cambridge book review

And If It Be Mean

Norma Gay Prewett



Photo: Norma Gay Prewett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


August McGinnity-Wake


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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Bill,

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




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

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

Ghosts in the Library

Jack Lehman



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is nothing,” he says at last.

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

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

“True, true,” I answer. “Drink.”

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

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

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

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

“The supernatural!” he screams.

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

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

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


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

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

Yellow Sky

Rod Clark

Illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre



“Who or what was behind the wheel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yowp!” he squawked, yanking his fingers away.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You mean—like ants?”

Yeah, like ants!”

So there were more of them?

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

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

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

Because they come for their dead!”

Like ants!”

Like ants.”

Trapp’s tongue felt dry and hot.

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

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

Hard to say.”

Maybe we should—”

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

BR is coming?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Omigod!” Trapp screamed. “All three—”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

The Burning Monk

Dwight Allen


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe Bennett,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

I dozed off before I finished the glass of schnapps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Yes, you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kent,” Joanna said.

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

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

“Hear, hear,” Paul said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a mind of my own.”

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

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

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

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

“And what would you die for, Joe?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sick?” he asked.

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

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

I said I had some Taster’s Choice coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your girlfriend back in dairyland?”

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

* * *

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

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

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

I said, “I thought Republicans liked recessions.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Paul?”

“We’re just friends,” she said.

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

“And to law school?”

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

“In my blinding white suit?”

She took another slug. “Without it.”

* * *

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

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

“Like someone meditating. Or burning up.”

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

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

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

“May I have a cigarette?” I asked.

“Soon,” she said.

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

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

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

“What else is there?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put the drawing in the trash.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t recognize me right away.

I said, “It’s Joe—Joe Bennett.”

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

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

“What else is there but art?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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 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