“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

Trent Hudley

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.

“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?”

“Yeah?”

“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 ReviewThe Missouri ReviewNew 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