“The Cadence of Waves” by Trent Hudley
Each year, the Missouri Review honors one fiction writer from the previous volume year by awarding them the William Peden Prize in fiction, named in honor of the late William Harwood Peden, a past associate editor of TMR, professor of literature, and proponent and practitioner of the short-story form. The winning story is chosen by an outside judge. This year’s winner, chosen by novelist Alix Ohlin, is Trent Hudley for his story “The Cadence of Waves” (TMR 44:4). The story is a powerful evocation of the bonds and obligations of family and the impact of random violence on individual lives.
Of the genesis of the story, Hudley says, “This story was simply inspired by a particularly penetrating and affective experience I had on the beach in San Francisco one early morning. The location of the story is real, and the motel is based on the motel I stayed in the night before the beach experience, but everything else just blossomed from the story as I tried to write about the ocean Once I started writing, it went were it wanted to go.”
The Cadence Waves
Leon showed up the day of the blackout in December of 1998, toward the end of some extreme El Niño weather we’d been having all year. It was actually snowing that day, big white flakes, like stars falling from the sky, that stuck to people’s hair and clothes but melted as soon as they settled on the sand of the beach and the street. He had come to apply for a maintenance job my father had posted in the San Francisco Chronicle. My father owned the Ocean Beach Motel, in San Francisco’s inner Sunset section, just two blocks from Ocean Beach. Not the most original name by any means, but he ran it well.
I was nineteen years old. My mother had been dead eight years. The maintenance job was dirty and thankless, and we could never keep it filled. My father interviewed Leon in the dim light and shadows of flashlights and candles. He looked at Leon over the top of his glasses each time he described a required duty. Leon listened attentively and nodded. The job didn’t pay much, but it included a room and free rent. It demanded work on the weekends and, during the summer tourist season, sometimes seven days a week. Leon took the job and started that day. Not many tourists stayed there. It wasn’t what you would call a four-star vacation spot. It was a cheap motel for travelers on a budget and home to a group of oddball people who were in transition in their lives or had given up and accepted that where they were at was the best they could do. Some travelers loved the place, and others hated it. I think the people who liked it liked it because it had a sort of dive-like comfort that was down-to-earth and unpretentious. It might have appealed to some romantic, bohemian idea they had about traveling, a European hostel-like feel, maybe. The people who didn’t like it probably didn’t like it for those same reasons.
The motel had sixteen rooms. It had been apartment buildings at the turn of the twentieth century but had been renovated and remodeled a dozen or more times before my father bought it in 1993. We shared the building with a bar called the Pittsburgh Pub. It was owned by a friendly guy named Ed Fisk, who actually was from Pittsburgh. He’d been running it since 1972. It occupied a quarter of the lower southwest side of the building. Most of our live-in tenants spent their nights and weekends there. Leon’s room was on the bottom northwest side of the building. It wasn’t a grand room, but it was comfortable. It had a queen bed, a TV, a microwave, a small fridge, a few pictures of flowers and landscapes, a mirror, a chest of drawers, two nightstands, and, of course, a bathroom and shower. There was no kitchen, so when Leon didn’t eat out or come to our place, he cooked his meals on a single-burner electric hot plate. He didn’t seem to mind.
I was just starting my first year at USF when Leon started working for us. I was a civil engineering major. It was what my father had wanted. It was what he had been and was the same type of work his father had been involved in. It was practical, important, and would provide me with a good standard of living to support a family as well as leave me with a nice pension when I retired. That was what he told me, and it sounded good to me, so I registered it as my major because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
The only thing I really liked to do then was smoke pot and jog. I’d joined the cross-country running team in eleventh grade. Smoking and running just went together, I thought then. It gave me what I thought was perspective: a sort of objective lens to look through. I was very aware of my body when I ran, aware of my feet in contact with the earth. I could feel the long evolution of my foot progressing from heel to toe, each point in contact, then released from the ground in quick succession. I felt the energy from the force of the impact travel through my legs with each contraction and extension of my muscles, through blood vessels into my belly, to my chest and arms and neck, blood flowing, lungs breathing, heart pumping, pumping, pumping. I felt the cool air on my skin. I felt still and peaceful. No strife, no worries. And at that time, it was the only thing I enjoyed doing because it was the only thing that made me feel anything. In the morning, I’d walk to the beach, smoke a joint, then run along the edge of the ocean. In the evening, after I finished my homework and if I didn’t have practice, I’d do the same. Then I’d go home to eat, do homework, read a science fiction novel or some comic books or maybe watch TV for about an hour, then go to sleep. It was a comfortable, routine existence that suited me fine.
My father introduced me to Leon after he hired him, but we hardly talked the first three or four months. Of course, we were cordial to one another: good-mornings, -afternoons, and -nights, nods of heads, waves of hands, but that was about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him; I was just intimidated by him, and I didn’t think he liked me. He was a tall, silent man with a bald head and hazel eyes and a Roman nose that made him look like a Maasai warrior. He wasn’t muscular, but he was fit, in his early to midforties. For the most part, he kept to himself, but he was hardworking and dependable. I can’t count the times my father woke him up in the middle of the night to relight a furnace or hot-water heater, fiddle with a fuse box, unplug somebody’s toilet, or deal with some other problem. But Leon never complained. He did what he had to do with a silent determination.
Once in a while I would see him through the door as I walked by, in Pittsburgh’s after work, sitting in the back of the bar sipping a beer and reading a book or the newspaper. He wore glasses when he read, those cheap readers. Other times I might see him getting off the bus with his groceries that he carried in a small, worn canvas bag that he slung on his shoulder. At night you could smell strong, earthy, herbal scents coming from whatever he was cooking, or you might hear the muffled sounds of gunshots coming from the TV from some old Western he was watching. Other than that, for those first few months he mostly stayed in his room. I liked that I couldn’t place him, that he didn’t fit into any category. He was a bit threatening, though the threat didn’t come from the fear of bodily harm but from my own feeling of my lack of character. He had a confidence that intrigued me. He walked through life like he knew exactly what he wanted and like he knew things—things other people didn’t know and would never know; that knowledge made him seem like something more, something better than most everyone else. He was detached and above it all. I wanted to be like that.
When Leon first started working for us, there were seven people who rented rooms on a weekly basis. Eight when Mrs. Devire came back home to her husband for a week or two at a time. Soon they’d get in a fight, and he’d beat her up, and then she’d disappear. Then Mr. Devire, with black, baggy, circles under his eyes and the grime from whatever day-labor job he had gotten still caked in the furrows of his brow, sat in the bar all night, whining about how much he missed her. These were the types of people who stayed at our motel. Most didn’t stay long—two to eight months maybe.
Sometimes it got a bit crazy, though. The drunks fought, and we’d have to call the cops. The Devires fought, and we’d have to call the cops. Some tenant begged money from or annoyed a guest, and they’d want us to call the cops. My father had to argue with customers about refunds. It was always something. And because Leon kept to himself, rumors started about him. Of course, there was the trite tale of him being on the lam. This was Devire’s eternal narrative about new people who took up residence at the motel. Anyone who didn’t fit immediately into his sphere of misery was always suspected of criminal intent. Someone said he was a method actor, slumming it to get into character. I heard once that he was a CIA agent sent to spy on us. Why the CIA would need or want to spy on a rundown motel full of drunks was never entertained in that discussion, but it was one of the more inventive stories. No one knew how or why he’d ended up at the Ocean Beach Motel, not even my father or I, but we never asked, and Leon never said.
The first time I really spoke with Leon was on the beach. It was a chilly early morning, gray skies and rough surf. A perfect morning. Weed, the lull of the waves, and the adrenaline from the run combined for one of those sublime moments of peaceful appreciation. I was walking along the beach back home when I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, hidden a bit below two dunes. He was wearing a gray, loose-fitting sweat suit and sat facing the ocean like he was meditating. It struck me as strange because Leon didn’t seem the type to meditate. I had thought him a bit rough and rugged, like a character Denzel Washington might play in a movie. I stopped and stared at him, trying to fit meditation into my idea of him. Then he jumped up from his sitting position in one quick motion, like something had stung him. He grounded his feet in the sand and started to do what looked like tai chi, but the motions were quick and jerky—more aggressive, snappy armand-leg thrusts, but graceful too. A kung-fu ballet.
I watched him the full thirty minutes he did it. It was beautiful, but mostly I was still trying to get my head around the fact that it was Leon. He was a big man, about six-four, two hundred pounds, with a paunch. He looked like an ex-boxer or football player. I’d only seen him changing pipes or lightbulbs or carrying a broom and mop or doing some other menial task. This identity was incongruent with the image of him on the beach. But there he was, this large man, moving with grace and elegance. Yet it also made sense. It added to his privacy. When he stopped and saw me standing in the distance looking at him, he stared back. I was startled and embarrassed. I was sure he knew I had been watching him. I didn’t want him to think I was more of a weirdo than he probably already thought I was, so I waved to him, and he waved back. I called out good morning and walked toward him. We shook hands when I got to him. It was the first time.
“Was that tai chi?” I asked him.
“No, it’s a different art. It’s called baguazhang,” he said, drying the sweat off his neck and forehead with a small towel he took from the pocket of his sweats.
“OK. I’ve heard of it. Does it have to do with that yin/yang stuff?”
He smiled and nodded. “It’s a bit more involved than that, but basically, yes,” he said, picking up a jacket from the ground and shaking off the sand.
I asked him if he competed in martial arts tournaments. He said he didn’t. “I do it for the same reason you run and smoke that stuff,” he said.
I stumbled and shoved my hands in the pockets of my hoodie, and he kept on walking. He looked over at me and grinned. I lowered my head and looked at the ground while we walked. I didn’t know how to respond. I was scared, so I just walked along quietly, fidgeting with the knot in the string of my hood.
“You think my dad knows?” I blurted out.
“Probably. You can smell that stuff on you like cheap cologne. I figure he don’t care too much as long as you keep your act together.”
“He tell you that?” I asked.
“Not in so many words.”
“What do you mean?”
“He talks about you all the time, Jesse. He’s proud of you. You’re lucky to have an old man like that. He’s a good person. A human being, you know what I mean? I know what I’m talking about. I’m a good judge of character, and good is hard to come by,” he said.
We walked for a bit, not saying anything. The sound of the surf filled our silence. A thin, silvery fog was forming close to shore. On the horizon, dark clouds gathered, and the water looked black. A light mist fell; it felt refreshing on my face.
“You said I do . . . what I do for the same reason you do what you do. What’s that reason?” I asked.
He looked at me and smiled. “To feel like you belong in the world.”
My mother was shot in a convenience-store robbery on September 21, 1990. I was eleven years old. I was eating dinner at my cousin’s house: Kraft macaroni and cheese and pork chops, sitting in the dark in front the TV, watching Family Matters. I remember hearing my Aunt Louise, my mother’s sister, scream, “Oh, God, no! Please, no!” and the sound of the phone hitting the floor. Her voice sent a chill through me that I can still feel. My cousin Pierre dropped his plate and ran into the kitchen where my aunt was. I was numb, immobile, and I knew somehow this had something to do with me. I just sat there in the glow of the TV, trembling, too terrified to move, staring into the light coming from the kitchen.
Then Aunt Louise called me to her. Her expression was contorted, and tears fell from her face. Pierre had his arms wrapped around her waist and his face buried in her side. He kept repeating over and over, “What’s wrong, Momma? What’s wrong?” She knelt down, wrapped her arms around us, and pulled us close and tight into her. “Oh, Lord, baby, I’m so sorry,” she cried and placed her head against mine. “Your momma is gone, baby. She gone. My sister gone, Lord Jesus.” Then she fell limp and erupted into a deep, heavy, sorrowful sob. My cousin cried too, but I did not. I stood there with her arms around me and felt the world slide away.
My father moved us to San Francisco three years later. He had been reading a real estate magazine and saw that the motel was for sale and decided he wanted to buy it. He obviously wanted to get away from Denver and everything that reminded him of my mother’s death, but I never figured out why San Francisco, why a motel. It was probably a decision that carried with it all sorts of half-thought-out ideas and plans—irrational, perhaps, but driven more by a sense of unrealized hope than by certainty.
There was a desperation in its abruptness, and our family on both sides tried to talk him out of it. He had never been a spontaneous man. He was deliberate and practical most of the time. He had been in the air force, and he had that resolve and drive that some ex-military people have. He was steadfast, and they knew that once he had decided something, he was going to do it no matter what. Pierre asked me how I felt about moving, and I told him I really didn’t care. I couldn’t articulate it then, but what I meant was, it was just another unexpected thing that interrupted the course of life. I had resolved that this was what happened, that this was what life was: a succession of suffering with brief moments of respite. It was those brief moments I was wary of. To think otherwise was naive and dangerous.
After that day, I knew that anything could happen at any time. Anything. Your mother could be shot in the chest at a 7-Eleven; a coworker could walk into an office building and gun down your sister or brother and eight other people; someone could snatch your child; the plane you were on could crash in the middle of the ocean; you could lose your arm in a factory accident, go blind, get cancer, plummet through a windshield in a car crash, any and everything. There wasn’t a goddamn thing you could do about it. It was like the sun. It was going to be there burning and hot for the rest of your life. It was what I had come to expect. Nothing more, nothing less. I’d learned not to hope.
My father was not necessarily affected by the strife of the world. It was an abstract idea to him, something that could sometimes be avoided yet had to be weathered when it happened, and then you moved on. It was easy for him, an equation to be figured out. His bulwark was his family, my mother and me. It was what kept him going. My parents had had that rare relationship in which they were truly friends and genuinely liked each other. There were arguments, of course, but to my dad they were just problems to solve, and they did. Neither of them harbored resentment. He adored my mother and me. I still remember the way he would stare at her for long moments and tell her how fine she was. It wasn’t just every once in a while; it was on a regular basis. Or he’d walk by, thinking I didn’t see, and she’d squeeze or pinch his butt. They’d sit together on the couch and fall asleep watching TV; they’d cook together, sit in bed and read together. They bought each other elaborate gifts, and they spoiled me.
So when that was taken from him, my father didn’t fall apart or become a drunk; he didn’t fall inside himself and disappear from me or the world; he became task oriented. He worked overtime, had me join clubs and camps and groups, helped me work on school projects and homework; he painted and remodeled the house; he did odd jobs for family members, took classes in ethnic cooking at the free university; he didn’t stop, and no one tried to stop him because we knew if he stopped, he’d detonate. And although it was sad and unexpected when he told everyone we were moving to San Francisco, it was not surprising. It was just another project.
But he wasn’t stone. Sometimes at night I would hear him weeping. And on my first day of school in San Francisco, he sat on my bed, his eyes red and wet, held my face in his hands, and looked into my eyes, smiling and tearing up. “You do good, OK? You always do good and be yourself, OK. It’s OK to be happy, Jesse. Don’t let nobody mess with you. You’re a Turner. You’re my boy, my son, and I love you.” He leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, then pulled me into him so tight and long that I thought he was trying to absorb me. I started to cry and told him I wanted to stay with him, and he held me tighter and said he knew how I felt but that the world was waiting for me, to get to know who I really was, and it would be wrong for him not to give the world that gift.
Once a year on the anniversary of my mother’s death, my father would make the two of us dinner. Ribs, greens, potato salad, deviled eggs, and roasted corn on the cob. It was his favorite meal; it was what she’d made him on his birthday. Every year he would cook, get a bottle of scotch and drink it with milk, because that had been her favorite drink. We ate, and he would get drunk and tell me stories about my mother. Every year he ended up passing out, and I’d cover him with a blanket wherever it was he fell asleep, usually in his armchair in front of the TV but sometimes in his bed or at the kitchen table. The next morning, he’d get up, and everything would be back to normal. The night before was never mentioned. He never talked about my mother during the rest of the year. We did this every year until he died.
The first time he let me get drunk with him was the first time he invited Leon over to eat with us. He’d come over to fix a leaky pipe in the bathroom, and Dad was grilling the ribs. His ribs weren’t quite up to par with Mom’s, and his greens were always undercooked, but he did his best. Leon smelled the ribs cooking and told Dad they smelled good, so my father insisted that Leon come and celebrate the tenth anniversary of his wife’s death.
Leon brought strawberry cheesecake from Shubert’s Bakery. When he walked through the door, Dad put a drink in his hand. “If you don’t drink, you do tonight,” he said. “That’s the deal if you stay. You gotta drink with us tonight.” Then he mixed a drink and handed it to me. “Tonight only, you understand?” I looked at him, a bit astonished. “Go ahead, boy, take it. But like I said, this is a license only for tonight. Don’t let me find out you doing it otherwise, hear me?”
I took the drink. It felt awkward in my hand. Dad held up his drink, and Leon held his glass up against Dad’s. They looked at me, and I stood there holding my glass with both hands against my chest. “Come on, boy, raise your glass. This is a toast to your mother. Raise that glass.”
I held my glass up. Leon and Dad closed their eyes, so I did too.
“To my best friend, wife, and mother of my son. I miss you, Nora.”
The three of us ate and talked about sports and news and told jokes and got drunk. Dad cut me off after two drinks. Leon stopped after three, but Dad kept going. We all helped clean up and put the dishes away. Leon brought out the cheesecake, made some coffee for me and himself, and made my father another drink.
“I always liked cheesecake,” my father said. “Nora was a sweet potato pie person. I love me some tapioca pudding if it’s done right. Your grandma, my momma, made some good pudding. Your grandma on your momma’s side couldn’t boil an egg. Your momma got her cooking skills from her daddy,” he said and took a bite of the cheesecake and washed it down with his scotch and milk.
He took out a picture of my mother he carried in his wallet. It was bent and crumpled along the edges, but the image was still clear. He handed it to Leon. It was a picture from some event Mom and Dad had gone to one night about two years before she was killed. She was in a black floor-length evening gown with a pearl necklace and her hair straightened down to her shoulders like she was posing on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. She was that beautiful and elegant.
“Yes, sir,” Leon said. “She is a very beautiful woman. Thank you for sharing this day with me.” He handed the picture back to my dad. Dad stared at the picture.
“Never saw a woman more beautiful before or since I laid eyes on her. She was stunning. And I mean that. Sometimes I’d come downstairs, and she’d be doing some chore, or I’d come in after work and she might be watching TV or reading the paper, and I’d stop and just have to look at her and convince myself that this woman was really sitting there in front of me, that she was real, because I couldn’t believe that someone so incredible could be part of my life.
“She was gorgeous for sure, and she was so damn kind. Nothing about people really bothered her. I mean, she’d get annoyed like everybody else, but she always had an ear for people who needed to talk. And she was smart; that’s where this boy gets his mind from,” he said, pointing at me. Leon just nodded and continued listening. “So much smarter and nicer than me, that’s for sure. She was genuinely good, man, do you know what I’m saying? I have never met another human being that was honest-to-God good and happy and kind, just naturally, and she made me want to be good and kind, and . . .” He trailed off and finished his drink. He handed the glass to me, and I got up to make him another one.
“Then she was gone. Just gone from the world for no understandable reason, her life just gone. And for what? Seventy-three goddamn dollars.” He slammed his fist on the table. He put his hands behind his glasses and covered his eyes and started to sob. I reached for him, but Leon waved me away and silently mouthed, “Let him be.” I started to cry too. But I was crying for myself, for what I missed, what had been taken from me. So was Dad, but the way he was crying made me feel as if his tears were for something more, something absent not just in his life but in the life of the world too.
After about a minute or so he sat up, dried his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, and straightened his glasses. He looked at both of us and gave us a thin smile, then stood up.
“Well, young men, it’s time for me to go to bed. I’m tired and got things to do tomorrow.”
He shook Leon’s hand and thanked him for the cheesecake and went into his room and closed the door.
After that first night, Leon came over for dinner twice, maybe three times a month. We’d switch off cooking. He usually cooked a vegetarian meal, my dad cooked chops or steaks, and I did tacos. I began going out with Leon in the mornings. He’d do his baguazhang, and I’d do my running, and we’d walk back to the motel together.
One Saturday morning he had finished his practice, and he was sitting in an indentation against a dune looking out over the ocean. When I got closer I saw that his eyes were closed. I thought he might be meditating, so I didn’t say anything and just sat down next to him. After about five minutes he opened his eyes and looked at me.
“You ready to go?” I asked.
“You go on,” he said. “I’m gonna sit back here for a bit. I mean, you don’t have to go. I don’t want to hold you back waiting for me if you have things to do, though.”
I shrugged and shook my head to signify I had nothing better to do. We sat and watched the waves. It was a cool, overcast day. A mercurysilver sky defined the horizon from the dark gray of the sea. The water was rough, and small swells rolled in, white and foamy against the sand. The wind and the surf combined into that soft, sleepy sound that lulls one into those rare moments of real contentment.
“So, did you really never compete in martial arts?” I asked him.
He shook his head and continued looking at the ocean. “It’s not about that,” he said.
“So you’re more into the mystical, spiritual aspects?”
He looked out at the water for a moment, then turned to me and shook his head again. “No. There’s nothing about what I do that’s mystical or Zen or any of that other crap you see on TV or in the movies. It’s just simply listening. Tuning out the noise of people. Look out there, Jesse. We are at land’s end. I like what that sounds like. The end of the solidity and definition in a way. That puts things into perspective for me. The land is crowded. All the noise and distraction is no type of life to have to live. Bombardment of radios, TVs, cell phones, this Internet thing, videos, movies, billboards, cars, buildings, yelling, crying, screaming. That shit hijacks our heads and turns our minds to jelly. We aren’t supposed to be like this. Why do you think we’re so angry, violent, sad, and afraid? There’s always been suffering, but this is different. We’ve sacrificed something really important to all that shit. Something vital and irretrievable.
“Here on the beach, the end of a continent, the edge of an ocean, water to the horizon, all that is evaporated. It’s like the fog here sucks it out of you, carries it out to sea. When I sit here, I can hear the water, the different sounds it makes when it mixes up. Each wave has a different sound when it breaks on the shore, when it breaks against a cliff or an outcropping of rocks. I can hear on the beach. And what I hear is stillness. Perfect stillness. And that means everything. When I’m here, I don’t have to hope. When I’m here, I know. Then I can go back to it all, the world, the people, and I can at least try wholeheartedly, try to live in that place. That’s all anybody can do is try. Sometimes it’s enough; sometimes it’s not.”
One Friday night, after the bar closed, the Devires were standing outside Leon’s door arguing. Mr. Devire was cursing at Mrs. Devire. He was loud and calling her vulgar names. She was just as loud and vulgar. A few of the other tenants opened their doors and yelled at them to stop. I got out of bed and looked out my window. I could see them standing in front of one another waving their hands and pointing at each other viciously. Then I saw Leon step out of his room. I opened my window.
“Hey, you two need to calm down. It’s two o’clock in the morning. No one wants to hear your noise, OK,” Leon said. He was shirtless, and under the glow of the night-light he looked as if he was sweating heavily.
Mr. Devire swung around and stumbled back. “Mind your business, janitor. You ain’t shit, and nobody wants to hear your shit. So fuck you.”
I could see Leon’s whole body tense, and he formed a fist and stepped forward.
“Kick his ass for me, handsome. Kick his ass,” Mrs. Devire said to Leon.
“I’ll kick your ass, you silly bitch,” Devire said and lunged at her and tripped.
“Devire!” I saw my dad stepping up in his robe with the cordless phone in his hand. “One more word out of you and I’m calling the cops, you hear me? Now get up and get in your room and be quiet. I won’t tell you again.”
Devire glared at my father and stood up and stumbled backward. He looked at Leon and frowned. Mrs. Devire walked up to Leon and tried to hug him. “Thank you, baby,” she said. Leon turned away and walked over to my father. “You can stay with the janitor tonight, bitch, because you sure as hell ain’t staying in my room,” Mr. Devire yelled. Mrs. Devire looked over at Leon and my father. They turned away and went into our house.
I was standing in the kitchen drinking a soda when they walked in. My dad offered Leon some green tea with honey and lemon. Leon was sweating, and his eyes were watery and red.
“What’s up, Rocky?” I said, joking. “Why you wanna go around beating up harmless old drunks, man?”
He shot me a look and said, “Harmless, my ass. People like the Devires are rotten and as common as dirt. They think the world owes them something. They shit on anything and everyone.” His shoulders were taut, and spittle flew from his mouth. His left hand rested on the counter clenched in a fist, and he held his right hand behind him, kneading the muscles in his neck.
“Those people feed on misery; they’re black holes that suck up anything good in the world. Erosive. Parasites. But what’s more disgusting and pathetic is that they don’t even know what they want. They’re smallminded, weak-hearted, wretched creatures. They are not harmless, Jesse. They are dangerous, and you should hate people like that.”
“No reason to hate other people’s pain when we all got enough of our own,” my father said. He handed Leon a cup of tea with a spoon in it. Leon looked down and stirred the tea.
“Everyone suffers. It’s how you deal with it that matters,” said my father.
“That’s just it, Mr. Turner. They don’t deal with it. They want to make everyone else suffer because they do. I got no time for people like that.”
I stood there for a minute in the silence, watching Leon stir his tea. His eyes were wide and wild-looking, and he shook a bit. I had never seen him act like that, and it made me nervous. There was a feeling in the room that made me shiver. I told Leon I was sorry and that I had just been joking.
He looked at me with a pained look on his face. “I’m sorry, Jess. I’m just tired, and I’ve got some stuff on my mind. I know you were joking. Don’t pay me no mind tonight, OK? I’m just . . . tired. Get some sleep, man,” he said and patted me on the back. “I’m sorry, Mr. Turner. I didn’t mean nothing by all that,” I heard him say to my father before I shut my door.
On another night, about eleven o’clock, I was coming home from a movie. I walked up to Leon’s room and stood outside the door. I heard the TV. I was about to knock, but I heard him talking. I was being nosy and wanted to hear if it was the woman I had seen him with. She was a waitress at a restaurant he often went to in Chinatown. I had only seen him with her a couple times. I hadn’t approached him either time. I knew he was a private person, so I didn’t want to overstep my bounds. But that night, I wanted to know if she was there, because that would have meant the relationship was a bit more involved than just walking and talking in Chinatown. I felt guilty and started to walk away, but then I heard him start to cry. It was a deep, sorrowful sobbing, a chilling sound. I felt I should knock and see if he was all right, but I was afraid. What could make Leon cry like that? I didn’t want to know. The sound echoed in my head. It fell on me like a physical weight. What in the world could make Leon crumble too?
I went to my room and put on my headphones, but the music couldn’t drown out the sound in my head. There was sorrow so deep in that sound that I thought I might disappear into it. It echoed in the quietness of the night, as if it came from everywhere and everything. Personal and impersonal at the same time. At the center of it was a screaming white noise, violent and crushing. I remembered it all.
The next morning, I left to run before Leon woke up. I didn’t want to see him. The sun had not completely risen yet, and fog drifted along the beach. The ocean was fairly calm. Small waves uncovered tiny creatures, and plovers scurried around snatching them up. I stopped and sat among the dunes to watch the birds. There was a cool breeze blowing off the water. The calm, lapping rhythm of the waves lulled me into a place that felt like that state between being half awake and half asleep. I watched a freighter in the distance, its metal bulk small upon the dark water of the Pacific. It was leaving port and heading into that silvery void to some other land. I watched it until it disappeared into the thick white offshore fog.
About three weeks later I was awakened at three thirty in the morning by a loud scream. It was pitch black in my room, and I jumped out of bed in a panic. Mrs. Devire was yelling for help again. Then I heard Mr. Devire’s voice and the breaking of glass. I met my dad on the way out the back door. Devire was standing over his wife with a broomstick, hitting her in the back as she cowered on the ground. My dad told me to stay put and rushed over to the Devires, but before he got there, Leon shot out of his room and grabbed Devire’s arm. With one motion, he picked him up, flipped him over his shoulder, and threw him onto the ground. We all stopped, amazed at what we had just seen. Mrs. Devire was still screaming, but we weren’t paying any attention to her. We were watching Leon. He picked Devire up by the collar and flung him against the fence. Leon punched him in the face three times, hard and fast. Devire slumped against the fence, and Leon grabbed him by the throat and was about to punch him again, but my father ran over and threw his arms around Leon. He broke out of my father’s grip and turned around with fist raised and a rage on his face that caused my father to back away. Then he recognized my dad, and his expression changed to horror. He backed away and fell against the fence next to Devire. Devire wasn’t moving. His head was flopped over to one side, and blood streamed from his nose and mouth.
Mrs. Devire shut up when she saw him. Then she screamed again, ran over to him, and cradled him in her arms. She slapped his face a few times, but he didn’t move. Leon scooted away from them and stared at Devire. We all stared at the motionless body on the ground. There was a long, still silence. Then Devire groaned and turned his head up and looked at his wife. We all breathed again. Leon stood up and, with his head lowered, walked into his room and closed the door. My father came over and put his arm around me. I looked around and saw the old couple who had checked in earlier that day standing on the balcony, looking down at us as if stricken. I started toward Leon’s room, but my father stopped me and told me to leave him be.
Ten minutes later, the parking lot was bathed in the blue and red flashing lights of police cars. Devire had called the cops and told them he had been assaulted. When I went outside, Leon was cuffed, and two cops, on either side of him, were leading him to a car. He didn’t have on a shirt or shoes. Two cops stood by the car and helped shove him inside. One questioned the Devires, and a sixth cop stood with her arms folded, watching the people who had gathered around gawking at the scene. I ran out toward the car Leon was in.
“He didn’t do anything,” I said. “He was protecting her. Devire was beating her up, and Leon stopped him.”
Two cops stepped forward. I stopped.
“Boy, get your ass back over here now,” my father yelled. I walked back to my father. He grabbed the back of my neck hard and pressed his fingers into my muscles so that I had to turn and look at him. “Don’t you ever, in your entire life, run up on a cop like that again. Do you understand?” he said and squeezed my neck harder and shook me a bit. “OK, OK,” I said and pulled away from him, rubbing my neck.
One of the cops came over and started questioning us. We told her that Leon had stopped Devire from beating his wife. That was all.
Around eight o’clock the next night, my dad got a call from Leon asking if he could borrow some money for bail. We were about to leave when my father asked me to go get Leon a shirt, shoes, and a coat. He also told me to see if I could find Leon’s wallet and get his ID. He said the cops might need it for something, and if not, Leon would probably want his wallet anyway.
I let myself into his room with the master key. I saw his wallet sticking out from a pair of pants draped over the back of a chair. I grabbed it and looked inside, but there was only forty-two dollars and some old receipts in it. I figured the ID might be in a drawer, but I didn’t know which one. I rifled through the chest of drawers but didn’t find it there. On his nightstand was a folded, fading Polaroid picture of Leon and a gorgeous little girl. I had been in his room several times to watch cowboy movies with him, but I had never seen a single photograph. The girl was about seven or eight with a head full of wild, curly, light reddish-brown hair, what my grandma used to call brique. She was sitting on his lap, looking up at him with a smile as wide as a happy Buddha. Leon was younger; he was smiling; he looked bright and happy. I had never seen Leon with a smile that big. There was joy on his face. He had hair, a short fro mostly hidden beneath a black beret. He wore a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket. He was leaning down with his forehead pressed against the girl’s forehead. Her little hand rested on his cheek. I was thinking she might be a niece or a friend’s child, but the longer I looked, the more it became unmistakable that she looked just like him. In the three years I had known him, he’d never mentioned a child or any other family.
I set the picture back on top of the book and opened the top drawer of the nightstand. Inside was a gun, a .38. I just stared at it a moment. Then picked it up. I hadn’t touched a gun since my grandpa, my father’s dad, had taken me to hunter safety class when I was nine. It felt heavy and cool. I opened the cylinder. There was a single bullet in it. I suddenly felt cold, and a shiver shot up my back. I pulled my shirtsleeves over my hands and polished away my prints, put the gun back in the drawer, and closed it. I was sweating. I opened the bottom drawer, and his ID wasn’t there. I turned to leave and stepped on a page from a newspaper next to the bed. I heard a cracking sound and reached down and picked up the paper. Underneath it was a cracked mirror with some white powder, half a plastic straw, and Leon’s ID next to it. I put the paper back on top of the mirror, grabbed a shirt and shoes, and left. I told my dad I couldn’t find the ID.
On the ride back from the jail, we were all silent. Leon sat up in the front with my dad, staring out the window. I sat in the back doing the same. My dad pulled into a donut shop.
“Come on, fellas, let’s get something sweet and fattening, my treat.”
Leon didn’t move but just continued looking out the window as if he didn’t hear. Dad and I got out of the car and stood there waiting for him to get out. I tapped on the glass, and Leon opened the door then, without looking up. He got out of the car and stood next to it, staring into the store.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Turner. I hope you don’t take offense. I just want to be alone for a bit if that’s OK with you.”
“Of course, brother. You do what you need to do to take care of yourself. We’ll see you later. You want me to get you something for later?”
Leon shook his head, and my father nodded. He walked off up the street, and we watched him until he disappeared.
The next day, Leon and I didn’t meet to go to the beach. Actually, we quit meeting at all. Every day he just went about the business of doing his job. He didn’t seem sad; he didn’t seem happy. He wasn’t mean or detached, but neither was he overly friendly or warm. He did his job and stayed in his room. He did this for about a month. I’d go over and try to get him to go out or sit and watch a Western, but he always said he was tired and was just going to relax. He didn’t come over to eat with us anymore.
One morning I woke up to go jog and found an envelope on the floor that had been pushed underneath the back door. I picked it up and opened it. There was money in it, a thousand dollars: ten new onehundred-dollar bills. Folded around the money was a note.
Mr. Turner. Here is the money I borrowed for bail. Thank you. You are a kind man. I am sorry I caused you the trouble I did. It was never my intention to bring any type of misery to you and Jesse. I am sorry to leave this way as well, but things are the way they are, and that’s the way they will be. I have a guy coming by to interview for the job. I didn’t want to leave you hanging like that. I think he will be a good fit. He’s a hard worker. Doesn’t drink or anything. I’m a good judge of character, and I know you’ll like him. Thank you for everything you have done for me. It was truly appreciated. Give my best to Jesse. Leon
I took the envelope to my father. He sat up in bed and read the note. He nodded his head as he read. “He’s a good man. We’ll miss him,” Dad said. He handed me the envelope and asked me to put the money in the safe. Then he lay back down and told me to turn the light out and close the door. “Enjoy your run, son,” he said before I closed the door. We never heard from Leon again.
My father died my senior year in college. He was only fifty-three years old. I went to wake him up one morning, and he was dead. The coroner said he’d died in his sleep of heart failure, more than likely painlessly. There were no indications that he was sick; he had seemingly been healthy all his life. He had just had a heart attack in his sleep and died. It was as simple and strange as that. My grandmother said he left to go see my mother because he knew I was going to be all right. I like to entertain that idea once in a while.
He was buried in Denver next to my mother. It was great to see all my family again. We had kept in touch after we moved, of course, but it had been about nine years since all of us had been together. It made burying him easier. For all intents and purposes, I was alone in the world. Both my parents were gone. I had no siblings. My grandma on my mom’s side and Aunt Louise tried to convince me to move back to Denver. They said it wasn’t healthy for a person to live on their own without any family around. I probably would have if I hadn’t needed to finish school and take care of the motel, but it had become my responsibility, and I had to do the right thing. Plus, San Francisco had become my home.
I finished college, and my cousin Pierre came out and helped me get everything together after I sold the motel. I transferred to Berkeley for grad school. I got a PhD in environmental engineering and met my wife, Sylvia. She was working on a PhD in mathematics. After we graduated, we lived in Albany for a while. Then I got a job for the government; she teaches at USF. We moved to Napa and had two kids, two boys, Aaron and Alex. They are nine and seven, and as I watch them growing up, I am thrilled and terrified. They are great kids, smart and friendly, like their mother in that way. I hope I am a good father. I try to be. I often wish my parents were alive to give me advice, but I don’t know how much that would matter. My children are themselves, and I am me, and we are all different, and our lives will be what they will be. I will be there for them when they need me.
I still jog, but I don’t smoke anymore. I like to run along the bank of the Napa River. It’s not the ocean, but in places the rushing of the water over stones or against the bank is still calm and peaceful. Often when I run, I think about Leon. I wonder what happened to him. I like to imagine he is doing well, that he has found some place in the world. But more often, I wonder if he is still alive. If he is, I wonder if he thinks about us, my father and me, and does he miss us like I miss him at times. I think about the night I heard him weeping, the picture of the little girl and the ID beneath the newspaper. I try not to, but those types of things always stay inside you and live on their own.
The other morning, I got an early start. Thick white clouds began to gather and sat heavy above the world. After about a mile, thunder sounded in the distance. I slowed my pace and watched the sky turn dark. It began to rain. It felt cool on my skin, and I thought about my family. My mother and father gone. My wife and children here. Leon. I picked up my pace to try to match the flow of the water. The rain fell harder and formed small streams on the path that snaked their way into the silvery water of the river as it flowed south on its course to the bay. I was aware of my feet in contact with the earth; I could feel the long evolution of my foot progressing from heel to toe, each point in contact, then released from the ground in quick succession. I felt the energy from the impact travel through my legs, through blood vessels into my belly, to my chest and arms and neck, blood flowing, lungs breathing, heart pumping, pumping, pumping.
Trent Hudley is the author of the short-story collection One of These Days, published by Veliz Books. He currently teaches creative writing courses at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, Colorado. He has recently been published in The New Feathers Anthology, the Pandemic Press, and Welkin: A Magazine of the Fantastic.
“Poverty Hill” by Elizabeth Ball
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Elizabeth Ball’s “Poverty Hill” is an energetic, chaos-fueled journey into the drama, the humor, and the frustration of growing up in a close-knit family beset by poverty and dysfunction.
by Elizabeth Ball
My dog, Madonna, was buried alive. But that’s top secret. No one knows about it except for me, my brother, Randal, Mama and—well, half of Saint John. So I guess it’s not really a secret. But it was a secret from my father, Pup, who thinks she died peacefully of old age in her sleep. Everyone knew Pup could never find out. It would’ve killed him. At the time, I wished it had killed me too. Here’s why.
When I was eight, me, Randall, Mama, and our big blond dog, Madonna, moved from our downtown apartment in Saint John to a little cottage on Poverty Hill, a dirt road off the highway on the way out to the suburbs. Mama said the cottage would be cheaper than our downtown rent. She said the country air would be good for us triplets, which she called us because we were all born within a year of each other.
“You triplets won’t have to worry about the Bible-thumping neighbours and their screaming babies no more,” she said. “The country air will taste better, and you can go to school where the rich kids in the suburbs go. I can sell Avon anywhere. The rich kids at the suburban school will be better friends than your poor friends downtown,” she assured us, “because they have money and stuff.” She made us believe it.
I was good at making friends and always up for an adventure, so I didn’t mind moving. I liked the Bible-thumping neighbours’ kids well enough, but they were always on my case about being a girl with short hair and calling myself Michael Jackson instead of my real name, Missy. On the day we moved, I hopped into the back seat of our brown station wagon with Madonna, and, as we pulled away, with all the neighbours waving, I squished my lips into hideous shapes against the window to make them laugh. By the time the smears faded, it felt like we had lived on Poverty Hill forever.
Ours was the first house after the train tracks. A little white one with black windows and a crooked deck and peeling paint. Because Madonna was part hound dog, she howled every time she heard the train whistle. On the hour. All night, sometimes. That drove Mama crazy at first, and she didn’t know what to do because she loved Madonna, but she also loved the cottage and a good night’s sleep. But she soon got used to it. It became white noise. A lullaby. It turned into a joke for us to howl along with Madonna. Anyone would have thought we were a pack of feral mutts that had busted out of the SPCA, but we thought it was hilarious. I still can’t hear a train whistle without tilting my chin toward the moon and letting out my inner dog.
After we pulled into our new driveway, the first thing I did was climb the biggest pine tree on the lot. While Mama unloaded the car, Randall played on his Game Boy, and Madonna sniffed out rabbits, I reached my Michael-Jackson-glove-clad hand over the bare one until I was at the seventy-five-foot peak of the tree. “Hey, Mama!” I hollered down, “Look at me!” Oh, how that scared her! But like with Madonna’s howling, she soon got used to it because once I found out I had chipmunk genes, there was nothing she could do to keep me out of the trees. That pine tree, in particular, had a perfect fat branch three-quarters of the way up where I could spend hours reading and spying on the neighbours. It had a hole made by a woodpecker, where I hid all my secret stuff, like my diary and letters from Pup.
The second thing I did after I went up that tree for the first time was burst into tears. Right up there, standing on the branch. I started weeping and wailing as if I’d been stung by a swarm of hornets and was about to fall seventy-five feet to my death. That scared Mama too, I think. She screamed, “Unless you’re stuck up there, you better get your fuckin’ arse down here immediately, Missy Whynaught! And if you are stuck, well, you’re shit outta luck cause the phone ain’t connected yet, so I can’t call the fire department! And don’t think I’m climbing up there after ya. I just got my friggin’ nails done, ya fucker!”
I wasn’t stuck. All of a sudden, way up in that tree, far from our old apartment, it hit me that Pup would never be able to find us. We hadn’t called him to tell him we were moving because he didn’t have a phone. We hadn’t written to him because he didn’t have an address. We hadn’t spoken to him for months because he was on some oil rig in the middle of the ocean, making money so we could afford this new house, and weren’t we the most selfish people in the world? What would happen if he showed up at our old place and found us gone? He would think we’d abandoned him. Like that stray cat we used to feed sometimes. I’d named that black cat Jackson. We hadn’t said a proper goodbye to Jackson, either, because he was also MIA in the days leading up to our move. Mama wouldn’t adopt him because she was a suspicious woman, and adopting a black cat, she believed, was just asking for trouble.
When I finally climbed down, I told her why I was so upset.
“Nonsense!” Mama said, “Jackson’s got his paw out to every other fuckin’ family on that street. He doesn’t give a cat’s meow who leaves him food as long as he’s fed. That’s what cats are like. Only in it for themselves. As for your father, don’t you worry about him! That man can sniff us out from the other side of the world. He’d find us even if we covered ourselves in tomato juice and lived underground like moles. He’s like that hobo dog on TV. Believe me; he’ll show up when we least expect it. For better or for worse. Plus, you know he can’t go without seeing Madonna for too long.”
Mama could be so gullible. She was one of those single mamas who believed the dog really had eaten our homework. Not that we’d stopped doing homework long ago. One of those single mamas who thought she really had misplaced that five-dollar bill or her pack of smokes. Not that we’d stolen it. It was hard to take her seriously when pulling the wool over her eyes was so easy.
But then, every once in a while, she’d say something so wise and prophetic that it would stick with you. Take Jackson, for instance. She was right about that cat. As much as I didn’t want to believe it at the time, me and the Bible-thumping neighbours were the same to him. Cats, I’ve learned, are about as fickle as they come.
And she was right about my father. He was like that hobo shepherd dog on TV. The one that would show up out of nowhere, just when you thought the guy who’d fallen in some hole was for sure a goner, and save the day. It’d be raining or snowing or hailing; no one would be around for miles, and then—poof—the hobo dog would appear all calm and smiling that happy hobo-dog smile, pull the dying guy out of the hole, lick him clean, and then—poof—disappear again. Everyone wishing he would stay forever but knowing he wouldn’t because it was in the hobo dog’s nature to wander alone.
That was Pup.
Except it was more complicated than that because Pup didn’t always save the day. In fact, he was often the guy stuck in the hole. Or the guy who pushed the other guy into the hole. And only some of us wanted him to stay forever. But he was calm, and he did smile a lot, and Mama always called him a hobo because he never really had a home and all he did was wander around until he decided to show up in the middle of an ice storm or Mama’s fortieth birthday party. Plus, he loved dogs—Madonna most of all.
I clung to that idea of Pup being a hobo dog. I was proud of it. The hobo dog, after all, was a hero. And so, so cute. In school, whenever we had to write about our summer vacation or Christmas holiday or March break, I’d write about the hobo dog. Some of my stories had elements of truth; others were bullshit. Most were combinations thereof. It’s always been hard for me to decipher the truth from bullshit. I guess I’m a bit like Mama that way.
I caught the hobo dog coming down the chimney. He was dressed up just like Santa! His bag of presents was so big he could barely lift it. He left a pogo ball for me! A yellow-and-pink one, just like I wanted. Randall got a Nintendo, and Madonna got a vanilla cake with red and green icing! That hobo dog’s some smart, knowing dogs are allergic to chocolate cake! I didn’t let him know I’d seen him. though. He’s a really sensitive guy, and I wanted to make sure he comes back next year. I hope he liked the rum and eggnog we left him. The End.
Five percent true. I was nine. It was our first Christmas on Poverty Hill, and Pup hadn’t smelled us out yet. I was sure it was because I’d eaten too many tomatoes that year. Madonna was always bathed in tomato juice after having a run-in with a skunk or rolling in something dead. I told myself, well, if it works to get rid of Madonna’s smell, maybe it’s masking my smell too. It felt like a reasonable explanation. Spaghettios, ketchup, goulash. I removed everything with tomatoes in it from my diet. I even tore the tomato plants out of the garden. Mama and Randall thought I was nuts. Just to rile me up, they poured ketchup on everything—even Christmas dinner. I blamed them that it took Pup almost the whole year to find us. The five-percent truth was in the presents. I did get a yellow-and-pink pogo ball, and Randall got his Nintendo, just like we’d asked. And Madonna got a vanilla cake with green and red icing that she puked up under the tree. The tags on the presents said they were from Pup, written in Mama’s handwriting.
The hobo dog took us to Florida for March break! We drove all the way there and slept in the car by the side of the road. It was so hot that we didn’t get cold at all sleeping in the car. We went to Disney and saw flamingos and ate oranges and ice cream for every meal! Then I got so sunburned that the hobo dog had to rent us a motel so I could soak in the cold bathtub all day. At first, he was mad that I made us lose two days’ vacation, but it ended up raining so much that we couldn’t do much sightseeing anyway. Instead, we watched movies in bed and ordered room service. It wasn’t a waste at all! Even Madonna had fun. She didn’t get carsick like she usually does. The End.
Twenty percent true. I was ten. Pup had finally sniffed us out a few days before March break. He showed up at the schoolyard, driving Mama’s station wagon, with Madonna riding shotgun. Apparently, he’d gone to see Mama on Poverty Hill first, but she’d told him he had another thing coming if he thought he was staying with us after taking a month’s vacation in Thailand doing only God knows what with only God knows who on his way home from his eight-month gig offshore. She packed up a week’s worth of clothes for us and threw the suitcase at him. along with her car keys. “Take the fuckin’ dog, too!” She said, “I need a break!” We begged him to take us to Disney, but because of some dodgy business involving a hitchhiker and a stolen passport, we went to visit one of his buddies down in Nowheresville instead. When we got there, his buddy was on a holiday of her own, so we had to sleep in the car for the night. It was so cold Randall got frostbite and had to get his left ear amputated. After he was discharged from the hospital, we spent a few days hanging out at the motel, watching movies and ordering room service, until Pup got bored and took us back to Mama. It was me who got carsick. I always wondered why Mama let him use her car.
The hobo dog built us a pool this summer with his bare hands! It’s so big, all the other Poverty Hill kids came over to swim with us every day. He’d just come back from Africa, where he rode on an elephant, so he made the slide in the shape of an elephant’s trunk! The hobo dog said he’s never seen such a good swimmer as me and that I should try out for the Olympics. He said I must be part mermaid. I even outswam him sometimes, and hobo dogs are excellent swimmers. I got it from his side of the family, he said. When he comes back next time, he’s going to bring his diving gear and teach me how to use it so I can get a job on an oil rig like him one day. The End.
Thirty percent true. I was eleven. Pup showed up after a six-month gig at a construction camp in the Congo. He brought me back a little elephant sculpture made out of ivory. He was devastated to find Madonna so decrepit. Her hips were all bony, and she had difficulty getting up the stairs. Her eyes were milky-blue blind. She spent most of her time sleeping, and she’d gotten really fat. At eleven and a half years old, she was an old woman. Pup only had a two-week leave, and he spent most of it trying to rehabilitate Madonna. He took her to the vet. He put her on a diet. Then he dug a grave for her in the middle of the yard. He was sure she was going to croak while he was away. He thought he was doing Mama a favour, so she wouldn’t have to dig it herself, but clearly, he didn’t know Mama at all. When Mama saw the hole, her face turned gravel grey. I was sure she would faint or run for the hills, but she didn’t do either because Pup was so busy crying that she had to console him. We all did. Even Madonna hauled herself up from where she was sleeping and hobbled over to cuddle him. She was a very intuitive dog. On the day before Pup returned to the Congo, we went to the beach. I spent hours in the water flippin’ and dippin’ like a little dolphin while Randal, who hates the water, sulked under a tree. But Pup did say I was part mermaid. And he did say I must’ve gotten it from his side of the family. It’s true; I am an excellent swimmer. As for other kids on Poverty Hill—that was bullshit. The Whynaught triplets were the only ones under twenty for miles and miles and miles.
Mama wasn’t worried when my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, called her in to talk about my hobo-dog stories. I know because I overheard their conversation while I waited in the hallway outside the classroom.
When Mrs. Walker said, “I think Missy’s confused,” Mama said, “No, she’s just creative.” When Mrs. Walker said, “I worry Missy might find herself in trouble one day,” Mama said, “Really? I foresee that she’ll be in the circus one day.” When Mrs. Walker said, “So, let me get this clear, Mrs. Whynaught. You’re not worried about Missy? You don’t want her to see the guidance counsellor?” Mama responded, “Mrs. Walker, I like to live in the here and now. What’s the point of worrying about troubles that haven’t happened yet? Shrinks are for crazy folks. Missy’s a free spirit. Like her father. You should see how fast she can climb trees! But I appreciate your concern.”
What Mama did worry about, however, was the grave in the middle of our yard. Not because it was one hell of an eyesore— no, she was used to Pup’s holes. Pup was known all over the country for them. He was notorious for showing up and offering to dig holes for things he rarely finished. We had a partially built septic tank in the backyard that we used as a hideout. Pup borrowed a buddy’s bulldozer once and dug out half a basement for us. We had a six-foot pile of dirt for a whole year, until one of the neighbours offered to drag it away. Pup started on a goldfish pond for Mama once, but when he abandoned it halfway through for a job out West, she turned it into a firepit. Strangely enough, despite his reputation, people kept asking Pup to dig holes for one thing or another. That Pup Whynaught, they’d say, he can dig a hole with his charm alone!
No, it wasn’t the hole per se that was a problem for Mama. It was the hole’s purpose. She was convinced that by digging Madonna’s grave before she croaked, Pup had put a curse on our family. “It’s worse than naming a baby before it’s born,” she said. “Worse than adopting a black cat. Worse than complimenting a beautiful child.”
“Did you know that in India, parents can ask the person who gave the compliment to spit in the child’s face?” she said.
“Did you know that in Russia, if you change your underwear between Christmas and New Years’, you’ll get boils?”
“Did you know that in the Philippines, you can’t go straight home from a funeral? They need to make a pit stop somewhere like McDonald’s to shake off the bad spirits first.”
She took out a bunch of books on witchcraft from the library and painted so many evil eyes all over our property—on the front door, on my pine tree, on our station wagon’s rear window—that it felt like we were living in some kind of Big-Brother movie. She racked up a huge phone bill calling a psychic named Pinky.
“Pinky said you should never have a mirror facing your bed. Spirits from the other side are just waiting to suck your soul out through it.”
“Pinky said not to refill the grave because it might tempt the devil even more.”
“Pinky said we should beware of the letter D, the number seven, mysterious rashes, and the colour purple. But good fortune will come to us from someone else’s misfortune when we least expect it.”
Randall and I would tease her. “But, Mama,” we’d say. “We’re not Indian/ Filipino/ Russian.”
“Hey, Mama, did you see that lonesome crow staring at you from the kitchen window this morning? I’m sure he had a purple bow around his neck.”
Once, in the middle of the night, we put all the mirrors in the house in her bedroom. When she woke up in the morning, she was sure she’d died and gone to hell. “Laugh all you like, ya fuckers,” she cried as she rubbed the Avon lucky horseshoe pendant she wore around her neck, “But believe me, bad luck is on the horizon.”
Outside, Madonna dozed next to her grave, content as a well-nursed baby.
Now, as I said, Mama could be surprisingly wise sometimes (and maybe Pinky really did have a knack for divination). When my skin broke out in acne so bad that I stopped keeping my hair short so I could use my hair to cover my face, Mama took me to the doctor. When the doctor said, “This is acne, ma’am, and it’s genetic, not a mysterious rash,” Mama said, “Genetics, my ass. Nobody on either side of the family ever had skin like that.” When Mr. Duncan got run over by the train and everyone said it was an accident, Mama said, “No accident there. That old soul knew the train schedule like I know when I’m about to get on the rag. Timed right down to the minute. D for danger; D for death. D for Mr. fuckin’ Duncan.” We got a thousand-dollar compensation when the neighbour’s oil spill contaminated our water supply. Mama used it to pay off her enormous phone bill and said, “See? Just as Pinky predicted.”
As for my hobo-dog stories, I stopped sharing them at school. I was too old for that. I was no longer proud of them. They ended up in my diary, which I hid in the woodpecker hole in my pine tree.
The hobo dog took me and Madonna camping for a week. We had a great time. We slept in a tent with Madonna smack dab between us to keep us warm. We went snorkeling in the ocean and ate periwinkles with safety pins that we picked off the rocks ourselves! Delicious! We met some other campers and had a party around the bonfire. At the end of the party, Pup was worried about the bears getting at our leftover food. One of the guys said, “Hang it up in the tree!” So Pup said, “Go on, Missy, you do it. Show ‘em how tree climbing’s done.” So I took the garbage bag and climbed the highest tree on the campsite. On my way down, I tried showing off by doing it one-handed, but then I fell. My leg got caught in a branch, and I got a nasty cut on my thigh. The next day we went snorkeling again. Boy, did the saltwater ever sting my cut when I first got in! But I didn’t let it stop me. The minute of pain was worth the hours of fun I had in the ocean. I can’t wait to go again next year. The End. *
Seventy percent true. I was twelve. Pup spent more and more of his time in the tropics, mostly Cuba, between jobs. He would call and tell me he’d send for me to visit soon. “We’ll go on bike rides to the beach and go snorkeling,” he said. “I know this woman who will braid your hair. And a guy who will drive us around on his motorbike. And another who will cook us anything we want for a few bucks a pop. Come to think of it,” he said, “You can pay just about anyone to do just about anything for a few bucks a pop over here. You can even buy yourself a boyfriend, Pet! You’ll love it!” Meanwhile, Mama had changed the locks so he couldn’t show up whenever he wanted. To keep his Canadian residency, though, he had to come home every six months. That summer, he rented a trailer on a campsite by the ocean with a bunch of other construction guys. Randall was too busy being thirteen to hang out with us, but me and Madonna spent the week with Pup. And we did have campfires with marshmallows and ghost stories. And we did eat buckets full of periwinkles that we picked ourselves and ate with safety pins. And one night, some guy did suggest that we hang our garbage from a tree, which I did, but then fell and hit my head so hard on my way down that I was knocked unconscious. Apparently, Madonna wouldn’t stop howling, and everyone thought it was really quite amazing how concerned she was. But I didn’t fall because I was showing off. It was because Pup gave me a few beers, and I could barely walk a straight line, never mind climb. I guess that’s why we didn’t go to the hospital right away. We didn’t go until the next day, when my head wouldn’t stop pounding and I kept having this scary-weird feeling that I wasn’t real anymore. I was sure I had brain damage, but when I asked the doctors about it, they said, “No, you just need some rest.” When it didn’t go away a few days later, I asked Mama if maybe I should get checked out again, but all she was concerned about was the number of stitches to my head. “Seven stitches? Did you say seven? Sweet Jesus, it’s all downhill from here. It’s all downhill from here.”
The hobo dog bought Randall an electric guitar for his first big show. His band is the coolest in town! They played at the school dance, and it was the biggest turnout ever. I danced so much I got blisters on both feet! During a slow song, the most popular boy at school asked me to dance. I couldn’t believe my luck. At the end of the night, he kissed me and asked for my phone number. Everyone crowded around us and cheered. I think he might ask me to go out with him, but I’m not sure because he seems kinda shy. I won’t write down his name because I don’t want to jinx it. The End.
Thirty percent true. I was thirteen. Randall was fourteen and in a band. Every day after school, his band rehearsed at one of his buddy’s houses. Randall didn’t have his own guitar, so he borrowed one from said buddy, whose family had lots of money. Once, buddy’s mother called Mama and offered to buy Randall a guitar and pay for lessons. She said, “Your son’s got natural talent. A real Jimmy Hendrix he is.” But Mama wouldn’t take any charity. “I got my pride,” she said. “Plus, if your father can afford to gallivant around the fuckin’ tropics on his time off, he can afford a fuckin’ guitar! Go ask him!”
So that’s what Randall did. The next time Pup called, Randall asked, and supposedly Pup agreed. The next week, however, Pup said he didn’t remember the conversation. “Another blackout,” he said. “Sorry ‘bout that, son, but money’s tight at the moment. How about a ukulele instead?” Randall vowed never to speak with Pup again. Then he went and stole money from the school cafeteria to buy a guitar for himself and got caught. Then he got suspended and wasn’t allowed to play with his band at the dance. I went to the dance, though. With a bunch of kids I’d been trying to hang out with for months. I stole a bottle of peach schnapps from Mama, and we drank it in the woods. I got so drunk that I didn’t care anymore that nothing felt real and ended up giving my first blow job to the most popular boy in school. His name was Dirk. When we eventually went inside the dance, everyone saw the mud on the knees of my white jeans. They formed a circle around me and chanted “Miss Piggy! Miss Piggy!” Until one of the teachers came over, saw the state I was in, and called Mama to come to pick me up. I got suspended for a week, too. When Mama saw that the guitar Randall had bought was purple, she sighed and said, “Of course, it was purple. The writing’s been on the wall all along.” I didn’t dare tell her the boy’s name started with D.
Madonna was buried alive. I wish it was me instead. The kobo dog can never find out what happened. It will kill him. The End.
Here’s what I know to be true:
I was fourteen. Mama was so fed up with my lip that she called Pup and told him he better take me, or she’d put me in a group home. Pup agreed. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll send you some money, and she can come to live with me in Cuba for the summer. A little fun in the sun is exactly what she needs.”
Also true: I was so excited. I told everyone I was moving to Cuba. I planned a going-away party when I knew Mama was gonna be away for one of her Avon training weekends.
Also true: Pup changed his mind. “I got a last-minute job on the Miramichi,” he said. Money’s too good to pass up. Maybe next year.”
Also true: I had the party anyway. It was supposed to be ten kids: five girls and five boys. We had a couple of two-fours and a pill bottle full of blotter acid someone had stolen from their brother’s friend visiting from Nowheresville. We sat around the kitchen listening to Pup’s old Black Sabbath records. The boys took turns doing their best Ozzy impersonations and the girls got Madonna howling in exchange for Cheetos. I told them all about Pup and Madonna’s grave, and we laughed and laughed. I was so messed up that my voice sounded squeaky and echoey like a cave bat. I thought I really was a cave bat. Everyone around me looked and sounded like cave bats, too.
Also true: Suddenly, it was like a crazy train pulled up and let loose fifty suburban teenagers on our front lawn. They were everywhere. Stomping through the house in muddy Doc Martens. Putting out cigarettes on the floor. Raiding the fridge. Making out in Mama’s bed, right under the evil eyes. When I went outside, there was a lineup of cars parked from our driveway all the way down Poverty Hill, right to the highway. One guy was pissing on the deck, and another was breaking a window with a baseball bat. At one point, I found myself lying on my back under my big old pine tree with Dirk’s hand down my pants. Up above, cave bats flew in and out of the branches like an orchestrated air show. Any doubts I had about my brain damage went out the window.
Also true: Madonna died that night.
Mama refused to believe the truth about Madonna. When I told her, “It’s true, Mama, the boys threw her in the grave,” she said, “No, Missy, that’s fuckin’ impossible; she must have fallen in.” When I said, “Seriously, Mama, that’s what happened. And then she must have broken her back because she couldn’t get up, so they all freaked out and started throwing dirt over her until she couldn’t breathe,” she said, “I’m glad your friends were there to help you put her out of her misery. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do the same.” When I cried and cried and cried and said, “But, Mama, it’s all my fault, I did nothing to help Madonna. And I’m pretty sure I really do have brain damage because everything still feels so unreal, and every time I speak, it sounds like I’m in a cave. And I wonder if maybe I’m really dead and this is just an afterlife kind of dream state?” she said, “Oh, honey, all teenagers have brain damage. But, as for Madonna, she had a good life. And there wasn’t a fuckin’ thing you could’ve done differently to change her fate. But if you have to blame someone, blame your fuckin’ father.” I said, “But, Mama, Pup wasn’t even here.” Then she looked at me long and hard, with more conviction in her eyes than I’d ever seen and said, “Exactly.”
Concerning Pup, he was better off not knowing. When he came home four months later, just after the first snowfall, and found out Madonna had died, he was devastated. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He kept crying and going on long walks that made him miserable because Madonna wasn’t with him, but still, he wouldn’t let anyone join him. He complained about the cold weather and said, “Why on earth people live here is a mystery to me!” For the first time, I wished he’d hurry up and leave already.
Just before Pup left, he organized a funeral. He invited his buddies and the neighbours and some of me and Randall’s friends from school. He made a big pot of chowder and sang a sad, sad song about a man and his son who fought all the time and the son only realized how much he actually loved his father after the father died and it was too late. I don’t know why he chose that song. It was really inappropriate. Randall kept rolling his eyes, and Mama tapped her feet the way she did when she was waiting in line somewhere and the person in front of her was taking forever to count their change.
Near the end of the funeral, the train went by and whistled. Me and Randall and Mama instantly snapped our heads to look at each other, as if an invisible Pavlovian button had just been pushed by some God of the Canines. Like the three of us knew we were the only ones who heard Madonna’s ghost howl, and wasn’t that the weirdest, most magical moment ever? We burst into laughter. We howled, we laughed; we howled, we laughed. At one point, I wondered if it was maybe another one of my unreal moments, but then Pup yelled, “Show some respect!” so I knew it was real. But we kept on laughing and howling anyway. Rolling around on the ground, holding our chowder-filled bellies, tears streaming down our faces, bonding in a way we’d never bonded before and knew we might never do again because that furry blond glue that held us together was gone, gone, gone. It was hysterical, and we knew Madonna wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Poverty Hill, forever.
Elizabeth Ball’s writing has appeared in Riddle Fence, Qwerty, Prism International, and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the Glass Buffalo 2017 Writing Prize, long-listed for the Room Magazine 2019 Fiction Prize and the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and nominated for the 2019 Journey Prize by the Dalhousie Review. “Poverty Hill” is a chapter from her recently completed first novel (supported by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec). She lives in Montreal with her husband, three children, and two lazy cats. When she isn’t chasing after one of the above, she is working on her second novel (supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant).
“Apocrypha of Zarathustra” by Philip Eskenazi
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In the speculative metafiction “Apocrypha of Zarathustra,” Philip Eskenazi’s narrator, a “philosophical dilettante” and admirer of Nietzsche, muses on an idea for a Borgesian story set in the mountains of Argentina. This is Eskenazi’s fiction debut.
Apocrypha of Zarathustra
by Philip Eskenazi
Another short story idea revolves around Borges. It would start with a character like myself, a person with greater-than-average interest in Nietzsche, who perhaps fancies himself an interpreter of Nietzsche but who never moved beyond the stage of philosophical dilettante. I was thinking an opening line in the direction of: There was a time I dabbled in Nietzsche scholarship. He’s a dabbler, this character. And he has some thoughts to share with the reader—for example, maybe he wonders at the incredible fecundity, the wealth and overgrowth of interpretations spawned by Nietzsche’s works, often mutually exclusive, sometimes directly opposing and attacking each other. Marxists, fascists, anarchists, reactionaries, republicans, royalists, artists, preachers, thinkers, feelers: they all want to own a piece of Nietzsche; they all find inspiration in his words. The character thinks that’s curious. He speculates that Nietzsche is perhaps the literary cause with the greatest variety of effects.
The story takes off when the character comes to receive a manuscript, a mysterious volume written by a man called Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka, or Teodardo Serafín Lafinur, or perhaps not Teodardo at all but something else. The main thing is that it will be a name with a certain significance, and evocative of Argentina. This mysterious writer is from Argentina or at least lived in Argentina and wrote the manuscript in Argentina. How the first character—let’s call him the narrator—comes into possession of the manuscript is as yet unclear. It may be that he takes a backpacking trip through South America, like myself. Perhaps the trip takes place in his summer holiday, when it’s winter there, and he catches a cold on the Río Plata, from which he never quite recovers, like myself, and by the time he comes to Bariloche, it has developed into a throat infection. (In my case this culminated in a week of fever in Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where I lived on a diet of fruit juice and pastries and read Borges. Perhaps it will be the same for the narrator, though I doubt he will visit Colombia.) In this scenario, the narrator would feel weakened when he arrives in Bariloche, a picturesque town in the Andes reminiscent of villages such as you find in the Swiss Alps, with wooden châlets whose pointed roofs are covered in snow, and he would stay there for a bit to recover, allowing himself the luxury of a private room. In that room he would find, perhaps in the false-bottomed drawer of a nightstand, the mysterious manuscript by Teodardo Lafinur.
It is clear straightaway that this manuscript has enormous significance. However, no information is available other than what is provided by Lafinur or Dempeus Piwonka in the manuscript itself. I don’t know exactly what the manuscript contains, but it’s handwritten in thick blue ink on faded yellow paper, in tempered lettering, and its title is Apocrypha of Zarathustra. There is a foreword or afterword by the author, in which he seems to imply that he is near-blind, possibly from a tumor behind the eyes, and expects to leave this life soon. It is likely that he used a pseudonym; none of the people the narrator might speak to in Bariloche has any notion of this man or his book.
At this point, I would like to involve the beautiful surroundings. The narrator is in the Río Negro district of Argentina, with the humbling peaks of the Andes around him. The Andes go up to seven thousand meters, much higher than any place in Europe, let alone the Netherlands, where the narrator is from, and the jagged rocks and silver lakes form an inspiring backdrop. Perhaps the narrator takes some trips, goes hiking or even skiing, as many people do in this area. Bariloche is a charming town, and the way the snow lies on the houses with perfect regularity, as though it is another layer of roof, is something the narrator observes with emotion. He’s a delicate man, the narrator. However, Bariloche gets cold in wintertime, and if the narrator has a throat infection, he should probably stay in bed. It could be that he does have that throat infection but goes out into the cold anyway, of course, either out of recklessness or after he recovers from the throat infection. At this stage, I like the recklessness angle better. The narrator is a mental person, a disdainer of the body, as Nietzsche called them (though the German works a lot better here: he called them the Verächtern des Leibes, and if I’m being exact it was Zarathustra, not Nietzsche). He disdains his body and its importance, treating it as though it’s only the bicycle on which his mind gets around. But I’m also thinking that it could be nice if the narrator is bedridden and locked in his room with nothing but the manuscript. I like the combination of a small room, a fever, and a manuscript. (This must have something to do with my own memorable experience, in that small private room in Colombia, of reading Borges with a fever. However, Cartagena has a tropical-fever vibe, and in this story I’m going for the cold-mountain-fever mood, which is different—not green abundance and pouring sweat so much as blue freeze and chattering teeth—though equally delirious.) Following this line of thought, the room is the main setting, as far as the narrator is concerned: a small room in a small hostel, run by the German who ran the hostel at which I stayed in Bariloche—a man who reminded me of Bernd Schuster, with blond, half-long hair, a mustache, and that facial quality I cannot describe in any other way than “Teutonic.” He had the arrogance of the Germans, which in a land filled with the children of Spaniards and Italians only becomes more pronounced, and though he was certainly not friendly, you felt that he was well up to the responsibility of providing shelter. The room has wooden floorboards and a wooden bed with a simple mattress and many blankets made of fleece and wool.
Of course the narrator is telling us the story after it happened, so he is not in Argentina as he speaks, or at least not in Bariloche and certainly not locked inside that private room, and perhaps that will give me the flexibility to work in both the background of natural grandeur and the wooden hostel with the German owner. But the main atmosphere I want to create is that of a small, simple room with an electric heater, where the air is dry and the throat hurts and the mind is full of fever. The throat infection makes it difficult to swallow, so the narrator eats a lot of soup, in particular potato soup brought to him by the German’s wife.
Thus the narrator reads the Apocrypha of Zarathustra, composed by Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka. I’ve been saying he wrote them, but I’m not sure that’s true. The document is handwritten by Teodardo, so in that literal sense he did, but the material is not originally his—or so, at least, he claims. The manuscript is supposed to have that biblical quality Nietzsche also put into his Zarathustra. Teodardo wrote the manuscript but presents it as though he only collected the material. Because it is a collection, just like the Bible and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. It’s a collection of stories, legends, parables, sermons, and so on. The idea is that Zarathustra, after recurring in Europe in the 1880s, did not die in the Swiss Alps at the age of seventy-seven years and forty days, as is commonly believed, but boarded a ship that took him to Buenos Aires. He journeyed across the pampas, on foot or on horseback or even in a horse-drawn carriage—although not that, not the carriage; that doesn’t sound like Zarathustra—until he settled in the mountains around the spot we now call Bariloche. This would have been around 1905. Zarathustra lived there for many years and received many visitors in his cave, and Teodardo collected the stories and speeches in his manuscript.
Here, I don’t really know how to proceed. I should probably go into the legends and speeches themselves, perhaps recount a few of them through the voice of the narrator or even in the words of Teodardo. But what kind of material is in there? This is crucial, of course, because if the manuscript turns out uninteresting, my story will collapse. I was thinking that most of the manuscript could be legends of people who visited Zarathustra in his cave, where he warmed them by his eternal fire, fed them honey-covered manna, and overflowed their cups with ripened wisdom. Some of them traveled far to meet him, attracted by his reputation; others were local caudillos, who often learned a lesson in humility. Zarathustra would be that archetype of the wise man on the mountain, spreading Nietzschean philosophy. But then I’ll have to relate at least one of these legends.
There could be something to do with enmity. For example, a young man travels from afar to confront Zarathustra. Or perhaps he’s very old, even older than Zarathustra; he’s an old man with silver hair and a long silver beard, only his eyebrows are black, a deep, bushy black, and this old man boards a ship to cross the Atlantic. He travels all the way from Europe to the high mountains of Argentina because he has a bone to pick with Zarathustra. They met once before, a long time ago, in the Swiss Alps or on the plains of Central Germany or even in Holland, if we suppose Zarathustra passed through there on his journeys. (I’m also toying with the idea that he’s Hungarian, that they met on the Hungarian plains. In popular consciousness, Hungarians can have that mysterious aura that makes you feel it’s better not to anger them, as they have ways of getting back at you, certainly old Hungarian men with long silver beards and dark flickering eyes.) The man takes his meals alone and talks to no one on the ship. When they dock in Buenos Aires, an early evening in spring, he takes a simple room near the port and goes to sleep. These are the days in which the tango is born, when in seedy dance halls a new mating ritual forms, an exciting new culture, but we skip over that entirely. By dawn the next morning, the old man has left town. He hires a mule or perhaps even walks across the pampas. I would like it if he walked across the pampas, crossed the whole of Argentina on foot, but that might not be feasible—it’s a thousand miles to Bariloche, with many stretches of barren land, and he’s an old man. Perhaps he could do it in six months or a year if he hired a mule to carry his supplies. He would come across beautiful landscapes filled with exotic cactus plants, strange rock formations, and lunar hills, and the skies at night would be unlike anything he’d seen before. The old man pays no mind. No time for beauty—he’s on a mission. He needs to talk to Zarathustra.
Now that I’m thinking about it, the old man won’t know where to find Zarathustra. There should be an element of quest involved. Zarathustra does not advertise his whereabouts. The old man has heard that Zarathustra boarded a ship and went to Buenos Aires; he’s heard Zarathustra hired a horse and rode across the pampas; he’s heard Zarathustra disappeared into the Andes. The man walks in his trail, he comes to the foot of the Andes, and there he halts. He knows Zarathustra is out there somewhere, up in the mountains, but he’s old; he can’t just go roaming through the Andes at random—he’ll exhaust himself before he has any chance of finding Zarathustra. So he remains at the foot of the mountains, waiting, unsure what for. Days go by. Weeks go by. His gray hair grows white. The old man does not know what to do.
When old men sit alone at the feet of mountains without moving, birds begin to circle overhead. The old man curses Zarathustra. The reason he wants to confront him is that he feels tricked, betrayed, deceived. When they met, many years before on the Hungarian plains, Zarathustra stole something from him. It didn’t seem so at the time; at the time he thought Zarathustra had given him something—he thought Zarathustra had given him insight, opened his eyes to the truth about morality, moved him beyond good and evil. Zarathustra showed the man the phantasmal nature of moral beliefs and the contingency of values. The man was young then and thought Zarathustra was giving him freedom, freedom from the old morality and the old religion. Perhaps the man was religious once, perhaps even a monk or on his way to become a monk. What if they met on that Hungarian plain just as the man was on his way to the monastery? No, that’s too obvious. In any case, Zarathustra moved the man beyond good and evil. At the time, this insight gave the man great excitement, and he was supremely grateful to Zarathustra. He felt light, enlightened, floating over the Hungarian plains like a bubble of soap. But as time went by, he realized that the insight posed a problem rather than solving one. It destroyed an answer without supplying an alternative. Not only that; it destroyed any route to alternative answers. There are no facts about values, the man thought, yet my soul needs facts. I cannot live on fantasy values. Zarathustra stole my values away from me, Zarathustra destroyed my power to find purpose in the universe, Zarathustra corrupted me—these thoughts came to possess the man. In short, the man succumbed to nihilism. And now, at the end of his wasted life, when his hair has turned white, he wants to confront the one who destroyed him. But where can he find him?
The bird circling over him has black wings with white spots. The man realizes he can see these details with his old and tired eyes, even though the bird is flying very high. It must be a huge bird. And indeed, as it comes closer in a slowly descending spiral, the man sees that it’s a condor. The old man follows the bird with his eyes as it floats down in a helix. While his gaze is on the sky, a sound comes from below. Among the small rocks on the soil is a hiss, coming from the tongue of a slithering gray snake with a black zigzag pattern on its back. It looks to the old man like an adder, but then he’s not familiar with the snakes of the New World. The snake comes close to him and seems to look up, as if to ask a question or make an offer. The old man does not know what the question is, and then he thinks it’s the temptation of death. The snake has come to tempt him, and it knows that for the old nihilist, death is the only temptation left. The old man weeps. The snake is at his feet, its upper body reared in the shape of a question mark, and the old man nods and offers his throat. With eyes closed, he waits for the sting. He feels a hand on his shoulder, or two hands, rough strong hands, one on each shoulder, and they’re not hands, they’re talons. He’s lifted off the ground, and the dry air glides over his face. The man opens his eyes and is soaring through the sky under the enormous wings of the black condor.
The condor has a collar of white feathers around its neck and a small, bald head, flushing red. On top of its head, leading into its crooked beak, a red comb stands as a fleshy crown. The condor is hideous and beautiful. The old man puts his hands around its legs as the two of them climb higher. Below them, the feet of the Andes become small. Gray rocks that had resembled giants become dwarfs and playthings. The enormous cactus on the ground becomes something out of a doll house, a puppet show, a comedy. They soar higher, deeper into the Andes, where the slopes are coarse and grand. The old man weeps as he flies through the Argentine sky. Beneath him are frozen silver lakes and gritty gray rocks. He smells smoke, and underneath him burns a fire. The condor circles down and deposits him in front of Zarathustra.
Zarathustra is just hanging laundry on a wire outside his cave. “My condor, what did you steal today from the brink of death?”
“It is me, O Zarathustra,” says the old man, “the young man from the plains of Hungary. I traveled great lengths by ship and foot to find Zarathustra and confront him.”
Zarathustra looks at him in wonder. “The plains of Hungary are grafted deep in the memory of my spirit, stomach, and loins. But of this white-haired silver-bearded man, my mind is blank.”
“I am the young man who was destroyed by Zarathustra. And I came to confront you. This time you will remember me!”
“Oh, the day is young; there is time for confrontations yet. Curious I am to know who this peculiar, heavy-browed man might be. However, you are now a guest of Zarathustra, who welcomes his enemies more warmly than his friends. Old man, your face shows the tooth marks of the desert, which gnawed at you with a thousand teeth. A bath in the silver lake will refresh you.”
“O, Zarathustra, sage of sages, don’t you hear? I came to confront you!”
“Take this towel; it’s clean. The cold water washes ten years off you. Follow my snake, and he will guide you there.”
The old man shakes his head. “Yes, Zarathustra,” he mumbles, “but remember this, I am here to confront you.” He leaves the mouth of Zarathustra’s cave, following the hiss of the gray snake with the black zigzag pattern on its back.
Zarathustra walks up the narrow mountain path he has carved for himself and plucks a handful of sage and tarragon. Then he takes a lamb and cuts its throat with his machete. He skins it and spices it well, and when the Hungarian comes back, refreshed and ten years younger, the meat is roasting on a spit.
“What is this smell that coaxes my nose?”
“It is the tender meat of a young lamb, spiced with sage and tarragon, roasting in my fire.”
“It smells amazing. But hear me, Zarathustra, I came to confront you, who ruined my life. However tender and well-spiced, no lamb can appease me.”
“Oh, there is time for that yet, old man. Don’t fear: Zarathustra shuns no conflict. But first you must eat. One cannot go to war on an empty stomach.”
“That is true,” says the old man, and he sits by Zarathustra, tending the spit, staring into the flames. “Do you have wine to drink?”
“Old man,” says Zarathutra, “up here we drink water. The purest, cleanest mineral water, springing straight from the earth. Do not weaken yourself with wine or other poisons. One cannot go to war on wine.”
The old man sulks, for wine has been his refuge all his life. He drinks the clear water straight from the spring. It tastes of iron. “But what about bread? Do you not have bread to eat?”
“Old man,” says Zarathustra, “up here we don’t eat bread. Let the lamb chew grass and turn it into tender meat. Then we turn their tender meat into our living bodies. Each according to duty.”
The old man sighs, for bread has been his sustenance all his life. When the lamb is roasted and ready to eat, Zarathustra carves it into big chunks with his machete. The old man, Zarathustra, the condor, and the snake eat of the tender meat. The old man eats a lot. Then they finish.
“Now,” says Zarathustra, “I have fed you and lent you my towel. It is time for me to ask some questions. What is your name?”
“Never mind my name.”
“I will call you Laszlo,” says Zarathustra. “Up here in the high Andes, names don’t matter anyway.”
“That’s right,” says the old man, and he pulls from his girdle a small switchblade. Zarathustra gives him a mocking look and turns his back to him. The old man stares at Zarathustra’s broad back and strong shoulders and feels, deeper than ever before, his own worthlessness. He throws the knife away and sinks to his knees, covering his eyes with his hands and weeping. Then he feels a burning sting on his face. Surprised, he takes his hands away and sees Zarathustra towering over him. Zarathustra has slapped his cheek. The old man is furious.
“On your feet, Laszlo,” says Zarathustra.
The old man gets up and takes a swing at Zarathustra. He hits him in the gut. Zarathustra does not budge and lands a fist on his ear. The men fight, and as they fight, Zarathustra speaks.
“What is Zarathustra to you? A fisherman and teacher, who dropped into Lake Balaton his honey-covered bait. Verily, it’s long ago I learned my tricks: to move a sweet-water fish to leave its lake, one must sugar the bait and coat it with caramel. Keep your chin up. Come on, old man! Yes, you got hooked on my cheerfulness, and I pulled you skyward. In order to rise, you had to leave behind the warm sweet-water lake. You want to blame Zarathustra for that? Watch those feet. In the lake you are carried by the water, but at Zarathustra’s heights you must carry yourself. Keep moving, old man! Your indignation means nothing to Zarathustra, who lives six thousand feet above blame and praise. I offered you my bait. Will you take the challenge and learn to breathe outside the water? Those who cannot grow may drop dead in the lake.”
Panting, the men now take some distance, and with their fists still up they circle around each other in a slow dance. The old man wants to speak but says nothing. The fight has knocked his grief loose, and now it whirls around inside him, refusing to be verbalized.
“Foolish Laszlo!” Zarathustra shouts. “You spent your years in hate of Zarathustra, believing you hated him because he oppressed you, but you got it all backward. Zarathustra can only oppress you because of your hatred. Love your enemy and you liberate yourself from him.”
The old man falls to his knees and holds out his hands, clasped together in supplication. “Show me! Show me how to love my enemy! Teach me to forgive!”
Zarathustra looks down on him and shakes his head in disbelief. What a funny old man! he thinks. Truly, here’s a manic Magyar if I’ve ever seen one!
Then Zarathustra speaks. He speaks of the skinny preachers, the barefoot men who once walked the earth to preach of gnawing worms and gnashing teeth and sulfur and flaming lakes and furnaces and dragon fire. “So they preached, these skinny preachers, scribes and scribblers, rufflers and rousers, warning the people to prepare all day for the endless night.”
Zarathustra describes how the skinny preachers cooked up a holy doctrine and fed it to the starving people, who swallowed it with hair, skin, and bones. It was a holy doctrine that served the skinny preachers well, giving wings to their will to power, which had gone around barefoot until then and suddenly reached the four corners of the earth. But did they preach the truth?
Feet planted on the hardened soil, Zarathustra laments the skinny preachers’ foolishness, the swollen pride that made them think this was a work for their hands, a sermon for their tongues. He rues their ridiculous thought, their absurd belief, their farcical idea that on the Day of Judgment each soul will have its turn, to be placed, one by one, in the scales of Heaven and Hell. What jury would have time for that? Not a Year of Judgment would suffice.
Zarathustra denounces the peasant arrogance, the self-importance, the terrible conceit and pomposity that spoke through these vainglorious preachers, the snooty, smug, and shameless nerve of their idea. Since the dawn of humankind, a hundred billion bodies have walked the earth, a hundred billion souls have lived their lives and died their deaths. What god would mind the doings and occurrences of a hundred billion little lives? Zarathustra speaks of the lies and knavery in the doctrine of Judgment Day, the sulfuric scent about these sermons, this holy doctrine that made immortals of the skinny preachers but upset the stomach of history.
“Now pay attention,” Zarathustra says, “and hear these next words well, old man. They reveal the secret doctrine of Judgment Day. For this day shall surely come. And give heed: What will be weighed in the gods’ scale that day is not a hundred billion atoms one by one—ridiculous thought, farcical idea—but one humankind in whole. Verily, either all of us will enter the land of caramelized milk and everlasting honey, or none of us will. Either all of us will be cast in the overheating furnace below, or none of us will. As one we will be judged; as one we will rise or fall; as one we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven or burn forever in Hell below. And mind these words, for the day shall surely come. In one scale will be the task of humankind, the burden, the duty, the holy assignment. In the other scale will be the deeds of humankind, the actions and effects, the footprint, the fatherhood and motherhood, the creations of the genus. Will our creations weigh up? Will our legacy fulfill the promise? Will our species have made the world a better place? As a whole, we must be judged. As a whole we must go up or down. As a whole we will assume our fate.”
Zarathustra stops speaking now and pierces the old man with his silent eyes. A minute passes. He warns him to chew on these words, if his mind has teeth left yet. He warns him to chew and rechew on this lesson, to let it pass through the seven stomachs of his mind until the last nutritious mineral is drawn out. “Thus,” speaks Zarathustra, “will you learn to love your enemy.”
In the narrator’s story, this is where Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka ends his report. We don’t find out what happens to the old man—whether he understands the lesson, forgives his old enemy, learns to love him—and we shouldn’t care. The point, after all, is the speech of Zarathustra. Teodardo is right about that, the narrator thinks.
Still, he’s unsure what to make of the story. He finds this alternative view on the final judgment curious enough, and he can see how it might lead to a very different set of values, or even a wholly different culture, than the single-soul approach of Christianity, where the feelings for one’s enemy are sweetened by the prospect of watching them burn forever. But he wonders if Teodardo’s source really could have been Zarathustra. He questions whether Zarathustra fled to Argentina at all, and he doubts that Zarathustra would ever believe in a religious concept like Judgment Day.
Some scholars argue that Zarathustra’s ideas should be taken as thought experiments rather than metaphysical doctrines. Under an extreme version of this view, the speeches are merely psychological tools, instruments designed to bring about a mental change. Even more than Jesus’ parables, which, if they are not meant to be literally true, still seem to refer metaphorically to truth, Zarathustra’s speeches are purely performative. As long as it brings about the desired effects in the listener, the idea that humankind will be judged as one could perfectly well be espoused by Zarathustra, such scholars might argue, the narrator thinks. I guess that could work.
But then there’s the ending. I’m not sure how it should end. Anything like the narrator publishing the manuscript he discovered and finding fame and fortune as a Nietzsche scholar seems cheesy. Perhaps he hides Teodardo’s manuscript from the world and tries to pass off the insights it contains as his own, writing a series of papers on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that come to distinguish him as a highly original thinker. That seems better. But I don’t really want to go beyond the little room with wooden floors in the Bariloche hostel. The story should end there. Perhaps, then, the narrator forms this plan and spends the night fantasizing about it until he succumbs to his fever, the German owner’s wife finding him dead in the little room the next morning. However, unless he told the story from the afterlife, which I definitely don’t want him to, that would make it impossible for him to be the narrator. The only solution would be to tell the story in third person instead.
Oh, I wish Borges had come up with this. It could be a good story if I knew how to write it.
Philip Eskenazi is a writer of fiction. He holds a PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam, where he teaches philosophy of science. In addition, he teaches executives about decision-making, drawing on his vast personal experience of bad decisions. He lives in Delft, the Netherlands, and is working on his first novel. This is is first published fiction.
“The Witches of Detroit” by Maureen Aitken
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her story “The Witches of Detroit” Maureen Aitken examines family tragedy and its aftermath from the perspective of two middle-school girls who form an unexpected bond.
The Witches of Detroit
by Maureen Aitken
When my mother ran out of excuses to keep me home from school—a cold, pneumonia, the flu—the principal told her I had to return or repeat the sixth grade. By then, two weeks of mourning had turned to three. By then, fall had slipped away, and the year’s first snowfall had grayed in the streets and formed an ice shell over the lawns.
“Fine,” my mother told the principal. “But if my daughter dies of respiratory failure, I’ll blame you.”
That first morning at school, when the bell rang for classes, the tan-tiled halls closed in so small, and the floor tilted so slightly. People I knew, Janice and Matt, talked to other people with dampened voices, as if their fists were cupped together around their mouths.
I sat in the same wood chair as before, saw Mr. Armstrong with his pocket protector, then walked the same Santa Maria Street toward home. One family didn’t shovel their sidewalks, so the snow turned to ice. I slipped, landing on my leg, then my hand, until all of me fell.
Above me, these huge tree limbs arced, bare, with fine younger limbs hanging in clusters. I’d never noticed how the branches reached above the sidewalk and over the street. A cardinal on a far limb flew away. The cold on my back, the sky above, and something about the utter collapse relaxed me. Someone walked around me.
The ice numbed the back of my head. I took a deep breath in, sensing where the cold met my lungs, where the chill seized my throat. When the beep of hospital monitors erupted in my brain, it froze instantly, hung there, arrested. My mother crying, my father’s face, my sadness. The memories barely whispered before they iced in mid-movement, filling me with such space, such release. I couldn’t think.
More people passed. Someone asked, “Walk much?” A boy chuckled at a high pitch, like a creaky seesaw. The numbness came as a relief. Mother Nature would ease my pain. I was about to close my eyes. More than that. Since he’d left, I saw this hole ripped in the day. Maybe it had been there all along. It could take anything. People. Cars. Mom. Me. It scared me, to feel what was there one day, gone the next. But lying on the ground, for the first time, I thought, I give up being scared of you.
Then from above, hair and a face started to arc over my sky like a moon. It took me a second to realize it was Lauren, a girl in the grade above me, who said, “I heard your dad died.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She nodded. “I lost mine, too.”
Lauren reached her hand out. I hesitated. Lauren was a year ahead of me, but she seemed twenty years older. She stood tall with big boobs and a little pudge, and she passed the halls without talking to anyone in particular, so people thought she was either cool or crazy. The school was a mix of races, with a few Filipino and Latina students. But Lauren? They couldn’t figure her out. When someone asked, she’d tell them to fuck off. People steered clear of her, and the way she leaned over me, she could have thought like a kid, and easily spit on me. But she didn’t. So I grabbed on.
We walked past the alley, the house with the red fence and the dog that long ago pushed his head through a screen, which flapped in the wind as we passed. The dog inside stared at us like we were steak on stilts, his nostrils smearing the window, his barks muffled by the glass.
People waved to Lauren as she talked about biology class and how we learned everything from the wolves. When they were sick, they went alone to die, she said, because they didn’t want to infect anyone or slow the pack down.
The rip in the sky, still there, felt less scary. “I like the writing classes, and literature. I just read A Catcher in the Rye.”
“Well, I’ve read stuff too,” Lauren said.
“Horror,” Lauren said. “I’m a big fan of guts.”
A paper turkey hung from a window of Jill Robinson’s old house. Jill and her family had moved away, like so many, in the summer, when few noticed. It was the time of Jimmy Carter, white flight, and stagnation, at least here. Every summer people moved away, with their absence not felt until fall. Jill Robinson’s old house now had another family there. The people next door had moved to California.
“Maybe you hit your head,” Lauren said. “I heard if you fall asleep, you might die.”
The street I’d known my entire life stretched out before us, the brick houses, slumping from neglect, some windows covered with sheets, the early Christmas lights, the Thanksgiving paper turkeys of brown, yellow, and orange.
At my house, with the missing bricks, we stood. I want to say I was sorry for her loss. Lauren had just started at the school, so I hadn’t known she’d lost her father.
But Lauren interrupted me. “If you trip again, don’t stay down.”
“It felt good,” I said. Mr. Johnson drove by with his shepherd running behind the car, in his version of walking his dog.
Lauren folded her arms and shook her head. “You have to be strong. Otherwise, life’ll crush you.”
Mr. Johnson turned left. “It already has.”
Lauren’s breath plumed out in fogs into the cold and then gone. “Cool.” She turned and walked toward home without a goodbye and without looking back.
On Friday, I was walking with my friend Janice when Lauren stopped me in the hall and passed me a book. “Okay, read this. You’ll see.”
After Lauren walked away, Janice said, “She’s so cool.”
The book was Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders. At home, I made Mom a chicken sandwich and did my homework at the dining room table so she wouldn’t feel alone. For two hours, she sat on that couch under the living room window, gazing into some unknown land. It was her version of being in the cold, so I got it. I made her coffee. When I brought it to her and she took a sip, she choked.
“Well, that should wake me up,” she said. She took another sip. I watched her from the dining room table, and when my homework was done, I snuggled up next to her and thought of Lauren and her guts obsession and fell asleep.
I finished Helter Skelter by Sunday morning. I wanted to know if Lauren read books like this because of her father. Maybe he’d died in some brutal way. Or was it a way of fighting off the pain? Mom hadn’t gone to church since the funeral. I thought to walk the book over to Lauren’s house, even though I wasn’t completely sure where she lived.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Where’re you going?” Mom asked. She reached her hand out to me.
“Just down the street to return this book,” I said. “I don’t have to go.”
“You go,” she said. “I’ll make lunch. We’ll eat in an hour.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
Four blocks over, past the barking Rottweilers, an abandoned house, and the one of stone and brick with the oboe player inside—I searched out the block where I’d seen Lauren raking leaves. The cold breeze and the snow felt crisp. A passing car with two parents and two kids in back made my heart hurt. I had to stop. I saw, then, a small rock above the snow, as if it were trying to run away. I put it in my pocket and walked slowly, searching for signs.
I heard yelling at one house and then the word “Lauren.” I stood in front of the house, trying to tell if the yelling had laughter in it or anger. Someone moved upstairs, and I thought to keep walking when Lauren opened the front door and said, “You finish it?”
She waved for me to come in, even though a woman’s yelling had grown stronger.
Lauren walked straight upstairs, and I followed. In the hallway was a picture of Mrs. Delaney, Lauren as a baby, and, apparently, Mr. Delaney. Mrs. Delaney was black. Mr. Delaney was white. But the weird thing was their faces. They didn’t match. Mrs. Delaney had saucer eyes, like Gladys Knight. Kind eyes. Mr. Delaney’s whole face was pinched, with little eyes and a mouth without lips, like a rat.
The yelling got louder. A slam of the phone.
“Is everything, like, okay?”
“Oh, that’s my Aunt Gloria with my mom.”
We were upstairs and in her room before she said, “Aunt Gloria’s a lawyer. She represents my mom.”
“For what?” I said. “Never mind. That was dumb.”
“Ask all you want,” Lauren said and sat down in the window box. “My stupid father cheated on my mom. Now they’re divorcing or trying to. Aunt Gloria said Mom will take him for everything.”
I froze. “What? I thought your father was dead.”
Lauren sprayed some Love’s Baby Soft on and sniffed her wrist. “Dead to me.”
She straightened her back. “Aunt Gloria found out the truth. He had an affair with someone five years older than me. Got her pregnant, too. That’s grounds.”
My brain tried to fix Lauren’s story, got stuck.
“He’s dead to me, too, and I haven’t even met him.”
I thought changing the conversation might help, so I said Helter Skelter was so scary, especially the parts about how crazy Charlie Manson controlled women.
“Yeah, and then they tried to take the baby out of Tate’s body.”
I put my hands over my ears. “Stop. Gross.”
Lauren nodded. “I told you I like guts. How sick or high do you have to be to do that? I’m supposed to be a doctor. So I should know. There goes Aunt Gloria.”
A woman in a blue dress walked out to her car. A quiet came over the house, and soon a gentle knock at the door.
“Lauren? Aunt Gloria said goodbye.”
Lauren’s mom opened the door slowly and then snuck into the room. She was tall, elegant, and thin in her crocheted short dress of bright colors, her hair pulled back in a bun.
“Mom this is Mary,” Lauren said. “Her dad just died.”
Mrs. Delaney sat up. “Oh, I am so sorry, Sweetie. I am so, so sorry.”
I had to think fast not to burst out into tears. “Lauren was just saying she’s going to be a doctor.”
Mrs. Delaney smiled. “Yes, like her grandfather. What in God’s name are you reading?”
“Reading about the Tate murders,” Lauren said. “It has anatomy in it.”
Mrs. Delaney shook her head slowly, turned, and walked out without saying a word. Lauren smiled. “What’s—” I started to say but Lauren put her finger to her lips. She leaned forward, waiting for something.
Mrs. Delaney came back with five dollars. “Go buy some smart books. And I want to see what you buy. No horror or astrology, you hear me?”
We both said, “Yes. Ma’am” together. She restrained a smile and went to make more phone calls. Lauren and I walked to my house. When I unlocked the door, Mom was happy to see me, but then her face fell a little to see Lauren. I knew that face, the one where it was just us, and now others would arrive back into our lives.
“Mom, this is Lauren, from school.”
“Oh, hello,” she said, brightening again. We split my sandwich and convinced my mom to drive us up to the Library Bookstore, with used, cheaper books we could afford. A droop in her face, one of such sadness, came over her. “I guess it’s time to move on, right?”
It didn’t dawn on me that this was the first time she’d left the house in three weeks. She moved as though ghosts surrounded her. Lauren sensed this, I think, because when Mom stopped to let us out, Lauren said, “We all need to find something good.”
The small bookstore had a cooking section, and my mom stayed there, looking at the jackets with faint interest. I went over to the literature section and found a cheap Pride and Prejudice. I’d heard of it but didn’t understand the fuss over the first pages.
“What’s some dead British woman going to show us?” Lauren said.
We found two books that Lauren’s mother would like: me The Grapes of Wrath and Lauren found The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
We wandered around until we found a display table called “Witches and Warlocks,” with two shelves underneath. “The Book of Spells,” Lauren read. “Sweet.” We studied the back jackets as if they mattered.
We found Witchcraft. We did the math and bought three more books, but we were still twenty cents short.
“I’ll give it to you,” the owner said. “Good to see girls reading something valuable.”
“Yeah, I hear Steinbeck is great.”
The bookstore owner was framed by First Editions, the valuable stuff, on display at the center, and stacks running two feet over her head.
“No, dear. The witchcraft books. Changed. My. Life. But don’t tell people.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was some kind of new dumbass.
“People fear witches. Besides, we just find each other.”
“Cool,” I said.
Mom came back from the cookbook section with one slim book on soups and studied our selections. “This is a bizarre fixation.” She pointed to our books. As we walked out into the cold air she said, “You girls happy?”
“Yes,” we said in unison. “Thank you.” She didn’t talk about the books again. We walked over to the cake shop, and Mom bought four items to go, chocolate cupcakes for us, a dark chocolate one for Mom, and a carrot-cake muffin. It was Dad’s favorite. I held my breath when I saw it.
In the middle of the bakery, she looked down at her selections and froze, knew just then that there was no husband at home waiting for this. Not only did she have to see her home again without him; she would have to see his absence anew at every errand and event until, years later, he would be rooted out of her life.
My mother nodded. “Yes, we’ll do that.”
Lauren and I ate the cupcakes in the back seat, stamping the pages of our books with icing fingerprints, our teeth stained with clumps of chocolate.
The next day Lauren rifled through the book of spells and found four incantations. I wanted to talk to my dead father, and Lauren wanted her father to move away; Lauren wanted a protection spell for her mother; then I wanted one for my mother. We wrote them down on the back of a receipt.
“But first we need to start with a test spell, something small,” Lauren said.
We sat facing the windows and said, “Great Mother, we offer these spells, in your honor.”
We read the spells several times, with the list of all four wishes and the dollar test.
“Now let’s burn the list,” Lauren said. She went to grab it.
“No way. We’re experimenting. We need to test the outcomes.”
We didn’t wait. My mom found us lifting up the couch cushions, pulling out lint balls, a tie, and change. She gave us a bag. “Put the lint in here.”
We found $1.23 in change in the couch and stared at each other, wide-eyed. “It works,” Lauren said.
Christmas was in a week. For Christmas we bought each other rabbits’ feet, mine in blue and Lauren picked green.
Christmas arrived. Mom and I had gone to buy a tree, but that had been Dad’s job, so we bought one too late, and too small. We had four gifts, which we’d wrapped together, so the surprise was gone. Some aunts and a few cousins would come over today at three. But I made a fire and we sat there, Mom and me, in the early morning, listening to the fire crackle, watching the wood burn hard and full.
“Thank you,” I said. “For the gifts.”
Mom nudged me. “This is just one of those holidays we get through.”
I hugged her tight then, as if she might fall through the floor. I felt something on my cheek. It was a tear that had dropped from her face. Then we both cried, for a long time, just like that.
Lauren and I talked on the phone that day, and I told her I’d like us to create a potion or a spell that could take away so much death, that could pull out the grief.
She stopped by, and we walked to a nearby park, swiped the snow off the swing seats, revealing the wood with chipped green paint, with names and words scored with knives. We sat down, and she understood my sadness.
Lauren said we would remember these days when we were in high school together.
“These are the days where everything starts.”
“My dad’s dying wish was that I would go to this dumb school, out in the burbs.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Let’s make a spell for it.”
I pushed back a little on the seat, and then forward. “A spell to be friends forever.”
She said, without even asking, “Eternal Mother, we vow to be friends forever, to right the wrongs. Send us the signs we need to know.”
Curtains moved at the house next to the park. It must have been Crazy Ethel, watching us.
“We don’t want signs,” I said. “Take that back.”
“Signs are dangerous. Great Mother, heal my mother of her grief. We vow to be friends forever, but forget what Lauren just said about signs.”
“You can’t take back a spell,” Lauren said.
“I just did.”
“It’s in all the books.”
“Still did it,” I said.
I thought of Lauren’s spell two days later, as Mom and I watched the news in the den. A picture of Jill Robinson’s face came up, the girl from grade school who’d moved away. The picture was the one taken at our school. We had a black-and-white television, so it was all hard to see.
“Mom,” I said. “I knew her.”
“Yeah, she moved last summer.”
The reporter said Jill had been shot in the face. Her body had been dumped on the side of the freeway.
The reporter stood on the side of I-75, the part in the good, rich suburb, and said, “They dumped her body here.”
“That’s horrible,” Mom said.
I saw a spot in the snow. It was gray. I couldn’t imagine Jill going with any guy. She was too shy. She’d have run. Did the man cast a spell on her? It wasn’t fair. She was the nicest person I knew.
I leaned in, trying to make out the stain.
“That’s awful,” Mom said. “But they’ll find who did it.”
“Is that blood?” I asked. Mom leaned forward, too.
“No, that’s just dirt. It’s the freeway.”
“Whoever did this moved her,” she said. “We’ll pray for Jill. Jill Robinson.”
“I’ll pray that whoever killed her rots in hell,” I said. I had done, I thought then, all the wrong spells. I’d cast a spell for a dollar when I should have cast one to protect Jill’s life.
Mom turned to me, as if shaken from a trance. “You and Lauren need to be more careful.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “We have special powers.”
“Yes,” I said.
Mom stared at the television, even the corny car ads. I wanted to grab her hand, go get ice cream. She was in a daze, but I couldn’t let her go, not to my father, and not to the rip in the sky that made us all so vulnerable, that could swallow us whole.
“Maybe all the energies of this world protect you,” I said. I held her hand.
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the television. I didn’t blame her. I, too, longed for the numbness, for the cold, for grief to freeze midair. But if we went, all that would be left were the child killers, the doctors who didn’t cure cancer, the husbands who cheated on their wives. The Charles Mansons of the world would take over.
I went into the kitchen and took my father’s carrot-cake muffin, cut it in half, and brought it back to the couch. I picked up my half, “Here’s to the ones who protect us from the other side. Who show us the way to happier days.”
“Amen to that,” she said, and picked up her half. She bit into the cream-cheese frosting, the orange carrot center. It tasted so good, as if these bites conjured autumn in the rain, sweet roots fresh from the soil, as if right then the seasons promised to encircle us with wonder after wonder, in the days of our lament.
Maureen Aitken’s short-story collection, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls, won the Nilsen Prize, the Foreword Review INDIE Prize (Top Prize for General Fiction), and was listed as one of the Kirkus Best Indie Books of the Year. The collection also received a Kirkus Star and a Foreword Star. Her stories have been widely published and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Detroit and teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.
“The High Castle” by John Gu
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. John Gu’s “The High Castle” is a marvelously imagined fable about the identities and secrets–the ones we fabricate for ourselves, and the ones we reveal to others.
The High Castle
By John Gu
The one thing that might save us is a new heresy that could topple all of the ideologies, all of the political parties, all of the nations of our wretched, barbaric world.
—Milan Barajano, in an interview conducted during the filming of In the Shadows of our Ancestors
On the hill above the city sat the ruins of an ancient castle, and I would occasionally bring girls there on walks with me in the evenings. The castle had fallen or else had simply been abandoned centuries ago, and it existed now only as a scatter of evocative remnants: a crumbling wall of primitive masonry along the site’s southern flank, a raised bed of flattish stones which had once sat underneath the keep, and, most castle-like, the hobbled remains of a cylindrical tower whose disassembly had been abandoned only partway through.
The hill was fairly tall, but its summit was easily accessible, less than an hour’s walk from the city’s central piazza. A series of outdoor steps followed the hill’s rise, and these sections were not particularly strenuous, so that the castle site was heavily trafficked in the summertime, both by tourists and by local visitors. The stream of this traffic began to flow shortly after dawn, ebbed in the heat of early afternoon (the place was often empty at the siesta hour), and then swelled in the evening as the air grew cooler. In the run-up to sunset, the atmosphere was festive: people uncorked bottles of wine and passed around paper cups (a kiosk that sold beer and laid out the rudiments of a beer garden in the form of a handful of plastic chairs and tables also did brisk business here); families posed for photographs; a portable radio or cassette stereo might be brought out; and the sound of music drifted above the hubbub.
The castle site sat on a small promontory which jutted toward the city, and from this high up, the view it afforded of the city and its environs was impressive: one’s eye would first be drawn to the buildings of the historical part of the city, which centered around the central piazza and the ivory cube of the mayor’s building that rose out of it. The apartment buildings that framed the square were painted in pale, pleasant pastels: carnation pinks, canary yellows, dawn-bright blues, their slanted tile roofs a deeply kilned ochre or a charcoal-dark grey. About the piazza, grim, granite churches weighted down the scene like stones at the corners of a picnic blanket. The roofs of some of the other finer buildings that surrounded the piazza, the overturned half-barrel that surmounted the opera house, the ribbed dome of a basilica, were colored a sumptuous verdigris, and out of this pleasing arrangement of intersecting planes of color there rose various spires, chimney shafts, bell towers, and cupolae.
The apartment buildings that spread out from the square were painted a conservative beige that shone gold in the late afternoon, reddened in the evening as the sun set, purpled with the twilight, resolving finally into a powdery gray slate as night fell. Dark trees interleaved themselves among these buildings; a huddle of these trees indicated a municipal park; and as the city stretched outward these trees grew denser and the buildings thinned. Beyond the city, the druidic woods, which extended toward the horizon as a field of black and variously shaded dark green, out of which the newer housing developments, brutalist apartment blocks, lumbered like castaway giants. These woods, their far reaches, made me think of the films of Barajano: those long, still shots of rain falling in primeval woods. They existed, these woods, it seemed, only in this part of the world, and the sight of them brought to mind arboreal rites, the interstices of forest cover lit by pagan fires.
One made the ascent to the castle through a wooded park of larger and smaller trails that crisscrossed the hill—large sections of which had been terraced to accommodate the multiplicity of gravel paths—and then united at the summit. On the descent, it was not difficult, abetted by the advancing crepuscule, to find a secluded spot to kiss without the possibility of being discovered, and I was very pleased with myself at that time that I had been able to devise out of the raw elements of this city an effective romantic program whose final leg led from an alcove formed by the trees of that darkening hill to my room at the boardinghouse on B___nyv street.
My landlady was a stout, diamond-haired woman in her sixties, and her home was the only free-standing house at the end of a row of apartments on this street, which led to the city center. The house was well-appointed, bore a lifetime’s accumulation of furniture, maintained spotlessly, with enough rooms to accommodate a clique of permanent boarders as well as a rotating cast of tourists in the summer.
On my first visit to her place (this was during the waning days of the summer tourist season, and I’d found relief from the heat of the street in the cool, dark hallways of her house), Vira had showed me the rooms with the practiced, confident air of a seasoned hostess, moving and speaking like the docent of an undervisited rural museum, the script of her tour excitedly given, as though it was the highlight of her day. I nodded along with the best impression of comprehension I could muster as she enumerated the various merits of the house: central heating, hot water available at all hours, a spacious backyard garden, etc., etc., without, it seemed, any awareness that I might have some difficulty in parsing her quick, colloquial Varrenian.
There was really only one major issue that I was especially concerned about, but the subject took some delicacy to broach, and as we advanced up and down a series of pine-floored hallways and she showed me the living room (a little dark and cramped, cluttered with glass knickknacks) or laid out the terms of the board (breakfast and dinner included in the rent, a little bit extra if I wanted to take lunch at the house), I wracked my brain with how to approach the question, the difficulty lying in being forced to think across two axes: what to say, and then how to translate it.
“Yes,” she looked at me solicitously, stopping midsentence to do so, catching through the preparatory shift in my body language that I was about to ask her something.
“Would it be possible,” I stumbled a bit in forming the Varrenian subjunctive, unpracticed in the language, “to invite friends over?”
“But of course!,” she replied. “This house is your home in our country. And your friends can stay overnight if they need to. Now, the trams stop running at midnight, but we have two lines that run out here, one on the corner of K___ian street, and the other at . . .”
When she gave me this reply, it was as though I had been trying to disentangle a very complicated and deeply woven knot, and Vira had swooped in to slice the thing clean through, as unperturbed by it as any other question about what kind of food was to be expected at breakfast or the status of spare keys, smoothing over any trace of discomfort by gliding effortlessly into a discussion of the tram schedule. Later on, I would come to understand that her grandmotherly looks belied a view of and experience with sexuality that was more modern than anyone would have thought. But then, the fact that she so quickly understood that a young man might want to bring a girl over to his place of an evening rendered me almost blushingly speechless.
The room she showed me was small but neat and contained three pieces of furniture: a modestly sized bed, a wooden writing desk laden with drawers, and a large wooden wardrobe, stuffed in its lower compartments with heavy blankets. In compensation for its modesty and size, the room had the luxury of a window overlooking the backyard, and in looking out over the summery patch of greenery that extended from the house as she showed me the room, I adopted a stance I would repeat many times over the course of my stay there.
When Vira showed me the lock on the room’s door, she took great pains to assure me that it was only for the sake of privacy and that I should not feel obliged to use it (the lock), or to take its existence as evidence that I should harbor any feeling of suspicion regarding the other boarders. She emphasized that “we only have good people here.” I should feel secure in my possessions and could feel free to leave my room unlocked if I wished! Only (she explained), yes, some of her boarders, perhaps coming from places where there was more crime, where people could not be as trusted or trusting, felt the need to have a lock, and, while she herself did not ever feel it necessary to lock a room in her own house, who was she to judge?
This talk of “good people” was, I would come to decide, characteristic of her, and later I garnered from my experiences with her speech a collection of parallel phrases that would go some way in forming my view of her: “the good politicians,” “the good foreigners,” to which phrase she quickly added “like you!” leaving me both flattered and bemused, and finally, a phrase that would be relevant to me: “good girls,” which occurred in sentences such as “You have such good taste, you only date good girls.”
During the time that I lived in her house, I also thought in a very binary way with regard to people, but my binary was divided by the question of conventionality. It was this question that cleaved the world in the most consequential way for me, and it was whether or not a person was “conventional” that determined my friendships and romantic relationships and that also guided my choices and decisions. In the case of Vira, that she had no qualms about my bringing girls over to my room should have been ample evidence to place her in the unconventional group, but her talk of “good people” and so on drove her so deeply into the camp of the conventional that at that time I couldn’t help but see her only in this way. This prejudice was not diminished by the other ways in which she seemed to express an irredeemable conventionality: I winced whenever she sing-songed the propaganda from state television: “Thank goodness for the monarchy, or we would end up just like the Moiraivians!” (This was during the bloody first year of the Moiraiviain civil war, and the state news showed corpses in the streets of besieged cities, guerrillas in balaclavas denouncing the ceasefires that their own representatives had negotiated and pledging to carry on the fight, artillery pieces lugged into the hills.) Against the anti-monarchical protestors who occasionally demonstrated in the capital, she leveled the denunciation taught to her by state media: “irresponsible agitators.”
Of course, in this instance, I made the conventional choice, which was to take the room, and this hypocrisy was also characteristic of me at that time. After doing so, I would learn that the terms of the room and board at Vira’s boardinghouse were even more generous than she had initially described, that in addition to three home-cooked meals a day, housekeeping was also included in the pitifully small sum that I paid her each week, and Vira would enter my room at, it seemed, purely random intervals to change the sheets, sweep the floor, and right the charming (to my mind) disarray that I let the room fall into. The sheafs of paper and stacks of notebooks that I had scattered, she would set into neat stacks in the repulsive approximation of a government clerk’s desk. The spill of books that I let linger on the floor by my bed she stacked in order of size on my writing desk, and the easily reached prophylactics I’d lazily hidden underneath these books, I would later find, to my horror, tucked discreetly in the desk’s upper drawer.
I’d come to the city on an academic post, teaching Amarguese language at the Varrennian National Cultural University, the largest and, I believed, most prestigious institution outside of the capital. A two-year contract seemed a slice of eternity, and I felt a kind of anticipatory dismay that I would be thirty at the time my contract expired.
I’d imagined naively that I had finagled my way into the position on the thinnest set of credentials, had crowed to my friends about my feat when I received my offer letter, and had gone so far as to daydream about recounting the story years later, when, I imagined, I would portray myself as a sort of picaresque hero: Once in my late twenties, I tricked one of the national universities of a foreign country into giving me a paid post as a professor. . . not realizing that the university of an impoverished Eastern country might be desperate for any warm body to round out the vampiric ranks of its aging professoriat and would hire more or less anyone foolish enough to accept a salary paid in the form of icy dorm rooms and meal vouchers. It was the squalidness of the faculty dormitory, with its rust-streaked communal bathrooms that had driven me to seek out Vira’s boardinghouse.
I was vague to Vira about what I did at the university (to my credit, the university was also vague about what it was that I was doing there), and through this vagueness, I may have inadvertently caused her to expand her estimation of me, so that, for example, at a first dinner ,whenever a new boarder arrived, she would introduce me as “our resident scholar,” explaining that I was “doing important linguistic research at the university,” leaving me to beam like a cow-licked grandson. I was nominally attached to and sponsored by the university’s philology department, but the administration was evasive about what my research program should consist in, and, suspecting that trying to pin this question down would lead to awkward conversations for both parties involved, I left the matter unpursued. The other professors guarded their classes jealously—I understood why later—and I was relegated to teaching a single section of Amarguese conversation, which met twice a week and in which I had to do little more than prod my students along with a few prompts to shepherd us through the hour.
What I had, then, was a vast hoard of free time, which seemed an obscene luxury in Vira’s house. On those days when I had no classes to teach, no business at the university, when Vira bade me goodbye as I set out from the house after breakfast, I felt a little like those tragic husbands who, after being sacked, still put on a suit every day (“Have a good day at work today!”), still march out with a briefcase (“Don’t forget to take your lunch!”), to put on the appearance that they are employed because they are too ashamed to inform their families that they no longer have any gainful dealings with the world.
In spite of the fact that Vira’s hours were constantly occupied, or, perhaps, because of this, she seemed to be possessed of a constant, beatific serenity and moved about the house—her house—with a tireless, humming energy. Her hours were devoted largely to the kitchen, waking at some indeterminate hour while I and the other boarders still existed in a state of sleepful oblivion to fire the stove and prepare pancakes, oat porridge, and coffee and staying there through noon to begin preparations for lunch and dinner, her only excursions from this post made to sweep the hallways or do the laundry, her only rest a lonely postprandial siesta in the afternoons, which would give her the energy to mount to the kitchen in preparation to cook our dinner.
This serenity was married to a solicitousness that combined the professional hypercourtesy of a maître d’ with the almost suffocating concern of a grandmother. If I so much as hesitated when she asked me, “Are you hungry?” I was sure to find, moments later, on the majestic oak dining table, a heavy plate laden with cold cuts, dense, dark breads, sliced peppers, and tomatoes tossed with onions and vinaigrette into a quick salad.
“How was work today?” / “How were the students today?” she would ask me when I returned to the house in the afternoon or evening. And because these were conventional questions, I could give only conventional answers.
“Oh, quite good,” I would say, instead of correcting her misprision by admitting that I hadn’t taught a single section that day, or had had any dealings at the university, that while she had toiled her entire day, I had spent mine as freely as a rentier or a vagrant.
Vira’s solicitousness extended to my relationships with women. Out of a grandmotherly instinct toward the possibility of procreation or a maîtresse d’s habitual discretion, she did nothing that would endanger my relations with the girls I brought home. She never mentioned to any of these girls that they were not the first I had brought over, going so far as to tell one of them once, “I’m glad he found you; he seemed so lonely.” If I brought a girl over whom I’d snuck in overnight, I was liable to find her laughing over coffee in the garden with Vira in the morning, charmed by this matronly force.
Hard to know what to read in her expression when Vira smiled at meds. She was the soul of discretion, although I detected in the looks she gave me a wryness that was both indulgence and chastisement, encouragement and a finger-wagging disapproval.
Although she was my landlady, I seemed to always come upon her in a physical arrangement that shifted our relationship, that put her in a servile role: stepping past her as she mopped the hallway that led to my room or seeking her out in the kitchen where she was rolling out dumplings and a slight hesitation in my body language prompted her to ask me, “Yes! Tell me what you need.”
Later on, when I tried to correct the dilettantism that I had so well cultivated in my youth and I began lingering in the sections of bookstores devoted to books about correcting the mistakes one has made in life (so many!), I would find repeated the assertion that action and behavior drives personality—that by acting a certain way a sufficient number of times, a person adopts the patterns of thought, the ways of thinking, that correspond to that pattern of action. In a similar way, because I was always running into her at a moment when she was doing something servile for me—because the physical form of our relationship repeatedly took on that form—our relationship bent in that direction, as slowly, but surely as a heavy-headed flower directing itself toward the sun. And this may have compelled her, whatever her personal feelings or compunctions, to aid me in a sort of womanizing that most women of her age and generation would naturally have disapproved of.
Partly out of a desire to understand her better and partly out of simple boredom, I studied the photographs in her living room. A stern-faced, square-jawed man with a sweep of thinning hair could be none other than her late husband, Yanosek, whom she would occasionally invoke in an affectionate diminutive: “If only my Yashik could see this . . .” In another, a buxom, curvaceous blonde in an evening dress, stunningly beautiful, and as voluptuous as a fertility goddess. The smile in the photograph was the same serene beam that emanated from my landlady’s countenance as she wished me a good day at work every morning.
Summer evenings we would dine at a long wooden table set in Vira’s backyard, where she cultivated peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, their leaves punctured by insects. At the house’s maximum capacity, these dinners comprised nine, ten guests, and at these times, a serving woman came in to assist with the cooking.
Although otherwise temperate, Vira would occasionally indulge in a tumbler of the moonshine that was brought in by guests or her family. The source of this moonshine was always “the village,” suggesting that beyond the Vira’s generation, there was a further rank of forebears who worked the lands, fermented potatoes and wheat, distilled their mashes in primitive stills, into which were thrown fennel, nettles, willow bark, resulting in a drink that was both tonic and inebriant. Then, she would speak with a freeness that momentarily leveled the walls that separated her from us as our landlady.
One evening in a discussion of the film director Barajano, I heard an exclamation in a remarkably Vira-like voice, “I met him! He kissed me!” Surely too loud to have been our Vira, until I looked over—she was sitting a knight’s move away from me, on the opposite side of the table, and a pair of seats over—and saw her eyes glistening with dreaminess and drink.
This evening we were hosting, inter alia, a young married couple, about my age, who were spending a few days in town as part of their summer holidays before they continued on their tour west to the mountains, and I was eating quickly in preparation for a date, tucking into a plate of roast chicken and peppers stuffed with spiced bulgur, waiting for the potato dumplings to come round.
The couple had taken an interest in me after Vira had introduced me as “our resident scholar” and peppered me with questions that I answered hastily between bites, conscious that I had to be at the central piazza in less than an hour. By this time, my competence with the language had improved, and I could, between answers, toss off the occasional “Would you kindly pass the dumplings?” or “If I might take another piece of chicken here,” as I hungrily devoured my meal.
“What was the source of your academic interest in our country?” the husband asked me as I reached for a tureen of gravy, and I replied that I’d always admired the films of Barajano, that the country portrayed in his films always seemed so lovely, so romantic, and this had been the seed of my desire to see the country. Even this evening had a cinematic quality that reminded me of a scene in Towards the End of a Life, where the family ate dinner together outdoors on a similar summer evening.
“Yes, he’s a national treasure,” said the wife.
“Absolutely,” I said absentmindedly as I squinted to the far end of the table to see if, yes, the little jar there contained the pickled chestnuts that I liked so much.
“It’s interesting to meet a foreigner who is familiar with his work,” said the husband. “It’s a shame they banned him from making films. We know he tried to change things with his films, to say things that could not be said, about politics, about the old regime.”
Our conversation must have rippled toward Vira, and I imagine some exchange occurred that had prompted Vira’s outburst: “Now, what are those young people speaking about down there?” / “Barajano. You know, the filmmaker.” / “Ah, him. I met him! He kissed me!”
Certainly, this declaration deserved some elaboration, and I was scooping a generous portion of the chestnuts when she began her story:
“Well, this was many years ago when I was living in the capital, which was still only the provincial capital because we had not yet won our independence. And when I first came there, you could go to the labor bureau to find a job—it wasn’t like today, where employment is so difficult to come by; everyone had work! Anyone who wanted it could find work, and it didn’t matter if you were just a girl from the village; there was no prejudice.
“They asked me, ‘What are your skills?’ and ‘What would you like to do?’ and at first I went white as a sheet because I had no skills! So I lied, thinking that I was being very tricky, and said I had had some experience as a secretary at the village bureau and perhaps could do some work along those lines.
“And the clerk told me, well there is a position, and they are looking for a young woman. There was a movie producer who needed a secretary, and would I be interested?
“And I said yes! I could do that, even though,” she lowered her voice as though invoking a conspiracy, “I had never had any experience in such work.
“This producer was a Mister H___bev, and I worked for him for about one year and learned the movie business from him. Well, during the time that I was working for him, that was during the production of In the Shadow of Our Ancestors, and Mister H___bev and Mister Barajano were meeting every week to plan out the production and the budget and everything involved.
“Mister Barajano, why he looked just the way he did in the magazines. You know, with that crew cut of his and with that very intense stare, and he never smiled. And that was how he always looked at me whenever I saw him.
“Until one day. he looked at me and said something like: ‘You, I must have you,’ and he came right up to me and grabbed me, and he kissed me, right then and there! Well, I pushed him right off me, and I said to him, ‘Mister Barajano! You may not treat me like this!’ And he was a married man! Because at that time he was married to the actress Marah Sharapín.”
“A pig,” the husband in the young couple assessed.
“They do say that artistic men are more promiscuous,” his young wife declared philosophically, “that the creative gene seeks out variety in all things, including women.”
“That is no excuse. He grabbed her!”
Vira went on: “Well, he said all the things a woman would want to hear. That I was beautiful, that he could not stop thinking about me. And he grabbed me and kissed me again, and I said ‘No!’ and I pushed him off again. Truthfully, I was not afraid of him. I told him that whatever he wanted, he must treat me like a lady first, and we could begin a conversation from that starting point.
“So he took me out to a restaurant, and he offered me so many things. He would give me my own apartment in the city, he offered me an acting job, not a starring role, not immediately, but he could find a minor part for me that could give me a break. And I knew, because I had worked in the movies for a year already, how important that was, to have a break.
“And if he had offered to make me his mistress without an acting job, you know I probably would have said yes. He was handsome! He was a genius! He was Barajano! But it spoiled things when he suggested that there should be an exchange. A great man’s mistress, I could be that! But I couldn’t be a whore.”
Her gaze landed upon me when she spoke this final word, and it quieted the table when she said it, so that I felt a little bit self-conscious, as it rendered audible the sound of my mastication.
“So, I told him no. I was afraid to say no to him because I didn’t think anyone could say no to a man like him. But you know what? He was a gentleman about it. And he respected my wishes.
“And that is the story,” she declared smiling at us, “of how I almost got to be an actress.”
“Why, Madame Vira, what an amazing life you have led!” the young wife declared.
The husband furrowed his brow. “I suppose I’ll never watch Barajano’s movies in the same way again.”
“Oh, and he was such a terrible kisser! Not like my Yashik!” Vira declared, smiling. “If only he had offered me the acting job without an exchange, I might have taken it. Could you imagine me as an actress?”
She put her hands at her hips, craned her neck into a three-quarter profile, a caricature of a movie-star pose (a photograph of a woman in an evening dress, as beautiful as any starlet, flashed in my mind). And we laughed, a bit inebriated by the tonic of Vira’s sudden turn of humor.
“Acting is a skill, you know. You have to go to school, just like anything else. And work hard and apply yourself. And many great actors start off very young. By then, I think I would have been too old to learn, probably. Maybe I said no because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of the cameras.”
“I think you would have been a lovely actress, Madame Vira,” the young wife countered.
“And it wasn’t only that. When I was young, I thought that there were different kinds of people in the world, and I felt too simple to be the kind of person who could have an affair like the one that he proposed to me; I was just a girl from the village. I was so inexperienced and naive, and I thought that even to be Barajano’s mistress I had to be a different kind of person, that I had to be more sophisticated, or more ‘artistic’ or more of a ‘bad girl.’ But now, I think that I was wrong about things then. Now I know that anyone can be anything. There are no classes and no types. There’s only what you decide to do at any moment, and a person can decide to do whatever they want.”
She took another swig of moonshine, and there was a touch of brazenness to this gesture, as though it were the first thing they taught you in an acting class.
“Only, maybe you make some choices in your life, and when you are older, it’s harder to take back those choices. And people might see you in a certain way.” She burped lightly. Her hand moved to her upper chest; once again she was no longer looking at any of us, content to gaze at a point in space that was both far away and deep within herself. “Not knowing that you were not always the way that you are now. And it’s hard for them to see that a person is really very many people and can never be only one thing.”
She looked at us, unafraid to reveal that a sheath of moistness now clouded her pale eyes. “But look at me, now I’m sounding like a professor, just like Mister ___,” and here she spoke my name.
I would end up being late for my date that evening, and the recrimination that my lack of punctuality engendered spoiled not only the remainder of that evening but my relationship with the girl in question. It was the height of the summer tourist season, and as I wandered the central piazza feeling a little bit drunk and a little bit lonely amid the crowds of nighttime revelers, evening strollers, buskers, and street performers, of lost-looking tourist families and little troops of laughing teenage girls, of pan-handlers, cigarette vendors, pamphleteers and kerchiefed old women who wanted to sell me roses or tell me my fortune, I thought of Vira, laughing a little and shaking my head to think that Barajano, who existed for me only as a photograph in a magazine or a line of credits over a rush of dark trees—A film by Milan Barajano—had once propositioned the very woman who now cooked my dinners and laundered my underwear and bade me goodbye every morning with the wish that I should have a good day at work. And from that day on, although I still never saw her face clouded by distress or melancholy, I would, at odd moments, if, say, our voluble hostess was quieted by a momentary shift of the dinner conversation’s center of gravity away from her end of the table, find in her countenance a wistfulness that is the final stage in the life of a human regret.
John Gu grew up in Houston and studied mathematics at the University of Texas. His writing has appeared in the Southern Review, the Massachusetts Review, and the Chicago Review of Books. He is currently based in a café somewhere, working on his novel. He can be found online at http://johngu.io
“Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” by Margaret Hawkins
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her taut and witty story “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian,” Margaret Hawkins sketches the evolving friendship between a very elderly former English teacher and her former student. Along the way, we discover that both women have surprising pasts and long-held secrets.
Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian
by Margaret Hawkins
Joan stood behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man was wearing flip-flops and a stained sweat suit that looked like it doubled as pajamas.
The library, in the small Illinois town where Joan had grown up and to which she’d recently returned alone and without a plan, was full of hairless men on weekdays now. Shaving was cheaper than a haircut.
The man slid his books sideways across the counter to make way for the elderly woman behind him. They were chatting, holding up the line. The woman thumped the man on the chest and said something that made him laugh and blush.
Now the woman stood in front of Joan. Or rather, she leaned, bent so far over her walker that the belt of her trench coat trailed on the floor. She pushed a little pile of audiobooks across the desk. “Do you know Donnie?” She gestured stiffly with her head toward the pajamaed man who was now making his way toward the exit. She didn’t wait for an answer. “What a promising boy he was. Excellent speller.”
Joan smiled. They weren’t supposed to gossip. She picked up an audiobook and passed it under the scanner. Poetry—that was unusual. Kay Ryan. Underneath were two more, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. She took the woman’s card.
“I find myself gravitating to the lesbian poetesses these days,” the woman said, as if she were making a public announcement and wanted to be sure to reach the hard-of-hearing in the back row. She made the lez in lesbian last for three beats. “They go for the gut,” she added, spitting out the t. “Don’t you think?”
Joan looked up from her screen. “Miss Cates?” She hadn’t seen her high school English teacher in over thirty years.
Which of them had changed more? Joan wondered, sitting at Miss Cates’s kitchen table two days later. Her former teacher was making tuna salad. Joan kept offering to help, but Miss Cates insisted that Joan remain seated, clanking her walker against the cupboards so she could lean her elbows on the sink.
She’d torn open a foil pouch. Dumped the tuna in a bowl. Slopped in a forkful of mayonnaise, some pre-cut celery. Squeezed lemon over the bowl without removing the seeds. Shaken some grayish flakes out of an ancient-looking jar. Dill, possibly, Joan thought. Whatever it was had long ago lost its nature.
“Family recipe,” Miss Cates said, dealing a few broken potato chips onto paper plates. She eased herself into the vinyl seat of her walker. To drink, there was tap water, with a generous glug of gin. “We call this a Presbyterian martini,” she said, not explaining the “we”. She clamped her glass with two hands and took a gulp. “A Presby, for short.”
At the library, Joan had had to tell her who she was. “Well, well,” Miss Cates had said, peering over her glasses. “Little Miss Joan of Arc arises, like the Phoenix I always suspected you were.” Thirty years earlier, there had been an incident involving a quasi-accidental brushfire behind the garage of a quasi-boyfriend named Robert that had garnered Joan unwelcome notice as an arsonist. Joan had hoped it was forgotten.
Me, Joan thought now, watching Miss Cates scoop a glob of tuna salad with a potato chip and ferry it shakily toward her mouth. I’ve changed more. Though Miss Cates looked different, that was true. Her queenly posture was a mere memory. She’d shrunk a foot, at least. She wore big white gym shoes now instead of those staccato-sounding spectator pumps. Her hair was a fuzzy, thinning mat, no longer the elaborately teased and frosted nest Joan remembered.
Miss Cates had descended from the wide, arid plateau of late middle age, where she’d dwelled when Joan had last seen her and which seemed from the outside to have no antecedent or borders, into the mysterious, frankly decrepit valley of end times. The body she inhabited now called to mind one of her beloved ruins, the very stones of which had crumbled. She had to be over ninety. Still, she, the essential Miss Cates, was exactly the same.
After Joan had gone for lunch three times at the tiny apartment—the menu was always the same—she got Miss Cates to agree to let her bring the food next time. Joan packed a picnic. Actually, she already had packed it, had in fact been driving around with the slightly obscene collection of imperishable delicacies in her trunk for over a month, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Robert. A pretty basket held a tin of smoked oysters, a bar of the darkest chocolate, a bottle of champagne. Linen napkins, a tablecloth. She’d pictured herself spreading the cloth on a motel bed or, if need be, across the seat of his reclining dental chair. She’d tucked bungee cords in the basket, imagined affixing Robert to a stationary object and force-feeding him, or lighting a match.
On her way to Miss Cates that day she drove out of her way to buy bread, soft cheeses, raspberries, a pot of liver mousse, one ripe quince, a lemon tea cake. Joan wondered if it was too much, or too obviously a lunch intended for a different sort of rendezvous. But food was food, she reasoned. Miss Cates would never notice.
“A meal fit for a king,” Miss Cates proclaimed, sitting up as straight as she could on her walker seat, smoothing a bright napkin over her lap. “Or fit for a concubine, I should say.” She patted her stiff, sparse hair.
“Though if you’re planning to seduce me with this sumptuous repast”—she smeared a huge glob of Roquefort on a water cracker—“you’ll have to produce a time machine from that cunning basket of yours.”
Joan poured fizzing wine into two juice glasses and held hers aloft. “To Cass,” she said.
Miss Cates had insisted that Joan call her by her given name, though Joan would have preferred to continue calling her Miss Cates. “All my friends call me Cass,” she’d said. “Or did. They’re all dead now.” She’d plucked a crumb off her blouse, flicked it on the rug. “Except for Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite was an enormous white cat whose strangely loud purr could be heard through closed doors. The cat’s fur was everywhere in the small apartment, especially in the sinks, which were coated. Aphrodite liked wet places, Miss Cates said. Often the cat lounged under the kitchen faucet, staring at the drain, expecting, it seemed, something to rise from it.
Miss Cates adored Aphrodite, despite her louche ways, perhaps because of them. For a while there’d been two cats, Miss Cates said, stroking a little metal tool through Aphrodite’s thick coat. Littermates. The other cat, Athena, had died of leukemia seven years before. Athena had been quieter, better behaved.
“You notice which one survived.” Aphrodite, spread possessively across Miss Cates’s lap, emitted a loud, somewhat threatening purr. “Miss brainy was brittle. Didn’t know what to do with herself once she’d proved she was right. But love—that’s you, my crumpet,” she said to the old cat. “Little miss love and beauty here is a tough cookie. Fickle. Gets what she wants and moves on. Don’t you?” She massaged the cat’s head. “You selfish hussy.”
Aphrodite sprang from repose to land a quick bite, then dropped to the floor. Departing the room, she raised her tail. The small, dark eye of her anus winked at them.
A month later, in the fading light of an October afternoon, they ate cheese cubes and sipped the gin Miss Cates had splashed in their glasses, not bothering with water. (“When you drink it neat, it’s a Methodist.”) Aphrodite lay heavily in Miss Cates’s lap, pinning her to the seat of her walker.
“I’d freshen your drink,” Miss Cates said, during a lull in which Joan thought she’d fallen asleep. “But, as you can see, I am a prisoner of love.”
Robert notified Joan he would be spending Thanksgiving with his family and that she was not to call him. Joan roasted a turkey breast and drove it to Miss Cates. There, she mashed potatoes at the tiny stove. Later Miss Cates talked her through a brandied cranberry compote, inexactly. (“How much brandy?” “Gobs.”)
“What should we call this?” Joan was sloshing the glistening red jumble into chipped punch cups. She wanted to be inducted into whatever society owned this joke. “A Mennonite?”
Miss Cates looked thoughtful. “A Sufi,” she said.
Late Christmas afternoon, after waiting all day for a sign from Robert, Joan took the coffee cake and peppermint ice cream to Miss Cates. She presented her with a wool shawl, a CD player, an assortment of recorded books. Miss Cates gave Joan a shot of bitters over ice (a Cold Catholic), and her father’s Aeolian harp, wrapped in two stale-smelling pillowcases tied with the sash of her bathrobe. She’d kept it under her bed for forty years, she said.
“Named after Aeolus, Greek god of the wind.”
“I know,” Joan whispered. She was trying not to weep.
“It suits you,” Miss Cates said. “Passive instrument that it is. Put it in an open window. Aeolus will strum it for you.”
In January, Miss Cates stopped going out. Joan made regular deliveries of tuna in pouches, lemons, jars of Nutella, cat food in assorted flavors, extra-strength aspirin, jumbo flagons of Tanqueray. One day, after Joan had opened the cat food cans and stacked them in the refrigerator, then loosened the caps on the gin and the aspirin, while they were having what Miss Cates called tea—pound cake with their usual Presbyterians–Miss Cates told Joan about Francie Jane.
“Who’s this?” Joan had said when she noticed the photo on the bureau. She’d been folding Miss Cates’s laundry and seen the tarnished silver picture frame behind a stack of unpaid bills. There were other photos—Miss Cates as a lanky child straddling a horse, a studio portrait of what must be her parents, unsmiling long-jawed Yankees in Victorian wedding regalia—but here was a face that bore no family resemblance.
Miss Cates took the photo from Joan and held it in her lap. The picture showed a square-faced young woman in a jacket with military epaulets holding two koala bears.
“My WAVE.” Miss Cates drew out the vowel. “Frances Jane Harper Hunt. Served in the South Pacific, before I knew her.” Miss Cates clicked her yellow fingernail on the glass. Francie was older, she said. The photo was from her frisky youth.
“Gone many years. Cancer of the womb.” Miss Cates fluttered her fingers as if to rid herself of something. Turned to Joan. “Do you recognize her?” She had that look she’d got sometimes in class, posing a tricky question.
“Think, now.” Her voice had gone teacherish. “Mrs. Hunt.”
Joan did remember someone, but Miss Cates couldn’t mean that Mrs. Hunt. Could she? The art teacher, that small plump angry woman with the tight gray curls who wore too-snug plaid skirts with sweater sets and shiny nylons and little high-heeled shoes that pitched her whole body forward? The frowsy one whose slip always showed, who threw temper tantrums and gave detentions, and smelled of stale sanitary napkins, whom Gail Pastorius called Mrs. Cunt? Joan tried to sneak another look, but Miss Cates’s big hand covered the picture.
“We were great friends for many years,” Miss Cates said. After a while, she added, “Once we took my Aunt Cecelia to lunch at the Walnut Room.” She chortled at the memory but didn’t explain.
“Francie’s fellow—husband I should say, though I hate the word—had a position with some financial outfit. Something like what you used to do, I suppose.” Miss Cates sniffed. “Nice fellow, in his way. Good provider.” She chucked the photo toward a chair and missed, then stuck her spoon in the Nutella and spread an undainty dollop on her cake.
“Tell me about your fellow,” she said, another afternoon. When Joan hesitated, Miss Cates prompted her, as if to jog her memory. “Your hubby?”
Joan slogged in, trying to simulate the impression of an answer while saying as little as she could, not mentioning Robert and coming up with a garbled nonstatement about two possible, sort of, fellows, if you counted almost-exes, then gave up. “Really, probably there’s none.”
“Good girl. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end.” Miss Cates had taken to quoting The Elements of Style in a pinch, without citation. Her bible, she said—comfort to the old.
Now she indicated that Joan should pour more gin into her glass and not bother with water. “When you top it up like that it’s called an Episcopalian.” Recently she’d told Joan the drink names had been a private joke between her and Mrs. Hunt.
On Valentine’s Day, arriving with the heart-shaped cheesecake she’d made the night before, Joan found Miss Cates unable to get out of bed, impatient to talk about the time she’d given Francie a kitten. “I made her promise to keep his name. Gleipnir.” She caught Joan’s eye. “Rhymes with sneer.”
Joan knew she was supposed to get this reference, but she drew a blank. Miss Cates waved her hand. “Never mind. Never liked the Norse much, except for that bit.”
Gleipnir, she reminded Joan, was the name of the magic chain, made of the noise of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of stones, the breath of fish, and the spittle of birds. She gave Joan a look. “Impossible things, you see, to do an impossible job.”
Joan took a sip of her Episcopalian.
“Little Gleipnir was supposed to be our magic chain. But he ran into the street and was hit by a car. A Rambler, Francie thought. That boy of hers left the door open. The little thing got out.”
On the Ides of March, Joan broached the subject of vengeance. She didn’t mention Robert. Had she ever felt spiteful, toward Francie?
Miss Cates hooted. Oh, all the time, she said. All the time. The night Francie dropped by after returning from a three-week trip with her husband, she’d thought about poisoning her. They’d gone to Paris. She wasn’t even sorry.
“But how would I have disposed of that chubby little corpse?” Miss Cates said she’d settled for beating Francie with an umbrella.
“Did it help?”
Miss Cates closed her eyes. “A little,” she said. After a while she added, “I regret nothing.”
She took a long swallow from her drink and set her glass in the air a few inches beyond the edge of the table. By the time Joan finished sweeping up the shards, Miss Cates was gone. Soon, Aphrodite appeared at Joan’s feet and demanded supper.
Margaret Hawkins writes fiction, essays, and arts journalism. Her work appears regularly in Visual Art Source and the Democracy Chain. Her third novel (fourth book), Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, ARTnews, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Art & Antiques, The Perch (Yale), Fabrik, and many other publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.
Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:
“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
by Adam Prince
There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.
It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.
Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.
I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.
I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.
What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.
In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”
I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.
So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.
And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”
Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.
This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.
“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.
“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.
I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.
“Where’s it at?” he asked.
“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.
“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”
I pointed. And was right.
Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.
For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.
The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.
Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.
So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.
Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.
She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.
I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.
Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”
And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.
A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.
The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”
“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”
“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”
The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.
I picked the shell on the left.
“You sure?” asked the shell guy.
“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”
But I was sure. The young man knew.
Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.
But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”
The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices
“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.
I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.
But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.
Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.
I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.
The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.
“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.
She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.
She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.
The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.
I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.
He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.
Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.
I said, “You moved it after I picked!”
And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”
And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”
But none of them could say for sure.
Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.
Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.
Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.
But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.
“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”
But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.
Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.
“Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” by Cat Powell
Cat Powell’s “Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” appeared in TMR 42: 3 and was later selected by our guest judge, novelist and essayist May-lee Chai, as the winner of our annual William Peden Prize for best-of-volume-year fiction. As with so many things, the pandemic upended our plans to recognize Cat’s work and her award, so we bring it to you now. May-lee Chai says in her judge’s statement:
“I chose ‘Manifold Northeast Life & Trust,’ for the William Peden Prize because it moved me deeply. Although the story was written and published well before our current pandemic, there is an eerie sense of recognition at the opening, as the protagonist goes to work alone in an empty building, tying up odds and ends for an insurance company, haunted by memories of his wife and coworkers who have passed away. Powell’s literary craft is top-notch throughout. . . . This is a story about a haunted man, quite literally, but it is also a story that recognizes and takes seriously the emotional ties that define contemporary life—ties to family, to workplace, and to coworkers. A prescient story, beautifully written.”
Manifold Northeast Life & Trust
I wake early and water the plants. I have a lot of plants, and it takes the better part of an hour to see to them. Most are rescues that I find abandoned on suburban sidewalks, put out with the trash because they’re ugly or dying or refusing to flower. My oldest is a Ficus benjamina I’ve had for forty-five years, retrieved from the garbage room of my freshman dorm with only three dark and glossy leaves to his name. Like me, he’s thickened with age, and unlike me, he’s grown so that his crown now brushes the dining room ceiling.
I mist the broad-leafed bird-of-paradise that’s only ever flowered once; the purple-pink Hawaiian ti plant; the arrowhead syngonium; the forest of pink and white fittonia, which everyone gave as gifts the year my wife died. I soak the orchids, the flaming sword bromeliad, the tillandsia my daughter left behind when she moved out to LA. Then I get the watering can and attend to the geraniums my wife planted, now grown to Little Shop of Horrors proportions; the massive jade tree my mother left me; the spiked snake plants, the hanging vines, the calving spider plant, the gold-and-green-draped corn plant, the ZZ plants with their dark, plasticky leaves.
I make a pot of coffee. I make a tuna fish sandwich. I make a piece of toast with butter and strawberry jam. I put the sandwich and a travel mug of coffee into the satchel full of papers I cart back and forth from work each day, though I’ve never once taken out the papers at home.
The walk to the bus is cold and drab, gloom crowding the corners of the late April day. Heaps of dirty snow still line the street. I’m alone at the bus stop—too early for the students, too late for the downtown workers whose shifts started hours ago. No one else takes the bus if they can help it. But I hate driving.
No matter the hour of the day, everyone looks tired on the bus, and this morning is no different, the few occupants all grim and ground-down in the fluorescent light. I take a seat and watch the dark teeth of the roofs and the lit windows of the old houses rushing past. In one, a woman in a red dress with yellow flowers stands over a stove. I imagine a quick spiral of golden oil, the snap of the gas burner, the crisp tap and slime of an egg. Maybe she has a young son, and she shouts for him to get up, but he just pulls the comforter over his head and hides in the warmth. She goes to get him, pulls back the blankets half teasing, half exasperated; she leans over to give him a kiss, the loose V-neck slipping to reveal the line of sun-worn skin between her full breasts. My wife would have looked good in a dress like that. And now we’re nearing my stop. I put these things away.
I used to have an office with a window back when I was a manager and there were still people to manage. Now I sit alone in a cubicle at the windowless center of the empty seventh floor. No one else ever comes to the office. The other survivors prefer to work from home, and all of us work harder than dogs, the functions of a team of forty devolved to the aging shoulders of the five of us and our tyrannical machines always pinging and dinging and pressing for our attention at every moment of the day. In two years, the lease on the building is up, and a large multinational conglomerate will conclude its long, slow digesting of what was once Manifold Northeast Mutual Life & Trust. What few jobs are left will disappear down to corporate headquarters, and we’ll have to retire or relocate or find other jobs; not that there are many jobs around here to be found. I run into my former colleagues sometimes taking coffee orders or ringing up groceries, their forced smiles deepening crow’s-feet and laugh lines.
I delay opening my e-mail for as long as possible. I fold my coat carefully, deliver my sandwich to the fridge in the break room, brew a Keurig, sort and stack papers on my desk. I liked it better when we did things by phone. The agents are great talkers, true American heroes of salesmanship and bullshit. If you want to learn how to sell—and what an art that is, selling—go find yourself a successful life insurance agent. They’re selling a nonsense product no one needs and no one wants to think about, and they do it with such style that you find yourself smiling even after you realize you’ve been conned.
Take, for example, Bubba, an agent in Atlanta. He sends me an enormous policy for a guy who’s got every disease in the book—hypertension, hepatitis, heavy smoker, basically a walking diagnostic laboratory. Only he couldn’t possibly be walking, the shape he’s in.
“Bubba,” I say, “I can’t approve this; he’s dying.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Bubba says. “He’s a real tough one, a live wire; why, I had a steak with him yesterday.”
No way this man is on his feet, let alone dragging himself to the local Outback with Bubba. But Bubba won’t let it go.
“Oh, yes,” he says in that slow bass drawl that could soothe the current out of a live wire, “this man’s a medical marvel like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I don’t believe it,” I say.
“Besides,” Bubba drawls on, “he’s got a family to support.”
“He’s unmarried, no children.”
“But he’s got his niece, lovely little girl, he’s very fond of her, and a girlfriend with a young son who’s the apple of his eye. You’re a family man, my friend; don’t be coldhearted.”
“Oh, spare me Tiny Tim,” I say, but Bubba just keeps at it. Drawling along, unperturbed, a deep-voiced Weeble springing back from every damning fact I throw at him. I sigh and refer it up the chain of command, and since everyone at headquarters is a crook and a liar, most likely they’ll approve it.
I’m not saying there was ever honor in this business. But there used to be some kind of standard. My father worked here fifty years and never once had a bad word to say. And then we got acquired, and the layoffs started. They came in waves, like hangover nausea, even as the amount of work stayed the same, so that each new round of pink slips and boxed-up plants and pictures and slumped shoulders alongside security escorts meant the rest of us had to work that much harder. I never excelled at the work, never cared enough to scheme my way up the corporate ladder. Maybe in the end that worked in my favor. I never threatened anyone, kept my head down, and my number never came up. In the end, my life’s work has been surviving.
I put off lunch as long as possible because I know that once I start eating I won’t stop—chips from the vending machine, soft cookies from the café downstairs, M&Ms from the large pack I stash in my desk. It’s bad for me, especially with my heart. My daughter always asks if I’m eating right, and when she comes to visit I stock the fridge with fruits and vegetables. But the sugar is the only way I can make it through the long afternoons so silent that the occasional clank of the heating system makes me jump.
Maybe I should get another fish, for company. I used to keep a little 2.5-gallon tank on my desk with an electric pump and motor, just big enough for a single goldfish to live happily in. His name was Bob, and he was bright orange with big bulbous eyes and a black splotch on his back shaped like a handprint. This was during the third or fourth round of layoffs; I thought he’d improve morale.
I finally leave at nine pm. I wait a long time for the bus, which never runs on schedule after dark. It’s late April, and yet a few stray flakes of snow drift down as I trudge from the bus stop to my house, which in spite of it all still gives me pleasure, this house my wife and I bought just before the birth of our daughter and fixed up ourselves, a beautiful two-story Victorian with teal trim and an old magnolia tree out front.
I turn on all the lights downstairs so that things will feel more cheerful and put on the TV in the den. While my microwave dinner heats, I stare at my reflection in the dark window of the kitchen. My skin looks too gray, a few unkempt hairs sprout from the top edge of my cheek where I’ve forgotten to shave, and there’s chocolate between my front teeth. I should make more of an effort. The buzzer dings. I eat, watch TV, fall asleep in the blue glow, and wake just before midnight. I turn off the TV. I fall back to sleep on the couch.
The next morning is the same morning again. The plants. The coffee. The bus stop. The imagined lives and empty office. When I check my e-mail, though, there’s a message from my daughter, who’s in LA working shit jobs and painting late at night. She usually e-mails around two or three am with pictures of what she’s doing, even though every time I praise her work, she rolls her eyes, tells me I’m her dad, of course I like it. I hit reply.
Sometimes I wish she could have chosen an easier path, been a lawyer like her mother wanted. My daughter says if we’d wanted her to be a lawyer, we should have raised her differently. But right from the start she was wholly herself. I couldn’t change her. I just tried to help her make the best of who she is. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of wonder, the moment the nurse handed her into my arms and there was nothing in the room for me but that tiny, crumpled face. I waltzed off with her, my wife groggy with anesthetic from the C-section and calling after me to bring her back.
On Saturdays, after a long week at work, I’d sleep in and after waking late in the morning light would crack open the door to her room and find her surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals all arranged in some elaborate costumed tableau, acting out a political intrigue at the court or an epic quest or a tragic romance. Her little brow furrowed, totally absorbed, oblivious to my presence. I’m so proud of you, I write her. I’m so proud of the life and career you’ve chosen. And then I get ready to work.
Just after opening my e-mail, I hear it. The burbling sound of water. I get up to investigate. The fluorescent arrays have motion sensors; only the area above my cubicle is lit; the rest of the floor sinks away into shadow. As I walk, the lights flick on with a metallic pop and hiss. The shadows shift at my feet.
I follow the sound up and down the aisles. The sound echoes in the empty room, so it takes me some time to find its source. I do at last only because I begin to smell as well as hear it: the damp, fishy smell of a pond on a hot day. The smell of fishing with my father on summer evenings at the lake. He’d come home from work at five thirty on the dot, and we’d stop at the bait shop for a tub of night crawlers and Cokes and candy bars for me, and then we’d go sit on a damp bank as the sun drifted down toward the opposite side of the lake. I’d wander off to play in the mud, but when my father hooked a big one he’d shout, and I’d come to reel it in. We’d stay until the contours of the water were swallowed up in shadow. By the time we got home, my mother would have the grill already hot, and we’d cook the fish whole and pick the flaky white flesh from the bones with our fingers. You can’t eat those fish anymore. In the late ’70s a paper mill dumped a bunch of mercury into one of the streams that feeds the lake.
The sound is very loud, very close. I peer into each cubicle one by one until I reach the fifth cube on the right. There, in place of the floor, is a pond. No more gray stubbled carpet over concrete but a round pool, small but deep, the brown mud at the edges disappearing into black. A few strands of silted pondweed rise up from the depths. The water is circulating gently, like it’s being fed by an underground spring. I squat down and touch the water. I stand back and stare. I take a penny from my pocket and toss it in. It sinks and is lost.
Something else rises up in its place. A fish, a single orange-and-black goldfish, with bulbous eyes and flamboyant trailing fins. He rises and kisses the surface of the water. The black spot on his back is shaped like a tiny handprint. I turn and walk back to my desk as fast as I can.
When the doctor told us my wife’s diagnosis, I was immediately of two minds. One mind, the adult mind, accepted the diagnosis as true and inevitable. Of course, I thought; of course the worst thing happens. I’ve been afraid of losing her since I first began to love her. But the other mind, the child’s mind, rejected the diagnosis as impossible and fantastic. I did not want it, had not willed it, and therefore it could not be real.
The child’s mind still believed in a world made by superstitious incantation and imagination and the pure power of naming. This mud is cake. The action figure is an emperor. The floor is lava. My wife is not sick. The adult’s mind had learned that things will be done to you, whether you like it or not. It had long ago bowed to the dictates of Things as They Are.
I had always thought of the process of growing up as a metamorphosis, one mind slowly shaping itself into the next. But in that long awful moment of the doctor’s silence, I knew that this was false. The adult mind had simply sprouted and grown up next to the child’s, the two always competing for light and water, forever unreconciled. The diagnosis didn’t make the rupture—it revealed a split that had been there all along. For several days, the war between the two sides left me paralyzed, until finally the adult mind gained an edge, being after all the more disciplined of the two. I accepted the diagnosis. I did what needed to be done.
So now, having seen the pond and scurried back to my desk, I try to sit and read my e-mail as I would any other day. I make no progress. Of course, the child mind says, there’s a pond in a cubicle inhabited by a reincarnation of your dead fish. How obvious. How wonderful. Of course, the adult mind says, that’s impossible. You’re hallucinating or dreaming or going mad. You need to go to the doctor. You need to call someone to come here and go look at that cubicle with you to verify that you’re insane, that it’s not really there. No, the child mind says, how silly. You should go out and get some fish flakes. He’s probably hungry. I sit like that for a full two hours, pretending to read e-mails and all the while listening to the two minds continue their fruitless argument. I never wanted this job.
I never wanted any job at all. I wanted to be a writer. When I met my wife, I was a year out of college and squatting in an abandoned house with two friends. A fire had gutted the top floor, but the first and second were still relatively habitable. The landlord had forgotten to turn off electricity and water, and we used electric space heaters and lit fires in the old fireplace. We spent most of our days shivering in layers of sweaters, drinking tea and hot toddies, and making things. This is the house I brought my wife to after our third date. We’d laugh about it later, her looking up at the charred windows on the top floor and asking, as politely as she could, if this was where I lived. She was in the first year of a psychology PhD at the university I’d graduated from, in the same city I live in now. I liked that she was smart and capable and fearless. I always assumed she’d be the one with the big career and I’d stay home and write and raise our kids.
My father got me the interview at Manifold just after we got married. He had very traditional ideas about a man’s role in the household. I agreed to go just to placate him. I bombed it and figured that was that. Then two days later, they called and offered me the job.
I didn’t tell my father. I didn’t tell my wife. I thought I could ignore it, and it would go away. But of course HR called my father, and then my father, who was nothing if not canny and a good judge of people, called my wife. She made very little money as a student and was tired of having nothing and living in shitty shared houses with delinquent landlords. She was tired, too, of my always lurking around the house, complaining when my writing wasn’t going well and disappearing for days when it was. So my father came over for dinner, the two of them confronted me, and that was that.
I figured it would be a nice day job, nine to five, and then I’d write at night. I hadn’t counted on how tired it would make me, sitting in one place indoors for eight hours struggling to comprehend unfamiliar tasks while everyone around me plunged ahead like it was all the most natural thing in the world. It took me a full year to adjust; I wrote very little. And then my life went as lives go: my wife got offered a tenure-track job at the university; we got pregnant; we bought a house; my daughter was born; I was absorbed in raising her and working; time passed; my wife got sick.
After forty years in a job I initially disliked and in time grew to loathe, my adult mind has grown weary. Encountering the fish and the pond, it puts up what little fight it has left. Then noon comes, and when I go to get lunch, I find myself heading not to the fridge in the break room but out of the building and down the block to the pet store, where I buy several varieties of fish food.
I realize I never told the end of Bob’s story. One day I arrived at work and found that someone had fed Bob those cheesy goldfish crackers. A clogged filter, a dead fish, a rainbow slick of oil on the surface of the water.
The next day, entering the office, the smell is immediately different. Damper, earthier, with an undercurrent of fish. I go immediately to the pool and scatter some flakes. This time, two fish rise out of the depths: my old friend and a new companion, a mirror image of him but all white. Little plants are beginning to grow at the edges of the pond, bright green shoots poking through the mud. They grow with startling speed.
That afternoon, I do my best to deal with the backlog from the previous day. I make some headway but not enough. I keep turning around to watch the progress of the young trees, their nascent crowns now a good two feet above the cubicle walls. By five pm, when I go back to the pond to check on the fish, the trees are nearly to the ceiling. Their roots wind deep into the water on one side and on the other rise up to crack the floor of the cubicle opposite. The swelling trunks have toppled one divider, and another leans at a perilous angle. Moss has started around the banks, along with arrow arum, bur reed, cinnamon fern, a cluster of cattails.
By morning the young forest has spread to an area roughly five cubicles in diameter. The oldest trees, the ones near the pond, reach the ceiling; the younger ones are shoulder height. Dirt spills out from the cracks the roots have made in the floor; water drips from the leaves. There is a different light on that side of the room, too, something less like fluorescents and more like the diffuse light that emanates from thick clouds at noon. I find three fish in the pond now when I do my feeding and a frog chirping on the bank. The water has begun to overflow, soaking the carpet. And there on the carpet: a set of muddy footprints.
I match my shoe to one of them to check if they’re mine, maybe left the day before. But these prints are a good size or two larger. I spend the rest of the morning looking for their owner, pacing slowly up and down each aisle. Then I go down to the lobby and ask the security guard about the day’s visitors, if anyone has gone up to the ninth floor, if the janitor was in the night before. He tells me the janitor has the flu and the cleaning contractor has failed to send a replacement. He asks me if anything is missing, if I want to file a report. I tell him everything’s fine. I figure that whoever it is has somehow come and gone with no one noticing, not a particularly difficult feat in a half-abandoned building.
But the mystery man hasn’t gone. I feel him first, that prickle between the shoulder blades that tells you someone is near. I turn slowly. There, striding purposely down the aisle, is a youngish man in gray suit pants and a white button-down, sleeves rolled, tie loose.
“Hello!” I call. He neither turns nor slows. He walks right past me, so close I could reach out and tug on his sleeve. “Hello!” I call again as he passes. But he seems unable to hear me. I get up and follow him. He neither slows nor turns nor speeds up, just keeps moving forward with steady purpose, two sheets of paper clutched in his left hand. I follow him all the way to the photocopier in the corner. There he stops, slides his papers into the tray, fusses with the buttons. The machine whirs, hums, begins to spit pages. The man taps his foot and looks out into the middle distance. His foot makes no sound against the ground. As I watch him, I realize that I know him; he used to work here. I fish around in my memory for his name but can’t quite grasp it. I walk right up next to him, so close he surely has to acknowledge me. But he only turns, collects his copies, and returns the way he came.
I follow him back to a cubicle one row over from the fish tank. He sits, stacks the papers on his desk, and begins to clack away at the keyboard. The screen is dark. I watch him for some time, until finally I remember his name. Jim, a former underwriter. He was part of a group I was friendly with, all of us young and in our first jobs. We used to go to lunch together and share a lake house in the summers, driving up on Friday nights and spilling out of the car in hysterical laughter just as the sun set over the water. Jim was let go in the first round of layoffs, and I’d lost track of him soon after he’d left, nearly three decades ago now. And yet he doesn’t look much older than he would have been then—slender, a full head of brown hair, unlined skin.
I go to check on him again before going home. He’s still there, still clacking away, though he’s taken off his tie and slung it over the back of his chair. I can smell the pond and the plants, and the nascent forest still spreading quickly down the neighboring aisle with its musk of damp bark, dropped leaves, and rich soil. I can’t smell Jim. I reach out to tap him on the shoulder, but as my hand nears the fabric of his shirt I feel an overwhelming nausea and a prickling in my fingertips. I pull my hand away.
I consider responsible approaches to the situation. Call the building manager? E-mail corporate? Go downstairs and return with a security guard? This seems like a great deal of effort. Much more fun to see how it will all play out.
For the next two days, it’s just me, Jim, the fish, and the spreading forest. Jim continues to be diligent and immune to my presence. I check in on him at his desk several times a day, watch him clack at the keyboard and mouth silent words into his phone’s receiver, oblivious to the ringing dial tone. Back at my desk, I catch him at the edges of my vision, walking briskly to and from the copier, returning from the break room with a mug in hand. He sips at it carefully, as though overeager to imbibe its scalding contents. But when I sneak up behind him to see what he’s drinking, I find the mug is empty.
On Saturday afternoon, my daughter calls as she usually does. She’s having boy trouble again. Some idiot who won’t return her calls. I tell her to ditch him and find someone better. She sighs. She tells me I don’t know what it’s like, dating these days. Maybe that’s true, but people are people, and people don’t change.
“Speaking of not changing,” she says, “how’s the diet?”
“Oh, great,” I tell her.
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Tuna sandwich, celery sticks. Pickles. Pickles are zero points.” Then I tell her a funny story about one of the ladies in my diet support group. I haven’t been to the group in over a year, but I’ve saved up a large stock of stories about the crazy lady in a turban who interrupts everyone when they try to speak and chews so much sugar-free gum that she has jaw muscles the size of baseballs. My daughter laughs, then asks me if anything is new at work.
“Nope,” I say, “still just me. Still too much work.”
“Are you lonely?”
I tell her I’ve been thinking more about the people I used to work with. I wonder where they are.
“Don’t brood,” she says. “And anyway, if you’re really curious, you can Facebook them.”
Then she reminds me of how to log in to my account.
“I have to go,” she says. “My shift is starting soon. But Dad?”
“I’m proud of you, with the diet and all. I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.”
“I love you,” I say.
“I love you too, Dad.” She hangs up.
I sit for a little while looking at the dark screen of the phone. I’ve never liked the way the end of a phone call hollows you out—there’s the illusion that the person you miss is right there with you, but then the bubble pops. They’re gone. An echo of the feeling you have after someone dies, when you forget and remember and grieve afresh, over and over, each day. I get up and go turn on the home computer. A thin rime of dust comes away on my fingers.
Jim is easy to find. A photo of him in a hunting vest and sunglasses, smiling, holding up a large striped bass. A salt-and-pepper-haired man with an ample figure. I read the comments on his wall: I miss you. You were the best, man. Rest well.
I think I already knew this is what I’d find, but nevertheless it makes me feel—I can’t place how it makes me feel.
When my daughter was twelve and my wife was in the final stages of dying, my wife and I used to play a game. I’d lie underneath her hospital bed, the cool of the linoleum and the smell of disinfectant somehow comforting to me, and we’d pretend we were both very old and reminiscing. That time we went to Rome, she’d say, and you got us so lost, insisting you could navigate without a map. That was hilarious, I’d say, though you’re forgetting that I also got us unlost. So stubborn, she’d say; and remember that restaurant we ate at that night? That was good, you had that pasta with the squid ink. That was delicious—I’d kill for that right now, screw Jell-O. And then, I’d say, when we walked home, the night air was somehow warmer than the day had been. It’s because it had just rained, she’d remind me, and there was that fog rising from the streets; the light everywhere was yellow, but the sky was clear. And we’d go on and on like that, constructing story after story about places we’d never been and things we’d never done, memories from a life not yet lived.
One night, a new nurse came in and caught me. “Ma’am,” she asked my wife, “are you aware there’s a man under your bed?”
“Oh, no,” my wife said, “there’s no one there.”
“Who are you talking to, then?”
“I’m talking to God.”
Security was examining my driver’s license by the time my wife relented. In the morning, she told our daughter the story, and both of them cackled in delight. Neither could ever resist a good practical joke.
I go for a walk to shake off the weird feeling I got looking at Jim’s Facebook. It’s a little warmer; the last grimy snow is finally running down the gutters, damming rafts of winter trash against the grates. At the corner, I turn right, sticking to the blocks where the houses are still in good repair, with tidy lawns and lush colors on the Victorian trim— professors’ houses with children’s swings in the yards and rainbow flags in the windows and those little welcome signs in many languages.
When my daughter was little, we knew nearly every family in the neighborhood—there were block parties and barbecues, sleepovers and Halloween walks. The leaving happened the way big changes always do, so slowly you didn’t notice it. This person got a tenure-track job at another university. That family inherited a house in a different state. One neighbor took a job in New York City, another in Boston, a third in Durham. Several families bought larger houses in the expanding outer suburbs, with big insulating lawns and better schools. By the time my wife died, there were only three of those original families left to drop by with frozen Tupperwares, to watch my daughter after school, to come over in the unendurable nights with a bottle of scotch and quiet company. The others sent cards and flowers and made the drive for the funeral.
For a time, the neighborhood hollowed out. The winters sheared paint from the sidings, cars rusted in driveways, trash nested under overgrown shrubs on untended lawns. Then it began to fill back up again, with new families, new faculty, new students. But the newcomers were too young, grad students and junior professors with babies and puppies and nascent careers, and grief had fixed me like a butterfly on a board.
Before I turn home, I stop at a bakery I like and buy one of their overly sweet pistachio croissants. The kid behind the register has long brown hair that he likes to do up in colorful scarves, and he’s always telling his coworkers rambling stories about the irritations of his other job as a waiter downtown. I sit and eat my pastry and half listen to his stories and half watch two grandparents dote on their granddaughter, a tiny blond girl with a pink headband and fairy wings who is climbing up and down the couches. Their granddaughter waves to me as I leave and then, embarrassed by her boldness, hides in her grandfather’s arm.
On Monday, I arrive to find two more—what are they? They seem too solid for ghosts. And besides, they’re too young, more like replicas or reflections or shadows of former selves. Shades, I think, recalling the Greek myths I used to read my daughter; two more shades have joined Jim: Alan and Barbara. I’m particularly happy to see Barbara, who was once a good friend. After she retired, she spent her last decade living in a cabin up in the country with her husband. One afternoon, he came out to the porch where she was reading in the late-afternoon sun and found her dead. An aneurysm. Sudden, quick, painless. Reading in the sun. No tubes and beeping machines, no antiseptic linoleum, no hair loss or weight loss or loss of appetite, no medical debt, no metal beds in blue-and-gray rooms. I envy her that. Her shade is younger than when I last saw her, closer to the age she must have been shortly before she retired, though she always had the lanky build and purposeful stride of a much younger athlete. I try to talk to her, walk right up to her waving and hello-ing loudly. I block her path down the aisle so she’ll have to notice me. But she only pauses, looks off into the middle distance as though remembering something important, and then turns and heads back to her desk.
They do talk to each other, though. I catch them at it in the break room, the three of them sitting at a table clutching invisible sandwiches and raising empty forks from empty bowls. They move their mouths and nod and gesture and never make a sound. The whole thing looks like some insane high school theater exercise. I leave them be.
I begin to spend the better part of my days taking care of the growing forest. As the tree roots crack the floor, I cut away the carpet, dragging swaths of it out to the back hall so that after night falls I can cart it down to the dumpster in the service elevator. I dismantle cubicle walls as they interfere with plant growth, stack chairs and computers and desk detritus in the supply closets. The forest grows much faster than I can clear away debris. It now occupies nearly a third of the floor. Jim’s desk is almost fully enveloped by it, yet he works on, unperturbed, even as vines begin to drip over the cubicle walls.
Meanwhile, one or two new shades arrive every day. I take a census each morning. No matter how early I arrive or how late I leave, they’re always there, clacking away at their desks. For my part, I’ve given up on e-mail and answering calls. Sooner or later, someone will show up here to check on me, but I don’t let this worry me. By the time I get home, I’m too tired from the day’s work in the forest to do much besides eat and sleep.
Two weeks pass. The forest covers half the floor and continues to spread. There are thirteen shades total. I start each day by walking the perimeter and taking my census. That done, I check on the fish, crumble some flakes into the pond, let them peck at the dead skin on my fingers. Then I sit for a while next to the pond in the heart of the forest, where the trees have reached the ceiling and are beginning to investigate the roof tiles. I take off my shoes and savor the damp, spongy earth. I close my eyes and listen to the little rustles and buzzes of insects and leaves; I let my winter-parched skin soak up the humidity.
Another week passes. No one comes to check on me. I finally work up the courage to look at my e-mail and find there are no messages in my inbox. People have been telling me to zero my inbox for years, but I could never bring myself to do it. I hate nouns turned into verbs. I check the sent folder. It’s empty too. I stand up and look around the office. I listen to the whispering leaves and the clacking keyboards. Is it they? If so, they’re likely doing a better job at my job than I have in a long time. And so I shut down my computer and return to my husbandry of the forest.
The amount of waste I need to cart down in the service elevator has reached unnerving proportions. I’ve started abandoning it in unused corners of other floors, secreting bags of trash and old chairs in seldom used closets and back hallways. I take smaller bags home in a backpack or satchel to add to my own trash. I think about bringing my car with me one day and carting a load or two to the town dump.
When I talk to my daughter each Saturday, she remarks on how cheerful I sound. I tell her that work is going well, that we’ve hired some new folks, that I’m making friends. She says she’s glad. I ask her when she’s coming to visit, but she isn’t sure; it’s hard to get time off from work. I say I’ll buy the ticket; she doesn’t need to worry about money. Soon, she says.
Aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, the last time she flew out was when I had my pacemaker put in. She showed up in my hospital room dressed as the grim reaper, mask and cape and all. I laughed, and then, underneath her mask, my daughter burst into tears.
“I thought I could do it,” she said, “but it’s first time I’ve been back in here since Mom died.”
And when she said that, I started to tear up too. I’m not a crier, but the pain medication was making me a little loopy.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “I’ve only seen you cry once, the day Mom died.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“We were at the house, we’d gone home to get something. It was a gray day, the lights weren’t on, we were in the kitchen. You went to get the phone and then came back. I was standing in this rectangle of gray light. ‘Mom died,’ you said, and you picked me up and crushed me to your chest. I could feel you shaking. It took me a moment to realize you were shaking because you were sobbing.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her as she took off her mask. “I’m going to be fine. I’m part man, part machine now. The bionic wonder.”
She tried very hard to smile.
Another month. Outside, the first shoots of spring have grown into full leaves. It happens too quickly, as it always does—one day the smell of thaw, the next that electric-green fuzz, and then suddenly summer is upon you. Inside, it’s still the same: cool, damp, pleasant. The forest has now covered nearly the entire floor. The shades occupy twenty or so cubicles, each a little island lit by beacons of fluorescence; everywhere else, the light has softened into a natural glow. The shades seem to think nothing of stepping over tree roots on their way to the photocopier or dodging the vines that have begun to grow over the door to the break room. They congregate there in the mornings and at lunch, brewing imaginary coffee in the empty pot, moving silent mouths at one another. Decades of office small talk run on loop in my brain as I watch them. And what about the game last night? Fun plans for the weekend? Mondays, eh? They carefully stack their empty mugs in the dishwasher. I turn it on for them. They empty it themselves.
Realizing I’ve been neglecting my plants at home, I begin to transport them to the office, starting with the venerable ficus. The house looks naked without them, only the little rings of damp and dirt to mark where they once stood. But they thrive in the office’s humid climate, and now they’ll be less lonely.
One day, just before I leave, I turn to survey the floor. The shades are at their desks. The cubicle walls are a strange, angular contrast to the organic melee around them, bright patches of order in the forest gloaming. I’ve cleared about half the floor of debris now. At the center of the room, the trees have cracked through the ceiling tiles, their crowns disappearing into the nest of pipes above.
And then I hear a strange sound, a soft, silvery tapping. It’s begun to rain. A few round, gentle drops hit my face. Then a whoosh, like the sound of blood in your ears, and in a minute I’m soaked through. My first impulse is to curse, but I think better of that, because this is a goddamn miracle.
I strip off my shirt and my pants and my shoes, peel the cloying fabric from my skin and run out to greet the rain, my feet slip-slapping on the mud. I run from one end of the floor to the other.
I stop at the opposite wall, water running down my back and shoulders and legs, still warm from my exertion. There, in the center of the wall—a wall that, for the last forty years, has been solid and windowless, built flush against the neighboring building—there, in the wall, is a door. A normal wooden door, painted white. The kind of unassuming door you’d find on a half-dozen houses on any suburban street, with a bright brass handle.
I turn and walk back to my sodden clothes. The rain lightens to a sporadic dripping. As I dress, a bright swath of golden light breaks through the canopy; the water droplets catch the light, split it into fingers full of swirling golden motes.
I decide to walk home. I cut through the city’s center, the little patch of revitalized industrial buildings, the handful of trendy restaurants patronized mostly by students, their parents, older couples who’ve fled to the outer suburbs. Then I pass through the tall cluster of aseptic hospital buildings, under the highway that cuts the whole thing in two, and into the desolation on the other side: the empty storefronts, the convenience stores with wares behind bulletproof glass, the blocks of elegant Victorians where every third house stands condemned. I try to imagine the city as it was a hundred years ago, whole and thriving, the canal filled with traffic, the factories churning out goods, the houses new and brightly painted.
I cross back under the highway, past a long stretch of green sparsely populated with churches. The houses here are more recent, the identical prefabs of postwar America, two stories, each with a two-car garage and a small lawn, for two parents, two children, one dog. Most are rundown as well, yellowed insulation crumbling from rotting eaves, shingles replaced by holes for squirrels and birds. A few have been fixed up, converted to overpriced condos for the students who are starting to colonize the neighborhood. In one, a young man has opened the window to the spring evening and leans out to smoke, his torso bare, cigarette a bright star against the dim window. I hear music and voices coming from the window behind him. A party, maybe, and I imagine the small gathering in the glow of old Christmas lights, the plastic cups, the stale beer and vodka smell. A girl sitting in a corner observing, made nervous by the palpable tensions of youth—social anxiety, pheromones, the desire to prove oneself an entire and independent being. She watches carefully; she critiques; she notes who flirts with whom and who drinks too quickly and who is too obviously performing someone he or she is not—the mannerisms stiff, as though studied, the laughter loud and forced. I realize then that I am not imagining but only projecting who I once was onto an unfamiliar face, a new name.
And now the run-down city cedes to the wealth of the university: the gleaming apartment towers, the sprawling sports complex. I turn left, following the path of a small creek that runs between artificial banks. As I head up the hill, the houses grow in scale and ambition, and while some are in poor repair—mostly those with large Greek letters tacked above the door—none are vacant, none condemned. I pass through the small business district, with its handful of restaurants, its thrift store, its tiny grocery. I pass the bakery I like. I turn right. I’m almost home.
That night, I have a dream in which I open the door over and over. I never get to see what’s on the other side. I wake up sweating and running a low fever and spend the next two days in bed. When I do return to the office, I wait for some time outside the building, debating on whether or not to go in. Surely the shades and the forest will be fine without me.
Sitting there, contemplating the building’s entrance, I’m reminded of my very first day on the job. My wife had made me breakfast, and I’d dilly-dallied so long over it that I had to sprint to the bus to make it downtown in time. I arrived at 8:57 am and then found myself paralyzed. All around me suited men and women hurried up the sidewalk and disappeared through the revolving doors like particles sucked into a vacuum. It was late spring, a warm day, the trees heavy with neon pollen. I stood and watched the brass doors go round and round, watched the rush thin to a trickle, and still I could not move. I knew I had to go in. But the child mind in me refused, knowing that what lay on the other side of that door would blur the days, collapse the nights, swallow up my wants and fears and will entire.
In the end, the adult mind won. I had promised my wife, my father. I had committed. I took a deep breath. I walked up the steps. And so on this day, so many years later, I remind myself that my work is not yet done, door or no. There are still chairs to remove and carpet to cut up and cubicles to dismantle. And someone needs to feed the fish. I shift my bag to my other hand and start up the steps. In the office above, all will be waiting for me, just as I left it. I sigh. The door opens. I walk through.
Cat Powell’s short fiction has appeared in The South Dakota Review, The Missouri Review, New Contrast, and Action, Spectacle! She grew up in Boston and has since lived in Cape Town, Syracuse, and Brooklyn, where she currently resides with her dog. She completed an MFA at Columbia University. She is working on a novel and is represented by Janklow and Nesbit. Find her on Instagram: @mildred_investigates
“One Hundred Days” by Andrea Eberly
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her 2021 Perkoff Prize finalist story “One Hundred Days,” Andrea Eberly gives us an oncologist and new mother whose past rock-star crush comes crashing into her present professional life in the form of a dying patient.
One Hundred Days
Earlier in my career as an assistant professor of medicine, I would lose myself in charting, reading, writing. I’d imagined myself all mind, just a big brain hitching a ride in a body-machine that I kept running with protein bars, premade cafeteria sandwiches, cup noodles, all washed down with cup after cup of coffee. Now my mammal-body called me back every few hours as my breasts filled with milk, two biological hourglasses that got flipped over after twenty minutes of pumping.
Wichita wichita. The breast pump’s cicada-like chorus filled the clinic’s break room. Today was Thursday, my clinic day. Since I was working as the attending physician at the hospital this month, I spent the rest of the week I was at my research lab. I willed my oxytocin-fogged head to be up to the task of skimming over two years’ worth of chart notes during a single pumping session. I stuffed salmon salad into my mouth while flipping through the electronic chart on my laptop, reviewing chemo regimens, cell counts, CT-scan images. A couple of quinoa kernels fell onto the keyboard, and I brushed them off. I was now responsible for nourishing two bodies, so I’d given up the cup noodles. This next case was new to me; he was coming in for a pretransplant workup.
Wichita wichita wichita. Drip, drip, drip.
When the medical assistant walked in to tell me the patient had arrived, I turned around to his voice. He backed out of the room, hands held up in a Hey, don’t shoot sort of gesture. Strangely bodiless, my swollen nipples pulsed with the suction of the machine, sticking out from the cone-shaped flanges strapped onto me with an elasticized corset. Larry was filling in for Sonya. Sonya was used to the pumping.
I unscrewed the bottles and pulled off the bra, losing a few drops of milk on my pants, and wrapped up the gear before chucking it all into the fridge. I rinsed out my mouth with tap water to conceal stank coffee breath before walking into the exam room. I rubbed some alcohol gel onto my hands.
A man sat on the edge of the paper-covered exam table. Slim dark jeans and a nubby sweater covered a slim body. He appeared closer to my age than his calendar age of fifty-one. But that’s how it is with cancer—the puffiness from IV fluids and steroids can make you look unnaturally young, or the disease can eat away at you and turn you old overnight.
I introduced myself, Dr. Sydney Weaver, and he reached out to shake my hand. A tattoo covered his wrist and half the back of his hand. I’d seen the image before. A blue serpent circled his wrist, scaly body looping on itself with the head eating its own tail. I recognized the ouroboros from the album art of The Invisible City. The poster was still up at my parents’ house, in my old bedroom.
Cool tattoo, I thought, very cool. I was about to say so, when I really looked at the prednisone-puffed face and the postchemo hair fuzz. The cleft in his chin cinched it.
It was him. Mr. Polo.
One night in eleventh grade, my friends and I had gone cruising. It was the late ’80s, Phoenix. Tan desert dotted with stuccoed tract houses and green lawns. All the roads at right angles to each other.
Beth, Angela, and I piled into my Ford Escort—stick shift, plastic dash cracked from endless sun, fabric-wrapped visor disintegrating into a swirl of fine powder. We’d just taken the practice SAT and were giddy with having made the first concrete move toward getting into college, which was to say, getting the hell out of Phoenix. I pushed a Mr. Polo tape into the deck, twisted the volume nob, and felt the bass shake the air, even as the warping speakers were all rattle and static. We stopped at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and drank bottomless cherry cokes. Angela smoked some cigarettes she’d stolen from her mother. Menthols. After driving past Jim Delver’s place and launching a couple of eggs at his window, we drove over to the elementary school with the big speed bumps out front. The city had painted HUMP to warn drivers to slow down. We chalked in the word KIDS underneath. After midnight, we stationed the car in the parking lot of the Ross Dress for Less where Beth worked. It was next to the Taco Bell with the late-night drive thru. We stuffed ourselves with fifty-nine-cent tacos, witnessed petty drug deals, and ripped jokes about the creepy guy in fifth period who was always drawing pictures of wolves in trench coats. Beth and I bet on which one of us he’d ask out first. Definitely Angela. We laughed our throats raw, and then we laughed more. All the while, Mr. Polo blasted from the cassette deck and we swore to each other that even when we went to college, we’d never lose touch and would be friends forever.
Back then, I just thought Mr. Polo’s music was the best thing I’d ever heard. If anyone had asked me why I loved it, I would’ve said it was because of the way he wove together the beats and sounds, how he pushed and pulled the tempos. What a dumb and technical answer, but I cared a lot about sounding smart back then. Really, I just I loved how it made me feel, how he made me feel, like he had crawled into my skull and made sense of everything. I could listen and think, Yeah, it’s just like that. Just like that.
Not long after Marco’s first appointment, I dug around in some old boxes and found my Mr. Polo CDs. I hadn’t listened to his stuff in years. With my windows down, the volume up, and my baby Maddie in the back seat, I drove around. Maddie goo goo gah gah’d and bounced her feet to the electronic drums, the synthesizer click, and Mr. Polo’s machine-gun lyrics. The baby seemed to like Mr. Polo’s middle work best, before he returned to real drums and guitar shreds. In the delicious anticipation of the next beat, the next musical structure, feelings poured through me that were both familiar and strange.
Of course, in medical school I’d learned about dopamine and the pleasure and reward centers in the brain, so I figured music was like drugs, food, and sex—big fat dopamine hits in the deepest parts of the brain. I once shared this theory with Ben, my best buddy from med school, when we were studying neurotransmission, and he joked that I had a pretty mechanical view of the best parts of being alive.
Ben and I had ended up living together in San Francisco for our internal medicine residencies. We shared a one-bedroom—I paid more rent to get the bedroom and Ben slept on the couch-bed. We often went to the laundromat together, the nicer one a little farther away called the Lost Sock. When we washed clothes, Ben always came up one sock short. He had an old shoe box filled with the singletons taking up valuable real estate on our bookshelf at the apartment. I guess he was an optimist, believing that someday all the socks would be reunited. Me, I used to put all my socks in a mesh bag, so it was impossible to lose one. I believed in planning, not luck.
We’d watch our clothes spin around in the dryer while dreaming out loud about the next stages of our careers. Classic overachievers, both of us planned on doing fellowships following residency. I told Ben I wanted to go into hematology/oncology. Ben said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go into oncology, because so many of those patients were not fixable. That was the appeal of infectious disease, he said. Match the drug to the bug and cure the patient.
I told him that I didn’t want to stop just at regular oncology. I would push further. Hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. Every patient on a research protocol as investigators trialed new combinations of medications, new methods of harvesting cells. The fucking Wild West of medicine. In transplant, the goal wasn’t just a feeble extension of life. It was cure.
I wanted to be a goddam cowboy.
On the days Mr. Polo, whose given name was Marco Schellenbach, was on my schedule, a fluttery feeling filled my chest. I wore mascara and was careful not to leave the house with a white blob of dried spit-up on my blouse, even as I was less careful about fastening up all that blouse’s buttons. My husband would sometimes even tell me I looked nice as I dashed out of the house.
On one of those days, as I waited for Marco to arrive for his appointment, I massaged the kinks out of a grant application that was due the following day. My grad student, technician, and two postdocs didn’t deserve to end up unemployed because I couldn’t get my act together and secure funding. I yawned. My kid’s first teeth were coming in, so I was getting little to no sleep, even by new parent standards. The only thing that kept Maddie from screaming was constant attachment to my breast. All. Night. Long.
Marco came in and sat down in a chair—not the exam bench—next to the office computer and stared at his hands. I started with the results of his last bone marrow biopsy.
“Your leukemia is no longer detectable.”
“So that means I can get the transplant?”
His lips pulled into a smile that gripped my heart as we hashed out some of the other details—which conditioning regimen he’d get, the brother who was a match, the sister who could come out from Waco to shepherd him through recovery.
“Do you have any more questions?”
Marco picked up one of the two photos on my desk. Since I shared the exam room, I always had to remember to take my photos home at the end of the day.
“Your baby is cute. How old is she?”
“That’s Maddie. She’s six months old.”
“Who’s the guy in the other photo? Your brother?”
He was asking about the one with the blonde in a tux standing next to the redheaded bride. A lot of patients send their doctors cards with family photos, and we put them up in our offices. I knew it blurred the lines of patient confidentiality, but I couldn’t help myself and answered Marco’s question knowing the hope that the photo could inspire.
One of my first patients.
“Did he live?”
My fellowship had just started when Jason, the guy in the photo, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia—same diagnosis as Marco. I remember the spring in my step in those days; I’d been driven by my belief that the initial induction and consolidation treatments would work, and even if they didn’t, there was always another step, another treatment, so many different chemotherapy cocktails. I’d prescribed the clotrimazole troches for his thrush during salvage treatment. I’d optimized his antirejection meds. He survived, grew back his hair, got married, and sent me that wedding announcement—the photo on my desk. He’d been the first patient I ushered through the whole process. The first patient I cured.
Marco nodded and pursed his lips as he looked at the photo. His brow twitched. I wondered if he was imagining himself in a similar photo, hair grown back, muscles rounded out. A future without cancer. A posttreatment world.
What was I thinking, leaving the neck of my blouse undone?
During our appointments, I kept thinking that Marco would eventually mention music, like Hey, last weekend I was messing around on my Roland 808 drum machine . . .
But he never did. It became a bit like when you’ve been talking to someone at a party all night long and realize you don’t know their name. You can’t ask anymore. In this case, I wanted to tell Marco that I loved his work, but it seemed deceptive to not have said anything for so long. Maybe he valued what he’d believed was a certain anonymity in our interactions. I mean, I’d now seen him naked under a backless hospital gown, taken blood, knew his whole medical history. So intimate, and yet.
It became a secret I watered like a houseplant. But not any houseplant. Maybe an orchid, where the pleasure was married to the toil of keeping it alive.
While I waited for Marco to arrive—that patient before him had canceled—I caught up on emails. My grad student almost had enough data to write a paper, but her figures were awful, and I didn’t have the time to really get into it, so I closed the email and opened up Amazon to buy some new clothes for my daughter. No one told me it would be so sad to retire Maddie’s six-month footed pajamas, the ones with the hedgehogs.
Earlier that week, I’d replaced Maddie’s photo with a new one. My husband was holding her, and you could just see his hands. Maddie had two tiny bottom teeth. Marco noticed the new photo immediately when he sat down. He said she looked like me. That was when I asked him about his daughter and immediately felt my face grow three sizes too big, hot and red.
My leukemia patient had never told me about his daughter.
In high school and college, I’d read every article about Mr. Polo in Spin or Rolling Stone or whatever other music rag. My high school binder was covered in a collage of magazine cutouts, and the one taking up the most space was a black-and-white photo of Mr. Polo in sunglasses screaming into a mic. I still had a pair of the same aviators.
“I’m actually a huge fan,” I mumbled and swallowed and drummed my fingers against my leg, and the air in the room was jelly. What would he say?
“My daughter just finished art school,” he said. “Hard to believe she was ever that little.” He motioned toward the photo of Maddie.
“Yeah. It goes by fast,” I said. After a moment, I got my nerve up to meet his eye and asked, “What kind of art does she do?”
“She wants to open a tattoo shop.”
He paused and took a deep breath, almost like he was tired from the talking. He lifted his arm, the one with the ouroboros, and said, “She always liked my tattoos. She likes the idea of living art.”
We went over his lab results before he got onto the exam table. I placed my stethoscope over the jaguar tattoo on his back, and the tip of my finger brushed his ink. My heart skipped into my throat as I listened to his breaths go in and out.
Right after graduating college, my roommates and I took a road trip to a big open-air concert near Jackson Hole. Mr. Polo was the headliner. On the stage, Mr. Polo unbuttoned his starched white shirt. Under the stage lights, his muscles rippled, creating the illusion that the stylized jaguar tattooed on his back was alive.
Masses of sweaty bodies, moving to the beat. The violence, the raw physicality of the crowd, edged on sexy. With disassociation from caring and really letting loose, I was for the tiniest moment living life without my mind—I was just a body swimming in thereness, if there even is such a word—synched up with Mr. Polo and his music.
After the concert, we camped for a few nights off a dirt road that lay in the border region between Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park. One night in the tent, my roommate dug out a piece of paper from her bag and wrote the letters MASH on top. It had been ages since any of us had played that schoolgirl game. Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. A game to predict our futures. The game foretold that I would end up in an apartment with five kids, working as a movie star and married to Dr. Richards, our lech biochemistry professor, whom we always saw working out at the campus gym in such short shorts I swear you could see his nut sack. My roommate got a mansion and was married to Mr. Polo. Lucky her.
Our campsite was near a stream. From our tent we heard something splashing in the water, and then it would stop before starting up again. Was it bison charging through the water? A massive grizzly bear catching fish? We’d been hitting the hash pipe, and paranoia tickled the napes of our necks. That fall I would be heading off to medical school—my roommate, too. My other roommate had been accepted to a PhD program in chemical engineering. We snort-laughed as we imagined the headline. “Young talent cut short. Eaten by bears.”
I unzipped the tent, and my bare feet felt as though they were floating over the chalky dirt as I padded toward the stream. I parted the willow branches like a curtain just in time to see a cloud of white pelicans landing in an explosion of water. They floated with the current of the creek a stretch before flying upstream to land and float downstream again. Paranoia melted into awe as I stumbled back to the tent.
Safely zipped inside the tent, we listened to the sounds of pelicans taking off and landing in splashes of creek water, and we fell asleep to the rhythm of living things.
As usual after working at the lab, I had to get Maddie from day care. The day care teacher told me Maddie had started to point.
Earlier that day I’d reviewed Marco’s chart to see how he was doing. He was two weeks out from his transplant and still admitted to the hospital. His liver enzymes were through the roof, and he was suffering watery diarrhea—graft versus host disease or maybe side effects from the conditioning regimen. We’d know more when the pathology report came back.
My stomach filled with ash.
I strapped Maddie into her car seat. Mostly I was ignoring the stream of garbling sounds emerging from her mouth, when I jammed my finger into one of the buckles. The fingernail of my left middle finger bent back, and pain seared through my hand. It was all I could do to not yell “Fuck!” to not plow my fist into my thigh. I sucked on the finger to dull the ache and inhaled a couple of times. Maddie’s long toes wriggled, taunting me. Goddammit, her sock was off again. What was it with children’s feet and socks? I leaned over, the waistband of my jeans cutting into my belly fat, and picked up the pink-and-white knit thing. Maddie stuck her thumb in her mouth and gave me the stink eye as I pulled the sock over her foot for the eight hundredth time before cinching the straps of her car seat.
One Thursday in clinic, after Marco had been discharged from the hospital, he talked to me about his garden.
“Sydney, what is your favorite apple?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well, a few years back I planted a Gravenstein tree. This year it has two apples, so next year it should really start producing. Maybe enough for a pie. Gravensteins make the best pies. My grandma had a big tree in her yard, and she baked with nothing else.”
During another visit he told me about a novel he was trying to complete. He said this in between body-wracking coughs that he tried to cover with trembling hands.
“I’m about halfway through revising it.”
“I didn’t know you wrote.”
“My head is filled with all these people—my characters. It will be weird to say goodbye when I’m done with the book.”
I kept hoping he’d talk to me about the music, especially now that he knew I was a fan. I wanted to learn about his process for writing songs, choosing samples, what it was like to stand on the stage above a sea of dancing bodies.
Somewhere inside these conversations lurked his real question: Will I get be able to get my book done?
Am I going to die?
No, deeper still.
When will I die?
One hundred days after I had birthed my daughter, my mom watched her while Craig and I went to a café for a glass of wine to celebrate having kept our baby alive for this milestone. As we walked home, the clouds cracked open with a fountain of rain. We ran the last blocks back to the house, and something warm happened between my legs. I knew what it was, but still hoped I was wrong.
My body had fallen apart to bring new life into the world.
I wanted control of my bladder back.
I’ve always wanted control.
On day eighty-seven posttransplant, it was confirmed that Marco’s leukemia was back. He didn’t get to one hundred days.
Marco paced in the office. Not the violent lunging steps of a healthy man, not the vigorous movements of that man I’d seen so many years before at that festival in Wyoming, but the nervous shuffle of a sick man. A scared man. I explained that the prognosis for people whose leukemias relapsed within one hundred days of transplant was grim.
“What does that mean, Doctor?”
He usually called me Sydney.
I met his question with silence, and that was when he started to cry.
The lights in our living room were on a timer. They clicked off at ten thirty. So did the heat. I had already put Maddie to bed. and Craig was upstairs playing on his computer. The baby cried, and I didn’t think it could be that she was hungry; she had just eaten. I hollered at Craig to go in and get her back down.
Ghost-like light from my laptop filled the room as I flipped through the PubMed database, sifting the medical literature for any option that could go after Marco’s leukemia. There had to be something there if you looked hard enough.
My breasts filled with milk.
I saved links, skimmed abstracts, printed a couple of articles, made notes. Normally I would have fed Maddie around midnight, but I kept working until the sky lightened and birds chirped outside the window. My breasts felt like they had become bags filled with stones. Finally, Craig came downstairs and asked why I hadn’t ever come to bed. I couldn’t say much more than that I was trying to help a patient. I couldn’t tell Craig I was treating Mr. Polo. You know, HIPAA and all that.
Craig went back upstairs and returned a few minutes later with the baby.
“Syd, Maddie’s hungry.”
He said it like “hawngree.” It was our joke.
I held Maddie to my breast. The flood of milk made her cough, and pain shot through me as she clamped down on my nipple.
She now had four teeth. Two top and two bottom.
Maddie’s swallows made little “kah” sounds. A recent paper outlined how something called a FLT-3 inhibitor could attack the leukemia cells, but the drug was still in clinical trials. Could I procure it for Marco? Sometimes drug companies let you use experimental therapies for what they called “compassionate use.” I had to try. I’d contact the medical science liaison at Novo Nordisk. They’d give me the drug. They had to.
The baby dozed off at my breast. A flutter of guilt rushed through me for ignoring her. I remembered the advice my mother had given me—sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t fight nature. So I picked up her sleep-limp body and carried her into bed with me. I held her to my chest and breathed in the scent of her hair. My own restlessness seemed so abrupt and harsh next to her sleeping form. Her eyelashes were so long. I had no idea that a baby could have such long eyelashes. Underneath the paper-thin lids, her eyes twitched. What was she dreaming about? What would her dreams be? My body was tired, but my mind resisted sleep, and my thoughts wove in and out and kept coming back to the same place. Physicians were just body mechanics. Why could some bodies be fixed, while others failed? What if I couldn’t patch it up and get it back on the road? A package of bones and tissues and vessels and blood—was that all we were?
How many hours did I spend on the phone or drafting emails to the drug company? But inside Marco, his cancer had a schedule of its own.
There hadn’t been time to work through the regulatory hurdle for the experimental drug, so he’d elected to try another transplant. I told him it was a long shot, that it was off protocol and that there was no way his insurance would cover it. Marco didn’t care that his insurance wouldn’t pay. After all, he’d quipped, what else was a gold album for? I tried to be clear and upfront about the risks, about how we were going into unknown territory, that his body hadn’t recovered from the first transplant. But the truth was I never suggested he shouldn’t do it. Not really.
I wasn’t attending the month he got the second transplant, so it wasn’t as a physician that I visited Marco at the hospital. He had a scarf wrapped around his head. He’d been in the room long enough that his family had decorated. A huge line drawing of Marco holding a toddler girl—I had to assume his daughter—was taped to the bathroom door. I had to blink for a moment to control myself. The image so keenly evoked how it felt to hold your child. Marco said his daughter had drawn it and was planning to have it tattooed on her calf.
“Are you able to eat?” I asked.
“Yeah, when I don’t feel too sick.”
“I brought you some pie. The farmer’s market didn’t have Gravensteins, so I got some other kind the guy recommended.” I pulled a Pyrex out of my bag and put a small piece of pie on a paper plate I’d nabbed from the unit’s nourishment room.
“And don’t worry, Marco, it meets criteria for neutropenic precautions.”
Marco smiled and took a small bite.
“I didn’t expect you’d be so good at baking.”
I wasn’t his doctor today. I also wasn’t his friend; that would be presumptuous. There was some sort of blurry relationship between us. I finally asked if we could talk about the music.
Marco had been in the hospital for over a month when it was once again my month to attend on the inpatient unit. His head glistened, totally bald from the treatment. Yellow complexion and sunken eyes, knobby hands, jutting collarbones. His skin like a loose suit over his frame. Diarrhea came next, neutropenic fever, a rectal tube, blood-pressure support. He was altered and could no longer hold a conversation. And then came the breathing tube.
His body was still there, however tenuously, but where had he gone?
Marco’s daughter came every day to visit and sometimes asked questions during rounds. Sometimes they weren’t really questions.
“Is he going to wake up?”
“Why aren’t the treatments working?”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
I was home in bed with my baby and my husband the night Marco coded. I found out the next day that the team had worked on him for over an hour, getting his pulse back a couple times before they called it. I was glad I wasn’t there. I didn’t want my last memory of him to be of his body getting smashed by chest compressions while blood frothed around the breathing tube and his eyes became fixed and dilated. The eyes of the dead aren’t like in the movies. They don’t stay closed when you brush your hands over them. The lids spring back open.
That last conversation, the one we had over pie, I’d literally taken notes as Marco talked about his influences. And it wasn’t just other music, but visual artists and novels too. I did mean to look it all up. But as I sat in my office and held the wrinkled piece of notebook paper trying to figure out why I’d scrawled the half sentence, most people like rubbers, I realized I was already remembering it wrong. The notes were meaningless. Sure, I had asked him some questions, but mostly I’d just gushed about how much his music meant to me and how much fun it had been to dance at his shows. Suddenly, a thousand questions leaped into my brain, things I hadn’t asked him. Would never be able to ask him.
Had it been about me all along?
Marco had been gone for two weeks when I received a letter in my office mailbox. It was from Marco’s daughter. I held the small blue card for several minutes before I had the courage to open it.
Thanks for taking such good care of my father. He said you were a fan, and I know that shouldn’t make a difference, but it did.
Later that week, on a sunny Saturday morning, I decided to take Maddie to the park. I buckled my seatbelt, turned the ignition, and stuck in a Mr. Polo CD. Maddie yelled, and I craned around. Her staccato laugh filled the car, and she wiggled her legs and feet. One of her socks hung from her toes.
At the next red light, I turned back to Maddie. Her foot was now bare. I didn’t pick up the sock. Instead, I pulled off the other one and released her beautiful baby foot. She kicked and giggled as I tickled her feet. I was laughing so hard that I didn’t notice the light had turned green until the car behind me laid on its horn.
I was laughing so hard, I peed.
And now? When I listen to Mr. Polo, it is like drinking a memory, taking a hit of the way it felt to be seventeen, parked outside of Ross and laughing with my best friends, how it felt to lie in a tent listening to pelicans splash, how it felt to sit in the car tickling the feet of my beautiful daughter, always on the jagged edge of the rest of my life.
Andrea Eberly works as a clinical pharmacist in emergency medicine. Her stories have appeared in Witness, Southwest Review, Carve, Bellevue Literary Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel-length work.
“Heart-Scalded” by Daphne Kalotay
Daphne Kalotay’s sensitive depiction of a terminally ill woman bravely attending a party where she knows she’ll run into her ex is not your usual Halloween-party story, but within this narrative of emotional pain and acceptance, we find intimations of magic–and mortality. “Heart-Scalded” first appeared in our summer 2021 issue (44:2). You can read our interview with Daphne here.
by Daphne Kalotay
Twilight’s hazy glow, the world covered in gray lint. Viv hailed a ride and set out toward the crumbling edge of town. Though it was nearly November, leaves still clung to branches, some in the blazing colors of life, most a parched brown. Odd how warm it is, her driver said, as they rose over the bridge that just months ago she would have crossed on her bike. A cluster of figures slipped toward them along the walkway, dressed strangely, like characters in a play. She turned to look, but they were already past.
Fun plans for the evening? her driver asked. The streetlamps weren’t yet lit, and the fading sky looked thick enough to touch.
I’m going to a pig roast.
Parties at Len’s always began early and went into the wee hours. Viv told herself she was just stopping by, didn’t have to stay long, though she had taken time on her makeup—smoky eyeliner and a thin, feathery pencil for her brows. She had even considered false lashes, since they seemed to be in fashion even for women in their thirties like her. Slid silver hoops through her earlobes, draped her favorite twisty cotton scarf around her neck, found her silver cuff bracelet and pushed it up to her biceps like a sort of amulet.
It’s here on the right, she said. A house like a wilting wedding cake where Len rented rooms to a few former grad school friends who, like him, had yet to convert to more standard arrangements. She thanked her driver and stepped out into the gloaming.
Voices wafted from the backyard, where winking orange bulbs dipped along the fence and the pig smoldered in its box. The company called it a Chinese box, Len had told her, while Viv had held back any commentary on corporate opportunism or Len’s naïveté, tried not to be so Viv; no one liked being forced to see the truth. A dozen or so thirty-somethings looked vaguely her way. There was something odd about them, or maybe it was just her nerves.
Hey, stranger! Len came to envelop her in one of his hugs. He was wearing a chain-mail getup, like a knight in armor. His embrace was awkward.
Viv didn’t find it odd that he was wearing chain mail; he ordered the new limited-edition Lego set each year and still liked to play dress-up. The orange bulbs reflected in the lenses of his glasses. On-off, on-off. He said, I love your look. You’ve got the heroin chic thing down.
She laughed, though she’d used bronzer and lip tint, had even purchased a sparkly body cream. Probably she should pull her sweatshirt on. She was wearing loose crepe pants, because they were the baggiest she had, and a silvery T-shirt, and black canvas sneakers with the anklet she still wore, even though it was from Aziz and she had rid herself of most things he had given her. The anklet had a small silver starfish that had once seemed to her to be good luck. These past two years had not caused her to remove it.
Around her, the air was sticky, smoky. She said, How long until you think it’s ready?
Should be done about now. Can I get you a drink?
I’ll get it, she said, already searching warily, though Aziz often arrived later to these things. A head taller than most, he was usually easy to spot. She wondered if he would look the same or if, like Len, he would have gone thicker in the face.
At a table crowded with bottles and stacked plastic cups and a bowl of melting ice cubes, she poured herself a lukewarm soda water, squeezed a tight wedge of lime. Up close she saw that the fence was covered in a thin fuzz of the vivid green mold-like moss that had overtaken everything after the summer of too much rain. Despite its dire warning, a stunning color. Even in the dusk, it glowed, bright with rejuvenation. A few times, she had tried mixing her paints to match it but always ended up with neon yellow.
Hullo, said a frowning man plucking a can of beer from the plastic cooler. Cyrus, he said. I work with Len.
Their parent corporation had been caught falsifying data concerning waste disposal at their factories, Viv knew from texting with Len the other night. Len said he just had to pay off his student loans and then could look for a new job.
I’m Viv. The bubbles in her glass sped upward, exploding at the surface.
Cyrus moved to take a sip of beer but had to pull down a long white beard strapped to his chin. Viv realized he was in costume, too—some sort of wizard. She said, Is this a costume party?
He laughed. A Halloween party!
But—Halloween isn’t until—
Oh! She had lost track of time. Except for her friend Laurel, who worked in New York but still hadn’t fully moved there, she had mainly spent these past months alone in her apartment, painting watercolors when she wasn’t woozy or watching movies sideways on the sofa. The institute where she wrote educational pamphlets and other communications had hired a freelancer to cover the hours she missed.
Not big on Halloween, eh? Do you know anyone here?
She nodded. She used to come here all the time when she and Aziz were together. I actually met you before, she said. I came with Len to a Christmas party a couple of years ago, up in Prudential Center.
He looked at her more closely. Ah, right, you’re the artist. You’ve cut your hair.
She said, I remember you telling me how your wife used to be a competitive ice-skater.
The man shook his head mournfully, his artificial beard swaying from his neck. He said, Viv, I have the worst marriage in Massachusetts.
He had an explanation for what had gone wrong, something to do with his wife being a descendant of Mayflower pilgrims. Viv glanced up when she could, to see if Aziz had arrived.
She had been warned that the fiancée would be with him. Though Viv had known about her for a year already, it mattered to have to see her for the first time. Just as it had mattered when, after Len broke the news, he had added, perhaps thinking it would make her feel better, She’s not as pretty as you. That was when Viv’s heart had shredded to bits because it meant the fiancée was real. That even if Viv could have her old prettiness back, it wouldn’t matter, because Aziz loved someone else now.
They had taken the pig from the Chinese box and laid it out on the picnic table. A few vegetarians acted briefly repulsed.
Will you look at that, the man with the worst marriage in Massachusetts said. A mosquito. In October. He flicked it from the back of his hand.
Perhaps sensing she was toxic, the insect avoided her. The man said, The apocalypse really is coming if mosquitos are out this late.
But she could tell from the way he said it that he didn’t believe it.
Viv! It was Joe and Jerry, Aziz and Len’s soccer friends. They were at least a decade older but never missed Len’s parties. She wasn’t sure if they were in costume or not. Joe liked to cross-dress and tonight wore a slender black dress awink with sequins, while Jerry wore a dark suit over a white shirt. Viv began to make introductions, but everyone had already met.
Viv, Joe said, I was just saying to Jerry the other day—I swear—I wondered whatever happened with that garden plot you’d been on the waitlist for forever—
I got it.
She got it! What are you growing? You always had such a green thumb with Aziz’s poor dejected plants.
It was true she had resuscitated the houseplants Aziz’s mother had bought to brighten the affectless bachelor pad, with Viv feeding and pruning them until some even needed to be repotted. After Viv moved in, an entire wall of the apartment became jungle-like, plants practically climbing out of their pots, the air in the apartment fresh, moist.
Well, she said, this wasn’t the best growing season, actually, with so much rain.
Of course, of course. God, I mean, look at this thing. Joe gestured toward the cement planter beside him, which held the stubby remains of a bare, clearly dead plant. Or maybe he meant the cement tub itself. It was covered in a light fuzz of that alarmingly bright green moss that seemed to be growing on so much else, giving an eerie glow to the decorative pattern embossed on the planter: a circle of figures dancing. Perhaps because the original cement mold was cheap, the figures’ faces were blank. The thing somehow struck Viv as sinister.
Exactly, she said, rather than add that there had been stretches where she could not make it to her plot at all. She saw the way everyone was looking at her, realizing. As if to compensate, Jerry said, Your hair looks fantastic!
Viv wanted to hide, wished she hadn’t left her sweatshirt on the folding chair by the picnic table. People were tearing into the pig now, stripping off the meat and piling it onto big oval platters. Yearning to hide, Viv lowered her gaze. There was the cement planter, the neon fuzz. It really was eerie, the way the faceless dancers glowed beneath those spores or lichen or whatever that green fuzz was, while inside the planter lay nothing but the finality of death. Desperate, trying to think of some diversion, she said, Are you in costume?
We’re that Bryan Ferry video, the one with the models! At Viv’s reaction, Jerry turned to Joe. I told you they’re too young to know it.
She saw them then. Aziz and the fiancée. They must have just arrived, because Aziz was carrying a six-pack of the hard cider he liked. He and the fiancée were dressed as Daddy Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie. Even as a joke, it still seemed to Viv repulsive; everyone knew Aziz had sold out to Len’s corporation and now had a corner office in Kendall Square. Len said it was one of those new constructions, sky high, with lunch ordered in daily, delivered by unseen couriers at a back entryway.
Just seeing them made her feel briefly dizzy. She had to remove her scarf. Jerry said, Come on, let’s eat!
Along with the oval platters of meat, there were broad aluminum trays of sticky yellow cornbread, of dusty buttermilk biscuits, vats of barbecue sauce and gravy, coleslaw, and gooey baked beans. Viv scooped clumps of the food onto a paper plate. It was tricky because she was trying to keep her arms folded to hide the bruises where the nurse struggled to insert the tube into her veins. For a long time now the nurses, beleaguered, had been urging her to get a port.
Well, look who’s here. A warm hand touched her arm.
Oh—hi, Aziz. She let herself be kissed on the cheek, Aziz bending down to her. His lips were warm.
Cute haircut! Annoyingly handsome in his crisp black suit and bow tie, Aziz did not look very disturbed to see her transformed. Len had probably told him what to expect. Hey, meet Stacy.
So good to meet you, Viv, I’ve heard so much about you! She seemed genuinely pleased. As much as Viv wanted to appear composed, she had to set her plate down. The fiancée shook her hand, her palm, like Aziz’s, much warmer than Viv’s. And Viv felt herself smiling, heard herself speaking, thought, I am chatting with Aziz’s fiancée and, later on, when the air had cooled and she had found her sweatshirt, as they sat in chairs around the woodstove on the patio and ate from the paper plates on their laps, I like Aziz’s fiancée; she’s pleasant.
The drugs made the food taste strange. The compostable utensils seemed to be decomposing in her hands. She wondered if it was the toxins, glanced around her to see if others were having trouble. Len was at least right that the fiancée wasn’t as pretty as Viv. Well, how could she be in an orange Orphan Annie wig?
Aziz told Viv she looked fetching with her eyes all circled in black like a raccoon.
That wasn’t the look I was going for, Slim, but thanks. The humidity must have smudged her makeup. She used her paper napkin to dab the skin below her eyes, secretly grateful for Aziz’s teasing, as if nothing had changed.
You called him Slim, Stacy said.
Oh—I call him that sometimes.
It gave Viv a small pleasure to know this was something Aziz hadn’t shared, that he also would have kept to himself his pet name for Viv. Sometimes she ached to hear him call her Beep again.
Hmm, now I’ve smeared it. I’ll be back. Viv stood to make her way to the bathroom, passing a woman dressed in scrubs, with gloves, protective goggles, and elastic booties, like a nurse in a toxic emergency. Or maybe that really was her job, and she had simply worn her work clothes as her costume.
There was a line for the restroom. Viv leaned against the wall, unzipped her sweatshirt. She had avoided these gatherings for a long time, but Len must have known that telling her the fiancée would be here would dare her to come. And, he had added, I miss you.
He was the only one among them to whom she still spoke. Gave updates. But she knew he told the others. There were emails from a mutual acquaintance who practiced acupuncture, enclosing a diet she suggested Viv follow, along with a mantra: You can choose bliss! Though Viv never responded, the messages continued to arrive in her inbox.
She listened to the conversation ahead of her, whispers about Len’s corporation and its ties to one of the candidates in next year’s election.
Elections don’t matter—
What do you mean, don’t you vote?
No, I don’t vote! The voice sounded offended. But the bathroom door had opened, and the speaker disappeared inside. The interlocutor turned in bafflement to Viv. Can you believe it?
It was one of Len’s renters, or former renters. Viv tried to recall her name. She was dressed, it seemed, as a sexy witch, an excuse, Viv supposed, to wear—along with the pointy black hat and green face paint— fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, and nothing across her midriff, which (this Viv did remember) she had always spent a lot of time on at Pilates classes. She said, Viv, wow, hi! I love your hair!
It wasn’t her hair, but it was true it looked better than her real hair ever had. Same bronze color, but short and flirty, with a little curl at the ends. The witch said, It looks French.
Her face paint was not the usual witch green, more like the color of the worrisome mold outside. Viv asked if she still lived in the house.
I moved to Atlanta for work, can you believe it? I’m just here for the weekend, I have to go to a memorial service tomorrow. She shrugged. I still have that drawing you did of the blue jay. I love it.
Viv said, I like the color of your face paint.
Thanks—it was actually a darker green, but I use this serum and it made it turn this color. Oh, my turn. The bathroom was free again.
Viv waited, voices reverberating off the walls.
. . . teaches this like adult ed class it’s called Time for Terrariums and like people actually take it.
We made a pact; next year we’ll go to the DR if this year he comes with me to Iceland.
Len said she has some rare kind of cancer, there’s no real treatment, they just try whatever until it stops working, then try something else.
Viv tried not to listen. Tried not to think of Stacy in her red dress with the white collar. The costume said it all, Viv supposed. Deep down Aziz must have longed for someone like that, who could be ironic and fully participate in the rituals of the masses. Unlike Viv, who on the night they met had bonded with him over having grown up in the suburbs without any sense of fitting in. As much as Aziz said he liked that Viv looked at the world askance, clearly what he had needed was a Stacy.
Stacy wouldn’t chide him for taking start-up money from a developer who opposed the bill to stop illegal fishing off the Cape. Wouldn’t dare ask if smart technology was always necessarily smart (knowing full well his company was based on the premise). Wouldn’t have set off their worst fight by calling his approach to business remorseless.
How you holding up? It was a mutual friend of Viv and Aziz, dressed as Mary Poppins. For a moment it seemed she knew how hard it had been for Viv to come here tonight, to see Stacy in the flesh, and to be seen herself, looking like this.
The truth was, in order to come here, Viv had actually allowed herself to think of the party as somehow perversely restorative: a trial-by-fire cure. Because if she could live through this—seeing Aziz and his fiancée together, and all the while being witnessed, by everyone else, seeing them—then surely she could survive anything.
I’m fine, how about you? She said it by rote.
Mary Poppins said, I didn’t realize Stacy was pregnant. I’m always the last to hear these things. Still, I imagine it kind of sucks.
The floor dropped from under Viv’s feet. Viv looked for the bathroom door to open, managed to stammer something. Oh, yeah, well. She thought of the gentle confidence she had noted in Stacy, reassessing it as a pleased smugness.
Thank god, here was the witch. Viv escaped into the bathroom, leaned against the sink. In the mirror, her face shocked her. She didn’t look ugly. But with the dark eyeliner and circles of fatigue below, she looked skinny and strung out.
There was a phrase Laurel had taught her, back when Viv and Aziz first split up and Viv, alone in the attic studio she had found, felt a despair she hadn’t known possible. When each night her thoughts followed the same looping circle—that as much as Aziz had loved her, she had not been what he thought he wanted, that she should never have expressed those thoughts that had hurt him. When her mother, trying to be helpful, said, It’s not the end of the world.
You’re heart-scalded, Laurel had explained. A term from the British side of her family. An anguished, active grief. Viv’s dictionary said it meant tormented by bitter disappointment, sorrow, or remorse.
Not just grief at the loss, but the ongoing torment of her regret. The sense that if she could have been different, could have tamped down her horror at human obduracy, Aziz would have loved her as she had loved him: wholly, unstintingly, enough to have endured.
She went to use the toilet, trying to tell herself not to dwell on what she had just heard. What did it matter? She would be gone, she already knew quite well, before any baby arrived.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
Be right out! Viv flushed her toxic pee into the sewers. Washed her hands. Did not look in the mirror. Time to leave. There was nothing left for her here.
She was still making her way through the narrow, echoing hallway when someone stopped her. Like Viv, he did not appear to be in costume, just dark jeans, black T-shirt, and sneakers. And while he seemed to know Viv, she could not quite remember him. How are you feeling? he asked, and the pity in his voice made her want to slug him.
He swallowed his swig of beer, not waiting for a response, said, Seeing her with him must be hard. Aziz doesn’t deserve her or you. That guy just gets things handed to him.
It wasn’t true. Aziz had worked until late every night to get his company going. Plus lunches and dinners with investors who made him feel that all he did was beg, a nonstop cycle of schmoozing. He’d even confessed to Viv that he couldn’t stand a good half of those guys, whom he suspected wouldn’t deign to speak to him if they didn’t think he was worth something to them. And now that he’d partnered with Len’s corporation, he was basically trapped.
Anyway, I put a spell on him for you.
Viv would have raised her eyebrows if she had any. What’s that supposed to mean?
A curse. On Aziz.
Um, that was actually unnecessary. I don’t harbor any ill will toward Aziz. In fact—
Sure you don’t. He gave a closemouthed smile, his eyes becoming narrower.
No, really—but the guy tilted his head and said, Be honest with yourself, Viv. It’s okay to want it.
But she didn’t want it. At least, she didn’t think so. Whenever she glimpsed the starfish anklet around her bony ankle, she still thought of how Aziz had noticed her admiring it in the shop at Wellfleet and gone back for it while she was napping on the beach. He called her Beep from early in their relationship, when he came out dancing with her, which he had pretended to enjoy, but Viv could tell he didn’t like bumping up against other sweaty bodies. She kept trying to carve out a space for just the two of them, to discreetly elbow away all the others. Beep beep! he had said when he noticed what she was doing, to which she had countered, Mister open-source communal tech guy needs his personal patch of dance floor! And he had danced with her until late, because he saw she was happy.
God, I was awful, she thought now. Shaking her head, she asked this guy who so clearly envied Aziz, What do you know about spells?
I took a class! Looking insulted, he added, I’ve been practicing.
In that case, how about a cure, huh? Instead of a curse?
An interesting premise, he said. If you had a choice of being cured but no longer having Aziz in your life, versus no cure but getting Aziz back, which would you choose?
Well that’s a ridiculous question. Obviously—
Is it really?
She nearly added that it was obnoxious, too. Instead, she just said, Look, I don’t need your help.
But he just winked and said, It’s already taken care of.
Viv did not thank him. I’ve got to go now, actually. She looked around the room as if someone were waiting to escort her out. There was the You can choose bliss woman, in some sort of superhero attire. Viv quickly turned toward the kitchen to make a beeline out the back door.
Outside, the woodstove spat sparks at the circle of guests in chairs, still digging into their soggy plates of food. On the ground around them were half-empty bottles of alcohol. The pig carcass lay on the picnic table. Viv meant to slip away—she would text Len tomorrow to thank him—but someone tapped her arm.
Have you seen Aziz?
It was Stacy. She had removed the orange wig, exposing a short hairdo not unlike Viv’s: pixie bangs and little commas in front of her ears. She said, I can’t find him anywhere.
Hi, no, I haven’t seen him. He must have gone to use one of the upstairs bathrooms.
I already asked. Frustration showed on her face, and she did not bother to continue but went to ask someone else. Viv heard Len’s voice sifting through an upstairs window, Aziz, hey, you up here?
She was glad people were huddled around the woodstove, that they wouldn’t see her slinking away and not helping to look for Aziz. Starting down the slate path, she reached up to loop her scarf.
It took a moment to remember where she had discarded it. Back at the table where the drinks had been, there were now just empty bottles and used plastic cups. Ah, there was the scarf, under the winking orange lights. She snatched it up, relieved to have remembered.
A sound startled her. She felt herself tense; she knew there were rats around. There it was again. A kitten? Not quite a squeak, not quite a mew. A small, weak sound.
She moved nearer to the winking lights and heard it again, the muffled sound of some tiny being. Less a cry than a hum. The sound seemed to be coming from within the cheap cement planter.
She bent to examine it—difficult with just the light from the porch. But she must have frightened the tiny creature. There was only silence. The porchlight illuminated the side of the planter, so that even in the dark, Viv noticed something in the raised pattern. One dancer whose shape did not match the others.
Taller and thinner. The pattern of the cement mold must have gotten cut off halfway. Viv took out her phone to turn on the flashlight, shone it on the pattern. Unlike the other dancers, covered in mossy green, this figure had a face.
A nose protruded from the cement, creases where the corners of lips met. And the edge of an eye. Viv touched the lips—quickly drew back her hand. The lips were warm.
She hurried away, out to the street. Did not linger to hire a car. She had stayed too late; her scalp prickled hot with sweat. Removing the wig, she decided to walk the three blocks to the bus stop. She would call a car there, or just take the bus.
With each footfall on the cracked pavement, the thought became clearer. That sound she had heard. It had sounded an awful lot like a beep.
Just one more hypersensitivity. A side effect, like the thrush and the fevers and nausea—some hearing mirage, with warping of vision. He was on her mind, after all. That must be why she had heard it.
Felt that heat burn her fingertips.
But such things simply weren’t possible.
She thought of Aziz’s choices. Caught in his own devil’s bargain each day, simply by going to work. The perpetual dance he had willingly entered into. Wasn’t any so-called curse one he had brought on himself? Well, who hadn’t, really, so many daily pacts and just this once-s. Little excuses on the collective march toward the end of the world—even if no one ever seemed to realize it.
The other week she had heard a conversation not meant for her. As she sat in the chair with the tube in her arm, behind the curtain that separated her from the man who had come to take his seat in the next bay, an oncologist, with the aid of a social worker, told the man that his time on earth had come to an end—the treatment was no longer working, there were no more remedies, it was time to go home and plan for the “next step.” Something about the doctor’s voice made it absolutely clear that she had never paused to contemplate her own mortality. And though Viv knew from other overheard conversations over the weeks that the man had been sick for years, it was evident even through the curtain that only in that moment did he understand that all this was to end. His voice shook awfully when he asked the social worker how best to break the news to his children.
At the bus stop, under the streetlamp, Viv took a seat on the bench to wait. She wondered if Stacy had found Aziz yet. A few meters away, two punk-looking kids, or maybe addicts, skinny in their worn-out hoodies, turned to observe her. They seemed about to approach her, maybe thinking her one of them: a lanky teen with her head shaved and needle marks in her arm. But after a moment they seemed to see more clearly and turned away.
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.