Jan 032013



Herewith a miraculous little story by Richard Farrell, a story I adore because it reaches beyond mere morality to what I think of as the higher calling of the heart. The hero is a deserter from the American Navy who is screwing his best friend’s wife. The friend dies, a dog dies, and yet the tone is sweet and sadly happy, infused with love, friendship and a deliciously amoral joie de vivre. The theme is captured beautifully in this wonderfully paradoxical sentence: “My friendship with Goethe—the evolution of it, the unraveling of betrayal and fear toward some grotesque, twisted loyalty—remains as strange a puzzle as anything I’ve ever encountered. And yet I would do anything for him, even stop fucking his wife, if only he’d ask me to.”



Goethe paces the cobby Pomeranian back and forth along a cement seawall overlooking the eastern Aegean until, after three or four passes, Charo settles on a perfect spot and squats. How I hate that dog. I am filled with shameful, violent thoughts toward it. My friend snaps the leash and the dog trots back toward us, leaving a steaming turd in the brown grass.

Goethe’s face appears heavy this morning. Our normally garrulous stroll has passed mostly without words. We scramble up mossy stairs from the seawall toward Isiodou Avenue in what’s become an increasingly awkward silence, as two-stroke mopeds crackle around corners like a hive of honeybees. It’s Tuesday, Port Day, and soon the cruise ships will arrive. A legion of sleepy young Greeks are zooming off to man their stalls for the onslaught of tourists.

The avenue snakes through hilly neighborhoods of the old city of Rhodes, then flattens out toward the park. We are headed for the ancient acropolis, which stands waiting in the shrinking shade of a tall cypress. The mopeds drone off into silence as we crest the hill. Endless sky tumbles toward a perfect blue horizon, a blueness broken only by myrtle shrubs and the Doric columns of the acropolis—half-a-dozen soot-stained columns with fluted shafts jutting into the sky like God’s craggy fingers. Goethe unhooks the dog and she darts off, running between ancient stones and red sage.

“They’ve discovered something in my lungs,” Goethe says. I know instantly it’s the worst news. He wouldn’t mention it if it weren’t.

“Jesus,” I say, uncertain about what follows.

“I’m going back to England,” he says. “I need to know you’ll stay and help Mary-Bell with the hotel.”

Mary-Bell is his wife and I’m fucking her.

Goethe knows about our affair. It’s one of his many charms—the fact that he doesn’t let this interfere with our friendship, our morning walks, our love of the ancient Greek island. I’ve been living with them a year, since abandoning my post as a division officer on the U.S.S. Austin P. Hall, leaving behind a locker full of khakis, half-a-suitcase of civilian clothes, two hundred bucks in cash, and a career of monotonous waves, gray hulls and loose discipline. Charmed by Mary-Bell. Charmed by Goethe. Charmed by Greece, by Rhodes, by the luminous sea. I walked away from that life and stayed.

“How long will you be gone?” I ask.

Goethe smiles. “I suspect I won’t be coming back. I suspect my departure from our island will be permanent.”

Goethe doesn’t look like he’s dying. Sixty-three and a few pounds overweight, he has only streaks of gray in his blond hair, and his skin remains taut and unwrinkled. There’s a sallowness about his face, a certain leathery hue. But then again, we all look a little yellow in the bright Greek sunshine. He walks three miles in the morning every day before coffee, and then walks again with the dog and me. He swims for an hour in the afternoon sea and runs around his hotel with the stamina and energy of a man half his age. It seems utterly absurd that he’s sick, beyond plausibility. But he’s not a joking man.

“When will you leave?” I ask.

“The day after tomorrow,” he says.

“I can’t stay here,” I say. I almost say “without you,” but choke this part back. “Maybe it’s time I faced certain things.”

“I don’t think so,” Goethe says. He lays his palm on my shoulder. “Let’s get a drink,” he says. “We need a drink. Sobriety is overrated at times like this.”

“Times like this,” I say. A beer is the last thing I need, but I won’t refuse his request. He whistles and the scruffy mutt trots back to us, its thin lips mocking me with a smile.

My friendship with Goethe—the evolution of it, the unraveling of betrayal and fear toward some grotesque, twisted loyalty—remains as strange a puzzle as anything I’ve ever encountered. And yet I would do anything for him, even stop fucking his wife, if only he’d ask me to.

Across the sea, a thin fog slowly parts, revealing the distant, purple shoulders of Turkish mountains. A massive cruise ship glides in toward Rhodes’ harbor. Two tugs churn out to meet the incoming ship. Wheezing plumes of sulfurous smoke rise from the tugs’ stacks and bend at right angles in the wind, forming parallel, black sevens against the cloudless sky as they mark time toward the luxury liner. I think about my father, the only man I ever loved the way I love Goethe. I’ve betrayed them both in different but profound ways.

We find an open bar and order beers on the patio. Charo snarls at me, then curls up at Goethe’s feet and falls asleep.

A year ago, when my ship arrived in Rhodes for some much needed liberty, Goethe walked in and found me doubled over his wife behind the reception desk of their hotel, her cigarette still burning in an ashtray next to the guest register. As I scrambled toward the exit, Goethe pumped shells into a shotgun chamber. I heard a crack, then a furnace blast of heat scorched my shoulder as buckshot penetrated my flesh. My skull smashed against the sliding half-door and I passed out.

I woke the next day at dinnertime with a throbbing headache and a flaming shoulder blade. Goethe turned away the shore patrol. He told them he had no idea where I’d gone. From my hotel bed, I watched as the Austin P. Hall weighed anchor and steamed out of port. I bid a silent but overdue farewell to my ship and its crew. The frigate cleared the seawall and disappeared. I was both set free and imprisoned.

While I healed, nibbling croissants and sipping ouzo beneath a sun porch, Mary-Bell delivered food and drinks to me on trays covered with pink hibiscus flowers. Twice a day, she changed the dressing on my shoulder. Twice a day, she nursed me back to health. Twice a day, she slid my boxers below my knees and gave me oral sex.

A week after the Austin P. Hall departed Rhodes—rendering me a fugitive, a deserter in a time of war—Goethe offered me a job at their hotel and I accepted. We were sitting on the patio, overlooking the sea. I was out of bed by then, stronger, though not yet healed. The sun baked against my bandaged shoulder.

He said the hotel needed repairs, and he spoke with humor of his ongoing battle against deleterious sea-air, a battle I was familiar with, a battle that every sailor knows must constantly be fought but can never be won. He said he couldn’t pay much but that I’d be a welcome guest.

“More than a guest,” he said.

I started to protest but he raised a hand.

“We will not speak of the unpleasantness between us,” he said. “A man comes to realize certain things about the ones he loves. There is a price to pay, but there is forgiveness on the other side.”

And though my shoulder burned, and the bruise on my skull had leeched from purple to yellow to green, I accepted his offer, the strangest one I’ve ever received. I had no other choice; going home meant facing disgrace, charges, shame, and quite likely prison. Staying meant something unfamiliar, something wild and new: sunshine, hibiscus flowers and the sound of Mary-Bell’s lips on me. I assumed, I believed deeply, that one day Goethe would kill me. But no one chooses the means, manner and moment of their death. So I shook his hand and accepted his offer. The rest, I told myself, was for the gods to sort out.

Back at the hotel, Mary-Bell lounges on a sofa and sips a fizzy orange drink through a straw. A small pink flower floats atop the slushy ice like a pink lily pad. Red hair hangs in long, ropy curls around her thin face. She is thirty-one but looks to be much older. The Mediterranean sun has raised dense freckles on her face and her breasts bulge from her shirt like whales breeching the sea’s surface. She takes in too much sun, drinks too much coffee and rarely has fewer than three drinks a day.

In a different century and climate, she might have been painted by Pissarro.

Pavlo, the hotel’s Croatian waiter, serves Goethe and me cappuccinos in tiny white mugs.

“She agrees with me,” Goethe says. “That it would be best if you stayed.”

Mary-Bell glances up.

“It’s impossible,” I say. “You’ve known since the beginning that I would eventually have to go.”

Mary-Bell sighs in an exasperated way.

“Nonsense,” Goethe says. “You have a home here. Go back and face what? Prison?”

She holds out a cigarette, which Pavlo lights, hovering over her like some colonial man-servant. I wonder, sometimes, if he’s sleeping with her, too. My own betrayals have made me vigilant for hidden signs: the length of their glances, the way Mary-Bell cups Pavlo’s wrist with her fingers as he leans in to light her cigarette. If she can cheat on Goethe with me, then why not cheat on me with Pavlo?

“I don’t understand why you can’t stay here for treatment,” I say. Mary-Bell is casting her fuck-me-now eyes in my general direction. It’s been over a day, a rare drought for us. She drives me wild, beyond the point of reason or logic.

“The Greeks stopped practicing medicine with Asclepius,” Goethe says. “Their doctors aren’t fit for goats. No, I’ll go home for this. Stewart will stay and help out. It is better all around. I won’t be gone long. A month, maybe two.”

His lies surprise me. But then again it’s all a web of thinly veiled deceit here. Everyone knows the truth but refuses to speak it.

He unscrews the top on a jar of nail polish and begins to paint the toes on Mary-Bell’s left foot. The paint color is tourmaline. I know this because the bottle sits on Mary-Bell’s night stand. I can see up her skirt—leopard print panties.

“I’m going with you, my love,” Mary-Bell says. “I’ve thought it over and I’ll not stay here alone. We’ll close the hotel. We are together in this.”

“You won’t be alone,” he says. “You two will stay and run things.” He nods to me and takes his wife’s other foot. “I’ll be back soon. We need the summer season.”

I object again, but Goethe silences me with a wave as if to say the matter is decided. Mary-Bell opens her legs wider, offering me a more expansive view.

In Goethe’s absence, everything will fly apart. I’m certain of this.

“You are a bad man,” Pavlo says as we walk into the kitchen. He wears a short white coat and a thin black tie. Were I to guess, I’d say he’s twenty-four, but he could be much older or younger. It’s impossible to say. “What will you do when Mr. Goethe is gone?”

“You just keep making the drinks,” I say. “Goethe will be back soon enough.”

“I must leave, too,” Pavlo says. “I need to return to my family.”

He’s never mentioned family before, and in two weeks it will be June. The hotel will be filled to capacity. I hope this is only a dramatic ploy, an attempt to grab my attention. Maybe he’s positioning himself for a raise in salary or an extra day off. Mary-Bell will need him here after Goethe leaves. She can’t run the place alone.

“Who will cover your shifts?” I say. “Don’t do this, Pavlo. Not now. Can’t it wait a month?”

He grins and shrugs his shoulders, and I realize again how much Goethe holds us all together.

That afternoon, when Goethe has gone to the market, Mary-Bell and I run off to their bedroom. She slaps my ass hard. She smells of gin and baby powder. I nibble the puckered blue dolphin tattoo on her ankle. The dolphin looks waterlogged, a time-stamped reminder that all of us, no matter how immortal we may feel on this island, are slipping away.

I kiss up her legs, one ear tuned for the sound of Goethe’s Citroen pulling back into the driveway, the other for the pitchy moans which mark her pleasure.

“You’re an ungrateful little shit,” she says. “You would leave me?”

“What choice do I have?” I ask.

“You’re so full of yourself,” she says.

“I’ve already stayed too long,” I say. “I have things to answer for. I have people who need to know that I’m alive.”

“What about me?” she asks. “Am I just a throwaway?”

I don’t answer, but kiss her harder, my tongue sliding up her leg. Her leopard panties are balled up on the floor.

Mary-Bell fucks like she’s on fire. I begin to understand why Goethe can’t die here. She’d mount his corpse. We collapse on top of each other listen for the sound of Goethe coming home. I won’t miss the fear, the sneaking around, the vigilance, but I will miss such burning passion.

Smitten. That was the word Goethe used to describe the moment he first saw Mary-Bell. She danced on the stages of a cruise ship. She glided on the waves for six months before coming to Rhodes. She must have seduced men by the dozen. Then one day she walked into the hotel and Goethe stood her a drink. The next morning, they married in town.

Goethe bought her one drink. That’s all it took. Me he had to shoot.

I rub my hand across her stomach and I swear she purrs, the heat from her body arousing me anew. Mary-Bell tells me often that she has only loved one man, Goethe, but could never be faithful to him. Goethe tells me he has loved many women but has only been faithful to Mary-Bell. I am their confessor, sinning and absolving in equal measure. I betray them both with every breath I take.

Goethe knows our affair didn’t end with the shotgun blast. He knows we fuck all the time, everywhere, every time he isn’t looking. When he goes for a swim, we do it in the bathroom. When he naps in the afternoon, she masturbates me on the couch. At night, when Goethe falls asleep watching the BBC, Mary-Bell and I sneak out to an empty room and do it again. I’ve never been with a more passionate woman, so constantly aroused. At the same time, I’ve never had a more honest trusting friend than Goethe. And he knows.

For reasons I may never understand, none of it matters to him.

I kiss her forehead and slip out of their bedroom. I need to leave this island. I need to go home and face my crimes. I need to hug my father and to apologize. I need to look him in the eye and tell him the truth.

I’m taking a shower when Goethe enters my cramped bathroom carrying a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. He sits on the toilet as I rinse soap from my eyes and the remnants of his wife from my scrotum.

“Limassol?” he asks. “Let’s hire a guide and go for one last partridge hunt on Cyprus?”

“I can’t stay here,” I say. “You have to know that.”

“A hunting trip will help you decide. Say yes. Don’t deny a dying man’s final wish.”

Goethe and I have hunted partridge many times together on Cyprus, and each time, I expect him to shoot me in the woods. The water runs down my body and into the drain. It’s my body that betrays me, not my heart. I wonder what my father tells his friends. “What’s become of Stewart,” they must ask. “Is he still in the Navy?” “Has he made Commander yet?” His son, a disgrace beyond words, except for the only word that remains: deserter.

“I can’t stay,” I say.  “I won’t.”

“Nonsense,” Goethe says. “Where will you go?”

He passes a glass of vodka to me in the shower.

“The morning ferry to Limassol?” I say, rinsing the last drops of soap and sin from me. I sometimes secretly hope that he will shoot me again. “Grilled squab at sunset?”

“Smashing,” he says. “I was hoping you’d agree.”

My heart belongs to Goethe, my body belongs to his wife, and my shame belongs to my father. I drink the bitter vodka and shut off the water.

“I have something to tell you,” I say. From time to time, I’m overcome by a need to confess. I need to tell him why, why I can’t stay away from his wife, even if he already knows.

He hands me a towel and shakes his head.

“No death-bed confessions, Stewart,” Goethe says. “They’re so contrived.”

I grab the towel and he pours more vodka.

“You lied to her,” I say. “You told her you were coming back.”

Goethe grins. His white teeth glow beneath his tan skin.

“Truth should never hurt,” he says. “Not to the ones you love.”

The next morning, my shotgun packed and hunting clothes on, I come downstairs to a maelstrom. Three thousand euro is missing from the hotel safe and Pavlo, the Croatian waiter, has poured out the alcohol from every bottle into the bar sink. The empty bottles are scattered on the floor and counter like some ancient battlefield. Only half a bottle of limoncello remains, standing alone on the long, tile counter like a glowing, yellow joke. Goethe calmly rights the overturned bottles. The entire room smells of stale booze. Mary-Bell is enraged and stomps around the bar, cursing.

“Take the dog out, will you Stewart?” Goethe says to me over her rants.

When a man has no exits, the only way out is to go deeper in. I tell myself that falling in love with Mary-Bell remains the most viable option. Suicide stands a close second. Neither option is as crazy as they sound. At least with Pavlo gone, I no longer fear that Mary-Bell’s affection may be further divided.

I grab the leash but can’t find Charo. I call the dog’s name all around the hotel, but she’s nowhere. I search, in the gardens, in the hallways and in the alley behind the service entrance for the better part of fifteen minutes before giving up. I don’t need this right now.

I return to the lobby and tell them. Pavlo must have forgotten to latch the gate in the midst of his dramatic departure.

“The dog has slipped out,” I say.

Mary-Bell collapses into a sobbing lump. She moans, over and over, that surely she will die. She begs Goethe to call the police. At last he nods to me and I do it. I phone the station to report the theft, the vandalism and the missing dog.

“Looks like the morning ferry is off,” he says softly. “I never anticipated such a scene.”

“What will we do?” I say. “She won’t make it if that damned dog doesn’t return.”

But Goethe offers no solutions. We head out to search for the dog.

We cover the seawall, scanning the eastern shores. Children play in the sand. Waves crash and roll.

“I’ll miss you,” I say. The words tumble awkwardly from my mouth. I’ve never said such a thing to a man before.

He stares out to sea and places his purple-veined hand on my shoulder. I think of my own father, how confused he must be by what I’ve done. I haven’t spoken to him in fourteen months.

“You can be happy here, Stewart,” Goethe says to me. “It’s a good place to spend your days.”

“I’ve been gone too long,” I say. “I have to go back. Surely you understand that?”

“We’re all running from something,” he says. “We run and run until the race ends. In this case,” he points to his chest, “a tumor in the lungs.”

“My father deserves an explanation.”

“He’ll understand,” Goethe says. “Once I’ve gone, you’ll write to him. Invite him here. For a man to see his son living here, that will be enough.”

“He’ll never understand,” I say. “You don’t know him.”

“He’ll understand, Stewart. I know it seems impossible. But you have no reason to leave here.”

I shake my head. “I have even less reason to stay.”

We look through a dozen or more alleys before I finally spot the dog, curled up next to half-opened bags of garbage. Goethe bends down and lifts Charo off the cobblestones.

“Must have been a car,” he says. “Poor little thing.”

He places the dog onto a clean spot in the alley then disappears around the corner. I stand there, unsure where to look. The view is bad all around: trash, graffiti, dead dog. A few minutes later, he returns, carrying two plastic bags. He carefully slips Charo’s body inside the first, then places the first bag inside the second. There is such tenderness in the way he treats the dead animal. For the first time, I realize how his own mortality must weigh on his mind. I glimpse, in his handling of the dog, some gesture of what he must hope for. The act of dying is grotesque, but the handling of the dead is always an act of mercy.

He turns toward me and smiles.

“We will celebrate tonight,” he says. “We need one last night out before I go.”

“But Mary-Bell,” I say. “She’ll need us now.”

“Tut, tut,” Goethe says. “Our job is to live, not to dwell on death.”

We walk off toward a secluded spot on the cliffs. He places the bag on the ground and slips two large stones inside and ties it off. He points to the bag and then to me.

“Why me?” I say. “I want nothing to do with this subterfuge.”

He puts his hand on his back and makes a cranky face. “Bad back.”

So I lift the dog and the stones and heave it into the sea. It splashes below us and floats a moment on the surface, then sinks out of sight.

“One can only hope for a burial at sea,” he says. “She was a good dog, Stewart. A man should have a good dog.”

We don’t tell Mary-Bell about finding the dog. We let her believe that Charo is still missing, let her hope awhile longer. We let her do whatever she wants, just like always.

“I’m worried about Mary-Bell,” I say that night at a bar. I don’t know how we’ll get back to the hotel. We are already too drunk to walk much less drive.

“You have a lot to learn,” Goethe says. “Mary-Bell is tougher than both of us combined.”

“I think you’re wrong,” I say. “I think she puts on a brave face.”

“It’s been a good life,” he says, picking up his beer. “I have few regrets. It’s the goal, my friend. When you get to the end, one shouldn’t be filled with regrets.”

“I was engaged once,” I say. I’ve never told him this before. “She wanted four kids, a dog, a yard with a pool and a picket fence. A midnight blue Grand Cherokee in the driveway.”

“And you didn’t want those things?” Goethe asks.

“I thought I did,” I say. “Who knows what I really wanted.”

“It gets easier,” he says. “When you’re young, life seems endless, full of choices. Then those choices narrow. Things that matter come into focus. It becomes clearer.”

“Do you love her?” I ask him. “Do you love Mary-Bell?”

“With every breath I take,” he says without irony. “And I love you, too. It will be hard to leave you both.”

“She’ll destroy me,” I say.

Goethe smiles. “There are worse ways to go.”

Goethe slides a greasy sardine into his mouth and orders more beer. Though my head throbs already, I don’t object. When have I ever been able to object to him?

“My father flew Spitfires in the war,” he says. “Battle of Britain. ‘Never was so much owed by so many’ — all that good stuff. He shot down a dozen or so Nazi planes. Heroic chap, in his own way. One day, when I was about fourteen, I asked him if he ever felt bad about it. About killing another human being. The war had been over for years, but I wondered if it ever kept him up at night. I remember it quite vividly. We were in Hyde Park and it was raining. He seemed so old to me that day, though of course, he was much younger then than I am now. He looked at me quite seriously, in a way he never had before. A man to man way. He didn’t answer for a spell. Then he said, very simply, that he’d never thought of it before. Not once. He’d always just accepted it, the war, the killing. There was no guilt in it, no shame, no regret.”

“What are you telling me?” I say.

He shrugs. “It’s just a story about my father,” Goethe says. He hands me another beer which I don’t need. Then he adds, “We can never know people, Stewart. The soul is vast, an unknowable cave that opens unto other caves.”

“This is the wisdom you’re leaving me with?”

“No,” he says, smiling. “This is the wisdom I’ll leave with you. Every man needs three things: money enough not to suffer, someone to come home to at night, and a good dog. With those three things, you can lead a happy life. Don’t be greedy for more. Don’t look back so much. You’re smart, Stewart. You’re young and strong. Run the hotel. It might, in the end, be more than you need.”

“What will you tell Mary-Bell about the dog?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.

The next morning, a few hours before Goethe is set to fly off the island, I walk alone beneath the ramparts in Rhodes’ old city, where the Knights Hospitaller once defended the island against the Ottomans. Tourists stroll by, gawking as if these ancient walls were built only for their amusement. My head aches from last night’s booze and from all of this history. Rhodes is an ancient place. It’s been settled and conquered so many times. I sometimes wonder if the island has just grown tired. These days, it seems to yield its history and secrets up without a fight.

Back at the hotel, Goethe’s bags by the lobby door, I hear Mary-Bell on the phone. She’s talking to the police in Athens. They have arrested Pavlo trying to rob the cash register at another hotel. Inexplicably, Pavlo offered up Mary-Bell’s name as a reference and they called. Goethe whispers these details to me while Mary-Bell asks the detective if Pavlo knows about the dog. Pavlo must say, no. Nothing about the dog.

“In that case,” she says. “I’ve never heard of the little prick.”

She hangs up the phone and Goethe begins to laugh. Mary-Bell and I are soon laughing with him, all three of us in the kitchen laughing without restraint.

It is then that Goethe tells Mary-Bell that the dog is dead. He also tells her that there is no treatment for his condition. He delivers the bad news quickly, a one-two punch that I expect will knock her out.

But instead of coming apart, Mary-Bell takes the worst news with a stoic pride.

“I’m not dumb,” she says. “But you could’ve told me last night, before you two ran off to get drunk.”

I leave them together in the lobby. I watch Mary-Bell curl up close to her husband on a couch. He puts his arm around her shoulder and kisses her head. Goethe has refused my offer of a ride to the airport. We have already said our goodbyes and he will endure no further scene. I close the door behind me and leave them alone.


A cold and damp winter passes slowly until at last the rains let up. A crispness remains in the evenings but the days warm quickly now. I light a fire in the lobby and come back to our small apartment behind the front desk.

Mary-Bell wears a long robe and slippers. Her stomach pushes the robe out ever so roundly. The hotel is almost empty. We are still months away from the start of tourist season.

“Why didn’t he care?” I ask Mary-Bell again, for the thousandth time. “Why did he allow us to carry on as we did? Why didn’t he stop us?”

I ask her these questions over and over, but she never answers them. She holds to her secret knowledge the way she holds our child, as if caring for it is a woman’s work. I keep thinking that one time she’ll relent and tell me. But it’s equally possible that she doesn’t know the answers.

“Paint my toenails, Stewy,” she says, thrusting her foot towards my face. “Too many questions. You always ask too many questions.”

I reach for the jar of nail polish and unscrew the lid.

As I paint, Mary-Bell opens her robe and rubs palm oil over her stretched stomach. Her stomach is my favorite part of her body, that smooth shiny skin just below her navel. It never fails to arouse me, even more so since the child inside her has stretched the skin wider and made the surface smoother. The little boy she carries, my son, is due in a few weeks. She was pregnant then, when Goethe asked me to stay. He knew, but didn’t say anything. He wanted me to decide on my own. Mary-Bell said that he would never have told me about the child if I had chosen to leave.

Out in the hotel gardens blood-red anemone poppies have already bloomed over the spot where we buried a third of Goethe’s ashes. Another third stayed in Essex, buried with his mother and father, and the rest remain in a silver urn on the mantle. Mary-Bell has asked me to take the urn away before the baby comes. She says that it’s bad luck to leave the dead around when a baby arrives.

This morning, I wrote my father a letter and invited him to Rhodes to meet his grandson. I have no idea if he’ll accept my invitation, but I felt a great relief when I dropped that letter in the mail.

I finish painting Mary-Bell’s toes and reach for the other foot. I don’t believe her about Goethe’s remains. We both need Goethe close, and I know that when the time comes, she won’t ask me to move him. It would be impossible to erase his presence from our lives. It surrounds us like the sea air.

The puppy trots in from the other room and curls around its tail. We’ve named the dog Pavlo, at Mary-Bell’s insistence. I can only speculate on what secret pleasure this must give her. The dog yawns widely, wags its tail and looks up at me expectantly. It’s time for the dog’s nightly walk. Mary-Bell closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep as I finish painting her last toes. I rub her feet and I try to imagine what it will feel like to be a father. I try to picture my future son, what he will look like, what his interest and passions will be. I try to imagine what I will teach him about life, about love and desire and loyalty. I wonder what I will tell my son about Goethe and about all the many things that happened on this island before his birth. Is it even possible to explain? I pull a blanket over Mary-Bell’s round belly and turn off the light. The room falls quiet. In the distance, the slightest sound of breaking waves. I grab the leash and the dog jumps up, follows me to the door, wagging its tail with wonder at the many the adventures that wait on the other side.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has published at Hunger Mountain and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.


  13 Responses to “Dogfights | Short Story — Richard Farrell”

  1. Richie, As I sit snuggled in an old soft quilt escaping the 10 degree day, I encounted your latest work of art!
    You are amazing!

  2. Fabulous story, Rich. Engaging throughout and unusual…More, please!

  3. Extraordinary, Rich! Wise and compassionate. Bravo.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s so nice to find these kind words here.

  5. Lovely story. Muscular language and whip-crack revelations. Great stuff.

  6. Well done, Rich. I’m supposed to be someplace at noon, but I couldn’t stop reading till I’d finished. Great story. The observation that “The art of dying is grotesque, but the handling of the dead is always an act of mercy,” clearly covers more than Goethe’s tender bagging of the dog. It reminded me of the exquisite Japanese film, “Departures,” which won the 2009 Foreign Film Academy Award.

    • Pat,
      Much thanks. I only recently watched Departures (within the last few weeks) and certainly appreciate the comparision. I’m looking forward to settling in with your latest essay very soon.

  7. Rich, my favorites are like this story — the ones that suspend time and momentarily float me in a delicious Zen-like state above this typically herky-jerky afternoon. Dogfights is infused with such masculine tenderness, humor, and insight that I would have to vote it the best piece I’ve read this year. Oh, and Mary-Bell made me ache with longing…

    • James,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. These were fun characters, and the story sort of wrote itself. I really appreciate your kind words and your thoughtful response.

  8. Fabulously written story, Rich. The tension, conflict, imagery, details, verbs, etc. – it’s all great! I’m just sorry it took my so long to get to it. I love reading your work.

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