Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Oklahoma City University July 2016
© Red Earth Review 2016
All Rights Reserved
RED EARTH REVIEW Editorial Board:
Cassandra Carter Ashley Dougherty MW Rishell Craig Wolf
The Oklahoma City University
Red Earth MFA
2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.lyRedEarthReview 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: Big Bunny, Arkansas City, Kansas © MW Rishell, 2016. Note: All Red Earth MFA student submissions are referred to outside readers for blind review; this issue’s outside reader was Bayard Godsave, Cameron University. After first publication in Red Earth Review, 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.
CONTENTS WILLIAM AUTEN
Out There in the Sunlight GEORGE BISHOP
Not Every Wildebeest Survives PAUL BOWERS
The Rod of Asclepius KEVIN BROWN
I Tend to Avoid Mirrors YVONNE CARPENTER
Chipped Marble GRANT CLAUSER
Worldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s End Revisited GRANT CLAUSER
Secrets of the Great Escape Artists CHARLOTTE COVEY
LAWRENCE F. FARRAR
The Nature of Gifts JOSH GAINES
Remembering John Wayne JOSH GAINES
More than Our Place KARI GUNTER-SEYMOUR
Girls of Summer
1 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 23 34 35 37 38
Ever Since Cousin Kay Got The Cancer KHANH HA
The General Is Sleeping JOHN HEARN
And The Rain Fell TOM C. HUNLEY
A Gathering of Birds CRAIG KURTZ
A Lesson In Wise Loving CRAIG KURTZ
Alceste’s Mission Statement CRAIG KURTZ
December’s Jeremiad to May CRAIG KURTZ
To Hell with the Hoi Polloi DIANE LEFER
S. FREDERIC LISS
The Face of the System MARIA ELENA B. MAHLER
Ugly Red Shoes
“Ask if your heart is healthy enough for sex.” JOAN MAZZA
Lost Craft Ghazal MARTY MCCONNELL
39 40 53 54 58 59 60 61 62 64 75 86 91 93 94 95 97 98
Waiting For A Letter BRUCE MCRAE
In The Beginning MARGARITA MEKLINA
The Eighth Day of Hanukkah WILLIAM MORRIS
High and Mighty LISA MULLENNEAUX
The Fifth Bear FAYE RAPOPORT DESPRES
Capture the Moon
KRISTEN STABY REMBOLD
At Februaryâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s End
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR.
Basement Rainbow of Motherfuckery JOHN G. RODWAN, JR.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM
Last Bend in the Huron River DAVID ANTHONY SAM
Swimming Pool E.G. SILVERMAN
Moosehead Lake ROBERT F. SOMMER
We Were Goats EMILY STRAUSS
DOUG VAN HOOSER
99 100 101 104 114 115 127 131 141 142 143 144 145 146 148 164 180 181
The Mid-Morning Movie MATTHEW WOODMAN
Three for Rufino
ELLEN ROBERTS YOUNG
Shapes of Thought LENA ZIEGLER
193 194 195 196
Volume 4 2016
WILLIAM AUTEN Out There in the Sunlight after a line by Larry Levis Ruben Vasquez wanted to kill his own father. He had waited all day, the morning dampness and coolness dissolving into mid-day warmth, for his father to drift away from the rest of them. When he watched his father walk alone to the Porta John, he leaned forward from the gate of the water truck and wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand, smearing sweat and dirt. Their break over, the other workers stopped talking and laughing and rolled back on their bandanas, hoodies, and hats; no gloves. The day was bright and warm in the sun, cool in the shadows, and at mid-afternoon they were three-quarters through what needed to be done. They broke off from the water truck, its large, plastic dome sloshing with water, and dispersed themselves among the rows of strawberries, evenly spaced like ceremonial mounds. The green rows brushed against the knees of some of the workers, the hips of others, the leaves swishing when they paced down the line. But Ruben Vasquez remained watching his father, head foreman and one of the oldest workers, shuffle towards the blue-and-white Porta John by the rusted open-air shelter where tools, supplies, materials, and the sickle-shaped fruit knives were stored. When he didn’t return to picking and grabbing more plastic clamshells for his little cart, Ruben Vasquez knew the other workers would glare at him, as they always did, even as they continued picking strawberries. On down the rows they went, kneeling, bending over, laughing and talking about their knee or back pain, maybe a slipped disc from last season or ten seasons ago, the diabetes in their family, the baseball season, some gossip, the weather, their voices trailing behind the conveyor belt buzzing containers full of fuzzy, seeded hearts up and away. He watched his father pull open the Porta John’s door, peek inside, and look down before stepping one boot up and in. The door closed. For several seconds Ruben Vasquez waited, squinting at the rusty open-air shelter and then at the Porta John. He looked behind him at the other workers and the fields stretching back into a vanishing point of telephone poles, electrical towers, and wooly green-brown mountains. He spat on the dirt and walked headlong into the breeze towards the rusty open-air shelter. A few of the other workers rose up and watched him pick up speed the closer the got. “¿Otra vez está enfermo?” someone mumbled over the conveyor belt’s rumble and the small carts’ tires dragging over the dirt. “Renunció,” someone teased from the back of one of the lines, the others chuckling with her as the pushed their carts a little further. Scuffling to a halt under the rusty sheet-metal roof, inside the shelter’s long, narrow shadow, Ruben Vasquez turned hard right and pawed through a drawer. He slid a fruit knife into his right back pocket 1
and then jogged towards the Porta John, wiping his hands on the back of his baggy jeans, the blade shining through the ripped hole like a coin. He waited until the door flung open and his father stepped out, and seeing him step into the sunlight, Ruben Vasquez whooshed out the fruit knife, its glint as bright as the windows of the cars parked by the rusted openair shelter. “Ay!” screamed several of the workers, looking on, “ay! Cuchillo, cuchillo!” Ruben’s father put on his cowboy hat and looked out into the sunny day and his colleagues in the fields waving their arms and yelling yards away from him, some running over as fast as they could. And then he saw his son squatting in front of him, his stance far wider than shoulder-width, arms balanced out to the side, the fruit knife’s handle spinning in one hand. Shimmying himself between his father and the rows of strawberries that seemed to have blossomed overnight after a hard rain came through, Ruben Vasquez bounced around like a spider, kicking up dust and dirt, his father confused and frozen. He jabbed, poked, and sliced, hitting nothing but the empty cool breeze and brightness of the sunny day. He lunged forward, backwards, sideways, and all over again, fencing with himself. His father moved one way, but Ruben Vasquez blocked his path, fruit knife held inches away from his nose. His father lifted his hands up, and Ruben Vasquez lunged forward, wrapping his hands around his father’s flannel shirt, and pressed him against the Porta John, rocking it off the ground, nearly tipping it over. When he pulled back the fruit knife to his ear, tensing an invisible arc between him and his father’s throat, his small thumb and fingers disappeared from view, leaving behind a shiny hook with many teeth under the crescent blade. He was not skillful with the fruit knife. And when he attempted killing his father, he was amateurish, sloppy, a young animal learning to walk after being on the ground for so long. The smell of strawberries wafted all throughout the rows snug against the mountain’s base. Ruben Vasquez was a short man, no taller than the other men he picked alongside and who arranged the berries in the plastic clamshells so carefully by hand as to not bruise the ones on the bottom, moving each one like a checkers piece. Neither Ruben Vasquez nor any of his coworkers were taller than the palettes of packed strawberries looming over them, and he was only slightly taller than the women he picked with. He wore an LA Dodgers ball cap, dusty and faded blue, underneath a grey hoodie, and tied an old t-shirt around his face, keeping dust and debris out. During many of his pauses, he hiked up his baggy jeans, large enough to house his cell phone, his gloves, his cigarettes, lighter, wallet, and a necklace with a small oval photo of his grandparents that he never re-clasped around his neck after it broke off in a fight a year ago with Cammy, his girlfriend. On breaks and lunches, Ruben’s father talked for a while with the others, laughing, smiling, reminiscing, but never teasing them, as his son, when he jabbered, tended to do. His father would slide his cowboy hat back, far enough that his silver hair looped down, just above his 2
eyebrow, the full one, a tractor engine fire having singed off half of the other one, reducing it to stubble and a wispy tail. Ruben’s father laughed and poked fun at himself a lot about it, “Ooh…ooh…no fuego de la mujer,” he would brightly smile and shake his head. He would tip his cowboy hat back and then he would re-light a cigar leftover from the morning on his way to work, and puff on it while leaning against one of the water trucks or under the rusty open-air shelter where they ate lunch. The smell of sweet cigar leaves, strawberries, and pepper trees off in the distance. He’d only have three, maybe five, puffs before snuffing it inside one of the many dents of the truck, stuffing the remainder in his pocket, buttoning it close until the break after lunch, at which time, if he didn’t puff on his cigar during his breaks, which was rare, Ruben’s father might enjoy a handful of almonds or a few strands of beef jerky that the others had brought, maybe a sip of water, but mostly he remained quiet during work and breaks. Except for the day Ruben Vasquez wielded a knife, slicing the air in front of him like a bird trapped in a cage. It was late in the day, and Ruben Vasquez had been lagging all day behind the others, which was not unusual, row after row, a grey-hooded wolf straggling behind the pack. “Vamanos,” his father grumbled in a whisper on one row, sliding down from his spot at the front. “Got to pick it up. This is why…” he started to say but then corrected himself, “your hands are too soft…como la de un bebé.” Ruben Vasquez glared at his father with bloodshot eyes. His father stared back, the lines around his eyes tightening. “That’s what you get for that,” Ruben’s father said, touching his son’s arm, who quickly yanked it away. “Don’t touch me,” he snapped. Ruben’s father nodded, looked down at the soil and the red bursting among the green leaves, and walked back to the front of the row, adjusting his cowboy hat as he did. Ruben Vasquez remained standing up, staring at his father and then at the blue sky over the flat fields. Several birds crisscrossed through the air, black stars falling in daylight. Ruben Vasquez pressed his chest forward until his spine cracked and pulled the old t-shirt back over his face. His father, in the meantime, slapped the backs of some of the other workers, laughing with them before winding his way towards the truck, where he wrote on a clipboard, returned it on the dashboard, and then headed over to the Porta John. Ruben’s father had promised more of his money to his younger son, Manny, than to Ruben. In fact, he had rewritten his last will and testament twice during the past year, both times reducing the amount Ruben would inherit. Ruben Vasquez, once he found out from Jo, his cousin Alex’s wife, who had served a warm platter of pan dulce and tequila-coffee the night Ruben’s father mentioned it, stormed out of his apartment to his father’s house the next day to confront him. Two loud knocks. No answer. Two fist-knocks. No answer. Frustrated, he mimed punching the face of the door. “Papa! Papa!” He yelled, stepping back off the front concrete slab under the door. Ruben Vasquez stretched his neck 3
and threw himself into the bushes under his father’s window, and pressed his red face and soft hands against the pane. Nothing but shadows, a doorway backlit by the afternoon, and the small slope of purple-topped fields seen through the bedroom’s window and back patio’s door. He jumped back onto the concrete and stomped his way to his car. It was Sunday afternoon, and after sulking in the warm driver’s seat, he realized that, more than likely, his father was riding horses with Alex, who had been inviting his father to see the new weanlings as they became less shy. Furious, Ruben Vasquez slammed the door of his car, revved the engine, and sped to Alex’s ranch. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded, yelling out the driver‘s side window before killing the engine. He fumbled with the keys, throwing them on the passenger seat. The day was sunny but cool, and the horses gathering in the corral—five brown and sleek, one white and black mare—perked their ears, tails thrashing, toward Ruben Vasquez who roared towards the fence, crumbling rocks and gravel. “Who do you think you are?” he repeated louder, reaching the fence and staring at his father brushing one of the brown horses. The land around the ranch undulated, dark greens giving way to browns and rolling back again, the crests of the mountains ready to turn pink with the oncoming sunset. Alex, who stood next to a bucket of grooming brushes, glanced over his shoulder as he folded a blanket off one of the weanlings. “Hey! I’m talking to you!” Ruben Vasquez yelled at his father, stretching his neck out further, pulling him onto the toes of his shoes. Ruben’s father finished brushing and patted the veiny neck of one of the brown horses. He kissed its pink nose and turned towards Ruben. Dusting off his hands, he walked over, sidestepping manure and the dogs running through the corral. By the time he reached the fence, Ruben Vasquez slid his body between the spaces, crawling over the middle beam, and stood up quickly before his father stopped in front of him. “I heard,” he panted, finding his balance, wiping his nose. Ruben’s father nodded. “I heard,” he repeated louder, leaning in, his neck long like a vulture’s. Ruben’s father nodded and pushed out his lips, his moustache breaking apart. “You cut me out?” Ruben Vasquez bobbed his head up and down, creeping inside the shadow cast underneath his father’s cowboy hat. “Cammy and I help you after Mom’s gone, and this is what you do? You cut me out? I get nothing?” He stared longer at his father. “Got nothing to say?” Ruben’s father nodded and then scuffed the dirt with his boots, indenting it with the sharp toes. He inhaled deeply and put his hands inside his front pockets, thumbs resting on his hips. “You get something,” he answered. “Something?” he shot back. “I hear it’s nothing.” 4
“You’re still getting something.” “I go from half…half…to something,” he stuttered, shifting his torso to the right, throwing up his arms. “What’s something exactly?” “Less than half,” Ruben’s father spoke. Alex led away the brown horse Ruben’s father had been brushing, clicking his tongue and trying not to stare at the two men, especially Ruben. “Which is…?” Ruben Vasquez asked. His father was silent for several seconds before responding with a change in tone. “You’re not going anywhere.” “What?” he stepped back, throwing both hands into the air, extending his fingers like claws. “Manny can go somewhere.” “What do you mean?” “He can go to school.” “Oh. . . ,” he exasperated, spun around, and rubbed both hands over his buzz-cut head. “For real? You telling me that you think Manny, little Morrissey-loving, all-black-wearing, Picasso-wannabe Manny, is going somewhere?” “That’s right.” Alex waved away Jo as she brought one of the mares and her foal from the stable to the gate on the other side of the corral. The foal’s long legs bobbed up and down like puppet strings as it trotted next to its mother. Ruben Vasquez’s mouth dropped open. “He…he…he doesn’t do what I do.” “That’s right.” “He draws… He takes a…a…a pencil and draws dragons and shit I’ve never seen except in movies and comic books.” Ruben’s father nodded. Ruben Vasquez clasped both sides of his skull. “Am I really hearing this? You…you’re going to give him money for a thing you don’t even know if he’ll do?” “I’m not dead yet,” his father softly countered. Ruben Vasquez crossed his arms. “Yeah, well…you’re dead to me.” His father nodded, keeping his lips pressed. On her way back to the house, Jo glanced at them as she handed a lead and halter to Alex. After doing so, she took larger steps back inside, staring straight ahead into the door’s light. “And next time I see you,” he flared, “I’m gonna gut you for this if you don’t change it back. I can’t just stand here and listen to you telling me that Manny…Manny…gets all that and I get nada…zilch…zero. All the times I took you to the doctors for your pills and check-ups…that time you fell down the stairs. . . all those times. No more. You got something wrong with you, then get somebody else to babysit your sorry old ass.” Ruben Vasquez stormed off towards his car but then spun back 5
around to his father. “All those times Cammy looked after you too. Done, done, done. No mas. Family’s supposed to stay together,” he pleaded, his eyes bulging. “Don’t you get that? I ain’t never been to prison. I ain’t never shot nobody. Nothing. I work and work and work. Just like you.” “You show up to work,” Ruben’s father lifted his fingers into the air, “but you don’t have what he has.” “Oh my God…are you?. . . Did I just hear that? You sound like Mom.” “She asked me to do this.” “When? On her deathbed? The same day you said she spoke to you from the coma…the coma that the doctors said she ain’t never coming back from? That coma?” “You weren’t there when it happened.” “I was…what?” Ruben Vasquez laughed. “I stepped away…to get something to eat. I mean, it’s not like she was going anywhere,” he shrieked, squeezing his biceps against his chest, pressing together his case with his emotions. His father nodded. “Yes…you did step away.” Ruben Vasquez stared at his father and gasped. “Whatever,” he clicked, popping his shoulder. Alex went back into the stable, the horses inside whinnying at his presence. “You haven’t shown me what he’s shown me,” Ruben’s father inhaled, leaning back against one of the corral’s post. “Like what?” “That you can do more with what you were given.” Ruben Vasquez laughed. “Oh…really? Really?” His tone increased in pitch and volume. “Those meds are messing with your mind. I know all those years of hitting the bottle made your brain soft like a wet tortilla, but come on,” he spat. His father looked down. “What was I supposed to do? I came into this,” Ruben Vasquez said, his hands and palms in front of his stomach. “You were out working, so that’s what I did. I followed you.” “But you didn’t have to.” “You didn’t show me any other way.” “I know.” “So…?” “What’s done is done.” “Do you know what it’s like to hear this? This and the money? It’s like being hit in the gut over and over,” he whined. Ruben’s father nodded. “So that’s that, huh?” Ruben’s father stared at him. “You gonna pay…somehow…you gonna pay,” Ruben Vasquez pointed at his father’s face, returning to his car. 6
His father watched his oldest son speed away, dust spiraling behind the tires. He scratched his neck and pivoted back towards the corral where Alex nodded as he opened a bag of carrots under the nose of the new foal, the appaloosa Rubenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s father had heard about from Jo but had never seen until now.
GEORGE BISHOP Shelters Cities seemed to suit me best, something homeless hanging in every eye, the windows of the unspoken painted shut and endless alleys of unexplored silence—makes you wonder what sleep is made of on nights of anybody, anywhere, anytime. However, homeless in a hometown puzzles familiar ghosts, family pushing you from one dead member to another, until the smell of your first name (and only your first) has drifted out of town, your home town. Same silence, just a different past in your future. Loneliness only goes so far before it turns back, but distance will never desert you, no blood above the door of your old bedroom, no street life that passes for life. It was so far from my mind, this distance—I’ve begun to love it, its longing, the timeless desires to undress, the steady release of what’s in between the hard sleep of shelters.
PAUL BOWERS This Time We are back in the department stores of our childhoods: me hung from the rack of corpuscular rope, swinging over porches of sandstone; you hiding from the nightmare that springs from your closet of dreams and then joins you late for cereal at the breakfast table. These are jarred coins that rattle when we move. Dogs that bark in the absence of moonlight. Jays that swoop at our heads when we try to sleep together in the sun and remember that we should not recall everything that has ever happened to us.
PAUL BOWERS Not Every Wildebeest Survives Not every wildebeest survives the mad crossing of the river. The plunge among the mouths of crocodiles is a fearful charge, but no less fearful than when the Earth, Saturn, and Mars find themselves in nervous company of the star that waits with fiery maw, drawing them closer, inch by inch, with each trillionth round. Letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s all stand, then, on the back porch in early August, on the shore of the darkened sky, stomp our feet in a rank, defiant dance, sniff the air, crowd the bank, then leap to a certain height over the still black waters of night, and dare the lightning snap of gravity.
PAUL BOWERS The Rod of Asclepius The dog has treed a snake, barking it into a squat box bush. She waits, then retreats to the porch, her comical uneven ears trained toward the flowerbed. I barely see the snake, its dark skin turned shadow and stem, wrapped along this Rod of Asclepius, ready to disappear and heal the wound of attention suddenly opened as when it suddenly appeared.
KEVIN BROWN I Tend to Avoid Mirrors Really, I just want to drop five pounds, just from my stomach. It enters a room before I do, like some nineteenth-century footman, announcing, “May I present to you the Duke of Fat.” Everyone stops their conversation to look. If my anxieties could send me texts telling me I’m boring the people I’m talking to, what would I reply? I insist my hairline is not receding, but receded: it went back more than a decade ago, then stopped, as if it’s catching its breathe after an arduous journey, a climb up a steep mountainside, before moving to the crown. I never know what to do with my hands, hide them in my pockets to pretend nothing hangs from the ends of my arms; when I cross them I look defensive, and when I stroke my chin I seem some B-movie villain plotting to take over the world. (Or do they have cats?) Maybe I should have some seventies announcer, like on Laugh-In calling out, Here comes the dud; here comes the dud. And I would be the punchline.
YVONNE CARPENTER Chipped Marble whirled blue on white, exposed in the newly eroded dirt says a child lived here. That he was indulged I guess from the rusted hub from a tricycle wheel. His mother wore perfume from a clear bottle stoppered by the nubbin of glass laying nearby. Dad sharpened hoes to chop weeds from long, hot cotton rows and left an inch long fragment of the file. From deeper layers, a crushed segment of the chained cups that lifted water from the cistern, springs from a buggy, buckles from horse harness, Only the hump of the cellar and bricked cistern lip remain above ground; from the earth, chards of life once lived on this hill.
GRANT CLAUSER World’s End Revisited World’s End wilderness area, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania The trees have aged as much as us but show it less, their bark turned hard from fire and the wind that carried songs down the canyon. When they fall, their leaves curl up like cast cocoons. We brought nothing, and took it all home. Took the wind for granted and the moon that turned to vapor every morning and back again to moon. Those stars that shot the night, burned and gone. We built for need at the End, loved hot the way a fire flares in a stone ring and smolders back to flames in morning. Dew on our tent evaporated under sun then down as rain by evening. No children then, or even dreams that soon. Now our girls are grown and moving on to ends they’ll choose. Our choices, work and house, fireplace in the den, sink dripping in the kitchen. We’ve mortgaged more than a house, our skin and bones. Those days at World’s End, building camp and fire for the meals, down payment for the road beyond the river bends. Everything we’ve loved stays the same somewhere, no matter how it’s changed. That’s memory. The stones that built a fire pit, still strong despite their cracks, hot coals we chose to carry.
GRANT CLAUSER Secrets of the Great Escape Artists It’s not enough that there’s a razor hidden between ass cheeks or a key held under the tongue. These padlocks, leather straps and canvas sleeves can’t contain you if your mind was free from the start. You can count on someone to call for help, for a woman in the back row to faint as the clock tick-clicks close to panic time, bubbles rising from the tank you thrash in. You can count on time slowing down, minutes stretched across your lungs as the skin of a drum and then the twang as time unwraps its fist and lets you go. The secret’s in the waiting when all attention’s on the last breath like family holding hands around a hospital bed, the audience so sure of your death that they see it rise up in front of them and then you tap it on the shoulder, remind your death that time flies and stands still at the same time and the nick of it is enough to slip past unnoticed. Not a cheat so much as a gamble, that a trap door is always open if you’re willing to step through.
CHARLOTTE COVEY accomplice you downed the bottle and found your car keys, slammed the door so hard my bones rattled. i saw you get in without wiping off snow, engine stalled. i held my breath, but the car choked to life; so did i. play the words you said over again in my head, i'm fine. but you didn't come home. they found the car at the bottom of the lake and your face, blue with rust stripes. i sat there and held your hand, cold as i was. they kept telling me i'd be fine, i'd be alright. but the truth is, i didn't hide your keysâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;i followed you out, watched you drive off, bottle in your hand. i turned, walked inside, locked the door, and went to sleep.
CHARLOTTE COVEY cyclical this is what it's like to hold herâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; arms wrap fragile bones and stitched flesh, heartbeats escape the cage of my chest. hands entwine, soft kisses rain down on desert skin, but this is what it's like to know herâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; palms press temples, screams burst ear drums. hands curl into fists, hair rips from scalp. constant shaking, always at a loss, but
RICHARD DOKEY Bartender Marty told Helen he didn't want to be married anymore. Helen went into the bedroom to cry. Marty drove the Suburu to the Miramar Club. Miller was sitting at the far end of the bar. “Hey,” the bartender, whose name was Otto, said. “What's up? Say, today's the anniversary, right?” Marty raised a hand to brush away something invisible. Otto had seen it all, philanderers and cheats, thieves and swindlers, men with no hope, men who were hopeless, men in trouble with women, even a murderer or two. He could start a practice with what he had seen. Sometimes a face appeared in the paper that was a face in the bar. He read the articles about being caught, about divorce, about who bribed or who robbed someone or who was violent. Always in the paper there was this flat, blank, empty face, like a face caught in the headlights. He could not feel sorry for any face in the paper or for a face on the other side of the bar. Every face was one face. After a time Otto no longer cared to know what had happened, what any face did or didn't do. He was interested now only in what he could not see, this immaterial, spiritual something that lay behind the face and made everything go. There was something, he was certain, or else everything was an animal or a plant or a rock hurtling around the sun. From the far end of the bar Miller called, “Hey, Marty.” Marty waved without looking. “How about some company?” Miller said, coming over. Marty said nothing. Miller sat down on a stool. “What's going on, Man?” Miller said. He patted Marty on the shoulder. “Hey, congratulations. How many years is it now? How's Helen?” “She's all right,” Marty said. People in a bar do not notice a bartender, any more than they notice a ticket taker or a cab driver or someone who delivers to the front door. A bartender was close—an arm's length away—but not truly close. This awareness gave Otto a god-like feeling. He was in their bedrooms when the shades were drawn. He drove home with them after midnight, listening to what they thought. He stood beside them in the morning when they shaved a reflection. He kept notes. Everything was everything else, so he passed no judgment. It was not his place to judge. A god, he supposed, any actual god, saw something where there was nothing to see. He mixed their drinks, wondering and wondering, behind every face, was everyone the same? Miller said something about The World Series. He said something about the Super Bowl. He said, what about the Supreme Court or that health care thing or those mullahs? He touched his glass and waited. 18
Marty looked at the labeled bottles lined up near the register. He looked at the glasses, bright and clean, as though they had just come from the store. Marty liked the regular order of the glasses and bottles, everything just where it belonged. “All right,” Marty said. Miller watched the mirror. “Say,” he said. “You okay?” In a moment Marty said, “What did you say?” Otto wiped the glass he was wiping. “Helen's all right,” Marty said. Miller looked at Otto. Otto said, “How about another? On the house. How many anniversaries does a man get?” Otto was not married. Miller said, “On me, you mean. I can buy a drink once a year, can't I?” Marty pushed the glass across the bar. Otto put it into the sink. He poured the whiskey and soda into a fresh glass. “Yours?” Otto said. “The same,” Miller replied. They drank the drinks. The door to the street opened. Helen stepped into the room. She strode to the bar. Her heels clacked on the wooden floor. She stopped behind Marty. Otto watched carefully. “I thought I'd find you here,” she said. “We have to talk.” Marty shrugged. He watched the mirror. “Mart, there's no reason for this,” she said. “But I have to know what the reason is anyway. Was it something I did or didn't do? Did I say something or not say something? Let's go home.” “I don't want to talk right now,” Marty said. “Mart,” Helen said, her voice higher. “I want to sit here. I want to drink some drinks.” Helen was silent. Miller thought he should leave, but couldn't. Otto did not want to be anywhere else. “Well,” she said, “We'll talk, then, since you feel this way. If we have to talk here, we have to talk here.” She looked at Otto. “Fix me a martini, dry,” she said. “Two olives.” Otto made the drink in a metal cannister. He shook the cannister until it sweated. He poured the drink into a thin-stemmed glass. “There's us, after all,” she declared, after a deep swallow. “All right, then,” Marty said. “It's more than all right.” “Yes,” he said. “So this is irrational, then,” she said. “I don't know what that means,” Marty said. “It means it's another year, and many more to come. If we believe it, Mart, we can lick anything. Do we have to be here?” “I want to be here,” Marty said. “I like being here.” Miller did not get up. Otto could do something, but couldn't do anything. 19
“For chrissake,” Helen said. “What is it you want, Mart?” Marty looked into the mirror above the bar, where Miller's face was and Helen's face and the back of Otto's head and his own face. Otto thought that Marty's face was a face in the newspaper. He watched Marty slide down to where no notes are taken. “A trailer,” Marty said quietly. “I'm thinking about having a trailer, one of those things you pull behind an automobile, and sleep in at night.” “You mean,” Helen said, “you just want to take a trip somewhere. But that's a great idea. Take our minds away.” “I always wanted to do it,” Marty said. “I wanted to live in a trailer, park it anywhere and fish every day. This guy I know named Frank does it. With only one leg.” “One leg?” she said. “How does someone with one leg do anything like that?” “”He's a lawyer from Seattle.” “You never told me about any lawyer from Seattle.” “I met him,” Marty said, “at lunch counter downtown. He's a fly fisherman too. So we started to talk. He has this circulation thing in his legs. Congenital or something, he said. He couldn't stand up in court anymore. So then his wife divorced him. He bought a trailer. He goes around in the trailer. He's disabled, officially, so he has money. Then an infection got into his right foot. The doctors couldn't stop it. It went up his leg, so they took the leg off. Frank said, how much more before they take everything off? So now he lives in his trailer. He takes his trailer all around everywhere. He does what he wants to do.” “Oh, Marty,” Helen said. “That's awful.” “It's not awful,” Marty said. “He has an artificial leg, one of those articulated things, with a metal foot. He does everything. Goes where he wants. Stays where he wants. What he wants to do, he does it. With one good leg and a metal foot.” “Is it, you just want to rent a trailer, then? You just want to knock around for awhile?” “No,” he said. “I want to have a trailer and live in the trailer. I want to go everywhere. I want to live in the trailer and fish every day.” “Well, we can do that,” she declared. “Why can't we rent our own trailer, hook it to the back of the car and go around, just like you said? You fish all you want for as long as you want. I can take care of myself. I'll take pictures, read books, whatever.” “Just be in that trailer,” Marty said. “Go around. Fish every day, until every day is just one day, day after day.” “Retirement,” Miller said. “Hell, Mart, you've earned it. Everybody dreams about retirement.” “No retirement,” Marty said. “Just every day like every other day. That's what I'm thinking. Wake up. Eat breakfast. Put on the waders. Go to the river. Fish all morning. Take a break around noon to eat the ham and cheese sandwich I've packed and to smoke a cigar and watch the 20
water. Then fish again to maybe three o'clock. Go back to the trailer. Take a nap or read something or listen to some music. Then, after dinner, go to the river for the evening rise and stay so late that I can't see the fly anymore, but the trout are still there, rising, and I catch big rainbows in the dark.” The afternoon light entered the bar, splintering the wooden floor. It warmed the mahogany bar. Otto stopped wiping the glass. He wanted to write something, but did not know what to write. Helen finished the martini. She saved an olive and pushed it about with a toothpick. “Live that way, I mean,” Marty said. “Alone?” Helen asked. “In a trailer, parked on the Yellowstone or Silver Creek or The Henry's Fork. Anyplace in the Rockies. Just be there. Fish. Get up in the morning. Do it again. That's all I want. Everything over and over.” “Marty,” Helen said, “that's kid's stuff. Isn't that just running away?” “There's nowhere to run,” Marty said. Helen was silent. “There's still us,” she said. “That counts.” “The trailer counts, and a bunk bed, a propane stove, a tiny refrigerator, no wind in the tops of the trees. It's nothing about us, or about anyone or anything. I want to fish every day.” “Mart, that's not a helpful way to think.” “What other way is there to think?” “Listen,” she cried, “they said everything was much better now. Didn't they say that?” “What does that count for?” Marty said. “They're doctors, goddamnit!” she declared. He looked into the mirror. “We can beat this,” she said. “Mart, I know we can beat this.” “There's nothing to beat,” he said. “I just want to be in that trailer. I just want to fish for trout.” “Well, it's only a fantasy, then,” she said. “And a kid's fantasy at that.” “A dream,” he replied. “An old man's dream.” “And us?” she sniffed. “You just can't think us away. You can't just think me away.” “It isn't like that,” he said. “I'm your goddamn wife!” Marty turned away from the mirror. He ran a finger around the rim of his glass. “It's only me,” he said. “That's what it is.” “I don't believe this,” she said. “How can I believe it? So go live in your damned trailer. Imitate your one-legged Frank. Fish every day. How many days, Mart?” “I'm not counting days,” he said. 21
“It's twisted in you. That's what it is. It's got you all twisted up. I can help, Mart. If you let me help.” “I want this to be off your shoulders,” he said. “Listen,” she said. “Now, you listen to me, Mart. Don't you dare talk that way. You hear me? My shoulders are big enough for anything. My shoulders can hold up anything. We'll rent your trailer. We'll go off, the two of us, here, there, wherever you want to go, any stream you want to fish for as long as you want to fish. Don't worry about me.” She wiped her eyes. “It's no good,” he said, “if you think you'll come back.” She burst into tears. One day Miller was in the bar. “Did you see the article?” he said. “I read it,” Otto said. “I didn't know he was that sick,” said Miller. “Did you?” “Sick enough,” Otto said. “You wouldn't know it to look at him,” Miller said. “I thought the doctors had hold of it.” “Doctors don't hold anything,” Otto said. “Well, it's a shame anyway,” Miller said. “What a waste. It's awful to think that way. I mean, when that's all you think about. I can't imagine ever thinking like that myself. What would be the point of anything?” That evening Otto closed the bar. He spread the paper out on the counter and read about it again. Marty had jumped from the Fifth Street Bridge and killed himself in the river. Otto had to admit, he’d never seen anything like that before.
LAWRENCE F. FARRAR The Nature of Gifts It was autumn 1970, the night air clear and crisp. Driving north toward Spokane in the barren rain shadow of the Cascades, 30-year-old Blake Langford was in a glum mood and dog-tired. The Oakland job interview had been a bust; and no sleep could cure the kind of weariness that enveloped him. At that moment, the MBA that had put him so far in the hole seemed worthless. Blake dwelt on past mistakes while a strong sense of failure circled his mind. Recurring images of unpaid bills spread across his little kitchen table preyed on him. His unemployment benefits exhausted, and ditched by his girl, he couldn’t feel much lower. The Eastern Oregon desert at three in the morning was, he thought, about as empty and as dark as it gets. The feeble headlights of his battered Pontiac sporadically illuminated sagebrush and tumbleweeds, which came and went in the roadside blackness. A startled jack rabbit froze in the beams and then bounded away. Blake hadn’t encountered another car for an hour. His face burned; he had shaved too close, trying to look right for the interview. He’d cut away his long tousled hair for the same reason. Neither effort had availed him anything. Scraped and shorn, he felt almost naked. He felt like a phony and was certain he looked like one. For a while, music on the car radio bolstered his struggle to stay awake. But now even Johnny Cash’s deep baritone intonation of A Boy Named Sue had faded to nothingness in a surge of rasping static. Grumbling, and frustrated as he tried to manipulate the dial, Blake finally abandoned his fruitless efforts to bring in a station—any station. He cranked down a window to breathe some outside air, hoping it would invigorate him. It didn’t; instead a chilly stream flowed across his jean-clad legs and burrowed into the folds of his loose-hanging, unbuttoned shirt. He closed the window. Blake struggled to keep his eyes open, knew he should pull over. Maybe take a nap. He started to doze; then jerked awake, only to doze again. It felt so good, so sweet. Awareness yielded to unawareness. The car careened off the road and pitched into a shallow roadside gully. —— Struggling to find consciousness, Blake made out voices and saw vaporous silhouettes drifting about at the side and front of the car in twisted headlight beams. Were the people real or apparitions? His clouded mind at first refused to honor the question. A man spoke. “Looks like just one person.” “Is he moving?” a woman asked. “Can’t tell. You okay in there?” the man said, peering in a broken window. 23
“I’m hurt,” Blake replied through lips cut and bleeding from slammed contact with the steering wheel. “Hard to breath.” Blake groaned as staccato pain seared through his side, pain inflicted by cracked ribs. The effort to remain conscious, to speak, paid no dividend, offered no reward. He faded once more into unconsciousness. Hours later, when Blake re-entered the sentient world, he found himself in a hospital bed, submerged beneath a layer of blankets. He tried to open his eyes; one of them, partly swollen shut, initially defied him. And, as he shifted his position, pain again rippled through his side, producing an agonized groan. “I’ll give you something for that,” a nurse said, “now that you’re awake.” A lanky woman with an angular face, the nurse delivered a practiced smile. It didn’t help much. “Where? How . . .?” Dappled sunlight slipped through open blinds and deposited pale yellow blotches on white walls and a gray tiled floor. Daylight had arrived, but Blake had no clear idea of the time. “Apparently you had a nasty car wreck last night. Same couple found you brought you into the ER.” Blake strained to form words, hampered as much by pain-deadening drugs as by his injuries, “What’s wrong with . . .?” A faint stew of medicinal and antiseptic odors assaulted his nostrils and caused him to wrinkle his bandaged nose. That hurt, too. “You’re pretty banged up. But, everything’s minor. The doctor says you’ll be on the planet for a few more years.” The nurse chuckled at her own effort at humor. She did something with the IV hooked to the back of his hand. “That should help,” she said. Blake’s eyes came to rest on a large bouquet of yellow and crimson gladiolas on a nearby table. “Where’d those come from?” he said. “Same folks that brought you in. Flowers came first thing this morning.” “But, I don’t even know . . .” “That’s not all. They sent this box of chocolates, Whitman Samplers. There’s a note. Want me to read it?” Blake cautiously inclined his head. The nurse read, Dear Blake, Glad we were able to help out. Here’s a little gift of chocolate. Hope you’re feeling better soon. The nurse showed him the card. “It’s signed Walt and Betty Carmichael.” “I guess I owe them . . . I wonder who they . . .” Someone rapped gently and then tentatively opened the door. “You can ask them yourself,” the nurse whispered. “It’s the Carmichaels—the ones who brought you here. They’ve been waiting outside.” “Is it alright if we come in?” Walt Carmichael said. “Just for a minute or two. Wanted to see how this young fellow is doing.” A man and woman stepped in and stood at his bedside, hands folded in front of them. 24
Walt was in his fifties, a paunchy ruddy faced leprechaun of a man, mustached, and wearing horn rimmed glasses. He had on polyester slacks and a maroon blazer. “Hi there, Blake. I’m Walt, and this is Betty. Sure glad to hear you’re on the mend.” Walt spoke with all the bonhomie of a small town politician at a Rotary meeting. Betty nodded her agreement. “We surely are, Blake. We surely are.” She beamed a smile his way; it seemed the sort of smile that, often as not, precedes a pinching of the recipient’s cheek. Short, and plump, with blue eyes smiling out from under high-piled bleached hair, Betty looked like any one of a dozen pug-nosed waitresses and convenience store clerks Blake had encountered in his travels. She sought, without much success, to exude an appearance of perkiness. “I don’t know how to thank . . .” “No need, Walt said, “no need. Just glad we came along. Yes, sir, just glad.” Increasingly alert, Blake said, “Thanks for the flowers and the . . .” “Heard you don’t have any folks here. Just a little something; wanted to let you know somebody was thinking about you.” “And to wish you a speedy recovery,” Betty added. What a warm smile she had. “Understand you’ll be here for a few days,” Walt said. “I expect you need to rest. So we’d better go now. But we’ll look in on you again.” “He’s about the same age Georgie would have been,” Betty said as they went out the door.” “Yeah. Sort of looks like him, too. Even with the banged up face. Brown eyes and everything.” “Nice folks,” the nurse said after they had gone. “Yeah, nice . . . Blake drifted back into an exhausted sleep. —— Two days later a large fruit basket replaced the flowers on the bedside table. Again the nurse read an accompanying note. The doc tells us you’ll be good as new. Meantime, anything we can do just let us know. The Carmichaels. “That’s really considerate,” Blake said. “They certainly did enough —just pulling me out of that wreck.” “Well, you know what they say. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” “Yeah, but, still . . .” “Just nice people, I guess.” After lunch, his movements still slow and awkward, Blake was on his feet and walking in the corridor. He realized he’d been lucky to escape serious injury. Nonetheless, it seemed life had dealt him one blow after another. How could he pay his hospital bill? Or pay for car repairs —if the car could even be repaired? Blake’s body was on the mend, but his mind was worn down. 25
When Blake got back to the room the nurse told him Mr. Carmichael had called from the lobby. Said they wanted to stop by and say so long before Blake checked out. Sore, tired, and depressed, Blake didn’t want to talk to anybody. But he could hardly say no. He got dressed and seated himself in a straightbacked hospital chair, all vinyl and chrome. Ten minutes later the couple bustled happily through the door. “Hey, looks like you’re almost ready to go,” Walt said. “I told Betty you’d bounce right back, young fellow like you.” The Carmichaels nattered on about how they’d decided to drive through the night because neither one had been sleepy, how they’d seen the lights from Blake’s car shining up from the side of the road. Hadn’t been for the lights they’d probably have driven right by. Looked like searchlights out there in the dark. No way to call for an ambulance, so they dragged him into their car and rushed off for Milford. Quite an adventure. Yes, sir, quite an adventure. Blake admitted he’d fallen asleep at the wheel and knew just how fortunate he was they’d come along. “Don’t mean to meddle, son,” Walt said, “but how are you fixed? For money, I mean.” “Oh, I’ll get by,” Blake said. “How about your expenses here at the hospital?” “Well, I guess they’ll send me a bill. I’ve been out of work. I’ll just have to figure out something.” “Sort of what we thought,” Walt said. “So don’t worry about it. We’ll get the bill.” “But, you don’t even know me. What can I say? “ “Don’t say anything. Also, I checked on your car. I told them I’d take care of it. Ought to be out of the shop by morning. Fella’s got to have a car.” “I really appreciate it, but . . .” “Blake, we’ve all had our own ups and downs. Yes, sir. Besides, we felt kind of involved since we pulled you out of that wreck. Weren’t even sure we should move you. Anyway, we’re pretty well fixed, you might say. Lot of good years in real estate. Yes, sir. Able to help out. So, why not? I said to Betty.” “And I agreed right away.” She endorsed her agreement with a genial smile. “But how can I repay you?” “Don’t worry about that. First thing is you have to get back on track. Just consider it a gift from a couple of old timers who found you on the road.” “Now, Walt, we’re not old timers yet,” Betty said; a teasing quality in her voice. Blake looked at his benefactors, his face blanketed by a mix of disbelief and gratitude. It had been a long time since anyone offered 26
Blake Langford a helping hand. Their kind assistance came like a shot in the arm; better than any the hospital offered. “Somehow, I’ll find a way to . . .” “One more thing.” Walt ferreted about in an inner pocket of his blazer and extracted an envelope. “Here’s a cashier’s check for a thousand dollars—for rent and such. The nurse told us you were pretty well strapped right now.” “You’ve already done too much. Thank you, but I can’t . . .” “No buts about it. It’s a gift, Blake. You know what a gift is, don’t you?” Blake nodded. “We’ll stay in touch. See how you’re doing.” Walt and Betty each shook hands with him, and then they went out the door. “I’m overwhelmed,” Blake said to the nurse after the couple had gone. “I don’t know what to do. I never realized such generous people existed.” “Look,” she said, “If somebody wants to give you a gift, you’d better take it. Who knows when the next one will come along?” She said it with the conviction of someone who received no gifts but wished she would. True enough, he thought. Why not? The couple’s heartfelt concern and generosity gave his spirits a genuine lift. Perhaps things would turn around. When you’re not doing well, any sip of water seems thirstquenching. ——When Blake retrieved his car at the The Four Aces Body Shop, the first thing that struck him was that the vehicle had been outfitted with white sidewall tires. “I didn’t know they even made these anymore,” he said to the proprietor. “Why did you put them on?” “That guy who paid the bill said they looked better than what was on there. He’s the one who told us to do it.” “I guess it’s no big deal,” Blake said. “Actually they’re kind of classy, in a retro sort of way.” The body shop man shrugged and handed him the key. “You have to sort that out with him,” he said and walked away. But it caused Blake to wonder. Because somebody provides you a gift, does that give that person a right to make decisions for you? Ah, what the hell. Walt probably thought he’d spare Blake deciding stuff like that since Blake was in the hospital. —— Blake made his way back to his Spokane apartment, cashed the check, paid his rent, and laid in some groceries. Still hobbled and not pretty to look at, in those pre-computer days he limited his continuing job search to daily scrutiny of newspaper employment listings. He also devoted a great deal of time to sleeping in a recliner, staring at his ancient black and white television set, and sipping Buds. A young man, 27
he healed quickly enough. Still, despite the respite the couple’s gifts had afforded him, Blake feared he would soon sink back into the same situation that beset him the night he went off the road. His physical discomfort had abated; his financial and emotional discomfort persisted. October leaves already littered the banks of the Spokane River that flowed down from Idaho. Two weeks had passed since Blake’s return when one afternoon he responded to an insistent ringing of the door bell. A uniformed delivery man stood in the hall with a large carton balanced on a dolly. “Where do you want this?” he said. “I’m not expecting anything. What is it?” “Color television. Are you Blake Langford?” The man scanned his invoice. “Sent by some guy named Carmichael.” “But I can’t accept . . .” The man considered Blake with an expression of blank indifference. “Look. I had a lot of trouble getting this thing up the stairs. It’s the latest model. And it’s paid for. Like I said, where do you want it?” Blake glanced in at his pathetic, rabbit-eared Zenith perched on a book case. What the hell. He could always return the new set. “Okay. Bring it in.” Somehow he’d misplaced the card Walt had given him with the couple’s penciled phone number and address. He expected they would call and so he waited. Another week passed and Blake heard nothing directly from the Carmichaels. But they’d not forgotten him, as evidenced by the arrival of gift certificates for the Bon Ton Department Store and tickets for upcoming Cougars’ games in Pullman. It was all too much, but, he supposed, if they wanted to give him things it was their business. Then on a Thursday morning as Blake brewed a cup of coffee the phone rang. “Hi, Blake. This is Walt. How’s it going?” “Okay. I’m doing okay, thanks to you and Betty. You’ve been so generous; I don’t know what to say.” Blake knew he should be pleased to hear from the man who’d bailed him out, but somehow a sense of unease stirred within him. “Good, yes, sir, good to hear. Reason I’m calling; want you to have dinner with us on Saturday. Really eager to see how you’re getting along. Got something to talk over with you, too.” “Well, I was planning to . . .” “Betty says we can’t take no for an answer. Somebody else will be there; been dying to meet you. We’ll be waiting for you at Milford’s Steak House at seven. No need to get all gussied up. See you then.” Before Blake could utter another word his caller was gone, Blake’s attendance at dinner apparently a command performance. It seemed presumptuous. Without question, the gifts had buoyed him, but the question he’d asked himself at the body shop recurred: does a gift confer rights on the giver. Walt acted as if it did. Did Walt and Betty think they 28
had some sort of claim on him because they had given him money and other things? Perhaps he was being unfair to them, but, if you had to give something in return, was it even a gift That same afternoon an envelope bearing another check, this one for $500, slipped through the mail slot. Blake placed it on his kitchen table and looked at it long and hard. He could really use $500. A simple endorsement would do the trick. He realized what he wanted to do was not what he ought to do. What he ought to do was to send it back, say thanks but no thanks. He supposed that the gifts, however heartfelt and innocent, imposed a sense of obligation seemed natural enough. But, the Carmichaels’ embrace, welcome to begin with, had begun to feel somehow intrusive; he didn’t want to appear ungrateful, but the Carmichaels’ gift-giving made Blake uncomfortable. —— The un-cashed check rested in his pocket as he entered the restaurant on Saturday. The Carmichaels waited for him in a far corner. They had with them a woman of about thirty-five. “This is Millicent. We call her Millie,” Walt said. The woman nodded, but said nothing. “Hello,” Blake said. He sat down stiffly, uncertain of whom this person might be. “Millie’s our niece; but she’s like a daughter to us,” Betty offered. “She doesn’t get out much. Thought she’d like to meet you.” Where did she come from? Blake wondered. And why had they brought her? “Very sweet when you get to know her,” Walt said. It seemed, Blake thought, a curious comment. The woman was outfitted in a flowered dress, frumpy and out of season. She’d topped it off with a heavy cardigan. Her milk white skin appeared to have never been exposed to the sun and she wore no makeup, save for some poorly applied lipstick. Saucer- eyed, she blinked nervously through gold-framed glasses secured by a chain that looped around her long neck. A bit vacant and perhaps a bit befuddled, she struck Blake as obsequiousness come to life Introductions accomplished, Walt and Betty turned grim-faced. The warmth with which they had greeted Blake on earlier occasions had evaporated. They now wrapped themselves in an aura of sobriety and seriousness of purpose. “We were disappointed that we hadn’t heard from you.” Walt said. His wife nodded and displayed an appropriately disappointed face. “Hope you like that TV, Blake. Salesman said it was top of the line.” “I intended to call, but I’d misplaced the card with your number,” Blake said. “And I didn’t know where you were staying.” They’d told him they’d be spending a few weeks at a relative’s house, but they’d provided no name. 29
“Come on now, Blake, I’m sure you could have located us.” Walt sent him a look of undisguised irritation. “At any rate, like I said, we have some things to discuss with you.” Blake could not fathom where this was going but he experienced a sense of rising apprehension. “You struck us as a fine young man—a lot like our son, George, who unfortunately is no longer with us.” George? Had they mentioned George before? “And we’ve tried to help you out—quite generously I think you’ll admit.” Blake nodded. “Of course I appreciate . . .” “And we can do more. Yes, sir—a good deal more. But, Blake, you seem kind of reluctant.” A waiter glided up to the table and delivered sizzling steaks to all four of them. “I hope you like your steak rare,” Walt said. “We always order ours rare. More savory that way.” In fact, Blake could not abide what he considered undercooked food. “I know you’ve been very kind,” Blake said. “And I hope somehow I can repay you, but I really can’t accept anything else.” Walt disregarded Blake’s protestation. “Betty and I have discussed this, and we think you should have a better place to live.” “But I’m happy where I am.” Blake dissembled. “Meets all my needs. Thanks for the offer, but . . .” “Now, Blake, hear me out. I’ve made a deposit on a very nice condominium for you. Better part of town than where you are now. I’m sure you’ll like it when . . .” “No, Walt. I really can’t accept anything else. Please understand, I . . .” Walt ignored him again. “We can make you very comfortable, nice place to stay and a pretty penny in your account. Fresh start, so to speak.” “It’s really not nice to refuse a gift,” Betty chimed in. “Please, I’ve had enough gifts. Here . . .” Blake attempted to hand back the latest check. Walt waved his hand in rejection. “Blake I have to ask you something. Don’t you think it’s about time to settle down?” He placed his hand on the girl’s arm and smiled at her. Head lowered, Millicent appeared to scrutinize the tableware. “Settle down? I don’t . . .” “Maybe find yourself a wife.” “A wife?” Surely, they didn’t mean . . . “How’d you like $100,000?” Walt accompanied his words with an indulgent smile. He inclined his head toward Millicent as if confirming something. Had he also winked at her? 30
“A hundred thousand dollars?” The sum staggered him. “But why? Why would you give me . . .?” “Well, you might just say we’re philanthropists. Give to all sorts of good causes; you’re just one of them. Yes, sir. A hundred thousand, Blake. More where that comes from.” “But I’m no cause, I’m a person and . . .” Blake felt like a fish on a cutting board. Things were getting out of hand. “Let’s not worry about it now, Blake, let’s just enjoy our dinner. You give it some thought for a day or two.” That said, Walt launched into a narrative about the recent trip he and Betty had made to Nashville. He loved those country singers at the Grand Old Opry. Little Jimmy Dickens, yes, sir. Loretta Lynn, yes, sir. Millicent said almost nothing, save for a mumbled affirmative when Blake asked if she lived in Spokane. Could she really be their niece? What did they have in mind? As Walt droned on, Blake studied the meat, oozing red. He wanted to signal the waiter to fetch it, but could not catch the man’s eye. He supposed he would have to eat the steak. It was, after all, a gift. —— The following day turned out to be a miserable day, a drab day. Blake lay on his sagging Naugahyde sofa, staring at the ceiling. His thoughts sputtered and his mind flip-flopped. Despite his reservations, he felt dangerously vulnerable to the couple’s blandishments. Wildly irrational it might be, but the notion of a condo sparkled in his mind. His cramped apartment, located in a tired, nondescript wood and stucco building in a similarly tired, nondescript neighborhood, possessed all the character and limitations of a shoebox. And he wanted the money; they must know he wanted the money. One hundred thousand dollars; he ruffled through an imagined stack of bills. They had enticed him to travel a strange road, one that seemed to have no end. At the outset, the gifts had seemed innocent; given with a good heart. No one, Blake told himself, would have rejected them. Would they? But by now he’d long since abandoned the idea that gifts were freely given, that they came without obligation. At the same time, because the proffered gifts arrived so easily, he had developed a nascent sense of entitlement. He’d come to expect them. Why not? Yet, in the dry air of reality, he knew better. These people he’d never heard of months before intruded more and more into his life; indeed, in a sense they were beginning to shape it, trying to control it. And he’d allowed it to happen. What did they want? Had he become a substitute for some lost son? Did it have to do with the young woman in the restaurant? God, how he wished he had never accepted the first gifts. He allowed his mind to explore the possibilities. Perhaps he should obtain legal help. Perhaps obtain a restraining order. But what would he say to a lawyer? Or to the police? These people keep giving me stuff? Such a complaint hardly seemed likely to elicit a sympathetic response. 31
He revisited the nurse’s words: If somebody wants to give you a gift, you’d better take it. He wished it was that simple. She hadn’t realized what burdens acceptance might involve. Blake concluded he should never have taken the gifts—any of them. Blake made up his mind. He resolved to free himself from the web this strange couple appeared to be spinning around him. He would return the $500 check; there would be no condo; and there would be no $100,000—and there would be no girl, if that was what they were up to. He’d find a job; get on track again. He had to get these people off his back and out of his life. Why hadn’t he grasped this early on? These were his thoughts as he mulled the amazing offer, thoughts interrupted by a jangling phone. “This is Jack Murphy from the Homestead Management Company. I understand you’re interested in checking out one of our units. Wondered when you would like to come by.” Blake hesitated—but only for a moment. “No. There’s been a mistake,” he said. “I’m not interested.” “But we already have a deposit for you, and . . .” “No. No thank you. No.” Blake returned the phone to its cradle. The Carmichaels seemed determined to cast him in a role for which he had not auditioned. Whatever it might be, he felt certain he wasn’t suited for the part. He longed to be done with his benefactors. Blake suspected his dismissal of the property manager would not be the end of it; and he had it right. Two days passed and he made no response to the offer. On the third day loud knocking alternated with demanding rings of the doorbell roused Blake from early morning sleep. “Open up, Blake. We need to talk.” Walt’s muffled voice worked its way in from the corridor. Still in his underwear, Blake slumped into a chair and stared at the door. At first he said nothing. “Come on, son. We know you’re in there.” “Go away.” “No way to talk. No, sir. No way to talk.” “I’m done. Go away.” “We might just have to give that condo to somebody else.” “Great. Go ahead.” “You ought to at least have a look.” “Just leave me alone.” “We’re terribly disappointed, Blake. You’ve let us down. Way down. Sorry to say this. Looks like we won’t be able to help you anymore.” After two or three more entreaties, they left. In the days that followed when the phone rang Blake did not answer; he finally disconnected it. He ignored knocking on his door. He located the card with the scribbled address and sent back the check; ditto for the gift certificates and tickets. He entered and left the building through a side entrance. 32
Weeks passed - no gifts, and then months - no gifts; the deluge of giving had ended. Dear God, at last. He was rid of them. There was no telling where the Carmichaels had gone, but he didn’t care—they were gone. Blake landed an office job at the local power company and enrolled in a refresher accounting class at Eastern Washington State. He met a new girl. He even got rid of the dorky white sidewall tires. The bleak night of that desert drive and its aftermath occupied an increasingly diminished place in Blake’s memory. Life was not yet all he’d hoped for, but it was better, he thought, definitely better. He was in good spirits. ——More weeks had passed when, one summer day, Blake came home from work and, feet propped on a hassock, settled in to watch a ball game on the color television set. He’d considered getting rid of the set, mainly because it reminded him of the Carmichaels. But, as he told his new girl friend, “They put me through enough; I might as well enjoy this.” He’d apparently discounted their beneficences as simply calculated to ensnare him. The Carmichaels’ later shenanigans had erased any gratitude he might have retained for their help immediately after the accident. The game barely begun, the bell sounded and Blake went to the door. “You, Mr. Langford?” Flowers spilled out of a large basket at a delivery man’s feet. Blake had a bad feeling. “Is there a message?” “Yep. It says, Blake, we are just back in town. Hope to see you soon. Walt and Betty.” Without a word, Blake quietly closed the door in the man’s face. He leaned back against the frame shaking his head from side to side. Now what? Perhaps it was more blessed to give than to receive. So far as Blake Langford was concerned, one thing was certain—receiving wasn’t blessed at all.
JOSH GAINES Remembering John Wayne John Wayne died with forty pounds of impacted meat feces lodged in his colon. I’ve tried to forget the story. Snopes says it isn’t even true. I am reminded by an unrelated thing you say. We are arguing, discussing schools, discussing train lines. Maybe it’s the way you say it, or the way your mother tells me again why I need Jesus. Situations too: Every time I pass a burger joint, a cowboy, a graveyard that makes me think, “John Wayne might be buried here.” It comes back today as I’m telling you the car died on the way home from the grocery store where we charged it all and now neither of us knows what we’re going to do. A frozen ham, expired, sold on clearance, sits on the backseat of a fast warming car. “So we’ll have beans and rice,” I say, but you’re crying and our daughter wants something new to eat, and we’d promised her ham because she saw the movie Ponyo and all she wanted was to try ham. I think of John Wayne and wait with windows down for the tow truck. In the heat rising, I feel somewhat less stupid for the ten minutes I’d stood pretending I had the option, blocking the way with my basket, a gun slinger’s squint, the ice cream isle glass fogged from my openings and closings.
JOSH GAINES More than Our Place How we shared dinner Across the table Who, like us Was still unscarred by childhood And military relocations. How it corralled us In our places Always some laughter Always some baby Always my excuses For trouble at school And the table Who never held Tourette's Against me. How we ate 30 ways of chicken And deep-south vegetables Crumbs slipping Between the wood slats All beneath the condemning gaze Of â&#x20AC;&#x153;thou shalt notsâ&#x20AC;? Left behind by the holy grandparents Hanging on the off-yellow wall Hanging next to dead Jesus Who had his own problems. How the kitchen Retro before retro was retro In olive greens and tans Held the yellow grease stained fridge, My painted finger prints Magnetted to it, And beneath, A giant calendar That always took too long To reach December's end. How my crayon drawings Of wishes On the linoleum floors 35
The droning television at my back The endless sweet tea The food stamp milk The apartment smell of pesticides Or of cornbread sweet Baking in the oven, Gave us the sense Of everything in its place. How we were told Everything, And everyone, On God's humble Had their place. And that this place Should be good enough For any family And how, Thankfully, None of us Ever believed In any of that.
KARI GUNTER-SEYMOUR Basement Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a terrifying event(s) Down the narrow railless stairs inside the long shadow where lichen grow grey in wall cracks and silverfish dance like free men around empty Jack bottles and the sadly sagging couch. They wait for you there, shadow brothers, commiserating, as you pray out loud, self mutilation and starvation will somehow bring an end to the torment, of your Sweet Jesus, please make it stop ritual: Play – Your body hurling toward the Bradley’s dash, snapping back, as if rubber bands were strapped to your backside. A jackdaw scratching at the cracked window pane, black as night, screaming Move! Move! Move! while blind muzzles fix on your skull and German Death Metal bands pang-pang what’s left of your hearing. Rewind – You don’t remember the body bags only the zippers. And feathers– a shitload of feathers, and the tang of fresh blood, copper, tin and salt.
KARI GUNTER-SEYMOUR Girls of Summer Our baptism was near-at-hand, the creeks brimming with spring rain, yellow crocus poking up their heads with suspicion. We wiggled in our seats all through May. That summer Knobs got her nickname, being the first of us who when chin was put to chest, could barely see her toes. She flaunted her stardom floating on her back. We frittered our way to Labor Day worrying nibs of straw between our teeth, vowing never to smoke or drink or carry on with men outside the church. To this day I will swear Wanda Sue Banks was our undoing. Her lanky self strutting into our lives, eyelashes thick with Maybelline. She popped her gum, stole her mamaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s cigarettes, and we were drawn to her like flies to dog doo. She collected us. Like born-agains, we teased our hair, kohled our eyelids and turned up our hemlines with duct tape. She taught us the power of moodiness. We were fixing to joy ride in her daddyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Fairlane the day our mothers grabbed us by the arm. Years later I read about her in the newspaper and cried, Ultra Lash Mascara smudging my hanky and cheeks.
KARI GUNTER-SEYMOUR Ever Since Cousin Kay Got The Cancer she props herself most nights coughing and spitting, waging her war against malfunctioning conduits, questioning what it is to live as if already dead– swallowing their potions counting her beads rattling the bones. Cursing the pin-wheeled zinnias, their reds and golds popping out of a mason jar like misguided jesters and the stench of loosely turned soil clinging to red skin potatoes tucked alongside fresh picked pole beans and tuna casserole, showing up on the doorstep hit and run, left by cowards puzzling on what’s left to be done. Memories are not lost on a morning such as this– familiar barking, sun spiking orange against the barn. Kay leaning there eyebrowless and paisley scarfed, the hum of children’s voices and bursts of heirloom lilac billowing through her kitchen curtains, their rick-racked hemlines snapping, rankled by the odds.
KHANH HA The General Is Sleeping She was rail thin and tall. By now, after three days lying in the same hospital bed, I could tell upon waking that she had been in the room while I was sleeping. That unmistakable musk in the air that came from her body. A fragrance perhaps. Coming out of sedation the first time I had felt a cleanness below. I was clad only in a hospital gown. Someone must have washed me. My right leg was suspended by a contraption: a pulley and a horizontal metal rod overhead. The leg seemed to have a life of its own after having been crushed in a head-on collision between my car and a drunk driver’s. On the second day, they gave me pain medication when the pain became bad. That day when I woke I thought the pillow were a giant beanbag. I felt very cool between the legs from the moistness of an antiseptic tissue. The rubbing. I feigned sleeping while I was being cleaned. A rustle of a gown then the warmth of a washcloth pressed against my face. A musk scent got in my nose. I opened my eyes. A golden-brown face was looking down at me. The long-lashed eyes gleamed. A smile with dazzlingly white teeth. “Ah, you’re awake now.” Holding the washcloth, she watched me. I said hello and couldn’t hear the word for the drumming in my head. She stooped to look me full in the face, as though to detect a sign of life in my eyes. “How are you this evening, Mr. Lee?” she said with an accent. “Leh,” I said. “Not Lee.” I spelled it for her. LE. “Ah, Mr. Leigh. I’m Aida.” I was amused at how she pronounced my last name. The small tongue roll with the L. She dabbed my stitched forehead with the washcloth. The musk aroma went with her hand. She had an oval, delicate face. Twentyish perhaps. Her cornrows, knotted into a thick plait, were slung over her shoulder to her chest. “I’ll bring your dinner, Mr. Leigh,” she said, straightening her back. Tall in her blue uniform. If I stood next to her, my head would be to her ears. “Where are you from?” I asked, squinting my eyes up at her. “I’m from Senegal.” “Do you speak French?” “Yes. Do you, Mr. Leigh?” “A little. My father spoke French fluently.” “Ah. It brightens my day whenever I hear someone speak French.” Her clear voice had a resonance. Then, frowning, she leaned her head to one side. “You have received no visitors since you’re here, now that you mentioned your father.” “My father died some years ago.” “What about your mother, Mr. Leigh?” 40
“She died shortly after my father’s death. And I have no siblings.” Aida folded the washcloth. “Are you married, Mr. Leigh?” “I was once.” “Did she know about your accident?” “No. And even if she did . . .” The curt way I spoke had Aida dip her head at me. “You sound like you have something against her?” “She hated my family.” “How come?” “In fact, she hated my father.” “Why?” “My father and my mother did not attend our wedding. It embarrassed me, but it humiliated my wife. My ex-wife. If there’s one person in this world she hated most, it’s my father.” “I don’t assume that your father was a terrible man. Somehow I get that feeling from you, Mr. Leigh.” “Thank you.” I nodded at her gentle smile, still self-conscious that she was the one who had been cleaning my body. “So what happened?” “My wife―my ex-wife―had never told me about her own family, though she knew much about mine. When we decided to get married, she told me about her father. He used to be a celebrated musician in South Vietnam. Millions of fans idolized him. To me he was a gentleman, and I liked him. I brought home the news. Where hell broke out.” Aida blinked. She had the densest lashes with a dramatic upsweep. Her longish eyes were God-made beauty. “My father told me, ‘That scumbag is a communist. He lives right in our backyard and we can’t do nothing about it.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ and he said, ‘He’s a mole. We have many moles and termites like him in our army too. We executed several of them, but we couldn’t touch a man of his stature.’” “This was back in Vietnam during the war, Mr. Leigh? You and her . . .” “No, after we came to America. We met here. But our past never died. I mean her father’s past.” “And what did your father do during the war?” “My father was a general. A four-star general of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.” “Ah. So he was a big shot.” She squinted her eyes. “It must be very difficult for him to leave Vietnam and come here.” “It was.” “For a man of his position, I’m sure.” She put the washcloth in her blouse’s pocket. “What did he do in this country, Mr. Leigh?” “He drove a forklift.” I paused. “From five to midnight. Every night.” 41
“I guess nobody around your father knew who that forklift operator really was.” She smiled with a slight nod. “Yes?” “Yes. Just an old Asian man who came to work every night with a dinner box his wife packed for him. Every night for nine years.” “Then what, Mr. Leigh?” “Then his kidneys started failing. He had diabetes. Eventually . . .” I kept nodding to the unfinished sentence, “. . . he lost a leg to amputation, and from there went downhill fast.” We both glanced at my leg in the stirrup. Aida went around the bed to the other side to check on the urinary catheter. “You need to drink more,” she said, dropping my gown down. “You still think a lot about your ex-wife. Yes?” I held her gaze for a moment until she blinked. Those almond-shaped eyes on that warm-brown visage made my heart go soft. “Yes,” I said. “What about her?” I tried to smile. It must look like a grimace to her, for she took my hand in hers, held it and said, “You have nice hands, Mr. Leigh. Like my people’s.” She opened her hand. Long tapered fingers with symmetrical nails. “Let me get your dinner. Are you hungry, Mr. Leigh?” * My hands were still shaking, so she fed me. I didn’t have brain injury. Besides a gash on my forehead and my shattered shinbone, I must have a mild concussion. At least I knew that much after a series of tests. It explained why my hands trembled the first time I tried to feed myself. I wasn’t feeling hungry, only numb in my lower leg. In time the dullness would give to pangs, and my brain remembered them well. As she placed the tray on its legs over my lap, the food smelled warm, unappetizing. “Do you like lentil soup, Mr. Leigh?” she asked as she lowered the bed and sat down on a chair by bedside. “I like clam chowder.” “I’ll check with the kitchen the next time.” She spoon-fed me. My tongue felt rubberlike and not until the bowl was near empty that I began to register an aftertaste of lentil. I watched her slicing through the golden breaded chicken cutlet. “I knew this man,” I said to her, “a male nurse who took care of my father when he was confined to a nursing home.” She fed me a piece of chicken, her lips slightly parted as I opened my mouth. “He’s like you, a Senegalese.” “Really.” She spooned some mashed potato and I ate that. Then she pierced a baby carrot with the fork and held it until I opened my mouth again. “What’s his name?” “Ibou.” I chewed the soft baby carrot. I liked carrots, and their familiar smell suddenly made me feel homesick. She fed me another slice of chicken. “Was he also young like me?” 42
“No. He was a senior nurse.” I swallowed and heaved. “He loved to speak French with my father.” “C’est beau.” “He found out that my father was once a four-star general, that he was a Viet Minh who fought the French during the Indochina War. Ibou told my father that his own father was with the French Foreign Legion that fought in Đien Bien Phu in nineteen fifty-four. A decorated soldier who lost a leg during the siege. Ibou joked with my father that, wouldn’t it be extraordinary if it was my father who had set the trap that claimed his father’s leg?” Aida’s lips parted. Then she smiled and held it as she saw me gaze at her. She had a perfectly shaped upper lip and a full lower lip that pouted when she did not smile. “You two must be of the same age? Yes?” “I’m thirty six. I couldn’t tell exactly how old he was.” “We Senegalese do look younger than we are. Just like the Asians.” She tilted her head sideways as if to avoid my gaze. “Did he make an impression on you?” “He was always polite. I remember his accent―like yours―and he was some kind of a rare species . . .” Her eyes opened wide, lips puckered. “How do you mean, Mr. Leigh?” “He must be at least seven feet tall.” I looked toward the door and back at her. “Whenever he entered through the door, he had to lower his head. Have you seen anyone like that back home?” “Tall men? Yes, but not that tall.” She let me take a gulp of chocolate milk, and I gladly obliged―she’d told me I ought to drink more. “Did you get along with him like your father did?” “Yes. Ibou was a gentleman.” I held up my hand as she was about to feed me another slice of chicken. “I’m full.” I watched her peel the lid off the cup of red Jell-O, and while I chewed, feeling its raspberry flavor bursting in my mouth, she pinched a flake of jelly off my lips. The musk fragrance became mixed with the raspberry scent. “So he took care of your father?” she said. “For how long?” “Two years. Until my father died.” I dropped my gaze to her hand. “He used to change my father’s clothes all by himself. Before him, it’d take two female nurses to do that chore. My father’s imbalance after losing a leg made it harder to change him out of his clothes or dress him. But Ibou did all that chore so effortlessly he became my father’s sole caretaker.” “You were married then?” She paused with the spoon in midair, so I closed my mouth. “Yes. But my wife never visited my father.” “Your ex-wife must be beautiful. Yes?” “To me.” “And you must have lots of girls before you met her?” As she brought the spoon to my mouth, her little finger touched my lips. 43
At my smile she tipped her head back. “Short girls, tall girls. American, Asians. Yes?” Hearing me chuckle, shaking my head, she said, “How tall are you, Mr. Leigh?” “Five-seven.” I nodded at her. “And you?” “Five-eleven.” “You don’t need high heels ever.” “I don’t look right in them, I’m sure.” “You’re long-legged, like those Vogue girls, except they’re on spike heels.” “Those million-dollar girls.” Aida shook her head, her eyes trailing away. “I don’t look anything like them.” “No, you don’t.” I saw a startled look in her eyes. “You look plain and beautiful―the way you are.” Her eyes flinched, then became soft. I thought I saw a blush on her cheeks, for the first time. “I used to be self-conscious of my own skin,” she said, “because my mother had told me how it was when she grew up in the colonial time. Black and despised. Forbidden from the white society without its permission. Growing up she was an educated and beautiful girl and yet she dreaded the color of own skin so much she wanted to cover her arms, her neck and put on a big straw hat with a veil to hide her face. But age gave her maturation and she did not want me to suffer the same identity crisis, though she still feared that someday I might have mulatto children. She took me to social events, where I performed our sabar dance, to express myself in the free form of footwork and arm movements. She made me aware of such words as nègres and négresses, telling me that the word noir for black ceased to exist after the seventeen ninety-one massacres in Santo Domingo.” Aida paused, her large, gleaming eyes held me with a gentle smile. “Do you know about the Santo Domingo massacres?” “No,” I said out of my ignorance. She went on to give me a brief history of the slave revolt in the French colony of Santo Domingo that led to the expulsion of the French colonial government and, hence, the establishment of the independent Republic of Haiti. A smile spreading across her face, she put down the empty Jell-O cup. “Here,” she said, picking up one of the two cookies. “I threw these in. They only give you one kind of dessert.” “Jell-O and cookies.” I took a small bite then picked up the other cookie. “Please, try it, if you like cinnamon cookies.” She nibbled it. I watched her drooping eyelids. Those thick lashes with a beautiful curl never needed mascara. She looked up. “What do you do, Mr. Leigh?” “Call me Minh.” “Min?” She made a humming sound with the M. “Yes.” I reached for the glass of milk. “I’m a photographer.” 44
“So you take pictures? Of what?” She looked at me with a spark in her eyes. “I shoot advertising photography. For printed catalogs. Things that you browse before you decide to buy.” “Not fashion photography?” she said with a trailing smile. “No. Just an old-fashioned photography business. No fashion models or nude girls.” At my grin, she laughed. Her fluty laugh sounded girlish as she tossed her head back and her hair plait swung behind her nape. For the first time I noticed her elegantly slender neck framed by the collarless round neckline. “Were you close to your father, Mr. Leigh?” “Minh.” I put the last piece of cookie into my mouth. “I was not.” “Ah. But you love him, don’t you―Min?” I said nothing. Then I nodded. “It took me all my life to feel that―after he died.” “In his condition, he must have looked to you for your loving care.” She tore the packet of sanitizer and gave me the wet tissue. “I’m very close to my mother. She almost died giving birth to me. But God saved her. And me.” “Where is she now?” “Back home. With my father.” Aida covered the meal’s plate with its lid. “My father was struck with a viral disease once. He bled in his bowels, in his nose, and there was blood in his urine. Hemorrhagic fever. We were with him all the time during his illness, because he needed us. He cried when he was alone, for it made him think Death was waiting for that rare moment to take him away in his sleep.” I cleaned my mouth with the wet wipe. I couldn’t help remembering the sanitizing smell that hung in the room whenever she cleaned my body during my sleep. “My father was different,” I said to her. “He really was.” “He didn’t need you? I mean, we all need love and care.” Slowly she folded my tissue into quarters. “Maybe he didn’t want to show you his tender side. Yes?” “I can’t say that he was an affectionate father. To the best of my recollection. Maybe I was insensitive to what he might’ve needed from me.” No, I never felt close to my father. I told Aida about incidents during my childhood whenever I did something terribly wrong, and he would lash me. To keep count of the lashes, he had our chauffeur―a corporal―call out each lash. One, two, three, four. . . . To this day I still heard the counting sound. But I had thought of him a lot after the car accident. I thought of him while the doctor did a thorough evaluation of my shattered leg, while they wheeled me back to my room. Could they save my leg? Well, they would tell me soon. 45
* It was evening. I had not eaten dinner when I was taken back to the room. Through the window I could see a full moon. I didn’t feel pain in the leg, at least for now. Not until the pain killer wore off. Closing my eyes to rest, I could smell the familiar musk in the room. She must have been here while I was taken to the examination room. A female nurse came in, bringing a dinner tray. “Can you eat by yourself?” she said as she placed the tray over my lap. “Sure.” I pushed the control to raise the adjustable head section. “If you need anything else, please ring.” She glanced at my leg suspended in midair. “You have any pain, Mr. Lee?” “Not at this moment.” I slid up on the bed. “Where is Aida?” “She’s on her round. We had a new patient.” I ate after the nurse left. My hands still shook so I concentrated on each movement of the hands. Slowly the hands became steady. I sipped some apple juice, looking at the tray. Baked salmon with mashed potatoes, peas and carrots. Chicken noodle soup. A chocolate cake for desert. I took a deep breath. Sometime tonight the doctor would come in and tell me the news. My father looked calm on the day he had his leg amputated above the knee. If I hadn’t lifted his gown to look at what then resembled a stump, I swore it was another day to him. He never mentioned about the surgery on that day, though he asked me the next time to come in with my mother. “Do not let her drive,” he said. “Her nerves are very fragile now.” Later Ibou told me something that kept haunting me since. “The general did not remember,” Ibou said to me, always referring to my father with that title. “It is common, though, after you wake up from a surgery. When I changed him, he pulled up his legs. And, trust me, Mr. Leh, a thousand words could not describe that look in his eyes. But the general recovered quickly. I don’t mean physical recovery. Instantly, the general began to chat with me in French. Oh-lala.” Ibou laughed heartily. “He told me things.” “What things?” I asked and Ibou said, “Fragments of his life as a boy and as a soldier. Fascinating. One day I asked him if he could read them into a cassette for me, and he said, Bien sûr, mon ami. So I brought in a mini-cassette recorder, and during his undisturbed moments he spoke those stories into the recorder. When he gave me the whole thing back, he asked me, Pourquoi voulez-vous de garder ces histoires? I told him, General, I’m a writer. Un écrivain? he said. C’est très noble. One story I couldn’t shake off took place in the summer of nineteen seventy-two. He called that summer the Blazing Summer—the Vietnam war was at its worst. That summer, the Vietnamese marines recaptured Quang Tri Province. From Hue, a convoy was dispatched to Quang Tri to relieve the marines and to 46
reinstall the former administration. Escorted back to the city were the exiled province chief and his entourage. Local merchants and residents tagged along the convoy to return home. The general was one of them.” Ibou wagged a finger as if to warn me not to ask, then continued. “The convoy had to cross a bridge. Just as it approached the bridgehead, shelling exploded. From a nearby mountain the Viet Cong was firing mortars. The mile-long convoy was broken up. After many rounds of shelling, the Viet Cong failed to hit the bridge. Then all eyes fell upon an old woman who appeared out of nowhere. She was carrying two cane baskets suspended from a shoulder pole. In one was her clothing, in the other a little boy. The shelling trapped her in the middle of the bridge. She froze. No one from the convoy dared leave his cover. The general jumped up and raced toward her. He carried the boy and half carried the old woman back to the roadside shelter. Within minutes air support came. Soon the convoy got rolling again.” Ibou put his hand on my shoulder. “Now you may ask why the general disguised himself as a common folk. Très bien. So he could assess the morale of the troops and the civilians, and to take in firsthand the damages to the city against possible false reports.” I guessed my father’s memories, or perhaps a boxful of it, now stayed alive in somebody’s possession other than in his own son’s. * I was resting, half reclined, with the dinner tray on my lap, the meal unfinished, my eyes closed. The musk scent woke me out of my reflection. I noticed a cardinal-red ribbon that adorned her usually plain plait. I couldn’t help smiling. “It looks pretty on you, Aida.” “Thank you, Min,” she said, looking down at me and then at my dinner. “Where were you?” I already knew the answer but still wanted to hear it from her. “I was in here earlier. You were being examined, they told me. So I went to where they needed me.” She touched the cup of chicken noodle soup, still lidded. “It’s getting cold. Do you want me to reheat it, Min?” “Don’t bother. Do you have to go soon?” “No, I’m on my break.” One glance at the whole meal and she said, “Let me see if you can eat by yourself.” I removed the lid of the soup cup and, distracted by her watching and the musk scent, my hand started trembling. She pressed the control button; the bed whirred and dropped. She sat down on the chair and took the cup from my hand. “You’re on your break, Aida,” I said meekly. “That’s why I’m here.” She held her smile as she brought the spoon to my lips. 47
Taking her time between spoonfuls she asked me about the examination, and I told her within an hour or two I would know. “Know what they would do with your leg,” she said with her eyes cast at my suspended leg. Heaving, I nodded. “You didn’t want to eat. You must be worried. Yes?” “I’m fine.” I lied and knew. “You should pray, Min. It will take worries and fears off your mind.” “I don’t see how.” My throat felt dry despite the soup. “I never believed in it.” “My father said that it’s belief, faith that keeps men in touch with the supernatural beyond the praying, the worshipping. He said men are ignorant enough to think they can get along by themselves and that nothing they can’t see or own matters.” She put the cup down, took my hand and held it between hers. “Just open your mind and pray, Min.” The earnest look in her eyes had me bite my lips. I nodded like a simpleton. My father, as I recalled, derided priests and monks. I couldn’t say if he had sowed that notion of distrust in my mind, as I was telling Aida about his disdain of religions. When my mother asked him, during a moment of his lucidity, if she could have a religious rite for his funeral, my father smirked. “Them priests and monks!” he said. “Their spiritual lives are nothing but the empty sounds of recitation and chanting. Without a pagoda, without a church, what’d have become of their spiritual lives? Eh?” That was before the deterioration of his mind that eventually led to his dementia. Aida looked lost in thought briefly then said, “Min, I’ll pray for you, so you won’t end up like your father. You never asked him much about his life? No?” “No. We had no bonding. So I never asked him anything. Maybe someday I’d read somebody’s stories about him and realize that it’s him in there. That’s my dad, I’d say.” “And Ibou would be the author?” We both laughed. Aida canted her head to look at me. “Who do you look like? Your mother or your father?” “My mother. I have no resemblance to my father.” “You sound like you deny it.” Her smile drew my gaze to her lips. She blushed. “In her younger days,” I said, “my mother had the beauty that you call classic. I wonder what made her fall in love with my father.” I cut the chocolate cake in half, lifted a piece with a napkin and pushed the other piece on the plate toward her. “Please, share it with me.” She started forking a piece and I noticed that she was left-handed. “Your father must’ve adored your mother very much,” she said before taking a bite. “He was unfaithful to her,” I said before I thought it through. “She told me that, though it came from her after he’d become an invalid. I 48
guess she’d bottled it up all her life. But she must be upset with the way he always perked up when he was with Ibou. Completely animated. Just carrying on and on in their small talks. In French, of course. But when she was with him, he’d clam up. Most patients, I noticed, couldn’t wait to see their loved ones―it’s so dreary, downright lonesome for most of them. And he didn’t need her―his wife.” Aida looked riveted, nibbling her lower lip. “How did he . . . betray her?” “Women have uncanny instincts, don’t you agree?” I asked her and saw a glint of amusement in her eyes as she nodded. “I didn’t ask what triggered her suspicion, but at one point she told our chauffeur―the corporal―to report to her every place he drove my father to. You see, my mother was the godmother of our chauffeur’s little daughter. He told her that every day around noon he’d drop my father downtown Saigon, where he’d spend an hour or two in a pharmacy. One day after dropping my father off at the usual place, our chauffeur came back and drove my mother to that place. While the car was parked outside the pharmacy, inside the car my mother waited. Until my father came out. It shocked the daylight out of him when he got into the car. She asked him to wait. Then she went inside the pharmacy. Fifteen minutes later she came back out, got in the car and told the chauffeur to drive home. From that day on, my father quit going to visit his mistress.” “His mistress?” Aida’s eyes widened. “You wondered how my mother found out? She happened to go through his wallet one day and saw a picture of a woman. Yes, someone else’s photo besides hers in his wallet. It was foolish of him to keep his woman’s picture in there. But I guess we’re all blind when we’re in love, aren’t we?” Seeing me shake my head, Aida chuckled. Her eyes looked dreamy. “It must’ve shocked your mother deeply when she saw the photograph of your father’s mistress. I would too―if something of that nature happened to me.” “It tore her to pieces. She could never imagine such a horrible thing. A man of his stature? A man who was so madly in love with her when they first met that he kept count of the days being away from her by marking a cut with a nail on his rifle’s buttstock? You know what my mother did when she came upon the pharmacist’s picture?” I met Aida’s eyes, still―and she hadn’t touched the rest of her cake. “She cut it up, left the pieces in his wallet on the day she decided to meet his courtesan.” Aida giggled. “I like that word.” “That’s the word my mother used when she told me the story. I thought it was because my father was a man of rank. Like a king at that time.” “Do you have any love for him, Min?” “I’ve thought of him a lot since he died. My father is a good man.” 49
“Of course.” “He never impressed me as a loving father. But he had a heart of gold, though. I knew this from an incident.” “An incident? Back home?” “No. Here.” I offered her my glass of apple juice and she took it. “I was working at this advertising agency―my first job out of college. One late afternoon just before I left my cubicle, I saw an Asian woman, a cleaner. She was in her fifties. She must’ve been in earlier than usual because I’d never seen her before. She was dusting each cubicle, probably waiting for everyone to leave before vacuuming the floor. She didn’t make a sound when she came into my cubicle. I could sense her standing behind my chair and I decided to keep busy. When I finally turned around, she was still standing there. She gestured with her duster toward a framed picture on my desk. ‘Is that your father?’ she asked in plain Vietnamese. I said yes. In that picture I was about five years old, sitting between my mother and my father. She took a step closer to my desk and said, ‘He was in jail in nineteen sixty-one, right, Mister?’ Something knifed my gut and, nodding, I said yes. The prison of what used to be an old artillery barracks. The military coup d’etat which had been carried out to overthrow President Diệm, failed, and my father―then a major general―was sentenced to life. That much I knew from my mother. The woman’s gaze never left the framed picture on my desk and I grew irritated of her curious eyes. ‘Thank Heaven and the Buddha,’ she blurted. ‘I knew it’s him. I looked at him every night when I came in, but I didn’t know who to ask. Mister, I don’t have many debts in my life but one. A debt I owe your father for the welfare of my family, and . . . and . . . ’ She stuttered. For a moment she looked like a mental patient jabbering. ‘It had to do with my son. . . .’ ‘Your son?’ I said to her. ‘Where is he now?’ ‘He’s studying to become a doctor. In California. But it had to do with my son when he was a few months old. In nineteen sixty-one, I was put in jail in Saigon by the government.’ I looked at her, no longer irritated but intrigued. What did you do to be thrown in jail? ‘They charged me with conspiracy of silence,’ she said. ‘It happened after my husband suddenly disappeared. I didn’t know where he went, but I knew he was taken by the Viet Cong. It happened all the time in my village. The Viet Cong said they recruited you, but nobody could ever say no to them. I reported it to the local authorities. They questioned me and asked me to come back in a week. I came back the next week. Where’s your husband? Back yet? they asked. No, he’s still gone, I told them. That’s when they arrested me. They said, We know where he went. Tell us where to find his base. I couldn’t tell them anything. How could I? They drove me and my four-month old baby to Saigon and put us in the police headquarters’ jail. In that courtyard they took us to ward B―that was the ward for Viet Cong. We were kept in cell number one, the only cell for female.’ Listening, I kept my gaze on her as she went on. ‘I was tortured every day. They forced me to drink soapy water till I 50
became bloated. Then someone stepped on my stomach and water came out of my mouth and my nose. . . . The next day they jammed wires under my fingernails and turned on the current. My whole body jumped and went numb. I thought I’d lost all my limbs. . . . ‘By the third day my baby got sick. They had given us no blankets though everyone else had them. It could be hot outside, but it was chilly inside―all the time. You know, Mister, there in damp cells, a blanket equals life. Without one, prisoners often caught pneumonia and died before receiving medical attention.’ I stared at her. My body tensed up. She continued. ‘My baby began having diarrhea. His cries kept everyone in other cells awake at night. By the end of the first week, he’d lost so much body fluid and became unconscious. He was so weak I couldn’t breast-feed him anymore. I cuddled him with what was left of me to keep him warm, but he was going away. ‘Someone from another cell gave up his own blanket for my baby. When they passed down the blanket, they said it was from Anh Ba―Brother Number Three. I heard from that night on he slept on the floor with a rush mat wrapped around him to keep warm. But his blanket brought my baby back to life. His diarrhea stopped and he was feeding again. ‘One month later I was freed. When the warden let us out, I turned left instead of right for the exit. You want to stay, woman? the warden said. No, sir, I said, but allow me to thank Anh Ba. I went up to his cell. Cell number four, I remember to this day. There were three men in that cell, and Anh Ba was a man in his early thirties. I put my baby down, prostrated myself in front of his cell and kowtowed to him three times. He waved me off, obviously embarrassed himself. I said to him, Ân nhân―savior―my son and I will owe you this debt for the rest of our lives. I have nothing to give you in return, so please accept my three kowtows as my gratitude to you. I wept in the silence in ward B as people in other cells were listening. Then I got up, bowed to him and left.’” Aida gave me my glass of apple juice. “Your father is an unusual man,” she said with a note of admiration in her voice. “It is ironic that he never told you much about his life but to someone who happened to light his fire.” I nodded in agreement. One of the reasons I had talked at length with her because she knew how to listen. Then there was something called compatibility. I had thought about that after my mother told me of my father’s infidelity. Perhaps he found not only compatibility but also the fire that lit up his soul in his courtesan. Entering the room was the nurse who’d brought my dinner. Aida said to her, “He’s almost done. Let me take care of this.” “Sure,” the nurse said. “Also Doctor River will be here in half an hour to discuss the medical issue with Mr. Lee.” 51
“Half an hour?” Aida and I both looked at the wall clock. It was nine thirty. After the nurse left, Aida sat with her eyes cast to the floor and finally she looked up. I could see a grim expression on her face. “Are you afraid, Min?” “Perhaps,” I said. In fact, I felt calm. Having thought a lot about my father, of his indifferent attitude toward his own physical tragedy, had given me the much needed mettle. “I’ll be back at ten.” Aida rose, lifting the tray off the bed. Then looking down at me, her eyes, beautiful in their broodiness, blinked as she bent and kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll go and pray for you.” * She dimmed the room light as she left. I heard the wall clock tick as I lay looking at the ceiling. The leg did not hurt, save the occasional throbs deep in it. What did Doctor River see after he ran a battery of tests earlier in the evening? I wasn’t there on the day the doctor told my mother and my father that―against the threat of gangrene―they had to amputate his right leg. That, as they always said, is to take a step toward improving the quality of your life. Whenever I came to visit him in that nursing home, my father―in the first year there―never talked about his handicap. If I had to mention his amputation, his answers were casual. As if he talked about his missing slippers. There was no gloominess about him whenever my mother and I left him at the end of our visit. Sometimes, looking back toward him, I could see him turn his face to the window and sleep. What did he think while he was awake? I often wondered. With all the time he had, lying in bed, or being wheeled outside for fresh air, time must be painfully slow to pass the day. But then I wasn’t him. I never had his mettle. His absence of self-pity. One day he simply looked at me and smiled when I came into his room. My mother said, “That’s Minh.” And he kept smiling as if he and I never met. Only the sight of Ibou still stirred him up with excitement and pulled back slivers of his memory. After he died in the hospital, Ibou called me, asking how the general was doing. I told him. I was in the hospital room where my father was lying with a white sheet covering his body when Ibou came in. He stood by the bed, looking down at my father for some time, then crossed himself. “The general is sleeping,” he said. * Now I heard voices in the hallway. I could hear Doctor River’s voice talking. I closed my eyes, waiting. They were still talking outside. Then I could smell a musk scent. She was here. 52
JOHN HEARN And The Rain Fell Distant booming thunder startles him surprised he’s home here on east avenue in front of falconer high school his old high school but won’t ask questions never ask questions just do what has to be done… two years since graduation and the party afterwards on the hill in kennedy a dusty road in the woods by a pond and a fire. . . two years since he’s seen her felt her thigh against his as they sat on a fallen tree drinking keystone in the dark wondering desperately if he had a shot if he could hold her hand for all to see kiss her neck devote himself to her forever… He’s thought of her every day since dreamed of her every night wrote letters never sent waved her cell phone image like a flag in front of anyone who would look - like the other guys do photographs of their camaros and chevelles and impalas…making them think he’s got someone he doesn’t that he’s someone he’s not that there’s a place he belongs… he’s back now with courage he lacked then enough to wait for her to exit the building to walk to her straight and tall to hand her flowers to tell her what he never could…the grass was greener than anything before or after, thick and soft like a puppy’s golden fur and when a log made the flames leap the green flickered in her eyes and he could feel the fire through her jeans and his…blackening clouds deliver on their day-long threat with a single drop on the gray ground beneath his boots or maybe they’re still just messing with him playing with his mind making him think one thing when it’s only a stain a long-ago kid fell getting off the bus a spot of blood washed away by storms its memory a reminder or warning or maybe a tear if a tear can stain concrete plunging from a bowed head striking with force exploding maybe her tear if she cried the next day after nothing happened or the day after that when he left…a nearby patch of earth inviting and cool sends dirt and sand spraying… then another spot and another until they blend and disappear…raindrops falling and ricocheting fast and hard he can’t feel them but smells them like that night by her side when a shower sprinkled her with drops filled with the scent of life and love and hope before chasing them both away… he can’t feel them but hears them whizzing by until ZAP! one hits his neck so hard he falls and the warm warm raindrop spreads under his cammies his kevlar and seeps into his open joyful heart.
TOM C. HUNLEY Lies The One Where I Die Of Happiness Here lies Tom C. Hunley who died of happiness and who consisted mostly of water which could have resided in a goldfish bowl or gone woosh down a drain or been lapped up from a doggy dish but instead got to have a childhood and later children, got to smell woodsmoke and taste Japanese pears and was sometimes asked for an opinion about these shoes or those shoes and does God exist and how shall I vote and do the guitarists need to pull back a bit here so the bass can cut through Because he consisted mostly of water, everyone could see through him, summer sun made him sweat, and winter winds made him ice He found another body of water, merged with it, his body a glass that overflowed because of happiness it couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t contain,
Like A Color With No Name Here lies Tom C. Hunley who, according to the coroner, held traces, in his blood, of somethingwrongwithhimhardtosaywhat, and if you had asked him, he would have said he had a chronic case of feeling like a guitar string that busted and came to think of itself as a strand of hair that shriveled, turned white, and floated away Tom C. Hunley looked under the hat that the world wore and had enough paper cuts from history books and the letters that poets write to the world to know better than to be too serene or entirely sane or to put his head in a lion’s mouth without getting paid cash first He knew love felt like a color with no name that only one other person could see He knew loneliness, too; it wore a mask that made it look like love Do you think the bluebird over your shoulder is singing It’s telling you to watch where you’re going, and where you’re going is telling you not to go there in such a hurry,
The One Where I Die Piecemeal Here lies Tom C. Hunley who died reading, the pages limned by the light of his fireplace He poked a log and the embers turned into the eyes of departed friends glowing like lost love come back and he couldn’t look away, Like most people, Tom C. Hunley died piecemeal, not all at once The parts of us depart often unnoticed Death is like hocking your watch, your guitar, and your flatscreen, intending to buy them all back on payday but payday never comes or someone walks into the shop first or the shop’s going-out-of-business sign which began as a scam or marketing scheme becomes a prophecy Or death is this humming sound that’s always been there but unnoticed until someone asks if you hear it and then it won’t leave you alone until you pray for some quiet and some sweet sleep,
My Death With A David Bowie Soundtrack Somewhere out there, like the truth floats Major Tom C. Hunley helmet on, engines on thrilled to star in a David Bowie song but why couldn’t it be Ziggy Stardust or China Girl or even Let’s Dance He could have been clubbed by a wannabe hero or he could have been hunky dory instead of sitting in this tin can, Each of his molecules misses Ralaina They miss soil and wish for a proper burial They miss stones that sit still as if posing for photos unlike these asteroids that knock on his space craft and then ricochet away like trick-or-treaters at the home of a man with no candy Major Tom C. Hunley rose and vanished like vapor on a lake or like birdsong no one would ever hear in a sky so dark even Death says a little prayer and a curse word or two while fumbling for a light switch that isn’t there,
MARC JANSSEN A Gathering of Birds They hunger and stab out, lips curling around teeth In grim grimaces of lust and pain. Fingers turn to claws, chipped plastic nails are sharp poniards Oozing poisons and grabbing at remaining bits. Laughter cruel and terrible accompany Barbs and shots at the joints in the others' armor. All taken between sips, and chips, And the occasional order for Tupperware.
CRAIG KURTZ A Lesson In Wise Loving The first time that you love, you will do it foolishly; best then you should choose a fool testing out fresh coquetry. No one starts experienced — choose for lust, and good looks; understand that Cupid’s nuts and disrespects pedantic books. The first time’s colored by mistakes which all first times must be, per se; there is no sense choosing ‘the one’ ’cause blunders end the first foray. The next time that you love, you should do so prudently; middle years bring forth children and other cares pecuniary. Choose a mate as a partner for a business that’s long term; passion here’s a deficit investing in a sober firm. I will concede these years pulse slow and Cupid’s wiles lose their event; yet please don’t over-compensate ’cause follies made love too piquant. The last time that you love, do it with dexterity; choose someone who knows, like you, now’s the bid for history. The transports of yon feckless youth wish a reprise, but with purpose; the bromides of yon middle years demand ado, howe’er cautious. But, most of all, be confident (when you through love’s seasons have tripp’d) Cupid, who’s a rank truant, should work for you, or get pink-slipped.
CRAIG KURTZ Alceste’s Mission Statement A Droll from The Misanthrope I was born under an unpopular planet, cursed to speak truth and expose every secret; I cannot cozen in festival terms, as my contemptible standing confirms. Ominous endings I find in all rhymes, the sorrows of satire turn quips into crimes; I was born under an unpopular star, determined to challenge every avatar. A culture of crass, politic politesse supports an old guard who deserve status less than plain-dealing prognosticators who get the axe for speaking, prematurely, self-evident facts. I have not the skill, nor the finesse to alter the patterns of snobby noblesse; all I can hope for is a solitude where falseness and treachery do not intrude; I haven’t the countenance to ‘just get along,’ I’ve not met a man who wants to hear that he’s wrong; I’ve not met a lie I didn’t have to gainsay and that is the reason I am déclassé. There’s always a place for a talented wight to pamper kingmakers and tell them they’re right; there’s always a role for a poetical lad to confirm status quo, be it decent or bad; there’s ever laurels for the clever sophists to prop up the order, as it exists; sure, there’s a chance for a social advancement: just sing lovely anthems to praise the top tyrant. But, here is my problem, if I was content — that is the day I’d be irrelevant.
CRAIG KURTZ December’s Jeremiad to May When you are my age, my dear, I no longer will be here; a pox on such disequilibrium and Cupid’s lust for a victim. I won’t miss the bellyaches nor verifying my mistakes; I won’t miss the vexèd ulcers nor repenting my ex-lovers. What I’ll miss are June strawberries, fireflies and symphonies; I’ll miss plays by Molière and cut sunflowers by the pair. But most of all, if truth be told, I’d love to love you when you’re old.
CRAIG KURTZ To Hell with the Hoi Polloi A Droll from The Man of Mode To hell with the hoi polloi, I say, democracy is démodé; aristocrats, by troth, know best, who needs a scurvy IQ test? A pox upon the under-class, salute the King and raise a glass; the Devil take the working poor; equality’s a royal bore. What good are beggars who can’t laugh, let’s legislate against riff-raff; the law should puff up the beau monde and drag the rest through the horse pond. Good breeding is the source of wit and should be governed by permit; the commoners have no éclat and ought to be against the law. We’ll warrant silks, perruques and dice ‘cause being rich is the best vice; the masses want life more humane, but why waste all that good champagne? Let’s sign a formal declaration that makes laboring high treason; at the risk of being rigid, wages are prohibited. Utopia’s a bellyache, let ‘em eat cake, for Heaven’s sake; noblesse oblige takes us so far and then it’s time for caviar. We’ll have no revolution, thanks, ‘cause freedom’s just for mountebanks; the House of Bourbon had it right, the rabble should be more polite. To hell with the hoi polloi, I say, gentility has more cachet; 62
all power to the monarchy, long live entitled foppery!
DIANE LEFER Sky Burial He handed over his passport and the agent looked up and spewed out some words in a language that was incomprehensible though all too familiar. It hadn't occurred to Marty that traveling on a German passport he'd be expected to spreche Deutsch in Turkey. He'd never wanted to learn his mother's mother tongue, the only words he knew were Komme hier and fuß—the canine commands she had used to train Baboo. Sitz, plotz, warte. Of course he did know Danke, which is what he said, reaching out to recover his little red Reisepass, now duly stamped. As the child of a German citizen—in spite of her marriage to his long absent father and her 30 years in the US, he'd gained dual nationality. She'd insisted on it: You can never have too many passports. You never know . . . But she did know. His mother knew everything, all the time, very clear in black and white, no shades of gray, beyond a shadow of a doubt. He had only to object to one of her pronouncements when she'd cut him off: Stop being such a nuance! Then she'd laugh her throaty laugh because it wasn't a malapropism but a joke. Her English was perfect. Komme hier, mein liebe – her love, the dog. When he got to Evergreen State, away from her for the first time, he felt so good he stopped taking his meds. Now in Istanbul he chose the wrong taxi, or maybe exactly the right one. Outcomes are always uncertain, how can you know the ultimate effect of a change of plans? This driver simply did not want to take him to the address he'd copied from a Lonely Planet guide, thumbing through it in Barnes and Noble. The city outside the window reminded him of New York the one time he'd been there, with his mother, checking out possible colleges. Columbia, NYU (NYJew, she'd said). Sidewalks full of people rushing, construction everywhere, the occasional woman in some kind of babushka adding the touch of exoticism that immigrants gave the streets of Manhattan. He never thought of his mother as an immigrant. The driver spoke to him in German. From Nietzsche, Marty had learned to be cynical, to expect amoral self-interest in those he met. From Zoroaster, he'd learned to seek the best in each man and woman, to trust others the way he himself wanted to be trusted, to judge strangers only as he himself would want to be judged, and so he acquiesced, Danke, danke, to a gleaming high-rise on a boulevard of identical hotels, on a street without shrubbery or grass or flowers and yet busy with life: teashops and rug merchants and women rushing up to female tourists to tie headscarves on them murmuring compliments, çok güzel (as the guidebook had warned), holding hand mirrors up to the startled faces, and then asking for money, vendors of Kurdish music cassettes — weren't those illegal? He walked through the crowd into the lobby. 64
Whatever the hotel lacked in character—unless maybe this very lack was the character of the new century, the 21st—it was clean, air conditioned, and to his surprise, cheap. He murmured a blessing on the driver: ushtâ ahmâi ýahmâi ushtâ kahmâichît. The taxi driver walks—or drives—in righteousness. Score one for Zoroaster. The Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran would not have looked out of place in Paris, he thought, without his ever having been there. Mouse-colored stone (not quite gray, not quite brown), pediment windows tall enough to stand in, all behind the wrought-iron gates and guarded by two crouching lions on their columns. The US passport used to be the passport to the world, but when he'd applied for the visa as an American, he was denied. He was carefully shaved but casually dressed. He'd decided a formal look would work against him. Coming across like a Mormon missionary, he'd never get a visa that way. If he was a German, he needed to look hearty, a footballer, a trekker, a distance cyclist (which was what he did in fact plan to be on his new Trek 520). He'd lost more than twenty pounds in training but his cheeks were still red and full. German. Under his breath he repeated the phrases his aunt had taught him. Lucky for him (or due to his mother's foresight) his name - Martin Keller, worked in both languages. (And if he did decide to convert? Mardan—though that was maybe presumptuous, meaning king of men. Marzban, perhaps, He who governs the border.) “Guten Morgen. Ich möchte ein Visum.” The man behind the desk sighed. “Do you speak English? Parlezvous français?” “English,” said Marty. “I would like a visa.” “Tourist?” “I wish to ride a bicycle in your country.” The man took his passport. “Come back tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” “Tomorrow. Morgen. A demain.” You can never have too many passports. If the Turkish authorities stopped him, he still had one. What else did he have? A round-the-world air ticket round a world hurtling toward destruction. And he was part of the problem! Air travel! Carbon footprint! His plan to cross Iran on a bike—that, at least, Brent would approve of, but what did Brent's approval matter to him now? “You're not like some of them,” Brent had said to him, “always seeking approval.” Of course not. Martin had learned early in life that approval was something he would never have. “People who want to be liked aren't security conscious. They talk,” Brent had said. 65
At Evergreen, Marty read Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and learned that after God died, the worst sin was to blaspheme the earth. That led him to Brent Fassen who spoke of saving the earth and for whom God was very much alive. Then his philosophy professor urged him to research the real original Zoroaster of ancient Persia, the prophet Marty soon took to calling Zorro, not, he insisted, out of disrespect but to draw closer, erasing the centuries and continents that stood between them. His studies left him two-faced, dual-natured. Martin had two Martins inside him—which had nothing to do with the diagnosis of bipolar. Choose! Choose! The will to power or The will to righteousness. To become almost godlike, the Übermensch—so there! He did know a German word or two. Or to see the divine not only in himself but equally in all. Consume the earth, or save it? He'd taken a semester's leave from school to join Brent's crusade and Lori had gone with him. When the time came to take action, security meant he had to push her away. But could he act? Could he be a nihilist with high ideals? Amoral while answering to a higher morality? Instead of following the plan, he panicked. Probably an overreaction. Probably nothing would have happened. It was probably just a test. Unless it wasn't. Confiding in his mother was out of the question. Mother, I adore you, he'd said once, a little boy wanting her attention. He got a hard slap. Adoration is for God. He is imaginary. I am real. But when he was desperate to get away, she bought him the ticket, approvingly, his Wanderjahr. If nothing else, she was generous. First stop, Frankfurt, Aunt Bettina. So different from her sister. Even her voice soft and caressing. When she was his age, she'd camped out in caves in Tunisia. She thought his adventure would be fabulous, she said she'd go with him except she didn't want to cramp his style. Oh, the solitude! As well as the chance to meet local people. It was so much harder to do that when you traveled with a companion. She brushed back her long hair and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and taught him to say Ich möchte ein Visum. She took him to eat döner kebap at a Turkish cafe. “Make time,” she said, “for Topkapi and the Blue Mosque”—advice no different than you'd find in any guidebook. He woke up on her couch, heart racing, lips repeating Ich möchte ein Visum faster and faster and faster. He wanted to wake her and tell her about Brent, everything. It weighed heavily, both his cowardice and his guilt. Are we not a part of Nature? Is not Nature amoral? If we are to defend the environment of which we are a living, breathing and at the moment a thoroughly destructive part, how dare we impose human morality on our actions? He had dared. 66
In the morning all he said was he wanted to buy a backpack. Here, in Frankfurt, for the German label. And a few shirts, cycling shorts. She laughed. “Too many Cold War spy novels, Martin. With globalization, what does a label prove? Anything can be manufactured anywhere.” “The care instructions,” he said. “Ah, yes. You're right.” Unlike his mother, his aunt was entirely comfortable admitting she was wrong. “Are you nervous?” she asked him. “Scared?” “Yes,” he admitted. At the bank, they changed $500 to German marks and purchased some lira. In Tehran he would change marks to rials. Because of sanctions, his credit card could not be used there. “You're not a liar,” Bettina assured him. “Fooling an unreasonable government doesn't count.” She lightly punched his arm. “Iran will not be so dangerous for you as Seattle.” Had he told her and then forgotten? Impossible. But she knew. When he returned to the consulate, passport and visa were waiting, no questions asked, along with a gift of shortbread cookies topped with pistachios. What a shame Zoroastrians were persecuted in Iran. He loved the country already. The flight was uneventful. The Turkish doctor who sat beside him mistook him for Canadian and Marty let him. In Tehran, his luggage came quickly. Passing through immigrations and customs, changing money, all of it easy, a breeze. Crowds waited to greet the passengers, there to greet everyone but him, but outside the terminal as he began to reassemble his bike, people gathered round to watch. Put the pedals back on. Reinflate the tires. Men nodding their heads and smiling, taxi drivers coming over for a look, women who'd gone out the women's exit rejoining their men, then hanging back just a little as they watched him, cautious in a public place. And he was cautious too, don't stare at them, he warned himself, the way their head coverings draped so gracefully to reveal high pure foreheads, a soft lock of hair, the cowls somehow setting off the women's eyes so that they glowed, remarkably big and deep. And don't look at the men in green. “Hello, my friend, hello,” male voices coming from all directions in a strange mix of hearty and tentative, not one thing, not the other, while the men in green uniforms kept their distance but kept watching. The men who circled round him, close, wore polyester pants in blue and brown and tan. He smelled his own sweat and the men's cologne and the oil as he checked the bicycle chains. “English?” “Yes,” he said because English is what he spoke. “The English,” said a bearded man. “Always interfering.” 67
A man crouched beside him. “My brother, he live London. And you?” Another man crouched next to him. “My cousin - Los Angeles. Tehrangeles.” So he might as well tell the truth. “I live north of L.A.” “Maybe you know him?” The man blushed, his olive skin ripening like a plum. Hugs, backslaps, even men kissing him on both cheeks. Welcome welcome welcome. So much for the Great Satan. He secured his pack in the pannier, water bottles in place, fastened the sleeping bag to the back of the bike. He pedaled off into the smog and car exhaust to the sounds of honking, not in warning but in farewell. If he thought the cards stuck in the spokes would click to let drivers know of his presence, he was wrong. Even he couldn't hear their sound as he biked along, drivers and passengers waving and the enemies of his country cheering and applauding as off he went on his quest. He followed a motorbike as it threaded between cars. Some he could not identify at all. Others, obsolete model Chevys and Fords, he recognized from old TV shows on cable. Through the smog and the dust, there was the smell of something roasting, burning, the appetizing smell of something charred but filled as he was with inspiration, he had no need of food. There were construction cranes and yellow wedges dividing the road. Drab faceless buildings but faces everywhere on billboards. Everything oversized: bearded turbaned men loomed huge, coming at him in fragments, then a giant toothbrush. The Ayatollah Khomeini, dead now, his stern face. As Marty passed, the Ayatollah winked. Impossible. It was too much. There was too much to see until he felt as though his eyes could no longer see anything. Where did I get the idea I could do this? Why headscarves? People here should wear gas masks. If he'd left the bike in its box, he could have taken a cab to the outskirts of the city. Not now. Was that a mountain in the distance, through the haze? He wished he were back in Frankfurt, eating dinner with his aunt, someone who didn't see his enthusiasm as pathology. He had such nostalgia now for Frankfurt: only a couple of days ago his journey was still thrillingly before him. Stranded on the sidewalk by a traffic circle he drank from his water bottle. “English? English?” he asked. “Where do you want to go?” asked a woman, black garment, high forehead, big gray eyes. Her little girl held by the hand, already in headscarf, just like in America, he thought, dressed to push her into womanhood too fast. “Out of the city, please. The highway south.” He was surrounded again. Pedestrians gestured, men rolled their hands like exaggerated courtiers in comedies, a woman offered him 68
pistachios, a woman offered tea—in this heat, hot tea!—and the men were waving down panel trucks and pickups. There was shouting and honking every time someone pulled over and traffic stopped. The first, the truckbed full with flats of—he couldn't believe it— bottles of Coca-Cola, and no room for him. The second, hauling trash. Relieved it wasn't going his way. A white van stopped. No no no said his new friends. And so on till Yes yes, come come welcome, he hoisted his bike into the back where two little boys rode along with a stack of tires chained together, a pile of newspapers tied with twine, a broken swivel chair, a tool box, a box spring and a rolled-up rug. One boy whispered to two sparrows in the birdcage he held on his lap though he glanced shyly up at Marty once or twice. The other never lifted his face from his Game Boy. They headed into the pink haze where a yellow glow at the horizon marked the setting sun. Thank you, thank you, why the hell hadn't he learned to say thank you in Persian? Or Farsi, or whatever it was called instead of learning from the internet a few ancient prayers in an ancient tongue. The father gestured to Marty to get down, pointed first at the sleeping bag and then to a road. Off he went toward what seemed to be a mosque under construction or a shrine. Poor people—judging by their clothes, camped alongside a wall. No, this was not what he wanted. The plan was to sleep out alone under the desert sky. Where in his solitude Nietzsche would assure him he was on the road to becoming the Übermensch, superior to other men and having no need of them. Or by repeating Good Thought, Good Word, Good Deed, he would open himself like the real Zoroaster— his own Zorro—to revelation. Back home everything he read was true as long as he was reading it except for the nights when it was just as clear that everything, everything was a lie. Back on the highway, his legs pumped him through a landscape even more barren than the bleak scrub of the high desert at home. There were supposed to be mountains somewhere but as far as the horizon all he saw was flat. At least that made cycling easy. But there was nothing. Not a rock, not a tree. No sound but the wind and the clicking of the cards in the spokes. The clicking was getting on his nerves. Nietzsche wrote never give a hand to the weak. Zorro said never withhold grain when people are hungry. Yes no yes no clickety clickety click. He'd signed papers: secrecy, solidarity. He rode to clear his mind but his mind was still running, Brent saying, If sabotage is necessary, hypothetically of course, If you were to do it, What if? Marty pedaled. What if someone else said yes? What if he and Lori had stayed together? He should never have let her go. And what had 69
happened to the Iran he'd seen in photos?—the snowcapped mountains, verdant green valleys, the gardens with their fountains and pools? Where were the nightingales? Pomegranates and nightingales. He would lie down here entirely exposed. How would he even relieve his bladder? But then night fell sudden and black and no one could see him. He woke in pain, lying on broken ground. His piss evaporated as soon as it hit the earth. He mounted his steed. Where had he gotten the idea he had to make this trip by bike? Day followed day. He had believed he would tolerate the heat. He had biked north through the California desert on the way to Brent's strategy retreat—which was why he'd run away, why he was here, but this desert, this heat—he'd had no idea. And tolerance: a sad and lukewarm concept. Maybe this was what he needed, the sun to purify, to scorch his soul. He followed the highway. His back hurt, his knees hurt, his head was pounding. Should he have had the bike customized? He'd been so confident, paying then riding it straight out of REI. Blisters broke and streamed on his hands and his ass. When he stopped in a village seeking cold water, people offered him hot tea. And he needed a shower or a public bath. He was not an adventurer or a world traveler. He was a pilgrim. Not a saint who required this self-mortification. But maybe this was as it should be: Nietzsche said you have to walk to think but surely cycling was better. Cycling he was nothing but hurting flesh. Body only, his mind and soul, too, were gone. In that absence, Universal Thought, a Mind calling to him from beyond his own, would find the space to enter. Wasn't that the point? The wheels went round. The preventive Lomotil he'd swallowed left him constipated, his stomach cramped. He stopped to check the tires. In this world, he thought, it is entirely normal to go from elation to despair. The sheer joy of being alive, and having been born in America which meant he could do anything, be anything, achieve whatever he set his Übermenschen mind to. There was that. There was also reality. Which was enough to make anyone deflate. The tires were fine and the chains. All systems go. Onward. Trying to travel in the hours before sunrise, stopping before the worst heat of the day. An hour or two after dusk. If there was scenery, who knew? In the dark. Or head bent over the handlebars, what was there to see? Empty space. Sound reaching him as in a dream, distant calls to prayer. His own mind and soul silenced. He was only a body and then, transcending pain, not even that. He was Martin Keller but he didn't know who he was. Whenever he stopped, dehydrated and dizzy, people greeted him, eager to know where he'd come from. When he said Germany, they told him his country made the chemical weapons Iraq had used against them. Men showed him their scars and talked about a war he'd never even heard of. When he said America, they told him the US had supplied those very weapons to Saddam. But whether he claimed to be German or American, 70
after they said what they had to say, they embraced him and invited him home for tea or dinner or for a place to sleep and he was excited and surprised and grateful but in so much pain (though no one had used a weapon against him, the damage was all self-inflicted) all he wanted was to curl up in a ball in some cool dark place alone. He slept on his stomach to spare his sunburned back and neck and the skin on his arm, seared where bare skin had touched metal. The only part of him that didn't hurt was his penis and that was what had him most worried because it had tingled a while before going entirely numb. If he were alone he would think of Lori (or better yet, dark luminous Persian eyes) and he'd touch himself for reassurance—or to know the worst. You must see Persepolis. You must visit Esfahan where he did go but only to stock up on water and food. People told him about mosques of extraordinary beauty with extraordinary tile work but how could he enter?—all sweated up in shorts. And he wasn't here as a tourist. His destination was Yazd, the city that would show him the heart of Zoroastrian belief. Into the very heart of Zorro. And despite all the hospitality (after that first night on the ground, he never slept under the sky again), and even though the armed men at the checkpoints were so happy to see him they offered most un-Western displays of affection, he wanted out. Nietzsche was winning. Marty was tired of the company of his fellow men, like the old man who wagged a finger at him and said in the darkest of tones “The Rockefellers!”, his view of capitalist evil as behind the times as his car. But in the family's home after dinner his grandson played a Chris Rock DVD and Marty was sure no one in the house could understand the half of it, and not because of the English. In the morning he rode for hours and saw men with their flocks of sheep, not a blade of grass in sight or a dwelling which made him wonder if they were even real. That night after he bathed off the dust of the road, his host exclaimed, “Your hair is red! Your skin is white!” Neighbors—men only—came to meet him. “The CIA,” said a man. “Americans must live in fear. They watch you always.” No, not at all, though maybe after this trip they would. When he asked, some people changed the subject, others assured him Zoroastrians were not persecuted in Iran. “Persecution for the Bahá'i,” he was told. “For the Zoroastrian, discrimination only.” In a coffeehouse that served only tea, a concerned father told him Cabbage Patch Kids carried concealed tape recorders. “Dolls don't spy on people,” Marty said. A lie, he realized, there were those nanny cams. The man said, “They play a message telling children to jump out the window. As if the war didn't destroy one generation, the dolls are meant 71
to kill the next. But the Zionists aren't that clever. Most of us live on the ground floor. Our children can jump out of windows all they want to!” More brown desert. More of the same. Sand and grit kept him awake all night, pricking the insides of his eyelids. Then white earth like salt or chalk and a pool of turquoise water unless it was a hallucination and dust dust dust until he got to Yazd. A city of rock hard mud. Bumps and mounds channeling underground water. Sparrows taking their dirt baths in the dust. He couldn't remember when he'd last shaved. His beard growing in curly and more red than auburn or chestnut the way Zoroaster looks in the images, same as Jesus. Was it sacrilege to let his hair grow?—like Zoroaster carved in stone, his hair flowing. In the center of town, a stooped old man disturbed the dust in front of the coffee shop with a broom made of twigs. Was it sacrilege to complain about the heat? It left Marty stupefied and reeling. But the sun was cosmic fire. The sun, along with the vultures, purifies the Zoroastrian dead. The corpses laid out for Sky Burial at the Tower of Silence, the dakhma. But the only towers he saw stood tall to catch the desert wind. There, someone directed him, at the top of the hill, the dakhma, over there. The Tower of Silence wasn't really a tower and it wasn't silent— tourists even here—and it was no longer used. Viewed from below it looked like a furnace or a water storage tank or a big round baseball stadium made of stone. A deep above ground well. To reach the dakhma, he had to climb. He left his bike on its side in the dirt. From the hillside he turned back to the panorama of brown buildings, brown earth, brown apartments under construction with dark brown holes staring out from eight floors of windows still waiting for glass. Maybe no one would ever move in, he thought, afraid their children might jump. At the top gazing into the dakhma he looked down into a pit of rubble. Reminding him of something. Lightheaded now he sat, took water from his pack. Below, it was just brown and more brown. A transmission tower stood against the horizon and he felt the most profound sadness he had ever known. Not depression. This must be the dark night of the soul, something his soul had surely been demanding year after year and, being medicated—damn his mother!—year after year had been denied. There was a flash of light—inside of him, he thought, not outside, and then the air went cold and black. He was a pulse pulsing in the void. Not a cobweb brushing his face, not even an ant or spider on his leg, there was nothing, nothing to tell him he was not alone. He fell and lay flat on the earth, the blasphemed earth, his face pressed against it and the earth spoke to him. Without words the earth reminded him of rubble and craters and bombs, the high school field trip to the Nevada Test Site, and of the first time he ever saw Brent Fassen. Marty sat in the campus theatre What to do what to do what to do I have to do something. Then the weeklong retreat because he wanted to learn to do more. Brent's 72
voice determined and serene: The time is now, the situation urgent. How committed are you? How far would you go? Was it up to him now to tell someone? His body shook. He cried. And out of the nothing a hand touched him. “You are American?” said the voice. “You've seen the Towers.” He still couldn't speak so he gestured toward the dakhma and nodded. “We are so sorry,” said the stranger. “They are gone.” The rough hand took his and Marty winced, new blisters. With his free hand the man wheeled the bike and he led him, hand in hand they went, like father and son, back to town. In the coffeehouse men were gathered around tables watching. The television mounted high on the wall beamed out images, sent out its light. The sweeper with his homemade broom stood in the doorway, watching, too. “Look,” said his guide. “Muslims and Zoroastrians crying together, with you, our Christian friend. Our American.” A man shouted, “Look! Look what Israel has done!” Men were crying and praying, hitting their own chests, tearing at their own clothes and Marty couldn't understand until suddenly he did. Again the world vanished. It slipped away, sucked into a sponge that a huge hand covered and squeezed dry. Nothing left but holes. He saw nothing. Heard nothing. There was no sound. The world was empty until something entered, not revelation, only an acrid smell. Just as suddenly sound came back. A rushing wind that said Do something. “The Jews will say we did it,” said a man. The wind said It it it. It couldn't possibly (or could it?) be Brent. Someone said, “Please when you go home, tell your country it wasn't Iran.” “Don't let there be a war, Inshallah.” “Let there be justice, Inshallah.” “But Inshallah, no war.” “The Jews are behind it.” His thigh burned as though the Reisepass rested against him in his pocket. “Israel did it. Let them bomb Israel.” Israel. That made no sense. None of it did. The film had to come from a movie, a fabrication, it couldn't be real. Respect the enemy in your friend, said Nietzsche, which meant you do your friend the honor of never trusting him. Someone asked, “Are you a Christian?” He'd been one, more or less, when he met Brent Fassen who said, “Christians do NOT deny our role in climate change. Christians see evolution as one more proof of the limitless creativity of God.” And 73
Marty had approached and shook his hand and coughed to cover up a nervous laugh. He quoted Nietzsche: After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands. “Because it made him realize he was dirty,” said Brent Fassen. The world was dirty now with black smoke. Cinders and ash. If there's a battle between good and evil, how do you tell which is which? He felt himself floating, leaving his body behind and then plunging back inside to all the pain. Flesh hurt, soul hurt. I have to do something, he thought. On the TV, it was playing over and over and over again, recurrence, the eternal return, and now the men watched in silence, mesmerized. Smoke and rubble and dust and death. “I'm not a Christian,” he said. “I'm a Zoroastrian. Or I want to be.” They watched the planes. Nothing, he understood nothing. The endless loop with its cryptic demand. He felt sick: he had been ready to do evil. He felt envy: some men had been brave and sure enough to act. He had seen enough. An old man followed him outside. “We are very poor here,” said the man. “The Parsis in India are our support. If you wish to learn about our Prophet, you must go to Mumbai.” So he was still on the run. Bus to Shiraz. Flight to Doha—if planes were allowed to fly—and from there, India. “Please,” he said, “I want you to have this bicycle.” “I cannot accept it.” “But I want you to.” “You are my guest. I can take nothing from you.” “It is offered freely. As the Prophet said, Doing good to others is not a duty, it is a joy, for it increases our own health and happiness. Please.” The old man ran a hand over the frame, gently but firmly, as though touching a prized horse. Nietzsche was right. The true man acts. The true man goes beyond the foolish strictures of good and evil. So what? Marty made up his mind. He would become Mardan—or Marzban, and he would henceforth walk in righteousness even if Zorro was his own creation and Zoroaster's truth was lie.
S. FREDERIC LISS The Face of the System About ten days ahead of the next scheduled knockout, it started, as it always did, with a facial tic. Jake’s skin quivered and muscles pulsed as if his cheeks were a young bird in its death throes. When the twins, Tommy and Terri, were younger, Jake hid it by making faces to entertain them. In the evening after work, or in the morning if he worked the night shift, they crawled up on his lap and tried to catch the twitches as they flashed on and off. As they got older and became more observant, they sensed it meant something scary and gave their daddy a wide berth. To shield them, Darlene, Jake’s wife, shut off the news when Jake faced the media after a knockout. Making the official announcement was part of his job, a small part but the only part the public saw. He read a few sentences, always the same except for the name and time, and deflected questions from reporters with answers he had given in the past and would give again in the future. Whatever Jake’s personal opinion, he entombed it beneath a blank expression and a monotone as drab as the grass in his yard after a hot, dry summer. After each knockout, Jake went to their cabin in the mountains where he unwound by fly-fishing for trout in season or tying lures out of season. A routine had evolved over the years since his first knockout. Regardless of season, upon arrival he built a fire in the colonial cooking fireplace he had constructed out of fieldstone. It was six feet tall, three feet deep, with a hearth which extended into the center of the room like a patio into a yard. It had wrought iron rods from which cast iron cooking pots hung suspended and a beehive oven for baking bread. When they vacationed at the cabin as a family, every meal was prepared as if they had boomeranged 300 years back in time. If it had been an especially bad knockout, Jake rushed, clumsily arranging the kindling and firewood, siting them too far forward on the hearth, not warming the flue. There were scorch marks on the ceiling above the hearth, souvenirs of fires that escaped the fireplace and climbed to the ceiling. One of these days, Darlene said after every fresh scorch mark. Jake let her light the fire on family vacations. After building the fire, Jake stretched out in an easy chair that had once furnished his folk’s front porch. Flames mesmerized him the way clouds had Tommy and Terri when they were little. He saw in the flames what they saw in the clouds, farm animals, monsters and mythical beasts, faces from fairy tales, cartoon characters, an endless spectacle. When the twins were older, Jake taught them the constellations, but stars did not fascinate them the way clouds did. Maybe they had outgrown the wonder. When it came to flames, Jake had not and never would. At home, Darlene waited, never knowing whether the old Jake would walk through the door or some new Jake forever lacerated by the latest 75
knockout. Knockout, of course, was a code word. Over the years, Jake and Darlene had developed a code to talk about what he did for a living, hiding behind language like a pair of political weasels. They referred to what happened at work as the knockout, Jake’s idea because he had been a Golden Gloves boxer, good enough to be invited for an Olympic tryout and survive the preliminary round. His cabin exiles, his recoveries from the knockouts, were his resurrections. For 18 knockouts and 18 resurrections spread over 24 years, this pattern repeated itself with the predictability of Darlene’s menstrual cycle. Jake’s twitch was the first in a series of signs which appeared as the days counted down to the next scheduled knockout. He stopped smiling. He ate less until, like a monk doing penance, he was fasting. He lost his appetite for sex no matter how seductive Darlene was. He slept less and less until the night before he sat up on the back porch, regardless of the season, the weather, the temperature, smoking, the only time he smoked, a pack and a half over several hours, one after another, lighting each off the last. It reminded Darlene of a documentary she saw on the Discovery Science channel about the defense mechanisms prey use to survive predators. Was Jake prey or predator, she wondered. If he were the prey, who or what was the predator? Not prey, Jake insisted. He embraced his job and the life it provided for Darlene and the twins, the tidy split-entry in the subdivision creatively named Striver’s Glen by the builder, also a person of color; the mountain cabin; a savings account accumulating college tuition for the twins; a government job which was layoff proof because of his seniority with steady pay and generous benefits; an aggressive union to protect him; and the guarantee of a sizable pension at retirement. Under the union contract, Jake had seven days off with pay after each knockout. If he needed more time, he was allowed to charge it against his sick day bank. He rarely did, preferring to save it for, God forbid, a catastrophic illness or to cash out when he retired. Maz, Greg Mazeroski, who retired out of Jake’s job, picked up $240,000.00 lump sum that way. Darlene tried to persuade Jake his mental health was more important than a few days sick pay, but he had a squirrel mentality about his sick days. If life was an endless summer, winter, he worried, was always just around the corner. When the knockout went smoothly, when there were no stays, when the protocols were followed and the chemistry worked, when the team followed the playbook, it took Jake about a week to resurrect, a process as slow and gradual as the defrosting of a ten-pound roast. Darlene knew he had when he puttered in his workshop until Tommy and Terri were asleep, then made love to her as if it were their wedding night. In a sense, it was. More often than not, the knockout did not go smoothly. Stays, often at the last minute, once or twice with seconds to spare, were common as were failures of the team to adhere to protocols, to follow the playbook. 76
Jake was a stickler for protocol, for following the playbook, something he had learned from Maz. A routine normalizes things, Maz stressed, and normalcy protects everyone. Normalcy was Maz’s favorite word. In its absence, an easy few minutes became a gruesome thirty. Jake drilled his team with the obsession of a football coach, rehearsing each step of the procedure, over and over until he was satisfied the team understood their assignments and would execute them properly. He adopted football terminology, referring to repetitions rather than rehearsals. However, the team performed, after each knockout Jake faced the media with the same stoicism, recited by rote the same sentences, deflected the same questions. Darlene’s one misgiving about Jake’s job was he, they, were the same race as the majority of the knockouts. Blacks shouldn’t be lynching blacks was what their next door neighbor, Eddie Merkman said, the day they moved into their house. Merkman was a garbage man who furnished his house with what he salvaged and stored what he didn’t use in his yard. His neck had a permanent crease as if he spent his life looking over his shoulder. You nothing but Klan in blackface, Merkman taunted. As for Tommy and Terri, Jake and Darlene realized someday they would have to explain what their daddy did for a living. After each knockout, each resurrection, they argued about how the twins would react. Jake insisted it would create a barrier between them, they would resent him, despise him as Merkman did. No way, Darlene said. I adjusted. They’ll adjust. After the fourth or fifth knockout, she floated a trial balloon, counseling to help them deal with the twins. Half a dozen sessions a year were part of Jake’s benefit package. If Dr. Quack were any good, Jake’s term for the staff psychiatrist, he’d be raking in the dough in private practice. Darlene conceded the point. After the seventh or eighth knockout, about the time Tommy and Terri stopped playing with their daddy’s twitch, they did consult a psychiatrist who recommended telling the twins sooner rather than later because young minds were more malleable. To Jake, this made as much sense as Merkman’s rants. An older more developed mind, Jake said, was easier to reason with, more likely to understand. Understanding, the shrink said, is not the objective. Acceptance is. In the shrink’s view, reaction to the disclosure would pass through their young minds like a piece of tainted food through the digestive track, stomach pains, diarrhea, recovery, all within twenty-four hours. The older they get, the shrink pressed on, puberty, adolescence, teenagers, the more they’ll think about it and the more they think about it the more judgmental they’ll be. You want it to become a part of their lives before they reach the age of judgment, as unremarkable as if you drove a cab. While Jake and Darlene debated whether to follow the shrink’s advice, Eddie Merkman’s son, Eddie Jr., made the decision for them. It was the Saturday before Halloween. While Tommy dressed for soccer, Jake laced the shrubbery in the front yard with orange Halloween 77
lights. He would leave them in place until the day after Thanksgiving when he would replace them with the green and red of Christmas. It was a neighborhood custom in Striver’s Glen. Everyone strung holiday lights, nothing flashy, just enough to warm the winter air with holiday spirit; everyone did except Eddie Merkman whose house was always as dark as his outlook on life. Striver’s Glen was a neighborhood of small split entries and modest capes built on 1/4 acre lots for people of color escaping the inner city. Shabbily constructed, the houses wearied with age until the owners learned the difference between 8 penny nails and roofing nails, to tape window panes before painting the frames, when to seed the lawn, when to fertilize. Now, the houses, except for Eddie Merkman’s, looked as if they had been built yesterday. Most of the men of Striver’s Glen, were civil servants, municipal, county, state, federal. Most of the women also worked, nurses, teachers, legal secretaries. The beds they made, the dishes they washed, the floors they swept, the lawns they mowed, they owned. Everyone shared the same faith, faith each generation would progress further than the last, faith their children would go to college, perhaps beyond, become lawyers or doctors, executives, live in houses on acre lots with more bathrooms than their childhood homes had bedrooms. The men and women of Striver’s Glen spoke proper English and insisted their children do the same. They installed book shelves in their living rooms and purchased encyclopedias, volume by volume, at the local supermarket; or the Stories From series, stories from the Bible, stories from Shakespeare, stories from Dickens, stories from the great operas, which they read with their children so their children would be as literate as the whites with whom, someday, they would live and work. “After soccer,” Jake said when he saw Tommy’s shadow on the shrubs, “you can help me carve the pumpkin. If you want, we’ll roast the seeds.” “What’s a ‘cutioner?” Tommy asked. His shin guards bulged beneath his socks. “A what?” “Little Eddie saw you on TV and said you’re a ‘cutioner.” Eddie Jr. rode the same school bus as Tommy. “Little Eddie said ‘cutioners kill people. Do you kill people?” Jake continued stringing the Halloween lights. “Daddy!” Tommy’s whined. “Pay him no mind, Tommy,” Jake said. “He’s just jealous ‘cause his bike’s a discard.” “Do you?” “No, Tommy. Your daddy doesn’t kill people.” Tommy looked at Jake as if his daddy had responded to his cry of trick or treat by saying, Sorry, I’m out of candy. Tommy’s shadow retreated from the shrubs. His soccer cleats clicked against the front walk like the metal cleats Jake had nailed to the soles of his shoes when he 78
fancied himself the toughest mother in his old neighborhood. Three weeks later, the Merkmans moved out. Rumors flew like sparks from a poorly vented fire. Some said Eddie had gotten in too deep with the wrong people. Others heard he had been foreclosed by the mortgage company. Jake didn’t care. He was just grateful his new neighbor didn’t see him as the face of the system. Twelve years and nine knockouts after that Halloween, shortly before Jake’s 19th, he and Darlene delivered the twins to college after winter break. It was Martin Luther King weekend and Jake and Darlene made a holiday of it, booking a room at a small inn near campus and playing tourist. The twins, of course, disappeared as soon as they pulled up to Terri’s dorm and Tommy’s fraternity, but Jake and Darlene did not mind. The twins had been home for six weeks and the idea of alone time was attractive. The drive home was approximately ten hours depending on the number and duration of rest stops, all of it on Interstates except for the first thirty-two and the last three miles. The first thirty-two miles had character and Jake and Darlene enjoyed the slow drive through gently rising foothills and fallow fields, some with decaying barns held up by the peeling paint of ancient advertisements for smokeless tobacco, cattle feed, or hybrid seed catalogs. At times, the road paralleled a stream whose current created baby whitecaps when it broke over rocks. Jake always said next time he’d bring his fishing gear and Darlene always breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t. She enjoyed solitude if it was not forced on her. At their mountain cabin while Jake spent hours hip deep in rushing water casting for trout, she caught up on her reading, took hikes with Audubon field guides, and filled memory card after memory card with digital photos. It took her a while to warm up to the camera, Jake’s Christmas gift the previous year, because she thought it was a budget buster, but Jake confessed he had arranged enough overtime to pay for it before the credit card bill came due. For her birthday, he enrolled her in a digital photography class in the adult extension school of the local community college. He enjoyed watching her discover a new side of herself. They were in the third hour of the ten hour drive. It was Jake’s shift behind the wheel. Darlene dozed, relaxed by the steady hum of the engine. They hated car payments and kept their cars until they were no longer reliable, often celebrating a second century on the odometer. Their current car, ten model years old, showed potential for celebrating a third if not achieving automotive immortality. Jake tuned the engine and changed the oil before every long trip and did all the little things the owner’s manual recommended which most people ignored, changing the oil and air filters, the spark plugs, draining and replacing the transmission fluid, rotating and balancing the tires. Jake approached their marriage the same way which eased Darlene’s anxiety about the 79
knockouts and resurrections and his willingness to be the face of the system. Nothing worthwhile came without cost was her attitude. Jake didn’t object to Darlene’s dozing while he drove. He preferred it. When she didn’t, they competed for control of the radio dial, talk radio for him – he loved the red meat of it – and music for her, easy listening or Christian rock depending on her mood. On the radio, the talk jock, a local host who billed herself as Ms. Trash Talker, dismissed the DNA innocence project as junk science, a bigger scam than evolution or global warming. It saves innocent lives, the caller protested. Give me an eyewitness any time, Ms. Trash Talker replied, over some gobble-de-gook cooked up in a lab. Eyewitnesses, the caller said, are the least reliable evidence there is. Justice is blind and so are you. Ms. Trash Talker cut off the caller with a blast of her air horn, her way of dealing with whoever disagreed with her. Well, kiddies, she said. Take Ms. Trash Talker’s word for it. Dumb-o-crats like that will be the death of this great nation. She sounded another blast of the air horn. Anyone else out there, she asked, who doubts the wisdom of the elephant? Suddenly, twitches convulsed Jake’s face, spasms so violent his eyelids flashed open and closed like lightening in a summer thunderstorm. “Anything on my right?” Jake asked. Darlene grunted. “Am I clear on the right, damn it?” “What’s wrong, honey?” “Am I clear on the right?” She leaned forward to check the outside mirror. “As clear as crystal.” Jake eased across the dotted line into the right hand lane, then across the solid line into the breakdown lane, then on to the shoulder. Pebbles bounced off the inside of the wheel wells as noisily as bullets off a cement block wall. “Jake! That ditch!” He slammed on the brakes and the car skidded forward. The tires kicked up a plume of dirt and gravel. The steering wheel vibrated as he struggled to hold the car in a straight line. It fought him like a steelhead trout thrashing to break free of the hook. Frankie Roberts, his thirteenth knockout, had fought him that way, with as little success as the trout. If Frankie Roberts had been his first, maybe he would have found another line of work, perhaps buy a neighborhood garage because he loved working with cars, or go into private security, but then he would not have the money for the mountain cabin or the twins’ tuition or a house in Striver’s Glen. Jake squinted to see if he was heading toward the drainage ditch and the rock face beyond it. He couldn’t tell. It was like driving blindfolded. He had no faith in the airbags. It was the one system in the car which did 80
not have scheduled maintenance, the one system he could not test. If time or miles had disabled its sensor, if the bag had dried out and cracked so it would not hold the air, how would he know until the crash? He muttered a silent prayer and pumped the brakes. Fifty yards down the highway the car came to rest between the posts of a road sign, Buckle Up, It’s the Law, illustrated by a cartoon of an androgynous person with a thick line across the chest from shoulder to opposite hip. Seat Belts Save Lives, read the caption. Darlene kneaded his cheeks with her fingertips, absorbing the spasms. They tickled like a mild electric current. He lowered her hands and looked at his face in the rear view mirror. “I look like a corpse.” “I’ll call an ambulance.” “You drive. I’ll be okay.” “We’re hours from home.” “Plenty of places with hospitals along the way.” They switched seats and Darlene merged back on the highway. She set the cruise control to eighty. She didn’t like driving so fast, sixty was her upper limit, but she was afraid to drive any slower. “Maybe you should ask for a transfer,” she said after a few miles. “You have seniority.” “I’m not going back in the block. If they decide to come at me, which they will . . . I’m not as young as I used to be.” “Retire then.” “We discussed that already. When I’m thirty years in. The twins’ll be out of school and I’ll work private security to qualify for Social Security. Between that and the state pension and your Social Security we’ll be a couple of rich old geezers.” “If we make geezerhood.” Jake reached across the front seat and playfully pinched the top of her thigh. “Seriously,” she said. “Seriously,” he replied. Darlene centered the car in her lane, locking her fears between the dotted lines. Every mile or so she stole a glance at Jake. He dozed, his head resting against the window. The familiar wheeze of his snoring comforted her and the miles flew by as if she were the one sleeping. When she stopped for gas, Jake awoke. “I’m starved. Do they serve real food at this rest stop?” he asked. “Depends what you mean by real.” Over their chicken mandarin salads, he insisted on driving the rest of the way. “You sure?” Darlene asked. “I had my nap. Your turn now.” Darlene feigned sleep. The miles crawled by as if they were in the pedal cars they bought the twins for their fourth Christmas, blue for Tommy, red for Terri. 81
As the 19th knockout neared, Jake’s hair began to fall out. He first noticed it on the pillow when he awoke, then clogging the bathtub drain after he showered. Overnight, his little remaining hair turned white, shiny and bright like the freshly fallen snow when the sun reappeared after a blizzard. Darlene loved photographing snow and she decorated the mountain cabin with what she called Studies in a Whitescape. Her instructor said her work merited a gallery showing, but she lacked the self-confidence to display herself to the public. After Jake’s hair tuned white, the normal pre-knockout sequence kicked in, the twitching cheeks, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, loss of sex drive, sitting overnight on the back porch, smoking, immersion within an impenetrable plastic shell. It was cold the night before the 19th knockout. Jake preferred cold to hot. Knockouts upset him less in winter than summer. He didn’t know why. All he knew was he preferred shivering to sweating. Lighting another cigarette – he was halfway to filling a second ashtray – he thought about Darlene’s suggestion he retire. When was an open question. People burned out at different rates, some after a year or two, a few after a lifetime. He had no interest in being one of the few. Thirty years were enough. The best advice he had ever heard as to when to retire came at the annual meeting of the 770s Association two years ago. Throughout the country, there were enough people in the knockout business, mostly men but a handful of women, to form a professional association which met once a year. They called themselves the 770s after Procedure 770, the knockout procedure at The Q in Marin County north of San Francisco. In addition to networking, exchanging ideas and providing emotional support to each other, the 770s attended seminars on legal and medical developments and lobbied against legislation which would abolish their jobs. On the second night of that annual meeting, the 770s were playing a drinking game, one they made up, called “You know it’s time to retire when.” Whoever was “it,” usually the youngest or newest member went first, had to complete the sentence. Thumbs up, everyone chugged their drinks; thumbs down, only the ‘it’ who continued until earning a thumbs up and the right to designate the next “it.” The humor was repetitive, juvenile, sexist, too many Frankenstein jokes, too many curse of the mummy jokes, too many erectile dysfunction jokes, all as dull and dimwitted as a Hollywood movie trying to scrounge another laugh out of the zillionth variation of the kick in the groin routine. An hour into the game, Jake earned a thumbs up by saying, You know it’s time to retire when you fall asleep waiting for the chemicals to do their thing. He pointed at Willie ‘Gatekeeper’ Hobbes, his opposite number at The Q and slurred, “You’re it.” One of Gatekeeper’s first knockouts had bestowed that nickname on him and he adopted it because it was a perfect description of his job. Jake didn’t approve. Accepting a nickname from a knockout suggested an intimacy which was not there and violated his personal prime directive: never bond with a knockout. 82
Like most of the 770s, Gatekeeper was a person of color. Don’t it bother you Jake once asked him over beers, how we’re the face of the system? Sometimes I think they put us out there so the black community won’t think it’s a lynching, though my old next door neighbor sure did. You think it’s a lynching, Jake? Gatekeeper traced designs in the condensation on the outside of his beer glass. It’s only a lynching if they’re innocent. Gatekeeper stared into his beer as if the truth were imprisoned in the bubbles. That’s what Maz told me when I took over for him. Different words, same idea. Smart man, that Maz. Now, surrounded by drunk 770s in the middle of a drinking game, his own mind untethered, Jake wondered how smart Maz had been. Smart enough, he figured, to get out before his brain corroded. Gatekeeper walked to the front of the room with the steadiness of a driver able to pass a heel and toe sobriety test administered by a cop looking to make quota for his shift. An old timer once told me, Gatekeeper said, his voice as dry and sober as a preacher on Sunday morning, you know it’s time to quit when your knockouts – the 770s had adopted Jake’s code words for the same reasons Jake and Darlene had – haunt your dreams like ghosts did Richard the Third the night before Bosworth. Gatekeeper reveled in the blood and guts, the treachery, debauchery, and murder of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, reading and re-reading them in the order published in the Folios, seeing every production he could, even censored high school productions whose casts mangled Shakespeare’s English as if it were a foreign language. He quoted Shakespeare to knockouts in their final moments. If the knockout had repented, sincerely repented, acknowledged his sin, accepted the justice of his punishment, Gatekeeper offered consolation by quoting Horatio upon the death of Hamlet: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! If the knockout were unrepentant, denied guilt, or, worse, reveled in his misdeed as many did, Gatekeeper sought to instill a fear so primal they pissed in their pants by quoting Richmond upon his slaying of Richard III: God and your arms be prais’d, victorious friends, The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead. It was the part of the job Gatekeeper liked best. A few months after that annual meeting, Gatekeeper had a Richard III nightmare and retired from The Q the next day even though he was a less than a month shy of a substantial increase in his pension. Now, in the dark of his back porch, kept company only by the winter cold and the glow of his cigarette, Jake thought about Gatekeeper and 83
Maz and his role as the face of the system. Why, he wondered, did he feel nothing? Had so many years, 24, so many knockouts, 18, deadened him? He wished he felt something. Anything. Guilt. Joy. Remorse. Certainty. Something. Anything. He had no illusions every one of his knockouts was guilty. One, Frankie Roberts, the 13th, he was certain was innocent. He was as certain of that as he was of God’s existence. Maybe that’s why Frankie fought him so hard. Yet, ever the good foot soldier, he did what he was ordered to do. Without feeling. One out of 19. How many were too many? One? Five? Ten? Fifteen? The numbers meant nothing to him. What did? He lit a new cigarette, the last of his second pack. He had never smoked so much the night before a knockout. He was not the leader of a lynch mob, he told himself. He did not murder for profit or personal gain. He was a civil servant on the cusp of retirement, proficient, efficient, well liked, respected, the face of the system. Two years before, after returning home from that annual meeting of the 770s, he rented movie versions of Richard III, one starring Laurence Olivier, one Al Pacino. Together, he and Darlene watched them. He paused at the ghost scene and told her what Gatekeeper had said. She burrowed into his hug and rested her head on his chest. The flannel of his shirt warmed her cheek. His heartbeat was faint, barely audible. Swear an oath, she said, you’ll tell me if you have that nightmare. Of all Jake’s knockouts, the 19th was the closest to following protocol to the letter. There were no last minute stays. Middle aged and white, the knockout walked his final steps with dignity and, when asked if he had any final words, recited Psalm 23. The chemistry worked as designed: swift and painless. At the cabin, Jake built a fire in the fireplace and stretched out on his folk’s easy chair. He stared into the fire. He felt safe inside the cocoon of the fire’s heat. He smiled at the flames. They smiled back. He wished the twins’ cloud creatures would appear. Someday he would have grandchildren and he and Darlene would bring them to the cabin and they would lie on their backs in the clearing and look up and see creatures in the clouds during the day, creatures in the stars at night, and faces, and other things wondrous beyond the imagination. He thought he saw a dragon in the flames. That made sense. Dragons breathed fire. Godzilla breathed fire. It looked at him, exhaling balls of flame. A gust of wind blew open the cabin door, scattering embers throughout the room. Jake cursed himself for not latching it properly. Humidity had misaligned the door and it was necessary to pull up on the doorknob for the latch to catch. It was a standing joke between him and Darlene, one of many about maintenance and repairs around the cabin. Painting the scorch marks on the ceiling was another. Next time was his reply whenever she asked him to fix this or paint that. He never did and she never nagged because neither wanted to find something new to tease each other about. 84
Jake stood. His head spun. He steadied himself on the back of the chair and inched his way to the redwood picnic table where they shared their meals, then to the bookcase beneath the window. The snow in Darlene’s Whitescapes was red, lava spewing from a volcano. He reached out to the door. It flapped in the wind like a curtain in a hurricane. He hugged it into submission and pushed it closed with the weight of his body. He lifted the doorknob and felt the latch click, then pulled back to make sure it was secure. Fire filled the cabin. Tendrils of flame advanced toward him. Were they real? How could they be? He looked for faces, but there were none. There were always faces, in the clouds, the stars, the flames. He looked again. Was that Maz? Gatekeeper? Ms. Trash Talker? His 19 knockouts? Eddie Merkman? The heat seared the vision from his eyes. Cold air would clear his mind, restore his sight. He struggled to open the door, but the wood had swollen. Fingers of flames danced closer, waving like people in a receiving line beckoning him. Jake slid along the wall to the window. The flames moved with him. He struggled to open the window, forgetting he had nailed it shut for the season. He grabbed a book off the shelf, the heaviest he could find. Santella’s Fifty Places to Fly-Fish Before You Die, a Christmas gift from Darlene. The corners of its pages had begun to brown and curl. The flames reached out to embrace him. With the book, he punched at the windowpane, shattering it. The flames whooshed by him into the cold night air, spiraling toward the stars, toward the constellations, igniting the branches overhanging the cabin. He tumbled on to the porch. Fire spread to the surrounding trees, to the trees beyond, speeding up the side of the mountain. The walls of the cabin collapsed, with them the roof. Fire consumed the redwood picnic table, the easy chair, the bookcase, the books, Darlene’s Whitescapes. Fire scorched the fieldstone and melted the wrought iron cooking rods. Fire blackened the earth and dissolved snowdrifts into a flood. Fire advanced on Jake, encircled him like mourners around an open grave. In the flames, Jake saw a face, one face, familiar, angry, mocking him, scowling, jaws open ready to consume him. Not Maz. Not Gatekeeper. Not Darlene or the twins. Not Frankie Roberts or any of the other knockouts. Not Eddie Merkman. A familiar face as if the flames were but a mirror. Yet, there was no panic in this face. No fear of burning to death in its bloodshot eyes. Just anger. Inconsolable anger.
MARIA ELENA B. MAHLER Ugly Red Shoes Sitting on her future wedding bed, Elisa opens the package that was left that morning on her front porch. She was expecting it. She holds the package, covered with brown paper, on her knees. In the middle of the unwrapping she stops to read the label where her name had been written, and holds it carefully by the edges with her long fingers. She can’t stop the rising corners of her mouth when she sees her name written with a forced cursive handwriting from her left-handed mother—Elisa can tell she made an extra effort to make the package look tidy. Everything is backwards for her mother, even the fact she lives upside-down on the other side of the world. Michael, Elisa’s future husband, decided to make a slideshow to memorialize their beginnings, how their paths crossed, and how they serendipitously fell in love. Their wedding is scheduled in less than two months, on a beach in Mendocino, and his slideshow is going to be part of the reception. Elisa avoids lifting the lid of the old cardboard-box that her mother had sent her. She frowns as she slides her hand over the aged rectangular box. It is bright green with red and white diamonds dancing up and down, forming a serpentine pattern all around. She takes a deep breath; not sure what moment of the past will surface printed on a black and white or colored paper. Elisa hesitates for a second and wonders if her mother had the bad taste to send her pictures of her first wedding. With both hands Elisa slowly lifts the lid of the green box, reaches inside and grabs the stack of photographs. A part of her wishes she will find something other than photos. She can’t help but hope she will find a small paper or a tiny, insignificant note from her mother with a word or two. Anything spelled out on a piece of paper, even if it reflected a minimal degree of personal interest would suffice. But at the core of her heart she knows no note would be hiding there to surprise her. Gliding her unfocused eyes over the black and white pictures from her toddler years, Elisa suddenly comes across her favorite and most hated childhood photo. There it was in full undying Kodachrome. She grabs the picture and stares closely at the print. She’d memorized every detail years ago. She always felt a glowing warmth inside turn into a blush when she saw herself in that photograph. She was three or four years old. There is no date showing on the front or back. She thinks it must have been around 1971 or ‘72. In the picture, she’s standing in front of the Calle-Calle River that flows behind her parent’s house. She’s wearing a baby blue jumper and stockings with a baby blue cardigan. Her round baby-face is smiling and her eyes are squinting in the sun. The day looks uncharacteristically warm and the sky matches her angelic outfit. Even her reddish-blond, curly hair looks as tame as the day. It’s a 86
picture-perfect Kodak moment except for one thing. There is only one thing ruining Elisa’s favorite photograph—her red shoes. They were bright red, cut like a boy’s shoe and tied around her ankles. Elisa has never understood how it was possible that this beautiful little angel could be condemned to wear shoes from hell. Many times in the past Elisa had asked her mother about those red ugly shoes. She couldn’t understand how her mother could have dressed her so neatly and with such perfect coordination and then ruin the whole look with a pair of rotten maraschinos. Elisa is the first to admit she is a tad overly attached to the sensibilities of proper dress, as she is a fashion designer. Her mother usually ignored the question, changed the subject, or found some dirty socks needing to be washed and left the room. Elisa knows her mother is as slippery as the fish she buys every weekend at the market by the river. But, she is also a woman of good and refined taste, which is why Elisa couldn’t drop her obsession with the shoes. Still, her inquisition has never been answered satisfactorily until her last trip to visit her family the year before. Elisa looks at the picture again closely. Gosh, they are ugly! They look like giant red orthopedic shoes. The previous winter Elisa had gone alone to visit her parents. Michael agreed it was better to wait and go together when they could legally share the same bed. If not, they risked Michael being sent to sleep in a tent by the river. She could picture him floating into the bay by dawn. Elisa hasn’t forgotten the year her father didn’t speak to her because she was marrying a foreigner. Only someone from the South of Chile could understand her family and the rules dictated by a society more strict than General Pinochet. Whenever Elisa visits, she always goes through her memories, now encapsulated amongst the mothballs inside a wooden armoire in her bedroom. It used to be filled with her clothes and shoes. Now, it contains boxes with drawings of every dress, hat, and shoes she designed in school; a collection of rocks and shells she picked from the sea; and a row of photo albums dated since she was born. With her head stuck inside the armoire, Elisa stumbled into the picture of the light blue dress and red shoes and almost unconsciously ran down the stairs to the kitchen to ask her mother about it. Elisa’s mother let pieces of onionskin drop into the sink like sacrificed flower petals. She was preparing a lamb stew. “Mamá, look!” Elisa interrupted her while holding the photograph between her mother’s face and the next onion. “I love this picture, but why would you dress me so cute in angelic baby blue and then ruin me with those red ugly shoes?” It was already not a good day for Elisa’s mother. The maid hadn’t shown up and didn’t even have the courtesy to call or send someone with a message to say she could not work that day. Elisa’s mother was not 87
cutout for the kitchen. She preferred gardening or even better, cleaning. It was her way of tidying up whatever was not perfect in her life or sweeping under the carpet those dark monsters she couldn’t confront. “A therapist can’t help me. What do they know?” she would respond whenever Elisa suggested the idea of talking with a professional. By the time Elisa came downstairs to interrogate her, her mother’s nervous system was as raw as the lamb lying on the kitchen countertop. She purposely dropped the knife and onions, creating a loud noise in the stainless-steel sink. Elisa stood back, aware she had stepped into something deeper than lamb stew. Her mother turned around and faced her with hands on her hips. Elisa looked below her mother’s firm breasts, afraid she might otherwise encounter a couple of blue lightning bolts. “Maria Elisa,” calling her daughter by her full name as she did when Elisa was insolent or in trouble. “Aren’t you insistent! What did you want me to do? I had no choice!” Elisa saw a couple of drops of water falling from her mother’s face. She was uncertain if it was sweat, tears, or from the onion. “Do you really want to know why I made you wear those red shoes?” Elisa nodded. Her eyes were round, filled with intrigue and surprise. She could hardly wait for the truth that so long had evaded her. Her mother’s hands dropped from her waist. “Let’s sit for a minute and drink a máte tea.” She said exhaling a long breath. “I’ll turn the water on. Can you get the gourds and straws?” After getting all the implements ready for their tea and putting the lamb to cook, both women sat at the round table in the corner of the kitchen. Elisa stared at her mother. She suddenly looked old as she held her face, which had almost disappeared behind her long, white hair. The only sound in the kitchen came from the pressure cooker. The steam from the pot fogged the windows and for a while they forgot it was pouring outside. “You were three in that picture,” Elisa’s mother went on. “It was not an easy time for us. I was twenty-three at the most, and pregnant . . . You know how I always liked to dress you with the best? All of you. In those days we bought your shoes in Calpany. Do you remember that shoe store on Picarte Street, next to the bank, close to the plaza? . . . You probably don’t. It closed again. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. Calpany made the best shoes in the country. They always made them out of leather and they had great support around the ankles. When Allende took over the country, he also took over Calpany, like many other factories during his regime. Calpany was forced to change their production . . . Things weren’t easy for your dad and me. We were allowed only one pair of shoes per child, per year. You were growing so fast . . .” Elisa’s mother paused as her voice began to crack. She took her eyes away from her tea and tenderly looked at her daughter. Elisa returned a soft smile. 88
“Did you know your father’s lips used to swell like a couple bananas?” She burst into a nervous laugh. “No. Why?” “Your dad was managing the Hoffman factory. You remember the roasted barley place, right? The people working for the union were putting a lot of pressure on him. The workers were becoming more subversive every day and their threats were making your father so stressed that his lips would swell up every morning as soon as he got up from bed to get ready for work . . . Your poor dad! The workers at the factory had nothing to lose. The government supported them. People who had a job of position, like your father, who was a manager, were seen as the enemy. The doctor said it was pure nerves from so much tension that his body began producing too much histamine, which caused your dad’s lips to swell. After work, when he came home, the banana lips were gone. They vanished. He joked with you that the monkeys at home ate the bananas!” Elisa’s mother took a break to sip her tea while she nervously laughed again. Then she continued, “The doctor said that your father needed to learn how to relax. That was funny. Don’t you think? How could he? Your poor father was so young. He was in charge of a hundred workers, all supporting Allende, and ready to lynch us.” Elisa has vague memories of those years. Like when she was in kindergarten and was the teacher’s helper. She wasn’t selected because she was the tallest in her class but because of her nature to be overly helpful. When it was time for a potty-break, Elisa would stand at the bathroom door and cut one little square of stiff toilet paper for each child. “Use it sparingly,” she would warn her classmates as she was told at home. “We are in times of scarcity.” During those years anything extra could only be obtained through the black market. If one family needed more milk than what they were assigned per week, they would have to find someone who didn’t like milk and trade a milk stamp for something else, like a tin of coffee or lentils. Shhhh with the index finger crossed over the lips was the family crest in Elisa’s home. They believed it was not a good idea to make too much noise, especially since they were not communists. The nights were under curfew and no one dared to defy Cinderella’s midnight siren— afraid of disappearing for trying. Elisa’s father was concerned with the worker’s protests at the factory and grew more anxious about the riots at the university where he went at night to complete his business degree. Mostly, however, he was worried about his family being on the list. The communists had a list for everything. A list of printmakers they were going to shut down; a list of farmland they were going to take over from working settlers and to hand over to the poor; a list of people who did not sympathize with Allende and were going to be eliminated. Elisa’s whole family was on a list, but her father would grow banana lips before he would say anything to worry his pregnant wife. He knew their turn was 89
approaching fast. The tension at the university made Elisa’s father quit school, afraid a stray bullet would leave his wife a widow with three small children. The country was slowly eating itself. Every night at midnight, Elisa’s mother joined thousands of women across the country to bang empty pots in protest, behind the safety of closed shutters inside their homes. Elisa’s father saw only one way out—Bolivia. “Mamá, what happened then? I would have loved to have lived in Bolivia.” “Well, as I told you, your father quit going to the university. It was a madhouse. In class, no one dared to sit in the line of fire near a window —afraid they might be shot. Many times he came back early with red eyes because of a tear-bomb or because the road to the campus was barricaded with burning tires. We were all ready and almost packed to leave for Bolivia. Everything was moving forward and then we received the letter that changed the plan of our future. The government denied you father’s application to leave because he didn’t have a degree. . . and we did not have the money to move and start over. At that time the inflation was more than seven hundred percent.” “So, what happened? What did you do?” “Nothing. We could do nothing. At that point we were only concerned with surviving . . . And, off course, getting you good shoes.” Elisa’s mother burst into a mixture of tears and laughter. “You see, Calpany was ordered to make only black and brown shoes. They were forced to make them out of low-cost, synthetic or canvas material. I was not going to let your little feet sweat and grow fungus inside a cheap shoe. I had my connections within the black market. Through them I was able to get you all-leather Calpany shoes with ankle support!” The old woman’s face became radiant with pride and an accomplished smile. “In the black market, red shoes were all we could get in your size.” Elisa, still holding the photo of her standing by the Calle-Calle River in her baby blue dress and the red shoes, grabs the familiar green box sitting on her night table. She gently places her special photograph inside. She closes the lid to the shoebox and kisses the word Calpany, imprinted in white letters on the side.
KRISTINA MARTINO Task I. Attenuate the starkness of space. Apart from my feelings, I am fine. My flesh is emphatically formed, unBleeding from its unbroken bones, unFleeting in its seeming to insist On existing. This is the poem Of a child entrenched in a poem Not meant for a child. It reduces Its occupant like a hospital Room, like a foot on the ladder’s first Rung. No longer is there permanent Ground. This is not to say I am gone, Rather, I am ungathered: a gimp, Unforgiving friction makes my feet Wobbly and unpleated in their path. This poem is too plainspoken, pursed, And overtly pedestrian. Who Pleads for rarer space within a space Of rustic, cubic circonic street lamps And neon lights? It’s just a normal Walk, an inertia. God, I want objects! I want tenser things to see, to appease The unhappy hand with puppets with Hyper-real eyes. I could go on And on, intermittently. Mind you, It’s mostly middling, the emotion. I’ve meddled with the mauve undertones, Painted red as if it were a rainy day 91
And it means more against the gutted grey. The rest isnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t so garish, the guardRails and the water gallonsâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;I can Hang on, en-arked, enacting an act Of ekphrastic finery: an old Picture, attic-bound and dust-bluish, Is appointed a prop. Point to it, Its landscape and lavender lady. Wipe the patina; the hand is made Hazel and improper, the dryness Has a pulse and it pokes and it pokes Unapologetic II. Hyperbolic filth, pan-handled and epidemic, Hissing if it could hiss, a riveting spit On the skin, how it coaxes you, all-consuming, Splintering the bloodstream, into another Being, one-minded and amiss. Briskly, you exist For it, the antique dust and its acridity, The resounding dry touch to touch, four fingerTips tipped, four finger prints masked With a blackened mask of ash. The wipe Wakes you up like a hammering or a hiccup, Cups you into a new character. The task Now is to skedaddle dirt, to counter, To cleanse. Amend: the portrait is now Overcast, gaudily gloved with a new layer Of unlayering. Now, the task is to make The hand whole again. You want it to unpaint And unfeel. You want it watered And unheckled. You want it healed.
JOAN MAZZA “Ask if your heart is healthy enough for sex.” —ad for Viagra Addressed to men, warning of the physical demands of vigorous thrusting, tempo they recall from youth and want restored. Women they’re partnered with may feel nostalgic too, but know their interior walls have thinned and dried, thrusts more like painful pokes, evidence of the changes they didn’t think would happen to them. Wasn’t love always painful? But what relief to know you no longer need to shave your legs or wear pointy high heels. You’ve given up the effort to win a man’s attention or support. Sex once made you blind and mute, running toward any open arms. You’ve recovered. You can drive yourself anywhere; you’re not driven, not chicken. With reasons to cross the road, you look both ways. As for sex— your heart can’t take it.
JOAN MAZZA Lost Craft Ghazal Corporations manufacture goods, not crafts and we no longer make a daily art of crafts. Once we created baskets, waterproof, strong, with patterns of contrasts, competing in that craft. On looms we wove our fabrics, shot shuttles of hand-spun threads. A statement of our love of craft. Chickens in the yard, a cow to graze, for eggs and meat and milk. Slow food as craft. We whittled and carved, made flutes and fiddles, gathered for music sung in harmony. A craft. Fires layered carefully in stones and stoves, kindling, branches, logsâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; designed by craft. Coopers, masons, glassblowers, blacksmiths, lace makers, weavers, millinersâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; a sacred club of crafters. No added chemicals, emulsifiers, texturizers, food coloring, like those in cheeses made by Kraft. Hooped vinegar for pickling vegetables, all grown in gardens, shared with families. Survival as craft.
MARTY MCCONNELL brethren Soon as I start to lose it, mind shot and not coming back, body flat and never again rising, give me over to the water, not to vials, tubes, bland hallway wandering or a single pinked room. I knew a man once sure he would die young like his father and all his paternal uncles, cholesterol, heart stop, gone in their forties. Which to me seemed like a kind of forever, being seventeen. Anticipating death, he hitched to a girl in junior high and hung on. Strange, I think I may be the only other girl he ever kissed before their divorce — once, on my family’s red loveseat. No luck. We shivered like siblings and laughed over the last half of Monty Python’s Holy Grail which we had by heart anyway. I’d forgotten until just now, thinking of that, how close we were. What a good friend he was to cover for me when I was dating our friend unwelcome in my parents’ home, how I had this crew of boys around me then as I lurched out of adolescence — Steve, and Dan, and Patrick who offered to kill for me even as he fumbled my heart like the slippery gilled thing it was, and the other boys, Tom and Mick and the Tonys and Chuck, boys I’d grown up with and to whom I was only sort of a girl, the sort you could talk about real girls in front of or with, whose allegiance was to the talk and not the girls 95
discussed, who’d watch Kentucky Fried Movie and everything starring Steven Seagal on repeat, boys who didn’t think twice about playing Full Metal Jacket on VHS the first week my boyfriend was in boot camp with the Marines and the first Gulf War declared and when I fled the room to cry said What? He’s our friend too because I wasn’t a girl exactly, I was one of them, and didn’t recognize it for the gift it was, to move among men who weren’t men yet, I who never had a brother but had this kin, these becoming-men, all of us hurtling forward, small planets, Saturns acquiring rings, nobody dying, all the wind in our bodies seeming the same, seeming like it would carry us forever, anywhere we wanted to go.
MARTY MCCONNELL after, after I showed my grief to the trees and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the sun and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the bay, to the shoals and the reef, the driftwood and gnats and abandoned crab shells and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the woodshed, to the axe, to the firewood chopped under the sun, to the kindling and the needles and the compost and the fire and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the lavender farm, to the tractor, to the boy cutting something standing out in the field, to the red hides of horses, to the fenceposts, to the ditches at the roadside and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the meteors, the spit fingernail moon, the belt of some bright, far cluster called Orion and it stayed my grief. I showed my grief to the bottom of a claw-foot bathtub and did not drown. I showed my grief to my grief and sleep came. Sleep.
KATHERINE MCCORMICK Red Rock Sifting through a box, I find it. Small, unattractive, plain. Stone in hand, I close my eyes and I am flying, spinning back and back. Red sky, red earth, red blood on my knees. Sweet ponderosa fills my nose, and the dusty path keeps time beneath me. Black Hopi gods perch, wings spread, meditating in the sun, ancient relics at the top of the world. The trail is steep, narrow, slow. Foolish, I scurry, tumble in my haste past plodding mules and slide. Russet earth flashes past, roots crumble in my hands. Women scream, men shout, and I know I’ll soon be flying with the gods, through the wonder carved by Water’s ceaseless hands. Lightning fast, he hooks my backpack, wizened hands, strong and sure. The guide pulls me, stops me – holds death at bay, and I still. I rise and stare at the canyon, nooked and crannied, place of wonder. Look at my hands, cut and raw, raise my arms to the orange abyss and scream until it hurts. At the top, on the edge looking out my sister hands me the reddish stone. Grabs me hard, You didn’t die, and we sit. Sun sets, slow and showy over copper cliffs fading. I shake myself, shrug away that day, our trip, the ponderosas and the sun. But stone in hand, I can’t forget.
BRUCE MCRAE Waiting For A Letter Dear X, your letters arrive infrequently. They come by golden barge and carrier pigeon. They’re carried by the winds out of the Orient, on scented updrafts and determined thermals. How many lines they’ve crossed are beyond reckoning. In each letter you hint and wheedle around subjects. You say you’ll be visiting soon, departure imminent. But the unexpected happens, events undermining plans and your limited finances dwindling. Here it’s raining or snowing heavily or summery. I may correspond and describe such matters. I could enclose illustrations, illuminating minor details. I’d be telling you of the middle ages and their aftermath, that this is this and that is that. More or less. But sadly, I’ve no anecdotes to relate from World’s Edge. Our postman was waylaid for want of a nail. He’s gone off-trail. AWOL. M.I.A. Regardless, we’re all good here and the moon is high. If you do travel this way you should come by water. Travel hopefully. Journey safely. Never arrive.
BRUCE MCRAE In The Beginning And the Lord said let there be something bright so I may see the mess I’m making. Let there be funny animals: aardvarks, giraffes, the platypus; Christ knows I could use a laugh after all this kerfuffle. And the Lord said who in the hell am I talking to if not My Wondrous Self? Let there be ears and an oddly shaped head to pin them, and something like a neck and a body it may perch upon. Oh, and spindly legs – I like to see them running and falling. The dawn of creation… And having invented man the Lord said that for every man there ought to be a woman. And He called this woman Eve and He fed her with apples.
MARGARITA MEKLINA The Eighth Day of Hanukkah “Tonight's the very first night of Hanukkah and Abigail wants you to be present when she lights the candles.” Saeed, in his salmon-colored tshirt with a star-shaped, sharp-edged hole near one armpit, blocked the door. Nina nodded. She'd torn the hole years ago, when he'd prevented her from giving water to their sick toddler. In his native Morocco, they'd wait until the vomiting vanished. In her Motherland, they'd heal children with as many liquids as possible – water and chicken bouillon and fish oil and gooseberry compote – wrap them in blankets and seal the winter windows with cotton balls and tape from the draft. Saeed was impenetrable and as huge as a boulder, always with a plate of a lamb tagine in his hand, so she, overwhelmed by her powerlessness, had just dumped a cup of water on him and shaken him. Now she held a tea cup again, but this time with vodka. “It's crucial for Abigail.” Stocky, meaty, with messy gray hair, imposing, he repeated his words, and she stepped back so that he couldn't smell what she was drinking at seven a.m. His family, Jewish by origin, had split into Muslims and Jews a thousand years ago, and even though he himself was a Muslim, he always displayed a menorah at the counter in his Mount Zagora, Mediterranean Eatery and announced to customers that he still cherished his heritage. “Today I need to be present,” Nina decided, driving home with the girls and deliberately not glancing at grocery stores. Her older daughter, a third-grader, had developed some kind of red rash and now sat next to Nina in their beat-up pickup truck reading a Kindle, immersed in digital words, her hair wrapped around her finger, which, in turn, was in her mouth. The younger one, Anya, had just turned two and until half a year ago wore braces to fix her hip dysplasia. Nina still cringed, remembering the pointy, stiff Pavlik harness plastered against her torso and breast and a constant desire to give up breastfeeding and get lost in a bottle. But alcohol would get into the milk. Today she had to be present so she steered the truck as far away from their undignified, dingy East Oakland FoodMaxx as she could, but suddenly ran into an unexpected speed bump. And then again. Apparently, she'd turned off International too early and inadvertently approached the place she'd been trying to avoid. “I'd better buy some just in case.” Unbuckling the kids, bagging the bottles. Waking up only the next morning after the evening of drinking, ashamed. The second day of Hanukkah, Saeed brought the kids to her work and went straight to Mount Zagora where he stayed well after midnight, until the last lonely, greasy, grouchy guest left. “Doesn't Hanukkah involve bread and wine?” – Nina vaguely remembered the gatherings they had had in Russia and asked Abigail to help her find kosher wine on 101
a grocery shelf. At home, she showed her daughter how to strike a match to keep sparks from landing on her skirt – strike it away from yourself. “Your Granddad taught me this. He read you Pushkin's fairy tales when you were five.” Abigail's face could not get any redder because of her allergies, but Nina noticed the tears. “Did I say something wrong?” “Anya stole my secret box and destroyed the leaves I picked once with Grandfather. Now there's only dry pieces, small brown bits – that’s all that’s left.” Nina's father – Abigail's Granddad – had had a heart attack on a bus on his 60th birthday. (The driver performing CPR. A straight line on a cardiogram she was given later.) Now she had to finish her drink very fast. (One gulp, then another one. His grave, wet grass, lumps of earth, earth slowly rising to cover the coffin.) That night she again failed to light the candles. On the third day of Hanukkah she fell asleep after drinking again, and it turned out that although the children lit the candles by themselves, they did not burn the house down, as Saeed expected. “Abigail cried because you weren't with them on such a significant day,” he noted sternly. “I'll do my best this evening,” Nina answered honestly, and Abigail's face brightened. The pale face of a zombie with red spots under her eyes. A walking mummy. A marble raccoon. “Who's been beating you up?” – her classmates would ask. Nina wondered if Abigail's allergies had gotten worse because she hadn’t joined her daughters for the Hanukkah ceremony. She took a vacuum cleaner and aimed the hose at the corner, hunting for dust. There was a bottle labeled “Electricity” behind the fridge. “I can't miss the lighting today, I simply can't miss it,” she swore to herself, then wondered what this bluish “electricity vodka” tasted like. Yesterday she'd wanted to know more about that Straw-berRita from Bud Light. And the day before, – if Chilean wines were better than Argentinean ones. “Stop it,” she ordered herself. “Tonight you must be present.” She flipped through the booklet to the description of the Havdalah night, which fell this year on the fourth night of Hanukkah. Made sure there were plenty of matches lying around. Inspected the chipped paint on a menorah, which practical, “no-nonsense” Saeed used to wash in the dishwasher, alongside newly-purchased plates for his restaurant. Read that this night was meant to define the boundaries between the sacred and the everyday. Thanked G-d, “who granted her life, sustained her and enabled her to reach this occasion.” Frequently, when drunk, she thought she wouldn't wake up. Ashamed again, she reached the next morning, having skipped the Havdalah. In the same way, she missed the following three nights. On the eighth day of Hanukkah she made an elaborate dinner for the kids, putting her bottle away, but at the last moment, when Abigail sat little Anya in a high chair with a cookie and apple juice and was ready to open the booklet with the blessings, she couldn’t restrain herself and drank up everything. But she still managed to wake up at midnight and get out of 102
bed. The girls, naked, barely covered by a blanket, lay next to each other with their matching plush pups. One by one, she lit all eight candles for them, hesitating to wake them up so late at night to behold the Hanukkah miracle. Learned from Abigail's booklet that ages ago unadulterated, undefiled olive oil with the seal of high priest had been needed for the menorah in the Temple, but only one flask was located with just enough oil for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight whole days. Turned the green flask of JĂ¤germeister upside down to get at the last drops and sardonically smiled: her own personal miracle, despite the Hanukkah, had not taken place. For years her regular dose of happiness was an entire 750 ml bottle of liquid. Never less. Often more. Her feverish festive mood â&#x20AC;&#x201C; infused by alcohol â&#x20AC;&#x201C; could not stretch for eight days like the magical olive oil found by the Maccabees because she could never make her flask last more than one evening.
WILLIAM MORRIS High and Mighty We heard Dad’s Oldsmobile humming down the street. Pat was on the landing, lost in deep tissue stretching, and I had almost finished another Lego landscape. Dinner was on the table, and Mom was reading what she called a trash-novel in the living room. How I know exactly where we were is that’s exactly where we always were. The day of the week didn’t matter. “Hey girls,” Dad said. We followed him to the kitchen. “You won’t believe the new product we’re working on, Jo,” he said. Dad started talking about work at the dinner table. Dinner was supposed to be about family. What did we learn at school, did any relatives call, etc. But this time Mom didn’t stop him. “What is it, what is it?” I said. I was always asking him about new products, even though they were along the lines of paper towels with added layers of absorbency and adhesive wall-hooks guaranteed not to remove paint. Eventually, though, he’d be designing jetpacks and hover boards, or at least the things directly preceding jetpacks and hover boards. “They already have a name for it: Black Magic.” “What is it?” “It’s a reverse coffee creamer. It’ll make weak or bland coffee taste strong and bold!” He sounded so proud. “Well that’s great,” Mom said to her fork. “Can I have some coffee?” Pat said. “No caffeine,” Mom said. “They’ve made me manager on this project. It could be my chance to make a step up. Rollins headed that non-toxic carpet cleaner project, and look where he is.” “Who’s Rollins?” I said. “Eat your potatoes,” Mom said, even though I had already finished my potatoes. Pat had scraped hers onto my plate. After dinner, in my room, she would thank me for taking the potatoes without complaint. “Too many carbs,” she said. “Do you even drink coffee?” I said. “Sure.” “When?” “It’s a secret.” She was nine, and I knew for a fact she hadn’t ever had coffee, but I gave it to her, just like the potatoes. 104
Pat was jogging in place, watching me build houses on the floor. Or maybe she wasn’t watching me, but she was in my room and so it felt like she was. “Do you have to do that?” I said. “Yes. Exercise is good for depression,” she said. I was getting bigger, like fatter, because I didn’t have the lungs to play outside with the other kids, and our school excused gym if you were in the gifted program; Pat was turning sneakier by the day, finding new ways to get expensive organic foods in the house, and learning new exercises from the gym credit she was taking in addition to her gifted class; and Mom was talking less and less, sleeping longer, barely waking up in time to drive us to school an hour before the doors unlocked, so Pat could do her class per a special arrangement. Black Magic demanded full attention from that day on. Dad didn’t want to talk about anything but work. He dominated the dinner table, not even leaving room for Mom to talk about how Aunt Linda was having another baby and it would be as ugly as the last. We would all laugh if she said that, because we would have to. I’d have to laugh because it was true and I knew it. Pat would laugh because she was insecure about her body and wondered if she’d been born with the ugly genes Aunt Linda was passing on, indiscriminately, too. And Dad would laugh because I think he was scared as hell of Mom. But that’s not how it was anymore. Dad would tell us about the pros and cons of potassium chloride versus potassium benzoate. Mom sometimes sighed, and sometimes tried to build a pyramid of peas on her plate, which was cool. Still, whenever I asked a question or Pat tried something sneaky, she’d be ready to shoot us a glare and tell us no. And what could we do about it, other than sink into our little distractions? I had Legos and science fiction novels from the library where Mom had recently started working part-time. I liked to build vast landscapes with forests and lakes of green and blue plastic, and then disrupt the serenity with an alien rocket. I’d make this huge scene in my head and work at it for days. The trouble was that I wanted it to be realistic, so it looked like the aliens had actually landed in the middle of the forest, crushing everything in their way. So I would have to build the entire landscape, rocket-free, first. To make this truly authentic, it was crucial to pretend I didn’t know the rocket would be landing—that way I wouldn’t be prejudiced toward a certain piece of land, leaving it slightly barren so it would be an easier landing space. The natives never anticipated colonization—otherwise, why bother? Then it was a matter of removing the trees from that area and, in their place, building little patches of debris out of brown plastic, surrounding the towering rocket. “Jo, watch out!” Pat said. She came flying into my room, all legs and hair. My most recent creation was a desolate cityscape—something I hadn’t tried before, with 105
half a dozen saucer-shaped UFOs scattered throughout. I was going to use it as a prediction of interstellar battle for my special history class: War and Destruction. Some were atop crumbling buildings, others rested in the streets, crushing abandoned vehicles. Pat’s trajectory sent her whirring through the nightlife sector, where the buildings were small but crowded, and tumbling knees-first into a decrepit skyscraper. There was blood and rubble everywhere. Pat said: “Ow!” “You ruined my invasion!” I said. “I’m bleeding,” she said. At the hospital, the doctor used a small set of tweezers to remove one of my Little Green Men from Pat’s heel. He also applied peroxide to her knees and elbows and bandaged her wounds. Then he asked me how I was feeling and I said I was still feeling dizzy but I didn’t think I would faint again. She was pissed at me the whole ride home. Pissed! At me! As if I had asked her to display her newest interpretive leaping move while residents hid in their homes, too terrified even to evacuate. “We’ve started the taste-testing process,” is what Dad said when we got home. And I said: “Um Dad, we just got home from the hospital.” “The hospital?” “One of Jo’s stupid Legos got stuck in my foot. Then she passed out.” “When there is an alien attack and you are evaporated by their lasers, then you will know real pain.” “Shut the hell up and help me make dinner,” Mom said. Over macaroni and cheese, Dad told us how he was still getting used to drinking coffee. “I’m a tea drinker myself, you know, girls. I love a good cup of chamomile after a long day. And it’s not a rare thing that when people offer me coffee and I reject, they say: Good, you’ve got enough energy as it is, you don’t need caffeine, Hank.” “That is so true,” Mom said, laughing. I don’t know if I’d ever heard her laugh before. “Do I have enough energy as it is?” Pat said. “Eat your dinner,” Mom said, eyes cutting straight through Pat, forcing the pasta into her whiney little mouth. Macaroni and cheese is all carbs and I felt like this was ample payback for her dumping mashed potatoes on my plate once a week. Not to mention making me wake up early and sit in the hall while she did her advanced poetry class five days a week. Maybe the pasta would weigh her down and she wouldn’t be able to get up in time to wake Mom tomorrow morning. Then I would get a full night’s rest. “But as Project Manager, it’s important that I take part in the tastetesting process. How will I know what kind of product we’re putting out 106
if I don’t work hands on? We’re being diligent here. And ceaseless. Diligently and ceaselessly, we will get this puppy worked out.” “Can we get a puppy?” Pat asked. “Jo’s allergic.” “I am?” “But it won’t be easy. There’s a learning curve to anything like this. We’re still working out the kinks –” At which point Mom laughed again, I don’t know why. “—Not to mention I’m still getting used to the taste. So bitter.” Pat was passed out on the couch right after dinner, while Dad was still buzzing from his caffeine high, and I was in my room trying to reconcile some of the damages Pat had caused. Bedtime came and I lay there, listening to the thumping on the wall between my parents’ room and mine. A few nights later, I’d realize they were having sex, which I had a vague understanding of at eleven years old. Most nights over the next few months, Dad got home late. Mom stopped cooking dinner before he got home, and alternated between watching television and reading. She did this with an almost methodical degree of randomness. She would be over halfway through watching a competition show about models on a remote island, then switch to reading Moby-Dick, which was not one of her trash-novels. “Imagine what you could do with that money, Jo,” she said while I labored up the stairs with a bag of chips. Somebody had just won a big sum on one of those shows, and she was leaning in close to the TV, like she thought maybe she could fall in and steal the money or something. This was the period where Black Magic talk became most prolific. After those months of diligent and ceaseless work, the guys in the lab had finally concocted a recipe that achieved like their goal-taste. We went to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate, and Dad had a beer. “Listen,” he said. “I love what I do. You girls know that, right?” We nodded. I imagined him as a space-commander on an intergalactic mission, giving his crew the pep talk they needed to push on. This was a time for high seriousness. None of those childish games like around the table at home. The Japanese were known for their seriousness. They would prefer death to dishonor in a time of war. “I get to help make things better. Little things. But still, it’s all adding up. It’s like how a carpenter builds stairs: one at a time. Every little thing counts. I guess what I’m trying to get at is, you girls should do what you want in life. If it’s something big, great! But if it’s simpler, more modest, that’s fine too. Everyone’s always talking about shooting for the stars. And I think that’s good and well. Jo, you’re probably interested in literally shooting for the stars, what with the Legos and rockets. But you can do whatever you want. By saying ‘shoot for the stars,’ I think people are really limiting their children. Because, what if you wanted to repair antique furniture? There’s no celebrity in that, do 107
you see what I mean? You can’t get famous doing that. But it’s still a good profession that makes people happy.” And before I found out it was too expensive to send people into space anymore, I did want to shoot for the stars. Mom rolled her eyes. I was the only one to see it, and I only saw it because, while Dad was talking, I looked over at her like, Mom, are you hearing this? Dad is being motivational. He is drunk, isn’t he? She was in the middle of rolling her eyes like, oh jeeze, here we go. He’s getting all sentimental. This is what we live with now? But she saw the look I gave her and knew what I meant, so Mom stopped rolling her eyes like Dad was being a handful. And instead she rolled her eyes like, this is my husband you’re talking about, sure he’s exuberant at times but what can I say? I love the man. And so do you. And with the extra money he is making right now, who knows, maybe we’ll be able to afford a vacation this summer. Then she looked away like, I am not ready to have a talk with you about men and women, Jo, you’re only eleven. And I looked away like, Mom, I was just asking if he was drunk. But she must have been saying something like that with her eyes because, later that night, when Pat was passed out on the couch, I heard them talking through the wall. “This is just great, Hank,” Mom said, and she wasn’t sounding sarcastic, even though she was using the same words she would use if she were. “Do you think maybe it’s time to get rid of that car now?” “The Oldsmobile?” Dad said. “You can hear it coming a mile away. That rattling’s a huge pain, and it’s all the neighbors talk about. We could afford a new car.” “Who’s talking about it?” “People talk, I think.” “If we get a new car, what kind of message would that send to the neighbors? Do we really want to flaunt our good fortune? Or worse, what kind of message would it send to the girls? We would be telling them that they should flaunt their good fortune, and we don’t want the neighborhood kids thinking our girls are better than them, even if they are.” “Well, it’s still great.” “Besides, I love that car.” “And I love you.” “And our girls really are better.” “I know, Hank.” “I mean, they work so hard and take those special classes.” “We raised them right.” “That’s all a parent can hope for, I guess.” “Well I think maybe a parent can hope for a good career and a nice marriage and all, too,” she said. “A sense of self-fulfillment separate from the act of parenting.” 108
“And we have that, right?” “Sure, Hank.” Which was followed by another one of those thumping matches. This time, though, they both came out of the bedroom after the thumping had stopped. In their robes, Mom and Dad floated past my room and descended the stairs. I crept after them because if everyone was going to be downstairs, I wasn’t going to be left out. They had let Pat sleep on the couch every night since the Lego incident, because she said it felt better to elevate her foot on the arm of the chair. Somehow this injury hadn’t slowed her daily exercise regime, though, and I thought she was full of shit. Neither of them saw me crouched on the landing. “I think we’ll make it,” Dad said. I heard Mom inhale deeply but quietly, and wondered what that meant. I think Dad’s speech that night really got to Pat and me. After school the next day, Pat lined up her old stuffed toys and shouted out steps as she exercised in front of them. Mom started reading Heart of Darkness, and she had to stop every so often to tell Pat to shut her ass up. For my part, I moved on to building a model rocket out of whatever I could find around the house. We were all going to become better people, following Dad’s example. Mom started keeping track of how much each contestant won on a few of her shows. She would flip through advertisements and be like, oh man, we could totally buy this washer/dryer set if we won that much money. But then she’d go back to reading Heart of Darkness and I think she probably thought something like, how cool would it be to see all of those skulls posted on spears around the station house? That’s what I thought, at least. Very intimidating. Dad came home the next night looking sullen and downtrodden. He was home on time, which was weird because he had hardly ever been home on time since introducing Black Magic into our lives. At the dinner table, Mom asked what was wrong, and I looked at Pat like, do you hear this? She is initiating conversation. But Pat was trying to weigh the pork chop in her hand to judge if it was a four-ounce serving, so my look went unacknowledged. “They said it’s not marketable in its present form,” Dad said. “What does that mean, ‘not marketable’?” “Jo, please,” Mom said. “What, Mom, I was just asking a question.” “If you have questions, please save them until Dad’s done with his story,” Mom said. “Go on, honey.” Who the hell was she, talking to me like that? “Think about why you would want Black Magic in the first place. Now, I’m a reasonable man. I can admit to my faults and weaknesses. 109
For instance: I don’t know the first thing about brewing coffee. So sure, I would love to keep a canister of Black Magic on hand to help accommodate our coffee-drinking company. But think about most people. I think it’s safe to say that most people—which is what the company has to think about, isn’t it—don’t want to admit it if they can’t make decent coffee. So who’s going to keep Black Magic in their houses? By marketing it towards the coffee drinkers, we could really sell the stuff! Those guys won’t kid themselves about their friend/neighbor/ family’s ability to make good coffee.” “So what does that mean for you?” Mom said. There she was, asking questions! “Well, we designed these sleek looking canisters, much fancier than ones for regular coffee creamers, thinking it would draw the eye, you know. But if we’re going to market it towards coffee drinkers, to use at their friend/neighbor/family’s house, it has to be discreet. Because, are you going to go to your mom’s house and bring a canister of reverse coffee creamer, like ‘Sorry Mom, but you make substandard coffee, and I have to use this to make it bearable.’ I don’t think so.” We sat in silence. “You’ll like this next part, Jo. So what we’re going to do now is make a line of accessories to go along with Black Magic, that way people can tactfully dispense it. There will be watches, umbrellas, pens, glasses, phones, all of which will have reservoirs to be refilled with Black Magic. Of course, we’ll come out with a few items first, so we can start moving the product, then work on a full line of releases for the future.” And I did like it, because it was like he was designing equipment for spies, which is a predicate for futuristic inventions. Dad’s outlook on the project was less positive, considering that it meant months more work and plenty of opportunities to show less-than-adequate management skills. The first Saturday Dad decided to make his team go in for work happened to coincide with the day I was supposed to launch my rocket. I had built a few models during those weeks after Dad told us about the Black Magic accessory line, feeling inspired to be more creative and innovative in my designs, and it was summer now, meaning there was plenty of time to perfect upon a rocket, making it resemble the alien ships I’d built. I wanted to ask Dad if he was crazy for working on what could be the biggest day of the formative years of my childhood, but I was scared he’d say he was. He’d been slipping lately—walking around the house singing what he said was 80s music and calling us by nicknames that had no basis in reality. He would run down the stairs without a shirt and say, “Hey, Peppermint, pass the salt,” and I wouldn’t know if he was talking to me or Pat, or where the salt was. So there I was, standing in the middle of the street, with half of the neighborhood kids waiting for me to launch this rocket. Mom was on the 110
sidewalk, yelling about how we had to watch for cars. If we got hit by a truck, she said, our bodies would lay lifeless in the street where we stood. Pat was dancing in the garage, wearing hardly anything and trying to come up with an ‘interpretive aerobic routine.’ Those were her words. What that meant was anybody’s guess. The launch was less than stellar, with my rocket reaching a peak of maybe 10 feet. Pat slipped on some oil and fell dramatically, which everyone laughed at. The kids went home disappointed, and I felt brooding and defeated. “Don’t feel discouraged, Beanbag,” Dad said when he came home. I was in my room, crying, and he had this wild look in his eye from a long day of drinking coffee that had been strengthened by powder creamer dispensed from a wristwatch. “It was pathetic.” “Remember when I thought I had the Black Magic formula worked out perfectly? And then those bastards—I mean, and then the guys at corporate came up with the marketing idea, and it was basically like starting over? This is what I was talking about, Turtle. It’s a step-by-step process.” “But if it hadn’t been for Pat falling,” I said, “they would have been laughing at me.” “That’s why it helps to do test runs without an audience. You only show them the finished product. You need to wow your audience. People want to be wowed. Surprise them with your skill. Perplex them with your prowess. Crush them with the claws of your chimerical foot.” “Dad.” “If you have to work on the car, do it with the garage closed. If you’re trying to make a caffeinated reverse coffee creamer, do it in Test Kitchen B.” So I would work on a model, maybe changing the wingspan or investigating engine types online, in my bedroom every day. He must have given Pat a similar talk, because she kept working on her thing in the garage, but with the door closed. What she was trying to accomplish, I have no clue. There was poetry-reading, film-viewing and dance-practicing involved, and I knew it was supposed to be something symbolic and athletic, all at once. She was obsessed. Mom said we were spending too much time inside, and that we needed to do something as a family. She was one to talk, with her game shows and Picture of Dorian Gray. She started taking us to the park, not realizing that it was pointless because we were too old to play on playground equipment, not to mention my shallow lungs. Pat used these occasions to recite Wallace Stevens, forcing me to guess from which poem she was quoting. These daily outings cut drastically into the time Pat and I could spend on our work, forcing us to extreme measures. We worked on 111
alternate clocks, her getting up early to work on her thing in the garage each morning; me staying up late, well past the thumping and recently added moaning through the wall, studying aerodynamics in my room each night. A few weeks passed with Mom trying to find things to do with us outside, and we were all agitated and sunburnt. After one of these nights, I told Dad I wanted to talk. We had to put this ‘outside’ nonsense to rest. “Dad—” “We’ve got it, Vacuum!” “Got what?” “The watch, the glasses, and the pen.” “Today?” “We finalized all of them today, yes! You’re ready to do another rocket-launch this Saturday, right? Well I think you should have all the kids and their parents come out this time. I’ll make everyone coffee.” “Dad.” “It’s perfect! I’ll make them weak, terrible decaf coffee, and I’ll add Black Magic to every cup, right in front of their eyes. No one will notice, and everyone will come up to me and say: ‘Wow, Hank, you have really made strides in all areas of living! Your daughter, Jo, is quite the engineer. Pat over there, she did one hell of a dance. And I’ll be damned if that’s not one of the best cups of joe I’ve ever tasted. Even with all of these developments, look at you in your jeans and shirt, still driving that Oldsmobile. Some things never change, eh Hank?’” He didn’t stick around long enough for me to make my case against Mom’s daily excursions. The next day at the art museum, I imagined myself becoming a famous sculptor, creating model rockets out of stone and plaster, and putting them on display as ‘Mixed Media.’ For the first time, Pat and I were satisfied with the way Mom chose to waste our time. There was nothing special about the art museum, but at least it was indoors and air conditioned. If I made sculptures of rockets, they’d be so big the art museum people would have to put them outside, on the lawn. That would wow a crowd and show Dad what I’d learned. Probably the most boring part of the trip was the Chinese art, because it was mostly little ceramic stuff in glass cases. These were the kinds of things that were built to last, but they weren’t built to entertain. Dad was right about the importance of the wow-factor. They were tiny and ornate, but without character. The little blue paintings on the ceramics depicted pretty cool scenes. It was probably some really epic stuff, like the Chinese version of the Iliad or something, but I didn’t get the story and it was on such simple backdrops, it didn’t really seem to belong. Pat and I looked on with quiet indifference. I couldn’t help but think about Mom, who I hadn’t seen in awhile. We were getting restless and there was no need to make a scene in the 112
museum, whining or yelling in boredom, so we went to find our caretaker. There she was, at the end of the oblong room, on her hands and knees at the foot of a giant statue of Buddha. The people immediately surrounding her watched with a mixture of confusion and fear, as if she’d get up and stab them. Her body was trembling and she kind of did this thing like she was bowing at the statue’s feet. Of course, Pat saw, too, and went running. It took us a surprisingly long time to get her off the ground, and when we did, she was crying. I ran out of breath and fell to where Mom had been, on the ground before that Buddha. Oh God, I thought, what is happening to our family? We are making a scene here, in the art museum, in front of all of these strangers. The Buddha she had been worshipping was huge. It was maybe brass or copper, and towered over me where I lay. I looked up at Pat like, our parents are insane; just picture what tomorrow will be like, with Dad spiking intentionally disgusting cups of coffee and making our neighbors into lab rats. And we are just as crazy with our bizarre hobbies we are going to force upon them. I couldn’t breathe. The look Pat gave me in return seemed to say, what are you talking about, Jo? Of course we’re crazy, but we are a family, and we have to support one another, especially in our moments of insanity. I tried sitting up. My chest tightened, like my outsides were shrinking but my insides weren’t. Everything was changing shape and size and the room was getting longer and there were more and more faces filling in the empty space around us. The way Pat stood above me, supporting Mom’s sobbing figure, I felt tears welling in my eyes, causing everything to go blurry, and I hit my head on the marble floor.
LISA MULLENNEAUX Pilgrim Lane The day after she dies he needs to feel the sea and walks down Pilgrim Lane at dawn, past the house he sold to pay her medical bills. Snow in the air, the sand brown with needles and beech nuts. The â&#x20AC;&#x153;Private Beachâ&#x20AC;? sign makes him smile; it never deterred anyone from descending the cliff which has eroded to a deep gully, behind a wall of bayberries and beach plums. Stairs would be too welcoming. The gully will prevail at least until some truant breaks a leg and sues. At the foot of the cliff he can just make out a trickle of water called Sachem Spring and squeeze the clay they used to build forts for their super heroes. If he digs deep enough will he find flint arrows, shell necklaces, charcoal beds left by another tribe that waited around driftwood fires for their longboats, slept on open heath to feel the sea? How did they feel to lose the only battle that ever matters to a killer silent as the mutation of a cell? He kneels and his hands at the spring are as wet as his eyes. Soon the tide will reach him.
LAURO PALOMBA Vacancy In the office of the Gorge Motel, she backed into him clumsily, without apology or caring to see who. The tweed coat, leather handbag and stylish half-boots indicated a discrimination that should’ve done both. The motel had popped up a block from the centre of Biensboro, a community of thirty-two hundred miles from the touristed gorge. Contrary to its namesake’s winding, multi-coloured, forested slopes, the motel had been formed low, white and L-shaped. The round office sat separately inside the L like a period that had gotten lost on its way to punctuating a sentence. She was finalizing a room rental, and he was becoming fed up waiting his turn. The first word he heard her speak heightened his attention: bastard. A resigned swearing. Unexpected but unsurprised. Venomless. Not directed at him or the motel manager. Maybe the machine that wouldn’t approve her credit card; maybe someone associated with the disapproval. It was an office well-tended with cozy browns and umbers but getting on and her word memorably jarred in the lull of a late autumn afternoon, in a lodging that during its life span had seen its share of them sign in. She began going through her bag, a wallet and coat pockets. She resembled a forgetful squirrel unable to recall where each nut had been stored. But soon enough she’d switched to a bird beaking into the soil, pulling out a wormy bill here, a void and letdown there. Her fingers were unadorned but some discolouration hinted they might have been. Not that rings, or their absence, gave away anything anymore. The fingers – finely slim and unaccustomed to manual labour – that probed, scoured and gouged each cavity seemed short of hope in their stuttering movement, and of faith in being able to scrape together the required sum. But they did, though without triumph. He was halfway home from a cousin’s wedding. Where she believed herself to be, only she knew. She’d rounded up her black hair in a spiteful bun of deliberate homeliness, penning in any appeal. The tendrils that had wiggled loose to her neck were impoverished versions of the bridesmaid’s ringlets: careless, hurried, the bounce gone. At his age, he preferred weddings as a spectator stripped of duties. Everybody in high spirits and invariably a few with low resistance. Could be a bridesmaid or a single, unattached guest. Could be a female attached but the partner had drunk himself out of the picture and had too long ignored her and so the vows or the agreements were being waived for the evening. With no morning after to answer for. Hands off the relatives but the rest fair game. Cut across the partisan lines of bride and 115
groom without challenge. It had been a splendid wedding well worth his hours on the road. The motel manager abounded with the patience he lacked. He supposed that dealing with a human stream looking for accommodations – seldom questioning the need for an alien bed or its uses because the bed provided the livelihood – could be as instructive as a fancier method of learning. Above her bowed, searching head – she was now haphazardly stuffing back into herself the scattered items on the counter – the manager with gray making a reconnaissance of his thicket of hair, smiled at him indulgently, asking him to treat her likewise. He wasn’t in a position to differ. Biensboro had been hosting a pumpkin festival or some other kind of thanksgiving and celebration for the harvest, good fortune, survival. That was the first, newer motel’s “full up” explanation. The second he’d encountered also shone ‘No Vacancy’ in sharp, smug lights although it was barely six o’clock. A left at the diner, following the route exiting Biensboro, and he’d chanced on the Gorge. Getting out of his car, he quickly sized it up to be at near capacity. Many of the angled parking slots were occupied by cars with out-of-state plates – some lugging bike racks or other recreational equipment – and the trucks and vans of government employees working on infrastructure improvement in the vicinity. Their doors were tattooed with a crest and the undulating script, ‘the people are the region.’ Finally, everything shoveled somewhere, she turned and stooped to pick up the car keys she’d dropped earlier and let lie at her feet. She wore round, black-rimmed glasses, partly hid a mole beneath her left ear. She’d once come close to pretty but even with the years sapping her skin, he considered that under a certain lighting or a certain affection she might be thought of as pleasing. He completed the administrative essentials in the office with minimum dialogue, wedged his car into the remaining empty space on the short stem of the L. He followed the length of the longer stem, spied an open door, a tan suitcase orphaned beside a white plastic chair and awaiting permission to enter, all under an overhead light too weak to support an interrogation. When no one stepped out to claim the suitcase, he went about his business and settled in. Inside the renovated and comfortable room, to revive himself, he produced a passable coffee from the four-cup coffeemaker and set aside a shower for later. The local TV channel led off the news with an item on a woman righteously complaining about the abuse of the emergency number. Via her scanner, she could report that a mother had recently dialed it for help with her child’s broken tooth. On Friday, at the start of the festivities, a drunk had punched in the three digits to order a pizza. Supper should logically be next; a town that small might have little to offer on a Sunday night after dark. And dark was already burying the corpse of the day. 116
He’d clicked his car door open when he saw her, minus the suitcase, more outlined than illuminated by the overhead light, bunched inside her coat on the plastic chair, defending herself against the evening chill and sulking westward towards the mountains where the sun had crouched to stingily hoard its warmth. He clicked shut the door lock. So as not to spook her, he detoured casually to her post. From a residence behind the motel, the irritating whine of a leaf blower spoiled his introduction. “I guess we were lucky to get rooms,” he said. She looked up indifferently and he judged her to be a good decade older than himself but still pursuable. “I was the fellow booking behind you in the office.” Her eyes told him she doubted it had happened. “I noticed a diner just over there. Five minutes max. Have you eaten?” She looked in the direction of the diner although the motel office blocked her view. “This late in the day,” he advised playfully, “you won’t get a better offer.” “Okay,” she relented. She was sparely built but assured and agile in her walk, reached to his chin. On the patchy lawn opposite the motel, the property owner, taking no chances, had allowed the supporters of local, state and both presidential candidates to stake and offset their placards. Or perhaps, he reasoned, the owner wanted to champion democratic even-handedness and remind passers-by of their obligations. But on the same property, a ferocious chipmunk kept fending off a black squirrel’s repeated attempts to scale his tree. “Have you been through here before?” She shook her head. “Neither have I. Looks like a pretty little town. Compact. You could probably walk it all in an hour.” “I don’t remember its name.” “Biensboro.” “Odd to find any French in these parts.” “That hadn’t occurred to me.” They passed a bank, beige-bricked, contemporary with drive-thru windows, stand-alone, a castled vault within its moat of parking area. Then a self-service car wash modern in the era before air bags were standard, elbowed by buildings that had aged in unison. “Did you stop at the gorge?” “I didn’t know there was one.” “Outside town. I took a look with the others. Lots of picture snapping. A gorge it is but not exactly the Grand Canyon. I guess one person’s gorge is just somebody else’s erosion.” “You see what you’ve been told to see.” He noted that she’d yet to ask a question and wasn’t showing any inclination but he was heartened that he appeared to have engaged her. “I 117
suppose you could say that. But sometimes it’s straightforward. It’s there or it isn’t.” “There was a woman once that Van Gogh, the Impressionist, was chasing. Stalking almost. All he ever got from her was ‘no’ and ‘never.’ He called these refusals ‘a piece of ice that I press to my heart to thaw.’” “Did he win her over?” “He could paint but he couldn’t tell iron from ice. It’s curious, people ending up in conditions they say they don’t want.” He felt she’d softened sufficiently. “By the way, I’m Edward.” “A noble, ancient name,” she complimented instead of offering her own. “Eddie to my many fans and colleagues.” He saw that she smiled but would have smiled equally at Ignatius or Esmund or Beelzebub. Her smile was the limit of her familiarity and it confused him. Her voice, her knowledge, was educated and social etiquette, the formalities, should have been second nature. He accepted she wasn’t one to give her name away cheaply but he didn’t understand why she overrode convention and simple politeness to conceal it. Still, even as she withdrew, he remained attracted. He zippered up his jacket, a nonchalance, something to do in response, more necessary than protection against shivering. Having scored zero in exchange for his name, it seemed pointless to try trading on other personal information. The diner was just ahead, its glow intensifying within the deepening outer gloom. Now he had to trust in its flush to delay the woman’s fade. The diner controlled one corner of Biensboro’s two main avenues that entered as streets and departed as highways. An eighties convenience store, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian church and an up-to-the-minute electronics and music shop hunkered on the other three. She told the waitress she liked the period booths and the waitress, making it sound fresh though she’d been answering it by rote for years, explained the interior had been marginally modified but otherwise it remained true to the 1930s train diner it had always been. They scanned the menus as the rolling memory of the original diner was outraced by the vehicles scooting past its windows. “I’m sorry she told us about the diner,” he said, casting humour onto her still surface. “Now she can probably add a five-dollar guide fee to the bill.” He reeled in another of her gently-rippling smiles, pleasant, fanning out to nowhere. She ordered an open-faced roast beef sandwich and a tea; he went for the baked ham club sandwich on rye and a beer. The waitress praised both their selections. “I think she’d have fed us the same line if we’d asked for water,” he said. “So, I’m headed home. From a wedding…” He was laying out his disguised notion that travelers could profit from only one coincidence; when night next returned, they’d be miles and moods apart. 118
“I once headed home from a wedding.” “Bet you weren’t expected back at work on Tuesday.” “I was not.” Her facial nerve might as well have been paralyzed; her face’s paneled features stymied him as to where the camouflaged staircase into her opened. He fell back on small talk. “I’m in Personnel. Human Resources as they call it these days. Even if you’ve got a lazy employee doing a lousy job, he’s a resource hard to get rid of.” “Maybe he has hidden talents.” “They’re of no use unless they suit the work.” “You practise a narrow form of human resources.” “I practise what’s called for,” he shrugged. “You’re not on holiday. What’s your excuse for staying at the luxurious Gorge Motel?” “You’re headed towards your house…” she said, pausing, turning to the traffic beyond the sidewalk for there were fewer pedestrians outside than customers on the stools or in the booths, “I’m headed away from mine. No great mystery.” He’d seen this stance occasionally while interviewing, especially when questioning previous employment: the applicant looking for the safest way to convey a fact, truth or lie irrelevant. “Big house, little house, doll house…?” “House of cards.” Which she undercut with a chuckle, a private joke. “Family?” “A boy.” “Young boy?” “Nine. He arrived late.” “A father doesn’t come with him?” “The apple of his eye.” Personal sallies into blind alleys. “Is he teaching his son about politics? Have you been following the campaigns, the debates?” “Not even the local ones. I don’t have to. My husband has relieved me of that. He has all the answers.” “Ah, a household with an expert. Lucky you. You’ll be receiving your final instructions soon.” “If I speak to him before the election.” “Well, at least your vote can’t be bought. What do you follow? Yoga, quilting, environmental degradation?” “The Swiss twins.” “There you have me. A single guy who knows zip about twins. What is it I should know about these twins?” “The father had them for a weekend visit and now they’ve disappeared. They can’t track where he left them.” “And the father’s not talking.” “The father’s killed himself.” 119
“Wow. That’s some road to go down to get revenge. Sounds like revenge.” “Damage is easy to do. Depends what it’ll cost you.” “There isn’t anybody I hate that much. Wait, there is. The hot dog vendor on the sidewalk with his cart. You can’t go out for lunch without him thinking you should buy it from him. Poor guy trying to stay afloat and you take your dollars elsewhere. Might as well shoot him as sneak in food from a restaurant. Don’t dare look him in the eyes. He screws that guilt into you. Makes me want to use the emergency exit.” “You’re really asking what’s fair. Some people get jobs through connections, to the detriment of another applicant. Maybe somebody better. You can also deny a job to get back at someone.” “I guess so. I don’t have that range of influence. And I’ve never had the word put in my ear, you know, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, yes sir I’ll get it done.” “Not yet. Tell me about your job on Tuesday.” It seemed a diversionary request but there weren’t many favourable prospects left to him. “I do initial interviews.” “Initial rejections too.” “That’s an unkind take on it.” “You’re the first barrier to getting hired.” “The first opportunity.” “To put a foot wrong.” “To impress. We’re not just futzing around. We can’t hire everybody. Barriers…filters, let’s say, have their place. If the process is successful and we nail down the best candidate, it’s better for everyone who’s already there.” “So you do have influence.” “See, contrary to what some of my colleagues swear by, the more there’s at stake, the less people rise to the occasion. They say time will prove me wrong. But create a shortage of something - food, happiness, the latest electronic toy, or in my case, jobs - and then look at how others behave. Their resumes are not pages from the Bible. There’s the truth, which you’ll never get at, the embellishment that goes too far and further falsifies it, the outright con. So when the candidate is presenting himself, you start with a given: it’s not the truth. Here’s my secret. Truth is more convoluted than a lie because it needs to take more things into consideration. The bugger is, exposing the lie doesn’t expose the truth. It’s not onion peeling. That would be too easy. So what I’m really after is the acceptable. There are a lot of those. It’s the best you can do. And that’s where your barrier comes in.” He watched her watching him, sweetly almost, in a motherly fashion, but unsatisfied, as if she were expecting a coda, a disclaimer to his speech. After a few seconds, summing up for him, she said, “Sounds like you have an excellent future in Personnel.” “Human Resources.” 120
“That too.” Their food arrived while they were quietly recharging. She chewed mechanically with an expression of no pleasure, no benefit beyond sustenance till the next cheerless meal. They retreated into the autumn weather, fall traditions, the general state of the country. His opinions were being exercised, hers were borrowed and dispassionate. To forestall another pitiable scrounging for cash, he commandeered the bill and flicked away her protests. Though it was coming out of his own pocket, he said, “It’s no big deal really. I forced you here at gunpoint. We’ll write it off on the expense account and stick it to all the other non-voters.” In Human Resources, he’d learned to differentiate the various masks of obligation, of how one was left beholden. Relying on her to at least recognize this much - as unenthusiastically as she liked - he proposed a stroll along Biensboro’s Main Street. And at last he got it right. Squat, rain-adamant clouds overhung their footfalls and a breeze menaced cold but had yet to deliver it. Biensboro’s principal thoroughfare flaunted charm. A series of rectangular grassy islands, each aglow from a central lamp, bisected the street. They had been posed like idealized families: sheaves of corn draped lovingly around the pole with ruddy pumpkins of varying size at their feet awaiting a storytelling. That they were entirely artificial hardly deterred the effect. There were evenly-spaced lamps on the sidewalk too. From these hung posters of blown-up photos - dating as far back as the Civil War - of men, and the several women, in their prime who’d enlisted from Biensboro. The steakhouse still welcomed but the jeweller’s, library, beauty salon, gift boutique, shoe emporium, sports shop and a disproportionate number of attorneys’ offices were closed. Edward wondered how the town’s placid exterior generated such lavish litigation. Numerous windows displayed academic portraits in pensive moods of the graduating players on the local high school football team. Neither presidential hopeful aspiring to be the commander-in-chief had served in the military, nor had they run and banged on a gridiron, and there was no reference anywhere to their current battling. Most of the breathing humans on Main Street, primarily younger folk, had gathered outside the Astoria Theatre. It was ready to discharge one audience and draw in another. Four different films were being rotated and Sunday’s last feature starred vampires. They’d been walking amicably without tacking closer. “Interested in a movie?” he asked. “No bloodsuckers for me,” she said, looking over the advertising on the lobby doors. “You don’t believe in vampires?” he kidded her. “Or a good scare on a full stomach?” 121
“I do. Very much. Lots of vampires. In each of us. If you stand back, you’ll see vampires as the worst egotists.” He bent his head towards her. “Oh yes. To assure their own survival they feel they have the right to end the lives of others. As many as they need to.” “Well, when you put it that way,” he said offhandedly, “the horror makes sense.” They kept going straight ahead, the scanty side streets quickly petering out, too timid to take on the imposing mountains, quashing their own spread. On one, he noted a bar, Papa’s Place, business as usual. Its awning stated, ‘If you can’t drop in, smile as you pass by’. But she hadn’t looked up and declined a drink. At the subsequent intersection, a red palm held them up while a machine emitted ‘boops’, ticking down the seconds. They crossed without waiting for the palm to become a green thumb. They’d come upon Biensboro’s surviving village green, neatly quadrated and compressed, its historic flatness now spiked with gaslit lamps, a smattering of trees and a Civil War memorial. Romantic in summer but the leaves, whether pledging allegiance to the branches or massacred on the green, were predominantly a jaundiced yellow with too few browns, rosy reds or golds to enliven the drab. Paved pathways converged on a fenced, cement-ringed fountain beautified by three sculptured children inside a wooden shoe. The lamps did their best but a defective pair nearby shadowed the children’s wonder. They began a circuit of the green, slowing to look up at the soldier commemorating the regiment raised in that area during the conflict. The statue itself, musket in hand, was gazing across Main Street to the top of the tall, white columns exalting the county courthouse. “A monument to the Union dead,” she said. “One of many.” The comment struck him as unnatural, out of character, in its banality. He was reminded of a passage from a supplemental reading in his university course expounding on the Civil War slaughter: advances in weaponry yoked to obsolete Napoleonic tactics of massed infantry from half a century earlier. The generals blind to the implications. Fighting anew a bygone war, adopting rather than adapting the lessons, devaluing what they saw for what they’d studied. He doubted such an observation would make an impression on her and put it aside. “This morning I passed a village that had been reduced to a plaque,” she continued more incisively. “I didn’t know there were battles in these parts.” “So many young men had volunteered in 1861 and been killed, there was no one left to repopulate the village.” They covered the other three sides of the green in minutes. Modest homes had been spruced up to yet more lawyers’ offices; two sturdy bedand-breakfasts, gracefully landscaped with white picket fences, a pond and a stone carving of a boy and girl sheltered under an umbrella but the 122
wilted flowers and fallen leaves cowering in niches and hollows rendering them less inviting; an Episcopal and Methodist church from former centuries facing the courthouse through the denuded trees, the spiritual sinners’ unimpeded view of the secular offenders once again restored. They spoke simply as they circled and then trotted back to the motel at a brisker pace, random raindrops prodding them along until they stood at arm’s length in front of her door. “I guess that’s the tour,” he said. “Nice to have stopped in Biensboro. We may never pass this way again.” “We shall certainly cease to be here but we shall never cease to have been here.” “Oh la la. Very clever. The town might like it for its motto.” “Somebody already said it of Venice.” “After it sinks then. Would you care for a coffee? I think I’ve mastered the coffeemaker in the room.” “It would only keep me up.” “I’m sure I saw a pouch of decaf.” “Thank you, I’ll be turning in. Long ways to go.” “Possibly see you for breakfast?” “Possibly. If not, safe trip. Good night.” He conceded at last though he believed she was warming to him. “And a good night to you.” Just not there for the taking, he concluded, unlocking his door, despite his suspicion that the woman’s husband hardly carved her heart with happiness – as a shortlived girlfriend had once phrased it.It was just after eight. He showered, as much to feel warmer as cleaner, made himself a tea, clicked the remote back and forth between a movie going through contortions to find its upbeat ending and a defensive football match from the West Coast. Having made himself purposely inaccessible by leaving his cellphone at home, he plugged in the laptop. Inconsequential concerns at the office. An e-mail from his co-worker asking about the unresponsive phone and arguing that in turning down his invitation to attend the wedding, she had meant to skirt around the bridge between them for the time being, not burn it. He deleted the message. Still alert, he recalled a remark from the diner and searched for the Swiss twins. They came up instantly. Fascinating and appalling. A Matthias Gren had picked up his five-year-old daughters routinely from his estranged wife in Chur for a weekend together, then vanished. Witnesses had seen the trio on a night ferry to Sardinia but police had established that he’d returned alone. Gren had mailed his wife nine envelopes from southern Italy, the first eight containing nearly five thousand euros and the ninth confessing to murdering the girls – but not saying where, when or how – and declaring he intended to commit suicide. Gren’s body had been discovered in Brindisi’s port area. 123
According to Swiss police, he’d used his computer to gather information about firearms and poisons. The wife’s family was distraught. Gren’s mother and brother could only account for the loving father’s behaviour by putting forward the theory of a serious emotional breakdown. He turned off the laptop. The motel woman had macabre tastes; just as well she neglected her husband’s passion for politics. The awful episode had finally wearied Edward. He lay in bed for a while until sleep caught up with him, fantasizing a reconsideration, not entirely dismissing a knock on the door. He’d have willingly added her to a short list of qualified candidates. The knock came hours later and flashed him awake. It had been fashioned into an alternating blue-red beam that drummed on the curtains, squeezed through a tiny parting and pattered on his blankets. He threw them off and hauled himself to the window. As his vision adjusted, he saw that the heavy rain he hadn’t heard lay pooled on the uneven pavement. The paramedic van with its shiny sides, like a glass hearse of old, stood with its rear arms outflung. The police cruiser’s two-tone lights kept splashing on the vehicles tightly marshaled within the L, glancing off the glistening hoods and fenders and glittering in his eyes. Tragedy had clustered strangers. Those the two uniformed officers couldn’t persuade inside had been herded and distanced well back from her door. Tonight’s newscast had its lead though the media wasn’t visible. He dressed and went outside. His immediate neighbours were a chubby young couple, she bundled, he trembling in a sweater. “You hear anything?” he asked. “Like what?” Edward answered. “A bang? A shout?” “I’m a pretty sound sleeper.” “Us neither. Kim got up to check on the baby and the lights were already going.” “They didn’t use a siren,” Kim said. “I’d have heard it. They got the manager to open the door.” Congealing in concert with the cadaver, the bystanders speculated, swapped scraps of detail, bobbed and shifted stiffly on their toes, waiting for a second act, an event whose essence had already lapsed, the blue-red tirelessly anointing them, mesmerizing and medicating them with the passing minutes. They went indoors and emerged with steaming drinks, Kim’s partner’s scented and fortified with a liqueur. They observed the motel manager and a suited detective in conversation, mixed in that tidbit and speculated further. The paramedics and police eventually carried her out in a body bag on a collapsed gurney. They had trouble negotiating the narrow gaps between vehicles, the exterior mirrors obstacles they couldn’t swing around, ultimately tried a different route and slid the gurney into the van. 124
There was no slamming of doors. After a consultation in lowered voices among themselves, the van eased into the night and the motel manager locked Room 17. The police officers, notebooks primed, stayed behind to question each clique, register their shaking heads, move on to the adjoining group, notebook sheets unsullied. The motel would have all the addresses and credit card transactions for any necessary follow-up. No harm to come up empty if they already had who first sounded the alarm and why. The grumpy lady with the scanner had gotten her wish: a genuine emergency. The couple beside him also had nothing for the officer. At first, Edward considered claiming the same. His time with her offered little in the way of insight. Then he recalled they’d been seen at the diner, the waitress had spoken to them, he’d paid with his card. He decided to spare the officer the headache of tracking him down and himself the need for an alibi as to why he’d misled him this night. “I had supper with her,” he admitted. Kim and her partner’s eyes startled wide at the celebrity they’d been rubbing shoulders with. “Let’s go into your room,” the officer said. Once inside, Edward asked, “The woman. Is it what it looks like?” “Afraid so.” The unsentimental reply of a veteran who’d transferred to small town violations but trained on larger city horrors. Edward didn’t think it would do him much good. He handed over the time they separated and his ignorance of her name, origin, destination and circumstances, let alone motive. The officer looked skeptical. “She was married with a young boy. So she said. That’s about it. Didn’t use “I” much. Didn’t ask questions. Quiet…intelligent…selfcontained. Kept her own counsel. But sort of deceptive…well, obviously…I mean I didn’t see it coming…deceptive but not because she intended to hit you up for anything. Barely wanted company. Maybe running out of money. I picked up the tab. For all I know, she was an embezzler on the lam and her suitcase was crammed with bills.” The officer scribbled some of the juicier words, tapped his pen point several times on the notebook, bossing the ink to evaluate them. “Are you staying on?” “Off in the morning. I guess it is morning.” “Is there a number where we can contact you?” “Yeah. For sure.” Getting back to sleep proved ridiculous. The others had roommates to talk them to fatigue and reset them but he felt himself an overenergized cell that the whole of the Gorge Motel couldn’t drain. Once the cruiser lights stopped flaring and the gibberish on the police radio that pricked at his ears fell silent and, shortly thereafter, the cruiser itself shrank to the blur of a taillight, Edward scrambled on his clothes and slipped out. The clock dial was approaching three. The hardiest of the onlookers were murmuring themselves indoors. 125
The jolt of cold powered him down, his breath shooting away from him as he walked. The line of mountains had blended seamlessly into the rain-rinsed sky which now showed off stars crystalline in their polish and a quarter moon bothered by an urchin cloud that loitered at a crescent tip and wouldn’t leave off. What he imagined to be aimless tramping because of an extended detour around the diner transformed into a retracing of their course after supper, the pumpkins abiding and the vampires slain. Biensboro was bereft of everything except lights and air. As though word had gotten out that death had broken free from an itinerant circus and been spotted prowling the alleys and streets and devouring any unwary souls. Not a solitary being or sound. On stagnant water, the lamps had doubled in reflection. He counted three cars total, decelerating from the highway speeds, halting befuddled at the intersections, tires soaking in puddles, then turning, none the wiser. Papa’s Place still stoked a handful of customers on bar stools but the last thing he craved was foolish chatter with slurring alcoholics. At the village green, the booping crosswalk apparatus marked the seconds to safety but the red, restraining palm refused to change. They weren’t functioning, only simulating, rehearsing for daylight. His fingers were losing sensation. He found a shortcut past the fire station and through its glass doors picked out seven fire trucks of staggered vintage. An excess of trucks for Biensboro’s population; perhaps to put out the fires started by an excess of attorneys. That seemed reasonable. The motel beckoned, its office lit by dimmed table lamps; the forlorn checkpoint of a border outpost shuttered from disuse. I should’ve tried harder, he scolded himself. Selfishness was thought to be one-sided but last night would’ve worked for both of them. Had he been busy at what he wanted, she couldn’t have pulled off what she’d planned. If it was a plan and not impulse. He hip-shoved open his door but looked back at Room 17 for fear it might be gone by morning. He’d botched the interview. He hadn’t detected, confirmed, resolved a damn thing. He’d never have hired himself. He’d failed his own test. At the wedding, his eleven-year-old niece, in her innocence, had made him laugh: “There are so many bald guys, I don’t know which one’s my dad.” Plenty of bald cues. He’d missed them all.
KEN POYNER The Fifth Bear We were lying about the trailer, marveling that the furniture was so care worn, even though it was our furniture and our cares and it was our failure to be gentle that had worn it. The three of us were four or five beers into a Friday night early evening of it, the television on the news channel, and all of us too disinterested to read the crawl: more interested in the advertisements than in the substance, waiting for an advertisement any one of us particularly liked so we could alert the other two and commit a bit of shared culture. We were spread out like yesterday’s laundry on the couch, primarily. The place could have used a good pick up and putting away, a collective sorting. The first bear edged cautiously out of the woods and stood for quite some time in the stubble behind the trailer before any of us noticed this. We knew this only because he looked as though this is how it had happened and adding context to the fact is what we are about. It keeps us situated as the central part of the story, and not relegated to just an element. Not that the trailer was all that close to the woods. And the woods in fact only went on an unmeasured bit and butted up to a corn field that next year will be a field of something else, farmed by a man who lives elsewhere and drives his tractor down the two lane road every so often to aerate or harvest or do whatever farmers do that requires they hold up traffic on a two lane road for what seems like hours while they get to where they are going. In too many places, the cleared land behind a trailer will start immediately growing up into woods and over a few seasons the woods will march out towards the trailer and engulf it; unless, at the last, when the woods are about to digest the tattered and rust inhabited sheet metal and plastic, the homeowner finally goes out with a chain saw or a pair of pruning shears and knocks the undergrowth back enough that he has a walk space behind his home one more year. Our trailer has a walk space, and we are near the woods, not of the woods. I got up to stretch the crooked out of me, saw the bear, and said, “Damn! That’s a bear!” And no one believed me. Bears had always been a theoretical possibility, but we thought they would be a few miles up, where the woods got thicker and people who wandered off into the density of the green did not travel so deep. The places where couples go to avoid hotel fees are usually only thirty or forty yards in, and the trails children make seldom loop more than fifty yards, and a bear can stay outside of most human smells by just keeping a hundred yards inside of the tree line. 127
We even tie up our trash and put it directly into the back of the pickup truck, which has a camper shell and, with the tailgate up, should not be the least bit of a come-on for a bear. Finally, the girl who had been living with me for a couple of weeks – Debbie I think was her name – came to the window and looked out. When she finally picked out the bear three feet from the last tree trunk, she grabbed my arm with a skeletal squeeze and went straight to the heart of the matter. “Think he will try to get in?” I swirled the last bit of beer around in the bottom of my can and said, “No, I think he’s looking for leftovers. A trash bag, or a pizza box.” And Debbie (I’ll say for lack of a certain name) called over to Sheila (who was new to the trailer and whose name I could definitely remember), saying, “Look, it’s a bear. And he’s hungry.” Hungry, mind you, not as in ‘you are likely to get eaten,’ but hungry as in ‘maybe we could take it a piece of that leftover lemon pie’. Of course, we had established only that this was a bear, not that it was hungry, nor that it liked lemon pie. Some people have to connect the dots even when there are no dots. It was then the second bear stepped out and Debbie said, “Aw. I wonder if they are a family?” Sheila came up beside us about the time the third bear stepped out. I put down my beer on the white ring crusted wooden bookshelf that held my baseball trophies: all those I had stolen over the years from classmates who had won them. Thin plastic things I had little use for, but which I could deprive others of, and so I kept as a sign that I had my worth, too. The bears stood there, staring off to nowhere in particular, clear of the woods but not quite out into the penumbra of the trailer. Sheila placed her chin on my shoulder and said, “See, the three bears.” I put up with a lot for sex. It was quite a while before the fourth stepped out. We had all been standing there at the little porthole-like window, as silent as those inexpensively molded manikins you gasp at when you see them undressed, unable to go much further in conversation, and I was about to pick my beer back up: then that fourth bear slithered out of the underbrush on all four, and rose up like he wanted a better view. We all backed half a step away from the window and I slipped my arm down and around Sheila, and she moved forward so I could feel her breath stumbling about in the whorls of my ear. She was breathing short, like she would when the three of us would get entangled on the one double bed and I would know she was looking for something. Those times I would be too involved to worry about what she was looking for; but now, the sound of her breath bumping like a drunken midget around in my ear, I was worried it was something I could not provide - perhaps could not even name. 128
It was the fourth that caused all of our problems. Maybe three bears were Goldilocks and too hot, too cold, just right, too hard, too soft, just right. Maybe one bear was unexpected, two misunderstood, three a fairy tale. Four bears were a challenge. Four were something you could not fit neatly into a day of reruns and beer from a 24-pack, nor into the stone solid reality of two career waitresses living unselfconsciously with an uncertified auto mechanic and general cash-only handyman. We felt as though four bears had tripped up the steps to our straight forward and limitedly rewarding reality, knocked, and asked for a left handed cup of sugar. Something had to be done to bring this event back into our sense of an orderly existence. And I was going to be the one to do it. At first, I stood watching. Staring out of the window at four bears can be nerve wracking. You wait to see what they are going to do, what action they are going to take that gives you a basis for your own next action. You run scenarios in your head from every nature show you have ever been caught watching mid-afternoon when you are laying out of work. I could take no comfort from the fact that I was in the trailer and they were outside. Have no illusions: I had seen this sort of thing on PBS, and the bears were in control. I stared as long as I could, and when staring wasn’t enough, I went over to where the bed lay tepidly unmade, and fished around on the floor until I found Debbie’s purse. I knew she kept a handgun in the side pocket for those customers, who, after her shift was done, thought she came with the price of the meal and some unspectacular tip. Once I got it out of her bag, just like they do in the better movies I flipped open the chamber and looked in to see that there were bullets in it. Not that I thought I would kill the bears. I don’t even know if that size of gun would kill a bear, but I figured the noise would shake them, send them rattling on all fours back into the woods. Sheila met me half way, and seeing what I was doing squealed, “Oh, I’ve got a gun, too!” and picked up her purse from beside the couch, swishing her hand around in it like she were cleaning a toilet, and finally coming up with a semi-automatic, slightly larger than a cigarette pack, inexpensive similarity to a gun. I did not know how to check the bullets in one of those, so I took it in my other hand and stood there, a pistol in each hand, nearly planted dead set in the middle of the trailer. At this time, only Debbie was watching the bears. She had become fascinated with them. She could slip off like that sometimes in the middle of sex, or halfway through dinner: her eyes with that forever stare and her every evident move like one of the steps in a Rube Goldberg contraption. Usually, when it happened to her I was not paying attention, focused as I would be on my own agenda; but her looking out at those bears just then seemed almost a radiant thing, an act in itself, as though this were her part: this was what her role was written for and she was going to get through it, wooden and without feeling, but she would get 129
through it. This might be her master performance, and everyone should remember. I guess I could have stayed in the trailer to see what was going to happen next, but it seemed like nature was goading me. Four bears had come up to my trailer, coming out of a wood that could not sustain them, and were just standing there like they were an audience to something that was about to happen. I walked over and cut off the TV set, leaving only the sound of breath and the clatter of the refrigerator running. It is not much of a trailer, and I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t keep it as well as I should. But it is mine. And I have two housemates, and I earn the special privileges they cede to me. The sounds and smell and sway of this trailer is familiar and it should not be interfered with. It simply shouldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t. I opened the front door and cautiously stepped down the two bowed steps, a handgun in each hand pointed at the ground, my arms stiff and joyless. I moved as lightly as I could, barely pulling my feet off the ground: slow, but complete step after slow, but complete step. One of the girls, I will never know which, pulled the door quietly closed behind me, and I dropped my shoulder, crouched a bit along the center of my spine, and continued to the edge of the trailer. I had not yet seen the fifth bear.
FAYE RAPOPORT DESPRES Capture the Moon Jim steered his car into the vacant parking lot, sorry to disturb the fresh blanket of snow. To him, the night snow was like a blank canvas, now marred by the tires of his Subaru Outback. He found the sign marking the trailhead and parked directly in front of it. His headlights illuminated the large, painted letters: “Mount Carson. Rock Creek Trail.” Carson was more of a foothill, really, especially compared to Prince Peak. Prince loomed large on the other side of the valley, a 13-er known for its spiked rocky summit. That’s why Jim was here. He loved the craggy aesthetics of Prince, especially in silhouette against the moonlit night sky. But he also had a soft spot for quiet hills like Carson, and he liked Rock Creek Trail, named for the narrow waterway that drained the mountain’s snowmelt every spring. Jim had hiked the trail many times, and he would have no problem navigating it in the middle of the night, no matter what Elise had said. Anyway, this was what she wanted, right? “You’re not the same man I married,” she’d said. Well, here I am, Jim thought, doing something crazy outdoors. Living large, doing my thing, just me and my camera and the mountains. The snowstorm had ended earlier that night, but a few flakes still drifted toward the ground. Jim cut the car’s ignition, inhaled a deep breath, and sat still for a moment, absorbing the silence as he waited for the headlights to go dark. It was warm inside the car, but an icy blast would greet him as soon as he opened the door. Jim was okay with that. Winter weather didn’t bother him, and neither did the darkness. He was inspired by the challenge of meeting nature where it was. He liked the rewards earned by pushing through discomfort: fresh trails blazed with skis or snowshoes, moments of near silence in the middle of the woods, unexpected encounters with curious wildlife. Being bold was how he captured the rare scenes few others witnessed. At least, Jim thought, that’s how I used to capture them. Tonight, to protect himself from the frigid elements, Jim wore a tenyear-old fleece jacket, Polartec long johns underneath his blue jeans, lightweight high-top hiking boots, and the black cap Elise had knitted for him. He tugged off his gloves, which he wouldn’t need when his body warmed during the uphill trek, and shoved them into his left pocket. Then he secured his headlamp to his forehead, just in case. He didn’t switch it on; he likely wouldn’t need it on a moonlit night. He opened the door and climbed out of the car, slammed the door shut, secured all the locks with a click of his fob, and zipped his keys securely into his right pocket. He barely felt the weight of the camera around his neck, the telephoto lens stored in his backpack, or the tripod secured to the pack with the straps that he usually used to carry his skis. 131
As Jim started up the trail, the echo of Elise’s protests intruded on his solitude. “Are you crazy?” she’d asked when he had stood up, frustrated, and marched out of the living room, pulling his sweater back over his head along the way. Elise had followed him into the bedroom and watched in disbelief as he dressed to go out and packed up his gear. “It’s freezing out there. It’s almost midnight!” she’d said. Jim hadn’t responded; that was the only way he could handle his wife’s more emotional moments. Shut her out. Disengage. Close his eyes and hope the conflict would just go away. Tonight it hadn’t worked. He’d left the house with both of them still angry. Thinking of Elise now, Jim wondered if he was crazy, but not for the reasons she claimed. He sighed and shook his head, tried to force himself to focus on the moment. His breath felt heavy as he trudged up the trail, even labored when he hit the steeper portions. “Steeper” was an embellishment, of course; Rock Creek was a pretty easy trail. Still, Jim couldn’t take anything for granted, not outside on a cold winter night hiking up even a small mountain. There was a time, not long ago, when he could have jogged the entire mile to the summit of Carson without breaking much of a sweat. Now he was breathing hard just a few minutes into the hike. He trudged on. The spot where he planned to stop—a clearing just off the trail that had a wide, open view of the sky and Prince Peak—was only a half-mile up. The darkness hardly slowed him. The full moon transformed the Lodgepole pines that surrounded him into eerie silver ghosts. Smatterings of stars were visible through gaps in the canopy. As Jim had expected, the moon illuminated the trail. The fresh taste of mountain air and the scent of damp dirt, vaguely detectable even on a frozen night, helped calm Jim’s mind. Still, he felt stung by the angry words Elise had hurled at him before he left. “You’re not the same person you were when we met,” she’d said. “You’re not even the man I married five years ago.” Of course I’m not who I was when we met, Jim thought. Thirteen years ago he’d been a college student about to venture forth. It was easy, back then, to just ski and hike, and take photographs through life. His biggest concern was passing his final exams. “We were young,” Jim had responded, noticing the sick feeling that rose in his gut when he said it. “Jim, we’re thirty-five years old.” Jim argued with her again in his mind. You don’t mind the nice cottage we live in, do you? You work part-time and do your pottery all afternoon; I’m responsible for paying the rent. Jim had been lucky, in fact, that he’d had a knack for computers. His artistic bent had helped him move seamlessly into the field of interface design. He hadn’t taken many photographs in recent years, but he had created some kick-ass UI designs. He could spend hours finessing the pixels on an icon. Should he put a 1.5px bevel on the edge to catch the light? Keep it flat? To Jim, 132
these things had become as important as determining the best angle to capture the moon. Elise had brought up his photography during the fight. “I can’t remember the last time you used your camera,” she’d said. She had purchased the camera for Jim years ago with money she earned selling glazed mugs and bowls to a pottery store. Their orange cat, Malcolm, had jumped off the couch in the middle of the argument and sauntered down the hall toward the bedroom. The cat hated raised voices. When Jim reminded Elise of his similar discomfort, she’d said, “Oh please, Jim. Life is messy. If you’re too comfortable, you’re missing something. You’re the one who used to tell me that.” When Elise’s words hit too close to the truth, Jim’s instinct was always to strike back. “You wouldn’t be too comfortable missing your health insurance,” he’d retorted. In an instant, her anger had turned to pain. He could tell by the sudden silence, by the tears that welled up in her eyes. “So you’re saying it’s my fault you took the job,” she’d said, the fire gone. “I didn’t say that.” It was too late. A tear slipped down Elise’s cheek. A thin layer of sweat had already formed underneath Jim’s jacket and sweater. When he stopped walking, he would definitely feel the chill. He gulped the frigid air into his lungs, hoping to ease the tightness that gripped his chest. He curled and released his fists to keep the blood pumping and continued his methodical ascent. He didn’t want to think about the argument anymore. He got the point. For the past year he’d been spending more time at work, and when you added in the forty-fiveminute commute, he’d hardly been home. Maybe he had changed, but did that have to be a bad thing? For years, when he’d worked as a consultant from home, he and Elise had counted every dollar. She didn’t seem to mind, but Jim wanted more. For one thing, he wanted to buy a house. When the subject of having a child came up, Jim experienced a new kind of pressure. The child hadn’t come, at least not yet, but their financial struggles had continued until he took this job. It was the first real job he’d ever had, and he was surprised at the way it felt to be a productive member of society. He enjoyed watching their bank balance grow. He liked taking paid vacations. He even got a kick out of manipulating the investments he was making in his 401(k). Our 401(k), Jim reminded himself. Elise was benefiting from this job as much as he was, wasn’t she? She wanted him to take pictures? Well, before he took this job he had sold eight framed photographs. The money he’d earned as a photographer wouldn’t pay one month’s rent. Despite his warm torso, Jim’s nose and forehead were beginning to sting with cold. I should have worn a balaclava, he thought. The sky above him was thick, like velvet, yet paled by the glow of the moon. Jim 133
wondered if it would be possible to photograph that color; it was difficult to create a true portrait of darkness. It was easier to depict something rich with light than to capture the essence of emptiness. He would have to hint at it or come at it sideways somehow. Involuntarily, Jim reached up and touched his camera. It hit him like a rock, then, a tension that caused his gut to clench painfully, making it difficult to continue taking breaths. Despite the feeling, Jim forged on. He recognized the sensation as anxiety; a doctor had labeled it after a scary incident last year when Jim believed he was having a heart attack. Hoooo, hooooo. The sound echoed through the trees. It stopped him. He listened through the wheeze of his own labored breaths. Jim had always loved the haunting call of an owl. He hoped he wouldn’t hear an ensuing scream; Jim accepted nature for what it was, but he was a peaceful guy at heart. Maybe that was why he’d always liked photography; he was fascinated by moments, not what happened before or after. He’d taken dozens of photographs of his friend Leo, an accomplished skier, reaching back to grab the tails of his skis mid-jump; no one knew, when they looked at those photos, if Leo had crashed once he landed. All that mattered was the joy of that moment in the air, the bliss between the trip up and the plunge down. Hoooo, hoooo. No screams. Jim’s breathing began to relax. He walked on. He knew his destination the moment he arrived; it was obvious, even at night. A large rock near the side of the trail marked the spot where a clearing opened to the right. At the point where the trees parted, the side of the mountain sloped downward just enough to offer a clear view of the horizon on the opposite side of the valley. Jim stood for a moment and absorbed the impossibly beautiful scene. The edges of bare tree branches trailed toward the clearing, casting shadows on the new-fallen snow. The sky was so vast, the stars so infinite. The moon, positioned just to the right of Prince’s summit, displayed itself with the pride of a peacock flaunting its tail. Jim stepped into the clearing. The snow was a few inches deeper off the trail, but he hardly noticed; his fingers practically itched to snap the image of the full moon. Perfect, he thought. Just perfect. Stopping, even for a few moments, had chilled Jim’s sweat, and his fingers began to burn with cold. Before he could pull on his gloves, he had to set up the tripod, unpack his telephoto lens, and set everything up. It was a relief to swing his pack over his right shoulder and stand it up in the snow. He loosened the outer straps, tugged the tripod free and lengthened each leg until it clicked. Glancing at the moon and quickly around the clearing, he chose a good spot to set up. He had just planted the tripod firmly in the snow and unscrewed his camera’s lens cap when he heard it. 134
Snap. Jim froze. A twig had cracked near the ground behind him, and in the stillness of the night the sound ricocheted like a gunshot. Jim turned toward the noise. He saw nothing but the trees at the edge of the clearing. He waited a moment. Silence. He must have imagined it. Snap. This time, the sound was unmistakable. Something was moving in the trees. A bear, thought Jim. It must be a bear. But in the middle of winter? Kind of strange. Didn’t bears hibernate? Jim didn’t have any food in his backpack. He hadn’t even brought a protein bar. Anyway, he thought, if it’s a bear, I know how to deal with it. He pulled back his shoulders and tried to look big—an easy task, since he was almost six feet tall. He would yell and stomp his feet, anything to make noise. Then he saw it. It wasn’t a bear. The triangular head, rounded ears, and almond-shaped eyes were unmistakable. It was a mountain lion. The lion had stopped mid-step, its head, shoulders, and one advancing front leg visible in the moonlight at the boundary of the clearing. Shadows enveloped the rest of its body. Jim stared. The great cat stared back. Its head appeared to shimmer beneath the moon, the tawny color washed out to silver. Fifteen feet separated the animal from Jim. Of course Jim knew about mountain lions, but he’d never seen one. Their numbers had dwindled as more and more towns encroached on their habitat. Jim wasn’t as familiar with the protocol for a lion encounter as he was with the procedure for scaring off a bear. The lion nonchalantly swung another leg forward and emerged from the darkness into the light of the clearing. Another two steps, and the full length of its body became visible. Jim remained still and tried to remember anything he had heard about how to deal with mountain lions. The part of him that felt comfortable in the wilderness remained calm, but a deeper instinct took hold of his body. A shiver of fear flashed through him. A surge of adrenaline urged him to run, but his mind kept him planted where he was. No human being could outrun a mountain lion. The lion stared at Jim for a few more moments and then lowered its back haunches and sat down. Okay, that could be a good thing, Jim thought. Then a movement near the ground caught his attention. The lion flicked its tail. Not such a good thing. Jim’s chest felt so tight that it occurred to him, once again, that he might be having a heart attack. He forced himself to draw air in through his nose as quietly as possible. The white condensation of his exhaled breath clearly caught the lion’s attention. Its tail twitched again. 135
Jim’s mind began to race, and he thought, crazily, of his cell phone. He’d switched it off as he usually did when he spent time outdoors. Anyway, a phone call might not work too well. Excuse me, big guy, big girl, whatever, I need to make a call. Elise? Hi, listen, I’m halfway up Mount Carson, and a mountain lion decided to stop by. Could you help? Stay calm, Jim told himself, stay calm. You’ve been in plenty of scrapes before. What the heck should he do? He couldn’t just stand here, or maybe he could. Just wait the animal out. It hadn’t attacked. As the word “attacked” crossed his mind, it occurred to Jim for the first time that this could be it—really it. These could be the last moments of his life. And that’s when it hit him. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. The notion was so bizarre, so ridiculous and out of place, that Jim was never able to explain where it came from. He kept his eyes on the animal as he inched his right hand toward the camera that still hung around his neck. The great cat watched him, but didn’t move. A switch flipped in Jim’s mind; he was now in photographer mode. The night was dark, yes, but the moonlight cast enough light to capture an image with the automatic setting on his Canon 60D. The telephoto lens was still in the backpack, but he didn’t need it for this kind of shot. The 50mm lens on the camera would do the trick. Jim hadn’t turned the image stabilization off, because he hadn’t mounted the camera on his tripod yet. Should he use a shutter cable release to reduce camera jitter? He might not have a chance to fiddle with that. The night was clear of course, so that was good. He’d love to adjust the shutter speed and the ISO, but he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have time. The automatic setting would have to do. The cold air must have frozen my brain, Jim thought. But he had recognized the old feeling the instant it hit him; he was suddenly, shockingly alive. The intensity of the sensation brought home how long it had been since he’d felt this way. His breath began to flow, and he drew in the cold air as if he could actually taste oxygen. The details of the scene—the unearthly splendor of the lion’s face, the implied strength of the animal’s sinewy shoulders, the deep depressions of Jim’s footprints in the snow, the tangled, frosted tree branches casting their spindly shadows toward the center of the clearing—all were suddenly heightened. The camera touched Jim’s face. His right eye and the viewfinder became one. He moved the power switch to “on” with his thumb. The lion hadn’t moved, so he had a little time. He chose the “creative” auto setting through the viewfinder, and swiveled the control wheel to select “night scene.” The lion appeared to be watching intently. Jim pressed the shutter halfway down, bringing the great cat into razor-sharp focus. He couldn’t resist moving the camera slightly to the right to center the image. The movement seemed to waken something in the lion’s eyes, and its tail 136
twitched again. Jim, however, was beyond fear now. Everything vanished but his eye, the cold, slanted cast of the luminescent moonlight, and the lion—the gentle curves of its ears, the dramatic shape of its magnificent eyes, its sharp, jutting cheekbones, the slope of its elongated nose. The lion was perfection. The lion was life. Jim adjusted the camera once more, and then clicked. At the sound, the cat’s ears swiveled forward. It was on its feet in less than a second, crouched and ready to spring. The camera fell out of Jim’s hands. The lion leaped. Jim arms flew up against his face as he started screaming. The knowledge came to him in a rush, what you’re supposed to do if you cross paths with a mountain lion in the woods. Raise your arms, look big, make noise, do whatever it takes to convince the animal that you’re not prey. It was too late. The lion hurtled toward him, growling, and when its front paws hit Jim square in the chest, they knocked the precious oxygen out of his lungs. Terror gripped Jim as he fell backwards into the snow. The lion’s claws tore into his jacket and its teeth gripped his left arm. A burst of pain shot through Jim as he pounded the lion’s shoulders and head with his fists. The tripod was within reach. Jim grabbed one of its legs and swung the whole thing toward the lion. Adrenaline surged through him as the tripod hit its mark. Surprised, the animal growled and released Jim’s arm. Jim forgot everything then; he fought with every ounce of strength he had, hitting, screaming, and kicking. He swung the tripod again and this time it hit the lion square in the jaw. The animal withdrew with a howl of pain and retreated, backing up and then turning to sprint toward the trees. Jim lay gasping in the snow. When he looked up, the lion was gone. Jim didn’t care about protocol anymore. He let go of the tripod, scrambled to his feet, and bolted unsteadily through the underbrush toward the trail. Sharp thorns scraped his legs and arms; he slammed head first into a tree. He surged forward again, but tripped over a tree root and stumbled to the ground, smacking his chest against the camera, which still hung on the strap around his neck. He struggled up and kept going, too terrified to look back. As soon as he found the trail he started running. Whether by memory or desperation or the illumination of the moon, Jim found his way down to the base of the mountain. The snow was falling harder again. Jim’s keys were still zipped into his jacket pocket. With trembling hands now stinging with cold and pain, he withdrew the keys and unlocked the car. He fell into the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut, and switched on the ignition. Only then, when he was safely enclosed in his car, did he stop to breathe or think or try to absorb what had happened. He slammed his left foot down onto the clutch, shifted the car into reverse, pressed the gas pedal, and backed up the car. Then he shot out of the parking lot, his tires spinning in the snow, and gunned it down the road toward home. 137
* Jim sat quietly, dazed and aching, as the doctor pulled off her latex gloves. She told the young nurse, who had been standing nearby, to clean and dress Jim’s wounds. Then she regarded Jim thoughtfully and said, “None of the wounds are deep enough to require stitches, but I’d like you to take an antibiotic to avoid infection.” She scribbled something onto a prescription pad and handed it to Jim. He stared at it blindly. Elise took the paper from him and slid it into her pocket. Their next stop, Elise insisted once they were back in the car, was the police station. “The police should hear what happened,” she said. “If there’s a mountain lion roaming around on Carson, people need to know.” Their argument had been forgotten when she found him asleep on the couch that morning, his face covered in scratches and his boots still on. Dried blood stained the couch beneath his left arm. His jacket and camera lay discarded on the floor. “I don’t want to go to the police,” Jim whispered now. His throat was sore. His voice was still hoarse from yelling the night before. Despite the attack, he couldn’t bear the thought of the police hunting the lion. The mountains were the lion’s home, not his—he was the one who had been stupid enough to go to Carson alone in the middle of the night. Elise glanced at him. “Neither of us wants anything to happen to the lion,” she said softly, “but it attacked you, Jim. That makes it dangerous, and families use that trail all the time. What if that lion attacks a child? Do you want that on your conscience? At least they need to put up a sign.” Jim couldn’t argue with that. The police station, a red brick building on the edge of town, was quiet when Jim entered with Elise. A receptionist behind a glass-paneled half wall pointed them toward a door. The door opened to a sunlit room lined with utilitarian desks. A uniformed police officer stood when they entered and introduced himself as Officer Davis. He waved them into the chairs facing the desk nearest the door. He appeared to be about their age. The policeman listened to Jim’s story and jotted down notes. “Would you mind showing me the bite marks on your arm?” he asked, surveying the scratches and bruises on Jim’s face. Elise sat quietly as Jim shrugged off his coat, rolled up his sleeve, and pulled up the gauze that covered his deepest wounds. After a moment, Officer Davis asked, “Are you sure it was a lion? It must have been dark up there.” Jim nodded, and described the animal in detail. “The moon was full last night. There was plenty of light,” he explained. Officer Davis listened thoughtfully. Elise reached over and carefully taped the gauze back into place before sliding Jim’s sleeve back to his wrist. 138
“Can you give me a second?” the policeman asked. Jim nodded. Officer Davis stood up and walked to the back of the room, where he spoke quietly to the only other policeman on duty. The second officer, a paunchy, weatherworn man, listened intently before squinting across the room at Jim. Then he picked up his telephone and made a call. A minute later, both officers approached Jim and Elise. “I’m Officer Jackson,” the older policeman said. “Listen,” he said to Jim, “are you sure what you tangled with was a lion?” “Yeah,” Jim said. Both officers studied him. “Son,” Officer Jackson said, “no one has seen a mountain lion in Adams County for thirty years.” “Do you think it wandered here from somewhere else?” Jim asked. “There’s almost no chance of that,” the policeman responded. “A few years ago the folks over at SDEP—” “The State Department of Environmental Protection,” Officer Davis inserted. “Right,” Officer Jackson said. “They wanted to reintroduce the species 25 miles north of here, up in the national park. There was a big hubbub about it, you know, the ranchers and local families worried about lions roaming around the mountains again. The area was pretty remote, but the idea got voted down. That ranger, what’s his name?” “Dave Jefferson,” Officer Davis offered. “Right,” the older policeman said. “Jefferson. He’s obsessed with the whole idea. The ecosystem and all that. He tried it twenty years ago, when he was new in town, right near Mount Carson in fact. The area was more rural then. But the cat they released got killed. Some idiot shot the thing dead. Claimed he thought it was a deer, but no one believed him.” Jim and Elise sat in a confused silence. “But I know it was a lion,” Jim said. Then he remembered. “I took a picture. With my camera.” “You took a picture?” the officers asked in unison. “Before the thing attacked you?” Officer Jackson added, incredulous. “I know it was stupid,” Jim said, “but I did.” “Well, I’d like to see that,” Officer Jackson replied, shaking his head. “Go home and rest, son. If you’ve really got a picture, bring it by later.” Elise and Jim rode home in silence. Just before Elise took the final turn toward their house, Jim stopped her by saying, “Wait. Head out to the park.” “Why?” Elise asked. “My tripod is up there. My backpack. We need to get them.” “Are you kidding, Jim?” “Come on,” Jim said. “It’s broad daylight, and it’s only half a mile. I just want to get my stuff.” Elise drove to the park. Jim’s backpack stood where he’d left it, and his tripod still lay on its side in the snow. Elise found Jim’s gloves; they had fallen from his 139
pocket during the struggle with the lion. It was obvious where Jim had crashed through the underbrush; a pathway of trampled branches led from the clearing to the trail. A few small bloodstains were visible in the snow. A scrap of material from the sleeve of Jim’s jacket hung on one of the branches. Jim was grateful when Elise said nothing about the obvious. There were no paw prints anywhere in the snow. After they returned home, Jim picked his camera up off the floor. Somehow the power had been turned off last night; he turned it back on and viewed the stored photo on the LCD screen. There it was: the clearing illuminated by the moonlight. There was nothing between the camera and the trees but fresh snow. Elise set a mug of coffee on the table next to Jim. She glanced at the camera in his hands. “I never asked you what you were doing up there in the first place,” she said. “You ran out of here in the middle of our argument.” Jim looked at her and said, “I wanted to capture the moon.” Elise smiled at him gently and replied, “I think you did.”
KRISTEN STABY REMBOLD At February’s End It’s the first warm day, tomato seeds waiting to germinate beside the stove, the newly-emerged winged ants flying through the kitchen, looking for their home. What would it be like to be a stranger walking abroad, over hill and field and stone? Outside, first harsh sun casts shadow through a stand of trees, patterning the ground: charcoal on silver-gray, a contrast for hungry eyes. I’m rolling out dough the yellow-white of winter bark in smooth, long strokes, shaping my contentment. If my longing could become the wind, I’d skim the blue hollow rising to the farming town where I lived. I don’t know why I say this. I lean close to the kitchen window of the house we made, far south. Wind rouses the trees, and nests become visible in the crowns, vulnerable as they always were, before I took notice.
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR. Basement Rainbow of Motherfuckery Dried blood recalling bourbon â&#x20AC;&#x201C; red rises in the drowning brown â&#x20AC;&#x201C; knitting the cut of unknown origin on the thumb circling the red wrench opening the valve releasing finely ground eggshells and coffee-ground soaked water the color of the manure-rich patch of dirt between where German red grew and where Rocky the brown pitbull rots barely covered in a shallow hole dug by an idiot. The limited spectrum of a narrative arc grounding nowhere near any damn pot of gold.
JOHN G. RODWAN, JR. Bear A pitbull can get distracted by butterflies: not a metaphor.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM Last Bend in the Huron River The skitter and claw of squirrel run and paw while an acorn drops as if manna— The chitter and scree of sparrow and jay demanding the feeder to be filled— The softest-eyed doe and hesitant spotted fawn unfolding from foliage and morning mist— The burst of mallard to spraying flight from a dark time of water in the quiet cove— All show me the way to earliest horizon’s fire and to you beyond all that you had so cared for.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM Vessel As she once gripped a bucket to be filled with watery soup— the only meal that day— and watched a house burning on the hilltop— a home lost again— today, these strangers carry a pail of water out back to her lilies that grow in dappled sun.
DOMENIC SCOPA Swimming Pool for Martín Espada Past the gate where convoys spilled their cargo of prisoners, past concrete cells too narrow to sit down, and rooms where doctors tried to calculate the amount of pain the body could take before it gave out, past the double fences where guards patrolled with Dobermans for runners brave enough to risk the razor wire, and past where the condemned listened to the inmate band perform on execution mornings, there is a swimming pool on the commandant’s estate at Terezín. Here the officers would congregate for barbeques, here the splash of sunburnt children. The commandant would coach his son−kick your feet, turn your head to breathe− would daily throw a son and father into the pool, saying to them: whoever kills the other will live, and toss them 2x4s. Here his wife served homemade cookies to the winner.
When the crematorium whistle cried out, and the sound pelted tree leaves, the children would dive below the surface, touching the bottom of the clear, soundless world. There is a swimming pool on the commandant’s estate at Terezín−white tiles, white steps−where human beings would plunge and wade until they dissolved forever, vanished like the blood of fathers thinning in chlorinated water.
E.G. SILVERMAN Moosehead Lake It had been the kind of day Paul Eiford had hoped for when he’d come to Maine. He’d spent it with Jesse and Louise, a pair of mutt puppies he’d picked up for nothing from his cousin J.R. Now about a year old, they had black and tan markings like coonhounds but thicker bone structure and longer, rougher coats like shepherds. He’d driven the long trek of dirt logging roads in from Kokadjo, past the turnoff for Spencer Pond camps, pausing at the bridge for the view of the mountain sitting there like a giant ladled lump of pumpkin custard coated with strawberry sprinkles, and back into the Days Academy Grant for the hike up Little Kineo Mountain. Barely ten minutes in, Eiford had almost turned back, dissuaded by a wall of rock ledge blocking the trail like a shut door. But Jesse and Louise had scrambled right up it as if there were steps carved in the stone and it was all he could do to keep up with them. The climb had been steep but the trail kept rewarding him with outcroppings serving as scenic turnouts, each better than the one before, valleys and lakes and mountains displaying their fall foliage as if they were getting ready to mate. At the open summit, he had laid down a blanket, stretched out on his back, stared at the blue sky scraped with white, and listened to the emptiness. The meager house he was renting was the kind of place folks in Greenville called a camp. The front of the cabin, the side facing the road, had two small bedrooms, both clad in dark pine, and the back, which he thought of as the front, as it faced the lake, consisted of a kitchen and eating table on one end and a sitting area with a woodstove on the other. Tucked into the corner behind the kitchen was a bathroom, and above the bedrooms was a sleeping loft with a pull-down staircase, the pulley system leveraged by two buckets of stones. The house was old and dank. The refrigerator kept threatening to quit and the plumbing needed frequent attention. But it was on Moosehead Lake with a dock to tie up a canoe and though it was squeezed into a row of similar camps, by Labor Day the tourists had cleared out and now in the first week of October, the neighborhood was deserted except for his next-door neighbor, Carol. Since the first hard frost, the mosquitoes and black flies had died off, and Eiford had taken to sitting on the dock, starting around five, watching the sky melt red over the mountains as if someone were streaking it with magic markers. He’d stare out at the lake and an occasional loon or seaplane, the dogs beside him snoring on their sides, their legs out like flying buttresses. He was drinking Scotch. One of his projects of late was to make a study of sipping whiskeys. He’d been through vodka, Canadian, bourbon, Jack Daniels, rum, and a brief bout with tequila, which he’d found unacceptable. He’d skipped gin, knowing better. Scotch tended to 148
be more diverse than the others, and for tonight, he’d splurged on a single malt that would have paid for six two-liter bottles of Gilbert’s vodka at the Trading Post. Louise was up, sitting at attention, her ears perked, her head tilted. Eiford craned his head and saw Carol pulling into her driveway. She hollered hello and made her way down to him. “Get you a drink?” he said. “What’s it tonight?” “Here, have a swallow.” He handed her his glass. “Nice,” she said. She was about his age, a few years short of fifty, tall and thin, her hair in a pony tail, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, not wearing a stitch of makeup and it didn’t look like she ever had, lines like a pair of dams fencing in her mouth, keeping it from running any further across her face, eyes as blue as the early morning sky above the first cascade of reds and oranges, empty of intrigue and full of certainty, her voice husky from cigarettes and liquor. They watched as a fishing boat motored by on its way into the Greenville harbor. “I’ll get you that drink now,” he said, prying himself free from his Adirondack chair. “I got groceries to tote in and put away.” “I’ll help and then get you that drink.” “Why come is it that you always got your priorities screwed up?” “Okay, I’ll get you that drink and then help you tote.” “How about you fetch the goddamned bottle and let me worry about the toting.” By the time he’d rustled up the bottle of Scotch and the two dogs, she was sitting at her kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, two glasses in place waiting to be filled. “Ice?” she said. “Better without.” “As you say.” “That would be the day.” “Now why you getting down on yourself already?” “Just stating the facts.” He poured the two drinks and sat opposite her. Jesse and Louise had taken up positions on the two frayed brown corduroy couches near the woodstove, the layout in this cabin much the same as in his. “Would you get your damned dogs off my furniture.” He peered at them and shrugged. “They look pretty comfortable.” She drank. “Oh shit, leave ‘em be.” He refilled their glasses. “You fixing to get me drunk so you can fuck me?” 149
“You want me to?” “I ain’t getting drunk. Some people got to work in the morning.” He knew that the locals thought ill of a man who didn’t work, and he suspected that his idleness precluded Carol from having any substantial respect for him, although he’d told himself that in the end it didn’t make a lick of difference, one way or the other. “Well come on then.” She was up and pushing her chair in. She kept her house tidy. The kitchen was clean and free of clutter. Her bed was made, and she had lace curtains on the one window that peered out at the road and the house across the street. When she undressed herself, she folded her clothes and stacked them neatly on the wicker chair in the corner. Then she peeled open the red and brown bear claw quilt, climbed in, and lay on her back, waiting for him. There was a stark formality to their lovemaking, energetic and tough. She took hold of his penis and stroked it hard. She bit at his ears and his neck. Her nails dug into his back. When she came, she pounded his ass with her fists. Often, he pondered whether the absence of affection between them ought to trouble him more than it did. When they lay together afterwards, he sometimes debated raising the issue with her. Perhaps he should ask her how she felt. But he feared the conversation might drift into the neighborhood of love or caring or friendship or whatever it was that passed between them and that was ground best left untrod. “I got some haddock fresh,” she said. “Got some extra in case you’re interested. Was gonna pan fry it and mash some spuds.” He lay in bed listening to her digging out a frying pan, and then the hissing of the oil and the fish being dropped into it. On her dresser was a brass lamp and beside it on the wall hung a sepia photo of an old woman posed holding a wooden bucket by a well. It was the only photo displayed in the cabin, the only art of any sort, unless you counted curtains, throw rugs, and an eight-point buck’s head over one of the couches. When they’d eaten and she’d offered him seconds and he’d declined, they sat at the table while she smoked a cigarette. “I got to be going.” “Then go.” “The dogs need fed.” “Go feed them.” “You want me to leave the bottle?” “Take it. I got to be up with the roosters.” He stood. “Thanks for dinner.” “I’d say you earned it.” He leaned over and kissed her on the lips. “Go on now,” she said and she set about washing the dishes. 150
It rained the next three days. Eiford’s cabin didn’t have a television, a circumstance he’d come to regret when foul weather set in. He journeyed into Greenville to the Boomchain for lunch, ran up to the Trading Post and bought every newspaper they had, and drove the pickup north along the lake to Rockwood and back, absorbing himself in the dreary ritual of the last leaves being stripped from the trees. As he sat at a roadside pull-off, drinking a beer, watching the raindrops pelting the lake, he thought about the decision he was going to have to face eventually. He thought about the life he’d left in Boston, the two former wives, the three children he regarded as his own, and the two stepchildren that were neither his nor not his. He pictured the three-story brick house with the blue front awnings that probably still needed to be taken down, in which his latest wife and most recent family still resided. But the thing he thought about most was how he didn’t miss any of it and whether that meant there was something terribly wrong with him. He replayed the scene where Judy confessed that she was having an affair. She’d asked him if he wanted to know who with and he’d gaped at her in disbelief. No, he’d told her, he didn’t want to know, but that hadn’t satisfied her and she’d gone ahead and told him anyway, saying that it was important that she come clean, that for the benefit of their future relationship, there should be no secrets held back. What he’d felt above all else was relief. As long as he’d stayed married to Judy, he’d seen no path of escape from his loneliness. With her confession he’d been freed and though the freedom brought no happiness, it did allow hope, and at least that was something. He’d been blindsided by her announcement of his being cuckolded by his partner, but there again, Judy’s confession had forced his hand, freeing him from a job where he had long felt trapped. Fred had been a gentleman about it, if you could call fucking your partner’s wife something a gentleman would entertain, offering to buy out his half of the business for a fair price, in return for Eiford’s promise not to let Fred’s wife in on the secret. So Eiford had found himself liberated of wife, of family, of home, of job, of all ties to people, routine, and geography, and at the age of fortyfive, pretty much where he’d been at twenty-two. The way he saw it, he had another shot at doing life right, which was more than most folks got. He’d packed up the pick-up and with the two dogs riding up front with him, drove till he found something he liked, rented the cabin, and settled in. But the problem with ruminating on the past while staring at the rain, Eiford decided, was that it didn’t tell you shit about the future, so he said the hell with it, and pointed the pickup towards the Carefree Moose. Denise greeted Eiford with a friendly smile and a beer. She was tall and to his eyes not quite balanced, her hips a smidge wider than they ought to be and her chest a bit small. But her face was naturally inviting, with its impish smile and playful eyes, her hair pulled back into a clip as 151
if she didn’t have a care in world. She favored tank tops and low cut pants, even in the coldest of weather, her belly bare and the rose tattoo above her ass exposed. She held court from behind the bar, joking with most everyone by name, regaling the customers with the minutia and travails of her day, as if they were her confidants and confessors. She wore her sexuality like a class ring, as if it were an amulet that would never lose its magic as long as she kept it shiny. By the time Eiford had drunk three beers, dusk had come and gone, and Denise had finished her shift and disappeared. He paid his tab and headed out into the rain. He trotted across the parking lot to his truck and jumped in, but as he reached for the ignition, he noticed two figures near the rear of the restaurant under a streetlight bathing them as if they were on stage. One was Denise, arguing with a tall, solidly built guy wearing a Greenville Lakers letter jacket, work boots, and a Mack baseball cap. He loomed over her, his arms extended, boxing her in against his truck. She had her hands on his arm as if she was trying to get away. He kept shaking his head. He leaned in to kiss her. She slapped him. He grabbed her wrist. She struggled. He shoved her. She swung at him. He pinned her against the truck and held her there. Eiford rose out of his truck and slammed the door loudly. The guy glanced in his direction. Eiford hesitated. This was none of his business. Besides, what was the big deal? Two kids having an argument. If it came to a fight, he’d lose with the first punch thrown. The last thing he needed in this town was to pick a fight with a local football hero. And yet, he couldn’t simply shrug his shoulders and walk away. He’d never thought of himself as a coward. Stuck, unable to decide, he held his ground. “Hey mister,” Denise yelled across the lot. “Could you like call the police or something before I have to kill this baboon myself?” The guy glared at Eiford. “Hey faggot, ain’t you got nothing to do with yourself? Whyn’t you go climb in that faggot truck and go fuck yourself?’ The distraction had afforded Denise an opening and she wriggled free. She ran to Eiford and slid her hand around his waist. “You go fuck yourself, you baboon. Go fuck your Hilary and the rest of your sluts. Do me a favor and forget I ever knew you.” The guy spit, kicked at the ground, took a couple of steps towards Eiford, shook his head, spit again, climbed into his truck, and roared away, the oversized tires spewing gravel in his wake. Denise still had her arm around Eiford’s waist. “I guess this makes you my hero.” Her hair smelled wet and of cigarettes and wood smoke. “I didn’t do anything.” “Yeah? Well I guess that’s something anyway. Seems to me like we’d be a whole lot better off if some people did a lot less of anything. You know what I mean?” 152
She stepped away and lit a cigarette, staring up at the trees and the streetlight while she smoked, oblivious to the rain. “You’re the one living in the camp on Old Sugar House, ain’t you? With the two dogs. I saw you one time with them walking all the way up to Lily Bay.” “We walk a lot.” “What kind of dogs are those anyway? Some kind of hunting dog?” “They’re mutts.” “Then how come they’re so alike?” “Brother and sister.” “Yeah? I like that. You know Vince would have killed you if it came to that.” He started to protest, then thought better of it. “Actually, I’m a little surprised he didn’t. Not that he had any right, you know? Anyway, what difference does it make? You want to give me a ride home?” Her apartment was above the drugstore, facing an alley in the rear. The building was old and drafty, but Denise had made an effort to dress up the apartment with a new section of red carpet in the living room covering most of the linoleum floor and a pink and yellow patchwork quilt on her bed. Denise led Eiford directly into her bedroom, where she produced a joint from a jewelry box on the heavy walnut dresser. She lit it and sat on the bed. “You mind if I tell you something? I’m not a slut. Okay?” “Okay.” “Do you fish?” “Not really.” “Not really? What kind of answer is that? Either you do or you don’t.” “Okay, I don’t.” “How come?” “I don’t like it.” “You don’t like fishing?” “That’s right.” “I never met nobody that didn’t like to fish.” “Now you have.” “What about snowmobiles? You like them?” “I’ve never tried one.” “You’ve never been on a sled? You’re kidding.” “I’m not kidding.” “I guess they don’t have them in Boston, huh?” “How’d you know I’m from Boston?” “I asked someone.” “Who’d you ask?” “Could have been anyone. Might have been Debbie.” 153
“How would she know?” “She works at the post office. She knows everything.” “What else does she know?” “That you get letters from lawyers.” “You seem awfully curious about my mail.” “You sulk into the bar by yourself, sit there drinking beer, stare at my belly button, and pretend you’re watching sports on television. Wouldn’t you be curious?” “Isn’t that what everybody else does?” “I know everybody else.” “So you don’t bother with their mail?” That made her giggle. “I hear all about everybody’s mail. You wouldn’t believe the shit some people get.” The joint had gone out. She relit it. “Can I ask you something?” she said. “Go ahead.” “Do you have children?” “I do.” “Well? I’m waiting.” “It’s complicated.” “Jesus Christ. How can it be complicated? I’m sure glad I don’t live in Boston.” “My second wife had children from her first marriage. Do you count them?” “I’d say what’s more important is whether you count them.” “That’s what’s complicated. I think I did, but now I don’t.” “Sounds like my second father. He never exactly got around to adopting me. Course, my mother never exactly got around to marrying him.” “So Boston’s not the only place where lives get complicated?” “Quit evading and tell me what you got.” “Three of my own, two boys and a girl, and then there were the two of hers.” “How old’s the girl of yours?” “She’s the oldest. Seventeen.” “Do I remind you of her?” The question took him by surprise, dropped out of nowhere like a bucket of water. “If she came home with a tattoo on her ass, I’d have killed her.” She turned around and did a little dance, wiggling her rear. “So that’s what you think—that you’re too good for me ‘cause I have a tattoo on my ass?” “What’s with you people? You think you’re better than everyone else and then all you talk about is how everyone thinks they’re better than you.” “Yeah, and which piece of that you taking issue with?” 154
“I’m taking issue with all of it.” Her fingers turned in little circles, stirring the air as if she could feel its skin. “But you think your daughter’s better than me? What with her ass being tattoo free and all? And for your information mister, it’s my lower back, not my ass.” “She’s my daughter.” “You must not mind my tattoo too much, the amount of time you spend gawking at it.” “Let’s say I’m still trying to make up my mind.” “Then tell me this. Do you think you’re too good for me?” “I am definitely not too good for you.” “And you’re sure I don’t remind you of your daughter?” “I’m sure.” “See, the reason I’m asking is ‘cause I don’t want you to be with me because I remind you of her. My third father, the shit, one time when he come home drunk and my mother wasn’t there, when I was fifteen, he tried to, you know…. But I hit him over the head with a beer bottle and that slowed him down good enough that I took off out of there and when my mother got home she kicked his ass out and that was the end of that sucker. Anyway, I wanted to make sure that you’re not that way.” “I’m not that way. I promise you that.” “Can I ask you one more question? Then I promise I’ll shut my damned mouth—Debbie’s always telling me I don’t know when to shut my damned mouth, although if you ask me, she’s the one that’s got a problem in that regard. My mother says that when you reach her age you get, well tired, and with all the shit life brings, you get to where getting by is about as much as you can hope for and, you know, she never laughs, hardly ever smiles, and when she’s seeing some guy and I ask her if she loves him, she smirks at me and says, real sarcastic like, that love is something that sort of falls by the wayside, like the way clean white snow gets plowed to the side full of gravel and dirt till all it’s good for is melting and even then it’s full of road salt and bitter. So anyway, my question is whether that’s the way you are. Are you tired and bitter and worn out to where love is something you’ve given up on?” “I think maybe I allowed you one question too many.” “Shit mister, you’re not getting off that easy.” “No, I haven’t given up on love. Even though such hope runs counter to my experience, there’s always the possibility that the problem lies more in the process than in the proposition.” She was shaking her head and laughing. “What in the hell are you talking about?” “Maybe I haven’t done it with the right person. Maybe I haven’t done it right.” “Maybe you ought to find out.” 155
By early December, the accumulating snow and lack of daylight left Eiford with an excess of time to dispense with, so he located a library in town and decided to read history, something he’d never much cared for. His idea was that by studying the techniques of great people making decisions, he might learn something useful. He figured that most likely it would come to naught, but what the hell. For starters, he was fighting his way through McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom, chosen because he liked the title. The cabin was ensconced in a cozy darkness, warmed by the light of his reading lamp and the woodstove. He’d had the dogs out hiking for hours in the snow along the lake in Lily Bay State Park, an easy trail, but still enough to exhaust everyone. Jesse was toasting his belly on the rug. Louise was snoring on the couch. Eiford had started to doze when there was a knock at the door. Before he could get to it, Denise had let herself in. “Shit, it’s cold,” she said, hovering by the woodstove. “What you got it so dark in here for?” He set down his book, stepped into the kitchen, and turned on the overhead light. “My mom is such a bitch. I mean I love her, but if I lived with her, we’d kill each other in about thirty seconds. You know what I mean?” He set two glasses on the counter. “I’m drinking Tom Collins. Debbie and I started around four. Then she had to go up to Stuart’s. She and him is baby-sitting his niece while his sister goes to Bangor for karaoke. Debbie wanted to go, but Stuart was working all day and he’s beat and besides they said they’d baby-sit so I don’t know what she’s talking about anyway.” He put ice into the glasses and then vodka and topped it off with lemonade. He handed her one. “All my mother cares about is herself. I mean, why does she have to be a bitch all the time? This isn’t a Tom Collins. I said I was drinking a Tom Collins.” He wished she weren’t so damned cute. He wished she weren’t so simple and bubbly and enthusiastic and dramatic. He wished she didn’t make herself so available. “That is a Tom Collins.” She tasted it again and her face curdled. “You’re lying. It ain’t no Tom Collins.” “It’s a Tom Collins, Boston style.” She glared down at her drink. “I should have known. Boston’s more screwed up than a propeller blade. You know anything about mufflers? I went to get my car registered and they say I need a new muffler.” He took a seat at the kitchen table. “See, this is just what I’m talking about, my mother, the bitch. I told her about the car needing a muffler and she gets that attitude of hers, all high and mighty and says, it ain’t her car so what do I expect her to do about it.” 156
He wished he hadn’t put lemonade in his vodka. “You ain’t exactly real talkative tonight.” “You want me to take you to get the muffler replaced?” “What good’s that gonna do? If it was her car that needed a muffler, she could, you know, like get, a reduced rate? Because she like, well you know, she…. Oh shit, never mind. The point is that, I mean, the woman is a bitch and cares about nobody but herself. Hey, you want to do a line or two? You look like you could use some cheering up. I swear, sometimes you’re the saddest-faced man I think I ever saw.” By the time he’d refilled their drinks, she was in bed waiting for him, chopping lines on a compact mirror. “I learned a new trick,” she said with a giggle as he undressed. “You want to see it? It’s called snowmobile tracks, or something like that. Although Debbie also says sometimes it’s called white line down a narrow road, although personally I’m not so sure about the narrow part.” She was so young and naked and unweathered that it was enough to break his heart and he thought he might be falling in love with her. She examined his crotch and ran a finger along his erect penis. “Okay, now what’s the best way to do this? I think I want you like sitting on the edge of the bed?” “I thought you said you’d already learned this trick.” “Debbie taught me. I mean she explained it sort of. It’s one of those tricks where you can use your imagination? Like on the job training? And besides, who do you think I’d be learning it on? Not everyone around here is not exactly faithful, if you know what I mean?” “No, what do you mean?” “Oh nothing much. Other than that you’ve been servicing my mom as regular as a beer truck.” He shut his eyes and let the blank black swamp him. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know?” “Carol is your mother?” “Sure as Mr. Guinness makes his stout. Would you hold still please? Debbie says I got to keep that thing dry for now so as the coke don’t stick to it. Seems like a shame.” “Does she know—about us?” “Hell, damn near everybody in Greenville knows. Ain’t you seen the way they looking at you of late? You the bull moose with the biggest rack in town. Now hold still, I don’t want to spill this.” Denise did a line and then giggled. “Shit man, what do we do about you? Can’t hardly expect you to suck off your own dick, can we? Debbie didn’t say nothing about that.” She laid out a line on her compact mirror and gave it to him. “Have you and Carol…your mother, discussed… this… I mean, me?” “Shit man, you can’t keep that thing hard, how am I supposed to snort off it?” 157
She set about chopping lines for each of them on the mirror. “We had quite a chat about you, this very afternoon. My mom says she’s never seen a man needs a wife as bad as you. She says she needs a husband about as bad as a flat tire in a blizzard, but you need rescuing so bad she might be inclined to take on the burden. Then she says that if ever there was a girl who needed a husband to whip her into respectable shape, it was me, and though she doubted you were up to the task, what with your age, city ways, and generally lackadaisical manner—can you believe that’s how she put it—generally lackadaisical manner—that nonetheless, the pool of men around here was piss-poor and once a person cut through your veneer of bullshit, as a husband candidate—I’m telling you, that’s what she called you, a husband candidate—a girl could do worse. So anyway, she reckons one of us ought to marry you. Sort of like a public service, you know? Like those posters you see about adopting the homeless dogs and all?” “What did you say?” “That she couldn’t marry you cause then you’d be like my father and that would be too weird, so if anybody was going to marry you, it was going to have to be me.” “And what’d she say to that?” “That she figured you had too much sense to marry me. I told her not to be so damned sure of herself. Best I could tell, you didn’t have no sense at all.” The serious winter weather set in and while folks went about their business in spite of it, Eiford was a lot less likely to run into Carol and as long as he stayed away from the Moose, he wouldn’t bump into Denise. He contented himself with keeping his driveway clear with the old snow blower that came with the cabin and his meager walkway shoveled. Every couple of days he loaded the dogs into the pickup, drove north along Lily Bay, and headed as far as the road was plowed in from Kokadjo. It was a life he’d always been tempted to try, living alone and simply, spending the days outdoors, exhausting himself from the exertion of walking in the cold, shoveling snow, and splitting firewood, sitting in the evening near the woodstove, the dogs on the couches snoring, reading until he got too drunk to fit the sentences into paragraphs, sometimes going for days without showering or shaving. He journeyed into town nearly every day to retrieve the mail, newspapers, and whatever supplies he could think of, having so hated his wife’s habit of making lists that he refused to adopt it, even if that meant sometimes finding he’d failed to pick up something he’d wanted. As the snow banks in Greenville grew deeper, the townspeople seemed to grow more talkative, and on the days he breakfasted at the Boomchain, it was hard not to get sucked into a conversation, and though he’d never been particularly gregarious, he found himself wondering why he’d become so 158
reticent to make small talk, feeling himself on the verge of becoming a hermit. Sometimes at night he’d peek out his window and see the lights on in the house next-door and wonder what Carol was up to. He missed her cooking and her hard-edged conversation and he missed her hard-edged sex. But he couldn’t work up the courage to face her. One Saturday evening, the phone rang, an event so unusual that he jumped at the sound. He debated whether to answer, there being nobody he could think of that he cared to talk to. Then it dawned on him that it might be Denise, and though he hesitated to admit it to himself, he felt a flicker of hope and desire. It was his wife. “I’m not disturbing you, am I?” That was Judy all right. Ask a question for which there can be no answer. “What do you want Judy?” “I am disturbing you. I’ll call back at a better time.” “Judy, you’re not disturbing me. No more than fucking my best friend, taking my kids and my house, and calling me a whore.” He heard her sigh deeply, as if he were a petulant child and she were the understanding mother. “He wasn’t your best friend.” “Okay, my partner of twenty years. I apologize for the inaccurate characterization.” “It was only twelve years and he was going to break up the partnership anyway. This way you got bought out for a good price.” “You’re saying you did me a favor?” “You could put it that way.” She laughed her sputtering chuckle that he used to love and had come to hate, the chuckle that he’d thought made her sound pure and vibrant, but which he’d grown to realize was calculated and deceitful. He gulped down a swallow of vodka and refilled his glass. Something was on behind her, a TV or a radio. He wondered if the kids were in the room, listening to her taunt him. “Judy, why did you call? I’m already giving you everything you want. Can’t we let the lawyers work out the details?” There was that chuckle again, something terribly self-satisfied about it. “Aren’t I allowed to call and see how you are? Make sure you haven’t been eaten by a bear? Run over by a dog sled?” “Last time I checked, the bears were hibernating and the dog sleds moved to Alaska.” Her laugh was different this time, more relaxed, as if she were settling in on a couch beside him. “Fred’s asked me to marry him. He thought I ought to tell you. I told him you wouldn’t care. I mean why would you care? But he said it was 159
one of those things we had to get out of the way, like the license and blood test, that it was only right to let you know, and we both figured it’d be better if I told you, so there it is, you’ve been told. If you feel like wishing us good luck or congratulations, this would be the time to do it.” He hung up. When the phone rang again, he didn’t answer it. “Damn it,” he said out loud. “Damn it the fucking bitch.” He sat on the couch petting the dogs, but that didn’t provide any relief. He looked out the window at Carol’s house. It was lit up as if she had company. He thought about calling Denise, but wouldn’t let himself. He poured himself another drink. It snowed most of the night, but the morning broke clear and clean, the sky buffed with a new coat of blue, the trees and lawn furniture sporting six inches of white. Carol must have come around recently and filled the bird feeders hanging over his patio and the chickadees and juncos were swooping in for breakfast. A squirrel perched on an Adirondack chair and planned his route of attack. A cardinal dove in, pecked at the feeder, and flew off. Jesse and Louise lazed on the couches, in no hurry to face the cold, and Eiford decided to have coffee before taking them out. He had yesterday’s Globe and he sat at his kitchen table, watching the birds and in the distance, the gray white ice of the lake. He heard the plow truck go by up on Lily Bay and figured it’d be an hour or two yet before it worked its way down his road. Louise came nosing at him, sticking her face up under his arm, spilling his coffee, and then licking it up. “All right, all right,” he said. He tied on his boots and slipped on a hooded sweatshirt and his parka and with coffee in hand, stepped out onto the porch, the two dogs bounding ahead into the fresh snow, chasing, darting, and wrestling. It was warmer than he’d expected and he pulled back his hood, sipping at his coffee, watching the snow shake free from spruce limbs. He set down his mug, picked up the shovel, and went to work on the walkway. Having cleared it, he made his way to the road, whistled, and the dogs came racing back panting. He took them inside, fixed their breakfast, and stoked the woodstove, adding small pieces and then larger ones until he had it cranked up. He cooked himself an omelet with some leftover ham, but as soon as he sat down to eat, the dogs were up and making a ruckus. He laid down his fork and went to the door. There stood Denise, wearing a ski hat topped with a moose head with antlers. She was dressed in jeans, a thick blue sweater, and fake fur rimmed boots halfway up her calves. “I came looking for a hug if you think you might spare one,” she said. He collected her into his arms. They shuffled into his bedroom and made love slowly. She was unusually quiet, sighing as he came, rubbing his back. When he rolled off of her, she was staring at the ceiling, and her lips were moving as if she was speaking to herself. 160
“You don’t love me, do you?” He knew better than to answer. “Do you think you might ever?” “Might is a tough one.” “I’ll bet you’d like it.” “It’s not that simple.” “Why don’t you give it a chance?” “It’s not that easy.” “No mister, it is that easy. Easiest thing there is. Nothing to it at all.” He heard the plow truck scraping the road. “How’d you get here?” “Stayed the night at my mom’s.” She was getting heavy lying on his arm. “You hungry?” “I interrupted your breakfast. You want me to go?” “Eggs are cold now. You want to go to the Boomchain?” She sat up, her back against the wall, her hands clutching the quilt to her chin, smiling drunkenly, as if she’d drifted off onto a cloud. “Sure, take me to the Boomchain.” For a moment it was as if she were dead. “Take me to Boston. I’ve never been to Boston.” “There’s no snowmobiles in Boston. No lake. No moose.” “You’d be there.” “I’m here.” “Take me to Boston. Show me everything. Teach me everything.” “What were you doing at your mother’s last night?” “I got into it with Vince at the Moose. Made quite the scene.” She grinned at the thought of it. “Anyway, I got Ronny to throw him out, but then I was so pissed off I ended up getting shitfaced and with the snow and all they was scared to let me drive so they called old Carol and she come and got me, and I guess I was sort of threatening to go bomb his house or something so she brought me home and then we had a big fight, and now I’m not sure we’re even speaking, so I figured I’d better sneak on out of there before she got out of bed, and I seen you out with the dogs, so I figured, seeing as you are the cause of all the trouble, the least you could do is give a girl a hug.” She snuggled in against him. “My mom’s irritated with you.” “With me? What’d I do now?” “Nothing. That’s what she’s irritated about. She says you ought to shit or cut bait. She doesn’t like you fucking her daughter and not being serious about it.” He stroked her hair, let his fingers wander along her back. “I told her I hadn’t been seeing you and she said you were holding out like it was some kind of game and sooner or later you’d be back sniffing around like the dogs you live with, that you ain’t much different 161
than them. I told her you was different. The dog’s been fixed. She said that was her point exactly.” His stomach rumbled. She kissed his belly. “We ended up getting into it pretty good. I’m surprised you didn’t hear us yelling like drunken sledders. I told her to mind her own business and she said I was her business and I told her she was jealous ‘cause I wasn’t old and dried up like her and she slapped me across the face and I called her a fucking bitch and she slapped me again. Then she threw me into bed and slammed the door shut and I was so pissed I was going to come out swinging at her, but then I laid down for a minute and the next thing I knew it was morning.” She laid her head on his chest. “She said you weren’t like us. You come up here to play, but you’d never be one of us, never fit in, never understand us or be understood. She said I was wasting my time with you, that hadn’t I noticed, you’d never so much as taken me on a date, wouldn’t never be seen in town with me, wouldn’t never act like I was your girlfriend.” “Is that what you want me to do?” “What I want you to do is take me to Boston.” “Because your mother’s half right. The truth is that you don’t want to be seen with me in Greenville.” She sat up, her face confused. “Why wouldn’t I want to be seen with you?” “Because of what people would think.” “What would people think?” “That I’m too old for you and worthless and from Boston.” “And you think they ain’t noticed none of that yet?” “They haven’t noticed me being with you.” “Wrong again mister. They noticed.” “It hasn’t been thrown in their faces. Besides, it’s not them I care about, it’s you.” She put on her moose-antlered hat and struck a pose for him. “I got this special for you. Thought you’d like the way I look in it.” “I like the rest of your outfit anyway.” “Mister, that’s two nice things you said in the span of a minute and a half. One more and I might think you like me.” He held out his arm and she slid back into bed beside him. “I like you.” “Then take me to Boston with you.” “What makes you think I’m going to Boston?” “That’s where you’re from ain’t it? And you ain’t staying here.” He hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, but now that she’d said it, there was no way to avoid its inevitability. “Ain’t nobody stays here that ain’t from here. You’d have to be crazy to want to live in a shithole like this unless it was your own particular shithole, which for you it ain’t. So quit lying mister and fess up that isn’t 162
a day goes by but you’re wondering if it’s time to pick up your ass and head on back to Boston.” “There’s nothing for me in Boston.” “There’s nothing for you here.” Suddenly, she was standing on the bed, naked except for the moose antler hat, jumping like on a trampoline, chanting, “Take me to Boston, Take me to Boston, Take me to Boston….” Then she was on her knees, straddling his chest, slapping at his face, one hand and then the other, at first playfully, then harder and harder until it hurt, still chanting, until he had to take hold of her wrists to stop her. She was crying, tears slowly wetting her cheeks. “You won’t take me ‘cause you’re ashamed of me. Hell, my mother’s right. You don’t even want to be seen in the damned Boomchain with me, as if people was gonna think you’re some kind of pervert. Damn it, take me to Boston where nobody knows me and you don’t have to worry about being seen cause from what I hear in them cities nobody ever sees nobody and if they do, it don’t mean shit. Admit you love me and take me to Boston. I don’t for the life of me see what’s so fucking difficult about that.” For a moment he toyed with the notion of doing it. She was so full of life, and wasn’t that what he needed? His existence was devoid of energy, of vitality, of emotion other than loneliness and emptiness. Why not take her if not to Boston then to someplace where they could start a life together, where they could drink and fuck and yell at each other and run the dogs and who knows, perhaps he could tame her a bit, teach her some manners, lend a little sophistication to that wildness and what a combination it would be? Why not? Because that wasn’t who he was or who he would ever be. Because she and he had nothing in common. Because even he wasn’t fool enough to think it would work. He coaxed her onto her side so her back was against him and he held her in his arms for the final time.
ROBERT F. SOMMER We Were Goats Show me the two so closely bound As we, by the wet bond of blood —Robert Graves, “Two Fusiliers” “To be honest, sir, when I first met him I thought your son was a jerk.” We’re standing, Bobby and I, in a restaurant parking lot in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It’s a hot, humid August day, and I’m easing myself away from the idling pick-up’s tailpipe and upwind of Bobby while he smokes. I nod and grin. “Not the first time I’ve heard that.” In fact, I’m weirdly flattered he’d say as much, though I had thought I’d graduated from sir by then. Probably wanted to soften the remark. Still, his frankness puts me at ease. Not much of a stretch to imagine Francis treating a new guy in his outfit roughly, and enjoying it too. * On final approach a couple of hours earlier, as the plane slipped over warehouse rooftops and car models became distinguishable on the highway below, I felt a surge of doubt as visceral as if the airplane, that close to the ground, had suddenly dipped in turbulence. Had I done the right thing coming here? Was I intruding? Bobby was probably waiting in the terminal. I wildly imagined him asking me outright why I’d come. Feet spread, arms folded, blocking the exit door, putting me on the spot. What’re you doing here, sir? Calling me out for bringing my grief into his life. Sir. An hour later we were both weeping over half-eaten po’ boys. It would be all right. * More than three years had passed since I’d asked him to give a eulogy for Francis. We spoke several times over the course of a day or two. The power of grief is stunning—it has all kinds of unexpected fallout. One is surely the way it thrusts you, in a matter of hours, a day, two days, into relationships that bond you with strangers, how new people come into your life with a presence as powerful as if you’d always known them. Suddenly names we’d only heard, and some we’d never heard, were in our living room and kitchen—soldiers and veterans, coworkers, school friends. Francis often spoke of Bobby. As far as we knew, Bobby Brandt was his closest friend in the Army. They served together in Afghanistan in 164
2006-7, Francis’s second overseas tour and Bobby’s first. He later redeployed to Afghanistan after Francis was out of the Army. Losing Frank, as Bobby knew him, was hard, but he was in school and had a young family. A plane ticket to Kansas City on short notice was just too expensive. He felt awful about not coming, so I called him a few days after the services. He’d done more for Francis in life than he could do for him now, I said. That’s what mattered. We promised to visit, here or there, a promise, I decided—I think we both did—that would not become one of those hyper-emotional impulses that fades into an itch and passes with time. * Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, became the face of grief and anger for antiwar activists all over the country during the height of that war. Her sorrow led her to all the way to the front gates of President Bush’s Texas ranch, where she camped for weeks. I understood this grief in new ways now. Her self had been displaced. Instincts took over. All there was was the cause she’d taken up—nothing she could gain would compensate for what she’d lost. I, too, had become an actor in a play I didn’t write. Grief has a way of distilling reality into its essence. While others may believe your perspective is distorted, in fact it’s never been more focused, clearer, sharper. The world is anything but dark. Rather it is lit in the crystal glare of an arc light—what matters becomes obvious, while the flaws in all that doesn’t are exposed. A friend told me I was radioactive. I didn’t know. Radioactivity is invisible, silent, terrifying; for me, not knowing I was radioactive, there was only the brilliance of an arc light revealing all that surrounded me. I was taking the trip Francis never got to take, living moments he didn’t have the chance to live. I wasn’t there for myself but for him. But I was there, and maybe hadn’t thought well enough about how apprehensive Bobby and his wife Allison might be about having me stay with them for four days. House guests, Ben Franklin observed, are like fish: they start to smell after three. I’d reserved a motel room and rental car, but Bobby was having none of that. “No way you’re staying anywhere else,” he said. And oh yeah, cancel the car, too. He is sturdy, solidly fit. Like Francis, I think, determined not to lose his Army body as time swells from months into years after his service. His beard is dense and evenly trimmed, and he always wears a ball cap, even in the house. (Before I departed four days later, I had to prompt him to remove it so I could get at least one photo without it.) He waves from across the terminal and we meet, embrace. A nervous man hug. In the truck, he soon relieves me of my final-approach fears. 165
He’s talkative and open. He knows I’m writing about Francis. In fact, if there’s a reason for me to be here, that’s it—to fill the gaps in my story. Bobby is a link to the collective memory we’ve lost. “Ask me anything you want to know,” he says. But I don’t have a list of questions. I’m not here to ask how many men Francis killed in Afghanistan. The fighting was bad. I know some of the worst—and know that I don’t know some too. The distinction between learning the truth and pulling at scabs becomes clear. It’s not information I want—it’s to know the people Francis knew, to submerse myself in his life. My “book” becomes a fragile excuse for being here. I’m suddenly a passenger, not in the truck, but on this trip. I’ll go wherever it takes me. Which right now, since this is my first visit to New Orleans, is a driving tour of the French Quarter. Bobby is acting the good host. We pass storefronts and souvenir stalls along the Mississippi waterfront—the local version of every tourist town I’ve ever visited, the gimcrackery veneer of New Orleans for tourists, not pilgrims like me. My radioactive arc light exposes it—a stage setting, a myth. I decline the walking tour, and later at the kitchen table Bobby laughs as he tells Allison that when I said as much, he thought, “Yes!” I feel triumphant, as if I’ve passed a test I didn’t know I was taking. Before the Army and before college, Bobby was a cook. He started out making calzones and pizza in a local shop and then leveraged his experience into a job with a large restaurant chain, working his way up to kitchen manager and later training manager. He traveled all over the country, and even to Kuwait, training chefs for the company’s stores. But he didn’t like the work. Big box restaurants are regimented; there’s no creativity in the cooking; the kitchens are stressful and unpleasant. He decided to go to college and then law school. The war in Iraq was raging then, as was the escalating U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. During his junior year, Bobby, who Francis had long ago told me was archly conservative, got into a hot debate in one of his classes with an antiwar activist who argued that the wars were all about money and American imperialism. So what was she doing about it? he wondered. And then later, he asked himself, “Who am I to talk? What am I doing about it?” That was the moment he decided to join the Army. “If I can stop one fighter from killing an American, that’d be something,” he said. * Bobby and Allison and their two children, Matthew and Elizabeth, live in a fishing camp on a canal that feeds nearby Lake Pontchartrain. When he first told me where they lived, I pictured the lakeside summer camp in New Hampshire I attended as a nine-year-old—cabins, a softball 166
field, a beach at the edge of the lake. Anything but. Their house is built on stilts, as required throughout the region following Hurricane Katrina. Across the highway is a state wildlife refuge. Behind the house, the canal drifts past, commingling fresh water from upstream with saltwater that comes in with the tide. There are two decks: from the lower one Bobby fishes for speckled trout and drops crab traps into the water. The glow of an underwater light attracts swarms of fish in the evening. Matthew fishes, too, and manages the traps expertly. Allison sometimes just shoots trout with an air rifle. Their freezer is packed with fish and venison. The upper deck overlooks marshland across the canal. From there each evening, I watch the sun set in dazzling colors and patterns that would have challenged even J.M.W. Turner to render. A steady breeze up from the lake offers relief from the heat. Over the next few days, I linger out here whenever there’s down time. At the house, literally under it, Allison skitters down the steps and clasps me instantly, almost tearfully. Six-year-old Matthew surprises me with a tight hug, as if I was an uncle he’d always known. To him, I’m “Mr. Bob,” a Southern honorific I’d nearly forgotten from years ago, when Heather and I lived in North Carolina. He is bright and chatty and loves to play Mousetrap, which we play a lot over the next few days. Elizabeth, their six-month-old, “Little-bit,” Bobby calls her, lets me walk her around the living room. My nerves return briefly. We have several days ahead. Is just being here enough … or too much? I’m determined to remain upbeat, play with the children; to keep the focus off myself, my biases and politics, my grief. I’m not sure what I am now, what identity I have. What are the parents of a lost child to his friends? How do they fit us in? We want to belong … but how? I’m not sure, but I’m here … * Soon after we lost Francis, a soldier named Scott wrote to us from Oklahoma. Like Bobby, he was fresh out of basic training when he joined Francis’s company following its return from Iraq. “My first impression of him,” Scott said, “was that he was a head-strong combat soldier just back and ready to make all the new guys’ lives difficult. Frank was one of the tougher combat vets to assist us new guys in our training, but as time went on most of us got the opportunity to get to know your son more and more personally…. Your son was one of the best, most motivated senior soldiers to help prepare us for what was coming. He was a mentor and a friend to everyone I can think of!” Balm to grieving parents? Maybe, but he didn’t have to write. Francis would grumble about “kids,” as he called them, who started out for long treks in the Afghan mountains in dirty socks or didn’t take care of their equipment or whined or slowed the group down because they weren’t in shape—behaviors that can cost lives in places like the Korengal. Bobby Brandt was none of these. In Afghanistan, he and Francis and another soldier named Jon Demler paid the price of being good at what 167
they did by catching some of the tougher assignments, which also led to a lasting friendship among them. Bobby described its beginnings in an email: During the deployment Frank, Demler and myself were always tasked with going the extra mile. We were not even in the same squad but were considered the most able to complete the more difficult missions. So in essence, we always got screwed together and we formed a really tight bond. I remember in the very beginning of our deployment on Operation Mountain Lion, I was assigned to go with Frank to clear a small house we came upon in the mountains. This was the first time they put us together and Frank said, “Hell, yeah! I have the dream team.” That was the first time that I realized that he didn’t hate me. He was just being hard on us at Fort Drum to prepare us for what he had already been through. After that operation we became really close friends. I will probably never be that close to anyone. It really is true that bonds formed through difficult times in war are special. Frank wasn’t just a friend, he was a brother to me. Soon afterwards, knowing Bobby’s background in the restaurant business, Francis asked him for advice on cooking schools. He wanted to become a chef when he got out of the Army. “You’re crazy,” Bobby told him. “Don’t do it.” But Francis was determined. He loved cooking, and now they’d found something in common. * Their company—the 10th Mountain Division, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Platoon, Company C (or simply the 1-32, Combat Company)—receives brief mention in Sebastian Junger’s book War, which traces the story of the National Guard unit that replaced them in 2007 in the notorious Korengal Valley. (The corngall, Francis would say.) Combat Company built the forward operating base (FOB) and several outposts occupied by the Guard soldiers Junger followed. He describes the Korengal Outpost as “a cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire.” Francis wrote to us from the Korengal on a postcard torn from an MRE food carton, dated May 18, 2006, about eighteen months before Junger arrived: Hey Family, I’m writing from the top of some nameless mountain which we are currently attempting to convert into an FOB. Sucks being the first guys here. We don’t have much right now, but it gets better 168
every day. We are the first U.S. forces to integrate a base camp with the Afghan Army. Needless to say, lots of top brass has been around lately, and reporters…. [M]y platoon will be a part of history, so to speak…. I will call when I can, don’t worry about me. I love you. Francis D. Sommer P.S. I have a huge beard and haven’t showered since April. P.P.S. MRE postcards suck. He scribbled in the margins to make the pen write on the plasti-coated card. He wrote “I love you,” rather than signing off “Love,” as he usually did, and also signed his full name, probably to be sure someone other than us would know who wrote the card—hints of how grave conditions really were. This region in Kunar Province was known to be the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. Americans occupied a number of sparsely-manned outposts on remote hilltops. Skirmishes occurred almost daily. Sometimes these amounted to brief machine gun bursts across the wide valleys, and sometimes they turned into brutal engagements that required air support and mortar fire delivered from distant bases. Occupying the Korengal had cost more than four dozen American lives by the time 10th Mountain left the region, and many more Afghan lives, both civilian and Afghan National Army soldiers. Sadly—one could say ironically, if the costs weren’t so tragic—it turned out to be all for nothing, as U.S. forces were quietly withdrawn in 2010, after five years in the Korengal, with nothing gained and much lost. The deployment was brutal. Missions at these isolated outposts could last months, and conditions were grim. Bobby dropped his voice into the key of utter frankness and described sharing a latrine with Francis: “We took a shit so close to each other that our knees bumped.” Food and equipment were always in short supply because it was dangerous for helicopters to fly into the region. “But not too dangerous for us to be out there,” Bobby said wryly. We heard the same from Francis in a November 2006 email describing a recent mission and hitting a characteristically sarcastic note: We were out about a week total, partly due to how long it took to reach the village, and partly because of the difficulty of getting a helicopter ride back. (The walk up was bad enough, and we didn't want to chance being ambushed on the way back down). I feel like the aviation elements over here have really let us down this deployment. Moving in the mountains is no joke, and nothing raises morale like hearing that the birds won’t come because they are afraid of being shot down. Like we are in a 169
better position. However, the mission turned out good—we found a Russian heavy machine gun hidden near the village. Combat Company took casualties on that tour, and Francis later told me he was concerned about the fitness of the unit replacing them. Altitude is a great equalizer, even among the fittest, and 10th Mountain soldiers knew that the new arrivals hadn’t acclimated. Junger describes them taking the Guard troops on an orientation mission and running them up and down hillsides and mountain trails, where peaks could reach 10,000 feet or more. “Tenth Mountain was intentionally trying to break them off,” Junger morosely observes, even hinting that they needlessly put the new guys in danger, as shots were fired at one point, the first time most of the Guard troops had ever been under fire. Francis laughed when he read this scene. Like many full-time, active-duty soldiers, he didn’t have a high opinion of the National Guard. He described a mission with these same troops in a March 2007 email: Sorry it has been so long but we were sent away for a bit. Not a fun mission, but only because we were attached to a Guard unit without a clue. These guys have been out so few times that they couldn't even remember how to get to the front gate of their own FOB when we returned. When I mentioned the mountain trail episode to Bobby, as we drove to his house in Slidell after lunch, he nodded and smiled with satisfaction. “We were goats,” he said. Disappointingly, all Junger could say about Combat Company at the end of their tour was to describe them as “messed up.” They’d been out there for sixteen months, gone through some ferocious encounters, endured losses, sparse conditions, and the disappointment of having their deployment extended by more than four months, but still, they weren’t so messed up that they couldn’t run the Guard troops ragged. Packs and equipment typically ran to eighty pounds. Bobby weighed himself before and after loading up for one mission and found he was carrying one hundred and forty. He now lives with knee and back problems and has to sleep on his back on a hard surface. Like Francis, he also suffers from tinnitus, which he describes as an unending drone of cicadas buzzing in trees. “I used to like cicadas,” he said. “Now I can’t stand them.” He also shared a perspective on the war in Afghanistan that we even felt at home in some instinctive way, a persistent undercurrent of lowvoltage fear that never quite found expression but was part of our every day. Bobby contrasted his grandfather’s experience in World War II with his own in Afghanistan. Combat soldiers and noncommissioned officers back then sometimes had weeks and even months of down time in or 170
near bases, followed by big battles with massive casualties, and then more down time. But in Afghanistan, especially in the eastern mountains, “we were always alert,” Bobby said, “always potentially under attack.” There was no down time, especially at remote and vulnerable mountaintop outposts occupied by only a few soldiers with an eagle’s view of the valley and hillsides across from them. * Choppy waves drum a steady backbeat against the bow as we skim the surface of Lake Pontchartrain, a flat skipping stone with a propeller. Water splashes up. The wind whips my hat brim back like the trail cook’s in an old-time Western. Only my chin strap keeps it from flying off into the waves. I’m in the forward seat—Bobby’d advised me not to sit on the gunwale just before he opened up the outboard—and behind me is Matthew, observant, smiling at everything, sitting where he’s supposed to while his father stands in back, one hand on the throttle, wearing sunglasses, his cap turned backwards, wind-blown, a cover guy for an outdoor sports magazine. Ahead of us, above the horizon, a system of cumulus clouds shapes and reshapes itself in complex ways. Off the port side, several hundred yards distant, waterfront homes escalate in size and value as we gain distance from the canal and rows of stilted fishing camps where Bobby and his family live. A few of these mansions, he tells me, belong to professional athletes. Real estate soon gives way to marsh as we pass into the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, a 35,000 acre reserve where Bobby hunts duck and fishes. I face forward on the open water, letting wind and spray shower me. Welcoming it. Conversation is clipped, more pointing than words. We can’t hear well over the motor and the wind. Besides, it’s too fine a moment to do anything but lose ourselves in it. And too, I don’t want to betray that my face is wet with tears. I am, at this moment, Francis. Not his father, not his proxy. I am him. He is here having the day he was supposed to have only weeks after he was gone. He’d planned to be here, to take the trip I’m taking now, over three years later, to get out on the water with Bobby and Matthew, to let wind and spray and this wildlife-rich marshland purge the demons of war and the demons of returning home. Like many who fought in these wars, he found life more complicated here. It may have been hell there, but it was simple—you knew what to do. Each task was linear, the goals clear: do a thing (build something, go somewhere with half your body weight packed on your back; hustle here, fight; hustle there, fight; return to your post, eat, clean your weapon, shit, doze but never sleep), survive and get the fuck out and make sure everyone you came with also got the fuck out. But here at home there was no war—America was not at war; it was at the mall. He’d sneer at the sight of shiny Hummers taking up a whole lane, drifting this way and that while the driver yammered on a cell phone. A Hummer to transport a few bags of groceries and a new pair of 171
shoes back home through treacherous suburban roads—a statement, solidarity: Support the troops! There’s the yellow-ribbon magnet on the gleaming bumper. “He goin’ on a mission?” Francis would quip. Well, yes, shopping. A mission. Supporting the troops! This is the deep structure, where our sensibilities mingle, where memory is a flood tide washing into the present, like the backwash of salt water flowing into the canal behind Bobby’s place, infusing fresh water flowing downstream. These hours alone have justified my travel from Kansas to Louisiana, my visit to Bobby and his family. This is, I think, what Bobby wants me to see, what he would have shown Francis. We have slowed to a cruising speed. Bobby steers into the labyrinth of canals that weave through the Pearl River marshes. It’s now safe to stand, easy to talk. The wind is buffered by the surrounding tall grass. Matthew names the birds—egrets, pelicans, an eagle perched on a dead tree. His acquaintance with wildlife is impressive for a six-year-old—for an any-year-old. He spends a lot of time out here with his father. I give him my camera and he takes pictures of a shrimp boat with its nets widely spread, suspended over the water like a giant pterodactyl’s spiny wings. The boat swarms with gulls as it passes. Bobby motors through canals where he hunts duck. His and Allison’s grocery bills are nominal because of all the fish and game he brings home. He describes a hunting trip with a couple of Army friends he’s planned for next fall, after he graduates from law school—deep into the New Mexico mountains, hunting elk, traveling lightly with small packs, the very least they’ll need to camp, oh yes, so much less than they lugged overseas. I recall the final scene in The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro’s serenity as he sites the buck, but I have no doubt Bobby will pull the trigger. I don’t mention the reference—“That reminds me of …”—a sure way to undercut his story, one of those phrases that usurps ownership, diminishes the storyteller. His hunting trip, I come to realize, as he returns to it over the next couple of days, is more than a breather after law school; it is when he’ll complete his passage from there to here. He carries grief too, for Francis, for others, and injuries, and also guilt—a mission he didn’t go on, another soldier’s death. He’d plunged back into life after his second tour in Afghanistan—work, family, school, financial challenges. He’ll breathe mountain air and track game, a linear task in a place where no one shoots back. Francis would have gone on this trip. I’m here to imagine that for him, too. The images come easily as Bobby describes his plans. I would not have understood without being here. * Bobby is making his own recipe for gumbo while Allison feeds Elizabeth and I play Mousetrap with Matthew. I haven’t played Mousetrap since Francis and his brother and sister were children. In all the years since it was first released when I was a kid, it hasn’t changed. 172
Francis liked board games. Regrets simmer from those nights when I was too tired or lazy to play. I’m soon absorbed in making the mousetrap work. We finish the game and Matthew wants to play again, so we do. And again. And when there’s no game, we just build the mousetrap and set it in motion. Matthew finally wears me out and carries on by himself. Bobby and Allison chat openly about everything—money, politics, family stuff. They laugh easily together. After dinner, they debate whether women should serve in the infantry (both against) and the merits of a woman becoming president. Bobby’s okay with a woman in the White House (though probably not Hillary), Allison not at all. “Women are too emotional,” she says. Conversation is frank and yet floats lightly on the surface of divisive issues. I remain aloof, more amused at their exchange than drawn into the debate. Allison is even more conservative than Bobby. Before the weekend’s out, I watch a video of her firing a 9mm. handgun at a blown-out TV. The gumbo is the best I’ve ever tasted. Bobby’d promised to make it for Francis, and here I am to eat it. “It’s so weird to hear you call him Francis,” he says. “He was just Frank or Sarnt Sommer.” I share our trials with the name—mostly Francis’s. It’s a common name in the Northeast, where Heather and I grew up and we lived until he was five. Not so much in the Midwest. It made him a target in school and was perpetually misspelled as Frances. Even some adults made him feel different or weird about his name. Later in high school, he was so tired of it that we offered him the choice to use his middle name, David, or even have his name legally changed. Or if you want, we said, we’ll just call you Frank. “That’d be weird,” he said. We should call him Francis. “What else would you call me?” * A storm blows in on Sunday. We won’t be going out on the water again. Bobby has reading to do for school, and I want to catch up on email. Country music videos play on the big screen, and Allison fixes a bottle for Little-bit. Matthew is bored and restless. He hovers around me, first one side, then the other, sneaking up on me along the sofa, sidling in until he’s at my shoulder. Allison calls him away but soon he’s back. Finally I cave. We build another mousetrap. Soon we’re all playing again, building, laughing, circling the cheese. But the storm is gaining strength, blowing in fiercely across the marsh and up the canal. Clouds moil darkly over the city on the horizon. A sharp gust blows a section of flashing loose over the porch. It swings dangerously and threatens the living room windows. Bobby realizes he has to do something about it. The porch is about twelve feet over the lower deck. The flashing swings across the railing in 173
a clumsy pendulum-like motion. Hammer in hand, Bobby leaps onto the railing. The thing fights him as he nails it in place. He’s indifferent to the height. Not foolish, but agile, focused. Watching him, I can see why he and Francis did well together in Afghanistan. He’s not someone you need to explain a task to, or wonder if he’ll be able to do it. He can see the end of a task and the way through it at a glance. Caution is a matter of doing it right, and knowing your limits. He knows that gravity will win if he doesn’t respect it. Later, inside, with the children settled for naps, I share photos on my laptop of Francis’s life in Kansas. I’ve brought several items, too, including the funeral service program and Francis’s Kansas City Chiefs ball cap. Worn and sweat-stained, it wouldn’t have fetched a dollar on eBay, but small things matter—tokens, signs. Gateways to memory. They touch our senses, launch images from the past. Bobby is a Saints fan. He and Francis loved the rivalry. I’m still chattering and looking at the cap and don’t realize that beside me they’ve both collapsed into tears. This moment turns out to be, after all, the service Bobby couldn’t attend—the time we spent then at our kitchen table, telling stories, looking at pictures, weeping, and laughing too. Bobby grins and promises to root for the Chiefs—when they’re not playing the Saints. Allison shares a story about Frank’s last visit. They were blowing off fireworks one night at Bobby’s hunting cabin on a remote parcel of bayou, tossing Black Cats one at a time into the campfire. Allison threw in a bundle of a half dozen or more, but it landed off to the side without igniting. She forgot about it—until later, when the Black Cats exploded and sent Francis and Bobby leaping for cover. She’s laughing so hard she can barely sputter through the story. Bobby nods dryly, recalling how he and Francis instinctively hit the deck, dodging a sudden burst of Taliban bullets in the dark Louisiana forest that surrounded them. * There was one thing I wanted to ask Bobby. This was the right time. It was about Shudergay. Combat Company had engaged in two serious firefights at Shudergay, a hamlet in the Afghan mountains that border Pakistan. This was the home of a Taliban leader named Habib Jan, who had killed many of his own countrymen and inspired fear in villages throughout the region. He was known to have ordered the beheading of his own brother. The first battle at Shudergay took place while Francis was on leave in July 2006. He was not pleased about being ordered to take leave only four months into the tour, and then, while he was enjoying the nightlife and beaches of Barcelona, two men from his company were killed. That was the news that greeted him on his return. 174
According to company commander Capt. Robert Stanton, the mission to get Habib Jan had become personal. “This guy was responsible for the only two soldiers I lost,” he said, following the second battle at Shudergay, which resulted in Habib Jan’s death. “The extension was almost worth it to get rid of him. No, I would say it was definitely worth it.” In April 2007, Combat Company was ordered to revisit Shudergay, where it was thought Taliban fighters were using the now-deserted village to regroup. The climb there alone is daunting, at an elevation of over 8,000 feet, over rocky exposed goat trails, most of it on foot with heavy packs and weaponry. Two book-length accounts of Shudergay have been published by a writer named James Christ (pronounced like fist), Shudergay and The 17 Hour Firefight. The former details the first encounter, while Francis was on leave, and in the second he and Bobby are mentioned a number of times. The only other written accounts rely wholly on official Army sources. Christ’s books appear to be well-sourced, based mostly on interviews with soldiers who went on these missions, and including exhaustive lists of ordnance, acronyms, and photos. Yet it’s plain that editorial attention is lacking. Typographical and grammar errors recur frequently enough to become distracting. Acronyms litter the pages in confusing ways—even humorously, if unintentionally so: “He had been on his way to the TOC when the explosion of gunfire erupted atop the mountain. Salmon didn’t need anyone to tell him there was a TIC. He ran to the TOC and saw everyone in Combat Main scrambling into motion to get ready to enter a fight.” The book’s title appears on the front cover as The 17 Hour Firefight and then on the title page (correctly) as The Seventeen-Hour Firefight. The back cover photo renders the printed text there illegible. These books appear to be self-published—not itself a reason for criticism, as the market for them is likely to be limited. And they do perform a service in documenting these events. Christ deserves credit for bringing attention to these encounters and making the effort to record them. But the obvious haste and even sloppiness of their production have the unfortunate result of casting doubt on their reliability. That’s what I wanted to ask Bobby on that stormy afternoon: how accurate was this account? As I pulled a dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of The 17 Hour Firefight out of my bag, he shook his head and laughed. He said the book made him so angry he couldn’t finish reading it. He pointed right away to the cover photo, which he’d taken it, though he wasn’t given credit. And the photo itself is misleading, he said. In the picture, several soldiers from his squad are standing on a wooded hillside in a generally unguarded manner, a few with weapons slung casually on their shoulders. This photo, Bobby said, wasn’t even from the Shudergay mission. He noted that the soldiers are wearing only fatigues. “There’s no 175
way we’d have been standing around like that, without helmets or armor, on that mission,” he said. He leafed through the book and waved a finger over several more of his photos that were credited to another soldier. He snorted in disgust. It was his own fault. Christ had called to interview him, but Bobby didn’t know who he was and wasn’t interested in talking to him. He said it seemed like the book was about to be published, too, and felt pressured by the author, which only made him more resistant to talk. Like many veterans, he mostly wanted to leave this battle and the whole deployment behind him. Staff Sgt. Chris Bryant, Francis’s former squad leader and a close friend, responded similarly when I asked him about these books. He said he’d been interviewed but hadn’t even read them. “I try to live my life as far as possible not thinking about overseas,” Bryant said in an email. “The only reason I did the interview for the guy is so that maybe another unit could learn from it.” After reading Shudergay, about the first battle in this village, I decided to talk to Christ. He wasn’t easy to find because the publisher, Battlefield Publishing, lists no website, email, or phone number. I finally located him through a radio talk-show host who’d interviewed him, and we subsequently spoke on the phone. That was when I learned he’d written The 17 Hour Firefight, about the second Shudergay battle, on April 22, 2006, in which Bobby and Francis participated. Christ told me that Francis gave the order that launched this battle, a scene described in the book’s early pages. He was on point as Second Platoon approached the village, when an Afghan man was spotted on the hillside. The soldiers assumed he was a lookout. Francis shouted in Pashto for the man to raise his hands, but he backed away and Francis called again. Then he turned and ran. When, moments later, he pulled a rifle from behind a rock, Francis shouted, “Light him up!” According to Christ, “Almost everyone had been sighting in on the man…. The insurgent died in an uphill rain of bullets.” The Army accounts don’t mention enemy casualties at this first encounter. In Christ’s version, Francis’s squad leader told the men to hold their fire because the Rules of Engagement proscribed against shooting until soldiers saw a weapon. They’d heard a metallic clank that might have been a weapon but had not seen one. According to Christ, the man then picked up an AK-47 and began shooting, which led to his death. Bobby doesn’t recall it that way. He was back farther in the line, but he thought this man had escaped and may have been responsible for bringing down on them the hell that followed. Second Platoon quickly found itself pinned down in the village, with more than forty Taliban fighters occupying high ground on a ridge above them and enemy reinforcements being called in. A sniper was also trying to pick off individuals, nearly hitting Francis twice and sending another shot between Bobby’s legs. Bobby sketched the terrain inside the back 176
cover of my book and described the demanding climb a detachment from Combat Company’s 3rd Platoon was simultaneously making to the west of the village to engage fighters who were descending from that direction. There’s little doubt they would have overrun 2nd Platoon, which was low on ammunition, had it not been for this group’s effort. “I give them all the credit,” Bobby said. “They really had to hump it to get up there.” Official Army reportage and incidental accounts like Christ’s two books—and the stories soldiers themselves tell months and even years after the engagement—offer most of what we see inside this war, which as of this writing is in its thirteenth year, with a commitment of troops in Afghanistan for many years to come. Embedded reporters and writers, like Sebastian Junger and his partner, the late Tim Heatherington, are rarely witness to battles like this. The war in Afghanistan is not being documented as, say, Vietnam was, which left a rich literature of on-thescene reporting. Ezra Pound famously said, “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.” Unprofessional editing, failing to verify the provenance of photos and accurately credit them, and poor production values are not superficial matters. They undercut the authenticity of the account and the magnitude of events like this. Battles like those at Shudergay offer a glimpse into the nature of this war—its diasporic character, the elusiveness of the enemy, who can fade into villages and escape over borders, and the ambiguous purpose and meaning of the war itself. Bobby reminded me that the accounts on which Christ relied were based mostly on what the men who were interviewed recalled—and he added that a few may have selectively padded their own roles. When the soldiers had finally descended the mountain hours after this exhausting firefight, they were ordered to turn around climb back to the village. The final battlefield assessment still needed to be taken, and they had to do it. The reaction was swift and bitter, and from a few loud, but they returned and finished the task. A number of Silver and Bronze Stars were awarded for this mission. SSG Chris Bryant received his second Silver Star; his first had been for the earlier Shudergay battle. For Francis the epilogue was bittersweet—and it is for us too, though differently. Here’s the email he wrote soon afterwards: From: Frank Sommer Sent: Wednesday, May 23, 2007 8:42 AM To: Robert Sommer Subject: Re: Stars and Stripes Yeah, that was the thing I was telling you about. It lifted our spirits almost as much as getting redeployment dates. Unfortunately, I won't be getting any award for that because my squad leader is a lazy piece of shit. He didn't feel like writing up 177
any awards. I sure do miss having Chris [Bryant] as squad leader. I put all of my guys in for Army Commendation medals with Valor devices. I'm looking forward, as well—the word is still that we should be home around the twelfth! I'll call once we are at JAF [Jalalabad Air Field]. Talk to you then. Love, Francis He told me later that the squad leader, whom I won’t name here, didn’t write up anyone for an award because he didn’t want to be bothered with the paperwork. It angered me at the time, as it would any parent, I suppose. The recognition doesn’t matter now—that was for Francis, not for Heather and me—but knowing that he took care of his men does, that does matter. Knowing he did that much is enough. * “Dear Friends,” wrote Clovis and Benny Martin in 1929 to streetcar union members who’d gone on strike in New Orleans, “We are with you heart andSoule, at any time you .,are around the French Market, don’t forget to drop in at Martin’s Coffee Stand & Restaurant, Cor. Ursuline & North Peters Sts., our meal is free to any members of Division 194” [sic passim]. The free meals for these “poor boys,” as the Martins called them, were hefty sandwiches on oversized bread loafs special ordered from the bakery just for the strikers. The Martin brothers later dubbed the sandwiches “po’ boys,” which have long since become a hallmark of New Orleans fare. I’d been told I had to have one. Bobby ordered the same. They were so big that the little appetite I had shriveled when mine landed in front of me. The sandwiches mostly sat in our baskets while we talked anyway. Bobby said he’d encouraged to Francis to come here and settle with him, at least for a while. He knew Francis was in trouble, that he couldn’t sleep and carried guilt and unthinkable memories from incidents on his tours; that he was drinking too much, though Bobby didn’t know how much. He’s not much of a drinker himself. Life here, he thought, with less booze and more time outdoors, and with his family, would be good for Frank. He’d molt the sorrow and guilt that encrusted him. He may have been right too—Heather and I think he was—but I’ve also wondered if Francis might have just brought his troubles with him. With children in the house, with Bobby in school, there’d have to be limits. And Bobby didn’t know how bad things had gotten; that Frank had put himself through six-weeks of painful, in-patient rehab at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. He’d withdrawn from school and gotten a leave from his job so he could go into the program. He was released 178
just days before he was to stand as best man at his brother’s wedding. Only Heather and I knew how fragile he was, how terrified; how at the reception he fought the urge to reach across the table and grab frothy beer glasses and guzzle them down. This was only five months before we lost him. Alcoholism is a cursed disease, at once both sickness and cure for many veterans. “Liquor was medicine for the anger that made them hurt, for the pain of loss,” writes Leslie Marmon Silko in her novel Ceremony, “medicine for tight bellies and choked up throats.” Francis fought his way through his brother’s wedding day. I don’t believe he fought more courageously at Shudergay. I shared this with Bobby. This and other stories. We’d only known each other for an hour. We nibbled at our sandwiches. He told me what Frank meant to him and Allison on Bobby’s second deployment to Afghanistan. She was terrified while he was gone. After the first tour, they knew how bad it was there. We’d all—Heather and I too—seen reports of losses coming back in the stark, formulaic prose of Army press releases: “Two 10th Mountain Division Soldiers were killed in the Pech River Valley, Afghanistan, … when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.” We’d gone through the long blackouts, while they were in the mountains. Allison would call Frank in the middle of the night, or at his job, or when he was in class. He always responded immediately, she said. Even in class he’d send a text to say he’d call shortly. Not hearing from (or about) Bobby, he told her, was good. He knew the conditions, what they’d be doing. He would talk her through. She called him “her rock.” They were grateful—still were, both Bobby and Allison. Their hospitality to me was without doubt partly an expression of gratitude for what he did for them then. Bobby was in tears. “I think about him every day,” he said. “I just miss him.” My fears from an hour earlier were gone like the plane’s smoky contrails. It would be all right. We brought the leftover po’ boys home to Allison. I met the children. Bobby and Matthew and I went out on the water the following morning. I wasn’t here for me. I was here for Francis.
EMILY STRAUSS a notday a notday, a stroke day without a sky blue like nurses' uniforms un-formed her half mouth, no movement the arm and leg frozen not her left
twisted and garbled I can't lookâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; it's only half-death the not-dead patients in attitudes frozen under the bright lights frozen in mute rictus gone mostly I watch, listen her voice turned inward she sits blank waiting I wait we sit still gazing away we're not here this hospital no-space
DOUG VAN HOOSER Second Chance Tom took the phone out of his pants pocket, hit the message icon, and stared at it for the fifth time. Can we talk? What the hell was this? How’d she get his number? What could she possibly want? He turned the phone off and stuffed it back in his pocket. The lousy bitch. “Tom, there’s a truck with food supplies backing into dock two.” John, his boss, yelled at him. Not because he was angry, but because he was standing in his office door a hundred feet away. Tom waved and gave him a thumbs-up, then turned to go get the forklift. He was favoring his right knee. It was sore from traipsing through the woods and fields all weekend hunting turkey with Mike and his ex-brother-in-law, Tony. Nothing like being haunted by a high school football injury twenty, twenty-five years later. And now the ex-wife. He hadn’t heard a thing from her since that day in the lawyer’s office almost a year and half ago. The fuggin’ bitch. Get angry at her had been Tony’s advice. That took almost a year and now when he thought of her he tried to hiss like a cat. That fat ass cat of hers. He turned the forklift’s propane tank on and jumped onto the seat. Even cold, it started quickly. Just like a forty-year old unmarried woman. No time to lose, let’s be quick. Or in Jean’s case: a married woman with her new man. “Yo!” It was Bart, the food distributor’s truck driver. He had his hands cupped like a megaphone around his mouth. Tom heard him over the forklift’s motor and waved. Bart pointed at the door opener, Tom shook his head yes, and Bart hit the button. “Hey, you over worked, under paid, lazy no good. What’s happenin’ today?” “Same thing as every day. Bustin’ my ass takin’ care of jerk off truck drivers.” “Jerk off? Isn’t that what you do every day at lunch? Got any new magazines that don’t have the pages stuck together?” “We can’t have any of those magazines here. That’s harassment. Sexual harassment.” “Well, are you doing any harassing this weekend, Mr. Single can I show you my shotgun?” “Probably get the same as you. Or is that on your honey-do list?” “That’s never on the list.” “Not even Saturday night?” “Obligatory sex is Sunday morning. So you can get forgiven at church.” “So you don’t go to church unless you get some?” “What would be the point?” 181
Tom smiled, shook his head and motioned Bart to open the trailer’s door. Bart unlatched the roll up door and tugged on it. It flew up. “That door gets up faster than your pecker.” “A lot faster.” Tom drove in and got a skid, backed out and took it where it would be out of the way. Out of the way, out of the way, that’s where she had gone and that’s where she should stay. Out of his life. Christ, it had taken this long to get her out of his mind for most of the day. She still occupied every dream. Last night she was smiling at him, waving good-bye, topless, getting in a limousine, and he smiled back and tried to wave. But he was handcuffed to two poles by his wrists and ankles, his legs and arms making an X. That’s probably because his boss had been showing him porn on his computer at lunch yesterday. But it was the woman who was tied up. And there was no limo. Just two men naked except for the black leather outfit designed to show off their muscles and make it look as if their package was bigger than anything Tom had ever seen. Oh, and the cat of nine tails. Tom had looked at it for all of ten seconds. That was enough. He sat down at his desk with his back to the screen and didn’t watch but he couldn’t help but hear. And it wasn’t sweet nothings. “Hey, you goin’ to the fish fry tonight?” “Yeah, that was the plan.” “I’ll try and get the old lady to go out and see you there. Or if she’s not in the mood, I’ll just leave her at home. We haven’t been there in a month.” “She’s got to be in the right mood to go out and eat?” “Yea. Hot flashes or some excuse.” “When I was married that was one thing my wife never argued over. Anything was better than cooking.” “I didn’t say she’ll cook. She just refuses to go out. She’s gotta have the right mind set to be seen in public, or cook.” Tom shook his head. “They gotta have the right mind-set for virtually everything.” He took a pen out of his shirt pocket, signed the bill of lading and patted Bart on the shoulder. “See you tonight.” Tom turned and headed for the office. Obviously Jean had had the right mind-set to find another guy and leave him. How clueless could you be? He reached in his pocket and pulled the phone out. No new messages. Maybe he could just put her on ignore? So far so good. If he did message her back, he should do it at dinner time. Hopefully when she and the professor were sitting at the table and he’d ask who’s that? Better yet, do it at midnight when they’re in bed and wake them both up. Better yet, Saturday night, after the news, during obligatory sex. Shit, knowing his luck, the professor was into Sunday morning. Tom’s Tap, yea a different Tom, was only five or six blocks from Tom’s apartment. The apartment building was close enough to the college to be primarily occupied by students. Loud music was a Friday night staple and it could last until two or three o’clock in the morning. 182
Football weekends made Saturdays a continuation of Friday night. Tripping over a passed out drunk in the hall was a common occurrence. Once he found a boy and a girl both snoring away with half their clothes off. Drunk sex; that sure had been a long time ago. Tom decided to walk, leave ol’ Betsy in the lot. He was planning on having enough beers to get beyond legally drunk and be able to fall asleep no matter how loud the music. No sense in risking his only possession, a rust bucket pickup truck. The tavern was a local’s spot. No college students unless they were with Mom and Dad. The college bars were downtown and none of the town’s people ever went there once they were married or over twentyfive. It was as if some kind of treaty had been signed by the students and the people who lived in town. Tom couldn’t remember when Tom’s Tap had not existed. It looked like an old clapboard house with beer signs hanging on it. Only the parking lot set it off from the houses around it. It would have been a neighborhood bar in the big city but here the neighborhood was the town. The warmth of the day was giving way to fall’s shortened light. There were no clouds which meant the sun’s heat would escape. Tom grabbed a flannel jacket and put it on. He walked down the hall and a flight of stairs to exit the building. The building wasn’t humming yet. That usually didn’t happen until eleven or twelve o’clock and cranked up when the bars closed at one. Tom walked briskly, as if he had a purpose. He touched his pants pocket to make sure his phone was there. Maybe he should keep his mouth shut about Jean’s text message. He didn’t have a clue what to do. God knows he needed advice, but what kind? And from whom? The tavern wasn’t a dating website, it was a bar full of liquor fueled opinions. Tom jumped the three steps to the porch. It was empty. The chairs and tables of summer gone. There was a storm door with the screen still in it that no one had yet bothered to switch out for glass. The small vestibule was an add-on to try and keep the winter wind from blowing in every time the door to the tavern opened. It also doubled as the only place smokers could light up and stay out of the cold when the snow was flying. The warm smell of deep-frying greeted him when he got inside. The days of smoke hanging from the ceiling gone. The U shaped bar was to his right and as usual, Willie the painter was sitting at the corner, beer in hand. Tonight he was spotted a light blue. He’d clean his hands and face but his dark hair, as always, reflected his day’s work. He changed shirts but his pants were a palette. He nodded at Tom and returned to his beer and food. It would be midnight before he left his stool. Tom waved at Lonnie, the bartender and son of Tom’s Tap’s Tom, who was at the far side of the bar talking to DonnaLynn, a regular who lately was here a lot without her husband. Jim was a long haul trucker who was out of town for some long stretches. She was a nice lady, funny, easy to talk to. She was about ten years younger than Tom and weighed 183
in as a light heavy weight. Her husband was a book end match for her in the heavy weight category. Too much sitting behind the wheel and truck stop food, and then coming home to a wife with a deep fat fryer. “Hey, DonnaLynn, no Jim?” “Not yet. Coming in late tonight. Hey Lonnie, get Mr. Down on his Luck his usual PBR.” “It’s pretty bad when another guy’s wife knows what I drink.” “You mean pretty good. Somebody’s gotta make sure you get some kind of satisfaction even if it is only a beer.” Lonnie set the draft beer down on the bar. “DonnaLynn’s into satisfaction, Mr. Tom. Better take advantage of it.” What the hell did that mean? “I think that’s limited to PBR and Brandy Old Fashioneds.” “And a conversation of tease and be teased. Take this stool before I find somebody I like better.” Tom pulled the stool out and sat down. She liked to kid around and always wore a grin unless you failed to jab back at her. “So what’s on the Jim satisfaction list?” “Just the usual wifely delights that take place late at night after three of these.” She held up her brandy old fashioned. “I once knew what those were. I mean, not your delights but, you know, wifely delights.” “Maybe you should try going to church. Find some woman who’s a sinner.” “Aren’t they all sinners?” “Oh but some sin much better than others.” She winked at him. “You know, I worked with a woman out at the truck stop that’s probably available. But she has two kids.” “No husband but two kids? What kind of jerk leaves his kids?” “Well, in this case, two kinds of jerks.” “Oh. So she goes to church.” “You know, I don’t think so. Not anymore anyway. Too busy working and taking care of kids to be out satisfying the boys.” “Maybe she learned after the second time. Not the first.” “It would appear you’re right. The learning curve can be a little steep for some of us.” “You know, I heard from my ex-wife this morning.” “Yea. What’d she have to say?” “Not much. Sent me a text saying she wanted to talk.” “Oh. The talk.” “Yea. Whatever that means.” “You didn’t text her back?” “No. I…I don’t know what to say.” “How about talk about what?” “That’s what I should say?” “Or maybe, ok, where and when?” 184
“So I should answer her and see what it’s about?” “Not unless you want to. Didn’t she hook up with some professor out at the University?” “Yea. The guy she worked for the last three years, well four now.” “She still works for him?” “I think so. I haven’t talked to her since the divorce.” “She didn’t marry him?” “No. As far as I know and I’m good friends with her brother. I went hunting with him last Saturday. He would have said something.” “Well, this sounds interesting. Maybe the professor ran out of firewood for the fireplace.” Tom looked at DonnaLynn squinting a question. What did that mean? “The thrill is gone. Maybe it’s not working. Maybe she found out the professor has a different grading curve for the young ladies in his class. Sometimes a girl can get extra credit a guy can’t.” “No wonder I got lousy grades in school.” “That’s what happens when you major in beer and minor in women.” “Well, truth be told, I never went to college. Maybe that’s what happened. Jean went and I didn’t.” “Weren’t you married twenty years?” Tom nodded, “Yea.” “That wasn’t it then. You wouldn’t have lasted that long. She had a different problem.” “Yea, she fell for the professor and went for extra credit.” “Nah. Something’s missing. And it’s still missing or she discovered it was never missing and that’s why she wants to talk.” “So what do I do?” “That’s up to you.” “Hey, there you are.” It was Bart with his wife Debbie in tow. “It’s so crowded I didn’t see you over here at first. Thought maybe you decided to party with the college kids.” “That’ll be the day. Hey, Lonnie, get us two more and get Bart and Debbie what they want.” “PBR and a gin and tonic, kid.” “Make that a double, Lonnie.” Debbie laid a quick kiss on Tom’s cheek. “Hi DonnaLynn. No Jim?” “Later tonight. We’ll get a whole two days together.” “Be careful. That may be enough to get you into trouble.” “I hope so. After eleven days he better be ready to rock and roll if he doesn’t want me to become the town floosie.” They all got a chuckle out of that remark. “Speaking of floosies, Tom, Bart thinks it’s time for you to find one. Or do you have one you’re keeping secret?”
Tom didn’t see Debbie often and he was always surprised by her no holds barred questioning and opinions. “No secrets. I was never very good with women.” “You never will be if you don’t try. Bart, isn’t there some woman in your office that just got divorced?” “Yea, because she was doing the boss’s son and got caught.” “So she’s taken?” “No. Sonny boy didn’t want any part of her once she got caught. He had Daddy move him to the branch downstate.” “There you go, Tom. She’s ripe for picking.” Ripe for picking, what was she, a piece of fruit? “Does she go to church?” “When did you get religion?” “I suggested he look for sinners and what better place to find them than at church?” “DonnaLynn’s got a point. How about it, Bart, is she a church goer?” “Well it must be the church of the spreading thighs. Actually, she’s a nice girl. A little short of a full load. And God knows she wasn’t the first one to hook up with Sonny boy. But she’s not even thirty yet. Sorry, old timer, she’s probably more interested in a potential father, not a father figure.” Bart patted Tom on the back. “Well, you’re not going to find many women in this place. Lonnie, get us another round.” Debbie had wasted no time downing her drink. “You work at the university. There’s got to be more women working there than anyplace else.” “That worked for his wife. But there aren’t any women down on the receiving dock. At least none I ever see.” “Bart’s right. Once a day Joan, who’s got to be sixty, comes in to drop off and pick up paper work. And that’s it.” “And you never run into the ex?” “She works in an office the other side of campus.” Tom waved like it was the next town over. “But I did hear from her today.” “Yeah. What’d you hear?” Uh oh, this could be a mistake. Debbie could grab tighter than a tick. “She just sent me a text.” “Yeah. And? She getting married? Having a kid?” “She wants to talk.” DonnaLynn put quote marks in the air around to talk. “Ahh, talk. That’s code for I screwed up. I’m not happy.” “How do you know that?” Bart asked the question Tom wanted to ask. “If it was something simple, or if she was just informing you something like I’m getting married, I thought you should know, she would have taken the easy out and left that message. Talk is the first word that leads to saying forgive me.” 186
“Debbie’s right, Tom. When you were married and had a fight how’d you make up? One of you says we need to talk or says I’m sorry, but, and starts talking.” DonnaLynn gave Tom a you know it’s true look. “And then you have make up sex.” Bart clapped him on the back. “That’s not going to happen. How could I ever do that? It’s been over a year.” “Better yet, revenge sex.” Debbie looked for agreement from DonnaLynn. “Well now, that sounds interesting. But I can’t say that I have ever experienced that. But it sounds hot.” “Oh, yea, that’s gotta be a burner, buddy.” “What the heck is revenge sex?” Tom looked befuddled. “That’s when she does anything to be forgiven and you bang her fifteen ways until she can’t walk.” Bart had his arm around Tom’s shoulder and shook him. “It could be a real steamer.” DonnaLynn shook her head slowly. “But you may not want to go there.” “Are you kidding? You want to go there. She gets all kinda passionate and you take her to the edge three, four times and back off. Then plow in there and ride her like she’s never been ridden, get yourself off, then roll off and walk away. Thanks for the memory, honey. Wave on your way out the door.” Bart waved bye. “That’s nuts. That’ll never happen. Lonnie, we need another round. My friends are under the influence of something other than alcohol.” “Why’s that?” “Oh, my ex wants to talk and they think it will end up in make up sex or revenge sex or sex sex or…” “I don’t know nothin’ about any of that. But I’m interested. Revenge sex, what are you getting even for? Getting divorced?” “He got cuckolded.” Debbie spread her hands as if saying what are you missing here. “Deb, Tom isn’t queer. Are you!” “I sure as hell don’t want to hold some guy’s cock.” “Cuckold, you idiots. It means a guy who has sex with another guy’s wife.” “Oh, well, yea, that happened.” “And now you even the score. You cuckold the professor back. Give him a taste of his own medicine or whatever.” Tom shook his head trying to loosen himself like a fly that’s landed on a spider’s web. “Well, first things first. I haven’t even texted her back.” “Text her, tell her you’re here and to come on over.” “Here? That’s crazy. She’d never do it.” “Don’t make that bet. If she really wants to talk she’ll come over.” Debbie was a spider, smiling, watching the fly struggle. 187
“I… I’m going outside for a smoke.” Tom’s head was spinning. The beer? Were they right? Would Jean actually come over here where she was bound to see people she knew? He wedged his way through the crowd. The screen door slapped shut behind him. He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked aimlessly through the parking lot. He found himself next to Willie the painter’s truck. The ladders, cans, and drop cloths were all speckled and streaked. The old truck squatted from the weight. On the driver’s door it had an open paint can tilted with the paint starting to pour out, a brush with a drop falling from it, and Exteriors by Bill. Tom sat down on the rear bumper and put his head in his hands. He took a deep breath and looked up at the clear, dark night. He reached into his shirt pocket for the pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there. He’d quit years ago but still went through the motions of lighting up and inhaling. He reached into his right front pants pocket for the old flip top Zippo lighter that he once had. He snapped it open and flicked the wheel on the flint, then inhaled on the pretend Lucky Strike. He wondered if they were still available. Was it possible to even buy them? He could never go back to smoking again. That would be stupid. He could picture himself twenty years ago, taking a drag and handing it to Jean so she could take one. She’d have that smile, not a grin, her lips not parted. Just a look of pleasure, satisfaction. They were wrong about Jean. It was just some stupid thing she thought he should know. Or she was looking for something she thought he might have. God knows, he didn’t have anything. There was no way she would come to Tom’s Tap. It wasn’t the place university people came to. He took another long, deep drag and exhaled. No way Debbie was going to back off. Bart either. Bart was convinced there was some other woman out there with Tom’s name tattooed on her. A second chance. Whoever it was, she certainly had not appeared. Some divorced woman wanting kids? Some woman with kids? No way. He took another drag and threw the cigarette on the gravel, stood up and twisted his shoe on it. One more beer then back to the apartment before the Friday night parties began. Tom got back inside the tavern and started to slice through the crowd. He ended up at Willie’s corner. “Hey, Willie, how’s it goin’?” “It’s goin’.” “Hey, I always wondered why you put Bill on your truck? Nobody calls you that.” “My first wife did.” “Oh, when were you married?” “Never.” “Oh. I don’t get it.” “Well, I never married her. She got pregnant when I was nineteen. She called me Bill, so I didn’t marry her.” “That’s a good reason.” “Best one I had.” 188
“Where is this kid?” “With his mother. She ended up getting pregnant again and having a second kid.” “She doesn’t work out at the truck stop, does she?” “Yea, I think so. Are you hookin’ up with her?” “No.” Tom shock his head and saw Debbie across the bar had her phone out and was looking at it. “I don’t know her. DonnaLynn does, I think. See ya later.” Tom knifed through the people lining the bar like coats of paint. What was Debbie up to? “Hey, how was that smoke?” Bart knew he didn’t smoke. “The next one is always the best. What happened while I was gone?” “Not much. You ready for another?” “Sure.” Tom shrugged. Debbie had a half smile on her face. She wouldn’t, would she? Bart handed Tom the fresh beer. “We took a vote. Revenge sex won four zip.” “It could be a hundred to zip. There’s not a chance in earth, hell or heaven that it will happen.” “You just need a good wingman and two wingwomen.” Bart pointed at himself and then his wife and DonnaLynn. “We texted Jean and told her we were here and would like to see her. That we missed her. It had been a long time.” Debbie hesitated and stared at Tom waiting for a reaction. “But we failed to mention that you were here.” “Well then, I better leave.” “No. This is the perfect set-up. We get her here, put a few drinks in her, pump her for a little information, make sure the professor isn’t servicing the account and then have you round the corner and pull up a stool.” Debbie winked. “You guys are nuts.” “No we’re not. This is perfect. It allows us to find out what that text you got is really about. You stay in the clear until we make sure you can make a safe landing.” Bart was on the brink of pleading. “You didn’t go along with this?” Tom looked at DonnaLynn. “It’s not a bad idea for somebody to find out what she’s thinking if you don’t want to. If it’s nothing you want to deal with, it gives you an easy out. If she’s looking to reconnect, it’s your choice.” “What kind of friends are you guys? I’m telling you it’s nothing. God knows it’s just some stupid little thing.” “Even Lonnie thinks it’s something, and that kid has only made it half way around the block when it comes to women.” “I don’t know. It will never work.” “You think DonnaLynn and I can’t get it out of her? You and Bart get out of the way. It won’t take us ten minutes.” “I can’t stay?” Bart was whining. 189
“No, you lunkhead. She knows you two are friends. She may not say something in front of you. Go plot his revenge sex. The two of you can come up with some idea that will blow that opportunity.” “Let’s go see if the bowling machine is open.” Bart put his hand on Tom’s back and shoved him toward the back of the tavern. Tom’s Tap’s Tom had an old bowling machine and three pinball machines that had to be over thirty years old. Antiques that the Tap’s Tom kept working. They still only took quarters and were tucked in a room off the bar by themselves. In high school, Tom and his buddies would come to the tavern in the afternoon and play the machines. He was skilled in old school electronics of bells and lights. Texting was as far he had gotten on his phone. It was a cheap model that wasn’t that smart which suited him. Jean had taken the computer and his email account went with it. Not that he ever used it. He’d rather fish than surf. The internet seemed like it was only good for porn. Bart dropped a couple of quarters in the bowling machine. “You go first. We’ll see if you can still handle that puck.” Tom slid the puck and knocked all the pins down. “Well, I’m still good for one thing.” Bart knocked down seven and had to go for the spare. “So your wife couldn’t resist. She had to go messing around.” Tom slid the puck back to Bart. “I’d rather have her mess around with your head than mess around with some other guy.” Bart made the spare. “You know she may be right. Jean may be looking to do an about face, and Debbie sure as hell will find out.” Tom grabbed the puck, slid it hard and left one pin standing. “I don’t think so, and if she is, then what the hell do I do?” “First thing you do is get laid. You don’t have to think about that. You might as well take advantage of the situation.” Sex. That’d be sweet. Better than mother thumb and her four daughters. “Why would she come back to me?” “Because people always return to what they know. She didn’t leave you because she couldn’t stand you. You weren’t even fighting, right?” Bart was right. It had come out of the blue. She had found something, someone, better. God knows how long she had been banging him. “You know, it took me a year to get angry at her. To move on. Why would I go back there?” “Don’t. But get laid. Have some fun. Give back what she gave you.” “Revenge sex? Whoever heard of that?” “Apparently Debbie. It must be in those goofy books she reads.” “Maybe I should borrow some of those books. Then I’d know how to do it. What the hell kind of books are they? Porn books?” “Nah. Never heard of that. She calls them romance novels.” “Sounds more like the opposite of romance.” “One guy’s cup of sugar is another guy’s cup of salt.” 190
What the hell did that mean? “You come up with the weirdest comments.” “My Dad used to say that. People have different tastes. And in your case, your wife found another flavor. All I’m saying is do unto others as they do unto you.” “So have sex with her and that will even the score with the professor? How’s that even the score with Jean?” “It doesn’t unless you do it and walk away. Treat her they way she treated you.” “I gotta have another beer. None of this makes sense. You want another.” “Let me get them. You stay back here where you can’t be seen.” What the hell was he doing? Stay back here out of sight. Hiding? Hiding from what? A woman he used to love? Who once loved him? And this goofy revenge talk, where would that get him? Though having sex sure would be sweet, not salty. Ah, that’s not true. You work up a sweat with good, hot sex. And sweat is salty. Maybe that’s what Bart’s old man meant? Sex was sweet when it was salty. Tom turned and put a quarter in a pinball machine. At one time he was good at this. Maybe he could still play? He pulled on the plunger and sent the stainless steel ball up the track out into the machine. The bells started dinging as he hit the bumpers and scored. He twisted his hips and slapped the paddle buttons shooting the ball against the targets. The bells rang and the score added up. But the big points came when you got it in the hole. The object of the game was to get it in the hole as many times as possible, rack up the points. He got in once. Then a second time. He shook the machine as the ball got popped out of the hole. It was diving down between the paddles, which would end the game. Suddenly Tom stopped. He let the ball slide off the end of a paddle and disappear. Game over. He had two more turns coming but he just stared at the score. It was a good score for one ball. He turned looking for his beer. It was empty. Bart had not returned. God he had to piss. Screw it. He would just go out the back door and go home. Or rather to the apartment. Try to sleep through the Friday night frenzy. How many beers had he drunk? It took a good tug to get the back door open. Apparently it didn’t get used much. Kinda like a middle aged divorced man’s Johnson. Who the hell ever thought up calling a pecker a Johnson? Some guy named Johnson probably. The night air was cool. His breath was steaming. He turned and tripped almost falling down. Geez he was drunk. That would be a good thing tonight. He got to the parking lot and started across it. He was going to have to piss or pee his pants. A car turned into the lot and he put up his right hand to shield his eyes. The car passed and turned into a parking space. Tom ducked in next to Willie the Painter’s truck. On this side it had the same tipped paint can and dripping brush but said Interiors by William. What was up with that? Tom the loser was Tom the loser 191
having to piss outside Tom’s Tap next to a truck owned by a guy with three names who thought it made a difference painting inside or out and couldn’t roll up the window on the passenger side of his truck with a cover on the bench seat so he could screw some nineteen year old and get her pregnant. Tom unzipped his pants, reached in, and mumbled, “Come on Johnson, do your thing.” The urine splattered loudly on the gravel. He took a deep breath. At least this felt good. “Tom.” Tom turned. He hadn’t realized anyone was standing at the rear of the truck. “Oh. Hi Jean.” She just stood there with that shy little smile and said nothing. Suddenly, Tom realized he still had his pecker in his hand. He shook it. “Ah…say hi to Mr. Johnson.” He smiled. She smiled back. “Ah,” he stuffed himself back into his pants. “If you want maybe we could talk here in Willie’s truck?” He pulled on the door and it crowed like a drunk rooster. Jean hesitated for a second then got in. Tom thought, we never did it in my pick up. He slid in beside her and let loose a rumbling belch like a teenager. Jean smiled and shook her head. Tom rocked back and forth, his head buzzing like a honey filled hive. “Hey. Have you ever heard of revenge sex?” Jean, still smiling and shaking her head, said, “No.” And then asked, “Why?”
SCOTT VOLZ The Mid-Morning Movie Having better things to do on a Saturday and choosing not to do them, I find myself beached and blanketed on the couch, watching the mid-morning movie. It’s an old flick. Tony Curtis is Houdini and the facts are all wrong. It wasn’t water torture that killed the magician, but a burst appendix brought on by a sucker punch to the stomach. (Actually, that bit about the punch isn’t true, medically speaking: the appendix would’ve gone piñata even without the bully blows.) But what’s the point of mastering illusion if you can’t go out by sleight-of-hand? Buried alive in a brass coffin, did Houdini rise again to watch the slow dazzle of dawn? Maybe that’s what really happened. Maybe Harry retired to Argentina and spent his halcyon days teaching tricks to Butch Cassidy, weaving burlap and brush for Amelia’s plane—afterwards sipping margaritas in the sun. If a man can learn anything from the movies it’s that the story gets better when the truth is built with beautiful lies, borne upwards like the mansions of the Malibu hills— balanced in air, an almost magic. This is a gift—a life without death, framed in the Magic Hour’s soft warmth and tuned to triumph: play, pause, rewind. Maybe I should get off the couch.
MATTHEW WOODMAN Three for Rufino When I hear Tamayo’s painting “Moon Dog” (1973), I want to cobalt, I want to lamp black, I want to serenade the night with caulk, canine teeth, and anxiety attack. Leaning out “The Window” (1932), I want to light a cigarette, the smoggy horizon an asthmatic cinderblock noir tonight like every other pistol-whipped skyline. “La Luna Llena” (1989) tells me neither want nor repel, neither portrait nor profile: sprangle your simplehearted stage, and haunt the bloodshot baptismal font visible to none but you, the moon, and the person who seeks in art some work of immersion.
ELLEN ROBERTS YOUNG Shapes of Thought “Think outside the box,” posted on the café’s wall, is neatly framed by four straight lines. Why aren’t we urged to think outside the circle, encouraged to spin out on a tangent like a comet toward new territory? We seek third options, don’t go for a fourth, avoiding a square. Poor box, maligned for doing its duty, blamed as if its straight edge attitude could be no problem solver. Remember the furniture box you crawled into? To invent a world inside that box-house you drew on complex geometry.
LENA ZIEGLER Tanked I first died 11 months ago. I was sitting on a bar stool in a dive called “The C-Word” when a monstrosity of a human, mistook me for a “sonofabitch n-word” who slept with his ex-girlfriend at the 2007 Indianapolis 500, and thrust a knife directly into my pasty stomach. Bigotry accessorizes with buck knives, I guess. The air was still, quiet. From the jukebox, country music hung in the air like musical notes floating from fishing line around my head, halted by the pulsing of my heart beating louder, LOUDER through my ears and into the air around me, rhythmic, like some sort of betrayal willing my veins to empty at record speed. My head lightened and my eyes closed. My tongue became fat and chewy, resting between my teeth as I bit down, and my last thought before slipping in through the gap-toothed mouth of afterlife, was that I should have flossed that evening’s tilapia from between my teeth. And that’s how I became a fish. At least that is my theory. I’d like to believe I had some choice in this. That I didn’t simply die and reincarnate into the cold blooded, beady-eyed, cum stain of domesticated house pets because I made for a shitty human. I have to believe that by focusing all that was left of my human energy on the presence of mutilated fish in my mouth, my brain waves stealthily intercepted whatever divine plan was in place for my soul and catapulted me directly into the body of a red crown tail beta, trapped hopelessly in a 9-inch sphere with rocks like solid chunks of Pepto-Bismol, artificial foliage to make me feel at home, and no real sense of privacy. I surely meant for this to happen. I must have. The second time I died was self-inflicted. Do humans feel depression? I guess so. But fish? Fish don’t feel depression. Fish feel nothing but the constant ache of feeling nothing, which after 6 ½ days of fish life, I had mastered. Sure, Mrs. Darling fed me all right – little flakes of tasteless sustenance, like broken multi-colored communion wafers. The kind I swiped from the church rectory following Christmas Eve mass, 1997, one of the only details I remember from my former life. But even with the body of Christ floating all around me and Mrs. Darling’s glorious mounds of heaving, artificial cleavage eclipsing the view above me as she released my meal from between her fingertips and onto the water’s surface, I felt my interest in existence waver, and after 6 ½ days relaxed my fins and floated to the top. Within an hour, Mr. Darling had flushed me. After the initial shock of returning to Mrs. Darling’s aquarium in my second afterlife wore off, and I accepted my new fate as none other than a measly yellow guppy, deaths 3-5 were significantly less melodramatic. 196
My third death was by suffocation, wedged between the glass wall and the orange, sand-encrusted castle Mrs. Darling had excitedly, albeit haphazardly, dropped into the new rectangular aquarium she purchased “on clearance at Big Lots!”, or so she told Mr. Darling. But I couldn’t hold it against her. We were the manifestation of her pride. Her interactive decorations, confined to make her superficiality mean something. Our lives were nothing if not for her attention. She cried when Pamela, a mini-swordfish, died within four days of joining the tank. Mrs. Darling possessed us, in the most loving way she could. My fourth death was by Elmer, the oversized goldfish whose former life as a Sudanese militant left an awkward language barrier between us, and resulted in my eventual, however brutal, demise. He was a gift from Mr. Darling. But my fifth death was even worse: starvation. It was late September and Mrs. Darling had left for an 11-day cruise through the Caribbean with her old college roommate, Barbara. The morning she left, we gathered near the glass where she stood, perky in tight white pants. She fed detailed instructions to Mr. Darling; meal times, operating the filtration system, a rough breakdown of our social order tank wide. He nodded. She skimmed her fingertips along the surface of the water before she left, rippling it with light, affectionate strokes as she explained that the length of her departure should not serve as a reflection of her love for us. She knelt beside the tank and gave the glass a quick kiss, leaving an imprint of coral lipstick behind to remind us of her. On the first day, we said he forgot. Gus, a young blue guppy and former high school lacrosse star, petitioned to revolt, but the rest of us were uninterested. By the fourth, we knew it was intentional. Mr. Darling had hardly moved since Mrs. Darling left the house. He called out from work and spent most of his time pleasuring himself to day-time TV love scenes. By day 10 the others were gone and I was alone, hungry, and trapped in the stew of waste he had allowed our tank to become. I stared at her lips, imprinted on the glass in front of me, and shut my eyes. Now that I’m back things have changed. There are no more Goldfish and I am a beta again, this time a green veiltail. I have a new tank, a larger bowl with light gray rock and pretty green plants sprouting from them. At first I was alone, which was ok since every time I’m a beta, all that seems to interest me is carnage. But I’ve since obtained a bowl mate, an elegant silvery blue beauty named Ariana. She doesn’t say much, just shimmies her tail as she passes by. I believe she is and has only ever been a fish. But oh the bubbles of love she inspires in me. How humanity would look delicious on her. Mrs. Darling is not the same. When she brought me home from the local pet store after her return from the Caribbean, she hardly said a word, except for when she named me Calvin. She’s stopped watching me swim during the day which I appreciate for the alone time it allows me with Ariana. But we’re always alone. There are no other fish, not even in 197
the old tanks she used to fill to her delight with our tropical colors and personalities. It’s only us. Us and the antique armoires, wingback chairs, and pie crust end tables she continues to bring into the living room filling the gap of space between her and us. Lately the house has been quiet. It’s been five days since she’s smiled and tapped our bowl, sprinkling those tasty red flakes down to us. Ariana is hungry, but mostly I feel alone. There’s a banana perched on the edge of a pink chaise lounge, rotting into its sweeter self, its mild flavor replaced by pungency, and I wonder how long Mrs. Darling will let it sit there.
OUR CONTRIBUTORS William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (Black Rose Writing, 2016), and his work has appeared in District Lit, Drunken Boat, Notre Dame Review, Origins, Rum Punch Press, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, Sliver of Stone, SunStruck Magazine, and other publications. Work is forthcoming in East Bay Review and Sequestrum, and per invitation, he read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review. www.williamauten.com George Bishop’s work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly & New Plains Review. Forthcoming work will be featured in Lindenwood Review. Bishop won the 2013 Peter Meinke Prize at YellowJacket Press for his sixth chapbook “Following Myself Home” and was a 2014 Pushcart nominee. He attended Rutgers University and lives and writes in Saint Cloud, Florida. Paul Bowers lives with his wife on a ten-acre farm in Ringwood, Oklahoma. He earned a B.A. from The University of Tulsa, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Oklahoma State University, and he currently teaches writing and literature at Northern Oklahoma College in Enid. Honors include Pushcart Prize nominations for fiction and poetry, and the Herman M. Swafford Award for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Like Men, Made Various, was published by Lost Horse Press in March 2006. Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock), A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press), and Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. He received his MFA from Murray State University. You can find out more about him and his work at www.kevinbrownwrites.com. Yvonne Carpenter, with her fellow Custer County Truck Stop Poets, won the 2014 Oklahoma Poetry Book of the Year for Red Dirt Roads. Her work has appeared in literary journals and been published two volumes, To Capture Fine Spirits (Haystack Publishing), and Barbed Wire and Paper Dolls (Village Press). She and her husband farm. 200
Grant Clauser lives in Hatfield Pennsylvania. He has two books: Necessary Myths (winner of the 2013 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing). Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cheat River Review, Mason’s Road, Southern Poetry Review and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at Musehouse Writing Center, and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Charlotte Covey is a senior at Salisbury University in Maryland, where she is double majoring in Psychology and Creative Writing. She has been published in Sanitarium Magazine and has poems forthcoming in Night Train, The MacGuffin, and Eunoia Review. She is co-editor-in-chief of Milk Journal. Richard Dokey’s stories have won awards and prizes. They have been reprinted in numerous regional and national anthologies and collections, have been cited in Best American Short Stories, Best of the West and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Pale Morning Dun, his collection, published by University of Missouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award. Josh Gaines is a former Air Force Captain and a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in writing. His poetry has appeared in Oklahoma anthologies from Mongrel Empire Press and Village Books Press, His poetry books, Cigarette Sonatas and Little Bones, are availablethrough Thoughtcrime Press, and his prose debuted in the most recent issue of London's Dark Mountain. Kari Gunter-Seymour is a poet, photographer and graphic designer. Her work appears in several journals and publications including, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Still: The Journal, Chiron Review, Clover, Third Wednesday and The LA Times. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the founder/curator of the Women of Appalachia Project, events that celebrate Appalachia’s visual, literary and performing women artists (www.womenofappalachia.com). Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (2014, Underground Voices). He is a five-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, and the recipient of Greensboro 201
Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. John Hearn’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including Social Science Quarterly, Religion and Politics, Epoch, River Styx, Tulane Review, The Washington Post and the Buffalo News. A 2013 piece was awarded honorable mention status in a “best emerging writers” contest by Glimmer Train, and in August 2015, a collection of short stories finished second in the Florida Review’s chapbook contest. In 2011, he coauthored, with a student, Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq (Casemate). Tom C. Hunley is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University, the director of Steel Toe Books, and the co-editor of Creative Writing Pedagogies for the TwentyFirst Century (Southern Illinois University Press 2015). His poems have been published in New York Quarterly, Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Rosebud, and others. Marc Janssen likes two things: writing poetry and being alive, not necessarily in that order. He is sometimes published. Most recently in Askew, Cirque Journal, Vine Leaves, The Ottawa Arts Review, and the anthologies Manifest West, Green is the Color of Winter, and The Northern California Perspective. But, he is alive all the time, or tries to be. Craig Kurtz has vexed aesthetic circles since the 1981 release of The Philosophic Collage. Recent work appears in Floor Plan Journal, Loud Zoo, The Madras Mag Anthology of Contemporary Writing, Page Seventeen, Penumbra, The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry, The Same, The Transnational, and Xanadu; many others would just as soon string him up. He resides at Twin Oaks Intentional Community. Diane Lefer’s last collection, California Transit, received the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande Books. Her other books include the novels, Confessions of a Carnivore and The Fiery Alphabet; and in nonfiction, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal. She currently facilitates writing workshops for torture survivors rebuilding their lives in Southern California.
S. Frederick Liss, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize, has published or has forthcoming 45 short stories and has received numerous awards for his short fiction. Liss was also a finalist in the Bakeless Prize Competition. Liss earned a MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA and received a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction. Maria Elena B. Mahler’s work has been published in English and Spanish in Badlands, Solstice, Saint Julian Press, Under the Radar (UK), and many other publications and anthologies. Her first bilingual poetry collection, Sweeping Fossils (Glass Lyre Press), will be released in 2016. She was a finalist for the 2011 San Francisco-based Primer Concurso de Poesía Latinoamericana en Español and a finalist in the BorderSenses poetry competition in 2015. Recently, her work was selected for four Spanish anthologies, published by El Centro de Estudios Poéticos in Madrid, Spain. Maria Elena also co-authored the non-fiction book The Heart of Health (Truth Publishing Co. 2011). She is the editor of the poetry anthology Woman in Metaphor (NHH Press 2013), a collection of 27 poets from around the world inspired by the paintings of Stephen Linsteadt. Maria Elena was raised in the South of Chile. After graduating with a degree in Communications, she lived and worked in Mexico and Canada, and currently resides in the Sonoran Desert of Southern California. Kristina Martino is a poet and visual artist living in Iowa City, Iowa. She has an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MFA in Visual Art from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her Hyperrealist drawings can be viewed on her website: www.kristinamartino.com Joan Mazza has worked as a medical microbiologist, psychotherapist, seminar leader, and has been a Pushcart Prize nominee. Author of six books, including Dreaming Your Real Self (Penguin/Putnam), her poetry has appeared in Rattle, Off the Coast, Kestrel, Slipstream, American Journal of Nursing, The MacGuffin, Mezzo Cammin, Buddhist Poetry Review, and The Nation. She ran away from the hurricanes of South Florida to be surprised by the earthquakes and tornadoes of rural central Virginia, where she writes poetry and does paper art. www.JoanMazza.com
Marty McConnell lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she coaches individuals and groups toward building thriving, sustainable lives and organizations. An MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, her work has recently appeared in Best American Poetry 2014, Southern Humanities Review, Gulf Coast, and Indiana Review, and Southampton Poetry Review. Her first full-length collection, wine for a shotgun, was published by EM Press. Katherine McCormick is a writer and visual artist who currently lives in a part of Maryland that even native Marylanders don't know exists. After living in many in busy, urban places, this slice of rural life has opened up new avenues of creativity. . . although Katherine does miss restaurants, gas stations that don't double as super markets, and traffic. (Okay, she doesn't miss traffic.) Her work has most recently been published or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Red Fez, The Lantern, Right Hand Pointing, and Down in the Dirt. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Lindenwood University. Bruce McRae, Pushcart nominee, is a Canadian musician with over 900 poems published internationally, including Poetry.com, Rattle, and The North American Review. His first book, The SoCalled Sonnets, is available via Silenced Press and Amazon. To see and hear more poems follow “BruceMcRaePoetry” on YouTube. Margarita Meklina is a fiction writer and essayist born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. She came to the United States as a refugee in the early 1990s and has been living in San Francisco ever since. She received the 2003 Andrei Bely Prize (Russia’s first independent literary prize, which enjoys a special reputation for honoring dissident and nonconformist writing) for her short story collection Battle at St. Petersburg and the 2009 Russian Prize, awarded by the Yeltsin Center Foundation, for her manuscript My Criminal Connection to Art. Meklina has also published interviews with Alessandro Baricco, Diana di Prima, Ursula K. Le Guin, and David Sedaris, among others. Her English language articles and short stories appeared in Flash Fiction International (W.W.Norton, 2015), Brooklyn Rail, Words Without Borders, The Conium Review, The Cumberland River Review, Reunion, Landfall (New Zealand) and many other publications. William Morris is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has been published or is 204
forthcoming online at Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Oblong Magazine, drafthorse, and 5x5. He is the recipient of the 2015 Besse Patterson Gephardt Award for Fiction. William lives in St. Louis, where he devotes his time to cats, coffee, and creative writing. Lisa Mullenneaux is a Manhattan-based journalist and poet. Her first poetry collection, Painters and Poets, inspired the art blog www.paintersandpoets.com. Her poems have appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Stone Canoe, The Summerset Review, The Fourth River, Global City Review, and several online journals. She teaches writing at Baruch College and the University of Maryland. Lauro Palomba has taught English as a Second Language and done stints as a freelance journalist and speechwriter. Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog, Café Irreal, The Journal of Microliterature, Blue Collar Review, and many wonderful places. His latest book of bizarre short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his website, www.kpoyner.com, and from www.amazon.com. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. They are the parents of four rescue cats, and two senseless fish. Faye Rapoport DesPres is a graduate of the Solstice MFA Creative Writing program at Pine Manor College. Her first book, a personal essay collection titled Message From a Blue Jay, was published by the independent press Buddhapuss Ink in 2014. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, In the Arts, The Whistling Fire, and Void Magazine. Her personal essays have appeared in a variety of journals and magazines, including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, damselfly press, Eleven Eleven, Hamilton Stone Review, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, and Superstition Review. Her reviews and interviews have appeared in Fourth Genre, InterfaithFamily.com, Necessary Fiction, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Currently, she is an Adjunct Professor of English at Lasell College, where she teaches freshman composition, literature, and creative writing courses. Kristen Staby Rembold has published a novel, Felicity, winner of Mid-List Press First Fiction Series Award. Her poetry has appeared in Smartish Pace, Green Mountains Review, Literary Mama, Crab Orchard Review and New Ohio Review, among 205
others. A chapbook of her poetry, Leaf and Tendril, was published by Finishing Line Press, and another chapbook, Coming into This World, was published by Hot Pepper Press. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and has twice been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She currently teaches poetry and fiction writing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. John G. Rodwan, Jr., 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), lives in Detroit, Michigan. David Anthony Sam, the grandson of Polish and Syrian immigrants, has degrees from Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State. He has written poetry for over 40 years with two collections, Memories in Clay, Dreams of Wolves (2014) and Dark Land, While Light (1974, 2014). He lives in Culpeper, Virginia USA with his wife and life partner, Linda, and serves as president of Germanna Community College. Domenic Scopa is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the 2014 recipient of the Robert K. Johnson Poetry Prize and Garvin Tate Merit Scholarship. He is a student of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program, where he studies poetry and translation, and he is a literature professor at Changing Lives Through Literature. His poetry and translations have been featured nationally and internationally in Poetry Quarterly, Belleville Park Pages, Visions International, Cardinal Sins, Misfit Magazine, Poetry Pacific, and many others. He currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. E.G. Silverman’s fiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Fugue, Berkeley Fiction Review, 2 Bridges Review, and many other literary journals. A complete list is at EGSilverman.com. Silverman was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for the short story collection Hardly Any Mess At All. Silverman’s short story collection Wedding Night made it to a final reading (equivalent to a short list) for Snake Nation Press’s Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Silverman’s novel Be My Own Father was a finalist for Black Lawrence Press’s Big Moose Prize. 206
Robert F. Sommer is the author of two novels, Where the Wind Blew (Wessex, 2008) and A Great Fullness (Fomite, 2016). His essay, “We Were Goats,” is adapted from a work-in-progress entitled Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War. Excerpts from this memoir have also appeared in Rathalla Review, New Plains Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Emrys Journal, and The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers. Robert is the Director of Development for the Sierra Club in Kansas and a lecturer at the University of Saint Mary, Leavenworth. To learn more about Francis, please visit www.francisfund.org. Emily Strauss has an M.A. in English, but is self-taught in poetry, which she has written since college. Over 300 of her poems appear in over a hundred online venues and in anthologies, in the US, UK, Canada, and further abroad. The natural world is often her framework; she also considers the stories of people and places around her and personal histories. She is a semi-retired teacher living in California. Doug Van Hooser lives and writes in southern Wisconsin and Chicago where he is a network playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theatre. His short fiction has appeared in The Riding Light Review and his poetry in Poetry Quarterly, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Black Fox Literary Magazine, On the Rusk, and Star 82 Review among other publications. S.A. Volz lives in Evansville, Indiana. His poetry has previously appeared in River & South and The Gravel Literary Journal. Matthew Woodman teaches writing at California State University, Bakersfield and has had poems appear in recent issues of Unsplendid, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, and Concho River Review. A more detailed list of his publications can be found at http://matthewwoodman.com/publications/ Ellen Roberts Young is a member of the writing community in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her first full-length book of poetry is Made and Remade, (WordTech Editions, 2014). She is co-editor of Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders Journal and blogs at www.freethoughtandmetaphor.com. Lena Ziegler is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University, where she is focusing on fiction. 207