The Man Who Hides the Future in Apples

by Charles LaFave

 

̕ LL tell you this, the foyer was lost. I had gently exfoliated the tiles, had gotten in around the edges and picked away at the grime with a toothbrush, had even delicately tried abrasives. The tiles were classic travertine, with asymmetrical pores. The foyer floor resembled something out of a Roman bath, very sexy, very 1930s Hollywood if you’re into that kind of thing. The antiseptic washes weren’t doing anything for the mold anymore. I could sit in my pastilli and grade papers and watch the stuff grow across the tiles like a five o’clock shadow.

I think the lichen on my roll top desk had developed a resistance as well. Meredith said it was healthy, an earthiness that she would appreciate if she could still smell anything. Like the branches in the Amazon, an entire ecosystem at each level of the canopy. We had the ecosystem in the foyer and the ecosystem of my roll top.

The wet drove me insane. I’m pudgy and I don’t like my clothes getting damp and sticking to me. It makes my armpits feel like they have diaper rash. It was Illinois Fall outside and Florida Spring inside. The inhospitable environment Avery often talks about in Shadow Dancers. If Terrance Avery had a match here he would have wiped away all the lichen and mold with his mind, created a clean mental space to wage war in. That was his way, wasn’t it? Well, I’m an English teacher, so I have less practice at that kind of thing.

I’ve never played shogi in Beirut under gunpoint the way Avery did.

I’ll be honest with you, too. I hate lichen. I had to put my Vaio in a fish tank, one of those Plexiglas hexagonal things, and the keyboard and mouse I wrapped with plastic. Meredith says lichen is the symbiotic product of two separate life forms. She explained it to me using our Gehry dining chairs. The Pierre Jeanneret table wouldn’t make any sense without them, would it? I admitted it would not. So the fungus and cyanobacterium in the living room lichen was like our dining arrangement.

The centerpiece of our living room was the upper half of a thirty foot tall apple tree. Don’t think it wasn’t difficult getting it in there. We had bay windows, we destroyed a Victorian porch to make them work, and I had to have ten men in the living room carefully remove the tempered glass sheets so the enormous bulb of earth at the base of the tree could come in and be lowered into the floor. Wrapped in the bubble gum pink plastic the transport company used, it reminded me of the cheap suckers you get at the doctor’s when you get a shot.

It rooted in what used to be the basement. Prior to having it installed, I had the floor torn up, obviously, and dug a trench like you would for a lap pool. Around it I did some rock arrangement and used exterior furniture to make it like a meditative underground garden. Across the living room ceiling I strung the grow lights, like a string of cake pans full of urine. I don’t appreciate them, but the tree needs them to grow.

The arborist said a Swiss Family Robinson skylight wouldn’t do it. Grow lights were a necessity, as well as the shitload of permits you need to have them. Legally, you don’t need the permits, but they monitor the heat signature now, during flyovers, and check your electrical usage. If you don’t want to be explaining your living room apple tree to the DEA, you had better get the permits.

The rest of it was improvised. Our home equity loan was decimated by the time the tree was in. I carefully jigsawed the hardwood flooring myself and did some brass edging. It’s meant to look like the famous sinks at the Austrian Grand if you’ve ever been there. Well, ten years ago. Now they have this marble slab that the faucets pour right onto. It’s disconcerting because when you first see it you’re not sure how the whole thing is supposed to work. You’re afraid the water will just run onto the floor until you realize the marble has a slant to it. The water cascades off the back side into a drain.

I grade papers on my Vaio. For two semesters I’ve managed to contract with Bayer Nodd College and this time I got Comp II and World Literature Themes. They’re easy classes, but I have to grade. Mostly I skim, reading the short essays as fast as I can and giving most of them A’s. What I look for is effort.

As the sky turns lavender, I feel the pull of the sun. It’s almost time, the sun says. I’ve become a slave to it. Sunrise, sunset. I have to start writing my notes.

I hear the banging start upstairs. The screaming starts a little after. Meredith is getting awful at sunsets. The pain of having her immune system devour her is driving her crazy. The sun pulls at her too, but it’s a toothy pull, fishhooks in the skin and spoons behind the eyes. It isn’t the kind of pull you can ignore to grade essays about Oedipus Rex and Medea. Meredith’s brain is gone and won’t be back for a couple of hours.

Luckily, when we picked out this historic home, we wanted something that was a good ways away from neighbors. The realtor described the location as unexpectedly delicious, and we agreed that it was. So no one thinks I’m murdering her when she screams that way. No one can hear.

With the last of the essays behind me I begin to write my notes. Four hundred and seventy eight today.

* * *

What she came down with was Lee Fraumen Sarcoma. Dr. Isabel found it on a routine checkup. When you’ve had cancer before they keep a close eye on things like that. The doctors were always picking away at things, biopsying moles, freezing off parts of her cervix, shaving down a bit of her pancreas to get at the islets of Langerhans, scraping the skin of the heel of the right foot, drawing blood from the rectum. In the last year it had started to sound like the ingredients of a witch’s brew.

Then they found it. The thing about Lee Fraumen, Dr. Isabel told us, is that you don’t find it. You find things that relate to it, you find its extended family. I should mention that Dr. Isabel is a man, because that confused me. For months I thought it was a cute nickname, like Dr. Bob or Dr. Janice, but when I went into his office with Meredith shivering under my arm I saw that he was actually a very old Spaniard. Bald and gray eyed, he had that look of austerity.

“We don’t even know for sure that you have Lee Fraumen,” he said, “What we know is that we found prions in your blood sample that typically are a feature of Lee Fraumen. They are so common among patients with Lee Fraumen that we’re comfortable saying that you have it.”

For a moment he looked uncomfortable and then he smiled awkwardly and leaned forward like he was going to tell us a secret.

“The only other way I’ve ever heard you can get them is by cannibalism.”

I don’t think there is a feeling for that moment. I’ve thought back on it and honestly couldn’t tell you what was going through my head.  Meredith was shivering in a summer dress, and I hugged her.

“What’s going on with the air conditioning in here?” I said.

Dr. Isabel looked up, apologetically, and got to his feet. He squinted through his bifocals and looked around the room as if he had never seen his thermostat before.

“I’m sorry, is it cold to you?”

Meredith said something first, “No, I’m just so nervous. I’ll need chemo again?”

He nodded.

“For the Lee Fraumen. That will buy us some time, but I have to tell you that the prions themselves cause an incurable immune reaction. Technically your body is allergic to them, but they’re your own cells too. Your white blood cells will start attacking everything. Red blood cells, the cancer cells, brain cells, marrow, muscle, all of it.”

Meredith shrugged out of my arms like I was trying to drown her and I was left looking foolish with my hands out in the air. Eventually I let them fall to my sides and just stared straight ahead.

“Am I going to die?”

“Your immune system can be suppressed, but after that if you get an infection, even from a stubbed toe or a common cold, it could be fatal.”

When it was time to leave, Meredith was still shaking, but she wouldn’t let me touch her. She left the office on her own and Dr. Isabel asked me to stay for a moment.

“Before we begin the immune system suppression, it’s important that we’re absolutely clear on this. There is no possibility that your wife was infected with prions from eating part of another person?”

I shook my head, “No, no one—I’m not sure what you mean. How does that work? Jesus Christ, doctor, does that come up a lot?”

“No. Don’t misunderstand me. When someone says cannibalism, most people think of South Pacific islanders, Robinson Crusoe, or they think of Hannibal Lector, from that movie. There are lots of cultures that practice cannibalism that have nothing to do with killing people and eating them. Plenty of families I’ve treated have cooked and eaten a placenta after someone has given birth, for example. Sometimes twenty or thirty people will have a piece.”

“Jesus. You’re shitting me.”

“I’m not. They have recipe books and everything at Barnes and Noble. The other things is, sometimes when someone passes away,” and here he began to whisper, “And this isn’t strictly legal, you understand, but it happens sometimes. Someone will buy part of their loved one and prepare it for a private service. It used to be a big part of a lot of cultures.”

“No, nothing like that.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

He nodded and smiled a hard smile at me as if we had settled something important, and then gripped my shoulder. I felt like I should have said something else, like I should have been upset or outraged. Months later, when I told the story to Jeannie, she just laughed. What could you have said? she asked me. I still can’t think of anything. There’s never been a moment when I was lying awake and thought, that’s what I should have said!

On the way out of the little medical center where Dr. Isabel kept his offices, I had trouble finding Meredith. She wasn’t at the car. She wasn’t in the lady’s room. I went around to the little waiting areas they build into those places and walked around outside. I finally found her sitting by an overpass, on the concrete hill that led down to the freeway.

Over her shoulder there was graffiti of a big purple monkey that said Magilla Gorilla. She was red faced, but not crying anymore. I put my arms around her and felt like a complete stranger. Not just with her at that moment, either. I’ve always felt like a stranger when I put my arms around someone who’s crying.

After a little while we went to the car. We got four bottles of champagne and a chocolate ice cream cake on the way home, and the next morning I cleaned up the bubbly, melty mess on the coffee table downstairs.

It was a couple of months later, after the treatments weren’t working, that I settled on the idea of the tree. Dr. Isabel, when I called him, was fairly understanding.

“I don’t mind at all,” he said, “People do all kinds of things. Homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, colon cleansing, crystals and those electric machines the Scientologists have. I’m the first one to admit that medical science hasn’t found all the answers. I won’t say I think it will work, not in a real sense, but a lot of those things work because they make people feel better. It’s psychological.”

* * *

The best paper I had found for writing the notes was Cambridge Hardcopy. It took some experimentation to find it. Cambridge Hardcopy has the right thickness and the sheets are small. They’re sort of brownish, with the rough edges. Designed to look like old-timey post-it notes. Mostly people use them for scrap booking. The perfect thing for labeling those old black and whites from Grandma’s flapper years.

Note number one was always the same, 1) Meredith dies. I did that one, put it in an apple, and put the apple on the tree. One of the tree’s hairy, leafless knuckles attached to the apple stem and it stayed there, hanging from the tree as if it belonged.

I didn’t do one note per apple. That would have required a ridiculous number of apples every day. I usually did six per apple, cutting out the core with a THROBO electro-handheld corer, throwing away the bit with the seeds and putting the notes in, then replacing the top of the core. Looked just like a normal apple when I was done.

Jeannie told me that Hitchcock didn’t care what his films were about, only about the audience’s emotions. He said it was like painting a still life of apples. You wouldn’t ask the painter if the apples were sweet or sour. Who cares? It only matters what they look like. I always thought about that when I was coring. I never knew what kind of apples I was using.

Ten apples in and the sweat started on my forehead, and under my arms. I started breathing a little harder, like I’m walking uphill. After twenty or thirty my forearms would burn. I won’t bore you with all four hundred and seventy eight of them, but here are some of my favorites:

45) Meredith becomes short of breath.

51) Gray crystals form across the rash on Meredith’s side like tiny diamonds.

76) Yellow patches appear on Meredith’s forehead.

186) Meredith’s eyes begin to move on their own, always pulling down and to the right.

341) Meredith loses control of her bowels.

I’d cut myself around that time. Scrape a knuckle with the corer, bang the edge of a hand on the butcher’s block. The screaming upstairs became unbearable, a high pitched cry like nails on a chalkboard. Somewhere in the brain is a million year old nerve that gets pinched when it hears that sound. Run, the brain says, death.

My head cleared like a Zen singularity and I kept coring. As I covered the tree with foreign apples I always thought that somehow I was raping the quanta of the universe. I have no God, so I don’t think the tree is magic. I know that it’s doing something very reasonable and I’m abusing that. Somewhere holocausts are happening and worlds are ending and it’s because of me.

* * *

You didn’t ask, but I imagine you want to know how I found the tree. I grew up in apple country. In Illinois, in fact. A lot of people don’t know it, but the world’s entire supply of Mashburn apples comes from Illinois. The Craeburn, a cross between Braeburn and Mashburn that some say resembles a cranberry in flavor, was invented in Plainsboro, Illinois. I don’t think it tastes like cranberry at all, but cranberries were huge then, so marketing played a big part.

I was in apples before all that. My mother was a fragile woman, I remember her only as a ghost in a painting in the hall that always frightened me as a child. They never told me where she wound up, but she was in and out of a bunch of places. St. Vincent de Paul’s, the Trinity House, places like that. Low rent asylums for poor families.

It was a heart attack that got my father. I was six. He was on his second marriage so my three brothers stayed on with their mom and I moved in with my grandfather on my mother’s side. I was, as my grandfather was fond of pointing out, a soft child. I hated the orchards. Up so early in the morning that your eyes ached all day, hustling around in cold so bad you could see your breath most mornings. Dressing in cold clothes and having to wait, shivering, until they warmed on you.

Cold clothes never feel like your own. Something about cold fabric makes your skin reject it, and the whole day it feels like your wearing your cousin’s hand-me-downs on a camping trip. Sleep was the only escape and I slept as much as I could. I spent twelve years that way. Just trying to survive.

I was fourteen when I saw the tree the first time. It was in the old part of the orchard. Orchards are like cemeteries, there’s always a corner like that. Trees that could be two hundred years old, planted by Johnny Appleseed himself. That’s not an exaggeration either. Appleseed introduced the apple to Illinois. People think he was some folk legend like Paul Bunyan, but he was a real man. He stayed ahead of the Westward migration, planting apple orchards. When the settlers caught up to him, he’d sell them the orchards and move on ahead.

The apples in the old section weren’t much use. Those trees were usually there from the days when people used apples for applejack. They’re too sour to eat. A lot of people don’t know that apples aren’t naturally sweet on American trees. You have to splice sweet branches into the tree in the spring and watch and wait until fall to see if they’ve taken.

This tree was too old for that. It was ancient and leafless then, too. That’s not a recent development. Every orchard has one and every apple farmer has heard stories about them. There’s something off about them. You get that just by being near one. A tingle on the spine, a prickle of copper across the tongue. It sets deer on the hoof, and makes migrant workers nervous.

If you watched the tree for sixty years like my grandfather, you’d know what was wrong with it. The trees around it all get older and older, while it gets younger and younger. It’s a malformation. A benign cyst on the orchard, shrinking while everything else grows.

My grandfather took me out there one morning, the old man’s look of excitement on his face. All old men have magic tricks they love to perform and this was my grandfather’s trick. He took an apple, a Mashburn from the newer part of the orchard, and touched the stem to the tree. It stuck there just like it belonged.

We sat and watched and it took forever. In the age of movies and Atari the time for natural phenomena to occur is interminable to a teenager. It was worse than reading a book. Two hours passed while he whittled applewood into something that looked like the heads on Easter Island. He absent mindedly told me stories of his days on a submarine in Korea. The creaking of heavy metal, the darkness and cramped quarters.

In the back of the submarine was a steel cage the size of a Buick, he said, and inside that was the yellow and black hornet face of the bomb. They were out there with their fingers on the button, and it was never quiet. Week after week, they would get coded messages, whistles would blow, and numbers were read off and verified. The Executive Officer would crack open a thousand page binder from the safe and look up the code words. Every week it was a training exercise, but every week my grandfather watched them put the keys in and waited, sweating in the dark shadows, to see if it was the end of the world.

I got a smack on the arm that nearly made me piss myself. There, there, look! The apple became smaller and smaller. It became an apple blossom and then a green bud, and then just the tiny green stem was left. I watched that wriggle like a worm up into the tree and then the whole thing was gone.

That was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life, with a close second being the time in college when Meredith missed her period. Third, only because I’m older now and have more perspective on events, was when I saw your apple.

* * *

She was worn down to nothing by that time. Not that there was ever much to her. The reaction that her immune system had taken in her body had resulted in a smell like ammonia mixed with caramelized sugar. I went in to see her and did my customary pause at the top of the stairs. The smell wafted around up there and I had to gag a few times. Once I was sure I wouldn’t be sick, I smiled and opened the door.

The sun bleached the room out, its beams oddly pure in the dustless air. Meredith’s bed faced away from the window so she exposed directly to the light (Chemotherapy creates a lot of sun sensitivity). I couldn’t stand the heat, but she loved the warm. Even as I palmed her head, feeling the saggy flesh of her scalp slip around beneath my fingers, she smiled and closed her eyes to feel the heat of my hand.

Meredith’s family lived in this big house on a hill in Jamaica, Florida. Hot all the time, humid like a jungle, but the house was like a bio dome in the middle of that, nothing organic could survive her mother’s cleaning. We were going upstairs to her old room, which had become the craft room when she moved out, and on the wall I saw a woodcut she had done of a 1967 Buick, her old car. Above that was one of those frames that holds many photos, some in oval holes and some rectangular. In one of the larger rectangular holes there was a picture of her parents with a child that had that completely bald look someone gets when they’ve been on chemo.

Her head looked like an eggshell, and I passed the photo without comment because I didn’t recognize her without hair or eyebrows, her eyes set in deep wrinkled skin like elephant’s eyes. She told me later, as she helped her mother hot-glue plastic gems to a white gown that would eventually be her wedding dress, about the cancer. Pancreatic. Her mother had this reaction to it, a big back of the hand on the forehead with a weary sigh production, and asked her not to talk about it.

It was just a week later that we found the spot at Terryhill Green Gardens. Near the reflecting pool. You could rent that spot for an afternoon for seventy bucks, which was great for us then. We wanted to pay for our own wedding.

Eight years later I was squinting into the white sun in her room and then I could recognize her. She looked exactly like that poor girl from the picture. All grown up.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her.

“Better. You smell.”

“Like crap, I think.”

“No, it’s wonderful. Can you leave the door open? I want some of that air to come in here.”

“You know I can’t,” I said.

She made a face at me, half real irritation and half mocking sour face. It’s the kind of false face that substitutes for reality when you’re married.

“How is the other woman?”

I startled for just a moment. I can’t lie about that. Meredith calls the tree that. She thinks my slavery is funny, the way I have to care for that tree and spend hours of the day with it. It’s a joke that I have to get up in the morning and return to the nightmare of my childhood, still raising an apple tree after running for so long.

I think that she thinks we’re suffering together. That I do it so I can suffer too, like a love ritual. I don’t, it’s just reality for us. Like I work to pay the bills, or drink water when I’m thirsty.

“You can’t have any more infections,” I told her, “Not allowed.”

The bedroom is so sparse, all she wanted was books. No TV, who wants to spend their last moments watching television? I traced my fingers over the stack on the bedside table. Most of them had been sitting there. They’re from the ‘wish I’d read’ column. One was tented open with the spine folding under its own weight. When you do that, the book will forever try to flop open to that page. The smell of the room is starting to make my eyes water.

Meredith puts her hand on my forearm.

“It’ll be alright,” she said.

My nose was starting to run and I picked up the book. It was called Rat Kings and had a picture on the cover of a hundred rats fused together at the tail. She told me about the book when she started it, it was one of those twisted history books. Apparently, during the Middle Ages there were so many rats around that sometimes they would get snarled together and stick like that. Just become a rolling ball of disease that roamed the sewers or whatever. The book was a comprehensive collection of pictures and stories detailing the long history of horrible rat things. I closed it over a card that read Marcus Yarby Funeral Home. I massaged it so that the crease could start to come out.

“Lay down.”

I lay with her, awkwardly because the bed was small and there wasn’t quite enough room for me without shifting her over. I tried to make the best of it, and heard the ticking clock, tapped my finger on the sheets, looked around the room. Her skin, which my nose was brushing, smelled like plastic. The new car smell was all over the back of her ear. I felt every bit of my two-hundred pounds trying to avalanche off the side of the bed and me holding it there with a twist of my stomach muscles that quickly turned into a stab in my ribs.

Nothing for a moment, blackness, emptiness, the feeling of falling, sinking, drifting, and then I gasped as I nearly slipped, banging the floor with my foot to keep stable. Meredith jumped and her fingers touched my shoulder. She tried to keep me from falling, but her hand was empty like a kitten’s paw. All she can manage is that gentle pressure.

“You fell asleep.”

“A little.”

“I’ll move over.”

“No, it’s alright. I’ve got to get back downstairs.”

“Can’t you stay? Just five more minutes?”

I got up and straightened my clothes. I searched my brain for some suitable activity, something I had to rush and do, but nothing came to mind and she knew I was lying. She looked so hurt. She didn’t try to hide it. I was being an asshole.

“Leave the door open,” she said.

“I shouldn’t.”

I closed it quietly, like I didn’t want to wake her. All of my gestures upstairs were performed that way, slowly and calmly and quietly. The upstairs sent me into a reverence normally reserved for libraries and funerals. The truth was that I didn’t want the smell downstairs. I hated the compost heap scent the entire downstairs has gotten, but Meredith had begun to smell like poison.

* * *

It was Thursday, before I saw it, that Jeannie called. Jeannie was sort of chubby below the waist, but very cute in the face. Her entire house smelled like pie all the time. She ran a pie business through her website and people from three states around ordered whatever the week’s pie was and all week she baked them. Jeannie smelled like flour and sugar.

I don’t know how long I knew her. Five years at least. We chatted online. I was over there picking up a pie a few months before and we slept together. We were in the kitchen, surrounded by pies, and I made some comments laced with innuendo and she responded a little too seriously and we froze.

There was just that moment and we both knew that we weren’t joking. A few seconds later she was against the counter and I was kissing her and getting her shirt open and shoving her bra up to get to her tits. She was sweaty from working in the kitchen and her oh-so-hip flannel had been hiding a muffin top of flab over the edge of her jeans. I was kissing her and she was gasping for air and I was trying to get my hand down the front of her pants and couldn’t wedge it in.

“This isn’t right.”

I kissed her and felt the button on her jeans pop between my fingers. I slid my hand into her jeans and she almost yelled when I touched her. She was soaking wet. Fifteen minutes or so later I came on her stomach, feeling the brillo-pad prickling of her pubic hair across my knuckles and the embarrassingly hot stickiness where our stomachs were touching.

I stayed for part of the afternoon, letting the air conditioning pour over me from a vent over the couch while she told me about concerts that were coming up. That’s what Jeannie did with her extra cash. She bought tickets to whatever concerts were within eight hours drive. It was always some classic rock band, Kiss or Black Sabbath or Motley Crue. She was only twenty-five, but she loved that stuff.

She kicked her jeans the rest of the way off and pulled her panties up. They were just white panties with tiny pink flowers on them, a little old looking, but cute. She took the flannel the rest of the way off and went into the kitchen like that to dance and make pies.

Her brother Jameson lived in Wichita, she told me, and he did Reiki. That Japanese massage stuff with hot rocks and spiritual energy. I would have felt weird talking about Meredith, but Jeannie was the one who asked, so I told her about the tree.

“Do you think that’s weird?”

“Nah. Jameson, says Reiki gets more and more like using the Force every day. A couple of times he’s been speeding, he drives like a fucking lunatic, and he slowed down just as he got to a speed trap. He didn’t know it, it just happened, like the voice in his head told him to slow down.”

“Yeah?”

“He gets up in the middle of the night sometimes, he says he just wakes up and goes online. He checks the airline prices and they’ll be the lowest they’ve been in months. That’s how he knows it’s time to come visit me.”

I thought it sounded pretty crazy, but comfortingly crazy. It made my craziness seem more okay. I hated to leave, but the sun was nearly across the sky. We chatted online a lot more after that, and the next week she made apple pies, sort of like a joke.

So I was on the phone with her and that was when I saw it, hanging there from the tree. Your apple.

“I’ll have to call you back.”

I walked over to the tree and touched it. Poked it with a finger like it might explode. I ran upstairs to Meredith’s room and opened the door an inch. She glared at me over Rat Kings.

“Everything alright?”

“Fine.”

Her eyes went back to Rat Kings and I closed the door. I went back downstairs and plucked the apple from the tree and carried it to the kitchen. It says something about my life at that moment that I just expected the apple to have a note in it.

I cut it open carefully and snapped it the rest of the way with my fingers so I wouldn’t cut your note. What struck me about it first, was that you used currency for your note. What kind was it? Bolivian? Chilean? It amazed me that you thought of that. The exchange rate must be pretty good on it, and of course it’s durable and it rolls well. The only problem with Cambridge Hardcopy is that I have to roll each note around the pen to get it started. They’re too stiff to really roll on their own. I’d guess the dineros or whatever they are roll pretty good.

I keep thinking back to what happened after that. Did I try and call Jeannie back? Did I check to see if she was online to tell her what had happened? I don’t think I did. I checked my outbox online and I hadn’t sent any emails. It just seems like our conversation ended so abruptly on the phone, and it was so weird since that was the last time I talked to her.

The last thing I can figure she heard me say was I’ll have to call you back.

I do remember sweating and pacing, then putting my coat on and telling Meredith I was going out. There isn’t a Barnes and Noble in my neighborhood, but closer to town there is a Waldenbooks. I went in there and looked around, had the clerk look up a few things for me. I found Terrance Avery’s book, Shogi and the Shadow Dancers. I also found one of those cheap beginner shogi sets they sell next to 365 Haiku to Read on the Toilet.

* * *

Questions you’ve sent me in several different apples over the last two weeks (Numbering added for my convenience):

1) Who is Meredith?

2) Do you play shogi?

3) Have you ever heard of Terrance Avery?

4) Have you ever been to Broadway?

5) Did you ever fall in love with Jeannie?

6) Have you told Meredith that you don’t love her anymore?

7) If my opening move were Silver General to eight B, what’s your move?

* * *

Saturday and Sunday were pie days. I always went on Saturday mornings because fewer people did that. What Jeannie called her rush hour was Sunday around noon. Just after people were getting out of church, I guess. I asked her once if they were all dressed up and she said sometimes, but not so often that she noticed.

Before I get to knocking on the door, I’ll tell you that I wasn’t in love with Jeannie. She just wasn’t my type.

I’m not saying I won’t listen to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” if it’s on the radio, but it’s just not my thing. The music, the driving, or the loud spectacle of a live concert. None of that’s me, and every bit of it’s her.

What I liked about her was that she was nice. That’s why I came on Saturday when I knew she wouldn’t be busy. The truth is that having someone be nice to me made going home so much worse, but I couldn’t help it. When I was a kid I would stand by the heater before I went out in the cold, too.

Anyways, I knocked and nothing happened. I thought maybe she was putting some pants on or something and waited, and then I figured she must not have heard so I knocked again. This time a guy opened the door and looked at me like he was already tired of talking to me.

I say a guy, but really he was a kid. He had that greasy headed Ichabod Crane look that the boys are into now, all underfed and pale. He rubbed his eyes like he had just gotten up and he was wearing a t-shirt and sweats and no shoes, so maybe he had.

“No pies today,” he said.

“Who are you?”

It came out harder than I meant it to. I told myself it was because this guy was a complete stranger who had no business telling me about the pie schedule. Really, it was more the idea that he had slept there and Jeannie hadn’t told me anything about a boyfriend. Not that she needed to, I guess, but it was a shock, this guy coming to the door.

“Who am I? Who the fuck are you, man?”

“I’m sorry, maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Why aren’t there any pies today? The website must have logged fifty orders for Kalua Krunch. It’s a great pie.”

“Never had it.”

“Right. So why no pies today?”

“Look, I’m just packing shit up, okay? This isn’t even, I mean, like I don’t know what you want. I don’t make fucking pies, right? Is the pie club meeting here, or what? Are there going to be like a hundred more people coming? Should I put out a fucking sign?”

“Probably a note on the door,” I said. The guy was coming unglued. He wasn’t angry so much as upset, like somebody had set up an elaborate prank where a bunch of people would come his door asking for pies, “But you don’t live here. I mean, I’ve never seen you here before. Is Jeannie home?”

“Jeannie’s gone, man.”

“Gone where?”

“If you she wanted you to know, she would have told you, right?”

Now, I’m not intimidating. I’d guess I was about the same size as this guy when it came down to it, but I’m estimating I’m about ten years older and he was pissing me off. I hammered the door and raised my voice.

“Hey,” I said.

“Alright, man. Chill out. Jesus.”

“Who are you and where did she go?”

“Alright, it’s cool. Look, mom calls me like Thursday and says I got to pack all Jeannie’s shit up because her landlord’s going to trash it, right? I don’t know where she went, she’s just gone. I mean, mom got a call from her, but she was on the road. She just left. She told mom she didn’t give a shit what we did with her stuff, but mom was like, ‘Jeannie’ll want this stuff back.’ So I’m packing it up.”

I looked at him again, a little more carefully. He was a lot younger looking than I imagined Jeannie’s brother would be. Maybe Reiki makes you look young.

“You’re her brother? The one who does the Reiki stuff?”

He nodded and slicked his hair back with his hand. I saw his eyes go down to my ring finger and back up, and then he did this awkward smile. I wondered if Jeannie had ever mentioned me.

“So you’re, like, her boyfriend or something?” It came out really tentative.

“Not really. I mean, I don’t know, I guess it’s sort of awkward since she’s your sister. You probably don’t like to talk about stuff like that.”

“It’s okay, man. Jeannie’s her own woman. Stuff happens, I guess.”

His eyes went down to my ring again, and he sniffed.

“So,” he said, “You want some coffee or something? I was going to put some on.”

I could tell that it wasn’t a genuine offer. Something about him was just screaming for me to go away. I guess he felt bad, since his sister ran off without telling me, he didn’t want to just leave me out there on the porch. Maybe he thought I needed to talk, or something. I was probably just one more thing of Jeannie’s that needed to be packed up and gotten out of there.

“No thanks,” I said, “sorry I got upset.”

He closed the door and I walked back to my car. I noticed that Jeannie’s Fiero was gone from the carport. I hadn’t even been thinking about it on the way up.

A couple of weeks later I heard that he had died. Jameson. Nobody said what it was he died from, whether it was an accident or a suicide or drug overdose or what. I thought really hard about going to the funeral, thinking maybe Jeannie would be there, but I figured maybe they couldn’t get a hold of her in time. I pictured her making mango and coconut pies in the Bahamas or something six months later and finally hearing about it.

* * *

I put the apple corer by Meredith’s bedside table today. She saw me doing it and smiled at me. It wasn’t the ugly look I expected, or the hateful, resentful look I know she’s capable of. She didn’t look resigned either. There was no peace of the dying on her face. It was a smile of bright defiance.

“You leaving? With her?”

I had to laugh, “No, just me. Me by myself.”

She nodded and took Fram’s Dictionary of Frase and Fable from her bedside and tossed it like a Frisbee at my crotch. Instead of hitting me like the paper brick it was, it opened and flapped over like an albatross. The timing threw me off and I fumbled it and sent it crashing to the floor.

“Go on, get out.”

She laughed at me. I closed the door.

I know she won’t do anything with the apple corer, but Terrance Avery would call that arrogance, wouldn’t he? How can I know what someone will and won’t do? How do you plan five moves ahead when your partner could do anything they choose? So I plan one move ahead, and I’ve made mine. I suppose I’ll see what she does. Or I won’t. It’ll be hard for them to get a hold of me if something does happen. I’m not taking anything with me but my car and some cash. The clothes on my back, that kind of thing. So I guess word will reach me someday and I’ll know, but I feel like for a long time I’m going to run from that. I don’t want the truth to find me next week, I won’t be ready for it then.

I finished Shogi and the Shadow Dancers, by the way. Silver General to eight B was your move? Mine will be Gold General to four H.

To answer your other question: No, I’ve never been to Broadway. I had the chance in High School and missed it, too expensive for my grandfather. He said I’d get to see it someday on my own dime. I hear there’s nothing else like it. Is that where you are? I hope so, I’d like to meet you and finish our game.

If so, see you soon.

___

Charles LaFave got a manual typewriter for his birthday when he was nine, and this, in addition to the irrevocable warping of his psyche by Jim Henson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, lead to his career in science fiction and fantasy. He studied English at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, and currently resides in Little Rock with his two cats.


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