Grand Prize Winner 2014: Discipline by Richard B. Gustafson
Richard B. (Rick) Gustafson is a writer from Denver, Colorado. A graduate of the University of North Dakota, Rick flew helicopters in Alaska and for the UN mission in Yugoslavia. He also served as UN aviation officer in the Congo supporting the first democratic elections there. After returning from Africa, he earned a Master's Degree in Liberal Studies from the University of Denver. His writings include two short stories in the anthology Nefarious North.
Gunfire filled the village. Taye covered his head and curled his legs to his chest as clumps of dried mud and dung fell around him. Clouds of dust twirled in ropes of morning sunlight chasing the bullets through the walls of his home.
“Go to the bush,” his father yelled as he pulled Taye and his older sister to the door of the family’s rondoval. Wendo’s arms held Taye tightly as he peered through the opening, his eyes wide, his breath heavy with fear. When the shots sounded more distant, he marshaled Taye and his sister out the door. “Run!”
Outside, the body of a neighbor lay still on the ground, her face rouged with red dirt, the back of her bright yellow tunic soaked in scarlet. Taye froze under the stare of her inert eyes.
His sister jerked him into motion, dragging him by the hand as they stumbled through the village, their father running behind, arms spread as though herding a flock of geese. They rounded the last rondoval at the village’s edge, dashed through a freshly plowed field, into the bush.
Taye stayed close to his father as he lay behind a fallen tree and stared back at their home. The shooting had died down, but many of the rondovals were on fire, the dark smoke curling into the morning sky.
“Mansouela, take your brother. Stay off the path. Don’t come back. I will come for you.”
“Where is Mama?” Taye cried.
“Mama is at the well. I will find her. We will meet you at the hiding place.” Wendo rose to his knees and embraced his children. “These militia, they are devils who will steal your bodies and your souls. They have no remorse. No discipline. You must stay hidden from them.”
Taye nodded rapidly in short jerks that matched his breath although not fully understanding.
Tears filled Mansouela’s eyes.
“Stay together. If we do not come to you by tomorrow, go to the Blue Helmets.”
He nodded again, more certain. Taye knew the Blue Helmets; they drove the white trucks and drank water from plastic bottles.
“Now go!” Wendo said, and he ran back across the field.
Mansouela tugged at his shirt, but Taye refused to move, remaining focused on his father’s sprint, watching until Wendo disappeared into the chaos of the village. When he turned, three men in camouflage were holding his sister.
Following their victory, the militia descended on the village’s women, forcing husbands and children to watch the violence and the humiliation. Five of them took turns with Taye’s Mother. When they were through, the leader pushed Taye’s father to his knees and stood over him holding a gray and silver transistor radio by its chrome handle.
“This radio, it spreads the government’s lies and the propaganda of Kinshasa’s colonial masters.” He raised the radio above his head. “These lies make you weak.”
He swung his arm in a wide arc. His follow-through left only the chrome handle in his grip, the radio disintegrating as it struck Wendo’s face, knocking him to the ground. The radio’s brittle plastic scattered, its single speaker disengaging from the casing and rolling in the dirt, the two batteries tumbling from their compartment resting next to Wendo’s prostrate body.
The leader ordered Mansouela and the other adolescent girls down the trail toward the village well. He ordered the boys of fighting age to carry the spoils of the raid. He left the youngest children to look after the dead.
By the end of the day, nearly a dozen boys, between the ages eight and fifteen, joined a column of captives driven along the road beneath the high canopy. The boys labored through the night without food or water as their captors taunted them by waving canteens in front of them, spilling their precious contents on the ground. Taye’s tongue swelled, and his bare feet blistered as he struggled under his load. At midday on the second day, they entered a camp.
In the center of the clearing stood one permanent house made of brick, which was surrounded on each side by several rondovals. The grass roofs sagged, and the walls flaked. Empty bottles and cans lay in piles outside each structure, and small plastic bags twisted and wavered on a light breeze. On the far side of the camp men drilled with weapons, stabbing at sacks hanging from posts.
Taye and the rest of the captives dropped their loads near women kneeling over charcoal stoves. Taye eyed the smoking bushmeat, the smell aggravating the emptiness in his stomach. The women shooed him away with angry voices.
The leader forced the boys away from the food and into an open pit where they wilted in the afternoon heat and gagged on the smell of stale urine. That night a guard covered the opening with a sheet of corrugated tin, and the boys huddled together for warmth. Muffled sobs filled the darkness inside while outside loud music and drunken shouts continued until dawn.
The next afternoon, soldiers herded them to the training area and told the boys to stand at attention. Taye stiffened in his best attempt to imitate the militia forming up around them. The leader approached the formation carrying a machete. The stocky man’s hair was closely cropped to his dark skin and the sleeves of his uniform cut off to reveal muscular arms. A black leather holster containing a large pistol hung from an olive drab belt synched tightly around his waist. He paced in front of a table piled with food and beer.
“I am Commander Cobra,” he thundered with a heavy Rwandan accent.
“Today, I see weak children, but in just a few weeks, you will be soldiers, soldiers for Congo’s True Government.”
The men assembled behind the boys cheered.
The Commander tapped the flat edge of the machete against his palm as he spoke in confusing circles about how the government in Kinshasa served the Belgian and the French colonialists. Taye tried to pay attention, but his mind drifted to the food on the table. Each mention of the True Government and victory brought more cheers from the assembled men, and the Commander lectured until a boy near Taye passed out.
“Ah,” the Commander said, “Now we get to work.”
The Commander waved his machete. Two teenaged boys in oversized camouflage appeared and dragged the fallen boy to the rear of the formation. The Commander dismissed his men and led boys to the table covered with a feast of cassava soup, pineapple, bush meat, and maize. Taye could not remember the last time he had seen so much food in one place, but like the others he hesitated.
“Eat. Eat as much as you want,” the Commander shouted. “You are soldiers of the True Government now; you can take what you want when you want it.”
The boys attacked the food. They gulped the beer.
That night the Commander moved the boys to a rondoval. It was warmer than the pit, but the boys, full and drunk, huddled together. No one spoke. Taye looked through the darkness trying to see the faces. Eventually, among the warmth of the bodies surrounding him, he drifted off to sleep. Taye never saw the boy who passed out again.
In the middle of the night, Taye awoke to gunshots. The door to the rondoval stood open. Several of the boys moved toward the open door. Commander Cobra was waiting for them.
“This is how you repay my hospitality, my trust?” He shouted. “Back into the pit, all of them.”
His men forced the boys toward the pit and pushed them into the hole. A few minutes later, a squad of men returned, dragging a body of an older boy to the edge of the pit and rolling it in. He laid still, his face in the dirt. The boys crowded away from the body.
Taye wondered if Cobra had taken the boy’s soul. Maybe out through the bullet holes that killed him. He must have taken it. His father said they would. The militiamen were devils.
Following two days and nights in the pit, the Commander began their training. He divided the boys into two-man teams.
“Your first job is to look after your brother,” the Commander said. “His life is your life. He will keep you alive, and you will keep him alive.”
Oudry was smaller than Taye, and the Commander had nearly turned him loose. Holding him by the scruff of the neck, he declared Oudry big enough to fight and had tossed him in the pit with the others. Taye found it awkward calling this stranger brother, a title usually offered to fellow villagers, but as they trained, Oudry and Taye learned to rely on each other. They worked together, sharing a rotting mat in the rondoval and an old Kalashnikov, which they took turns disassembling and cleaning and reassembling. Taye ate with Oudry, and when one of them made a mistake, the Commander punished them both.
At night, Taye and Oudry whispered stories about their villages and their families. Taye especially liked to tell the story of how his family spent the evenings singing and dancing to the music from the radio, his father’s prized possession. Whenever Wendo sang, both Taye and Mansouela pleaded with him to stop, which only encouraged him to sing even louder and more off key. Despite sharing his name with the famous Congolese singer, Antoine Wendo Kolosoy, Taye’s father lacked his namesake’s musical ability. The stories helped Taye remember, and Taye cried himself to sleep every night.
A month into their training, troops entered the camp with a group of men and girls. The prisoners lumbered with their heads down and their arms tied behind their backs. The captured girls were taken to Commander Cobra’s house. The men were tied to the posts at the edge of the training ground. One boy from each team was assigned to guard a prisoner. A half hour later, the Commander emerged from his house zipping his fatigues and carrying a rifle. He gave the order to fix bayonets.
Taye forced the rickety Kalashnikov’s bayonet into place.
The Commander took his time to inspect the line of boys and stopped in front of a prisoner. “These men are colonialist sympathizers. They are informants for the Blue Helmets.”
Taye studied the man tied to the post in front of him. He had found a notch in the wood that kept his head from lolling from side to side and rested against the post. Yes, he was weak. The colonialists had made his village weak too, and because of them, his parents were dead, but the man tied to the post did not look evil. He looked as tired as his red shirt, faded pink with elongated holes where the fabric yielded to sweat and time. He wore the same type of gray cotton trousers Taye’s father had worn; or had they been brown?
“These men have been found guilty by the True Government and sentenced to death. You will have the honor of carrying out their sentence,” the Commander said, excitement in his voice. “When I give you the command, you will take your bayonet and stick the filthy pig in front of you, like this.”
Taye jumped when the Commander screamed “Attack!” and stabbed a prisoner through the chest with a bayonet. The man grunted. His body went slack. His hands quivered. He hung against the ropes. The commander jerked the blade free and handed the rifle to a waiting soldier as though he were a valet.
“Do it right, and they will not be any trouble for you.”
Taye readied his rifle.
“Attack!” the Commander screamed.
The men tied to the posts went rigid at the command. No one else moved.
Taye and the rest of the boys stared at the ground or at each other. The man in front of Taye slowly relaxed with an audible exhale, and Taye saw the same fear and shame that was in his father’s eyes when he’d knelt in the dirt next to his mother.
“Discipline. You must learn discipline. That is the lesson I will teach today.” The Commander pulled his pistol from its holster. “I will shoot the brother of the last soldier to stick their prisoner. So now, we go again.”
Taye reassured Oudry with a slight nod of his head and took his position.
Taye lunged forward with his eyes closed. Instead the resistance he expected from his strike, he was falling. He’d missed, sprawling to the ground, his weapon sliding in the red dirt. When he opened his eyes, the rest of the prisoners were in some state of death. Many of the boys had missed the heart and were frantically thrusting their bayonets into screaming men’s stomachs. He jumped to his feet, reading himself but backed away, stepping in front of Oudry when the Commander approached. Taye sick in his stomach.
Oudry stepped back too.
Taye’s eyes followed the commander’s large hand as it slid the shiny, chrome pistol into its black leather holster. The commander knelt in front of him, and Taye turned his head toward the prisoner, breathing through his mouth, trying not to inhale cigarette ash of the Commander’s polluted breath.
Taking the weapon from Taye’s trembling hands, the Commander wiped the dirt from the stock and handed it back.
“Like this,” he said, gently adjusting Taye’s grip on the weapon. “You see? Keep your eyes open, look directly at the target, and thrust hard like this.”
Taye followed along as the Commander guided him through the proper stabbing motion.
“Try again,” he said, nearly in a whisper and rubbed Taye on the top of the head.
Taye took a deep breath and looked at Oudry and back to the prisoner. Taye lunged forward. Taye’s blade ripped into the prisoner’s chest, the rifle riding up on the man’s gasp and drooping as he relaxed.
“Good!” the Commander shouted. “Now, rip it out of that pig.”
He tugged on the rifle, but the bayonet refused to budge against the angle of the slumping man.
“Pull hard,” the Commander encouraged.
Given all of his effort, he could not free the blade embedded deep in the man’s body.
“Use your foot and pull.”
He raised his foot to the man’s chest. A rush of air growled in the man’s throat as he planted his foot next to the imbedded blade and pulled. It slid from the body, and Taye fell backwards. Blood trickled from the wound pooling at the dead man’s feet.
“Very good,” the Commander said and helped Taye up.
Taye and Oudry exchanged relieved glances.
“That is how you do it. You boys can learn something from this one.” He patted Taye on the shoulder. “Good job. You are ready.”
The Commander drew his pistol and fired. Oudry dropped.
“Discipline is good for the soul,” the Commander said to Taye. “Now, clean your weapon.”
Editors' Choice 2014: Friends by David L. Hoof
David L. Hoof is a full-time writer who lives with his wife Marsha in Washington, DC. He has taught creative writing with the Writers Digest School and at Georgetown University. He is a member of The Authors Guild and Cornell University’s Washington Irving Literary Society. He has been chosen among America’s Best Fiction Writers for Spring, 2014 and is included in Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors and Poets.
Writing as David Lorne, his three Spike Halleck suspense mysteries, Sight Unseen (Signet) Blind Man’s Bluff (Onyx) and Blind Rage (in Japanese only), were international commercial successes in five languages. Film rights were optioned. The Last Prisoner (Avon) was the first novel to script a real, clandestine biological war, with all its horrors. Writing as Grace Alter, The Suicide Diary (i-Universe), is an irreverent satire of a young girl wintering over in Arctic Canada with her writer father.
As David L. Hoof: Little Gods (Chiaroscuro Press), a murder mystery set at an elite New England prep school at the time of the Kennedy assassination, is Hoof’s best critically received novel, with rave reviews including one from Secretary of State John Kerry. Heralded as a “tour de force” and “literature,” it is distributed in twenty-nine countries worldwide, from Australia to the Ukraine. Triple Jeopardy (Shadowline Press) is The War of the Roses meets Wall Street, with the world economy at stake. Invasion of Privacy and Sharpshooter are thrillers of the first order, presented with unflinching verisimilitude and a rich cast of characters. The average goodread’s reader rating of Hoof’s fiction is 4.92. This summer, a terrifying novel, Landfill, will introduce a new genre of eco-horror, in which humans create the monsters that threaten to destroy them. Impact Motion Pictures has expressed a deep interest in producing a film.
As a screenwriter his script Shooting Script won a Bronze at Worldfest Charleston. In nonfiction his published titles include Demythologizing Michael Phelps (Smashwords) and A Critique of Pure Madness (amazon.kindle).
David L. Hoof
Some are now saying that the whole mess began and ended with Ray von Ravon. And that wouldn’t be all wrong. But it would be equally wrong to say that Ray von Ravon was just a creature of his time. He hurt us all too deeply for that.
Sticking to facts, here is what we know. I knew these facts about as soon as anyone, because – like hundreds of millions of others – I was pissing away my precious life racking up friends on Facebook.
Ray first exposed himself to me this way, already connected to 48 mutual friends. At this point I was connected to 1066 total friends, the same number as the years passing between the alleged birth of Jesus Christ and the Norman Conquest of England.
Back then I was more cautious. I struggled to avoid connections to freaks, perverts, con men, fundamentalists and optimists of any stripe. My caché was an Ivy League diploma, a Ph.D. from Berkeley, and an avatar ripped off from Frank Frazetta. My face was not on Facebook. It is nothing to write home about. Unlike my credentials, my face has no caché. Just a distinct constellation of premalignant moles and a distinct left-to-right tilt. Most of my life I thought it was a right-to-left tilt, but that was the mirror’s fault.
Ray von Ravon was different. Handsome, hot, young, buff, witty, and soon the fastest Facebooker to rack up 5,000 friends. This is your limit, but Ray had gone viral. Everyone wanted to be his friend. The guys wanted to be him. The girls wanted to bed him. He was the perfect Friend, capital F.
He was accessible and he was responsive. This was the first indication Ray gave that maybe he was too good to be true. He had no time management problems. Didn’t claim to be living off a trust fund, but still. Nobody cared. Not even God could sink his ship of fame.
Ray answered everyone. Beyond the 5000 limit he set up his own personal web page with five e mail accounts, in case he couldn’t clear the backlog on any one of them. Not everyone agreed with Ray, but only because some people don’t agree with anyone. These folks are just disagreeable by nature. But back to the damning particulars.
Among my 1066 friends were soon more than the initial 48 shared with Ray. Specifically that linkage of 48 included Bart Hender and Phil Stein, who were opening a fifty stool microbrewery in Broken Fork, North Dakota. A town of 107 hunkered down against the wind near an abandoned ICBM silo. Phil had a wife Phyllis Stein, the most uncivilized woman in North America. And the originator of the idea of hanging a mummified Lakota Indian from the rafters of the microbrewery, which was named Manifest Destiny. Inside Manifest Destiny they all raved about Ray. What else do you have to do in Broken Fork, North Dakota?
So popular was Ray von Ravon that Facebook celebrated his first thousand friends in a cybertribute for the ages. While all these friends wanted bragging rights according to who friended Ray first, the rancor developing over this distinction forced a more diplomatic, alphabetic approach.
Everyone was enthralled and excited, insatiable for the imminent posting. Only afterwards did the same everyone want to know who these prior nobodies were, before they were illuminated to instant fame by reflections off Ray. For the most part, the roll call of honor is doomed to that sad predictability that wannabe contests always create. But in some cases, these folks are memorable, whether it’s for being terrifying or just odd.
Ray’s final selection reads like the class of an Ivy League school. Even Princeton pumps out about a thousand grads a year, sometimes with distinction. Many were previously unknown to me. Not friends and perhaps never friends. Making me wonder why Ray snapped them up.
Not originally on my friend list of 1066 was one Adele Angstrom of Adelaide, Australia, a vintner of some prowess Down Under, who invited Ray to come and get blotto with her on her tab. One of those all-included vacations. Leaving you to wonder what “all” included. Ray deferred, but wondered if she could send him a case of her best red. It was en route before she got off line. What a world.
Of my original friends, the most notable were Avery Bird, of St. Kilda’s, Scotland, who manages a pillow factory boasting Puffin Stuffin’, as he calls it. For him Ray had advice on trimming costs and feathering retirement nests.
Second of my mutual friends was Harry Butz, of West Lafayette, Indiana, a poultry disease specialist of no apparent interest to anyone. This is why I friended him. Fear that he would otherwise be friendless. Making the obvious connection, Ray put Butz onto Avery Bird, hoping that no diseases could spread by comforter. As to every suggestion he received, Harry said, “Thanks a lot.” Beyond his thumbnail bio, this is all we know of Harry. Except that now he can say, “I’m friends with Ray von Ravon.”
Next of note alphabetically was Bella Cose, of Fairfax, Virginia, a defense contractor to the Pentagon and sometime lobbyist, as required. For her Ray wisely advised, “In your field, complete success means unemployment. Is this what you want?” Bella immediately resigned, cashed in her stock, and entered a convent in Greece. Or so she posted. It was the first case I noted where Ray’s advice resulted in a radical departure and personal redefintion.
It wouldn’t be the last.
For certain favored prisoners, the warden at Stillwater, Minnesota grants monitored web access. This is how two fumbling larcenists, Knight Daley and Stan Dawfish, hooked up with Ray. As too often for reality, Ray confided, “We all make mistakes. Sometimes we wonder if our whole existence isn’t a mistake. Then something like Facebook comes along and there’s a reason for being.” Followed by a (-:
It was with this entry that I began to question Ray’s candor. Or good judgment. He just seemed too like Dr. Phil meets Mr. Rogers. But who the hell am I? Certainly not Ray von Ravon. As one fan wrote, “Ray Rules!”
The Ray Rage, as it became known, gave rise to a howl for more bandwidth to serve his followers, estimated to exceed all the Moonies ever converted. New servers crashed the market with promises of Quality Ray Access Guaranteed. Many websters believed, and subscribed. Ray von Ravon futures first appeared on the Shanghai Market and soon outsold gold. Traders stroked out trying to keep up. Ray not only ruled. He rolled.
On the recommendation of Avery Bird and Harry Butz, Ray glommed onto one Mallard Drake, a blind man from Charleston, South Carolina with a killer sense of smell. Drake turned a personal handicap into a fortune. He works as a contractor to smoke damage abatement companies. They fly him all over the country to check on their restorations. He has a nose that misses nothing. Which is strange, because it is so small.
In his Facebook shot his smile looks like a white Ray Charles with a snarl. This shot is close up and off angle, an obvious selfie. In it, the shelves behind him are a mess. What does he care? Suddenly, via connection to Ray, everyone wants him to come and sniff them. Just as suddenly, he’s popular.
Popularity in the information age can spread faster than VD at an orgy. Otherwise why does Faye Dingfast, an aging debutante and compulsive philanthropist, friend Ray? Okay, she’s on Long Island, so its vital to know everyone who’s anyone, but still. To her Ray posts, “I don’t want your money for the proposed show on being popular, because I’m really kind of private.” Little did we know.
But he finished up, as to everyone else, with some advice: “Change your picture. It doesn’t do credit to what, I’m sure, are wonderful eyes.” Faye changed it instantly. This is something you can do these days, change instantly. And because Ray advised it, everyone else loved the new photo. So she sent Ray a thousand dollar check, complaining when it went uncashed.
Next in my original group came E. Jack Eulater, who had only a white cut-out on gray for a face, no bio and a few words, “I’d like to make friends.” Which was good enough for Ray, who responded, “Done. Friends we are.” By now some of Ray’s style was emerging. I noted to others that Ray never used exclamation points. And got back, “So what?” and “Shut up if you don’t like Ray,” and “Ray should really defriend you.” So I shut up. Who was I? Again, not Ray von Ravon. No hot redhead heiress chicks were inviting me to go Down Under with them.
An East Hampton acquaintance of Faye Dingast was Withers Fast, Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and money. Before all the rest and largely because of it, money. He wore ascots, riding britches and looked down his nose. Which was much longer than Mallard Drake’s. Ray advised, “Keep it up,” but again without an exclamation point. The vague pronoun reference was never clarified. Others wondered what Ray meant by “it.” A discussion appeared in The New Yorker. Withers Fast found it, “Deep and insightful.” The writer wanted Withers to refer him to Ray. Creating another friend, but not in the first one thousand. The first one thousand went fast. Femtosecond fast.
Alice Fallick became a friend of Ray by way of an explicit offer. A blow job that would take along with it his mind. Both blown at the same time. An erotic Permian extinction event. Something to die for. Mimicking Harry Butz, Ray responded, “Thanks a lot.” Then friended her. Alice told other friends, “I was so pumped I blew my landlord.” Her Facebook photo shows her smiling. Broadly. She looks happy. It is a post-Ray shot. Many reposted their photos post-Ray.
From Hitler’s home base of Munich came Hans Hoff, who offered Ray lavish lodgings during Oktoberfest, and a custom made Porsche. Hans is an executive at Porsche. He wanted Ray to do an ad, wearing Ray Bans. Insisting, “You see. Germans have a sense of humor.” Ray said, “That’s really funny.” Even it is isn’t. Since Hans wanted Ray to take a test spin around Dachau for old times’ sake.
Marching through the incredible J’s gives you Ray’s (and my) friends Hugh Jardon, Hugh Johnson and Randy Jungman. None with pictures. All from, “Somewhere in the World.” I have my doubts. But genius physicist Eugene Wigner claimed that if the probability of an event is not zero, then it is inevitable. There is no other explanations for these names. Unless the parents were stupid or cruel. And I can’t rule this out. Plenty of parents are stupid and cruel. How else do the kids learn it?
From Athens, Georgia Ray got Holly Karnasus, of unspecified age and Greek descent. Her picture has her bending over a platter of goodies, showing cleavage. She posts food recipes, including a dynamite baklava, which Ray declared, “Tasty.” Most of his responses were pithy. A minimalist approach to a malignantly metastasizing universe of friends.
Next alphabetically in mutual acquaintances was Viraga Harridan, who emphasized to the world, “Not to be confused with Viagra.” Humor, I suppose. Her picture sported no cleavage. Her photohead is shaved. She lives in Poughkeepsie, and is President of Lesbians United for the Colonization of Mars. Ray accepted with, “Tweet me when you get settled.” It seemed clear to him that she was presently unsettled, if not unsettling.
Skip I, J and K to reach our next common friend, a Chinese American named Frank Lee. An engineer in Los Angeles. He designs battery powered game systems for fire-and-quake-proof structures. He is a gamer himself and occupies such a structure. Whatever else he might be, he is not hypocritical. His selfie shows a smiling fellow flying a hang glider. Ray’s was, “Careful of power lines.” Which Frank instantly promised to be. Everyone not only loved Ray. They obeyed him. He changed their lives.
Next up is Remora Leech, a speculator in bit coins who runs a futurist financial advisory supporting Viraga Harridan’s boldly-go plans for the Red Planet. Remora’s Facebook pic displays an intense thirtyish-looking woman with close-cropped hair, tight narrow lips and cheeks that look as if the air has been sucked out by way of her nethermost orifice. To a request for friending, Ray responded, “Love to.” Short, sweet and – for my money – indiscriminate. Okay, me too. Rich women make me lazy.
Out of Hong Kong comes Hau Ling, the foremost Asian authority on – and translator of – the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. We all need to do something. Ray accepted, inviting Hau to write some of his own. Hau deferred with, “It’s all crap.” Ray came back, “Mine, too. Welcome to the club.” A week later Hau appeared at a signing of his own crappy poems, hinting that Ray might attend. He didn’t. Still, Hau sold every copy, and those without rioted. Sometimes it is hell to be popular.
Moving into the next letter I get Gerry Manders, who insists that people not confuse him with Jerry Mathers, TV’s famous Beaver. Gerry is about the same age, weight and appearance, but otherwise dissimilar. A liberal Republican under a death threat from his own party, he is a sumo wrestler and attorney for The National Defense Resources Council. Wants Ray to attend an upcoming fund raiser. Ray’s rejoinder? “Let me check my schedule and get back. And let me know how your next match goes. I’m betting on you.” The line in Vegas followed Ray’s hunch.
Our mutual following spilled through Ns and Os into Ps, but not pees. There Gene Poule, a third generation urologist from Washington, DC, with an office on P Street, N.W., wondered too intrusively if Ray had any problems passing water. Ray fired back, “Not so far. I stop at every lake I see.” Second in chronological but not alphabetic order of peers came thirty-seven year-old Hostility Paxton from Kombatt, Wyoming. His prior friends deemed him the most peaceful man they ever knew. He’s also a narcoleptic long-haul truck driver and maestro on the erhu, a traditional two stringed Chinese instrument. If true, then truth is stranger than fiction. Otherwise it’s just crap, like so much else. Ray said as much: “Guys like you are hard to find.” Read between the lines and weep.
We could go on. And on. But that’s the problem with Facebook. It tries to out-Warhol Andy. Fifteen minutes was way too much for anybody. More is too much more for anybody, let alone everybody. Doesn’t anyone want to sail around the world alone?
Only one taker on that among the final list of our mutual friends, Ray’s and mine. That’s Zelda Zofftig and The Cantilever Chorus, featured kick-stepping together in their transparent outfits and transparently obvious promo spot. Zelda is a supply-side purveyor of flailing flesh. In the end she was booted from Facebook in what has since become known as the Purge of Frauds. Zelda was a creation of someone’s prurient imagination using Photo Shop and literary license. Which is a shame, because she was second-fastest to reach 1,000 Friends.
Eventually caught in the same cybersweep was Ray von Ravon himself. Proving that when something – or someone – seems too good to be true, it or they probably is/are. As the case may be. Ray was the product of IBM and University of Illinois computer scientists working on Artificial Affability, an interactive concept designed to induce on-line confessions from spies, funded by NSA. Now that they stopped recording phone calls.
I sensed it early, because the numbers didn’t add up. How does one guy provide instantly glib responses to a number of friends that grows faster than y = x2? So that 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 and by day 5 sixty-four. Divide the day up by posts and by the start of his second week Ray was firing off responses at the rate of one every 3 minutes. So every three minutes he had to read, digest, compose and keyboard a message averaging more than three error-free words. Ergo he could not multitask. Or else – as happened – he was doing nothing but crunching messages by keyword and context for personal weaknesses. Of which Facebook provides many. It is a feeding trough for the lost, needy and insecure. Everyone is looking for Mr. Nice Guy. They’ll tell him anything.
This happens with strangers who will never again meet. They open up. It’s a proven compulsion. All that NSA needed was Mr. Right. Cleverly, he was named from an ancient cob-webby Buddy Holly song, “Rave On.” With The Crickets backing up, Buddy croons, “Rave on, Rave on!” Giving birth to Ray von Ravon. It was a joke, and the joke was on us. Which of course we all denied.
We’re too smart to be fooled. So like everyone else, I defriended Ray von Ravon even before he was deleted by the Purge. So passed the pyrotechnical saga of Ray. Out like a firefly. He is deader than the last evaporating black hole. Or, as some rumor on nascent social networks more savvy than Facebook, he is being kept alive and well by The Chinese National Intelligence Service.
Yet still I like Ray. Or the idea of Ray. Or the idea that I could have been like Ray, in a fairer world. In a way, it’s sad to see him go. Sort of like Buddy Holly that way. Before his time, and sadly. No one connected quite as well as, or more openly, than Ray. And that is saddest of all.
Grand Prize Winner 2013 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
Slipping Into the Gene Pool by Mike Tuohy
A Geology graduate from Georgia State University, Mike Tuohy has worked for 33 years as a geologist in environmental consulting. In his bio he wrote, "Married since 1975. Two kids. Never killed a bear. Managed to get four words printed in The New Yorker (Oct. 26, 2009 caption contest), not that it makes me a big shot, but how many writers try and fail to get a single word published there?" His short stories have appeared in the Arizona Literary Review, Sea Oats Review, Lunch Hour Stories, Spout Magazine, Mind Trips Unlimited, Wild Leaf Press, and online in Writer's Village.
Slipping Into the Gene Pool
“What the hell did you do?”
I cringed at my boy’s pitch. Unnaturally high for such an athletic sixteen-year-old.
“Exactly what I said I would if you stayed down here playing those idiotic video games!” I withdrew the toe of my running shoe from the surge protector switch.
“You don’t do that to a computer while it’s running. It’s just --- stupid!” Eric reached under his desk and started to pull on the power cord. “Now I’ll have to reboot.”
I applied my weight. I regarded computers the same way my Dad, a Cold War aeronautical engineer, regarded pocket calculators. The first time he saw me pull out my HP-25 to figure a tip, he went into his usual tirade. “Give me a good old slip stick and I’ll have it to four decimal places before you can find your batteries.”
I now played the curmudgeon. “Eric, I don’t care if it’s opening day of Klingon hunting season. We need to talk.”
Relinquishing the tug-of-war, Eric leaned back in his chair and gave me that all-knowing smirk teenage sons get when it becomes clear that their fathers are stuck in an irrelevant reality. “Klingons? You thought I was killing Klingons? You are so old!”
“And you are about to enter the real world at warp speed whether you like it or not. The way you’re going, you won’t have a high school diploma to wipe your ass with on the way to the unemployment office.”
Eric snorted the way I used to when my father tried to interest me in model rockets when all I wanted to do was play baseball. “Relax, Dad. I’ve got it under control.”
“That’s not what I heard.” There were several issues, including conduct, attendance, and slipping grades. I opted to start with the one that concerned me most. “You serious about quitting the swim team? In the middle of the season?”
Eric unclasped his hands and turned his palms up. What’s the point? When our Klingon overlords come, they’re going to take all our water and send it to their home planet.”
My father would have slapped me good for a wisecrack like that. Corporal punishment never worked for him and I had no reason to believe it would for me. Besides, I could hear my wife, Karen, across the hall in the laundry room, half-humming and singing a medley of Joni Mitchell songs, or whatever parts she knew. Her way of letting me know she would be monitoring this encounter.
I took the oft-recommended deep breath. “Good one, Eric. Let us hope you can put your wit to profitable use some day. In the meantime, just explain to me why you would drop out of swim team when you are so close to being your school’s best in freestyle.”
Eric shook his head. “Just because Doug Hutto is graduating this year doesn’t mean I’m getting any faster.”
“You can get better. You’ll have all summer to work on your technique.”
He blew air like a surfacing dolphin. “No way! I’m maxed out. Even Coach Allen says so.”
“There is no such thing. There is always room for improvement.”
“Look, Dad, just because you think chronic ear infections kept you from being an Olympic champion doesn’t mean I have to waste the next summer, fall and winter swimming laps for a few stupid meets in my senior year.”
“So you’d rather waste your time killing Tribbles or whatnot on the computer?”
Karen hit a few high notes to remind me of her proximity.
I swept my hand through the air as if sowing scorn on the anime posters and shelves of robotic action figures and spaceship toys. “Is this really how you want to spend your life?”
My son rotated his swivel chair to face me. He cocked his head like a pitcher and delivered. “Look, I didn’t ask to be born.”
The singing stopped, leaving a quiet so profound I would welcome the sound of Karen folding a bath towel.
The topics of choice, free will, and existence came up with Eric’s elder sister Janice the year before. She employed much the same tactic when the high school principal sent her home for violating the policy on tank tops. I responded, as any father would, with loud, angry blithering. It may have been my use of the phrase ‘looking like a whore’ that drew my wife from the kitchen. Karen led me to the television, handed me a beer and took over.
How she handled things beyond that remains a mystery to me. All I can recall is a lot of high-pitched yelling, jamb-shaking door slams, and finally, the mother-daughter reconciliation with all the tears, touching, and tissues.
For Eric and me, hugs were out but so were violence and shouting. I would have to draw on my deep well of wisdom. Fortunately, I had been working on this one for a while in anticipation.
“Eric, do you remember the Great Swim Meet of 1992?”
“That was kinda before I was born. Can’t say I remember anything from that era. It’s all back there with Pac Man, Disco, and hula hoops far as I’m concerned.”
I took the provocation in stride. “Oh, it involves you much more than you know. It was actually the most amazing race ever. Something like a hundred million participants.”
Eric stroked the light fuzz on his chin. “I’m so sure. Where was this? China?”
I thought of Karen’s fiery red hair and our belated honeymoon in Ireland. The birth of Eric’s sister shortly after the wedding put the original on hold for a couple of years. “Oh, I’d put it a little closer to North Atlantic, the United Kingdom area.”
There was a little choked cough, maybe a suppressed laugh, from the laundry.
Eric bit his lip. “The English Channel?”
“It’s not so important exactly where. I just want you to imagine yourself in such a race. Millions of competitors, all swimming toward the same goal. Some are naturally faster than you but lack stamina. Some have power but no technique. A few just go in circles. Others are just unlucky.”
Eric squinted at a softball-sized globe, actually a coin bank, on the shelf above his desk. “How the hell do you judge a race like that? I mean, the logistics are insane.”
“Good question. I would say judging involves long-term results. Logistics are a matter of natural law. Physics. Chemistry. Hydrodynamics. Thrust. Cunning and guile can play a role but pure persistence is the real key.”
“Was this saltwater or freshwater?” Eric’s eyes darted from my foot to his darkened monitor. He plainly wanted to Google the riddle rather than solve it by simple cogitation.
“Suffice it to say it was wet. Warm, wet, and slippery. Spring giving way to summer. Mating season.”
There went that laundry room cough again, this time with a little squawk at the end.
“You okay, Mom?”
Karen answered in a strained voice. “Just cleaning the lint trap. Everything’s fine!”
I continued, adding some Kentucky Derby drama to my delivery. “So, you’re getting near the finish, an enormous orb on the horizon, but you can’t see it because it’s pitch dark. You know there are still others ahead of you but you nudge them aside You’re getting tired, your flagellum feels like it’s about to fall off but you push through and, ‘BANG’!” I slammed my right fist into my left palm, with a loud report. “You’re in!”
The boy still didn’t get it. Maybe that idiot postman had slipped it to my wife. The man kept mixing our neighbors mail with ours. I always suspected he slid by on the Civil Service exam by pure chance.
Eric struggled along. “Who sponsored this race? Why have I never heard of it before?”
I waited a few seconds, relishing the moment. “You were in it, son. It was the race of your life and you acquitted yourself well, beating out 100 million competitors to make your way into this world, so don’t tell me you didn’t ask to be born. You insisted upon it.”
I could feel my own grin widen in sync with his eyes.
With a sudden look of realization, he smashed his forehead against his keyboard. “Oh, sick!” He launched from his chair and pressed by me. Staring at the floor as if allergic to eye contact, he bumped his laundry basket-bearing mother in the hallway, and recoiled as if stung, flapping at the air with his hands as if beset by bees. “Jesus! Just let me out of here.” He thundered up the stairs, making little cries of exasperation with each step. I supposed he was deciphering the details of my parable one by one. There followed the familiar ‘slam’ of the kitchen door and then a distant anguished scream.
Karen regarded me with one eyebrow raised, her mouth a twisted smirk. “Hope none of the neighbors call the police.”
“Hah! You should have seen his expression.”
She gave me the two-eyed squint that meant I was in trouble. Mothering two children had left some lines on her face but her body remained limber and lean. I married a beautiful woman. “I doubt his therapist finds that story as amusing as you do.”
“Eric has a therapist?”
“He’s going to need one now. I may too.”
I held up a warning finger. “Therapy’s expensive. Hold off until you’re totally nuts. Make him earn it.”
She dropped her plastic basket, pulled out a fitted sheet and handed one end to me. “Here. Help me fold this.”
“Hey! If we’re changing the sheets anyway, what say we have a little fun? You know, breast stroke, free style ---.” I emphasized my intent with my hand on her bosom.
I yanked on the cloth and she fell into my grasp as if we had rehearsed the move. I hooked an arm around her mid-section and pulled her in close from behind. “Maybe even some dog-paddling.”
“Robert! Quit!” Still giggling, she pushed me away when our boy reappeared at the far end of the hallway, speaking earnestly into his cell phone.
Eric snapped the device shut, looked at us with fresh horror, and started to turn. “Guess I should I leave you two alone for awhile.”
“Not at all, Eric. I was just showing your mom how to slip out of a half-Nelson.”
“Oh, God!” He shuddered and kept his eyes averted until Karen stepped away to transfer wet clothes from the washer to the dryer.
“Okay, here’s the thing; I talked to Coach Allen. I only missed one practice and he said I could make it up. I’m back on the team.”
Karen shot me an open-mouthed look of pure shock and squealed. “That’s terrific!”
Eric wore an uneasy grin as his mother hugged him. Over her shoulder, he looked me in the eye. “Do me a favor, Dad.”
I gave him a wink and relished his wince. “Name it, Sport!”
“Next time you want to deliver a message like that, just send it in an e-mail. At least then I can delete it.”
“You got it., Son. Now, get your meat hooks off my wife.”
Walking briskly down the hall, something wet hit the back of my head and slid down my neck. I retrieved the facecloth and pivoted to return fire. A soggy barrage of wadded up T-shirts and underwear forced my retreat. Something delicate wafted by and I recognized Karen’s slip, the one she wore with the sheer satin dress at our seventeenth anniversary dinner two nights before. As it slid down the sheetrock at the end of the hall, a tightly balled sock slammed into the wall with a respectable ‘thud’.
That boy had an arm on him. Perhaps swimming was not his thing after all. I always wanted to pitch and baseball season was nearly upon us. Maybe I could teach him my slider.
Editors' Choice 2013: Too Many Stones by Rodney Nelsestuen
Rodney Nelsestuen has published numerous works of fiction and nonfiction in both print and online literary journals. His writing has won or received recognition in several contests. His body of work includes two plays, numerous creative nonfiction works, four novels and dozens of short stories. He also writes professionally on business and technology. Rod has been an instructor at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and was a winner in the Center's year long Mentor Series in creative nonfiction. He is also a judge for the annual Minnesota Book Awards contest and for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual contest. Rod received his MFA in Writing with a focus on fiction from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota where he lives nearby with his wife Diane.
Too Many Stones
Grace is in the barn helping with a calving. She stands behind the heifer whose eyes are wild with confusion. Grace knows what lies behind this look, remembers her own distress, and talks to the animal.
“Once the calf is born, you’ll understand... everything.” The heifer relaxes at the conviction in Grace's voice.
Her own child, Abel, is two. “He’s a handful,” her father often says of the stocky boy. “You’ll have to watch that one.” He'll point his thick finger at his grandson who points a stubby one back until each mirrors the other.
But his unyielding will is so very much like Robert’s and the only sign of what might have been - had they married. Still, she finds hope in the boy’s aggressive nature, certain it’s the one quality that will raise him up to a better life. With Abel’s third Christmas just ahead, her father seems settled with the notion that this will be her life.
Robert was the first young man to pay attention to Grace, at least in the way of being a woman. Except for her generous breasts she knows how like a man she looks, especially when she wears the cap she prefers to a scarf. She’s six feet tall and thick, in every part of her body, features she’s found no way to hide. Before she got pregnant, her father would kiss her high on one broad cheekbone and tell her how men would come to see her strong features as “the better part of a woman they can count on. You’ll see, Gracey,” he’d say.
Robert was the only one who seemed to agree. “Your daughter’s quite a woman."
Shortly after she turned twenty-two, with Robert almost four years older, she gave herself to him. It was something deliberate, decided, and against everything she believed in. They kissed while his hands roamed across her back then came to rest on the small of her waist. She pinned them with her elbows. His fingers relaxed and he didn’t try to move. It seemed that all of life paused for her decision. She didn’t yet ache for him as she would later come to do. She didn’t yet long for his touch as she still does. She just decided.
And now she wonders: Was it as coldly done as she remembers? Or maybe his need was so great and she couldn’t help but fill it. Or did he simply wait out what she was destined to decide? Within six months she was pregnant and Robert disappeared. She sometimes tells herself they were in love.
Her father stopped touching her altogether once Abel was born and she still longs for the warmth of his lips on the side of her face.
The heifer turns around, warm air steams from nostrils wet with a clear mucus. She eyes Grace who pats her on the rump. “There, there.”
December has arrived with a sharp wind and temperatures approaching zero at night. Not typical for an early winter, but not that unusual either. What is unusual is that there’s been no trace of snow. The ground has frozen brown and hard while the feeder streams running to the main creek form ice at their edges.
Grace tries to focus on the heifer but the runny mucus reminds her how Abel’s cold has worsened. He’s more trouble in general, even without the cold, now that he can’t go outside as often. Not certain if it’s cabin fever come early or if the cold is worsening. The month of her mother’s pneumonia last year was “touch’n go” as her father said and Grace knows how colds can get complicated overnight. While Abel seems not to be worsening, she is vigilant.
Since those near-death days last year, her mother’s despair has deepened as much as her body has withered. The doctors suggested shock therapy but her father can’t afford it and, when described, it seemed horrible on its face.
“Early dementia,” one doctor had said. But he was wrong.
“Schizophrenia,” another said in a quiet voice filled with authority. “That’s why she pretends with the dolls. But to her it’s all as real as you and I sitting here.” Grace can still see his wrinkled brow as he leaned over his desk toward her and her father. A shock of grey hair hung over one eye and his wire rimmed glasses were speckled from days without washing. For weeks afterward she imagined him as her grandfather, thought of how she’d care for him, keep his glasses clean.
Her mother’s not fit to sit for Abel very long. But she can be trusted for brief moments. And the house, it's not suited to small children. Her mother’s few keepsakes remain on every table and she refuses to put them up.
“Oh, Grace, they are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” she sings, then laughs and falls silent, retreats within her shrinking frame. Grace doesn’t argue, determines that the measure of joy they bring her mother is worth the risk they pose and the effort to watch Abel as he’s attracted to them. Perhaps when his cold is gone he’ll mellow.
The heifer steps side to side and groans. The contractions grow stronger.
In the house, Grace’s mother stares at her porcelain dolls. They are set close to one another so as to play together. She moves them around with pallid fingers, talks for each one, carries on all four voices. Abel had been outside, she remembers. He was there for a just little while, to get some fresh air and that's why she had not pulled on his coat or cap. Out there for just a few minutes… and with her husband, Jacob, gone God knows where, she must fill in the time by herself.
The calf is not coming even though Grace sees the muscles on either side of the tail have completely let down. The heifer is ready, strains often. She pushes on the heifer’s side and feels the calf low in the stomach. Now she’s worried. Her father has gone and won’t be home until supper and she’s here alone with what she knows is a calving going bad. She can’t blame him, though, for going off as he’s done every afternoon for the past two months. She doesn’t know where he goes but when he returns he’s ready for the aloneness that comes with caring for her mother.
Grace hurries to the milk house, fills a bucket with water, adds soap, a lot of soap, to lubricate her arms and the heifer’s birth canal. She carries the bucket into the barn and sets it behind the distressed heifer. Abel will be more than her mother can handle if she doesn’t relieve her soon. But she can’t. A dead calf would disappoint her father, already suffering more disappointment than she can bear to see.
Abel does not notice the cold. He is making excellent time and cannot worry about the feeling on his ears and fingers, a feeling he may remember having before, but not like this. He is exploring things he has never been allowed to explore, until now. The small stream flowing by the granary runs too swiftly to freeze solid in only a few days of cold weather. It will take a couple of weeks to ice it over but there is ice on the edges reaching into the stream unevenly on both sides. The sound of the running water is louder in winter’s dry-crisp air than in summer’s weight. He laughs as it tatters by him, faster than he can run and running makes him cough. His nose runs.
Grace reaches inside the birth canal and feels legs. She tries to find the head, but doesn’t. There’s something wrong. The legs don’t bend in the right direction. She feels a tail and knows at once the calf is breach, not only breach, but inverted and she had found the rear legs sticking up rather than tucked underneath the calf as they should be. Her hand searches until she discovers it’s a bull.
She’s seen a breach before, as well as an inversion, but not both at once. Abel himself was breach. The heifer’s pre-birth fluid is slippery and warm. Steam rises from the vagina whenever Grace retracts her arm in the slightest.
The boy sees stones in the bottom of the shallow stream. There are tan stones and grey stones and black stones and white stones and smooth stones and shiny stones, so many stones. He reaches out from the shore but his arms are too short. His mother’s voice tells him don’t get too close, but there are so many stones. And she is not here. He jumps up and down, runs alongside the stream looking at all the stones. That voice again, be careful. But there are too many stones.
Grace’s mother hears an argument start between the porcelain dolls. It begins as nothing more than childish play as boys and girls will do. They may even be flirting, that they like each other. It has to do with… well, she’s not certain. But it quickly grows to a loud and serious argument. The boys have the upper hand as they are loudest.
Grace re-lathers both arms and inserts them into the heifer, crossing them over one another to get far enough in to reach the calf and still be able to grasp it with both hands. The heifer is pushing hard now and trying to deliver the calf. But it won’t survive unless she can at the least roll it over, and in the best case, turn it around. She struggles against the heifer’s push, against the young bull’s own newly found will to be born. This is all wrong, she thinks, and she cannot quit now or one or both of them will die.
Abel feels the cold water run across his legs and splash in his face as the ice on the edge of the stream where he had stood breaks off, a false ledge undermined by the shallow but fast moving water. It takes his breath away and his head slips under water for a moment, he lies prone on his back, then sits up and coughs. He is worried but is not certain why. He does know wet, but not the complete wetness of his shirt, his trousers, the water in his shoes. He does know cold but not the magnitude of this cold. All of this together is curious. He coughs and wants to cry but cannot. His voice is no longer with him and he wonders where it went.
In the house, Grace’s mother is taking stock. Abel is being so good. Cannot hear him at all. This would be a gift except for the porcelain dolls that begin to argue more forcefully. They are moving past mere name-calling to a child's form of cruelty. There is no reason for this escalation, but where ill-behaved children are concerned there is no reason. The boys begin to throw rocks at the girls who scowl, threaten to tell their fathers, that the boys will be whipped for certain if they do not stop.
Grace is soaked. She doesn’t know where the heifer’s fluids end and her own sweat begins. Her arms ache and she feels the canal begin to contract, grow drier, to close up, call it a day. No calf today.
She pulls her arms out, lathers them up, pushes handfuls of soapy water into the heifer then plunges back in with both arms up to her biceps. Her hands find the calf’s tail and she follows it to the anus. She pushes on the backside, pushes the calf back into the mother, pushes again fiercely.
Mother and calf relent. It is now well within the womb. Grace pulls out one arm and with the other grabs both rear legs low, near the hooves, and twists. The calf is turning. She twists harder, then rests, then twists, then rests, alternating several times until she feels the legs on the bottom, the body on top. The cord, good, is not entangled. Now she pulls out her trembling arm and lunges further into the heifer with the other, feels the head turned back against its body, back toward her. She puts her fingers in its mouth and nostrils, pulls, slips off, grabs again and pulls. She repeats this several times. The calf turns. The front legs are not tucked up to the head. They lag behind, but this shouldn’t be a problem. Once the head is out, she can help with the rest.
Abel’s confusion and concern begin to disappear. He is sitting upright, water up to the base of his neck, rushing over his shoulders in the stream, facing the current. It keeps pushing him backward. He has been fighting against it but now and then hears his mother tell him, Lay down Abel, it’s time to sleep. Help Momma tuck you in. But he does not want to sleep. He wants the stones and grabs for them on the bottom. But the water swirls and he can't see which are the pretty ones. Soon they fall from hands he can no longer close to clutch them.
Grace's mother does not like this turn of events. The dolls must be separated. She picks them up from the low table where they sit and puts them on different shelves in her closet for the rest of the day. “Tomorrow I’ll put you back on the table. But you’ve all behaved so badly… you need to be separated and, and I'm forced to take this up with Jacob.”
Grace encourages the heifer. “I know you’re scared. I know that look. But it will all be worth it, honest. Let me help you, please.” The heifer takes up the cause again, bolstered by the voice.
Now the pushing is strong, but not desperate. A pink nose begins to show through the lips of her vagina, some blood where Grace’s grasping had scratched it. The head comes through in a massive push. She holds it with both hands and waits. The seconds tick by but Grace is patient. The heifer pushes again and Grace pulls steadily on the head. One more and the shoulders are through, the front legs. In her final effort, the heifer ejects the rest of her calf and Grace half catches, half drops it to the gutter where it bleats, shakes its head, is going to be fine.
She sits back against the wall in the steam of cooling body fluids that mix and rise with the sharp December air stealing through the cracks of the barn wall, feeling the total exhaustion and satisfaction of her hour long battle.
The heifer pushes the afterbirth out on top of her calf who bleats again, then struggles onto quivering legs and moves toward its mother’s udder. His body strengthens as he suckles and Grace thinks his neck grows thicker. He transforms himself from helpless calf to eager bull, bucking his mother’s udder with his head to increase the milk flow. Grace smiles at the thought of how like Abel he seems. But something unseen nags at her, like an approaching storm flashing on the horizon in the middle of a perfect day.
From his back, beneath the surface, Abel can see the sky is blue but the water rushing above him plays tricks on his eyes even though there is less than a foot of it to look through. He cannot breathe any more and the longer that goes on, the lighter he feels, like when his grandfather tosses him in the air, weightless. But this lasts longer. How curious that the lighter he gets, the greyer the sky becomes. He feels his body lift slightly, begin to float an inch or two at a time, stopping on any rock that catches his trousers or the heels of his shoes; then lifts again and floats again. This must be a new game. The water is playing a game with him. He wants to giggle but cannot. It is good there is a new game because the sky has disappeared now.
The dolls still disturb her. It is getting late, four o’clock. The sun will go down in half an hour. Grace’s mother moves to the cushioned armchair close by the window and looks out across the farmstead toward the granary less than fifty yards away. She is angry Jacob has not returned but thankful Abel is quiet. She scowls at this contradiction. The cold is nearly visible in the stream as the late sun angles in from the west, caught playfully in the rippling. She knows this angle, the view that only stays for a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, then will be gone in the earth’s rotation. The light on the rushing waters lets off colors from the spectrum and she dozes in a soothing vision of Jacob’s calloused hand touching, warm and gentle on her cheek. Soon she will nestle in his arms where it is safe and she will tell him of the terrible dolls.
Grace is walking to the house, moving quickly against the cold and her wet clothes. The young bull had danced as she left the barn, a small joy to help her through supper when she’ll watch as her father feeds her mother in helpless silence. Abel will sneeze and cough and reach for things he shouldn’t have until she’ll call him Robert by mistake again.
Something flashes in the corner of her eye from the stream beside the granary. The sun, she thinks. Has seen this before. But there is something else, not shiny but, what? a branch, or log, floating in the water. At the last minute she turns from the path to the house and walks toward the stream, drawn by something she does not yet understand.
Grand Prize Winner 2012 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
First Full Night of Winter by David Brendan Hopes
David Brendan Hopes was born in Akron, Ohio, and attended Hiram College, Johns Hopkins, and Syracuse University. He is currently Professor of Literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he has lived since 1983. He is a poet and playwright as well as a fiction writer, and his play Conversation Involving Doppler the Cat appears in production at the Durango Arts Center in September, 2012, and his play-with-music, The Loves of Mr. Lincoln is, by the usual slow degrees, making its way to the New York stage.
First Full Night of Winter
David Brendan Hopes
Frost had blasted the big leaves. Most of the flowers had already folded up into their roots. Streamers of their rotting leaves arrayed themselves around their stems in black, broken spirals. The ferns were indecisive. The sensitive ferns, true to their name, had vanished before the frost, when the air had merely taken the color of frost. One maidenhair still stood, curved like a splash from a stone thrown into a green pond. The other maidenhairs were black threads, or gone altogether. The Christmas ferns were either evergreen or waiting until they could slip away undetected, with dignity intact.
The woman stood at the edge of the shade garden looking at the ferns. She did this a long time. The man, her husband, had arrayed stumps around the garden so you could sit and look a long time and not see everything. Tentative, tossing snowflakes ventured and retreated between the branches of the sweet gum. The sweet gum tree was immense. The woman forgot sometimes how huge it was. Its top sang in the wind with a sound which, if you did not trace its source with your eyes, you might think originated in another world. But you couldn't look up long into the sweet gum while snow was falling, for the vertigo would make you think you were falling up into the dome of the world, and nothing would stop you.
She noticed herself noticing everything in the moments before the real storm hit, not just the big things like the sweet gum and the snow-carrying wind, but the various colors of the leaves caught in the dead grass, how some of them were whole and others were skeletons or thin filigrees. Where did the insects go? Did they die? Did they bury themselves like the sensitive ferns to rise again when the snow turned to rain? Only a few days ago there was a mantis as long as her hand on the wall of the garage. Was it dead now? Sleeping? Could you grow to that tigerish size and just be swept away by the first freeze? All the details were useless unless she understood them, and how could she understand them unless she asked, and who was there now to ask?
Her husband had known these things. He probably still did, but she no longer knew how to ask.
There was practically nothing green but the ferns. The big spruce was green, of course, but the wrong green, heavy and suffocating. She couldn't stand anything aromatic just now. She was hungry for the right green. Could she pick the fern fronds for a bouquet? She didn't know. She hadn't planted them; he had. He knew, as she did not, whether they would stand up to the heat of a room, if they would wither like lettuce kept in a too-cold refrigerator. If you plucked a frond, would the whole plant die? Some plants are like that. He would know what things could be plucked and brought inside and what could not. He could have left signs, written instructions. He could have pulled her from in front of the TV and made her dig with him. She would have fought, but he should have stood firm.
Perhaps he had planted delicate, perishable things on purpose, foreseeing what would happen, making sure punishment would follow.
Now it was snowing steadily. She looked up to watch the branches of the sweet gum filter the snow like someone passing shining cloth through her fingers. She couldn't look too long, though, for she began to fall up, up, up, and then had to squat down and touch the ground with her hands to stop the whirling ascent. The ground was warm. Snow still melted when it hit the ground, though it began to gather on the fern fronds and bend them a little over. The fronds must be designed to hold up under a certain accumulation of snow. The ferns must hold as much snow as they needed to back where they originated, in Ohio or China or any of the places she thought he heard him name when he was planting them.
One afternoon he had come and banked fallen leaves up around the stems of the delicate ones, so they would have little brown coats through the winter. Some had the coats and some did not, and over the remnants of some of the vanished ones the leaf hill rose like tels over fallen cities. How did he know which ones to give the coats to, which ones to leave alone? There must be a book somewhere which told one this. She would have to look on the shelves. Some of his books he left behind. Maybe the ones she needed to keep things going. He would have thought of that, but if, after everything, he would have done it was another matter.
In those few hours when she hated him, she had imagined herself going out into the garden and destroying the plants, because she knew he loved them. This she did not do. She shuddered now when she remembered having even been tempted.
It was winter for her too; she was cold, too, but he had not come to slip her into a scratchy brown coat, or find her and raise a mound over her where she had already disappeared. She contemplated the evident truth that the plants meant more to him than she did. Perhaps they were just less trouble. Perhaps they were more trouble, and that was the unexpected secret. Perhaps he felt there was still something there on which to build. Perhaps he heard their voices and had stopped hearing hers. What she whispered to him with her secret voice, the one like the voice the plants might use, was different from what she did. He should have understood that.
She'd stayed outside worrying about the ferns too long, so when she came in she had to stand in the kitchen for a while getting used to the moist, scented heat which seemed to come from everywhere at once. The cold wind was cold from one overwhelming direction, but in her own kitchen, the heat seemed to come from everywhere. What did she smell? Food, cooking. Food already cooked and eaten and forgotten. Cleaning fluids. Heat. And she smelled him. She smelled him even though he had been gone seven weeks. Even though.
She blew heat onto the tips of her fingers. She had been nameless Woman out under the sweet gum tree, at the edge of the shade garden, but in her own kitchen she was a particularity, a specific woman whose name was Peggy. And this was her house, her heat. Peggy's house, Peggy's heat. The smell of Peggy's food. Out there were his ferns, his blue cold blowing from the north in a straight line now, with darkness and flecks of snow upon it.
If she took two steps she would see the other man in the living room. His name was Ron. He would never be the Man, but always specifically, merely, Ron. Never a force of nature. Never a fearful power to bolt that temperamental window against. He had not planted the ferns. He had not dug hours under the hemlocks to find the right shade of shade for the lettucy hart's-tongue. He did not go out in the first snow, but sat in the light of the window folding the big pages of the paper in half to read easier, making the same folding/rustling sound each time. One of the smells was his coffee, the remaining bitter inch at the bottom of the pot.
"Ron?" she said.
"Nothing. Nothing. Just checking."
She had said to him once, her husband, the one who was Him whenever the word came to her tongue, "I'm afraid. I'm afraid of loving you too much. It will lead me. . . somewhere. Somewhere I don't want to go."
She was being theatrical. She wanted him to say something back to her, to repeat what she had said. Call and response. But he said, "Why don't you pray about it?" He was not being theatrical. She had not expected that response. She turned it over in her mind, still did-- without praying, without letting it go.
She tried the same line on Ron. He took a different meaning. He smiled and said, "You bad girl," swatting at her thigh playfully with a magazine. She played along. She wore black lace that night.
When her husband had come home that fateful evening-- seven weeks ago, when it was middle summer-- he stopped to mess with his flowers for a moment as he always did between the car and the house. That moment should have been enough time. She had heard the car stop, the door slam. Those sounds should have been safety and warning. There should have been enough time to get Ron out the front door, which he never used, or into his clothes so some excuse could be made. But she had not been quick. Maybe she had not wanted to be. Maybe she was sick of him and his garden. Maybe she wanted to be caught with Ron, to close the covers of a book which was proving too hard for her, and start anew with an easier task. He had stood at the bedroom door with the two of them looking at him. She was afraid of them then, as she had not expected to be. Spades, wind, rakes, saws, the thickening frost, these were his things, and if he had brought some with him down the echoing hallway, he life and Ron's would be over. Had he not, finally, spoken, they could all be there still, skeletons of hesitancy, frozen forever in an inarticulate instant, but he had spoken. He said, "But I thought."
Ron had laughed. Ron said, "You're not going to shoot me, are you?" and then he laughed. She wished he had shot Ron, just to have the moment take a different route. There was no gun, but she had no doubt he could have shot him anyway, with . . . something.
"But I thought.”
But he thought what? Why did he say that, out of all the things which could be said? That she was his love forever? That her eye could not in probability stray from his big shoulders and the ropes of veins at his wrists. Probably that, but maybe not that. Maybe something subtler, harder. But he was always too hard. That was the problem.
She was glad Ron laughed, but she wished someone had killed someone, so it could all be different now. She wished she knew what to do about the garden. Maybe he should have shot her. Maybe she was the one who had it coming. He had never said that, so she had never thought it, but there was something about the cold and the snow and the sudden house heat and the drama of the bewintered ferns that made her think it now. He would have killed her if he could, if he had brought one of his sharp, cold weapons in from under the boiling sky.
He left with his things, most of them, but he came back to tend the garden. He brought new tools in the back of his car, and never touched the ones gathering dust in the garage. She almost never saw him, and often when she did she didn't call to him, or even tap on the window and wave. He was friendly. He could have been a neighbor or a man she hired to take care of the garden. He visited it and not her. It had not betrayed him. He and Ron chatted on the stone walk sometimes, and this amazed her. She assumed she would stand between them all their lives, in every second of their lives, but sometimes they chatted as if that evening had not happened, and there was no Peggy to make them enemies. She knew his eyes, though. She knew when he choked back rage and pain. She did not know Ron's eyes yet, but she didn't think he choked back anything. Maybe he'd forgotten that evening, and assumed the man with the hoe was indeed the man she'd hired to tend a garden she didn't understand.
"Ron, I don=t know what to do about the ferns."
"Michael's ferns. I don't know what to do."
"They're fine. He comes here almost every day, doesn't he? They're fine."
"In the snow?"
"I'm sure they're fine."
Ron had not laid down the paper, and his voice had the bright, indirect timbre voices have when you haven't bothered to put down the paper to answer someone. Peggy bent over in her own kitchen with one hand on the counter to hold herself up, and thought she was going to cry. But she did not. You could not cry with all those food smells around you. She would have to open the window. She would have to pull the oily branches of the spruce in and make their fragrance cover everything.
Michael was his name. Michael. She seldom thought of his name. He was always he. Him. The one who was not herself. The male. He who knelt in the dirt with his mouth against the green spring fronds, whispering.
"I'm going to make some."
She didn't say what she was going to make, but still he said, "That sounds nice." She didn't say because she didn't know. She could smell old cooking. Whatever she could smell she was not going to make, not this time. She could smell him. Not Ron. When Ron came from the shower you could smell soap and talc, but not him. Michael's scent was still a whisper in the rooms. The other. Him. It was. . . she could not describe it. Like a plant. Like an animal. . .She could not describe it. Like the scent above the ground when it had just started to snow.
"You all right? You sounded a little?"
"No. No. I was worried about the ferns. You're right, though, whatever's out on a night like this will have to take care of itself."
Ron rattled the paper very hard. It was his sign that he was about to rise out of the chair and come to her. She wished he wouldn't. She wished he would stay hidden for one more moment, so she could run to the window and take a last look, out over the lawn, past the fallen branches of the wind-torn sweet gum, to where Michael=s ferns were gathering their pearls of snow, making their decisions, hunkering down, or easing into darkness, on the first full night of winter.
Grand Prize Winner 2011 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
The Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel by Athena Abrams
Athena Abrams grew up in Iowa and Florida and graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with a BA in cultural anthropology. After graduation she worked on an archeological dig in Guatemala, took numerous road trips across the U.S., attended the Burning Man Festival, and is settled down (for the moment) in Boulder, Colorado. She now spends as little time as she can get away with working as a freelance editor and index writer, and as much time as she possibly can on her personal writing. She recently completed a science fiction/fantasy novel, The Reunion, for which she is seeking representation. A second novel, The Third London, which weaves together three historical fiction time frames, is currently in progress. She plans to spend the next few years in much the same fashion as the last: traveling, writing and being inspired by life. Writecorner Press is pleased to nominate Athena's winning story for a Pushcart Prize.
The Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel
The air is so thick with moisture that I can feel my hair lifting and curling, frizzing upwards, drawn perhaps by the light of the stars. The humidity mixes with my face lotion creating a layer, not of sweat exactly, but of something I could scrape off with a fingernail.
Muggy. I think I'd forgotten the meaning of the word.
How long has it been? Two years? Might as well have been ten, as I’m already forgetting the meaning of these home-specific words. For muggy is this: this Midwestern nighttime heat that conjures crickets, mosquito whines, and the rustle, rustle, rustle of small creatures in the grass. It’s the languid movement of bits of newspaper, last autumn’s leaves and candy wrappers in the gutter, all just a bit too moist to really blow around. It’s the smell of wooden hallways in century old houses, the sweet scents of pine and cedar oozing out one more time into the summer air around window frames and doors, too damp to stay hidden under varnish. It’s chips of paint on houses, curling up at the ends even as you watch. Not that people are too poor to paint, though many are, but you’d have to repaint practically every season.
Muggy. I wander out to the edge of town, farther than I ever used to go. Here there is a dark countryside of unlit fields and dotted farmhouses that each have a solitary light: elephantine fireflies crouched in distant grass. The insects and frogs would make conversation near impossible here and real fireflies glow and fade, glow and fade, in the ditches and cornfields. I think about the little oasis world each farm light shelters: a family asleep, dogs asleep, cats on the prowl and horses and pigs in the barn.
From this distance those worlds seem so simple.
Ice cream. Ice cream would help calm this sweaty, muggy itch under my jeans, down my spine. But it’s nighttime, dark night, what’s open in a small Midwestern town at eleven o’clock? Something must be. So I keep walking the cracked and broken asphalt of the streets on which I learned to drive, not one bearing a center stripe but every one familiar with my bare summer feet, as I circle back in toward the few neon lights of South Main. Surely if I walk all the way out to the grocery store at the other end of town that will be open, at the least. But I come across the gas station with the Mini-Mart, open till midnight, that will do. I buy a Blue Bell ice cream sandwich, the childhood kind that tastes like cold cool whip between two soggy chocolate wafers.
I’m reminded of an elementary school friend, Kelsey, and barefoot walks for ice cream cones, chocolate melting and dripping on our toes, staining our pink shorts, my curls just as humid wild then as they are now, Kelsey’s long dark hair streaking through her ice cream and coming away clumped and sticky.
Last I heard she’d moved to Michigan, though I don’t know what she’s doing there. I’ve been in and out of this town for years; long before high school ended I was only coming back to see my dad, with even those visits growing less frequent during my college years.
My dad. Of course he’s on my mind now, of course that’s why I’m here. Much as these familiar streets bring back a hundred inconsequential moments of childhood, this is what is really on my mind. My dad. My dad, and the hospital, and the possibility of death.
Somehow I managed to sleep on the plane ride with my head cushioned awkwardly on the tray table, but it was the hot red sleep that comes when you’ve cried yourself into it, sinking in fear. When they’d first called me they hadn’t been sure if he would live.
When I called the hospital again from my layover they still weren’t sure.
It wasn’t until I landed here that the doctor had definite news: everything is stabilized and he will be fine. Though it was hard to believe that when I saw my father, as my legs shook and bile rose unexpectedly in my stomach, my vision seeming to film and fade. I could barely comprehend that it was my father; he was so tiny under blankets and bandages.
And he still has not opened his eyes, still has not seen that I am here, flown back this afternoon when I heard about the accident: heard about the motorcycle taking the curve too fast, landing in a ditch; heard about my father lying pinned in the grass, for hours perhaps, still conscious until the EMTs came.
This is what is really on my mind, the whole day playing out over and over: the plane ride, the fear of death, the bandages and bruises. My thoughts are caught in circling loops and the harsh curve of Brighton Road.
So when I couldn’t take the hospital anymore I found myself out here, walking the darkly rustling streets as I always did, and in a way that makes sense. Something like this happens and we become very small, twelve again not twenty-five, and our old habits come back. The doctor said it will likely be a few more hours before my father wakes up, and I’ll return to the smell of sweat and vomit and cleaning products, the slow dripping catheters and IVs, the distant noise of crises, just as soon as I can. Even thinking about the white hospital fluorescents that leave no shadows, no mysteries, makes my head hurt. Out here all is shadow, all is mystery, and despite the heat the outdoors is a blessed cool relief from sterility.
Now I try to walk as I did when I was thirteen, still young enough to be enchanted with the world, intrigued by the tableaux playing out behind lighted windows; the way I walked before teen angst, with its boys and self-doubts and long dark walks with purloined cigarettes.
There’s the house, always shabby, which Anna and I thought was inhabited by witches. Something about the lacy curtains at the windows, grayed and stained, that twitched when we passed, the fragrant herbs in the planters, the fact that we never actually saw anyone. The house has changed now: the lace curtains are gone and in their place dark venetian blinds are tightened closed. The herbs are dead, the planters filled with grass and dandelions. The paint has peeled more and one of those pine trees that grow tent-like, the perfect play fort, harbors a grill, some plastic chairs, and an assortment of beer bottles, their labels rotting. The house must have sold. Perhaps the owner died.
Death is on my mind.
The possibility of death hovers close, the nearness of it and my father’s reprieve from it. Yet it can only ever be a reprieve: and that is hard to accept.
I’m feeling cooler now from the ice cream, wondering if there is chocolate on my face and where I can throw away my wrapper. Rustle, rustle, rustle, the little creatures in the weeds.
But there is suddenly something unfamiliar in the nighttime creature sound, it becomes frantic, I hear a little cry in it, a gasping whimper.
My stomach knots up as I realize what it is: a small animal, rat or chipmunk maybe, hit by a car and struggling frantically at the edge of the street. I want to walk on, to leave it as nature’s problem, not mine. But I can’t. On this muggy night, death on my mind, this is my problem.
I turn back from where I have walked a few paces, heart aching, and peel off my outer tank top, moist even though it is second from my body. The creature is pushing itself around in desperate circles; I think maybe a leg is broken. It wants to leave the cruel street of cement and neon and the occasional roar of a passing car, I know it does. Already it has made its way in dragging circles much closer to the curb, but it will never make it up the cement cliff into the soft encircling darkness of the grass: instead it will spend the last of its life pushing hopelessly against the uncaring asphalt. Unless it’s hit again.
Bracing myself I scoop up the little animal in my shirt, imagining the blood stains. It struggles wildly against my hands; I send it calming thoughts and suddenly it stills. Carrying it quickly over the sidewalk to the shelter of a tree I set the creature down in the grass.
At once its frantic circles recommence, but they are different: the miserable squeaking cry is gone and the creature burrows and presses against the ground, feeling relief I am sure at the comfort and coolness of earth and grass and shade. I can see it better now as I sit a couple of feet away. All its legs seem to work, but its mouth is red. Internal bleeding. Something is broken inside its delicate mechanism of a body. Something is bleeding, and this little creature will die soon. Its gasping breaths are moist.
It’s beautifully patterned: stripes of white run from head to tail and parallel between each stripe are rows of careful dots. It’s too long and low for a chipmunk, its tail isn’t bushy like a squirrel’s. I don’t know what kind of animal it is; I’ve never seen one before.
I tell it to settle, to sleep, that it is relaxing into peace, and I hope the little creature can sense my thoughts. I tell it to feel the coolness of earth, to relax against it, to welcome falling asleep, to let death come and to let death be a relief.
But I guess it’s not that easy, for the creature continues to circle as though it wants to run away from the pain, shed its skin, shed the pain. But it can’t.
Sometimes it settles for a moment but always it startles up again, scrambles, gasps wetly. I’d wanted to think that animals don’t feel pain the same way we do, that they aren’t afraid of death in the same way, but this one doesn’t seem to want to die. Maybe death isn’t easy, even for such a small piece of life.
Maybe death isn’t easy.
I tell it that it’s safe here and that I’m watching over it, that I will stay with it to the end. But I don’t know what that is worth to this little creature. Its eyes are closed.
It is alone with pain.
I look around at the infrequent cars passing a little ways away, at the dimmed lights of Dairy Queen and Pizza Ranch across the street. What would this animal’s death have been like before this town with its buildings and its lights, before we poured concrete over the prairie? It would have been darker here, more silent, though perhaps loud with insects and night wings. The creature wouldn’t have died like this at all, I suddenly realize. There would have been no cars hitting it with blunt force, cracking its little ribs and causing its lungs to bleed. Death would have come swiftly by owl or snake.
The world of the prairie I conjure feels somehow soothing, peaceful. I hope my thoughts and words can help the creature, perhaps awaken an ancestral memory of an easier death. Its little gasping breaths are coming shallower now, fewer. There won’t be life in it much longer.
I look up at the old tree above us, wonder what it has seen, and suddenly the watery air feels pregnant, pulsing with memory; not just of my childhood but of my friends’ childhoods, our parents’ childhoods, my father’s childhood. Hundreds of memories crowd through the thick air like gnats and I can almost see them, bringing life into this moment, into all moments, even when death is here also. This is just one moment under the tree.
Still the creature struggles briefly, falls back into the grass, pushes itself against the mud, pants shallowly and wetly. I remind it that I am here, for what that’s worth, watching over it the way a god might watch over a person’s death.
The way I hope some god might watch over a person’s death: with thoughts of comfort, of sleep, of rest and coolness.
I imagine the branches of the tree over our heads filled with the gods of small creatures, watching, waiting, humor in their wise eyes.
Can the gods of people see past thick hospital roofs with their fiberglass insulation and popcorn ceilings, past metal bedrails, papery blue blankets and all the rest? I hope they can.
At last the tail of the unknown animal flips up and then the creature, which has been nearly doubled in two with pain, stretches out long in a quick motion, lying on its side, red mouth open, and suddenly I am alone here with the tree and my imaginings of gods.
No breath disturbs the animal’s delicately patterned side.
Slowly I stand, stretching out my legs, unsure how long I have sat in my vigil, thinking and watching. The cars are less, the stars brighter. I look for a flower, find a prairie rose, its five petals darkly pink, and lay it beside the quiet body.
I should get back to the hospital.
Yet before I leave I look down and thank the little creature; for now death seems, if not more explicable, perhaps a bit less unknown.
Editor's Choice 2011: Puppy by Kathryn Henion
Kathryn Henion's fiction has appeared in Karamu, Inkwell, The G. W. Review, Confrontation, Carousel, Kaleidoscope, Cottonwood and The MacGuffin and is forthcoming in Regarding Arts and Letters. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University, where she also served as editor of Harpur Palate, a literary journal. She lives and writes in Ithaca, New York.
It seemed like a bad idea. Having those boys back at our Center, it felt as if we were the ones getting punished, and it sure made for one awkward scene—the three juvenile delinquents, their supervisor, and all us old folks standing in the kitchen where they cooked the puppy. We pressed into our canes and walkers trying to straighten our backs. We tried to look taller.
Virgil, the custodian, the one who found it, said the boys must’ve figured the oven was the best way to finish off the puppy. They broiled the thing; bound its paws with silver duct tape, drenched it in paint, and shut it in the oven cranked up to 550. It wasn’t our puppy, but it was our General Electric, and we were the ones to hear the news from Virgil the next morning when we showed up for 9 a.m. Gentle Yoga with Louise.
Why they chose our Center was beyond us. It was just another door amongst a line of downtown storefronts—a goldsmith, a deli, a hairdresser. Silas said it was because young people think old people are creepy. But it could’ve been because someone—Loretta!—left the front door unlocked, again. Only reason the kids got caught was Harold at the deli next door stayed late checking inventory that night. Heard something unusual, he said, loud voices and a general ruckus unusual for that time of night, except maybe on Poker for Pennies Wednesday when Herbert has one too many Shandies. But this was a Tuesday. Someone at Bubbles and Suds down the street IDed three teenagers kicking over a vending machine and the cops rounded them up shortly after that. Cops gave them Juvie and supervised community service at our Center. Lucky us.
The Center was a dump, but it was ours. We wanted something besides the downtown, assisted-living apartments our children schlepped us off to. “Like going back to college,” they’d said, trying to convince us, forgetting most of us went straight to work, started saving so they could go to college and make the kind of success they could share with us someday. They said, “Wish we could come too.”
Assisted living: a softened-up way to say assisted dying. Funny thing was it seemed like our kids who needed assistance living. Their scheduled lives. In their faces we see ourselves: another appointment or task on their To Do lists. Nothing left to offer, we don’t fit the modern, are stuck somewhere between the Carter and Bush Senior administrations. Between New Coke and Coke Classic. We eat our TV dinners and don’t ask questions. In their eyes, an elevated sense of importance colliding with boredom. Always emphasizing Have and Have Not over Please and Thank You to our grandchildren—fat bodies warming over-padded couches, limited attention spans, pale faces low-lit by hand-held electronics—cell phones, iPods, video games—always answering questions with syllables and grunts. We watch, say nothing, and marvel how they possibly came from us.
We moved to Assisted Living—what choice did we have?—and then found ourselves the Center. Franklin got the idea on a routine city bus ride when he caught the For Rent sign out of the corner of his good eye. It was a place of our own choosing, he said, where we could come and go without checking in and checking out, where we made the schedule. It was something we could hold onto. We pooled money and signed the lease without asking anyone else’s permission. It felt great.
Most of our valuables we kept at Assisted Living, so there was nothing to take. Nothing to tempt three boys anyway. No cash register, no safe. Refrigerator, yes, but only had in it our takeout leftovers—gravied mashed potatoes & chicken fried chicken from the pinochle tourney, some orange juice, cottage cheese. And the butt-ends of some breadmaker bread rejects made by Midge’s single daughter, Susie, who’d recently joined a Tuesday-night supper club in hopes of meeting her future husband. Instead she’d gained ten pounds and some aggressive cooking habits (if you call using a bread maker cooking). Whatever course she was assigned by the supper club each week, Susie made several batches ahead of time, dry runs she sent along With Compliments to us via Midge. Didn’t think we’d know they were failures, assumed our aged taste buds wouldn’t detect excess baking soda or lack of butter. Truth is, we kinda hoped those boys had taken Susie’s bread. But there it was, shoved at the back of the crisper with some browning apple slices and dried-out baby carrots. Before the police arrived, we stuffed the bread into the toilet to make it look like the boys’ work. A wasteful shame, we’d tell Susie later.
They didn’t touch Rose’s stamp collection or Sandra’s secret recipe for Kentucky Derby Pie, or the photo albums or scrap books or the half-made, brown-and-orange crocheted blanket Edna left on the back of the rocking chair by the front window. Terrance’s coin collection—he thought we didn’t know about it—was still in that old ski sock he stuffed under the loose floorboard by the radiator.
No, they didn’t dig into the place at all, only concerned with what was out-in-the-open, easy. They emptied drawers of kitchen utensils, pens, and phone books. They scrawled illegible graffiti on the walls with our Pictionary markers and strung toilet paper over lampshades and windowsills. And then of course the puppy who shouldn’t even have been there in the first place.
It was Sandra’s. A yellow retriever or lab of a thing she adopted from the pound and brought back to Assisted Living only to find out pets weren’t allowed. Sandra’s daughter took it for a week or two, until we got the Center, and then Sandra brought it to American Idol night, where it spent hours chasing its tail and chewing the coffee table legs. Some of us cooed and laughed that first visit—puppies can be cute when they’re not yours—but Sandra must’ve taken it to heart; by summer’s end the puppy was more a permanent resident of the Center than the rest of us. We called it Puppy. At our age, no use naming anything or getting too attached.
We all had puppies. As children or for them, they were a point of learning responsibility. We taught them to sit, shake, lay down, roll over. They followed us camping, fishing, for long walks by the river. At picnics they swam in the lake as we skipped round flat stones; got out and shook damp all over us. Learned to catch Frisbees mid-air. Sat with us waiting for the school bus, at the end of our long gravel driveways. Lying at the foot of our beds, they kept our feet warm on Christmas Eve. When Sheila Maglioni or Tommy Bradstreet broke our hearts, we hung our arms around their necks, dried our faces in their fur, slightly course but smelling of familiar. They stayed home with us when our children left for college. We were sad when they passed. And still, they were pets. Not the way some treat them now, dressed in tutus or monogrammed sweaters.
Some of us didn’t want the puppy. But Sandra said her daughter would take it back to the pound, and even though most of us weren’t the puppy’s biggest fans, we couldn’t send it off to a shelter. So as long as it kept out of the kitchen, where puppies could get into trouble, we agreed it could stay. Virgil, who had kind of a thing for it, put up a child gate he got from his daughter to keep it confined to the recreation room. When no one was in, on evenings and through to the morning, we shut it in the laundry room with its food dish and a blanket old Gerty donated. Some of us kept it in there when we were in, not charmed by its jumping and scratching and little nips. Still, locked in the laundry or confined to the recreation room, the thing was always yelping. Most of all the minute anyone came near it. We had only to walk past that door on the way to the bathroom and the darned thing would start up with the howling, yipping and scratching all wicked pitiful, dust flying out from the heavy sniffing at the crack beneath the door. If we let it out, it followed us everywhere, jumping and making a terrible racket. About drove us mad. We gave it a few good kicks and eventually it settled down, sat curled on its stack of blankets licking its paws.
We crumpled pieces of newspaper and pages of Time magazine, tossed them over its head toward the beige walls. But Puppy just sat there, staring at us. Dumb puppy, we said. Couldn’t even handle the simplest trick in the book. Would’ve known those boys were up to no good, too, if it’d had any sense. Would’ve stayed curled quiet on that old pillow Sandra left for it. But of course the damned thing probably yelped soon as it heard them. Being a puppy, it didn’t have any sense. Figured those boys wanted to play.
Thing of it is, we liked disliking the puppy. It gave us a sense of purpose and community. Mutual complaints: the smell and all the slobber, the unabashed neediness. Like children, the puppy reminded us how far from youth we’d come, how tired we were. Some of us kind of hated it for that, but not enough to do what those boys did.
We’re used to smells—fresh-baked bread and refrigerated cold cuts from the deli next door, the chemical tang and floral perfumes seeping through the walls from the hairdresser on the other side. None of us showers all that often and the one toilet at the Center needs some serious Lysol-ing. But burnt fur and flesh, it’s something different. Trumps all those other smells like a tidal wave. Took us right back to the time Bernie Talbot singed his eyebrows clean off trying to light the gas burner under his chicken and stars.
Cops said the boys had problems. Bad parents. Bad crowd. These days, we say, always some excuse; no one responsible for themselves. What’s more, mostly the boys got off. Too young to know better, the paper said. A four-year-old, maybe. But these boys, they took initiative. Went straight to it, got pretty creative with the duct tape and the paint. Tied the puppy’s front and back paws together, hog-over-a-pit-style, laid it in the middle of the floor and drenched it in a couple gallons of the Pixie Green Therese bought to decorate the kitchen. Was a dream of hers, she’d said, to have a Pixie Green kitchen. Reminded her how life looked when she was ten. The best year, she’d said with a smile and far-away eyes.
We thought they would’ve been older. Didn’t expect the three, blue-eyed white boys with little more than peach fuzz for facial hair standing there with their shoulders slumped and faces bent toward the floor with canned apologies for the trouble. We thought they would’ve looked rougher somehow, more criminal. We thought maybe they’d have had tattoos or piercings or scars on their faces, chipped teeth or colored bandannas tied slant across their foreheads. But they looked like any of the young kids we saw on our daily walks around the block or on bus rides for groceries and bank runs. Too-long hair and too-big clothes like they’re hiding from something. They looked like our grandchildren.
We asked how old they were.
The one with hardly any hair on his arms said, Fourteen.
At fourteen we were still rising early to help our fathers in the barns and our mothers prepare the daily meals. At fourteen we still relished hugs from our parents.
We asked, You got parents?
Yeah, they nodded, looking at us with that expression our own children use when we ask a question they think we ought to know the answer to. They look at us like we’ve got dementia.
We never thought we’d get like this. Old. Dispensable. A kind of speed bump slowing down everything around us. When did it happen, we wondered; when did life turn from gaining to losing? There must have been a moment, we thought. But we couldn’t place it in the mix of jobs, marriage, kids, retirement. Other than the way our bodies creak and hang, we don’t feel old at all. But we see it in our children’s faces when they look at us as if we’ll soon be dead, a mix of impatience and fear; they are uncomfortable with the lack of grace in our slowly losing control. We see it in these three young boys too. We want to, but we can’t remember what it’s like to be young and know everything. All that time and health and disappointment ahead.
The boys’ supervisor, a string bean of a man with a woodsman’s beard and dark glasses you’d expect on a blind person, said we should come up with some chores, things to keep the boys busy, occupied, so they wouldn’t have time to get other ideas. We came up with some stuff. We had them sweep the floor, take out the garbage, clean the windows. We took them on errands. At the Save-A-Lot for groceries, they pushed our carts, pulled the Lean Cuisines we could never reach off the top shelf of Frozen Foods. On the bus home, passengers looked up from their newspapers and pulp fiction to smile at the kind young men helping the elderly. Urban Boy Scouts, is what their brains seemed to register. They baked a puppy, we wanted to say.
The boys made planters for the front doorstep of our Center. We watched the middle-sized one, the kid the other two called Derek, punch his fist into the fresh topsoil, dump a geranium into the hole, and mash in more soil around its stem.
We said, “It’s not going to grow if you manhandle it like that.”
Derek shrugged and looked at his hands like they didn’t make sense. Then he said, soft like he thought we couldn’t hear, “It’ll live longer than you.”
But of course we did hear it, what with our hearing aids turned up, the ballsy superiority of a mind thinking it’s got all the time in the world and nothing to lose. But with what little we have left, our own balls too, we cracked his serve right back.
“Why’d you do it?” we asked the youngest one, the one with milky complexion.
He said, “Huh?” maybe a little surprised we’re talking to him.
“You didn’t take anything,” we said.
“We was bored,” said Derek, jumping in.
“Bored?” It isn’t what we expected. A dare between friends gotten out of hand maybe. Rites of passage, testing boundaries; we understand. But to us it meant drivers licenses and jumping off the high dive. Breaking and entering, stealing even, we didn’t like it, but at a certain age, we got it. We remember it with fondness, even. Pulling the wings of flies or squishing a spider underfoot. But the puppy is different.
“Yeah,” Derek said.
“That doesn’t make sense,” we remarked, unconvincingly. Because it does. Boredom, dissatisfaction, we understood the quiet rage. And sometimes we felt like doing something ourselves. But we’re tired, and we’ve learned: some things you can’t change.
“We didn’t break in,” said the one that never said anything, never even looked at us. There was a lift at the corners of his mouth like he’d pulled one over on us, like we’d asked for it.
“Why’d you do the puppy?”
He stared at the ground, our feet, a kind of glitch in his cheeks when he said, “Dunno.” We believed him.
“It wouldn’t stop barking,” said Derek, showing his crowded teeth. “Frickin’ thing was possessed. It wouldn’t shut up.”
Yes, we’d experienced the puppy’s enthusiasm. Usually we gave in—threw a ball of paper or two, played tug-of-war with a sock—to quiet the thing for a spell. Or, we simply gave it a good kick and locked it away until it quieted down. But no, we’d never considered baking the puppy. It was another kind of leap. And yet.
Editor's Choice 2011: The Red Dress by Arlene Sanders
Arlene Sanders is an Appalachian Mountain writer. She is a native of Virginia and a lifelong Southerner. The MacGuffin, Iconoclast, The Dos Passos Review, Terra Incognita, and other literary journals have published her short fiction. She recently completed her first novel, The Liars: A Novel of World War II, and currently is working on Blood Mountain: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Sanders is a degree candidate in the M. A. in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins.
The Red Dress
Vineyards of green and purple grapes lace warm fields in Orchise, like bedspreads Grandma Leticia crocheted when I was a little girl. The locals say or-keeze, and I like the sound of it. It makes me feel delicate and shivery, like everything French does. I’m too poor to go to Orchise, but on Fridays, World Travel on Main Street clears out their brochures, and Marcy lets me take what I want before she trashes them. Nearly all my selections are for the South of France. Or Italy, once in a while, because I like Italian men.
I’m Cassie. I live in a trailer, not even a doublewide. There’s no satellite dish either, and frankly, I consider myself above that. I’d rather read than watch TV. I read mostly Barbara Cartland, but on the wall above the kitchen table, I keep a whole shelf of the World Book Encyclopedia—which I’ve read all the way through twice—sitting right over the salt-and-pepper shakers, an Art Deco lion and a lizard. The lion is fucking the lizard, Kenny’s idea of a joke, if you can imagine that, and when you want to pepper your cabbage, you have to pull the beasts apart.
Marcy told me how to pronounce Orchise. I never would've figured it out.
I’m sorry. Kenny hates it when I run myself down, and I promised not to do it again, and here I’m doing it.
I’m down to one light bulb now. Since I like to read in bed, I keep that bulb in the lamp on my nightstand. If it stays on all night, which it does when I fall asleep reading, I have to wait until it cools before I can unscrew and carry it to the kitchen in the morning.
My solution to poverty is to meet a man with a job. These are my other requirements: He has to be neat and clean. Sex on Sunday mornings, then church, then McDonald’s. Nonsmoker, nondrinker, no dirt under his fingernails. I don’t care about the GED.
Is this too much to ask?
The scruffiest volume of the World Book is the “V”—because that’s where I dream. Versailles is my favorite place in the world. The palace has hundreds of rooms—with a husband for me in one of them—and the most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors, with seventeen arched windows on one side, seventeen arched mirrors on the other side, and a curved ceiling with paintings all over it.
But my Versailles isn’t just riches. It’s having my own maid to wait on me. It’s running water, happiness, a place to hang my hat. Versailles is feeling loved.
A wedding dress would make me feel loved, too. My grandmother’s gown
takes up practically my whole closet, and I wouldn’t part with it for anything in the world, but I won’t get married in it.
I read somewhere that Chinese brides get married in red, because that’s the color of happiness. So if I ever get married, I’ll get me a new red dress.
When I mentioned a red wedding gown to Kenny—bless his heart—he drove all the way to Chinatown in Washington, D. C., and bought me twelve yards of the brightest red silk you ever saw. I rolled it up and hid it inside Grandma’s wedding gown.
I think Kenny would've married me, too, but he got Carlie pregnant, so he married her instead. Carlie had a father who toted a shotgun, but her old man didn’t need a gun. Kenny married her because it was the right thing to do. And once she had little Kenny, Jr., and then little Zeke and Willie and Owen and Hodge, I knew he would never leave his family. I could tell you lots of guys came sniffing around me, but that’s not what happened.
The truth is, nobody wanted me.
And now I’m older than dirt—well, thirty-eight—and the wedding dress in my closet is older than I am, even older than my mother.
Kenny said I would make some man a good wife. At least I can cook. In the morning, once my light bulb gets to the kitchen, I can make eggs any way you like them. And the best homemade sausage you ever had. I grow the sage in my herb patch in back of the trailer. Sage is the most important thing in homemade sausage, that and pepper. Two kinds of pepper: fresh-ground black peppercorns and the hot reds I grow myself. And coffee to die for. I grind the beans, and the cream is fresh and thick and warm, practically right out Sally Jenkins’ cow. She’s a Jersey—the cow—so the cream is the best there is.
I like Italian men. Maybe that’s not fair, but love doesn’t work the same as jobs and public toilets; it isn’t equal opportunity. You love who you love. You marry what you can get.
* * *
This Friday’s travel brochure says Barolo is Italy’s most collected wine—“the wine of kings, and the king of wines.” Even I know what that means: Barolo wine is the cat’s meow. It says Barolo comes from Nebbiolo grapes—I wonder if Marcy can pronounce that—and that the best Nebbiolo grapes grow on the left hills, and not on the right hills, in the Barolo section of Piedmont, Italy. I practically swoon at the pictures of incredible hills and valleys, green grass, and ancient castles of the Piedmont area. And just look at the names of the towns: Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, Castiglione Falletto. Somehow or other, I’m going to learn how to say those names, and Serralunga and Monforte d’Alba, too.
Maybe my Italian husband lives in one of those towns right now. When I close my eyes, I can see him. He’s dark and tall, of course, but I can’t see his face, because he’s leaning over the vines. Sweat ripples down his bare back, tanned and shiny in the sun. He prunes the grapes, handling them gently. His weathered hands are beautiful, fingers long and sensitive. I think a man’s hands are the second-best part of him. His voice would sound kind. I wonder if he talks to the grapes. I hope so.
Listen to this: Barolo wines are deep red. Their flavor is thick and complex. Some are flowery—violets, roses. Just the idea of that makes me feel trembly and refined, even if it isn’t French. It says only vineyards on hills with just the right slopes can produce Barolo, and that the terrains have to be “clayey-calcareous,” whatever that means. Also that Barolo is a tough wine for beginners to understand.
I knew about Barolo first from travel brochures, but after that, I went to A Jug of Wine in Front Royal, where the wine lady told me about this Italian guy who’s really into Barolo—their only Barolo customer, in fact. He always comes in on the Friday after the first of every month, and his name is Kyle.
“What time?” I asked.
“Right after lunch.” The wine lady winked at me.
* * *
On the following Friday, I waited an hour, and it was worth the wait. When he walked into the store, I knew it was him. He looked like one of those Italian hunks pictured in my favorite cookbook, Gerard Renny’s The Men of the Pacific Street Social Club Cook Italian—dark, macho, with the devil in his eye.
I stepped in front of him. “Two Barolos,” I said to the wine lady.
“You like Barolo?” he said to me.
“Excuse me?” His accent made my legs feel twitchy and hollow.
“You just asked for Barolo. I thought I was the only one around here who liked that wine,” he said.
“The only one?” I asked. “Then you need what’s here? For a party or something? Well, you take what they have. I can get some when their next shipment comes in. I don’t mind.”
“That’s mighty nice of you,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you just come to my party? And then you can drink all the Barolo you want. For free.”
He said mighty nice. Like mountain folks here in the Blue Ridge say, but he wasn’t a country boy. Anybody around here could've seen that. He was just trying to fit in. Be careful, I thought. I didn’t want him to think I was easy or fast.
“When?” I asked.
“Saturday night.” He scribbled directions on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
“Well, we’ll see. Mr.—”
“Kyle,” he said.
After he left, I did a little pirouette for the wine lady, bought the tiniest chunk of Brie and drove back to the trailer. My dolls from the Franklin Mint stared at me from their shelf over the Victorian settee, their glass eyes misty and reproving, collars stiff and high about their necks, pantaloons peeking out from under puffy skirts. The Bébé Bru—my only bride doll—regarded me with disdain, as a woman with social class and a prospective husband would view an old maid. In this neck of the woods, she’d be a society lady—a Dupont or a Mellon—and when she got married, the newspaper would report that the bride wore—those magic words!—something swoony, drenched in pearls, lace handmade by nuns in French convents.
An old maid is a woman exiled from the world. At first, it’s just a definition, the definition being that nobody wants you. But later, nobody wants you because you’re an old maid. That’s an important distinction, because “later” is when the exile changes from temporary, like Napoleon on Elba Island—to forever, like Napoleon on St. Helena, the place of his final exile and death.
I need to speed things up, because for me, forever is just around the corner. Maybe—Lord willing and the river don’t run dry—at the party on Saturday night.
Framed on the trailer wall beside the Bébé Bru is a New York Times article about Eleanor Roosevelt’s wedding, dated March 18,1905. I inherited both the article and the doll from my Grandma Leticia. Eleanor’s bridal gown, the article said, “was a white satin princess robe, flounced and draped with old point lace, and with a white satin court train. The bride’s veil was caught with orange blossoms and a diamond crescent. . . . Her bouquet was of lilies of the valley.”
Grandma Leticia told me that was the most romantic thing she’d ever read, and framed beside the article is a photograph of her wearing the exact same thing as Eleanor. On the wall beside that hangs a picture of my mother, eighteen years later, wearing Grandma’s wedding dress, her nails bitten to the quick, her nose buried in lilies of the valley.
“What are you looking at?” I grouched at the dollies. “If I could dress half as good as you.”
That night, I went through everything I had to wear, and nothing seemed right for a man like Kyle. But how would I know? So something plain. Maybe my blue cotton sheath. It’s Prussian blue—like the crayon in a kid’s Crayola box—and exactly the color of my eyes. And the string of pearls my mother wore on her wedding day.
On Saturday, I was so nervous I couldn’t work the clasp. I’d have to close it first, then slip the pearls over my head. But the string was too short. I thought about Versailles—the mirrored room in the mansion I would be mistress of. Confident, poised in a Balenciaga. And here I can’t even get a string of pearls around my neck.
I’m sorry. I’m running myself down again.
I manicured my nails. Then I bit them to the quick.
* * *
The music at his place was weird, and so were his guests. The two guys had gone to Harvard with Kyle, and their dates had gone to Vassar, both of them. With Kyle and me, it was six of us altogether. The minute the men walked off to Kyle’s shop in an outbuilding, Vassar started in on me.
“Cassie. What a pretty name. Is it indigenous to the area?” the brunette asked. Ruth, her name was.
“It’s a country name,” I said.
“Cassie, where did you work before?” Ruth simpered.
“Before you worked for Kyle.” She surveyed the living room. “I wish I could find somebody like you. This place is so clean you could eat off the floor.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” the other one said. Her name was Jolie, pronounced jo-LEE, like it was French, and her hair glimmered butterscotch blonde.
“Do you ladies like the wine?” I asked. Perspiration rolled down my back in hot droplets. I busied my shaking hands with an olive and a napkin.
“Cassie, where did Kyle find you? In a bar?” Ruth persisted.
“We met in a wine and cheese shop,” I said
“Oh, are you a connoisseur?” the blonde smirked.
“A connoisseur of fine wines.” She twirled her glass and sniffed the Barolo.
“I drink wine sometimes,” I said.
The girls exchanged an amused glance, like I couldn’t see that.
“Where did you do your undergraduate work, Cassie?” Jolie frowned at her drink and stirred like she was searching for ice cubes, so I knew what was coming next. Street smarts I’ve got.
“I’m a high school dropout,” I said evenly. “I grow herbs and collect imitation antique dolls, because that’s all I can afford. I’m a waitress in a diner on Route 66. And while we’re on the subject of waitressing, if you’re about to ask me to run to the kitchen to get you some ice—don’t even think it.”
“Why, I do declare!” Jolie’s face reddened, but it was too late. She knew I was on to her.
“Well!” I chirped. “What a sweet old Southern expression. Rolls right easy off your tongue, too. What part of the South are you from, jo-LEE? I’m bettin’ on Georgia. Georgia girls are the first to lose that ol’ drawl. Y’all work so hard at it. Tell me something, honey, do these fancy Harvard boys know where you’re from?”
I had her by the jugular, and she knew it. White trash bitch.
I twirled my glass and made a big production of inhaling the bouquet and sipping the Barolo.
When the men returned, both women complained of headaches and asked to call it an early evening.
Which left Kyle and me alone with a stack of dirty dishes.
The palms of my hands grew moist. I had wanted—yet dreaded—this moment. I felt like a kid plucking petals from a daisy: He loves me, he loves me not. Instinctively, I said nothing. Better to let him lead the way. I prayed that he wouldn’t simply make a pass at me. I wanted conversation, a release from this unbearable tension, a chance to get to know this man.
He relaxed into an easy chair and reached for the New York Times. “Just rinse them off and stack them in the dishwasher,” he said. “I’ll show you how to work it later.” He undid his belt buckle and eased the zipper down an inch or two.
My heart sank.
I stood in the doorway and waited until Kyle looked up at me. When he saw the expression on my face, he spread the financial section across his open fly.
“You brought me here as a maid, didn’t you?” I shouldn’t have said it like that. It sounded like an accusation.
“How’d those girls get the idea I was your maid?” The words just tumbled out.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” He drew his lips into a thin, tight line and poured Barolo into his glass, leaving the bottle half empty. Then he drained the wine from his glass in one gulp and unzipped his fly the rest of the way.
“Come over here,” he said. “Just do what I really brought you here for, and then get the fuck out of my house.”
I picked up the phone and dialed 911.
His face turned the color of the wine. He hiked up his pants and snapped the silver buckle shut, eyes cold and close together. The tiniest flickers of candlelight quivered across the room.
“Front Royal cops make house calls on 911 hang-ups,” I said as I replaced the receiver. I picked up the bottle of Barolo and rested my hand on the doorknob. “They’ll be here in five minutes.”
In drab moonlight, a swale of low, marshy land swept down behind the house to white pines and mottled birches and then to the road, thinly graveled and rutted, that snaked the two miles to my trailer court. I picked up my glass and poured the wine back into the bottle. Some of it splashed onto the table and across flecks of candlelight that dotted the floor.
The brass doorknob chilled the palm of my hand. I picked up the Barolo, drank directly from the bottle, and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. Then I turned it upside-down and relished his gaping disbelief as the rest of the wine cascaded over the edge of the table in a veil of dark blood red. As sirens screamed in the distance, I tossed the empty bottle on the floor at his feet and stepped into the icy night.
* * *
I ripped the wedding dress off the Bébé Bru and furled the flaming red Chinese silk bolt of fabric across her bosom. The fitting took some time; I’m not a seamstress. But the wasp waist was flattering to her. At least she hadn’t been knocked up, like Kenny’s Carlie, with Daddy brandishing a rifle in the wings. The rest of the silk bolt, nearly ten yards of gorgeous fabric, I’d keep. I looked around inside the trailer. Dear God, where?
Finally I emptied the kitchen table drawer into a plastic bag and shoved it under the bed, folded the red silk, wrapped it in tissue, and slid the drawer shut, the makings of my red wedding dress now directly beneath the lion and the lizard. Time would move on, but at least I’d be spared the stench and humiliation of wedding gown fabric bathed in mothballs. Besides, right there in the kitchen table drawer, it would be easy to peek at every once in a while.
A job. Neat and clean. Sex on Sunday mornings, then church, then McDonald’s. Nonsmoker, nondrinker, no dirt under his fingernails. . . .
Alone at my tiny kitchen table, I sat up straight and squared my
shoulders. I pulled the lion and lizard apart and studied their little faces.
“Listen,” I said. “I just want to be loved.”
I could almost swear they smiled and winked at me.
The Bébé Bru, radiant in her new red dress, stands in the center of my doll collection. In the spring, when lilies of the valley pop up next to the sage in back of my trailer, I will place some fragrant, tiny blossoms in her hand.
And in mine.
Grand Prize Winner 2010 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
The Once and Missing Captain of Commerce by Rodney Nelsestuen
Nelsestuen has published more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction and won or been recognized in several contests. He is currently nearing completion on a short story collection entitled on men and boys, of which this winning story is a part. He is also finishing a collection of personal essays, Killing the Bull Thistle, and is seeking to publish his short novel, Quiet Desperation. Another novel, Neighbors, is under revision. Nelsestuen holds an MFA in writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is an instructor at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. While his interests in both fiction and nonfiction are broad, Nelsestuen pursues the male species with an empathy designed to expose the humanity that is usually obscured, and often self imposed, by the harsh expectations of men to be men.
The Once and Missing Captain of Commerce
The line at Old Country Buffet was unusually long for a Wednesday before noon and Elaine’s hope of beating the crowd had been dashed by the dozen people in front of them. She craned her neck around, twisted it painfully against arthritic vertebrae, looked up and studied Paul’s face as it loomed over the top of her head. The left side of his neck was covered with stubble which meant he’d held the electric razor in his right hand and swept it back and forth, up and down, along the same path for the ten minutes she’d left him alone this morning. But Paul was quiet, seemed at peace and gazed off toward the short meat buffet where a dark skinned man in a chef’s hat sliced him thin shavings of prime rib from a giant slab.
She blinked and again looked up at his neck. There was something distinguished in the salt and pepper stubble that crossed his face here and there. It reminded her of the stubble on his father’s face as he lay in his bed those final three days of his life, days that remained vivid but would, next March, mark a decade since his passing. Her husband had had such plans for Paul. Elaine had four prior miscarriages when the doctor told them, in the inexact science of the day, that he thought it was a boy and that he was “cautiously optimistic” about Elaine’s ability to bring him to term. The two would-be parents dipped into the rainy day fund that night and went out to dinner. A tall man nearly six-six, Everett was powerfully built and brilliant, but uneducated and held back from the promotions he so coveted. He’d spent most of his career buried in the backroom of a global corporation, embarrassed to be the only man in the third floor accounting pool—never mind the added insult his height provided in making him so conspicuous. Paul would be the vindication of his failings. That had been clear to Elaine from the night they went to dinner. And she often wondered if it was then, when she felt the weight of Everett’s expectations on her yet unborn son that things first began to go wrong. She was much younger than Everett. Barely 20 years old when pregnant with Paul and unnerved by miscarriages and prenatal science. Had she worried Paul into his state? Had she tried too hard to keep him inside her, rested so much those first four months when maybe God or nature could have taken him from her and none of their coming tribulations would have been realized?
Of course, Paul had dashed his father’s hopes. But he did grow taller by one inch by the time he was 17. And he had that same powerful V-shaped body, the clean lines of his father’s good looks—but the mind of a 3 year old. Or at least that’s what both Elaine and Everett had come to believe since it wasn’t until he was 5 that the doctor, a pale-serious look on his face, took them aside and said there was something wrong. How could they have known? They were first time parents blind to their own misgivings, misgivings that were finally and cruelly laid before them in the doctor’s declaration that “Paul was retarded.” The news had broken her heart. But it had simply broken Everett.
And now Paul was 56. Elaine looked up at him again. Had this been a different day and had he been other than who he was, all of Everett’s dreams could have come true. That face could have belonged to a captain of commerce, a creator of civilizations, a leader of nations, all of which Everett had said aloud in their celebratory dinner so long ago. Elaine could still replay that evening anytime she thought about it. Everett had poured wine from a bottle they couldn’t afford and made a toast. He’d said of Paul’s yet unborn face that it would be a face “secure in its place in the world on a Saturday morning out in public when the clean lines of a fine woolen suit, golden cufflinks protruding from the cuffs of a starched white shirt and the shine of a Chinese silkworm tie bright and yellow against the dark jacket, have been set aside for wide wale corduroys and a cotton polo shirt with a surprisingly stiff collar and costly figurines embroidered over the left breast, all of which would engender an uneasy air of comfort, confidence and yes, even envy in those around him.” About his face, Everett had been right at first, but over the years Paul’s countenance had dulled in the reality of his capacity.
He’ll want a steak knife, Elaine thought. She turned to her purse and zipped open the side compartment and slid her fingers inside. The soft rubber knife bent to her touch. Paul had seen the knife in Wall Drug the year they ventured westward thinking he was socially and mentally up to the trip. She had known better than to let him entertain even the thought of a knife. But facing the haphazard stack of hundreds of fake, floppy-rubber hunting knives on the center aisle just one room off the boot department, he’d hummed and moaned, the noise attracting the eyes of other shoppers who looked at him with startled recognition. They moved deliberately to other parts of the store as he began his drone, the sound growing louder like the dive bomber in the Mighty Mouse cartoons he’d watch, closing in on its target. Elaine took the knife from his father’s refusing hand and gave it to Paul who went quiet immediately. But he wouldn’t hand it to the clerk at checkout. The man’s eyes grew angry until he looked into Paul’s—and then he’d blinked, frowned and quietly rung up the $3.97 it had cost, smiled and handed her the receipt, “No problem, ma’am,” he’d said. The ritual was always the same: a lack of patience, then the realization registered in a combination of enlightened disappointment and deliberate generosity, the sense of relief about one’s own situation and the inevitable questions in the eyes. Why was he here? Why not somewhere else? Somewhere invisible so they needn’t experience the tension of that pulsing unpredictability for which they’d have no adequate response, no effective technique, lacking the secrets to controlling him their eyes begged from Elaine.
Paul was 15 then. Elaine and Everett hadn’t traveled since Paul was born and sorely needed time away from the essential routines they’d come to dread. It turned out to be the only trip the three of them would take together. She turned again to see Paul fixated on the chef, thought for a moment, then decided to delay the knife as long as she could.
Routine had become her friend after Everett died. The sameness: rising at 7 a.m., daily trips for groceries to the same store with the same bakery chef who’d hand Paul a sticky bun, the complications of which kept him quiet and busy eating and cleaning his hands until Elaine was done shopping. By themselves Paul’s hands were large and warm and unusually flexible when he was calm. On another man those hands would have been held out, palms and fingers cupped to shape a better future while earnest, opposable thumbs stood apart to emphasize his humanity altogether urging the universe itself toward a more civilized horizon that others failed to see except for the vision made tactile in hands that were certain enough of their size and strength to seize the world and still be eternally gentle. That, too, had been Everett’s vision.
After shopping they’d return home for brunch. Elaine had kept them to 2 meals a day to limit Paul’s intake—except on Wednesdays when they’d come to Old Country Buffet. Paul had had high cholesterol for most of his adult life and in the past couple of years developed periodic painful spasms in his chest and down one arm the cardiologist said were indicative of a blockage in need of catheterization—except it wasn’t covered unless life-threatening and then, the doctor had said in answer to that eternal question, “He’s had a good life. You’ve done all anyone could,” and after all, Paul was good about taking his nitroglycerin tablets.
By late afternoons Paul had had a nap, watched a DVD of his favorite cartoons, and then followed Elaine around in the kitchen, getting in the way until it angered her as she prepared dinner. But he was meticulous during dinner, careful in the use of both fork and spoon. When finished he’d sit back in his chair and wait, leveling his eyes at her. At times she’d imagine they were in a restaurant and he’d begin telling her why he had wanted to take her to dinner, that he’d had an idea of some great and far-reaching importance to run by her. His brow would wrinkle in what looked like thought but more often led to gas of some sort. Still, the top of his head would redden when he broke wind as if he’d internalized her patient explanations of social expectations that usually worked, if not every time, in public. She would consider the grey tufts of hair sticking up on both sides of the baldness like pointy ears on a terrier. She would imagine that large head, sleek and shaven, the head of a man who had long ago outgrown the self-indulgent need for hair, a man whose tanned pate spoke to a near-par golf game and whose broad shoulders were not obese but full—yes, a man in full—with the proper measure of earthly success layered over his frame, negating the need for padded shoulders in tailor-made suits.
Elaine felt Paul’s hand heavy on her shoulder and she lowered herself out of his grip before it became painful, turned to, and looked up. “What is it, dear?” Paul held out his right hand. “Yes, dear, we’re next,” she said as she turned and opened her purse. The palm of his hand had a long lifeline, a line she would trace when putting him to bed at night. He’d try to get her to hold his hand in the evenings when that mild fear of darkness came over him. But she’d refuse until bedtime when he was under the covers and she’d take his hand in hers, the giant palm dwarfing her short, thick fingers, their joints swollen with arthritis. She’d trace the long lifeline with the nail of her pointer finger and tell him how lucky he was, how great things lay ahead for him: fame, fortune, and at the end of the day, a long fulfilling life. But there was a price. And that was that he’d never marry, never fall in love. “You can’t even begin to think about women because there are greater things in store for you and this, this is to be your sacrifice, to live a life alone, a thing that could be sad but you shouldn’t be sad because all great men are full of great sacrifice. You are in the company of greatness, Paul.” Of all things he’d never learned, it seemed he’d learned this one thing since he hadn’t bothered a woman or girl of any age since he was 16, and while no real harm came to that girl, a lot was made of it, too much really, and he’d been removed from their care for three months before the social worker approved and the judge signed the order that returned him to them.
The cashier took her twenty without taking his eyes off Paul. Elaine took the change, unzipped the small pocket on the billfold and put the coins inside. She zipped the pocket shut, unsnapped a larger compartment and put the four dollar bills neatly inside, snapped it shut again and put the billfold in her purse. Paul touched her shoulder gently. She turned, smiled and took the wallet from her purse again as Paul held his huge right palm in front of her. The whole restaurant seemed to stare as Paul pulled himself to his full height and gazed out across the room as if recognizing something off in the distance. She unsnapped the large compartment, took out a dollar and handed it to him. He held it up in his hand and looked at it for a minute then touched it to his forehead and nodded at the cashier. He dropped the dollar into the tip jar next to the register and fixed a stare on the cashier. “Thank you,” the man said, never taking his eyes off him. Paul’s neck tightened and he nodded in final affirmation. He held out his hand, palm up. Elaine’s eyes flashed across its broad expanse. In the instant before taking hold of it, she saw the greatness of great men, leaders who made the world a safer place, a better place, men who overcame hardship, captains of commerce whose struggles into greatness served them all, made them all more civilized, took all humanity from the raw material of God’s clay and shaped a space big enough for them all, big enough for Paul.
Editors' Choice 2010: Frank and Me by Lester Colodny
Lester Colodny is a late blooming writer...84. He is a former advertising writer and director.
Frank and Me
When I was a kid, I used to take the BMT subway (that’s a subway in Brooklyn, New York) and travel all the way to Manhattan (the neighborhood that’s next to Brooklyn) to stand in line for three hours, in the bitter, freezing cold, to see the greatest singer in the world, Frank Sinatra.
Forty years later, I got in a ninety thousand dollar stretch limousine that took me to a two million dollar helicopter, that carried me to a ninety million dollar jet that flew me to a five hundred million dollar Las Vegas Hotel Casino where I walked into a room and told (got that? told) the star of the commercial to take his mark and read his lines.
That star was the most celebrated performer in the world, Frank Sinatra.
That night my mother called me. “What was he wearing?” she probed.
My father butted in, “Is he really short?”
My sister got on the phone but she couldn’t talk.
My secretary called to remind me to get autographed photos for nineteen members of her immediate family.
But more important, the superintendent of my building fixed a leaky faucet that had dripped for eight weeks. A neighbor returned a book he borrowed eight months ago. And my dentist, who hasn’t had an appointment open for what seemed like eight years, called, personally, to insist that I come in to have my teeth cleaned.
Such was fame.
Like the ugly frog kissed, metamorphosed into a handsome prince, this journeyman director was instantaneously transformed into an icon.
Doormen, shopkeepers, delivery people, hair stylists instantly knew my name.
In restaurants, I was seated at banquettes instead of tables near the kitchen.
And guys named Tony and Vito winked at me with meaningful smiles.
Not since I was carried around as an adorable infant had I enjoyed such hugging. Not since I came home from school with an “A” in geography had I gotten such praise.
Never, since I found my Aunt Fanny’s diamond ring in the garbage had I been the recipient of such appreciation.
Until a few months ago, I was “Lester, that funny guy who directs thirty second ‘Tide-E-Bowl’ and ‘Cooper-Pooper-Picker-Upper’ spots.”
From out of the blue, I was invited to lecture at Harvard Business School on the “Art of Film.”
Tabloids listed me as an inside source of gossip. Page six of the New York Post asked for a candid photo of me.
Headhunters called for bios.
Worse, my children asked for loans.
My wife shopped at Bendel’s and Bergdoff Goodman instead of Loehman’s. And my postman had to get a truss to carry my mail.
And no matter where I went, people stopped me and asked, “What was He like?”
“What was He like?” was my standard (playing it cool) response.
“Come on, Mr. C., What…was He like?”
That’s how they referred to Frank (notice, please, the familiar reference).
I was ready to go out and buy a suede jacket and lots of gold chains.
The only persons I had ever known or had any truck with, in my whole life, that were referred to as “He” and “Him” had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lew Wasserman of Universal Studios and God (not necessarily in that order).
But with Frank, it was different.
With Frank, it was Him, with a gasp.
Or Frank, with a knowing nod.
Oh the never-ending questions.
“How many takes did He give you?”
“How late did He show up on the set?”
“He really broke your balls, didn’t He?”
To be sure, I had been damned certain to be ready to roll film the second, the moment, the instant, He appeared.
So I rehearsed and marked and pre-lit and re-rehearsed and re-remarked, and re-re-lit.
I had every member of the crew visit the john, a doctor or psychologist, two hours beforehand.
I had been ready.
I had checked the lavaliere microphones, the booms and the cameras a dozen times. I had given everybody in the crew a breath-o-laser test.
Was I ready?
And then it came to us.
Like a tablet from the mount.
He’s on his way.
He’s on the third floor.
He’s in the hallway.
The man who I used to stand out in the pouring rain for.
Whose every record, album and tape I not only owned but whose every musical phrase of every song he ever recorded I could lip-synch.
There He was.
From From Here to Eternity.
From the Academy awards.
From the very heart and soul of America.
And He walked up to me and said (I know you’re not going to believe this), “Excuse me, but where do I do what I do and what do I do when I get there?”
Those are the exact words He said.
We made a dozen commercials in twelve days. Twelve-count-‘em-twelve.
Frank and me. Me and Frank.
And he was pleasant. He was cooperative. He was funny. He was tremendous.
And he did the copy, not once, but three even four times, to make absolutely sure it was right.
I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who is reading the rest of this piece for juicy, terrible gossip about what a pain-in-the-you-know-what He was.
But Frank, who personally supervised the inauguration balls for Jack Kennedy, who was the leader of the Rat Pack, who married Ava Gardner…
Frank, the Man With The Golden Arm, who mentally seduced a million women…
Frank (it rolls off my lips like seltzer) was the ultimate professional.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who worked with me.
They’ll tell you that despite the hearsay, the gossip, the rumors, all the niggling nonsense, that Francis Albert Sinatra was…a pussycat.
Twelve glorious days.
Editors' Choice 2010: Absence by Evan Guilford-Blake
Evan Guilford-Blake writes fiction and plays. He has won 31 playwriting competitions and six for his short stories. His stories have appeared frequently online as well as in several anthologies. His plays are published by Playscripts, Eldridge Plays, Heartland Plays, TYAscripts.com and neoNuma Arts. More information is available at www.guilford-blake.com/evan.
The doves stare through the bars of their cage, the opened slats of the blinds, the tight mesh of the window screens, into the dismal, sunless morning. They are mystified, it seems; the world is as much a mystery to them as they are to Mary. She watches them while she waits for the water to boil; she can smell the newly ground coffee.
She wakes Tennyson with a kiss and a glass of orange juice. He is the only little child she has ever known—heard of—who likes to sleep, but, this morning, he wakes with a huge smile and throws his arms around her neck, surprising her and spilling a few drops of her coffee onto his favorite pajamas.
“Oops!” he says. “I got it dirty.” She smiles.
“It’ll wash out,” Mary tells him.
He sits up, takes the oj and swallows it in one large gulp. “My,” Mary says, “somebody was thirsty.”
“I was thirsty,” Tennyson replies, “not somebody.”
Mary kisses him again. Naming their children after other poets was Dillon’s idea. She’d been reluctant when he mentioned it—“who’d want to be called Hughes—or Plath?”—but when he suggested “Tennyson” the idea had grown on her: It was, after all, appropriate for either gender, and there were both singularity and inherent poetry to its sound.
“You’re somebody all right,” she tells him.
“I am?” he says.
“Yup.” Mary answers. “Get dressed. We’re having bacon and eggs this morning.”
“Oh boy!” he says, and scrambles from the covers.
“The sky is dirty,” Tennyson notes.
“Uh-huh,” Mary says as she sips the coffee. Tennyson’s appetite astonishes her: Food at 8:00 in the morning repels her, but he eats—as he does most everything else—vigorously. “It’s going to rain.”
“I don’t think the doves like it.”
“The sky. They like sunlight.”
“So do I,” she says.
“Me too!” Tennyson exclaims.
At 9:30 she drops him at day care and returns home. She prefers to have him with her, but she’s learned that four-year-olds aren’t prepared to deal with the concentration demanded for writing. Before, she and Dillon took turns. Now…well, now is now.
She takes a shower, washes her hair, dries in front of the mirror, looks at herself. “There is nothing wrong with me,” she says, then shakes her head. She talks to—at—herself, her reflection, the objects in her life, too often. “That has to stop,” she says.
The computer is still on from last night. She sorts through the stacks of papers, disks, pencils, coffee cups and curiosities that clog her chair, her desktop, and rereads what she has written, makes a minor correction, reads it again, then looks out the window. It’s busy: Women with strollers pass, trucks blow their horns, leaves fall. Downstairs the doves are cooing at the top of their oddly powerful lungs. Their cage needs to be cleaned. Her office needs to be cleaned. The house needs to be cleaned; domesticity was never her strength and, the past five months, it has become utterly incidental to her life. Everywhere, she is surrounded by dirt and disorder. She tries, more for Tennyson’s sake than her own; but, she acknowledges, it’s a half-hearted effort.
She sighs and stares at the screen, her fingers poised on the keyboard. She types:
As through a dream
The glimmer softens
And there stands
And she stops. And there stands—what? who? Dillon, of course. But she loathes confessional poems and this has all the symptoms of one What would he think?
I’d hate it. But it would be a good confessional poem, he says.
She sits back and looks at him. The urn is exquisite. And dusty. She looks at it, daily, of course, but she hasn’t touched it since she put it on the top of the low bookcase a week after the funeral. It has stayed there, an indelible scratch blemishing the otherwise cluttered but ignorable landscape of her office. Now she gets up, takes a t-shirt—one of Tennyson’s—that’s draped across a chair, left for some distraction on its way to the laundry hamper, picks up the urn and carefully, slowly, strokes it clean. Then she sits on the chair, the covered gray marble bowl between her legs, and reaches for the lid.
When she first brought the urn home she sat with it, like this, alone, at night, arguing with herself whether to open it, to smell its contents, to touch them. She started to lift the lid—her fingers closed around its spired handle—but stopped. What, after all, was there? Ashes? Bits of bone? Dust, become dust.
That was—exactly—five months ago. The urn has, since, remained on the bookcase in her office, undisturbed. Tennyson has forgotten it: In his youthful resilience, he has adjusted: No nightmares, no recriminations. The occasional “I miss Daddy,” but he has accepted his absence. We forget because we must, not because we will. Wrong, Mr. Arnold, she thinks, and lifts the lid.
Inside is a small mound of gray-brown-blackness, its contour interrupted by tiny protusions. She takes a deep breath, then touches one. Bone. But there is no sensation in the contact; it’s as insignificant, as asymbolic, as the residue of last night’s chicken.
She lifts her finger to look at it. It’s no different. Flesh, soft and unsullied. She reaches down again; this time, her left index finger probes. She lifts it. There, on the tip, are specks of the gray-brown-blackness. And suddenly she is terrified: What can I do with it? she thinks. I can’t wash it off, it’s a part of Dillon. But I can’t leave it on; Tennyson will see it.
He won’t mind, Dillon answers.
She stares at it. She tries to think: It’s just so much dirt. It’s not Dillon.
No, it’s not, she hears him say.
Keeping her index finger extended, she closes the urn and replaces it on the bookcase. She stares at the finger. The ash is still there. Should she just blow it away and get on with her life? Mary shakes her head It is Dillon.
You think so. Hmh. You really think so?
She sighs, and sighs again. What will she do with the rest of the day? She can’t type, she can’t read, she can’t wash the dishes.
She goes downstairs. Sappho is in the nest; Catullus is standing beside it, preening her. They need baths; it’s been three days since she sprayed them. She can do that! If it were sunny she’d lug the cage outside but the rain looks imminent. Using her right hand, she gets the water bottle and opens the cage door.
The doves look unconcernedly at this intrusion into their sanctuary. She’s had them for six years now; a wedding present from one of their close friends (who thought they were a pair, not just a couple; “Sappho” was intended as irony), and they are as unaware of her as they were the day they arrived. But, if they’re not affectionate, neither are they perturbed by her presence. With her clean hand she reaches in, presses a finger gently against Cat’s chest, and says “Up.” Obediently (or instinctually, she’s never been sure which) she hops onto Mary’s finger. She moves her just below the perch; Cat hops up and onto it. Saph stares—longingly, Mary thinks: The doves dislike any separation.
She sprays Catullus through the bars of the cage. She blinks, lifts one wing, then the other, tucks one leg and stretches both wings in what Mary calls the birds’ Tai-Chi routine. Clearly, Cat enjoys this. So does Sappho, but her bath will have to wait until Cat replaces her on the eggs. If there is one thing they are deadly serious about, it’s caring for their eggs. That, in six years, not one has hatched is irrelevant. Hope springs eternal in their soft white breasts, too. The thing with feathers.
So there is the rest of the day. One-handedly, Mary pours more coffee, drinks it, watches her left index finger as if it’s ordained that the ash will somehow envelop the rest of her hand, her arm, her body. Despite her shower she feels unclean. This tiny fleck of residual love on her finger has scratched her soul, leaving its faint tarnish.
“It would be easier if I could cry,” she says to the coffee cup. The therapist told her there was nothing wrong with that, that it was, in fact, the best thing she could do. But tears, on the rare occasions they’ve come, haven’t helped. She wants to cry out: Why; but she’s done that, too. And there’s been no answer forthcoming. She and Tennyson sit in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons, and the coyote’s car will crash into the side of the mountain, and it will spring up to chase the roadrunner again (like Dillon chasing a howling Tennyson around the room), and Tennyson laughs; and Mary smiles but she can feel the tautness at the corners of her mouth. People do not spring up. They lie among the ruins of the car and the dust along the road, and they will never chase anything again.
The morning has managed to pass. She’s finished four cups of coffee and is a little wired. In an hour she can pick up Tennyson. But in the meantime, there is still the matter of her left index finger. The ashes remain, reminding her vaguely of the wedding ring she decided she couldn’t wear any longer, but which left its impression for weeks after she took it off, an itch she could not—cannot—scratch.
She sits at the dining table, the breakfast dishes still on it; she can see into the living room, where books, magazines, newspapers, the occasional blouse or pair of shoes are randomly piled or left, in an abstruse pattern of loneliness. She watches the doves. On the wall is their wedding: Dillon and Mary, his curly tresses flowing over his collar, her straight hair severely short. They are smiling, both dressed in white: His tuxedo, her gown. We looked so happy, she thinks. We were, he says.
“Were we?” she asks the picture.
Of course. Newlyweds are always happy.
“That was then.”
His smile broadens. She squeezes her eyes in disbelief, and when she looks again the picture is exactly as it was.
Wash it off, he says. You won’t ever be renewed, but you’ll be fresh. –Ened.
“I can’t,” she says.
He recites for her:
I struggle towards the light; and ye,
Once-long’d-for storms of love!
If with the light ye cannot be,
I bear that ye remove.
“Matthew Arnold did not have all the answers, Dillon!”
And you have them?
“No.” She sighs, sees that Saph has left the nest and Cat is settling in, gets the water bottle, coaxes the smaller dove to the perch and sprays her. She thinks Sappho almost smiles as she fluffs her feathers, discarding the motes of dust, the bits of seed among them.
The clock strikes one. The mouse ran down, she thinks in honor of Tennyson’s favorite nursery rhyme. She opens the door to find the day surprisingly warm and—expectedly—muggy, gets an umbrella, her bag, the keys. She decides she will take Tennyson for pizza, a special treat. Besides, it will be another hour she doesn’t have to face—this: She looks around the living room, the dining room, the staircase. All the places she lives her life.
Mary opens the door, still wondering what she will do about the ashes on her finger. She can see them, clearly; she uses her right hand to lock the door, to open the car, to put the keys into the ignition. She drives that way to the day care center. As she turns in she hears the thunder. She sees Tennyson standing among a group of children under the canopy of the walkway. She waves, but he doesn’t see her.
She parks the car in the lot and, as she walks the hundred steps to meet him, there is a flash of lightning and another thunder roll. Damn it, she thinks, I left the umbrella in the car. She waves again and calls his name. He turns and calls “Mommy.”
The rain breaks just as she reaches the covering. He runs up to her, gives her a big hug and pulls a large envelope from under his shirt. “Look!” he says. “I made it.”
He holds the envelope as, with her right hand, she opens the clasp and gently slides out the crayoned construction paper. On it, there is a neatly drawn picture of a roadrunner, a mountain, and a man in a car. A lump comes to her throat. “That’s very nice,” she says.
Tennyson points. “That’s Daddy.”
“I recognized him right away,” she says.
“Yup.” She looks at her son, closes her eyes a long moment. Behind them she sees Dillon, hears him murmur, but though she listens as hard as she can, the words are indistinct.
“Are you okay?”
She opens her eyes. “Absolutely. Hey: How ’bout some pizza?”
“Oh, boy!” he says.
She tucks the envelope carefully into her bag and says: “Let’s go!”
They walk briskly through the rain. Mary reaches out her hands and lets the water spill across them.
Grand Prize Winner 2009 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award:
Rational Actions by Noah Edelson
Edelson is the author of Cooperstown Dreams: Baseball Poetry for Children and a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul. As the writer/director, Edelson saw his short film "78" premiere at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, win the World Medal at the New York Festivals, and featured in over 35 festivals worldwide, including Sundance Japan. His script Hear, Boy! was awarded Best Feature Screenplay at the 2008 International Feel Good Film Festival. He has been a writer/producer/director for television and film since the 1980's. His stories for adult readers have received honorable mention from The New Millenium Writings Contest and the Juniper Creek Writers' Conference. He is currently working on a novel, "Healing the Invisible."
I always sat in front, listening to the soft tackity-tackity-tack of Tracy Maple’s laptop two desks behind me. Would she go out for a pizza, a drink, and a skinny dip? Don’t kid yourself. She was going for the frat boys, and that wouldn’t be me.
Not that I didn’t want to be one. The frat house is cheaper than an apartment or the dorms. God knows I tried to get rushed. But the fact is I look way young for my age, plus I skipped a grade. I’m not little. I just have sort of a fresh face. I’m the only freshman on campus that looks like he’s pushing fourteen, and all the girls I ask out think I’m “cute.” I’ve got a lot of friends who are girls. They definitely like me…”just not like that.” I’ve got an impish quality. Sounds like I’ve got a weird walk or I’m a Hobbit. Hobbits have hair all over the place and I barely have peach fuzz. And I’m much taller than any Hobbit. Nope, I’m a hairless imp. In all the fairy tales I’ve read, imps don’t get laid. Knights get laid. Shit, even frogs get kissed.
Danielle White thinks I’m charming, and every guy on frat row “wants a piece of that.” Danielle is Elizabeth Hurly gorgeous. She’s got legs that make sneakers look like a pair of stiletto heels. And Danni’s got this smell. Not strong or sweet or patchouli smelling. It’s simple, like the smell of clean, soft skin. I don’t think she uses perfume. It’s just her smell. I’m just making an observation. Danni’s great. I mean, great. But the last thing you want when you’re studying with a girl like that is to hear about her ex-fiancé in Fort Wayne. I know everything about Randall Pierce from his dream car to his ring size. He’s got a long red ponytail, he’s built like a Viking, and he hunts with a bow and arrow. He’s not going to college because he’s got his dad’s store to take care of: Pierce and Son: Everything for the Real Outdoors. Randy loves it. Says he’s never leaving. He hooked up with Danni’s high school Phys. Ed. Teacher two weeks after she started classes here. That’s like nine months ago and Danni still cries about him. That’s one fucked up dude to dump a girl that looks like Danni. And she knows how to have fun too, in a real playful, sexy way. She can tell a dirty joke, you know? It’s just comfortable and funny. Anyway she’s like a friend. You don’t want to wreck a friendship like that. She hangs out with me because, I don’t know. I do have perfect teeth and, even though I take lousy notes, I have a real knack for retaining facts. Danielle figures I’m not so tough to look at and frankly, she can use all the help with organic chem she can get. So I’m useful.
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s worse to be able to hang with a girl like Danielle White or be invisible to a girl like Tracy Maple. The point is I didn’t get rushed by any of the frats for the same reason I can’t get a date. I’m like everyone’s kid brother who’s too young to play with the big kids.
It only sucked because I could save two hundred and forty-five dollars a month if I got out of those shitty dorms and into a frat house.
Professor Parker Bullington paces in front of the room fondling his pipe while he gives his rote lectures. You can’t blame him for playing with something while he’s in lecture mode. The guy’s been sharing his insights for almost forty years. These days you take his class for his rep and you pay the price. We’re his captives and as long as you turn in a paper that confirms you’d never be able to write in old English better than he…him… Bullington… you’re going to pass with flying colors. But he was so, I don’t know. He was sure that no one else was right in the world. But that didn’t bug me. I’m just mentioning it because it was a trait I noticed. I liked the guy. But you had to sit in front to really hear him. This was a big room for the guy to be lecturing in without a microphone. I know the kids in back didn’t hear a word. And if they did, they couldn’t understand it.
No, I wasn’t bugged. It was nothing like that. It was just for, I don’t know. I felt like doing it.
Sometimes you just have to try things. We’re students of life at a university known for testing limits. Right? All I did was test a limit. Hell, all the great thinkers paid the price at one time or another for going off the beaten path. I think the whole class benefited from it. And it’s not like I was out in the world trying out the social taboos. I kept it in the classroom.
The classroom had history. It was a product of the early nineteen hundreds: worn hardwood floors, carved wood moldings, brass hooks to hang your hat on, worn brass doorknobs on the heavy oak door, alabaster lighting fixtures that held real light bulbs. The blackboard dominated the front, and was made of real slate framed in a wood frame. On the institutional olive walls, you’d see a few portraits of our founding fathers, and on the back wall, “The Signing of the Declaration of Independence.” Inspiring.
All that rustic academia was offset by seventy-eight seat/desk combos made of plastic, Formica and chrome metal tubing. You could still see the dots of wood putty and varnish where the old desks were screwed down.
While this was a time of discovery and experimentation, some just felt certain traditions and rituals should be left in tact. Dr. Parker Bullington was not in favor of liberating student desks and without fail arrived at the classroom ten before two so he could create rows, aisles and order. Just like it used to be. This cut into his lunch, but the statement of order was one he wanted his students to learn.
His final touch was closing the window. It was large and opened out to the quad. Five lights by five lights, twenty-five ancient panes of glass joined by the wood of an oak tree that was most likely a sapling on this campus over two hundred years ago. It was a picture frame of picture frames and by far was the most interesting attribute of the room. Including the ninety minutes that Dr. Bullington paced and lectured next to it twice a week.
Bullington loved his corduroy jacket with the elbow patches, his cardigan sweaters, and his pleated slacks. He chose a robin’s egg blue button down shirt and brown wingtips to put the period on his fashion statement. His bent stem pipe lived in his breast pocket. He handled it constantly but never smoked. They were his robes and he wore them like a lord. His reign would lead the common folk through the battlefield of early English literature. Make these serfs read Beowulf and Chaucer until they loved it…no, needed it.
Although he got high points in the academic trivia department, his work was considered pretty average in literary circles. (I’d call him an over achiever though.) Over his career Bullington had published three novels. Since no one had published in old English recently he figured that reviving the style would bring him fame. You can’t argue with a guy’s passion for something. Two out of the three masterworks were required reading for the class. They even had medieval dirty parts. I mean literally dirty, peasants doing the nasty, with rats and the plague all around them. (Too much information about your fantasy life Dr. B.) Except for pages seventeen and three hundred fifty-six, everything else was like a sleeping pill on a page. I’m not knocking the guy’s life work or anything. He gets a ton of credit for trying to get these books to make sense. The novels were annotated with old English hieroglyphics on one side of the page and his translation of his text on the other. Kind of like how Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot, in French then translated it back to English. Only Beckett’s stuff is understandable in both languages.
Bullington’s books got him a few brown-nosing freshman readers and footnote in a new edition of The Canterbury Tales. Nevertheless, the volumes were of note because they were all set in 12th century England and they were written in a dead language. So the Doctor was gone a lot speaking at other colleges on “The Relation of Literature to Lifestyle for the Medieval Everyman.” The impressionable minds in the lecture hall did not always understand these engagements, because he presented stories and his insights in old English along with a single-spaced handout of the translation. He never stopped for questions.
In the classroom his quirks were sort of amusing, but they were definitely overshadowed by his, “I’m-a-dead-language-expert-so-I-know-about-life” attitude. If you listened to him for any length at all you would know three things about him.
1.He knows the struggles, heartbreak and joys of the English peasant.
- 2.No one can weave a story better than he. There have been others through history that may have been his equal, but never his better.
- 3.His image of himself was about as warped as a Fun House mirror.
Bullington conceded that there have been writers that have had a better command of Modern English than he…him. However he always made a point of saying, “Just because you can put words together in a pleasant form doesn’t mean your storytelling is any good.” (We heard that line once a week.) He was the king of his classroom. We were his obedient courtiers, no, vassals. We listened to every word he said and were expected to take it for gospel.
Hell, Tracy Maple took down every word he said on her laptop. She was an exceptional typist. And she looked damn fine in a tank top. I could never get the guts to introduce myself to her.
Right before Spring Break we had to turn in our midterm papers on “Dating in the 12th Century.” (Dr. B. had his fun side.) I get to the room while Bullington is finishing the desks; sit down in my assigned seat, and when he’s checking his seating chart trying to remember my name, my desk moves a little. Bullington looks at me like I just shot his dog. He doesn’t say a thing till the whole class is there with pens ready to take notes. Then he starts right in on the lecture, without a hello or anything, and collects all our papers while he’s talking. Dropping the stack of papers on his desk like we should feel pity for his burden, he goes into his routine, lecturing, pipe fondling and pacing in front of the class. He’s almost brushing by the pleat on my khakis.
While he’s doing this, I’m thinking (and I swear to god I don’t know why) all I need to do is lift my leg, and he’d drop. I wouldn’t even have to do it hard. If I kicked him in the nuts right now he’s a sack of potatoes. He’d be so surprised he wouldn’t know what happened to him.
He was just so completely vulnerable. He came centimeters away from my leg and I thought about it again. All I’d have to do is raise my foot. It wouldn’t take much. I squeezed back a smile, picturing him on the floor writhing around, moaning.
I laughed. He stopped pacing and got real quiet. I guess a laugh wasn’t appropriate for what he was Thou-ing about.
Bullington stared at me. “Yes?”
“Nothing.” My eyes shot down to my notebook. Blank page. I took my pen from behind my ear, looked up and caught his silent eyes still on me. Pen in hand, I was ready when he was. He took the cue and started droning again. There was no way I could keep up with him. My notes morphed from words to scribbles.
See, I didn’t even know what he was talking about. Nothing was bugging me. I just had this thought itching my brain, heading down to my leg. He kept on pacing. Tracy kept typing. How the hell she could keep up was a mystery to me. She was probably keying in bullshit just to look good.
I raised my right leg at the knee.
He didn’t go down for, I don’t know, four to six seconds. His knees were together like he was going to block the kick, but he was way late. He sucked air, looking right at me like I was an escapee from Area Fifty-One. Before he hit the floor he gave us his quote for the yearbook, “Zounds!”
Short for “Gods wounds!” Although a relatively up to date cuss word for this class, it was the first time any of us had heard it in a definitive context.
All the kids are standing around him now and, like a miracle, Bullington gets up too. I swear to god, I would have paid to watch this. This Old English professor looks me right in the face and growls. I mean a real primal sound. Then he spins me around, grabs me by the back of my pants and launches me through the window. And as I’m going through, I’m thinking, “This guy must work out.” At one fifty-eight I’m no football player. But you try throwing that kind of weight for any kind of distance. Plus, the fact that I was hitting twenty-five panes of ancient, thick glass tied together with cured oak was like doing a belly flop onto concrete. If I just went with it I could have taken the header, ducked and rolled onto the grass. But I was resisting, trying to stand up, so I took a full body slam and about nine panes of glass out the window into the quad.
So this part I don’t remember at all, but the doctor says I have the intestinal injuries because I didn’t go all the way through the window. I hit the glass, and kind of bent over at the waist. You figure Bullington wasn’t bench pressing one fifty-eight consistently. If he were, with the momentum he had on me, I would have flown through that baby. Hell, I can press one eighty-two and I don’t work out like a maniac.
I passed the class.
We all did.
Nobody saw my leg move.
Yeah, he swore on the Gutenberg Bble that I “provoked him with a kick to the groin.” The sad truth is, out of seventy-eight students in the classroom, none of them could back him up. They were too busy taking notes. Most of the depositions said they heard him say “Zounds!” all squeaky, saw him growl at me, like he was an animal. Then he ran me through the window. Donna Bennett said she thought she saw me crossing my legs, but she didn’t think it was an act of aggression.
It wasn’t really. An act of aggression, I mean. It was only an experiment. Not even. An urge. An itch that I had to scratch.
Don’t feel bad for either of us though. I’m taking some time from school and healing up pretty well. My folks settled with the university for “an undisclosed figure,” along with a written apology from Professor Bullington, on university stationery. It’s the only thing he’s written in modern English that’s gone public. I had it framed.
Bullington got an early sabbatical. Plus he doesn’t have to teach at the school anymore. (I think that was part of my parents’ settlement.) He’s touring Asia this year with his Old English stand-up act. If it was so riveting for English speaking lecture halls just imagine how much students in Tokyo are sucking into their brains. When he gets back, he’s going to head up the newly formed Ye Olde Englishe Department. So he gets to be the boss of all these new teachers. Well, a teacher and a T.A. But that’s not nothing. So I figure he’s got nothing to complain about.
I got get-well cards from all over the place. Even from Bullington’s family. My bank account is now stone cold solid. Sigma Chi and the Tri Delts both are going after me to pledge next spring. Top it all off, Tracy Maple came to visit me…twice. The second time, Danielle showed up just as Tracy was leaving. Danni starts in like she’s looking out for me. She would “despair to see me involved with that girl.” I think I’ve got a shot with both of them when I’m walking again.
Something still bugs me about this whole thing. I can’t nail it down. You get these feelings in your brain like something’s not right and your stomach says, “Yeah, something’s bugging me.” When I was a kid I couldn’t steal a soda from the refrigerator without confessing to my mom. It’s easy for me to get uneasy about little things. My dad says it’s a natural reaction to the trauma and I should get over it. I guess I will. I look at it like the glass is three quarters full. Aside from a couple of stitches and a male nurse who keeps asking me if I want a sponge bath, college is turning out pretty well.
You know how you feel like kicking a can to see how much noise it will make going down the street, or throwing a stone at a drifting log? The log could turn out to be a crocodile and bite your leg off. But you had to throw that stone.
Who knows what that noisy can is going to wake up? No matter what it turns out to be, two things are for sure: You didn’t plan on waking that thing up, and you had to kick the can.
Editors' Choice 2009: The Limits of My World by Johanna Lipford
Lipford grew up near San Jose, California. She worked seven years in the American aerospace industry as a mathematical analyst, then moved to Rome, Italy, where she now works as a translator (Italian to English). She was a winner in the 2008 Aspiring Authors Writing Contest, the Turner Maxwell Books Short Story Competition, and the Fall 50-50 Fiction Contest.
The Limits of My World
It was not at all, thought was telling itself for the thousandth time, like what it had expected. There hadn’t even been any particular moment when thought could say to him “Now I definitely am.” Instead he had simply lain there watching while first his wife, then his sister, approached to look intently into his face and turn away sobbing – his sister had wept anyway. His wife hadn’t. Presently, the doctor entered the room, put a stethoscope to his chest, and after announcing something he couldn’t hear, closed his eyelids, imprisoning him in darkness. He was unable to move, to hear, to feel, able only to think. Then came panic. A scalding yellow fluid flooding his brain. He had wanted to cry out “God! Is this the way it’s going to be? Forever?” But of course he hadn’t because he couldn’t. He could only shriek it in thought.
He had no idea how long the darkness lasted; he knew only that he had somehow become conscious of where he was; he neither saw nor felt nor heard, and yet he could in some way sense, in some way “see”, or visualize, his surroundings. He was conscious of everything at once, and his self seemed to inhabit the space he was conscious of, just as once his self had seemed to inhabit his head. He chuckled grimly, or thought he chuckled. He was lying in a stainless steel box. Its shiny inner sides were lined with white satin. It extended a few inches beyond his feet, and somewhat less beyond his head. Its upper limit lay perhaps three inches above his nose, and his corpse lay on its floor. Rigidly. (he was already beginning to rot; his eyes had sunk into their sockets, and his belly was a balloon inflating, swollen by gases generated by decomposition; his brain was an exploded mass in his skull, and his blood stagnant pools in stomach and pelvis; there was a black hole between his eyes, and a gaping cavity in the back of his skull…). He tried to visualize whether he was above or below ground, but could not. The limits of his world were the limits of the steel box in which he lay supine, his collapsed eyes blindly staring at its satin-lined roof.
No, it was not at all like what he had expected. He had probably given as much thought to death as anyone did – that is, as little as possible. But those times he had, he had supposed there would be some instant, before which you felt and thought, and after which you simply were not. Oh, of course, he had admitted as intellectually possible that he might live on after death, but certainly not like this. He had put little stock in any conventional heaven, and even less in a conventional hell. If he had really thought about an afterlife at all, he had supposed it to be totally unlike anything anyone could imagine. And this was: no one could really imagine perpetual solitary confinement, unable to move or speak, without even the hope of death to deliv—
Easy, easy, thought told him. Think about something else, anything else. Don’t think about that.
The puzzle of course was, what was it that was thinking? Certainly he had no active brain cells – they died within minutes after the blood flow stopped, and anyway he felt outside his body. So what was this entity that thought? Thought implied memory, and memory matter. Could he be thinking with the brains of the living? All the people who had known him, carrying around pieces of him stowed in their skulls… He had once hypothesized a telepathic internet linking all men, as an explanation of Jung’s Unconscious. But there was also consciousness, which did not depend on thought – and which thought did not depend on. Thought was mechanical and could go on perfectly well without consciousness. That was why some believed consciousness to be a mere epiphenomenon.
But what generated it? In this case, not the brain for sure. Well, anyway, call this consciousness that was aware of thought (his ego) the “soul”.
But perhaps, perhaps he was only asleep and dreaming. He no longer clutched at this with the hope he’d once had. True (he went over the same arguments he had revolved before) he felt as if he were in a dream – that is, he could, as in a dream, somehow see himself from outside while nonetheless remaining an actor – if you could call this acting – but that was the only similarity to a dream. He had no hope, as he remembered sometimes having in dreams, that he could awake from this if he really wanted. And it was a dream that had gone on a wretchedly long time. He couldn’t begin to estimate the time, but it seemed infinitely longer than any dream he’d ever had.
No. It was no dream. Or if dream it was, it had come in the sleep of death, and he would never wake—
Hadn’t he, thought hastily skipped on, read about people who had almost died and on reporting their experiences stated that they felt peculiarly light and free, that they almost hadn’t wanted to re-enter their body? He didn’t feel light and free. He felt weighed down by this mass of decaying flesh sharing the coffin with the “soul” and his ego, as if he were somehow attached to it, as though his body were a rotting albatross hung about the soul’s neck. (liquified eyes, the hair seemingly flowing from a shrunken scalp, the mouth, open, some putrescent liquid drooling from its corners…). Mentally he licked a tongue over his mouth, but the ichor remained…(the belly had ruptured now, greenish intestines oozed out covered with a slimy fur of decay, glowing luminously in the dark cavity against portions of flesh greasily white and maggot-infested…). Thought wondered when flies had had a chance to settle on him. But they were always around: a housefly would be buzzing over the open mouth of the last dead human being on earth, the final victor.
Aware of his body, in a kind of congealing horror he tried to turn awareness away, but could not. Thought focussed awareness on the coffin. Its white satin had turned powdery grey – cheap junk, thought offered. Cheap. The undertakers, they didn’t care. Anything was good enough for the dead. If they, just once, had to be buried in their own coffins… he dismally chuckled. They would be. That was the one sure thing.
Thought immediately returned to his body and he was vividly aware of viscous liquids soaking into the satin lining on the under side of his corpse. He felt he retched. Thought hastily turned away. …he was going to be here forever, thought despaired, he was going to follow his body through every stage of decay, right down to the bone, and beyond, and finally there would be nothing in the coffin but dust, and a consciousness gibbering in madness…it’s not FAIR! he silently shrieked. IT’S NOT FAIR! IT’S NOT FAIR! Nobody deserved this, no matter what their sins might be, give them Hell, yes, burn them, torture them, flay them, but don’t lock them up in utter loneliness with their own decaying selves…God, thought screamed, this was Hell. This was Hell. God, it prayed, don’t let me spend all Time here, God, don’t, don’t, don’t, DON’T….!
An odd feeling it was, that his head was in two halves, and that the slightest motion might separate them; gingerly he allowed a tongue of thought to lick around his situation. His mind must have come completely unhinged. He felt more himself, now, so long as he avoided a certain subject. He did not mention the subject to himself. It was forgotten, he told himself. Did he understand that that particular subject was forgotten? Yes he did, he replied. That Subject was under no circumstances to be approached again, not even to be mentioned to himself. Thought erected a wall between itself and that Subject. Mentally stepping back he surveyed the wall, but made no attempt to test it – he feared it could be too easily breached. The Subject, thought determinedly stated, was now imprisoned— his mind backed hastily away; he had almost breached the wall without knowing it!
With the Subject walled off, he decided that he was in a comfortable restful place where he could think without interruption ..careful .. where he could think. Just think. About what? Well, he could indulge himself, let his mind wander where it would ..so long as it didn’t wander too near the Wall, behind which lay the Subject…he had always been a contemplative type. Really, this was an opportunity, where he was…careful…to meditate. He would meditate on his life, he decided, and perhaps find out why he was here..careful, careful. He would just meditate on his life. He would face facts. And talk about facing the fact of death!...he was doing that, all right, thought comforted itself.
Thought had just decided that, all his life, he had been selfish; rather proud of himself he felt, for facing this fact. If his older sister could only see him now, she would not be able to reproach him for his unwillingness to face facts. “You don’t face life,” she used to say. “You just shut it
He had thought: People starving are far off, and floods don’t affect me. Wars are elsewhere. There’s nothing I can do about them so why think about them? Was that a sin? Or was it simply recognizing reality? Could he help what he didn’t care about?
“Whenever something comes up you don’t like, you simply deny it; it’s as if you build a little wall around whatever is unpleasant in life, and suddenly it’s not there any more. And you leave the rest of us to face it for you."
That was true, thought decided. Proud of his new clear-sightedness, he admitted to himself the justice of her charge. A dozen examples from his life could be cited, when he had simply ignored the unpleasant, and left others to see to practical affairs. But after all he was – had been – a professor of philosophy: no one expected him to be practical, least of all his students. Everyone treated him as if he were a sort of intelligent imbecile, able to competently explicate Hegel and Kant, but unable to solve life’s simplest problems. And that wasn’t true. He had certainly dealt with his share of life’s problems, after all. The worst – second worst – was when their little boy had died after being struck by a car; he had tried to comfort his wife by making her see that however painful it was, it had happened and there was no point to fruitlessly dwelling on it: she should do as he was doing: turn her back on the memory and look forward to the future. They would have another child. When a thing hurt, the best you could do was to forget about it as soon as possible and go on. Any psychologist would tell you that dwelling on the past finally became sick.
But she hadn’t seen it that way.
Probably her obsessively pursued grief – a grief he had tried to reason her out of – was why he had become infatuated by… well, no, interested in, Sofìa. That and the fact that his wife endlessly blamed him for their son’s death. He had been walking along, she accused, in a trance, thinking about Wittgenstein’s true thought or something, and had let little Timmy run out into the street. Which wasn’t the case at all: the child had been walking right beside him, and he still couldn’t explain how it was that the next instant Tim was in the street and brakes were screeching and— But it certainly wasn’t his fault. And even if it had been, beating his breast and blaming himself would not bring Tim back. He had simply removed – well! set the incident aside, and gone on. Still, though, that she tried to make him feel guilty, and that she herself was always in mourning, was certainly behind why he had noticed Sofìa in his freshman class. He had suddenly discovered in her seventeen-year-old self a rare talent for understanding philosophy. And she was pretty. And revered him.
He had certainly never intended anything personal with her, and that was why it was such a shock when she had shown up on his doorstep with a suitcase. When his wife had seen her…! As his wife looked on he coldly informed Sofìa that she had totally misunderstood their relationship, and insisted that she return home. He himself got in the car and drove her back, telling her how sorry he was. He explained to her father, an emotional Mexican, why he was not responsible. But there was a scene and he had to run to his car to keep the situation from degenerating. It was after Sofìa took the overdose of sleeping pills that her father had come looking for him with a pistol…
Thought could see now the kind of man he’d been…never facing the trouble he’d caused, running away from its consequences, hurting people with his selfishness, uncaring. He certainly deserved any punishment meted out to him. But thought saw all the wrong he’d done, now. Thought saw how he should have acted. That was what counted. And of course thought was sorry. So surely he would be let out of here.
Perhaps, he might come across Sofìa some time, then…
Relentlessly awareness included his corpse, and thought tried to ponder something else. (black strings of flesh were falling from his bones; his hair had fallen from his scalp and was a thick felt-like mass embedded in the fluids-soaked satin, which itself was mushy and black; gleams of white bone peeped through the interstices of rotted flesh…). He would avert his gaze, and could not. It was as though he were frozen, hypnotized, forced to look at his rotting self as in some sort of interior mirror, and he panicked; he tried to scramble away, and felt himself more rigidly fixed; he felt the six steel sides close about him, and thought was shrieking let me out, let me out, let me out, LET ME OUT, LET ME OUT…!
He felt exhausted. He gazed at the rotting thing and, having no further energy, stopped fighting awareness of it.. Thought had offered a bribe to get out, and the bribe had been spurned. Cheap. He was cheap. His whole life had been a series of cheap attempts to avoid consequences. A problem came up? His response had been arguments to show why he was not responsible, or in any event why nothing could be done. He had used thought, not to solve problems, but to mendaciously show that no problem existed or anyway could not be solved. He wished he had never been born, he felt his life had polluted a clean earth, and his death was polluting it yet again. He gave up; if only awareness would cease and he could just die. But he was dead. And there was awareness. That was a fact. And he was that thing lying in the steel coffin, rotting. He focused on it. The black and blistered flesh had dried, and was stuck to the bones, part of it had dried on the satin where it had dripped as it decayed. Probably, all the air was used up. Even the maggots were dead. Bracing himself, he looked behind the Wall, at the Subject: this was how he would spend eternity. Alone, a sickening fragment of black matter that was the eternal part of him. His true self. Look at it. Take a good look. This is how you end up. This is the real you.
In that moment he realized that he was aware of the underside of the surface of the earth, and that below the surface there were plant roots and worms and insects; a mole was burrowing a tunnel and he could feel their small satisfactions and its mole-ness, and below there was more soil, and below that, coffins, and below them more earth and then rock strata. Thought saw that somehow consciousness had expanded, and that the corner occupied by itself appeared small and mean by comparison. Thought wondered what it all meant…
Editors' Choice 2009: La Esperanza by Rodney Nelsestuen
Nelsestuen has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has studied with novelists Sandra Benitez and Linda Rice; poet Deborah Keenan; writers Honor Moore, Sheila O'Connor, Larry Sutin, Barrie Jean Borich and Carol Bly; and playwright John Fenn. A member of the Loft Literary Center where he serves as an instructor, Nelsestuen won the 2008 Loft Mentor Series competition. He has also been a judge in the Minnesota Book Awards Contest in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.
Between the statues of Saint Francis and Saint Valentine the old man pats his donkey while he studies Miguel and Alicia at the tour stand. Under the coming heat of midday, her mother’s disapproval of Miguel, and Alicia’s own doubts of both his prospects and his fidelity, Miguel protests. He is no worse than the others. And as for prospects, he will soon own a piece of the agency. Alicia fears Miguel’s flight when he himself comes to see the truth of it.
The old man ties red and yellow paper flowers to his donkey’s halter. A sturdy beast, the saddle blanket is for a larger animal and has the tipica red and yellow Aztec weave. A bright green and black design in the netted hemp cinch holds his saddle in place. The old man hangs a sombrero from the saddle horn where Miguel and Alicia turn as its rhinestones flash in the sun. The Polaroid around his neck swings side to side as he swats flies from the donkey’s eyes as if he didn’t know Polaroid is a poor choice in cameras.
Alicia feels the tick of time in her midriff, once hoping to entice an American tourist for more than what attracts them. And surely American men speak of love while their eyes grow wide with the vision of her straddling them as the dark girls do in lap dances in the strip bars near the border. She fingers her crucifix.
Miguel leans over and shakes his finger. She looks down. He touches that same finger to her chin and pulls her head upward until their eyes meet. The tension goes out of him as she reaches for his cheek with her fingers while the flies have left the little donkey’s eyes.
The old man surveys the lack of shade at midday, wipes the donkey’s sweat from around its eyes and checks the film of which there is abundance.
Alicia’s polo shirt has its collar turned up under the sweep of hair held up by the comb. Her great, dark hair: the casual suspension within the comb’s grasp – except the carefully loosened swatch that falls across her eyes at propitious moments during Miguel’s scoldings, when a fingered removal and sideways glance take the terrible air from his anger.
The old man considers the true power of the sun. Age brings the wisdom: to take the donkey, to go home, to rest and not bear the fretful heat of midday. There are no dollars for there are no tourists and the donkey thirsts although he never speaks of it. Alicia smiles as they pass from the space between the statues of St. Francis and St. Valentine. The swatch of hair falls over the eye that tears up.
Miguel is angry. A seediness of age beyond his years settles across his face under the hot sun. Alicia, chastened in his disapproval, cannot escape hope in the memory of the old man. That, and the care for the donkey.