, about the time he forgot my name, I’d say.” I down the beer in front of me so fast that beer dribbles down my cheek. Cole reaches over and tenderly wipes it away with a napkin. I smile. “Sometimes, I guess the choices are out of our hands,” he says. “Maybe.” It’s all I can muster. Troy hands Cole a thick black Sharpie. “You need to write your name on the wall.” It’s the Hideaway Shack’s way of saying welcome to the circle—and Troy’s way of ending this conversation. Rene points to a childlike scrawl just above the jukebox. “Here’s mine.” Cole stands, and, writing upside down, he chooses a spot on the ceiling. I look at my watch. “I’ve got to get going. Jack will be home soon. I have to be there.” 108
“You okay to drive?” Stanley asks. “I’m fine. But thanks.” As I open the front door, I hear Cole’s voice, soft and welcoming. “Yesterday or tomorrow?” He asks. Blinded, I close my eyes to the midday sun. “How about next week?”
Upon the eve of her ninetieth birthday, on display amidst a crowd of bored regulars and awe-struck newcomers, The Exhibit realized, upon entrance into middle age, that she hated a great deal of things. While many were content to examine her back, others needed to visit—and after the hundredth visit, complain: Does nothing ever change in here? Why doesn’t anything live in here? There should at least be birds. Why is it so hot and humid? Aside from their insatiability, the worst thing about customers was the fact that she could feel them inside her. She hated this. As she worked her shift, she fought her anguish and irritation. Regardless of how far visitors walked into her, she felt them—their footfalls, when they plucked leaves or grass, and the vibrations of their tetchy voices. She hated them. She hated the holographic rendering of her outside the exhibit. It was far too busty from the front and when it turned around to reveal her back, an opening that led into an unending stretch of golden fields beneath a red-amber evening sky, the behind below it was perkier and higher than it had ever been in real life. She was also paler and more luminous. Her red hair thicker and longer, eyes larger and dumber, lips redder. Even the fabric of her uniform, a long blue dress meant to hug her curves and fully expose her back to viewers and brave enterers, was made of a better fabric in the hologram. The truth was she couldn’t afford that type of fabric because she wasn’t paid well and she hated that part of the illusion the most. She thought of the man she still loved, who once lived inside her—a thief that she fell for a year before. He’d crawled into her back and nestled there, wandering far out into the fields—farther than anyone had ever gone, sleeping on blankets and staring into the sky writing things that he never let her read. The first time she met him, he was running from a fight and within a week of their courtship he’d told her his truth: I’ve never loved anyone and I don’t think I can, and she’d told him her lie: I can fix that. Even as she proved to be a hiding place for stolen items, for wanted friends, for other women—just friends who need a break, she held on. She could feel the sex inside of her, every muscle flex, every breath and she held on. She recalled his smirk, often followed by a stroked cheek. How much will you take? Everything. And she hated him for it. She thought of closing her back and trapping him inside. When he grew tired of the monotony within her he went away. The work day lasted too long. This, too, she hated. When she finally wandered home to her small house, holograms of neither music nor wine could soothe her. She sat and hated in the dark, the luminosity of her back creating a fire-like glow that slathered the wall behind her and 110
touched the tips of her shabby items. She hated until her hands shook and she clutched at her thighs for stability, rose and headed out into the night in search of a reprieve from dullness and loneliness. Once, she’d been a star. Her exhibit was a place where important faces paid extra for private time—often just get-togethers that involved the setting up of elaborate holograms to create an illusion of beautiful houses, birds, mountain ranges, variety. She felt them have a great deal of fun. However, once they drank their wine, had their fights, and had their sex there was nothing left to do and they went away. She left her cloak and let the glow of her back astound the people on the streets of the village whose eyes weren’t glued to interactive, social networking holograms. She wandered through the crowds beneath the black sky, listening for the occasional call of recognition. They didn’t come very often, although she did feel a few curious arms extend into her as she passed by. She sat in a light concert and hated it. She felt the lush fabrics in a dress shop that she couldn’t afford. She thought of eating, thought of drinking, thought of sleeping, thought of working and hated everything. She walked the village until it was dawn, and the parties of the night were silenced and exposed for their wastes, the excitement rinsed by the coldness of morning. As she headed back to her small house, she watched a dirty-faced little girl eat rice on ragged porch steps. She walked up and turned around. Would you like to go inside? What’s in there? The child continued to eat. A beautiful place. A place where you can be the princess of your very own world. Didn’t you know? I work for the circus. I know who you are. I don’t care about princesses. But there’s a real castle. You can go in for free—and see all the new additions. A castle! That’s not true. The child considered. I’m supposed to logon to school. Her face lit up. Can I bring my dog? Yes. The child went into the house and returned with a large, dirty black mutt. Does he have a name? No. The child was quiet as she surveyed the opening within The Exhibit’s back. I’m looking, but I don’t see anything in here. You have to go in first. She knelt down so the child could step inside. The dog followed of his own accord, smelling the skin around the opening and leaving it damp with drool. Once they were in the field, she could feel their footfalls, the excited four steps of the dog and the cautious turning of the child. Looking. She sat for a moment on the porch steps, staring out into the monotony of its promise and closed her back for the first time in 111
many long years. She could feel the warmth of stolen life within her stirring the fields, air, and even the rays of golden light as a pleasant change to the monotony. She wandered on through the chilly morning to her small house as the pulse of footfalls became more frantic.
My mother is one of those ex-beauty queens who always acts casual about the most important things. The guy she was going to marry, Paul, had a brother in the priesthood who wouldn’t pronounce them man and wife until my dad signed annulment papers. Apparently sixteen years of divorce wasn’t enough. That was why she asked me to come over, not to trim the hedges or celebrate getting into law school or clean behind her fridge. I must have walked past the envelope fifty times—sitting unsealed on her kitchen table, collecting sandwich crumbs and tiny splatters of iced tea. MR. GERALD SCHAMERHORN, it said in the neatest letters I’d ever seen her write. Mom didn’t mention it until I’d loaded up the last bag of clothes from my old bedroom closet and started my car. “Can you do me that favor?” she said, brushing the crumbs off the envelope and turning away from me to lick its flap. She pressed down on its seal and handed it to me like it was my problem, not hers. “No big deal, Mom.” I tucked it under my arm with Dad’s name against my ribs. “Might see him Saturday.” “Oh, it’s no big hurry.” She smiled and waved at me the whole time I backed out of her torturous driveway, which took me forever because I had to smile and wave back. I would have respected her more if she’d come out and said Ryan, I can’t marry Paul until your father signs these, so take care of it soon. But she grew up in a world where women manipulated their men with twinkling eyes and oatmeal cookies, so I never expected much direct honesty from her. Plus I always got along with Mom better if I just loved her, instead of worrying about respect. Over the next week the envelope toured my entire apartment—by the TV, in my sock drawer, in the paper bag full of work clothes for my trip up to Dad’s place. It felt about forty pages thick, but that seemed long for annulment papers. I wanted to see what they looked like. Brittle sheets of old parchment with watermarks and red wax seals, I guessed. I felt like steaming it open and finding out what split them up, since neither of them ever gave me a reason. I hadn’t seen them together since they sat in the first row watching my fifth-grade Christmas play, which starred me as a cotton-bearded Joseph. I only had one sign that anything was wrong before my dad left: the way he hugged me after the play and blubbered on my white tunic, which I had to give right back to my music teacher for next year’s Joseph to wear. Even with a week to open that envelope, I never felt alone enough until I was in a car wash halfway up to Dad’s place in New Hampshire. 113
Something about brushes whipping my windows and being surrounded by white foam made me stick my pinkie under the flap and almost start to tease it open. Or I could rip it open and read the papers, then go buy a fancy pen and some 9 x 12 envelopes. I’d keep writing MR. GERALD SCHAMERHORN until I got it perfect. Dad wouldn’t remember Mom’s handwriting, and she wouldn’t call him to ask what he thought of the cute little tail on her S. I blew my chance, though, waffling until the hot waxer made its last pass and a green light flashed me forward. I knew I could get away with lying to Dad if he asked whether or not I’d read the pages inside, because he didn’t know my face well enough to see dishonesty in it. He’d missed all my teenage years, when most of my lying happened. Sure, I’d embellished little things with him, like how I did on my LSATs and how much money I made, but I’d never flat-out lied to him. I could see his big, blocky face staring at me once he knew I read the papers, not getting mad on the outside but thinking You little shit behind eyes that would never trust me again. I couldn’t trust him either, because I couldn’t understand or trust the new way he lived his life. How does a Boston guy like him, a Dorchester street rat who laughed at country people all his life, end up raising sheep in New Hampshire? Maybe Cathy, his second ex-wife, had something to do with that. But in the pictures we threw out when I helped him move, she looked like just as much of a townie as he did. I looked at the directions, which I always had to ask for every time I went up. Two roads past Dublin Blvd. Stone walls both sides. Take left. The lane was lined with oaks and maples, blooming now that spring had decided to stay, and I knew that if I brought Sharon up there this summer like Dad kept bugging me to, she’d fall in love with the countryside and maybe a bit more in love with me. We could all shear sheep together, and Dad would joke with her about doing it with his grandkids someday. She’d never need to know that he spent his first twenty years bumming around on streetcorners, and the next forty crawling through ventilation pipes or kneeling in front of some furnace. From the road, his house looked like exactly what it was: a ramshackle clump of additions, none with the same roof shingles, that overwhelmed the 1880s cabin they’d been tacked onto. Dad had replaced the front steps and braced the sagging porch, but didn’t seem in a hurry to do much else to the outside. When I parked behind his van he came around the corner in the same steel gray one-piece uniform that he’d always worn to work. “Ryan.” He marched straight up to me, pumped my hand, and stared at my button-down office shirt. “You’re looking good.” “You too. This place is treating you nice.”
“Is this the new baby?” He ran a hand over the hot hood of my Jetta. “Shit, I was forty by the time I had a car this new. What’s first, work or food?” “Work,” I said, knowing it was what he wanted to hear, then I followed him inside with my bag of clothes and my boots. From behind his limp showed—a hitch in his left hip that I felt in my own. “Replastered the walls, refinished the ceiling.” Dad showed me the two main rooms, patting an antique dining room table. “Put new legs on this old girl.” He pointed me to my new bedroom at the end of a wing of additions, then walked over to the other side of the house, humming. My room had a squishy mattress on the floor and smelled like the junky, leftover cabinetry and baseboards he used to stash there. A buffalo rug added flair and dust. I changed clothes, lacing my boots tight, and got ready to show Dad that desk work hadn’t made me soft. I looked strong in the dresser mirror. Taller and wirier than him, with my mother’s long neck and sloping shoulders. I was stronger than him for sure, more of an athlete. Just not so good fixing engine seals and shooting the shit with working stiffs. I found him in the other wing, poking through the stuff that used to be in my new room. Why he moved it from one end of the house to the other, I still don’t know. Musty encyclopedias, taken-apart fans, random squares of tile, sawhorses, boxes of who knows what. A spot by the door sagged so badly I almost tripped. Dad took an old gramophone out of a box and cranked it. “This’ll be my music room,” he said without turning back to me. When he set the needle down on a crackly old 78 record, piano notes tinkled through the speaker. Dad fluttered his hands like a conductor, rocking back and forth from his toes to his heels. This was not the same man who’d yelled at me twenty years ago for dribbling a basketball while he was sleeping, or who wouldn’t let me get a five-speed bike because only rich kids rode them. Then a voice broke through. “It’s Caruso,” Dad shouted over it. “Found it in the barn when I built the shop.” “Let’s see that shop.” I took half a step out of the room as Caruso crooned on. Ready to go outside, ready to get away from this man who had either changed completely without me noticing, or was putting on a fantastic act. He waved me into a room down the hallway, empty except for three framed pictures on the wall of me during the years we didn’t know each other. First was the shot from the state soccer finals that made the Boston Herald, with me staring right at the goalie’s eyes as I dove to head the ball past him. Then came two I’d never seen. Me onstage in another fake beard, arms stretched wide and mouth hanging open in some awful high school musical. And me with my prom date, Hayley Norden, dressed to the hilt in front of the Ritz-Carlton. 115
“Where’d you get these?” I asked him. “Your Uncle Phil took that one, remember him? It was The Barber of Seville.” “Sure.” Uncle Phil was one of those quasi-relatives who show up whenever there’s free food and booze. I pointed to the prom picture. “How about that one?” “Cathy knew Hayley’s mom pretty well. So, what do you think?” “Is this going to be my bedroom when you’re done?” “It’s for your pictures. Left plenty of room, for all the big stuff you’ll do.” When I turned around to give him some bullshit answer, Dad shot his arms under mine and hugged me. He’d never been a huggy kind of guy, so my first thought was Cancer, he’s dying. He buried his face on my shoulder and kept squeezing until I had to push him away to breathe. His hair smelled like oil and sawdust, and it reminded me of the day I rode home on his shoulders after helping him tear down a shed for Mr. Cartalemi up the street. I was nine and guided him home with my hands over his eyes. Turn right! Keep left! Curb coming up! “I’m glad you’re here.” Dad pulled back and clapped his hands on my shoulders, more like the father I was used to. “I’d like to say ‘Welcome home,’ but I can’t.” “It’s your home, you can say it.” “All right. Welcome home.” He jabbed the side of his fist against my ribcage. “What do you feel like, work or food?” I said, “Work” again, so he sent me out to load a pile of old shingles into his truck for a trip to the dump. I was glad he didn’t come up with some buddy project we had to do together, because I needed time to get used to this new dad who hugged and listened to Caruso. And the pictures freaked me out, too. What else did he have around that wasn’t framed yet? Snapshots of me partying in college, or getting it on with some girl? My reference letters for law school? I didn’t need a shrine. I didn’t need him listening to opera and standing in front of that wall, replaying memories he never had. I hadn’t asked him for gloves, so I broke a few fingernails hauling the shingles and got tar jammed up under the rest. He’d probably say it was good for me, that I shouldn’t let my nails get that long anyway. On the way to the dump I chewed them down until I couldn’t taste anything but tar. When I came out for dinner, all showered and dressed, I found two big shirt boxes from Filene’s on the dining room table. “They’re for you!” Dad called from the kitchen when he heard me. The top box moved when I tapped at it, but the bottom one was heavy and solid. Both had stray bits of tape on them and ruffled edges where other thumbs had pried them open. Dad brought in a silver serving dish with a cover and 116
handles, and I moved the boxes aside so he could set it down in the middle of the table. He had on an ironed white shirt, just like mine, and wool pants two sizes too big. “Fancy.” I pointed to the serving dish as he lifted the cover. When the steam cleared I saw medallions of meat and smelled a lemony cream sauce. Mom used to make that kind of sauce for him, but I didn’t want to remind him. “I found it under the sink in the kitchen.” He put the lid back on and tapped at it twice with a fingernail. “This is the freshest mutton you’ll ever have. Mike down the road butchers ‘em for me. Hey, get me the wine, will you?” He pointed to the kitchen, very rustic with raw hardwood paneling and cast iron skillets everywhere. I grabbed the wine, an Argentine Malbec with its $39.95 price tag still stuck on—even more than Mom would spend on a bottle—plus a baguette and a bowl of cauliflower. “You really went all out, Dad,” I said when I set it all down. “How often does your son come home, you know?” He jutted his chin at the boxes. “Aren’t you going to open ‘em up?” “While we’re eating?” “Sure. We don’t have to follow the Queen’s rules around here.” The top box had a gray V-neck sweater with crimson trim. I pulled it out and held it against my shoulders, checking to make sure the sleeves were long enough. It felt like a silk and linen blend, thick and crinkly but soft to the touch. The label said M. Dodson, Cambridge, Mass. Nice, but it looked older than Dad. I hate people who try to look like bluebloods when they aren’t, but put the sweater on to spite myself. “You don’t like it?” he asked. “No, it’s great. Everybody’ll think I went to Harvard fifty years ago.” “Or your grandpa did.” Dad reached across the table to flick away a chunk of fuzz on the sleeve. “Better to look like old money than new, right?” Inside the second box sat a dark brown leather portfolio, like the black vinyl one Dad kept his bank papers in when I was a kid. It was thick and tough and brand new, with a dull finish that would brighten to a shine with my fingers’ oil. “Remind you of anything?” he said. Sometimes he’d let me fill that portfolio with newspapers and strut around the house like somebody important. “Sure.” I tucked it under my arm and stuck my chin in the air. “It’s perfect.” “If you’re going to law school, you need something classy. It’s water buffalo.” Then he pointed to the silver dish. “And that’s mutton, if you feel like eating.” I didn’t ask where he bought the portfolio or how much it cost. Three hundred? Four hundred? I watched him with my hands folded on the 117
table, waiting to catch his eye so I could give him a real thank-you. Getting up and kissing him would have been silly, but that’s what I felt like doing. We both blushed when I finally did it, and then I got all talky about my law school and all the great things their alumni were doing. Dad looked happiest when I told him about another kid from Dorchester, a fireman’s son, who got his degree there and was working for the D.A.’s office in Lowell. “Think you’d like that? D.A. work?” “Could be. Seems like there’s enough defense people out there already.” “Yeah, all out to milk some superstar. You can’t get too greedy, that’s what screws people up.” I nodded, but I didn’t feel like hearing his platitudes about money again. It took me sixteen years to tune out those platitudes, and if I felt like hearing more of them, I’d ask Mom—somebody who’d come to terms with money, at least. “This is great,” I said about the mutton. “Tender. Did it give bad wool, or what?” “Have to keep the flock down sometimes.” Dad wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. “So how’s things going with your girl?” “Sharon?” “Yeah. Unless one girl’s not enough for you.” “Fine. She’s thinking about law school too, but she still has to take the LSATs.” “Is she a good-looking girl?” “Wouldn’t you expect your son to nab a good-looking girl? C’mon.” “She’s not a model or anything, is she?” “No, Dad. I’m not a model, so I don’t date models.” “I don’t mean a model model. I’m saying you’re better off without a glamour pus. Speaking of which—” He popped a chunk of baguette into his mouth. “How’s your mother?” “Fine. She’s actually getting married again.” A medallion of mutton hung in midair at the end of my dad’s fork. He brought it back down to his plate and left it there. “Good for her. I don’t know why she waited so long, to be honest.” “She didn’t want anybody acting like they were my dad, I guess.” “Your mother had a lot of problems back then. I don’t think she could’ve gotten married again right away.” “I know,” I said, though I didn’t know the first thing about their divorce. “After you left, she wasn’t real happy.” “Well, there’s reasons for that.” Dad speared another piece of mutton and plopped it onto my plate. “Eat, will you? Have you met this guy? Is he decent at least?” “He’s okay. Name’s Paul, he’s a few years younger than her.” “No surprise, I’m sure she’s still a catch. What’s he do?” 118
“He teaches history at a prep school. His whole family works there, practically. He’s got a brother who’s a priest.” “Then I guess she’ll have to get Catholic again.” “Maybe not. He’s not that uptight.” “You’ve met this guy? The priest brother, I mean.” “Yeah, I’ve met him.” “So when you say he’s not uptight, is that from looking at him or talking to him?” “Talking to him, Dad. But I just met him once, don’t quiz me on him.” I stuffed a whole medallion of mutton into my mouth, taking a bigger bite than Dad ever dared to take in front of me when he and Mom were together. He watched me chew, I watched him chew. “Well good for her,” he said, swallowing before I did. “She won’t age so fast if she’s married. They’ve got medical proof.” “She actually sent something up for you. I’ll give it to you later.” “Fine. Look forward to it.” Dad’s eyes flitted all around the table until they found the wine bottle. “Forgot about this,” he said, pouring us both a glass. I lifted mine, but he drank his up before I could make a toast to anything. What was I going to say? To marriage? To my mom? To irreconcilable differences you were both too stupid to notice? For the rest of dinner we chatted about nothing. How much my first semester books would cost, what else Dad wanted to do with the house— meaningless things that other people could have said for us. Then he put his overalls on, made me wear the Harvard sweater, and took me out to his shop in the barn so I could “see the old man in action.” The footpath took us by the sheep pen, where two dozen dirty balls of raw wool huddled together in a corner, like they expected somebody to come along and club them to death. “I still can’t get over you raising sheep,” I said. “You always used to say how stupid they were.” “Oh, I still think they’re stupid. Watch.” He ran a few steps and jumped toward the barbed-wire fence, yelling “Boo!” The sheep pattered down the fence line to the next corner in one big mass, like a folded-up centipede. When they got there, Dad ran over to scare them again and send them back to me. “See what I mean?” He came back to the path, out of breath but smiling. “I feed ‘em every night, and the next morning they don’t remember who I am.” He laughed the last few steps to his barn, which desperately needed a paint job—freshly painted barns must be illegal in New Hampshire. The door groaned open on thick springs, and when Dad snapped a lightswitch, a row of overhead fluorescents flickered on. The left side of the barn was a hill of clutter, all sorts of junk with no light shining on it, 119
but in the middle sat a beautiful cherrywood bedframe with two tall posts as thick around as my thigh. A third post stood in a rack, varnished and drying. “This is great work, Dad,” I said over my shoulder. He was already at the lathe he’d just bought, a silver thing that looked like a mini jet engine. He tightened the fourth bedpost, now just a rough beam on the spindle, into place. “Special order for that one, real particular. I copied the pattern from a picture, some Italian thing they saw on vacation.” He put on goggles and handed me a safety visor, then turned on the lathe with a footswitch and patted the motor while it chugged to life. “This baby’s from the fifties. Tough.” Then his vacuum system kicked on and we couldn’t hear much else. Dad picked his broadest turning blade from a rack, adjusted the faceplate until it was almost touching the spinning wood, and eased the motor up to full speed. He’d had a lathe in the garage when I was a kid, and always worked on it when he needed to get away from Mom and me, but that was a toy compared to this one. He looked as natural and in command of himself as I’d ever seen him. Dad braced his elbows against his sides, leaned his blade into the wood, and turned the first foot of square beam into a cylinder. He did another foot before he remembered I was there, then turned around to me. “Fun, huh?” he shouted over the vacuum that sucked up the wood chips and sawdust. “I’d let you have a spin, but it’s special order. Maybe tomorrow, on some pine.” “Sure, we’ll make something.” “How about a billy club for law school?” Dad leaned back toward the lathe, then turned around and took off his goggles. “I’m glad to hear about your mother. I wish her well, tell her I said so. All that stuff between us is old.” “I’ll tell her you said that.” “I’m surprised she wants to give me something. Never even sent me a postcard.” “Actually they’re annulment papers,” I said. “For you to sign.” Dad looked at my shoes. I lifted my visor so he could look at my eyes, or at my mouth if I had to say those words again. I watched his hands as he moved the blade from one fist to the other. “Did you just say annulment papers?” “Yes, I did.” He nodded, put the goggles back on, and turned to the lathe, his back stiff this time as he set the blade to the beam. It caught in the gap between the wood and the faceplate, and for a second the motor stopped and gave off a hideous buzz. Dad jerked his elbows and yanked the blade free, letting the wood spin again. He slowed down the motor and ran his fingers over the spot where the blade got stuck, and since he didn’t swear 120
I guess the damage wasn’t too bad. He looked over his shoulder as he brought the motor back up to speed. “I might be at this awhile,” he said. “Maybe you can do the dishes or something.” So I did. I left a clean glass and the leftover wine at his spot on the dining room table, then set the envelope down on his placemat. The light from the ceiling fell down at just the right angle on the fancy letters of his name, glinting against them so he couldn’t help but notice. I fell asleep reading before Dad came in from the barn, and woke up dreaming about salamanders. I was in the same room, but it must have been winter because I had a thick wool overcoat draped over my shoulders. Everywhere I turned, little blue salamanders materialized out of nothing and stood where they were until I tried to touch them. When I did, they turned into chunks of dirt, leaves, nickels. I still had to brush my teeth, and as I was getting out my kit bag I heard Dad grumbling in his bedroom and knocking something against a wall. We both opened our doors at the same time and stepped into the hallway, lit only by the greenish light that came from inside his room. “Go ahead,” he said, waving his hand at the bathroom door halfway between us. “No, I’ll take awhile.” I held up my kit bag and he stumbled into the bathroom without looking at me. He hadn’t closed his bedroom door, so I popped my head in while he pissed and flushed. The envelope sat on his bed, face down with its flap ripped open and re-sealed with green duct tape. The room looked barely lived in: his bed, a dresser, and a nightstand with two prescription bottles on it. “See anything interesting you want to tell her about?” Dad said. He stuck both hands in the pockets of his thick, black bathrobe and cocked his head back like a boxer’s. “I’ve just never seen where you slept, that’s all.” I stood there, squeezed between him and the doorjamb. “Not for sixteen years.” “Well now you have.” He stepped inside and stood by his bed, tightening the belt of his bathrobe. “Anything else you want to know?” “You knew I was bringing those papers up, didn’t you?” “Ask your mama.” He straightened his rumpled sheets like it was morning, then held out the envelope for me. “Maybe I’m just a good guesser.” “So you were waiting to see how I’d weave it into the conversation?” “Yeah. Wanted to see what kind of lawyer you’d make.” I took the envelope and fiddled with the tape. “Who cheated? I don’t wan—” “Cheated?” Dad laughed, turned his back to me, and let his bathrobe fall to the floor. In his pajamas, he looked thicker around the middle from 121
behind than he did face to face. “Whose stories are you listening to, hers? Or are you just making shit up?” “Maybe I’m a good guesser.” “You’re a lousy guesser.” He hiked up his pajamas and crawled into bed. “Turn off the light, will you?” “What happened, Dad?” “Ask your mother what happened. Turn off my goddam light.” “Door open, door closed?” “Open. So I can hear you leaving in the middle of the night, if that’s what you feel like doing.” “Is that what you want?” I asked him. “Who knows what the fuck I want.” He rolled over without saying goodnight, so I turned his light off and closed his door. I locked myself in the bathroom and turned the shower on as hot as I could to steam up the room. The bottom flap of that envelope wasn’t taped up, so I could tease it open and read everything if I wanted to. The annulment papers. Her note to him, his note to her—if they bothered. Do it Ryan, I heard Dad say. I absolutely do not give a shit about what you know and what you don’t. If I waited long enough in the steam, the bottom flap might come open by itself, and I could seal it back up in the morning. But if I didn’t use the same tape on the bottom that Dad used on the top, Mom would know I spied on her. She’d give me the angry face she learned from Dad without knowing it—eyes narrowed down, the tips of her front teeth clamped together. What did you do to him, Mom? I’d ask her. That’s a silly question, she’d say, and in a half second she’d have her glamor-puss mask back on, her bullshit wholesomeness and her getwhat’s-mine sincerity. Then we’d turn away from each other, with that question unanswered like all the other ones. I stayed in my dad’s bathroom until the hot water ran out, wondering if Mom or Dad thought I was the better son. The better man. I put my work clothes back in their bag, walked to the pen, and chased the sheep from one corner to another for half an hour, working up the guts to either leave or stick around until morning. I don’t know which one took more guts, or which kind of guts I was supposed to use. I batted it back and forth in my head so many times that I couldn’t even remember if I turned the shower off. Doesn’t matter, I heard Dad say. Water’s cheap up here. You do what you need to do. Do what your mama tells you to. I’m done, Ryan, his voice told me as I chased the sheep one more time. I’m an old man, I’m done with women. You came all the way up here, you saw who I am now, and you still don’t get it? 122
PAUL DAVID ADKINS
After Returning from the War, I Listen to a YouTube clip of LibertyChickLive Hearing her, I wonder if there’s blood now sticking even to my keys as I type and recall the war in which I was either . . . dumb, evil, or morally compromised. Tacky blood which makes even shifting my fingers beyond the home keys hard. Many people in the military, they don’t actually know . . . I passed off data to Baghdad commanders: family, address, cars. what they’re doing. I clicked coordinates to pilots in Nevada unleashing their Hellfires. They think Rubbing my palms, there is only the sweat of a glass, of a brow. that they’re helping us, that they’re My pinkies are clean as the surface of an ice cube, quick 125
as it slides across Formica. protecting their country. I don’t want to write about the war anyway, or read up on The Sunni Triangle, Shia ethnic cleansing in Hurriyah. I want a valid excuse to teach my son how to send a note in invisible ink. Dip a Q-Tip in lemon juice, draw your name on notebook paper, say how much I love my daddy! Hold the sheet above a bare bulb, Ignorance isn’t going to discern the letters rising slow as the shoots of tulip bulbs buried in the fall. Milk works just as well. Both hold sufficient acid. My son folds a note to Mom, dysgraphic Rs and Ns. The sheet must be dry for letters to appear. To me, that’s disgusting 126
We lift the shade of a table lamp. It flings its 60 watts of bald light across the living room like a super ball. The easy chair casts a now-invective shadow up the wall. I’m not gonna help you out The message is clear. Mom reads the sweetness, smiles. But by then we’re bored with letters, juice, and Q-Tips. I show my boy a trick. It’s not gonna change I tell him to shutter his eyes with his fingers, so tight no light leaks through, then face the naked bulb the Iraqi people. Do you see the red? Did you know it’s blood? Did you know that much blood flows through a human hand? And I believe that. 127
Heaven in the Altiplano Forget the mantle of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, here the air is cleaner and bluer. The ping of a crystal champagne glass held up to the light of sapphires backlit by mother of pearl from blue point oysters their sweet aftertaste and salty flavors of resolute blues, mellow frequencies. The sky so close young lovers trail fingers across its still lake, an arm disappearing into its surface, reaching for whatâ€™s hidden in the blue sheen: a Bird of Paradise, The Southern Cross? This kissable sky daring us to defy gravity, feet no longer touching the ground.
I’ll Hang Tighter to Your Memories than Rose Did to that Piece of the Titanic Every detail is a sinking ship, eyes that might have been blue-green or hazel-brown, each a starboard light dimmed, the expressions I charmed onto your face the bough of the boat dipping under a skin of glacial waters. Every tangle of your body, a miscounted life raft— the this-that-there’s of you, all of them slats broken over ice floes. Sea-swaddled in missed chances and the freeze of the Atlantic on every side, hanging onto a plank of sheared wood that I’m too selfish to share, while the grip of your knuckles loosens as your blood loses heat, degree by degree. Quit whining, Jack, I’m cold, too— but before the ocean swallows you up, let me ask you something, and answer me true this time— Was it me on the bough you loved, or me on this board? Whichever me you’d leave, if I were to scoot over and make space for you on this smash of plank—with this iceberg as my witness— I’ll live out the rest of my life as the other one, and take your memories to my grave.
It rains and the crows crouch in their isolato masks. The overflowing ditches study us waiting their chance. What is flesh in such rain. The storm that holds all the answers. We traveled here as lovers wanting a ribbon of forgetfulness, cedars and pines keeping their mouths shut, the past a blur. How far to go you said. How far back to the blue departures. But words did nothing here. Only the whir of winds in such emptiness. There might be a farmhouse you said. Maybe cows. Maybe a rusted out truck. But we were on the move. Only the rain and the crows could know.
To a Kurdish Child Halabja, Iraq, April 1988 What made them hate you enough for this? You would have been something monstrous, it seems, something to quake their world. A poet perhaps, or teacher, a peace monger or mother of saints. You might have walked upon red carpets or tied the knots that made them, or stood your ground for tyranny? for truth? But there is a photo, and you are forever cradled by your fatherâ€™s corpse, your dimpled fist clutched against his breast, the tint of your cheeks brighter than apples, the ghost of your breath sweeter than attar of almonds, crushed.
Bedroom Poem #1 Smoke, Youâ€™ve been breathing In my face from the pillow Beside me in the bed We share once in a while Notice it, when did I canâ€™t say On your coat, in your hair These moments taste wrong As I roll over them Taking the covers with me
Implicit Memory On our first date, I held your door open, as if it were my heart; opening it became like breathing, thoughtless and life-giving. Your friends called me kind, said chivalry is not yet dead, when I was not there to hear. I held it open even when we fought about your father repairing the bannister broken for the first year of our marriage and held it when our checks stopped clearing because you wanted a week away from it all and I wanted surround sound and a high-definition TV, and we both always got what we wanted. I held it when I heard about him and told you about her. So no one was surprised when I held the lawyerâ€™s door for you, closed it tightly behind us, made sure the wind would not open it while we were walking away.
Love Poem # 36: Letter to Brunoe from Berkley for Richard Hugo Dear Uncle: How many roads have called you, Home? Four? Three? Too many, perhaps. All of them curving, the way women do, somewhere in the middle. And I am unsure if it’s the road or the person driving it alone that calls me back to the lakes I love, or to the house I love. Which route is quickest to Britenbush Lake: the highway then the Forest Service 3220 or take the J-100 and shoot off to the Harvey Lake Trail Head? I can imagine you now, as I walk down the pancreatic black of the city’s paved: you’re winding down the graveled of a lumber-milling road. Your coat pocket is full of sawdust and you’re probably on your way back to the family house with a cord of wood for the winter. The roads here are bleak in their steady repetition of right angles and it’s a long walk between Arinell’s on Shattuck and the one on Mission. The hobos here are nameless. The quarters I gave, worthless. All I can ever do, Uncle, is go back. I can go back through the streets I’m calling Desire, back to the I-5 corridor through the Valley and the wintery pass between Portland and home, then climb the backsides of hills where the horse trails fade. But have I ever told you, Uncle, how many times I’ve sworn I’d never go back to the reservation? The first time when I was a child and even now. Yet every time I return, I swear I’ll never leave the drunken debauchery, the murder-suicides, the familial insecurities, the disgruntled workers, the happily unemployed, or any of the roads I’ve ridden since a child. Where else in the world, Uncle, would a mourning family take the time and drive the extra miles to divert the funeral procession of their murdered daughter to drive by my normal walking route to work, so I too, may mourn her passing. How could I leave that, how could any of us, born and bred on the reservation, ever leave that? Jerry.
DARRELL DELA CRUZ
He was meant to die, see, the crosshair over his face? A press of a button, a pixilated splatter, then a pre-rendered Willhelm scream. A banner appears – “Mission Accomplished”—engulfing three-fourths of the screen while the orchestra plays with an emphasis of trumpets, and the tone repeats because there is no pause function when someone calls the player for dinner where the conversation turns to current events: Are you done with your homework? I don’t want to see you fail again. But the scene continues with only slight ramifications: the heating of the console past the recommended conditions, the wear of fans shifting dust, the memory starts to get corrupted, the data on the disc starts to scratch. The electricity bill will be a little above budget due to over usage. Don’t worry. The generation of more has already been provided.
I Am Tantalus
Trying to tell the secrets I heard from the Gods, because those are the only things that can save us now. My mother had a picture of Jesus em-bronzed above the archway into the dining room where we ate, sparingly. The little ones were always hungry. It’s like the food was just within reach on the branches, but they just couldn’t get what they needed. They were thirsty, when the water was shut off. Mom couldn’t pay the bills, so our neighbors Theresa and Jackson let us take showers at their house before school and the showers tasted beautiful. Then the floods came. Who would give you food bit, by bit, just so you know that you could have it, but never enough? Who would take the water away, but when you spoke up the water was released up to your chin, and all you could do was swim and keep your mouth shut? So I tried to tell the secrets I heard from the Gods, because those were the only things that could have saved us.
Indecent Heat, No Underthings Dog days skim the horizon. Air as foul as tobacco spit and pigsty. In the dooryard Black-eyed Susan’s coerce us. As tall as ponies. Figure on horseback retreats in karate-kick dust from a Ford Durango. We go down to riverbank and shed our skin. Souvenir the moment to carry in your wallet. Lace Springs is tumbledown and sun-scorch barren. God’s sandlot on the boil, eternally immutable. Last time the bay shied, I ate dirt. Get back up, you insist, but I stay in bed, with sunburned nose and shoulders. I leave dishes in sink and crinoline on the line. Through the parchment wall, we can’t decipher scream from moan. Pink streamers on a hand-altered sign announce the baby girl. Record number of digits, city-limit population. Inclement gelding bucks and binds us. Greet your partner full force, airless. Desire is variegated, corrupt. A heat-induced depth charge.
Oxford-Palo Alto-Jeff City Bicycling on a rainy night: toward Iffley Road we rode down Cornmarket, pant legs soaking wet. A mountain bike, this night, a misted street stitching the valley, respite with high homes to hold the town’s computer millionaires. Sprayed by the tires’ wake, I’m glad for the jacket. Dim beam gives just enough to steer by, barely illuminating the sternum of the forks, the wheel as it’s pulled through. The tread makes a dull line above the pavement’s sheen. Just as it was then, English bargain— red rustbucket whose tires quietly hissed themselves flat. The spinning whitewalls turned a spindle to generate the light. Again the many others, faster the brighter, so that below the spires those ancient streets became a copse of orderly glo-worms, single file with artificial filaments, or a huge net of darkness to catch stars fallen from heaven but pulsing still. I was full of lines by Blake and Marvell. Stone chimneys fan the dwindling firewood. The scent negotiates the foliage to deliver another evening. What’s certain was the weather: far worse, fantastic in the way it paralyzed. Sheets of ice and snow drifts covered siding. The late news cancelled school, sent us to sleds. As we sped down the middle of the street tears blistered my wind-blasted face. The rest fades: half-taps on back doors, flirtatious pleas, clandestine operations. A girl older by a whole two years, who meant everything. The bunch of us huddled like silly thieves in a tree house, and tried our nonchalant best to imagine room temperature and stop the teeth chatter. It has the vagueness of personal myth— 138
unmoored from any outcome, free of names, bare plot. I turn the back reflector off and pause. The mind in recall lifts like bread lingering in an oven, whatever riddle that tells, profundity or parody. Both errancies deny the middle road.
Urban Walk: Albany, California Early rains wash away dirt that covers construction debris, this peninsula manmade of rusting rebar and stair rails, aggregate blocks broken by jack hammers— some beaten by waves, some sheathed in scotch broom, manzanita. Flocks of seagulls scavenge along the water’s edge; English sparrows overrun the prickly undergrowth filled with dried grass seed and broken window glass. In this not-quite landfill, on the northern rim, neighbors gather—a sunny clearing and a few cast off chairs—outside their cardboard shelters, one roofed with a sky blue tarp.
The Idea of More Gasoline Collectives of yellow-and-black evening grosbeaks fly between mammoth climbs of the elk. Because the ground must bear upper strains of zero as part of itself, the next century’s past grows dark-brown eyes. In the historical context of condor eggs, duplicity haunts a few power companies capable of burning great numbers of fallen angels for firewood, blocking the new grid, simmering long soups of animal resistance at the pleasure of exceptionalism. Heat that grows in spikes and disruptions around us—people in future pipe-backed sloughs, takeovers of landholding, alluvial drifts, and coastal work—will see old or new women and men seeking a place to live. Further generations of human weight surely will follow, hauling in an additional panthery insistence of hunger and need, multiply adding broods of civil inception and advancing age to the arterial traffic of carbon-winged congress.
Global Warming Nostalgia Style I recall the day Los Angeles became seabed and dolphins hoarded schools of fish into the Rose Bowl and squids rode the roller coaster at Magic Mountain for the very first time. I can still see LA TV stations signing off that last fateful night— faces glum but hair in place— and disbelievers sitting down to Sunday dinner even as the waves lapped at at the doorstep of their mission revival home. What about that caravan of cars heading for the mountains or the desert— the ghosts, the riff-raff, the Eagles, finally abandoning the Hotel California, and the famous Silicon Valley swimathon— Cisco Deep to the Apple reefs and back again. Remember Reverend whatshisname reporting from his life preserver, calling it God’s revenge for “Brokeback Mountain” winning Oscars— and the half-price tickets for underwater Disneyland— the Lakers practicing in scuba gear— Palm Springs building a dock for cruise ships.
I was a teenager then and now I’m sixty seven, enjoying my golden years, and living in a gated community in Greenland— the “I Told You So” retirement village. Cool and delightful when wind blows off the melting ice-bergs.
PATRICK CABELLO HANSEL
No Country for Young Men For my father 1933, age 21 The farms failed early, the banks late; jobs, when found, paid less than the fist and dirt they were made of. The spring wheat and the winter lost to bugs and hail, family barb wired to hurt, mother still dead. Walk, young water, walk out the door with eyes carving a hole in your back, turn your face to the south wind burning: Dust Bowl, foreclosure, the Klan, railroad dicks with the heat of sticks to the head. The whole world waits below your feet. You have only to swallow your fear, your loneliness, the land you love. Like milk from your best cow: warmth, splash, alfalfa, rain. Ride the rails, sleep in parched fields, CCC, the combine trail, the army, the war, the accident: each step another odd job taken to your self. When you settle in, your roam is waist deep across the river, and your mind remembers: I thought it was joy, but I knew it was fight.
LINDA G. HATTON
Petting Caterpillars A calloused life she lived that year, holding damp cloths over foreheads of heat stroke, stomach flu, terminal cancer, when instead she yearned to be floating lilies on rippling watercolor ponds, arranging papers into masterpiece, or carefully removing the 200-year-old ring from her finger, roll out sugar cookies, stuff crumbles into her greedy mouth. She caressed protrusions sticking up from his shoulders, then grappled with slippery ice cubes at his bone-dry lips, shriveled from nine months with no liquid to sip. She wiped away moisture from the eyes of their owner, longing to soothe his barren condition. Tingling at the memory of petting caterpillars from youth, she recalled grasping onto the smooth bark of an Ailanthus altissima, a Tree of Heaven. She wrapped herself around the little ones she had born, petting their life as she felt his slipping away.
Where I’m From folks still know how to love with all their clothes on. A red-tailed hawk holds a jack rabbit’s foot on the moonlit brink of his fraidy hole. I recall the muffled shriek of a field mouse pleading from halfway down a rat snake. The prairie never shouts. Fossil-pocked limestones scrimshaw the top soil and dare a rasp to hone its plow. Burnished switchgrass transfigures green when last years dregs catch fire—it takes a hedge of Osage orange to spare the primrose. Summers are torrid, lusty trysts, and falls—brief amber flings. Out of the blue, nips fray the breeze and squirrel-away cottonwood tailings deep in bovine potholes. Coyote fur gathers for the snows that will salt away old conestoga wounds, and I am vigilant: the lavender spiderwort lifts her skirt but once, and honeysuckle only flaunt to serve their roots.
Garden Without Bees B G, July 2011 A man, notepad in hand, bends toward the white center of a carmine rose. Two girls in straw hats snap photos of each other. No butterflies flirt in the bushes, no bees gorge on opened buds. Women sport tags tying them to Carolina. At the gardenâ€™s entrance, a guide who holds aloft a red umbrella, leads a knot of tourists. Birds bisect their coming or going. Under an arbor a couple unfolds a map, argues over manicured trails. There and then I do not want to stay in step with sightseers just like me. Just like the man who keeps bending over roses, I stop at Opening Night, a dark red hybrid tea, crave fragrance, find none. I have an impulse to trowel the beds, to find how the earth here differs from mine.
The Long Wind Stillness Then The tall prairie grass bends to wave sea-like arches across the plains, Pressing dry warmth against the face, The distant wind rises, highway cars race Scents of New Mexico, young shoots of sage and peppers outside Taos, air redolent with mountain snows, feedlots in Garden City, dust from furrows French fries from Dairy Queen in Ulysses past Cimarron and Dodge, wet whips of grass tease legs of white, travels the Santa Fe birds take flight And fills the cerulean sky with seeds onto the Ozark rivers, onto the green Illinois hills, the long wind blows, Chicago windowsills Then Stillness
Kegger at the Comfort Inn I compete against my night shadow at the Comfort Inn. The lit sign on the back of the lot says VISITORS WELCOME, and they come to pad their résumés with good times or a little sleep. They are my enemies as I take solace, awake on the bed. I wander through the poppies at Flanders Fields. McCrae’s torch flickers past the sleepless dead. At Grodek I stop for Trakl to goad his own madness, an angry God’s spilled blood still reflected in the moon. Further down the tunnel I go and hear the groan of Owen’s encumbered sleepers retreating from this world. I better move into the advance of the night. My enemies are loud and joyous in their twenty-one beer salute. I better move or soon I will earn the morning’s jests. I turn my face into something festive, take a late night walk to see what part of the dark still aches. I listen to the crickets sing to the ice machine, the fluorescent buzz of a thousand souls coming to make their peace. Whose words of comfort do they still believe? I am not working on tomorrow until I hear the chorus of the dead soldier poets heave their drunken harmonies at my sleep. Then I will drift into the ubiquitous past, everywhere a comment left at my feet.
detroit rock city
after spraying ten thousand square feet of flat white latex for the week kurt and I figure we’ve earned a saturday morning with his twelve gauge and the two doors of my old impala we drive to the empty 300 acres behind the house where his girlfriend lives unbolt and strip the doors leave the panels and windows piled in the trunk and prop the doors up with old fence slats the slugs rip through steel with the hollow clank our fathers had hoped to hear on assembly lines twenty years before—the metal on metal malfunction of work coming to a stop we pump each spent casing clear to chamber another round and hear the wind that reaches through broken windows in the abandoned factories of flint where the men we grew up to not be stamped and welded and drilled themselves into their pensions we studied how they sat in barber shops spat on softball fields sat in their t-shirts on couches after work came home with the meat of the hunt in the fall made word law with a belt pointed the way to the punch clocks of our future and prepared all such good works for us to walk in we’ve walked from construction to convenience store registers to changing tires and oil to breathing in paint for 10 dollars an hour and today we put one inch holes in the work of their hands
we take turns emptying a magazine in each door the holes constellations of dark stars on steel to tell our fortunes from everything pieced back together we drive county blacktops the wind a low whistle through the doors to remind us of the holes on the other side we punch and turn the radio all over the classic rock dial cutting off one anthem after another finding nothing we can stick with all the way to the end
CINDY E. KING
Ah, another declivitous morning, thinks the farmer, light slanting through fields, stalks splayed with grain. A man of no consequence hangs lopsided on a cross, head askew as if begging the blackbirdâ€™s pardon. Wicker man, fixture of the birds, empty sleeve sloping earthward. A thrush unstitches the straw of his wrists, weaves a palm for the treeâ€™s bony fingers. Nothing thwarts the scarts and cormorants; whatever they touch becomes theirs. The farmer recalls birds of his boyhood, ouzels and scants descending on soldiers, their torsos open like disheveled chests of drawers. Men, supine, like closets, contents slick, spilling from shelves. The sun is slated to shine, leaves sieving sunlight. The barn is beside itself in its falling, the beveled farmhouse caving in. In town, the crooked munitions factory seeks support from the warehouse. The farmer himself is a basket man, standing as if raised from a rusty nail. He, too, is italicized with age: rye field, wry heart.
for my father Tempered sky schemes rain during this week of lament. We circle time like koi in the south pond or the haphazard moths in the house. The search for a landing is now threatened by this last death. We cover ourselves with orphan sorrow, burrow down the hole where darkness teases oblivion.
Burning Centralia At night, tongues of orange and blue flame flickered eerily among the rocks at the bottom of the ravine. —David DeKok, Unseen Danger; A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire i. An offering to the devil, a chasm in my backyard, a burning coal seam that had been waiting patiently for years—as a snake waits because endurance and hunger are all it has. Valentine’s Day, 1981. I dragged my lanky body out of Hell, scraping my belly on its teeth. Soil groaned and bucked, denied its virginal sacrifice. We’d angered the volcano, Kong, our technicolor film gods. ii. Steel pipes driven into the ground blasted clouds of poison over our heads to keep us safe. Our fathers decorated them with red ribbons, streamers, strings of lights—centers of expanding, snowless circles where Christmas presents might go. We shuffled from one pitted shaft to the next, warming our hands on the way to school. iii. Centralia began—as ideas do— in a tavern. Warm beer and anthracite, and the Molly Maguires 154
to spirit you away after last bell. We buried our odd fellows near the landfill where garbage charred. A finger of neglected flame penetrated the earth, danced along its veins and lit our funeral pyre. iv. If this poem was a coal vent this is where you start bouncing off walls from your own momentum, scraping off nails and chunks of palm. This is where you compare dirt to sandpaper and rocks to knives working your thighs and forearms into the only word you could try to say— pain, without a sound, its shape in your mouth. This is where the temperature, changes, shadows form above you, and you think you’re upside-down, an illusion of the fire below v. Winter nights, every window open and screaming January wind. We huddled under flannel blankets as carbon dioxide pooled—Mom, Dad, and I frosted in the glow of Reagan’s shaking forehead, reruns of J.J. blasting DYN-O-MITE. 155
We lost every other word to the clicking Ecolyzer 2000, its mounding pile of ticker tape telling us we were alive. vi. Nothing ever smelled right after that: not fresh-baked cookies, not lilacs, not my mother’s skin, warm from the shower. Monstrous monoxide blasts belched from the ground, soundless and skewing our senses toward sulfur. Always my laundry was smoky. My first girlfriend smelled of boiled cod when I pulled down her cotton panties. I took her to a prom that reeked of mineral sweat— a slow, moist geyser of rigid bodies and punch. My fingers were phosphoroustipped match heads, rubbing on notebook paper. We were all ready to ignite. vii. The fire kept on. Burning pavement until it crackled like bacon or bread, crust rising. Gasoline poured warm as diner coffee. We became other than human, living on it— land no longer land. Our zip code was revoked, buildings condemned. If you can believe it everyone moved to Ashland.
viii. If this poem was city council it would be even more fractured, at the mercy of church and school officials. It would meet behind closed doors, write ineffectual letters and wear symbolic red ribbons on its lapels. It would redact itself, word by word. It would be silent. ix. State government, said the Federal. Federal, said the State. Backfill will save us, they said. Trenching will save us. Nothing will save us but time—let it burn out. Fly ash will be our savior, they said; dusty little angels filling the cracks, standing firm as rock. Air Force jets buzzed low, snapping infrared photos of the growing scabby blotch eating away below. x. If this poem was a beer from the Bull’s Head Tavern, this is the dregs that you leave behind, already signaling for another round. It’s all backwash anyway, now. The bartender sidles over and offers suds with the story of the boy who slipped midway to Hell in his own yard. Half listening, you sniff and ask if there’s a gas leak. He says nothing and his smile is green. 157
Fantom Mother I made the decision long ago not to have children, she told them, her voice slick blue ice. They looked pointedly at each other, Rosie and Angela and Jack and his twin, holding hands, confused, silently waiting her next pronouncement, and she languorously licked the crystal coffee stick, hot with tea. Don’t think I don’t love you—her chipped words blew past them, their curls in disarray, their faces pale against the frozen flowered wall. I like being able to close my eyes and have you disappear completely— her words crisply silent, her grin icicling off her face. You made it too difficult to live— all day, every day, and even seeing you could make me cry—her tears even now a river of black. Rosie and Angela and Jack and his twin blinked in unison, a faint breeze rustling overhead, the sun decamping westward, a red rough spot on the table between them all, spreading to the edges and floating off, the blood that held them together. If you don’t mind, I’ll do it now, she whispered, ignoring their hurt faces, watching instead their hands, their quiet restless hands, all gifts from her.
Itâ€™s never what they promise, she said, growing whiter and fainter, till they could not hear her words, just a shimmer of who she may have been, and Jackâ€™s twin reached out to the nothing where her shape hovered, a faint puff of smoke, a smell of jasmine just beyond reach, and the light from the hall burned out, leaving them in shadow, unsure if it was she who had disappeared, or if it were they who were her spirits.
The Last March
after the painting The March to Valley Forge in The American Journey textbook
There weren’t many options for shoeless soldiers tracked by their bloods through the tundra that Trego painted. Some made moccasins from a scrap of cowhide, but that fact originated in the memory of a young private from Connecticut, whose companions overlap without horses to break them apart: This is my body. Each trail of alizarin crimson is lost as the regiment unspools backwards—men becoming faceless until they’re dabs blended
to make one whitewashed stroke of burnt sienna, filling the wood like leaves underfoot.
JOHN GRAVES MORRIS
The Origin of the Cat Woman After four raucous teenagers had finally made candy choices, the convenience store clerk later remembered, she looked up to see a rusty, late-model SUV approach one of the self-serve gasoline pumps. The truck sputtered and shook, seeming to shoot off rusty sparks as it were July 4, when the driver shut it off. As the flaming confetti continued, the clerkâ€™s practiced eyes made out the movement of some thirty cats; many were sprawled on sheets laid mostly over the flattened back seat, some grooming themselves in bars of light that pierced the windows. After pumping gas, the woman entered, pausing at the door to straighten her soiled t-shirt and run her hands through her hair. She then lined up thirty-three tins of tuna fish and unearthed crinkled dollar bills from a small purse. She was polite, but bleary-eyed, pale, painfully thin, her clothes hanging limply. Stretching arms and arching her back slightly after the transaction, she asked the clerk about the pay phone, mumbling to herself and then beginning to cry about calling the kids
she couldnâ€™t seem to find anywhere. Later picked up by the police for expired out-of-state license plates after other employees, who at first just giggled, urged the first clerk to do something, the woman sagged, crying uncontrollably about a son and his sister who had been crushed in a three-car pileup on the freeway over two years ago. There had not been enough of them to recognize or bury. She had moved in with her sister, a soldier about to be deployed, about a year ago after losing her job in the next state for coming late to work, staring for hours into space, and staying late to complete reports that should have been routine. Arriving in town, she noticed the cats abandoned by departing soldiers and others too cruel or in too much of a hurry, and then a few weeks ago, she watched, eyes glazing with increasing horror as she recounted it later to the doctor, the news reports about three boys who had poked and prodded a defenseless cat with a curling iron and uploaded video footage to an Internet Web site. She told the psychiatrist that she could not remember anything since, but reports from others who have since come forward indicate her having circled town for over a month in her car, looking like a hawk as she peered down every street and into every alley, searching tirelessly for children. 163
Little Red Riding Hood Meets a Foot Fetishist Knee-high faux alligator boots. Red, with stiletto heels, plus an optional cuff revealing a lining of black fur. Ill-advised purchase, perhaps – she’d bought them just for fun, hadn’t considered what message they might send until one day, taking the short cut home through the park at dusk, she heard the steps. Close behind her. A regular rhythm. Then clearly picking up speed. At first she refused to believe the steps were following her, so she didn’t scream, didn’t run, in those red boots. When he caught up to her, when she saw his bearded face, at first he appeared quite benign. And on the pocket of his shirt: the trusted company name – embroidered in red. Exactly what he said, the precise words of his opening line were erased by the surprise: something about a hosiery club – no fee to join, but he would need to see her feet, he said. Without the boots. Later, when the officer pressed for details, Little Red recalled how the shaggy hair had fallen forward covering the ears as he crouched at her feet. She tried to describe the knowing gray eyes, the throaty voice, the whiskery smile – in retrospect not so grandfatherly at all. As for how she was able to walk away, or what ruse she used to escape the peculiar encounter, time laundered much of the memory and its colors. Except for the red boots. With the black fur.
When the nurse came back and asked if you wanted another cup of owl juice, I realized our dilemma: the next man over in ICU coded a dozen times last night, while you secretly tried to regain consciousness. The four of us trickled in and out of your room—this other man had a standing audience of thirty, brown-skinned and red-eyed, clinging to each other like passengers on-deck in the typhoon—none of them are at the hospital today. Here is the power of prayer: the strings of petitions to convince Her to swing wide, to bring the tip of Her wing down further on, the repetitions, the lives hanging by a shoestring, permissions and wedding rings— nothing the measure of fear, a magnet for unluck.
On my tenth birthday, my father brought home a crystal radio kit so we sang over the cake quickly to clear the table for the reconstruction of the miracle my father remembered from his own lonely youth: emptying a Quaker Oats cylinder of its meal and winding wire round and round entangling the waves sniffing our antenna with the whisker of a cat at the salt lick of galena magical as any seed or pebble in my big golden book of fairy tales. And finally my father fitted me to the earphones from which I heard no Radio Moscow nor This is London nor KDKA nor even a Make Believe Ballroom. Nothing. Like the deer my father pointed out as he drove. Like the balls I couldnâ€™t catch. Myopic, sissy and now deaf, I asked to be excused.
Her Father Calls Her father calls in the autumn A hard ring come west from Appalachia. She talks about the boy job car house Goodbye. The report of a further year sounds in his receiver Like ice cracking, shortly to dissolve Among bitter spirits who Still join to toast his sorrows. Her father calls, and she will answer on her birthday His little solace As if the bridge unburned were a fallow kind of love.
MICHAEL KARL (RITCHIE)
Meditations on Lightning Lightning’s coiffure roils Across the desert as if A coil of barbed wire. * In a open field, The one who stands up always Risks sudden burnout. * Ideas hurt less Than lightning, though sometimes few Will survive either. * Lightning’s sneakier Than a rattlesnake because It gives no warning. * Random strikes take out The innocent along with The presumed guilty. * To guide the lost, light From a candle’s not the same As a tree on fire.
Oh, the guilt when another one washes up at my feet. I go through the rinsing ritual, discover that it is, indeed, more beautiful, more nearly perfect than the one in my hand. Its colors, fresh from the sea, are brighter, its curves more sensuous, whereas the one in my hand is slightly off on one side, a bit of barnacle, perhaps, and not quite the treasure I thought when it washed up seconds ago, something I had to make mine.
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR.
City Circle Light
Shards shine on asphalt beneath streetlights: fragments of night sky near the liquor store parking lot’s neon lit pools. Rows of scarecrows guard unlighted parkside motel room doors behind which no paying customers spend quiet nights. Steam warms bricks embraces steps: if any cleansing of grit grime graffiti results it’s only an accidental side effect. Bright murals with lifted Dr. Seuss lines on wide-open closed school walls conspire to conjure cold tears. Some sparkle some in need of polish: these bits linked and clasped to the city’s charm bracelet.
SIMON ROGGHE & ZARINA ZABRISKY
This Poem is not about Horses (Equestrian Seduction Duet) Tonight, you read your poetry The way I ride a horse.
I don’t know much about horses. I once rode a horse In Ireland. It was asthmatic, It coughed and shook. It didn’t feel good. Also Mayakovsky wrote That we all are a little bit horses. There was also Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Rodin Who gave the horse a soul. Yes, but I would like to know More about horses. The horse. It is the ocean and the well: Too vast for any human’s thirst, But not enough to satisfy our bottomless desire. And what about their smell— Do they smell like hot sand? (I imagine) Or like the circus of my childhood: Wet sawdust at the entrance and elephants? They smell like all the good things From your childhood, The little things you have forgotten. To smell a horse at sunrise Tells the measure of a day. It is a waltz that counts each quiet minute, 171
A tranquil step that won’t recede. I would like to know: How does it feel On your fingertips When you touch them On the neck. Warm? Soft? Scratchy? Do your fingertips tingle With warmth afterwards? Would mine? If you touch a brown horse Would your fingertips glow with soft brown light? Their skin is soft, their neck is hard— Running your fingers through a horse’s crest Covers them with a sticky coat That you can roll in little clusters. It is the texture of reality, The elbow grease of beauty, The imprint of a friendship. If you kiss a horse Between the eyes Do your lips feel salty? To kiss a horse between the eyes is very much Like when you kiss a woman: It may well turn its head If it isn’t in the mood. A horse kiss, rather, Is a gentle bite, a scratch. But when your lips have grazed The surface of a horse’s face, They know a different kind of music: I’ve kissed a horse and tasted sweat When riding in the desert; One time there was a pouring rain— My lips seemed to be stained with tears; Another time it was the dead of winter— My mouth crackled with the electricity Of warm skin and dry air. 172
I want to know more. Tell me, Are horses Lonely creatures– Like people – Like islands– Like cities– Like lovers– Sometimes a horse can’t eat because of mourning, Just like we can’t when we’re stressed out—maybe in love. Do they Know how to be true friends? Their conduct is impeccable: Treat them right and they will do the same. I’d like to believe this— A child in me does, anyway. Do they smile? Do they get shy? What do they do If they are mad at you? Do horses feel sad? When a horse is sad it puts its head into the corner. Then it needs rest and pastures, Friends. Tell me, Do they sometimes Run together Side to side In the field of green, Not touching But feeling as one? When horses gallop side by side, They almost always touch. It seems so careless, casual, But now I know: Their souls caress each other. 173
Now I imagine Them galloping Upward and forward, Wings whistling, Wind cold, Song strong… But wait This would be birds— I can never get anything straight— Things fuse in my mind: Horses, birds, poems. Mind is a funny thing— Or maybe You can write me some bird-horses? A horse is an ideal walking on four earthy legs, A bird that made its peace with matter— But when a horse takes off and flies It barely pats the ground. Flying horses, Galloping birds, Flying poems. I would like this. I want to know more about horses. A horse has oceans: Just look inside the silent wells Within these longing eyes.
When I stand before thee at the days end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing â€”Rabindranath Thakur Tracks carved in your cutis, once eclipsed by only the fabric that clung to your post-pubescent curves, are obscured by evidence of that kiwi-sized something sustained by the brine of your belly, erasing the records of an era before the purple dregs covered the canvas, where that adolescent girl, pursued pleasure in parting the flesh, watching the thatched red lines she birthed fade to a white patchwork; infinitesimal marks, each an imperceptible scream to the sights, the smells, the sounds of the witnessed psychosis. But new marks run like water cleansing the palate, eroding the ancient, as if to say to the sheath that sheltered your scars, that transcribed your secrets, in time will seize the authority necessary to raze and renew.
basketmaker cutting willow by the place of white butterflies blind following the sunlight a white woman in 1903 notes mouse trails towards water, and the coyote’s hunt to lose your language, accustomed ways, to lose your land and then ask what am I town of the beautiful guitars that crossed a border from Old Mexico or were crossed by one notes of longing as numerous as stars basket to collect seeds— now all that is left to collect— this woven basket.
Mt. Koya Daybreak South of Osakaâ€™s smokestacks, cable car to top of the world, heightened past the mercenaries, I chant with monks and birds: Warm our waking earth. Lovingkindness meditation shifts to mindful: Cool our dying globe.
ANDREA SCARPINO Excerpt Love cacophony of blossoming : forsythia like daylight through pulled shades cherryâ€™s pink-tipped clatter and sway. How long has the body refused sleep? Damp hand of the sheet startling. Hours months years? Time moves slowly. How long has everything died inside me and rotted there, white spots on the ultrasound : cysts the size of peas almonds apricots. Everything died and rotted thereâ€” or felt like it. White spots where pain unfolds, extends. Church bells ring 178
each quarter hour— ring and lull through mountain pass, meadow, trees. Like pain, each step sounding. Even in the lull, cacophony. Even in the lull : stream rushing with thaw buds breaking through wet earth, opening. You knelt among new ferns hands lacing your shoes. And wasps rose from the ground yellow swarming— your hands to mouth, eyes— as you knelt on their nest— you must have knelt on their nest— hands to nose, ears, throat. Wasps rising, circling. Your face alive with sting with swarm, with beating wings, bodies flung. And I walked
told you 179
to walk away— come to me again and again. And you did. And the wasps stayed with their nest. Love this is the body in pain : spring opened in our lungs a sudden swarm hands at your face. This is the body searching : mastectomy— How desperate she is— excise the site
of pain poisoning.
Layers of flesh cut exposed : freed the sound of it : scalpel surgical hook suture— What if I asked—? How desperate— 180
What they tell you isn’t right, she said. Her chest concave, not flat, a shallow bowl like I’d been hollowed out. Numbness spread from clavicle to bottom ribs. They don’t just take your breasts—
What if I asked for the willow’s branches, again to braid its leaves? Cacophony of blossoming. What if I asked crow sing me to sleep? A slow lament. A darkening. Lemons cut open in my drink : a burst of golden light.
When You Break Glass after an untiled photograph from Tulsa by Larry Clark it’ll break in time. this mirror, a cold-cocked right, the camera— will splinter & rapture after spinning too many tire, flipping hundreds of burgers & flapjacks, brooding down hours that turn into days to weeks then months waddling knee deep through all this mindless muck, threatening insubordination, minimum wedge at best. they break & so do others like them— one for every round-eyed girl, face sprinkled w/ summer freckles, every neighborhood bird, every throwaway whore. they crack like knuckles against crown, snap like sunsucked leather belts, sting like pot roast & potato conversations about the future. & worse, things like these break over too much of nothing. over unmotivated, outstretched aggression without an outlet, fear without comprehension, alienation into pigeonholes, cascading, converging, igniting like the lazy cloud’s dance. eaten by bandits, left for dead. or maybe these things become non-refundable damaged goods w/ it all together, stacked on each other like tenement housing. here,
like a tea kettle beating the lidâ€™s spout, brimming w/ angst, a right fist twitches for release & high pitch whistles of white noise only seem to calm upon connection, when each four fingers create streams of spider legs across glass. & only when crimson dots the basin, will solace steep, knowing anything broke first.
The Death Of Your Wife The quiet is getting quieter with every day. First, you noticed, her mouth stopped talking. Her eyes stopped looking, even when they were open. Then, you noticed, she’d stopped sleeping. Her body was saying nothing. Nothing at all. No longer moaning. No longer snoring, or wheezing, or gasping. Other voices entering her air, replacing her with sighs, plans, questions, with noises of the living, with their arrangement-makings, their sorry sorry sosorrys rising and ebbing in graceful counterpoint, music without a score without a key without a time signature many hours, many days, let us not count them as they drift out, in, out, in, out, in, out to sea, waves of remembrances, uncharted tides of wishes/disappointments dissolving into salt-water and sandy beaches. The house that held you-her let go of her without a moment’s thought, remains upright and impersonal, its life-blood beating beating its regular, insistent rhythms. Heater. Refrigerator. The choruses of water: Toilet. Sink. Shower. Washer. The zen chime of kitchen timer. The urgent siren of the tea-pot. Computers chirping their hello-goodbye themesongs. Alarm clock. Doorbells and telephones. Smartphones i-tuning you. Pinging. Messaging. Calling you. Calling you. marooned in a cave of quiet, a castaway in this house of her absence. Listen—do you hear her voice complaining about the way you left your jacket on the sofa, instead of hanging it neatly in the hall closet? Do you hear 184
her thanking you for making coffee when she was in a rush to get to work? Do you hear her telling you she loves you more than yesterday, less than tomorrow?
Postscript. The quieter it gets, the more you hear. Her, and you, making up, making love. The more you hear yourself hearing her. More than yesterday, less than tomorrow.
Why Is Everything Ovarian Alien? Geometry—tried territory corrected by compasses—has accommodated her, relaxing jagged lines and acute angles, triumphing in a true topography of bright-blasted, globular green: Osage Orange clings to unseen seeds; her hidden hairs can jackknife these seeds through the atmosphere, tip them into turbulent autumn breezes where death declares desolation, but spring is harbored in maidens such as Osage Orange, fallen—center square—in a forgotten field. Death declared desolation when Osage women wept, not for desolation but for childbirth in a warm land grown alien. Light screamed —Osage women obeyed birth—in fields where death did declare desolate cracked leaves. Osage women wailed for the born children, knowing each bow-handed child’s momentary centrality would be lost in war cries, dislocated deaths along a trail where Osage Orange drops her singular, global universe of expectation, hidden and somnolent until spring. I keep a heap of Osage oranges—centered in my grandmother’s hand-hewn, buckeye bowl—on the table, uncluttered, so bright green screams into this house. I learned a long time ago to place something outside inside, scented, say, as the Osage orange, so when the family gets started with the words, I meditate on the ordered chaos nestled in the bowl bulging with Osage oranges—they are fragrant with hope’s outside chance. An Osage orange is not prickly; in fact, at a distance it appears to have erupting pseudopods or a thousand vulvas, inside of which a single strand, woven umbilicus, anchors a thousand seeds—life in the funereal family home. An Osage orange is a study in surface area, a study in fractal economy and compact fructifying force—Why is everything ovarian so alien? Osage Orange springs forth in green throughout Death’s desolate fields, late September, October, and by November she is falling apart, and the seeds—sown alien conquests—are aloft. Lifted out by the hair of the head, each seed bursts—stellar—from her forehead. Blown from a face fierce with strain, this is a fertile explosion, a frenzy of freeborn seeds. One Osage woman after another let go the forgotten field, the boys and girls, bow-handed; one ancient woman screamed after another, cried along that fractured seam between day and night and multiplied her hopeful dreams. Fit for fields far and near, I have learned to meditate on an eternity of outcomes—ovarian and alien—resting in a wooden bowl. Procreative against all malefactors, I am a celebrant of loss. 186
Before Turning Twenty—1973 Through the rusted wire window screen I watch small town days disappear like baseballs falling over fences like buffalo on the Plains like scrap paper in a sudden summer whirlwind carried God knows where. Huck Finn and White Fang lie in a stack with Ivanhoe The Red Badge of Courage and Great Expectations gathering dust behind a honey-suckled wall. A New York Yankee pennant and a Mickey Mantle poster hang above Steinbeck books and eight track tapes— Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf Waylon Jennings and Hoyt Axton piled around the stereo in a teenage room. Outside the new August sun burns Oklahoma into bright blue sky, above a dark green Mercury Cougar 351 Cleveland under the hood, waiting beside the red crepe myrtle trees waiting to drive through decaying eastside blocks over the Santa Fe tracks and down Main Street, past Northcut’s Corner Drug, past the bank holding my life’s saving four hundred and forty-two dollars, past North Third and Main Street where Woolworth’s sodas and sandwiches once lived when I was boy on a bike.
Even without a driver, that Cougar could turn left down South Ninth circle Sherrerâ€™s drive-in and head back east down Main again, counting down every block 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and north past Market Square with its spit and whittle ghosts of cowboys turned old men reliving glory days trading pocket knives awaiting winter, then on toward Sonic Coca Colas and bowling alley beers, exhaling youth, burning it all into memory.
CHERYL WEIBYE WILKE
Not who she is
She’s not who she is, really … not the girl who met with friends this afternoon at a trendy bar to drink pear whisky martinis or something equally as sweet and debunking. She’s not the mother who shopped with her children this morning to buy new shoes for school starting on Monday. Nor the wife who carries her phone in her purse. Nor the daughter who draws current like water. Nor the tree. Cactus. Or thirsty. She’s a bisque, multi-faced doll. Most of her kind made turnof-the-century. Just spin her head around and around and each time it stops a different face stares out. A smile. A pout. A frown. She’s got it all. An antique with tiny hands and feet. The “ideal” for a woman or child. Lift her dress and rip open the kid leather chest. You’ll find a heart of sawdust or horsehair.
Author Bios Paul David Adkins lives and works in New York as a counselor. Les Bares lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. His poems have appeared in The Cream City Review, The Prose-Poem Project, San Pedro River Review, Third Wednesday and other literary journals. Allie Marini Batts is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She contributes to the publication of AULA’s Lunch Ticket literary magazine, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, and The Bookshelf Bombshells. Doug Bolling’s poetry has been published in numerous literary reviews including Georgetown Review, Water-Stone Review, Plainsongs, Heron Tree, Tribeca Poetry Review and Basalt, recently online in The Missing Slate with Poet of the Month and interview. He has received five Pushcart nominations and lives in the greater Chicago area. Sheila Webster Boneham writes fiction and nonfiction, much of it focused on animals and environment. She is currently working on a series of essays about traveling the U.S. by train, and on a book-length meditation on the humancanine connection, as well as a new novel and poems. She holds a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University and MFA from the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast Program. Claudia Brooke is a student of the Red Earth MFA at Oklahoma City University. She works as a lab coordinator at Knox College where she graduated from in 2012. Her writing focuses mostly on fiction, however as an escape from the grammatically correct she jots down lines of poetry. Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published two books of poetry—A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press) and Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009)—and two chapbooks: Abecedarium (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and Holy Days: Poems (winner of Split Oak Press Chapbook Contest, 2011). Jerry Brunoe is Wasco and was raised on the Warm Springs Reservation. His poetry has appeared in Basalt, Yellow Medicine Review, Red Ink, Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Contrary, and others. He pretends to know what he is doing at Toe Good Poetry. Darrell Dela Cruz graduated from San Jose State’s MFA Program for Poetry. His work has appeared in The Round, Two-Thirds North, Foliate Oak Review, Sheepshead Review and will appear forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review, Euphony, The Chaffin Journal, and The Dos Passos Review. He tries to analyze
a poem a day on his blog http://retailmfa.blogspot.com/ or, rather, he acknowledges his misinterpretations of poems. Kurtis DeLozier was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma where he’s been writing ever since he could read Shel Silverstein’s poetry. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelors degree in Multi-Disciplinary Studies and a minor in Philosophy and is currently looking for opportunities to strengthen his craft. Benjamin Doty received an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is working on a short story collection about Turks. His short fiction has been a finalist in three Glimmer Train opens and has appeared in the Colorado Review, Literary Imagination, and the Coe Review, among other places. Tina Egnoski is the author of two books, In the Time of the Feast of Flowers (Texas Review Press, 2012) and Perishables (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her work, both poetry and fiction, has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Backwards City Review, Cimarron Review, Folio, and Louisville Review. Brett Foster is the author of two poetry books, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern UP, 2011) and Fall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2011 Open Chapbook Prize. His writing has appeared in AGNI, Atlanta Review, Boston Review, Cellpoems, The Common, Green Mountains Review, IMAGE, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. Trina Gaynon’s poems have appeared in the anthologies Bombshells and Knocking at the Door, as well as numerous journals including Natural Bridge, Reed and the final issue of Runes. Her chapbook, An Alphabet of Romance, is available from Finishing Line Press. Forthcoming publications in anthologies include: A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, Saint Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century, and Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: Anthology of Sonnets of the Early Third Millennium. Elizabeth Genovise is a graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University, and her fiction has been published in The Southern Review, The Pinch, Yemassee, and other journals, and has placed in Glimmer Train’s March 2013 Fiction Open contest. Her first book, a collection of stories called A Different Harbor, will be published by Mayapple Press in summer 2014. James Grabill’s poems have appeared in numerous periodicals such as Harvard Review, Shenandoah, Stand (UK), The Oxonian Review (UK), Magma (UK), New York Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Ur Vox, Re Dactions, The Bitter Oleander, Urthona (UK), East West Journal, Willow Springs, kayak, Caliban, The Common Review, and others. His books of poems include Poem Rising Out of the Earth and Standing Up in Someone (Oregon Book Award winner, 1995), and An Indigo Scent after the Rain (Lynx House Press, 2003).
John Grey is an Australian born poet. Recently published in International Poetry Review, Sanskrit, and the science fiction anthology, Futuredaze with work upcoming in Clackamas Literary Review, New Orphic Review, and Nerve Cowboy. Patrick Cabello Hansel has published poems in Hawai’i Pacific Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Turtle Quarterly, Passager, The Meadowland Review and other journals. He was selected for the 2008-09 Mentor Series at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, and is a 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grantee. His novella, Searching, was serialized in 33 issues of The Alley News. Linda G Hatton spends her days writing—poetry, novels, screenplays, web codes, or notes to her children. Otherwise, she gets a little cranky. She is also the managing editor of Mouse Tales Press. Kevin Heaton is from Kansas and Oklahoma. He now lives and writes in South Carolina. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in a number of publications including: Raleigh Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Beecher’s Magazine, Crannóg, and Mixed Fruit. Julie Hensley, RER’s 2014 Guest Editor, is a core faculty member of the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the brief residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. Her poems and stories have received multiple Pushcart nominations, and her most recent work has appeared in Saranac Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Stream, The Louisville Review, and Ruminate. A chapbook of her poems, The Language of Horses, is available from Finishing Line Press. Louisa Howerow’s latest poems appeared in The Lindenwood Review, Frogpond, and the Naugatuck River Review. Her work is also included in the anthologies An Unfinished War (Black Moss Press, 2012), and For Rhino in a Shrinking World (The Poets Printery, East London, S.A., 2013). Carol Johnson’s short fiction has appeared in Foliate Oak and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others. Her novel, Everlasting, was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in 2006. She is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA program and lives in Tulsa, where she teaches composition and creative writing. Tim Kahl [http://www.timkahl.com] is the author of Possessing Yourself (CW Books 2009) and The Century of Travel (CW Books, 2012). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, Parthenon West Review, and many other journals in the U.S. He is the vice president and events coordinator of The Sacramento Poetry Center. Robert Kendrick lives in Clemson, South Carolina. He has previously published work in Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Journal, and Illuminations.
Cindy E. King, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, lives Lancaster, Texas, where she teaches at the University of North Texas Dallas as an Assistant Professor of English and Writing. Her most recent publications include poems in Callaloo, North American Review, African American Review, American Literary Review, jubilat, and Barrow Street. Mercedes Lawry has been publishing poetry for over thirty-five years in such journals as Poetry, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, and Saint Ann’s Review. She has published two chapbooks, There are Crows in My Blood and Happy Darkness and received honors from the Seattle Arts Commission, Jack Straw Foundation, Artist Trust and Richard Hugo House, been a Pushcart nominee twice and held a residency at Hedgebrook. Lawry has also published short fiction as well as stories and poems for children. Christopher Linforth has fiction published in Whiskey Island, Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle, and other magazines. Ross Losapio is a graduate of the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the recipient of the 2013 Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the minnesota review, The Emerson Review, and elsewhere. Mary Mackie has an M.A. in Creative Writing and Literature and a Ph.D. in English (American and Native American literatures) from the University of Oklahoma. Her publications include short stories, poems, essays, and academic articles. She spent six summers as writer-in-residence at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where she completed her novella, Below the Salt, and revised her novel, Dancing Without Joy. Elizabeth McCullough lives with her husband in Lowell, Massachusetts. She is a founding member of WriterHouse, a writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Beth McDermott is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Program for Writers. Her poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as DIAGRAM, Harpur Palate, and American Book Review. Mitzi McMahon lives in Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan, where she writes fiction and chases the light, camera in hand. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over two dozen publications, including The Bitter Oleander, The Santa Fe Literary Review, The Evansville Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and Prime Number Magazine. Glenn Erick Miller lives in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. His prose and poetry have appeared in literary journals such as Literary Juice, Burrow Press Review, and Confluence, as well as in newspapers and magazines. He has worked as a youth counselor, college professor, and photographer, and he is currently revising his novel for young adults.
Ron Morita studied neurophysiology at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute because so much of what we consider ourselves to be is in the brain. Finding himself unsuited to academia, he earned a Masters in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve and became an electrical engineer. His fiction appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine, Penduline Literary Magazine, The Chamber Four Literary Magazine, Star 82 Review, Empty Sink Publishing, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. John Graves Morris, Professor of English at Cameron University, is the author of Noise and Stories. His poems have appeared in The Chariton Review, The Concho River Review, The Great Plains Review, Sugar Mule, and other journals. He lives in Lawton. Teddy Norris holds an MLA from Washington University in St. Louis. A recently retired Professor of English, she taught poetry and creative writing and edited St. Charles Community College’s literary journal Mid Rivers Review. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, most recently in The Country Dog Review, where she won third place in the Argos Prize for Poetry. Ed O’Casey received his MA from the University of North Texas. He loves all things narcissistic, and lives with his unruly wife and daughter. His poems have appeared or are upcoming in Cold Mountain Review, Tulane Review, Oak Bend Review, Euphony, Mayo Review, Poetry Quarterly, NANO Fiction, and West Trade Review. James Penha, a native New Yorker, has lived for the past twenty years in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry was awarded the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award. Andy Preston is a history graduate student at the University of Akron. When he’s not browsing hundred-page manuscripts in the secretary hand, he writes. Most of the time, he writes about family. They haven’t killed him yet for doing so. Casey Pycior earned his my MA in Literature at the University of MissouriKansas City, his MFA in Creative Writing at Wichita State University, and he is currently a third-year PhD student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Storyglossia, American Life in Poetry, Big Muddy, Front Porch, and Pear Noir! among other places. Ned Randle has studied writing at Washington University, Webster University and Southwestern Illinois College. He has published a number of short stories, the most recent “The Boston Tar Baby” in Prism Review (Spring 2013) and “The Amazing Doctor Jones” in Cigale Literary Magazine (Summer 2012). His
novel, a work of literary fiction entitled Baxter’s Friends was released by Coffeetown Press in June 2013. Robert Rebein is the author of Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City (Swallow 2013) as well as essays and other nonfiction published in Georgia Review, Redivider, Ecotone, Cream City Review, and other venues. He teaches in the creative writing program at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis. Michael Karl (Ritchie) is a Professor of English at Arkansas Tech University, where he serves as advisor to the undergraduate literary magazine, Nebo. He has had work published by three small-press; has realeased a limited edition chapbook, and poems have appeared in various small press magazines, including the Web Arkansas Literary Forum. Peg Robarchek is a published novelist, editor, writing coach, poet and a former journalist who currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her blog is coachpegnow.com and her most recent novel is In the Territory of Lies, coauthored with Lois Stickell. In 2013, she also published her first children’s book, Bean Is Born. John G. Rodwan, Jr. is author of the essay collections Holidays and Other Disasters (Humanist Press, 2013) and Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010) as well as the chapbook Christmas Things (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2011); he lives in Detroit, Michigan. When Zarina Zabrisky and Simon Rogghe started writing poems to each other, a “third mind” was created. Like the surrealists, they believe that literature is larger than its authors, that art is bigger than an artist. Zarina Zabrisky is the author of the short story collections Iron and a Cute Tombstone (Epic Rites Press), and a novel We, Monsters (forthcoming from Numina Press in 2013.). Simon Rogghe is a poet, fiction writer and translator of French surrealism and contemporary fiction, earning his Ph.D. in French literature at UC Berkeley. Daniel Ruefman is an emerging poet whose work has most recently appeared in the Tonopah Review, Temenos, SLAB, FLARE: The Flagler Review, Burningword, and the Fertile Source. He teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin—Stout and holds a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Miriam Sagan is the author of twenty-five books, including the poetry collection Map of the Post (University of New Mexico Press.) She founded and directs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College. In 2010, she won the Santa Fe Mayor’s award for Excellence in the Arts.
Gerard Sarnat is the author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections, 2010’s Homeless Chronicles: from Abraham to Burning Man and 2012’s Disputes. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in seventy or so journals and anthologies. Harvard and Stanford educated, Gerry’s a physician who’s set up and staffed clinics for the disenfranchised, a CEO of health care organizations, and a Stanford professor. Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collection Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press). She received an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University and has published in numerous journals including The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, and Prairie Schooner. She contributes weekly to the blog Planet of the Blind. Alexander Shafer works as a contributing poetry editor at Arcadia Magazine, and as an English Composition Professor at Oklahoma City Community College and Redlands Community College. His poetry and reviews can be found in BlazeVox, Pyrokinection, The Rumpus, The Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. Shafer received his MFA from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2013. He lives in Oklahoma City. Marian Kaplun Shapiro is the author of a professional book, Second Childhood (Norton, 1988), a poetry book, Players In The Dream, Dreamers In The Play (Plain View Press, 2007) and two chapbooks: Your Third Wish (Finishing Line, 2007); and The End Of The World, Announced On Wednesday (Pudding House, 2007). A resident of Lexington, she was named Senior Poet Laureate of Massachusetts in 2006, 2008, 2010 2011, and 2013 and nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012. Mattie Quesenberry Smith serves as an adjunct instructor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, Virginia. Recently, Finishing Line Press nominated her poetry chapbook, Mother Chaos: Under Electric Light, for a Library of Virginia Literary Award, and Ruminate editors nominated “To a Fishing Father” for a Pushcart Poetry Prize. Kelly Stone-Gamble currently resides in Nevada where she teaches English at College of Southern Nevada. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. L.E. Sullivan currently attends the MFA program at NAU and her work has appeared in journals such as: Northwind Literary Magazine, The Flagler Review, Dark Matter, Barely South Review, and more. Ron Wallace is a Native son of Oklahoma, born and raised in Durant. He is the author of six volumes of critically acclaimed poetry published by TJMF Publishing of Clarksville, Indiana. He is currently an adjunct Professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a three time finalist in the Oklahoma Book Awards.
Cheryl Weibye Wilke is the author of two chapbooks and two childrenâ€™s picture books (forthcoming), her work has appeared in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, Lake Region Review, Plainsongs, Prairie Schooner, The Penwood Review, Water-Stone Review and other print, online, and broadcast venues. Wilke is a recipient of Grand Prize awards from the League of Minnesota Poets. Steven Wingate is the author of the short story collection Wifeshopping and of two prose poem collections, The Birth of Trigonometry in the Bones of Olduvai and the forthcoming Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations. He teaches at South Dakota State University.
Red Earth Review #2 (2014), edited and produced by The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA at Oklahoma City University.