Feb 092016
 

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On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. Three blocks later I discovered it wasn’t Thursday and that one of Don Imus’s lungs and a hotel in Thailand had collapsed. If sleep didn’t come I would quit trying then make coffee and sit down in front of the manuscript while the sky turned blue. The Daily News also told me that the city was still sweltering. Walk by the Korean market, pharmacy, another diner, Italian bakery, dry cleaners, and a bank. The box fan I found on the street worked for an hour before the motor began to smoke. On our first wedding anniversary I destroyed the old upright piano in the front room with a hammer and screwdriver. Living off infrequent loans and a twenty-pound bag of rice. Most of the keys were broken so stripping the piano down to its heavy brass frame enabled me to pound on every out of tune string. Rice and eggs for breakfast, rice and beans for dinner, anything leftover went for cigarettes and beer. Each character was assigned a row of strings, I built cascading passages around pages of dialogue, seeking greater contrast between the lines, hoping that would help me define the characters, and yet no matter how intricate the passages or how many hours I pounded on the strings, every one of them remained bloodless stand-ins mouthing clichés in an airless suburban melodrama. I had absolutely no interest in even considering the possibility of looking for a part-time job. Another bank, bodega, liquor store, and a barbershop. Our mutual friend was a willowy Brazilian with waist-length red hair who spent part of the previous winter living with us after being evicted from an East Village loft. The ceiling in the room where she slept leaked whenever the snow on the roof began to melt, so on those nights, while brown water gradually filled the pots lining the floor, she would join us on the big futon in our bedroom. On the night we drank a fifth of bourbon alone together she informed me in her heavily accented English that sadly, my marriage was a green card sham, I might have thought it was love, but no …pointing a long index finger in my direction…You are being delusional and she is using you … Can’t you see that? I quietly tried to justify what must have appeared to be an extremely one-sided relationship as we talked in semi-coherent circles about the nature of unrequited love until the bottle was empty. The next day I asked if she remembered our conversation and with a sheepish smile she said, No, I had a blackout. Our mutual friend eventually found another place in the East Village where she lived for a few more months on her parents’ dime. I was already alone when she turned up in late March with the suitcase I was to store for her while she went back to Brazil. I finally opened it, after convincing myself that I was only looking for money, to discover a jumble of colorful polyester dresses a few books and the letter from my wife.

It was about a mile off the interstate and the first left after the gas station. She told him about being blindfolded for a psychology class then slowly led into what turned out to be a large greenhouse filled with dozens of varieties of orchids. He drove cautiously with both hands on the wheel, desire linked to anticipation, accommodating her running narrative with an appreciative silence through miles of Franklin County farmland. The TA asked her to identify all of the things she could smell in that humid room. Sunlight hung over the wide stream, a long drum roll as the Skylark ran over the wooden bridge, above the clear water that sparkled where it pooled. She came up with an insightful analogy for being in a greenhouse, that blindfolded visit was her first but would certainly not be her last, something she thought he would find amusing, but it isn’t coming to me just now, and looking out the open window at the endless wooden horse fence running alongside the road while searching her memory could not bring it back, I’ll probably remember in another minute when I’m thinking of something else, instead she recalled the damp clouds of musky sweet human-flesh-like-flower scents, sharp chemical smells of fertilizers and herbicides, the close proximity of the TA, apparently he’d forgotten to let go of her forearm, with his cheap aftershave and stale coffee breath, but she made no mention of those smells so as not to offend him, knowing that would have a negative impact on her grade, instead she reproached herself for the disgusting nicotine stench on her own fingers, then quietly added, and something that smelled just like cold rice.

I used to come around with zombie movies or we would listen to his Johnny Thunders bootlegs while we got high. His place was on Ryerson between Myrtle and Park, about halfway down the block on the right if you were heading toward Park, the brown tenement with the torn screen in the middle window on the third floor. My tired line about just dropping by to ask for a small favor got swallowed by the math—it had been nearly two years—I rang the bell anyway and was buzzed in. The stairwell smelled of frying fish.

The door opened, “Holy shit,” when I reached the second floor landing, “how’s it going?” We shook hands, “Hey Tom,” before I walked in, “how are you?” He worked nights as a doorman, “I just started my vacation.” The blinds were down and the air conditioner was rattling away in the window while turning out cold air. “Have a seat,” the television faced the couch, “you want a beer?” A cigarette was burning in the ashtray. “Sure.” Tom grew up in Bensonhurst, “You’re a little early for the party,” but had lived in the neighborhood forever. The opened pack of Marlboros on the coffee table. “Party?” I called after him. The store-bought painting of an amber sunset seeping through a cluster of bare trees that hung on the wall to the left of the television was slightly crooked. I needed at least five dollars to get through the next five days and put off looking until everything was gone. The advertisement for replacement windows ended with a familiar jingle. Tom’s roommate appeared wearing a blue apron and said hello. “Isko’s been cleaning,” Tom followed him back into the room, “and cooking all day,” then handed me a cold bottle of Budweiser. “It smells really good.” Isko asked if I was hungry. I opened the beer before telling him that I’d just eaten. He gave me a skeptical frown before returning to the kitchen. “In a few hours,” Tom sat down, “this place is going to be swarming with Filipino dudes.” I laughed before asking, “Just guys?” “Afraid so.” Leaning back on the couch, “Are you going anywhere?” He took up the cigarette, “I’ll probably retreat to the bar,” flicked away the ash. “No, for your vacation?” He shook his head, “I’m just going to catch up on my sleep.” Tom was an irregular fixture at the bar around the corner. Sears was having their annual back to school sale. “Nice.” He would usually come in drunk and fill the jukebox before getting into an argument with another regular over a real or imagined slight then get thrown out of the bar before any of his songs came on. The blonde mother selected a dress for her smiling daughter: Featuring styles to fit every budget. We bonded over pitchers on a Tuesday night and early that Wednesday morning, while pushing each other along Myrtle Avenue in a wheelchair that we’d rescued from a pile of garbage, I realized that I’d discovered a kindred spirit. The black mother presented her teenage son with an orange sweater before admiring an array of colorful scarves for herself. “Can I grab one of those?” Indicating the cigarettes. The brunette looked over paint samples with a grinning salesman by her side. “Sure.” I took one from the pack, “You remember that girl I used to go on about all the time?” Our dedicated sales staff is always on hand to help with all of your home improvement projects. He passed me the lighter, “Can’t say that I do.”

The broken yellow line ended before the road narrowed. He asked her what cold rice smelled like and she laughed while saying that sperm smelled just like cold rice. The car slowed as towering oaks and maples crowded out the blue June sky. If the human race possesses the highest form of consciousness, or so says the collective wisdom of that very same human race, she turned to him before stating, then we still have so much to learn from nature. This nineteen-year-old college sophomore majoring in English literature who also wrote plays was my biological mother. If his left hand was anticipation then his right hand was desire. According to the papers I received from the adoption agency in Palo Alto when I turned eighteen, my biological father was in his mid-thirties and married with three children, apparently he was an insurance adjuster who enjoyed playing the piano. More like a warm envelope, she undid the metal buckle, that greenhouse, and slid over to the center of the wide dark blue vinyl seat, like being embraced inside a humid envelope, draped her left arm over his shoulders, enveloped in a warm envelope, but that isn’t quite right. I’ve always told people that he was one of her professors, or an older writer who was mentoring her, and that the career title she bestowed upon him while signing me over at the agency was an allusion to Franz Kafka.

A keycard illustrated with instructions on how to unlock the beige fireproof door —insert face up in slot above handle/turn handle after green light appears—that opened into room 201. Curtained afternoon sunlight in stale air-conditioning backed with the faint smell of commercial-grade disinfectant. The door locked automatically when it closed. A blue and white Do Not Disturb door hanger attached to the handle. A two-toggle vertical brass wall plate at shoulder height left of the door contained switches for the brushed nickel-plated ceiling fixture above the full-sized bed and the pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with cylindrical beige canvas shades atop both nightstands. The peephole offered a fisheye view of the fluorescent illuminated blue beige hall. The fire exit plan with security instructions on when and how to safely evacuate the room and building in the event of a fire —illustrated with two human figures fleeing orange flames—beneath a map of the 2nd floor with green arrows pointing toward the stairs. A notice for safe storage availability at the front desk beneath the exit plan along with instructions for locking the door in addition to suggestions on how and when to open it. The room was carpeted in the same thin blue-grey fire retardant nylon and Polypropylene blend that covered the floor in the hall while the walls were pasted in fine textured vinyl coated beige wallpaper. The stuccoed ceiling was painted off-white. The empty black compact refrigerator stood beside the beige pasteboard bathroom door opposite the six foot tall and seven foot wide accordion door finished in shimmering vinyl oak veneer that pulled back on narrow metal runners to reveal four wooden anti-theft hangers suspended from a narrow metal rod spanning the length of the shallow closet.

Did you know, kissing his cheek, that of the thousands of species of orchids that there is one called the bee orchid? Perhaps he was an actual insurance adjustor and my insistence on having her outfit him with a literary subterfuge is nothing more than romantic mythmaking, although it is much easier for me to imagine her being intimate with a man she shared a passion with in addition to their mutual physical attraction, especially considering their difference in age at a time when it was considered deeply reactionary for anyone in their teens or twenties to trust much less be romantically involved with someone over the age of thirty, and while I’m proof that exceptions do exist, he must have held something for her other than a briefcase full of policy drafts. Why is it called that? I know that he was of Welsh and Scottish descent and that she was from a large Irish Catholic family. Its blossom mimics the appearance, scent and even the tactile experience of the female bee. According to the papers her only request was that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs. When the bee attempts to mate with the flower these yellow pollen sacks get attached to his back. I do not know how they met, how their relationship began or ended and I can only presume that they were fond of each other otherwise she probably would have terminated the pregnancy. The car slowed to a near stop before turning left onto a gravel road. Unless her desire that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs was in response to a repressively devout upbringing and she didn’t terminate the pregnancy out of fear of being excommunicated by her family. A cabin eventually appeared between the trees. Birth control is considered a sin by practicing Catholics, which might help to explain its fumbled use or complete absence. Pollinia, she recalled before swinging the car door closed. At the time abortion was illegal so having one done was either prohibitively expensive or a risky, unprofessional and potentially life threatening procedure. The pale stones bordering the walkway glistened with rainwater. I owe my existence to some unknown combination of love, faith, and the lack of an affordable alternative. They look like little saddlebags, adjusting her orange mini-skirt, attached to its back as he flies off in search of a real female bee.

I tore off the filter then lit the cigarette while telling Tom about the girl I met in school, he picked up the remote and muted Hawaii 5-0, how beautiful she was, her amazing body, her intuitive intelligence, describing our incredibly passionate relationship that lasted until I got someone else pregnant, we were both twenty-one, and we lost touch after it ended, after I ended our relationship because I wanted to do the right thing, my biological mother had me when she was twenty and gave me up for adoption so I’m not about to try and convince anyone to get an abortion, although that someone else who got pregnant had a miscarriage, like less than a month later …Anyway… We lost touch but I never ever stopped obsessing over her, exhaling smoke, three years later, that winter, not this last one but the one before, picking a stray bit of tobacco off my lower lip with my thumb and middle finger then flicking it away, we ran into each other on the corner of Lafayette and East Eighth, here I combined the words incredibly romantic and magical renewal in a sentence that eloquently described the rebirth of our relationship while leaning forward and crushing what was left of the cigarette in the ashtray, further elaborating on her beautifully body, above the undone smoke, claiming I experienced a love previously unknown to me … a love I’d never even imagined was possible … we spent that entire spring in Europe, I described weeks in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, on the island of Sardinia, telling him that we got married at the end of last summer here in Brooklyn and lived together for seven blissful months before she decided that that was enough of being married, quickly adding, not to me specifically but in general and she went home …taking another swig from the bottle before telling him that I followed her in April, quietly confiding that we fought constantly, it was the exact opposite of the previous spring, I described a few of our more vicious fights, bleak hotel rooms in Frankfurt and Prague, endless losing walks through Vienna, our tearful goodbye in Milan, how out of desperation I begged my father for money and that by some miracle he actually wired me fifteen-hundred dollars, that I spent nearly all of June by myself in Rome where I sat on the same bench in the Villa Borghese every day and worked on this play that I’m still trying to finish, coughing into my open palm, but I ran out of money and had to return to her parent’s house, that when I did it was war all the time, finally when I was absolutely convinced that our marriage was finished I took a packed commuter bus down a winding alpine road to the Innsbruck train station and boarded a Munich bound train, from there I snuck onto the subway and rode it to the airport then boarded a flight to JFK, that I arrived in New York with a dollar in my wallet and vaulted the turnstile at JFK then took the A to the C back to Fort Greene and for the last month I’ve been afraid to leave the house because she is coming back to me and I have to be there when she does … I’m only here right now because all the flights from Europe are in for the day and—

The full-size mattress with freshly laundered white cotton sheets—fitted sheet beneath loose sheet beneath a soft white thermal herring bone cotton blanket—two sets of foam pillows encased in sky blue stripped sateen pillow cases and a solid aquamarine polyester bedspread. The nightstands with their tightly woven pattern of banana leaves over honey-finished plywood were positioned at both sides of the head of the bed. Pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with single setting sixty-watt incandescent bulbs and cylindrical beige canvas shades atop each nightstand. Located on the left nightstand—if you were standing at the foot of the bed with your back to the television— was the digital alarm clock indicating the correct time in faint green LED numbers and the television remote. Atop the nightstand on the right was a small metal tent sign illustrated with an exed out cigarette informing guests that they were occupying a non-smoking room. The drawer below the sign contained a copy of the Gideon Bible. The bulky dark grained plywood credenza with storage space that included three empty drawers and two side cabinets with two empty shelves. Atop the cadenza was the beige push button telephone with instructions bordering the keypad—Dialing the Front Desk, How To Make A Wake-Up Call, Calling Collect, 1+800 Numbers, Local, International Calls beside the thirty-two inch color television where Steve McGarrett and Danno were exchanging vital information over the phone.

They were seated at the metal table on the screened in porch when the fireflies came out. The narrow slate walkway lined with ferns led to a flowerbed where rose bushes bloomed before a low stonewall. The blue grey dusk creeping over the outdoors as a steady breeze moved through the trees.

Wavering candlelight. She smoked another cigarette while they talked about Hesse or Faulkner or Barthelme or Camus or Gass or Chekhov or Elkin or Yates. More wine? She nodded then asked him why he didn’t like Brautigan.

A two-toggle horizontal brass wall plate at shoulder height just left of the door with separate switches for the track lighting that framed the mirror above the sink and the circular overhead fluorescent encased in a semitranslucent plastic shade. Both switches activated the ventilation fan built into the wall above the door. Light beige tile floor with matching vinyl coated wallpaper, a standard shower stall with three shatterproof glass walls, a chrome showerhead that resembled a drooping sunflower built into the beige tile wall, complementary four-ounce plastic bottles of fresh citrus scented shampoo and creamy citrus hair conditioner tucked into the beige ceramic shelf beside the single handle chrome shower faucet. Thick white bath towels hanging at waist height from the outer shower stall door and on the metal rod behind the beige toilet. A new roll of white toilet paper attached to the ceramic beige holder. The toilet seat and cover were down. Beige faux marble countertop, beige ceramic toothbrush/cup holder mounted to the wall with a disposable plastic cup incased in clear plastic placed in the holder. Beneath the toothbrush/cup holder were three small bars of soap individually wrapped in pale glossy paper and illustrated with bright yellow lemons. Twelve clear 40-watt incandescent bulbs framed the wide spotless mirror. A single handle polished chrome faucet—left for cold and right for hot—with matching pop-up drain. The squat black plastic coffee machine cradled the glass pot embossed with the manufactures name and a row of even numbers in vertical ascending order 2-4-6-8 at half-inch intervals. The black cord for the coffee maker was plugged into the bulky three-pronged outlet beside an unopened box of beige tissues. A small wicker basket contained five ounce Hotel Brand coffee packets—two regular, two French Roast, one decaffeinated—three coffee filters, three Lipton cinnamon tea bags, two thin wooden coffee stirrers, two Styrofoam cups individually encased in clear plastic and three of each—non-dairy creamer, raw sugar, processed sugar and artificial sweetener—in individual five gram packets.

Standing up, “I should get going,” as I made my way to the door, “I don’t want to burden you with this,” the room began to spin.   “Can’t you just call her and find out when she is coming back?”

“The phone is disconnected.”

“Send a letter?”

“I have but I haven’t heard anything.”

“Do you want another beer?”

Isko walked in with a steaming bowl of soup, “You should eat,” chunks of grilled fish, cellophane noodles, bean sprouts, and cilantro in a clear broth.

“Eat.” He placed the bowl on the coffee table then presented me with a Chinese soupspoon and some chopsticks.

“This looks amazing.”

Or maybe they sat on the couch and held hands in the same room where he wrote when he wasn’t neglecting that manuscript. Making time to write must have been challenging with a teaching job, a wife, three children, and a teenage lover. Dark oak floors, walls stained a lighter shade of blonde, exposed beams running beneath the high vaulted ceiling. Was he between chapters or had something big just been sent off to an editor? A cast iron wood-burning stove stood silently in the corner. It’s almost too bad that it’s too warm for a fire. Maybe disillusionment with a stalled manuscript caused their relationship to take shape. Or maybe he was enjoying some modest success, she had been an early admirer of his work, and their relationship simply grew physical from there. Or maybe he played her recordings of Maggie Teyte singing Debussy’s Proses lyriques after Baudelaire, accompanied on the piano by Gerald Moore, where the atmospheric arpeggios suggest the play of sunlight on water. These 78s were made during the blitz while the Germans were trying to destroy London, and here he might have added, although Teyte was considered past her prime when these recordings were made they are some of my favorite pieces of music.

Blue-grey flame resistant blackout drapes and a semi-transparent white nylon lining hung before the broad double paned sealed window that pulled back to reveal a second floor view of the employee parking lot. A battered red Cadillac Eldorado with a torn black canvas top beside a green Volkswagen Beetle, three rows of sun bleached yellow parking slots on weathered asphalt, a green dumpster and an empty laundry bin. Yellow arrows indicate the left entrance into the parking lot and right exit onto the service road that ran parallel to the six-lane interstate. The thru-wall air conditioner spanning the length of the window blowing cold stale air into the room accompanied the endless lines of traffic racing beneath a cloudless blue sky. Across the interstate and another service road a group of office workers—four women and three men—were gathered at a bus stop. Beyond the bus stop was a fenced in parking lot and a boarded-up service station.

She listened attentively—discounting the pops detracting from the flowing sound—and wanted to say something intelligent, not just that the music was beautiful, she wanted to convey the genuine impression that hearing this with him right now was uniquely relevant, that this moment belonged solely to them no matter what the future held. She wanted to say something memorable to equal his enthusiasm and tried to read his expression while speaking over the music. Her attempt at being profound, to explain exactly why the music moved her probably came off as performative, naïve, the language she used was awkward and ultimately unnecessary because she had conquered him on the very same day she agreed to spend the weekend alone with him in this out of the way place. Maybe he told her that, and not in so many words, maybe it had been conveyed silently, maybe she could read him well enough and she knew, or at least suspected she knew just how real this moment was for him as well, so they were holding hands and listening in silence as Maggie Teyte and Gerald Moore evoked the fragile beauty of a profound yet temporal love entwined in perfect harmony with nature. I’ll never know what they had together, and of course relationships such as theirs are frequently occasioned by quick furtive physical encounters, but I want to believe that they did have at least some time to enjoy each other in an idyllic place, and maybe I wasn’t conceived in the backseat of a car or in some dank motel room. Seven months after a certain date in June of ’67 she would leave Central Ohio to go and live with her aunt in San Francisco. She gave birth to me there in the middle of March. I was adopted two months later and in the spring of the following year she contacted the agency to see if I had been placed.

“One penny weighs two point five grams,” I was telling Tom about the pretty Dominican cashier at Key Food, “fifty cents is nine ounces,” who was always so gracious, “a dollar weighs one pound and two point five ounces,” whenever I paid for groceries with my pockets full of pennies. Tom shook his head before asking, “How can you walk around with no money in your wallet?” After ringing me up she would weigh the coins on the scale above the register. “What are they going to steal?” Empty beer bottles strategically placed before us. “That’s a great way to get shot.” “Bullets are expensive,” I shrugged, “and it’s not worth the hassle.” “These kids don’t think like that,” Tom leaned forward, “you’re just another opportunity,” and took his wallet off the coffee table, “they get angry when you don’t give it up,” removed a ten, “you know that.” “All the more reason not to leave the house.” “Here you go,” he handed it to me, “Howard Hughes.” I tucked it into my wallet while promising to pay him back.

The television in the living room of her shared Telegraph Hill apartment shows color footage of battle-weary Marines gradually emerging from the jungle while a young male reporter, in a helmet and flack jacket, standing off to the side with a microphone in his right hand relates the objectives of Operation Oklahoma Hills. The soldiers disdainful expressions are captured as they trudge by the reporter as he continues speaking: During the last eight-weeks Marines from a number of battalions along with an ARVN regiment cleared out the base camps of two NVA regiments. Although the NVA avoided major confrontations throughout the operation the Marines were able to inflict a substantial number of causalities while suffering relatively low losses. The scene had shifted to the CBS newsroom in New York City when the telephone rang and she got off the couch then quickly crossed to the kitchen before it rang again. It was the woman from the agency who apologized for the delay in getting back to her, but yes, a family adopted her baby nearly two months after he was born. She expressed surprised relief and thanked the woman for returning her call before hanging up the phone.

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A jetliner appeared low and massive on the immediate left—silver and blue with the landing gear down—making its final approach to the nearby airport. The metallic whine of its engines rising over the droning air conditioner and maybe you glimpsed a few faces in the row of oval windows before the shadow of the plane flashed over the interstate and blue city bus approaching the group of office workers.

—Donald Breckenridge

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Donald Breckenridge is a novelist and the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, and managing editor of Red Dust Books. He is currently co-adapting Laura Raicovich’s A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties for the stage and working on a new novel. His writing has recently appeared in Vestiges, BOMB and is forthcoming in Black Sun Lit.

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Feb 032016
 

Gregory Howard

 

 

He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. Fuchs looked at the street while he talked, occasionally bringing his eyes back to meet my father’s and then looking at something else again. His cup, a spoon, the trash on the street. This was the correspondence of men. On the way back to his hotel he stopped to watch the procession. A young girl stumbled and was submerged into the mass, pressed and trampled for what seemed like hours — was he the only one that noticed? — around him people waved their totems and finally the girl emerged, pulled up bloody and crying, tears and blood running into each other all over her face. And she cried and cried and the crowd kept lurching forward towards the river and the cathedral, towards their ecstatic communion. That night my father couldn’t sleep. Fireworks intermittently lit the sky and the crowds of Belem rang bells and sang hymns. My father read passages from a book. He masturbated without interest. The face of the girl came back to him. Bloody and distorted bearing a rictus of pain. In his mind her face was the face of the Virgin as she was pulled inexorably toward the river. The little girl had turned and looked pack in panic. Looking around for her mother and father. She had sought anchor and was still carried away. Yes, of course. Very interesting. Into the night the faithful sang hymns to their immaculate Virgin. All of seeing. All of hearing. Every fragrance we perceive, they sang.

The next day Fuchs took my father upriver into the jungle. On the boat he was quiet and polite just as he had been in the café but did not elaborate on their itinerary. What my father knew was this: the trip would last the day and into the night; once the boat was docked there was a long hike into the jungle to the construction site; there my father’s skills, such as they were, would be employed. What he also knew was this: every trip upriver into the jungle is the same trip. On the boat with Fuchs and my father were two other men. Young men. A native Paran and another German. They sunned themselves on the deck and argued about music. The German was saying that the function of music was inductive and that its primary goal was the creation of new psychological states. In the future, the German said, this would be accomplished through the construction of strange new instruments, the implementation of computers and the proper utilization of giant pipe organs. The Paran shook his head at everything the German said and repeated: “No, no, no.”

The hike to the site was treacherous and miserable though not very long. They used flashlights to find their way. The jittery beams strafing the jungle’s dark curtain reminded my father of a scene in an American science fiction movie he had seen years ago in which a group of mostly young and attractive archeologists hike into the jungle to prove the existence of an ancient civilization. After a series of misfortunes in which the leader of the group, an older man with wild eyes and a beard, dies by falling prey to a giant carnivorous plant, the group, lost and consumed with bickering and mourning, somehow happen upon the temple where they make a terrible discovery. The film was dubbed badly and at times the actors’ mouths moved silently while others voices spoke for spells after the mouths had shut and eyes gazed at each other with suspicion and longing or into the distance thoughtfully. In the theater with my father, down in the first row, was a couple, a skinny teenager and a woman with curled hair who kissed loudly and ignored the film. There was also an old man two seats down from him who watched the couple instead of the screen and massaged his thighs. The previous week, sitting in that same seat, my father had seen a movie in which a poor family—a mother and father and their sons—wander through the drought-choked northeast trying to find sustenance but find only misery, set-backs and rebuke. Their farm is taken; the father jailed; they must eat their beloved parrot; they almost eat their beloved dog. The film seemed to have no beginning and no end. What do you do, it seemed to ask, when everything has conspired to keep you in motion? How do you arrange a world? There was almost no dialogue and the lighting was washed out, over exposed, making the actors faces seem hollow, etched, like death masks, as if they were already dead, which they probably were, which everyone probably is, he thought suddenly, and the whole theater began to feel hot and dry like the drought-choked Northeast and being there felt to my father like a punishment for some sin he could not remember committing, the sin of ignoring sin (in one scene the father is painted in black face forced to wear a dunce cap and ride a donkey in a parade; in another, he cries alone in the desert), which was not why he came there in the first place, it was not, to the movies, to this small movie house, where on weekends different men came and let their mouths hang open and stared intently at the screen; he did not want to feel like this man, this imbecile father who goes where he is told because he is docile, because he does not understand his own worth, in other words, because he is a father; this man who, at times, he already felt like, vacant, drifting through a blunt landscape, his wife at home, pregnant, waiting for him, thinking he was working late, singing songs to her belly, the belly he used to run his hand along, the belly no longer his belly (he swallowed with difficulty) and the children on the screen seemed suddenly terrifying and also alluring, their thin, naked bodies inviting violence, something slow and pleasurable so that it was hard to look at them, he wouldn’t look at them and yet . . . The woman suddenly moaned; the boy was no longer visible; the old man startled awake, a gurgling sound crawling from his throat. (This was not a new world, this was not escape.) The four young and attractive archeologists were now inside the temple, and the hero, who is in love with leading lady, a third rate blond , who is in turn of course married to the temperamental, undeserving best friend, looks up, the camera framing his square and manicured head for a moment and says “I don’t think this is a temple at all.” And at the end of the film it is only three of them. They have discovered the temple was in fact a machine built by an alien race, a kind of terrible radio, that once triggered will emit a signal transforming those who hear it into aliens themselves, or at least facsimiles, intent on destroying humanity and the world. They have already seen it in action. One of their party began to twitch upon the signal’s activation. He swooned. Upon awaking he attacked and killed the radio operator and in turn had to be killed by the hero, who then looked with despair on the corpse of his former friend. The camera frames his handsome face. He has a cleft chin and haunted eyes. Now the temple is crumbling. The remaining three barely make it out. Their flashlights strafe the jungle’s dark backdrop. Soon one of them will transform. They pick their way through the underbrush, stumbling towards a changed world. A victim, a monster, a hero. Which one, he wondered, was he?

By the time they reached the site, everyone was covered in terrible, stinging bites. Unseen things kept biting them. The Paran, muddy and whimpering because had fallen and twisted his ankle, was being helped by the German who was lamenting the whole thing by, as far as my father could understand, muttering dialogue from a movie or tv show or play. Fuchs found the generator and turned it on. The four of them stood and in the rain and looked at the house, a glowing thing in the jungle’s wet mind. They looked at it without expression. In his field notes he wrote, “The house is a catalyst. It is also a dying whale.”

That night they stayed there, rolling their sleeping bags out on the wood floor. The rain tapped against the glass, the walls and windows, echoing an erratic, anxious pulse through the empty house. Without speaking they all separated. Fuchs took the master bedroom. The Paran and the German took the smaller bedroom. My father stayed in the great living area, which was mostly glass. Though he was tired, exhausted, he could not really sleep, which is to say he fell immediately into a deep sleep but woke soon after. He woke violently, in a panic, thinking, for a moment, he was in dark, violent water, giant swells rising all around him, his heavy legs treading, and he couldn’t see, water in his mouth, land anywhere and where was the, roar everywhere, where was the, no. He started awake. The house slowly came back into shape. The dark and empty house. It unnerved him. He felt as if he himself was the one that was empty, hollow. Him, not the house. Hollowed out and waiting. He got up and walked to the door. His arms and legs burned with swollen irritation and it was difficult to swallow. Outside, inside, there was a deep darkness. He could still feel the ocean all over him. The salt and panic. It was hot and humid. His arms and legs and face and neck itched and burned. The generators, he wondered. Were they out?

He stared into the darkness and felt for a moment that something was staring back. He could hear its movements, muted through the glass. There are unexpected dimensions to an animal’s face, he would later say, surrounded by scarred and limping dogs, that, if understood properly, can open for you, if only for a moment, certain windows. On the way in, as the dusk fell, hundreds of tiny lights began to dot the trees, flickering. Fireflies. In the jungle’s of southwest Asia—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam—where now men cut off the feet of other men and hid in holes in order to kill quickly and unexpectedly and dumped poisonous chemicals on each other in large quantities, Fuchs stopped the party to say, groups of fireflies like these now had been witnessed slowly synchronizing their flashes. Their lights, once a kind of blinking babble, became like a pulse. No one knows yet what this communication is for. On. Off. On. Off. On.

Then suddenly Fuchs was next to him. He could feel the proximity. Something landed on his arm, sending a ripple of panic through his body. Something inside. Then it was gone.

He shuddered.

Fuchs held a bottle of scotch, almost empty, gently by the neck, in his left hand. He took a drink and handed the bottle to my father, who took a drink and shuddered again.

In the small bedroom the German was kissing the Paran, who was chilled and sweating, gently on the head.

He waited for Fuchs to say something. For Fuchs to explain and how it was that a glass box sunk in the muck of the jungle demonstrated the glory of his country and its embrace of the future. He scratched his arm. He wanted to scratch his leg, which stung and burned in too many places.

He heard Fuchs swallow. The sound of something emerging.

I was once asked to build a house in the Apennines for an Italian industrialist, Fuchs said finally, suddenly. A scion. A blue-bood. Presented as eccentric in the usual way.

His voice was soft and hoarse. He made a gesture in the dark my father could not apprehend to indicate what was usual.

The industrialist, he had about a twenty sons, said Fuchs. Indiscriminate sons. Sons from different mothers. Ex-wives and girlfriends. One night stands. This was a necessity, he told me. His family line was long and distinguished. A great house. A great house with a long history. But a great house now brought to the brink. Once there had been allegiances with powerful families. Once there had been noble actions in desperate conflicts. He mouthed a word I couldn’t understand and narrowed his eyes into a look of significance, as if there were people in the walls and cupboards who could hear him. Who could hear him and report to someone or something. His great grand uncle Fabrizio, for example, he said, who created a specific time-saving farming process without thought of patent protection and just gave it away to the farmers. Because of his love for his people. You have do what is necessary for the love of the people, the industrialist said.

We were sitting in his large but dingy Turin apartment, Fuchs said. The industrialist’s face was pock-marked and thin. Around him and throughout the apartment many small and shaky dogs slept and yapped and pissed on the floor. The apartment was dark and smelled of sweat and urine. Two of the dogs were resting on his lap. Greasy looking Pekinese with runny eyes. Intermittently, the industrialist put his face down towards the dogs and let them lick him on the face and mouth. First one, then the other.

Everything he did, the industrialist told me, was to preserve the bloodline. His degrees, his career, his life compacted into this travesty, he said waving a hand at the room and the rooms beyond it. They were in all in service to this one determining fact. This one precious thing. The bloodline, he told me, is all. What was now necessary, he said, for the family to secure once again its place again amongst the noble families of the province and, indeed the county, was an estate befitting their admittedly but still great station. A structure so radical and important it could not help but mark the reemergence of this once great provincial power. Look, he said to me. He did not much care for modern design. In point of fact he hated it. In certain art forms there were heights, apexes after which everything degraded, after which it was all merely pantomime and arrangement. Architecture was one such form. No offense, he said. But could anything top the majesty of the great hunting lodge of Stupigni? It’s cavernous vaults and twisting arabesques? Didn’t Petronius say: without decoration there is no life? He took several small oily fish from a bowl on the coffee table between us. It is often a mistake to think in terms of progression, he said and put the fish in his mouth and then licked his lips. But he understood full well that they must look to the future for their legacy, if they were to have a legacy, degraded as it was, the future. The past was a swamp of terrible decisions and poorly applied love, he said. The family’s past. It is unwise to build on a swamp. This much I know.

A swamp, a cemetery, a jungle, my father thought. Yes.

He was clearly insane, Fuchs continued. But I was young and eager to make my name and felt, perhaps intuitively, that this crazy, probably syphilitic, and certainly dying industrialist could be manipulated into letting me corrupt his ridiculous dreams into my own. Dreams, Fuchs said, handing the bottle back to my father, which are so often easily disfigured, transformed.

Outside it began to rain again in heavy sporadic drops.

So we began to work together, Fuchs said. I stayed in a hotel, paid for by the industrialist, near the train station. At the time I didn’t think about the location and its implications. From my window I could watch people arrive and depart. There was a park near the station. A small park with trees where people sometimes ate lunch and sometimes . . . made arrangements. In my hotel I could hear their sounds. Voices loud then soft. Muffled, distorted. During the day I sketched in two sessions. I met the industrialist for lunch and then again for dinner, which was taken late and lasted for hours with multiple courses. Head-cheese ravioli, fish stuffed with almonds, capon tart and candied pears. We met at the same restaurant every day, a large, dim and dirty place where the only other diners were an older couple who, during their incessant meal, would not talk to each other. Instead they communicated through the waiter, a tall thin, bored man with a stoop, who relayed their messages back and forth, leaning in to hear one and then walking to the other, crouching down to explain. During the dinner the industrialist would talk about his lonely, ridiculous childhood, about how, when, he was young he was not allowed to leave the estate walls but that his parents would bring in children from nearby villages for him to play with, to chase around the estate and bully with a wooden sword. If you think of that as playing. But without these children, he said, I would not have learned how to think about other people. One’s parents, such as they are, don’t become people until later, if ever. And besides they were too much in love with each other to care adequately about me. And so the children taught me. How other people are like energetic dogs that we must exercise. It was hard to understand him at times. We sat at table for four and he would use all the silverware, picking forks at random from different places. Behind him there were dusty carnival masks, dull, feathered things. My sketches would be spread out in front of him in between his many plates and bowls and tureens and he would glance down at them while he talked. At the end of the dinner he would tell me that these were no good. What he wanted, he would say, was something, with more force, more . . . discipline.

Force, discipline, excellence, Fuchs said. These were the words he used. He was rarely specific and when he was he quickly changed his mind. I had a photo of the place where he intended to build. One he’d given me. In the photograph I could see a rocky precipice and below a narrow valley with a stream. The photographs were overexposed and so everything looked both faded and scorched. There was also in them a man and a teenager, a boy or a girl. Their figures were dark and small, both there and not there, ghostly figures, against the hot dry sky.

For months we continued in this way, Fuchs said. Maybe three, maybe four. We continued our uneasy embrace. I brought him sketches; he told me stories. Sometimes I felt like I had never been anywhere else. Like I woke up on boat in the middle of the ocean with a crew that I didn’t recognize that kept calling me captain. My hands were cramped and my stomach sick. I was tired of eating rich, undigestible food, which settled into my stomach and stayed there alongside my doubt. I was tired of walking in the Turin heat and standing in the Turin rain. Bored of the girl I was sleeping with and sick of myself for sleeping with her. Our lovemaking became baroque, absurd—entangled and ridiculous. Pleasure always a horizon. Our mouths like the industrialist’s mouth, something to be licked over. Sleeping, lovemaking, the temerity of words, what crutches, when we find ourselves waist-deep in the life of our making, we use. And me? I had become part of the sounds of the hotel. Somewhere in one of the other rooms, someone was sitting and thinking as I had sat and thought, in the room with its rectangular bed and rectangular bedsides tables, its bed tightly made, its carpet dull, the smell that is the absence of smell, the place that could be anywhere. Somewhere in the hotel was me. So this one day, I didn’t go to lunch and I didn’t go to dinner. I stayed in my bed. I slept and didn’t sleep. I went to the movies, where a terrible horror movie was playing. The plot was familiar. Two men who were probably criminals escape some unseen terror only end up at a secluded chateau with a sinister dandy. From the first, you understood that this would not end well. The way the chateau was filmed it seemed endless, expansive. There were constant long scene of the camera wandering into room after room, each one looking basically the same. The creeping terror of similitude. One criminal and then the other wake up to find themselves in new wings of the chateau’s labyrinth. The dandy appears and talks to them as if they have been there for days or weeks. Women and men appear, lithe and young, and talk to the criminals as if they have been friends for a long time. The same conversation happens several times. There are constant shots of a large computer in some kind of chamber. Then people start dying. Hands begin grabbing people in the dark and slitting throats, cutting bodies and pulling them into the chamber. It’s always hands, a close-up on the hands, almost unattached to anything, hands and wrists. In the end the criminals escape, or seem to. But it’s not really clear what they’ve escaped from or to. It was crap but when I returned to the hotel I felt like the lithe young extras and Turin felt like those hands—cutting at me, grabbing me, again and again, mere bodies, a mere body, and I packed my suitcase with the few things I desired to keep and walked to the train and took the first one north.

A few months later I received a large brown envelope from an Italian law firm. Inside the envelope was a smaller envelope and a letter on heavy cream-colored paper with a water seal. The letter explained that it had the great misfortune to inform me that my “dear friend” and “employer” had passed away and that in keeping with the execution of his last will and testament, which had been amended to include the following only a month before his tragic and untimely death, the sealed envelope currently in my possession was to be delivered, without delay, into my hands. For a while I did not open the second envelope. I had taken work with an architectural firm in Cologne and was busy working on building museums and governmental offices. These were, at the time, all the rage. Everyone building a quarantine for memory, a conduit for appropriate action. (Fuchs made the sound with his throat again). The founder of the firm defied convention by working with brick and cement instead of glass and steel. He advocated a return to the right angle. The founded column. The classic forms. Moving backwards is the way to forward, he said. He had a slight lisp and a runny left eye. It was difficult to look at him without thinking of his disease. So I worked and thought of his disease and quarantined memory and each night I returned home to the envelope, which lay on my desk, a reminder, an invitation, a taunt, a rectangle like the rectangles I worked with every day. And it was a small room, where I lived. In some ways it was just another hotel. I knew this about rooms, how they mutate thoughts, limit action and finally, one night I drank enough brandy to open the letter. I held it in my hands. Outside my window, drunk students were singing songs. Everything was now a possibility again, at least for some people, and I imagined the industrialist, his dogs finding him on the couch, licking, hesitantly, his stiffened lips, his mouth and thought about how this is what it meant to be alive and young in this moment, a dog licking crumbs from the mouth of a corpse, and so I opened the envelope. I opened it with but not with expectation. Of course, I thought in that moment, of a large sum of money, I thought of our dinners and thought of money, of my hotel room and money, of the Turin streets and Marissa’s legs and arms bent into angles and the number rose and fell but what remained was the possibility congealing into certainty that in my hand was a large sum of money that would take from this room and my diseased employer with his runny eye to another place, some place I hadn’t even thought of, where I could begin to execute my vision, or what I thought of at that time as my vision. Fuchs emitted a sound that was like a chuckle. The rain had stopped. My father looked at Fuchs who looked through the window into the darkness outside. What to make of this intimacy? He wanted to put his arm around Fuchs. My hands trembled a little, Fuchs said, as I slid the knife into the envelope’s sticky seam. But inside there was nothing. Which is to say, inside was not a check but another envelope, this one smaller but in every other way a replica of the first. Understanding the perversity of the industrialist, his games, I thought how he would want to make of this a performance, to make me dance or beg for scraps at his table one more time and though I was angry I slide the knife in again and opened this second smaller envelope in which I found yet another even smaller envelope. Even smaller and equally smaller. I cut this second envelope with a knife. I cut again. Another envelope. And I cut and cut and each envelope revealed another envelope, the envelope’s paper thick and tactile like goose-bumped flesh and on each envelope there was a word typed over the so that to open the envelope properly you had to tear the word apart. The letter from his attorneys indicated that the last will and testament had been changed a month before I left, as if he knew I would leave, knew I would return, and I remembered the terrible film I had seen with the criminals and the endless chateau and I remembered too his story about the children his parents brought into their compound and it seemed like now I was both a criminal and a child in this scenario and I suddenly understood what the whole thing had been, that whole experience in Turin, the long lunches, the descriptions of his life, the calls at night, the dogs that licked and shit in equal measure, that all of this was in fact the house the industrialist had wanted to build all along, that there was never going to be an actual house, a structure, no glass, no steel, no cement, no marble, not even brick, that I had hoped to deform his dreams but had been swallowed entirely by them. The words, I remembered, the words on the envelopes comprised a line from a book the industrialist had shown me. What can you do with such things? Fuchs said. Things that happen and settle into your mind and stay there like mice. Quiet, patient, unhealthy. The mice in your mind. What do you do with them?

—Gregory Howard

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Gregory Howard is the author of Hospice (FC2). His fiction and essays have appeared in Web ConjunctionsHarp & Altar, and Tarpaulin Sky, among other journals. He teaches creative writing, contemporary literature, and film studies at the University of Maine.

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Jan 072016
 

Lewis Parker

x

Such has been my lot since childhood. Everyone read signs of non-existent evil traits in my features. But since they were expected to be there, they did make their appearance.
            – Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time

 

It’s a common misconception that men who have relationships on the Internet, with women who’ve just got out of psychiatric units, are creepy. But if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a creep. Last week, when I helped my aunt Denise carry some videos into the Age Concern shop where she volunteers, she called me a strapping young man. That’s more like it. I’m good at scaring away burglars. If you live in the Hinckley area and you think you’re being burgled, don’t bother with the pigs, give me a call. I’m not in bad shape for twenty eight. Although last week, after urinating through the local paedophile’s letterbox, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to run away fast enough. I wouldn’t normally give two thoughts to my own safety, but since I’ve started seeing this woman, I’ve started to think, what if I slip on some dog shit and the nonce catches up with me? And he’s with seven or eight of his nonce mates, and they’ve all got iron bars, and they put me in hospital? If I was in a full body cast, I wouldn’t be able to email Christine. That’s the woman I’m seeing. Well, seeing. I’ve hardly seen anything yet.

Whether I’m driving round the country in my lorry, or if I’m lying in bed with the polyrhythmic jive of Rhythm Is a Dancer still in my ears after deejaying at a wedding, all I’ve been able to think about lately is Christine and her knees. I imagine us chugging along, when I point out the window and say, “There’s that new service station I was telling you about.” While she’s not looking I reach across, lift the plate of food and squeeze her knee.

Here’s my latest missive:

Hi Christine,

Thanks for the new batch of snaps. Please keep sending this way. The thought of you missing a meal gets at me like DJs so up themselves they won’t take requests. You know the type. I don’t know who gets more out of these photos of salad — you or me.

The veggie burgers and quiches look like something I would pay good money to eat in a restaurant, even though I am not a vegetarian.

You’re clearly a talented chef. You should consider a career in the catering industry when you’re feeling well enough to look for work. If you need a reference, you know you can count on me. I attended a Hotel Management course at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College. And I used to work in the serving hatch at the Hinckley United football ground until I became the subject of one of the crowd’s bawdy songs.

Attached are some pictures I took of the 3,000 Years of Bread show at the Spittle Rooms on Thursday. The sound was sludgy and some bonehead security guard confiscated my kazoo. When I spoke to him after the show Mitchell from 3KYB said he still hadn’t got round to listening to the mix CD I gave him in Nottingham in February. But he will do very soon, he promised, and if he likes what he hears, there may be a slot coming up as their next tour DJ!

Later alligator.

Shockwave

She could probably be a star on Instagram with her photos, but she shuns fame and sends them to me instead. Last week she sent me photos of a pizza half-eaten on her Saturday-night knees in front of the TV, Yorkshire puddings covered in gravy titled ‘starters!’ (she’s from some northern slum), a box of popcorn balanced on her cinema knees, salads, curries, and lentil dishes I’m not going to pretend I know the names of. In the last few weeks our relationship has segued into a faster tempo — we email at least twice a day — but Christine still hasn’t shown more than the leg her food is rested on, from the bits of her lower thigh where the plate ends to the tip of her kneecap.

If that kneecap’s the tip of an iceberg, I’m the Titanic.

Mum calls me with a yap that’s indistinguishable from that of Cindy, her King Charles spaniel. “Can you hear me?” she yells up at me. “Go and help your father. Give him a hand with the hose pipe.”

The old man’s in his golf waterproofs unravelling the hose. I shut my curtains. Dark world in here. It’s my own party palace, Club Stig, and it’s always me on tunes. Requests on the hour, every hour. Shockwave in the house, your resident selector. Chock-a-block with club bangers and classic rock.

“Michael, help your father.”

She’s listening to the songs of Queen on the pan pipes. In the past I’ve got my own back on her by burning Ibiza compilations onto blank discs and swapping them for that guff she buys from the Body Shop. I turn up my 90s Megamix, but her screams come through the carpet, so I yell back down, “Shut up, you stupid bitch.”

She tries to get my attention from outside the door. Something about the noise, the smoke machine, the electric bill, and how she won’t be spoken to in her house. Who will be spoken to like that in her house, then? I certainly will not.

When she’s done yapping I breeze through the semi-detached and jump into my Vauxhall Astra. She follows me out to the front garden and does her standard irrational-woman impression. When I was a kid, they’d come from as far as Barwell and Earl Shilton to see her raving on the front lawn. On summer nights there would be fifteen to twenty kids from the neighbouring villages sitting on the grass bank by the bypass at six o’clock, when word had got round that she called me in from play. First she’d stand on the front step and scream, then she’d come out wearing her fluffy slippers and dressing gown that was too short, so it showed her legs all white and plucked. When she dragged me in, the kids would cheer my name. She always used to call me an imbecile for watching WWF wrestling, but she was the one who’d copy the wrestlers when she pointed at the kids and screamed, “You shut up.”  Then they’d cheer as the door slammed behind me and I could still hear them while I was having my arse smacked. I give her the finger through the sunroof as I drive out the cul-de-sac and onto the A47.

It’s a five-minute drive to Halford’s at the Greenfields retail park, but I can get there in three. I park in the staff car park and lock my car with a flick of the wrist as I’m going through the sliding doors. I turn around and point to the back of my jacket with my thumbs. It says my DJ name, Shockwave, in white iron-on letters.

“Security to the front desk. Security to the front desk.”

Halfords is one of the last true friends of the car and haulage hustler. A petrolhead can browse the equipment with a sense of religious belonging, walking up and down the aisles, amazing novices with his scholarship of true bass speakers, exterior protectors, body styling, tints and strips, door-lock pins, exhaust trims. As the expert among the experts, I can enthuse about air horns, high-intensity discharge lights, badges and graphics, stickers and stripes. Often I’m called upon to intervene in a situation of tense customer relations drama, when Nigel — an expert in hi-viz clothing and the uses of WD40 but not much else — is out of his depth trying to assist with an engine-based query. If Maureen the security guard is unable to deal with inappropriate customer behaviour or slacking among the staff, I’ve been known to intervene.

“He’s about six foot tall, looks like a big jelly baby, and he’s got Shockwave printed on the back of his jacket.”

Nigel turns off the microphone but won’t make eye contact. “You’d better leave.”

“You talking to me?”

“You’re barred.”

“Why?”

“Calling a customer a nonce.”

“Is it because you’re a nonce?”

“No.”

“Is it because you’re a nonce, though?”

“No.”

“You’re a bit of a nonce yourself, aren’t you?”

“Security to the front desk.”

There’s a woman looking lost among the chamois leathers and polishes. In my Marks and Spencer’s jeans and boat shoes, I feel like Jeremy Clarkson on the deck of an aircraft carrier striding towards a lonely female mechanic. In slow motion, with Meat Loaf on the soundtrack.

“Hello, madam.”

“Hullo.”

“Shockwave.” I pause and let her take that in. “I help out round here.”

“Do you work here?”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

“My husband sent me out to get some wax.”

My hands are on my hips, and I’m shaking my head at a man delegating such a sensitive matter. I breathe out and make a hissing sound. “You’ve been stood there about ten minutes and nobody’s bothered to help.”

While I’m recommending the Armor All Shield Wax, Maureen the security guard — Slow Mo, as I call her — emerges from the end of the Car Styling aisle. Six months ago, I would have stayed and fought, but with Christine in the picture, it’s not worth it. I tell the woman I’m off to scout for new Top Gear locations along the Earl Shilton bypass. I palm her my business card.

SHOCKWAVE

DJ. Lorry driver. Vigilante.

Hinckley and Nuneaton area.

Call to arrange a DJ set, parcel delivery or security solution.

In the McDonald’s drive-thru I do some maintenance work in the rear-view mirror while waiting for my meal. My server is Jill, who I know without looking at her badge is a two-star employee. Franklin, my mate who worked here before throwing himself onto the M1 at Leicester Forest East, managed two stars before his tragic demise. If Jill doesn’t hurry up I may have to give her the benefit of my opinion.

“I could have bought a herd of cows and slaughtered them myself at this rate.”

“Pardon?”

“Ketchup and a straw please, Jill.”

“Can you turn your music down?”

“Loud?” I turn it up to eleven. The bass from DJ Luck and MC Neat almost knocks her off her feet. “That’s loud.” I point to the napkins and hold out my paper bag, having already started grabbing at the chips and eating them. “Shove them in there.”

I pull into my usual bay outside the Fitness First where I’m a member. While I’m eating my Extra Value Meal, I give my brother Marty a ding. He used to be in a rock band that were pretty big in the Hinckley and Nuneaton area. You might have heard of Bearded Woman. They played on one of the small stages at the Summer Sundae festival in Leicester. He had a job working for a video games manufacturer near Ashby, but now he’s the CEO of his own dating agency in Nottingham, catering to goths and rockers. The other day, when I was sprinting down Castle Street and I thought the area’s top nonce Geoff Doyle had called the five-o, I had no choice but to call Marty and tell him about Christine, so he could let her know in case something happened to me. But he’s not picking up. He’s probably on the driving range, warming up for his golf game with the old man.

While I’m sitting there, I get a new email from Christine. The subject is ‘Saturday brunch,’ and it’s a picture of a poached egg with hollandaise sauce on an English muffin. It’s balanced, as usual, on her knees. She’s wearing blue jeans, baggy and faded, the kind of thing I could imagine her wearing if we went to B&Q to get the materials for our deluxe soundproof shed.

I reply with a link to Chris’s Mix 19. It starts with the Artful Dodger featuring Craig David’s classic Re-Rewind from 1999, with me freestyling over it. This goes out to the coolest girl in the world, Christine. Helping you get over your problems. Don’t let the people take you away again. Here’s to your food diary. Eat, eat, eat and rewind. Eat a bit more. All those lovely cakes. Chocolate, biscuits, all them goodies, mmm. Don’t be scared. You’re not fat. You’re a beautiful woman. You can do it, baby. Shockwave’s behind you.

She replies with an emoji — two thumbs up.

Back at the house, Dad’s Rover 75 is gone from the driveway, so I’ve got the place to myself. I crank up another Megamix, but when Cindy keeps yapping outside my door and messes with my levels, I flip her a sedative. Ten minutes later she’s stiff as cardboard. I pick her up, tickle her belly, check if she’s still breathing then get back to the ol’ Messenger.

Yo, C. That muffin looks nice. Ever had them with bacon, sausage and brown sauce?

Yep had bacon and sausage but not for ages and never on a muffin, it’s so good, the hollandaise sauce, you can make it yourself, ever so easy.

We could make them together you know.

Listening to megamix 19 now, probs the best one yet!

What’s your favourite track?

They’re all good but if I had to choose, apart from your dedication (<3) track 14.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! I want you in my room. We’ll spend the night together. Together in my…! Good choice. I listen to it when I’m stressed. That and Robbie Williams, Strong. You have to be strong, Chris. I know you think I live the life of Riley, always touring – stopping off at Road Chefs and playing the frooties when I feel like it, having two bags of chips at two consecutive road stops, doing what I like with my banging community of haulage hustlers – but the party palace is driving me up the wall. After I’d been up all night having it large, I only went and flipped DJ Slimy Fingers (my housemate)’s dog a sedative. Think I might have killed her. He’s in with some pretty unsavoury characters, so I need to lie low for awhile…

A few minutes pass. I consider sending her another message to check if she received my previous message. Patience, the wheel. While I wait for her to get back to me, I drop my jeans round my ankles and scroll through my Christine album to the chocolate fudge cake.

This has been approved by the lady herself. After we’d started messaging one another on the HAVOCA forum and she started emailing me her food photos, I told her snaps made the blood rush to my cock. She asked if it was her or the food that got me going. I told her it was the whole thing. She replied in seconds and said, are you feeling horny now, Shockwave, and I said yes. She asked if the photos made me want to touch myself. I said, if I did it right now, would you mind? If you say no, I promise I won’t. I’d never do it without your permission. She said no, I don’t mind. I asked if she wanted to see me do it, and she said yes.

I turned on my webcam.

Just as I get going, I hear Mum’s shrill voice. It could wilt a daffodil. I button my jeans and peek out the door, where Cindy’s in deathly repose. Mum’s coming up the stairs, moaning about the state of the bins. I wish I’d spiked her, but I don’t have access to chemicals that strong. When she finds Cindy, she screams, kicks my door, calls me the son of Satan, tells me to come out. Then she says if I come out, she’s going to murder me. Dad tries to pull her away from the door and says in his limpid hush that wouldn’t stop a kitten, “Cath, don’t be hysterical. There’s an emergency vet in Leicester.”

“She’s dead, Martin. That useless oaf’s killed her. I gave birth to a dog murderer. I should have asked for an exorcist, not a midwife. He never lifts a finger. He does nothing with his life but gawp at his computer and batters his brain with that music. When he does do something, it’s this. This. This!”

The usual.

When I’ve bundled socks, pants, changes of shirt and The World According To Clarkson in a holdall, I wait for her to scream herself out. Then I open my door and creep across the landing. So long, cruel house, with your menopausal wallpaper. I stop at the top of the stairs and listen to her psychotic breathing. The old man’s knelt by the witch’s chair, holding her arm, trying to stop her from going apeshit again. Dead Cindy’s in her lap. My foot presses onto the first stair. It creaks. Bleeding cheapo houses knocked out of plywood.

“Martin, he’s moving.” Shuffle of bunions. “I’ll disembowel him.”

I bustle downstairs. Lashes of mad hair rage from the living room. Piercing scream, arms spinning. I shield myself with the holdall, clocking a couple of blows over the bag, then a dig to the ribs and a kick from her rapier toenails. I shove-kick her backwards into Dad’s arms then pull the door towards me, jump out and pull it shut when I’m outside, locking her in. Rabid witch squashed against the frosted window. I leg it out to my car in the cul-de-sac, shoeless gravel feet, ow, ow. I’m reversing when the mad woman bursts out in a pale craze. Revving out of the second point of the turn, she collides with my back window, grabs at the locked door, snags the aerial, fingers scrape the roof. I release the clutch, down the juice. Trusty impeller spins in my turbocharger and I surge forwards. She’s thrown off and I feel ten tonnes lighter.

I stop at the entrance to the A47. It’s Saturday evening. Headlights scream across the pub-brawl night. Halfords shut at five. Besides, I’m barred. Will have to find another branch — Nuneaton or Coventry. Maybe they’re open later. Check the web on my phone: nope. Macca D’s? Twice in one day — no way, Jose. Pint down the Mill on the Soar. It’s a ten-minute drive but I can do it in seven. Not the local exactly, just a cosy hotel-restaurant on the way to Broughton, but I dip in for a pint every now and then. Familiar sights, tinkling lights, few frooties to boot.

I sit on a sofa with my Abbot ale, browsing the Halfords catalogue. Leaf through the Car Entertainment and Technology section. Christine’s still not online.

In the mental space to appreciate the Mill’s renovations, I plonk my pint on the coffee table and wiggle my toes underneath. Roadside pubs are my favourite. You wonder how a premises licensed to serve alcohol would stay afloat if you have to drive to it, but you forget how popular they are among the hidden elite: travelling middle managers, assistant headteachers and regional historians. Ukip and Tory voters mostly, the quiet majority, my type of people. I tell the couple of hotel guests from out of town, wearing their Marks and Spencer’s casuals, bonding over scampi, that it may not look very lively for a Friday evening, but you get a lot of people from Lutterworth coming here on their way to Hinckley, usually around lunchtime. They don’t understand the significance. Two towns not far enough apart to warrant a road stop? Such places thrive for one reason, I tell them. No, not even the convenience. It’s the glamour of anonymity.

I check my phone to see if Christine’s online. Still nothing.

When I’m done with my pint, I head back to the car, pull the breathalyser out of the glove compartment and blow a 0.42. I’m under the limit. While I’m sitting shoeless in the driving seat, Christine’s name flashes on my phone. She says she received my previous message. I tell her how everything kicked off at home while I had entered the Club Stig’s action area. She asks me where I am. Do I want to carry on? I tell her she read my mind. Let me reverse into a better spot — lucky, the carpark’s almost empty.

It started in my room, but if I get a message from her and I’m in a truck stop late at night, I’ll pull over and do it wherever I am. Lay-bys, service station toilets, in my car with the lights off. If I’m kipping over, I’ll set up on my lorry’s cot bed, where there’s a Bugatti Veyron poster and a cord light. I don’t get caught. I’m not trying to get caught either. I’m not a creep. The power in this thing is dangerous enough. I normally have one of Christine’s photos on the screen, maximised. Cake, polenta, salad, luring me through vectors. Like a lush rainforest through vinyl drapes. I look at the knees and the plate of food and think of her finger clicking the button on top of the camera, how it makes me feel a sudden jump. Sometimes, I turn Christine off. She doesn’t know, but I turn off the screen and whack myself off into the black void.

The phone’s in its cradle by the gear stick with the sound and video broadcasting. There’s light from the advertising board on the side of the pub. I scroll to the most recent batch of photos with my left hand, half an eye on the rear-view mirror in case somebody pulls in. On the 4.5-inch Samsung screen is a high-resolution photo of Christine’s chocolate cake, a dangling square orb. I swipe across — next — and it’s the spinach and ricotta parcel. Next. Banana in a bowl of custard. Next. Eggs benedict. Next, next, next.

In my mind, Christine’s cheering me on. I’m her sacrifice, cold as ice, yet hotter than burning rubber. I play music — a Megamix. I get in the zone and the boogie snake takes over. Christine, this goes out to you.

I make sure everything’s folded into the mansize Kleenex — I like how they call them ‘mansize’ when everybody knows what they really mean — and wrap it in a Tesco bag that I keep under the seat. This one’s full, so I tie it in a knot, get out the car and look for a bin. There’s not one outside, so I strut back into the Mill and ask one of the waitresses if they’d mind disposing of some tour debris. I fake a sneeze, wipe my nose with my finger and say, “It isn’t half dusty in there.” I swing the Tesco bag in her direction, but she backs away and says there’s a bin by the entrance to the hotel. While I’m there, I book a room for the night, and the manager gives me a key to a double room. I go back to the car and tell Christine that my Club Stig housemates are doing my head in — I dangle the keys in front of the camera — so I’ve moved into a hotel. It’s a hustler’s hangout, nobody would ask questions.

There’s a Wetherspoons breakfast at the foot of every mountain in life, I’ve told her before. We could stay a night here, a night there, whichever part of the country I’m called to. She can ride shotgun, take lunch on her knees on the seat next to me. We’ll jump on the beds of every motorway Travelodge, fill up on pancakes at every Wimpy and make the most of Pizza Hut lunch buffets. We can make mad orders: try limited-edition frappucinos, fill the salad bowl so high that the lid has to be squashed down, stack up on glossy weeklies, go wild on CD compilations. I’ll cover the bill.

She replies:

why don’t u come here?

I tell her, only if you insist. I don’t want to harm your recovery. Before I can tell her that I only have her best interests at heart, she says that we’ve been building up to this, haven’t we? All this time? Now I’m ready. I wonder when she decided this, and think to ask, but fear that I will put doubt in her mind. She clearly wouldn’t take such a decision lightly, being the kind of person whose mistakes cost her years.

No, I mean it, you can come here. I didn’t want to plan it else I thought I’d get scared and back out. Are you ready?

I’m ready, I tell her.

You’re not backing out now are you? You’ll come for me tonight?

Are you alone? I ask.

Not tonight I won’t be, not with you here.

Alright, text me your address. I’d put it in the sat-nav but I left it behind. Don’t worry, I know my way round.

I turn the key in the ignition and ram into reverse. I don’t bother to stop and look both ways at the entrance to the B4114, but feed the wheel through smooth hands, no crossing, booting through second, over-running third until I hit sixty.

A star in a reasonably priced car. Power.

All roads lead north. Sheffield to be exact, straight up the M1. I turn back on myself and within three minutes I’m on the motorway, throbbing with a pulse deep inside me. Past the bridge at Leicester Forest East, I feel the little bump in the road where Franklin’s bellyflop dented the concrete and had to be re-laid.

Now I live for the moments between departure and arrival. I don’t hear the Megamix so much as live inside it. Its beats are an interior rhythm that have been coded into my spinal cord, like some highly advanced vertebrate that evolved with its own soundtrack. The camera pans alongside me, flown by a helicopter traversing flat fields that occur only as a blur. I can’t help but think that I’m racing against Clarkson, James May and Richard ‘the Hamster’ Hammond in a romantic Top Gear challenge. They may have been kitted out with faster cars and TomToms, but this circuit can only be navigated by the satellite of love.

The Satellite of Love Dab Hands 2004 Retouch Mix comes on as the sign for Yorkshire appears, and it’s like I’ve been compiling a giant showreel in my mind. My life is taking shape. I want to chuck myself about in this perfect moment — bounce along to a 4/4 beat with pint in hand, surrounded by all the lads wearing short sleeves in nippy weather — but I mustn’t take my hands off the wheel. Stare ahead and let your right foot do the work, Shockwave.

I turn off the motorway and prepare for a moment that has already happened. It’s been storyboarded and timelined. Memories of me arriving to rescue Christine were rigged up ages ago. This is just the editing phase, and it’s happening while we’re still in production, but nothing can go wrong, as it’s already happened. The soundtrack has already been mixed. Glitches like forgetting to pack my shoes and sat-nav were written into the script, to make the challenge seem more believable and exciting. I am delivering my life to Christine. DJ sets and security solutions come as standard.

I’ll have no problem finding her address. I have to ask a couple of lairy youths hanging around suspiciously outside Bramall Lane football ground, but I know they’ll give me the wrong directions on purpose, so as I drive away, I crack a joke about how poor everybody is up north, then go the opposite way along the foggy backstreets of Ecclesall Road, where I find the perfect parking space right outside Christine’s front door.

I spend five minutes buffing my exterior. I’m a bit blotchy, but that’s good, it was my plan not to turn up looking like David Beckham, as it would be inauthentic after a challenge. I look at the front door and remind myself how to react when it opens. My entrance is inspired by ‘Dr.’ Neil Fox from the Magic FM breakfast show, when he cruised into Hinckley Asda to snip a ribbon for Loros. But if Dr. Fox is a morning coffee fix, bouncing eyes and treble voiced, Shockwave smiles with his eyes but not in a demented way. He’s cool and relaxed, he’s smooth and sensual, he’s drive-time.

There’s a bright bulb behind Christine’s beige muslin, the drape of choice for students and benefits claimants. The curtain’s about to go up. It’s nearly two hours since I told her I’d be there in two hours. One more look at the time. This is it then.

I get out the car door and — shit the bed — my foot crunches onto a sharp tin can. The rim digs into the arch of my foot and my big toe gets stuck in the hole. I hold onto the car roof for balance and try to dislodge the twisted metal while hopping on glass from the vandalised bus stop. I tug myself out eventually, pulling about half the skin on my big toe with it. I can feel blood from the graze soaking my right sock and glass shards digging into the left sole. But I don’t limp, because I’m hard.

I lock the car. The waist-high gate that needs a lick of paint creaks as I push through and walk up the three yards of slabs. Looking through the frosted glass windows in the door, I can see a couple of bicycles leaning in the hall. Christine hasn’t mentioned that she’s a cyclist. Maybe they belong to her housemates. I won’t hold it against them unless I find out they’re militant cyclists with cameras on their helmets.

It’s about dinner time. We’ll either share our first meal together here or at a Harvester I saw before the turning. It will be on me, of course. From now on, everything will always be on me.

I rap the door in a 4/4 beat. Knock, knock, knock, knock. I wanted you in my — life. A shape moves towards me, dark-haired and tall. The door opens and it’s a young bloke with bad skin and hair artificially straightened into a fringe, holding a can of Red Bull. He looks like somebody who pisses on the toilet seat.

“Is Christine in?”

“Who’s asking?”

“She’s expecting me.”

“You’d better come in then.”

When I’m inside I notice there’s a condom on my toe. Wet and greasy — it’s used — flapping on the dirty laminate floor like some sordid flipper. I flick it off under the bike wheel as I edge past the lad, muttering something about an itch. He closes the door behind us.

“Through there, on the left.”

A lad in his early twenties in a baseball cap, standing in the middle of the living room, points a video camera at me. “Are you Michael, otherwise known as Shockwave?”

On the sofa two lads in trackie bottoms watch a laptop connected to the camera. They’re the kind of people I’ve spent my life crossing the road to avoid — spotty and sniggering beneath Nike caps. I turn to leave, but the one who let me in shuts the living-room door behind him and leans back against it. I hope if I say that I’ve got the wrong address, I can give Christine a call and get her to meet me on neutral ground, because I don’t like her housemates.

“I think I’ve got the wrong house.”

He holds the condom between his fingers and dangles it for the others to see. “Is this yours, mate?”

The others laugh.

“It got stuck to my foot by accident. Have you got a bin? I’ll put it in the bin for you.” I go to take it off him, but as I do, he pulls a cricket bat from behind the armchair. I retreat to the back of the small, undecorated room, and the cameraman dances around me. I can see my own face on the laptop screen, scared and red, wobbling with the shake of the cameraman’s hand as he searches for the right close-up. While I’m looking at the screen, rapid goo slaps me in the face, stinging my eye. I peel the condom off my face and drop it in the disused fireplace where I’m standing.

As they laugh, the cameraman and the guard rush to confer with the two producers on the sofa. They watch replays of the condom striking me. They laugh again, louder, then play it again, asking for close-ups and pauses. “That’s it. Can you get a screen grab of the moment it hits him?”

They giggle at every bit of my humiliation.

“A second later, when it’s in his fingers, and he’s peeling it away, but we can still see his face. That’s the one.”

I rush to the door, but the guard jumps back into position and holds the bat over his shoulder, ready to swing.

“There must be a mix up,” I say again. “I’ve got the wrong house.”

“Shockwave, stop saying you’ve got the wrong house, mate.” The cameraman turns back to me. “What are you doing here? Do you know who we are?”

“Christine told me to come over. She texted me two hours ago. I can show you my phone. Are you her housemates?”

“How do you know Christine?”

“I don’t want to be filmed. Could you stop filming please?”

“He doesn’t like being filmed.” They laugh.

“Turn it off me. Turn it off now.” I palm the camera as it comes towards me, but the guard springs towards me with the bat above his head. I back myself into the corner with my arms raised, but the guard tells me to drop them else he’ll break them. I lower them slowly and he backs off.

“What’ll you do, Shockwave? Get your knob out and have a wank?”

“What you on about?”

“All that stuff you’ve done, it’s not going away.”

“What stuff? I’m here to see Christine, that’s all. If she’s not here, let me out.”

I move my hands towards the window, but one of the producers tells me in a bored voice that it’s locked. I believe him. I believe they were expecting somebody, but not me. They’ve got the wrong idea about who I am, what my life has been, and what my motives are. “Who are you? What do you want?”

But all they do is laugh.

“He’s clearly never heard of us,” the bored producer says.

“Right shame,” the cameraman says. “Because we know all about him.”

When I get out the car for real, I hope my nightmare is locked safely in the boot, where it will die in a head-on crash with reality. My foot lands safely on the can-free road. No used johnnies on my toe this time. The door puffs shut behind me. I resist the temptation to whistle I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross as I go through the gate and towards the terraced house where my future has been incubating. I push my nose up close to the frosted glass: can’t see any bikes in the hallway — a good omen. Just a milky glow from the kitchen, where I can only hope that Christine’s making a brew. I can’t stand here all night deliberating what to do, though, because I can feel the Red Bull surging through me and there’s no toilet near. Worst comes to the worst, I’ve got a baseball bat in the car. I could go and fetch it but that’s not really the look I’m going for. I flick my hand towards the door and then pull it away. I consider dropping a note through the letter box and asking her to meet me in the car, but that’s a bit creepy as well, like I’m trying to get her to go dogging, when that’s exactly the kind of thing I won’t stand for.

I give the door two gentle raps then two harder ones. The light in the hallway comes on. Somebody in a white sleeveless top with long hair, a bit shorter than me, a human female in jeans crumpled over the knees is coming to open the door. The window frosting distorts, but I’m pretty sure I recognise those knees. Now she’s too close, I can’t see down as far as the knees. I should probably step away from the glass so she doesn’t think I’m a window licker. Here she comes. The door swings open. Whatever happens now, Shockwave, you’ll have to freestyle.

—Lewis Parker

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Lewis Parker is a writer of fiction, poetry and journalism who is trying to get out of London. A hand-typed book of his poems, Suicide Notes, collects the best things he’s written while working as an écrivain public in the streets and at festivals during the last year. His prose has been in the Guardian, New Statesman, Dazed & Confused and Minor Literature[s], and he has taught at Kingston University in England.

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Jan 022016
 

thompsonguitar

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DEAR DOCTOR SHABAZZ,

I feel our initial session today went off the rails, and I feel you began to doubt much of what I said. I could see it in your eyes, the way they wouldn’t meet mine, the way they would shift to the art deco calendar, to your laptop screen, or your cuticles. The way you interrupted my theory of souls and the way you crinkled your brow whenever I mentioned the jungles of Paraguay. It was subtle, that crinkling, along with the quick little blinks, but it didn’t slip past me. Is it right that the patient should observe the doctor more closely than the doctor observes the patient? Is this how it goes with all your patients? I am seeing you for a reason and that reason has nothing to do with finding a dupe to believe me. What happened to me can be found in the newspapers of the day and is catalogued online at several respectable websites, including www.airdisasters.com. I have been interviewed by People Magazine (September 1996) and my story, or at least my flight, was recreated in the Real History Channel’s “Fatal Flight” series, Episode 3, Season 2, “Silence over South America.”

I, Kaye Alan Warwick, am a survivor. But I do not need to be told I am a survivor. I do not need to be told I have survivor’s guilt. I realize you haven’t said this to me, but I know you will, once you stop pretending to pay attention. I am worthy of every ounce of intelligence and training you may have. You have been highly recommended, Doctor Shabazz, and though I may have sworn off therapy years ago, because so many failed me, I do feel the need for help. I do feel my very life is at stake. That is why I am writing this letter, that we may start again with a better understanding that one, I am not a liar, and that two, I am unwell.

Please do your research.

I know the figure I cut, because everywhere I go, it’s the same figure: a short, balding man with mournful eyes, a man who looks frail, who looks shifty, who tries to look more manly by cultivating a goatee and wearing clothing a size too large. It’s been pointed out, thank you. It’s not important. But I assure you I am anything but frail, for my body is little more than sinew and scar tissue. No one falls softly when dropped out of the sky at 300 mph in a tin can sheared open by enormous trees. But I see your brow wrinkling now, don’t I. Look it up: TAB Flight 14, Sao Paulo to Asuncion, a McDonnell Douglas DC 10, 192 souls aboard including five crew.

Two survivors.

At first there were three.

And if I do have survivor’s guilt, that’s where it lies, Doctor Shabazz. Yes there were 189 others who didn’t make it, who were, as I saw first hand, though the photos were never released, torn to shreds – dismembered, beheaded, rendered unrecognizable as human, strewn about like doll parts. Blood pooled in the oddest places. But I didn’t know them, I could not have told you the stewardess’s names ten minutes after the flight landed, had it landed, nor could I have told you the pilot’s name, or the man behind me who kept insisting he was allowed to smoke a cigar, that it wasn’t a cigarette. I won’t light it, he pleaded, just let me suck it. Or the drunk young woman to my left who kept nervously twining her greasy hair around her fingers, who kept asking the same question over and over, É o avião quebrado? They never answered her, for obviously it was, obviously it was very broken. Completely broken. They haunt me, but I did not know them. For all I know every person I saw at the drugstore yesterday is dead today, perhaps the ceiling collapsed the moment I stepped out. It’s not that crazy. I feel nothing.

But Tarala, the little Indian girl.

I realize this is where I lost my train of thought today, where I began to ramble. I can go months without any trouble, live my life normally, slip past all the key triggers as if that part my past has been excised, surgically removed and incinerated to a few carbon specks lifting over the sleeping city. I’d have thrown myself in front of a train years ago had I not learned to deal with this. My first doctor promised easy miracles, said a few waves of his magic finger in front of my eyes and my brain would sparkle like new. When I think of him I even hear a tinkling magic-wand sound, like in “I Dream of Genie.” What a snake-oil salesman! Yet I believe in the science of psychotherapy, and the efficacy of pharmacology, Doctor, because I have worked miracles on myself.

The human brain is capable of so much. The human brain is as complex as the Universe, because it is the Universe. Everything we perceive is an impression, a rubbing of a neural pencil over reality’s bumps. And that reality – we only know it from the bumps! And yet I find myself in an MRI, a machine which reads my body, a machine made by Mind. We have fumbled in the dark and we have made this. Magnetic Resonance Imaging. What does that mean? I was lying there, Doctor Shabazz, worried about fuselage shrapnel being ripped from my flesh, and I thought Metal Ripping Instrument, and then I thought don’t think that, it’s Mind Reading Interrogator, and then I thought I am in a battle with my brain, my brain is an invader, all brains are invader alien species how come no one has written about this, I have to get out and write about this, this is why Man is Man and no longer ape. Eureka!

Do you know what they found, my dear Doctor? Lodged in my brain? Plastic. A fragment of a white plastic fork, prongs tickling my frontal lobe. Plastic, an artificial polymer that’s anything but plastic, unlike our brains. And no, Doctor, I don’t think our brains are invader aliens. It was a metaphor. I am not a nutcase. Please. For a moment imagine the force it takes to lodge a picnic fork into one’s brain. I survived that. Did the fork fly into me, or did I fly into the fork? I remember nothing, I felt nothing. I smelled jet fuel and acrid smoke that made me think of cheap carpeting. I lay on my back feeling no pain (oh but that would come). I heard nothing (a lie, I heard birds, birds, a riot of birds). And for a while… I saw nothing.

But then, yes, I heard Tarala call for her mother. Am’ma, Am’ma. I opened my eyes, wiped away the drying blood. But I am getting ahead of myself. I asked, when they removed the fork, Will my concentration return, it’s not what it used to be. You may notice several improvements, Mr. Warwick, but more importantly you are out of danger. Christ on crack. Isn’t that absurd? Isn’t that the most absurd thing you’ve heard? No, of course it isn’t, not in your line of work. Which is of course why you won’t believe me, a thick wall of lies and false history and evasion standing between you and every ass sitting across you. We need to break through this wall, Doctor, we need to remove the mad wigs of insanity.

I should not have thrown my coffee at you. That was a poor start and I apologize. My wife – yes, I was married – she tended to do that, not throw coffee at me but nibble on her cuticles when I was talking to her, and it’s a petty thing, I know, I know, so petty to hold such rancour after two dozen years, but I loved her dearly and yet she drove me mad, as you’ve seen. I’ve never flung coffee at anyone before. This is what’s happening to me.

But, yes, you’re more interested in what has happened to me.

I’m afraid I left my notes in your office.

My handwriting, I know, says far too much about me, which is why am I typing this despite the difficulty my fingers have with movement since the aircrash. I saw it once, you know, my handwriting, saw it in Issue 1, Volume 59 of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1998. As if I don’t read. My doctor, without permission, displaying my scribbles and saying the only other cases of such “characterless” handwriting are seen in post-comatose and/or near-vegetative victims of severe brain trauma who, when having moments of lucidity, awake and scribble like Patient X. But scribble is the wrong word, because my slant lacks impression, lacks spontaneity, lacks the character that distinguishes all handwriting, that makes it a forensic science. I could have murdered him, Doctor! My arm doesn’t work right, that’s all!

I don’t believe you have been in an aircraft in your life. Describe it to me.

I described it, every detail, and still he said, Too much detail. You are inventing. I think it is a fiction.

Characterless.

Do you remember the actor who played me in “Fatal Flight: Silence over South America”? Brian Scott Skiver. Now there was someone characterless. As if I look like that, or looked like that, that mating experiment between a pig and a billiard ball, nose like wall-socket, chin so recessed it belongs on some pre-Jurassic protomouse. A whiskered twitcher clutching his briefcase and slobbering on the lovely exotic next to him as the plane, so tragically, crashes in a horrific melange of stock footage and early CGI. All the world saw that, that mockery of me. I called them repeatedly the next day but got nothing but laughter. I talked to a lawyer and he said sure, sure, we can go far with this, and then I got a bill for two grand for just yakking to the prick.

It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t like that.

I’m sorry, Doctor. I will try to keep this short. I must work in the morning, open the library, turn on the lights, wonder what homeless man is sleeping between the stacks this time, water the half-dead plants, close my office door and sit in my chair and weep. This is a train wreck, this recounting of an aircrash. Had things not gone off the rails today I would have told you more about Babs, the woman who married me, about the letter I found, sent while I was missing in the jungle, sent to a friend who later let a room to me, a letter saying, “You know it’s awful to say this but part of me feels relieved because I’ve gotten off easy” and saying she’d planned to leave for months. It felt like she was the one who brought the plane down, like it fell out of the sky because she didn’t love me.

Well, an hour has passed since I wrote that. I thought I would sleep, continue in the morning, but with coffee as my companion I’ll forgo sleep and bring this to a conclusion. So here are the facts:

I have emotional and physical scars.

I have survived what I should not have survived.

I feel tremendous guilt.

I feel that guilt is a lie.

I harbour resentment toward anyone who is happy, who has not had their life repeatedly crushed underfoot.

I have an unshakable belief in my theory of souls (no, this is not some new age ramble-damble about angels and crystal unicorns but the conclusion of a well-read, highly-educated man who has seen the world’s skull peeled back and its inner workings revealed in all their glittering pink detail).

My life is unravelling due to all of the above.

Do you know when I saw the actor, Brian Scott Skiver, again? For a while I would look him up, seek his name in films, sitcoms, movies-of-the-weak, something to feed my loathing, hoping he’d be the extra beaten in an alley or a homeless man eaten by small dogs. This “actor” did not deserve to work but if he did find work I wanted it to be demeaning. Yes, yes, I know, you say, He is not responsible for role he played, he is simply an actor. But, my dear Doctor, an actor chooses how to play a role. An actor would ask, What is the real Warwick like? He would look at a photo of me, strike a pose, tuck in his chin. He would babble, shout into a mirror, practice on his couch and imagine the peeling floral wallpaper a portal to ascending jungle. How did Warwick snivel? Surely he sniveled. How tightly would he hold his briefcase (no matter that I did not have one, and was, in fact, holding a seat cushion in front of my upper torso, something that very well may have saved me)? Oh surely he held it tightly, like this, no tuck in that chin, push out that gut and fear, more fear in the eyes. Wide, wider.

How does this man live with himself? His profile on the Internet Movie Database says he has a wife and three grown children and lives in California where he grows grapes and bottles his own award-winning Merlot. Skiver? From what he makes acting in hair loss commercials? For rubbing that too-round head of his and smiling into the camera? Yes, that was when I saw him next, taking advantage of that shameful excuse for a coif. And then when he couldn’t pull that off any longer (three years of NuGrow propaganda) he flashes his little prick in our faces, rolling over in bed and smiling while his MILF of the Month whispers in his ear. Erectile dysfunction no more, senility before penility with a blue pill or two.

Doctor Shabazz, this is madness.

Your life will go down in flames and when you pull yourself from the ashes a great black boot will stomp you back into the soil.

I need to sleep, but I need to finish this.

I noticed, in your office today, yesterday, that print of a gaudy phoenix rising over the desert. Evocative, certainly, and yes, I get it: we all can be saved, we all can be renewed. I doubt every patient gets it so quickly. I noticed it, yes, how could it be missed being directly behind your head like that and large enough that, if the angle is right (do you practice this?), it appears you have multicoloured wings. Bravo, Doctor. Bravissimo. This shows confidence in your abilities, a smugness, even, which I’ve noticed is a common thread stitching doctors together, especially those who deal with matters of the head. And I noticed the name of the artist, and at first, seeing Shabazz, I thought it was, grotesquely, your own work (for artists who hang their work in their homes are truly the worst kind of narcissist), but then I saw the hyphenated Shabazz-Buford and put it together with the wedding photo on your desk and observed that your daughter inherited your stupendous brow but, fortuitously, not your botch of a face, meaning your mottled complexion and deepening jowl. She is not untalented, but her signature has far too much flourish for someone of such small ambition. I doubt you’ve noticed this, Doctor, as love does blind us.

I mistakenly, or not, first typed ‘bind us,’ which must be my subconscious commanding me back to the matter at hand, for is there a bond greater than mother and daughter? Don’t shrug, this isn’t a subject for debate. You may feel close to your daughter but you will never discus the feminine minutia the way a mother and daughter will, you have never bonded over menstrual periods and eye shadow. I never wanted children, which did not make Babs happy, so we tried but it turned out I’m all but infertile having both a low sperm count and low motility. Or is that mobility? I’ll have to look it up. It’s 4 a.m. and my coffee is cold.

But daughters, yes (and there is no discussion of sons here, since there is only blinding urge to overthrow kings), and mothers and daughters, and Rahata and Tarala sitting behind me, little Tarala, like me at the window, and the noise she made when the lights went out, when the DC 10 went silent, when all we heard on the half empty jet was wind and shudder. The noise she made was a query fraught with fear and I imagine she gripped her mother’s arm, her mother who was knitting, who stopped knitting and sighed when the lights, momentarily, flickered back on and the engines made a sound, a complaint, but nothing more and it was dark again. Throughout the rest of the flight, and I use that word loosely, for it was a fall or a gliding descent if you’re being generous, we were waiting for it, knew it was coming, it had to come: the pilots wouldn’t do nothing, they would start engines, so much depended on it. Yes, yes, it’s coming, the restart, we all nodded while not looking at each other, while staring at the front of our seats. It has to happen, there is no other option.

I found I was holding my breath, Doctor.

And I laughed.

I’ve thought at length about why I laughed and indeed, you’ll point out, it was a nervous reaction. But only in part, for how many other nervous reactions could there have been? Panic. Weeping. Hysteria. Hyperventilation. Sweating. Shaking. Small urination. So why would I laugh, and specifically laugh because I’d been holding my breath? I think it was the sound of the wind and I wanted nothing to do with it. Suspending my breathing was suspending time. But maybe it was just lack of oxygen.

We were in a sweet spot, Doctor, or a strong spot, being above the wing. A lucky spot, too, because none of the other wing riders survived. Do you think they suffered, felt much pain? This was asked by the families of the dead (I do not say victims, as victim presumes malevolent intent, an aggressor, and the only aggressor here was the universal one: gravity). I heard a man say no, they felt nothing, the body is destroyed quicker than the brain can register. So there was no pain? No. But much dread, forty minutes of dread.

So many birds, Doctor.

Had they seen it through the clouds? A god, a juggernaut. Spitting out fire and bodies.

(It has just occurred to me that I forgot to mention Skiver played me as entirely bald even though, and the newscasts of the day will prove it, I had a fine mane of hair during the time of the crash and only began losing my hair in the next year. And it is also quite obvious that Skiver, though bald with merit, was wearing a latex bald cap so not only did he look hideous – admittedly hard for him not to (how is he married, Doctor? Do you understand the minds of women? Does anyone?) – he also looked ridiculous. Ratings information state that only 155,000 households watched that episode, but can you imagine how long it would take to sit and watch it 155,000 times? And how many of those 155,000 told five friends, who told five more, who all said, no doubt, All those beautiful people and guess who was the one to live? There is no justice, Doctor.)

Yes, I am parenthetical. I read a book once (I’ve read many) and the author began a parenthesis and never closed it. It drove me mad.

I feel since the aircrash my life has been one long, unclosed parenthesis.

I stared at the page for minutes after writing that, my mind adrift on a sea of sadness, a sea cluttered with the flotsam of my past.

What haunts me about Tarala, what wakes me more often than my shattered memory of the descent into the trees, the screams, the shearing metal and roar of flames, what haunts me is the brochure she had, a cheap, touristy brochure, some kind of South American – Chilean? – Disneyland. I’ve never been able to find it, this land of dreams, and Rahata and I had no common language, for she speaks only Punjabi or Sanskrit, I don’t precisely remember. And I didn’t dare pull the pamphlet away from the child, who held it tightly, who asked a question of her mother, who reassured her, Yes, yes, I imagine her saying, Yes, yes my child, tomorrow we will be in DisneyChile. All this while the life was not-so-slowly draining from her. Draining may sound cliche, or overly clinical, but that’s how it was: her movements slowing, her energy fading, her voice quieting, her colour paling. There is destroyed aircraft all around you, there are limbs in the trees and surely only the fires and the smoke and the stink of fuel are keeping the jaguars from leaping in, and the goal is still the dreamland, the playpen, as if this were a kind of fantasy quest. Nothing will stop us; we will reach the promised land. This poor child, dying from massive internal injuries, who I had pulled from under a clamour of fuselage and meal cart face down but strapped tightly in her seat calling for her mother and it was not the maudlin sadness of it, Doctor, but the acceptance, that allowance in her little half-beating heart that life was like this, that this was fine, a problem but life is like this. Her mother was holding her, trying to keep her attention but feeling terrible every time she had to wake her daughter. I gathered water, supplies, anything I could find – a first aid kit, towels, clothing – becoming increasingly aware of my own injuries as the adrenaline wore off. Some ribs were broken and my right shoulder was out of joint and my right hand swelling like a melon. I could hear a clicking sound in my neck when I walked and in my sinuses and my mouth was the constant smell and taste of blood.

I don’t know where Rahata came from. I’d searched the wreckage. I’d taken the girl in her seat some distance from the wreckage, into shade, left certain I’d find water bottles strewn about (they however are not designed to survive such impact – the lids pop off!) and when I returned her mother was there, had taken Tarala from her seat and…

And I wonder at times what is my memory and what is the episode of “Fatal Flight.” I watched it repeatedly, making notes and citing inaccuracies along with observations, missed opportunities and outright poor writing. My report to the Real History Channel was 412 pages long, double-spaced, six months’ work, a reworked script footnoted and cross-referenced and presented in spiral-bound format in a box of 12 copies. I suggested they reshoot the episode or burn the first attempt.

Nothing.

Perhaps we can have a beer one day, Doctor Shabazz, and you can share your observations on the psychology of those in the film industry.

So I may add to my role. Yes, I think I do add to my role. I don’t intend to do this but every time I’ve relived or retold the story (which is reliving it) it deepens a groove in my memory. I recognize this. My intention certainly was to help, not to lie there in shock, which I may have done and for longer than is commendable, but I do know from the infection I had in my foot that I wandered, tried to gather, was up to my knees in mud, in swamp. There were snakes. Rahata, remarkably, was uninjured save for a tennis-ball-size welt on her head and a gash on her left shin. She would not leave her daughter. Three days and she never left her daughter’s side.

Who died, of course, during the first night in the jungle.

That’s something “Fatal Flight” did get right.

I did not, however, find a blanket and then wrap her in it, holding her alongside Rahata, huddled through the darkness. Maybe that was Skiver’s touch. The night was warm enough, but the flies were gargantuan and ravenous and I knew Tarala had passed not by her lack of breathing, which was hard to hear above the rising trill of an amphibian chorus and impossible to see in a blackness illuminated only by the light of the southern stars, but by her lack of swatting, scratching. Earlier I had searched for a blanket but had become disoriented, light-headed, had started weeping and had sat in the jungle at the point where the DC 10 first sheared the trees. I remember tracing my steps back as evening descended and how the disaster was revealed limb by limb. Some were still strapped in their seats. Some had burned beyond anything recognizably human. I heard a crashing of leaves and a thump and a little later another, like heavy apples falling, but this was far from Eden. Or maybe not, seeing that the first didn’t end so well either.

So, do you still think this is a fiction, Doctor?

I must make another coffee.

Please disregard my question; of course it was not you who claimed my life to be a fiction, but one Doctor Shearer, who has since left the city. Such an odd man, forever a bachelor, beak-like nose and liver-spotted pate and stooped like a wilted lily. Photos and paintings of classical musicians on his walls. For once I’d like to enter a doctor’s office and find race car posters or those of topless, tanned bikini models. No, Shearer thought I was a joke, a final patient sent by the gods of humour before his retirement after 240 years of service to furthering the decrepitude of the stately infrastructure. Oh, and my next doctor, Doctor Crawford-Nuerys of the Fake Accent School of Shrinkology (please, call me Julia, never call me Doctor, we are friends here, shall we chat a bit?), well she had a wall of horses, fields, and inspirational quotes like Life is not living if living is not your life. And I knew this even when I was a schoolboy, Shabazz, I knew these halfwit classmates would be our politicians, teachers, lawyers and yes (do you hear the disgust in my voice?), doctors.

And yet, here I am. Or there I was, again, in an office. This time in a tower, another great touch. Look how far I can see, helpless patient. Regard my omnipotence. These windows are like windows upon the soul. Let me peer into yours.

Do you even believe in souls, Doctor?

I didn’t until I lost mine, until it abandonned me just as the pilots knew all was lost (for pilots never survive). Seconds before we hit ground zero it was like a zipper tearing though the aisle, and souls were released, torn (that’s the only word I know for this) from their doomed hosts, fleeing the apocalypse. I saw it, Doctor; I felt it. We all did. Light, pure light like a flash, not a flame. And a sound, a horrible sound. And this only happens when survival is no longer possible, and it only happens when survival is no longer desired. And when it goes wrong it only happens to me, it seems.

A mass migration, Doctor, hurling for the skies.

I am supposed to be dead, and all because of a whim, because I’d wanted to travel the world from A to Z. Every year a new city and, in my 40th year, it would all begin at Asuncion, Paraguay. In the end it had more appeal that Athens, if less history, and was cheaper than Aukland, if less English. And I’ve always had thing for South America, the other America, the continent that dangles a tail in the Antarctic. Lush, mountainous, ripe. Babs did not want to travel with me, said her burgeoning business (a ladies’ shoe store) could not function without her for three weeks. It made sense at the time and the following year we would travel together to Belgrade or Bismark (depending on finances). In truth, we did little with our money, and if you save just a few dollars a day by the end of the year you have a substantial travel fund. Add in advance planning, seat sales, and anyone can do this. Babs, admittedly, had a fear of flying, just as she had a fear of tall buildings, but had we travelled together one of us, depending on who chose what seat, would likely be dead. I can’t be sure how I survived but I believe the cushion held in front of my torso helped. I honestly don’t remember much.

The screaming (though yes what I know hear is the screaming from that damn episode).

The DC 10 pitching sharply to the right after my wing caught trees (a point they missed).

Light, so much light.

I suspect our wing spun round and much of the energy was dissipated laterally, that my seat broke free, struck the spongy ground, tumbled, released me.

And then I was on my back, Doctor. Just like Skiver back from commercial my eyes opened, blinked. My vision was blurry but there was sun, trees, smoke. My right arm was twisted behind me as if had been arrested and I had no shoes and only one sock dangling at the end of my toes. My first thought was, Who has assaulted me? I have not wronged anyone. Is the assault over? Perhaps I should lie still but there came a change in the wind and smoke began to billow over me. What a horrid thing, that odour of flesh and fuel, an unholy barbeque. I began to choke. I thought my limp right arm was dead, detached, but it was merely asleep and soon a terrible prickliness rushed through it. I sat and I saw before me the rip in the forest canopy, the towering trees shredded and the white and black of the scattered aircraft, sections of seats, windows, wing, engine. And then clothing moving in the wind, and then hair, and then did I laugh? Or did I cry? Something came from deep within me and I won’t try to name it.

You know, I thought Babs would overcome her fears just to see the cathedrals of Paraguay.

I needed to call her, had to let her know I was alright but that she should tell TAB they lost a plane and also, yes, tell the hotel to not give up my room, and yes I would need some shoes and where was my wallet, my credit cards, my passport.

Three days, Doctor, before they found us.

In the movie version we huddle all night, it fades to black, then comes footage of search and rescue helicopters scouring the land, grimy locals hacking their way through forest, swamp lizards and jungle cats, snippets of the TAB press conference and mourning, wailing relatives at the airport in Asuncion (which I pointed out to the producers was the exact same footage they used in season 4, episode 10 and season 5, episode 5 – surely these professional wailers were well compensated for their superb acting!). Oh, if only we had huddled on cue, listened to messages from our sponsors for five minutes and then woke to rescue!

The sun has risen. I am eating a bran muffin.

Odd what the lack of sleep does to the brain. I’ve always likened it to a blow the head, one blow for each sleepless night. No wonder you die after a week or two.

What else do you need to know, Doctor? What page of my trauma will you dog-ear for return reading, what lines will you highlight in neon yellow? If I knew, I could continue to heal myself, but I’ve reached an impasse. It’s all a lie now, all a story retold, replayed, rerunned, reheated. It’s stale. It has no heartbeat. I spent the second day off on my own just to be far from Rahata’s horrible state – she was, as they say, inconsolable. Not that I tried to console her (unlike Skiver, but who would watch such a sorry excuse for an actor were he not at the very least doing noble things?). Without language what could I say? Pat her head and smile? I found a few packaged meals near where I found her daughter and brought them to her and then I left, wandered a few hundred feet where I found a suitcase which I sat upon for hours, removed the clothing to cover myself from the flies, to cover my mouth from the growing stench. Where was rescue? Where were the vultures?

I thought often of Babs, fell asleep with a vision of her in my arms (she had come through the jungle in khaki shorts and one of those safari hats and she had water and a backpack full of grapes) and woke to screaming, Rahata screaming, but eventually her screaming stopped, night fell, and I slept on the suitcase, though I did not sleep well.

I was ashamed of this, Doctor Shabazz, and avoided telling anyone. Shearer tried to convince me I was a hero, a warrior, while Crawford-Neurys stressed the currency of my experience, a rare coin that only I could spend in the jukebox of my existence. I am paraphrasing. But who is ever trained for this? I was in shock, I was injured, I was insulted. The are plenty of people deserving punishment in the world but they are not women and children off to DisneyChile and librarians travelling by alphabet. That aircraft was an abomination! That DC 10 was little more than a cheap sheet-metal tube with engines hammered on and a few pulleys at the front. It was ancient, and as “Fatal Flight” pointed out, had crash landed not once, but twice before! Each time landing-gear failure leading to a rough “miracle” landing, no one killed, pilot saviours, all that. But each time shoddily repaired cracks in the fuselage, cracks that were ever-so-slowly expanding and when noticed by alcoholic mechanics riveted back together with non-FDA-approved materials, maintenance recommendations not followed (this truly is the only part of “Fatal Flight” worth watching, as the investigation was top-notch, for here they had to rely on facts and not an actor’s needling), flight after flight and pressurization after pressurization and it can’t take it anymore, the rivets snap just as the meal cart is snaking its way down the aisle, the pretty flight attendant offering a mystery last supper, the strip of metal peels back and flies into the left engine, which shatters inside and throws shrapnel that cuts the fuel line but hey, all they need to do is shut the flow to the left engine, there are two other engines everybody.

This is so safe.

I read once, Doctor, about a very experienced skydiver out with friends, camera attached to his helmet. He’s going to film their group jump so they leap then he leaps and at what point does he realize he has no parachute? Immediately? When he goes to pull the cord? And how does that feel?

That moment when you realize you’ve made a truly fatal mistake.

The pilots do not stop the fuel flow to the dead engine with the leaky lines. They descend, wanting enough wind to restart it, but the increased airflow causes the tear in the fuselage to grow, which causes increased turbulence, so they climb again, think they’ve slipped the bad air yet the turbulence is still there.

They climb higher.

Air traffic control says no other reports of turbulence in the area, climb to 33,000 feet.

Puzzled, they turn off the autopilot.

The meal cart comes rattling closer to me. Am I worried? It’s bumpy, the lights have flickered, but the flight attendant is all smiles.

Skiver rifles through his briefcase, finds an exciting pie chart, sits back and reads. Fake Rahata and Fake Tarala are playing a card game. Other passengers adjust their seats, bring down their meal trays. The pilots puzzle over the aircraft’s strange handling, the dead left engine, and then, What the hell? Low fuel warning? It’s electronics again, ignore it, bad sensor. They talk about the new Airbus, they say they’ll miss the DC 10 and they chuckle (all said in bad Spanish accents, of course). They request an even higher altitude and the request is granted, 35,000 feet, and right when the co-pilot says, Hey, didn’t we shut down fuel to, the engine on the right wing flames out and, seconds later, the tail engine.

Inside, everything goes dark and there’s only wind.

We were flying ahead of the terminator, with dawn at our tail.

We’ll crash as dawn sweeps over us.

Did Babs jolt out of her sleep? Little did I know she did not, was entwined with Kerwin, a long-haired pot-smoking classical guitar playing neighbour who never mowed his lawn and had once borrowed and not returned our garden hose (and when I confronted him he took advantage of that convenient lapse of memory his kind have – Was it green, or black? Orange? You had an orange garden hose? No, definitely not, I’d remember that).

She denied it, of course, He’s too scrawny, she laughed, I could never, and you know how I hate big boney feet. But my bed-ridden month led to discoveries: three guitar picks between the headboard and the bed and a faint but unmistakable smell, one that could only be patchouli.

Am I boring you, Doctor? Have you chewed your cuticles to a pulp? Surely you’re wondering by now just what my problem is, my “illness,” or at the very least I hope you’re wondering this. If you’re worth your degrees you will have been pounding these pages with your fists, shouting, Tell me, tell me you bastard. I believe you now so tell me. You should have an insatiable need to know, an unquenchable thirst for the source, the wellspring of all my trouble.

I took a nap. Now, I mean, on the couch, and woke to the sun creeping though the blinds. You told me your secretary would call me first thing today to schedule a new appointment but it is Saturday and you are not open. I don’t think you lied to me. No doubt you are much in demand and feel harried. I saw this on your face yesterday.

I dreamed, just now, that I was homeless, wandering naked but for a few shreds of clothing which were made from scraps of litter – old receipts, grocery lists, plastic bags – and I needed one item, one unnameable item to complete my attire.

A fitting dream, don’t you think?

When I woke on the third day I was covered in brightly coloured slugs. I’d intended to sleep on the suitcase but I woke on moist earth. I was in pain, stunning pain, and I was hungry, thirsty. I staggered through the gap in the jungle, now familiar with the location of bodies and their former parts (which I avoided), and eventually came to Rahata, who was lying next to Tarala, stroking her hair, talking the her, singing to her. She had covered most of the little girl’s body with a purple TAB blanket. She did not acknowledge my approach so I kept walking, walking past her and into the thicker jungle, in a kind of daze, yes, but thinking I would climb a tree for the view (impossible with a dislocated shoulder), find fruit, find water, find something. I was wearing a college basketball player’s tracksuit, much too large, the cuffs and sleeves rolled up but comfortable enough. On my feet I had a pair of ladies’ running shoes, which were once white and pink. I still have them all these years later. A memento mori. After some time (I have no idea how long, but let’s say an hour) I came to more wreckage, a wingtip, a hard-shell suitcase (still shut), cutlery glinting in the moss. I pushed through the tangled roots and treelimbs and could hear water flowing. Not a torrent, just a trickle. The flies had found me and were feasting on my ankles, my hands, and as I got closer to the water the vegetation also thickened. I hacked away with a butter knife but made little progress. My hands were bleeding. My head ached. I became so dizzy I could not stand and then, kneeling over the green, became violently ill.

I would have died there, in a huge red tracksuit and a woman’s jogging shoes, sockless and covered in pretty slugs (which, as you would not know from “Fatal Flight”, were in fact leeches – sixteen of the suckers on my back alone). I would have died there bloodless, nameless, ludicrous but of course that’s when the helicopter finally caught a glimpse of disaster, a silver sparkle through the green and then that arrow-shaped tear in the earth, the mystery of lost TAB Flight 14 finally solved, Rahata and Tarala and I airlifted to Asuncion, and yes lying side by side in the chopper, IVs attached, my pale hand and her swarthy hand seeking each other across the distance, the faraway look in Skiver’s wet eye (but no leeches in his hair), and cut to the newscasts.

Two survivors pulled from the wreckage and so much of the world holds its breath: Is it my loved one? Surely it’s my loved one. Surely. Who the hell is that? Was Babs even happy? She said she was, and she wrote as much to her friend – “It’s not like I wanted him dead!” – but we all know it’s easier to plan a funeral than a divorce. As you suggested, before I threw my coffee, which seemed as much spasm as intention (and it was cold so stop crying), perhaps we should spend time on this, if only to satisfy your curiousity, to “peel away the layers” as you said, to see what’ s underneath.

Well, that’s the problem, Doctor Shabazz, and a waste of time.

Do you know how embarrassing it is to be told you’ve had a plastic fork in your brain for years? A bullet, a shard of pottery, an arrowhead, fine, but my fork became famous. Do you know that Wikipedia mentions my fork? To whit: “Warwick resurfaced in the news in 2003 when doctors revealed his erratic behaviour and suicide attempts were likely caused by a fragment of a plastic dinner fork which had lodged in his frontal lobe and remained undetected. The utensil, which had a TAB logo on it, was later featured in an issue of the web series Phreaky Physics, where it was shown the fork could only have entered the brain through the eye socket. Warwick’s doctors, however, stated there was no scarring in the ocular region and that Warwick’s concussion, occurred during the near-fatal jettison from the aircraft, may have forced open a small fracture in the skull through which an object such as the fork may have entered.”

Maybe, Shabazz, there’s nothing left to find in my head. It’s been probed, sanitized, imaged a thousand different ways. Yes, the ‘erratic behaviour’ halted and my dubious suicide attempts, my stepping out in front of vehicles (which was caused by vision impairment, a large blank spot in my vision which my fork-riddled brain could not perceive), came to an end. Yes, I began to work in the library sciences again. Yes, I was even engaged to a Ukrainian woman (the other disaster in my life). But what hasn’t been dealt with, and what I need help with happened during the three days Rahata and I lay in bed in Asuncion. They kept us under burly guard in the same hospital room, Rahata grief-stricken and still in shock, me broken here and there and both of us riddled with tropical parasites. For the first two days neither of us talked, not to the media, not to each other. We slept. We crashed again and again into the forest canopy.

But on the third day she turned over.

See, she moaned, Shabazz, moaned. She turned over in her bed and moaned and looked at me, right at me, right through me. Her eyes scanned the wall, the floor, the monitors. Her eyes looked everywhere but at me. Out of fear that she wouldn’t respond, I didn’t dare speak to her. Out of fear that she wouldn’t follow my movement, I didn’t move. I then I realized she had never acknowledged my presence at the crash site, and she didn’t drink the water I’d brought, or the food I’d found (likely a smart choice) and wait a minute, I asked myself, did I really grab the child from the wreckage? Did I really bring her the blankets? I’d spoken to her and she’d never responded, but that was just a language thing, right? And I thought well, she must be blind, and deaf, and I lay there relieved yes, she was mute because of her injuries, which worked as an explanation until she spoke to the doctors when they came with a translator later in the day. So I did it, after they left, said, I’m so sorry about your daughter, said it slowly and clearly but she only moaned, stared at the ceiling.

I must be dead, I thought.

Well, it seems absurd now, that I should be so haunted by a drug-induced hour of existential panic, but for a moment I did think it, that I was dead, that perhaps I had died in the crash, or in the jungle with my butter knife, or in the hospital at the moment she turned and moaned, and maybe that was my moaning and not her moaning and that stays with you, there’s eternity in such thoughts and even when a little round nurse rushed in to check my accelerating heartbeat, I thought no I am dying now, now, now, and I thought I had moved on, thought I had moved on quite well, Doctor, but it’s returned again.

And that’s the problem.

I would be happy to be an actor, to step outside myself and play a role. The role could be me, Kaye Allan Warwick, nondescript human, man of books and outsize clothing, permeable to picnic forks, but man married to Babs, the adorable five foot tall Elizabeth who hid behind her auburn bangs at the perfume counter, man without shrapnel, without trauma.

Man who did not have his traitor soul flee into the night and never return.

Man who does not, in any given moment, find himself in a blacked-out DC 10 rushing through the pre-morning sky, listening to nothing but wind and prayers while watching the stars over the silent wing blink out into daylight.

Man who does not relive the moment of his intended death nightly.

Noon is near, Doctor. I’ve had too much coffee but perhaps I’ll sleep a bit. I trust you’ve read this thoroughly and not skimmed. I trust you’ve done your research. All the facts are there and once you accept them progress can be made.

—Lee D. Thompson

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Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.

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Dec 092015
 

Tim Conley

 

1

A SIGN IN A MUSEUM exhibit on Charles Darwin repeats the old canard about Marx proposing to dedicate a volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, who politely declines. I ask to see the curator and begin to explain the error to him. He suggests that we take the discussion to his office. Once the two of us are there, however, he lunges and attempts to strangle me. We thrash about and he pins me to a desk. My desperate hand finds within reach a fossil, perhaps the ancient jawbone of an ass, and strikes him in the head with it, killing him instantly. Blood seeps out of his occipital wound in terrific quantities and quickly makes its way under the office door. It snakes down the hall before I can think what to do, but fortunately the museum’s visitors accept the blood as part of this innovative exhibit.

 

2

I am a hand aboard the HMS Beagle, from whose foredeck the naturalist Charles Darwin has just been snatched and eaten by a terrible sea monster. Apparently satiated, the creature sinks to the depths from which it came. It suddenly strikes me that the obligation to reveal to the world the full magisterial theory of evolution falls is now mine alone. The weight of this responsibility so presses me down that I am taken to the ship’s medic. His face and voice are those of my high school biology teacher, his manner all disapproval.

 

3

A parish has invited me to give a short lecture on their church’s architecture, a subject on which I am an acknowledged authority. As I mount the pulpit, I notice that the not inconsiderable audience is entirely composed of hairy Neanderthals. Though their gaze might not be intentionally hostile, their low brows and prognathous, toothy smiles present a threatening appearance, despite their modern clothing. There seem to be a few nods while I outline the history of the transept, but as time goes on the fear grows that little if anything I am saying is met with any comprehension at all. I endeavour to explain by emphatic uses of analogy and gesture, and sense that my listeners grow restless, though their fierce looks remain unchanged.

 

4

I am a tour guide in a museum of civilization, the real agenda of which I have gradually come to realize is to justify the ways of neoliberalism. One of the visitors in my tour group is Karl Marx, the author of Das Kapital, but no one but myself has penetrated his disguise. He must be here doing secret research, and I am uncertain as how best to help him. At the same time, I cannot entirely shake off a sense of duty to my employers, dubious in quality as they may be, and so I am wary of his causing a scene. I therefore contrive to communicate with him surreptitiously, by means of winks, nods, and coughs peppered throughout my well-rehearsed narration of the Bronze Age, but remain unsure exactly what message it is that I am trying to communicate, and in any event he is resiliently oblivious to these overtures. Another visitor in the group pesters me with questions about blood rites. Exasperation overtakes me at the advent of cuneiform script.

 

5

A subdued, perhaps funereal collection of people has gathered for tea and cake in a poorly lit parlour. Guests come and go from a low door to what may be glimpsed to be a small kitchen. The oppressive daintiness of the wallpaper, furniture, and finery suggest a museum of Victorian living. A susurration of talk, the clinking of cups against saucers, but not a sound from my grandmother, who sits with perfect posture and a smile, whether of amusement or gratification I cannot tell. I remember that my grandmother is dead, and am on the verge of making some statement about this, when it occurs to me that I ought not to, that it would be a wrong and indelicate subject to mention, and so I uneasily hold my peace. My grandmother seems gradually to move further away from me, but then I perceive that it is I who am moving, for I am seated atop a giant tortoise.

 

6

Charles Darwin has his hand up my skirt, and though he is clearly no expert at his task, still he has a pleasant smell that I cannot quite identify. We are in a darkened room in the museum, which is now closed for the night, my back against a full-scale model of a guillotine. I can just barely read the larger signs on the wall giving the background of the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror, but something seems wrong in the account, and I try to communicate this to Darwin, who is breathing too heavily to hear my whispers. Flashlight circles begin to dance around the room as museum guards enter and Darwin halts his fumbling and we freeze together there against the guillotine for what seems an eternity. When at last the guards leave, we do not move because we cannot: we have become a permanent part of the exhibit.

—Tim Conley

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Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012). His latest book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (2015).

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Dec 072015
 

Erika Mihálycsa

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Author reading

THE AUTHOR IS SITTING on the platform sweating, with heart thumping so loud as to drown the spiky-haired fashionista’s mellifluous introductory warble. Stretched above the author’s head, taut and intimidating, is the tightrope on which the author is to jump gracefully at the moderatrix’s artfully concealed signal and read, or much rather, recite, enact, perform amid demi-pliés and relevés executed faultlessly on pointe, a particular fragment chosen by the publisher from the latest novel, hot off the press, in which the heroine’s volcanic orgasm sends a rift down the reinforced concrete walls of the 11-storey block of flats, cracks windows into spider-web patterns, drives the groundwater mixed with sewage up the waterpipes like a geyser so the soil, hollowed in, starts sinking until the crumbling block of flats tilts at an angle more dangerous than the Costa Concordia, at this point the author will look up from the page at the audience with a candid, inquisitive, tongue-in-cheek, playful, risqué, amiable expression while, still on pointe, lifting one leg unbelievably slowly into balance position, reciting all the while the masterly last sentence. At this point the audience always starts clapping. The author has acquired this trick from an interview with an opera star who for two decades had ruled the world’s lyric stages with her show of delivering the Queen of the Night’s aria on trapeze, and whenever she sang at the Met she would do a double backflip in the middle of the aria where all the bonds of nature are destroyed, after the protective net had been spectacularly withdrawn at the strings’ opening turmoil. There soars in slow rewind the primadonna’s perfect pinup body in bikini in front of the author’s mind’s eyes, Swarowski crystals flash lightning from her voluptuous locks and navel up to the starry firmament, the film reached more than nineteen million views on YouTube in less than two months, every tone pitch-perfect and crystal-clear and oh, that maddening little ritartando in the descending phrase before she attacks the glass sounds. Easy for her of course, she had been a junior world champ rhythmic gymnast before her voice was discovered. The author feels a great heat-wave, great, one second and the suffocating feeling will start, I couldn’t lift a pencil now, the moderatrix is still chirping the intro in a low conspiratorial tone, I am to step in immediately at the violins’ attacca, my legs start shaking, and my ankle is swollen quite visibly, come on, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, we’ll do it, I’ll do it, last time at the Book Siesta I nearly fell off the rope but that pert little poetess assured me no-one had noticed. But I certainly rank among the most successful in the trade, the audience flocks to my readings. Of course as long as there had been only the kitchen theatre feats and cooking for the audience, the author’s books barely sold in 4,000 copies, the publisher had to put an end to it saying it was all yesterday’s fad and that every halfwit had been cooking primetime for the past five years, in vain would the author invoke the delights of the caramelized words melting on the palate, the molecular chemistery of sentences pureeing the Mediterranean spices with the slightly astringent aromas of the terroir. So there was nothing to do but agree to a change in profile and branch out, even if the author could still all too vividly remember calling the gym a jinx, not to mention those interminable basketball games in school, squeezed between strapping arms and buttocks, forever losing the ball to the enemy and those vicious jabs in the ribs — the horror, the horror! Who knows, perhaps if I had been able to jump for the basket with that relaxed arching of the back of P’s (met him last month, he is running some company that manufactures chairs, was just back from fab holidays in Greys, he said), well who knows if I would still have become a writer. In fact P. didn’t even score more than average, one out of three perhaps, but oh, that movement! Still, it was worth working out for a full god-awful year, eating cabbage soup day in day out, sales have been skyrocketing ever since. If only the bodywork would resist for another four or five years, then I swear I’ll buy myself a house on the seaside and retire for good. The author suddenly remembered poor S.P., the dissident lyrical I who ended up exhibiting his liver cirrhosis, reading his ever shrinking poems with hesitant, slow, blackened tongue, chewing the words like porridge, although at the onset of his career he had flooded all publishers and their haunts and lovenests with his cascading multi-page poems and his voice had been like sounding ass or a tinkling cymbal, as a malicious colleague used to say, yet the author had secretly envied him in those days for his flame-like hair and flaring revolutionary rhetoric, not to mention his ecumenical sex-appeal. When the author last saw him, reading evidently gave him pain. Meticulously lined up in front of his battered volumes were his tumors in jars, my cancers as he would call them, with a touch of affectionate pride in his voice like one talking about his children’s academic successes, for S.P. became a rare, indeed a rarissimal case in medical history, his body apparently harboring no less than three different kinds of tumors entirely unrelated to each other that kept growing and producing a maze of intricately interlocking metastases on his lungs, spleen, lymphatic glands, bone marrow, colon, stomach, brain and esophagus, whereas the odds of patients having two different types of tumors was 1:300,000 among those diagnosed with the disease. At S.P.’s readings his recently removed, bluish-black and wrinkled or rosily smooth bottled tumors would face the dwindling, staggeringly middle-aged audience. Poor S.P. always used to say, screw success, and that the day would come when he would go marching in the textbooks and academic curricula and nobody would remember that (and here a long and variable list of names would follow, depending on his mood and on the occasion, but always uttered with vertiginously falling intonation) had ever walked the face of the earth. Well, he has made it indeed. Except, as he really had no way of foretelling, he had made it into the medical textbooks. Legions of oncologists in training would learn his MR images by heart and brood over his case history. Yes, he had always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyway, getting into the curricula nowadays was more difficult than the backwards-triple Rittberger for the virgin figure skater; it is at least five years since the author’s children last studied literature at school. The author remembered S.P.’s funeral with a shudder. The city could of course hardly have cared less for giving him an official funeral, and the university of medicine that had extracted whatever there was to extract from him for didactic purposes made no claims on the remains either. But for the generous donation of (and there followed the name of the one unfailing item from the list of names bound to utter oblivion, and who could unfortunately not honor the occasion with his presence, as he was touring the British Isles promoting his fifth novel translated into English), he would have been reduced to a social burial in the best case, although, having no relatives, he might just as well have ended up without any burial at all. Poor S.P. The moderatrix raised her eyes from under the violet eyeshade and set them on the author who in this moment recognized the intro’s closing formula, with forever striking us with its novelty upon the heels of unusual, at unusual a winsome smile crossed the author’s face and trotted as far as striking, as the toes flexed in the ballet shoes, the muscles of the calves were ready to lift a mountain if necessary, heaving the author from the chair at novelty and by the time the technical assistant found those taut tights with the spotlight, the author was balancing on pointe on the tightrope, ready for the first relevé and from between the heroine’s thighs issued, like the unremitting tide that can wash ashore, inch by inch, the heaviest oil tankers, like the first contractions of the womb at childbirth, like the immense pressure of solid, unstirring air before earthquake or electric discharge, like the.

 

Muss es sein

THE AUTHOR STARTED behaving ever more weirdly, he would take out the potato soup instead of the trash; at lunchtime he would come out of his study at the umpteenth call, all flushed. Writing didn’t used to affect you so much, his wife told him, you are sweating like in the sauna all day and these shreds of paper are everywhere, even on your pajamas. The writer produced a constrained little laugh. For two weeks now he had been living with the girl for whom the detective would fall head over heels exactly when she becomes the most likely suspect after the second murder. Lingering on her nape gave him infinite pleasure; he had even acquired a skill of groping the outlines of her butterfly tattoo with his tongue, all the while breathing in that incomparable scent at the base of her very short cropped auburn hair. He would write petunia odor, although he had not the faintest inkling what petunias smelt like, his nose was tone-deaf so to speak: in the kitchen he would mistake black pepper for cinnamon, but his wife was quite another tune, she would smell out from the staircase, what in god’s name have you put in the vegetable stew again? But it was getting increasingly difficult to conceal the girl from her, on top of all she had tried to run away twice over the past week, he had to drag her back from the window. Three meters from the window was Mrs. Kálmán’s balcony, the retired math teacher who made his children’s homework. For the third time he started awake in the middle of the night, literally floating in sweat, his heart racing like a steam engine. And yet — and yet! How ardently he wished to save her! He had planned their elopement a thousand times at least. Every day on his way to the editorial office he furtively studied the special offers in the tourist agencies’ shop windows, he had even pulled up the tent in the garage once or twice to make sure he still knew how to do it, and had the pressure in the tires adjusted. But it was at least two more weeks until his wife would take the kids off to the grandparents. If only the girl would not come so loud! It was not really the pitch, she never screamed, she whimpered rather, softly, grittily, so for two weeks the Bartók string quartets had been playing non-stop on the hi-fi, especially the third, but its second movement was too long, whereas the third almost always ended too soon. And the children were forever pulling faces, dad is having his sawing period, it must be some murderer with a knack for cold cuts, let’s hope to god it’s not the chainsaw again. So at the end of the day, the girl had to disappear with no further delay. What if she really is the killer and during their next afternoon siesta when he is lying blissfully by her side, all asweat, she executes him with the paperweight and escapes through the window in that catwoman’s black leather outfit? He remembered a scene from a film where the murderer was a myopic woman, almost blind, she had to feel out the victim’s temple with her hands; it was dreadful, three liters of Kryolan at the most modest estimation. Today, exceptionally, he didn’t feel like listening to Bartók either, let it be Beethoven rather, always the same intrusive question, but how are you going to look her in the eye, she trusts you, you have taken responsibility for her, you could still save her, all it takes is an extra bed, you could tell the kids that she is some distant cousin who is preparing for her acting exam, and in two or three months’ time she would find herself an age-appropriate guy and then perhaps your marriage could be fixed, she could for instance find a job as a bar singer, it is true he had never heard her sing but if one can whimper like that. The girl was sitting cross-legged in front of him, barefoot in jeans; her t-shirt had slid down one slender shoulder. She certainly knew how to look with those enormous grey eyes of hers. And he could already hear the sentence at the end of which she would lie naked on her belly in the middle of the running track in the woods, with 34 stabs from the same knife. He went out into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of blackcurrant syrup, with three ice cubes. He held the glass at the base like a whisky glass and was moving it in small circles to stir the ice. The detective would sit at the counter, halfway in his twelfth bourbon with ice, staring in front of him into the thick cigarette smoke, at the crack of dawn the gold-hearted barman would make a bed for him on the piano. Once he sent in the manuscript to the publisher he would have to debug his PC; it seems to be virused again.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Nov 122015
 

Radojkovich pic

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Milk Teeth

“GOT A JOB FOR YOU, Ruby,” Uncle said.

“What is it?”

“Cleaning an old woman’s house.”

“Will she be there?”

“No, she died. Can’t rent out the house til it’s sorted,” he said. “A hundred a day in the hand.”

“I’ll get my overalls.”

We drove along past renovated bungalows with new stone fences, and turned down a street leading to a cul-de-sac of shabby square-front cottages.

“Christ!”

“Needs a coat of paint,” Uncle said. “First things first. Throw everything out, then we’ll fix it up.”

He drove off. I walked around a rubbish skip left on the verge and went up the path past a huge lemon tree with a plastic chair underneath. A silvery cat sat on the chair.

“Hello.”

The cat jumped down, fixed its round gray eyes on me and began kneading the ground.

I opened the front door a crack. The cat slipped inside. The hallway looked as if the guts of an op-shop had blown in on a storm. Tiny flickerings caught my eye – things too small to be seen. I gave the door another push: a handful of white beads dropped to the floor. The beads unfurled then squirmed away beneath a blob of newspapers. I picked up the newspapers, squashing the maggots under my boot.

The sooner I got stuck in, the sooner I’d be done.

I filled the skip with bundles, books and broken bits of furniture. By lunchtime I’d cleared the hallway. I sat under the lemon tree eating a sandwich. The cat nipped at my ankle.

“You hungry?”

Mraow.

I put a piece of cheese on the ground. The cat turned up its nose.

The next day I brought milk for the cat, pouring it into a dish. It didn’t touch it. It followed me into a bedroom, silent as a fish.

I hauled a stack of boxes across the floor scattering cockroaches. I squashed as many as I could underfoot.

A bird whistled outside. An icy trickling feeling crept down my arms. I turned. The cat drew up, staring at the top box.

“Shoo.”

It didn’t move.

For some reason, I grabbed the box, setting it down on the floor and looking inside. Balled up sanitary pads! The cat leapt away as I strode off to the skip.

“Hoho,” said a man walking past carrying a miniature dog. “About time that place got cleaned up.”

“Did you know her?”

“Bitter cow. Slipped and fell on her arse. Should’ve been put into a home years ago.”

Grrrrr, said the dog. The man bent down, kissing the top of its head. “Good luck to you. You’ll need it.”

I went back inside. The cat waited by the boxes, it hissed when I picked them up. I was about to toss the lot when I noticed a bright blue embroidered flower on a rag stuffed in the box. I pulled the flower – it was the corner of a knotted cloth. I untied the knot and a pair of little woollen mittens dropped on the floor.

I knelt down picking up the mittens, folding them back into the cloth, leaving the bright flower on the corner just as the old woman must have done. The cat’s eyes were on me as I slipped them into my overalls.

I opened the bedside cupboard, dragging free a bundle of crepe bandages. Three pairs of secateurs tumbled out. Next came huge knickers, hairbrushes, a fur-lined slipper. Where was the other one? I was rummaging through socks and apple cores, when I felt a pressure at my back as if the old woman were actually standing behind me.

“How’s it going?” asked Uncle.

I swung around.

He laughed. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright. Thought you could do with a lift home.”

We went down the path. He inspected the skip. “Reckon we’ll get it all in one.”

I glanced back at the house, the cat was watching from the porch. “When’s the SPCA coming?”

“What for?”

“Her cat.”

“She didn’t have one.”

The following morning I went into her kitchen. It reeked of stale piss and cabbage. I opened the window, breathing in fresh air. Clouds swept past. Sunlight burst through. There was a flash behind me. I saw a glass vase on the table, it looked as if a candle was flickering inside. I picked it up. A gold change purse lay at the bottom. I unzipped the purse, turning it upside down. Four tiny teeth fell into the palm of my hand.

I stood stockstill, staring at them.

The cat swished against my leg, meowing.

“Jesus, god!” I dashed outside as if I knew where I was going.

I stopped by the lemon tree, quivering with cold, although it wasn’t a cold day.

The cat stood beneath the tree, kneading the ground.

I picked up a stick and dug. I lay the teeth and mittens in the hole, covering them over, patting the earth flat.

I rose and stepped back.

Sunlight soaked into me.

That night, a little girl came to me in a dream. “Thank you,” she said, and then she was gone.


Head in the Leaves

I REACHED THE RIVERBANK before Mum and crept under the willow tree we always sat next to. Sunshine shot through the leaves lighting golden cicada shells stuck to the trunk. I carefully plucked off the lowest one, the next highest, then gave a start. A man’s head trembled in the leaves, a shimmery see-through head that looked as if it had been made from jelly.

“Eric?” Mum pushed aside the branches.

I pointed at the head.

“What is it, love?”

Couldn’t even squeak a response.

“Best have a swim before afternoon tea.”

I rushed off.

“Not too deep, now.” She sat on the blanket and opened a book.

I waded in up to my stomach and felt chopped in two; my top half sweltered, my bottom half was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet.

When I looked, the head was still in the leaves.

I went in deeper, to my armpits, my neck – until I was just a head, too. Then I sank down and an oily brown silence covered me. I felt swallowed, drowsy. The current slowly spun me round…my chest burst and I thrashed to the surface.

I ran to Mum who wrapped me in a towel and hummed to me.

From that day onwards, the man’s head was always in the leaves like a piece in a picture puzzle.

“Can you see anything in the willow?” I’d ask playmates.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing – thought I saw a nest.”

Then we’d run to the river. Around the curve to the left, the water pooled in rusty shallows. We’d look for elvers that sometimes slithered over the stones like strings of silver glue. Around the curve to the right, the water rushed to the sea, a hundred miles away, which I’d never seen. I’d sometimes stare at the vanishing point, wishing Mum and I could go there – even though my friends said men caught ten foot eels upriver.

Mum wasn’t a swimmer. She liked sitting by the willow, reading biographies of singers and composers.

Even in winter, when no-one else did, we went to the river. We’d huddle in our heavy jackets, noses turning pink, eating egg and parsley sandwiches. I’d throw my crusts at black swans who’d lumber over stinking of slimy reeds.

I always felt the head watching us.

I’d walk along the river’s edge until Mum was a dark dot.

It was icy on the plains in winter and in summer they were dusty and stunk of silage. If the wind came from the west, it brought the groans of cows and shrieks of fencing wire. If it came from the east, it brought the clickety-clack of the afternoon train. When you’re twelve years old, stuck in a small town, the loneliest sound in the world is the whistle of a departing train.

I’d trudge back to Mum, train wheels turning in my chest, wondering how on earth I would ever get to the city?

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Mum did bookkeeping for local farmers. We were poor, yet she made me feel like we were rich. Her opera records, a stomach-sinking embarrassment in front of the other boys, felt luxurious when we were on our own. She’d stand at the sink peeling potatoes to Delibes’ Flower Duet. She’d neatly feed the stove with wood, shell peas and move the frypan back and forth to stop our lamp chops burning – all the while practicing trills, slowing down the two notes then gradually increasing the speed until the trill made me think of a hummingbird hovering in one spot.

She often mentioned my father – Bill planted the jasmine, she’d say. Bill bought the radiogram. Bill never warmed to Wagner.

She made it sound as if Bill was about to open the door and step inside.

Water off a duck’s back to me. He’d died before I was born.

Occasionally I’d look at their wedding photo in the lounge. His face was half-hidden, the brim of his hat shadowing his jaw.

Eventually, I got a scholarship to study engineering in the city.

On my last day in town, Mum had the flu so I walked to the station by myself. I passed Susan Frost outside the dairy. In a loud whisper, she turned to her friend and said, “His Dad topped himself down by the river.”

My head swam, but I put one foot in front of the other all the way to the train and climbed aboard.

The whistle blew.

The wheels turned.

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My life transformed in the city.

I lived in a house of students. I went to lectures in the day and worked in a pub at night. I discovered nerdy girls – and that they were keen on nerdy boys like me.

Some mornings when I was shaving and the mirror steamed up, I’d draw the outline of my head in the mist. My heart would speed up. I’d think of going to see Mum.

She came up when I got my degree. “You’re launched, son,” she smiled and sang La Traviata’s Libiamo – mortifying in front of my flatmates.

A week later, she died in her sleep.

I caught the next train.

The house was overgrown by jasmine, it had tumbled through her bedroom window leaving countless flowers turning brown on the floor. The kitchen reeked of rancid butter and the fridge no longer shut. I couldn’t fill the jug because the sink was full of dishes soaking in grey water.

I was shocked at the degradation. How little help I’d been.

I trudged to the riverbank and glimpsed Mum sitting by the willow.

Trick of the light.

No head in the leaves, either.

I heard her singing the Flower Duet – long liquid notes that swept into a sustained trill, and pivoted back into melody.

I went closer to the water. Ducks turned in half-circles on the current.

Sunlight caught the river where it turned to the sea just as the chorus faded away.

—Leanne Radojkovich

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Leanne Radojkovich was born in New Zealand and lives in Auckland.  Her stories have been widely published online and in print, and have won or been commended in various competitions including Ireland’s Fish Short Story Prize and the National Flash Fiction Day NZ contest.  She also shares her work on YouTube and SlideShare and posts flash fiction street art – PinUps – in phone booths, shop windows and public spaces. www.leanneradojkovich.com

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Nov 062015
 

Kristin Ohman

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Oliver was a fine black and white jack rabbit. He lived in a cage in an apartment in the Projects, a tiny rural slum plunked down like a set of shabby two-storey dentures around a parking lot on the outskirts of Barre, Vermont. Oliver’s cage had been about the right size for him when he was a baby, but he was full-grown now, and barely had room to turn around. That was annoying enough, but even worse was the fact that there was nowhere to piss and poop except in his own soggy straw bed. Hubert was supposed to let him out every day, but when he got out, Hubert would cuss him for trying to leave his scent around the living room. Oliver would take advantage of his moment of freedom to rapid-fire as many poops as he could before Hubert grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and flung him back in his cage. Sometimes Hubert got too stoned to remember Oliver for days at a time, until the stench became unbearable. Oliver didn’t know any other life, but even so, he suspected he’d been short-changed.

Hubert Bartlett didn’t have much of a life either. The apartment in the Projects was under Denise’s name, and since they weren’t married and she was on Section 8, she was not supposed to have anyone living with her. That meant she had the power to turf him out at any time, and she would remind him of this whenever they argued. They had two disability checks coming in, so they should have been alright; where did it all go?

Hubert spent most of his time in a closet he’d fixed up as a shrine to the Delta Force, who had discharged him honorably. He was in his closet now. He’d been in and out of hospital ever since his last stint where the grunts called him Granddad. He was bald except for a straggle of mouse-colored hair around the base of his skull, and his eyes were sunk in their sockets. He was only forty-nine, but he looked about eighty.

His hands shook as he fired up his bowl, and he cursed as the flame burned his blackened fingertips. He’d flirted with crack and smack and LSD, but in the end he was loyal to his good old weed, which was just as well, because his son, Bert Jr., was a dealer. Hubert had a lot on his mind, and he was glad his woman had gone off shopping, so he had the place to himself. The apartment had been small when it was for just the two of them, but then Denise’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Amber, had moved in, with Oliver. And do you think she would clean up after him? Hell, she never cleaned up after herself – she left bloody tampons dripping all over.

I’ll kick both those whoring bitches out, he fantasized. And that damn rabbit!

He breathed out a plume of undulating smoke, watching it curl over the updraft from the heater. Outside snow was falling, big floppy flakes that merged with the slush on the ground. The Projects were swathed in gray: the empty swings, the token sycamore. Crows were the only birds that stayed through the winter, crowding around the open dumpster, fighting over blocks of territory like teenage gangs.

Inside was gray too. All the apartments were painted gray inside and out, so that none would be better than others. To paint your walls any other color would be ruled defacement. Gray was supposed to stay clean, but that’s only because it was dirty to begin with. Hubert was wrapped up in a khaki blanket in his closet, staring at a rack of khaki and camouflage uniforms. Further adornments of his sanctum sanctorum included a peg-board with war medals, his greasy beret on a milliner’s blockhead, a fat-bellied Buddha, an American flag with a fringe made by bullet holes, and a four-inch scrap of metal they’d pulled out of his left arm.

This weed was a waste of time. He was remembering the blast they used to get from that hashish, a mellow blast that left you bouncing on pink fleecy clouds, defying gravity. But what could you expect? Barre was a long way from Kabul.

And then it started in again; faces coming in and out of focus. The phantasmagoria. Most of them were dead. Some of them were still alive, living ghosts. Boys younger than his son was now had died, and he survived. Survived, that is, in a closet in an apartment that wasn’t his own, in the Projects which should have been a prison, breathing the sour milk sweat from the dairy. What for? Hell, he thought, I’d go back now if they called me up. Get out of this shit-hole. Women. I’d like to see how long Denise could get along without me.

Just then the front door opened, and he heard Denise’s clumpy boots scuffing the mat. Her dyed-red hair escaped from her woolen cap in frizzy Brunhilda braids; her bulbous eyes were blotted with mascara. She thumped her bags down on the lowest step of the stairs and called out “Shroom?” (Hubert was her little mushroom.)

Hubert stashed his pipe, jerkily batting at the swirl of smoke, and called down, “I’m in here, Hon.”

They were broke as smoke, threatened with having the phone and electric cut off, and that damn woman couldn’t stop shopping. Like she was addicted to Walmart. But Hubert wisely said nothing; he went down and gathered up the shopping bags. He greeted her with a cracked blistery smile that showed half his teeth missing, the remainder rotted and yellow. His smile twisted into a frown when he saw Oliver.

“Who let that damn rabbit out?”

“Oh, let Ollie run around for a bit.”

It was a small gesture of rebellion against patriarchal authority on her part, to trip the hook open with her toe on the way in. And anyway, she wanted to be Oliver’s friend. It was her favorite game to let Oliver dance a figure-eight around her ankles. Oliver had scampered behind the couch, where Hubert grabbed him and hauled him out by the hind leg. It was back in the cage for him, and the top clamped down good and tight again. Oliver pawed the bars, but there was no point in protest. He whirled around three times, but then settled resignedly into a corner and eyed Hubert with reproach.

Denise was humming, also eying Hubert reproachfully, as she emptied her shopping bags in the kitchen. Only then did she take off her coat and shake off the snow. She smelled her hat – damp wool and hair spray – and draped it over the heater in the kitchen. Then she snuck up behind Hubert to throw her arms around his bony shoulders. He cut off the embrace by leaning forward to turn on the television. He flipped through the channels on the remote till he came upon a mosaic of indigenous faces; it was a show about the Maya on the Discovery Channel.

Hubert settled in to watch the turning of a gigantic calendar wheel, while Denise retreated to the kitchen. She would have preferred to watch The Price is Right, but the Andean panpipes in the background were both cheery and soothing. Hubert slouched on the overstuffed sofa, looking beyond the television screen to focus just short of infinity.

The phantasmagoria was running its endless loop of faces in his brain again. The lucky ones were dead; the ones who were still alive – broken, like him. The strong ones who never cracked in Afghanistan, cracked when they got home. He foreshortened his focus enough to see Denise’s back to him in the kitchen. What did she know about real life, he sneered. Playing at being a housewife as if she’d never been a crack-head, playing at being a mother as if she’d always wanted that kid, playing at being her daughter’s sister. Who was she kidding? She’d never been under fire. Never been put up against a wall to be shot, only to have the blindfold taken off her eyes at the last second, to find a circle of towel-heads laughing at her. He had. He had scars, inside and out. He’d tortured his share of towel-heads though, right back at you. But who would understand that?

“You want pork chops for dinner, Hube?”

“Don’t burn them like you did last time.”

His smell-brain was indelibly impressed with the stench of burning flesh. Kandahar. He’d frisked the bodies.

Hell, I’m getting bad, he mused in a sane moment. It wasn’t any of it her fault. A compassionate impulse got him up to lurch into the kitchen, squeezing Denise so tight she squealed in protest. He nuzzled her neck and uttered the greatest compliment he could think of: “How’s my little veteran?”

She pushed him away. Pork chops, frozen peas and instant mashed potatoes lined themselves up on the counter obligingly as if waiting to be shot.

“Amber’s going out to a movie with Doug,” she said.

“Good.”

“So we can have a nice evening to ourselves.”

“That stud of hers is a waster. Waste-of-time asshole. If it were up to me he’d have no balls left to play with.”

“Well, it’s not up to you. Anyway, he’s better than most of them that’s been snuffling around. And he’s got a good job.”

“You call driving a van for Capitol Candy a good job?”

“It’s better than no job,” she said pointedly. (Half of Barre’s youth worked for Capitol Candy. The other half didn’t.)

“The end of the world is coming, don’cha know?” snarled Hubert.

“Oh? When’s that then, Hube?”

“One Rabbit.”

“What do you mean, ‘one rabbit?’”

“I mean that’s the day the world ends, on the Mayan calendar, at midwinter. They just said that on the television. It’s the end of a cycle.”

“Well, in that case it’s the beginning of a cycle, too,” she said optimistically. “What goes around, comes around.”

They were playing at being grownups, playing at being man and wife. One time he had woken up to find his gnarled fingers tightening around Denise’s plump neck. She was mewling. Like a kitten. Amber came hammering on the door asking what was going on. Just a dream, go back to sleep. He couldn’t remember the dream, just a shadow-shape he was wrestling with, swarthy, bearded and alien, like those pop-up figures the rookies used for target practice. Usually his dreams weren’t as bad as his waking fantasies. She’d threatened to leave him if he ever did that again.

The pork chops were sizzling nicely now, making everything real. Soon he was eating them, favoring the good teeth on his left side. “You got them right this time, for once, Hon,” he admitted grudgingly.

They settled in to watch a video. The curtains were drawn tight and the heater was on full blast. The video ended and they sat there not talking. Denise didn’t even ask Hubert if he liked it. She took out her knitting, and Hubert was lulled by the click of her needles. He settled in to a rerun of the apocalypse, without a plot. The clock was digitating dumbly on the wall: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:30. At 11:00 Amber burst in with a blast of damp air, chattering inanely. “And isn’t Doug cute?”

Denise had tried to get her to call Hubert “Dad,” but Amber had made a pukey-face and called him “Dickhead” instead. He wanted to go upstairs and hit his bowl again, but Denise would complain if he fired up in front of Amber, and the closet was off-limits when she was home – part of their little charade of being a happily married couple. So he sat there sucking his tooth-gaps instead of his pipe. At 11:30 they went to bed.

But the house stayed awake. The heater hissed, the pipes hummed, the fridge coughed its death-rattle. Oliver was alone in the dark room with its appliances glowing like fireflies. This was the worst time for Oliver, when his legs jerked of themselves, and his paws furiously scraped at the iron mesh, and his sharp teeth ground at the metal. His jiggling of the cage drowned out the hiss of the heater, the hum of the pipes and the rasp of the fridge. Somewhere out there, beyond the bars of his cage, beyond the inward-pressing walls, far beyond the dull overarch of clouds, there was a moon. A moon big and round, with rabbit features etched on it like a Mayan glyph. The night was his by right.

***

Morning came, dull and gray, and Oliver heard the shuffle of Denise’s slippers on the stairs. She switched on the light in the kitchen and turned up the thermostat. Oliver heard the coffeemaker start to burble. He heard Denise cursing as she burned the toast. Gray light suffused the living room as she drew the curtains back to reveal a row of identical gray apartments across the parking lot. He pawed furiously at the mesh again, this time to signal that he was hungry. But Denise had a hundred things to do before she remembered she wanted to be Oliver’s friend.

Hubert came down next, grumpy as always in the mornings, and plopped himself down on the sofa. There he sat unblinking as Denise brought him a mug of black coffee with two heaping tablespoons of sugar. He wore a khaki undershirt and light blue pajama bottoms, slightly open at the fly, just showing a fringe of pale brown pubic hair. He lit up a cigarette, one of the cheap ones called Garni, but which he called “gurneys.” He left it burning on the edge of the side table while he lit up another. Denise scolded him and put out the first gurney. Hubert shrugged.

Last to arise was Amber, in a second-hand nylon negligee with purple pom poms, yawning and stroking a large teddy bear. She aimed a twisted smile in the direction of Hubert’s open fly. Ignoring the burnt toast and scrambled eggs, she poured herself a bowl of cornflakes and heaped it with sugar.

“Euugh,” she winced, “that rabbit cage stinks!”

“Well whose job is it to keep it clean?” asked Denise. Hubert had learned long since to leave any attempt at discipline to Amber’s mother.

“I can’t do it. You know it makes me feel sick.” It was no wonder it should make her sick, because she’d just found out she was six weeks pregnant. So no one was going to change the straw in the cage, and Oliver had kicked most of the soiled stuff out. Little round pellets had rolled all over the floor, under the television and behind the couch and even as far as the stairs. Some were already trodden into the carpet.

Hubert chained another gurney, muttering, “Goddamn liberals,” apropos of nothing.

“George is coming by to take me shopping,” announced Denise.

“What the hell for? You went shopping yesterday,” growled Hubert. “What’s up with you and George, anyway?” It was curious how George was always there to do favors for Denise.

“But I didn’t get new curtains. That was what I went out for.”

“We don’t need fucking new curtains.”

“Well, I say we do. Anyway, it’ll come out of my check.”

“So who’s going to pay the gas and electric?”

“Oh come on, Shroom!” She ingratiated herself by slipping a plump arm through his bony one. “It’s only five more days ’til the Social comes through. Kiss, kiss?”

“Kiss, kiss,” he harrumphed.

But they had a shock that day; the gas was cut off. They realized it only when it started to get cooler and cooler, and the heater failed to hiss. Hubert went to turn the thermostat up. Denise called George to bring his Coleman stove for them to cook on. The water heater was gas, so no showers, but they weren’t in the habit of taking showers every day anyway. But if the electric were turned off, there would be no television, which would be a disaster. Not even the radio. And they would be needing candles later, Denise was thinking out loud. But Denise would still go shopping and get her new curtains.

Oliver didn’t mind it getting cooler, in fact he welcomed it. But nobody remembered to feed him all day long, much less clean out his cage and let him run around. Amber went off with her boyfriend (Doug, or maybe Larry). Denise went shopping (actually she was huddled over the woodstove in George’s trailer running her mouth about how bad Hubert was getting, forgetting things and not knowing where he was and they never made love any more).

Hubert was left alone with Oliver. He glowered at the rabbit and then slunk off to his closet to toke the last of his weed. That was bad, not just because he was now out himself, but he had smoked all the pot his son had supplied for him to sell, and now he owed Bert Jr. money. Bert Jr. had gone off to live with his mother all those years, so it had been a way to reach out to his dad to do business with him. Well, damn that little prick anyway, he’d tried to call him twenty times and the little asshole hadn’t called back all week. Hell, he owes me!

Hubert went on scraping his pipe, getting out the last of the clinker; you know you’re hard up when you’re down to smoking clinker. Some reward for all he’d done for his country. Who got the shakes every night? Who reran a loop of the apocalypse in his brain?

The whores in Kabul were useless. Filthy, ugly, pathetic limp dolls. They moved like molasses and looked like mules’ asses. What’s worse, they tried to make you feel guilty for stealing what was left of their virginity, which wasn’t much. But behind every one of those stinking virgins you could see a whole clan of angry towel-heads. Afghanistan is fucked up the asshole. This country is fucked up the asshole. Goddamn liberals! Afghanistan was a quagmire. Every army since Alexander the Great had sunk into it like millstones. Those wretched mountains ate men. Think of all those Ruskie tanks up to the gunwales in sand – that should have told us something. He reached for his beret and pulled it down over his eyes. Had his head shrunk? Damn that headshrinker at the V.A.!

***

Oliver settled down to a troubled sleep, but was awakened by the unusual cold. It was past dark and no one was there. No hiss from the heater, no rasp from the fridge, no rumbling snores. The electric was on strike in sympathy with the gas; all the little electronic fireflies were dark. The stillness was uncanny. He blinked to make sure he was awake. Everything seemed new, full of possibilities. What did it mean? He crouched very still, but there was nary a sound.

When his ears bobbed up, something felt funny; the top of his cage was loose! Oliver didn’t wait to be told that this was his big opportunity. Boldly, like he’d always known just what to do, he pushed open the lid, twisting the hook with his nose. His heart thumped. He froze with just his nose sticking out of the cage, listening for the thud of footsteps. Softly he kept on pushing, and before he knew what was happening, he was over the top and onto the floor. He padded quickly behind the sofa, and listened to the eerie silence from this new hidey-hole. Still no sound. He crept out onto the carpet. Ecstatically he sprayed and pooped and ran in little circles. A chill wind was sweeping into the room, like someone had left the door open . . .

The clouds had thinned to small scudding wisps, and through the wide-open door a moonbeam beckoned. Oliver poised on his back legs, paws up in prayer. His ears made the V sign at the moon, and with a hop and a skip he was gone.

***

“How should I know where that damn rabbit went?” sputtered Hubert. “Who left the fucking door open?”

“Oh, poor Ollie! He’ll never survive out there.” Denise wrung her hands.

Amber hid her guilt for leaving the door open, with sobs. “You let my rabbit out, you dickhead! I hate you!”

“Oh, for Chrissake, when did you ever give a hoot about that fucking rabbit?” grumbled Hubert. “Who always ended up mucking out that shit-hole? All that rabbit ever did was piss and shit anyway. If we do find him, he’s going straight to the fucking Shelter.”

“But think of all those dogs out there,” wailed Denise. “And there’s the road! He’ll get run over, for sure.”

The morning was crisp and clear. It was midwinter day; dog tracks criss-crossed everywhere, but a fresh blanket of snow had buried Oliver’s footprints. A crow cawed mockingly from the bare branches of the lone sycamore. The Projects suddenly seemed a vast labyrinth, and the surrounding fields beyond even vaster. A rabbit could be anywhere.

The night had been magical for Oliver. He had heard the dogs howling at the moon, but oddly enough he had no fear, even when one came snuffling up to him. They were creatures of the moon, like him. They sang to the moon; he danced to their singing. Zigzagging among the parked cars, in and out and around the children’s swings, he tired himself out. He found some vegetable parings, delightful, much better than his dry pellets. Then he hunkered down under a moldy discarded armchair behind the dumpster and fell asleep, safe and warm.

Amber made a sign to stick on the telephone pole outside their front door: “Lost – Black and White Rabbit – $10 Reward.” Then she flounced up to her room, lay down on her flower print bedspread with a pink quilt over her, and put on her headphones to listen to Usher.

Denise had bought a frozen chicken, forgetting that they only had the Coleman stove to cook on, and now she had cooked up some spicy Italian sausages instead, the thawed remains from the defunct freezer. They were burnt on the outside and raw inside; no one could eat them. Hubert went back to his closet to stare at his flag, and Amber helped herself to cornflakes.

***

Alone in his cubicle Hubert was back fighting the war. It was dirty. No one knew just how dirty. This new army they were supposed to be training, of Afghanis just out of diapers. Hopeless. They should have been training the Taliban, they at least had a will to fight. The Taliban were the sons of the Mujahedin, who had whupped the asses of the Ruskies. There were still rusting Ruskie tanks half-buried in the skree from the mountains, sprouting desert brush.

But his job was not to locate and annihilate the Taliban, his job was to pretend to eradicate the opium fields, while seeing that the profits were diverted from the Taliban to certain characters behind the scenes in the U. S. This was an op even his buddies in Delta Force didn’t know about. He was the linkman for a certain Mr. Wally, who was raking off an awesome profit from the farmers and keeping the troops supplied with heroin. Hubert rode the crest; he used but he didn’t let himself get hooked more than a little course of methodone couldn’t fix.

Samy was a middleman. He looked like those pop-up targets, swarthy and mean, with a puffy pendulous lower lip. There was no doubt he was double-dealing – he was in bed with the Taliban, literally; Samy liked boys. Hubert’s job was to wipe him out, orders straight from the head honcho, Wally. Hubert looked a lot younger then, and still had most of his hair; he’d mentioned to Wally that Samy had come on to him. Off the base there was a warehouse with a back room stocked with a tank of whiskey, where officers and a few privileged Afghanis hung out. The Afghanis got more of a buzz from the whiskey than they did from the heroin; just the way they were constituted, Hubert guessed.

The plan was to lure Samy there. He’d been there many times, making deals, shooting up and drinking whiskey. Taliban boys or Yankee boys, it was all just more variety to Samy. Hubert had a syringe full of sodium thiopental to waste him with, and a private room where they wouldn’t be disturbed. It was pretty sordid – not up to the standards of your typical brothel – but there was a siphon for the whiskey, and two needles full of smack, a dingy divan with an assortment of oversized pillows, and a spittoon.

All went according to plan; they shot up, and Hubert let that slimy little fag butt-fuck him. Then he returned the favor. It was better than the best sex to slide through that sleazy flesh, knowing all the time he had his victim’s death right there in his kit. He chuckled to himself, to think how Joe Public in the States would be shocked to know what the special forces were doing to preserve their freedom.

He looked at the sleeping form of Samy. His skin was sallow and ghostly where it had been covered up by clothing. Hubert pretended it was Osama bin Laden. Something to boast about. He took out the syringe, whispering “This is for 9/11, motherfucker,” and shot him up for good. But he couldn’t quite manage to get the slimy butt-fucking out of his head long enough to gloat. He vomited voluptuously, like a dog.

Dawn. He was in that zone where good and evil are confounded, like there is no difference – it’s all the same thing – it just is. But some slender thread of consciousness brought him back to his body, which was lying there naked and limed with shit, still in the embrace of that naked corpse. He saw the trail of vomit between the divan and the spittoon, shimmering silver like a river seen from the top of a distant mountain by moonlight.

What happened next was surreal; he looked up to see the face of a little Afghani girl, about five years old, staring at him from the doorway with big brown eyes. Where the hell did she come from? She stood there solemnly, just looking at him. She was human.

***

No one called about the rabbit. It didn’t take them long to forget about Oliver. Even the “Lost” sign that Amber had tacked on the telephone pole got soggy and ran in the early spring rain. The snow was reduced to grayish jigsaw pieces around the Projects. Hubert threw the rabbit cage in the dumpster. The old armchair where Oliver had hidden had been hauled away long ago. The first crocuses came up through the tag ends of snow.

Denise baked herself a cake out of a box to celebrate her thirty-ninth birthday, but there was just her and Amber to eat it. Amber was over her morning sickness and was eating ravenously now; she had broken up with Larry when he was caught stealing baseball cards from Capitol Candy, so now Doug could be the sole dad for her little boy. She dyed her hair red to match her mom’s.

Hubert was in hospital again after another attempt to strangle Denise in her sleep, and she was determined not to let him back in the house. But now that she had declared herself available, George stopped coming round, and she was stuck in the Projects without wheels; George had promised to teach her to drive, too, the rat. Still, she thought, it was good to be just her and Amber and the baby, and somehow they would get by.

Oliver never once looked back. He made it across the highway, past the stinking dairy to the big meadow, and disappeared into the woods. He dug himself a burrow under a pile of birch logs. Many times he went hungry, but never as hungry as he had been in his cage in the Projects. He had the whole world to piss and poop in, so he was joyous and free. But Oliver’s joy ran over whenever he saw the moon in full; etched on the moon’s mottled face he could just make out the glyph for One Rabbit, laughing down at him. For one rabbit at least a new cycle had begun.

—Kristin Ohman

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Kristin Ohman has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. “One Rabbit” is her first publication.

Oct 132015
 

Lumia Selfie alkalmazással készítve

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Zsolt Láng (born 1958, based in Tg. Mures, Romania) is one of the most original and critically acclaimed writers of the mid-generation of Hungarian prose, whose eleven volumes of short fiction, criticism and the tetralogy entitled Bestiarium Transylvaniae (Vol I, 1997; Vols. II-III, 2003; Vol. IV, 2012) have long propelled him among the most original hues of Hungarian postmodern writing. Both his short fiction and novels are suffused with literary, cultural references (sometimes faked arcania, as in the (post-)magic realist carnival of 16th-17th century histories, annals, verse lays and legends from Transylvania, Moldova and the Balkans), rich wordplay and language effects, as well as being characterized by a relentless exploration of the poetics and politics of language. His experimental fiction turns topoi of domestic and  world literature inside out and creatively explores the contextual, political and biographical undersides of the genesis of artworks, all these with an all-pervasive humour that is as subtle as it is warped.One of the volumes of Bestiarium Transylvaniae have been translated by Tim Wilkinson (award-winning translator of the novels of Imre Kertész, Miklós Mészöly and Miklós Szentkuthy among others), but not yet published in English. A review (in English) of Vol. IV of  Bestiarium Transylvaniae, centred on Ceausescu’s Romania and the events of 1989, can be read here. Still, Láng is probably best known as a short story writer. His last collection of short prose (Szerelemváros – Love City, Bratislava/Budapest: Kalligram, 2013) was reviewed by Hungarian Literature Online. Several of Láng’s short stories can be read online in World Literature Today (January 2015)World Literature Today (September 2015), The Missing Slate, B O D Y magazine, VLAKmagazine and Hungarian Literature Online.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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IF THE MAN LEANING out of the third-floor window did not know the woman in the green dressing gown and wanted to find out her name, he could go out on the street and pick up the envelope dropped from the litter bin, but now he can spare the bowing down. Instead, he can get engrossed, for instance, in contemplating the soft naps of the green terry cloth, or can jot down the figment of song drolling from the fourth floor window, or he might just as well continue gazing motionlessly, so that the unopened letter may rest unread forever, because the sad-faced scavenger who is to pick it up the next day would shove it on his screeching handcart to take it to the paper recycling point at the farther end of town, from where it is to be shovelled onto a dump truck’s tipper and in less than two hours emptied into the chloride bath of the Réce papermill, where the whirlpools of destruction decompose it in a matter of seconds; in other words, the scavenger known as Gyuszi is illiterate, although he had been through mandatory 8-year primary education at district school nr. 10.

It must have been because of her intensifying migraine that Ildikó Halász did not notice the envelope slip over the litter bin’s edge. But for that headache, she would unquestionably have picked it up; not for reading it, but merely because she has always been a tidy person. Something that seems undercut by the fact that the envelope is unopened but, let us not forget, this is the fifth letter received within one month from the sender written in bold lettering on the bright red postmark, a craftsmen’s cooperative that has lately branched out and started a credit bank. Perhaps Ildikó is a stickler for orderliness. This is probably the reason why she has headaches so often. The windows do not close properly, there is permanent draught, and even though she spends the day cleaning up, whenever she goes to the toilet at night, her bare soles get grey with dust. Besides, it is no ordinary dust she inhales: if you turn towards the west end of the town, you can see it from afar in the shape of a threatening black cloud – the Girodan Holding Group Ltd. that produces the cheapest tyres in Europe precisely because it doesn’t invest a penny in air filters. Black rubber dust is more harmful than cement dust even. The only more harmful substance is ammonia, so one could call it a piece of luck indeed that back then they had built the artificial fertilizer plant in Lápos and not here, although a certain comrade Dulea had left no stone unturned in his efforts to secure it for the town, he being the first man in the county party committee, and incidentally also the farseeing father of two students of chemical engineering.

A further contribution to her nagging headache is the fact that Ervin Zakk has just left who, although quite fifteen years younger, nevertheless keeps calling on her and on not one occasion would stay into the small hours, until morning even, especially over the past few days, although nothing passed between them, however often Ildikó daydreams about ”taking him in” one day – and here as a rule a variation would follow on the same simile in the shape of the encounter between some straightforward article for personal use, an iron coin, a bar of soap, a sabre, or a flashlight for instance, and one of the elements, mostly earth or water.

To call Ervin a mere boy would be an exaggeration, he is 35 and works at the newspaper where a new editor-in-chief was recently appointed. The new editor-in-chief does not loathe Ervin quite as much as the former one used to, so Ervin sees the time ripe to be promoted to the position of columnist. It is for this reason he unleashed himself on Pista Tavi. Why on him of all people? Primarily because the new editor-in-chief from whom Ervin expects his promotion is known to hate Pista Tavi ”like the plague”.

When he was at school Ervin, just like his mates, used to have a theatre subscription. In those days the more well-meaning of their teachers used to collect money for theatre subscriptions, wishing to sponsor the theatre, ”the Hungarian word” (”ward”, as Ervin’s Hungarian teacher once said in an excess of zeal), which happened to be subsidized by the authorities too, in order that the more well-meaning of teachers lack not something to sponsor and would not end up sponsoring other things they had better keep off. Ildikó Halász was playing Eve in Madách’s The Tragedy of Man and one Sunday at the morning performance for pupils with Kölcsey subscription, in the eighth scene, the one about Kepler, she revealed, that is, completely bared, her right breast. The next Sunday Ervin went to see the performance again with his grandparents who had a pensioners’ Petőfi subscription, because against the unanimous view of his classmates he adamantly upheld that it must have been an accident, the slip’s shoulder strap having unintentionally slid down, but he had to revise his view upon watching the performance again. He was furious at Ildikó, at the whole theatre, at his grandparents and classmates, although this time, quite uncharacteristically for him, he paid for the factory-made ice cream, their wager with Feri Madaras, unprotesting. Now, 22 years later Ervin would have had ample occasion to take a closer look at that right breast. And he certainly did harbour some curiosity, but was uncertain as yet, because it seemed somewhat unsuited to the thing he kept badgering Ildikó with, and which sensibly touched upon that right breast, even on its twin sister on the left side in fact, since the aspiring columnist was trying to ascertain whether Pista Tavi had indeed organized that infamous orgy on May 1st in the Forget-me-not restaurant that had stood on a secluded spot in the middle of the vast orchards in the hills at the town’s edge. Not that the tiniest details of the orgy had not been long known to the whole town, including the crucial moment when the blue lace knickers of comrade Marika Bodoki, the secretary, believed by many to have been import goods from France, although in fact merely the Kászon lace manufacture’s produce, destined for export, to be sure, ended up proudly flaunted, wrapped around comrade Dulea’s unmentionables. But of course it was one thing to know this, and a horse of quite another colour to read the same thing inside out in the paper.

And indeed, the next instant Ildikó nearly spat out the whole thing or, more precisely, reached the point where, had Ervin’s hand touched her right breast, or the left one for that matter, ever so slightly, she would have told him everything about that breast and about its companion into the bargain – that is, nothing, nothing would she have withheld.

Standing on the curb side, litter bin in hand, she is waiting for the not overtly hectic, but not leisurely traffic to subside for a while, to cross to the other side to the unsavoury constellation of a dozen or so garbage dumpsters behind the block of flats opposite.

The sun is setting and Ildikó knows no more dreadful place on earth than the communal dumpsters, domed and made of aluminum, about a man’s height and looking rather like field-kitchen stew cauldrons. When it is dark she at least doesn’t see the shadows drifting by, and she doesn’t feel any pangs of conscience when emptying her litter bin right in front of her toes behind the corner. What stops her now from crossing over, however, is not her dread of the shadow: a numbness coming from a much more remote place, or time rather, penetrates her feet or, to be scrupulously specific, not her feet but the synapses commanding her muscles, but it is not numbness that she feels, it being at best a second-rate symptom of the disorder that makes the synapses melt like overcharged wires, incapable of transmitting further information. Yes, in Ildikó’s brain a certain instant of the past explodes, causing a neuronal block. The cause of the explosion is presumably Ervin who, although not having placed the bomb there himself, certainly brought the flame to the fuse. Even admitting that the explosion is not a genuine one, or if so, it is one turned inside out. Something that Ildikó associates with stumbling upon the keyword in a crossword puzzle, whose letters trigger off the chain reaction of the right answers, or much rather, with the next state that hits her on the head when, after having completed all the answers, above the paper pushed triumphantly aside all of a sudden the listless and lonely evening’s emptiness engulfs her and she can conjure up nobody on whom she could blame the mood devouring her. Now, on the other hand, she knows it is Ervin she should hold responsible, but the moment she thinks of Ervin, aiming several times in succession like a poor marksman, instead of Ervin’s face it is the face of Pista Tavi that emerges in front of her mind’s eyes, and a certain evening in a certain restaurant that people have insisted on calling Forget-me-not ever since, half jokingly of course, for who would not much rather forget. Forget-me-not is also a poor joke, for its official registered name is Număuita, since our story is set in Romania, but everybody in town, all the story’s characters, even comrade Dulea himself speak Hungarian, which is however of no significance worth mentioning whatsoever. It was a famed night, for she had hoped she would finally go through something that she need not dread thereafter, and in those days it was dread she wanted most to be rid of, at least as much as of the thick hairs growing on her legs, or of a wrinkle in the corner of her mouth, even if she instinctively intuited that the end to dread would not bring a much better state, for it would mean the loss of the one living in dread, of her surviving childhood self, but she would recoup her loss by playing the roles that Böby Derzsi was then getting, the most abysmally untalented actress that ever walked the face of the earth. Back then they did obviously not call such nights orgies, but ”meatballing”, which sounds as if it meant that they ate mincemeat balls, but of course did not mean that, the waiters, the drivers, the actors and actresses, even the comrades themselves described everything down to the smallest detail during coffee breaks, so that the secretaries could pass it on to the hairdressers, who then disseminated it with the distortions due to the buzz of beauty parlour hair dryers, like some contagious disease, mumps for instance that is particularly dangerous for grown-up men who had not contracted it in childhood, so that whenever there’s an epidemic of mumps in the kindergarten, the mothers of boys dutifully take their offspring to the sickbed to kiss the ailing child, all the while relating further savoury details of the meatballing feat. And the meatballing always started with a couple of glasses of cognac and ended with Pista Tavi ordering all knickers off the comrades, that is, those that still needed ordering, and then breaking Laji Rupi’s current violin on Jani Derzsy’s reputedly thick head, so that nobody could play on it again the beauteous folksong of his heart’s desire, ”The thrush builds its nest…” Ildikó gulped down a waterglassful of cognac that knocked her out almost immediately; she became like a sack of potatoes while, strangely, her consciousness cleared up, she was peeping out lucidly from her own inert body, albeit Pista Tavi was hardly bothered by this inertia, he shoved her into a half-lit pantry, made her squat in the corner, held her head with one hand and with the other unbuttoned his fly, as in those days zips were still relatively rare, started swearing out loud, perhaps partly because all he managed to produce was a child’s pecker, but soon became violent and poor Ildikó was thinking with all the lucid part of her consciousness she could muster how there was no-one in this world to protect her. But only the next day at noon, after having returned to the drama students’ dorm where she was still living at the time, not to mention the fact that in those days on the site of her present lodgings the peach orchards of the district called the Manor were still blooming for many years to come, and after having planted herself beneath the shower and from underneath her breast, the left one, a whiff of that horrendous smell of Pista Tavi slapped her, it was only then that she started throwing up convulsively. After that day she would be sick frequently. The last time a few days ago she woke up feeling sick, tore the window open hoping to get better, because those fits of vomiting could be dreadful, coming up directly from her womb, and she didn’t want to wake up the whole block of flats again, the wind was blowing from the direction of the sleeping town, she leaned out and felt instantly better, but as she turned round the room’s concentrated reek of Pista Tavi hit her again, making her throw up the first portion of her supper on the spot.

She should have taken revenge. There had been an occasion once, on that certain Christmas when the glorious regime’s men bled to death, that is, they appeared to be bleeding but recovered quickly enough. Now the most she can do is to satisfy the curiosity of a journalist sniffing for scandal, and she would gladly do it, were it not for the fact that as soon as she starts relating of Pista Tavi to Ervin, in place of Ervin’s face the face of Pista Tavi pops up, and it is Ervin’s face she wants to see, for she loves that face, so young and carefree, a face whose outlines would romp with the shadows of fatigue, quite unhampered even in the small hours, then start splashing about at the break of day and in a few seconds be smoothed out. She is in love with this boy, keeps thinking of him night and day, she is worried about him and keeps her fingers crossed that everybody would love him. And she tells everybody because it feels good to be talking of Ervin, how smart and well-read, how sensible and clean, what a beautiful, innocent child he is.

How finely one can play with him! She says to him things like, well slim jim, you’ve swallowed this whole, or that, now this is something to make your balls itch, with such sense of liberation as only children teasing each other can feel, and with what enthusiasm they go into planning their theatre: Ervin would write plays with a sharp political edge, the likes of which have never been seen on this stage…

Now all of a sudden she sees herself from the outside, as if she were perching on the willow on the corner or looking out from a window, as if she had exchanged places with that Peeping Tom, even if only for minutes. It would surely serve him right, to be able to feel the headache of Ildikó Halász for five minutes, to be standing on the street corner in a green terry cloth dressing gown and litter bin in hand, with nobody as much as looking at her. But the Peeping Tom is already looking elsewhere: a moment ago he was still counting the lights going up across the street, now he is staring at the bird’s carcass pressed onto the grey tarmac, how the wind flutters its ragged feathers, but there is hardly any breeze, at least nothing stirs the leaves. Later he gets engrossed in matters celestial, gazing out at the moon and the stars, so that he notices precious little of the swarming Pista Tavi-faced monsters, sensing nothing of the lonesome woman’s fears, although according to the rules of chivalry a man should on such occasions warn the freak-faces, at the very least with a thumping of the feet, that he is there and, should necessity present itself, would readily jump to the defence of the weak; what is more, he can certainly not be accused of liking Pista Tavi and would be glad to read at the tail end of the report on the Forget-me-not orgies that Pista Tavi resigned his seat in Parliament – although somewhat later he would impassively take cognizance of that deputy’s office in Strasbourg, with the same impassivity his eye would, with at most a light thrill due to the impending event, be caught the next morning by the patch of green terry cloth sticking to the tarmac like the dead bird, with a dark red stain hidden deep among its naps. In the meantime Ildikó has looked down from the window and found the way back to herself again, to the one who knows precisely how far she is from a creature Ervin might fall for. Because from up there she can see all too well even in the gathering dusk, that her hair is growing thin, that her hairdresser is not particularly skillful, that the crowns on her teeth are wearing off, she should replace them but doesn’t have the money, that she isn’t getting any roles at the theatre, she survives on hackwork and even such occasions are getting few and far between, she put together a few simple little programs that she takes to school and kindergarten festivities: last time she recited Petőfi poems at the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, next she would do In young hearts I live on at the graduation ceremony, provided they invite her and not some latter-day Böby to declaim some by-our-blood-and-soil-stalwart-we-stand Albert Wass. She has her apartment, her mother’s savings deposit with the small sum she had saved up for her funeral; her clothes are shabby, so she has no idea how she could possibly change her life, although she knows that if she doesn’t change it now she is finished for good, better and proper. She clings to Ervin, but he is becoming ever more selfish and whimsical.

And even if something more intimate were to develop between them, how long could it possibly last? In front of Ildikó’s mind’s eyes her own fifteen-year-old self emerges, a thin, dark-haired girl going in white knee socks and dark blue pleated skirt to the May 1st parade, and imagines Ervin would be there too, but Ervin is only a tiny toddler, all right, let it be the party at Zsuzsi’s place when they locked themselves up in the bathroom with Bandi Szepesi and she suffered him to deflower her, she imagines Ervin in Bandi’s place, what they would have said to each other back then, what the little boy with the big blond head, barely three, would have made of the occasion, how he would have stuck his tiny fingers into her body.

She is standing on the curb side with a headache that makes her dizzy, waiting to cross to the other side. The litter bin has grown so heavy that her right shoulder falls inches below the other. As though she were dragging the carved-up corpse of Pista Tavi in that bin. Sure she would be caught, although on the ground around the stew cauldrons there are always bones scattered about, all kinds of sickening nondescript things. Yes, on that Christmas it had occurred to her to grab the bread knife and ring Pista Tavi’s doorbell, shove aside his screaming wife – hard to imagine, as she was about one handspan taller and even then quite fifty kilos heavier than Ildikó – then make straight for the armchair in front of the TV, plant the knife in Pista Tavi’s heart, which he would have received with such resignation as if a vengeful revolutionary had leaped out directly of the TV set. For 25 years she has been living with Pista Tavi’s corpse, dragging it along wherever she goes; her husband, all her lovers and aborted children, her director, her partners on stage, the bus driver, the cantankerous cab driver, all of them have been that corpse.

What sacrifice has she not made? Surely, her whole life had been a sacrifice. On that forget-me-not night, since she had to be there anyway, she had planned to turn Pista Tavi’s head but he barely noticed her and, what is more, when she coyly addressed him with, Has comrade Tavi ever noticed that the comrade’s name is Tavi and mine, Halász, the one a lake, the other a fisher, Pista Tavi cloddishly asked, what it was he should have noticed. It was then she drank up the cognac, all of it.

Dusk is gathering slowly. The headlights of lorries rushing by awaken yet more shadows, as if they were splitting off from her body standing on the curb side, taking the shape now of an ass, now of a goat, now of a mountain goat preparing to jump, legs tensely balancing on one tiny spot of a palm’s width, then scurrying off behind the blocks but peeping out from behind the concrete walls. As the odd beam of light carves their muzzle out of the darkness, Ildikó instantly recognizes them. Yes, she should have called in at Pista Tavi’s place on that clean, snowless Christmas when for three days a warm southerly wind blew over the town, carrying the black rubber dust far away from them. She should at least have spat in his face; she should at least have given him an insistent look, should have asked him casually, well comrade, how’s things these days. Then she could still have gained admittance, for on the third day bodyguards were around him again. And today, even if she could get in with a piece of luck, she would only find a decrepit sick man with a broken look in his eyes, a man in pieces and all the more wicked for that, more wicked than ever.

Ildikó is standing on the curb side, counting the lorries rushing by. Not counting the lorries really, just uttering the numbers to herself, one after the other. What for? She doesn’t want to stop time, neither does she want it to run on. Or rather, she thinks soon it would be completely dark, then she can go to the garbage dumpsters and empty the litter bin right in front of her toes. It’s long been completely dark. Perhaps the soldiers from the nearby barracks are marching out for nighttime shooting, practicing for some secret sortie. Perhaps it is not even genuine lorries rushing by. In Ildikó’s head the pain is growing unbearable. It occurs to her she should turn around, go back up to her apartment, call Ervin to tell him straightaway that there is something more she needs to tell him about Pista Tavi that bears no delay, but which she will only tell if… Then something bursts in her head. With eyes wide open she acknowledges how the pain disappears at once. So suddenly as if it were a sign. A sign urging her not to go back, to leave Ervin alone, to forget everything, start a new life, step onstage again, play all the roles she had never played, to play as she alone can play.

—Zsolt Láng, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

Oct 102015
 

author pic Shane Jones

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Herewith is an excerpt from Shane Jones’ new novel The No Memory.  This passage comes from a section labeled ‘memoir,’ in which he uses a new style—first person and contemporary; written in longer, winding sentences, which are more introspective and philosophical than in his past work. Although Shane Jones past writing has dwelled primarily in a fantasy realm, the new book takes on a more personal reality—his own. The narrator is Shane Jones, and the character ‘Melanie’ is his wife, in real life, and ‘Julian’ in the book, is his son in real life. This short passage gives us a tantalizing first look at his new novel, and glimpses into the development of Shane Jones’ craftsmanship. —Jason DeYoung

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An Excerpt from Shane Jones’ The No Memory

A​t my father’s house I noticed the large wooden sculpture he had added onto for years. Nick and I jokingly referred to this as the, “burial ladders,” because there was something intrinsically morbid about them, purchased from a local gardening warehouse shortly after the death of our mother at fifty percent off. The components of the sculpture consisted of long tree branch like limbs that connected to a large round base. You could switch the branches out to change the shape of the sculpture, and also, you could buy additional limbs to attach to the other limbs. My father had hundreds. The final pieces he had proudly purchased for nearly ninety percent off, the clearance tags of which were still left on.

​Before ringing the doorbell the cat named Horse ran up the driveway and began zigzagging between and around our legs and we let Julian pet his first animal to which he had absolutely no response. Melanie took twenty pictures on her phone and I took another ten, most of which I later deleted not because they were bad pictures but because they were difficult to judge through the cracks in the screen. A few of the photos I emailed to Melanie’s phone because I thought they were good. I had decided to use the phone until it, “completely fell apart,” the exact words I had said to Melanie after she told me to get a new phone, that no one would use a cracked phone for more than a few days.

​ After meeting Julian and seeing my father tear up for the first time since my mother passing, since he told the story about being in New York as a very young man and crying in a bar in Manhattan, I asked how Nick was and he said that I needed to sit down, that something had happened, and he wanted to wait to tell me because he thought the situation would solve itself with time but it hadn’t. There was an odd moment where Melanie stood rocking Julian in her arms and I stood looking at Melanie before we sat on the couch to receive the news.

​According to my father, yesterday, my brother, Nick, who lived in Washington D.C., had finished his days work as a lawyer working for a non-profit, I forgot the name, who fought larger companies on environmental issues, most recently, I remembered Nick telling me how he was working on a case involving “sky law,” that is, certain companies were buying the air above other buildings in congested cities because the only way to grow was upward, and these companies were buying up the air, most likely, illegally. He enjoyed the job and worked long hours, if I remember correctly, but on this day, according to my father, he finished his work three hours early and had told his boss, who my father had recently spoken with, that he wasn’t feeling well and left the building. He hadn’t taken a sick day in two years.

​Between him leaving the building and calling his wife, Tago, my brother had experienced some kind of mental failing, not an upset stomach, which he had told his boss was the reason for him leaving, but something stranger and more troublesome involving his vision. Wandering the streets of D.C. he had made one phone call, to Tago, saying he was on his way to the hospital because while working his computer screen had become scrambled, that is, and this is according to Tago and through my father, half his computer screen, the words, numbers, and color coded Excel spreadsheet cells began falling down the screen. When my brother looked at his keyboard it was upside down and the left side, the same side of his screen that was crumbling, was also falling downward. Even when he stood up and looked around his office, the entire left side of his vision – cubicles, printers, coffee maker, stacked white boxes of paper, lawyers in suits, were dripping and vanishing into the floor. He also said he felt a tremendous tightening in his chest, but not on the side of his heart, and he was sweating so much that one of his co-workers asked him moments before he left if he had been doing push-ups in his cubicle, which he thought odd because he had never once done push-ups in his cubicle before. Outside, when Tago asked him if his vision was still acting this way, he said yes, that as he was talking the buildings in his view – he didn’t want to look down and see people cascading into the street – were trickling down the left side of his eye. Also, everything he was saying, to him, sounded like talking underwater, and before he hung up, after telling Tago to meet him at the hospital, he could walk because it was only three blocks away, he mentioned swimming in the lake as a child where he nearly drowned under the legs of my father, that the sound he was making while talking was identical to the sound he had made while struggling under water, years ago. My brother never showed up at the hospital, and after Tago contacted both the hospital and the police they had no record of him ever making it to the hospital or knew of his whereabouts.
​“Are the police looking for him?” asked Melanie.

​“Haven’t heard from anyone,” said my father. “Just the phone call with Tago. I’m sure everything will be fine. Could have stayed at a friend’s house. People leave, come back, leave again, and come back again. I really think it will be okay.”

​“Have you tried calling him?”

​“No answer.”

​“It doesn’t make sense. Where could he be?”

​He didn’t answer this question and my first impulse was to pull my phone from my pocket and dial my brother’s number, which I did, to no answer.

​That my father wasn’t more concerned or worried, or hadn’t contacted me immediately didn’t surprise me because the family consistently functioned in a “it will be fine, it is what it is, things have a way of working out” mindset for generations, and things like reflection, introspection, the emotional mining of oneself, was a last resort and rarely, if ever, used, because it was easier to imagine a future where everything worked out rather than sit with the difficult present situation, which I understood, because I was also guilty of thinking this way throughout my entire adult life.

​We didn’t discuss it further. I watched my father hold Julian and in the viewing saw how he, as a father, hand interacted with me, and I felt moved by both the image before me and what I imagined.

​“Before you go,” said my father. “I still need help with the window.”

​Every time I visited home, and Nick and I would share similar stories, my father had a task for us, usually involving lifting furniture, putting loaned construction equipment back in his van, or moving landscaping rocks from one area of the property to the other. Helping my father install a window wouldn’t have bothered me if it wasn’t for the fact that before arriving, while dressing Julian, Melanie had asked, “I wonder what he’ll have you do this time. You always do what he tells you to do.” I hadn’t told her that he had, in fact, asked for my help on installing the window and was the original reason to visit, not Julian. It wasn’t an unkind comment, just accurate, and became even more poignant when I was in fact bending over and preparing to lift the window, my father telling me multiple times to, “life with my legs,” demonstrating by bouncing up and down while crouched and to which I said, “Okay, I’m ready.”

​While lifting what was a ridiculously large window into the empty space of the older window, the two of us struggling for a lengthy time because it wouldn’t fit, I made eye contact through the window and at Melanie sitting on the couch, breastfeeding Julian, giving me a look that said yes, she was right, my family always did this, it was true, she was always right and very smart, and I thought how at a young age my brother and I had helped our father with dozens, if not hundreds, of tasks including building a greenhouse for mother’s plants, stacking rocks into a retaining wall for aesthetic purposes, and to the wonder and awe of our neighbors, installing a skylight with my brother and I unharnessed on the roof, all these details distant memories that I expanded with fantasy, and, while holding the window, I told myself to stop, just be present, look around and absorb.

​After the window was put into place my father had me hold the window so he could run inside and begin installing screws around the perimeter of the frame. Through the window I watched him enter the house, brush his boots on the carpet, jog around the staircase, and before walking the three steps down to where the window sat, where I stood holding the window, he twisted his ankle and fell.

​Because Melanie had Julian she couldn’t do anything but stand up, walk over, and look at my father on the floor, and I couldn’t do anything, even though I felt, for some reason, the window was sturdy enough to sit in the frame by itself unfastened, because I was holding the window, scared that if I left my place the window would fall inward and crush my father. So the three of us – Melanie, Julian, and I – stood watching my father lay crumpled on the floor, holding his ankle, grinning in pain. He said several times, “I’m fine,” before standing on one leg.

​Seeing my father fall triggered a mix of emotions, mainly that I too was growing older, that my balding head, recent move into fatherhood, signaled a certain progress. I’ve always felt, and I think this is the case for other son’s as well, that growing up with a handy-man type of father gave him a sense of invincibility, a super hero like quality. A father as know-all. A father who could fix anything physically so that translated into fixing the future, which wasn’t true at all. So to see him fall, to lose control and experience hurt, was difficult to process. I was also viewing an older version of myself hobbling on one leg while drilling screws into the wood, and looking up, and through the window, viewing Melanie holding my son, a future me who would no doubt one day fall himself in a similar fashion. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to leave as soon as possible.

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​On the drive home I had Melanie call Nick again but still no answer. She asked what I was going to do and I said I wasn’t sure, maybe call Tago and ask her for an update. Melanie said she was worried about me. It caught me off guard, but she stated, with specific examples, how I had recently not been present in our life, including aimlessly walking around the apartment, entering rooms only to stand there, opening the refrigerator dozens of times a day and never grabbing anything, not talking for entire days, and withdrawing completely in social situations, my facial expression comparable to a “computer on standby,” she said. I assured her I hadn’t felt better in years and internally, keeping the words far inside, watching the clouds fill the windshield with a feathery gray, thought how she and the birth of Julian had saved me from a life of fantasy, a life I could never quite grasp because nothing was solid when living inside it. I told her I was aware of my surroundings and not mixing the ideas inside my head with what I was truly seeing. She looked at me, unimpressed. I assured her I was present; that I cherished and understood every moment with her and Julian, and this was the life I wanted to be living.

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​That night I gave Julian a bath for the first time. Melanie had done it every night since his birth, but I wanted to do it now. He was small enough to fit in the sink. I ran a trickle of water onto his stomach and in tiny circles, with just my fingertips, I applied soap to his arms. I couldn’t grasp the fact he could fit in a sink and at the polar opposite imagined my tall and hairy form in the shower, mindlessly moving through another cleaning. But this bath, so simple and innocuous, a task he would never remember, to Julian, was astonishing. He smiled and trembled and we made eye contact.

​Using my thumb, I traced a horizontal line across his chest because I was born with a skeletal defect and I wanted to see if Julian had it but I couldn’t tell. His chest felt even, normal, flat, with a hummingbird heartbeat. I wondered, not for the first time, if Julian looked more like Melanie or more like me, and in this moment, felt one hundred percent positive he looked one hundred percent like Melanie, that, in fact, there was no resemblance of me whatsoever in his face or body, which wasn’t as depressing as it first seemed, that he had inherited her genes, mine too weak to take hold while he formed inside Melanie, that he wouldn’t inherit my body or mind, because it gave me a sense of relief.

​“Son’s become more like their fathers as they grow older,” Frank, my co-worker had told me while we both ate pizza during our lunch break. “If you have a son, just wait and see, it’s something I can’t explain, but they come out looking like girls, and acting like girls, but then they start resembling you, and even, acting like you. Is your father alive?”

​“Yes,” I said.

​“Are you like him?”

​“I am. We cross our legs the same way. We forget things. Sometimes, when I’m just sitting and eating and watching television, I imagine him sitting and eating and watching television in exactly the same way, just in a different setting, ten miles away.”

​“Yeah, that, that’s what I’m talking about,” said Frank.

​“I wonder how many people are eating pizza right now,” I said. “Like, if you removed the walls and windows from all the offices, how many people would look just like us, eating pizza in an office break room.” I said this lightly, and in what I thought was a joking fashion, but Frank answered seriously and in rapid-fire, “A million.”

​The defect: on the left side of my chest, above and near my heart, my chest bone has a slight eruption, a protrusion of bone that is only noticeable from certain angles. Around other children, during the summer, I spent my days with my left forearm glued over my heart. There is no medical name for this from what I can tell, but once, as a child, I sat in a hospital room, at Samaritan Hospital, the last place my mother wanted to be, with two doctors and half a dozen medical students who said it was a, “retardation,” and I remember the crinkle paper under my legs and I remember holding back tears as they took turns touching and measuring the bone between their C shaped fingers. I kept thinking, I’m a retard now, and how if other kids learned this, saw my defect, they would call me a retard forever. One of the doctor’s said they could, “saw it off” and my mother said, “You mean just ground it down?” and the doctor replied, rather meanly, “We aren’t butchers here.”

​After the medical students exited the room, for another patient, in another room, who I could hear vomiting through the wall we shared, the doctor explained how I wasn’t completely retarded, more of a defect in my growth, a kind of partial retardation. This backtracking didn’t help. My mother, defensive, asked if it was her fault, was it a birth defect because she ate sushi once on a date with my father in New York. He said no while grinning, I could tell he was still irritated by the butcher comment, and said that although the defect was seeded in birth, the defect itself grew as I grew into a more adult version of myself, so it wasn’t noticeable at a young age, say three or four, but as a twelve year old my body had undergone enough spurts to form the protrusion and become unavoidable.

​Sitting on the hospital table, I was terrified to learn that as I was growing so too was a non-uniform skeleton. I felt alone, and later that week, during school, one of my friends asked if my heart was too big and I said what, no, why, and he pointed to the bone. It was the first time anyone other than myself standing in different angles before the bathroom mirror, or my mother, or the doctors, had pointed it out, and from then on something changed, a kind of new viewing of myself and how I moved through my life.

​Julian looked perfect in the sink, happy to discover the feeling of water dripping on his belly. I tried not to imagine any fault in his body as a result of what was inside me, and in that thought, I imagined the damages one occurs over a life, both mentally and physically. I imagined how everyone was once a baby with zero fault whatsoever inside them and how over the years life became a series of defects, bumps and zigzags and unfamiliar footing in a world both dream and nightmare. I thought about all the drab faces in an office or public transportation, and as a way of dealing with the images, I imagined everyone as babies riding the 10 bus along Western Ave, to downtown Albany, how each person would be the baby version of themselves, sitting in a narrow seat looking out the window, laughing or crying, not holding anything in, several of the babies attempting, and failing, to eat slices of pizza. I grabbed a towel and carefully lifted Julian from the sink.

§

Before trying to sleep I silenced my phone and in doing so noticed my father was calling. I walked back into the bathroom, closed the door, and answered it. I had left the faucet on, from earlier when bathing Julian, and quickly turned it off. My father told me he had put out wet cat food but Horse hadn’t appeared, that he waited nearly half an hour, calling “here kitty kitty kitty” in what I could hear, there in the bathroom, as a high-pitched motherly tone, but the cat hadn’t responded. He said he had walked inside, drank a glass of milk and ate five cookies, and before bed checked the cat food again to find it empty, but no sign of Horse. He had walked past the food, into the driveway, again calling “here kitty kitty kitty.”

​“What do you want me to do,” I whispered.

​“Why are you whispering,” he said, and in asking, whispered himself.

​“Because, Julian and Melanie are trying to sleep in the back room.”

​“Oh,” he whispered. “Anyways, there’s no Horse, he’s gone missing now too.”

​“Okay,” I whispered. I was watching myself in the mirror, making sure I held the phone at my ear and my mouth, not eye level. I rolled the skin back and forth over my heart bone. I stood facing myself, then sideways, then again facing myself, talking to my father, my son in a room directly two rooms behind the mirror. I watched myself talking on the phone, how my mouth moved, and the way my eyes randomly widened and narrowed depending on what word I said.

​“I wonder if he’s still working on those sky law cases. What a world. Listen, I think you should go down there. Talk to Tago. Get some answers.”

​“Get some answers?”

​“I have a feeling something awful is going to happen.”

​“Okay,” I whispered. “Let me think about it.”

​“Thanks. I’m sure he’s fine.”

​“But how can you say that if you think something awful is going to happen?”

​“Because, I just can.”

​“I can understand that,” I said.

​I would travel to D.C. at the wish of my father to understand what was happening. I thought how ridiculous and unbelievable it was to be alive in the world, and wondered how other people did it, how they woke up and lived each day, what was it like for them? I walked to the sunroom where I peeked in to see Julian, unblemished and clean, wrapped in a red towel, asleep and on top of Melanie who was starring out the window at the stars, her chest, Julian, rising and falling, rising and falling, in a system of life.

—Shane Jones

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Shane Jones is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He has published three novels, two books of poetry, and one novella.  His books include: Light Boxes, The Failure, Six Daniel Fights a Hurricane, Paper Champion and Crystal Eaters. Two of Shane Jones’ novels have been review in Numéro Cinq. Those reviews can be found here and here.

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Oct 092015
 

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“HEY MAREH? — FULL OF GREASE
Lart in yer tea
Blasst artaow munst wimmin
an blasst arfroot ah yur woun
Cheesuss.”

Bertha recites this new prayer kneeling on the linoleum tiled floor beside her brown army style cot, which is lined up with the thirty-nine others in the dormitory. Her skin itches in the stiff nightgown. She feels so small and alone in the big room. No familiar smells of wood smoke or wild peppermint tea. The room smells musty and damp, which makes it so hard to concentrate.

It’s her second year at the residential school, but she has no idea what the words she pronounces mean. She struggles to remember the sounds and intonation of each line. Tomorrow she will have to recite the entire prayer in front of the nuns and all the girls, even the older ones. She doesn’t want everyone to laugh at her as they have at the other girls her age. She glances around. Annie, the slightly older girl who sleeps in the next cot over, is watching her and giggling. Bertha squeezes her eyes shut to ignore her.

Annie could be Bertha’s older sister or first cousin: the same smooth brown complexion and deep brown eyes; the same jet black hair hacked into an inverted rag mop, just grown out a bit. But Annie is different. She smiles a lot and quietly sings to herself in Cree. She has been in St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School for a few years already and speaks English quite well. She and most of the girls in the school, along the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, speak Cree or Nehiyaw.

Annie sees the consternation on Bertha’s face: eyes squeezed shut, forming a slight scowl. She remembers how hard it was to learn the Hail Mary prayer, but she mastered it some time ago and can now recite it by heart. When she recited the prayer earlier that day, in front of a gaggle of gloating nuns, she noticed Bertha watching her in amazement. She also sang a version of God Save the King, and capped it off with the date: “Todayh ‘his ’hwenesdeh sectembur twunee forth nihn-t’in fortih wun.” Bertha, listening in wonder, had no idea what the song meant, let alone that extra string of strange sounds at the end.

Suddenly Bertha feels a warm presence. She opens her eyes. Annie is kneeling directly in front of her. Bertha grasps Annie’s outstretched hands and wraps her tiny fingers and thumb around them to complete the connection. Annie pronounces each line slowly and carefully. Bertha watches her lips intently then repeats after her:

“Hail Mareh, full of grace,
The lort is with thee.
Blesset art thou ‘mongstall wimmen.
And blesset is the fruit of thy womb,
Cheesus.”

*

Bertha is there with her older sister Margaret, her aunties, already in their early teens, and dozens of cousins. Daily she struggles, being away from her mother, her home, and the younger kids. She craves the food her mother, mosom and cucuum feed her: stewed moose ribs, fried whitefish, the marrow of moose thigh bones, thinly sliced deer meat, boiled potatoes and carrots, sweet red willow shoots, and dried or stewed berries. And this evening, just after suppertime ­– kneeling there on the hard floor, the memory of good food makes her especially sad. While the others ate solid food, she nibbled stale bread and washed it down with a glass of water. She knows that Margaret will have done the same.

Early that morning, ­just before breakfast, were caught again – talking Cree. Bertha had found herself alone, one on one, with Margaret and so she whispered to her fervently for a few stolen moments. They huddled to one side of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which sat on a large pedestal at the end of the main hallway.

Ninohte Nigawi, ninohte Nigawi” Bertha mumbled over and over, squinting to hold back tears. Margaret cooed as she ran her fingers through Bertha’s hair, then gently wiped away a single tear.  

“N’sims ­ Mahti poni mahto.      

Mahti poni mahto ­ n’sims.

Kiyam.”

Suddenly, they heard footsteps and a swoosh. Bertha shuddered, clenched her jaw and her hands trembled. Her eyes moved up to the black robe and cape, then to the small pink-and-white face­ – the forehead completely covered by a white stiff strip attached to an oval frame. Black hood. Bertha’s terrified gaze stayed on the headscarf for a moment. Was there hair under there? So many times the older girls had debated this ­–­ some saying, “Well, of course they have hair, they’re human you know,” and others saying, “They hate hair – look what they done to ours. They probably shave their heads.” Sister Pierrette bent down low, and Bertha watched with fascination the shiny metal cross dangling at mid-chest, as if by magic.

Both girls recognized Sister Pierrette’s unique smell ­– unwashed hair and the ripened but clean sweat accumulated in her robes. They jerked their heads back as they felt her sour breath on their tiny round faces, gaping at her bushy eyebrows and faint black moustache.

“Pahagat-h’own” Sister Pierrette said in lilting Cree. “Speak hinglish! Come into de classroom.  h’Astum. Qwee- ah-hoh! Come here! Vite! hurry!” She used her unique blend of Cree, French and broken English. ”Sister Marguerite! Viens icitte – Dese two sauvages were speaking dair language h’again. What do you tink we should do wit dem. De terd time dis week ­ qu’est-ce qu’on fait d’elles, donc?”

The girls looked down the hallway in horror. Another dark figure moved in their direction: Sister Marguerite. This nun never smiled, and her face looked as though it was on fire: bright red with white, scaly patches. She strained to rush over, but her arms shuffled awkwardly in the heavy robes so that she seemed to float across the floor –­ a surreal black-and-white mannequin. It was hard for Bertha not to stare; Sister Marguerite’s nose seemed to stick out even farther today.

She carried the smell that some of the nuns had at certain times of the month ­– a smell the girls had never noticed at home, though today her odor was partially masked by incense fumes from morning mass. Her gaze was gentler than that of Sister Pierrette. She hustled Bertha and Margaret into the empty classroom nearby, then sighed.

“Ah – pas encore les filles! Not h’again girls! You have ta learn les filles. Here — no Cree – Hing’lish h’onlee!”

“Well h’it his dee terd time tis week Sister Maguerite I hear ‘dis!” Sister Pierrette growls. “I tink dey should wear der mocasiiin roun der neck fer two day! Dat will teach d’em!”

“Oui oui – mais aussi – du pain sec and h’water h’only for two day, non?

So, as the nuns watched, Margaret and Bertha took off their moccasins, tied them together and hung them around their neck. All day they walked barefoot on the cold floors of the classrooms, dorm, dining room and chapel. When lunch and supper were served they went to their beds, where Sister Pierrette had left them each one glass of water and a plate of dry crusts.

Now, one last time Bertha repeats after Annie, Blesst is the fruit of thy womb, Cheesus, with a convincing ah-min. Then she climbs into her bed. But in the night she tiptoes past four cots to Margaret’s bed, gets in and cuddles close. At home she usually slept with her mother, her older sisters, an auntie or a cuucum; until this school, she had never slept alone. Slowly, she calms with her sister’s warmth and delicate fragrance. She tries hard not to fall asleep, knowing she has get back to her own bed before morning.

*

“Nigawiy, Nigawiiiiiy! NiMamaaaa! Namoya! Moyaaaa!” Bertha cried this out as soon as she had understood that the strange men at the door had come for her, as they had for Margaret two years earlier. Her mother had always been affectionate, gentle, and attentive ­ but now she turned her back on Bertha.

Wiyawiii Ndans,” her mother commanded. She waved her arm high, motioning Bertha to leave the large canvas tent. Usually her mother only did this when she was fed up with the racket and wanted the kids to go play. Bertha had wondered why some of her clothes had been packed into a cardboard box, which had sat by the door for two days.

“Waaaaaaa namoya…. Nigawiy!” Bertha’s piercing voice.

The boat ride down the river was fast – the white poplars and jack pines a blur. Then the car ride over a dusty and rough dirt road. She sat in the back seat sobbing, her head cradled in her hands – ­elbows resting on her knees. The actual physical distance was only thirty miles, but Bertha was transported into another world.

They arrived at the three-storey red-brick building. It looked enormous to Bertha, who had only seen their summer tent houses and the white-washed log cabins where they lived for the winter months. She saw the grassy meadow that led down to the reedy bay of the lake. Bertha fixed her gaze on the bay that seemed to go on forever.

Everything was a blur. It all had happened so fast, yet she herself seemed to be moving in slow motion. The group of new girls was lined up. They gazed at the floor, only glancing up as each girl moved to the front of the line to have her braids cut off.

Bertha glanced around furtively whenever she dared, trying to spot Margaret and her aunties Helen, Mable and Eva. She didn’t see them. Her eyes became fixated on that mound of charcoal black braids on the floor around the chair. One nun, her face strangely framed with stiff white canvas, held each girl by the arms and placed her onto the chair. Another nun, shorter but dressed identically, chopped off the braids just below the ears with large stainless steel scissors. It took just four or five rapid and forceful snips. Strange looking girls got up from the chair, hair cut even, flat all around ­ straight bangs that stopped inches above their eyebrows, puffy eyes – ­faces stunned with shock.

Next, the assembly line led them to a giant white enamel basin.

Each girl in turn stood in the bath tub, while two nuns scoured her body with a scrubbing brush designed to scour wooden floors. Hair was shampooed with a liquid that smelled like diesel and then dried vigorously with a white towel that smelled of bleach. The last nun forced flour-sack dresses over their heads.

*

Bertha awakes in a panic but is confused about why. First she rubs her belly to sooth the aching emptiness, then gasps as she realizes she’s still in Margaret’s bed. She tiptoes back to her bed, climbs in, covering herself with the thin sheet and scratchy wool blanket. She feels dazed, but her thoughts are clear. She knows her nigawiy and her mosom would never let her go hungry – ­ not her nor any child. In their home, the little ones ­– awasisuk ­ always ate first, savoring delicacies as the adults looked on. Without even thinking about it, she knows what she has to do. She will find a way to talk to Aunty Helen, their mother’s second youngest sister,­ to ask for guidance and help.

Mid-morning, when Bertha and Margaret muster with the other girls to do their gardening chores, they spot Helen in the doorway. Even in the peculiar school uniform, she is beautiful – with her stunning smooth dark complexion, deep-set eyes and confident gaze.

Bertha coughs to get Helen’s attention.

“Mar – gret.” Helen calls, glaring at the two girls. “Put on your moccasins ‘fore you go outside! Why ya wear dem aroun your neck hanaways?”

Margaret glances around to see if there are any nuns close by. Oh, no. There is the unmistakable tall silhouette, just behind Helen. By lifting her chin slightly and protruding her lips, Bertha points behind Helen. Helen goes silent and lifts her hand to her forehead as if to make the sign of the cross. The nun strides past them and down the hallway without saying a word. All three girls sigh.

“Nuns heard us talking Cree,” Bertha whispers intensely.

Mahsosquats.”

“Tey make us do dis.” She touches the leather strand around her neck. “An jus’ eat papwesagun –­ drink nipiy.” Her bottom lip is sticking out, trembling ­–­ her face is screwed up.

Whuh waah! Sos-quats!” Helen’s face turns red as her breathing becomes audible.

Then they catch the flash of a metal crucifix against a black robe, see the black headscarf and white frame. It is Sister Marie-Ange, who works with the older girls. More than once the girls have seen her crying in the chapel ­alone, after the evening prayers. Bertha and Margaret do a volte-face, brush past a cluster of girls then dart in opposite directions.

Helen watches the two little pairs of bare feet shuffle down the hallway. Fury flashes from her eyes in the direction of the nun.

Wah waw! They’re doing it again. Punishing kids jus’ for talkin Cree! Sosquats! Damn!”

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That afternoon, alone in the chapel, Helen gazes at the statue of the Virgin Mary that she finds so intriguing. The nuns don’t know, but she has hidden a medicine bundle her mother gave her inside the hollow of the statue. Now she never feels sad when she kneels in front of it, and prays to it for hours on end, repeating endlessly the Hail Mary prayer.

She walks over to the statue and reaches inside. Yes, the amulet is still there. She picks it up and caresses its rough leather surface. Its smoky aroma reminds her of home.

 I’ve had enough. She thinks. It’s one thing what they done to me and my sisters, but now they’re picking on the younger ones.

She remembers the time that Sister Pierrette slapped her because she choked on her supper, eating dry porridge for the third time in one day. She recalls being caught speaking Cree to her sister Mable. They locked her in a musty dark closet in the basement. For two days she sat on a thin mattress placed on the cement floor, hearing only the shuffle of feet above her. Cold mush, dry bread and water. She was ten then.

But what infuriates her most is the recollection of waking to feel hands moving over her body, first along her thighs, then up to her chest, then to the spot that the nuns had taught the girls they themselves were never supposed to touch. She knew the huddled figure by the bed was Sister Pierrette, recognized her smell. Every time it happened Helen lay awake for the rest of the night, overcome with anguish and shame.

Helen startles at footsteps just outside the chapel. She recognizes the cadence of the steps. Bolting upright she rushes to the door, coming face to face with Sister Pierrette.

“Hay–layn. I want talk wit you. Astum, come, let’s go back into la chapelle, ma chère.

As Pierrette steps in close, Helen instinctively jerks away. Her mouth is suddenly parched. She stumbles backwards, almost falls. Pierrette slides past and stands in the aisle, turning her back to the dramatic crucifix suspended behind the altar. Helen swallows hard then steps back into the chapel. Her gaze crosses to the statue of the Virgin Mary. She catches her breath, breathes in deeply and stands up straight, confused for a moment by the calm coming over her – a soothing balm on her forehead. She hears her mosom’s drum: boom BOOM    boom BOOM   boom BOOM   boom BOOM. Or is it her own heartbeat pounding in her head? Then she sees them.

First her cucuum, ­then her mosom, and their parents too. Then her aunties and uncles who have moved on into the spirit world. They’re all there around her, filling the entire space of the chapel. She’s overwhelmed and trembling, but suddenly strong. She takes a deep breath then steps forward, putting her face close to Pierrette’s.

“Yeah, I wanna talk ta you too!” She says in her strong alto voice. Her gaze is solid now, ­ unwavering. “What you doin’ to Bertha and Margaret? They’re goin’ aroun’ barefoot and not eatin’ in the dinin’ room for two days!”

“C’est pas de tes affaires! Not your bizness Hay-layn.

Scanak! I’m their auntie; they’re my relations! Did you hit them too?”

“Arrete! Pahagatone – shut h’up now or you go to downstair. Mayhbe for h’a long time!

Helen moves yet one inch closer, toe to toe with Pierrette. “You send me down there again, and I will tell what you done to me at night! I will tell ­ everythin’!”

The white frame around Pierrette’s face is now a stark contrast with her crimson cheeks and purple lips. The putrid odor of her breath has intensified, or is it just that she’s breathing so much harder now? She has clenched her fists and Helen girds herself for a blow. Instead, Pierrette beams her hatred through her beady blue eyes. Is she trying to instill irrevocable terror in Helen’s soul? She exhales forcefully –­ spraying Helen’s face with droplets of saliva, then turns and stomps out of the chapel.

As soon as she is gone, Helen goes quickly to the front pew, where she kneels, drinking in the presence of her ancestors. She gazes at the special statue and whispers hay-hay ­ hay-hay over and over until the pounding in her head stops. As her breathing slows – as she gazes at the virgin Mary, a plan takes shape in her mind – all on its own.

*

Helen has successfully organized a few secret sessions with the older girls over the last few months, discussing how they can help each other. So she knows the nuns’ schedules and behavior patterns. And the girls trust her. Many are first, second or third cousins. Even the girls who aren’t related come to these secret meetings, in order to help each other to survive. Every single one of the girls has had a sister, a brother, or a cousin who hasn’t survived. Each month a few more die.

Early one morning Helen had managed to sneak a glance at the class register to look at the name of a cousin who was missing. What she saw confirmed the rumors:

Name:   Mary Gladue   Date of Birth:   May 9th, 1927   Attendance:   Absent

Reason:   Dead — ­TB

She had scrolled down the page frantically – the word dead was printed beside the names of others who were missing. TB was written by two others, but for most, no reason was given.

 .

Over the next two days, with Helen leading, the girls have urgent Cree conversations in different hiding places: Friday afternoon in the laundry room in the basement. Saturday morning outside behind the chapel, while pretending to play frozen tag.

Helen knows she has to be cunning as a vixen. There are cliques in the group of older girls. Some of the nuns have even groomed a few girls to be their stool pigeons and spies. The nuns’ brain-washing about the wickedness of being Indian, speaking Cree, and of using their Indian medicine in heathen ceremonies worked on these girls. They got special privileges, candy and open affection from the nuns.

The plan is hatched. They’ll strike Sunday afternoon. This is when most of the nuns leave the school grounds and only two are on duty.

 .

Sunday morning arrives. Helen, Bertha, Agnes, Margaret, Annie and the other girls walk to the church for the eleven o’clock mass. At the entrance they each dip their right hand into the holy water and make the sign of the cross. They genuflect to the crucifix behind the altar. They stand, sit, kneel, then stand, sit, kneel again ­ at all the right times.

The priest’s calls, “Dominus vobiscum.” In perfect unison and on cue they utter the response, “Et cum spiritu tuo.”

They line up for communion as usual, ­ kneeling before the priest, closing their eyes and sticking out their tongues, so he can place the sterile white host on it.

Corpus Christi.”

The girls glance at Helen, confused about whether they should swallow it, today of all days – afraid they might choke. They pucker – the dry host sticks to the roof of their mouths; they let it disintegrate there.

During the final procession, from the altar to the exit, the sweet and pungent odor of burning incense reminds them of sweetgrass and sage.

 .

Now Helen and Agnes hasten from the church to the schoolhouse. They conceal themselves on opposite sides inside the doorway ­ pressing up against the wall so they can’t be seen. Helen glances at the crucifix above the door – the near naked man on the cross with the crown of thorns. Is he on their side, or will he help the ‘Sisters’ who wear his gold ring and claim to be his brides?

When she closes her eyes, her heart thumping, an image of the Virgin Mary appears in her head, just above the center point of her eyes. Mary is so clear, a lovely serene face cloaked in an emerald green mantle, but the face Helen sees has a deep brown complexion with beautiful prominent cheekbones. Her almond shaped brown eyes project pure love.

She thinks about genuflecting, or making the sign of the cross. But this Mary – her cucuum, her mother, her aunty, her sister – doesn’t require that.

Girls are trooping past them into the school. Helen peers outside through the open door. White aspen trees line the road away from Buffalo Bay and Grouard, their delicate leaves dancing with excitement. So many times she has longed to wander into the forest to greet her little animal friends and commune with them once more. She longs to stroll to the lakeshore ­– wade in slowly to wash away her fear and torment, and then hurry home.

Helen’s heart begins to thunder again. If this doesn’t work, she, her sisters, and all her cousins will suffer. Punishment will be swift and severe. The fiery images the nuns show them everyday flash through her mind ­– tortured faces burning in the lake of fire while the devil hovers above with his spiked trident in hand ­ peering down with sadistic glee. She glances over at Agnes, positive that she must be having similar thoughts.

Agnes’ flushed face is a stone sculpture. Her breathing short and fast. Her eyes dart around the entrance. She looks astonished that they are actually going through with the plan. But when Helen catches her eye, she smiles. By night time, if all goes well, they could be home, in their own beds.

That’s it. The last girl is in ­ Mable is always the last. They hold their breath ­ then hear the familiar cadence of the Sisters’ footsteps on the school stairs. They meet eyes. Helen nods. Agnes nods in reply.

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What unfolds next is so accelerated it will forever be a blur in the girls’ minds. And the sequence of events will differ each time Bertha, Helen, Margaret or Agnes tells the story. Each of them will emphasize some points and leave out others. But Bertha’s version – my mother’s version – is the one I know best, and I believe it is a consolidation of the others’ stories, as well as being her own. She will repeat the story over and over, telling it to me more or less as it appears below.

 .

Helen jumps in front of Sister Marguerite, thrusting her hands against the sister’s chest with all her strength. Sister Marguerite struggles to stay on her feet, shuffles forward, back, and then tumbles down the stairs. She lies at the bottom, stunned red face framed by her displaced white headscarf. Then Agnes shoves Sister Pierrette with all her might. Pierrette falls backwards too ­– sliding head first to the bottom. Helen scurries down and pounces onto Marguerite’s stomach, while Agnes, with lightening speed, imitates Helen –­ landing hard on Pierrette’s stomach, taking her breath away.

Sister Marguerite screams, “Au secours… au secours! Girls please help us!”

 .

Bertha stands in the doorway, trembling – Annie by her side. The sun is shining; the songbirds sing in full force. A cool breeze makes the delicate leaves on the poplar trees dance more fervently than ever. The nuns are crying for help but she doesn’t go. Instead, she looks over to her big sister Margaret. As though giving a signal, Margaret removes her moccasins from around her neck and slips into them. With her lips, she motions towards Bertha’s moccasins. Bertha slips hers on, hands shaking as she struggles to fasten the leather laces.

A cluster of the girls now stand in the doorway. “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. Pagamahow. Pagamahow.” They have witnessed many fights, mostly between boys or men, but also between their aunts and female cousins. Now, even the crows caw loudly.

Margaret leads Bertha down the stairs to the front of the crowd, where they see Helen straddled across Sister Marguerite’s chest. The starchy headscarf is off, and Helen is grasping the nun’s hair. Bertha sighs at the sight of it: it’s just like Cucuum’s hair – thick, shoulder-length and wavy, coal black with white strands.

Helen lifts and pounds Sister Marguerite’s head on the cement as hard as she can. A small stream of blood flows from Sister Marguerite’s nose down to the base of her neck. If Helen had been a man, Bertha thought, Sister Marguerite would be dead. She rolls onto her side, covering her head with her hands, her brass crucifix now on the grass beside her, upside down ­– her black rosary tangled in knots beside it.

Bertha watches – breathless as Agnes copies the pounding Helen is delivering. She hears the nuns moaning and muttering incomprehensible words. It seems that a blinding fury has come over Agnes too.

Bertha has to act. If you hurt someone for any reason, by hitting, teasing, or tormenting them – it will come back on you. Seven times worse her cucum had told her. And killing, the nuns had taught her, is a mortal sin. You’ll burn in hell.

“Astum. Come on. Semak – NOW.” Margaret shouts. “Kwee ah hu’! Hurry! Before the others get back.” But Bertha rushes over to Agnes, grasps her wrists to wrestle them away from Pierrette’s head. Blood from Agnes’s hands smears onto Bertha’s.

“Agnessss… EKOSI… astum! Come on ­ kwee ah hu!”

“Run! Run! Go! Go! Kiwek ­ go home! Now ­ hurry! Kwee ah hu!” Helen yells. “We’ll catch up.”

Bertha and Margaret flee ­–­ running towards the welcoming birds and poplar trees that will guide them home.

 .

Scanak! Mean bitss.” Helen rams Sister Marguerite’s head onto the ground. “Mean. Mean. Why you so mean to us?” She is yelling and pleading, both at the same time, then stops – breathless. Agnes is plucking at the back of Helen’s uniform with bloody hands.

Ekosi maga! Let’s go Helen. C’mon. Astum.”

Helen jumps up, feeling the wetness on the back of her blouse. Then she, Agnes, Mable and their nieces take off running, screaming, “Mamaskatch! We’re free!

Bertha hears their voices in the distance and yells back a response: “Tapwe! Mamskatch. MAMASKATCH!”

The last time Bertha – my mother, told me this story, it was in the wee hours. As she came to the end, she opened her eyes wide. Her face reddened and her breathing seemed to stop altogether. “You know what was a miracle, Son? They never came for us – never took us back.” Then she looked down at the floor and I felt her withdraw into her own world.

*

Bertha, Margaret and their aunts managed to make it home late in the evening the day they escaped from St. Bernard’s. Their sister Agnes wasn’t with them. She had been convinced that it was just a matter of time before the  police would round them up. As they were walking she reminded her sisters and aunts what happened to students who left and were taken back. Convinced she would die if she went back, she continued walking to the junction of the highway to Edmonton and hitchhiked as far as she could go – to land’s end – the Pacific Ocean.

For weeks Bertha slept in her mother’s bed. Her mother even had to take her into the bushes or outhouse to pee. Margaret was more independent but she didn’t go far on her own either. Whenever a policeman or stranger in a uniform or suit showed up – the girls would hide and not come out until they were called by name. Bertha’s mother registered the two sisters for regular school in Slave Lake. They attended for one year – but the daily trip by dogsled became too much. Bertha taught herself and Margaret to read, write and do arithmetic.

Word spread quickly about the escape. A rumor circulated that the nuns were scared of Bertha’s teen-aged aunts and had them expelled. And there had been so many deaths at the school that local police stopped responding to the church’s requests to arrest and return children.

With the exception of Bertha, the girls married young and raised healthy families. Margaret had eighteen children. Agnes married a fisherman on the coast, worked her whole life in a cannery, and raised one son who became a prominent surgeon.

For some reason, perhaps a series of tragic deaths of her most beloved in rapid succession – compounded with childhood separation from her mother and untold abuse at the hands of nuns and priests, Bertha fell apart in her early thirties – became a chronic alcoholic and abandoned her seven children.

—Darrel McLeod

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Darrel J. McLeod’s life began in his great-grandfather’s trapping cabin in northern Alberta. His birth language is Cree. He has been an educator, chief negotiator of land claims, senior administrator, and first nations’ delegate to the UN. He lives by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Sooke, B.C., in a modern replica of his Mosom’s trapping cabin where he writes, plays music, cooks, and gardens. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” is his first published story.

Oct 072015
 

Greg Mulcahy

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Crowbar

IT WAS NOT exactly a crowbar.

It was one of those short, flat implements called a wrecking bar.

This was in the parking ramp.

The guy wielding the bar looked like he could barely hang onto it, and when he half-charged, he stumbled and had a hard time catching his balance.

Singer had a chromed .25, cheap, from his youth, more an idea or sentiment than credible weapon, but Singer was glad to have it. Singer pulled it aggressively and yelled some obscenity-laced threats Singer had probably heard in a movie.

The guy dropped the bar and half-stumbled, half-ran away.

Singer thought about taking the bar—perfectly useful wrecking bar—but thought who knew what blood or DNA might be on the thing.

Parking garage.

All because Singer had a doctors appointment because Singer had a weak, ongoing pain in his back.

And what to make of an inept, incomplete, random half-attack?

Potentially harmful, yes, but more weird than threatening and perhaps, with time passed, comical.

As Singer hoped this visit would prove, for Singer had two theories. One was this pain was the result of Singer’s being issued a new, cheap, uncomfortable desk chair at work. The other was the pain was the harbinger of the lethal condition that would end Singer.

At Singer’s age, a man could not be sure.

At Singer’s age, a man had to inquire. Or, at least, consider.

At work, Singer leaned back in that cheap chair and stared out the window at the road behind the loading dock and the dumpsters and the little copse of wintry woods around the marsh across from the loading dock. He always hoped to see a deer in that copse but knew he was more likely to see a rat in or near the dumpsters.

Singer went in and registered and waited and was measured, weighed, blood-pressure-tested, and left in an exam room.

When the pain started, Singer could not say.

The doctor came in.

They recognized each other.

That in parking, the doctor said. I thought you were someone else.

Who, Singer said.

It’s a whole, the doctor said, domestic thing. Terroristic threats. It’s all over the place.

So?

So don’t ask. This back thing, what is it?

That’s what I need to know, Singer said.

The doctor wrote out a prescription and gave Singer a sample packet of pills.

Take these, the doctor said. Then take more of them.

What’s this about paralysis in the warning, Singer said. Face in pithy rictus?

I think you mean penny rictus, the doctor said. That parking thing, I have to apologize. I have a chemical imbalance.

Forget it, Singer said. He put the sample and prescription in his pocket.

These questions, the doctor said, forbidden you. Who’s supposed to ask? How about decades ago when the woman said to me, do you want to go to the car wash? And I had no idea.

No idea at all, the doctor said.

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Generation

HE WAS THE CAUSE, she said.

He was not.

He was exhausted by causation.

What did she think, there was a chain of being?

If he was a link in it, then so was she.

Funny that hadn’t come up.

As though, as if, like that time there was the problem and that piece of sheetrock broke.

Hole in the wall literally.

Life in the drywall generation.

Unable, it seemed, to clear that gypsum from their nostrils.

He remembered. Did she?

As though he might avoid the shiver and fall of history upon him.

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Title

HE DID NOT know why the event was titled “Defeating the Power of Thought.” He wanted to get into a different session, maybe something on using a smart stylus, but everything else was full. This one seemed not to have anything to do with thought. Not that he was interested in thought, but wasn’t a title supposed to say something about what the thing was or to represent the thing in a clear, understandable way?

This thing seemed to be about the modular life of the future. People would live in modular dwellings and work at modular employment at modular work sites.

Unclear as to why this was the future, but with the future, how could anyone even tell? The future was not something one could be sure about.

The end, maybe.

The end, yes.

But the future? No.

He looked at his partner.

Is it time, now, he said.

It is time now, she said.

—Greg Mulcahy

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Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.

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Oct 012015
 

Noy

Bird

To accompany our interview with author Noy Holland, we’re pleased to feature a brief excerpt from her novel, Bird, which comes out in November 2015. This section takes place very early in the narrative, and contains the first conversation between Bird, Holland’s protagonist, and Suzie, Bird’s best friend who exists throughout the novel as a voice on the telephone. 

— Benjamin Woodard

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T

HE DAY BEGINS. NOTHING WILL STOP IT.

The phone rings in the dark. Word finds its way along—no matter how far out you live, no matter what you say.

For years now, Bird has said it, for all the years since she has seen Mickey, all the things she has thought to say. “I wish you’d stop,” Bird says.

But this is Suzie. Newsy Suzie. Her voice high and bright, “It’s me.”

“Me too,” Bird says. “I was sleeping. You have no fucking clue.”

What Suzie has is the next word on Mickey. She has a new name to give Bird. She has had the names down the years, a trade sometimes. Beatrice. Once a dancer, Brigitte, a girl who painted. Rosemarie. Country girls, exotics. Clara, Angelina, Racine.

“That’s enough,” Bird tells her.

“Oh it isn’t. I keep you posted. Early girl news. He moved.”

Moved, moved again. He thought to marry. He’d marry another, think of that, just as Bird had.

“He’ll never marry,” Suzie says, “he’s like me. She would have to swear to die in three months’ time of an incommunicable disease. I don’t care who—Racquel, Ruby Lou, Victorine. He’s like me.”

Suzie lives among the samplings. The saplings, and the fathery men. Men and boys and girls. Ship to shore; hand to mouth; bed to bed. Not for her: the leaky tit, the pilly slipper. The dread of the phone that rings in the dark: It’s your turn next to suffer.

“You hear nothing,” Suzie claims, “you can’t stand to, not a whiff of the world, a radio show. You cringe at the least of the news.”

Which is true. And the rest of what Suzie says? This much is true, too—that the feeling is forever gone from Bird, god willing: of disappearing, of ever again being alone. Lonely doll. “Remember,” Suzie insists, “the sentence you get to finish? The dream you’re not wrangled from?”

The next first kiss to fall into.

“The old looseness, come on, you must miss it. You miss it. Your brain makes a drug to subdue you is all. Look, I see it. Suzie sees it. Those babies are everywhere at you, needing anything they find. Your every living tissue, sugar, is pressed into service—gone.”

Bird makes her slow laps as she listens—kitchen, wood- stove, dripping milk, her shirtfront sopped, stewed in sour juices. She holds the phone out away from her ear: Suzie’s on a tear. It’s a club, Suzie claims, and she’s not in it, thanks. No, no thank you, honest, she’s not signing up to stew. Talky, stewy mother-club, virtuous, how little sleep and still she— look at her!—still she’s cheerful. Seems to be, look at her, cheerful. Or maybe she’s just smug, Suzie says. Clubby, you know, needed, every last speck of the day. Mama near. Little wife. A little respite comes, a little breath: nobody needs her! But she can’t quite believe it, or let herself step outside.

“When’s the last you stepped outside?” Suzie asks.

Or: “When’d you last look at your backside? That’s the flapping you feel when you walk, sugar. You need to walk, sugar. You need to move.”

*

He moved to France. Moved to pecan country.

Wise boy, getting out, flee the season. Winter coming on.

Oh I could help, Bird thinks, at least she thought it then. Pecan country. Pecans, best little nut. She could toss her smelly boots out, toss her stinking hat. Lie among the trees, among the shadows. She would like that. Watch the tough nuts fall.

She thinks of a boy in Kansas hung up on a swing, cripple boy, a boy they saw once, a little rope swing, a log on a rope, among the shadows. Among the signs. She and Mickey drove a Drive Away out, setting out from Brooklyn, dark, when the stars lined up how they sometimes do and anything you look at, everything’s a sign. SLEEP SLEEP SLEEP, the sign says. It says, Move while you still can.

The dog was dead, the ragtop towed. The up-neigh-bors tub had fallen through. A rat sprung a trap and came at them, hissing, its haunches caught, dragging the thing down the hall. Glory days. Dirty dark-bar days. A mouse ran up Bird’s sleeve and nipped her.

Her mother came to her in dreams. She was dead but in dreams, she lived.

I smell fire, she said, your toilet froze. I made you my nice kitten soup.

Her mother set a bowl down before Bird. The kittens simmered there, plump, unfurred—her mother always plucked them first, their bodies small as peas.

Her mother sang: the tune of the plastic shopping bag the wind had hung from a tree. Old winter wind. Old mother dead. Mickey slept and slept. Bird carried his child, tiny yet; they called it Caroline, little Caroline, which had been her mother’s name.

— Noy Holland

Copyright © 2015 by Noy Holland from Bird. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.

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Noy Holland is the author of three story collections, Swim for the Little One FirstWhat Begins with Bird, and The Spectacle of the Body. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches writing in the graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Sep 122015
 

Jeff Bursey

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SWAYING AND STAGGERING against their companions, the commuters grimly pretended that each was the sole occupant of the subway as it careened over the Northern Line tracks taking hairpin turns without slowing, scraping its sides continually and leaving small fires in its wake, fires which died after briefly lighting up the darkness of the long tunnels beneath London. While even in this miserable winter the occasional tourist’s face could be seen, at this hour the tube was crowded with workers heading home. There were labourers too, sweaty and grime-faced, adding to the stink of the close atmosphere produced by the unwashed and uncared for bodies of most of the train’s inhabitants. Bill regarded them all with disgust from his corner near the doors while waiting to arrive at King’s Cross where he could extricate himself from this sulphureous mass. He hated subways at this hour, and the only thing that took his mind off the stench while being crushed against structural pipes or the Plexiglas was to survey his fellow passengers.

In the midst of a stop a familiar couple got on, a man of about forty, neither worker nor executive. Somebody with money by his clothes, and his wife, who was wrapped in a warm coat that reached to her ankles. In her hand as always she held the white cane that at another time of day might have elicited sympathy but on this train simply reduced her to an easy mark for pickpockets. Bill had seen pickpockets nosing their way around her before, but her husband commonly got in their way. He may see her robbed yet, because her husband didn’t always pay as close attention to her as he could have.

Seeing the woman, whose husband he’d heard addressing as Edna, he tried to imagine what it was like to be blind, to be led around or always tapping a stick wherever you went. Wouldn’t be so bad not to see these faces every day, mine too. Only last week on a less crowded train he’d been reading a magazine when he overheard two black girls talking as they moved to stand in the middle of the car holding on to the suspended handles. One of them said, in not so quiet a voice as she may have wanted, “Let’s not stand next to him, he’s ugly.” He had looked over the top of his magazine to see her, his features as unperturbed as if she hadn’t spoken at all. The girl was looking at him, perhaps aware of the loudness of her voice, but as Bill didn’t show he had heard, her face wanting to broaden with a smile at what she’d gotten away with, she turned and laughed, relieved, with her friend. Inside he simmered with rage that a complete stranger should think he was ugly and say so out loud where everyone heard her. It wasn’t that he thought himself handsome. He figured he looked as appealing as anybody who had just spent eight hours in a warehouse. His clothes were stained with dirt, his sneakers were torn up and his pants were grimy. As for his face and hair, well, they couldn’t be helped. He had learned to live with them. Undoubtedly there was a bit of dust on him that he had missed when cleaning up hurriedly in order to catch the damn train, but he didn’t think some stupid girl—what is she, sixteen?—was allowed to say that he was ugly out loud. She’s no prizewinner herself, thin, scrawny, with thighs about the size around of my wrist. Jesus, talk about me, but I don’t say anything out loud, do I? And I didn’t cause any fuss.

Thinking about that again made him angry so he went back to looking at the blind lady. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the shades, her eyeballs must roll around like marbles, but the rest of her face wasn’t bad, a bit sallow, but then that’s English beauty for you, topped with short, light-brown hair. Her face had nice bones though, and the wrinkles weren’t too pronounced. Her figure he’d only seen once and it seemed okay, smaller breasts than usual for here and that was good, not bad legs. Her face when she laughed was pleasant, and her husband was always talking to her, reading the poems off the displays and just keeping her amused, yet lately his eyes strayed to another person who got pushed on the train by the crowd that waited impatiently at one particular stop along the –

His thoughts were disrupted by a familiar jolt that struck everyone by surprise nonetheless, causing a woman’s scream to burst out from the middle of the car and end in an embarrassing silence. Men cursed softly after that pause, and the metronomic beat of the complaints that invariably began after a wrenched “God!” from someone built steadily to presto fortissimo before subsiding into an uneven scattering of whining notes until even these sotto voce remarks died off leaving a quiet interlude, broken eventually by a squeak like a violin peg tightening a flat string, then the entire orchestra tuned up, slowly, and the train once again moved, the solo note from the violin taken up as a theme, hurriedly and with reckless brio, as if by musicians not willing to play one minute more than the scheduled time of a musical’s closing bars, anxious as they are to pack their instruments away before joining their friends for drinks after the performance.

These interruptions in the ride were as normal as the husband’s growing attraction to a quite beautiful girl, naturally red-haired, who used little makeup, unlike most women here. She had a tight, automatic smile, the one anybody in a large city comes to possess, and long legs enticingly wrapped today in black silk stockings with encrustations of bold silver sequins above shapely ankles. She wore a bright jacket, a blouse and short skirt that matched her perfectly, and around her neck was a gaily-coloured scarf. In the last few weeks of London’s foggy, wet winter she was dressed in pleasant, cheerful clothes as if for summer, and Bill’s mood lifted momentarily at the sight of her. He hungered for another sight of her cleavage, for he had once seen her black brassiere against her pale skin and it had scored a mark on his memory. He also realized that the husband, whose name he heard for the first time this particular day, when his wife, alarmed at a long silence on his part, called out “Eric? What?” then became flustered as her voice sounded so loud in her own ears, while her husband had been looking as the young girl adjusted her skirt squashed in a press of people surging onto the train, had been eyeing her closely but arrested his interest, swung round to his wife, looking as he did so directly into Bill’s eyes with a smug and slightly scornful proprietary look, murmuring reassurances in her ear, calming her down.

Over the course of the next weeks the husband generally paid better attention to his wife when the attractive girl was not present, as far as Bill could tell, for they were not always together on the car, and many days would pass before Bill saw either the couple or the girl, so that he received a series of pictures that seemed to jump in time when the four were on the same car together. He was conscious, once again, of the habits of the British, who would often choose the same car when going to and coming from work. When the girl wasn’t present Eric would release acerbic remarks on current events and other people who had just left the train, or else told stories he made up for her, describing an individual who had left the subway and musing about the private life this or that one might lead. His wife was constantly amused by him, yet desperation showed in her laugh. Not hysteria or anything crazy, more like loneliness, and in Bill’s mind her blindness accounted for that. She talked often about their domestic affairs, and over the usually meek voices on the train he could hear them discussing the redecorating of their home, a visit to this or that opera, a dinner engagement with close friends, never a word about children. Perhaps they had been married too late, though he looked older than her, in his forties, she probably in her mid-thirties, though an initial view of her face might make one think, like Bill had on first seeing her, that she was the older of the two.

When the girl was on the train Eric paid a great deal of time in answering Edna’s questions after asking her to repeat them above the sound of the train, responding when the noise of a sharp turn began to mount. Amid the clanging of train on track he would begin his response, the frustration of only partially hearing his reply reducing her to silence for the rest of the journey. His interest more obviously attached itself to the girl, particularly as his wife accepted that conversation had gradually become impossible on such a noisy car and increasingly received no more than terse comments from her husband.

One day Bill had located himself quite close to the couple, behind them in fact, and could smell the faint scent of their intermingled colognes. He came upon them in the middle of one of the husband’s stories. “And hunted later, as you well know, by the rabid right-wingers there, McCarthy and that sort, not an easy life. The story is that once he was headlining in Las Vegas, singing in one of those posher establishments. A club, of sorts. Just himself and a man at the pianoforte, a grand piano at that. He was singing a few light arias, some popular songs that he had made famous, and the audience loved him. In the middle of the second set, one mostly of love songs? I think. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t remember that part. Anyway, there he was and quite comfortable, so he took it into his head to sit on the piano. He was in front of it, and he took his hands, placed them on the edge of the grand piano, and hoisted himself up onto it.”

“What happened?” she asked quickly.

“The most embarrassing thing, and it’s also so funny too. He pushed himself up on the piano and then overbalanced.”

“And broke his nose!?”

“No, no,” testily, then smoothly again, “tipped over backwards into the piano, splintering the wood because of his massive weight and size, you see.”

“Dear goodness!”

“And then there he was, caught in that piano,” and at that moment they reached a stop and the girl got on. “Just a minute, dear, let’s wait for the train to start moving again, I don’t want one word left out” while looking lustfully at the girl who returned his stare and Bill felt certain for the very first time smiled back making “Eric?” colouring as he turned to his wife and in a louder voice “Here I am, where was I? Had to, wait, wait, ah yes,” and his composure regained, “there he was, his feet up in the air, waving his legs wildly. The audience thought this screamingly funny, and laughed at him as if he meant it to happen but,” as his eyes swung openly to the girl and he fixed her with a broad smile that paralleled his story but ran independently of it, her own flashing back as she stood in the crowd listening to him, “he was trapped, do you see? Caught within the piano by his weight, he then went through the piano, so you could only see his hands holding on to the piano’s frame, his feet, and his head too, where there was some blood.

“Oh!”

“Oh, he was all right, just a scratch, and they tried, the piano player then a stagehand, to pull him out, then some other people helped until they realized there was no one to bring down the” girl’s hands playing with her long hair as she watched “curtain and he could only grunt and moan all the while the piano strings snapped around him, wood cracking and crashing.

“But Eric, he didn’t hurt himself too badly?” imagining this patently false story even to Bill in her mind as a case where someone at a disadvantage unwittingly became an object of fun.

“No, no, let me finish, and then you see,” winking at the girl with a meaning in his eye Bill couldn’t decipher but which made her flush and turn away, though not too quickly, “someone got to the ropes and brought the curtain down. Well, the audience was howling but when they heard these men and the commotion behind the velvet drapes, heard them grunting and hollering as they pushed the piano across the stage, with him saying Am I all right? My head ain’t bleeding, is it? Get me out! Get me, and of course they nearly went through the floor –”

“Oh no!

“Not the piano and him, the audience because it was so funny!” And yet his wife did not find this story humourous, even if the girl did, covering her mouth and looking with disbelieving eyes, and his wife’s drawn face, looking a little more beautiful when seen up close, could not stop her husband from continuing, because of course he told this story in a voice loud enough to carry to the girl, his intended audience now, forgetting his wife even as she trembled against the time of the train.

Things remained like that over the next week or so, the girl remaining at a slight distance, but eventually she moved closer. Bill watched her and them, Eric watched the girl, isolating Edna, and the girl watched Eric with a slight effort at discreetness. The day that she stood two people away from Eric dressed in a smart suit which complimented her figure exceedingly his wife looked around sharply, exclaiming in a voice a shade too loud for public transport, “There’s a rather nice perfume here, whose is it?” to which he replied “Some office girl, I expect,” his voice then lost in the noise of the train pulling into King’s Cross. Bill and the couple got out, Bill looking around to see the girl standing in the open door of the subway car looking purposefully in his direction. Turning around Bill saw Eric staring at her, then the crowd swallowed everyone.

Bill felt intensely curious about what qualities the redhead found attractive in the man. He acted like someone with a good bank account. But not like someone with a wife. Is that what she’s interested in? Wasn’t it a little easy to think that money was all she was after? She didn’t look like she shopped at any two-bit stores, a Sainsbury’s girl, not a Tesco’s. Where did she live? One evening he stayed on the train with her until it stopped at the British Rail station at Moorgate. She got off then and continued, Bill speculated, out of town. Maybe she was looking for someone in London itself, a man to set her up and help her buy everything she wanted. Bill thought this too easy a conclusion.

Days later chance, and the habitual choice of the English, brought them together again, each converging inside a ferociously crowded car. Bill was positioned behind the three of them, the wife and the girl on each side of the man, Bill behind the girl. This was the closest he had ever been to her and during the trip he compared the young beauty to the older woman. The man answered his wife in short bursts while working his arms free from where they were pinned to his sides, and put his right arm around his wife’s waist, at which she lay her head on his shoulder and seemed to drift asleep. Delays occurred along the line. “Probably another bastard offed himself,” from one commuter, who was answered peevishly by another with “And at this time of day too. You’d think they’d have a little more respect. Absolutely no consideration for others.” The subway remained stuck for fifteen minutes, the air poisonous, then the tube resumed its sluggish motion, allowing people to shift their limbs with relief.

As Bill changed hands, allowing one tortured arm to rest while keeping the other hand wrapped around the rubber knob suspended on coiled wire from the ceiling of the car, and as he moved his head into the path of the pathetic draught of subway air that leaked in through a small grill, he noticed the husband’s arm around his wife’s waist almost mirrored by his arm hovering around the girl’s buttocks, though he had not as yet touched her. Perspiration stood out on everybody’s foreheads but Bill thought that there might be an additional reason for Eric’s sweat. A sudden turn compressed the standing passengers into one lump, bringing Bill’s waist in contact with the girl’s shapely behind, the husband’s hand between his stomach and her back. Great, he thought, until he saw a face staring at him, not the girl’s but the wife’s. Why’s she looking at me? I haven’t done anything to her. Still, he felt embarrassed at the thought he’d had. Desire, more like it, when her ass hit my groin, boy, and could Edna read that from me, or can she feel that coming from him? Did she pick it up somehow? Now she gazed around, not seeing anything, but for a moment he wondered exactly how blind she was, then another jerk pulled them into a different configuration, and this time the long slender fingers of the husband settled loosely on the purse of the girl.

Another delay a stop later as the train pushed slowly into a station, a man holding shards of reddened wood leaving the scene of a suicide, body bags filled with what looked like round hunks of meat carried out by four bobbies, their shoes leaving faint traces on the cement, with the train cruising leisurely through the station, everyone crushed together straining for a view at the gory scene on the side of the platform. As they gathered momentum the husband’s hand began slowly fondling the girl’s behind. She turned around to her right, then behind her, flushing, glaring at Bill who responded to “You fucking pervert, get your hand off my backside” with a gesture that showed his other hand had been nowhere near her. “Well it better not be,” but she had embarrassed herself and him amongst the people there. If she knew it was that guy what would she do? The rest of the trip contained nothing eventful, for the husband’s hand retreated to his side.

Some days later the weather had warmed sufficiently for less heavy clothes to be worn, and Bill could see the husband looking eagerly around the car for the girl who did not disappoint him by not appearing. As the train was not overly crowded a carelessness in behaviour on his part became evident when she stepped on the train. She wore a long skirt and an off the shoulder top, revealing her neckline and the beginning of her cleavage. Eric stood transfixed, then started his usual conversation with his wife, though he no longer had to tell her stories as she had given up trying to hear him, defeated by the noise on this route. And maybe she knows something funny is going on, the way animals smell things before they see them. The glances between the girl and the man were frequent and she looked with brazen curiosity and challenge into his face as she stood by his side. He almost backed away but decided that with his wife on his other side rendered mute, and the noise of the train covering any sound he might make, he could take a chance, and cautiously leaned over, kissing quickly, then once more, slowly, “Eric, that smell, it’s that perfume again,” but Edna’s following words were drowned out as they roared into a station.

When he could Bill sought out the couple and the girl, and while they were aware of him his presence didn’t bother them because it was obvious he wouldn’t interfere. On a Wednesday he managed to get a seat on a two-person bench, the other spot vacant. Tired and numbed by a hard day he was unaware of anyone else in the car until a passenger sat down heavily next to him. He had been looking out the window at the pipes and wires running the length of the track when he felt a sudden sharp blow of a stick across his knees. “Jesus Christ, what the –” only to stop and see the blind woman’s face in front of his.

“I’m sorry,” her voice came out hesitantly, liquid and soft, “I didn’t mean to hit you. My husband lost his balance helping me here and I came down a little awkwardly, I’m afraid. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He had never heard a voice so modulated and warm.

“Sure, no problem, just unexpected, that’s all.”

“Oh, you’re American, how funny. Are you here on business or vacation?”

“Canadian, not American. No, I work here.”

“Ah, I see. I do apologize for my mistake. Where’s Eric? Eric?”

“He’s trapped by everybody in the middle of the car,” supplied Bill after looking over his shoulder through the Plexiglas, her husband in plain sight, side turned away from his wife and openly kissing the girl whose arms guided his hands over her body.

“I just see his arm,” said Bill, afraid to tell what he could see.

“Oh, the dear man, he gives up so much for me.”

“Yes,” and then regretted using that word and lying for her husband who had by this time pressed the girl against the Plexiglas wall that separated them from the seat his wife was on. The girl’s back was to Bill and the man’s face leered down at her, totally oblivious to the looks from other passengers who had woken up to the fact that some kind of drama was unfolding, a rather smutty sex one in their view, although they had missed Eric dumping his wife into the seat next to Bill.

“Excuse me for interrupting, you’re not reading are you, I don’t hear you turning any pages.”

“No, I’m not, what is it?”

“Have you been in England long? Where do you work?” Bill paused before telling her the truth. As with many English people she would not think of asking a complete stranger his name.

“I’m here for a few years, just working odd jobs, to see if I like the place.” He told her briefly about his job.

“A regular job, then? I mean, you go to work every day at one time and leave at a regular time?”

“Oh yeah, five days a week, always.”

“And you can’t afford a car?”

“No, I’m always on this tube,” and a manicured ageless hand waved slightly in the air while she said, “Then you can tell me, I’ve noticed a delicious fragrance, a trifle too something or other for me, mind, that someone who also travels on this train wears, some office girl, Eric says, but that seems a little too dear for her to be able to afford. Can you smell it?”

Bill felt caught by the answers inside him. Dumb, dumb, I didn’t see that coming, and he cast a glance at the two absorbed lovers in a furious embrace behind them. I hope this tube stops on a dime and you bite each other’s tongues off. He responded slowly. “Let’s see, there’s a couple of women over there who look familiar, maybe it’s them, sorry, they’re a few seats down I mean, in the next part of the car,” and once again his sentence was chopped off when she somewhat crossly.

“No, nearer, nearer, and it has to be someone you see fairly often, who travels alone. I can smell it from here.” He looked up and saw King’s Cross approaching, thinking not soon enough.

“There are a lot of people here, and some of them are on it every day, sure. Maybe it’s a new perfume.”

“Thank you for your help,” drily, “I truly appreciate it.” He began to move from his seat. “Are you going?” He would have if he hadn’t seen that neither her husband nor the girl was moving from where they were. Should he leave the woman by herself? Would that be fair? “Sorry, I… no, it was just… I thought I saw someone I knew. I was wrong. No, this isn’t my stop.”

“Which stop is yours?”

“Elephant and Castle,” choosing a far enough away destination in order to give himself as much room as possible for leaving after the girl departed at Moorgate. He watched King’s Cross until it vanished.

“So far away to come for work, and that must be tiring. How do you pass the time?”

“Sometimes I read, sometimes I doze, most times I just think of things.”

“What things?”

“Just things, you know, things. I’d rather not –”

“Of course not, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…. I’ve always been dreadfully curious about people. Like that scent that girl is wearing, whichever one she is. She paused, considering. Whatever else she might be she isn’t stupid, Bill reflected. “Do you see my husband? Is he still standing, poor man?”

“No, I mean yes, he is standing, I just lost sight of him for a minute. He’s rather pinned in the middle of a group of fat men and one or two secretary types.”

“Rather,” she repeated, “rather, an odd word for a Canadian, you must be here too long,” her laugh sounding fresh and younger than he had heard it before. “My husband so entertains me with little stories about the people on subways whenever we go anywhere. He really is a clever mimic. When we get off at Moorgate I’ll introduce you.”

Moorgate, great, with the girl, he’ll have me with him in a cab probably talking to this woman while he screws that piece in the back seat, us sitting on those little fold-out chairs those cabs have, even now he’s got her Jesus I don’t believe this he’s sitting down with her at the end of the car. At that moment the train lost speed ominously, coming to a complete stop between King’s Cross and Angel. “What is it, Eric?” and he somehow reached her before a high note escaped her throat.

“Nothing, my dear, nothing, it’s just a delay, probably a fire on the line, one of those small fires.”

“Have my seat,” began Bill, but he interrupted him.

“Have you been bothering my wife?

“No, Eric, no, he’s not, no. He’s just been sitting here and we’ve been talking while you’ve been stranded with those dreadful Grub Street types.”

“The fat bankers and those secretaries,” put in Bill without consciously realizing until after he had said it the alibi then provided for the husband who winked as he had that time before only now it meant complicity.

“Ah yes, those men, and their dreadful… you know, dear, I’ve found out that that girl with the dreadful perfume, the one you asked about, she works at one of those job agencies, can’t make out which one.”

“But she was behind me and I could smell it,” she said with an acuteness unimpaired by blindness.

“Yes, and she met a man she knew down at the part of the car I was in. Most rude of her, she just waltzed down that crowded aisle without the slightest consideration for anyone, spraying that scent when she got there because she’s going out to dinner with someone when she gets off at the station. And,” his voice dropping conspiratorially, taking in Bill too, “she’s as big as a house. With that perfume! Vulgar woman, vulgar.”

“Why don’t you join your wife, then –”

“And what do you do? You look… dear, this is the man I was telling you about, the worker, the one who always looks as if he’s put in an incredible day’s effort. You recall me telling you about him. You do look knackered, you know. Thanks very much for the offer of your seat, now I’ll just wait until you get up and –”

“Oh, him!” She turned slightly to regard Bill. “No, he can’t, he’s got a long way to travel, Elephant and Castle, dear, and we get off in just two stops. Let him rest, the poor boy.”

“He’s strong, he can stand for a while, surely, then you can take one of our seats, yes?” I could take you out, pal, if you don’t watch your fucking lip, thought Bill.

“Yeah, no problem, just let me get by –”

“Oh, now see, you’ve made him mad, Eric, he’s tired.” The strength of her hand alarmed him as she unerringly clasped his arm. “Sit, please. Eric, don’t cause a fuss, dear, he’ll have to stand all the way if you don’t let him have this seat.”

“But are you sure? Will you be all right? He’s not—I’m sorry, no offense, you won’t mind, Edna? Are you sure?”

“Of course I am, dear. Don’t worry so much about me.”

“Fine then, I’ll just find a spot somewhere.” He went back to his seat with the girl and both looked every now and then at Edna and Bill without guilt. The train eventually limped into Angel. The crowd of commuters was larger than normal due to the delay, every inch of space taken up by loud businessmen and arguing contractors who blotted out Eric and the girl. Instead of making up for lost time by rushing to the next destination the train kept its doors open, waiting for the next load of travellers, most of whom would not be able to squeeze on. Eventually the subway listlessly proceeded to Moorgate.

“My husband’s like that.”

Startled that she knew what he was doing Bill said “Do you mean you… I don’t understand.”

“What? That he cares for me? Thank you.”

“No, I didn’t mean that, I –”

She laughed again. “Obviously you don’t have a girlfriend or wife. My husband said you spent a lot of time looking around at the women. Is that all you think we’re good for, to be looked at?”

“No! You don’t understand –”

“I gather I don’t. What I was about to say is that my husband is worried strangers might take advantage of me. And the reason he guides me around so much is that four years ago I took a bad fall and damaged my sense of balance. That’s why it’s so important for him to stay with me at all times.”

“And I’m like that, huh?” he responded, thinking, what is it about me that brings out the best in people?

“Don’t get me wrong,” and it was her turn to be embarrassed, “really, he’s only said you look, ah, rumpled and tired, not harmful, if you know what I mean. Curious, I suppose –”

“I see.”

“He meant it as a compliment,” faltering, revealing that there might be more to whatever inventive story he’d made up about him to amuse her. They travelled along, conversation stopped by her remarks and impossible anyway due to the orchestra’s fanfare of drums and trumpets as they arrived one stop short of their destination at Old Street. If he told her so much about me then he knows I get off at King’s Cross. What does he think I’m doing here? Helping him or something? The bastard.

“My husband makes up little tales about people, the ones on the train and famous people,” she inserted into a sudden quiet stretch. “He only told me that you seemed to work awfully hard, should you wonder if he said anything… else about you.” He appreciated that remark, and her old tone was back, not the one of laughter and easy speech from earlier but the one composed of lonely notes and almost inaudible sighs he’d heard on first seeing her.

“You asked me a question awhile back, let me ask you one. Do you and your husband have a car?”

“That’s a little embarrassing, for my husband, not me.” She rushed out those last words. “He had a tiny too much to drink and wrecked our car, well and proper this time, plus they took his licence away for six months. Of course, I can’t drive, and it’s fun in a way to be in a subway.”

“He only lost his licence recently then.”

“How did you know?” and the surprise in her voice was real. Bill could not imagine a voice more beautiful than hers.

“If you’d been taking this tube regularly all that time it wouldn’t be too much fun.”

“I suppose you’re right. But at the moment it has all sorts of charms, like interesting sounds and hearing all the different conversations, all of it running together, although my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Part of the accident that damaged my balance.” She bent closer to him. “There is sometimes quite an odour here, isn’t there? How is Eric doing, please?” Bill stood up and looked over the crowd. Through a momentary unravelling of a knot of people he witnessed the girl handing a piece of paper to Eric, her streetfinder out for him to see where she lived. So goddamn public.

“He’s doing fine,” as he sat down, unconsciously patting her knee, quickly taking his hand away, his gesture surprising both of them, disturbing them for different reasons. She did not talk much during the rest of the trip, saying only a hurried “Goodbye!” when her husband came for her bearing a locker-room smile across a flushed face. The girl had already left the car. Bill followed the couple out. He then went to the subway heading back in the direction of King’s Cross, using the cleaner Circle Line, and this time had an easier time getting a seat. He felt strangely disconcerted yet could not quite locate the reason for his mild agitation. As near as he could discover, it had a root in twice aiding Eric in his philandering, and he had not fathomed that action by the time sleep came over him.

All the next day he contemplated his behaviour on the subway the evening before. Why did I lie for that scum, make up a story that helped him get away with what he had been doing? And even before I knew what I was saying I gave him a way out. He must have lied to her lots of times before, been with a lot of women on the side. He’s a pretty smooth guy, can’t take that away from him. And he just knew I would lie for him, didn’t he? How did he know that? What stopped me from leaving at King’s Cross, or telling Edna that her husband was rubbing up against some sweet young pussy with everybody looking on? Well, Jesus, you couldn’t tell some stranger you’ve only talked to once, Hey, your husband’s with another woman right in front of you. What would she do? The thought occurred to him late in the afternoon that perhaps in some odd way envy had prevented him from telling his wife. Certainly he enjoyed looking at the young girl too. But her taste bothered him. How could she go for someone his age, and with a wife? She’s probably AIDS city, he thought sourly, knowing he wasn’t being entirely honest, because he wouldn’t stop some night in an alley or bedroom to slip on a rubber raincoat before screwing her. I wonder if her pussy is red-haired? Maybe gold-red. She looks like she knows all kinds of tricks, and that son of a bitch is going to enjoy them. Bill ruled out the idea that the girl was interested in money. Maybe she just thinks he’s good-looking, maybe she’s bored. It sure helps kill the time on the train, right? And maybe she, like the husband—and me too, sure—we’re just hunting for a piece of ass out of it. There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to get humped or sucked off when she feels like it, but coming on to someone’s husband while his wife’s right in the same car, and her blind and not even able to stand straight without him, that was shitty.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that was the thing she was doing. If you could steal money from under the nose of a teller in a crowded bank, knowing no one would butt in, and that the teller couldn’t see you, why wouldn’t you? This girl, there she is, in a car full of boring men, people with nothing special, and this guy with a bit of dough gives her the eye. Maybe she’s interested, maybe just playing. Then she looks at the wife and thinks, Hey, I could go right up to him and she’d never know it. Oh, she might hear me, smell me, sure, but in a crowded car you’re gonna be close to people. I could just rub right up against him and feel what he’s got. No problem, and he wouldn’t mind. The thrill of it was that she could do it with everyone else watching, betting no one would say a word. How would the wife be any wiser? So why not.

What Bill couldn’t understand was the reason the husband started all this in the first place. It isn’t the girl’s fault if he’s giving her the eye. She was just standing there looking pretty. What was wrong with him? So what if his wife isn’t a beauty like the young one, she was his wife, for Chrissake, married to him for years. Maybe he got tired of leading her around all the time, of all the talking and that. Maybe he wanted someone who could handle things on her own, who wouldn’t be straining him every day. Still, he knew she was blind, knew about her balance problem, what the hell is he looking for? Why do some husbands, money or no money, got to screw things up for guys like me who don’t have anybody? That bitch is a looker, and he’s got a wife, so that makes two women. What’s he doing, comparison shopping? It’s probably not your first time, sport. I don’t understand it, what way is Edna no better than her? Beauty, sure, but she’s not bad-looking, a helluva lot more refined than her, or him for that matter. That voice, so lovely, smooth, maybe she sounded a little odd at times when she’s left alone, but is that enough to dump her? What was it he was looking for?

That evening he boarded the train with his familiar companions, the first time they had ever been together two days in a row. As it was one of the warmer days at the end of winter people were wearing less bulky coats and had discarded hats and gloves. Eric was nattily dressed in an expensive Italian mid-weight suit while Edna had on a more casual dress that for the first time exposed some of her neckline, though she did wear a light coat wrapped around her. All eyes were on the girl, however, every male hormone activated by her attire. Her hair had been swept up to reveal ivory skin and prominent shoulder bones. Her black dress had a collar around the throat, then was backless down to the middle of her spine. A deep slit a little too wide for modesty opened her chest to view from where the collar ended to just below her breasts. The entire garment ended below the knee and from there pale stockings revealed the perfection of her legs. Bill assumed she was wearing garters. A fur coat lay to her side, not the best fur, but one obviously saved for special occasions. What would Eric think of this, he wondered. If he feels like I feel his cock’s a little uncomfortable right now. Eric nodded to Bill, whispered to his wife, then beckoned him over. Warily he approached.

“Edna has a favour to ask,” and Bill backed away suspiciously. “I have a business appointment in Hampstead, about some investments, and my wife has to get back home. I’ve arranged to have a friend meet her at King’s Cross to take her back to our apartment. Would you be so good, we were wondering, since you don’t get off until Elephant, if you could just stay with her to help her off the train?” His smile was almost real. “It would only delay you ten minutes, fifteen at the most.” Tempted to say no, Bill saw Edna’s face, her smile tentative, her face pulling anxiously at the edges as it must always do when she thinks she’ll hear a no.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Wonderful, good, you see, dear,” and her saying “Thank you, I didn’t want to drag Eric away from such an awfully important meeting.”

“I’ll make sure you get a seat,” Eric said, and as the train pulled into Hampstead led them to the place where the girl and her coat were. “Excuse me, Miss, would you mind terribly if my wife sat there? She has a problem with her balance.” The girl got up and put on her coat without a word, and Eric pecked his wife before leaving. A moment later Bill idly turned around to see where the girl had gone but she was not in the car. Glancing out the window he saw her disappear arm in arm with his companion’s husband. Furiously Bill twisted his attention away to stare at Edna, who today in her pale summer dress appeared quite vulnerable.

“Did he get off all right?” she asked with a slight touch of worry.

“He got off all right.” To himself, He’ll be getting off all right in a little while, too. Christ, what an idiot.

“How are you?” he began. She responded pleasantly, and eventually Bill asked her why they always took this train.

“Oh, it isn’t always this one, is it? Although we English are pretty predictable. Well, you see, we have an invalid friend of mine who lives near the tube station, she’s just gotten out of the hospital, having had a… woman’s operation, you know, and she feels quite sad. I try to visit her as frequently as I can because her family lives away. She’s so lonely, and I know how…. Then we head back home for a late supper.” His curiosity satisfied, Bill and Edna talked about other topics until the train pulled into King’s Cross. Bill got out with her and looked for the friend she had described who would pick her up. Twenty minutes later she had to sit down, dizzy, and Bill’s patience was thin. “Are you sure someone is meeting you here?”

“Why yes, Eric called a friend this morning to arrange it.” Probably took the phone off the hook and pretended to dial, thought Bill. Hello, Tess? Yes, I have a wife who needs picking up at King’s Cross. She’ll be with a dirty-looking sucker named Bill, a Canadian. You’ll have no problem recognizing them, a blind dizzy woman and a grime-streaked young fellow. Don’t worry if you can’t find them, or don’t make it, they’ll be able to get home on their own. Ha ha ha.

Bill got up when Edna said she felt better. He realized she was close to crying, that she had probably never been on any arm but her husband’s for years. Frightened to death I’ll let her trip or knock her down myself. Is this what he doesn’t like, her reliance? Always having to worry about her? Is she always this afraid? Or does she think he’ll never come back if she lets go of his arm?

“You okay?”

“I’m… fine, yes, but I think….”

“What?

“Could you tell me where we are, I need to know, or… please take me to a phone booth, I’ll call a friend who’ll take me back, she should be home now.” Bill walked with her to the telephones. There was no answer at her friend’s.

“How far do you live?”

“About fifteen minutes’ walk.”

“I’ll take you there,” at which she pulled back as if he’d touched her knee.

“No, that’s not necessary, thank you, I’ll…,” trailing off into a trembling silence.

“You’ll what? I’m not going to leave you here to be mugged or something.” Don’t say things like that, he thought, or she’ll really be scared. Think, think.

She acquiesced after a few minutes to his guiding her home, although he kept the pretense alive that he was a stranger to this part of London, more at home in Elephant which he had only been to once. Edna guided him, and the quarter-hour walk extended to forty-five minutes, made longer by her pointing out this shop there or that one there, the map of this area a Braille grid in her head for which she had no coordinates. She could tell you the stores and sights, but to find them on her own? No chance. Bill remembered a movie he’d seen about a blind white girl and a black man, Sidney Porter was it?, and how he helped her and she loved him. Her parents didn’t care enough to teach her to get around a city, making her like Edna, helpless. They made their slow way along, a young man rougher looking than he was escorting a trembling, older woman whose staccato raps with her cane underscored their conversation.

He must have had this planned, keep her nervous and occupied all the way home so she won’t think too hard about where he might be gone. When I see him next time I’ll bust him so hard he won’t be able to screw a light bulb. What am I doing here with his wife? Why am I babysitting her? Boy, he had my number pegged. A sucker born every minute –

“What are you thinking?”

“What? Nothing. Just looking for your street. Like I said, I haven’t been in this area before, I usually –” and caught himself as he was about to say “go in the other direction,” instead finishing with “only visit other parts of town.”

“It’s nice here, isn’t it? Such a difference, Eric tells me, when you come out of King’s Cross and go to Islington instead. I enjoy the park so much in the summer, and on days like today when it’s warmer than normal, it’s so nice. I know the flowers are out, the smell is so wonderful.”

“When is Eric’s meeting over? I mean, you won’t be home alone for long, will you? Or are you used to that?” He wondered if she might get alarmed at that question, or whatever the hell it was she felt when Bill said what he thought were innocent things. He was curious if there were any other surprises waiting for him along the way, like holding her hand until her husband could drag himself away from that girl’s bed. He looked at her face to gauge the response, surprised that a great deal of the nervousness that had been there at the beginning of their walk had disappeared.

“Not until late. The friend he mentioned invited him to supper, and after that some other people who deal with stocks and such are getting together there. Apparently it’s about an important opportunity Eric has been looking at for a while. I don’t know precisely when he’ll be home. As for me, well, you probably don’t think the blind can get around at all, but I know every inch of our flat, renovations and all.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know.”

She softened, her arm clinging a little more tightly to his, as a consequence of which he almost ran them into a pole. He shook his head and stopped thinking how this March light and this false spring day combined to wipe years away from her features. Though it was slightly chilly now she preferred the breeze wrapping around her to the coat’s protection, and her dress fluttered merrily in the wind. At length they reached the apartment, not normally a walk-up, but as the lift—elevator, he said to himself—didn’t work he helped her up the stairs. “How do you,” hoping she wouldn’t take it the wrong way, “make your way around the apartment with your balance like it is?”

“You don’t give people like me much credit, do you? There are chairs there, and tables, lamps, couches, that sort of thing. Eric made sure all the furnishings were placed in such a way that I always have something to hold on to or lean against,” which Bill could see as the door opened and she turned on the lights.

“You know, I’ve never talked to a blind person before, I don’t know how you get around. You’re not very understanding,” fighting back churlish strains that might seep into his voice, “of what someone who’s never led anyone around might wonder about. I’m sorry for asking what are probably dumb questions but I just don’t know the answers.” She was silent as she navigated the room adjusting lights and temperature, closing and opening blinds and doors, turning the radio on to a classical music channel.

Bill watched her move around from room to room, waiting for some moment to say goodbye without leaving her to wonder if he had indeed left. “Can I get you a drink?” she called out from what he presumed was the kitchen, “some tea or coffee, unless you’d prefer something stronger?” She appeared back in the room. “Ah, good, you’re still here. Sometimes I can’t tell when people are in the room but I always know when they’re in the same room as I am. What about that drink?”

“No, I don’t think so, I think I’ll be on my way.”

“Yes, you have a long ride, don’t you? And I suppose you’ll have to cook your own supper when you get back? My goodness, it’s,” as she felt her wristwatch, “late, isn’t it? I didn’t realize how much time we’d spent getting here from the station. What time will you get home? It must be a good hour or so before you’ll eat. Stay here, since you’ve been so kind to help me. I’m sorry about what I said. I didn’t think that it was hard for someone to know what things a blind person can do, I’m so used to Eric being around.

“I don’t think that, I probably should get going, you know,” unable to walk away from her as she stood there, feeling in part sorry that her night alone was due in part to his furnishing Eric with a cover yesterday. He had become involved and felt obligated to see this evening through. I’m curious about her, and them too, yeah. It hasn’t been much more than a piss-poor day anyway so I might as well clue the thing up halfway right.

“I already have dinner on,” she said in the silence, “it’s in the microwave, timed, and Eric always puts in more than I can eat, he thinks I don’t eat enough. Maybe he likes them with a bit more flesh.” Lady, that girl with the tissue-box dress he’s squiring around as we stand here definitely has a bit more where he likes it than you do, with your catching his thoughts about her before they took more explicit form than he would have wanted. Clearing his throat he agreed to stay and asked where the toilet and washroom were, returning a few minutes later cleaner and relieved. She had changed while he was away into a casual green blouse and black slacks which replaced her fragile demeanour with something more confident.

“Do I,” blushing, “look askew?,” laughing at her words. “Sometimes my hair goes everywhere when I change in a hurry, and I can’t always tell if what I’ve got on matches. I leave,” giggling, “my clothes around a little too negligently, Eric says, so I’m not sure what’s where sometimes.

“You look… fine,” he said, not sure whether to tell her of a missed button on her blouse that showed unblemished skin where her bra had been.

“Do you like this gray top? I bought it only a few days ago, and I have a green one like it because Eric said it looked good on me.” The result was that he could not find a way without embarrassing them both to tell her that when she bent over to pick something up, or moved to one side or another, he could see more of her breasts than either person would likely feel comfortable about. A few minutes later they sat down to eat and he could focus on learning more about them while they talked.

Eric was a stockbroker who retired recently in order to care for her and to enjoy the considerable success he had had in his business. Through schemes and an occasional gamble he had taken their money and parleyed it into something approaching wealth, getting out of the game, as he called it, while he had his health. She had been blind since birth and when she married Eric only six years ago had given up all thought of children due to her not being able to care for them. She detested the idea of governesses, nurses, and maids. It turned out Eric was unable to father children and both had resigned themselves to being uncle and aunt for their few nieces and nephews. I’m not so sure she’s not hurting over that. She was thirty-seven, he was forty-three, now he’s screwing a girl twenty years younger while I’m sitting here at his mahogany table eating off expensive china and drinking out of fine crystal. Not bad for a stock boy, but he’s a stock boy too, and he laughed for the first time in days. “What is it?” she asked, joining in with him once, after careful editing, he told her what he had found amusing.

Despite his earlier sentiments he had a good evening with her, and over Irish coffee they talked about her childhood, her dead parents, Eric’s care for her—a topic she referred to often, which grated on Bill’s nerves and made him wonder how much she actually knew abut him—and of lighter subjects, such as trips and aspirations. Not surprisingly she had many when a young girl. Now she was content. “Married to a handsome, successful man, who has the most delightful family and friends, and who is fiercely protective of me, you know. If he knew I had a man in here, a handsome young man, especially, well,” she laughed a delightful scale, “he’d have something to say about that, oh yes.”

“What makes you think I’m handsome?” he asked, not out of vanity as much as puzzlement.

“Oh, as, well you see, he’s told me about you – didn’t I say that? Perhaps not. And he –”

“You said he told you I looked rumpled and tired, that was what you said. I know. I have that kind of memory. Phonographic, I think it’s called.”

“No, he told me, yes that’s right, he –”

“It doesn’t sound like something a man would say, somehow.”

“You don’t know my husband –”

“No, but I know men, and they don’t call other men handsome to their wives, maybe they say, I suppose you’d call him handsome, if you go for that sort of a face, or whatever it might be. That’s what I think,” and as before he wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

No, you’re right, he didn’t, he—there’s no need to… it was from your voice and how you treated me, even when I was saying those rude things to you, I’m sorry again, it seemed as if you might be handsome. Not like I understand movie stars are handsome, but—you know what I mean.”

“I think so,” and this time it was Bill’s turn to be a little dry. Her face fell and she shifted uneasily in her armchair.

“May I ask you something?,” her timidity ensuring his positive response. “This is so awkward. May I feel your face, to see you, if you understand? Please.”

He looked at her and thought, If those glasses were off would I see your thoughts? She was waiting. “Are you sure about… do you, is it what… Jesus, it is awkward,” he laughed, and that dispelled their reservations. She moved quickly to the couch and sat next to him, then slowly placed her hands on his cheeks.

“You shaved this morning.

“Yeah, I did.”

“And cut yourself, as one finger brushed his throat.”

“Where?,” and he put his hand up to check for himself, to feel her soft dry hand under his, and to hear her say “I made that up. It used to drive…. Now, keep your head up and let me see what you look like.” It was hard to do that as her proximity on the couch let him look at her as well, examining her face, her neck. “Chin up for just a moment, please,” his eyes seeking against his will her breasts that were now much closer to him, her aureoles faintly visible when she moved. Couldn’t she feel a draught, then realized this was the first house in London that was warm in the winter. She couldn’t tell, could she? Could she? Her mouth was close and he could see the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she concentrated with her fingers.

“Maybe I was wrong about you the first time,” and he felt disappointed, “but not now,” and she slowly took her warm hands from his face, returning them to her sides. She settled back in the chair. “You are handsome, but not only for how you look. If I take these glasses off I know people can’t bear looking at me, I can tell from how quiet everyone becomes. It’s what you are like that made me right, and how you look, but mostly, that you aren’t uncaring. It may be your culture, because we English aren’t too caring sometimes to people we don’t know, or even people we do know. Except for Eric, and some others.”
“I don’t know, he practically whispered, “some people where I come from aren’t that warm either.”

“You must find it hard here, not having anyone who respects and loves you like I have Eric,” she said unsteadily, to which he could only reply “Some people are a little unfriendly. Not like you,” and he could only look at her while she rested, her face having lost the strain he had become used to seeing, a face that had lost ten years since earlier this evening.

“Can I ask you something? Can I see your face?”

“You mean my eyes. I never show them to strangers, not even friends, unless—but yes, you can, I don’t know why,” and she leaned into him. He took her glasses off gently and looked at her, then her hand raised his to her cheek below her right eye, saying hoarsely “I have to have people look at me as I look at them,” and he stroked her face wordlessly.

After a minute he put her glasses back on. You have a beautiful face, he would have said if she did not get startled easily, so consequently remarked, “I think your husband is very lucky,” which he meant but thought it struck her in a peculiar way, and she eased herself up with “How about some red wine?,” and the evening continued. When he left two hours later he thought about assholes who have a nice woman waiting home for them and screw it up with a girl who you meet on a train, but abruptly stopped. I want to have her, don’t I? Isn’t that what this is all about, he got there first? Resentment burned inside towards Eric who had succeeded where he hadn’t. Her soft skin and attractive figure, what else could I feel? This miserable line of thought occupied him all the way home.

The next week he had to work late, and decided to reward himself with a night out at a much-talked about club on Saturday. Around one in the morning he glimpsed Eric and the girl. A step down for him, pretty normal terrain for her, it looks like, and they can do what they want here without anybody saying anything. Gossamer threads of lace reined in her breasts, the sides were scooped out of her dress, and a slit up the leg to the top of her thigh allowed his hands inside. Soon she was on his lap and by watching very closely Bill observed him unzip his fly before she settled on him, pretending to dance over him to the music blaring from immense speakers. Who’s watching her now, he wondered, obscured by the gloom of his corner at the booth adjoining theirs. “Get rid of her, why don’t you? Fucking hag, she’ll ruin you, can’t you see that? You want to take care of her the rest of your life? Now settle back, let me finish off.”

“I’ll be damned if that’s the way things stay.”

“Right, right, now you see, it’s better that way, only do it soon.

“No, no, it’s not that easy, children, lawyers, contracts, property, you don’t understand the ties.” Why is he lying about this?

“But don’t you want me, and this, every night?,” the flurry of drumbeats from the dance floor forcing their words back into the booth, Eric trapped in the discord with her legs wrapped around his waist, one hand rubbing the side of his head.

“I think I’m bleeding from that noise, the percussion, can we get out of here?,” grunting and pushing against her while she let him up and they argued across the floor out into the cool night air.

On Thursday Bill took the same car as he always did, seeing the couple’s backs as he waited for the last of their party to come on board at the next stop. Edna was pale and cloaked in her long coat, the winter weather having returned, her husband irritable but managing scattered remarks. When the girl got on he expected Eric to ignore Edna entirely and moved up for a better view, the girl seeing him first. She ignored Eric, motioning with her head to Bill who, confused, made his way to her. “Look, get talking to her for a minute, would you, luv, I’ve got to talk to Rick,” flashing a mechanical grin and looking away while she waited for him to do what she asked. Bill decided to do so out of curiosity, feeling suddenly tense. He made his way through the crowd and was about to say something when Eric spoke first.

“What the hell do you want? After getting my wife drunk you come around and act like we’re friends. Is that your game? I don’t appreciate it, lad.” Her face wore a strange look of contentment and something indefinable, blended with sympathy and wistfulness.

“I’m sorry, Eric’s so jealous, about the other night.”

“Be quiet, Edna. Don’t think I don’t know what you were up to, trying to get her drunk, a woman with her conditions. You’re lucky we don’t press charges. Get away, get away from us!”

Bill made his way back to the girl who, like the other passengers, had heard Eric’s tirade. “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know, what a bastard,” and he realized her anger was with him and Eric. “What the fuck are you staring at? Goddamn pervert. You get off doing it to blind ones, do you? You’d been looking at her with that stupid dreamy look for how long? Then you fucked her, he says, and what am I left with? He went back to her once he knew about you. You screwed me out of what I wanted.”

“You knew what he was going to say?”

Her face changed. “No, I just had to know what he wanted, me or that bitch. Now I do. That’s all. Now just keep the hell away from me, understand?”

Bill retreated to the back of the car. What did Edna tell Eric? What did she make up on her own? The drinking, the missed button, could he have made something of that, something that never happened? Then it came to him that the indefinable look in Edna’s face might be one of victory in winning her husband’s attention back from the dangerous distractions she had sensed were connected to the perfume and his silences. She thinks he’s back with her like before because he holds her and gets angry at me for something he has to know didn’t happen. As soon as the girl wanted him to leave Edna the fun was gone out of having her on the side. He only wanted a mistress who wouldn’t want anything from him, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts searching around again.

Another, less pleasant, thought occurred to him, that perhaps Edna had purposely used that evening’s dinner to pretend she had been interested in someone else. The drinks, the loosened blouse, her touching his face, her natural intelligence, all could be convincing, and if she embellished things even a small amount Eric would be convinced that at some time she could find a lover, and feel threatened at a sudden show of a type of cunning he had presumed not possessed by her. Or, and this was worse, perhaps she had wanted something to happen that night between them, waited for him to take a cue from her actions. But being friendly with some man didn’t mean trying to get in bed with him, just because you were alone, and maybe she only wanted to see if he would try something with her. Bill tried pushing these ideas away, abruptly refusing to think any more about how he felt. Huddled in the back of the car he regarded the others. The girl stood glaring at the ads, the floor, the ceiling, playing with her hair absent-mindedly. The couple were close together, Eric casting black looks around to make sure Bill was not near, arm tightly embracing Edna, she nestled into his shoulder, murmuring into his ear from time to time. He had lost that face he’d thought of for so long without fully knowing it, until this moment when he could view it for only a few minutes more, what it meant to him, her softness and fineness, her curiously appealing unease in the world, all gone for good. He left at the next station taking with him a last glimpse of her delicate features and exquisite hair, the touch of her hands on his skin burned in his memory, already missing her musical laugh, missing that instrument he had seen briefly at rest once between her husband’s acts.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Sep 112015
 
Kathy Page2

Kathy Page

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Mitch has been waiting all week for Tara to get back to him. Only when in the water is he separated from his phone. It’s lucky, he thinks, as he punches in the code to disable the alarm and lets himself in, that he has to be here. The pool rested overnight, and now lies smooth, ready to give him a break, to take him elsewhere as it always has. Outdoor, indoor, underground, rooftop, exclusive, inclusive, filthy, sparkly-clean, Olympic, twenty-five metre, salt water, UV – any pool will do. Mitch has his favourites but Fourth Street, with its banner: “Home of the Sharks” is the one he thinks of as his. Twenty-five metres, eight lanes, three metres at the deep end, it’s housed in an ageing and never splendid building, yet still seduces him with that turquoise glow, with those threads of reflected light knitting and releasing themselves in a dance that is both loose and contained. The pool promises buoyancy and escape; it taints the air with a tang of chlorine (fainter these days, due to the UV) to which he has no objection at all.

He pulls off his sweatshirt, dumps his backpack on the floor, and pushes through the door at the back of reception on to the deck. The air is warm and moist. Condensation gathers on the picture windows that look out into the woods. The hum of the ventilation and mechanical systems seems oddly loud when the pool is empty, but it is always there, lurking deep beneath the shouts and splashes that bounce themselves to mush between the water and the walls and mount to a crescendo at about four in the afternoon: it is a kind of silence that you only hear if you’re there first or last thing, when the swimmers have gone and the water is, as now, very nearly still, waiting for a dive to break its surface, for the dive which will connect Mitch to all his other dives, and to all the waters of the world.

For a racing dive, you climb on the blocks, which angle towards the water, one leg at the back one at the front. You keep your back straight, offer your chest and the heart beating steadily inside it to the water. Waiting, you push with your legs and you pull back with your arms so that when the light flashes and the buzzer sounds, you spring forward with doubled force. Your arms come back to your sides but right away you bring them up so that they point your way in. You hyper- extend, tense your core and extend your legs so that once your fingers part the surface, you slice into the water and enter it without wasting any of the power you put in to the spring. You’re looking for horizontal distance. On the other hand, diving for diving’s sake from a platform or a springboard depends on the take-off, but is all about the flight and the entry. Straight, pike, tuck, free: it is, when you get down to it, mainly about being in the air, and that has never interested Mitch.

The water closes behind him. He kicks hard, stays under for three quarters of a length before he surfaces, ready to start the routine that will set him up for the day: practise what you preach. Swim the swim. Well, Mitch likes what he does. Whatever happens with Tara, he’ll hang on to that.

“And whatever she says, you are going to have to be fine with it,” Annette told him last night when he couldn’t sleep and tried to slip out of bed without waking her. They sat up and talked in the dark.

“Yes,” he said, “but still…” He stared straight ahead, out of the window, picking out the shapes of the garden trees he’d planted, but he could feel Annette studying at his face. Beneath the sheets, she put her hand on his leg.

“And either way, it’s just good she agreed to think it over.”

“I know.”

“And it will be fine for Tara, whatever she chooses to do.” Annette took her hand from his leg, touched his face, made him look at her, pulled him into a kiss, offered her body for him to forget himself in. Afterwards, he plunged into oblivion and did not wake until the alarm sounded at five. Her side of the bed was empty, and he found her hunched over her tea in the kitchen downstairs, looking every bit of her age. Five, O! More importantly, five years older than him, which these days she could not forget, whereas, left to himself, he would. A decade ago, when he was thirty-five the gap had seemed like nothing at all. In five years’ time it would be that way again, or even something to celebrate: if the years were laps or miles, you’d be proud of them, for heaven’s sake! But the thing is, they’ve not had kids of their own. They met that bit too late for that.

“So then I started worrying,” Annette said, “but not about Tara. One way or another, Mitch, she’ll be okay.”

“Don’t worry,” Mitch told her, “I promise you, the last thing I want to do is drink.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Annette said. She was worrying about the potential impact on their relationship. It was all connected, she said.

“Please. Just don’t,” he said. Running late, he squeezed her shoulder and hurried to the car.

He’d been with Annette for about a year — they had just bought the house – when Tara first showed up on a Friday, late afternoon. He was teaching a shared lesson and noticed a family come on the deck. The mother, skinny, had thick blonde hair and a pierced belly button; the man stood very tall and fit. A tattooed dragon coiled up his arm. The girl Mitch put at about seven, and they’d dressed her in a turquoise bikini — Why, he asked Annette later, do people do that? He watched as the mother, showing off her own figure in a similar suit, crouched down, felt the water, mock-shivered, stood again. For a moment, all three of them waited in a line at the shallow end, considering the expanse of water ahead of them. Then the little one threw herself in – not exactly a dive, and perhaps the lifeguards weren’t looking, or else they let it go. She surfaced, gulped some air and hurtled towards the deep end, her hands smashing into the water, but fast – and, the thing was, it looked messy as all hell, but she pretty much had the stroke: face in, the arm’s reach coming right from the hip the twist of the neck, the timing. It was all there, ready, and Mitch just had to stop and watch.

He didn’t know it then, but nature versus nurture was a topic he and Tara’s mother would in the coming years return to many times. Of course, he’d tell her, you need to train. But some people start from a better place. Height is good; long limbs and big hands and feet are a tremendous asset (look at Mr Phillips, now!), and some (not necessarily the same ones) just have a better constitution and a more efficient metabolism than others. To some extent the lack of any of these assets can be overcome with hard work and the right mindset… But an understanding of how to move in water, feeling the physics, not knowing it – that’s probably innate, and, he’d tell her, that feeling is worth more than anything and it is the very best place to begin. That’s what he’d say, and certainly it seemed to him as he stood waist deep, watching, that this girl had more than begun. She was halfway up the pool before her mother jumped in after her, breast-stroking along with her head up, arms and legs out of sync, fighting her own efforts every inch of the way.

“Tara,” she shouted, “wait! You’ve got to be able to stand!”

Forget that, Mitch thought, as Tara closed in on the end rail, slowing down a bit, but not much. She was pushing it – another thing not everyone wants or is able to do. The two boys in the water with him, for example, were time-wasters, reluctant to go a hairsbreadth out of their comfort zone, and therefore doomed to progress at a glacial pace, but there were ten minutes of the lesson left so he turned his back on Tara and went back to the drill for the dolphin kick.

“That kid could go a long way, very fast,” he told Annette in the evening. “Could be a great swimmer. I’m absolutely sure of it. And I could help. I feel like I should. It’s weird. I’ve not felt like this before.”

After the lesson, he dried off and pulled on his Coach tee shirt for maximum professional effect. The new family were back in the shallows, and he went right over and squatted down.

“That’s some awesome swimming you do,” he said to Tara, then looked at her parents. “Who taught you, your dad?” The man with the tattoo laughed.

“Afraid not, ” he said. “You’re looking at the world’s worst.”

“Her cousin taught her in the lake,” the mother said.

“You’re a bit of a fish,” Mitch told Tara. “How old are you?”

“Seven and a half,” she said. She was looking right at him, had been ever since he came over. It was clear to Mitch that she very much wanted to hear what he had to say.

“One thing,” he told her, “try keeping your hands like this, and sliding them in forwards without a splash, then you can pull more water… See? Angle them like this. It should feel like you’re pulling and the water’s pushing back. But don’t quite close up your fingers. Like so. You’ll catch more water. Feel it? That’s the way.” He turned back to the mom.

“You know, she might enjoy our swim team.” He kept his tone light, even though he had a very serious feeling about it.

“We’re not really joiners,” she said, and looked away. There was no point in being pushy, and, as he explained to Annette, it was all too easy for parents to think you were some kind of pervert, especially once your hair started to thin: these days, he said, it’s probably better all round to be female, but some things can’t be helped. Thank God, Annette said. So Mitch didn’t ask whether they were passing through or new to the area, or where the kid went to school. He just grinned and backed off.

“Mitchell McAllister,” he told them as he stood up. “Here most mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Enjoy the pool.”

“It’s freezing!” Tara’s mother said. They did keep the water cool. That was what swimmers needed. Management appreciated the needs of the club, plus those few degrees saved a fair bit.

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” he told her, smiling. “You’ll soon warm up.”

“Maybe I’ll never see them again,” he told Annette.

Back then, the house took up all their free time. That night they were painting the lounge in Ivory and Arctic Moss. He was on the ladder, she was cutting in by the baseboard. They each craned their necks to look at the other.

“Well,” she said, “let’s see how it goes,” and there was a feeling that they had agreed to something, though neither of them knew exactly what.

A week or two after their first meeting, he ran into Tara’s mother in the lobby. Her hair was wet, and she had a rolled up towel under her arm; a nice woman, he thought, but a little too thin and too intense, her eyes shiny-bright, the angles and planes of her face more like sculpture than flesh. He was just arriving, she was on her way out.

“Hey, Mitch, right?” she called out. “We chatted the other week. Tara pestered me to bring her back so she can show you her new arms. She’s been practising in the air.”

“Cool!” he said, feeling his heart rate pick up: excitement, self-justification, hope –a cocktail of many things.

“Well,” she shrugged, “it’s a half hour drive, and we have a lot to look after right now. Fencing the yard, keeping the darn chickens alive, re-plumbing up the house. We just can’t make too many trips. And I’m not a fan of your freezing water! So finally we made it – and then we missed you. Sabrina, by the way.” She offered her hand.

“I start later on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” Mitch explained as Tara emerged with her dad from the family change-room. Josh: Mitch shook his hand, too. It was cold still from the pool.

“Scoot back in I’ll watch you now,” he told Tara. The parents looked at each other.

“You two stay dry,” he told them. “Get a coffee, tell Chris it’s on me. Five minutes, okay?”

She jumped right in, looked up at him. She was waiting for his say-so, but at the same time he had a feeling she was in charge. Okay, he thought, I’m yours.

“Up to the end and back,” he told her, “but remember, it’s not a race. I want what’s called good form. I’ll walk up on the side here and I want to see you make your hands go in perfectly and pull back the water just as I told you, every single time.” At the end, she was breathing hard which told him she had tried for speed and form, and that her endurance needed work. But the hands were perfect, and her eyes sought his: How was that? What did you see? What next? Show me! They were blue-grey eyes, big, the same as her mother’s, but her gaze was untroubled and they picked up some of the colour of the water. She was all about what came next, about being in the water, about wanting something from him and wanting even more from herself.

“Attagirl,” he beamed back at her. “You got it. Next time I’ll show you the flip turn.” He picked her out a decent pair of goggles from the lost and found and told her to ask her parents to get her a one piece and book her in for a free trial lesson: that way, they wouldn’t have to get wet themselves.

There was another long gap and then over the course of a six week set Tara learned her dive and turn, and the beginnings of a pretty decent fly. They started on her dive.

“It’s like I’m giving her what she’s wanted all her life,” he told Annette. “Amazing. Totally committed. But she needs to be part of something.”

Maybe she needs other kids to swim with, was how he would put it to Sabrina.

“If your folks do say yes, at this time of year you’d practise every day before school and the dry land training Tuesday and Thursday, after school. Meets, that’s the races, are every month or so until the real season starts and you don’t have to come to every single one. Later it gets to be a little bit more. But we do take August off. You need talk it over with your mom and dad.” Take a deep breath, he told himself. Submerge… Hold it. Let it out very slowly. Wait.

Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar world. Some of those drawn to go deep want none of the careful calculation of pressure and gasses, the attention to time and meticulous checking of equipment that scuba entails; they prefer to extend their innate physical capacities as far as possible and dive free of equipment, with just a lungful of air to sustain them and a dangling rope to help them find their way back up. A free-diver learns his or her body as if it were both friend and enemy: how deep it will willingly go, how to push it further, how to increase lung capacity and oxygen absorption, how to slow the heart beat and move without wasted effort; to evaluate, accept and transcend pain.

Mitch once witnessed a free-diving record. He was on the crew of the Shirley, waiting for Herman Fischmann (could you make up a name like that!) to surface. He held his own breath in sympathy, but managed only two minutes. He burst into tears when the bloke’s shaven head emerged ¬– it was like seeing a baby born ¬– and on top of that he felt a kind of water-man kinship, though personally he was not especially drawn to depth. For him, it’s speed, economy and distance, not depth, not so much. But he certainly understood the dedication involved.

He knew that Sabrina and Jason did not quite got where – who ¬– Tara was, but he had high hopes that they would.

“If you think about it, what I ask of these kids is no different from, say, learning the piano,” he told Annette. They had the new kitchen in by then: granite, gas stove, the lot, and made a point of using it.

“Hmm… You don’t have to play piano at six-thirty, travel half an hour to get to it and pack your breakfast,” she said, which was fair enough.

Annette owned Valley Fitness, the gym in town. She had it first with her ex, then on her own; she was hoping to sell it before too long. She was a keep-fitter, not an athlete, but she understood training and competition.

“I’m not strict,” he continued. “Intrinsic motivation is where I come from, not carrots and sticks. After a year, I expect a little more, and so on. And she’d lift the whole team: it’s not just about the obvious athletes. Some kids are signed up to get a bit of exercise, others for the friendships, but then once they are in, it changes, and some of them suddenly take off. They all get something out of it. But with Tara, I have to tell you, I’m thinking the Nationals in a few years and then looking right ahead to the Olympics in 2016.”

“That’s an awful long way to look,” Annette said. “What about here and now? Could we forget Tara for an hour so?” He grinned back at her and complimented her on the salmon she had cooked, tried to bring his mind back to the two of them and the here and now, but the truth was he could not forget: even when he did not think of Tara she was there, waiting in the back of his mind. And before long it got to the point where both he and Annette dreamed about Tara, her times, her moments of victory, but also things like injuries, forgetting her suit, losing her goggles, or beginning to struggle for her breath. Many times, in his sleep, he dived in and rescued her.

You must do whatever the lifeguard says, Mitch always tells his swimmers, and use your common sense: don’t swim alone. Remember that water, however much you love it, does not love you back. It simply does what it must do according to the laws of physics and the conditions at the time, and while it is essential to life, it can also end it, and swiftly, too. Humans are not amphibious… How can you tell if someone is drowning? he asks. Hardly anyone has ever had the right answer: swimmers in distress splash and shout, but drowning itself is silent and swift. There’s just not enough air to make any noise. The head goes back, the arms spread out and push down on the water until for a moment or two the mouth breaks free of the surface, exhales, gasps – but then it goes under again. With each surfacing the inhalation is smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood greater, the arms weaker, and in a minute or less it’s impossible to surface at all; water is inhaled and the larynx constricts, sealing the air tube to protect the lungs. The brain, starved of oxygen by now, soon shuts down – though the victim may still be resuscitated, if pulled out of the water and treated before cardiac arrest occurs.

In order to flush the carbon dioxide from their lungs and so delay the breathing reflex triggered by its build-up, some swimmers hyperventilate before a distance or depth dive. It’s a high-risk strategy, since the diver may black out due to oxygen deprivation before they feel the urge to breathe. Typically, these drowned divers are found, too late, on the bottom of the pool. So, no panting and gasping before you dive in, he tells his swimmers, and no breath-holding contests: I know what I’m talking about, believe me. And even though you are going to be excellent swimmers, please wear your flotation devices when you row across the lake or go sailing with your uncle. Suppose the boom swings and knocks you unconscious before you fall in? And by wear I mean buckle it up…

Sabrina and Jason’s overgrown acreage and 1910 farmhouse with authentic shingles came cheap, but they had to install fences and drains, fell trees, extract rocks from the soil, and then plant five hundred grape vines and two hundred lavender bushes, all at the same time as trying to run a web design business, grow their own ultra-healthy food, including chickens, without using chemicals, and raise a family. Eventually they would be showing visitors round on tours and tastings as well, and Sabrina would be making and marketing organic lavender products: oil, hand cream, soap and such. Big dreams and laudable aims, was how Mitch put it to himself. You never knew how things would turn out, but it sounded to him like a miserable amount of work, unless you had money behind you.

“Nice property,” he said when they showed him and Annette around.

“I wish you hadn’t put this team idea in her head,” Sabrina said. “All that time spent on one thing, especially at this age, seems crazy! The reason we chose home-schooling is to avoid competitiveness and peer pressure and have her enjoy her childhood.”

“Well, yes,” Mitch said, and met the eyes fixed on his face, the mottled grey irises darkly ringed and suspended in blue-tinged white. His feeling was that Sabrina desperately wanted to do the right thing, but had no instinct for what it was. Part of her knew this, but another part, the part mainly in charge, did not.

“There is all that,” he said. “And it would be a big commitment. And you’re her mom, so you know best. The club is competitive, but it’s not just about competition. It’s very sociable. They work hard and they have a lot of fun together – that might be a big plus if she’s mainly with you guys. And some people just naturally like to strive. Look at it this way: she’s competing against herself right now. It might be healthier to let her do it with other kids around.” He kept his voice light. “Why not just try and see?” he said.

“Remind me,” Sabrina said, still locking eyes with him, “how on earth did we get to be having this conversation?”

“You showed her the water,” Mitch picked up on her tone and pulled her towards the laugh they’d share, “that’s probably where you went wrong.”

Her whole body softened when she laughed.

“She’s beginning to understand. But I can’t tell her too much at once,” he told Annette.”

In training, the body is pushed beyond its limits. It suffers, then reconstitutes itself. Muscles strengthen and develop a tolerance to lactic acid. Lung-capacity increases. The heart grows in size. At the same time, understanding of the stroke accumulates. Young swimmers begin with a general impression, and move into the detail. As each new element is assimilated, the swimmer reaches a plateau, or even loses ground before progressing further. The mind too must remake itself.

Mitch swims the sets that he’s written on the sandwich board for his faster swimmers: five hundred metre warm up. Pull four times 150. Swim ten times 100 intervals. Kick for 500, then kick fifteen times 25 metres, intervals. Five hundred butterfly, five hundred choice. He’s working his way one stroke at a time towards the finale, towards sprint 100, 75, 50, 25 with a fifteen second recovery. These days, some of his swimmers are faster than he is.

He working hard enough that the air tastes very sweet when he gets to rest. Water rushes past his ears, his breath’s bubbles burst around his face; each time his ears surface there’s gasp of his inhalation, the sudden emptiness of the air above the pool. When his hands meet the tile another turn begins… The hands of the deck timer mark each second as it passes and sometimes, for length after length he thinks of nothing at all, just feels the stroke.

Though not today. He’s remembering that first time he saw the pool at Braeden Manor: no deep end, the water opaque, unused lane dividers tangled together at the far end. The windows along one side were almost obscured by the bushes and creeper growing outside. A faded sign pointed out that students who swam without a qualified life guard present did so at their own risk. He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.

People evolved from fish. In the early weeks of pregnancy, the human embryo develops the beginnings of gills, which later become part of its ears. Air-breathing and lungs evolved in fish as a way of coping with oxygen depleted waters. It makes perfect sense to Mitch that our brains and bodies carry traces of the distant, aquatic past, and this must account for the affinity some feel for water, for individuals with extraordinary skills. Those free divers, for example: no one can really explain how they descend on a single breath six hundred feet below the surface, much less why they are drawn to sink to such lonely and dangerous depths. Yes, their lungs are more capacious than average, but even so, after fifty feet, they’re compressed to all but nothing, and theoretically, after three or four minutes, all those divers should be dead. Some do die in their attempts, but most live… It’s quite possible, Mitch thinks, that this is because they have retained some fishy capacities, some metabolic trick that scientists don’t yet understand – and it’s got to be the same for exceptional swimmers like Tara. They see the water and feel its pull; they know what to do because it’s buried somewhere in the fish part of their brain.

He volunteered for 5.45 pick up in the mornings and said he could find another parent to drive Tara home after practice.

“All right, then,” Sabrina said. Tara’s arms were wrapped around her waist. “It’s very kind of you to help. I can’t promise, but we’ll take you up on the month’s free try-out.”

That was it. A month later Tara formally joined the Sharks: sixty swimmers from six to seventeen, their coach, Mitchell McAllister, assisted by a series of university students and volunteers – brilliant, abysmal and everything in between. Josh, they decided, could manage the evening sessions. He could sit with his laptop and work while she trained. A bit of time out for you, Mitch pointed out to Sabrina.

“I don’t particularly want that,” she told him, but she returned his smile.

At the first meet, both parents leapt to their feet, yelling and cheering. At last, Mitch told Annette, they saw it: how swimming against someone good could take four seconds off Tara’s time; how close to each other, how grateful rivals can feel at the end of a hard race.

Soon Josh was asking questions about interval versus sprint and making up spreadsheets on his computer, to the point that Mitch had to rein him in. Though Sabrina, who had yelled just as loud, once came up to him at the coaches’ bench where he was packing up his things, and said, “Thanks, Mitch. But this whole thing is weird. What the hell is it about?”

“Being in the water,” he told her. He pointed out how Tara liked the fun stuff, too, water polo, the pyjama swim, all that. That she was not full of herself. Just happy. She was learning how to encourage those in the team who weren’t sure they wanted to be there. The training and the competition, he explained as they climbed the concrete steps and finally emerged from the fuggy humid air into the late afternoon sun, would provide her with many life-lessons: how to decide what she wanted and work for it, short and long term. How to deal with setbacks. “Swimming is a way to find out who you are,” he told Sabrina. She seemed to take it on, but she didn’t often come to the meets after that.

Sabrina missed seeing Tara win the 200 breast, a stroke she’d learned from scratch with Mitch. It’s all about timing, he’d told her: the amount of glide, the moment to pull the arms back, getting the kick and the reach to work together. You begin by thinking it through but in the end, you learn to feel when it’s right. In the pool that afternoon, Tara pushed a v-shaped wave of water ahead of her and overtook her rival in the first of eight lengths.

At the end, she gripped the rim of the pool, heaving for breath. Mitch, watching from the coaches’ bench, knew that she’d be disqualified for not touching properly on her second turn. He watched the white-coated official zone in on Tara as she went to pick up her towel. The woman, hugely fat, squatted down to Tara’s level, holding onto the railings for support. Quite a picture, the muscular little girl who knew how to part the water and pull herself through it with the minimum of wasted energy, the woman who had to drag the equivalent of another person wrapped around with her, day in, day out. On the face of it, Mitch thought as he watched the thing play out, you’d say the wrong one is giving advice here, though the fact is a lot of these amazing little swimmers end up as beached whales in middle age. Tara, he thought, would be bright enough to do the math. She was a great kid all round. She stood straight and looked the whale-woman in the eye. He wished he’d brought a camera with him.

Then she was there in front of him. Subdued, but no tears yet.

“DQ’d,” she told him, looking to see how he took it. Her time, 1:22, would have been a meet record.

“Bad luck, great time!” He watched her break into a grin. Later, he’d explain to her that every disqualification is a gift, and that by the end of the season, she would have her time way further down: it was a given, really, if she just did what he asked of her, and kept on growing, which she surely would, and did.

Annette sold her business and began to come along on the meet weekends. She helped pack up the car, took photographs for the website, and looked after the younger swimmers, the girls especially. Once Sabrina had the twins and needed Josh home to help, it was often just the three of them in Mitch’s car, making jokes, talking things over.

But the first two years were in some ways the best, because then all of it was so fresh, so very exciting. Tara qualified for Provincials with times almost two seconds faster than required. She would have been seeded first, but couldn’t go because of a trip already planned to visit to Josh’s parents in Ontario.

“Of course that comes first,” Mitch told Sabrina. They were in her kitchen; she’d invited him in for coffee when he dropped Tara off. “No problem,” he said, raising his mug as if in a toast, and he more or less almost meant it. He saw her jaw relax as she let go of the fight she’d been preparing for, though the next morning at 5:45, Tara red-eyed, was crying up boulders next to him in the car.

“I hate my parents!” she spat out as they turned into the freeway.

“Whoa!” He glanced across, then grabbed her shoulder for a moment. “They didn’t know. And who pays for all this? Who brings you here, who washes your towels? All you’ve got to do is wait until next year.”

“Next year?”

“Next year, you could be six seconds faster. You’re eight,” he told her. “You have nine more years of Provincials. Missing this one will save you from getting bored. And remember, you’re part of a team. All this year, you’ll be pulling the others after you and speeding them up, too.”

Actually, he was sure she’d be in the Nationals by twelve or thirteen. And when she did get to her first Provincials she beat all records and ended up with three gold medals, which she wore to the team dinner that night. The skin on her face looked taut, almost as if it had shrunk, and her eyes were very bright. She looked more like her mother, he thought. There was something other-worldly about both of them.

“I’m starving!” Tara told him as he passed by where she was sitting with her friend Alice and both of her parents. Sabrina had protested earlier about the unhealthy choice of restaurant but now she waved at him and seemed happy enough.

“Good to see you wearing your jewels,” he told Tara.

“Did you get medals like these?” she asked.

“Not at your age, no,” he told her, “I didn’t get any hardware until I was much older than you.”

“Why not?”

“I was never in a team at school,” he said, moving on.

He had not always been Mitch, though there was no need for Tara to know that. He grew up under the name of Sebastian McAllister, in England, the only child of an actress and a history professor who believed that from beginning to end, their son’s school experience should be intellectually stimulating, rigorous yet also creative and free. There was no need for Tara to know Mitch’s story, but Annette had required detailed background information. Comprehensive life-story exchange had been part of the deal. And was quite probably worthwhile, he admitted once it was done.

“They were prepared to pay through the nose,” he told her, “but nowhere was good enough.” Sebastian, as he was then, attended four different elementary schools before ending up at Braeden Manor, a cutting edge progressive secondary based in an Arts and Crafts style mansion in Hampshire. It was famed for its dedicated staff, small classes and picturesque, wooded environment. There were professional quality art rooms, laboratories and a well-equipped theatre, in which, despite or because of his mother being an actress, he had absolutely no interest. Braeden was a boarding school, and by that time, he was happy enough to leave home.

“Would he go for arts, languages, or sciences? Perhaps he’d prefer some middle ground between the two? Philosophy? What about the Law?

Braeden’s teachers were on first name terms with their pupils, who were encouraged to create their own curriculum. There was endless freedom, provided it was something intellectual or artistic that you wanted to do, but the school was too small to field teams for any of the local leagues and sports hardly figured at all. In any case, the feeling was that team games were warlike and suspect; the life of the mind was what they were there to explore and the body figured only as an aesthetic object or the subject of scientific enquiry. Physical Education took the form of recreational tennis and occasional runs over the fields, and, tacked on to the side of one of the older buildings, was a neglected twenty five metre pool which students who knew how to swim were allowed to use provided a waiver had been signed.

“That pool saved my life,” Mitch told Annette, on one of their early dates, a hike up the mountain. “They meant well, but it’s tough having parents who ignore what you are. They wanted me in Oxford, never understood that books bored me, much less how I loved the water. By the time I got into swimming, I’d stopped telling them anything. There was the pool, and I was in it, timing laps, practicing how to breathe, growing my shoulders. I got a book, The Science of Swimming, and worked from that. Can you imagine learning technique from a book? But it was a good book, and taught me everything. The strokes, how to train. I still think it’s the best… I timed myself and kept a log. No one took much notice. Perhaps I’d like to make it into a science project? Well, perhaps.

“Poor grades saved me from Oxford, but university of some kind seemed unavoidable. I picked Bristol for its pool, and persuaded them to let me try out for the swim team. I wasn’t quite good enough. If I’d started proper training and competed earlier, they told me, I’d have had a decent chance. Fuck this, I thought, it’s my life. I went AWOL, took off, for years: Turkey, Thailand, India, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand…”

“I’d love to go to New Zealand,” Annette said. And maybe they would. Because it was getting to the point that he couldn’t go on coaching, year on year forever, and financially, a time would come when he would not have to. For a while now, he had had it in mind that he’d at least semi-retire in 2016. Go watch Tara in Rio and leave it at that, that’s what he had been thinking.

The last part of the mountain trail was steep. They passed through old forest and he’d drifted away from where his story was going… In water, he told Annette, you learn yourself. Who you are. How far, how long you will go, what you think and feel as you set yourself on a course, just you and it. Water is always stronger than you, even when you’re the best you can be, and if you make a mistake, it is waiting to fill you up. And if you’re drunk, you shouldn’t swim, especially in the dark, however warm the water and the air and however beautiful the glittering firmament above.

Between Sebastian and Mitch he went by a variety of names. He had been that tanned guy picking grapes, selling sunglasses on the beach, or fish, or worse; he was the bloke running the little boat over to the island, or taking tourist money to see the turtles hatch. Also, he had been that guy passed out on the beach. He did the necessary to keep moving on from one sweet spot to the next, and at the same time he found his own way down and out of his own head. He sent only occasional postcards home.

By chance Mitch arrived at Lake Taupo at the time of an open water meet: a whole scene he had no idea about. Short haul swimmers wear out fast, but he could still train for distance, and had been, informally, for years. So he took up open water competition and for a while it gave a shape to his life: training, and saving for the race fees and travel from one event to the next. And between times he set out solo, crossed bays and straits, swam to distant islands, rested and returned. Though he still drank. But at least when he came to grief it was the in the Mediterranean, and not the North Sea. A yachtsman who’d done a lifesaving course fished him out.

“Chance in a million. I’d passed out, was probably a minute away from death. I remember him slapping my face then going back to pump my chest some more. I vomited up half the ocean. And after that, I went home. My father was dead by then. Mum put me through detox and rehab: nine months, lord knows what it cost. I changed my name to Mitchell, and I met Laura, who brought me back to Vancouver. We lasted almost six years, and here I am now, five thousand miles away from where I began, on the Pacific rim, coaching the swim-team at the Fourth Street pool.”

“What about your mother?” Annette asked. By then, they were sitting at the summit, the city, fields islands and sea spread out below them; the sky, intense cerulean, wisped with puffy clouds. Not a bad view to be sitting in, not at all.

“Annual visit and talk on the phone. She’s forgetful now, lives in a retirement complex with helpers, and is lined up to move into care. She’s never stopped calling me Sebastian. And the way she puts it is that I’m a teacher… She forgets the divorce and tells everyone including me, that my Canadian wife and I live near Vancouver. Some things just stay out of shape and you have to let it be. It’s about as good as you could expect.” Mitch put his hand on Annette’s shoulder, and she leaned in to him. Her story, which had come first, was simpler: a father no man could live up to; difficulties with men who found her too assertive. One of the many things he liked about Annette was that she did not judge or argue with what he’d made of his own tangled experience. She didn’t try to tell him what it all meant.

By the time the twins were toddlers, Tara’s parents had put the property with its lavender and baby vines up for sale. Bad timing: it was on the market for years, but before Tara got to the Nationals, they’d managed to cut their losses and sell it to another set of hopefuls. They moved to the edge of town. Tara got to go to regular school. Jason had a job in IT but they were struggling financially.

“It sucks, but we just can’t come,” Sabrina told Mitch. Her voice was tight and he guessed she was holding back tears. “It’s what to do with the twins and the cost of the flights out east.” Annette offered to donate her flight to whichever parent most wanted to go; Sabrina said they’d be too embarrassed to accept.

“Really, they’re splitting up,” Tara told them on the way to the airport. She sighed, examined her hands in her lap. Mostly she looked older than twelve, though sometimes it went the other way.

“First Mom was bringing the twins to watch and Dad was staying home, then it was the other way around. Now they’ve sent Charlie and Louie to stay with Aunt Karen so they can take the time to try and talk things through, just the two of them. I don’t care.” She glanced at him in the mirror, her ponytail whipping to the side as she moved her head.

“I guess you’re better off without them around,” Mitch said, “if all that’s going on. That’s probably what they think, too.”

“No,” she said, her voice wavering, “it’s not. They just couldn’t agree.” He gripped the wheel as if to throttle it and managed to say nothing. Annette twisted right around and put her hand on Tara’s knee.

“Well, kiddo,” she said, “that sucks. But you know I have a very loud voice and I’d like your permission to cheer for three when you’re on.”

“Sure,” Tara said. Her shoulders seemed to relax a little; she looked out the window. Planes were taking off and landing, and the runways shimmered in the heat. “Do we get a meal on the flight?” she asked, and Annette said no, but she had brought chicken pasta and banana bread in her carry-on.

At the hotel, Tara and Annette shared, leaving Mitch in a room on his own. Mitch barely slept, could only hope that Tara was drinking enough and visualising as he’d taught her to, each stroke of the race, every breath and every single turn, in real time. The feel of the water and the wall of the pool, the sounds, her time on the clock. It had been proved that the same neurons fired whether you were visualizing or swimming for real. You must make a memory of what you wanted to occur.

“You can either let stuff get to you,” he told her when they said goodnight, “or you can say, none of that comes in the water with me. Just swim.”

A 6:30 warm-up. An hour and a half later, she appeared on deck sheathed in her turquoise and black knee-skin. She looked for him and Annette, gave them her thumbs up salute, then as soon as they’d returned it, looked back at the water and rolled her shoulders. She was about in the middle for height, Mitch noted. There were no real giants, no surprises. But he thought she looked pale. No, ¬¬¬¬Annette said, it was the light, they all did except the black girl from Toronto in lane three. And they were all brilliant – he and Tara had studied the stats. This was where you met your match, which for the hundred free was Josie Georgeson, lane five, next to Tara in four: their times were a whisker apart. Across the board it was tight: the race was down to who wanted it most and had best accepted and nurtured that knowledge, fed and groomed it, let it take residence in their mind, day and night – but also on who had a bad day, not enough sleep, or too much going on at home.

“On your marks.” Eight of them, strong, slim and streamlined in their racing suits, climbed up onto the diving blocks, adjusted their goggles and bent to grip the edge. What was she thinking? Of the water, the strokes ahead of her? Of nothing at all?

When the light flashed and the buzzer sounded the swimmers sprang from the blocks, hung for a split second in the air, then sliced into the pool; they came up together. Buried in the crowd’s roar Mitch was counting her strokes, yelling Ra! Ra! Ra! and praying for the turn, because with this talent, a perfect or an imperfect turn would make the difference: arm, arm, tuck, kick up your butt, stay compact in the roll, feet slam the wall, push, rotate, yes! She surfaced half a length ahead of the rest. Mitch and Annette were on their feet with the worst of them, roaring as she came in almost a tenth of a second ahead. She yanked off her goggles to see her time. Mitch was in tears. It was not her fastest, but it was better than anyone else’s and it had got her through. It was good to keep something in reserve. They worked their way down through the sea of parents and coaches.

“Cool!” she said.

“Very cool. Good work! You’re well in,” he said as Annette handed over the recovery drink; she nudged him and he backed off, managed not to say, in a choked voice, I’m gonna be so proud of you. Though as it turned out he was: Two golds, one silver, and one bronze over a long three days: emotionally exhausting in the very best way. The pool and the hotel, the heats, finals, food, drink – it was as if nothing else existed. After dinner, they returned to the rooms and watched old Disney films. And then it was over, and they cracked jokes and gossiped all the way home.

When they got there, things changed. Josh did not appear. In the hall, Sabrina explained to Mitch and Annette that things had been falling apart since before the twins were born. She and Josh were pulling in different directions, couldn’t agree on anything; it had always been that way to some extent and was even part of the attraction. Now, with the three kids, it wasn’t possible any more, not even bearable. Not for her. Counselling was useless. They were going to split. They were aiming to do everything fairly and with as little pain as possible. The twins would stay with Sabrina. Tara could choose where she wanted to live. Either way, there would be plenty of flexibility.

“I’m very sorry,” Mitch told Sabrina. She grimaced, shrugged, turned away.

“I don’t want to live with either of them!” Tara told Mitch when she called him later that night. “Can I come live with you and Annette? You guys are a such a lot of fun.” And now he wonders: supposing they’d said yes, sure, come right on over, we’ll work it out somehow? Supposing they had taken her in? How might things have turned out then? But instead, he called Sabrina.

“Look,” he said after he’d let her know what Tara wanted, “I’m just letting you know. If we can help in some way, please say and of course we’ll do what we can.”

“I think we’ll be fine, but thank you, Mitch,” she replied. Did “we” include the kids? he asked Annette. Couldn’t they have waited a bit, given how long they’ve waited already?

Tara did not choose. She moved between the two homes. After six months, Josh decided to move to Toronto for work. He pointed out that it would make sense for Tara’s training, if she wanted to come too, and by then, she did.

“She’ll keep in touch,” Annette reassured Mitch. He wasn’t convinced, but she did. She called or Skyped pretty much every week, and wrote Mitch long emails packed with details about her training. They still got to watch her major events. She was in a documentary about young athletes, and on TV several times. Her new team practiced in the varsity pool and at the Olympium, great fifty metre pools. School went well and she was being tipped for college scholarships. She was sixteen, and almost six feet tall, with the perfect swimmer’s build. She kept her hair in a pixie cut, for convenience, she said, but it looked great on her. There had been two boyfriends, both swimmers, but neither relationship seemed intense or disruptive: they were probably too tired to get up to much, Annette thought.

After the move, Mitch found it uncomfortable running into Sabrina and the twins at the grocery store and realizing that in many respects he knew far more about her daughter than she did. There was that on his side, and something else on hers, a distance that seemed like restrained hostility. Did she think it was all his fault? Did she blame swimming for the breakup, or at least for the loss of her daughter? Blame him, in fact? Annette thought it very likely, though he hated to think that way. He’d always liked Sabrina. Still, it was Tara that mattered.

“The coaches here aren’t any better than you. Mitch,” she’d told him. “But the thing is, there are three of them.”

“Well they must be doing something right,” he pointed out. It was all going very well, come 2013.

It’s properly bright outside now, almost time for the lifeguards and then the early swimmers to arrive, dropped off by whichever white-faced parent drew the short straw that day. And Mitch has swum the last sprint; he’s feeling the workout, and he’s had enough waiting. He just wants Tara to call as she promised she would, and he wants to say – well what? He’s said so many things in his head that now he doesn’t know what’s best, or even exactly what he thinks. He just wants to hear her voice. He goes, dripping, straight back to reception, and digs the phone out of his backpack.

Nothing. Doesn’t she owe him some respect?

Kelly the receptionist gives him an odd look as she comes in and turns her screen on: semi-naked colleague dripping in office.

“I’m going to get a coffee,” he tells her, makes for the door, then returns for his shirt. During the five-minute drive he remembers something Tara said when she called a week ago with her news: Suppose I was pregnant, what would you think then? I’d be fucking furious, he’d thought.

“Well–”

“I’m not, by the way.”

“Well, I’d be wanting to know how you felt about it… And to be honest, I’d be thinking, well, babies are great, but that is something you could do anytime over the next two decades.”

He had wanted to say:

Look, sometimes it’s hard to honour your gift, but you’ll feel better for doing it in the long run.

You’ll never forgive yourself if you turn away now.

This is just a blip.

Just hang in there a bit longer and it’ll feel good again.

Hang in three more years.

Get what you came for, then quit.

Why would you not do this?

You are so very, very lucky¬!

How dare you throw your chance away!

“But the thing was to handle it so that she didn’t get backed into a corner. “Look,” he said eventually, “It’s a big decision. Just do this one thing for me. Take a week to think it over every which way one more time, then call me again.”

She said yes.

So where is she?

He should get some breakfast, but can’t decide what. He stirs cream and two sugars into a cup of strong coffee, carefully fits the lid to the cup, then drives back to the pool. He carries the coffee to the little outside area where there are picnic tables and some play-equipment. He places the phone on the table about a foot away. I’ll drink this, he thinks, and then I will either call her and say What the hell? or smash this fucking phone with a rock. He enjoys the idea of the rock: it’s ludicrous but that does not mean that he won’t do it.

The taste of the coffee, its sweetness and temperature are perfect; he drinks slowly, pausing between mouthfuls to look at the pool building, the yellowing rhododendrons sprawled against it, the car parking area with its forlorn planters and lamps. He waits a little before taking the last mouthful. And then it’s gone, and the phone rings.

“Hi, Mitch!” her voice, light and even, gives no clue as to what she’ll say. “You okay? Got a few minutes?” He doesn’t mention that he should be at work.

“So, like you said, I’ve thought it over. “

“Great, Tara.”

“Well, Mitch… I am a hundred percent certain that I’m not stressed. Or in love. And I’ve not over-trained. It’s a fantastic program and they switch things up a lot. And it’s definitely not Max’s or Roxy’s or anyone’s fault that I’ve come to feel this way. They’re great coaches. I talked to them a few weeks ago, and they said to take a break and see if it freshened me up. I’m on my third week of the break now, and I really like it. I really, really like taking a break. And they sent me to a sports counsellor twice a week. Basically, I’m thinking, maybe I’ve swum enough?”

A counsellor once asked Mitch what the water represented for him and when he said nothing, suggested it might be the womb.

“Tara–” he begins, but she doesn’t stop for him.

“Of course, yes, there’s the Big O. And the Pan Am. All these goals I’ve had, we’ve all had, for years. And it’s been great to look forward to, but Mitch, my motivation’s zilch. I’ve lost interest. In winning stuff. In the podium. It’s like, done that.”

But no, Mitch thinks, you haven’t! You’ve got very close, but turned away, which is a completely different thing. He knows he’s right. Also, that it is worse than pointless to say so. Tara’s voice does not waver as she continues: “I don’t hate it, as such, but I don’t feel the pull any more. You just can’t train, you can’t get there unless you really, really want what’s at the end of it… It’s changed. I’ve changed. At first I ignored it, then I freaked out, but now it’s fine, I think. Good, actually. Because why not? Why can’t I be something different? I want to think about new things. The environment, stuff like that. And Mitch, it is so cool to pick up a book and not fall asleep by the end of the second page.”

You have your whole life to read books!

She’s still talking: how she might do volunteer work, and wants to see the world, not just the 50 metre pools in its major cities and the corridors of budget hotels. Could go to Guatemala. Bhutan. Thailand. Peru.

Beware of open water! Wear the life-jacket!

She’s thinking that when she’s earned some money. How? She’ll make some long trips, journeys that include biking, kayaking and camping, but also spend time in cities.

Always learn some of the language. Travel with someone. Buy your own drinks, and watch them!

“I feel awful about disappointing you all. But it is my life. I feel,” Tara says, her voice growing slower and less certain, “like I’ve ended a very long swim. When you climb out of the pool and stand on dry land ¬– you know that soft, heavy feeling while your body adjusts? Odd. And it is scary, because who am I without the water? What’s left of me? I have no idea. But I want to know. And Mitch, I don’t want to fall out over this. I really, really, don’t. Are you hearing me?”

He wants to advise her to at least keep her fitness up – after all, who is he to her if not her coach? He wants to tell her that in six weeks or even six months time, if she changed her mind she could probably still come back. But he takes a deep breath and says none of it.

“Yes,” he says and small as it is, that word comes hard, but then it’s done. The tears that course down his face are a relief. “Loud and clear. Got it, Tara.”

“Cool!” she says, her voice bright and free. “Thanks so much for everything, Mitch. I mean that. I’m heading west in a few weeks time. Guess I’ll visit you guys then.”

“All right, Tara. Take care.”

It’s over. He sits head in hands, alone on the bench outside the pool, his swimmers inside waiting for him, his face wet: it’s a strange feeling, a kind of passionate emptiness, an unexpected calm. Shock? Relief? Release? In any case, the best thing is to keep moving. Mitch stands, slips the cup in the trash and goes back in to the pool.

“It’s just how and what it is, and good luck to her, but I can’t pretend to like it,” he tells Annette later, the pair of them folded into each other, pressed close, rocking back and forth.

“It’s could be the best thing ever for her.” Annette pulls back a little so she can look up into his face. “And now, we have a truly empty nest… Please, Mitch, don’t you dare turn us into a cliché. Let’s go somewhere together, soon. Let’s get away and start thinking about something else.”

He has two weeks coming up. She’s thinking about Iceland. It’s mild and light almost all night long in August. You can cycle right round. It has puffins, geysers, hot springs, black beaches, all sorts of pools. You can scuba dive in the Silfra rift, swim in Viti lake.

Sure, Mitch says. It does sound great, though it’s not cheap, and somehow they don’t make the booking right away.

About a week later, he glimpses Sabrina and the twins in the grocery store, ahead of him in the tea and coffee aisle, and it floods through him: how much she must have been through, how much she has had to let go. He catches up with her in produce, and asks her if she’s heard from Tara. She nods and pulls a quick smile, meets his gaze.

“Apparently Josh took it very badly,” she says. “But she said you were just great… Once she knows where she’s going next, well, we all know she’ll work hard for it.” They’re standing quite close. Her face is open, relaxed. He’s not seen her like this before.

“I worry,” Mitch finds himself saying, “that as time passes, she may miss the training routine itself far more than she expects.”

“You could be right.” Sabrina touches him on the shoulder and her hand rests there a second or two. “Mitch,” she says, “when Tara gets back, we’ll do dinner or something with you and Annette.” Then she gathers up the twins and pushes her cart on towards the baked goods.

It’s such a soft but sudden feeling – something like waking up, something like his first sight of the Braedan Manor pool or of Lake Taupo, something like déjà vu: the sensation of what used to be turning itself, in the space of a breath, into the beginning of something else.

—Kathy Page

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Kathy Page‘s current love is the short story, but her fiction ranges widely in both form and content. Paradise & Elsewhere, her 2014 collection of fabulist fictions, was nominated for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. Her six novels, include the grittily realistic Alphabet (a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Award), The Find (a 2010 Relit Award finalist), and The Story of My Face (long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize). Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, a novel that interweaves realistic and fantastical elements, will see Canadian publication in the fall of 2015. Two more collections of stories are forthcoming.

Sep 042015
 
Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation

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Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.

Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.

By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.

Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.

Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.

I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.

I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.

Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.

In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.

In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”

Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?

When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”

What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.

In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.

In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.

In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)

In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”

The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso.   Not either/or; rather both/and.

In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.

Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.

The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”

In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.

—Larry Fondation

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Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)

They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.

“Who said for us to go?”

“It is time to go.”

Later, no one could say where those voices came from.

Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.

Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.

At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.

From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.

But the shopping carts continue to roll.

The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.

The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.

The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.

“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.

Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”

Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”

Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.

People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.

Time stops.

The LAPD intervenes.

But there is no time to go home, no turning back.

Godel is triumphant.

The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.

Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.

The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.

Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.

Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.

We de-camp.

Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.

*

Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.

Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!

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The Eviction (Short Story)

The house
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
Overhead
Let’s fuck
She says
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Lawn signs
Elections and evictions
No difference
Candidates
Revolution deferred
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Watching intently
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
Nails sharp
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
She persists
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
Bankruptcy
Value lost
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
Eight o’clock
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Next steps
Unsure
Is she mine?
Flatbed
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
History sucks
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.

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Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)

Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.

The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.

She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.

She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .

The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —

At one time or another,
Or evermore.

We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.

I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.

She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.

Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.

The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.

“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.

We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.

She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.

Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.

Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.

I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.

I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.

“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.

I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.

.

Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.

Sep 022015
 

Mark Jay Mirsky

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A: THE FIRST PERSON.

I WOKE UP DISLIKING MYSELF.

I was going to say, “hating” but that sounds grandiloquent, as if there was something massive, majestic, in the weight of who I have been.

No such luck.

Gravity was not holding me down in the bed.

No.

Nor the thought of those perfect round twin globes of yours.

Above, below.

I have been watching the energy level drop lately, the bounce of electrons, so that it’s hard to roll out of the sheets and rise up. Science tells us that this may be a general phenomenon. It’s not just me. It means the critical mass has dissipated further, passed out of the universe, space, in a loss of gravity that is accelerating our expansion towards nothing, absolutely nothing—Einstein’s “Cosmological constant” which became his nightmare.

We aren’t made of much anyhow it seems. More of that later, but the statistics shows that everything we know about and identify as “matter,” every bit, is only a possible paltry five percent of the universe. And this together with all manner of whatever else makes up everything we know for sure of, or can postulate with any assurance might exist, according to the physicists, is rushing. It can’t get away from itself fast enough, every moment faster and faster through the vast space of the galaxies. Yes, the negligible five percent of the universe that Science in the year 2004 thought we were made up of (who knows what the future will bring?) together with the rest of all of space and time’s normal matter; protons, neutrons, electrons, our bodies, minds, thoughts; everything we can touch and feel—sand, rock, water, the swell of your belly (no matter how much I want to stop and stroke it) was expanding faster and faster like the skin of a repulsive balloon into emptiness from which there is no return.

This is our birthday card from Science, with a capital S

On a more intimate level, a former student writes that her new teacher is, a light unto the universe. This latest professor, predictably “a brilliant woman,” has taught my student finally to “feel, express herself,” explicated texts that “make everything obvious,” and promises to make my former charge’s life “worthwhile.”

After this last, my student adds—a barb to points just scored—a meager phrase in which she acknowledges my “brave effort” a year ago to help her.

Why did she do this?

I never touched her belly. Never even thought about it. Not seriously.

Negative gravity, repulsive gravity, in some intricate flip-flop Science tells us is going to do us in.

Science, which is supposed to make things clearer, has concentrated on Dark Matter in the past few years. Dark matter! O Massa! Words like these are sheer metaphor. They say everything.

Science, which is supposed to shine light into darkness, tell us what lies in there, or out there, be a lamp unto the universe, speaks “darkly.” The best it can do is spin me around with the table of elements in a Black Hole.

Just as a matter of political correctness couldn’t Science have spared us the Black Hole, packed all the Dark Matter into one “White Hole,” “Rainbow Hole”? Wouldn’t that brighten life on the “Event Horizon”—the thought of a wild burst sucking us into the Mother of All Holes?)

Didn’t the Elizabethans think of sex as a form of happy extinction?

I am ready, however, to pass quietly into the Dark Matter and be done with it deep in a Hole.

You had denied me even a gentle movement of my fingers over your belly.

You didn’t need to say anything, just shudder, and I felt it.

Negative gravity.

Negative gravity is responsible for the measurable disorder into which I am disintegrating as I speak.

Negative Gravity is a repulsive force.

This explains why you didn’t just let a tremor of repulsion brush “it “when I put my hand on your belly charmed by its youthful shape; but turned your haughty eye on me.

Why did I have three children, embark on a university career, write six novels, four of which are presently gathering dust on my shelves?

Was it all just a futile battle against Negative Gravity? There is a more terrible threat than just Negative Gravity looming over my bed. Einstein in a discouraged moment imagined it, dismissed it but too late. (He understood the consequences of letting it into the scheme of things).

Einstein remained an optimist. Getting along, in the eyes of the world a lonely old man—he took off his socks. Imitatio Einstein. I intend to go out on Third Avenue without socks. (In former days, Third, or the Bowery, was the haunt of old men without socks or shoes too for that matter. Were they reaching toward a further asceticism, a horde of sun burned gurus? Third below Fourteenth, under the old, lamented subway ell, avenue of intoxicated Einsteins!) What did Einstein on his legendary walks without socks think of his nightmare, the Cosmological Constant? Its bugaboo—negative gravity pushing things apart in the whole universe, between me and you?

Watching my children’s movie fables, Lord of the Rings, etc., a heap of rubber Boogie men and their dragon mounts, push out of the corners of the family toy chest, I sigh. Happy Days are Here Again. At four and a half the Atomic bomb went off unexpectedly and with it proof that my toy chest only held a negligible fraction of nightmare. Every ten years the shadow on the horizon looms larger, proof of the expanding universe. Atomic explosions, then Hydrogen, followed by Black Holes, and looming, the Cosmological Constant—acceleration towards chaos!

 .

B: SECOND PERSON (HYPOTHETICAL)

Every person carries a locked box full of forbidden thoughts, acts, possibilities with them, you think hurrying to your appointment with the young woman. She has alternately teased you—brushing her long limbed body against yours so that the heat of her lithe excitement passed into your legs and lap sodden with the beer she poured continually from the cask brought at her request—then lightly pushing you away, finally responding stiffly when you took her hand to say goodbye.

At the end of the evening, the box feels empty though on the way over its secrets threatened to burst the lid.

Why is the box empty? Symmetry would seem to underlie the cosmos. As she withdrew her excitement in you, an electrical spark flickered fainter and fainter toward her. You noted the lines burnt under her eyes. The disorderly charm of her hair dissipated and left it simply unattractive, a bird’s nest. Her description of her present boyfriend who was not sure what he felt toward her seemed more and more to fit your own feelings for her and the decision she articulated to simply withdraw from this man, ill matched it seemed except for that initial rage of voluptuous desire, and spend the time instead in books was exactly what you recommended to yourself as you walked, weightlessly, from her front door.

Entropy suggests the arrow of time in some models of the universe. In the most accurate modes of this one so far, all things process toward greater disorder and appear to fall apart.

What had been in the box for that brief moment when it seemed to contain not just an irrepressible amount of energy, but the secret of time turned back, bending the powerful arch of its arc? At least in your eyes you saw from another angle, one in which you could recover youth.

Is each human body a cosmos in which the story of the universe after the Big Bang is enacted? In the world of chance or planned encounters does the body set the individual spinning from the tight order of conception and birth to the disorder of death?

O it was too abstract!

Touching her breasts you had wanted to feel them swell with the promise of excitement she could not contain, and wanting that same lightning thrust from you to her. She drifted off into sleep instead. You got up bewildered, leaving her peacefully passed out on her couch.

Why had you come there though, feeling as if you held in a locked box what you missed previously? Was it the words, sentences that seemed to vouch for what you had missed, touching her breasts’ perfect tips, the sudden charge of pleasure, blinding, transfixing them both?

“Beyond time lies cold space and what does that imply?”

She is mute.

“Nothing.”

#

C: THE SECOND PERSON INTRODUCES A THIRD PERSON

How can you tutor her into seducing you? Try to break the silence? “Words, yes words are what allow human beings to escape into another dimension, even if it is an illusion. Dante is taught that lesson in his The New Life, by the “women who have intelligence of love.”

“‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.’”

“Are you going to give a lecture?” she asks.

Why don’t you go to the bathroom now? you grumble in your thoughts, anticipating her question, your reply. “Take The New Life with you.”

It’s hopeless. The copy you brought last week lies bedraggled on the couch. She is immersed in Home Economics, “How to Catch a Husband.” Nevertheless, your fingers strum over the little silver cords.

“‘Women who have intelligence of love!’ Why does the Florentine address with these particular words those teases of the 13th century?”

You hope your barb is sinking into her creamy flesh. You declaim. “Tall, slim young women, still unmarried, they gather at a street crossing, then walk to and fro together.

“They have all been to the right school.”

Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident. Con cio sia cosa che per la vista mia molte persone avessero compreso lo secreto del mio cuore, certe donne.

You read the Italian from the copy you gave her, retrieving it from the cushions. As she looks puzzled you are forced to speak plain English. “When that thing was so in my face that many people had understood the secret of my heart, certain women . . .

“Do you talk about me?” you want to ask. “If so, to whom? To what do you admit? Can’t you see that I am making a fool of myself for you?

“Why do you stare at me?” she asks taking another swig from the can in her hand, looking up at the ceiling. She has seen nothing in your face or chooses not to. Dante’s “secret” doesn’t interest her.

Why am I here? You ask yourself, but mutter, “Fortune.”

“Fortune?” she echoes, a dutiful but bored chorus.

“Dante claims Fortune brought him by the knot of heartbreakers parading up a street where they sweep along, daily, gossiping.

“Fortune? Do you believe that?”

A pause. “Or his story about encountering Beatrice’s friends ‘in the street one day’ quite by chance?”

“I didn’t get to that part, yet,” she sighs.

You try to greet her where she sits across from you, reclining in a collapsing armchair, as if she was one these women, girls in grace but beyond their years (nineteen, twenty?) in sophistication. Dante’s appreciation is summed up in the words he speaks aloud to the young woman and you apply it to her, crying out, “Donne gentili.”

A wrinkle of boredom in her brow signals to translate. “One might ring a series of adjectives, Women who are gentili—‘noble, elegant, well bred, heartbreakingly lovely.’ One steps out of the circle to mock. ‘She called me by name. “Dante, Alighieri, to what end do you love this, your lady, since you are not able to endure her presence? Tell us, for certainly, one may agree that the end of such love is bizarre, novissimo.”’”

You taste the condescension in that phrase, “novissimo.” “I could translate, ‘strange, novel, singular, most unusual,’ but somehow I feel the throat of Dante’s speaker warbling the ess’s, her eyebrows raised, and so, ‘bizarre.’”

The young woman you address ignores your hint. Instead she echoes, “To what end?” It has an ominous ring.

You ignore her question and go on. “‘When she had spoken these words, not only she, but all those who were with her, began to observe me, waiting for my reply.’

You take a deep breath, hoping in the silence the she opposite will express some interest, in your explication of La Vita Nuova (for a week now you have been praising it as a manual of secret love), or at least respond to the suggestion that through poetry she can engage in an elaborate dance with you.

“He sets the donne gentili a riddle. ‘Ladies, the end and aim of my love was but the greeting of that lady of whom I believe you are speaking; wherein alone I found that bliss which is the end of all my desires. And now that it has pleased her to deny me this, Love, my Master, of his great mercy has placed all my bliss there where it will not come to less.’”

By this time, you are convinced it will “come to less,” at least this evening, but continue as if you could achieve the force of irresistible, positive gravity with words.

“Dante has changed the subject. They have teased, ‘Why should you pay attention to a woman whose beauty so upsets you that you cannot bear to look at her?’ Dante complained that Beatrice will not longer look at him, but, no matter, he has found a source of ‘bliss’ that is just as good as her greeting.” You hope for a stir of curiosity.

“‘Then those ladies began to talk among themselves; and as I have sometimes seen rain mixed with the beautiful snow fall, so I seemed to hear their words come out mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken among themselves awhile, again, she addressed me.’

You listen. You hear no sigh, just the sip of beer against her lip as she guzzles her sixth can. You wonders if she is letting you go on because she is dead drunk.

#

D: THE SECOND PERSON THINKS “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

You go on with your Dante since she has abandoned you, to speak of the noble young woman. “‘She addressed me,’ which indicates that we are to fill in for ourselves the silence in the street, the sighs in the circle of women who no longer laugh, but feel for the young man who stands before him, sighing himself softly, so he hears it as a hush on the pavement. That image of death, the snow mingles in Dante’s head with the incessant cold rain as beautiful, comforting. The princess among the young women, who mocked his behavior as ‘bizarre,’ takes up the poet’s challenge. ‘This lady who had first addressed me, spoke these words, “We pray you tell us where this ‘bliss’ abides?

“Dante’s reply is arrogant. ‘In those words which praise my lady.’

“The young woman, who is the arbiter of the group, now trumps him. If your speech is true, those words describing your condition, would have been fashioned with another intent.’”

The young woman gets up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, she says. I have to go to the bathroom.”

#

E: THE SECOND PERSON BEGINS TO TALK TO HIMSELF.

He thinks he has been rebuked and given a lesson in courtship. Either he is lying to them now, or his poetry has fallen short of his intention. He has been whining in his verse. These young women in the street, the friends of Beatrice have administered a shock to his pride both as a poet and a young man intent on love. In plain vernacular they sum up his problem, ‘This is no way to woo her or any one of us. What praise is this talk of earthquakes, this perpetual weeping? Our beauty should cause joy not misery? Stop whining!’”

“Should I stop?” you ask. She has come back from the bathroom in the interim and waves you on. The pause has taken four or five minutes, in which time you have decided with the poet to take another tack.

“Dante’s tongue is frozen for several days as he admits. He still wants to write poetry, but now he doesn’t know where to begin. When he does, his “words” are different and he addresses them in gratitude to, “Women who have intelligence of love, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.” “Refined and sensitive in love,” one translator proposes, but it is the lesson that Dante is referring to, and therefore the ironic echo of the pedantic, addressing the young women as students echoes in his compliment.”

I am counting on your intelligence too, you think, for something to come of this.

“It is a ‘love so sweet’ Dante sings about now, that it threatens as the musical rhyme comes tumbling, ‘to make lovers of you all.’ Don’t stop, dear words, my verse, he cries, with anyone vulgar, but ‘solo con donne o con omo cortese,’ ‘only with women and men of refinement,’ who can help. ‘Sensitive,’ the translator offers in English for the Italian of ‘cortese. linking it to his previous ‘refined and sensitive,’ ‘Stop and sing only to those who are themselves lovers.’”

“Love is with his lady, Dante is sure. She is already in love, not just with one, but many. Can she begrudge Dante Alighieri her marvelous greeting that transforms all who receive, who obtain just the glance of her eyes?

“How does Dante know this?” you ask out loud.

She is mute with alcohol but you supply the answer. “The circle of young women buzz in agreement. ‘Love and the heart that is gentil, gracious, /are but one thing,

“‘Beatrice, you are consumed. I feel it. You radiate love.

“‘You and love are the same thing!’ Dante cries aloud. And Beatrice’s friends go singing this.”

#

“Are you leaving?” she asks.

“Yes” and you mumble at the door, hoping for a reaction, Despite the fact that she let The New Life you gave her, get soaked in the rain while she trekked around the city with a boyfriend, she might have thumbed a few pages in it. “I can’t endure your presence.”

“What did you say?”

“Were you listening?”

#

F: THE FIRST PERSON DECIDES TO TAKE A HAND.

It is the cosmological constant that is at fault here. Gravity working against us: everything flies apart. I have to use the force pushing me out of existence to assert itself. Reverse engineering of a sort.

“Come into the shadow of this red rock, Jack and Jill. I will show you something… Entropy!

“Jill, let me rest my head on your tummy.”

“I am reserved for a great one of the land,” she whispered. It came out a bit more crudely when I asked, persistently, why I was no longer allowed proximity to what lay under her clothes, or even flashed out between her belt line and her blouse, as pure temptation. In fact she said nothing at the moment when I made the gesture in the direction of her belly button. It was earlier, discussing a fellow poet’s attempt to book a hotel room for the two of them in a city where he was giving a lecture, that she remarked, “Who does he think he is? If he were a great writer, I would consider it.” She laughed, tossing her head, seeing me nod in agreement with her admirable taste.

 .

Later, not much later, maybe a minute or so, I understood her attitude toward my own talent, implicit in this regard.

I tried to scare her with the Cosmological Constant. “Gravity is coming to get you,” I warned. “You better watch out.”

Gently, very gently, I explained how her belly with the rest of the universe was expanding and that soon it would not be fun to spread my palm over it.

“No, no,” she cried, truly convinced, in awe of the approaching Constant. I congratulated myself. I prepared to snuggle up when she whipped out a cell phone and called a girlfriend. She was ready to curl up in a hidden dimension but not with me—“words, words, words,” floating free of gravity.

#

G: ABANDONING PERSONAE

“Words are things” is the insistent refrain of the testament of Moses.

It is those laughing words of hers that have filled the box and he has lived in them for a moment, building in their dimension a hidden abode, resting, from the speed of light bearing him off in his own trip toward entropy.

His own words had weight as well for a moment. Our narrator felt that, but also the danger of extending his fingers: trying to fix her in their web instead of what he had just recited—rhymes meant to vibrate in her now as if he had reached into chords running through her musculature where she responded in delight.

Why follow up those delicate tremors that passed between them in the air at a space of six, seven feet with the brutal thrust of knees, wrists, assuming he pinned her on the floor, couch—or pushed her back into her bedroom, with the emergence of a third party insisting on a corporal, probably unwelcome entry.

Still one wants words to do things. Wants words to translate into mass, and mass into energy. Dante, who pretended to take comfort in his lines of poetry tripping through the streets of Florence, sees words in their character of sounds, images, as only the first stage in his courtship. Academics rarely hear Dante’s wry humor, as he appears to bow his head and accept the rebuke of his beloved’s girlfriends, resign himself to being hopelessly removed from her body’s pleasures in the wake of her marriage.

Words pass though the windows, and come like a fever’s germs on the lips and tongue of those who repeat them, the magical rhymes which go on singing, singing in the ears of Dante’s Beatrice. She locks herself in her bedroom the better to hear them, as they inscribe themselves in memory as a code that turns the body to desire as the secret strings of the genetic code.

This is Dante’s string theory. It works if one is to believe the testimony of La Vita Nuova. Beatrice unites with him in perfect union, indivisible symmetry; if one can specify mystical love in contemporary syllogisms.

Is string theory nonsense as physicists try to understand it? No one knows for sure. The tropes of Science served Shakespeare, Dante, but the box of words, which my personal pronoun carried back and forth to her apartment in the East Village, is empty.

The spirit has fled the vowels. The consonants lie collapsed.

What did she write?

“I miss you.”

What did he read into that as it flew into the box?

“Snuggle up”?

“I have ten dimensions, only three exist in space and a fourth in time. Find me!

“Most of me is missing.”

The “dark matter” in the box begins to move as he thinks about it.

How about the “dark energy” that seventy percent of the universe that’s really missing?

No, better to stick closer to what one might be able to grasp, the twenty five percent he can guess at.

With words though, he is down to the five percent of real matter, since they generate sound waves, measurable amounts of energy expelled at her from his voice box. And the words held in memory? Don’t they flash in tiny electrical currents each time he thinks of them?

Don’t they summon up the smooth touch of her skin, as she lay back naked against him on the bed? He can feel his pleasure again at her high, small breasts and the curve of her buttocks against the mattress; the way the classic line of her face recalls a fragment of classical statuary; its nose roughened in the excavation after a millennium or two under the earth. He wants to enfold himself in her porous marble and take flight.

What energy had given the image the power to make him whirl, giddy, barely holding on to the box for a moment?

Like a speck of quantum matter, in being observed, it had changed direction, spin, position.

There, and now, it was gone.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

.

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

Aug 092015
 

Timothy Dugdale

.

BENZEMA TURNED THE KEY and the big black frigate with wounded bumpers roared to life. Every car in town took its lumps. People drove wild, aggrieved at things beyond their understanding. Here comes The Duke was the prevailing attitude at the wheel.

It was a day of errands. Benzema was not enchanted by the agenda even though he knew he’d be splashing in the surf of Cuba’s best beach in two weeks if he succeeded with the item at the top of the bill. He had lost his citizenship card and it was impossible for him to renew his passport without the card. The immigration office had called the day before, announcing the arrival of a replacement card from some godforsaken piece of rock on the edge of Nova Scotia where they paid hillbillies to push paper for the government because there were no fish to catch nor coal in the mines. All he had to do was show up at the office and sign for the card.

.

After downing an espresso and a brandy at a local cafe on the way, Benzema trawled to the immigration office, a low-slung gray bunker in an industrial park. The lot was almost full. Just inside the door was a ticket machine and he took a number. He cast a wary eye over the room and its steerage rabble, all come to the True White North. Benzema was no blue blood and he knew it. His people were Dutch drunks who farmed for a a few generations and then moved into the factories. His wife came from a line of scoundrels in Suriname including a dodgy mortician who was not beyond grave-robbing for profit. A coffin in the ground by noon would be back on the showroom floor the next day by noon. Benzema folded himself into a seat at the end of a row of orange plastic chairs, closest to the wickets. There were three wickets open, one large one and two smaller ones. The churn seemed pretty good. People were smiling, even the Chinese clan fussing with a folder of paperwork.

But after twenty minutes, one of the wickets shut. Ten minutes later, another one shut. No more churn. No more smiles in the room. All eyes drifted to the wicket that was open. Three women in full length burkas were seated in front of the counter. Off to the side was a young man intensely watching the women. A swarthy middle-aged man in a ratty sport coat was saying something to the big lady behind the counter. At one time, she might have been a biker’s mama, she had that hard-bitten look. She probably had some tats, thought Benzema, perhaps a rose over her tit that was now a full vine. Whatever abuse she had to take was long gone because now she had this iron-clad sinecure. She was behind a choice piece of glass, not unlike one at a zoo, looking into a pen.

“Sir, I’m going to say it one more time. He’s not coming into Canada. Your daughter’s fiance has three convictions. And he is on not one but two lists,” she said, her voice made tinny by the microphone.

The man leaned his shiny dome into the wicket and shouted, “But the wedding is planned.”

The woman let out a little chuckle. “Go ahead with the wedding, have a big one, but it’s not going to happen in Canada.”

“My daughter… I have guaranteed…everything is set with his family.”

Aha, thought Benzema, a deal. But what could be the deal? Money. Perhaps. Not this man’s money. No, it had to be a passport and his daughter, his daughter’s virgin fresh self, ensured by his son, the appointed protector of the collateral. That’s the deal, thought Benzema, he was sure of it, a deal probably made while the groom and the bride were still growing in other wombs. Some people run swindles with coffins, other people run swindles with wombs. It’s a jungle, a zoo.

The woman in the middle chair said something to her father. The man frowned and muttered a retort. The young man turned up his scowl a notch.

“What I’m telling you, sir, is that your daughter can marry this guy anywhere she likes and they can live anywhere they like. Just not in Canada.”

“Where are these lists? Show me these lists.”

“Sir, you’re going to have to contact the minister in Ottawa. We only have the information that they send us.” The microphone clicked off with a squelch of finality.

.

All three of the women had started weeping openly. The young man, leaning against the edge of the wicket, never took his eyes off them. As Benzema was watching this stalemate, he noticed that the reedy black man in an immaculate suit seated across from him had also taken an interest in the show. At first the man only glanced over but then his expression changed, as if he recognized a foul odour, like a Frenchman sniffing a bad cheese. Now the black man was not just watching. He was glowering. On one of his cheeks was a raised scar and his eyes were bloodshot daggers. He glanced at Benzema. Benzema cocked a brow that the man must have read as both solidarity and license. He stood up and moved to the counter.

“Excuse me, ma’am” he said loudly to the woman behind the glass. His accent was British.

“Can you tell me when you will have more personnel?” He waved his arm out over the room.

“Many of us have things to do.”

“Sir,” the woman said brightly, “everyone is on break but will be back. Please be patient.”

The black man nodded towards the crew at the wicket. “Ma’am, I have been patient. You have been patient. Now please send these people on their way.”

Benzema glanced around. What was happening was lost on the room. “Sir, someone will be with you soon. You have your number.”

The black man exploded. “I will not sit down. I have been sitting down. I’m finished sitting down. This country must not sit down!” He pointed at the father. “You will not infiltrate.” And then he pointed at the women on the chairs. “And you, you will not breed.” He turned and sauntered away in dignified pique.

.

The woman behind the glass lumbered to her feet and followed him with her eyes. Benzema could see her head nodding ever so slightly. She descended into her chair, shimmying the carapace of her bosum. Her microphone crackled. “Number 78, please, number 78, you’re next.” Benzema glanced at his ticket and stood up. He stepped towards the counter, the trio of women in black and their keepers still implacable.

—Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well (http://dugdale.atomicquill.com). He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (http://noh.atomicquill.com)

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Aug 062015
 

Brianna Berbenuik

.

“To escape from horror, as we have said, bury yourself in it.”
-Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

straight lines

We are sitting on the floor of the file room because somewhere, an exhibit transfer sheet is in the wrong file in the wrong box of a homicide that is over two decades old. Everything smells like dust and cardboard, old handwritten reports are like parchment and yellowing. The door is closed and I am sitting with my back against it. He pulls out an old photo album from the latest box.

“Wanna see some old autopsy photos?”

It’s a strange level of intimacy, a weird brand of seven minutes in heaven, locked in a murder file room with a photo album, like someone showing you their family portraits, their childhood.

Inside there is a woman with her throat flayed open, deep red congealed blood hugging her esophagus.

“See, that’s how we know the pressure that was used to strangle her was enormous. It’s actually pretty surprising. Like the fucking Hulk did this.”

Aerial photos of the backroad she was found on.

“If you look at a map, and you can kind of see it if you stitch the photos together, you can tell the person was panicked. It happens when you do surveillance a lot, when someone’s trying to get away or shake a tail.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look. Here’s the main road. Here’s where she was found. What do you see?”

“Left turn, left turn, left turn.”

“Exactly. He was scared when he was dumping the body. Panicking. We never go in a straight line when we’re trying to get away.”

.

dispatches

i.

A: I once killed a deer with a 5lb hammer.

It was a buck, stuck in the fence. It was injured and clearly in a lot of pain, struggling to get free. I called the parks people – they’re the ones who will come out with a rifle to put the deer down – but they said the guy who did that wasn’t even on the island. So I asked him, “do you have a gun?” he says “nope.” what did I have? I didn’t have a gun, I didn’t even have a knife, but I had this hammer. So I went up to the deer, struggling in the fence and I killed it. I hit it in the head.

Q: Did you kill it in one hit?

A: Hell no. it took more than one, i’ll tell you that. Christ, I don’t even want to think about it again.

ii.

A: When i worked up north there was a floater stuck in a log boom on the river. Came from way higher up, floated down for I don’t know how long. he’d been dead a while. So we had to go get the boat to drag him in, and I had the long hook you were supposed to get ‘em with, and bring them to the side of the boat so you could grab them and heave them up. But this guy was so far rotten, I thought I had his arm but it rips right off, starts floating down the river. So I go for his leg and think it’s all good, but that breaks off too. Eventually we end up with the torso.

Q: did you get the legs and arms?

A: Oh yeah, we went chasing after them down the river, eventually got them all. But that guy didn’t smell very nice, I’ll tell you.

iii.

A: Once we got a call to retrieve a floater off of [redacted] road, right on the beach there. But the tide was out, and he was stuck in this really rocky area where the water was about waist high. There were emergency responders on the beach to help us, but they couldn’t get him because he was too far out. So we are trying to grab this guy from the boat and I realize it’s not going to happen. I said to my partner, “well, looks like we’re going in.” I grabbed the bag, the one you use to put the body in, and I cut the corners out of it so the water could drain and we jumped in and managed to coax the body into the bag. My partner’s turning white and trying not to gag, and I’m egging him on like, ‘you’re in the fucking water with this guy!’ Anyway, we get him back up on the boat and we’re both soaked, and fuck he smelled.

Q: So do floaters found in fresh water smell worse or better than the ones in salt water?

A: They’re both pretty rank. I don’t know if there’s a difference. Decomposing human is worse than any other smell. It’s terrible. You can recognize it a mile off, you know it’s not an animal. Maybe we’re just hardwired to know the scent of our own species.
pieces

They will take apart your daughter when she is fifteen years old. They will flay her from head to toe, removing skin, fat, muscle: dismantling her. You handed over her body after she was driven into the woods by a man only a few years older than her where he beat her to death with a hammer. He beat other women to death with the same hammer and now, as they take your daughter’s eyes from her sockets, and they fold her skin off her face, they will press a substance like thick mud into the broken parts of her skull where it will harden to match the wounds with those of the other women.

(You hear that one of the other women, found partially buried and burned somewhere, animals pulling her out of a shallow grave, was so far decomposed they had to ship her rotting corpse, maggots and all, to a forensic osteologist who boiled her down to the bare bones so they could study her wounds, the wounds that will be compared to your daughter’s)

You didn’t want to let her body go.

She will come back to you in pieces. The man who killed her will be sentenced to life in prison but it will never be enough because he is still alive, and he beat your daughter to death with a hammer, and you had to send her body away to be taken apart.

(All the king’s horses and all the king’s men)

You will stop believing in god and live with the emptiness of loss and grief that will be endless and the cold, hard stone in your chest that is the knowledge that he is left and she is gone.

.

wounded animals

There are two cameras in the interview room and you are a voyeur. Face view. Full view.

Face view shows only the face of a young man, twenty-something, who killed a woman by beating her, and then throwing her in the trunk of an old car and lighting it on fire after dousing her and the car with gasoline. Before he closed the hood to the trunk, he took one last long look at the girl.

Full view. The girl’s mother is brought into a room to face her daughter’s killer.

The mother asks the murderer what her daughter’s last words were.

He replies: what’s that smell?

The smell was her burning flesh.

The mother looks him in the eye and doesn’t flinch, she says, “her greatest fear was fire, and you burned her alive.”

Imagine that.

With only a small table between them, the strength it takes not to try to strangle this man, to launch forward and press a thumb in each eye, gouging the orbs out of their sockets, tearing out his oesophagus with her teeth, to ruin him and adorn herself with his insides, to not throw a single punch, is a feat few can claim.

She is escorted out of the room, and the door clicks shut quietly behind her.

Face view. Now the man is seated, hands folded on the tabletop, staring forward.

Full view. A man sits at an empty table. He is still.

And outside, a wail.

I wrote about it in a letter to a friend, weeks after I had seen it.

i can’t forget the sound. i will never forget it. i dream about it. it follows me. i’ve seen so many crime scenes and dealt with horrible things by laughing at them, but i can’t laugh at this. there is no way to. it is one of the few things you can’t ever find the humour in, you can’t protect yourself from. a parent’s ache of losing a child. the demolishing of their entire world, their reason for being. how do you measure that loss?

i once saw a rabbit get hit by the wheel of a bus, leaving its back end entirely crushed. it tried to pull itself off the road but its entrails were ground into the asphalt and anchoring it there. it was screaming. the scream was so jarring and unnatural, frightening and deeply piercing.

the woman screamed like the rabbit screamed, only deeper and more prolonged. it isn’t a sound i’ve ever heard a human being make. it was rage and loss and everything primal exiting out of her mouth, like an exorcism.

except there are no demons here. it’s been said that all demons are just humans. and all humans are just animals.

.

shaken baby

Infant autopsy photos.

the tiniest of human hearts
barely 7 centimeters.
insides pink and clean.

When they do forensic autopsies on babies they need to
strip away all the skin and muscle on the back to get to the spinal cord and then
they take the spinal cord out and look inside that and the baby’s body is like this deflated balloon face-down on the table like that stupid fucking puppet they used to teach kindergarten kids about ‘private parts’ because adults need some kind of comforting displacement when they talk about the truth of the horrors of the world and of adults and therefore themselves with children.
there is a drawer in the morgue that is labelled:

“legs & infants.”

I’ve never opened it to verify the contents.

—Brianna Berbenuik
.

.

Brianna Berbenuik has a Bachelors degree in English from the University of Victoria, where she was also an avid student of Slavic Studies. For the past several years she has worked in various positions in emergency services and currently assists in Major Crime investigations. She has a modest collection of skulls and bones, enjoys horror movies and detective shows, and has an apartment full of thriving plants. She lives in Victoria, BC.

You can request to follow her on Twitter, @ukrainiak47, or follow her on Instagram  @ukrainak47.

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Aug 042015
 

armand-agora-in-neukc3b6lln-berlin-20-11

Louis Armand is no stranger to the faithful readers of  Numéro Cinq. At the end of 2013, we published an excerpt from Cairo, a swirling novel that found itself shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s 2014 Not-the-Booker Prize. And we’re pleased to now present a snippet from Armand’s latest, Abacus. Publisher Vagabond Press calls Abacus, “A decade-by-decade portrait of 20th-century Australia through the prism of one family … a novel about the end times, of generational violence and the instinct for survival by one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets.” Like his earlier novels, Abacus sinks its teeth deep within an environment—this time Armand’s homeland—providing the reader with a visceral understanding of the territory, and thus a greater empathy for the individuals who roam each page.

This excerpt is a condensed version of a later chapter in the novel, titled “Lach,” though it was originally titled “King Shit.” In the following, childhood carelessness butts heads with the lingering aftereffects of wartime trauma. This is, of course, just a taste of what Armand has to offer. For the full picture, seek out the novel itself. It’s well worth the time.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Armand_Abacus_front_cover_grande

The morning the spastic girl walked out in front of morning assembly with her undies down, bawling for her arse to be wiped, was the last time they ever had to sing “God Save the Queen.”

It was March and the Drover’s Dog had just won a landslide victory for the ALP in the federal election. A republican was made Governor General. “We’ve got our own bloody anthem,” Lach imagined him saying to the knobs at Buckingham Palace, Sir Bill, because you couldn’t have a Governor General, even Billie Hayden, who wasn’t a “Sir.” Just like their headmaster, Crazy Crittendon, who went purple when the spastic girl came up in front of the whole school like that, skid-marked knickers round her ankles, you had to call him “Sir” if you didn’t want a caning or detention for a week.

“Bwoo! Mnaaa!” the spastic girl wailed.

The teachers were all standing out the front singing the nation’s praises while all the kids just mumbled along not knowing the words, they’d only ever heard it on the tellie when someone on the swimming team won a medal at the Commonwealth Games. “Australia’s suns let us rejoice,” what was that supposed to mean? But when the spastic girl did her thing everybody suddenly went silent. Three hundred kids sweating under the hot sky in turd-brown uniforms, waiting to see what Old Cricket Bat’d do next.

Which was exactly the moment Buzik, standing in the middle of the back row, chose to crack the loudest fart in history.

*

“They make a lie so big, no-one can see it,” Wally Ambrose said once. Reg could hear the old bloke’s voice in his head clear as day. Could see him, too, sitting on the verandah, handing him a model spitfire. Who knew how old he was back then? Wally’s voice came to him while he was sitting in the parking lot at the Holsworthy Army Base, across the river in Liverpool, waiting for Eddie. They’d called him in for some medical checks. Ever since Eddie’d come back from Vietnam, he’d been having trouble sleeping at nights, couldn’t breathe properly, kept getting headaches, skin rashes, sometimes couldn’t feel his hands.

The doctors said there was nothing wrong with him, but one doctor thought it might be something to do with the war. Agent Orange. The stuff the Yanks dropped by the metric tonne to kill-off jungle cover along the Ho Chi Minh trail. There’d been talk in America of child birth-defects. Both of Eddie’s kids had the worst kind of asthma. As a matter of course the Fraser government denied everything. The army wanted their own doctors to have a look, so Eddie got the call and Reg’d offered to drive him over to the base, knowing his brother’d be too shook-up afterwards to manage the traffic alone. The vets had been bullshitted all along the line, it was just a question of time before enough of them cracked and took matters into their own hands.

Finally, now Fraser’d got the boot, there was talk of a Royal Commission. “Yeah,” Eddie said, “Royal fuckin’ Whitewash.” Reg switched on the radio and got Rex Mossip in mid-stream, then dialled across to a different station — Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs — and tilted his seat back, closing his eyes with the music on low. Politics didn’t mean anything to him anymore. He had enough drama of his own to worry about, a fucked-up marriage, a smartarse kid and a job that had him pegged for a cardiac before he hit forty. He never did get called to the bar, working his way through the NSW Public Service instead, “faster than a rat up a drain.” It didn’t take long to earn a name for himself as a hatchet-man. They sent him to balance the books in every dysfunctional underperforming redundant backwater of government. From Attorney General’s to Education to Consumer Affairs and finally Premier’s, kicking heads at the personal behest of Neville “Wran-the-Man” on a Grade-11 salary. Another ten years, he could sign-off in style with a harbour view.

But Reg wanted out. Besides, there was nowhere left to go, he’d already bagged the number two job to the biggest hatchet-man in the service, Gerry “Bottom of Darling Harbour” Gleeson. To get his job, he’d have to stiff the fucker. Only alternative was to bide time till the next election and hope Nifty Nev took a nose-dive at the polls, but even then. Besides, in this game, you sat still and you were a dead duck.

Reg dialled-up the volume on the car radio so as not to think about his glorious future any more. A commercial ended and he found himself listening to Acker Bilk. He stabbed at a button blindly and got a different station. “History never repeats,” someone sang over background guitar in a high nasally voice, “I tell myself before I go to sleep…” He made a wry grin, seeing himself exactly like that, stuck in a vicious circle of his own making and trying to bullshit his way out of it. Bullshitting a bullshitter. It was a sure way to fame and glory, peace and happiness, whatever the fuck he’d been pretending all these years he wanted out of life. And what did he want? He didn’t know. To be King Shit maybe.

There was a tapping on the passenger-side window. Reg lent over and flipped the handle. Eddie pulled the door open and slumped into the seat. His face looked sunken and puffed-out at the same time, dark around the eyes, bloodshot. His fingernails were yellow from chain-smoking, to give his hands something to do so he wouldn’t scratch all the time. Had to drink himself to sleep, too, because none of the pills the doctors gave him worked. “Fucking placebo shit.” Whatever they’d been sprayed with over in ’Nam had its claws in deep and wasn’t letting go.

“What’d they say?”

“Usual,” Eddie said, rolling the window down and reaching for the car lighter, a Winfield already wedged in the corner of his mouth.

“Any chance of compo?”

Eddie dragged on his cig, killing half of it in one go while plugging the lighter back in the dash.

“Buckley’s, mate,” he said, exhaling a long plume of smoke out the window. “Only way the government’s forking-out’s if someone proves liability. But to prove liability, they’d hafta prove they used the stuff in the first place. And since they deny the stuff even exists, we may as well just hand ourselves straight to the head-shrinkers, ’cause as far as the experts are concerned, this whole Agent Orange shit’s in our fuckin’ imaginations.”

*

Buzik had freckles and was the shortest kid in the sixth grade, though he acted like he was some sort of Daniel Boone. He lived on Kingarth Street, near the park ruled by an ancient magpie called Big Eye. A strip of concrete in the middle of the park served as a cricket pitch, but no-one ever wanted to field at long on, because that was right under Big Eye’s tree. Legend had it Big Eye once tore a ball to shreds mid-air on its way for a six. All that was left of it were bits of string and leather and scabby cork raining on the boundary. Or maybe Buzik just made that up.

Short-arse though he was, Buzik was the undisputed king of the tall tale. He could cook-up an adventure out of anything. One day he came to school with a copy of Huckleberry Finn and decided their gang was going to build a raft. Buzik, Lach, Robbo and Robbo’s lisping kid brother, White-as-Wayne. He drew up the plans from a Scout’s handbook. To make a raft, he explained, first you had to find some empty forty gallon drums, then some timber to make a frame, some rope to square-lash the drums to the timber, and finally some planking to build a deck. There was a dam just off South Liverpool Road he knew about, past Wilson’s, all they had to do was find the stuff they needed and get it there, then they could lie about on the water pretending they were floating down the Mississippi.

The rope was the easiest bit, the drums were trickier. Buzik found a dozen lying around among the car wrecks in the wasteland behind the Liverpool Speedway, but most were rusted full of holes. They managed to salvage four that looked like they’d float, but the problem was how to get them across to Wilson’s — you couldn’t haul a forty gallon drum on a BMX. White-as-Wayne said they ought to use shopping trolleys, so they hiked across to the gully where the drain at the end of Orchard Road emptied out, to see what they could find. People dumped all sorts of stuff there, but especially shopping trolleys. There was always at least one upended in the grass whenever they went by on the way to school.

You’d never know the dam off South Liverpool Road was even there. It was trees and dense bush all the way along the roadside with a three-strand wire fence. But if you climbed through the fence at the right spot there was a path into the undergrowth that about fifty metres from the road forked left and right, and to the right it ran smack into the reeds along the shoreline of a wide dam. To the left, the path eventually found its way along the top of the dam wall, a berm of compacted earth with a steep run-off into a ditch where a farmer’s septic tank overflowed. You could follow the path half-way around to the other side of the dam or veer left again where soon you came across old chicken coops stacked high against the side of a barn, a tower of corrugated rust with a wrecked school bus parked in front of it. On the other side of the bus was the farmer’s house.

The four of them must’ve made a queer sight ferrying old diesel drums balanced on a shopping trolley across South Liverpool Road, then wrestling them through the fence and into the bushes, but who would’ve seen them? White-as-Wayne stood sentry on the corner of Wilson’s and shouted the all-clear when no cars were coming. And whenever one did, they dived for cover among the weeds that grew waist-high. The trolley and the drum were just more of the usual wreckage camouflaged into the scenery. It took all morning, but eventually they had the drums stashed in a clearing under the canopy of a low-hanging she-oak. Then they went off scavenging.

Buzik, crawling on his belly, snuck into the creaking barn and found a cool-box full of beer bottles. He came back with six of them slung inside his shirt. Robbo and Lach meanwhile had wandered off onto the other side of the dam and found some corrals and a pile of timber that’d been cut once upon a time for fence posts. The posts looked ideal. White-as-Wayne guarded the drums. Buzik had already cracked one of the bottles and was down by the water sucking beer when Robbo and Lach came back with the news. The rest of the beers were bobbing at the edge of the reeds, keeping cool. White-as-Wayne was busy climbing a tree.

“Where’d you get the Tooheys?” Robbo said.

“That’s for me ta know ’n’ youse ta find out,” Buzik grinned.

They parked themselves beside him and cracked a couple of more bottles and sat there drinking thoughtfully.

“This stuff tastes like piss,” Lach gagged.

“In one end, out the other,” said Buzik and proceeded to whip out his dick right there in front of them and, holding the bottle of Tooheys upended in his mouth, arced a stream of piss into the water.

When the beer was finished the four of them tramped back to the horse yards to collect the timber Robbo and Lach’d spotted.

“Jesus Christ,” Buzik said, trying to haul one of the fence posts off, “this stuff weighs a tonne.”

“Yeah,” Robbo gloated, “solid as. The raft’ll never break, no matter what.”

“Give us a hand, will ya?”

Two-by-two they carried and dragged the wood all the way back around to the other side of the dam. The dam was bigger than it looked. It was getting dark by the time they’d hauled the six posts they needed. Four for the frame to lash the drums to, and two for cross-beams to keep it square. There was an old tarpaulin in the barn, Buzik said, which they could use for a deck, and even a couple of oars that must’ve belonged to a row-boat once. They trudged off home in the twilight and pulled the splinters form their hands and next morning went back for the canvas and oars and set about putting Buzik’s grand design into effect.

Lashing the posts to the drums took some finesse, the rest was easy by comparison, it was just a question of getting the ropes tight enough so the whole thing wouldn’t just come apart. Then they had to cut a path through the reeds down to the water. They cracked a few more of the farmer’s beers and poured some over the raft to christen it. The Graf Spee, Buzik wanted to call it. But in the end they just called it “The Raft.” On the stroke of midday they pushed off. It was heavy work, hauling their contraption out of the clearing and down the bank. Then all of a sudden it slid out into the water and down, down, catching the sunlight faintly through the murk. The raft came to rest about a metre beneath the surface, a faint trail of bubbles rising from the drums, the hardwood posts making immobile shadows beneath the canvas as it flapped in the cold current.

*

Robbo’s house was a block east of Buzik’s, on Trevanna Street. Lach lived on the other side of Whitlam Park. All three of them played footie for the under-11s. Maroon-and-blue were the locals colours. The school colours were yellow-and-brown, like flying-monkey guano Buzik said. On weekends when they weren’t kicking a ball in the park or roaming about on their bikes, they’d hang out at Robbo’s place. If no-one else was home they’d stuff about on the phone impersonating Robbo’s neighbour, ringing the taxi companies or the pizza delivery man for giggles. Their record was three taxis at the same time, parked one behind another outside the Hogans’s front gate, honking their horns. Mr Hogan knew who the culprits were and bawled at them over the side fence. Said he’d kick their arses so hard his boot’d poke them in the back of the teeth. So then they phoned a towing service, an undertaker, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well.

There were three Roberts brothers, the eldest played guitar in an AC/DC cover-band and was the stuff of legend. White-as-Wayne was in fourth grade, short and skinny with blond hair and a lisp. They teased him a lot but let him tag along, though he had to swear on his life not to tell anyone about The Raft.

Buzik was never one to let a minor setback get in his way, so the weekend after their first effort sank they went back with their shopping trolley and hauled four more empty drums up to the dam. This time they found a couple of planks from a scaffold on a building site and tied them crosswise like an outrigger. They pushed off and this time it kept afloat. White-as-Wayne, who was the lightest, sat up front with Robbo at the back. Buzik and Lach, one oar each, sat on the outside drums and rowed, careful to avoid the snags.

They could’ve floated around the dam for days, it seemed to go on forever, one fjord opening onto another, and yet you could’ve walked the long way around it in an hour beating through the bush.

“There’s eels,” Buzik said, peering down into the black water.

White-as-Wayne pulled his feet up and crossed his legs at stern. Robbo stared glumly over the side.

“I’m goin’ in,” Buzik said, “see if I can catch one.”

He propped the oar on the cross-beam and stood up on the barrel. They were all wearing only their shorts. Buzik bounced on his feet, jumped, did a donkey kick mid-air and splashed down into the black. The outrigger swayed and bobbed. Lach paddled it in a half-circle towards one of the fjords. The undergrowth came down thick to the water’s edge, overhung by dangling willow trees. Dragonflies hovered. Skaters raced about on the surface. It was a warmish spring day and the air was full of insects. White-as-Wayne shivered.

“Hundreds of ’em,” Buzik shouted, flinging his head above the water. “Huge. Big as morays!”

“Bullshit,” Robbo moaned.

“What we need’s a fishin’ line,” Buzik said, catching hold of the port-side drum. “A bloke showed me ’ow to do it. You catch eels wiv a pin, tied to the line, like this.” He made gestures with his hands none of them could decipher. “We’ll catch ’em ’n’ roast ’em on a fire.”

Lach was busy with a pencil working on a map of the dam. He had a square of paper in a plastic bread bag which he kept wrapped up and tucked in the waist of his shorts. Right now he was adding the fjord they’d drifted into. There were roots jutting out from the bank and slimy reeds under the water and a tree stump with a skink lying flat atop it with only its head sticking up.

“What d’ya reckon we should call it?” Lach said.

“Call what?” Robbo shouted.

“This place,” he gestured with his pencil at the fjord in general.

“Something different from the last place,” Buzik said, clambering aboard. “Like Fuckwits’ Cove. Or Silly Cunts’ Bay.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t a cove, or a bay neither.”

“Haiwee Quack,” lisped White-as-Wayne.

“The Arsehole’s Arsehole,” crowed Robbo.

“You bastards’re no help. We’re meant to be explorers. Yer s’posed to give things proper names.”

“What like?” Robbo said. “Sydney Harbour?”

“Call it Lizard’s Bight,” Buzik said, grabbing his oar and pushing off from the tree stump, so they wouldn’t get snagged on its roots.

The outrigger drifted around on its axis. Lach stuffed his map in his pants while Buzik manoeuvred himself into position and they worked the paddles out to deeper water.

“Who d’ya reckon’s better looking, Jenny Carter or Helen Heckenberg?” Robbo said from the back.

“Carter’s a stuck-up bitch,” Buzik yawned, “’n’ Heckenberg’s an old stuck-up bitch.”

“Helen Heckenberg’s the biggest piece of class in these burbs,” Lach drawled.

“Helen Heckenberg’s got melons out to here,” said White-as-Wayne, hands groping the air in front of him.

“How d’you know?” said Robbo, splashing water at his younger brother’s back.

“Piss off!”

“Jenny Carter’s got a head like a sucked mango,” Buzik yawned again, “but I’d still root ’er.”

“You’d woot anythin’,” lisped White-as-Wayne. “You’d even woot one a tha spazos at school!”

“I ’ope ya can bloody swim,” Buzik growled, launching himself between the crossbeams and knocking White-as-Wayne right off his perch.

The two of them thrashed around in the water for a while before Buzik swam away towards the shore where their secret base was. White-as-Wayne clung to the drum at the head of the outrigger, sulking. Lach climbed onto the middle of the cross-beams and paddled legs-astride.

“Don’t ya reckon Jenny Carter’d be a real goer, but?” Robbo said.

“Bit skinny,” Lach said pensively, “’n’ she’s got more freckles than Buzo ’as. They might be related, you never know.”

“Yeah, but Buzo’s sister’s fat’n’ugly.”

And as if on cue the three of them started singing, “Who got beaten wiff tha fuggly stick? Buzo’s, Buzo’s. Who got beaten wiff tha fuggly stick? Buzo’s sister did!”

*

Lach had never seen his father fall down drunk before, but that’s what he did after the taxi driver helped him in the front door the night Lach and his mum stayed up to watch The Battle of Britain on the old twelve-inch black-and-white tellie. Midnight matinee. In the movies, people drank coffee when they had too much booze, to wake them up, so Lach took the matter in hand and brewed up a pot while his mum tut-tutted over the prostrate figure in the hall. He made a couple of guesses at how much of what went where and came back a few minutes later with a scalding cup of black sludge.

Various enigmatic expressions coursed his mum’s face as she watched him kneel down beside the groaning lump Reg Gibson made on the floor and with commendable effort pour the vile stuff down the paternal throat, not spilling a drop on the new carpet. Until, that is, Reg Gibson screamed, hurling a mess of steaming black bile down the length of a polyester suit that looked like it might dissolve on impact.

Lach was on his feet in the blink of an eye, fleeing on instinct, before his father’s paws could get a grip on some part of him and throttle him blue. The drunken mass heaved bellowing into life and stumbled up, ricocheting between the walls. What Lach remembered was the hallway getting longer and narrower the harder he tried to run and Reg Gibson charging up behind him, mad as a bullock, fumbling blind at his belt buckle and then the singing of the leather as it swung through the air. He remembered his mum’s face, just the way it always was, blurring at the edges.

Somehow he made it to his room & dived under the bed as the blows began to rain. Just because of the coffee! And then something went crash and all was silent before the light came on. As quietly as he could, Lach manoeuvred among the junk under his mattress and peered out. Reg Gibson seemed to be standing stock-still in the middle of the room. The room somehow had been altered by the silence. With utmost stealth, Lach inched forward for a better look. His father, belt hanging from his right hand, arm limp at his side, was teetering as if in a trance, staring wide-eyed at the floor.

There between Reg Gibson’s feet were the remains of a model spitfire, the one Lach’d found in a box on the top shelf of the linen press at his Nana’s house. A pair of green-and-brown camouflaged wings with the red-and-blue bullseye decal projected from a wrecked fuselage. Like in The Battle of Britain, when the Heinkels were blitzing the RAF airfields. Only instead of a hundred-pounder, it was Reg Gibson’s Florsheim that did it. The blind rage seemed to’ve drained out of him, replaced by an emotion Lach was unable to decipher. The lull, perhaps, before an even more terrible storm.

He’d meant to keep the spitfire a secret, but in his excitement before the film he’d taken it out of its box to look at and see if the wheels still turned. Behind the smudged cockpit window was a pilot done in so much detail you could even see his eyes. But there was no sign of the pilot now. Bits of the cockpit lay scattered on the floor. The gun sights. The radio set. A shattered prop, piston rods, landing gear. Then all of a sudden Reg Gibson booted the wrecked fuselage across the room and stomped out, muttering how it served someone right, only Lach couldn’t hear who it served right and he huddled there, under the bed-head with his feet touching the wall, and shivered, trying not to cry.

*

Uncle Eddie kept all his stuff from Vietnam in a drawer in the back bedroom at Nana’s house on Dartford Street. Slouch hat, poncho, tie, a couple of belts, mozzie net, jungle greens, dress uniform. Whenever he could, Lach snuck in there to try everything on in front of the mirror, like a midget on parade. He asked Eddie if he could take some of the stuff home and Eddie shrugged.

“Just leave the hat. Ya can do what ya like wiff the rest of it. It’s only there ’cause Mum kept it.”

“What’s special ’bout the hat?”

“Nothin’.”

Lach couldn’t make sense of that so gave up trying. His uncle’d always been a bit strange, though they didn’t really get to see him very often. He lived way out in Campbelltown on a dead-end street. It was the war that made him like that, his mother explained. Lach wondered how she knew.

He took the belt and poncho and mozzie net up to the dam, for the secret base they were making in the clearing under the she-oak where they’d put the raft together. They’d woven branches into a camouflage that hid the whole thing from view, and hung stuff inside, trophies from their raids on the farmer’s barn and the old school bus, bottles of beer, centrefolds from mildewed porno magazines, hubcaps. Lach draped the mozzie net over one side. Buzik and Robbo dragged a couple of car seats over from the back of the Speedway, stinking of sump oil. They scrounged some ratty drop-sheets to spread over them. The ground was littered with dead cicada skins, like the husked shells of aliens zapped by a secret particle beam, the death ray or the doomsday box.

White-as-Wayne dug up a billycan from somewhere and they built a fireplace out of rocks, close to the water, with a smoke hole in the canopy. Buzik scooped dam water into the can and a fistful of gum-leaves, to make billy-tea. They sat around waiting for it to boil, smoking tubes of coiled-up bark as if they were cigars. White-as-Wayne gazed at the pin-ups. Christy Canyon, Sharon Kane, Amber Lynn. Big hair and parted lips making the kind of invitation a ten-year-old’s nightmares are made of. Robbo absently flicked dead cicada skins into the fire and watched them flare and crackle and dissolve into white flame. Buzik blew out a smoke ring that rose up through the twilight of the branches. Faint shafts of sunlight filtered down.

“We should bring a girl up ’ere,” Buzik said at last.

“What’d a you want a girl for, it’d just ruin it,” Robbo said, pulling the legs off another husk.

“No girl’d come ’ere anyway,” said Lach.

Steam gusted up from the billycan. White-as-Wayne crawled over with a stick and lifted it off the coals. There was a sharp hiss.

“Don’t spill it all over the bloody place,” Buzik growled.

“It ain’t spilt,” White-as-Wayne protested.

Robbo set out the tin camping mugs and went to pour the tea.

“Yer s’posed ta whack it wiv a stick first,” Lach said.

“Wot’s that for?” said White-as-Wayne.

“Makes it taste right or somethin’. Me uncle said that’s wot you’ve gotta do when ya make billy tea. Gotta whack it wiv a stick.”

White-as-Wayne tapped the side of the blackened billycan with his stick. Lifted the lid and peered inside. Shrugged.

“Can’t see tha diffwence,” he said.

Gingerly Robbo poured the yellow brew into their mugs. Buzik reached over and took one, tossing the remainder of his bark roll into the smouldering campfire. All four of them blew into their mugs to cool the tea, stirring it sluggishly with their breaths. Buzik was the first to taste it, his face gave nothing away though. When Lach tried it he almost spat it straight out. Robbo had a sip.

“Jesus,” he gagged, “it tastes like friggin’ tadpole piss.”

They all hooted with laughter. Buzik splashed his tea on the coals.

“Give us one a them beers,” he grinned.

Robbo pulled out his Swiss Army knife with the bottle-opener on it and cracked three stubbies, passing them around. Only White-as-Wayne kept hold of his mug, gazing into it and swishing it about like he expected to find something alive in there, some sort of primordial guppy perhaps.

*

The art was in somehow not gauging your ribs with the valve when you slid up through the tyre tube. It was mid-morning before they started across the river to the island. “Wide as the Mississipi,” Buzik said. They had to dodge the water-skiers spraying up plumes of yellow-brown and the speedboats slapping their bellies on the water as they throttled up and down between the bridges. Lach’s uncle, Pete, owned a caravan on the Hawkesbury. He’d sit out under the awning in a deckchair with an esky of beer and get sunburnt feet. With a little persuasion he let the kids spend the weekend as long as they kept out of his hair. Uncle Pete’s mates usually showed up around five and barbequed some prawns and sank Tooheys. “Get yerself some fish’n’chips,” he’d say to the kids, handing them a couple of dollars and waving in the direction of the shops. Deep sea bream with salt and vinegar on the chips, wrapped in newspaper, though really it was shark. They’d sit down under a jetty, tossing the butt-ends of chips to the guppies mouthing about in the shallows.

The sand on the shore of the island was dark and wet, with a bog smell and mangrove roots worming up through it that stabbed into their feet. In from the water the ground turned solid and dirt paths wound through the undergrowth, so thick you couldn’t see more than a couple of metres at a time. They left the tractor inners by the shore and went exploring, but couldn’t get to the other side of the island, all the paths seemed to wind back. And then, starting out of nowhere, was a clearing with a tin shack and voices. The voices sounded drunk, a couple of men and a woman, so the two kids slipped away again into the bushes.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had our own island,” Buzik whispered, “wiv a house on it ’n’ everythin’. ”

Of course they hadn’t been alone in taking possession of the dam off South Liverpool Road, either. A gang of local kids had set up headquarters in the old school bus in front of the farmer’s barn. When they’d discovered the secret base Buzik, Lach, Robbo and White-as-Wayne had built, they smashed it up and burnt the mozzie net and poncho and centrefolds and slashed the car seats and scuttled the “raft” by unscrewing the caps on the forty-gallon drums. “I’ll chop their bloody skulls in ’arf,” raged Buzik, who went and broke all the remaining windows in the wrecked school bus, but he never found out who the other gang was.

When they got back from the island, Uncle Pete was asleep under his awning, fist clenched around an empty beer bottle. With nothing better to do, Lach and Buzik grabbed a couple of Pete’s fishing lines and a bait box and wandered down to one of the jetties to see what they could catch. Past the jetty was all thorny blackberry bushes hanging over the water. Someone had snagged a lure in one of the bushes and Lach spotted it glinting in the sun. With a scaling knife in one hand he waded down the jetty to cut it free. Buzik meanwhile was scooping among the green slime that wafted off the jetty for fresh bait. He caught some guppies and threaded them on a hook and was just casting out when Lach slipped arse over tit on the algae, only just failing to disembowel himself with the scaling knife but almost taking his thumb clear off.

“Ya silly bugger,” Uncle Pete said, laying a role of sticky plaster aside, “yer old man won’t be too impressed.” He’d rinsed out the flap of skin hanging from Lach’s thumb with Detol then stuck some gauze on it and wrapped the whole thing in plaster. “Lucky it ain’t too deep or you’d need stitches.”

There was blood everywhere, it looked a lot worse than it probably was. Lach was all pale around the gills, with his head leaning against the side of the caravan. Uncle Pete faked a tap on his chin.

“You’ll be right,” he grinned, gathering up the first aid kit. “Just a scratch. Next time, do it proper ’n’ see if ya can cut yer ’ole arm off.”

The sun had gone down and there was a halo of bugs around the kerosene lamp slung under the awning. Buzik lounged in one of the deckchairs breathing in the river stink. Lach stared at his cartoon thumb swaddled in plaster.

“Reckon there’s bull sharks in the river?” Buzik said. “Wouldn’t wanna go in there bleedin’ like that, they’d smell it ’n’ come after ya.”

“Ain’t no sharks in the river.”

“There is. I saw it in a documentary.”

“You kids talkin’ bull again?” Pete lurched down the caravan steps. He held out a couple of longnecks. “Now don’t tell yer folks, ’cause they mightn’t like it.”

Buzik smirked like an idiot.

“Thanks Mr Gibson,” he said, grabbing one of the beer bottles.

“Call me Pete,” said Pete.

He handed the other one to Lach who sat there with his wounded thumb sticking up, holding the bottle in both hands like it was Communion.

“Cheers,” Pete said, settling back. “Youse fancy some prawns fer supper?”

*

“Aw, Miss,” Lach moaned.

It must’ve been thirty-five degrees, but still they had to stay in the classroom and finish the problem that’d been set on the board.

“And if you don’t get it right,” said Mrs Hajek, “you’ll stay here all afternoon until you do.”

The class fidgeted with their books. Buzik fired a wad of chewed up paper from his pea-shooter at the back of Robbo’s head. Robbo, marooned in the front row, tried to look diligent as the Dragon Lady turned towards him. Lach jabbed at his workbook with a blunt pencil. He got half-way through the sum and then gave up, hacking at what he’d written with a dirty eraser before starting over again. He could feel the sweat working down his back between the shoulder blades. The ceiling fan creaked. The Dragon Lady stopped in front of his desk and peered at the mess he’d made. The moment he dreaded had arrived.

“Can’t you perform one simple calculation?” she snapped.

Lach gazed morosely at the tangle of symbols he’d smudged all over the page. The Dragon Lady huffed, grabbing his pencil from his hand and leant over his desk to cross out the mistakes. He glanced up into a pair of huge sweaty boobs swaying in a white lace bra. They were so close, he could count the pores. Her perfume made his eyes and nose water. Rancid patchouli. Lach grabbed at his nose so as not to sneeze all down the front of Mrs Hajek’s blouse and in the process grazed the teacher’s fat left nipple.

The Dragon Lady jerked upright and gave him a funny look that made him gulp, nose gripped between thumb and forefinger, so now his ears popped as well. He tried to nod at least, like he understood whatever it was, trigonometry, she’d been scribbling in his workbook. There had to be something strange about her, anyhow, he thought, to make them do trigonometry on the last day of school. Maybe she was some kind of sadist, like they showed on the news, who got a thrill letting schoolkids ogle her jugs while she stood over them with a cane or whatever and made them recite the logarithmic tables.

“Lachlan Gibson,” Mrs Hajek proclaimed, “I have my eye on you!”

“Yes miss,” he honked, still clutching his nose.

There was general relief when Crazy Crittendon announced over the PA that they could have the rest of the day after lunch for cricket on the front oval and other sports activities. “Other” meant sitting in the shade and picking your nose while netball girls jumped around with their skirts flapping up. Anyone who wasn’t an outright sissy tried to get onto one of the two cricket teams. Sadleir and Buzik were picked as captains and chose their sides accordingly, one gang against the other, with sundries filling-out the lower order. Crittendon in his big floppy Denis Lilley hat was umpire. He pulled a shiny fifty-cent piece out of his trouser pocket and flipped it in the air. Sadleir called the toss heads and elected to bat. Robbo groaned at the prospect of a long innings standing out in the heat.

“No fear,” Buzik grinned, shinning the ball on his shorts before chucking it to Lach. “This bastard’ll ’ave ’em all carted off on stretchers before the end a the sixth over.”

Lach grinned. He made a lanky slinging motion with his right arm.

“Bodyline the fuckers,” Buzik said, pulling on the keeper’s gloves as they all trudged out to the middle, Crittendon with his knee socks and long sleeves, Sadleir and his chief lieutenant, “Pig Shit” Partlett, with their pads flapping and a pair of battered Duncan Fearnleys.

Lach dug his heel into the dead grass to mark his run-up, making a scar of fine reddish gravel. Buzik crouched down behind the stumps. Robbo and White-as-Wayne stood well back in the slips cordon, hands-on-knees, waiting. Partlett swatted at the weeds with his bat while Sadleir, lazily guarding middle stump, brushed a fly from his nose. The rest of the fielders shuffled forward expectantly as Crittendon, like a scarecrow sagging under its own weight, dropped his left arm and bent towards the batsman. Lach, seam gripped at a cunning angle across his fingers, fixed a beady eye on Sadleir’s stumps and loped into his run-up. The ball flew in a wide arc, bounced, leather crunched into wood. A shout went up. Sadleir and Partlett, unconcerned, jogged down the middle of the pitch, stopped and leant on their bats as scarecrow Crittendon signalled the first boundary of the day.

— Louis Armand

 

Louis Armand is a Sydney-born writer who has lived in Prague since 1994. He is the author of six novels, including Breakfast at Midnight (2012), described by 3AM magazine’s Richard Marshall as “a perfectmodern noir,” and Cairo, shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s 2014 Not-the-Booker Prize (both from Equus, London). His most recent collections of poetry are Indirect Objects (Vagabond, 2014) and Synopticon (with John Kinsella; LPB, 2012). His work has been included in the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry and Best Australian Poems. His screenplay, Clair Obscur, received honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He directs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University where he also edits the international arts magazine VLAK.