cambridge book review

And If It Be Mean

Norma Gay Prewett



Photo: Norma Gay Prewett

“Hey, I’ve become homeless! By choice!” Rosie sang into the phone, her words making exclamation points. “But I’ve found a sleeping bag, and it’s red plaid, the warmest color,” she said, as if in all caps. On the other end of the phone line her sister Lana would be curled on the brocade loveseat where Lana and their brother, Max, had chatted over coffee during the brief months he had lived with Lana before his death. Rosie was being insensitive, since Lana shared with Rosie her daily struggles to keep her home ever since Lana’s last temp job went South, literally, to Mexico. But sometimes they buoyed each other up this way. Both had survived scares with a half-dozen deadly diseases—not hypochondriacal, but screwy and rare and symptom-based—in the same number of months and they were always over the top, at least figuratively. They perked pretty hard and high, as they often noted.

“Doubleya tea ef,” said Rosie, pronouncing each initial as if writing it on Facebook. She heard Lana clink the side of her coffee pot against the sink, though it did not make a breaking sound.

“Fudge,” Lana muttered, then, “Hold on.”

She had put the phone down. Rosie was on speaker—hollering into a cave.

“Didn’t break,” said Rosie. “Focus. Back to me here.” As she spoke, she packed the red plaid sleeping bag as if she were traveling to Europe instead of two measly hours away. Two hours and a lifetime, she thought, dramatically. She stuck a few clothes—warm, durable things—into the interior and intended to make a giant roll, like the scroll of a snail, on her back. She liked the image, along with the one of herself holding a gnarled walking stick with a bear whistle purchased on one of her recent trips with Lana to Sweet Springs, Arkansas, not far from where they had grown up. They took occasional “tour des morts”—death trips to visit their relatives’ graves. As she heard her sister prepare her end of the coffee ritual, Rosie realized that she needed coffee too—her last vice. She had given up a loved habit each decade since she turned forty—on her birthdays—smoking, drinking; fatty foods all had fallen and she mourned them as the Japanese do their aborted fetuses. Had even erected little monuments in the pet cemetery in the garden. She wondered what the new owner of her house and land would think upon discovering them.

The dear old house had sold nearly too quickly—before she could have misgivings, before the divorce was quite final. And her self-inflicted homelessness wasn’t quite real either. She had decided to front the wilderness and see “if it proved to be mean”—as her college idol Henry David Thoreau, the sour old bachelor, had said about his sojourn at Walden. While she was married, Rosie and her husband Sven had purchased a few acres smack in the midst of the rural Wisconsin coulees. Because they had made the youthful mistake of committing to rentals real estate, which now “owned” them in town, they had proudly refused to improve the cabin much, as though its inconvenience made it holier. Lana was in the process of shedding the rentals too—going down the road of trying to lighten her psychic load, as she considered it. It was really Rosie who loved the cabin. To Sven, it had been lean-to shelter between trout-fishing trips. Their son scorned it, a town kid all the way, and now, at 23, he was launched. Rosie was becoming inessential to anybody but Lana.

“Halloo-o-o-o-o?” Lana called into the phone. “Did you fall in?” She had caught Rosie using the john while phoning—something so coarse neither of them could even bear it in movies.

“Here!” said Rosie. “Hey, do you remember when I used to pilgrimage to Walden every year?” Those had been fine days, usually in Spring when she was visiting some boyfriend or other in Boston. Rosie had always taken the train, or to be Thoreauvian, it always took her. The Lakeshore Limited was a lot more elegant in those days and the whole thing was romance on the half-shell to her heaving heart. Daffodils would be just blooming in the soft seacoast winds, whereas they were months away in Wisconsin, so she always purchased a bunch, along with sandwiches and hot chocolate, to take to her traditional lunch with Henry. His part of the conversation was a bit muted, there in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, but she propped herself on his grave, his simple “rising in the ground” limestone headstone, and chatted him up. Generally, there had been pilgrims there before her, leaving their own tokens of love, since all of the Alcotts and many other luminaries were housed in their tombs all around. It was a celebrity cemetery.

“Did I ever tell you I think Alec was conceived there?” Rosie asked suddenly. She knew her sister was listening and hoped she was smiling what she teasingly called her “pickerel” smile. “Did I?”

“I recall that he was a little underwhelmed about the honor,” said Lana. “Didn’t you take him back there when he was five or six? You hadn’t even taken the poor kid to Disney World but expected him to be thrilled by a big old deserted pond and a replica shack?”

Rosie glanced at her watch. “I gotta run,” she said as she mulled over whether she was offended or not. They pushed each other’s buttons and refused to get too riled about anything short of outright hostility. As adults, Lana trailing Rosie by two years, they had fought and fallen out only once or twice that Rosie could recall, and the searing pain of her sister’s rejection had sent her to her bed. It was worse than any of Rosie’s string of men leaving her emotionally bereft. Lana was nearly, besides Rosie’s son, the only person left above ground that Rosie loved unconditionally, as the therapists say. Their family choir was thinning. They were now orphans, for instance, their parents having died within a year of each other.

Pausing halfway down the curving oak staircase, Rosie paused to peer past a stained-glass piece she and Lana had made together and hung there. She wondered whether to pack and move it. The closing for the new owners was nearing. Rosie would miss this view, which was regularly lauded with sunlight or shot through or chiarascuroed by mist, snow, rain. Now, it was deep November, a month she had never had any use for before, but which now gave her solace. It seemed fitting that her former husband of twenty-five years had dumped her in the Fall, the time she formerly would have been filled with anticipation, stocking her plaid pencil boxes and thermoses for the coming year of teaching, until that was yanked from beneath her by his insistence on her early retirement. He had promised in sickness or in health, but Rosie had never been totally healthy and so maybe Sven figured they were even. That Girl, his Lewinsky, his Jennifer, had come to her in the form of a photo on his iPhone. He was a wannabe photographer, so at first, having ironically borrowed his phone to call their child, Rosie casually thumbed through his photos just out of boredom. One showed a girl, much younger than Rosie, encased in gauzy light, studying, on a train. Okay, she had thought, just a “grab shot” as Sven called his furtive pics. Then, before he could grab the phone back, realizing his mistake too slowly for Rosie’s stiletto-like eyes, another shot of the same girl in his rented bedroom in Chicago. Here, he had posed her in exactly an attitude that Rosie had been posed in years before when they were courting—hair tossing, eyes slanted and narrowed, mouth slightly open. It was as if his parallel life—and they had known it would be a potential threat when he had been economically exiled to a city more than a hundred miles from their home to spend all weekdays, and some weekends, working—also included a surrogate her. It was all such a cliché—the midlife crisis and the younger, fertile, chippy.

“Fiddle-de-fucking-dee,” she said in her Scarlett voice, “I’ll fucking think about that tomorrow.” Or maybe never, she thought. Would never be too soon? Until the tenth of never… She went downstairs thinking, “The new me should abandon ‘Fuck.’” She had mused aloud to Alec one day, who had barely known his grandparents on her side, that the worst she ever heard come flying from either parent’s mouth was “dadgummit,” or occasionally “that stinkin’ thing.” These were euphemisms, of course, with the same cadence as the words they replaced, but as Southern Baptists, they would no more swear than they would tango. In Rosie and Sven’s modern, smart, sophisticated home, they swore like sailors, though generally keeping it in its place—the hearth, the bar, the cars. It was a habit—like eating the whole bag of Oreos—and Rosie needed to be mindful and shed it as she had shed other mindless habits. Maybe mindfulness to language was going to be her seventh-decade shedding. At any rate, there would be fewer opportunities to offend anyone. She imagined herself a self-sufficient hermit out there on the land, a female coot.

Rosie swung open the hen-house door slowly, amazed anew that she and a few determined Back-to-Earthers had managed to convince the city to let her have backyard chickens. The new owners were going to pull the coop down, but had given Rosie time to relocate the chickens. The cabin was the perfect place. Pullet Surprise, her Buff Orpington hen, was wary of change. Even when Rosie left the coop door wide open, Pullie stepped one dinosaurus claw over the sill at a time, glancing nervously back to the warmth of the 200-watt bulb that kept her and her water from freezing. Her sister-wives had all been predatored by some wily critter that had breached their security, violated their castle, in the night. Had it happened now, Rosie thought, during her own newly acquired self-sufficiency, she could have done battle with her shootin’ iron. One of the first things she had bought was a shotgun in prep for her new isolation. It terrified her, but she was not going out there without protection. Several trail cameras had now recorded what had just been a tantalizing rumor before—cougars were making a comeback in Wisconsin. Their ghostly lithe and perfect killing-machine bodies showed opaque but hard to believe, their eyes gleaming like the Tyger, Tyger in the forests of the night. Her cabin land—now it would be all hers—would have been her choice had she been the big cat. It had several ramshackle, but still sheltering outbuildings whose doors stood ajar as often as they were closed, and an overabundance of mice and groundhogs and any other game, a smorgasbord for even a lazy cat.

“Come on, Chickiepoo,” she warbled to her tidy little pet. “There are lots of you where we are going. It will be like homecoming for you.” Rosie nudged the hen’s soft bottom with her hand, trying to convince Pullie that the extra-large cat carrier was cozy, not scary. Soon she would have to stuff her in like laundry in a hamper, but preferred persuasion. This particular chicken had been Rosie’s “familiar” in the marriage, her folly barely indulged by her fastidious husband. While the hen was laying, she was tolerable, but Sven’s mantra had been, “If she ain’t layin’, she ain’t stayin’.” Even before the most unoriginal sin, Rosie had mulled that motto. Though of course Sven didn’t talk like that, being an educated Scandinavian, not the hillbilly stock she herself came from. He was uncomfortable with displays and flash. Sven drank to let himself flirt with people a little, whereas Rosie was all sparkle and outrageous behavior. Once, they thought it completed them. Now they saw, belatedly, that opposites collide, not attract, and the iPhone photos had sent them careening out of orbit one last time. But he had been good with finances—taking risks Rosie could never have taken because she distrusted stuff in equal measure to lusting after it. Never had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of as a child, and now Rosie was conscious of how quickly things could dissolve and go up the chimney, down the spout, any other cliché that was worn out but had once been so true that everyone adopted it.

So they had acquired stuff—houses, autos, even a couple of sailboats, so that their life, like Sven, was big and heavy. When Rosie had taken her teaching job in Wisconsin, she mused, she, even tinier than she was now at five feet, 110 pounds, felt terrifically weighted down by the contents of the purple VW Microbus in which all of her earthly belongings had been packed. Two years later, she co-owned several properties which became for a while like the restraining garment people use for autistic children who feel out of control—weight like the body of the big man she had married. It had worked for a long time. Babies like to be swaddled, and now, it turns out, dogs can be covered with “thunder-shirts” so they feel safe in storms. Rosie just needed to be light again.

She patted the side of the Pathfinder, the sturdy good old Leatherstocking car/truck with 200,000 on her, and made her promise to get up those Amish hills one more time. Rosie animated her world, naming the unnamed—briefcases, cars, writing pens. She imagined she could hear trees mutter as they grew if she lay her head against them. And one talks to one’s friends.

* * *

After having driven most of the 100 miles, she topped the final hill and liked all she surveyed, as usual. Below her, the clotted, dotted, spotted Wisconsin dairyland dozed or maybe had not yet unfrozen from a chilly, leaf-twirling morning. Blue chicory and milkweed pods were frosted and bowed and seemingly as arthritic as she felt. The streams, being spring-fed, ran clear, black, and cold all year. She would have to ford one of these—an Irish ford it was called when you drove through water—to get into her land. The county had refused to let them bridge it, so having previously stayed there alone, at the first splat of rain, she had scurried like a goat to her car and crossed to the safe side. Rosie recalled how Sven had just shaken his head. He had seen her reduced to jelly by storms, practically frothing and bluing with fear. Now, though, she intended to hire a project out—a chopping of stairs up the long steep rocky bluff that backed the cabin and affixing of cable, a handhold, so that when the frequent flash floods boiled the mild stream like rolling thunderheads, she always had a magician’s trapdoor up to the highlands.

Sven had known that what could rear itself dramatically could also fall precipitously—that within an hour the former bubbly cheerleader of a creek could be a tsunami, and then subside to its former peppy self. She knew it in her head too, but not in her bones, not in her stomach. The creek was as treacherous as a person—she now knew quite a lot about what can lie beneath.

Smiling, since out here she was always smiling, Rosie lifted gear from the rear of the Pathfinder—the chicken carrier, a too-big chainsaw, barn boots, gloves of the silly gardening style, some late bulbs she wanted to plant since the squirrels and moles sometimes took three of four, her shotgun, heavy pack, and a gallon of water. Utensils, mostly blackened cast iron and sturdy stuff, were already stocked at the cabin. As she prepared to horse her goods and provisions onto the high porch, the first flakes of snow tipped her face back. Where aspen leaves had been, and where the thirteen sky-tapping hemlocks still glowered, now began the shivering silver of sleetish snow. It made her think of Christmas, which momentarily made her feel desolate—since she was now without plans that before had been assumed—but she shook it off. She was at the Piney Woods. Rosie forbade herself to look back or down. She was going to be always, as the crazy man who announced moon and planetary phases on the television said, “looking up.”

An hour later, there was a solid inch of real snow. But, okay, she had coaxed a one-match fire out of the red Vermont Castings stove, a skill Sven had taught her. Why was everything prefaced on Sven? Well, she reasoned, twenty-five years wouldn’t just vanish. But she would have to break that link like a coyote chewing off its foot—nah, more like an escaped slave hoisting her shackles onto a tree stump and lofting the ax again and again. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she warned herself. Rosie didn’t mind talking aloud, even singing aloud to herself, but she didn’t really laugh aloud for some reason. She wondered if she would become her grandmother, a true Ozark hill woman who had muttered like a nervous hen all day and night.

Rosie cut first one log and then another down to fit the tinier maw than the former fireplace had had. The fireplace had been excellent in every way except the practical way. Floor to ceiling, five feet across, made of fieldstone, it was straight out of central casting for a rustic cabin. But it sucked heat from the one-room cabin like someone huffing helium from a balloon and when, after ravaging floods had violated the cabin two years in a row and they had determined it needed to be hoisted, the fireplace had been a casualty.

Rosie had cried and had noticed that Sven had turned his back and busied himself as the house-movers raised the spikes of the Bobcat to pull the fireplace down. The tiny wood stove was a trooper. With the help of a heating blanket, she was toasty in a few minutes.

Then, the noises began, bringing memories down the stove pipe and dancing lewdly before her as she perched in her Amish rocker. She was suddenly ambushed by times when Sven and she had sat there, his wrapping her and himself in blankets, chaffing her feet in his hands, touching her hair. Her hair was true silver now—to the other woman’s chestnut curls. Rosie did not know whether she herself was still cute or not. Pictures shocked her as she saw her mother as an older woman staring back at her with her sweet Irish blue eyes and pretty skin, but also potbelly and Frida Kahlo brow. This new woman … well … Rosie slammed the open stove door with more vigor than necessary and settled in.

* * *

The following morning, she was feeling smug for having survived the cabin by herself with all its wild noises at night. During the day, the most she had ever seen roaming were a couple of twin deer that haunted these grounds, but at night it was Wild Kingdom out there. It had been this kind of ordinary day when Rosie first spotted the bootprints. Curiously, as fear sometimes does, her first thought was of the fake Santa bootprints Sven and she used to trump-up to convince their tiny son Alec that Old Saint Nick had visited and somehow shinnied down another skinny stove-pipe, leaving his plain print in the ashes. But her second thought was more sober—there had been someone since snowfall right outside her door as she slept. Was it hunting season? Yes, that was it, but no smart hunter would come right up to the door of another person’s cabin. Too many trigger-happy greenhorns out here. Since coming onto the land meant crossing icy, fast water, not too many lost travelers ever bothered. There were cottages up and down the road—much easier pickings. And, had her first premise been right, the land was clearly posted as being off-limits to hunters. Well … maybe the prints were those of the handyman, checking up on her. Maybe Hank the handyman. Yes.

Rosie passed the next day in town, a perfect Wisconsin small town named Bud, a name as curt and straightforward as the town itself had once been. It had been discovered now, much to the chagrin of older finders like herself. Newcomers were “cute-ing” it. The things some of them fled in cities were now here—the “shoppes” where stores once stood; niche-y markets instead of hardware stores. There were fewer milking implements in Elmer’s True Value and more art quilts. Was she getting crotchety, she wondered. After all, everybody but the Chippewa were fairly recent immigrants, even the Amish, here. It was a matter of degree. But along with progress and convenience came price hikes. The town was getting to be what the handyman Hank sometimes called “mighty spendy.” The word had been punctuated by a splat of chewing tobacco recently since his wife had laid into him about smoking, so he had begun to chew. (Rosie thought of her Dad’s witticism: Many men smoke, but Fu Manchu. Her head was like a gumball machine. The thoughts just dropped down on her tongue and rolled out of her mouth willy-nilly.) Inevitably, a Walmart superstore had swum into town thrashing its gigantic nasty tail of straightened-out roads and cropped-off hills behind it. Newcomers hated it and old-timers loved it. Just the opposite of the progression that was happening everywhere else. But the store had this shade of blue she wanted for her new abode. It seemed like a small sin.

Once inside, though, Rosie became drowned again in the sheer excess. Her new skin, her new self-reliance, suddenly seemed stingy, though she knew the pretty comforters and things were all made in China, probably by kids who could be poisoned by dyes so that she, lucky, lucky she, could buy, buy, buy.

She set the gallon of paint down and quickly strode out of the store. The friendly Newcomer Co-op would be more her speed. She had brought her knitting. She knew the locals still eyed her curiously, though she had connected on some level with many and a few knew her name. Hank’s wife worked here, but Rosie was not sure whether the woman liked her. Nobody knew where she fit, neither pig nor fish, and neither did she. Rosie dressed like a lumberjack, but sometimes drove a Saab. She had dirt on her boots, but also an expensive haircut. Her knitting wasn’t pretentious. Long scarves of garter stitch were all she had attempted. But the yarn was expensive—always pure wool.

By the time she got back to the land, she felt singed if not entirely burned out. The days ahead stretched at once glorious and foreboding. She suddenly recalled a short story she used to teach in which a young wife learns that her husband is dead and then that the death had been misreported—all during the space of an hour. In the story, the young woman dies of “the joy that kills.” Like her, Rosie was “free, free, free” and the thought frankly terrified her.

On a whim, since the night was drawing in and she wasn’t quite ready to abandon herself to the cabin and her friends the mice—and because she remembered that she had not fed Pullet Surprise after she had installed her in the out-building closest to the house—Rosie pulled the truck into the lean-to, but then walked back to visit the creek, a habit like vespers for her. Around the edges, ice had begun to creep like cataracts over the good eye of the water. Some looked cracked, as if weight had been upon it. “Deer,” she thought reasonably. But she began to back her body toward the cabin. When she heard a sudden buzzing, there was no way to fit the sound into her surroundings. Swinging about, realizing she had no weapon, she instinctively brought her hands up. The incongruity of the cell phone swinging around blinking and buzzing made Rosie cock her head like a spaniel. “What the what?” she muttered, proud of avoiding “fuck.” Then, as soon as she bent to pick it up, it hit the bank and slid into the churning water. Waterloo water. Her gullet and heart traded places as she felt the “sick with fear” that one reads about. It was not right. No place for this here. Her phone service had never stretched this far and she knew that anybody who knew the place knew that too. Rosie could not bear to open her back to the darkness while she fished the phone out, nor could she stand to leave it in. She settled on a crabbing, sideways motion, wetting her arm to the elbow, but securing the now-deceased mechanical.

Her progress the five feet or so to the comfortingly warm, popping, car was that kind of creepy movie moving. She slammed the door and locked all four. It was a rough and ready truck, but had power windows. Her arm had started to ache from cold and the slight rise that she usually took in one quick spurt to clear the creek in four-wheel drive was made difficult by a standing start and two inches of snow. But there were no tire-tracks other than her own. Still, she pulled as close to her makeshift coop as she could fit the car inside the shed and slipped out, leaving the comforting motor running with the headlights aimed. Stumbling, she discovered Pullet Surprise—dead at her feet. The hastily rigged warming light still shone like a benediction overhead and there was little blood. Rosie nudged her with her boot heel, starting to cry. A fox, a weasel, a dragon—she wasn’t farmer enough to know—had surgically taken Pullie’s head. She had heard that chimps when they fight frequently tear off the face as the thing that controls. And headhunters of course take that thing in which resides our power. Stupid thoughts and what if the thing still lurked here? She raised her foot to the high floorboards of the Pathfinder, grateful as she had ever been for normal technology, but not before she saw a single, still-slightly-smoking cigarette butt in the snow. Rosie tore sod driving to the house. She switched on the porch light and hurtled into the cabin, finding the key faster than ever before. Once, she had locked herself out by misplacing a key, so now always stationed one near the door—where any fool could find it.

With one sick thud, all four doors and the trunk locked from the jarring. The Pathfinder was still running with the car keys now locked inside. It had long been a problem with that car. A simple jarring of any kind would trip the automatic locks. It had been annoying at home, but at home, they had kept a second set of keys.

Rosie tantrumed. She screamed all the words she had resolved to cleanse from her new vocabulary. Crazily, she felt like hollering to the Universe, “You want another piece of me?” But she didn’t do that, needing to comfort herself as a newborn must learn to settle him- or herself down. Self-pity was a real spike-studded tiger pit for her. Passages from Hemingway, maudlin passages, not even his best, suggested themselves to her. “It kills us all. But if you are strong and brave it will kill you too, but be in no particular hurry about it.” Wasn’t even correct and she was none of those big things anyhow and this was her cabin and her land and three miles from town and she had a land-line, a life-line, after all. Oh em gee. Good grief. Except that she didn’t. Her neighbors were just across the road, but up a road so steep that she could barely navigate it in a car, by day, and could no more have trod up there now than she could fly over the moon, as her mother used to say. She had locked the gate and was sure they couldn’t know she was even there—so rarely did they visit—and then nearly never after the summer was over. They might see smoke from the fireplace, but like she and Sven, they were city people who had enough money to keep their cabin, but frequently traveled. The ugly white sixties wall-mount phone didn’t offer a dial-tone more than a second. Some bad movies really do come true. She remembered then. Before the fatal finding of the photos, Sven and Rosie had put the cabin phone on vacation mode.

Hands shaking, she found the Korbel far back in a corner of a cabinet where it’d been hidden from Alec and his pals, who were afraid of mice and would never grope back behind the traps. All of this could be explained, she explained to herself like a brain-injury patient. If her life were indeed a novel, it would all have a perfectly inevitable-seeming ending—once it was safely over and the blood pressure had returned to normal. The ice in the cube-making refrigerator—oh yes, they had some luxuries—let down suddenly and she felt a quick warm flash of urine break forth. Good God, how she wanted something as simple as a television, a radio, right then. Part of the idea had been to rid herself of what Faulkner called “the lifeless mechanicals” since Henry David, even if they had been invented, would have abjured them. What was it he said about clocks? She had brought the bible, Walden, with her. Maybe it was what she needed right now.

Did Thoreau drink? She thought not. He saw tobacco like the Native Americans, whom he respected, as a ritual, she believed. Well, I’m not him … he … or what the hell, she thought. Rosie had brought the squat, faceted Korbel bottle, a Christmas special bottling, with her and now tried to keep all sides of her body facing out as she made her Jack London fire. It leapt and she leapt. It bared its little oranged teeth at her, then sulked. “Stinker,” she said. Rosie threw the box of matches at the flame and it rose up and bit her. There were more matches. Weren’t there? The winking tinder had caught though and she fanned it quickly. Her toes and fingers ached. She felt in her pocket for another glove and found the doused cell phone.

A drink of liquid-fire brandy and she set the bottle down. This was a clean, if not particularly well-lighted place. Another indulgence was electricity, she supposed, and Rosie thanked herself that she had prevailed when Sven had wanted to put that utility on vacation mode too. She fumbled in the mouse-turdy drawer—show her the woman who can completely eradicate those little s.o.b.’s—for the hair-dryer. It was absurd to think that one can save a soused phone at all, much less after all this—how much she wasn’t sure, but a long—time. But it was a good, solid practical thing she could do to settle, settle, settle her twirling brain. She slipped the memory card out and dried that first. The phone was a cheaper model that probably—obviously—did the one thing phones are supposed to do much better than the Cadillac of phones she owned. The ones with apps to read her temperature, mix her drinks, hoe her garden, but which rarely performed the one task it was meant to do—make phone calls without dropping them.

Carefully, Rosie slipped the case apart and began gently driving the water droplets out. “Wait for it,” she murmured and realized her own voice comforted her somewhat—like the soft murmuring of her hen—oh, her hen. Well that, that was just Nature. Nature smoked cigarettes. She had crazy thoughts about DNA and actually entertained the momentary lunatic notion that she should go out there and grab that butt before the cold froze the saliva and rendered it … what? She had no idea, never listening in science class once things got hard. Inside the second tumble-down shed, the Pathfinder ceased running—out of gas. She missed the comforting, domestic, familiar sound terribly.

Her perfect plan, her sunny day plan, and oh how Henry David loved the sun as a symbol, had been to come here (“go there” at that time) and “front Nature.” Now, it appeared to have fronted her, but Korbel was giving her liquid courage and fire enough to front it back. Rosie put the cell phone back together as a clockmaker might. The only place a cell phone had ever worked on the land was out at the pole shed, while one touched metal like some crazed Ben Franklin. She pulled apart her crazy lace curtains. Now that the cabin was four feet off the ground and the windows another two feet up, it would be a bad tall dude indeed who could peer inside flat-footed, but the curtains gave her a good feeling. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, as she had just rediscovered, but she could at least put a nice blouse on her part of it. Man, she was getting slurry. That first little alcohol lift had blurred into slow motion bravura, the feeling at which she first had learned to stop and savor, then had unlearned it, then had quit after it had tipped her into situations she squirmed to recall, even fistfights.

She slipped into her parka—it had Nanook-like rabbit fur around the hood and cuffs—and grabbed the cop-grade flashlight, grasping the phone in her gloved other hand. It felt like safety—unless the intruder really were an animal. She looked at the shotgun, unloaded, and grasped it under her arm too.

The pole shed was always locked and stood one-hundred feet, she guessed, from the cabin. Congratulating herself on her drunken good memory, she felt for the keys before slamming shut the cabin door. She heard the wall phone plummet to the floor. Big deal, she thought. Useless mechanical.

It had snowed a little more since she had come home, but the night was blessed with a sun-like moon and the tall firs strangled the beams on the snow. It was pretty. Something small skated away from the light and she fought her instinct to slink back to the cabin. Rabbit, rabbit, Rosie thought. “The hare crept … something … through the frozen grass.” Whom would she call anyhow? Lana, of course. Or the owner of the phone? She reached the shed door and tugged it open. Smells, comforting smells of man-stuff—gasoline and oil and rope and such—greeted her and it felt almost like it did in the daytime. Then, she smelled another thing. It was cigarette smoke—recent cigarette smoke. It seemed insane to say so, but the final deal-breaker, more than the supposed infidelity with Sven, had been the damned cigarettes. The smell choked her now that she self-righteously did not smoke.

It is uncomfortable at least to feel the contradictions life is always strewing like candy-corn wrappers at a carnival and not want to say to this old crone Life, “Stop that. One feeling or the other, please.” Her Swiss Army knife, handy former husband who knew quality when he saw it with the broad and fatal exception of his new late middle-age squeeze, leapt to mind with concealed practical blade unsheathed. Had her heart been as weak as doctors for a while thought it might have been, this would have stretched its endurance to the limit. But Sven waited until she had stepped into the range of the motion light before coming out of the shadows. He stepped over to her, towering on purpose as she used to tease him, and with the trained hands of a former karate player, grabbed the shotgun barrel, which she had not the wit or quickness to train, and pointed it. Then, with his free arm, he swept her, not toward him, but aside.

Behind her, a cat, large as a St. Bernard, collapsed in the snow, Pullie’s little body in its jaws.

Nature is corny, but not perfect. Sven had arrived the night before, but knowing her fury, had not shown himself. He had camped, obviously, in the unheated shed, building a careful fire in a kettle grill they had kept there. The one window was slightly cracked to aerate the place and she took some quick satisfaction in knowing he had suffered in his work clothes—his junior executive suit covered only with a windbreaker. Now, when they should have climbed inside the warm Pathfinder, which he had discovered running and feared the first most obvious thing—her suicide—Rosie became furious instead. How could he risk her heart like that? What the hell and when and where? Sven waited her out as she sputtered terrified and furious accusations, shame-faced and barely breaking in—not defending himself.

Yes, he said, he had finally persuaded Lana to talk to him, but no, she had not ratted out any details. That, Sven said, he had put together by himself. He had tried to call, especially after he had dropped his loaner cell phone in the drive and somehow missed it when he went back to look. Sven had walked the three miles from and to town, cutting through the brush because, well, because Lana had let him know that his ex-wife was armed, actually. He had taught Rosie to shoot, but knew she was likely to panic. Sven had called the cell phone from the neighbors’ house. Then, well they both knew the rest. Except for the cougar, which was a bit of Disney thrown in by heavy-handed symbolist Nature, the rest was sort of pathetically typical. Husband leaves wife for newer model; newer model realizes husband is old guy after all; leaves husband. Husband has now lost everything—wife, house, respect for self. Starts up old bad habits again, but can’t quit the one that has become like inhale to exhale—the need to protect.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” said old Hank Thoreau. Rosie guessed she had too, but whereas Thoreau, like Sven, who went into the emotional wilderness somewhat outgunned, returned after proving himself for little more than a year, she surprised herself. Rosie had discovered that life could indeed be mean, but once you have boarded that train of doing without, it is hard to jump off. It seems that a woman, too, is made wealthy by what she can afford to do without.


Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, short story | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Silent Witness

Steven Salmon

An excerpt from the novel, The Silent Witness


wheelchairStan hid inside the apartment for a couple of days. He began to miss being outdoors in the beautiful countryside surrounding Poynette. Stan reflected back to his adolescent years growing up. The Everest & Jennings new electric wheelchair crept along the gravel road on a cool summer’s day with no clouds in the sky. A farmer cut hay in a field while another farmer raked hay. Alfalfa fields and contoured strips of corn wove through the hilly terrain. Pastures nestled in valleys or alongside steep hills. New ranch-type houses had been built along the road and near the woods giving residents a secluded area to enjoy their privacy.

Stan sat in silence listening to the wind blow, sending strands of drool airborne. He loved to watch farmers bale hay, cultivate crops, harvest and plow. Neighbors honked their horns at Stan. What Stan loved the most was watching a bee land on a sprig of wild parsley or seeing a chipmunk dart across the road. Off in the distance loomed the Poynette water tower.

The wheelchair had a hitch on the back. Stan pulled a wooden drag fashioned out of two-by-fours. Nathan welded a hitch to the wheelchair’s rear end. The drag trailed behind the power chair smoothing out pockets of pebbles. If Stan saw a pile of hay on the road he pushed the broken bale into the ditch.

A farmer installed an entrance to a field to have easier access for his equipment. A load of gravel had been roughly spread over the drainage pipe. Stan spent the whole afternoon grading the entrance by slowly inching his way across the drive.

Stan drove past an olive ranch house. The wheelchair hummed past an ancient barbed wire fence. The fence posts leaned forward and rusty strands of barbed wire clung to the decaying posts.

Beyond the fence lay a narrow strip of tall prairie grass before it turned into woods. Stan saw the orange Poynette newspaper box ahead of him and gradually the driveway became visible. The wheelchair turned into the drive leading straight down into the woods. He paused for a minute before barreling down the hill. Stan saw Nathan on the tower adjusting his ham radio antenna. Nathan erected the tower on a hill overlooking a cow pasture. Stan put a firm grasp on the joystick before going down the hill. He had the biggest grin on his face rocketing down the hill. At the bottom of the hill lay a creek bed, and then the wheelchair climbed a smaller hill opening onto a meadow. Stan passed a brown sheet-metal shed where Nathan stored a John Deere tractor, a plow for plowing snow, a three bottom plow, a disk, a garden tractor, a red Chevy pickup truck and the tan van with the wheelchair lift.

* * *

One day after a thunderstorm Stan drove his electric wheelchair outside of the house. Amber warned him not to enter the newly seeded muddy yard. But he became bored going back and forth in front of the garage. Stan decided to run down the front yard hill for the fun of it. He became stuck at the bottom of the hill and spun his wheels digging the wheelchair deeper in a hole. He heard the front door open and then Stan braced himself.

“Goddammit, Stan, I told you not to go down the hill! You don’t listen! You’re so stubborn! You’re grounded!”

Amber struggled to push and pull the wheelchair up the hill to the porch. She transferred Stan from his power chair to his manual wheelchair taking him inside the house. She took him to his bedroom and left Stan in his room without supper. Amber made him stay in the bedroom until Nathan put Stan to bed.

She spent the rest of the afternoon and evening scraping off mud caked on the wheels, motors, belts and the brakes with a dull butter knife. She dug dried mud from a couple thousand notches on both of the rear wheels. Amber washed the entire wheelchair with a damp warm washrag. She dipped the rag in a plastic ice-cream pail with warm water and soap. Amber stared at the pair of zigzag wheelchair tracks tearing up the front yard, but she reminded herself that her son was like any other teenage boy getting into trouble. The electric wheelchair was clean for school the next day.

* * *

Stan stopped near a metal ramp leading up to the front door when he saw his father climbing down from the tower. Stan’s eyes looked at the newly seeded yard and the oak-stained house situated on a hill.

Nathan and Amber’s vegetable garden lay between the house and the back yard. A pile of scrap lumber was underneath the tower. Guy wires were anchored at different angles throughout the back yard to secure the tower. Sprigs of tender grass sprouted up through the sloping lawn. Woods surrounded the meadow on three sides creating a secluded place. Deer grazed during sunset in the prairie behind the house. A trout stream led farther back into the woods.

Stan heard the jingle of Nathan’s security belt. He turned his head to see Nathan approaching the porch.

Nathan grinned at Stan. “How was your ride?”

Stan blinked his eyes twice and laughed.

“That’s good. Ready to go in?”

Stan blinked yes again.

Nathan smiled. “Fine and dandy. Let me unhook you and we’ll go in.”

Stan nodded.

Nathan detached the pin from the drag and the wheelchair’s hitch. He stored the wooden implement in the garage. When Nathan came back, they disappeared inside the house.

Stan drove inside the barrier-free house. He headed down an entryway that opened onto a spacious living room and a kitchen. Stan raced his chair around a butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen.

Amber yelled, “Stop racing in the kitchen! And don’t go in the hallway if your wheels are muddy!”

Stan drove on the subflooring in the living room.

Nathan helped Amber prepare supper. “At least the bedrooms and hallway are carpeted,” he said.

“And don’t forget the roll-in shower to bathe Stan,” said Amber. “And the sink without a vanity to wash Stan’s hair.”

“Having all thirty-six-inch-wide doors allows Stan to go anywhere that he wants. Wait until I finish the elevator. Then he can roam the entire house!”

Stan smiled looking at the sliding doors in the corridor.

“When I get the basement walls sheetrocked and the rest of the area cleaned up, then I’ll turn my attention to the elevator. But I’ve to get the rocket business going first.”

Nathan had worked as an engineer for General Motors for twenty-one years. But he wanted to try something new.

Stan and Nathan liked shooting miniature rocketships at a beach or a wide open area. He watched Nathan launch rockets in the sky. The puffy white streaks against the blue skies fascinated Stan. Nathan decided to go into business marketing and selling rockets to hobby stores around the country.

Amber and Nathan Richards grew up in Poynette, Wisconsin as children. After they married and discovered they couldn’t conceive, the Richards adopted a baby boy. Slowly Stan’s mother noticed their son had difficulty holding up his head. Doctors diagnosed Stan with cerebral palsy. Some doctors advised the Richards that Stan should be put in an institution.

Amber refused to believe Stan was mentally retarded since his eyes lit up every time she spoke to him.

He always wanted to know why a particular instrument performed a specific function.

Amber bought oatmeal and flour at a mill near their house. The mill sat on the Wisconsin River in a quaint village called Portage. Maples and oaks surrounded the red three-storied building. Posts linked together with rope outlined the manicured lawn and the circular cinder drive.

One day Stan sat in the tan Econoline van waiting for Amber to come out of the mill. He had an intense expression in his eyes watching the buckets gathering water up and going down before pouring the water out.

When Amber saw Stan’s curious eyes pointing to the millrace, she said, “Let me guess. You want to know how the wheel goes around?”

Stan nodded. He didn’t understand how the mill generated power. It wasn’t visible to him.

“The wheel generates power to grind the grain into flour.”

Stan grinned and let out a moan sounding like oh.

The millrace reminded Stan of the white brick farmhouse where he grew up. The millrace and the farmhouse resembled parts of the past that somehow continued to withstand the ever-changing environment. The house sat on a grassy knoll surrounded by farm fields. Stan sat in his manual wheelchair watching farmers toil in the fields until dusk.

* * *

Stan loved to watch Nathan tap Morse code in his office into one of his ham radios communicating to hams across the world. It fascinated Stan; his father communicated with people by tapping on a key.

Stan sat in the mall at a table that displayed the ham club’s equipment.

People watched the hams demonstrate Morse code and how to operate the ham radios.

He was sitting next to Nathan when a stout muscular blond man with red trunks and high-heeled black boots strode up to the table.

The man shook Nathan’s hand.

“Hi, I’m Marko the Magnificent! Is this your son?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Well, I’m the wrestler for the Danco wrestling bear. Would your boy like to pet my bear?”

Stan looked frightened.

“Danco doesn’t hurt people like you; only men who are stupid enough to step into the ring to fight him. Would you like to meet Danco?”

Stan groaned and smiled.

“I’ll be right back.”

Marko disappeared. Several minutes later, he reappeared with the grizzly bear on a leash. A crowd gathered around Danco.

Nathan pushed Stan into the human circle.

Marko took Stan’s right balled fist to pet the bear between the ears. Marko asked, “Can he give Danco a Pepsi and an ice-cream cone?”

“I would have to help him hold it, but it’s doable.”

Someone fetched a Pepsi and a chocolate ice-cream cone from Baskin & Robbins.

Nathan pried open Stan’s right balled fist to place the cone in his hand.

Danco’s tongue licked the triple decker and then sucked the ice-cream cone out of Stan’s hand before it crumbled in his fist.

Nathan then lifted the bottle of Pepsi to Danco’s mouth with Stan’s fist on the bottom of the bottle.

The grizzly bear grabbed the soda pop from Nathan’s hand. Danco stood up on his hind legs guzzling down the ice-cold Pepsi.

Cameras flashed. The next day’s newspaper had a photograph of Stan smiling beside Danco drinking the Pepsi. The caption on the front page read, “A Special Boy Tames Bear.” The article recorded just another of Stan and Nathan’s adventures.

* * *

The members of Nathan’s ham radio club “adopted” Stan. In the summer the hams gathered to communicate in the jargon only they understood: “Oscar,” “Alpha,” “Delta,” “Tango,” “Papa,” “Zulu,” and the rest of the Roman alphabet could be heard echoing under the large tent as the sun glared. All day he and the club members sat under the tent until late evening. Nathan and Stan arrived early the next day to play with the radios.

The Richards helped strike and set up tents since Nathan had a pickup truck to haul the club’s gear. Nathan met the club members at a warehouse to pick up tents and gear for the ham’s showcase, but the building was locked. The men huddled together bewildered searching for an answer.

Stan laughed in the truck when the men came over to the passenger’s side of the pickup.

“All right, what’s so funny,” said Nathan.

The men looked in the direction Stan’s eyes pointed. Their hands rested on their chins thinking what Stan saw they didn’t see.

Suddenly one of the men said, “The back door.”

Stan let out a huge scream.

The man walked behind the sheet-metal building, and the door was unlocked. The tents and gear had been stacked inside the door.

The man yelled, “It’s here!” He waved to the other men to come help. The man carried a bundle of wooden stakes to the truck. He stopped at the passenger’s door and smiled at Nathan.

Stan’s laughter had caused him to slip down in his seat, and Nathan gave Stan a boost before he fell underneath the dashboard.

“Stan saved the day for us!”

Nathan beamed. “That’s my boy!”

Stan had another fit of laughter as he watched the men trudge back and forth loading the truck. When the ham radio club’s relay shack needed to be replaced, Nathan volunteered to do the job of hauling sand to build a cinder block building. The aluminum shack sat on a hill next to a two-hundred-foot steel tower out in the country.

Stan enjoyed the sand hauling; just being around his father was deeply satisfying and, of course, he liked watching the construction equipment.

Nathan took Stan in the pickup early one Saturday morning to meet Jerry to get a dump truck. Jerry, a ham from the club, was building cabins for the Boy Scouts. He planned to borrow a truck to haul sand.

Jerry had dug out a foundation for a scout cabin with a bulldozer when Nathan arrived. One of Jerry’s three dump trucks had broken down. He needed the other two trucks to keep moving earth and finish digging the foundation. Nathan knew Stan had looked forward to riding in a dump truck all week. Stan had ridden in tractors, combines and bulldozers but never rode in a dump truck before. Nathan radioed another ham named William and they met at a roadside café to locate some sand.

William worked as a contractor and knew a job site that had sand. He promised Nathan to have a loader load the sand in the pickup truck. When the men arrived at the development, Nathan and William had to shovel the sand by hand. Stan sat in the truck for two hours disappointed about not having a payloader to load the truck.

Nathan hopped into the cab exhausted, and said, “Sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned.”

Stan nodded. He started to understand what Nathan meant. People like doctors, wheelchair vendors and physical therapists always promised him a new electric wheelchair in two months, but it always took a year to receive a new chair.

Nathan started shoveling out the sand into a pile next to a cement mixer and bags of mortar. No one came to help Nathan.

“And sometimes people never see a person’s hard work. And sometimes you have to grin and bear it!”

At the time Stan wondered what Nathan meant. He worked harder and longer than anyone else to achieve his dreams. People kept putting obstacles in his path. People always said to Stan that he deserved the best, but when he needed a new power chair endless rules and procedures had to be followed. He was just another number to Medicare and Medicaid.

It confused Stan when he had to wait a year to receive a new electric wheelchair or an input, but at the same time people treated him like he was special. To Medicaid and Medicare physically disabled people are just numbers that had to wait their turn to be approved for specialized equipment. But he attended the mall, fairs, circuses and any social outing with his parents. At times a person might come up to Stan giving him money or offering to buy cotton candy or lemonade. He never asked or wanted these gifts that people gave him. It embarrassed and humiliated Stan. He saw himself as a curious normal boy asking questions, not a helpless cute cripple.

Nathan took Stan to ham radio swap meets where he bought or traded radios.

Stan stared at the radio knobs and grunted at Nathan until he explained what a specific knob did. He always wanted to know about everything no matter how small it was. Stan wanted a detailed explanation of what function a knob performed. He didn’t stop his questioning.

* * *

On a cloudy summer’s day Amber let Stan outside in his electric wheelchair to take a ride. She guided him down the steel ramp onto the driveway. Amber stared at the clouds in the sky.

Stan wanted to zoom up the hill when Amber said in a high tone of voice, “Now don’t make me come and have to find you like that time you were driving on Bora Road and a thunderstorm popped up. It was lightning all around us! There’s a thirty-percent chance of rain this afternoon. So you keep your eyes on the skies and don’t go very far. Hear me!”

Stan groaned.

Amber watched the Weather Channel each morning before Stan got up trying to figure out what to put on him for the day. The Weather Channel stayed on the TV all day. When a tornado watch or warning was issued, Amber rushed about the house getting ready to hide in the basement or a closet until the storm passed. If the temperature was too cold or hot, she didn’t allow Stan outside. If she saw a chance of precipitation in the area, Amber didn’t want to have to chase Stan down in a thunderstorm. She dressed Stan too warmly at times in the winter. She knew that Stan loved the outdoors, but she felt that she needed to protect him from the elements.

He didn’t like his mother’s overprotective attitude, but he understood. Stan knew that Amber’s word was final.

“I mean it!”

Stan nodded at her with drool dribbling down his chin before he turned to head up the hill.

* * *

He hated people that he knew were overprotective of him, like Mrs. King. Stan finished eating lunch in the cafeteria. Mrs. King wiped off his mouth and took off the paper towel protecting his shirt. He headed toward the door that led to the back of the school where the students were before Mrs. King stopped him.

“You can’t go out unless you have your coat and a hat on. You wait here and I’ll go get them.”

On days when Stan ate lunch and Mrs. King wouldn’t let him go outside due to coldness, he decided to visit Gina in the school office and flirt with her.

Stan appeared at the school secretary’s office when Mrs. King and the secretary ate lunch. He loved to sit teasing Gina and spending time with her alone.

But Principal Barlow showed up early one afternoon before the lunch ended. He stared at Stan while talking to Gina in his blue dress pants, white shirt, and pink and grey striped tie. The potbellied bald man with thick black bifocals said, “Stan, you shouldn’t be here! Gina is working. Please leave now! And don’t let me see you in the office at this time again!”

Stan left. He sat close to the music room door listening to the band rehearse on the days that he didn’t go outside. Stan felt alone as drool dripped on his shirt. The music played, but his loneliness increased with every beat eating his heart away.

Stan sighed.

* * *

He had saved his weekly two-dollar allowance for three months to purchase a clock radio for his bedroom.

Nathan took Stan to Roger’s Appliance store in downtown Poynette.

A heavyset middle-aged salesman observed Stan grunting to Nathan trying to decide what radio he wanted. The salesman watched them discuss the pros and cons of each brand.

“A General Electric is a wise choice. It’s durable and reliable.”

Stan smiled and nodded at Nathan, who replied, “That’s what I would have bought.”

Nathan pushed Stan to the sales counter to pay the salesman. The sales manager grinned at Nathan when he handed the radio to him. Nathan retrieved Stan’s wallet from his backpack to pay the salesman. Stan giggled and strands of drool hung from his bottom lip.

The manager wrapped the radio in a bag and handed the money back to Nathan.

“What’s this?”

The salesman grinned and said, “It’s a gift from Roger’s Appliance. I feel sorry for him being a cripple.”

Stan squawked and wildly flung his arms in anger at the manager.

“Calm down, Stan. He just doesn’t understand.” Nathan tossed the cash to the man. The salesman yelled, “I didn’t mean to make the cripple upset.”

Fortunately, Stan didn’t hear the salesman’s last comment.

* * *

Stan didn’t like when people were disrespectful and treated him as a cripple. It reminded him of an incident with his neighbor, Eric, who lived in the olive ranch house. Eric’s dad hunted muskrat, raccoon and deer in the large woodsy section nearby. Eric owned a BB gun. He shot at crows or at the bullseye target set up against a tree in the back yard.

Stan was driving his wheelchair on his way home one afternoon when he passed his neighbor’s house. Eric was shooting baskets in the front yard.

When Stan drove by, Eric stopped to stare at him.

He made monkey faces at Stan and yelled, “You’re a frisking drooling goat that needs to be shot!”

Stan kept on driving home. He heard a door snap open. He heard a click followed by a sharp ping. Both shots ricocheted off of the wheelchair’s hitch near the battery. One pellet flew past Stan’s head nearly missing his eye by inches.

Eric’s mother flew out of the front door after she heard the second shot fired. “Eric, you put that gun down immediately!”

Eric’s father Bill raced out of the house. He looked into Eric’s eyes.

“Do what your mother says now!”

Eric put the gun on the ground.

His mother said, “You get your butt in here right now!” She swatted him on his behind as he entered the house.

Bill ran over to Stan. “Are you okay?”

Stan blinked.

“I apologize and want you to know that will never happen ever again, I promise.” He walked Stan down to his house to explain what happened to Amber and Nathan.

Eric didn’t receive another gun until he learned to respect the privilege of having a gun.

* * *

He virtually had no friends all through school. It frustrated him at times not being able to talk to his peers. In his mind, he believed Gina was his “girlfriend.” In his heart he knew Gina was just a good friend. The word girlfriend sounded better in his head than a friend. His ultimate wish was to have a physical relationship with a woman. Stan dreamed of marrying a beautiful girl like Gina and spending the rest of his life with her. He wanted to have sex with Gina and fantasized various sex scenes in his mind.

Stan had a favorite sexual fantasy of Gina giving him a bath. He lay in the bathtub with Gina kneeling next to the tub and washing his entire body. She washed his hair first. Gina then dampened a washcloth with warm water before lathering the cloth with soap. Stan watched her wash all the parts of his body. She smiled at him as she washed his face. Gina proceeded down his body, lathering his arms, hands, fingers, armpits, neck, back, upper torso, buttocks, legs, feet and toes.

He looked up at her. His eyes directed her attention to his erect member.

She washed his testicles and then put the rag on his penis. Gina ran the washcloth up and down the shaft of his member. Gina deliberately went around and around the tip of his cock with the soapy washcloth. When Gina picked up his member to lather the base of his penis he ejaculated.

“You became too excited.” Gina grinned at him before squeezing the washcloth with warm water in between his legs to wash away the soap and semen.

He liked to sit in front of the girls’ locker room imagining a line of naked girls taking a shower after gym. Stan envisioned himself walking into the showers and watching the young women showering. When he had fantasies about women, Stan had the ability to stand and walk. He never wished that he could stand up. But Stan dreamed about having sex in an upright position as he made love. In this sexual fantasy Stan took off his clothes and went down the row of naked girls sticking his member into each girl. Gina was the last girl standing in line.

* * *

During science class a blonde touched Stan’s arm causing a boy to shout, “First comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes another retard in a baby carriage.” Sometimes a girl made eye contact and smiled at Stan. He flashed his big grin at the girl before he nodded.

One morning before second-hour Stan drove up to Gina’s locker to say hello. Robert pressed his body against Gina’s as they kissed.

Stan grunted.

Gina pulled away from Robert, and said, “Hi, Stan.”

She smiled.

He grinned.

Robert stared at Stan and said, “Go away, retard!” He glared at Stan and pointed to his bulging member. “You and I know what she wants. And that’s meat, pal! I’ve plenty of it and you don’t! So, leave!”

Stan backed his wheelchair away with his head bowed down.

Gina glared at Robert and tapped her right middle finger on Robert’s brawny chest. “Don’t you ever treat Stan that way again or I’ll break up with you. Stan will always be my friend and you better get used to it!”

Robert stood dumbfounded against Gina’s locker watching Gina run to catch Stan to apologize for Robert’s behavior.

She hugged Stan. Gina walked Stan to English class and talked about the English quiz they had next hour.

Stan instantly forgot Robert’s stupid comment.

* * *

Robert and some of his friends smoked pot under the gym bleachers the day before Christmas vacation.

Stan drove around the indoor track when he saw Robert. Stan said “Hi” to Robert.

The boys blew smoke at Stan and called him names. But Principal Barlow refused to take any action against the boys out of fear that they might hurt Stan.

After Christmas, Stan took Robert aside to express his feelings.

Robert patiently watched Stan’s right index finger spell out words on his communication board and forming a sentence. Robert read the words out loud: “If / you / ever / do / that / again / to / me / I / will / tell / Gina.”

Robert looked at Stan and said, “You go right ahead. Do whatever you want! I don’t care what you do! You moron!”

* * *

Stan lay in bed thinking about Gina. He woke up early Saturday mornings to have Nathan take off his pajamas.

His father had earlier discussed the birds and the bees with Stan, allowing him to explore the sexual pleasure of manhood. He covered Stan up before closing his bedroom door. In a couple of minutes Stan kicked off the covers. He stared down at his penis watching it become aroused. He imagined Gina lying naked beside him. Stan pictured her round firm breasts and taut nipples brushing against his skinny chest. He envisioned her smooth pale stomach and the hairy black triangle in-between her legs. Before Stan knew it he felt a tingle at the tip of his penis. Stan watched semen burst out of his member as he imagined he was having intercourse with Gina. It was these fantasies as well as Stan’s first wet dream giving him a physical connection to Gina that he would always remember.

In Stan’s sexual fantasies, he pretended to be Prince Charming who swept girls off their feet. Stan was surrounded with girls dressed in skimpy outfits at his beck and call. He wanted a physical relationship with a girl, but he knew deep down inside what he thought to be a horrible reality: no girl would ever kiss him or press her breasts against his drenched shirt.

Stan dreamt about taking Gina out on a date. He saw himself being with Gina at the movies and putting his arm around her shoulders.

She gave Stan a peck on the cheek causing Stan to laugh and disrupting the entire theater.

In the dream, people stared at the beautiful girl holding hands with the “cripple.”

* * *

Stan raced his electric wheelchair in mud or snow just like boys riding their bicycles. He wanted new records of Michael Jackson, Boy George, and The Talking Heads to play loud in the privacy of his bedroom with his parents threatening to turn the volume down. He dreamt about having friends to “hang out” with like his peers did on the weekend. Stan wanted to date. In his future, Stan pictured himself attending college, having a job and getting married just like anyone else.

Stan knew how society viewed the physically disabled; they were “special.” He cringed when he heard the word “special.” He always had to laugh when he was called “special.” If he could have talked, Stan would have said, “Go fuck off!”

No one believed he attended school except for his teachers, classmates, Principal Barlow and his aide, Mrs. King. He developed a hard exterior shell. Some people believed that Stan was delicate and innocent, but they hadn’t experienced the endless name-calling he endured each day at school. Stan had to build a wall to protect himself or the constant attacks would have eaten him alive.

* * *

The VFW gave a Christmas party for the disabled children in the community.

Stan’s bus driver, Sue Pleasant, organized the party in early December. Sue had a big heart for the children who rode her bus. She sang songs, made homemade apple butter and cookies for the children on Halloween. Her idea of Christmas was to get the children and their families together for a turkey dinner. Santa Claus came bringing presents. Pictures were taken with Santa.

He was tired of being “special.” Earlier that day a boy at school had called Stan a retard bastard.

People’s noble deeds embarrassed Stan like when Santa Claus gave him a stack of candy canes at the VFW Christmas party.

He saw the Easter Bunny hopping down Main Street. Stan looked the other way to avoid being hugged by the Easter Bunny.

When the Poynette high school eagle mascot embraced Stan after Robert threw a last-second touchdown pass to beat Point, he feared that Gina saw the Eagle hugging him.

But she didn’t see the embarrassing moment. Gina ran over to Stan to get him to join in the celebration taking place at midfield.

At times he didn’t mind clowns coming up to give him candy. One of the few perks of having cerebral palsy was going to places with Nathan and receiving candy from people. Stan rode in the pickup when Nathan cashed a check at the bank. He grinned from ear to ear at the bank teller. The teller put a Dum Dum sucker in the envelope of the deposit. Before Nathan drove away he took off the wrapper from the sucker and popped the Dum Dum into Stan’s giant mouth. Stan laughed.

When Nathan pulled ahead he said, “You’re way too old to be getting a sucker, you know. You’re thirteen years old for heaven’s sake.”

Stan bowed his head feeling ashamed, but he enjoyed sucking on the cherry Dum Dum. Stan imagined the sucker to be a woman’s nipple.

Stan liked going into the Ace Hardware store on Main Street since Harold Swanson gave away free beef jerky sticks to children who came into the store.

Gina helped Harold on Saturday mornings ring-up customer’s purchases while Harold restocked the selves. It gave Gina a way to earn extra spending money to buy the Chic jeans she always wore and to afford pizza at Happy Joe’s.

Before Gina started working on Saturdays, he sat in the truck when Nathan walked inside to buy what he needed.

Stan liked to watch the traffic pass by on Main Street as he sucked on his Dum Dum. He waited for Nathan to return.

Stan entered the store howling.

Harold dropped a bundle of copper fittings on the floor.

Gina knew immediately who it was without seeing Stan. “Stan is here. I’d know that howl anywhere.”

Stan yelped and laughed.

She came over to hug Stan.

“You always scare me half to death when you howl like that,” Harold said.

Nathan replied, “I’m sorry about that, Harold, but when he sees Gina he goes crazy.”

Harold laughed.

Gina said, “Are you ready for the history test on the Industrial Revolution on Monday?”

Stan blinked.

“I haven’t studied for it yet. Mrs. Andrews is the most boring person I know! I hate her pop quizzes. I wish that I had your photographic memory, Stan. You’ll ace the quiz.”

Stan giggled.

“Be right back, Stan. I’ve got to ring-up a customer.” She walked behind the cash register to ring-up a customer’s purchase before she returned to Stan. Gina watched Stan point to letters on his communication board spelling out words to her. Sometimes she laughed or screamed, “That’s not true!” She stopped talking to Stan when a patron had to be waited on.

Sometimes Gina didn’t always have time to speak to Stan.

He worried Gina didn’t want to be friends anymore. Stan moped the rest of the day wondering if he had done something wrong.

The next day Gina talked to Stan like nothing had happened. Their friendship reminded Stan of a giant rabbit’s foot he kept dear to his heart.


Steven Salmon has severe cerebral palsy. He uses a voice recognition computer since he is unable to use his hands. Steven uses Morse code and a word prediction software program called CoWriter. He writes every day (a process he has shared on YouTube). Steven has published three books, Buddy Why, The Unusual Writer, and Cat’s Tail. He has a Bachelor of Science in English from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He also has an associate degree from Madison College where he freelances as a writing assistant. His mission in life is to educate people that the severe physically disabled are and can be valuable contributing members of society if given a chance to succeed. Currently, he is writing his sixth book. He loves basketball and the Green Bay Packers. Steven lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , , , | Leave a comment


August McGinnity-Wake


polyesterI could feel my mind wake up before my eyes. Opening my eyes was a herculean effort as I tried to break through the crust that had formed around them throughout the night. I rolled over and my body awoke in a flurry of itches and tingles starting at my neck and feet and meeting at my torso. The polyester sheets dug into my skin like needles. I had purchased the sheets last month for a good price at a garage sale; I thought they were cotton. The following morning, and every morning since, I’ve woken up under siege from the unforgiving polyester fibers. The next thing I knew, she was rolling over, too, and her knee dug into my lower back. I cringed and curled my back to try and create as much space between us as I could. The last thing I wanted was to be near her, Sophie. Her name tumbled around in my head with such a lack of emotion attached to it that it was nearly frightening. I just didn’t want her anymore. This had dawned on me in recent weeks. It wasn’t a gradual drifting apart, nor was it a single event that drew me away from her. It was a realization that crossed my mind and I slowly got used to this idea and settled into the state I now lived in. I realized the action most conducive to my immediate goal would be to just get out of the bed. This would actually serve a dual purpose, escaping both Sophie and the ruthless sheets.

I swung my feet around so they dangled off the side of the bed. When I stood up and my feet touched the floor for the first time, it was like I was stepping on marbles. I plodded around the bedroom for a few moments until my feet got their bearings and I was able to stand comfortably. I proceeded to the bathroom, which was attached to our bedroom; it was the only full bath in the house. I pulled opened the drawer where I kept my toothbrush and found a bottle of whisky concealed under a washcloth. I didn’t remember putting it there. There were a few drops remaining in the bottom of the bottle that I gulped down with ease. I brushed my teeth while I let the shower warm up and my thoughts wander of their own accord. Sophie was on my mind; she was always on my mind. I tried to figure out the best ways to avoid time with her and near her. I put the thought of how much I had come to despise her on replay. “The sex is the worst,” I thought as I stepped into the shower. It had become mechanical, with no passion whatsoever. I dreaded the evenings when she would get that look of lust in her eyes and I would just know. When would it end? When would I be able to live in peace without concerning myself with the nausea I feel at the sheer prospect of being near Sophie every waking moment? These thoughts plagued the rest of what probably could’ve been a very pleasant shower.

Speedily, I dried off and slipped into a dark grey suit. I owned four suits: the one I had on, a navy blue suit, and two black suits. With enough cheap polyester shirts and ties, all of which I had recently purchased along with the used garage-sale sheets, it made it appear as though I had many more outfits than I actually did. I rushed out of our bedroom and into the kitchen to scarf down a quick bowl of Kix. I knew Sophie would be up soon, and I didn’t want to be around when she arose. The last thing I did before rushing out the door was slip on my bulky black dress shoes. I only owned this one pair of dress shoes. Their bulkiness and heaviness allowed them to handle the winter snow better, although snow wasn’t even a possibility on this balmy, humid July morning.

* * *

The metallic elevator doors slid open to floor six of the headquarters of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I stepped out of the elevator with the same anticipation of a miserable day full of mindless work and mundane tasks that had been eating at me in recent weeks. Already waiting on my desk was a stack of articles that needed proofreading. I only proofread columns, and they were all garbage. Thousands of characters of “Ask Carey” and “Better Interior Decorating with Gary Hildire.” After reading through some of this drivel, I reached into the inside pocket of my polyester suit coat, and … yes! It was still there! I pulled out a small hotel-sized bottle of vodka I had snagged on a business trip last week. I kept it close to my chest, concealing it from any prying eyes around me in the office. I bent over and broke the seal on the bottle. I swallowed the contents in one fluid motion. My eyes darted from desk to desk to make sure none of my coworkers had just witnessed my blatant breaking of company policy.

I was about to go back to my monotonous, mind-numbing work when I heard a booming voice behind my left shoulder, “Bill, what in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Haffley roared at me. “I can’t believe what I just saw. You’ve been arriving late nearly every morning this month, the quality of your work has gone to shit, and now this?” At that point, his words became mush and I completely tuned him out. He spoke for a long time, and every eye in the office was focused on me, but it didn’t matter. I simply had no emotion, there was nothing left.

“… you may come pick up your things tomorrow. I suggest you go home today before you cause yourself, your coworkers, or this newspaper any more embarrassment,” Mr. Haffley finished. I stood up and walked by him, right back to the metallic elevator doors out of which I had begun my day only a few hours ago.

* * *

I took a right turn instead of a left, which would’ve taken me home to Sophie. I slowly increased the pressure of my foot on the accelerator. I moved my toes inside of my shoe; it helped me remind myself that I, in that moment, actually existed. I let out a scream that felt hard in the back of my throat. The power behind it decreased little by little, until I was letting out nothing but an empty sigh. At that point I took my foot off the gas and slowed at a stop sign. Diagonally across the intersection my eyes settled on a flickering neon sign, Rusty’s Bar and Grill. I rolled my car into the parking lot and slowed to a halt in one of the parking stalls. There were only three other cars parked on top of the cracked and warped asphalt in the parking lot—a large brown station wagon with a bungee cord holding the cargo-door closed, a baby blue little Volkswagen that looked like it had been keyed several times, and a small Chevy that had once been white but had since tainted to a dirty yellow. I opened my door and pulled myself out of the car. As I was walking toward the grimy bar, I had the first inkling of questioning myself that I’d had in a long time. I thought, “What the hell are you doing? Just get back in your car and go home. Eat dinner with your wife, make love to her, and get a full night’s sleep in your warm bed under your violent but familiar polyester sheets.” But it was only a fleeting thought, with not near enough emotional clout to influence my physical body to turn around.

I shoved the barroom door open and a menagerie of sounds bombarded me. Nothing loud, there was actually very little activity at the bar, probably considering it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. But the “ching” of the cash register, somber conversations in low voices, and the subtle squeal of the beer tap as the bartender pulled it down to draw out the golden beverage all entered my sensory system at once. I sat down at the nearest barstool, two seats away from a heavy man in his mid-60s. He wore a brown corduroy suit coat, shiny at the elbows from resting his arms on innumerable counters and tables. His hair was long ago grey; however, a few black hairs were lingering amongst the snow-tinted stubble on his face. At that moment, I realized he was repulsive. The bartender walked up to me. “What can I do for you?” he asked, his voice a low grovel as if he had woken up only half an hour ago, just now starting his nighttime shift at the bar. I ordered a beer and swiveled around on the barstool, observing the rest of the dark and damp hovel. There were two pool tables and the walls were covered with various pictures of memorable sporting events, a noticeable amount being related to the Baltimore Orioles. There were several holes in the walls, and a number of scuff marks. I decided not to ponder the origin of the marks. The bartender tapped my shoulder. I swiveled back around to see a cold, frothy beer waiting for me. I gulped it down and immediately ordered another. I drank that one in a single motion, too, and I could feel my mind start to cloud over. I ordered another beer. Seven, eight, nine more (I lost count) and I felt sufficiently numbed, physically and emotionally. The bartender tried to talk me out of driving home, said he’d call me a cab. I brushed him off and lumbered out of the bar, signed Orioles memorabilia blurring as I walked past.

My car was still right where I left it, and I heaved my exhausted body into the driver’s seat. The car made a series of successive jangly beeps when I put the keys in the ignition before closing the door. It was a more obnoxious sound than I remembered. I closed the door, the beeping stopped, and I turned the keys in the ignition as the motor roared to life. I delicately maneuvered the car out of the parking lot and cautiously navigated my way home through a maze of pothole infested backstreets and quiet intersections. I never looked at the clock, but as I turned the car into my driveway, it must’ve been at least one in the morning. I exerted the effort to free my body from inside the car one final time and silently, or what I thought was silently, advanced inside the single-story brick flat that Sophie and I purchased from some friends for a very good price after we got married. That was almost four years ago. “Our anniversary is next week,” I thought to myself, and was instantly disgusted at the thought of it.

* * *

Sophie usually went to bed very early, and was long asleep by the time I arrived home. Especially on nights like these, which had become more frequent in the last month, it had become apparent to me that it would take quite a stir to wake her. The few times I had burst into the house more impaired than usual and foolishly knocked a vase off balance or tripped over a chair causing a loud crack of furniture falling and rather loud cursing from myself didn’t even produce a peep from the bedroom. But on this particular night, for some unknown reason, Sophie was there waiting for me, with such a look on her face as I had never seen before. Not exactly anger, but some cross between exhaustion and disgust. When she saw me, she perked up momentarily, but then her eyes fell and her lips quivered. “You’re drunk,” she murmured under her breath but just loud enough for me to hear.

I was able to manage a few broken phrases, “… no, I … just, I only—onlyafewdrinks.” My hands motioned along with my words, until I had no more words to say so I just ran my fingers through my hair. It had grown greasy during the day and night, I noticed. I needed a shower.

“Every night,” she continued, “your breath reeks of alcohol when you come to bed hours after I expected you home. Your hands don’t feel the same when you wrap them around me as we sleep; they feel grimy and sleazy, not that you touch me anymore. I don’t understand. Just tell me, just tell me. I want to understand.” She was crying now and her nose was running. Her bottom lip trembled with each word she spoke.

“I’m … I’m going to take a shower,” I said through a drawn out sigh.

I think that’s when she broke. I think that’s when Sophie became broken. I saw her face freeze and the emotion drain out of it. There was nothing left in her except raw feelings. I thought she might collapse, but she did the polar opposite; she exploded. The next thing I knew strings of profanities and lines of incoherent babble were pouring from her mouth as she hurled glassware toward me from the cupboard. And I was still numb. Nothing fazed me. I didn’t want to be with her, I hadn’t wanted to be with her for days now. She was just the one that finally came around and acknowledged it.

When she ran out of words and plates, she came toward me in long, broad steps. I noticed two wisps of hair that had not been coaxed into her hair-tie blow back as they caught a breeze from the briskness of her steps. In the moment before she got in her final insult, a slap to my right cheek, I saw the fury in her eyes. Why didn’t I feel that? I didn’t say anything to her; I didn’t even look in her direction. I just spun around on my heels and walked down the hall to my study, with my shoulders slumped over with a feeling of tiredness and defeat I was not used to. I gingerly closed the door trying to make as little sound as possible and I sat down in the large black-leather chair she had given me for our first anniversary. I closed my eyes and hoped I could stay that way long enough that so much crust would form around them I could never muster enough strength to open them again. I ran my fingers through my hair again, and I again noticed the greasy residue it left on my fingertips. I heaved myself up and stumbled toward the bathroom.

I tripped as I was leaning over to turn the faucet on in the shower. My body flipped over itself and I ended up lying on my back in the shower stall with lukewarm water pouring over my polyester suit and myself. I laid there, bunched up and uncomfortably bent in strange ways, for what felt like an hour. After an ache in my lower right side became unbearable, I stood up and turned off the shower. I stripped down out of the ruined suit and slipped into a robe hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. I walked into the bedroom and noticed something amiss: the dresser drawers were all pulled open and emptied. I made it into the kitchen just in time to see Sophie glance back inside one last time as she closed the door behind her. She tossed two suitcases in the backseat of her car and within moments she was gone. I kicked the wall, forgetting I wasn’t wearing my boot-like dress shoes, and jammed my big toe. “Dammit!” I blurted out. I turned around to see the day’s mail strewn about the counter. There was a letter from a doctor friend of mine, whom I had asked recently to test a strange skin rash that had been getting progressively worse after it popped up on my right arm a few weeks ago. I tore the envelope, pulled the letter out, and opened the perfect trifolded white piece of paper:

Dear Bill,

I ran the tests you asked me to. The official results are attached, but it’s very technical and I wanted to help you make sense of it. It seems your skin irritation is due to an exposure to a synthetic fiber, probably polyester. Polyester clothing, sheets, or anywhere else you’re exposed to the fiber could cause the irritation. You seemed a bit out of character when you came in, and I just wanted to give you a heads-up that the reaction of your skin to the polyester could also be negatively affecting your mood. I’d get yourself away from that polyester as soon as you can.




August McGinnity-Wake is 16 years old and resides in Cambridge, Wisconsin. He will be going into his third year at Cambridge High School in the fall. His love of writing and literature goes back to the strong emphasis his parents placed on them throughout his childhood. He is currently active in the Democratic Party as Vice-Chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | short story | , | Leave a comment

Bad Axe

Ann Morrison

An excerpt from the novel, Bad Axe


Photo: Ann Morrison

The mellifluous tones of Arnie Arneson, reading the week’s obituaries, greeted John as he entered the kitchen. Elaine was standing over the stove top, frying bacon and eggs, and Floyd was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee—black, of course—from a white stoneware cup. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, usually reserved for church.

John poured himself a cup of coffee and said, “Breakfast smells good,” as he searched the refrigerator for the half-and-half.

“Shh,” admonished Elaine. She was listening intently to the radio.

A few minutes later, after the death report, Arnie turned it over to Merle Haggard. We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, We don’t take our trips on LSD . . . Elaine served the men their bacon, eggs, and toast and then sat down herself. John pondered the eternal question as he chewed: Was Merle Haggard serious when he wrote “Okie from Muskogee,” or was his intention tongue-in-cheek? The singer had been arrested at the Milwaukee airport several years ago for possession—everybody knew that. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse. Oh yeah, it was Memorial Day. He thought about the cocaine stashed in his closet and the marijuana he was growing at the old Gateman homestead and felt a wave of guilt. He took a gulp of his creamy coffee and it passed.

“Stump Yanske’s funeral going to be at the Jensen Funeral Parlor or the Haugrud?” asked Floyd. “I didn’t quite catch it.”

“At Haugrud’s on Thursday. We’d better at least go to the visitation and sign the book,” said Elaine.

John continued eating with relish, bringing his fork to his mouth with his left hand, in English fashion. When he first arrived in the United States, he had made an attempt to use his fork with his right hand, like Americans did, but he was left-handed anyway and had quickly given up. He felt healthy this morning, free of the hangover he’d suffered the day before yesterday, after the senior party.

“Did you hear about the holdup at the Quick Stop Friday night?” asked Floyd.

John and Elaine nodded; of course they had heard about it. They knew Floyd’s question was largely rhetorical, but he had been to coffee at Little Chicago yesterday, after church, and was eager to share the information he had gathered.

“Apparently they had a sawed-off shotgun and got away with over ten-thousand dollars. They were wearing ski masks, so nobody could tell who they were. I bet they were some of those city people who’ve moved up here from Chicago. Chief Larson wouldn’t say a word about it. He says he’s gonna leave it up to his deputy to investigate.”

“Well, if I know one thing, there’s no way that little gas station could have had that much cash in the register,” said Elaine. “You can’t believe everything those old gossips up to the restaurant say.”

John silently agreed. The entire village of Harmony consisted of a tavern, five residences—one of them being Leroy’s tumble-down farmhouse and barn—a boat ramp, and the Harmony Quick Stop gas station. Even though it was located on a main highway, it didn’t do a big business.

“It looks like Chief Larson is finally going to retire,” said Floyd.

“That’s too bad,” said Elaine. “Let’s see if young deputy Hauge can put his fancy-pants degree to work and solve that crime.”

On the radio, Arnie Arneson introduced Pete Towner, owner of Towner’s Dime Store, who hosted the WBDX game “Man on the Street,” Pete being the Man. The Memorial Day parade was today, and John realized that WBDX was broadcasting from uptown. “Man on the Street” consisted of Pete, standing on the corner of Main and Decker, challenging passersby to guess which card he was holding up. If they guessed correctly, they were awarded fifty cents.

“Well, here’s a guy who’s quite a regular on the show,” Arnie announced. “Jeff Manning.”

“Isn’t that Leroy’s little brother?” asked Elaine.

John nodded.

“Okay, young man,” Pete Towner was saying. “Can you tell me which card I’m holding up?”

“Queen of spades,” they heard Jeff answer.

“You’re right!” said Pete. “I suppose you want your fifty cents?”

“Yes, sir,” said Jeff.

Floyd frowned. “That kid sure seems to win a lot.” John smiled. He knew that Leroy’s youngest brother had memorized the marks on the back of Pete’s beat-up old cards and wondered how long it would take Pete and Arnie to catch on.

“I heard that there senior party of yours”—Floyd turned the words “senior party” around his mouth as if he were tasting something sour—“down at Harmony Hollow Lake, turned into a downright riot.”

“I don’t know about that  … ” started John.

Floyd didn’t let him finish. “They said up to the restaurant that every single picnic table was burned down to a crisp, and that the shelter was half tipped over.” He gave his nephew a pointed look as if he were personally responsible for the world going to hell. “Somebody’s gonna have to pay for that damage, you know.”

John knew he should remain quiet, but sometimes, when Floyd exaggerated so wildly, he couldn’t refrain. “How on earth would anybody be able to tip over the shelter without a bulldozer?” he asked.

Elaine stepped in. “Do you know this long-legged hound here didn’t get home from it until ten o’clock on Saturday morning?”

“I told you, Grandma, we got stranded down there. I wasn’t planning on going in the first place. There aren’t any phones down at Harmony Hollow, or I would have called.”

“Us old ladies get worried, that’s all. All I’m asking is to know you’re not laying dead in a ditch somewhere.”

“I’m sorry. Next time I’ll walk to a phone if I have to.” Elaine and Floyd fretted about enough things already and dragged him in on their nervousness far more than he wanted. John certainly didn’t want to add fuel to their fire. He stood up to get started on his day. Elaine pulled a perfect, lattice-topped rhubarb pie from the oven and set it upon a wire cooling rack on the kitchen counter.

When he walked to his room to get dressed, Elaine called out behind him, “I don’t want you wearing those holey jeans when we go uptown later.”

He hadn’t realized he was expected to come with them to the parade and the cemetery service. He certainly hadn’t planned on it, but as he was already in the doghouse for not coming home Friday night, he decided not to resist.

“Can I at least wear jeans, if they’re not too faded?” he called out from his room.

“Ja, you can. I bought you two new pairs of Penney’s pants, the day before yesterday.”

John groaned out loud. JC Penney Plain Pocket jeans were absolutely loathsome, in addition to which the word “pants” still made him flinch. In England, pants were underwear, worn under trousers. He thought mutinously about his grandma’s purchase. Hadn’t they been over this issue enough? It was Levi’s or nothing at all. Elaine, however, couldn’t see her way to buying jeans that cost twice as much as ones that appeared, to her eye, exactly the same. So John bought his own Levi’s using the money he earned at the theater.

Looking in his closet, he spotted the reviled jeans. Draped over a hanger, with permanently ironed creases in front, they were dark, dark blue with unfashionably belled bottoms. Straighter-legged jeans were coming into style. He took off the comfortably broken-in Levi’s he had worn to breakfast and pulled on the Penney’s pants. “I look like a dork,” he said to his reflection in the mirror. He took a silky shirt with a vivid paisley pattern he liked off another hanger and slipped it on, leaving the two top buttons undone.

By the time they were ready to go, his grandma had changed into a bright red double-knit polyester pantsuit. A white blouse with blue polka dots peaked from beneath the blazer. She had accessorized with red clip-on earrings and a red, round-bead plastic necklace. Floyd wore a dark pair of cotton old-man pants, as John thought of them, and his white, rayon church shirt.

“Are you sure you won’t be cold in short sleeves?” Elaine asked.

Floyd answered with a noncommittal grunt. Elaine handed John the pie before walking out the door. Floyd folded two chrome lawn chairs and set them into his car’s voluminous trunk.

As they drove uptown in Floyd’s Oldsmobile, John, in the back seat, held the pie on his lap. The car was less than a year old and immaculate. It still had that new car smell. Although Floyd could have afforded a Lincoln, or even a Cadillac, after he sold the farm, a new Oldsmobile had been plenty good enough. He cared little for parting with his money, and like most of the older Norwegians in the area, put little store in showing off.

“I hope we’re not too late to get a decent parking spot,” said Floyd, as he pulled onto the highway. But despite his apparent hurry, John noticed that the speedometer’s needle never crossed the forty-five mile per hour mark the whole way to town.

There was ample parking available when they got uptown. A few people were scattered along the two business blocks, but probably fewer than fifty in total. Floyd parked around the corner from the State Bank.

“Are you sure this parade starts at ten o’clock and not ten-thirty?” he asked as he retrieved the lawn chairs from the trunk.

“Positive,” said Elaine. “I read it in the paper.”

“Harrumph,” said Floyd. “I guess nobody gives a hoot about this country anymore. Things have gone to hell in a handbasket, if you ask me.”

“This used to be quite the parade when I was a young girl,” said Elaine.

Floyd put their chairs on the sidewalk in front of the old Gateman Opera House. John sat down on the concrete curb in front of them, feeling fed up with their insistence that nothing in his own supposed day measured up to the past. It made him feel left out. He had missed out on knowing Bad Axe as a thriving community. He despaired of coming of age in the late seventies; it was a nothing time, not full of patriotism and optimism like the forties or fifties, or fun and social revolution like the sixties. What did his generation stand for? Nothing, he supposed, other than generalized worrying, about recession, careers, who knows what—just a general sense of malaise as they looked toward an uncertain future.

John listened as Floyd went on. “I wish the stores were still open on Friday nights instead of Thursdays. If you ask me, changing it was for the birds.” He was talking with an elderly couple who had unfolded their lawn chairs next to his and Elaine’s. “We used to come up early on Fridays to get the parking space in front of the dime store,” he continued. “We’d sit there half the night visiting.”

The man next to Floyd agreed. “Everybody was uptown on Friday nights those days.”

“We certainly had mobs of people in the store,” said Elaine, looking back at the Opera House and sighing. “There was barely room to swing a cat.”

John spotted Otto, Sirenus, and Ikey across the street, leaning against the theater’s marquee, and waved at them. He could tell Otto was trying to catch Elaine’s eye, but she was still talking with the couple next to them.

The sounds of drums and trumpets echoed down the street. A minute later, the middle school band slouched around the corner one block away. They trudged down Main Street, playing the theme from Hawaii Five-O. Their uniforms were awkwardly retailored hand-me-downs from the high school band, for whom they had been purchased shortly after the Korean War.

John remained seated on the curb as Miss Bad Axe and her two attendants rolled past, sitting on the back of the back seat of a convertible, smiling and performing their figure-eight, beauty-queen wave. Miss Bad Axe, despite being somewhat homely, was resplendent in her apricot-colored formal, rhinestone tiara, and creamy, elbow-length gloves. A satin sash with “Miss Bad Axe—1978” spelled out in glitter was draped diagonally across her chest. She was a girl in the grade below John’s, an overachiever, much like Suzanne, he thought. After all, hadn’t Suzanne been Miss Bad Axe last year? He couldn’t remember for sure; he’d have to ask her. Maybe she had been a runner-up or something. A wave of happiness and desire washed through him as he thought about their night in the tent. They were planning to meet this afternoon. He couldn’t wait. I am so in love, he thought, but quickly told himself to snap out of it. He didn’t want to look foolish and scare her off.

Jill De Garmo, in the Girl Scout formation, approached. She wildly waved a tiny American flag at him as she walked by. He smiled and waved back, glad to see she had gotten her flag.

“Stand up, Johnny,” he heard his grandma order. She and Floyd had already creaked to their feet.

Those two would force me to my feet if they thought they smelled a flag five blocks away, he thought, but he stood up.

John, having spent most of his life in Western Europe, never failed to wonder at the idolatrous reverence Americans had for their flag. But he had never spoken these traitorous thoughts aloud, not even to Leroy.

He sat back down, sprawled his long dark blue–clad legs into the street, and watched the Kiwanis, Lions, and Eagles go past, waving and grinning, perched atop decorated hay wagons pulled by pickups. He got to his feet again when he spotted the American flag leading the Bad Axe High School band up the street. They marched, far more in step than the middle school band had, playing the theme from the rock opera Tommy. That’s an odd song to pick, John thought, listening to the clarinets squeak out the too-high chorus. He waved at Leroy’s little brother Henry, who was in the fifth row playing snare drum. Henry nodded back and smiled, not missing a beat. A squad of scraggly pom-pom girls in white go-go boot—the girls who had been either too chubby or too shy to make cheerleading—performed their routine behind the band.

The parade wrapped up with the VFW and Legion color guards marching to a slightly slower beat than the high school band in front of them. The men, with the beat of Tommy in their ears, were having trouble keeping in step. John didn’t bother sitting back down; with a dozen or more American flags in a two-block radius, it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He wondered why Elaine and Floyd had bothered bringing chairs in the first place. Leroy’s father, Mooney Manning, a Korean vet, marched by carrying a rifle in the Legion color guard, next to Leland Hendrickson and a few more of his tavern buddies. Halfway down the block, they executed a backward step and, after a barked command, shot their guns straight up in the air. John jumped. I’ll never get used to that, he thought, but kept his mouth shut.

“Well, that parade doesn’t amount to much anymore,” said Floyd as he folded up the chairs. “Half of the people here didn’t even put their hands over their hearts when the flag went by. You didn’t either, Johnny. Do you think you’re too good to show respect to America?”

John shrugged. He wasn’t remotely interested in opening up this can of worms.

“Nobody respects the flag anymore,” Floyd continued, grumbling under his breath.

They hurried back to the Oldsmobile, John bringing up the rear. There were only about twenty cars uptown, but Floyd said he didn’t want to fight the traffic on the way to the cemetery.

“Keep an eye on that pie back there,” said Elaine when John got in the back seat. “We don’t want it getting smashed when Floyd goes around the corners.”

Fat chance, John thought with a smile. Floyd never drives over five miles an hour in town. He put his hands on the sides of the pie tin anyway, as if steadying it, and closed his eyes, imagining his uncle speeding around a corner so fast that his lumber wagon of an Oldsmobile lifted itself onto two wheels.

Floyd crawled down Governor Street, through the oldest residential area in town, gripping the steering wheel with all his might. Who in Bad Axe would have ever had enough money to build such gorgeous, ornate Victorian homes? John wondered. His heart softened a bit toward Floyd and Elaine. He knew it must be painful, having lived their whole lives in this town, to witness its deterioration, bit by bit, with every passing year.

“Tell Otto he needs to mow his lawn, Johnny!” said Elaine, as they passed by a slightly dilapidated white Victorian. “It doesn’t look like he’s done it yet this spring and he knows people drive around looking on Memorial Day.”

John remained silent as Elaine continued.

“If he can’t do it himself anymore, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. None of us are getting any younger, you know. He should get some kid to help him. Why don’t you do it?”

John didn’t answer. He would certainly be willing to mow Otto’s lawn, but the subject would be awkward to broach.

Floyd pulled up to the cemetery on the edge of town and parked across the street from Wyman Hauge’s sprawling new split-level house. It was an imposing, dark brown structure with a two-car garage, walk-out basement, and small aluminum windows.

John studied the basketball hoop above the white concrete driveway and noted that Doug’s Camaro occupied one of the garage bays. The backyard was totally enclosed with eight-foot-tall privacy fencing.

“What on earth are they doing back there that they don’t want folks to see?” asked Floyd.

John smiled. He had been used to privacy fencing back in London, but he agreed that it looked out of place in Bad Axe.

“What I want to know,” said Elaine, looking at the house and shaking her head, “is how on earth that man can afford to buy up half of Main Street, right after he built this great big house.”

“Wyman Hauge owes everybody in town,” said Floyd, “but I guess that’s how young folks do business these days. Sure wasn’t like that when we were growing up. He never lived through the Depression. Remember how he used to beat his kids in church, of all places?”

“Is it true he bought that trailer park south of town?” asked Elaine.

“That’s what I’ve been hearing,” said John.

“That man will do anything for a dollar,” she said. “I hear his son the police officer is building a brand-new house on the other side of town.”

That’s probably why he’s dealing, thought John. To pay for a bunch of new toys.

A pair of black, wrought-iron gates, with the year 1925 inscribed on the top, marked the entrance to the municipal cemetery. An even older cemetery sat behind the Legion clubhouse, but when Bad Axe was expanding in the early decades of the century, the town council had created a new, bigger one on the edge of town. As there hadn’t been a lot of growth since 1925, it was still bordered by farmland. John’s great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Gateman, had originally been buried in the old cemetery, but his body was dug up and moved to this one sometime in the late twenties.

John trailed behind Elaine and Floyd, who were walking as fast as their legs could carry them toward the white gazebo where the Memorial Day services were always held. Floyd had dragged the lawn chairs with, and set them up next to the World War I memorial, a field of white marble crosses commemorating the men from Bad Axe who hadn’t made it home from France.

Elaine joined a group of brightly clad old ladies. “Those are lovely petunias you put next to Jack’s flag this year. Where on earth did you get them?” John heard one of them ask, as he sat down on the grass.

John’s grandfather, Jack, had managed the Veterans of Foreign Wars club all through the fifties and early sixties, and Elaine was still a member of the Auxiliary. She had told John that “the girls and her” had spent Friday at the cemetery, pushing hundreds of little American flags into the soil above the veterans’ graves. Jack had served as a master sergeant in the Pacific during World War II, and a lot of men from Bad Axe County had been in his unit. His army uniform still hung in the attic.

The crowd rose to their feet when the VFW color guard raised their American flag on a pole next to the gazebo. The Legion vets were somehow lower on the food chain than the VFW vets and made no move to compete for the only flagpole. John studied Mooney Manning’s bulbous red nose, watching as he juggled his rifle with shaking hands, trying to light a cigarette. He wondered where Leroy was today, and felt glad that Mooney only had blanks in his gun. A heavyset woman, from the Legion Auxiliary, stepped onto the gazebo’s platform and recited a poem that extolled, in rhyming verse, the virtues of The Flag. John surmised that there were more than a hundred people in the crowd, and noted that most had gray hair. His grandma had recently remarked on how all the World War II vets were slowing down, and he saw direct evidence of this today. Other than the members of the high school band, for whom attendance was mandatory, John realized he was the only young person present. A few middle-aged men were there, men who had come of age in the fifties, men who were a part of that conservative generation that, so it seemed to John, were afraid of breaking any rules. They paled in the long shadow of the bolder, more glamorous generation that directly preceded them—the generation that had lived through the Depression and won World War II. His father had come of age in the fifties, and John wondered how he had turned out so much more interesting than the men that stood before him. Maybe he had been different from the start. Maybe that was why he left the United States in the first place.

Then he thought about Bill, who had served a tour in Viet Nam. Bill never talked about it, even when he was drinking heavily, which was pretty much all of the time. John scanned the audience and noticed that the Viet Nam vets were conspicuous for their absence.

A freshman band kid he didn’t know stepped onto the platform and recited the famous poem about Flanders Field. Next, the minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church gave a sermon the point of which seemed to be, to John’s ears anyway, that if you didn’t believe in the flag, God wanted you the hell out of this country. John attempted to tune him out. Someone, hidden behind a knoll, played taps, and more blanks were fired. The Memorial Day ceremonies were officially over. John felt relieved.

He stood up and saw his grandma wipe a tear from her eye and suddenly felt ashamed of his impatience. For Elaine, and many of her generation, this was a day of remembrance, a way of honoring the love she had had for her husband and the many other friends who had passed away. Otto loped toward them from behind the knoll, trumpet in hand. He had been the one playing taps.

“Will I see you at the VFW fish fry later?” he asked Elaine.

“I don’t think we’ll make it this year,” she answered. “After I go visit Jack, Floyd and I are going out to put flowers on Ma and Pa’s graves down at Vangen. My circle is serving at the church dinner.”

“I’ll walk with you for a ways then,” said Otto. “I’m planning to stop by my folks’ too.”

Otto’s family was buried right past the Gatemans’ plots, so they walked along the winding blacktop path, beneath the fragrant cedars’ shade, reminiscing about bygone people of the town.

“I know them,” Elaine said, pointing at several small headstones chiseled with the name Decker.

“Yup, that old Sam Decker was something else,” agreed Otto, smiling. “He was Sirenus’s uncle, you know.”

Elaine nodded. Of course she knew.

John realized that the people in the cemetery played as big a part in their daily consciousness as did the live people with whom they dealt every day.

When they stopped at the Gateman burial area, Otto gave Jack’s stone a small salute and continued toward his own family plot. John looked down at his grandfather’s grave. It had a newer black marble marker, with grandma’s name already chiseled alongside Jack’s. Jack Eugene Gateman, 1910–1969, it said on the left, and Elaine Mae Gateman, 1913–, on the right. Seeing his still-living grandmother’s name on a gravestone made him shiver. A tall white obelisk, lichen-covered and mossy, had GATEMAN, in old-fashioned lettering, inscribed on it. It loomed large behind various individual markers, some old, some newer, like his grandparents’ modest black one.

Many of the stones in the cemetery had reddish orange geraniums planted in front of them. These were part of a “perpetual care” package offered by the cemetery board for a fee—usually paid by descendants who had moved away. Elaine filled the plastic ice-cream bucket that hung on a metal spigot nearby and unceremoniously dumped the water into a raised flowerpot next to her husband’s grave.

“That’ll do for a few days,” she said. She was always practical.

John followed as they meandered back through the cemetery, talking more about the dead people they were acquainted with. They passed back through the metal gates to Floyd’s car.

“See you later,” said John.

“Aren’t you coming to the church with us?” asked Elaine.

“I’ve got some stuff to do at the theater.”

“What could be so darn important there that you can’t come with us?” asked Floyd.

“Oh, let the boy go. He’s got his own responsibilities,” said Elaine.

“Yes, the show must go on,” said John, feebly attempting to shake the scowl off Floyd’s face.

Floyd gave him a wave as he pulled out. He was forgiven.

His new jeans swished uncomfortably on the walk uptown. He suddenly realized that he and his grandmother were the only Gatemans left in Bad Axe who weren’t six feet under. Maybe that could be remedied if he had a lot of kids. The thought made him smile.

On Governor Street he smelled the newly mown grass and looked at the expansive houses, set well back from the shady street. He loved this part of town. It had a feeling of permanence. He didn’t even mind Otto’s house. It was homey in its shabbiness, with its old stone hitching post by the front walk, and a grapevine that obscured the front porch. Otto’s garage, tucked neatly to the rear, had originally been a carriage house. Looking at the bumper crop of gone-to-seed dandelions, though, he had to admit that his grandma was right about the lawn needing a trim.

Who wants a drive-in house like the Hauges? John thought. These old ones seem friendlier. He shook his head; his mind was starting to sound like Floyd.

His heart skipped, anticipating meeting Suzanne in a few minutes. He felt a thorough and unaccustomed happiness and quickened his pace. When he got uptown and crossed Main Street at the south stoplight, he spotted her leaning against the theater’s foyer, just as he and Leroy had done for countless hours over the last couple of years. His heart went to his throat. When she caught his eye and waved, he broke into a large, involuntary smile. So much for playing it cool, he thought, full of joy.

She was wearing a rust-colored, cap-sleeved T-shirt that showed off her figure and brought out the highlights in her dark hair, and a pair of fifty-dollar Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. He became aware again of his cheap, unfashionable Penney’s Plain Pockets.

His heart beat rapidly when he opened the theater’s front door and pulled her in behind him.


Ann Morrison is a fifth-generation native of Viroqua, Wisconsin, her great-great-grandfather Nathanial having been one of the town’s founders. At eighteen, she left, as did many of her peers, and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After college, she spent several years in southern California, then left the United States, moving to East London, where she lived in a squatting community for over a decade.

She returned to Viroqua in 1998 to raise her daughter Judy. She has been a regular feature contributor to the Kickapoo Free Press and the Vernon County Broadcaster. Her stories have been published in the collection Spirit of America, published by Speranza Publishing of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | novel | , , , | 10 Comments

Ghosts in the Library

Jack Lehman



My name is Camembert. Yes, like the cheese. I hate it, just like my father hated our last name, Rock. He thought it conjured up a wrestler or, for older people, a football coach. So he named me Camembert. “With a first name like that, no one will ever bother about your last,” he told me proudly. I hate my first name, so go by Cam. I’m Cam Rock. Now let me get on to the library. It is a rainy afternoon and I have volunteered for an hour a week reshelving books. I do this because for years I have taken books down and just left them on the table when I didn’t check them out. Time for a little payback. An hour a week, anyway. Besides, you get first shot at DVDs that have been returned. I have an armload of books in reverse Dewey Decimal System order, when my way between the stacks is blocked by a strange man. He is small, with a lopsided face, black hair, black eyebrows, black mustache.

It is Edgar Allan Poe. A little drunk, he asks, “Do you have something on the supernatural?”

You’re reading a book. It is the most exciting part of the story when your phone rings. The call is boring. You speak politely; the relative drones on. You are between worlds. Finally you manage somehow to end the call. But now the book seems to have disappeared. You can’t believe that this has happened to you. You are searching frantically. Then you lift a pillow on your bed and there it is. Only this is more like a chess game when someone moves a pawn to uncover an attack.

“Where are we going, Annabel Lee,” the swaying figure taunts me, as we make our way down the dark aisle toward the creepy back of the library. “To our kingdom by the sea?”

Suddenly, everything is clear (at least to me). I am playing chess hustlers, ex-cons, drug dealers, Russian pimps, foul-mouthed gamblers, big jokers, crafty players who lure passersby into a game for fifty-cents or a dollar in Washington Square Park. And my gambit? “The Cask of Amontillado.” My objective is simple: to attack and destroy. I drop my armload of books to be restacked.

“It’s just a little farther to go,” I tell my unsteady friend. “But observe the white spider webs that gleam from this cavernous passage.”

He turns and looks at me with eyes of rheumy intoxication.

“How long have you had that cough?” I ask.

“Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!”

The poor man finds it impossible to reply for many minutes.

“It is nothing,” he says at last.

“Come,” I reply, “we must go back, your health is important. You are respected, admired, beloved; you’re happy, as I should be. You are a man to be missed.”

“Enough,” he says, stumbling on. “This cough won’t kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”

“True, true,” I answer. “Drink.”

He pulls a pint bottle out of his back pocket and brings it to his lips. “I drink to the authors adorning these shelves.”

I, an unpublished author, remark, “See how the webs hang like moss upon a vault beneath the river and drops of water trickle along the walls.” I offer him my arm. He leans upon it heavily. We continue on. The remote end of the library is crypt-like. The walls are solid granite. The little man, finding his progress arrested by stone, stands bewildered. And then, in a drunken stupor, he slumps to the floor.

“Let me once more implore you to return,” I whisper to myself. “No, then I must leave you, but first…”

Here is when I begin taking books off the shelves and tier by tier build a wall. A wall that blocks him off from the rest of the world. Then I hear a low, moaning cry.

“The supernatural!” he screams.

When at last he stops, I resume the fifty-first, fifty-second and fifty-third levels of books. There is a succession of loud and shrill sounds bursting from the throat of the nearly-spent form. I hurry to complete the last tier of books. There comes a sad voice. The last words of Edgar Allan Poe.

“Ha! ha! ha!—we will have many a rich laugh over this at the palazzo—ha! ha! ha!—over wine—ha! ha! ha!”

“Over the Amontillado!” I say, then finish quickly. My heart grows sick. I force the last book in place. It is then I hear a woman’s voice and see her silhouette. Not Joan Behm, the librarian, but someone who looks and sounds like a librarian. Someone who might ask me how I’m coming reshelving books, but doesn’t. Instead Emily Dickinson says: “This is the Hour of Lead—Remembered, if outlived, As freezing persons recollect the Snow—First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”


John (Jack) Lehman is the founder and original publisher of Rosebud, as well as the editor and publisher of Lit Noir. A nationally published writer and poet with twenty-five years experience teaching creative writing, Lehman grew up in Chicago but now lives with his wife, Talia Schorr, and their many dogs and cats in Rockdale, the smallest incorporated village in Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | short story | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yellow Sky

Rod Clark

Illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre



“Who or what was behind the wheel?”

It seemed to go on forever under the Yellow Sky; the smartsquad leaning into the curves with the patience of a hunter, the desperate quarry weaving perilously across the interchange. The damn thing looked like a Voltswagen, but in 15 years on the CalState patrol policing the LAland basin, Lt. Trapp had never seen a “bug” like this. Too sleek, too fast, too … well, flexible. It danced through the lanes ahead of him with an eerie liquid grace, severely testing the software limits of the smart traffic squealing from its path. There again! He watched incredulously as the vehicle sliced diagonally across a lane, seeming to change shape as it slipped through a tiny gap between two vehicles at a speed of nearly 150 mph.

Trapp had taken pursuit reluctantly. He had been on his way home at the end of a shift—but with dead air under the Yellow Sky, and no quick way to summon SKYCOP—what choice did he have? He had microwaved a hot pursuit notification down to SMARTpave, but in the LAland of August, 2093, even the microwave transmissions a few feet down to the pave were often lost, and backup could be terribly slow. For now, the chase was his—and even with the best chaseware available, this thing was making him look bad. Love to look under that guy’s hood, he thought. If it was a guy. If it was a driver at all, and not some self-drive with exotic AI. Couldn’t possibly be a remote. With the coming of the Yellow Sky, long range wireless was history—so who or what was at the wheel?

An instant later, the thing ahead of him miscalculated a sudden curve and crashed through a guard rail, splashing his windshield with something gooey and green!

Trapp should have smart-paved a report and driven on, but curiosity—bane of cats and cops alike—made him kill the siren and spiral down an old off-ramp into the vintage hood below. The vid died when he hit the dumb-pave, and he had to worm his way back to the crash site through the street grid with old GPS coordinates. Antique hoods always gave him the creeps. Who would want to live like a cockroach in these dirty brick buildings, forgotten in the shadows of ramps and overpasses—sealed off from the world except for ancient copper and wisps of old silicon cable? The irony was, since the coming of the Yellow Sky, some of these people had better com than the burbs.

Finally he found the crash site and a parking spot nearby. Getting out of the squad, the air hit his face like the breath of an oven cooking something no one would eat. What was that horrible smell? No onlookers had yet gathered by the empty lot fenced in between the grimy brick buildings, and the two city squads already guarding the site had an odd appearance, featuring a strange clustering of red and blue lights on top that he had never seen before. How had they arrived first? New models, he supposed. The lines seemed weird, alien. Squinting through the dark glass windows, he could just make out the pale heads of the officers, oblivious to his presence, bobbing over what might have been their lunch.

The sight triggered a faint, but inexplicable surge of nausea. There I go again, he thought. Seeing evil in the mundane. The DOT shrink, Dr. Phlumm, had warned him of this—the tendency to see malignant intentions in ordinary people, inanimate objects … everything. It was the kind of symptom that came with the job, Phlumm had explained—the mind-twisting tasks, the political games, the demands of total secrecy. Three months ago, Trapp and several other CalState patrol officers had been seconded—drafted more like it—into the MUTE squad. Now, as an investigator for MUTE (Major Unexplained Traffic Events), a little-known division of CALTRANS, Trapp was responsible for explaining things to his skeptical superiors that California state engineers and other expert personnel were unable to do. Traffic signals that went berserk for no identifiable reason and then returned to normal in a matter of minutes. UFOs that were spotted by the highway patrol, and then vanished. “Berkeley triangles” in parts of Calsystem where people and vehicles vanished with greater than average frequency with no satisfactory explanation. Parts of the intelligent traffic systems that seemed at times to have minds of their own.

In the beginning, work had been light, and plausible explanations had been easy to deliver. But since the skies of Los Angeles had turned yellow following the meteor shower in June of 2092, MUTE incidents had quadrupled weekly, and suddenly there was a great deal that could not be explained at all. Throughout the heat of July, the news stream continued to declare that the “Yellow Sky” was temporary, that there was no danger of the phenomenon spreading to rest of the republic. “It will pass!” pundits had predicted, but the sky stayed jonquil and the fear would not fade. You could see it in myriad ways. Pedestrians muttering under their breath at crosswalks. Pigeons cooing piteously on the greasy windowsills of tenements. Dogs that snarled at innocent sidewalks. Buildings that stood stiffly in the golden murk of afternoon as if prescient of some unspeakable—enough! Enough!


“A heavyset figure in a huge Hawaiian shirt and a battered fedora.”

He switched his gaze from the dead lemon sky to the lot below. Ten yards away the vehicle he had been pursuing lay half-crushed against the brick wall of the parking lot. An odd stench filled the air and a dark fluid dripped from the wreck, leaving an evil-looking stain on the asphalt. Nearby, a heavyset figure in a huge Hawaiian shirt and a battered fedora hunched over the open trunk of an ancient gas-fired Checker that had been refitted as an electric. Even at a distance he recognized his old mentor from the State Patrol, and one of the officers that had also been transferred to MUTE, the eccentric Captain Kleep.

Glad ta see ya, Trapp,” declared Kleep, straightening as the younger policeman approached. “Thank God I finally got some real backup!” He twitched the brim of his hat contemptuously toward the Metrosquads at the mouth of the lot. “Those local clowns are too damn lazy to get outa their squads!”

Trapp stepped in closer and peeked in the Checker trunk. Inside was an arsenal big enough to take over a small Caribbean republic—old firepower mingled with new. In addition to an ancient eight gauge shotgun lying on the lip of the trunk, there was a 10mm Beretta submachine gun, an M18 with “smart” clips, an old Desert Eagle Magnum handgun, a vintage Glock, two Macrovolt tasers, a Coltorch flamethrower with ceramic nozzles, a box of plastic fragmentation grenades, a Bowie-style knife with a two-foot blade engraved in gold half out of its sheath, and curiously, a jumbo-sized can of RAID yard and garden spray. NEW! EVEN MORE EFFECTIVE! it said on the can.

What’s happening here, Captain?” he asked.

Kleep looked up at him incredulously; red–eyed, haggard, smelling of whisky. A weird croaking laugh escaped from him, sending a chill up Trapp’s spine.

“Didn’t believe my fuckin’ reports, didja?” Kleep snarled. “Like those morons at MUTE HQ. Thought they could stick their heads in the sand and the problem would go away. Thought they could cover their asses and to hell with the metrop. But they couldn’t keep Kleep quiet, could they? Nossir—Kleep stayed on the job! Kleep hunted these suckers 24-7, up and down the coast, trying to produce a sample dead or alive!”

As Kleep extracted the Coltorch from the trunk and checked the controls, Trapp’s pulse began to race. Hadn’t there been strange gossip at HQ lately? Wild stories in Kleep’s reports? Something about drinking on the job? Slowly and mechanically, he picked up the shotgun and checked the magazine. Fully loaded! Thoughts racing furiously, he laid the weapon down within reach on the lip of the trunk. Maybe Kleep had gone mad, but if he had it might be smart to play along—for the moment at least. A lot of this kind of thing had been happening in LAland lately, packing the metro and state asylums to capacity since the coming of the Yellow Sky. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Dr. Phlumm—

Damn thing gave me one hell of a chase,” Trapp said, trying to sound casual, gesturing toward the wreck. “Couldn’t ID the car.”

It ain’t no car,” snarled the Captain. “It’s a bug!”

Trapp began to laugh, but the sound caught in his throat as Kleep’s angry glare shocked him into silence.

“Wake up, asshole! It’s not a Voltswagen! Take a fuckin’ look!”

As Trapp turned and walked slowly toward the wreck, a strange feeling rippled over him. The stench he had been smelling since his arrival suddenly became overpowering. It reminded him of the time he had struggled to help free bodies from the post-quake rubble of a tenement the previous August when the temperature hit 100 degrees. The smell of dead and decomposing flesh. Feet sticking out of tumbled masonry like dead sticks of furniture, stray dogs pulling at them … pulling at them. Up close the side of the car had a shiny fibrous quality like cheap blue velvet. What kind of custom job was that?

Kleep’s voice startled him suddenly at his elbow. “Touch the tread,” he hissed. Trapp crouched and reached out to the knobby protuberances under the wheel hub. At his touch the tread shivered, and a wheel-shaped ripple glided slowly along the bottom of the car to merge with the rear axle.

Yowp!” he squawked, yanking his fingers away.

Don’t worry—the damn thing’s dead,” Kleep muttered. “Just some kind of motor reflex—like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. You should have seen it zipping the first time it …”


Shhh! Keep it down, Trapp!” snapped Kleep. “Ya want the whole of LAland to know what we got here? You tryin’ ta start a riot?” He glanced fearfully back over his shoulder, and Trapp followed his gaze. No riot here, he thought. The lot and surrounding streets were deadly still. A few pedestrians darted swiftly past on unknown errands as if seized by some unspoken anxiety. Did they know something that he didn’t?

At the sound of raised voices, the pasty blob of an officer’s head pressed itself against the dark window of the nearest city squad for a moment—seeming to peer in their direction and then receded. “Worthless sons of bitches,” Kleep muttered, following his gaze. “Fat lot of help they’re going to be when the bastards come …” He chattered on, seeming a little calmer now that he had drawn another person into his circle of fear; taking a long drink from his flask and offering one to Trapp. Trapp took one willingly, feeling the cheap whisky burning in his throat, letting Kleep’s words fade into the background as the implications sank home.

Perspiring now—and not just from the terrible heat—he stood slowly and took a step or two along the side of the thing that lay crushed against the wall. A sick feeling began to rise in the pit of his stomach as he took a fresh look at the crumpled blue carapace. Two silvery, ever-so-slightly trembling antennae. Curiously faceted headlights that remained uncrushed still glowing with a soft phosphorescence. Windows shiny, black, and opaque, as if the cavity within were filled with a sticky dark syrup. Door handles, which he saw now were not door handles at all, but silvery marks like you might see on the wings of a moth. What had looked at first like a license plate on the rear was a tinted patch on the outer skin with colored stipples of a second color on it forming number-like patterns. As Trapp struggled to cope with the stench and his fear, he heard Kleep talking in a loud whisper from where he crouched, as if, by speaking too loudly, he might inadvertently wake the thing that had never been a car, but was now dead—a thing that had once been alive, slithering with terrible speed through the heart of greater LAland.

Don’t know what the hell it is, Trapp! Some kind of giant creepy crawler, I guess. At a distance the damn thing looks so ordinary, you might not give it a second glance—but this ain’t no car. And those aren’t wheels! More like the foot of a snail, maybe—but moving a lot quicker. Glides over asphalt faster than a centipede over kitchen linoleum. Looks more like wheels when it’s going fast enough!” He rambled on, reflecting, speculating, but Trapp was barely listening. His heart was pounding in the heat that rose in reality-warping waves from the ancient sticky asphalt of the lot. None of this was possible. Nothing like this had ever happened in LAland—until the coming of the Yellow Sky.

Trapp recalled once more the strangeness of the chase. The speed and agility of the quarry, the animal-like urgency with which it had sought to escape! Shivering in spite of the heat, he stared at the ground where the dark stain that wasn’t transmission fluid was slowly widening. A million questions leapt to his mind. He thought of the shotgun and the weapons in the trunk.

The arsenal!” he demanded. “What’s with the arsenal?”

Kleep looked at him incredulously. “Don’t you get it, man? These things come for their dead!”

Bulbs lit up Trapp’s brain like an old string of Christmas lights.

You mean—like ants?”

Yeah, like ants!”

So there were more of them?

Lots more of ’em out there,” said Kleep, in answer to his silent question. “Wouldn’t be surprised at all if the whole grid north from Baja to the Canadian border is infected by now. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Yellow Sky began to spread North and East!”

The whole traffic grid—infected up and down the coast! But at least now they had evidence, Trapp thought, a specimen to convince even the worst skeptics. But then Kleep’s other comment finally registered. These things come for their dead! Abruptly he strode rapidly back to the trunk of the Checker and picked up the shotgun. Kleep followed, scanning the lot around them, cradling the Coltorch in his elbow. Horribly now, the whole situation was beginning to make sense.

They thought you were a drunk,” Trapp said, beginning to think out loud as he filled his pockets with shotgun shells. “And no one ever believed you because they never found a body because—”

Because they come for their dead!”

Like ants!”

Like ants.”

Trapp’s tongue felt dry and hot.

How many? How big?” he croaked. Then, finally: “How long???”

Kleep shrugged, seeming almost cool now that the terror was shared with another member of the human species.

Hard to say.”

Maybe we should—”

We can’t split, Trapp—we gotta stay!” He gestured with his flask back to the dead alien thing crushed against the wall. “This is the proof! We gotta protect the specimen until BIO REPO gets here.”

BR is coming?”

Yep. Should be, anyway. I dumped a com into SMARTpave just before the off-ramp. The link was kinda crackly, but I think it got through. Once the labs report the b-crats have gotta listen. All those stupid assholes—”

As Kleep rambled on, Trapp took a deep breath. Here, at least was some good news. A BIO REPO van was on its way—no ordinary meat wagon. A BIO REPO van could get this thing to the state labs, make some sense of it. BIO REPO studied the bodies of animals that died on California roads. Birds, stray cats, turtles, deer. Found strange stuff sometimes. Deer with two heads grazing near the old nuke plants. Turtles with strangely-shaped shells that crawled out of polluted parks. Squashed species of frogs that no one knew existed or were thought to be extinct. The Agency ran tests, made checks on clipboards, conferred with endangered species experts, made safety recommendations to the people upstairs. If anyone could get a handle on this, BR could.

There was the sound of brakes at the corner, and a huge vehicle cruised down the block toward them. It looked like an armored truck of some sort. BR it said on the side, or perhaps RB. The letters seemed to flicker back and forth in the afternoon light. “Here they come!” said Kleep, with a curious tightness in his voice. Trapp breathed a huge sigh of relief. In a minute whatever was happening here would no longer be his problem. Someone else would deal with the thing against the wall, with Kleep, with all of it. He could go home now, crank up the AC, have a Scotch, and swim in the holos until he was numb and unafraid enough to sit down and fill out some bullshit report. REPO to the rescue! REPO hurrah! The two squads pulled back on each side of the lot entrance with unexpected alacrity as the armored vehicle glided toward them with remarkable smoothness over the warm asphalt.

Suddenly, with a demented cry, Kleep charged the vehicle, his Coltorch primed and at the ready.

No!” shrieked Trapp as he leapt forward to intercede—too late. A torrent of flame leapt from the ceramic nozzle to engulf the grill of the tow truck. Then—to Trapp’s horror—the inexplicable happened. The grill squirmed. And screamed. A high-pitched skull-ripper of a sound. The truck rolled on its side and curled over on its back like a dog wanting to be scratched, its towing crane arcing like the tail of a scorpion, its many legged underside twitching in the hot flames.

Again and again, as the tortured creature screamed in pain, Kleep laid a long torrent of flame along the side panels, which boiled and cracked like marshmallows on a campfire. Acrid smoke billowed up in black clouds that had a less than delicate perfume. As Trapp watched, the thing in front of them began to shrink to a crisp with a rapid roar, feeding the boiling black column with thick grey flakes that danced in the smoke as if it were more substance than vapor. For a fleeting moment it reminded Trapp of the time he had burned a box of old mothballs on the cement floor of his father’s garage back in Rome, Wisconsin.

A half-melted piece of the grill separated from the disintegrating mass and began to worm its way toward Trapp, working its chrome-colored teeth in agony and rage. A series of explosions startled Trapp, and he realized that he had unconsciously leveled and fired the shotgun in his hands, and was reflexively pumping round after round into the face of the snarling horror. It retreated, twitching, and was engulfed by a trickle of flaming fluid. Inside his brain he felt the nudge of an alien sense of unfairness and outrage, a keening, remorseless logic: All I/we really want/wanted was/is to feast on your/entrails/brain/balls—all I/we really want/wanted is/was your world.

Fry, you creep! he thought back, fumbling in his jacket pocket for another handful of shells. Fry in hell! He kept firing until the trigger clicked and nothing came out …

Somewhere off to his right, Kleep was dancing like a fat kid in front of a Halloween bonfire. He waved the flamethrower triumphantly. “That’ll bring ’em!” he howled, gesturing toward the smoke. Kleep was right. No more worry about sending a signal for help. The smoke would be seen for miles. Fire, police, news sources, everyone would see it. Soon the finest lab techs in the world would be sifting this ash and taking tissue samples from the thing against the wall and the burned remnants of the thing still smoking on the asphalt. Soon netcams would be panning across this smoldering carnage, and everyone in the world would know that something truly strange had happened here. Even the stuffy bureaucrats at MUTE would be unable to silence it, bury it, delay the terrible knowing of it. Nameless dread would be transformed into a call for action. And then the world as he had known it—might be saved. As Trapp raised his eyes to follow the smoke that spiraled skyward in a curiously cohesive column, a not quite formed worry teased at his brain: What else would the smoke bring? He shook it off. Action was needed now. He strode back to the Checker, and after a moment’s reflection, traded the shotgun for the Beretta machine gun, checking the safety and stuffing an extra cartridge clip in his belt. Only then did he turn back to face the unknown. Suddenly the empty lot felt like a trap under the pale lemon sky. No breeze stirred the lot, and there was no sound to be heard but the faint roar of traffic high above on the overpasses. Kleep, breathing raggedly now, had also returned to the trunk and was stuffing grenades into his donned flak vest.


How the fuck would I know!” Kleep declared angrily. “They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, okay? They’re ’daptable. Skilled at ‘camo.’ That’s what makes ’em so fuckin’ dangerous! That’s why we gotta wait for BR.”

That’s right, supposedly BR was coming—the real BR. Unless, of course, Kleep’s original com had been intercepted! And how would they be able to tell if it was the real BR this time??

Things had gotten very bad very quickly—and something else was bothering him. Trapp’s glance strayed to the squads that sat silently at the entrance to the lot. Why the hell hadn’t the squads responded?

The sound of a siren and the screeching of tires broke through the smoke that still boiled off the asphalt. A bright red fire engine careened around the corner of the block—leaning strangely on the curve, he thought—and then roared toward the mouth of the lot. The two squads moved in at its flanks as it slowed, and slid toward them with an almost animal grace.

Omigod!” Trapp screamed. “All three—”

He was interrupted as one of Kleep’s grenades exploded on the hood of the squad car on his side of the red monster. The squad ignited in a puff of foul green smoke. A thick pale tentacle rose from the flaming cab. It was topped with a glob that looked a little like a head with a blue cap. A mouth opened on the side of it.


“A thick pale tentacle rose from the flaming cab.”

NOT FAIR!” it screeched in a parody of a voice that sounded like it came from a police megaphone. “CHEATING! CHEATING!” it squealed before curling resentfully back into the flames … The great red beast which had shuddered and leaned away from the blast, now opened its black bumper lips and roared as it reared up on its hindquarters. Trapp opened up with the Beretta, pouring slugs into its wriggling undercarriage, apparently to no avail. The thing leapt convulsively forward and descended upon Captain Kleep—whose Coltorch had suddenly jammed! But Kleep did not retreat! He emptied his service automatic in the creature’s face and raced back to the Checker. He didn’t make it. As the grill of teeth closed on his gun arm, he seized the jumbo can of bug spray from where it sat on the edge of the trunk and hurled it into the maw of the monster. For a moment, Trapp watched the can through the pale jelly behind a window-like membrane on the side of the alien’s head. Shaking off the horror that had paralyzed him for an instant, he slammed the fresh clip into the Beretta and poured out his fire—using the can as a target. Several slugs pierced the can, which began to spiral inside the creature’s head emitting a venomous white foam.

The creature rose from Kleep’s body with a shuddering screech that seemed to emanate on multiple frequencies. It twisted toward Trapp, rippling its elastic, ladder-like arms, but then it was seized by a series of terrible convulsions, striking the asphalt again and again. “YOU!! YOU!!” it shrieked in Trapp’s head, knowing it had his frequency now. That it could drive him mad! But then, with a terrible, brain-ripping noise, it rolled away from him and crashed into the wall of the parking ramp at the edge of the lot—trembled and lay almost still, twitching softly.

Kleep was a goner for sure. One shoulder was gone, and blood ran out like a dark river, pooling around the crushed fedora that lay nearby. I should have fired faster, Trapp thought. The damn thing got into my head!

Didja ever study history, Trapp?” asked Kleep as Trapp bent over him. His eyes were beginning to glaze over. A thread of bloody foam appeared on his lip.

I was never much on history, Captain,” Trapp muttered. “Bunch of stuff that’s over and done with!” Maybe all human history was done with now …

I remember Ms. Murple used to tell us how the Romans built thousands of roads,” gasped Kleep. “—and how they used them roads to conquer the world. But you know what, Trapp? In the end, the barbarians used them same fuckin’ roads to sack the empire!”

An image came to Trapp’s mind. A lace of asphalt and SMARTcrete cloaking a continent. A pathway to destiny and destruction that seemed suddenly inevitable. And who was he to stand in the path of this devastation? One deranged primate who knew with unambiguous certainty the threat to the human empire. One sorry specimen of a species that had finally met its master. Surely, it was all over but the screams of the dying. Surely there was nothing he could do …

Reaching up from the bloody pave, Kleep seized Trapp’s collar with a trembling hand. “Don’t listen to ’em,” he muttered. “Them thoughts you’re thinking don’t come from you. They came down out of the Yellow Sky with the bugs. They know how to put fear in your head. That’s how they’ll try to win …” A coughing fit followed—more blood. “Tell Martha I love her,” he gasped.

Martha? I had no idea you were married,” Trapp confessed.

Nah, she’s a waitress at the Tasty Top,” Kleep murmured. “I’ve been meaning to ask her out, but never got up the nerve.” As the blood pumped out of his shoulder in sluggish spurts, he fixed Trapp with the dying lamps of his eyes. “Our illusions are better than theirs,” he grated. “It ain’t ever as bad as it looks. Don’t believe what they tell ya! Trust nothing you see!”

And then he was gone. As the flames crackled around the dead squads, and an evil sweat trickled from his brow, Trapp said goodbye to the man who everyone should have listened to, the man who could have been his lifelong friend. The family would have to be notified, he thought. If there was any family. If there was anyone to notify. If they would care if notification were executed. If anything anyone did mattered anymore, mattered at all! He rose slowly, turned, and surveyed the lot.

Trapp saw that Kleep had gotten the other squad with another of his grenades. In its death throes the fire-engine thing had lashed its ladders into the cement wall of the old parking ramp that edged the lot to the East. The wall had crumpled oddly—not like a solid barrier, but like the shell of an old pumpkin. Through a gap Trapp could just barely make out the dim slope of one of the ramps elbowing back into the darkness like some fragment of a structure designed by Escher. Pulling a flashcard from his wallet, he warily approached the cavity. Carefully, he sidestepped the ladders which still twitched and rippled like dying tentacles, and approached the wall. Odd, he thought, a parking ramp of this vintage should be wrought of Tilt-Up SYMcrete slabs, but this one clearly had some sort of ceramic block structure that seemed curiously soft—the cross section perforated with five-sided honeycomb-like cells. Stepping over the broken wall into the dim interior, an odd draft—cool and strangely sweet—fanned his cheeks. He stood there, dazed and still a bit in shock, grateful for a moment to be out of the hot sun and the insanities that lay in stinking ruin in the lot behind him.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw something moving there on the concrete surface just a few yards in front of him. Toys. That’s what they looked like, children’s toys playing by themselves with no child in sight. Toys that squirmed and pounced as if they were made of soft rubber. Toys that looked like tiny microvans, utility vehicles, sportscars, smartsquads. Miniature ambulances and fire engines. Twisting and rolling, thousands of them, the shadows teeming with them, playing like kittens in the shaft of late afternoon light that spilled in through the broken wall, revealing what should have, in all decency, remained unseen.

Ramps … No! Not ramps! Hives! Kleep had called them that in one of his frantic memos, but no one had listened to Kleep. Perhaps they had hoped that not listening would keep the horrors of the Yellow Sky at bay—but clearly, that hadn’t worked, and the invasion had happened, and—perhaps by some trick of alien psychic warfare—no one really wanted to know. How bad had things really gotten, he wondered. How much of the metropolis was no longer what it seemed to be?

Trapp backed slowly out of what he had imagined was a parking ramp, stepping past the crenelations of the broken wall which were now seeping an amber-colored syrup. He emerged into the bright hot sunlight that was falling from a sky that might never be blue again.


“And then he heard it, a soft buzzing high in the east.”

Kleep’s bonfire was still burning. Trapp walked toward it as if it were a comfort somehow—strange that a fire that scorched his cheeks even at a distance could be a comfort on such a hot day. It was a good signal, he thought, looking at the oddly vertical column of smoke that poured upward into the stillness of the Yellow Sky. And then he heard it, a soft buzzing thunder high in the east. Skycopters! The high-tech energy-efficient birds with the long spidery blades that had been developed for the thin air of Mars and were now adapted for the thicker air of the home planet. Yes! They had seen the smoke. They were turning in the sky and moving toward him. He was saved. Now everyone would know the truth. Now they could shake off the hypnotic fear that had held them all in ignorance. Maybe the metrop and the interstate and the net of roads that laced the hemisphere could be cleansed. Maybe the world could be saved and the world could return to the state of ignorant bliss that had existed before the coming of the Yellow Sky. Not damn likely, he thought—but in the short run, maybe, just maybe …

Wild laughter rose in his throat as the rescue squad began to descend toward him. It was hilarious how much the helicopters looked like dragonflies.


Rod Clark is a life-long Wisconsin resident. A professional writer and media-consultant, he is also the editor of Rosebud, a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing.


Weshoyot Alvitre is a Tongva/Scots-Gaelic illustrator, comic artist and “collector of all things saffron colored.” She has been doing comics for the last decade, with animation sprinkled on the side, sewing in between the lines, and most recently, molding wood. Weshoyot has a BA in Fine Art and Illustration, and gathers experience wherever she can find a source. Most recently an apprentice of artist Howard Chaykin, Weshoyot has contributed to comics including Tenth Muse (Bluewater Productions), Archaic #10, 11, 12 (Fenickx Productions), Umbrella Academy #6 (Darkhorse), and Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24 (Eureka Productions). More examples of her art can be seen online at her website and on Facebook. She currently resides in the weather exception to “sunny” California with her husband and two cats.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | science fiction, short story | , , | Leave a comment

The Tiger’s Wedding

James Dante

An excerpt from the novel, The Tiger’s Wedding (Martin Sisters Publishing 2013)

[All of the travel literature described Korea as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” So naturally when Jake St. Gregory, a thirty-year-old accountant from Burbank, California, accepts a teaching position in Seoul, he expects a serene escape. Instead, he finds himself in a chaotic relationship, hospitalized, scrambling for money, and then jailed. His pending deportation should come as a relief. But Jake can’t bear the thought of losing Jae-Min, the woman who is the one source of true happiness in his life. Jae-Min, the wife of an abusive husband, has her own turmoil to resolve. Torn between the old Korea and the emerging one, between kimchi and McDonald’s fries, she symbolizes that country’s lost generation. In this tale, set during a pivotal time, their mutual search for happiness draws them together. Ultimately, it might be a fracturing nation that keeps them apart.]



Traditional Korean wedding. Photo: James Dante.

Jae-Min never thought of herself as mysterious or complex, so, naturally, she enjoyed my treating her as such. Photographs and objects around Sun-Hee’s home prompted my curiosity, a few times leading to answers too candid for my comfort.

Sun-Hee’s spare bedroom, before converting it into a mini-classroom, had the effect of a time capsule. In addition to the keepsakes, she held on to the small black-and-white TV once the sibling magnet of their childhood home. As a teenager Jae-Min spent much of her life in front of that old Samsung. With it, the broader world pierced her countrified existence. Jae-Min watched the reports on the assignation of President Park and the pro-democracy movement in the city of Gwangju, close to her own town.

Even more captivating, ABBA was conquering the international music world. The American armed forces channel often televised the band’s concerts. Jae-Min never missed a broadcast. She showed me her vinyl copy of Dancing Queen, which she had as a girl played and replayed until scratches overtook the music. Sadly, she must have realized that the four Swedes would probably never visit Chollanam-do, the southwestern region of Korea known mostly for its melons.

Jae-Min’s maternal instincts were encouraged early on. Every morning she awoke at five with her mother and elder sister. Before school they made certain that a whole day’s worth of rice had been cooked, that enough barley tea was brewing, and that each of the younger heads got scrubbed and checked for lice. By five a.m. her father would be starting the early church service. Although the ministry had insulated them from the worst sort of poverty, they never prospered much above their neighbors.

She flattered her father with talk of joining the ministry, though her parents doubted the rural community would easily accept a woman of the cloth. Jae-Min set out to direct the congregation toward heaven, not with thundering oratory but with music. Three times a week, she played piano and sang before the small but intense group. She saved up her money and purchased a cheap violin, and before long her nimble fingers found the right harmonies.

During her last year of high school, the church hierarchy relocated Reverend Oh and family to one of Seoul’s poorer areas. His mission was to capture as many of the Pope’s wayward sheep as possible. Jae-Min soon realized she lacked the zeal to follow her father’s calling so closely. Her love of music, however, continued to grow. Right after high school, with the help of a scholarship, she began her music studies at a small Christian university.

By the time Jae-Min finished her studies, Sun-Hee had become old enough to take over Jae-Min’s chores. By then, in the eyes of Jae-Min’s parents, every single male at church became a potential catch.

A relatively young man named Mr. Kim joined Reverend Oh’s church. He was the mechanic who kept their truck humming along. Jae-Min and the man had met at church but never really talked until one winter night when he came to the house with his jumper cables. Of course, her father would’ve preferred his daughter meeting a university graduate, but she was after all twenty-four, and the man did earn a decent living with Hyundai Motors.

At her mother’s insistence, Jae-Min agreed to host a dinner for the two families. Mr. Kim didn’t exactly, as they say, sweep Jae-Min off of her feet. He did, however, appeal to her with his strong looks and rugged manner. A woman is almost certainly flattered and amused when this type of man plays the part of the perfect gentleman. When they started dating, Mr. Kim began attending church regularly, a bargain price for securing a virgin.

A combination of his pressuring and her curiosity led her to a downtown hotel where he awaited. Her life soon changed in ways unexpected. With each encounter, the place between innocence and marriage grew more distressing for her. Then one day the affair became the favorite topic of church chatter, causing the parish males to begin looking upon her with that peculiar combination of contempt and interest.

Although the thought holds great appeal, there was no point in my believing she never loved him. Of course she loved him. What livable choice did she have?

The nation changed during the course of their marriage. Martial law ended. Despite the deep boot prints, democracy sprouted from the Korean soil. They built structures that seemed to reach for the heaven they lacked on earth. University women began seeking careers as well as men with good earnings potential. Jae-Min sensed her own life contrasting with all of this. For this reason she embraced the opportunity to teach at Ripe Apple Language Institute. Her husband allowed her to work, providing she kept up on her domestic duties. She thought the extra money would pave over the potholes in their marriage. Instead, expectations from both of them grew. At some point she must’ve realized that she was trying to pave over a canyon.

Now she talked of divorce.


James Dante is originally from Western New York, a place where the snow is relentless, the families are close, and The Holy Trinity could refer to Pizza, Wings, and Subs. For most of his life, however, he’s called Northern California his home. An academic late bloomer, he completed his BA from the University of California at Davis at the age of twenty-eight. International relations proved to be a fine field of study for becoming aware of the broader world and for sounding smart at dinner parties but for little else. After escaping a monotonous government job, James caught the teaching bug in South Korea. There he ended up teaching English at three language schools near Seoul during the mid-1990s and found himself intrigued by the culture and the people. This is how the idea for The Tiger’s Wedding came about. James’s fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. The Tiger’s Wedding is his first novel. When James isn’t teaching adult education classes or promoting his book, he’s working on the rough draft of his second novel, which will be set in Moscow.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , , | Leave a comment

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

David Allan Cates

An excerpt from the novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (Novelas Americanas 2012)


Photo: David Allan Cates

Ben landed in the late afternoon and rented a car at the airport. I’m on a journey toward self-forgiveness, he almost told the woman who handed him the keys. He felt a self-congratulatory buzz as he drove west around the big city. He listened to old jazz and found the drive comforting despite the heavy traffic. Wasn’t he brave to be finally coming home again? Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.

Then the bluebird sky darkened, and the bright flat picture of home—the white farmhouse and red barn—that he carried in his head was suddenly confounded under a gray sky. He checked his chest pocket for the folded letter but it was gone—had he left it on the plane? He felt feverish and shivered, and by the time he turned down the long gravel driveway into the narrow between two round hills, crossed the creek and passed the barn to park in front of the house, the leaves had colored brilliant reds and yellows and oranges, then browned and fallen, and the black trunks of oak and hickory stood on the hillsides naked as skeletons.

Sara Koepke met him at the front door, her face pale as though she were seeing a ghost. “You?”

He felt a lump of unexpected shame and tried to swallow. “I should have called.”

“No,” she said, and tucked a wisp of gray hair off her forehead and behind her ear. “I’m sorry. You surprised me, Ben. Come in.”

He stepped past her and into the house for the first time in twenty-five years. It smelled of ashes and something else. The maple floor was the same. A new square woodstove replaced his grandma’s old pot-belly.

“Where’s Danny?”

“Fishing,” she said. “He’ll be home tomorrow.” Her voice trailed off.

Ben stared at her face, still elastic but her skin paler, lined, and with a fuzz of colorless hair on her cheeks and above her top lip. Also her unusually timid eyes. She looked weakened by life, turned somehow fragile. He had a feeling his gaze was hurting her. He shivered and looked away.

“Do you mind if I nap?” he asked.

“No. Please.” She seemed relieved. She led him across the living room toward the stairs so he could put his bag in his room. He shivered again and wondered if he’d packed enough clothes. The orange carpeted stairs creaked as they always had under his weight and without thinking he stepped slightly higher on the uneven third step to keep from tripping. The white walls in the stairwell were lined with photos of the girls growing up—but the air smelled like something had died.

“Sorry about the stink,” she said. “There’s a dead rat behind the plaster wall. We’re not quite sure what to do about it.”

“It’s not so bad.”

She laughed. “Yeah, right.”

He put his bags in what was once Danny and his boyhood bedroom, Jessie and Ivy’s room since then. Quickly, Sara made up one of the twin beds, folding under the mattress the fresh sheets and blankets.

“Where are the girls?”

Sara paused and looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment. “They’ve grown up.”

“Oh,” Ben said. “Of course. I just thought—” He sat on the bed and squeezed his temples with his palms. “Forgive me,” he said. “I guess I’m not as brave as I thought I was. Maybe I should leave this afternoon.” “Please,” she said, reaching out as though to stop him, thought he hadn’t moved. He stayed seated, hands on the side of his face. “Is everything okay?” Such concern in her voice, as though she thought he might be sick, might be coming home to die.

“No,” he said. “I mean yes, I’m fine.” His pulse pounded in his forehead. He wished he still had Danny’s letter. He wondered if he’d dreamed it all. He looked up and tried to smile. “I’m just suddenly very tired,” he said.

She touched his shoulder and it seemed all the blood in his body raced to where her fingers lingered.

“You feel hot,” she said, “Lie down. Sleep. Rest. Danny will be overjoyed to see you. He loved you—loves you. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And then, like that, her fingers withdrew. Ben’s body felt limp and senseless. He waited until she left the room to lie down and crawl under the covers. He rolled on his side and shivered with feverish chill. The pillow was thicker than his old pillow and propped his head up too high. His grandmother’s old wallpaper was gone and the walls were a clean white and the woodwork and windows new. He recognized the smell of the room, though, the feel of the old mattress, and he recognized the texture of the white ceiling, even the little webs spun daily in the corners by tiny brown spiders. Familiar light streamed through the window. He and Danny had spent much of the first winter in this room killing cluster flies. Every day a hundred more were born and clustered on the window glass. And every day they killed them all, even kept a body count. Ben had had a cast on his leg and he hopped from the window to his bed and back again in the cold, double-checking Danny’s count. It was the winter after the summer their parents died. The next winter there were fewer flies. And the next, none at all.

Ben pulled the blankets up to his chin and curled into a ball to stay warm.

“When you wake, I’ll have dinner,” Sara called from the bottom of the stairs.


David Allan Cates is the author of four novels, Hunger In America, a New York Times Notable Book, X Out Of Wonderland and Freeman Walker, both Montana Book Award Honor Books, and in 2012, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, winner of a Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the 2013 Independent Book Publishers Book Awards. He is the winner of the 2010 Montana Arts Council’s Artist Innovation Award in prose and his short story, “Rubber Boy” (Glimmer Train 70), is a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his travel articles in Outside Magazine and the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

Cates has been the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, which leads groups of medical professionals to provide public health and surgery services in Honduras. In Missoula he works with the Missoula Writing Collaborative, teaching classes on the short shory in public high schools, and is a part-time faculty in Pacific Lutheran University’s Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program. For many years he worked as a fishing guide on the Smith River and raised cattle on his family’s farm in Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | novel | , , | Leave a comment

Telling Time

Lee Jing-Jing

An excerpt from the novel, If I Could Tell You (Marshall Cavendish Editions 2013)

[When nothing is really yours, not even the flat you grew up in, just where do you call home? The residents of Block 204 have a few months before their building is torn down, before they are scattered throughout Singapore into smaller, assigned flats. All of them know they will still be struggling to fit their lives into the new flats years later but no one protests. No one talks about it even as they are slowly being pushed out of their homes. Not Cardboard Lady, an eighty-year-old woman who sells scraps for a living. Not young Alex, who is left homeless after a falling out with Cindy. Not Ah Tee, who has worked at the coffee-shop on the ground floor of Block 204 for much of his adult life, and whose reaction to the move affects his neighbours in different ways. For some, the tragedy that occurs during their last days in Block 204 is a reminder of old violence, aged wounds. For others, new opportunities transpire. If I Could Tell You is about silence, the keeping and breaking of it, and what comes after.]


They hear everything from the windows. From the time they wake up, to the time they lay on their beds, pressing their faces into familiar-scented pillows, trying to shut out the yellow glow of the lights right outside, lighting up the corridor, sneaking in through the thin film of their eyelids. Trying to shut out the sounds they can’t help hearing through the open window, it’s too warm to sleep with it closed.

IfICouldTellYouThey can tell time from the different sounds if they had to. Morning brings sharp, quick twists of birdsong, the creaking awake of bones and pipes and doors. Sounds of people in their homes—the shrill cry of kettles, alarm clocks, the yelling of parents and children to hurry up hurry up they’re going to miss the bus the bell the shutting of the school gates. The heavy rolling-in of school and factory buses. Cars and motorcycles starting up and moving away, the smoky vibrato and rat-a-tat-tat fading off slowly. And then a deep calm for a while. The moist heat lulling everything into a stillness, a sticky quiet, clinging to the tarmac, to the concrete and brick and paint coming off the walls of the building. The ones who are not at school or work—the stay-at-home mothers and their young children, the elderly and the ill—they fill in the quiet by putting on the radio, the television, even if no one is watching or listening, it’s just good to fill in the space next to them while they’re closing up a wound in a skirt pocket, watching grandchildren trace out daydreams with crayons held tight in their fists. There’s the fleeting echo of nursery rhymes from the preschool a little away from the block, whisked through the open window and chased up by the wind. Then, as evening sets in, the buses and cars which left quietly in the early hours come back, letting loose the caged up, shut up voices of children and teenagers from before.

They hear it in birdcall. The trees full of crows and mynahs squabbling for a place to roost. The Asian koel with his long, woeful lament, pouring his heart into a resonant koo-woo, a parting song for the sun which he repeats every day. It is to this repetitive cry that the walk from the bus stop the train station the car is made. That doors are unlocked and swung open. And calls made to ask what to do about the evening meal, where to go and what time. It is to this cry that lone, passionless meals are consumed, eyes blinking in the glow of their screens’ covert flicker.

They hear even more with the settling in of night and the accompanying quiet. TV sets oozing their cloying, dramatic dialogue. Children howling from the flick-and-whoosh of their parents’ cane for homework left undone or lies uncovered. They hear it, lying in bed, the click and buzz of wires and metallic parts all around. The gathered, living hum of their home, their building, sending them to sleep. They don’t wake when it rains—when the roof threatens to tear open with the force of each heavy, determined drop. It is in their bones, this rain, the turbulent, frantic sound of it. They don’t wake.


Lee Jing-Jing was born in 1985 and grew up in the working-class Singapore neighborhood of Jurong West, in a public housing block similar to the one described in If I Could Tell You. She moved to Europe in her early twenties and eventually gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from Kellogg College at Oxford University. If I Could Tell You is her first novel and was supported by a grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council. She currently lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is working on a new book that continues the story of Cardboard Lady.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , | Leave a comment

The Burning Monk

Dwight Allen


flameIn August of 1974, I went into a bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., and asked if I could see the manager about a job. I was twenty-two, a recent graduate of a small Midwestern college, and I was sweating through my shirt. I was wearing a white summer suit jacket I’d found in a thrift shop, the sort of apparel, I hoped, that a would-be writer, particularly one in search of work, might be able to get away with in a Southern city like Washington. It was in the mid-nineties that day, but I’d kept the jacket on, perhaps as an emblem of some noble idea I had of myself, perhaps to distinguish myself from the ill-dressed tourists cluttering the sidewalks outside the White House, into which Gerald Ford had recently moved. In my hand was a Modern Library edition of John Donne, and inside the book was a copy of my resume, folded into an unprofessional square.

The bookstore was adjacent to the Executive Office Building, on the ground floor of a building whose upper floors were occupied by journalists and speechwriters and lobbyists and lawyers. The front of the store was devoted to books about contemporary politics and biographies and economics treatises and thrillers. Poetry was in the rear, behind two spinning racks of greeting cards. There was no Donne, and Auden and Frost took a backseat to McKuen and Gibran and Edgar Lee Masters. Beyond the poetry shelf was the stock room, where the manager had an office.

“Go on back,” a clerk said to me. “He’ll be happy to see you. Somebody just quit an hour ago.”

The stock room was a windowless, L-shaped space, with a wood worktable set against the longer wall. On the table were a couple of unopened book boxes and also a glossy photograph of a glamorous woman who might have been an actress or an opera singer. An X-Acto knife had been stuck through her forehead. I didn’t recognize her. I moved on, as if to ponder the meaning of this tableau was not my business.

The manager’s “office” was in the back of the room—a big metal desk that was partly hidden from view by a Japanese-style screen imprinted with a painting of the sea by Hokusai. Behind the screen, punching buttons on an adding machine, was a small dark-haired man wearing a short-sleeved sports shirt crowded with silvery squiggles that turned out to be fish. His desk was untidy. A half-finished bowl of soup (navy bean, it looked like) sat amidst publishers’ catalogues and invoices and a spillage (from an overturned coffee can) of pens and pencils. There were packets of saltines everywhere—he didn’t eat them, apparently, but neither did he throw them away.

The man looked to be of Mediterranean descent. Anyway, his skin had the same hazy midsummer tint as did that of my part-Italian girlfriend. And then he rose from his chair, and, grasping my hand almost as if he’d been expecting me, introduced himself as Constantine Mitropoulos. He said I should call him Connie.

“Joe Bennett,” I said.

“Take off your coat, Joe. You look like you’re burning up.”

It would be an understatement to say that Connie was effusive—he was telling me about the “supreme satisfactions” of the bookselling business even before I’d removed my jacket—but I couldn’t help noting that his forehead, from which his thin wavy black hair sprung away, seemed darkened by melancholy. I guessed that his five o’clock shadow must have become visible long before noon. As he rhapsodized about putting the latest Herman Wouk or Alvin Toffler into the hands of a customer, I also couldn’t help thinking that even with the bibliophile’s glasses that hung from a chain around his neck, he bore a resemblance to the disgraced ex-president. There was his nose, for instance, with its Nixonian swoop and bristly nostrils.

On Connie’s desk, amidst the general mess, was a black-and-white photograph of himself shaking hands with Spiro Agnew at an event that I assumed preceded Agnew’s resignation from the vice-presidency. Agnew, elegantly tailored, silver-headed, gave every impression of a powerful man who was not, even for this glad-handing event, off-duty. Connie beamed up at him. Connie’s plaid sports jacket, the sort a vaudeville comedian might wear, looked loud, even in black and white. The picture was autographed.

There was one other photograph in Connie’s office, of an older couple I took to be his parents. They sat in lawn chairs in Sunday dress clothes, gazing without smiling at the camera, looking like seafarers who had landed on a continent they didn’t care for. There were no pictures of children and none of a spouse, either. I guessed Connie was (to use a term still in circulation then) a confirmed bachelor—with little to do besides sell books.

Eventually, after mentioning what he called a “footnote” about the low profit margins in the bookselling business, he asked me where I was from.


“The hinterland,” he said, with an odd little shiver. Perhaps he’d had a bad experience in the hinterland.

But he hired me five minutes later, after declining my offer to show him my resume, after ignoring my admission that I’d had no experience in the retail business. (“It’s not calculus,” he said, and when I said that I hadn’t gotten much beyond algebra, being more a humanities kind of student, he said, “It’s not algebra either.”) He said he had a “feeling” about me, and was sure that I could “fill the void” left by the employee who had quit suddenly that day for reasons Connie did not go into. “You could very well be, with a little shaping and molding, assistant managerial material,” he said, propping his glasses on his disconcerting nose. He told me to be at the store the next morning at nine, and then he glanced at my volume of Donne, and said, “No man is an island, right?”

* * *

I rode the bus up Connecticut Avenue, through the letters-of-the-alphabet streets, past the bookstore (an older and a more conspicuously literary place than Connie’s) where I’d struck out earlier in the day, and on into the two-syllable streets, past the zoo. I got off at Albemarle, the first of the three-syllable streets, and walked west into the declining sun. I was going to see Joanna, my girlfriend, who had rented a room in a house full of young Washingtonians. I was staying with Joanna until I could find a place of my own. I couldn’t wait to see her and feel her through the thin summer dress she’d left the house in that morning. I had my new job to tell her about. And I had memorized the first two stanzas of “The Good Morrow” on the bus, in order to recite it to her. The late afternoon heat now seemed almost like a blessing, or a not unpleasant lubricant, anyway.

When I entered the house, music was playing upstairs and down. The smell of beans and onions and ham hocks mixed with the aroma of last night’s (or this afternoon’s) weed. Despite the music, despite the pot of food bubbling on the stove, nobody was to be seen. Halfway up the stairs, I heard the sounds of someone climaxing. “Godgodgodohmydearfuckinggod.” Though I’d been staying here for little more than a week, I knew the voices of many of Joanna’s housemates when they were making love, which it seemed as if everybody (with the possible exception of Paul, whose job with a Congressman apparently didn’t allow for it) did from roughly dusk to dawn. Once Joanna started giggling while we were making love, and I said, “What?” into the air above her belly, and she said, “Can’t you hear him? It’s Doc, doing his ‘Heigh, ho, heigh, ho.’” Doc’s real name was Carlos—he was short and had a pointed little beard and wore round spectacles, like the lead Disney dwarf.

The person I was hearing now was Theresa, who worked in the Men’s department of Garfinkel’s. Her boyfriend was a lawyer, a married man, according to Joanna. I’d never seen him.

Joanna was not in her room. She had a job at a day care facility for low-income children near Capitol Hill, and one or two evenings a week she also worked as a model in figure drawing classes (though tonight was not one of them). She earned twenty dollars for two hours of striking poses, some of which were quite awkward, she said. When I asked her whether the poses were the hardest thing about it, she said, “It’s that and it’s also having to keep a straight face when you’re naked on a pedestal, with your cheek on your knee, or you’re doing some sort of Degas ballerina position, trying not to wobble, and everybody is drawing you very seriously, and also it’s knowing, despite what I just said, that some people aren’t drawing you that seriously, they’re mainly there for the titillation, even if they can draw competently. Seeing them looking at you is enough to make you want to fart.” I asked why, if that was so, she would keep on doing it, and she said, “Money, art, and a streak of exhibitionism.” She gave me a smile that she presumably didn’t give the art students, and I took her in my arms while pretending to be a mature adult about the whole thing.

I poured myself a glass of peppermint schnapps (I’d brought a bottle from Wisconsin, a send-off gift from an uncle) and then I took off my clothes and turned on the floor fan and lay down on the mattress (a queen, but a thin one). On the walls were art posters—di Chirico, Cezanne, Vermeer—and also a couple of Joanna’s own drawings, one a nude, one a portrait of her diplomat father in a suit, both more than competently done. Also on the wall, above her dresser, was a famous 1963 magazine photograph of a Buddhist monk who had set himself on fire in protest of the anti-Buddhist policies of the South Vietnamese government. The same photograph had been tacked to the wall above her desk at our college. (We were the same age, but Joanna had graduated six months before I did; she was in a hurry to get out into the world.) Joanna said she put the picture up to remind herself to be courageous. Every time I looked at it—the monk sitting akimbo, his back perfectly straight, his bald head held aloft by grace or dignity or meditative muscle, even as fire consumed his robes and his flesh—I wondered what I would burn myself up for. Or how much pain I could stand before giving up.

I dozed off before I finished the glass of schnapps.

When I awakened, I saw Joanna kneeling at the end of the mattress. “Hey, sleepy-eyed Joe,” she said.

There was quite a bit of light left in the day. Perhaps I’d slept for only minutes.

I told her that I’d gotten a job. “Five-fifty an hour. May I interest you in our only copy of Thank You, Fog? It has been flying off the shelf.”

“I’m looking for an obscure little book called Tales of Joe.” She was on her feet now, pulling her dress over her head. “The unexpurgated edition. Comes in a brown paper wrapper?”

I could watch Joanna get out of a dress forever. Not that she routinely undressed with a strip-tease artist’s deliberation. No, despite what she’d said about her “streak of exhibitionism,” Joanna was rather shy, or more complicatedly exhibitionistic than, say, the sort of person who felt empty unless she could draw attention to herself. For Joanna, acknowledging an exhibitionistic streak was perhaps a way of keeping it from becoming fatal.

I recited the opening stanzas of “The Good Morrow.” Though I was not much of a poet, and would not ever become much of one, I had a talent for memorization—and especially for memorizing what I would’ve liked to have written.

We made love. By the standards of the house, we were quiet.

Later, after a dinner of Cuban-style rice and beans, we played cribbage and smoked reefer in the living room. Doc and Theresa were there, and so was Paul, home early from the Hill. (The lawyer had vanished.) Paul, still in his necktie, talked at length about his day, which included a visit from Congressman Rodino, but nobody except Joanna paid much attention. Joanna liked Paul, his earnest affability, his sideburns, which were a little short of daring.

During the smoking of a second joint, Doc asked Joanna if, now that I had a job, I’d be moving out soon. Doc held the lease to the house and ran a tight ship when it came to rent, grocery money, etc.

“You could ask him,” Joanna said. She had beaten Doc in three straight games of cribbage.

I was sitting on the couch, deep in one of its valleys. It was made of fake leather and became sticky when the weather was humid. I was staring at what looked like tooth marks high on Theresa’s thigh.

Carlos pulled at his beard, moved a peg, and didn’t ask me when I was moving out.

Paul rose from his seat and said, “Got to go bone up on Bangladesh. The Congressman is going there soon.”

“Bone away,” said Theresa, with a stoned cackle.

I followed him upstairs, to write a poem that would make no sense in the morning.

* * *

Connie was absent my first day of work. An employee named Frank, who described himself as Connie’s “new assistant manager,” told me to make myself familiar with the stock. “There’ll be a quiz in a half hour,” he said, grinning the grin of a new assistant manager who also sucked lemon lozenges. I passed the test, but only barely, he said. He showed me how to use the cash register, a mechanical one.

“There’s a cheat sheet for calculating tax if you can’t do it in your head,” Frank said, pointing to a laminated piece of paper taped to the counter next to the register. Frank belonged to Mensa. He wore his Phi Beta Kappa key around his neck (he showed it to me one day in the stock room, unbuttoning his shirt). He was forty-two. He wore a necktie every day and black dress shoes that were shined to a high polish and would have reflected his horn-rimmed glasses and his angular, unreflective face had he ever looked downward in consternation, a state he seemed to have no familiarity with. Why, with his academic credentials, he was a clerk in a bookstore, clicking lozenges around his stained teeth, I didn’t know.

With Frank at my side, I rang up a sixty-cent birthday card sale to a man who’d written speeches for Lyndon Johnson. Frank told me his name, and also said that his speeches weren’t memorable. Frank said that he never addressed Washington celebrities by name—“that would only encourage them.”

At lunch, Frank said that he couldn’t “abide” contemporary American poetry. “Nonsense scribbled on water,” he said. He also said he had taken the Foreign Service exam and aced it, but had not done well in interviews. “I tend to be frank, if you’ll pardon the yolk. A little frankness overseas might not hurt us. I could run on that slogan, I think. The other thing that got me into trouble with the diplomats is that I was once a member of the Socialist Workers Party. If you ever want to be bored out of your mind, go to one of their meetings.”

We were sitting on a bench in Farragut Square. It was about ninety degrees in the shade, but Frank drank hot tea from a thermos. He nibbled at what looked like a Benedictine sandwich—anyway, it had a greenish tinge. I was eating a tuna on rye, purchased at a shop where Frank went only if he was “truly desperate” and only if he was truly desperate for pastrami. “If I want a tuna fish sandwich,” Frank said, “I will make it at home.”

Home for Frank was a dozen blocks north, not too far from the Hilton Hotel. He had an apartment in an old house that he said had plumbing from the early middle ages. “The instructions for flushing the toilet are in Latin.” Connie was the landlord. For some reason, that didn’t surprise me.

“I can’t escape him,” Frank said. “Don’t tell him I said that.” Frank tossed a sparrow a crumb from his green sandwich.

“Where’d you say Connie is today?” It was hard to get a word in edgewise with Frank, but I’d seen a little opening.

“His mother is demented and his father doesn’t know how to fry an egg. He’s with them, over in Virginia. They take up a lot of his time.”

“What happened to your predecessor, the assistant manager who quit yesterday?”

“That’s a private matter,” Frank said, gruffly, and then he said, “Let’s just say he was an incompetent son-of-a-bitch, and that Connie and I were obliged to let him go.”

On the way back to the store, Frank said, “I’m not officially assistant manager yet. Pro tem today, pro aeternitate tomorrow.”

* * *

A week later, Frank asked me to dinner at his apartment—“I’m an excellent cook”—but I had an excuse: Joanna’s parents were in town, and we were having dinner with them that night. Joanna had invited her parents to come by the house and have a drink before we went to a restaurant in Georgetown. She bought gin and vermouth and made baba ghannouj and aired the house out as best she could.

Joanna and I were in her room when her parents arrived. We were having a quarrel that seemed to stem partly from the fact that I was going to wear my stained white jacket and no tie to dinner. Also at issue was the fact that she’d just told me that she planned to keep her room here, instead of moving in with me. I’d found an efficiency, in an excellent location, except that it was three blocks from Frank’s house.

“Did I ever tell you that one of my father’s life projects is to listen to every one of Haydn’s one hundred-odd symphonies?”

“Yes, you did.”

“Can you zip me?” She turned her back to me, and I zipped her dress up. I saw the hatchet of my nose going into her nape. She’d pulled her hair off her neck, and tendrils sprouted from the paleness like wild seedlings.

“Is this where I’m supposed to say ‘Is there someone else?’”

“I’m one-half loner, Joe. I like my lonerness. I will be at your tiny little apartment with my toothbrush almost every night.”

We went downstairs, I without my stained jacket, Joanna with her nape unmarked. Mr. Dunn, who was an Economic Counselor at the American Embassy in Belgrade, was tall. His face was on the long side but not dour, his eyes were blue but not piercing, and everything he said and did seemed tactful without quite being calculated. Around Joanna, he was somewhat less tactful, or perhaps only more effusive. They held hands while we talked in the front hall, and then they went off to the kitchen to make the gin-and-tonics. This left me and Paul (who had materialized suddenly) to give Joanna’s Italian mother a tour of the house. We didn’t take her upstairs.

We had drinks and Joanna’s baba ghannouj in the living room. “It’s your recipe, Mama,” Joanna said, in response to a compliment from her mother. I hadn’t eaten baba ghannouj until that day. I was a provincial, and gin and tonics went to my head faster than I could spell baba ghannouj. Mr. Dunn told us that baba ghannouj was made, with small variations, in Romania and Turkey and Greece, as well as in Lebanon, and he pronounced the Romanian, Turkish, and Greek names for each version. He somehow did this without sounding like what my Wisconsin mother would call “a full-throated snob.”

Theresa’s boyfriend came running downstairs and flew out the front door. Paul said, “Must be late for dinner.”

“Our housemate’s friend,” Joanna said to her parents.

“We don’t even know his full name,” Paul added. “Clark Something.”

“Kent,” Joanna said.

“A lawyer,” I said, with as much disdain as I could muster. “In a city full of lawyers.” Mr. Dunn, I’d forgotten, had a law degree, in addition to a Masters in economics. “Married, it’s said.” Where had I acquired the morally superior tone?

Mr. Dunn said, “Let’s drink to the new President. And to clean government.”

“Hear, hear,” Paul said.

We drank to President Ford, and then we went out to dinner—I in a tight-fitting plaid jacket borrowed from Paul, and Paul in a more stylish light blue number. I had two more drinks, and much later that night, when Joanna and I were lying in our underwear on her mattress, our elbows just touching, the fan blowing on us, I said, “I don’t think I impressed your dad.”

“You gave it the old college try,” she said, an unpleasantness in her voice. “And my mother liked you.”

I said, “Your mother is a beautiful woman.”

“She’s taken,” Joanna said—mirthlessly, I thought. I could almost see, in the darkness, the Vietnamese monk going up in flames.

“What would make you want to burn yourself up? Anything?” I’d asked her before, in college, but perhaps her views had changed.

“Not love, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said.

“Me neither,” I said. “Though I think I would die if I couldn’t have you.” I laughed a small laugh in order to suggest she didn’t have to take me completely seriously about the dying part.

“‘Have,’” she said, her elbow now only proximate to mine.

* * *

One day in September, Connie returned from lunch with a lapel button that said “Whip Inflation Now.” I was at the cash register when he came in.

“I think I’ll give this to Frank,” he said, grinning what I guessed he supposed was a mischievous grin, holding the button in the palm of his hand as if it were a pearl. The button, which he’d gotten from Ford political headquarters across the street, was apparently Connie’s idea of poking fun at Frank, who believed that inflation was preferable to the alternatives, which included unemployment. They’d had arguments on the subject. A few minutes later, I heard shouting coming from the stock room, and not long after that, Frank, carrying his lunch box and thermos, shot past me at the register. “Goddamn Republican monetarist idiot,” he said, over his shoulder. “Tell him I quit.”

An hour later, Connie came out of his office and said, “I’d been wanting to get rid of him for a long time, but I certainly didn’t think my prank would drive him away. Some other retail business will surely find room for his genius.”

Frank came over to my apartment that night, around suppertime. When he rang the bell, I was cutting up mushrooms and onions for an omelet, which I planned to serve to Joanna, whenever she arrived. Tonight was a modeling night.

I gave Frank a glass of water—he didn’t drink alcohol—and then I went back to my cutting board. There was a touch of autumn in the air, but Frank, standing a foot from me in the narrow galley of a kitchen, was sweating at the temples.

“I know this realtor who will hire me tomorrow,” he said. “It’ll take me a day to learn the business and pass whatever test you have to pass, and a year from now I’ll have Connie working for me as a super, doing scut work—or, maybe if I’m feeling nice, as a doorman.” I wasn’t sure how this would come about, but I didn’t ask. “Did I ever tell you that the reason Connie was leased that prime space right across from the EOB is because he knows some Republican fat cat who is a pal of Agnew’s, our corrupt ex-vice-president of so-called Greek heritage? Connie and Spiro wouldn’t know Sophocles if Sophocles turned up at their house with Oedipus Tyrannus in his hand. Do you know who Connie thinks is a great writer? Herman Wouk. My god.”

Joanna didn’t arrive, and the mushrooms began to shrivel. Frank had another glass of water, while we listened to a Chopin piano concerto, which Joanna had given me in the hope of broadening my musical tastes. When that was over, I asked Frank if he wanted to listen to my one other classical record, Carmina Burana.

“Orff laid an oeuf with that one,” Frank said, rising from his chair.

I listened to Carmina Burana alone, while downing most of a bottle of Mateus.

When Joanna showed up, I was close to passed out. I’d chased the Mateus with the last of the Wisconsin schnapps. But we somehow had a conversation.

Some of what I said that night I learned about a couple of days later, when we met for lunch on the Mall. It was here, too, on the grass, within the shadow of the Washington Monument, with schoolchildren streaming past to see what they could see from the top of that needle poking at the blue sky, that Joanna told me that she had started to see Paul.

“Paul?” I said, though not quite in disbelief. “He’s like the student council president. He doesn’t have any feelings. There’s no poetry in him.”

“Is that what’s in you?” she said, and then she took it back.

I looked at her sandwich—she’d taken one modest bite out of it. It sat on wax paper, and looked all but abandoned.

“Did your father tell you to dump me for Paul?”

“I have a mind of my own.”

I heard the chatter of children, the voice of a teacher telling them to stay in line. For some reason, I had the thought that if I never saw a vireo, I would not have lived a full life. Where did one see vireos? Not on the Mall probably, unless you could see a stuffed one in the Smithsonian.

I said, “So, what would you burn up for, Joanna? Or is that picture just for show?”

“If I thought burning myself up would help to stop the war, I would do it. If I thought burning myself up would somehow make the lives of the poor children I work with slightly more comfortable, I would do it. I keep the picture around, as you know, to remind myself to be less of a selfish jerk.”

I took a bite of my sandwich. Tuna on rye, home-made.

“And what would you die for, Joe?”

“If I could write one or two really good poems,” I said, looking up the Mall, trying to think of something clever to say, “I might donate one of my nuts to the Smithsonian.”

“The Smithsonian has a section devoted to poets’ testicles?”

I didn’t know the answer to that. I got up off the grass and walked toward 17th Street. I wanted to turn back, but I resisted.

* * *

When Frank quit, Connie did not offer me the assistant manager’s position. He’d chosen an employee named Michael, whose true interest was theater and who’d informed me that he planned to leave the bookstore as soon as he landed a part in something that paid at least a token wage. Though I’d begun to think that Connie didn’t show very good judgment when it came to hiring, I didn’t really care that he’d passed me over. Being a nine-to-five clerk left more of the day for poetry. I mostly just read it, however, though there was a night when I did write some vers libre about Wilber Mills and Fanne Foxe. I sent this poem to Joanna—I recall now lines about “my bushy tail/ bulging like Argentina on a map/ oh, Wilber, don’t fail me,/ your vulpine lady,/ your stripper all dressed up for a dip in/ the Tidal Basin”—but it did not elicit a response.

On another night while alone with myself in my bed, reading Whitman, it occurred to me that I lacked a clear career path. (I’d just received a letter from my father, an attorney in Fond du Lac, who said, among other things, “Still thinking about taking the law boards?”) I felt pretty sure that I wasn’t going to become a poet, and that I didn’t have a future in bookselling or any other kind of retail business. I had come to Washington to be with Joanna, whose bags I would’ve carried to wherever she might’ve gone next, and now she’d taken up with a Congressional aide, a guy who read Foreign Affairs at the breakfast table.

I took the LSATs that fall. OK, I would be a dullard. Though maybe, if I was admitted somewhere and somehow survived the three years of school, I could work in poverty law or tenant law. I would try to be a good person, not some vulture working for corporate interests.

In the meantime, to supplement my bookstore salary, I found part-time work on weekends. An elderly man who had worked in the Roosevelt administration and who had known, he said, “tout le monde,” hired me to type his memoirs. Mr. Bell was a patrician Southerner who didn’t act like a patrician even when he spoke French (he spoke it with a slight Southern twang), and he paid me generously for my typing, and then one Saturday afternoon (the chauffeur had the day off) we went to the movie theater to see That’s Entertainment! and he choked on some popcorn during a clip featuring Gene Kelly, and five minutes later he was dead.

I couldn’t have saved him—I didn’t even know the Heimlich Maneuver then—but I felt guilty that I’d done nothing but shout “Help!,” and I broke down during the brief questioning by the police, one of whom seemed to think I was Mr. Bell’s paramour and might even have finagled myself into his will. I gave the police my phone number, and after a nephew who was a lawyer had finally arrived at the morgue, I walked thirty blocks through the rain to my apartment. I got into bed and stayed there, listening to the radiators hiss and clank, falling in and out of a fevered sleep. I got out of bed on Monday morning, to buy a Post and see if it had an obituary of Mr. Bell. It didn’t, and I went back to bed and over the next two days ignored the ringing phone.

On Tuesday evening, somebody knocked on my door. I thought it might be Frank (though I hadn’t seen him in weeks), or Joanna (entirely wishful thinking), or the police. But when I pressed my nose against the glass, I saw Connie’s face. It was raining, and I let him in.

“We thought you might’ve died or something,” he said, dripping on the kitchen floor. He was wearing one of those see-through raincoats that fold into a square the size of a wallet and a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat. He looked ridiculous.

I made a rictus-like face, perhaps intentionally, perhaps involuntarily.

“Are you sick?” he asked.

I shrugged. My nose was clogged, my head weighed a ton, but the fever had passed.

“Can I make you some tea?” He unsnapped the snaps on his coat. “Do you have any tea?”

I said I had some Taster’s Choice coffee.

“It’s nasty out tonight,” Connie said. Perhaps because I’d been absent from work, and had not phoned in an excuse, Connie felt no compunction about making himself at home. He placed his hat on the kitchen table, hung his coat on a ladderback chair I’d found on the curb, and then set to boiling water. I was only twenty-three, and I wasn’t always aware of the desires that might underlie people’s actions, any more than I was aware of my own. I could’ve sworn that Connie was here only to look after me, as a mother would, unless he had come to convert me to Republicanism.

He made some instant soup for me, and put peanut butter on celery stalks, a favorite of mine. I was hungry and I ate it all quickly, while he sipped Taster’s Choice. At some point I said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that photograph that somebody put the box cutter in. It was on the workbench the day I came in to see about a job.”

He frowned, as if not remembering, or as if not wanting to remember.

“The glossy photo of the movie star?” I said, trying to jog his memory.

“Hmm. I wonder if that was my picture of Jill St. John. You remember when she and Henry Kissinger were dating, I’m sure. And then Jill went and married somebody else. I can’t remember how I came into possession of it, or why it ended up on the workbench. Though I did meet Mr. Kissinger one day. He stopped by the store.”

“Why would there have been a box cutter stuck in the picture?”

“Oh, yes, right, now I remember. It was Frank’s predecessor who did that, the young man who quit on me just before you arrived. The picture was actually of a local actress whom I’d once known in a—” he paused to sip his coffee, heavily sugared—“in a more than casual way. It’s all rather complicated. Jack, Frank’s predecessor, was, like Frank, a bit of a hothead. I like passion in a bookstore clerk, but you have to draw the line somewhere.”

He got up from his chair and wandered over (insofar as you can “wander” in an efficiency apartment) to my plank-and-cinderblock bookshelves. On the top shelf, sitting on a copy of Swann’s Way (bought at a Georgetown store), was a framed photograph of Joanna. It was the photograph of her I’d kept on my desk at school. I still have it, almost forty years later. I keep it in a drawer of my desk at my law office. I don’t have to look at it to see Joanna’s face, but I’ve been known to.

Connie turned toward me, with the picture in his hand. It was a shoulders-and-above shot that had been trimmed to fit an old oval metalwork frame that was like something my grandmother might have owned.

“Your girlfriend back in dairyland?”

“She’s here,” I said, while trying to hide my annoyance at his scrutiny of the picture. “In D.C.”

“Nice shoulders,” he said. “Lovely face, though there’s something elusive about it.”

I didn’t say anything.

“She’s here, but she’s no longer your girlfriend?” Connie might have been inept in picking managerial material, but he had a gift for finding the sore spots in people.

“Something like that,” I said, and then, like a child, I snatched the picture away. It was a child, after all, who kept the picture on his bookshelf.

I apologized, Connie apologized, and then he said, as if suddenly pricked by inspiration, “I brought a little Mary Jane along.” He patted his trouser pocket. “In the event you wanted to blow your mind.” He laughed, perhaps at the phrase, which, even then, in 1974, was a bit overworked.

“Well,” I said. I wondered if Connie was some sort of undercover narc.

“I’m probably the only Republican bookstore owner who smokes pot. Not on the job, of course.”

We smoked a joint he rolled and then another one and we listened to music (Coltrane, Orff, Joni Mitchell) and then Connie did a Greek taverna dance for me (to no music). He stayed late. I’d never been so stoned in my life.

“This Republican pot is very strong,” I said, giggling, prostrate.

“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

* * *

At the bookstore, Connie and I tiptoed around each other, talking little. This dance of avoidance went on all winter and then into the spring until one day, not long after the cherry trees had blossomed, Connie called me into his office and told me he was letting me go.

“Why?” I had told him that I was going to law school in the fall, but I’d hoped to stay on at the store through the summer.

He said, “Money. Finances. You may have noticed that we’re in a recession.” He was tapping a bronze letter opener on his desk. In a pinch, you could perhaps use it to plunge into somebody’s heart.

I said, “I thought Republicans liked recessions.”

“They make us a little meaner,” Connie said. “I’m sorry, Joe, I can’t have you around anymore.”

I looked at the black hairs in the hollow at the base of his neck, like wispy roots growing crazily upward. That rainy night back in December, when he undressed, his hairiness had taken me aback—had taken me aback but not quite repelled me.

His nose was pointed up at my face, doleful thickets blooming in the nostrils. “You understand, don’t you?”

I said, “I wasn’t cut out for retail, anyway.”

* * *

One afternoon a couple weeks later, Wesley, Mr. Bell’s chauffeur, came by my apartment. He was wearing a checked motoring cap—his new Datsun hatchback he’d left idling at the curb—and over his shoulder was a garment bag. He said, “Mr. Bell left you some suits to spiff yourself up in.” He pulled a twenty out of his shirt pocket. “This is for alterations, in case you need to make them. If not, have a steak on Mr. Bell.”

There were two seersucker suits and a white one. The white one was made by a local tailor “expressly for C. A. Bell” (so it said on the inside billfold pocket), and looked as if it had scarcely been worn. It was a little snug in the shoulders and under the arms, but it fit well otherwise. But where would I wear a white suit—or, for that matter, a seersucker one? Probably not at law school, in Iowa.

I left the suit on, though, and walked a few blocks over to a liquor store on Connecticut Avenue and with Mr. Bell’s twenty bought a quart of Heaven Hill and a pack of Tareytons. I had eight dollars left, so I also bought a sixteen-ounce ribeye at the grocery.

When I returned to the apartment, Joanna was sitting on the step. She had a sketchpad on her knees.

It was a beautiful spring afternoon. She’d been sketching the Japanese maple that grew between my building and the adjacent one. It had leafed out, and Joanna had gotten some of the tree’s feathery delicacy into her drawing. There was a cat sleeping under the tree, stretched out as if after a meal of songbird, but she’d omitted it, for whatever reason.

I told her about my dismissal from the bookstore, law school, how I came into possession of the suit.

She said that when she saw me coming up the sidewalk, she’d had to shut her eyes. “A blinding light I thought you were,” she said.

She told me that she’d decided to go to art school. She would start at the Maryland Institute, in Baltimore, that summer.

I wondered if the picture of the burning monk would travel with her.

“And Paul?”

“We’re just friends,” she said.

I took the bottle of Heaven Hill out of its bag, and said, “Shall we drink to art school?”

“And to law school?”

I broke the seal and screwed off the cap and handed her the bottle. She took a slug and said, “Would you want to pose for me?”

“In my blinding white suit?”

She took another slug. “Without it.”

* * *

I was easy. I have always been easy. Say that you want me, or want me to undress for you, and I will probably fall over in gratitude.

But sitting for Joanna wasn’t easy. She asked if I would sit with my legs crossed, my back straight. “Criss-cross applesauce,” she said.

“Like someone meditating. Or burning up.”

“I want to draw you in a difficult position, a position you aren’t accustomed to. It might reveal something unusual.”

“That I have a greater tolerance of pain than you imagined?”

I sat naked on my cot, my legs crossed, my back as straight as two gulps of Heaven Hill had made it, my hands cupped below my navel. She drew and drew, lifting her head from the sketchbook now and then to glance at me. She flipped a page and started over. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, and the ladderback chair she sat on creaked. I stared at her bare shins, at her bare arms. I watched her pencil move across the paper, then hover as she tilted her head, then alight again.

“May I have a cigarette?” I asked.

“Soon,” she said.

Evening had crept in, and Joanna was sketching in the light that came from the kitchen. She didn’t turn on the lamp that was behind her, on the bookshelf, where the photograph of her lay face downward. (I’d turned it over while she used the bathroom.) Perhaps the dimness appealed to her, made her concentrate.

She said, “There. Stay there.” Where else was I but “there,” inside my aching, sweating body? But perhaps she saw something in the slant of my shoulders that she wanted to capture.

“This is all for art?” I said. Her hand moved the pencil across the paper—a whisper in the dimness, as if her hand were on me, tracing my kneecaps, touching the insides of my thighs, the rims of my ears.

“What else is there?” she said.

“The last time we saw each other, on the Mall, I thought I wouldn’t have lived unless I saw a vireo. I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I’d read it in a poem or something.”

“A vireo? A vireo is pretty common, isn’t it? You could probably see one in Rock Creek Park. You’ve probably seen one and not known it.”

“I would like to knowingly see one,” I said. “And what about love? Isn’t there something to be said for love? In addition to art?”

She was erasing something—a line, a fold of flesh.

She drew some more, and then she let me have a cigarette. We cooked the steak and drank more bourbon, and then, possibly out of guilt or lust or tenderness or need or some combination of all those things, she kissed me. She said, “Are you angry with me?”

I said, “If I were inside you, I wouldn’t be angry.” It wasn’t a plea, quite. More a statement of belief, that sex could wash anger away, temporarily.

We made love. I thought we were starting over, but we were finishing up. Two days later, she sent me an envelope containing one of her drawings of me and also the photograph of the Vietnamese monk. There was a note on the back of the drawing—“I will miss you.”

I put the drawing in the trash.

* * *

I didn’t see Joanna again until 2011, when I was in Madison. I’d come over from Milwaukee one winter day to march in a pro-labor protest at the Capitol. I was a prosperous lawyer, a full-time employee of an insurance company, something of an expert in medical malpractice law, but I was also, improbably enough, a liberal. I justified my income by working pro bono for liberal causes. Sometimes at night, even before I’d finished my first Scotch, high in my apartment on a bluff above Lake Michigan, I would think of the Vietnamese monk dousing himself with gasoline and then igniting himself, eyes open, fully alive until he wasn’t.

I circled the Capitol with seventy-five thousand other people. I walked behind a drum-and-bagpipe contingent from an upstate fire department and ahead of a farmer driving an old red International tractor that pulled a wagon full of cowshit. (The temperatures were in the teens, and the cowshit was frozen.) Alongside me were a group of schoolteachers, a bubbly bunch, given the weather. We were marching in protest of the Republican governor’s legislation to strip unionized state workers of their right to negotiate wages. We were bundled up in parkas and wool caps and mufflers, and our chants rose into the cold air along with our breaths, making us imagine that our voices had power.

I was making a second loop of the Capitol, ready to turn down State Street to get a cup of coffee, when I saw Joanna. Though I hadn’t ever tried to get in touch with her, I had kept up with her, particularly during the last decade, via the magic of the Internet.

She had given up painting and taken up filmmaking. She made short documentaries. Of the seven listed on her website, I’d seen four. They were all interviews with individuals, with the exception of the one called Raising Tomatoes Naked, which was an interview with an older married couple at a naturist colony in Indiana. The films were in black-and-white. The camera rarely took its eye off its subject—a Buddhist monk, Cyrus Vance (a friend of her father’s), a Mexican teenager who worked for a drug cartel and had decapitated a couple of the cartel’s enemies. You would hear Joanna’s voice—soft, pleasant, curious but uninsistent—as she asked questions, and now and then you would see some part of her. In the interview with the Mexican boy, her hand appeared suddenly, almost creepily, like the shadow of the real thing, and then, just as suddenly, it was gone; you never saw it again. In the interview with the naturist couple, Joanna briefly showed herself from the clavicle up. She was wearing a sun hat and the sort of sunglasses that Jill St. John had worn, but whether she was otherwise naked, from the clavicle down, in deference to the customs of the colony, wasn’t clear.

There was little information about Joanna’s private life on her website, but I found interviews that had been done with her. Of the few things that she let slip about herself in the course of these interviews, one was that she was no longer married (this came up in a piece about her movie about an eighty-five-year old New York matchmaker) and the other was that one of her three children had died. She didn’t say, in this interview or any other, how or when her child had died. She simply said, “I’ve lost a child myself. There is nothing worse that I know of.”

She didn’t recognize me right away.

I said, “It’s Joe—Joe Bennett.”

We hugged each other in our bulky clothing. I felt clumsy, as if I were feeling for somebody in the dark, as if what I found there was only a representation of the person I was looking for. She was wearing a puffy down coat that was nearly the length of a sleeping bag. Her hair, long and not yet fully gray, spilled out from under a ski cap that tied under the chin, like a child’s bonnet. The light that had burned beneath the skin on her face when she was younger still burned, despite the cold.

She said she was in Madison to figure out whom to do an interview with. There was a farmer she liked, and also a young woman, a nursing student, who knew all the old protest songs and sang some of them in the Capitol Rotunda at night, where protesters were camped out. Both of Joanna’s parents had died, her father while listening to Haydn. I asked about her children, and she saw that I knew that one had died, but she told me only about two. “They’re both in art school, poor things,” she said. “I couldn’t talk them out of it.”

“What else is there but art?” I said.

Her mouth widened a little, as if the memory of drawing in insufficient light had come to her and even pleased her. And then she asked a question. It seemed clear that she’d never googled me, had perhaps not even thought about it.

“No,” I said. “No children, never married.”

I watched her breath come out of her mouth, a cloud that might have been a cartoon balloon containing a follow-up question.

I said, “I’m a monk—not literally, but, you know, I sometimes live like one, while contending with desire and envy and vanity and anger and all the rest. A monk who has a Scotch or two at night.”

“You suffer, but on a lawyer’s salary?”

“That’s one way of putting it.” I tightened the knot of my scarf a bit. The wind had picked up.

She said, “Would you let me interview you? You could recite ‘The Good Morrow.’ You must have memorized it all by now.”

I thought I heard some unkindness in her voice, disdain even, but she was smiling. Perhaps she was only teasing me. “I haven’t thought of that poem in years,” I said.

“And did you ever write that one good poem—you know, the one you said you would mutilate yourself for?”

A dozen drummers, banging on pots and buckets and actual drums, walked past us. I waited for them to pass, and then said, “I haven’t written a poem in thirty-five years. Maybe I’ll do it in my next life, if I don’t come back as a bug.”

“There must be some glory in being a bug,” Joanna said. “Think of the firefly.”

I thought of it, the male lighting up, unflaggingly, in order to attract a mate. Yes, there must be some glory in that—floating in the summer air, flashing one’s brilliance as the world darkens, not thinking of whatever might eat you, not thinking of the child running through the grass who might put you and your brilliance in a jar, not thinking at all, just being for that little while allotted to bugs.


Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, short story | , , , , , , | 3 Comments