cambridge book review

And If It Be Mean

Norma Gay Prewett

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Prewett3

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 radio4all.net.

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

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.]

__________

Koreanwedding

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

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.

“Wisconsin.”

“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

Ty-D-Bol Blue

Bob Wake

__________

roadAn insane wind was sweeping across Route 18 and roaring into Saukfield. Marcie’s hair―shorter and bluer than it ought to be from a recent cut ’n’ dye at Hair Bear―was still wet from her shower a half-hour ago. She pulled up the cowl of her Packers hoodie and yanked the drawstring. The hood tightened around her face like a scrunchie. On a cold Wisconsin morning in mid-November, Mars Meechum determined there were two types of boyfriends. First, those who were supportive and protective of their girlfriends’ friends whose own relationships had hit a bad patch, trial separation, or divorce. Although, Marcie realized, as an eighteen-year-old she didn’t really have any divorced friends. Her two married friends―Amy L., née J., and Peggy G., née R.―had moved with their husbands to bigger Wisconsin towns, couldn’t move away fast enough it seemed. (Liz M.’s pregnancy was more dire than marriage or divorce, but not really relevant to the problem at hand since Liz’s boyfriend, not of his own accord, had been sent to live with grandparents in another state.) Marcie’s parents aside, divorce wasn’t the point. The focus of her thoughts was on the second type of boyfriend.

Torleif, for example.

A boyfriend like Tor, rather than being supportive and protective of his girlfriend’s friend―Renée Connor, say―whose heart was broken, or, at least, badly bruised, chooses instead to hit on said girlfriend’s friend. The thing about Torleif, as boyfriends go, is that Tor was a boyfriend with a car. A rusted-out red Corvette that reeked of weed and Tor’s late-night pizza deliveries for Sporty’s. Marcie’s dad replaced the muffler for free, although not without a reprimand: “No vehicle deserves this kind of neglect. Pimp your ride, knucklehead.” Marcie didn’t agree with her father about a lot of things, but he was right about Tor’s sad-ass Corvette, and she said as much to Tor. Truth was, as easy as sitting down you could punch your foot through the front passenger-seat floor panel. As fed up as Marcie was with Torleif, and as disdainful as she was of the shitty Corvette, she nevertheless wished she’d kept her mouth shut for convenience sake.

Because here she was walking the two miles from the trailer park to her cashier’s gig at the Pig. Not running late, mind you. Today she woke up when it was still dark outside, when her mother left to drive forty miles to her new job at the Home Depot in Liberty.

“We’ll see how long I last,” her mother said. Meaning: “Until someone smells pot on me.”

Marcie decided against asking her mother to drop her off early at the Curve Cafe across the intersection from Piggly Wiggly in Saukfield. Good plan if it weren’t for the hunters and the truck drivers and Lonny the cook egging one another on to see who could make the lamest comment about her hair. (Typically, “Is that Ty-D-Bol blue?” and “Mornin’, Mama Smurf!”) Now that her father worked as a mechanic at the Ford dealership in Madison, instead of Saukfield Motors, where everyone in town used to be afraid of him, even his boss, it was open season on mocking Gil Meechum’s daughter.

Roadside gravel popped beneath her sneakers. Cars whipped by emboldened by 55 mph speed-limit signs. A quarter-mile closer to town the signs abruptly shifted to 35, then 20, and finally 15 where Main Street fronted the elementary school. Saukfield sheriffs had come and gone over the years, but no one ever slowed down. Not until they had no choice but to slam on the brakes for Fenton Finke, the school crossing-guard with the damaged left leg. Maybe he was an Iraq war vet, as one rumor claimed. Or maybe he’d been clipped by a malicious Saukfield driver. Fenton liked to stand in the middle of the road like a scarecrow on a pike windmilling his arms. Marcie knew for a fact that some of her friends, and even some of her friends’ parents, sped up just for the opportunity to see the crazy arm-spinning business.

Marcie could see Angel Mount Community Church ahead, at the top of the hill. She thought: What about Pastor Dale Sebring? Pastor Dale, as he preferred to be called in his push for youthful converts, and, Marcie surmised, to deflect attention away from his middle-age comb-over. He listened to rock music, actual rock music not Christian rock music, but it tended to be dour “serious” bands from the pastor’s 1990s college and seminary years: way too much U2 and R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. His sparkly always-washed silver Ford Fiesta was parked in the driveway of the modest brick residence next door to the church. Marcie felt it was admirable that the pastor projected self-control and moral goodness. At the same time, it seemed he was too quick to label such behavior as Christian. When, in reality, it was little more than restraint of some kind. Holding back.

Pastor Dale was wound tight.

She remembered the occasion last year when Torleif was high as shit and everyone including Pastor Dale knew Tor was high as shit. Goofing around in the rectory kitchen. He was supposed to be helping to set up for a potluck. Tor spilled a big urn of hot coffee and scalded his arm. And, can you believe it, the ankles of Pastor Dale’s wife, Susan. Her ankles! Pastor Dale ran to Susan and was all like, “Sweetie, sweetie, are you all right?” Susan was holding onto the counter and swooning like she was going to drop to the floor. The pastor said to Marcie, “Quick, please, a washcloth with cold water. And some ice. Hurry, Marcie.” All the while Torleif was standing there with his beet-red arm smoldering like an autumn bonfire or ribs hot off the grill.

Marcie froze, wanting to help Torleif.

“Marcie, get a move on,” said the pastor, frowning, his lower lip quivering and his eyes twitching. Pastor Dale was punishing Torleif by pretending Tor wasn’t in the room. Worse, he was demanding that Marcie do the same. Passive-aggressive is what her mother called it whenever Marcie let her mom’s anger rise and rise while Marcie just closed her eyes and cranked Say Anything or The Gaslight Anthem on her Droid.

Forever after, it was a tiresome refrain from Torry: “I can’t believe you didn’t help me that time when I was on fire, Mars.”

“Jesus, Tor,” she’d say, even though she felt horribly, terribly guilty. Guiltier than the worst kind of hellfire Pastor Dale could dish out to his congregation. (“The Devil pleases. And then it’s too late.”) “You weren’t on fire, Torry, your arm was just sort of smoking a little bit.”

“Where there’s smoke, babe …”

Marcie kicked a crumpled Mountain Dew can. It skittered ahead of her and spun onto the highway.

“Fuck you, Torry.”

And just as quickly, but more to herself, almost inside her head like a brain-whisper, she added: “And fuck you, Rennie.”

The clattering Mountain Dew can zigged and zagged beneath and around several passing cars and a school bus and made its way across the road and into a ditch.

Let’s face it: Renée Connor was not guiltless. She flirted with Tor right in front of everybody. Right in front of Mars. Rennie ran through boyfriends like toilet paper. Her latest, Michael Cleary, who had a decent job at Safety-Lok Storage, got tired of the nonsense. Marcie thought: I’m tired of the nonsense too. After all, she recommended Rennie for a job at the Pig. Which Rennie turned down. For what? For a full-time job stealing boyfriends, that’s what. Everything could be summed up in the sign Marcie saw last weekend at the Occupy Madison rally when she was in the city visiting her father: “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.”

* * *

Home Depot at midday is a cruise ship if you squint your eyes after smoking half a joint during your lunch break. An aisle of gleaming overlit bathroom vanities your own private stateroom. Fat shopping carts big as lifeboats. Your orange apron an uninflated life jacket. Not the most stylish clerking apparel. Unless, of course, you’re drowning. And isn’t she? She’d known better jobs. Better lives. She and Gil took a honeymoon cruise 19 years ago. Down the California coast. Snorkeling off Catalina Island. Gil looked good in a wetsuit. Cock bulging beneath black rubber like a conch. If not a better life, it was theoretically the promise of a better life. Here, she feels discarded somehow. Sinking in brakish waters. Today, her first day, Cheryl Meechum, née Halvorsen, is stocking shelves in paint supplies.

* * *

The Fiesta refused to start. Unconscionable that the residence was without a garage. Susan once told him he needed to be more forceful about having one built.

“The church owes you a garage,” she said.

Pastor Dale Sebring was grateful for small favors. Like the fact that the “angry mechanic” no longer worked at Saukfield Motors. Gil Meechum had the ruddy complexion of a snowmobiling alcoholic and was given to remarks like, “Forgive me, Pastor, but your Fiesta is a piece of shit. It’s a clown car.”

“I’ve driven this car for ten years, Gil.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Many times since then the pastor rehearsed retroactively what he might have said in response to Gil’s sneering effrontery. Am I paying you to insult me? To insult my car? Where’s the upside to that transaction?

Shut up and fix the car, please.

Pastor Dale took a deep breath as he pumped the gas petal one last time and turned the ignition. There was a crackle, then silence. Was that a puff of smoke from under the hood?

Jesus Cocksucking Motherfucking Christ.

Anxiety and resentment had lately been spilling into his life. Feelings the pastor was not proud of harboring. He’d been alarmed enough to seek secular therapy: A quieting of the mind in the form of relaxation techniques from a sixty-something Saukfield aromatherapist and former flight attendant named Connie Boone. Copies of her brochure, “Connie Nose Best,” were thumbtacked to the community bulletin board at the Saukfield library. Mostly, Pastor Dale was aroused by the 1960s photo of a much younger Connie Boone outfitted in vintage “friendly skies” regalia on the brochure cover.

“The sweet smell of serenity,” she told him a week ago at his first appointment, “is a jetstream less traveled.”

He was dying for coffee but Connie Boone served only herbal tea. Her office was in the unfinished basement of her cluttered Saukfield home. Exposed furnace and water heater. Fluorescent grow-light fixture suspended over a Ping-Pong tabletop of flower boxes. Something fulsome and leafy beneath a clouded tarp. Connie Boone was gnomish with sun-weathered skin. Dressed in denim and flannel like a gardener. Hair gossamer white and brushed straight back like a windstorm’s reckoning. She lit a scented candle labeled Chocolate Mousse.

“Where is God?” he impulsively asked her as a kind of test question.

“In the coming days God will reintroduce Himself to you as an irresistible craving,” Connie Boone promised. “Take a deep breath. What do you smell?”

“Bible-camp s’mores.”

“Try again,” she said. “Close your eyes. Breathe.”

He squinted but thought better of closing his eyes. Peeking again at the candle’s label, he said, “Chocolate Mousse?”

“That’s right. You’re flying First Class, Padre.”

Hunched in the front seat of his expired Fiesta, the pastor closed his eyes. Woodsmoke. A calming scent of neighborhood woodsmoke. Breathing deeply, he felt himself calming down and wondered if this was a residual benefit of aromatherapy kicking in: the sudden awareness or even conjuring of comforting aromas. Woodsmoke. He reached into the glovebox and retrieved Susan’s knit Packers ear band.

He’d be walking into town.

It wasn’t a profound realization, the pastor knew, but it nonetheless seemed all but set in stone: marriage doesn’t placate sexual desire. The affair was behind him. Julie Fortune was gone from Saukfield, a college graduate settled in Chicago as a designer for a boutique housewares startup. Not that long ago, when Julie was a UW-Whitewater freshman, she’d shared with him some of the fabric designs she created for pillowcases and cloth napkins: a repeating army of whimsical space aliens, an elegant interlocking Escher-like pattern of sandhill cranes. Something of Julie’s pleasing soulful beauty seemed reflected in her work. The symmetry bespoke grace and quiet reflection, qualities that Pastor Dale Sebring felt his own life lacked. His wife, Susan Sebring, née Barsotti, came from a large Milwaukee family and was already an aunt several times over. It was only natural that she desired a family of her own. The pastor made no apologies for his conviction that children would bring chaos and ruin to their lives. He said to Susan: “If you spent the time I’ve spent with the dissolute teenagers of Saukfield, you’d share my concern for the future of the human species. Remember the stoner who splashed two gallons of hot coffee on your ankles? He’s the best and the brightest.”

Julie Fortune wasn’t the least interested in domesticity. Except as product design. She built her surroundings on absences, empty spaces, which she said kept her sane and helped her to concentrate on her work. Probably why, he suspected, she needed to leave him. Leave Saukfield. “Travel light,” Julie Fortune advised him. Pastor Dale prayed for guidance as he stretched his wife’s ear band over his head and caught an unexpectedly comforting whiff of Susan Sebring’s shampoo and sweat.

* * *

Gil Meechum’s girlfriend Patty Randolph drove a blaze orange Mustang. The car was six years old. Patty was thirty-four, managed a trio of strip-mall carpet stores around the Madison area called The Remnant Hut. Her bobbed auburn hair shimmered like Turtle Wax. First time he saw her, Gil was walking through the maintenance garage waiting area, where mechanics were forbidden. Patty was reading a Kindle and eating a bag of popcorn from the dealership showroom. She was wearing tight bluejeans and a corduroy jacket. Six weeks later she returned for a new set of tires. Patty had been hesitant about spending the money on tires last time. A close call on an icy street convinced her otherwise. Gil recognized the car—who wouldn’t?—when Patty again pulled into the dealership. Back he went to the waiting room. Let them fire me if they want to, he thought. His fingernails were clean. Carried his own tube of Greeze-Out hand-cleaner with him always. It had a citrous and vanilla dreamsicle smell that made him think of Patty Randolph’s blaze orange Mustang.

They exchanged cell numbers.

Patty Randolph was a pothead like Cheryl. Which is why Gil was ransacking the trailer in Saukfield looking for his ex-wife’s stash. Trying to be quick about it. Needed to be back at the Madison dealership by nine a.m. He’d borrowed Patty’s Mustang, which was getting a brake job today. All the usual hiding places in the old trailer, however, were now turning up empty. Bolster pillow in the bedroom. Wall panel behind the bathroom mirror. And the place, where, he and Cheryl used to laugh, Marcie would never look: under the sink with the cleaning supplies.

This left Gil with two choices. Call/text Cheryl on her cell. She would know instantly what Gil was up to. The other option was to stop at the Pig and sugar-talk his daughter, who was particularly immune to sugar-talk. Like her father, Mars wasn’t herself a smoker. Her boyfriend Torleif lived for pot. Mars would give her father that wounded look of deep disappointment. Reminding him of every petty power play he ever tried to inflict on his daughter and his wife.

* * *

She (the housewares designer) tells him (the adulterous pastor) that a love affair is like an artwork-in-progress: There comes a time when you have to step away from the canvas. Sometimes go to the other room. Or out onto the balcony.

“Or move to Chicago?” the adulterous pastor says to the housewares designer.

“Kinda, yeah,” says the housewares designer, her face assuming an all-purpose emoticon frown.

“Not a lot of balconies in Saukfield, that’s for sure,” the adulterous pastor says.

“Don’t take it so personally,” says the housewares designer. She laughs with genuine warmth. Like a distant cousin wishing him Merry Christmas. “Successful art,” says the housewares designer, “strives for the impersonal gesture.”

Like kitchen wallpaper, the adulterous pastor wants to say.

* * *

At the bottom of the hill the wind nearly swept Pastor Dale Sebring onto the highway. He hugged the church’s curbside mailbox for ballast.

A hooded figure was walking toward him along the side of the road. A young woman.

“Don’t you recognize me?” she said.

“Sure,” he said. He didn’t.

She pushed back the monkish cowl and a burst of blue popped up like candy in a Pez dispenser.

“Mars,” she said.

“Ha!” was all the pastor could think to say. Something between a mirthless laugh and a throat-clearing.

What happened next happened so fast that when Pastor Dale Sebring reflected on the incident later, it seemed less like a dream than a flashily edited online commercial for a sports car or a high-powered energy drink. There were tires skidding to a stop. A hallucinogenic orange Mustang. Gil Meechum kicking over the Angel Mount mailbox (already wobbly and requiring zero strength to topple). Telling his daughter, “Get in the car.” Mars hangdog and obedient. The sulfurous stink of exhaust fumes.

__________

Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review. He is the author of a short story collection, Caffeine and Other Storiesand an ebook single, Summer of the Cinetherapist.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, short story, Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

cbr 19 / summer 2012

cbr

~

cbr 19 / summer 2012

The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen

the eelgrass meadow
Robin Chapman
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Unexpected Shiny Things
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Make it Stay
Joan Frank
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Ann Prayer
A short story
Elli Hazit

Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman

Fisherman’s Beach
An excerpt from the novel
George Vukelich

~

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

Fisherman’s Beach: An Excerpt

George Vukelich

B007PG28D4Fisherman’s Beach, originally published in 1962 by St. Martin’s Press, has been reissued in a 50th Anniversary ebook edition from Cambridge Book Review Press. The novel follows the struggles of a Lake Michigan fishing family in Two Rivers, Wisconsin in the late 1940s. Germaine LeMere, the eldest of five sons, has returned home after an extended stay in Europe following the war. A simmering rivalry between Germaine and his brother Roger over Germaine’s former sweetheart, Ginny Dussault, erupts in violence in this excerpt from Chapter Eleven. The accompanying photos were taken in Two Rivers by photographer Thomas J. King especially for the 50th Anniversary Edition.

He stayed in the kitchen, drinking coffee long after Mama had gone to bed. So Ginny Dussault had been in an accident. She had been with some sailor from Manitowoc and their car had smashed into a telephone pole and he had been killed.

“She was always a good girl,” Mama said. “You know that, Germaine. It’s hard to understand what happened. Doctor Coutre said the sailor must have been dead drunk.”

“Outside, the fisherman’s beach had been eroding and washing away in the eternal waters.”

He sat there for a long time, smoking and staring at the kitchen clock. The thought came to him that all the years he had been away, the little clock had been marking off the minutes, the hours, the days, the months. Outside, the fisherman’s beach had been eroding and washing away in the eternal waters. And inside, the LeMere family too had been eroding and one by one they also would wash away. The Old Man, who had stood up to everything that nature threw at him for a lifetime, could not stand up to the snakes from the sea. They would beat him in the end even as they would beat Old Dussault. And Roger. And Ginny. The fisherman’s life was as doomed as the lake trout. And the clock kept track of it all. How many times Mama and the Old Man must have sat in this kitchen, drinking coffee and staring at the kitchen clock.

He heard an engine outside and saw the headlight beams swinging in beside the house. Then the door opened and the soft swishing sound of the breakers filled the room and Roger came in. His handsome face was dark and twisted, his body set and braced in the doorway as though he expected the floor to pitch and roll. His deep voice smashed into Germaine’s ears like a balled fist.

“I wanna talk to you, Major!”

Germaine got to his feet quickly.

“Keep it down, Roger. They’re all asleep—”

“All right,” Roger bellowed. “Down. Outside then. Come on.”

He held the door open, waiting. He’d been drinking, Germaine knew. Just enough to be sly drunk, sneaky drunk. Germaine looked into the wild bloodshot eyes and he knew that Roger wanted to do a lot more than talk. And walking away from him now wouldn’t do any good. Germaine sucked in his breath and walked quickly through the open door. He followed Roger’s heavy movements down the deserted beach, the whisky smell sharp in his nose.

Roger led the way around the gear shack to the side away from the house. He turned and leaned on the hull of the upturned dory that rested on two sawhorses for calking. His face in the moonlight had an unreal, metallic cast. Roger, the iron man. No, he didn’t really want to talk. Germaine waited.

“You,” Roger said, pointing a finger like a gun, “you bastard. I get the picture. Packing little Roger off to Madison for those friggin’ hearings. Just so you can shack up with Ginny Dussault.”

Germaine didn’t say anything.

“Well,” Roger screamed, “you wanna say something?”

“No. Only why don’t you go in and sleep it off. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Don’t give me that crap. Goddammit, we’ll talk about it now! There’s somethin’ goin’ on and I’m gonna find out if I have to beat it out of you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ginny Dussault,” Roger growled, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Ginny Dussault.”

“All right. What about her?”

“You tell me, buster.”

“All right. I saw her tonight for the first time since high school. I understand she was in an automobile accident. And I shook hands with her.”

“Bullshit. There’s somethin’ goin’ on.”

“Roger, believe me. There is nothing going on.” He lighted the cigarette and looked at the hard cruel face. “You’re mixing your drinks, Roger. You’re jealous and you’re loaded. That’s what’s going on. It’s all in your head.”

Roger’s hand moved like a plunging hawk, slapping the cigarette out of Germaine’s mouth.

“You don’t laugh your way out of this one, buster. There’s something going on all right. When I take that bitch home and she freezes up on me and I can’t even touch her, I know goddamn well there’s somethin’ goin’ on.”

He took a deep breath.

“I beat it out of her and I can beat it out of you.”

“You what?”

“You know what she told me, buster? You know what? She said she should have married you. Nice thing to hear from a broad you go with four years. She should have married another guy. Your brother.”

“And then you hit her?”

“No, first I hit her. Then she told me.”

Germaine stared at the drunken face.

“And you know it all makes sense now. Maybe that’s why you came back. Maybe it wasn’t the Old Man’s heart at all. Maybe everybody wants to pair you up with Ginny Dussault and you’ll take over the beach and everybody is happy. You’ll even have a mother for that bastard kid.”

“Shut up, Roger.”

Roger’s voice dropped like a shift of wind.

“Sure. Ginny Dussault. Pair you up. Why not?”

“You’re drunk, Roger.”

“Oh, she’s a good lay,” Roger said. “Course I don’t know what kind of a mother she’d make—”

“Knock it off, Roger.”

“No, no, no, she is a good lay, I oughta know.”

“Knock it off, I said.”

“Funny. That bothers you, huh? That I laid her.”

“Shut up.”

“Sweet innocent little cripple, huh? You want to hear what kind of a whore she is?”

“All right,” Germaine said. “All right. She’s a whore. Who made her a whore?”

Roger hit him then, full in the face, knocking him backward. Before he could regain his balance, Roger picked the dory from the sawhorses and flung it. The little boat caught Germaine in the stomach, smashing him to the ground, crushing the wind out of him. He twisted away, crawled free and there was Roger hurtling, driving him into the sand like a dropping pile driver. He was like a wild sea now, his arms rising and falling like waves, drowning Germaine in a relentless undertow of fury. His fists pounded into Germaine’s face like claw hammers and came away slowly and red pinwheels burst like flares in Germaine’s vision. He knew that Roger was capable of killing him now. He spun awkwardly away and struggled to his feet. He blinked rapidly, desperately trying to focus.

Roger rushed him then, and Germaine ducked, flipping him over his hips, guiding him into the ground. Again, Roger rushed and again Germaine flipped him and Roger landed, crumpled on his back. The wind was being knocked out of him and the fight too. He was not so fast getting up now, but he was still coming, his mouth half open, his breathing deep and tortured. He charged again and Germaine slammed the heel of his right hand like hatchet strokes into Roger’s left arm. Then Roger bent and seized the dory oar in his right hand and, sweeping it in a wide swath, advanced steadily on Germaine, backing him against the wall of the gear shack.

The oar swung back and forth like a scythe and then Germaine ducked and it slammed into the gear-shack wall and broke off. Roger held the broken shard like a club. He lunged and Germaine side-stepped to the right and slammed the heel of his hand into Roger’s neck. Roger dropped face first to the sand like a dead man. Germaine wiped the blood from his eyes with his forearm, and snuffled and blew the blood out of his nose. Then he knelt beside Roger and rolled him over and looked at him. He rubbed Roger’s wrists and patted his face and watched for him to come around. For one brief moment Germaine felt that his judo chop had been too hard and Roger was dead. But then he managed to catch the pulse, and after a long while Roger’s eyes flickered open and he was conscious.

“You were fighting me for the whole beach, huh?” Germaine said, “The whole goddamned beach?”

Roger’s gaze was steady, his face unmoving.

“I’m no competition,” Germaine said. “This isn’t my beach to give, Roger, but as far as I’m concerned you can have it. This is your beach. And,” he added, “Ginny Dussault is your woman. There’s nothing going on.”

Roger’s look was that of a dead man.

“Sure,” Germaine said, “you have to fight somebody.”

Gently, he massaged Roger’s neck. Then he stopped and extended his open right hand.

“Shake on it, Roger. All your beach?”

The expression in Roger’s eyes didn’t change and then his lips worked cruelly and he spat into Germaine’s outstretched hand.

Germaine looked into his brother’s face for an eternity and then Roger bolted upright and stumbling, staggering, he started down the long sand dune to the flattened beach. At the water’s edge, he squatted like some sort of animal. He licked his wounds and cleansed himself, the blood and tears and hatred washing away in the cold biting waters of the inland sea.

Reprinted by permission of Vince Vukelich and the Vukelich estate.

__________

George Vukelich (1927-1995) was a beloved Wisconsin author and long-time Madison newspaper columnist and radio-host. Read Doug Moe’s Foreword to the 50th Anniversary ebook edition of Fisherman’s Beach online in Madison Magazine.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , | 1 Comment

Men without Meaning

Gerald Fosdal and Jack Lehman

~

Samuel Fuller was a good looking young guy who wanted to kill himself. That’s why, when he was released from the psych ward, Sarah’s husband gave him a free room above their bakery in town.

And mornings when she made her way into work about 10 a.m., Samuel would be sitting on the stairs just inside the back door.

The day before yesterday (one of those dreary March mornings) he said, “Remember that Woody Allen joke? ‘Not only is God dead but you can’t get an appointment with a dentist on a Saturday.’”

Sarah shrugged.

“Well if God is dead, I want to be dead too.”

“Now, Sam, you can’t mean that.”

“There’s a plant in a pot up in the window. Scraggly, like me. If that dies, it is a sign there is no God. That day will mark the end of me.”

The following night, while Sarah’s husband was away at work, there was a call from Samuel Fuller. He was drunk on gin lying in a bathtub full of weed killer. Intoxicated, but not dead. It didn’t seem to be doing anything to him except he was sick from the gin. That’s when Sarah decided, the next day at the bakery when she heard his footsteps going out, she would sneak upstairs and water the little plant.

You might wonder why Aaron, her husband, would put up with this. Sarah did at first. But as it turned out Samuel was the disenfranchised son of Aaron’s sister, Rose. Now Aaron’s relationship with that sister, while they were all part of a family living under one roof was complicated. Sarah knew because she listened to her husband recap the session he and Rose went through in family counseling a few years later.

“It is in one of those office-like buildings on a frontage road along the Beltline. The Christian Counseling Center. Not well marked. You had to know where you were going and Rose and I did.”

Aaron had heard about group rehabilitation meetings for children of alcoholics from a psychologist friend of his at church. Aaron hadn’t thought too much about it until he got a letter from Rose saying she wondered about herself after reading a book on the subject. “And about you too,” she had slyly added.

She had described how she felt tense, was always the one trying to make peace between her late husband and their teenage son.

“Aaron, like our father, don’t you bury yourself in work?” And, “Don’t you feel guilty, as I do?”

Ironically they, Aaron and Rose, were the ones who felt guilty. Had their demanding, controlling, god-like father transferred any blame onto them?

Sitting on the floor in the windowless room, the nine of them each hugging a pillow, Aaron had told how he had been sent to bring his dad home from the bar at night. How angry his mother had been if he succeeded, or if he did not succeed.

The facilitator looked at Rose, and asked, “How did you feel?”

“I don’t know. I looked up to my brother, Aaron. He was the oldest.”

“Show me. Show us,” the counselor said, grabbing a chair from the side of the room.

He motioned for Aaron to come, stand up on it, and Rose …

Rose got up and walked over to the chair, looking at Aaron perched on it.

Suddenly she fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around his ankles. She was crying.

“And you, Aaron,” the man demanded, “show us how you felt.

Slowly Aaron placed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.

Now, so many years later, that is what he seemed to be doing to Sarah.

“I remember one night,” he said to her late in bed, “I was inside waiting for you to come back from something and I put my face against the cold window pane, and I was reminded of once when I was a child, maybe seven or eight, putting my cheek against the glass of our front window watching for my parents to come home.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah replied. But she was thinking of Samuel Fuller, in his room, looking out his window. Being alone. Thinking of killing himself.

Here were two men. Men, who were the solution to each other’s problem. Sarah didn’t know the answer, but she knew if …, no when … they got together, the answer would emerge, just as the plant she had been watering now flourished.

“Hi,” Samuel said. “I don’t mean to disturb you. I just couldn’t sleep and the smell of oatmeal cookies baking at two in the morning pulled me down here.”

The windows were open though it seemed cold out. In fact the door was propped ajar by a square floor fan that was humming away. But the back room of the bakery seemed, well, cozy, and Aaron rolling dough on a wood counter so happy to be lost in his work. He nodded to the young man, but didn’t say anything.

“Isn’t it lonely here by yourself, I mean why do you work at night?” he asked the baker.

Aaron stopped and thought.

The walls were covered with grease from doughnuts and Samuel noticed they smelled slightly of mold. There was flour between the wide boards of the floor. Above, the plastic that covered the fluorescent tubes was a crusted yellow. But it was somehow welcoming. Outside the dark night smelled of blooming things which in some strange way complemented the aroma of baking bread.

“Want a cup of coffee?” Aaron asked. “It may be a bit stale.”

“Sure.”

The nephew pulled a metal folding chair from the corner and sat down.

“How do you do this day after day?” he asked his uncle who handed him a white mug of coffee. The older man, himself, was sweaty and wore a dirty apron.

“I don’t know. There is sugar in the bin and then I mix it with eggs and flour and oatmeal, put them on pans and then into the oven. And when it’s over, when they are done, I take out the cookies and place them in a pyramid-like pile to cool.”

He continued, taking one of the cookies and offering it to the young man who stared at him. “When I was your age I couldn’t find anything I liked to do, then I discovered it was learning to like what you have to do that counts. When that happened, it was no longer my father telling me, it was doing something I liked because I liked it.”

And Samuel thought, that’s it. Eating an oatmeal cookie and appreciating it. Maybe that’s all the meaning I need; all the meaning I will ever get.

He ate the cookie. Drank from the coffee mug. Breathed in the air of a new spring.

In their bed, alone and asleep, Sarah smiled.

__________

Gerald Fosdal was a baker for 50 years. Now retired, he lives in Rockdale, Wisconsin (on The Left Bank). This is his first published story.

Jack Lehman lives across the street from Gerry. He is the founder of Rosebud, literary editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas and editor of the first pulp fiction digital magazine, Lit Noir.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , | 1 Comment

Ann Prayer

Elli Hazit

~

Ann Prayer wished that she could hijack a plane. At least that would be exciting. Instead she was making dinner for her helpless children. Although two of the four were not quite helpless. They could make themselves a peanut butter sandwich in a pinch. She knew she could be arrested for the very thought, or for articulating it, not by her children or husband but by the government. She was going off again on a tangent in her mind, hearing the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” going round and round until she thought, I must memorize some poetry that I really like so I will quit getting these songs stuck in my head that are starting to make me crazy. She would find herself switching the laundry around and “Michelle” by the Beatles would suddenly flash into her head, no reason. Sometimes she heard music without lyrics, orchestral, symphonic. Odd that she could invent this beauty, she had never even played an instrument.

The doorbell rang once, loudly. That meant it was the FedEx guy leaving a package on the porch. It was likely to be a work-related envelope for her husband who was on a business trip. Ann was glad she didn’t have to answer the door but could scurry out there quickly to retrieve the package later after the driver had gone. After her second child, Ann had suddenly, and freakishly almost, gained 100 pounds. Plopped onto her diminutive 5-foot 2-inch frame, that put her at 250 pounds. Sometimes she could not believe it herself. Her face in the mirror still looked normal. She hadn’t developed a double chin or even any puffiness, so much so that a headshot photo would never reveal her actual size.

She was stuck in her body and didn’t really have a plan for getting out of it except through long and excruciating dieting and exercise, the prospect of which made her feel hungry and nauseous. She pulled out the nacho cheese chips from the cupboard next to the sink and sat down heavily on a stool next to the kitchen island. Some people drank their Cosmos or Margaritas or Martinis, this was her stress reliever and secret pleasure. Not so secret since it all showed up on her body. Every last bite. It would be easier to hide a drinking habit. She tore open the chips and sat there munching, content, for the moment.

The kids were outside playing with the toy guns she had bought for them. She figured it was going to be a losing battle, prohibiting them, and that they would fashion their own out of sticks and pieces of bread, or whatever, anyway so she decided to let that go too—like her own body she mused—and let them get the plastic automatic toys she had seen at Walmart. They were delighted and were mowing each other down in good spirits up and down the driveway. It seemed there was no getting away from the guns, the flagrant patriotism, the fear of thinking and saying aloud something subversive.

Play guns were at the bottom of her list of worries.

What worried her now was why in the hell she wanted to jump in a plane and direct it where to go. That was it. Not hijack it but simply point it in the direction of her choosing. Her whim. The French Riviera? That would be good. But then she looked down at her triple large-sized t-shirt (also bought at Walmart) that was only slightly camouflaging her folds of fat, and sighed. There was no running from that. If she managed to get away, she’d be bringing her own bulk with her. Besides it was impossible. Three boys and a baby girl (our little accident she told people of Annabelle, and she was) and a husband who traveled a lot for work. She wasn’t going anywhere.

Joe was in Dubai again, working as an engineering consultant on construction projects. There was no end of building to do there and he went for a week almost every other week. Anything could happen while he was in Dubai. Why would he not choose to be unfaithful, with her as obese as she was? Of all places, she thought, Dubai. If she considered places where a man could be unfaithful the Middle East would not have come to mind. But then of course she knew nothing. She had been to Europe just out of college and had blissful memories but her experiences were so limited. She had attended a small Lutheran college in her hometown—a working-class, factory town that she escaped from as soon as she graduated and could buy a decent car to get out of there.

The screeching of the delighted boys reached her in the kitchen. She had turned on the air conditioning, enough so that it was decidedly chilly in the house, the way she liked it. The windows remained open however. She liked the breeze. It was in the 80s outside. To her embarrassment she immediately started to perspire as soon as she stepped out the door. People would stare at her. One day at Menards when she was browsing in the outdoor greenhouse area, another shopper had touched her elbow gently and asked, “Are you alright, ma’am?”

“Ma’am.” How strange it had sounded. She had almost looked around behind her to see if the woman was speaking to someone else. Then she realized it was because she was sweating profusely and because she was obese and the woman must have thought she was about to faint or have a heart attack. The sweating had been something that happened to her long before she had put on all the weight. She had answered the woman, “No, thank you. I’m fine, really,” and gone back to looking over the lupines.

Joey came into the house, crying and racing around the kitchen island.

“Jack pushed me up against the garage and then hit me with his gun!”

My, Ann thought, if anyone heard that, they would probably not believe that I am a liberal Democrat. On one side of her, her neighbor had placed not one but two bright, new American flags at each corner of the porch steps going up to their front door. On the other side of her, the residents kept an extra large (like her own clothes size) pickup truck parked in the driveway with yellow ribbon and a “Support Our Troops” sticker on its tailgate. She was outnumbered. But they didn’t have a clue. What with the kids playing with guns in the driveway and their own GMC SUV—and her size for that matter, if she was really going to take apart the demographics—her views were safe. She was flying under the radar. She would have liked to proclaim her loyalties but it wasn’t worth the discord. At the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, in the last town where they lived, she had written a couple of scathing letters of protest to the editor of the weekly small town paper and had had to suffer the consequences for a long time after that: people shunning her in the diner, friends of friends who had written their own replies to her letter, stating their unflagging support of the war, mostly because they knew someone in the military and couldn’t very well, under those circumstances, not support the war. She had written back, that her own father had served in World War II, a bit of defensiveness that she felt had been rather ridiculous in hindsight. Who didn’t know someone who had fought in the “Good War” and what did that have to do with anything?

Annabelle was crying upstairs and needed to be changed. She was a beautiful baby. She knew because she heard it so much from the neighbors who would drop by and beg to hold her. Ann thought her daughter had one eye slightly larger than the other which tended to give her a little of a cross-eyed appearance but no one else seemed to notice it.

Ann had gone through most of the bag of nacho chips and had stuffed it under the counter when Jack had burst in. Now she took it out again, found a big plastic clip in a drawer, carefully rolled the top of the bag down and clipped it shut. This would be her treat for later. Maybe that and some ice cream after the kids went to bed. Maybe she’d let them have some ice cream. Joe would be checking in late from Dubai on the webcam and Jack, Mike and Joey Jr. always looked forward to that.

Mike came in wearing his camo shirt and pants. Her three boys were running around in camo and shooting each other. She pictured tousle-haired boys looking cheerful in a Gap ad, wearing polo shirts and chinos and here she was, implicitly condoning militarism and violence, maybe setting the scene for their future as foot soldiers somewhere in some God-forsaken hot, dry, forbidding country.

The house two doors down was being foreclosed on and stood empty and unkempt. It “had potential” the realtor said, and Ann could not help but blanch. She’d done the fixer-upper gig and would never go back. Meanwhile the foreclosed house was a blight on the neighborhood. Its stucco façade was gray and pockmarked, the porch sagged and the white trim around the windows was chipped and dirty. There was some thrown-on lean-to addition on the driveway side and a tumble-down playhouse in the backyard.

“I’m hungry!” yelled Mike, while Jack pulled on her short’s leg. She smelled that Jack needed a change. Mike started rummaging in the cupboard and she was afraid he’d find her stash of chips so she shut the door quickly, almost on his fingers.

“What the …? Mom! You almost broke my finger off!”

“Don’t say, ‘What the …,’ because it sounds like you’re going to say something bad after that. I don’t want you looking for snacks a half-hour before we’re going to have dinner.”

“You mean ‘heck,’ or ‘hell,’ like you say, Mom? Is that what you mean?”

“Don’t smart off, sonny boy.”

“It’s what you say, Mom. I’ve heard you say that.”

“That’s not the point,” she said. “Don’t say that.”

She sighed. Where was this all going? Why couldn’t Joe be here to help her figure this stuff out, where to draw the line with these boys. The good thing was they played with each other, being at the most eighteen months apart. Ann didn’t have to call up friends for play dates all the time.

But there was the soccer, the endless soccer practices and games. What a mistake that had been. Joey Jr. and Mike had her running around town and to far flung suburbs and towns within a fifty-mile radius. She kept telling herself this was absolutely the last year she would do this, but then Jack was going to be coming up on the age where he would begin and then she would have three kids to follow around to games, or rather “matches,” when the weather always seemed to be either too hot or too cold. She’d drag the canvas folding chair out of the trunk, the kind that scrunched up into something that was supposedly easy to carry. She’d bring along the big cooler full of juice bags and pre-packaged peanut butter crackers when it was her turn to provide the after-game snack. All this schlepping. They were out on the field maybe an hour and a half and then they were fed a few hundred calories as a reward. It was better than no exercise at all. If they had it their way, they’d probably be flopped on the couch watching reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants all day.

“There’s nacho cheese chips!” yelled Mike who had succeeded in accessing the lower cupboard. I should have put them up high, thought Ann.

“No, you can’t have those now,” she said.

“Why not? What are you saving them for?”

For myself, she thought, but said, “It’s almost dinner time. We’re going to eat soon. Come on, you’re a big boy.”

“Yeah, I’m seven, almost eight. You’re only two, Jack. You’re just a little boy. Ha!”

“No, I am not! I’m a big boy, too,” Jack wailed.

“Of course you are, Jack,” said Ann. “You’re a big boy, too.”

“No, he’s not and you know he’s not,” said Joey, taking Mike’s side.

“Oh, will you all just stop it.” Ann’s voice started to rise.

None of them were listening. Joey was pushing Jack and Jack’s face was starting to crumple up, his eyes squeezing shut as the tears began to form.

“I am not a little boy, I am not,” he cried.

“Ew, Jack, you have a poo,” sneered Joey as he got up close to Jack. “See what a big boy you are, Jack!”

Now Jack was really howling. Ann was sweating even in the air conditioning. She heard Annabelle crying upstairs, awake after her naptime

“See, you’ve woken Annabelle up with all your shouting. Stop teasing Jack. Jack, you are a big boy. Here, let me see your diaper.” She bent over, grabbed the back of his diaper, pulled it out and looked in. “You do need a change, Jack.”

“No, I don’t!” Jack shouted at her. “I’m fine.”

“You just gonna go around like that?” mocked Mike. “Walk around with a poo in your butt?”

“All of you just stop it right now or you can’t play Lego Star Wars on the computer after dinner.”

“You mean Lego Star Wars II,” corrected Mike.

“Whatever,” Ann’s voice loud now. “Leave Jack alone. You used to wear diapers, too, you know.”

“Did not,” said Joey.

“Yes, you did, Joey. I remember,” Ann said. “And you did, too, Mike.”

This seemed to work. The two older boys stopped mocking Jack, who continued to whimper but at least wasn’t howling anymore. Now Annabelle really was. Ann hurried to go get her, afraid she’d climb out of her crib again.

“Don’t touch the stove,” she shouted behind her as she huffed up the stairs.

“Duh, Mom,” said Mike. “We know that. We’re all big boys, remember?”

“Stop it,” she said over her shoulder.

She wasn’t even Catholic, she thought. She was sure the neighbors thought she was. They rarely went to church, just because it seemed impossible and even cruel to get everyone up early on Sunday, get them dressed and fed and out the door for the service at the Lutheran church that was a five-minute drive away. It was often the day that Joe arrived back from one of his trips. Just to get Annabelle ready was a project by itself. If she didn’t pick out the boys’ clothes they would wear their military gear to church and she just couldn’t have that. Maybe it was a lame excuse. They would get their religion, sooner or later. There was a Catholic school nearby that she was still considering sending the kids to, mostly because it was only 5 blocks away and that would shave off a lot of prep time in the morning. Everyone would be able to get up later to get there. As it was now, they had to catch a bus down at the corner promptly at 7:20. Since she couldn’t see the corner from the house, it meant she had to bundle up Annabelle and Jack, too, when Joe was out of town. Often it was just easier to drive Jack and Mike herself. They liked that since then they didn’t have to stand out in the cold. Or heat. Or rain. Minnesota always seemed to have weather. It was too hot, too cold, too dry, too rainy.

Ann longed for a climate that stayed relatively the same, like San Diego, maybe. She held visions of California as some sort of ideal—the weather, the spectacular geography. Every now and then, she’d check out the MLS listings for San Diego homes for sale and just lean back in her chair and sigh. The prices were impossible. Even if they sold their house for $350,000 or $400,000, a reasonable price for their 3,000-square-foot home in Camdenville where they lived, a mere half-hour from Saint Paul, and even if they put $100,000 down on a decent house for, say, $600,000, they’d still be sinking themselves into a huge mortgage, a stupid move unless they had to.

Joe didn’t necessarily need to be based in Camdenville. He had a virtual office and he could work anywhere. They had ruled out the South—residual pervasive racism, the Southwest—too dry; the East coast—too crowded, also too expensive and not great winters either. That left California, which was also expensive and crowded—but with good weather. L.A. was simply out of the question—sprawl, highways, fog, ugly.

She would be sure to buy a lottery ticket today, she thought. Was there really a better life there? California’s state government had just cut funds from education, health and social services, and freed a lot of criminals due to overcrowding and budgetary shortfalls. They had closed a number of state parks. These were hardly selling points. The people there were probably looking with envy on Minnesota’s smooth functioning state. They probably didn’t care that the weather sucked. They were probably all underwater with their houses and as stuck as she was.

She remembered the Christian catalogue they used to get at her home in the 70s. It had various banners, plaques and stationery with inspirational sayings, all done up in “mod” graphics and colors. One of them said, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” Her mother had bought it and put it up on their kitchen wall where they could see it every day. Now, it seemed hokey and ridiculous although it had become so ingrained in her, from staring at it so much, that she also believed it—that she should “buck up,” “man up,” or “suck it up” (expressions she hated). Maybe not “bloom” exactly but be resigned. No, not resigned either. That seemed awfully negative but maybe “be grateful.” That was a big one in recovery programs, “Be Grateful.” But that was hard, too! She was grateful she hadn’t been forced to leave her home, like the Jackson’s had from their foreclosed home down the street. There was really no sense to why they and not her family were the victims of terrible circumstance. Four kids under eight and her own obesity were all she could handle. “Blooming” and “being grateful” were not feelings she could muster just now.

Her mother had also bought and put up “Make Love Not War” which, in hindsight, when she came to understand its more literal interpretation, Ann realized her innocent mother hadn’t really understood the jist of.

“Annabelle, I’m coming, just hold on.”

Annabelle was trying desperately to get out of the crib. She had one leg on the top of the railing and was trying to throw the rest of her body onto the top so she could flip herself out onto the floor. She had wiped her tears all over her face, making it look like she was sweating profusely, her hair was awry and her diaper was sagging it was so full.

The light made bands across the bedroom floor as it filtered through the half pulled up venetian blind. It was cool and sleepy in the room. In the corner there was a big oak rocking chair that slid back and forth instead of forward and back through some tricky way it was built. It sat on a small rug that protected the rocker from the wooden floor. The rocker had been used with all four of the kids, for nursing and comforting and putting to sleep. It looked oversize and clunky but was comfortable. A mushed up pillow was pushed into the back of its seat, holding the form of her lower back.

The window behind the changing table looked out onto the driveway. Ann could see the boys out there shooting at each other. She saw that they had confiscated the chips too, and Mike was doling them out in fistfuls to his comrades. She was about to yell out the window for them to put the chips away but then thought better of it. They’d still eat dinner and if they ate the chips she wouldn’t have them around tempting her. The evenings were the hardest, especially after all the kids went to bed and Joe was out of town. That was when all the food temptations would come soaring into her brain like a raucous flock of crows. Even when she kept away all of the treats, didn’t buy them at the store to have in the house, she was still capable of making a snack out of just about anything around: Cheerios, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, slices of cheese and on and on. If only she was one of those people who eat to live instead of someone who loved to eat, or rather live to eat.

She brought Annabelle over to the changing table set up by the window. The boys were now wrestling in the front yard. Their toy guns were left discarded on the lawn. As she began to change Annabelle, the thought of dealing with cloth diapers actually made her shudder. Her poor mother had taken care of four children under the age of five using only cloth diapers. Her friend Carla termed the “crunchies” people who used all natural cotton diapers and went through the rinsing, washing and reusing of them, using, Ann decided, tons of good, clean water in the process. Ann was hard pressed to think of anything in her current daily life that would be more miserable than dealing with cloth diapers, even with a pricey diaper service. Her children’s disposable diapers were going to be food for landfills and she was sorry and somewhat worried about that but not sorry or worried enough to stop using them. There was only a finite amount of time that she would continue to be a guilty polluter. It was just another dirty little secret, like her nacho cheese chips. Otherwise she recycled.

Her high-tech diapers (what were they made of anyway?) were filling up landfills somewhere, surely, but they kept Annabelle and Jack dry—because they really did pull away moisture—longer. Jack was late on the toilet training train and Ann didn’t have the motivation at present to get him going any faster than he was. He’d be three and it was high time, especially if she planned to have him go to preschool half days in the fall. They were strict, but not too strict and were used to regularly occurring accidents. After all, thought Annabelle, these sprites had only been on the planet a couple of years, everybody ought to cut them a little slack about the potty training. They didn’t seem to mind so much. It was the parents that got sick of dealing with the mess. For Annabelle it had become part of the day-to-day. She loathed it but there it was.

Annabelle was wrestling to get off the changing table. Ann took a baby wipe and swabbed Annabelle’s face, cleaning away the drool and sweat that she had smeared from her forehead to her chin. She smoothed back Annabelle’s hair gently with her fingers then dropped the wipe and the rolled up wet diaper into the trash bin. Annabelle was, for now at least, clean.

Ann really felt like having a glass of wine but only drank when Joe was home. She felt that drinking alone was somehow unseemly, even if it was only a glass. It was a throwback to her childhood where at parties with relatives it was the rule that no one ever started drinking before noon. It was not a morning Mimosa-and-Bloody Marys kind of crowd. This was the Midwest after all. Aunt Judith always had Seagram’s and 7UP out and ready to go, ice cubes released from the metal trap and stacked in a bowl. Ann’s mother would be standing behind Judith and rolling her eyes. No sooner had noon struck then the crowd was either gathering at the kitchen counter waiting for Judith to make them a drink or opening and closing the refrigerator getting themselves beers.

So it was noon, or five p.m., before dinner drinks when her dad got home from work. Her mom would run water on glasses and then frost them in the freezer just a few minutes before he got home, then they would have vodka Gimlets. No drinking alone. It was just easier to horde chips and splurge on ice cream than it was to venture into the minefield that was her family’s history with alcohol, and therefore her likely propensities. If she felt edgy or tired, she’d have a snack.

She got Annabelle dressed in a t-shirt and shorts—just like her mom but a hundred times smaller, she thought. Their colors even matched but no, that wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself if friends stopped by, didn’t want them to notice they matched and thereby draw attention to herself, to her big, fat self. If a magazine wasn’t harping on how we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves then it was harping on losing weight and what recipes to cook to “lose that abdominal fat in 6 weeks.” You just needed to cook and eat these exact recipes every day for 6 weeks—that would be 2 recipes per day plus a light breakfast—no snacks—and lo and behold, all that nasty excess would be gone. But who had time to shop for, and then prepare, all those specific foods. It was ridiculous! She’d love to know how many people actually did that or was it just grist for the mill of the magazines, something to generate copy. She suspected so. Tonight, for her and the kids, it was macaroni and cheese from a box (plus milk) and a salad from a bag. At least there was salad. She was still thinking about making some brownies (also from a box—plus an egg), but hadn’t quite decided yet. If Joe called in on his webcam before eight she would, if not she wouldn’t. Every day it was another machination and rationalization about what to eat or not to eat and nine times out of ten she caved in and ate the “bad stuff” as she and Joe called it. Miraculously her kids were still normal weight but Annabelle loved her food and she could easily put it on. The “food righteous” be damned, she thought. It was a personal choice. It’s just that the choosing part seemed so out of her control almost all the time.

Joe had been losing weight steadily for the last four months or so, although he seemed to eat pretty much what the rest of the family ate. He had cut out his morning pastry that he always got with his coffee down at the coffee shop and he took smaller portions of everything and walked every night after supper, whatever the weather. Sometimes she walked with him but other times she busied herself cleaning up the kitchen. She was self-conscious about neighbors seeing her through their windows as she walked past their houses, she so obese alongside her slimming husband. His new interest in his health had pleased but also worried her. She didn’t quite know what to do with this new development. Make brownies? While she thought about it? Yes, she would make brownies tonight. Her mind was drawn to the exact place in the cupboard where the brownie box was, just waiting for her to take it out and add that egg. It couldn’t really be easier. And once the box was gone and the brownies eaten, why she could get started again on watching what she ate.

She went through this insanity in her mind and was actually satisfied with the outcome of her thinking process. She was granting herself a general amnesty from overeating because she had planned the next place down the road where she would be good. Good. Well, not bad. She would still eat all the things she liked, just less so. When Joe was gone, she couldn’t even go for a walk for that matter. So how was she supposed to get on board with this whole project? Just leave the kids alone while she walked around the neighborhood?

The treadmill in the basement, meanwhile, stood unused—a sorry relic whose potential had never truly been exploited. One time one of the older boys—she couldn’t remember now if it was Joe or Mike—had gotten hold of the little red card that was inserted in the machine to make it start. She’d thought she’d hidden it but obviously not well enough. They had been taking turns on the treadmill for awhile, as they later recounted to Ann, but then Joe had turned up the speed while the Mike was on it and Mike had gone flying and scraped his chest and arms as he fell on the still moving belt. Luckily he hadn’t wound up in the emergency room. There were just a lot of rug burns. She’d washed him off and spread antibiotic ointment on the scrapes and then had hidden the tag for the treadmill better. So much better that she didn’t know where it was anymore.

Now the boys were going to be rallying in earnest for their dinner. As she entered the kitchen, her three boys and a couple of the neighbor kids were all trooping into the house through the side door.

“No, no, no, no! Everyone stay outside until I call you for dinner. It’s a beautiful day. You should stay out! Before you know it, it’s going to be twenty below and you’ll wish you could go outside!”

“But Mom, we’re thirsty. We just want to get a drink. We’re hot.”

Ann looked at all the little faces in front of her. They all had rosy cheeks and looked sweaty. It was hot out. She couldn’t very well deprive them of a drink. There was no soda in the house. That was another self-imposed rule that bolstered her self-esteem a wee bit. For all her personal failings in the area of diet, she at least wasn’t filling her kids up with sugar water. She did keep 100% juice on hand, but for these thirsty lads it was going to be good, pure water from the refrigerator door. She pulled out a stack of plastic cups and one by one stuck them into the little cavern in the refrigerator door, pressing the icon for the crushed ice and then switching to the water (a drop like a raindrop) and filling each cup. She repeated this, in all, five times and passed them all around until all the boys were clutching a cup. One of the neighbor boys seemed fascinated by the whole operation. He stared, slightly slack-jawed, through the whole process. She knew his mother to have a very basic, no frills, refrigerator and she felt a little flush of something like shame as she surveyed the stainless-steel behemoth machine that spit out reverse osmosis, filtered, softened water from its front.

The boys filed out again, Jack bringing up the rear, sipping from the cup as he walked and sloshing water on to the floor. Ann thought of scolding him but didn’t. He walked with his back in an almost exaggerated arch, chin slightly jutted out, leading with his belly. It was a kind of strut and looked almost comical since it made his little “outy” belly button stick out even more.

Annabelle was still resting on her hip, three fingers shoved into her mouth and spit bubbling around its edges. She was now clean and dry and only needed to be fed. It always got back to the feeding. The feeding and the watering, as her mother used to say. She had spent the better part of her day doing only that, plus the cleaning of the clothes, the dirty butts.

In the predominantly Catholic neighborhood where she grew up four kids was no big deal. She knew many families with five or more kids. The bigger families seemed more interesting. More chaotic but more fun. Of course looking back, certainly at least half of them were on some level dysfunctional. Now she was one of those old-time stay-at-home moms, a throwback. If there was dysfunction, it was just in the functioning. Period. Getting Annabelle up from her nap, changed and downstairs to get dinner ready was a project. And then there were the boys.

Jack had a particular look. His skin was porcelain light with two dollops of rosy cheeks, wide blue eyes with long, thick eyelashes. His hair was pale orange with curls that laid flat and framed his face. He spoke in a chirpy staccato that was difficult to understand but highly entertaining. Presently he was wandering around the kitchen with a load in his diaper.

She was starting to feel the cracks forming around her sanity. While Joe was gone, there was no one to fall back on. She was the mom and had to keep it together. Ann actually shuddered at the thought of this. What if she had one of her panic attacks? She stepped over a plastic toy gun that one of the boys had dropped in the middle of the kitchen, plopped Annabelle down in her high chair—at least she could sit up by herself. She scooped up Jack, brought him into the family room and changed him. The kitchen door slammed shut again.

It was like the whole scenario had come as a surprise to her. Where was she when they were passing around the sign-up sheet? She had evidently written her name down because here she was, 40 years old, older than most of the mothers with children under one. She felt out of place but at the same time it was one of the few areas in her life where she felt a little superior, like she had a leg up on them. A couple of the other mothers were almost half her age. She could be their mother. Well, almost.

The macaroni and cheese was cooking on the stove. At eight o’clock Joe would be tuning in on the webcam. By then, everyone would be in their pajamas and nearly settled for the evening. If all went smoothly.

Dinner was uneventful except for Annabelle throwing pieces of marcaroni all over the floor where they got sticky and stepped on by the other boys. She decided to leave them there until they dried so they would be easier to sweep up.

Ann stirred up the congealed pasta in the bottom of the saucepan and scooped out a helping for herself then she filled up the saucepan with cold water to loosen up what was left before she washed it out.

The boys went off to change and then settled in with their Lego Star Wars II game. Around 7:30 they each had a small bowl of ice cream and then went through their teeth-brushing ritual in which each of them took turns on the step stool in front of the sink, with some inevitable shoving and arguing. There was the seemingly endless brushing, snatching the water cup away from each other. Ann supervised the whole operation while balancing Annabelle on one hip.

The gang gathered in front of the computer a few minutes before eight. They squeezed into the swivel chair in front of the desk as best they could, arms and legs dangling. Annabelle clung to a bottle, Jack played around with a sippy cup and talked to himself.

“Daddy’s going to be on the computer, Jack! Shut up!”

“Mommy-Joe-said-shuddup-to-me!”

Ann stood behind them and watched as the screen lit up with a message to log on to her email to receive a streaming transmission. They all watched as the screen flickered to life with the image of her husband who looked like he was chewing something.

“Hey guys, how are ya?”

“Daddy, Daddy, you’re on TV!”

“No, he’s on the computer, stupid. Duh! It’s not TV!”

“Where’s your mom, boys?”

“I’m here with Annabelle, honey.” Ann moved around the chair so she could be seen within the small scope of the webcam’s eye.

She’d had no time to freshen up, even comb her hair. Her big, loose t-shirt had some splotches of orange from the mac and cheese that Annabelle had tossed at her. Sweat had flattened some wisps of hair onto her cheeks. She was makeup-less, having had no time to put any on and no one who would notice. She felt a wreck. The chips beckoned for later. Oh, no, she’d forgotten. They’d been eaten. And there was only a little of the ice cream left! It looked like she’d be feasting mainly on Cheerios tonight. Only a little while longer before the kids went to bed. The obsessions would begin again in the morning and she’d have to look at herself in the mirror and see that nothing had changed. She flushed with shame and began to move herself out of range of the webcam, when Joe said, “Where are you going, beautiful?”

Beautiful. She remembered, would always remember, when she had first learned to spell that word in the second grade. The teacher had written it large on the board and it had remained there for days. She remembered perfectly looking at it again and again. The “e-a-u” of it didn’t seem in any way wrong, that the letters would make the “ooo” sound. The word had seemed perfect to her, its spelling matching what it represented. The word was, itself, beautiful.

“How’s my beautiful wife?”

Daddy thinks Mommy’s beautiful!”

“You gonna kiss Mommy through the computer, Daddy?”

“Boys, it’s time to go to bed. I love you all. I want to talk to mommy now.”

“Joe, they won’t just scamper off to bed. I have to actually tuck them in and they have to wind down and Jack needs to triple check his night light and Annabelle took a big nap this afternoon so who knows when she’ll go down, and what about you? How are you? Is it really hot there? I can’t imagine. I have the AC at 68 here and I’m still sweating.”

“Yes, it’s very hot here, and sandy, and rich. I miss you guys. There are lots of foreign workers like me doing lots and lots of building. Hey, I’m sorry. I forgot about the putting-to-bed rituals.”

“It’s alright. I know, you’re a long way away. It’s good to see your face and hear your voice though. When will you be back?”

“Sunday night around eleven. I’ll let you get back to the kids. I love you. You’re beautiful.”

There it was again.

“I love you, too,” and she switched off.

Beautiful.

A breeze picked up the sheer curtains at the window next to the computer as she shut down the computer and then leaned over to switch off the power cord on the floor. She felt a little breathless as she stood back up. The curtain billowed against her leg and she felt acutely aware of its light, cool, silkiness. She felt light.

There was a racket upstairs. Something heavy fell to the floor. There was a patter of bare feet on the wood floors, lights switching on and off.

Jack yelled, “Mikey, cut it out! Mommy!”

“I’m coming, boys!”

She hoisted Annabelle back up onto her hip, glanced back at the computer and smiled at the webcam. She grabbed the banister to help pull herself up the stairs, leaving the window open and the curtain fluttering.

__________

Elli Hazit was born in San Francisco in 1960. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her master’s degree from Boston University. Hazit lived in Paris, France from 1983 to 1997. Her writing has been published in the International Herald Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Cambridge News. She has also produced radio programs for WORT-FM, Madison. One of her stories, “The Tangerines and the Dogs,” was broadcast internationally on the BBC World Service Programme.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , | Leave a comment