May 142016
 

IMG_0444Art work by Greg Mulcahy

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Julot Calcascieu and I have not spoken in years. Estrangement between writers once friends is common; its reasons are always personal and complicated.  In this case, I’m not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps it was a long-forgotten insult given and received, or growth, or change, or life. And really the reasons don’t matter.

Calcascieu and I were first associated with Abigail Allen’s magazine, Phantasmagoria. We were both contributors, and we shared, or I thought we shared, similar views on where literature was and where it needed to go.

Perhaps my views have changed.

Perhaps his have.

A conversation that was pleasant turned unpleasant, and each of us discovered who the other really was.

As I’ve said, we haven’t spoken in years, but things find their ways to me sometimes, so I will state categorically that I did not steal from Calcascieu or cheat him out of money.  I covered our expenses for a joint reading we did in a nearby state. I asked him to reimburse me for his share. He refused. Maybe there was a misunderstanding—I grant that possibility. But there was no swindle or theft and absolutely no attempt at either.

Arguments about money are always arguments about money, especially when money is, as it was and continues to be, scarce, but they are often arguments about something else as well.

Maybe this is an argument about disappointment, both personal and professional, or about the disappearance of an imagined solidarity, or sympathy, or world.

But I can tell you this. Julot Calcascieu has a hat, a hat he wears at readings. Julot Calcascieu calls this hat a “poet’s hat” and believes it essential to his image as “poet and theorist.” Now I live in a cold climate that seems, contrary to fact, to be growing colder. Consequently, I own a dozen hats. But none are magical or empowered or definitions of my identity. Julot Calcascieu is a construct, self-constructed perhaps, but no less so for that. Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick” if that.

Maybe all poets are.

Still there are the poems.

The poems, still.

—Greg Mulcahy

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BIRDS

Went to Lakewood
Pond.
Didn’t see a swan
Or fifty-nine
Or
Anything, but some
Gull
Confused
In a parking
Lot.

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COUNSELOR

Finding another
Via internet
With my name
& did his mother
call him
ti’ bijoux
or what
& how
&
momma?

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MECHANICAL

There are times
When a
Man
Needs a
Really sharp
Probe.

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GENESIS of my CORRECTION

I was not
The good
Brother.
Always two:
The good one
And
The other one.

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DIFFERENCE

And if you did not love me
I would not mind.
The poet said.
But she
First she
Made a world
In her poem for them.
That was the difference.

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ASPIRE

Poetry has
Use as the
Movies teach—
Use it
To engage
Poor students
In
Poor schools.
You’ll need—
Of course—
Inspired teachers
As heroes—
Heroes
Who do not
Cost too
Much.

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COSMOLOGY

First, there was no money.
Then the War.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Then no war and money.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Where did that money get to?

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STORY

And the prisoner of the story
Given a page a day
A page
A day
To write on. No more.
Picture him sitting on the
Bunk
Pencil and page in hand.
Looking out the dark bars
For enough.
No more.

—Julot Calcascieu

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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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May 112016
 

Mary Byrne

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When Bea and I first came to Paris, we were still so wrapped up in each other we didn’t see much of our neighbour, Marie-Louise. She and a Vietnamese couple were the only other people sharing the lift with us. I did notice she was peculiar, with big fuzzy hair that was obviously dyed and glowed purplish against the light. She had a gummy smile, the seldom time we saw it, but as my girlfriend Bea said, that was hardly her fault. There were times when we would meet her down on the street and she wouldn’t even see us.

She rarely had visitors, although she had a mother in the suburbs and a sister who was married somewhere in town. Bea (who found out most of this) swears she actually met the mother once, helped carry her bag up the stairs, and found her strangely unfriendly.

“You fabulate, my dear,” I told Bea that time. “It’s the causal breach. You women are obsessed by it. Spend all your time trying to plug it, searching for reasons and explanations.”

Marie-Louise had a cat. We first got to know her when she asked us to feed the cat one time she went to a clinic to lose weight. I hated the cat, its litter, its smells. I mentioned toxoplasmosis.

“One always hates other people’s cats,” Bea said.

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Marie-Louise was clearly obsessed about filling the causal breach, that void between an event and its explanation, something that fascinated me too, although I didn’t say so to Bea.

Marie-Louise had a selection of odd occurrences she brought up from time to time, as if requesting or hoping for an explanation. One story was the day she and her husband were traveling along somewhere in Europe in what she called Our Bug (a VW beetle), on a normal bright partly-cloudy day. The countryside was hilly but the road – an old coach road – instead of going round the hills went up and down each one as it came. This was fun. You could see she was reliving the experience each time she told it.

The climax was that they topped a hill and suddenly there was a line across the road where snow began and beyond it a winter world of white, with several trucks backed up at a service station surrounded by drifts. Her husband, who was driving, got such a fright he almost skidded, and had to slow down gradually before he was able to turn and go back.

Go back? Why? Where were they headed?

She couldn’t remember, and always closed up at this point.

Bea said it was a freak snowstorm, and nothing more.

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Marie-Louise worked at the Post Office next door, along with what I considered to be a selection of other social cases, all swollen from a lack of exercise and the drugs they needed to regulate their serotonin. That was how I explained them to myself, although Bea just laughed. “You’re the one with the problem,” she’d say whenever I complained about their queuing system or the fact that they refused to sell me international reply coupons. “We don’t do them anymore,” they’d say firmly without even checking, and I’d have to lope off to another branch.

Marie-Louise and her husband had traveled the world, once: Russia, the east-bloc countries in their darkest days, southern Europe, the great outdoor spaces of the American West. She knew all the most beautiful spots, the have-to-see places in every country, although she often preferred to fix on something peculiar. Her favourite story was of the laughing clubs they’d visited in India. “They’d start with the vowels,” she’d say, then she’d shout: “He! Ha! Ho! Hi! Hu!” Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing they’d done or seen in India.

Those days we didn’t know exactly where the husband was, although Marie-Louise never mentioned being divorced, or referred to herself as a divorcee. Eventually it emerged that his name was Vlasta and that he had come from Eastern Europe and gotten rich, a long time ago. “Ah, Vlasta!” she would say with a despairing wave of her arm. In winter she gave Saturday theatre classes to small groups of people like herself, in an under-sized sitting room lined with cheap reproductions of old masterpieces. She pretended her family had known many of the most famous modern painters and reckoned that, as a young girl, she’d shown her bum to more than one of them. “Small girls do that, you know,” she said. She had gone on to being their model.

At 12 years of age, she had ceremoniously binned her very ancient and much-thumbed copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Tenniel, with its talking sheep and sinister cats. I thought this chain of events worthy of psychoanalysis, but Bea said she was just chatting. Bea sometimes made a cake and invited Marie-Louise to share it. I would come home and find two sets of big teeth grinning over tea and cake, sharing gossip about the building and its occupants.

Marie-Louise called our concierge The Queen of Hearts. “Queen of Hearts giving orders again?” she’d enquire when some directive appeared in our letterboxes. Residents must realize… Residents should note… The Queen of Hearts was a tiny dark Portuguese Catholic, trying to be a tall blond one. She had a small white poodle and a huge Rottweiler (these I referred to as her Manichean aspects). She took lunch with her parents every Sunday in a public-housing block to the west of Paris which had replaced the shanty town where they lived on their arrival in 1960s France, fleeing Salazar and all that. She was convinced that some saint or other had recently saved her kid from certain death in a scooter accident. She also reckoned we were in constant danger of our lives from local hooligans – hence the Rottweiler – and had organized teams of solemn young men in what looked like Ninja-turtle outfits to patrol the yard and gardens. When the details appeared on the annual charge bill at the beginning of the year, I almost had a fit.

“Get interested in your fellow man,” Bea advised. “This one has been coming at us for a while.”

As a teenager Marie-Louise had been propositioned, very correctly, by a painter friend of her parents. Politely, in his car, after school. When she refused, equally politely, he drove off and she never saw him again. The thing was she fancied him terribly and had cried when his wife died and he married a second time. “Wanting things to stay forever in one place,” she said, “that’s kids for you.”

On Sunday afternoons in winter she sometimes went to what she called a “thé dansant” in old-fashioned Paris ballrooms where tea and cakes were served and polite men asked her to dance dances you really had to know: “You can’t improvise a tango,” she’d say. She had some kind of regular dancing partner at these dancing teas, whom she called her “bon ami” and whose name we never learned.

“’Cos he doesn’t exist,” I said.

“You should cut down on philosophy and read more fiction,” said Bea, “they say it helps us empathize.”

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Someone pinched my shoulder-bag one day in the metro when I was lost in a book. Bea wasn’t home when I got there, so I knocked on Marie-Louise’s door. I’d even contemplated asking our Vietnamese neighbour rather than getting involved with Marie-Louise. But I knew the Vietnamese woman would have her own story about a woman’s life in Vietnam, how she only ever went out on her own to go to Mass (our neighbours are Vietnamese Catholics) and how even their watches and wedding rings were taken from them as they left Vietnam. She’d told all this to Bea, who concluded they were terrified of anyone with administrative power over them. Rather than question any authority, they paid all bills without question, including the one for the Ninja turtles.

So I knocked and explained why I needed somewhere to wait till Bea arrived. Marie-Louise ushered me into the sitting room with the reproductions. I was halfway across the dark room when I realized there was someone else there.

“Vlasta,” she said simply.

“Get a glass for him,” Vlasta told Marie-Louise, as if he came every day, lived there, or even owned the place.

For a while he interviewed me like a prospective husband for a daughter, then settled into the story of his own life. He seemed to have a wife, although I couldn’t be sure, and he certainly had two teenage sons who seemed to cause him endless hassle. I presumed he’d made them with someone other than Marie-Louise.

“Bought them a 7-11,” he said, “and they’re about to run it into the ground as well – they’re too lazy even to sit at the till and take in the money.”

He launched into wider subjects. “The Americans organized the Twin Towers themselves. Did you see the way they came down?” – it wasn’t a question – “The plane only hit the corner of the building. Had to have explosives planted all over it. And the Americans didn’t care,” he said, “because the towers were full of foreigners.”

Glued to my chair in horror and fascination, all that seemed to be working was my tongue: I tried to move him on to other things, like the newly reduced Greater Serbia. “Yugoslavia was ruled by non-Serbs, but the Serbs got the blame,” he told me. The trouble now was the Albanians. “Import two of them Sheptar,” he said (I thought I saw Marie-Louise wince), “and in no time you have hundreds.”

According to him, Yugoslavia was made to fall apart eventually. “Stalin was a priest before he came to power. He got rid of the soutane and attacked religion. Tito wasn’t a Serb either, no one knows where he came from.”

“Wasn’t the man who killed the Archduke Ferdinand a Serb?” I ventured, glancing at my watch.

“Sure, but he lived in Bosnia,” he replied. So he wasn’t really a Serb either.

“If you meet a Sheptar” – Marie-Louise definitely winced – “on a country path, he marches towards you and you have to step off the path. Then he steps off the path too, to confront you again. Some people are always spoiling for a fight, like the man who comes up to a peaceful coffee drinker in a café and says, ‘Why did you fuck my wife?’ Coffee drinker says, ‘I didn’t go near your wife, what do I want to go fucking your wife for?’ And the belligerent one changes tack: ‘What’s wrong with my wife that you wouldn’t want to fuck her?’”

And so on. My ears were tuned to the bump of the lift, but there was still no sign of Bea. Vlasta couldn’t be stopped, now he had an audience. Marie-Louise busied herself with tea. “Marx and Engels had excellent ideas that were meant to be introduced gradually,” Vlasta continued. “But no, Lenin had to go and have his Revolution. Communism is a complete misnomer. It brought to power men who only knew how to herd sheep. Down they came from the mountains and found themselves addressing crowds. They didn’t know the difference between Communism and Capitalism. They were told that Communism meant if a man has two chairs you take one off him and give it to someone who has none. One of these former shepherds, before a crowd and stuck for words, saw a tramp go by at the back of the crowd with a sack on his back. ‘A capitalist!’ he cried. ‘There goes a capitalist! Take the sack off him and divide its contents among you!’”

Vlasta looked very pleased with himself. Marie-Louise winked at me surreptitiously.

Suddenly Vlasta glanced at a very expensive watch, leaped to his feet and said he couldn’t delay, as if we’d tried to hold onto him.

When he was gone, Marie-Louise opened the window and beckoned me over.

“Come and look,” she said. “He likes me to wave goodbye.”

We waved as Vlasta got into a Mercedes that was several generations old and roared off in a cloud of black fumes. Just then, Bea rounded the corner. We waved at her too.

“I must apologize for Vlasta’s behaviour,” Marie-Louise said. “It is part of why we are no longer together. A lot of things about Vlasta were masked by language and culture, from the start.”

She paused.

“The original and correct word is Shqiptar,” she said, “from the Albanian language. It’s related to the word for speak. The word Vlasta used is extremely pejorative, like ‘Barbarian’ once was for the Greeks, or ‘Welsh’ for the Germans.”

I’d had enough by then and was in no mood for linguistics. I made for the door in haste, but Marie-Louise caught me by the arm:

“How can you see something in a mirror that isn’t reflected in it directly?” she wanted to know.

She pointed out a rooftop opposite and then to its reflection in a mirror on her wall that lay at right angles to the window.

First I sighed. I could hear the lift. Then I went to a lot of trouble with paper and diagrams and angles and so on, but it was clear that she didn’t believe me. She was convinced it was some kind of magic.

“I had a dream,” she said. “I came into a room and saw a small man – tiny, really – dressed in bulky but shiny clothes, lying, obviously dead, on the floor near a chair. My first reflex was to reach out for it” – she definitely said ‘it’ – “more for tidiness than anything else. Just then a very large speckled bird – as big as the little man, anyhow – took him by the beak and pulled him under the chair out of my reach.”

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“So what’ve you been up to?” Bea challenged me as I burst into our apartment.

“Plugging the causal breach,” I said.

I kept it going for a while before telling her about Vlasta. Bea and I had reached that stage in our relationship where the lives of others filled a space between us that we couldn’t fill ourselves.

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That summer was the famous ‘canicule’, as they called it here (somehow a deadlier word than ‘heatwave’), during which France killed off some 15,000 of its old folks.

Early on, Bea and I enjoyed the weather, the city. One weekend we rolled out to watch the Queen of Hearts participate in a parade celebrating Portugal in all its aspects. I was truly astonished at the sheer numbers of them, their costumes, their faithfulness to regions and habits. There were groups from all over Paris with banners related to occupations, way of life and regions in Portugal. All in costume, there were brides and grooms, kids, people carrying peasant farming tools, playing music, dancing.

I said, “What, no tools for digging ditches?” I told Bea this was over-the-top folklore, a memory of the times before they all had to flee dictatorship and poverty and getting called up to fight wars in Angola and Mozambique.

The Queen of Hearts smiled and waved as she jigged by in a black and white outfit topped with a kind of lace mantilla.

When I said, “No sign of the concierge’s tools there,” Bea dragged me away.

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After that we fled south – “Because they know how to deal with heat down there,” Bea said – until it became too much there too. Then on to Morocco to friends, until I tired of seeing rich people in rich houses surrounded by the poor padding about them, cleaning, cooking, trying for invisibility.

“And they wonder why they want to come to Europe,” I said.

”Don’t start,” said Bea.

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Then I had a summer school in Ireland, where my temper improved immediately in the more modest temperatures. Things in Ireland had never been better: you could sit on the grass, swim every day, organize a picnic, all without having a Plan B. Demand was so brisk that every garage and supermarket in the country ran out of charcoal for barbecues.

Late one night after Bea went to sleep, I stuck in my earphone and switched on the radio on my cell phone. A scratchy French station was talking about hundreds of deaths all over Paris. The funeral parlours were overflowing, they said. They were requisitioning cold storage places to put the bodies, there were so many of them.

“What the hell is this?” I said, into the night.

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It was all over by the time we got back. Paris had settled into a sinister post-disaster calm. I bought the papers in the station. The media were down to the usual ding-dong about who was to blame: society was at fault, there was no respect for the old. One family, abroad on holidays (I think – perhaps they were only in the south on a beach) asked the authorities if they would hold on to the grandmother’s body till their holidays were over, “She’s dead, she’s going noplace anyway,” they were reputed to have said.

The big heat was over. Our building would be pretty well empty, we reckoned, which was normal for late August. However, when we punched in our code and the door opened stiffly, who should we find standing in the hall but the Queen of Hearts.

“Still here?” we said.

“What with all that happened,” she said.

She had opened the glass door on the notice board and was fumbling with a black-edged handwritten sign. She held it up to us.

It announced that Marie-Louise was dead.

“Family won’t do it,” she whispered.

Before I could ask why she was whispering, she hissed: “Body’s still up there.” She raised her eyes, “They haven’t even appeared once. No one to sit with the body. Think of it. No priest said the last prayers.”

“Left it all to the undertakers,” she concluded, folding her arms and studying us for reactions. “A civil funeral, they call it – they bury people like dogs in this country.”

It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”

“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.”

Marie-Louise had even phoned Vlasta the night before she did it and asked him to come into town. He told her to take a sleeping pill and go to bed. How the Queen of Hearts knew all this is anyone’s guess. When Marie-Louise didn’t turn up at work the next day, the Post Office called around and it emerged that she hadn’t left her apartment.

I pictured the Queen of Hearts in full authoritative mode, a locksmith at her feet fumbling with instruments.

“She was lying on her right-hand side,” she hissed loudly, “The stuff she took was on the bedside table.”

In a way, I thought, the Queen of Hearts’ curiosity was healthier than any French attitude to family. Then, with considerable misgiving, I began to wonder if religion might not have a role to play after all. I was careful not to mention this to Bea.

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Later, as we lay in bed studying the cracks in the ceiling that needed redecorating, Bea said, “Just think of her going through that, and us on a white beach in the Aran Islands.”

“I’ve decided Marie-Louise wasn’t bonkers,” I said after a while. “Everything is so complicated, it simply has to have a cause,” I told her.

She sat up on one elbow and looked me straight in the eye.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to fall back on Intelligent Design and all that? After complaining for all these years about how even Descartes leaned on God, in the end?”

I realized it was too late to wrench the subject away from the possibility of supreme beings. It dawned on me that Bea’s was an anger built up over years of packing boxes and moving them with me and my philosophical career.

You were the one who wanted to come to France – because of ideas, because of the Enlightenment. You fled Ireland because of the priests! We moved here – lock, stock and barrel – because of Reason!”

By now Bea was yelling.

I tried to calm her by telling other stories by Marie Louise – her nightmare about being pursued into a room full of furnaces and another about lining up for punishment by burning. “I was always with other people, always accompanied,” Marie-Louise had said.

Bea rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “Don’t start.”

“We humans are hard-wired to want lies,” I plunged into ever deeper water. “Lies plug the breaches we find in causality. When we don’t have answers, we content ourselves with lies. Fictions and stories comfort us, where the truth – the absence of a cause, the lack of a reason – would disturb us.”

I warmed to my subject. Bea turned away from me and got out of bed.

“Cave paintings were stories people told themselves about themselves too,” I said, as she closed the bedroom door behind her.

—Mary Byrne

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Mary Byrne’s fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, and broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.

Tweets @BrigitteLOignon

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May 072016
 
FullSizeRender-8

Photo by Jill Jennings

Eoin McNamee is well regarded as a master of noir literary fiction. Fictionalising real life violent events, his language is stark and brooding but ultimately complex and illuminating – shedding light on the human capacity to conspire with corruption and violent wrong-doing. His Blue Trilogy, focused around Lancelot Curran (a Northern Irish judge, attorney general and parliamentarian), being considered one of his best works: “Eoin McNamee may well be one of the finest writers at work anywhere; sentence for sentence, he is superb – the Blue trilogy is a poised, artistic achievement of compelling menace” – Eileen Battersby (Literary correspondent, The Irish Times). The Blue Tango (2001) was nominated for The Booker Prize and Blue Is the Night won the 2015 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

The extract below is from his forthcoming novel with Faber and Faber, The Vogue. As Eoin writes, “The finding of a woman’s body in an illegal dump on a disused runway uncovers other wrongs. New lies compound old untruths that have held sway since GI’s were billeted on the windblown aerodrome. Darkness descends on a small town.”

—Gerard Beirne

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Cranfield Aerodrome, November 16th, 2014

The sand pit had been opened. A yellow excavator stood by the side of the opening, its bucket raised. Swags of unfurled bandage hung from the bucket tangs, filthy and dripping. An articulated Scania with a covered trailer was backed up to the opening in the ground, its hydraulic rams half-extended. A fluorescent works light hung on jack chain from a corroded derrick. Three men rendered into silhouettes stood between the pit and the light. They stood without moving, their heads bent towards the opening at their feet, functionaries to the merciless night.

The bottom of the pit was half-filled with water. Syringes. Wound dressings rank with old blood and human tissue. Rusted scalpel blades and theatre gowns bundled and discarded. Used drug vials and transfusion sacs floated in the water. A woman’s skeletal remains clad in vile rags lay half-way up the pit wall as though she had crawled from it, matter adhering to her hair and clothes.As though she had looked for mercy and found there none. Across the sandy fen to the north of the darkened aerodrome chapel bells rang for the ascension.

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One

The Negro

17th January, 1945, Shepton Mallet Prison, Sussex.

The negro sits without moving. In the execution shed the apparatus is being made ready.The hood. The rope. The pinnings. Coir matting has been placed on the floor and against the walls to deaden sound but the prisoners can hear the hammering and tool work.

In his 1956 autobiography the hangman Albert Pierrepoint states his dislike for the American hanging method. Pierrepoint likes to have his prisoner sitting with his back to the door so that he can be taken by surprise and pinioned. Pierrepoint says he can get the prisoner from the cell to the drop in ninety seconds. He prides himself on it. The Americans insist that the prisoner wear full dress uniform with all marks of rank and insignia removed. The charges and sentence must be read to the condemned man at the foot of the scaffold. The Americans wanted the execution to be procedural, ornate. The prisoner must be reminded of his guilt. The executioners must be reminded of their duty. They imagine the antechamber of death to be a place of drama, laconic asides, last minute admissions.

‘Pierrepoint won’t sneak up on me,’ Martinez said, ‘I’m going out the American way.’

Martinez had been sentenced to death in August for the murder of a military policeman.

‘Kind of justice I like,’ Martinez said, ‘court martial took a day. No appeal. Straight and to the point. I got no complaints. Except the bastard Redcap had it coming.’

Martinez said he was going to stand facing the door of the death cell so that Pierrepoint could not take him by surprise.

‘Full dress kit. I’ll be standing to attention. Walk out of there like a man.’

There are other Americans in the cells. The prison has been under United States military jurisdiction since 1942. The men call to each other softly from the windows. They are not normally permitted to communicate but on the eve of an execution the Guards are lenient.

‘Hooper,’ Davis said, ‘you there?’

‘I’m here.’

‘I seen Pierrepoint go into the Governors house when they brought me down.’

‘What’d he look like?’

‘Ordinary man. Owns a pub in Oldham. He hanged one of his own customers, gentleman by the name of Corbitt. Corbitt killed his girlfriend and wrote Whore on her forehead.’

‘Man deserved to hang then.’

Hooper had been shackled to Davis in the back of the Utility truck that brought them to the prison. Davis was from Chicago, a thin, talkative man. He said he was doubled-jointed. He could slip his hands out of the cuffs any time he wanted, he said. All you had to do was give the word, They passed through Bristol at dead of night, the town under blackout. Driving through the Mendip hills. Stubble fields, gold and red as though the moonlight burned them. Passing through the towns of Clifton and Winterbourne. Passing through Evercreech and Frome.

‘Where you from, son?’ Davis said,

‘Near New York. Oxford, New Jersey.’

‘Your first time out of the States?’

‘First time out of Oxford, New Jersey.’

Davis spat over the tailgate of the truck.

‘And dearly you wish you had never left it.’

‘You got that right.’

‘Likely you won’t be going any further than Shepton Mallet. Last stop on the line.’

The negro asked where they were and the MP escort said they were close to Glastonbury. Davis told him about Glastonbury tor. He said that ley lines ran under the front gate of Shepton Mallet.

‘What are ley lines?

‘Lines that connect places of power. The ancient people knew them.’

‘Boy is all caught up by the the ancient stuff.’ The MP said.

‘Caught up by it til he’s caught up by the neck hisself.’

‘Reckon the negro here believes in that voodoo stuff?’ Davis said.

‘Voodoo’s from Haiti,’ Hooper said.

‘Same difference. Nothing godly in any of it.’

The Negro says nothing. There are demons out there. He seen it himself. The devourer of souls.

If he stood on his bed the negro could see the execution shed. The execution shed was a windowless red brick two story extension attached to the limestone wall of the old prison. An internal door opened from the main body of the prison into the execution chamber. The trapdoor opened onto a downstairs room with an external door. The external door faced the steel door of the morgue in the next building. October. Early frost on the ground at first light. Fifty minutes after dawn the ground floor door opened. Two men carried Martinez body on a stretcher like something they had stolen. He could hear the sound of their boots on the loose clinker on the ground as though they struck iron there. His grandmother had told stories of graves opened by night and bodies thieved. She said the darkness claimed its own. The two men laboured under their burden.

The negro turned away from the window and lay down on his bed. He closed his eyes. He had left Oxford, New Jersey, two years earlier. He had come into New York by bus through the Jersey turnpike. The suburban city lost in dusk, snow flurries blowing through the grid of clapboard houses. America looking lost in a wintry dream of itself. He could see the towers of Manhatten in the distance but he was more aware of the cracked road surface, rubbish piled in the freeway margins, caught in broken chain-link fences. He had expected more. A city that was striven for, epic, rising out of the historic swamplands. Passing road signs. Newark. Idlewild. The lost townships.

He stayed in a Negro hotel on the margins of the wholesale district. There were braziers burning on the street. The night was loud with stoop-talk, negroid gutterals. The streets smelt of rotting fruit. Crates of vegetables piled high on the sidewalk. He looked into warehouses and stores, the massive girdered interiors, feeling that he was getting a grasp on the inner matter of the city, the iron-joisted substance of it. It was cold and he saw steam rising from the pavement grilles. It surprised him again that the city was gritty, earthbound. On a street corner a prostitute offered him sexual favours. She was a remnant of the night before, a carnal leftover, the rouged leavings of the night.

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Two

The Brethern

Cranfield Aerodrome, Kilkeel, 16th November, 2014

Early morning. Gray skies. You could see a long way across the aerodrome. The block plant. The remnants of some spent industry. Overworked resources, seeping pollutants exhausted. Machinery dented and rusted. A dumper truck with flat tyres. Machine parts leaked diesel sludge onto the concrete apron. You started to wonder what had led to this abandonment. What catastrophe had come to pass.

Cole imagined the malign traffic that had flowed through this yard. Customs, police, tax inspectors. The administrative weather set at steady rain. Cole looked in the largest shed. A door creaked somewhere at the back, the noise amplified in the girdered ceiling. The place reeked of secret histories, illicit commerce.

He got out of the car. A man was waiting for him under the sand hopper. An elderly man in a white shirt with blood spots on the collar. He looked like a lone survivalist, edgy, spooked. He kept looking past Cole. As if he knew what was out there. As if he knew it would come again.

‘John Uel?’

‘You’re from the Ministry,’ John Uel said, ‘Sergeant Corrigan said you were coming.’

‘James Cole from the MOD.’

‘There was never any luck in this land,’ John Uel said.

‘No luck for this girl anyhow.’

‘Any word of her identity?’

‘No.’

‘Nor any word how long shes been in the ground. The sand will hold you down there until its good and ready to let you go.’

‘How long has the illegal dumping been going on?’

‘I know nothing about no dumping.’

‘They had to cross your land to get to it.’

‘That land is nobodies.’

‘It can’t belong to nobody.’

‘Then maybe it’s the devils.’

‘My information is that this portion of it belongs to the MOD.’

‘That’s what I told the polic..’

‘They’ll want to talk to you.’

‘They already talked.’

‘They’ll want a formal statement.’

‘I have nothing for them.’

‘People always have something.’

‘And what do you have, Mr Ministry of Defence?’

‘I have the right to inspect all documentation in relation to the freehold, leasehold, transfers and otherwise.’

‘You think one of yours done her. A soldier? Is that why you’re here?’

‘We don’t know what happened to her.’

‘The sands not like right ground.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The sands shift. Things travel down there. You found her here doesn’t mean she was put in the ground here.’

Cole looked out over the tailings pond beside the block yard. A crust of dried sand on top and underneath the liquid tonnage. Deep tectonic movement. The land shifting beneath your feet.

‘The police will have questions for you. Did you not see lights down there? Who owns the excavator? Those kind of questions.’

‘They can question away. I have no answers for them.She should have stayed down there.’

‘I don’t think she had a choice in the matter.’

‘She should have stayed down there until she was called.’

‘Called?’

‘On the day of resurrection.’

A woman watched from the window of the Portakabin. Cole trying to make out her face behind the window streaked with wet sand and blown concrete dust. Dark hair, the features unresolved.

‘Who’s that?’

‘She does the books.’

‘Do you have land maps here, Mr Uel, deeds, anything like that?’

‘I won’t do your job for you Cole.’

‘I can just look them up in the land registry.’

‘Then you better do that.’

‘I need to find Sergeant Corrigan.’

‘Try the Legion at the harbour. Its the kind of place you might find a sporting man.’

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British Legion, Kilkeel Harbour, 16th November 2014

There was racing on the television with the sound turned down, jockeys in muted silk turning into the home straight. Kempton Park, Chepstow. Labouring towards the line in rain-blown provincial race tracks. Rain blowing against the Legion windows . The girl behind the bar was Latvian, product of some gritty baltic seaport. Her small dissatisfied-looking mouth turned down at the corners suggested a mean-spirited sensuality.

‘I was told Sergeant Corrigan was here?’ She shook her head. Cole looked at the other drinkers but they kept their heads down. There was a bar room atmosphere of low-key duplicity and letting things go for the general good. Cole lifted a copy of the Racing Post, set himself to studying the form. The door opened behind him and he saw the bar girl look up as the door opened. Corrigan. The policeman was mid-fifties, his face covered in old acne scars like a mask of affliction.

‘John Cole. Ministry of Defence. We talked on the phone.’

‘I hear tell you’re looking into the body.’

‘You hear well. The body and the dumping.’

‘Whats your interest?’

‘Two crimes on MOD land.’

‘There’s no evidence so far that the girl was the victim of a crime. Can you confirm that the land belongs to the MOD?’

‘I intend to.’

‘Your car was at John Uel’s this morning.’

‘It was. Has the body been identified?’

‘Female between ages of twelve and twenty. Doesn’t fit any listed missing person. We’re looking at historic.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Who?’

‘The dead girl.’

‘Where do they put dead people?’

‘The morgue.’

‘Then that’s where she is.’

‘Is it open?’

‘Only if you’re dead.’

‘Who’s in charge?’

The pathologist is Morgan. If I was you I’d stay away from John Uel.’

‘He looks like a religious man.’

‘The good-living are always the worst. An autopsy is scheduled for next Monday.’

‘Why wait so long?’

‘She’s been down there long enough. She’ll wait awhile. Morgan has samples took. He’ll wait for them to come back from the lab. He wants to establish how long she’s been in the ground before he uses the knife on her.’
Shes been down there long enough. The girl lost in the strata, the deep undertow of the sand.

‘What about the lorries doing the dumping?’

‘They’ve been coming in on the Ro-Ro ferry, going straight back out again. There’s no way to track them down.’

‘Somebody must have seen them.’

‘Theres a widow lives on her own out the Limekiln road,’ Corrigan said. ‘She made a complaint about lorries at night. Artics. Putting the hammer down. No lights. No-one paid her any heed.’

The Limekiln road. No place for a widow to live on her own. No place for anyone to live on their own. The road running along the seas edge, the salt water littoral.At night the east wind rattles the dry stems in the reed beds. In the dark there is the call of seabirds from the mudflats, eerie pipings carried across the shifting channels and dark tide races. Brackish drains carry run-off into the shallows. Dead alder trees on the verges. People come out from the town to dump on the scrublands.

‘We thought she was dreaming,’ Corrigan said.

‘I’ll take you up to the hospital ,’ Corrigan said. ‘You can view the body, if that’s want you want.’

Cole followed Corrigan out onto the quay. A north-east wind blew up the boat channel. Hanks of net twine blew through the harbour margins, caught on discarded trawl cable. There were scattered fish scales, marine diesel spills on the harbour margins. A white box van was parked at the inner basin. A group of women stood in the lee of the ice plant. They each held a leatherbound hymnal. Men in black suits took speakers dressed in black cloth from the rear of the van and set them on tripods. A portable harmonium was handed over the wall and placed between the speakers. The men moved deliberately. They were elect. A girl stood apart from the women with her back to the outer basin. She wore a floral skirt which touched the ground. She had on a white cap. Her hair was gathered under it and fell to her waist.

The women wore long dresses buttoned to the throat. They wore no make-up. They seemed to have come from a latter century, pilgrim wives. An elder sat down to the harmonium.

They reached Corrigan’s car. The voices of the women came across the harbour. This was the hymnal of the town, the voices cadenced, God-haunted. Rural sects who practiced in corrugated gospel halls. The girl stood with the other women, her back half-turned. The oldest man motioned to her to step closer. His eyes rested on her hair loose under her cap, unchaste livery of the fallen.

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Kilkeel Hospital, 16th November, 2014

The hospital stood on the high ground above the river. Built on the site of the Workhouse. Ungraven stone markers beneath the scrub grass. Coffins brought in a handcart down a sunken pathway after dark. The grave opened by lamplight. A paupers moon hidden by the scrub pines growing on the slope. The bottom of the coffin was bracketed with brass hinges screwed to the coffin base plate so that it could be re-used. Other inmates filled in the grave. The corpses stripped naked so that the clothes could be re-used. All surrendered before they entered the workhouse. They died of typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis. What prayers the dead got were lost in the boreal darkness.

The hospital building was closed save for the morgue. Wartime Nissen huts in the hospital grounds housed the elderly and infirm of the town and its hinterland. Cole could see residents in wing back chairs in the closed-in glass porch. Bone-thin, palsied.

‘They act like bloody royalty, Corrigan said, ‘and them the leavings of the town.’

‘You know them?’

‘Put names to every one of them, seed breed and generation.

They think they’re on the brink of salvation but they’re not. My own fathers in it.’

Cole looked at him. ‘I should visit more often.’

The old people seemed imperious to Cole, a peerage of their kind. One of them lifted a hand to the car.

‘After the war the hospital was all sorts. A pharmacy. A children’s home. Then they parked the geriatrics in it.’

They entered the hospital building by a side door. Part of the plaster had fallen away from the inside wall to show the granite rubble construction behind.

The morgue was in the basement. Corrigan led Cole down a stairwell. He feels himself part of the workhouse complex. He can feel himself deep in the ground. He can feel its fastness all around him, the earthhold. The basement corridors stored the hospital files. Dented grey filing cabinets against the wall. Medical records. Psychiatric records. The death-trove of the town.

Corrigan unlocked the morgue door. Cole saw chipped tiling to waist level. Above that the walls were distempered, the paint peeling and flaked, the ground-damp seeping upwards. There was rubber matting on the floor worn through to the concrete in places. Theatre lights from long ago were switched on over the autopsy bench. The fittings were stiff and tarnished and Corrigan adjusted the nearest so that its brass pivot squealed.

Corrigan opened the cadaver drawer. The body was chilled but Cole could smell the ground from which it had been taken. The stench of the opened pit.

‘Do you want to come back when she’s opened up? She’s well preserved. Pathologist says she might have found herself in a pool of some preservative liquid. They’re a fucker to get rid of, preservatives. You can’t just tip them down the drain.’

‘Did you test the ground water?’

‘Who would pay for that for some long-dead girl?’

‘You have a point. Where is the clothing?’

‘Over there. I bagged it.’

Cole crossed the room to the stainless steel shelving units. There were jars and stainless steel dishes on the shelves. You thought of them filled with viscera, the organs stored for journey as they might be for a pharaoh or his queen. He did not look again at what lay in the cadaver drawer. The figure seemed wizened and hag-like, come to him from some dream of corruption and he wished not to know her.

Corrigan took sterile gloves from a clinical pack. He used scissors to cut the cable tie on the evidence bag. He laid the clothing on the sterile surface, the odour of ground toxins rising from the fabrics. The material starting to stiffen. He placed the clothes as she would have worn them, stained beyond recognition and shrunken by long immersion to a child’s proportions.

‘A child?’

‘The size on the garment label. It’s a twelve. Stockings, suspender belt. Shoes size five. No child was wearing this outfit.’

‘Teenager maybe.’

Cole leaned over the body.

‘Odour of formalin.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Dilute formaldehyde. It may be that the formalin was part of the hospital waste.’

‘Formalin?’

‘Its used as a preservative and bactericide. Histology labs used it for keeping organ samples. Undertakers keep gallon flagons.’

‘If some of that has been dumped on top of her the body would keep.’

‘Complicates the autopsy process.’

‘How soon will you know how long the body has been there?’

‘I don’t know. John Uel is anxious to know as well.’

‘He owns part of the land. Wants us to own the rest of it. Lets him off the hook.’

‘It lets him off the hook with regard to having a recent corpse on his rotten property. Doesn’t absolve him of anything else.’

‘John Uel will have figured the odds. You can’t be liable for waste dumped on somebody else’s land.’

‘What about a body?’

‘That might be a different matter.’

The smell of formalin getting stronger now, the chemical stink working its way into the neural pathways. Cole felt as if cold nineteen year old hands were dragging him down into some elaborate devising of the underworld.

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The Hollow, Kilkeel, 10th December, 2015

Cole parked in the Hollow behind the Kilmorey Hotel. The river in flood. Debris on the margins. Water in choked drains, the sucking darkness. The far bank in blackness. Slum clearances here thirty years ago, the site levelled. Children with diptheria. His room was at the rear of the building, looking out over the hollow and beyond that the roofs of the town, the streetlights glowing like naptha, giving way to the shadows of old entryways, back yards, the towns unslept gothic. A rain squall blown in from the sea darkened the town.

He walked across the car park. Two girls were outside the off licence. They wore coloured blouses in pink and blue which stood out like damask in the stark yard. Two boys stood in the lee of the dance hall gable shoulders hunched against the driven blast. Cole wondered what they waited on for there seemed no prospect of anything other than more rain, more night.

—Eoin McNamee

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mcnamee, eoin

Eoin McNamee has written seventeen novels, including Resurrection Man and The Ultras. His latest novel is Blue Is The Night, the third book of the Blue Trilogy. He lives in Co Sligo.

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May 062016
 

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaPhoto by Dirk Skiba

 

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I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.

Where can I take you?

I don’t care. Away from here, quick.

But is it Buda, or Pest?

Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.

This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.

We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.

I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?

Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.

And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?

I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.

Well, there’s some truth in it.

We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.

But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.

Just dumped?

Worse. I found out she has a husband.

Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.

So, she screwed you.

For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.

Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.

And how did you find out?

I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.

You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.

And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.

This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.

Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?

I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.

Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.

It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.

But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.

Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.

Shall we go?

I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.

I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.

A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.

What should we do now?

I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.

She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.

Are you sure it’s a good idea?

I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:

No, but I must.

I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.

—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.

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Erika

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, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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May 022016
 

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

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1

My brother!

I wait, holding my breath, for him to find me. But for the moment the flat is silent.

So silent that high up though we are the sounds of the street drift up to me.

Where is he? What is he up to?

I strain to hear if he is on the move, in search of me.

Patience. I always tell myself I must have patience in situations like these. After all, it’s not as if we have something else to do when this is over. We have all day and every day. So what are ten minutes here or there? Or an hour. Or even two.

Was that a sound? I stiffen in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall. I listen, but everything is still. Then I hear it again. A board has creaked. My brother is approaching.

But then the silence returns.

How long should I wait? For it sometimes happens that he forgets that we are playing and lies down somewhere and falls asleep. Or opens the fridge and makes himself a sandwich, then sits down with a magazine to eat it. And when I finally come across him and ask him what has happened he looks at me blankly. Don’t you remember? I say. We were playing. You were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says.

No, I say. It was now. I went to hide and you were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says again, munching his sandwich, gazing into my face.

It may have been yesterday, I concede, but it was also now.

Clearly, though, it has ceased to interest him. He’s like that, my brother. One minute pestering me to play with him, the next indifferent. He seems to inhabit many different worlds, all with complete equanimity, and each one as though it were the only one, but they are hermetically sealed off the one from the other and often in total contradiction the one to the other. Thus sometimes he will stand for hours behind some piece of furniture, or at the window. Nothing will budge him. Not the mention of food or  a walk or even a game, And then he will run through the flat as though pursued by a demon, screaming and whimpering and begging whatever he feels to be pursuing him to desist, to call off the chase. At first I was afraid the neighbours would hear and either come and complain or call the police. But when neither of these things happened I realised that the walls, floors and ceilings of these old apartments are marvellously soundproof and that we could make as much noise as we wanted and no-one would hear.

Then he will beg me to take him out and in the street he will either walk alongside me, nodding occasionally as I speak, like any respectable citizen, or run round me like a dog, dart up alleys or into half-open doors, so that I have to chase him and grab him and then hold him tightly until I sense that the fit of restlessness has passed.

He does not seem aware of these sudden changes of mood, inhabits, as I say, each of them as though that was where he had always lived. Sometimes he will eat up everything that is in the fridge and at other times go for days without food. At first I thought this would make him ill and I tried to remonstrate with him and force him either to desist from eating or, on the contrary, to eat. But he is as stubborn as he is strong, and anyway I soon realised that he must also have a remarkable constitution, for nothing seems to upset his stomach, neither excessive eating nor quasi-starvation.

I look at my watch. Surely it is time to go and look for him myself. If he was still playing he would have found me long ago, Yet I hesitate, knowing how upset he gets if I don’t play ‘properly’, as he puts it, and come looking for him without having given him time to search for me himself. On the other hand I don’t want to go on standing in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall if he has forgotten that we are meant to be playing and is lying down on one of the beds and sleeping, or flicking through one of the innumerable magazines that lie scattered about the flat where, barely opened, he has left them. If I come upon him like that and challenge him, reminding him that we had agreed to play and that I had spent the last hour hiding under one of the beds or squeezed behind the sacks of rotting potatoes in the pantry, he pretends he has not heard and goes on sleeping or turning over the pages of his book. I think he does not understand what I am saying. He turns his face towards me and looks at me, not as one looks at a person but rather as one scans the sky, searching for a cloud.

Ah! That was definitely him, creeping through the flat, approaching my hiding-place. He does not like me to hide too well, he has sometimes got into a state when he could not find me. So I crouch under tables or stand behind doors, so that I appear to be hiding but can in fact easily be found. I have often stood here, in one of the spare bedrooms, in the narrow space between the wardrobe and the wall. He comes into the room, spots me, but pretends he has not seen me, and goes out again. He thinks I imagine I have not been noticed. He goes on along the corridor, entering various rooms, walking round them cursorily, then makes his way back to the room where I am, comes straight up to me and pulls me out into the middle of the room, where he proceeds to embrace me, his soft wet lips making an uncomfortable impression on my cheek. Then he drags me to the nearest bed and we lie down in each other’s arms and often go to sleep like that, only to wake up cold and confused to discover that the sun has set and we are in the dark.

I must have made a mistake. The flat is silent as the grave. If a board did creak it was probably only caused by the central heating coming on. I step out of my corner and strain again to hear. What is he doing? Sometimes he is the most methodical of men, slowly working his way through each of the rooms, and in each room looking behind every sofa and every curtain, under every bed and every table. At others he flies through the flat, hurling doors open, glancing round and rushing out again, banging the doors behind him. But then he will suddenly lose interest and go out onto the balcony and immerse himself in the spectacle of the street below. If I come out and find him there, though, he will, as often as not, berate me for having broken the rules, or burst into tears and wail inconsolably, so that I have to drag him inside for fear the neighbours will see or hear. But at others he will look up surprised and welcome me, and we will stand side by side, leaning over the balcony, looking down into the street below.

He must have gone to sleep. He seems to have this capacity to lie down at any time of the day and immediately fall asleep, like a puppy or a kitten. But it’s a light sleep and if I enter the room he will, as often as not, open his eyes and turn his head, until he can see me. He will give no sign of recognition but watch me carefully. If I leave the room he will simply close his eyes and drift off again. Rarely can I come right up to him without his waking up. And that is usually after one of his bouts of hyper-animation, when he will sometimes sleep, dead to the world, for two or even three days and nights. This, however, has not happened for some time.

I leave my corner and go to the door. If I hear him I still have time to get back to my so-called hiding-place. But the flat is silent as a tomb. One might almost imagine that I was alone in it, and that it had been sealed off from the world forever. I put my head round the door. Silence. Should I give him another few minutes or is that simply condemning myself to anxiety and frustration? I step out into the corridor and the loose board creaks loudly beneath my feet. I freeze. If he is looking for me he will approach, without a doubt, and I will still have time to dart back into the room. I wait, straining my ears, but the flat remains silent. I resume my advance. The door of the next room is closed. I cannot remember if it was closed when I ran past it to reach my hiding-place. I have the feeling that it was. But then again, it might not have been. Try as I may, I cannot remember for certain. Should I open it or simply creep past it? If I open it I risk making a noise and if he is still looking for me he will be alerted and it will be too late for me to retreat to my original hiding-place. On the other hand he may have gone in and fallen asleep on the bed, if it is one of the rooms with a bed in it, and then my search for him will be over.

Surely if he had gone in and lain down I would have heard as I stood hiding and listening? On the other hand for the first half hour or so I was lost in my own thoughts and might perhaps have failed to hear him. He can, when he wants, be remarkably quiet when he comes looking for me in the course of our games. Sometimes he has given me quite a shock, jumping suddenly out at me and shouting to show he has found me.

I decide to leave the door closed and move on towards his room. Though he will lie down on any bed he finds if the fancy takes him, most often he returns to his room, or at least to the room that was originally his, for we both of us change rooms, and beds, as the mood takes us.

The door to the bathroom is shut and I stop for a while and listen, pressing my ear to it. Unless he has fallen asleep in the bath, and that has been known to happen, he is not inside. Beyond it, the kitchen door is open, but one glance is enough to show that he is not there.

Beyond the kitchen the corridor turns at a right angle. I dread this corner, for he sometimes likes to lie in wait for me there and leap out with a howl, and however much I prepare myself, it is nearly always a shock. I literally feel frightened out of my skin – as if my body had leapt into the air and my skin had stayed behind. It takes me a considerable time to recover. My heart beats so wildly I think I am going to have a heart attack. I have to lie down on the nearest bed, which is that of our parents, and in some instances I have fallen asleep there and not woken up for several hours, once even for a whole day.

I stand on my side of the corner and listen. However much of an effort my brother makes to try to breathe quietly, or even to hold his breath altogether, a little rasping noise always escapes him, which alerts me to his presence. It is sometimes difficult, though, to distinguish this noise from that of the water in the pipes. I close my eyes in order to hear better. The corridor is very dark here, for no window lights it and the bulbs are weak in the flat and anyway there is none near the corner.

I stand then and listen. Nothing.

I wait. Still nothing.

I advance again slowly, taking care to make no noise. I stop again, straining my ears. Perhaps my brother is in his room, listening to music. He may have forgotten all about our game, and have settled down with his music. His door is shut. Should I open it and risk disturbing him? Or simply let him be? After all, this might be an opportunity for me to read something or listen to a bit of music myself.

I decide to leave his door unopened but to go on with my search through the flat. If I do not find him anywhere else I can always come back to his room and open the door and see. I have reached what used to be the living room in the days of our parents, but it is now just another room, in which we sometimes sleep, on one of the large sofas, or in which we eat when we don’t want to eat in the kitchen because it feels too squalid, and we don’t want to eat in the dining-room because it feels too stuffy.

It is empty.

I walk round it, nevertheless, looking behind the curtains, though since it is I who was meant to be hiding I don’t know why he should be there. And of course he isn’t. I sit down on the sofa in front of the television and look at the white screen and at my pale reflection in it. Much as I dislike looking at myself in the mirror, I like seeing my shadowy reflection in the milky screen. Perhaps because it reassures me that I am really there while not forcing me to contemplate my features. And it might not be me, it might be someone else, all I can tell is that there is someone there, in the room. The television confirms that. Someone who is most likely to be me, since I sense that I am in the room, sitting on the sofa, looking at the screen.

All of a sudden I see, on the screen, something moving behind me. I turn round. It is my brother. He comes towards me, his mouth open, his face purple with anger. I stand up and take hold of his wrists. I know what he is trying to say. I should have been hiding, I have spoilt the game by my lack of patience, I am never prepared to play properly. I hold his wrists, and though he is a good deal stronger than me he does not seem to know how to use his strength to best effect. He spits at me and then begins to cry. I let go his wrists and draw him to me. His face is wet and when I seek to comfort him I taste the salt of his tears on my tongue. I want him to sit down beside me on the sofa, but he drags me out of the room and across the corridor. He pushes open another door and pulls me to the bed. We lie down on it together and very soon he is asleep.

—Gabriel Josipovici

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Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940 of Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine Jewish parents. He lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He read English at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and from 1963 to 1998 taught in the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of eighteen novels, four books of short stories, eight critical books, a memoir of his mother, the poet and translator Sacha Rabinovitch, and of many plays for stage and radio.

Read Numéro Cinq‘s interview with Gabriel Josipovici here.

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Apr 082016
 

Reactive

The following excerpt comes from The Reactive‘s brief prologue. In it, Ntshanga introduces the reader to the voice of Nathi, the novel’s protagonist, and sets into motion the background pieces that thrum throughout the novel: the death of Luthando, the commitment to Bhut’ Vuyo, and Nathi’s unforgiving conscious. Overall, it’s a gripping opening to a powerful book. — Benjamin Woodard

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Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them. Earlier that year, my brother and I had made a pact to combine our initiation ceremonies.

This was back in 1993.

LT was only seventeen then. He was broad of shoulder, but known as a wimp at Ngangelizwe High. My brother was good-looking in a funny way that never helped him any, and, like me, he was often called ibhari, or useless, by the older guys in the neighborhood. LT was bad with girls, too; most of them had decided against us pretty early. I don’t know; maybe it’s strange that I remember that about him most of all. I suppose my brother was handed the lousy luck of every guy in our family except our dad, who’d thrown us into different wombs one year after the other. We had cousins like that, too, all of them dealt a similar hand. In the end, it was winter when Luthando went to the hills to set things straight for himself. He went up thinking I would follow behind him.

It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him The Screamer, they told us later, when we gathered to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.

One morning, they said, my brother had failed to make the sounds they’d come to know him for. Luthando wasn’t due out for another two days. The sky had been an empty blue expanse, easy on their duties around eziko, and they’d missed his peculiar fussiness. When they walked into his hut, one after the other, they found a memory instead of the man they were out to make. That was my little brother, LT, dead at seventeen, and I’ve never forgotten it was me who put him there.

I never went back home after we buried him. This isn’t a story about me and my brother from the Transkei, about the Mda boys from eMthatha or the village of Qokolweni, where my grandmother’s bones lie polished and buried next to her Ma’s. Instead, I want to tell you about what happened to me in Cape Town after Luthando had taken his death. It’s where I went to school and tried to make something of myself. It’s also where I began to reconsider what my hands had made, and my telling of how it broke won’t take us very long.

I went to college two times in my life. I might as well begin with how things went for me there. I first attended the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip, and when I’d dropped out of my journalism degree I enrolled at the technikon in town, where I got my science diploma and my sickness. I had an equity scholarship—there had been plenty of those to go around for whoever looked the way I did, back then. I got through on mostly average grades, too, like most of the guys in my class. When the year came to an end, there was a bunch of us who’d file into the Fees Office again to fill out all the forms required of boys who shared my skin tone. It didn’t take much to go to school for free, in those days, or rather to trade on the pigment we were given to carry. I think I did alright, if you consider everything else, and I graduated with an upper-second-class pass in the end. I still have that diploma sitting somewhere in my at in Observatory.

Now what else? In between university and Tech, I spent close to half a year at Bhut’ Vuyo’s place. Two weeks after dropping out of the university, I tried to go home, but I couldn’t set foot inside my mother’s house. The home I’d known since I was a child was barred to me. There could’ve been a tapestry of fire that owed over each of our walls that day. In fact, thinking about it now, even that feels like an understatement.

My mother felt disgraced by my decision to leave the university and my bachelor’s degree behind me in Rondebosch. It was too soon, she complained, first over the phone and then again in person. For a few moments, she even refused to turn her face up towards me. Instead, Ma arranged for me to enter the home of a relative.

Bhut’ Vuyo was known as a great mechanic, a recovering alcoholic, and someone who’d been a doting stepfather to the little brother I’d helped to kill. He’d met my aunt, Sis’ Funeka, when Luthando was only ten years old, and before then, sticking his hands into rusting bonnets had taken Bhut’ Vuyo to Okinawa as a man of barely twenty. Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s. That was in Bisho, during the decline of the homeland years, and they’d served him on a cloth-covered tray every morning after he’d taken his table. It was no more than a month, people said, before my uncle was undone. There were decades that would nearly fell him after that: Bhut’ Vuyo barely standing on his two feet around the neighborhood, and Bhut’ Vuyo tottering on street corners next to the highway in Mdantsane. He was often seen with his toes busting out through the smiles on his black-and-blue gumboots, his head lolling as wispy as an old hornet’s nest over his shoulders.

Now, my mother told me, having wrung himself dry, and maybe for good this time, Bhut’ Vuyo lived with his second wife in Du Noon. They had two small children and her older son from a previous marriage, all of them born with bright eyes and strong teeth and each glowing with the promise of long-lasting health. For her part, my aunt had passed away shortly after we’d buried her son. Sis’ Funeka had had a cancer eating away at her throat, and I suppose it had grown too impatient with the rigorous hold of her grief.

In the end, it had been a punishment for me to be sent to Du Noon, I had known that even then, but thinking of my little brother, of Luthando, I’d made myself accept the idea. And so I went to Du Noon like my mother wanted me to and ended up staying there for six months. I suppose some things happened when I was out there, too, and I drew close to those folks who’d taken me in. The subject of Luthando came up, as I thought it would, and in my gratitude to them, I made a promise to Bhut’ Vuyo and his household.

Now, close to eight years later, I receive a text message from my uncle that reminds me of the words we shared back then, and of the promise I made, on a night so long ago I can hardly put it together from memory.

— Masande Ntshanga

Excerpted with permission of Two Dollar Radio. (c) 2016 by Masande Ntshanga

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Masande

Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, as well as a Finalist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His stories have appeared in Laugh It OffitchImago and Habitat. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine.

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Apr 062016
 

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakePhoto by Dean Sinnett

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S trong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. No heavy traffic here, though, not like the last time he’d seen them, at rush-hour, walking calmly single-file between a moving bus and a line of parked cars.

Hesitation. Bad. His bruises still hurt.

I have to know where you are, she’d said, you cant just wander alone. You dont know this big city. And stay out of the Park! Who knows what’s hiding there?

Also, they’d taken his keys.

He found clothes. As he felt in the “secret” pocket of her rain jacket, from the other bedroom came sounds he disliked. Good, they’d sleep soon. He left the building via the rusty fire escape off the third-floor hall. At the bottom he must swallow, then jump down to damp earth — better than taking the dim stairs to the basement door.

He hurried then. Clop clop, and the horses headed west past shabby low-rises like his, past the corner store with posters stuck on its outer wall. One said Resist! What? Then past the school, the one he went to, with a map of all Canada on the classroom wall. Vancouver, a dot. The town where he’d lived before, not even that. On the bewildering drive to the city, she’d kept saying Look at the map, see where youre going! He didn’t. Hadn’t asked, ever, to make this move. Back there, the cops only had motorcycles.

The boy kept half a block between himself and the clop-clop, scuttling from hedge to street-tree to shrub. Where did they live? He’d seen them often, on busy West End streets or near the big beach. Sometimes the police halted them, so people could ask questions or even pat those enormous heads. He saw the cops’ holsters close up, and the animals’ big nostrils, and their strange eyes, bluish-brown. Soon the horses moved on. Their steady gait — lots of videos showed that, how the animals just kept on coming, calm amidst furious crowds. Did riots happen here?

As the quartet neared the big street he stayed even further back, waiting while the traffic light changed and changed again. On the restaurant at the corner, someone had half-scraped off a Resist! poster. Near this intersection, he did know his way. Homeless men slept in store entrances, their hidden faces probably familiar to him from the network of local alleys, of bins behind cafes and groceries. Once he’d taken home a cold burger, untouched in its box. They’d found it. Bad.

When green shone a third time he sauntered across, then hastened after the lifting hooves. Along these blocks, richer landscaping fronted condos recently built. To hide and move and hide: easy. Ahead waited greater darkness, though moonlight came and went as the clouds moved.

By day he’d wandered this terrain south of Lost Lagoon, grasping at its geography. Some lampposts in the Park and at its edges displayed a map, for tourists, so he’d learned some main routes. In the middle of the map’s big green stood a tiny surprising coyote. He hadn’t known they could live in cities. Mum said You never see whats right under your nose, but that wasn’t true. On his own he’d spotted a real raccoon snoozing in a tree, and a dead bird with a huge long beak, and sleeping bags inside bushes alongside piled bottles and cans.

Once he’d even circled the Lagoon, peering up at the forest north of it, but hadn’t ever entered the Park after sunset. In the small town, he with other kids spent hours nightly in the local park, only vacating when the teenagers took over — but no map was needed. You could see right across. Now he followed the horses into the dark.

Near-silence, but for the stepping animals. One lifted its tail. Plop plop, and that warm smell mixed with the night’s leafy earthiness.

He’d thought they might turn south, past the tennis courts to the Bay. No. A right turn. Where to? At first following the horses, the boy then dared to move sideways into the damp understory of salal, laurel, giant rhodo — and ahead, to crouch and peek as the nodding heads approached. Even when a rare midnight car drove past, the animals didn’t change pace. The videos showed that too, horses proceeding while police trainers waved flags and noisemakers in their faces, fired blanks, came unseen from behind to beat garbage-can lids. Calm.

Next they turned west. On one side of that road, he knew, lay open lawn, on the other just patchy shrubs, quite low. All the way, streetlights. Now what? Could he scrabble downhill, unseen, unheard, to the underpass, and so move roughly northwest? His insides heaved. No, not that tunnel in the dark — nor by day. It curved, so the exit wasn’t visible from the entrance. Im not a little boy any more. Im not! They’d laughed till they cried, though later Mum said Sorry, and then they smoked. Also, the meadow beyond the underpass gave no cover.

He slowed, guessing. Turned away from the horses, south and then west in a long watchful arc through open and wooded areas. Breathed leaves, a trace of skunk, someone’s cigarette. Uphill then, on to the high bank overlooking the ocean. Here he squatted under a shore-pine distorted by wind and weather, smelled algae, watched the incoming tide’s long frills of white collapse on the beach. Soaked runners, cold sock-less feet — he didn’t care, looked north. I was right. Only a hundred metres away the quartet walked towards a concrete ramp that sloped to the sand. Touching it, the lead animals snorted, and the riders spoke gently, stroking.

When hooves met beach the four horses trotted south, almost as far as the point, almost gone from view — then back again, under the boy’s high perch, to and fro, to and fro. The animals’ muscles created light-patterns on their coats while the waves gleamed under the moon, fell into silver marbled froth, and made their hssshing sound.

When the riders headed straight at the water, the boy gasped. He couldn’t swim. Nodding, the horses waded in. They stepped freely, splashed, came back to shore, reversed and went forward again into the waves, whinnying. Theyre happy! The riders got them to turn tightly, splashing through the shallows, as if in an enclosure rather than the Pacific Ocean. Turn, turn — and out of the water they came, dripping, tossing their manes, to shoulder sideways, back and forth, steady pairs dancing while the sand bounced up by their hooves.

Then they stopped.

Within a minute, the horses walked two by two up the ramp and disappeared eastward into treed darkness, trotting. Where?

Clop clop, clop clop, fading. At last the boy felt cold.

Once he slipped on wet leaves, falling, and without the horses ahead in the darkness he got muddled.

Emerging from the Park, he found the street wasn’t his but took it anyway, for traffic lights winked ahead. Resist! was stapled to four street-trees. At the corner he checked a tourist map. Im just two blocks over. By day he’d go in again, figure out the lay of the land. As the signal changed, he noticed at the map’s left side a legend that matched images to numbers dotting the Park’s green expanse. Seven: a tiny horse. Police Stables.

At home, somehow the key’s noise woke them. Bad. His wet dirty clothes enraged his mother. The man never needed a reason, but used that one too.

In bed at last, he did think a bit about how one day he’d shove them off, shove as if they were an enormous ball, six feet in diameter, rolling about a training ring to impede his progress. As horses do when skilled in crowd control, he’d shoulder them. Lean up against them, step sideways, step and step and another patient leaning step, till like him right now they’d have no choice. Steady he’d be, calm.

Mostly he imagined stables. He’d stand close, look up. Touch? Feed? Once he’d seen a girl hold out an apple. Big teeth showed as the hairy lips lifted back, and the horse bit the fruit. The boy raised his hand, held his palm flat.

—Cynthia Flood

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Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.

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Mar 122016
 

jose_eduardo_agualusa_0

Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey

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Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

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Mar 092016
 

Alan-Cunningham-03 19.33.08

 

Idea for a script, no, play.

No, idea for a novel.

A man – no, woman – too many men in literature, opens a suitcase in a living room of a building apartment, starts to place all these, like, well, all these different objects into it. Not sure what they could be – yet. She puts all these – well, things – she puts all these things into the suitcase, leaves her apartment in a city – let’s say, London – and starts walking.

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EXT. LONDON

If script – I see a scene now where a camera has been placed at one end of a very long road, and it is filming. I see this road as a road – as the road, sorry, this is a memory – the road I once walked along in Stratford, a – the – road I once got lost on during a walk to see a friend, the road beside the Olympic stadium, you know, no, not the Stadium but the place where the bicycles race around, what’s it called – the Velodrome?

Anyway – we see the woman in the distance now, a speck, tiny and she’s walking toward the camera, lugging the suitcase behind her. There’re no cars on the road, it’s all very quiet, maybe it’s early in the morning and we see her getting closer to the camera, closer, closer and as she gets closer – and this takes a very, very, very long time – we start to see the details of her face and in particular all the effort she’s putting into walking and pulling the suitcase along behind her and she gets even closer, and closer still – she’s almost right by the camera now, almost parallel to it – then she just walks right past it – yeah, fuck it she says, and then she just fucking disappears.

Maybe she just keeps on walking? Maybe she walks eastwards out of London, keeps on walking, turns north, into the countryside? Still don’t know what’s in that suitcase though. (Does it have to be a suitcase? Now I’m writing this I see it more as like a military duffel bag, you know, you know the type I mean?). Or maybe at that moment when she leaves the shot, no, just after it, we see a close up shot of her face, with her eyes closed – yeah, she’s lying in a field.

I mean, there’s some grass in the background, that much we can see – I guess that’s why I – I guess that’s why we – why we would think she’s in a field.

She opens her eyes, gets up and looks around. We see what she sees – trees, other fields, mountains, the occasional bungalow house. She looks confused, but then something in her movement – the ways she gets up, for example, the way she opens her eyes – seems to indicate an acceptance of her predicament, if that is what it is, if it is indeed a predicament, you know, and then she lifts up the handle of the suitcase – lifts the suitcase up, indeed – and starts with walking once again.

Not sure where she’s going. Still not sure what’s in the suitcase (duffel bag?)

How did she get there? I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t know either. Maybe she just woke up like that – if this were a film we might see a shot of her eyes just gently opening, again, right now – lying in a field, her suitcase right beside her, I don’t know, where could this be shot if it had to be a place, I mean where could we shoot this, easily, Ireland? So she wakes up in Ireland?

Not sure why not England. Could be England. Plenty of fields there too. That might make more sense. Ok, maybe there’s a reason why it’s Ireland.

Anyway she wakes up in a field (ok) in Ireland (all right), the suitcase (duffel bag? Still not sure) full of all these – all these things – beside her.

But she doesn’t know how she got there.

 Ok let’s go back a bit.

 •

A scene, in a bathroom in Copenhagen. The sound of music and dancing can be heard through a slightly open window – one of those frosted windows one almost always finds in bathrooms. She opens the bathroom cabinet, selects a few things – perfume, lipstick, some golden tweezers – and drops them into a tote bag. She stops, though, after that – she hears the music too. She leans back, peers out through the slightly open window.

CUT TO an image of the cityscape of Copenhagen, buildings, blue sky, trees. The camera searches as her eyes search, and then she (camera) finds it – the source of the music. A dance class in a loft nearby. A loft with huge, transparent windows, the loft of all our dreams. She looks at them all, all the women dancing.

Then she remembers the bag in her hand and why she’s in the bathroom.

Next thing we see she walks into the living room, just like we described at the beginning. There’s a duffel bag (forget the suitcase) in the middle of the room and she drops the tote bag into it. Then she pulls the rope tight around the duffel bag, swings it over her shoulder and she walks out.

Still don’t know why though. Does it really matter?

Anyway, back to LONDON.

What does she do there, before her walk to camera? ‘Cause after that it seems like she just appears in Ireland, somehow, right? Need to give her something to do in LONDON. I’m thinking, something to do with space? Before we talk about how she got there, how she got to LONDON?

Those things, remember those things that were all in her suitcase, duffel bag, all the things she packed inside? I think one of them is a deck of cards. I think we might be able to do something with all those things. In a bit though. Wait a bit.

Ok, something to do in London. How about this? The camera looks at a photograph – of the mountain, just like the mountain in the magazine. (What magazine, you’re thinking, just wait will you.) One difference though – loads of military bases. You know, like military buildings installed on mountaintops. It’s a photograph located in, let’s say, the flat of her father. He lives in LONDON. Maybe he stayed there, when she and her mother went to live in Denmark. I’m guessing her mother is Danish, right?

Anyway, this photograph. It’s on a wall. And she looks at it and it reminds her of something else, the mountain in the magazine, something we haven’t seen yet though – but guess what, it’s something really, really, really important.

Before she arrived in London, right, she boarded a train in Copenhagen. Before she boarded the train she bought some typically Danish food products at the train station.

On the train, though – on the train she fell asleep watching the train pass quickly by buildings, then houses, then fields. The man who sat beside was a large but friendly man. She woke up some time later, the train deep within the Danish countryside.

In the pouch situated on the seat in front of her there was a magazine. She pulled it out and, flicking through it, she came across an image of a mountain.

That’s where I’m going, she thought – yeah that’s where I need to go.

 —Alan Cunningham

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Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland. His books include Count from Zero to One Hundred (2013), New Green Fool: 7 Essays After The Green Fool and Sovereign Invalid (both forthcoming). Currently based in London he has previously lived in Belfast, Berlin and Melbourne. In 2013 he was a Resident Fellow at Z/KU in Berlin, Germany, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI). He was also the recipient of a general ACNI arts award in 2014. 

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Mar 072016
 
Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024

Sam Savage photo by Nancy Marshall

 

I know why I came. I don’t know why I stay.

I was on the point of departure when I began to stay. I made many attempts at leaving afterwards, but I never again got so close that I could honestly say I was on the point of departure.

I sometimes blame the toaster-oven. I really ought to have thrown it out at the very beginning, when I saw it would not turn off automatically and would have to be watched constantly, while there was still hope of getting a new one. I suppose I had scruples. It was not my job to throw out other people’s small appliances.  I went on using it instead, but was assiduous about pulling the plug afterward, sometimes returning to the kitchen to double or even triple check.

A bright side to my current situation is that I am now unlikely to leave the house with the toaster on, as I feared for a moment I was about to do.

I mean I am unlikely to leave the house.

I had already opened the front gate. Clutching a suitcase in each hand, I was about to step through to the street, when I remembered the toaster-oven. I stood stock-still, while I tried to recall if I had unplugged it, a mental effort that is sometimes described as “ransacking the mind.” From my experience of other people, including people in films, in similar situations, I assume that my expression at that moment was completely blank.

Imagine a man in his mid-forties, dark hair, of average good looks, though perhaps thinner than is considered healthy, standing in front of an open gate with a small pack on his back, a heavy suitcase in each hand, and a blank look on his face. He is wearing jeans, sandals, Hawaiian shirt. The sun is shining. It is summer.

Standing there, ransacking, I was able to recall almost every instant of the morning—snapping shut the two suitcases I had packed the night before, checking the window locks, sweeping the crumbs of toast from the kitchen table, and after finishing my coffee, rinsing the cup and pouring the remainder of the milk down the drain. But when it came to the toaster-oven I drew a complete blank.

Picture a blackboard covered all over with writing except for a spot near the bottom where there’s a broad whitish smudge made by an eraser.

There was nothing to do but check.

I realize now how absurd that was. Instead of checking I could have just left, stepped right through the gate into the street and on down the slope of departure. I could have caught an afternoon train to Marseille and from there taken a plane back to America. I could have rented a car in Nice, driven to Milan and grabbed a flight to Tokyo. I could have worked my way down to San Rafael and Genoa, taken a room in the latter city, and begun research on a book about Columbus.

That’s easy to see now.

I set down the bags and closed the gate. The latch, it seems to me now, fell with a dull thud. It fell with a small click.

I ran back up the stone stairway that climbed from the gate up through the terraced garden to the front door, pausing on the next-to-top step to bend and retrieve a key from a little crevice underneath, where I had placed it a minute before and where I had found it at the beginning of my visit.

I had expected, when I reached for the key at the start of my visit, a heavy old-fashioned key of a kind that I imagined was still common in France. But it was a Yale key of a type that is found everywhere.

I say visit, but of course as things have turned out it really cannot be considered a visit. A stay, I suppose, or a sojourn.

I bounded through the front room and the dining room and down the hall to the kitchen, which occupies a wing of its own at the rear of the house. The cord lay in neat coils on the counter next to the toaster-oven. I no sooner saw it than I remembered coiling it in just that way.

I was turning back when I noticed a smudge on the little glass door of the appliance. I tried to take it off with my thumb, but that only made it worse. I remember thinking that I would just have to leave it like that, even as I went about dampening a sponge with detergent and scrubbing it clean. I don’t understand why I did that.

I had been late for the bus already, and now instead of racing for the door, I stopped in the front room to gaze out a window. I moved a chair to one side in order to pull open the casements, push out one of the shutters, and look down. I saw the walk and the gate below me, and my suitcases standing side by side in front of the gate. There was something oddly moving, even mysterious, about the arrangement of things: the walkway paved with blue tile and bordered by gray-green dagger-leafed yuccas and yellow-flowering cacti, the white-painted wooden gate, and the two incongruous suitcases. I was reminded of a surrealist painting, by Magritte perhaps, or de Chirico, the way all the elements conspired to evoke the person who ought to be standing there between the suitcases but who was, mysteriously, missing. It was like seeing myself gone.

I heard the bus pulling away from the stop at the corner. I listened while it labored up the hill, the noise of its motor ascending from groan to whine and falling back to groan as it climbed a ladder of gears to vanish suddenly into silence. A silence that began, I suppose, with the driver lifting his foot from the accelerator at the moment the bus topped the ridge and started to coast down the far side, towards the Mediterranean and Nice in the distance. A foot in a regulation black shoe at the base of a blue-uniformed trouser leg, a shoe hinged on its heel, the toe slightly raised: and from there, from that minute motion, the lifting of the toe from the accelerator pedal, it – the silence – came rolling back in a vast cumulating wave over me and the house and the garden.

I recall feeling something very odd and intense. I was acutely aware of myself standing there at the window and looking down at my bags planted side by side on the sunlit tiles, between the rows of desert vegetation, the spiked leaves and spines and the flowers that were too yellow, in front of the closed gate.

I stood there a long time. Dark clouds had begun to float in from the west. Fearing rain, I went down and brought the bags up.

Shortly afterward several drops fell, so few they made scarcely a sound, while dark splotches the size of nickels appeared on the walk. Then, a little later still, the sun came back out.

—Sam Savage

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Sam Savage is the best-selling author of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, The Cry of the Sloth, Glass, The Way of the Dog, and It Will End with Us. A native of South Carolina, Savage holds a PhD in philosophy from Yale University. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Feb 132016
 

GerryBeirne

A word of introduction: “What a River Remembers of its Course” is a story from NC Senior Editor Gerard Beirne’s brand new story collection In a Time of Drought and Hunger just out with Oberon Press in Ottawa. Gerry and his wife Eilish, when they first came to live in Canada from Ireland, moved to Norway House in northern Manitoba. The stories in this book stem from that experience, the north, the alienation of the people (native and poor whites) from the land, the poverty, and the isolation. Oberon is a great old  Canadian Press. They have published two books of mine and continue to publish the annual Best Canadian Stories volume, which I used to edit. “What a River Remembers of its Course” is the story of a river and a dam and a native protest occupation told from the perspective of a white man who came north to build the dam and married a native woman who later died, the dam, the protest and the marriage forging a mesh of relations, guilt, and responsibility, the peculiar fraught moral climate of the colonial north.

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Drought and Hunger from pdf-large

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eo could tell you about the dam being a run-of-river structure. He could explain how the water flow is used immediately instead of forming a forebay upstream. He could talk about the spillway adjacent to the powerhouse, the five thirteen metre square steel gates, each over one metre thick with heaters fitted inside their hollow interiors to prevent freezing and condensation. Each gate, he might add proudly, weighed over one hundred tonnes. He could tell you those things over a mug of tea at his kitchen table or he could tell you them while standing on the granite shield fishing for pickerel or while out in the forest hunting late winter moose. What he couldn’t explain was the group of over one hundred protesters who had marched almost twenty kilometres from their small remote community, the same one Loretta had been from, to the dam to occupy it.

He heard the commotion first as he left the powerhouse on his afternoon break. The protesters were marching in a long procession through the gates, singing and beating drums, holding up homemade banners. One man at the front carried the tribal flag and two others a large cardboard sign that Leo later found out was an over-sized eviction notice. He recognised the Chief and some of the other people from the community. Although not at the front, it was hard to miss Mervin, a relative of Loretta’s. He was six and a half feet tall and wore his long black shoulder-length hair in a ponytail.

Leo went back inside to advise the other workers – the operators, distributers, dispatchers, supervisors, technicians, and maintenance staff. They came out after him to watch as the plant manager and several security officers went forward to speak with the protesters. The Chief handed over the eviction notice and ordered the staff to leave immediately. The RCMP were called while the manager tried to negotiate, but by mid-afternoon only key personnel remained. The other staff had left under police escort. The housing complex was locked and the tribal flag raised above it. Leo, a maintenance supervisor, was one of the few permitted to stay.

 

“It’s going to be a peaceful protest,” Mervin told him when he went over to speak with him that first evening. “But we are digging in for a long occupation.” A teepee was being erected on the grass beside the powerhouse where he and Mervin stood. A few young men were building a fire off to the side. A sacred fire, Mervin explained. A lone drum struggled to be heard against the water surging through the spillway.

“Is there no other way to resolve this?” Leo asked.

“We have tried doing it their way. We have sat around their tables and signed their pieces of paper but still no benefits have flowed to us. They violate our Treaty rights and hide behind lawsuits. They have polluted our waters, destroyed our land, disrupted our way of life, left us only despair. It is time for us to take charge, assert our rights.”

Leo understood this. Loretta had suffered the same indignities. When she fell from the boat and slipped beneath the murky water, did not every indignity since the beginning of creation attach itself to her body and weigh her down?

“You do what you have to do,” he said and walked back to the office.

 

Despite the enormity of the structure, there was only so much regulation of the water levels of the lake the dam could control. No amount of concrete and steel could fully compensate for wind and precipitation. Ongoing erosion heavily impacted the shoreline. During high winds, Leo had heard of there being as much as an eight foot difference between the north and south basins, and due to its shallow depth the water was impeded from circulating back to the windward side of the lake, piling up instead on the leeward side. Furthermore, the north end of the lake was experiencing post-glacial rebound from the huge weight of the ice-sheets that had existed there thousands of years before. The land gradually rising back upwards, the lake slowly tilting from the north and moving southward.

It had been necessary to excavate the spillway and powerhouse channels through solid granite bedrock. A year later the first concrete was poured. Leo remembered it vividly. He was barely nineteen. That was almost forty years ago. Forty years that had flowed past like the water through the dam. Years that had been diverted, regulated even. Years that had been stored up and then let go. It had taken six of those years to get all of the generating units up and running. Leo was twenty-five by then. Loretta was twenty-three. She was thirty-six when she toppled from the boat and was swept downriver into the log-boom that prevented debris from entering the intake gates. The found her body trapped between the mounds of piled up logs looking for all the world as though she was clinging on for dear life.

Loretta started work as a cook in the camp about three years after Leo arrived. Her family were wary of the dam, the effects it might have upon them, but they were given assurances by the government and the company, and, besides, you take whatever work you get, Loretta told him. “My grandfather worked for the Hudson Bay Company.” She shrugged. “It provided food for his family, my father.”

For almost a year, Leo sat at his table in the camp and watched her while he ate the food that she had prepared, and for almost a year she sometimes watched him back. Tables of men, young and old, chewing and swallowing, talking loudly, swearing and laughing, belching. Their coarse talk and their rough hands swollen from manual labour. Leo’s skinny frame filling out with muscle and flesh. His mild manners peppered with grains of crudity.

“She likes you,” Glenn said. He was almost ten years older than Leo. His wife lived down south with their two young children. Glenn drove an excavator. The work was dangerous, but he didn’t think about that. He couldn’t afford to, he would have answered if he was asked.

They were finishing off their breakfast. Grits and gravy. Leo felt himself blush. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn said. He washed his food down with a mouthful of coffee, picked at a back tooth. “All the food you can eat.”

“I’m not interested,” Leo lied.

Glenn looked him right in the eye. “Course you’re not.” He nodded, pushed his plate into the centre of the table “Why would you be?” He stood up, burped. “You’re a young man. You’ve got the whole world in your grasp, isn’t that so?”

Leo wasn’t sure how to respond, but Glenn stood there as though waiting for a response.

“I mean, she is nice,” Leo said, “but…”

“That’s right,” Glenn said. “But….” He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “The whole fucking world.” He sighed heavily, looked past Leo now.

“I’m not saying…” Leo said.

“What I’m saying is that I’ve got children half your age.” He abruptly gathered up his cup, his plate and cutlery. “Now if you don’t mind, there is some earth out there I’ve got to go dig great big holes into.”

Leo sat there after he left. Loretta was somewhere out of sight. He had no real idea how he had ended up where he was, in the middle of nowhere, shut off from the world by trees and inhospitable land. How was it that people were living here? Glenn was right. He would talk to Loretta, suggest that they take a walk together after they were both done their day’s work. A walk amongst the trees or by the banks of the formidable river. That was what people did, was it not?

 

Leo liked to find older cutovers, areas that still had some woody browse but offered cover and protection, small pocket cutovers that were a little further off the beaten track. The thick stuff at the back down impassible winter roads. At that time of year, moose tended to group up. He often found several together in search of food. Leo would survey the trampled snow, the damaged brush, and maybe then the outline of a bull moose a few hundred yards away, the two feet of antlers looping out from each side of its head, the heart stopping moment, the adrenalin pumping through the veins. The bull might still be in the back of the cut, Leo getting glimpses of it through the trees trying to draw it out with bull grunts and then it disappearing inside the bush line.

After the rut tapers off in late October, the moose hole-up. There are some who think they are drained by the rut, but Leo believed they were simply transitioning into their wintering areas. In any case, there is a lull. When Loretta was alive, Leo and she would fill that lull by making love. At least, that is how Leo remembers it. But Leo knows his memory is not dependable anymore. What, he wonders, does a river remember of its course? If Loretta had lived, there would have been children by now. They would be grown. But instead Loretta had stood up to cast her line and she had lost her footing somehow, and Leo was distracted lowering the block of metal he used as an anchor.

 

Leo would stop and talk with Mervin every few days. The Chief was trying to come to some agreement with the company and the Province. Mervin would tell him what he knew about the progress being made, if any, and Leo would let him know the mood of the workers, but mostly they talked about the fishing and the hunting, the way things had changed since the construction of the dam. The good and the bad. They would talk about the geese migration, and they would talk about people they knew in common. People from Mervin and Loretta’s community. They did not talk about Loretta, at least not at first, but as the protest, the occupation, went on over weeks, Leo knew that Loretta’s name which had been far upriver was drifting nearer and nearer.

 

Mervin was related in some way to Loretta. Leo never really knew how. She had endless relations none of which he understood clearly.

“Surely it is the same for you,” Loretta had said one time, but Leo could not say it was.

“I know most of my cousins, but after that…” He held his hands up in uncertainty. “We are spread far and wide. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario.”

“We live next door.” Loretta smiled. “I do have a distant cousin who moved to North Dakota. Someday we will go and visit him.”

Leo thought of this while speaking to Mervin. He had never been to North Dakota, and he did not think he ever would go now.

 

It was the fifth week of the occupation when Loretta’s name swept in upon the shore. Tensions were getting high. A truck, with parts and equipment, had tried to pass through the blockade without permission. The driver had been pulled from his cab. Punches had been thrown. Leo had gone forward to try and help calm things down. Mervin, all six and a half feet of him, was already standing between the driver and the group of angry protestors by the time Leo got there. It took forty five minutes of negotiations for the parts and equipment to be unloaded and the driver to get back in his truck and drive away.

Leo walked over to Mervin to thank him for his intervention, but Mervin was angry, infuriated by what had just occurred. “He need not think,” he said referring to the driver, “that he can trespass on our land whenever he feels fit to.” His voice was raised, his eyes glowering at Leo. And then he pointed his finger at him. “You know which side Loretta would be standing on if she was here. You know.”

Although Leo had for a long time been expecting this, he was nevertheless caught by surprise. Not just by the mention of Loretta’s name but the overwhelming rush of his own inner turmoil, the dam gate release of emotion. He stood there on the gravel road with the river in the background and the vast concrete walls that held it back and the endless forest of trees overshadowing all and Mervin fuming in front of him pointing his finger and Loretta, and Loretta, being washed up as if for the very first time. Leo felt his knees weaken and his legs begin to shake. And in the cascade, other accidents and other corpses. Tom Farrell who had been crushed when the large concrete wall section being swung into place had swung wide, and Michael Simmons, barely eighteen, who slipped from the scaffolding on the spillway, and Ed Williams who was struck by a steel crossbar while removing a roof from a Quonset that had housed concrete, and all the others who suffered tragic misfortunes and succumbed to their deaths at once.

There have been long periods of time over the years when Leo did not think of Loretta, weeks on end, maybe months if he was being truthful, and then something would bring her back to mind. When he first realised this he felt guilty, as though he had somehow let her down, even more so by how he had let her down by turning away to lower the anchor. But the thing was, and he knew this now, that Loretta was always in his mind even if not in a conscious way. There was no thought he had or action he made that Loretta did not influence. The general course of his life she had gouged out in front of him, and he was just following along.

Mervin was wrong. Leo did not know what side Loretta would be standing on. He could not determine the course of her life as clearly as he could his. Hers had taken an irreversible diversion after all.

 

When Leo and Loretta were first married, they moved back to Loretta’s community and lived there with her brother and his wife and three children. It was not ideal but, as Loretta said, it was a start. They could not afford their own house just yet, and this after all was Loretta’s home. She had lived there all of her life. Being white, not everyone welcomed Leo’s relationship to Loretta. Her grandparents on her mother’s side both disapproved. Her grandmother on her father’s side also disapproved, but her grandfather did not. Her mother said she understood, but Loretta thought that she probably did not. Her father said it was none of his business. “He is a hard worker. That’s good enough for me.” Leo was a hard worker. He helped his in-laws with cutting wood, hauling it, stacking it. He rode his skidoo and his ATV on their behalves. He worked on the engines of their vehicles. In time he was accepted.

Each day he and Loretta drove the nineteen kilometres to work. They talked about their plans for their own home together, about banalities, work details, and they sat in silence too and thought about those things that people think about in their lives that they scarcely remember later.

After the dam was built and the short-term construction jobs dried up, Leo moved into maintenance and Loretta was put in charge of keeping the lodgings for the workers clean. She was one of the few from her community still employed there. “We push brooms and fill plates,” she said.

They eventually got their own house about halfway between Loretta’s community and the dam. A small house not far from the river with a dirt road access. They got a boat, and they fished the river and nearby lakes. And if the accident had not occurred…

 

“We are not asking that the dams be removed,” Mervin said. Leo had stopped by the fire to talk with him before leaving for the day. One of the protesters would open up the blockade later, permit him to drive through. “We only ask that they apologize for the wrongs and make amends. Our people are frustrated, angry, but equally determined. This is not easy for anyone. Being away from family. The nights are cold and long.”

“Why not stay in the lodgings? You have them under lock and key.”

Mervin shook his head. “We have stayed in too many of the white man’s lodgings. No more.”

“Do you want me to leave and not return?” Leo asked. “Maybe I am now ready to do that.”

“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before. What is here is not going away.”

A young woman and a small boy approached the fire. She did not look like Loretta, but still he was reminded of her. Mervin shrugged. “There were many of our people who worked on the dam during its construction. You do what you have to do to survive.”

Unlike Mervin, the woman was too young to remember what the land had looked like before the flooding, and yet here she was. Leo put his hand in his jacket pocket and cradled the car keys. Could it be said, he wondered, that Loretta had survived?

It was time to go. He would walk to his car now and drive back to the house that he and she had built together.

 

When Leo and Loretta got their house by the river, they thought then that this was it, that they had reached a place in their lives where they were finally located, a place they would never wish to leave. The water flowed past their front door unobstructed, and it seemed to them that their life together was unobstructed also. They fished the waters and trapped along the water’s edges. Leo took his gun and hunted in the forest and in the skies. They drove the dirt roads and the snow-covered roads to and from their work at the dam, leaving in the early light of dawn and returning in the fading light of dusk. Loretta skidded off the road one time and ended up buried deep in the snow. She had to climb out through her side-window and walk the three miles remaining back to their home. She cried when Leo pulled her in towards him and put his large arms around her. There was no damage done to her or the vehicle, and if there was a hidden fault within their relationship, the shock of the accident and Leo’s comforting of her later surely repaired it. But despite all of this, when Loretta drowned, Leo would often think that they only had gotten their due. It was not necessarily something he had been aware of as he worked to build and maintain the dam, but deep down within him he had always known that there would be a price to pay. Even when he had travelled north for the first time, he had known he was not of the place, that in some way he was an impediment upon it. Initially in his relationship with Loretta he had thought this too, that he was an impediment to her. “I am not truly welcome by your family,” he said after first meeting them. “At best I am tolerated.” “We are who we are,” she reminded him. “That’s all there is to it.” And later, “there were white people in my family before.” When she drowned, he knew there were many of her relatives and friends who blamed him entirely, and he could not fault them for that.

Loretta and he had stood at their door and watched the river hurry past them. They had tried to stand their ground.

 

The skeleton crew of workers could hear the steady beat of the drumming as they went about their work. Leo tried to avoid the conversations that denounced the protest. Like everyone else, he wanted it to end as quickly as possible, for his life to return to wherever it had been before this interruption, but unlike his co-workers he wanted it to end in such a way that everyone was content with its outcome, that both sides could be accommodated, the gaps between them bridged. They spoke callously before him as though Loretta had never existed or as if uncaring that they might give offence. He felt certain that the beat of the drums that they heard were of a different rhythm to ones that sounded in his ears.

Loretta had heard plenty of abusive talk when she was working there too. There was no manner of insult she had not endured.

“We are an evolving species,” she told Leo on one occasion. “In our case, our skin has grown thicker over the centuries. They can say what they like about me or my people. It is they who grow weaker, become defenceless. Ultimately it is they who will die out.”

“Does that include me?” he had asked.

He remembered how she had looked at him with a mixture of surprise and disappointment. “You and I may not be the same, but we are not that different.”

That is what he wanted to tell his co-workers, we are not that different. There is nothing that the protesters are asking for that we would not expect. They have no anger that we too would not feel, that we would not wish to express.

 

Leo’s parents died two years apart, down South, twenty-three years after the construction of the dam. He had seen them maybe three or four times a year at most after moving up North. They were only a few hundred miles away but worlds’ apart. He had a sister married in a neighbouring town to his home town who had visited their parents almost weekly, a brother who still lived and worked at home. When Leo and Loretta got married none of his family travelled up for the wedding. Instead they waited to celebrate almost two months later when Leo and Loretta came to them. His father in particular was proud of him for the work he had done on the dam, his brother in his own way too, his mother pleased because his father was proud. His sister had no feelings about it in one way or another. You take work wherever you get it.

What is more, they did not travel up for the funeral either. They sent their condolences by phone. Leo although saddened understood this. There was a forest, a granite shield, expansive lakes, heaving rivers, a harsh climate separating them. White-water rapids, portages too arduous to undertake. A people who did not resemble them with a language they could not understand.

He had dialled their telephone number and waited for someone to answer. He wished it could be his brother or preferably his sister. Instead his father had picked up the phone. At least not his mother.

“Loretta is gone,” was what Leo said.

At first there was silence, and then his father replied, “Gone where?”

“She drowned.”

And still the white-water rapids were impassible and the portages too difficult.

“Drowned?”

“She’s dead.”

The forest was thick and dense and unmapped. The lakes and rivers unnavigable. The words strange and incomprehensible.

“Dead?”

Leo’s one wish was that she had died upstream of the dam, that her body had never been recovered.

“I could have lived with that,” he told Mervin on the last day of the protest, after the Province and the Chief finally came to an agreement.

Mervin nodded as though he understood.

 

Here is what no one else knew. Two weeks after Loretta drowned, Leo drove out to the dam in the middle of the night. He parked his car facing the spillway and let the beams from his headlights light it up. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the scene made visible by his lights as though he were at some huge outdoor theatre. He looked at the massive rectangular concrete and steel supports the spillway gates were hydraulically hoisted up and down upon to regulate the water’s flow, and he watched the rapid white-water that poured through them. Further up, unseen beneath the surface, water streamed through the intake and around the turbines underneath the generating station before emerging from the draft tubes to calmly reform as a river once more. Was it possible, he wondered, that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts, withheld and released, expending its energy to empower someone else’s world and then be brought back together again as a whole to carry on as if nothing had altered at all?

He stepped out of his car leaving the driver’s door open and walked towards the lower road that ran along the spillway. The lights from the station gave just enough visibility to carefully make his way. The shield, the spruce and brush to one side, the upper main road across the dam on the other. He heard a rustling in the brush and stopped, wondering if it might be a bear. He waited in the near-dark but hearing nothing more walked cautiously on. He passed along the back of the spillway, its towering support walls and gates rising to his left. The noise of the swiftly flowing water sounded oddly like radio static at high volume. He walked past and down behind the generating station, leaned over the protective railing and stared into the gushing water. If her body had broken free of the wood held back by the boom, it would have been swept mercilessly through the intake and around the turbine to be shredded in the furiously spinning blades before being discharged. Was it possible that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts and brought back together again? What no one else knew is that as he leaned over the railing he thought to find out the answer to that. Back up on the gravel and dirt, his car’s engine was still running, the driver’s door was wide open, and the lights splayed their beams uselessly.

 

Glenn, the one who had first encouraged him to talk to Loretta, was another casualty of the dam when he was just weeks away from retirement. He was hauling dirt to stablise the shores when the slope he was driving on gave out and his truck fell into the river with a million cubic yards of dirt. His Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox floated to the surface eventually, but his body was never found. At his memorial, Glenn’s son brought the recovered Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox in proxy of the body. There were others who had died from blasting, falling rocks, electrocution, heavy equipment accidents, and drowning of course. Exhaustion, pneumonia, heart trouble. Most of the deaths got a line or two in local papers if that.

Loretta’s got little more. She may never have existed as far as the outer world was concerned, Leo thought. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn had said except Leo had let her fall through his fingers.

After she died, he threw himself into his work, taking on extra shifts, overtime. Often he stayed overnight at the lodgings. The house was empty without her. He would go back to her community to visit the grave occasionally but rarely visited with her family. He had done more harm to them than the government ever had. He had flooded them with grief.

Instead Leo made a memorial to her down from the house on the shore of the river and laid a few of her belongings there in place of her body.

 

In the dull evening light, a group of around twenty people either sat on folding chairs or stood around the fire in pants, winter jackets, toques, hoodies, and gloves. Men, women and children. Young and old. One elderly man stacked tall logs against one another over the flames as if he was about to burn the frame of a small teepee. Meanwhile people entered and left the white canvas teepee over by the powerhouse. Despite the cold, the overcast sky, there was loud talk and laughter. Leo could tell that something was in the air. He went over to speak to Mervin.

“We have signed a memorandum of agreement,” Mervin said. “We are negotiating a settlement. But there is a lot to be discussed yet. The locks will not come off until the agreement is finalised and an official apology is delivered. But at least we are on a path forward now.”

“Good.” Leo like most was eager for the occupation to end.

 

That night as he had stood at the edge of the dam contemplating joining Loretta in the water, Leo looked back to the strand of trees where he had heard the rustling earlier. An animal had emerged from the trees and was standing in the near dark as a large shadowy outline on the granite shield. As Leo watched, it turned its head and its massive antlers, and green reflective eyes made themselves visible. Leo stared at the bull moose and saw himself within it – a lonely creature waiting on the call of a female that might not come. The moose stood observing Leo for a few moments then backed up, turned and disappeared again into the dark.

“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before,” Mervin had said. Leo knew he was right, there was no going back. The moose that had sensed Leo’s presence and returned to the darkness was no longer the same one that had stepped out of it in the first instance. The river could not reverse its course and flow back the way it had come. The young man, a boy really, who had gone north in the first place could at best stand there momentarily before stepping forward precariously into the uncertain future.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. What a River Remembers of its Course is from his recent collection of short-stories, In a Time of Drought and Hunger. He has published three novels including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His short story Sightings of Bono was adapted for film featuring Bono (U2).

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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

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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?

.

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.

.

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.