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Cloudy as Absinthe

by Linda Neal

 

They spent the morning.

They spent the afternoon.

They spent the evening.

Then it was time

to spend the night, but

the where and how grew

cloudy as the glass

of absinthe

that sat between them.

 

With each sip

more slur,

batons conducting bagatelles.

With each sip

a livery of tongues,

as if words mattered.

 

Their life was living itself,

becoming more unfamiliar,

growing more foreign

as the hours pedaled by.

 

What she said.

What he thought.

It was time to sleep.

 

In the night mist

the sound rose

from the roof above them,

a strange beating,

a trio of hammers

throbbed like wings,

and a light bore down

through the darkness.

___

Linda Neal’s award-winning work has been published in California Quarterly, Embers, Lummox, ONTHEBUS, Pacific Coast Journal, Peregrine, and more. Her poetry memoir, Dodge & Burn, was published by Bambaz Press in 2014. She has attended the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and Squaw Valley Writer’s Conferences among others. Neal has studied Method Writing with Jack Grapes, Healing Writing with Deena Metzger, and has taken workshops with several instructors in the UCLA Writers’ Program. Her love of words and the subtle complexities of language led her to a BA in linguistics. She lives with her dog, Mantra, in a ’40’s cottage in Redondo Beach, California. 

August 2: Homage

by Linda Neal

 

A prodigal ache sets in when the plumeria blooms

and fat watermelons lay their bellies on the ground

to escape the hot smell

of the season’s first Santa Ana wind.

 

It’s never just any hot beach of a Saturday,

August second, not just any smoggy, windy weekend,

but a day as dead as a mussel

washed up on the rocks.

 

A shell of a day that would have been

the anniversary

of a marriage that got lost

somewhere between the move from double bed

to California King.

 

Maybe between a springtime rain and

one of those Santa Anas

that comes too early,

before the summer sand and dust

can settle.

 

I picked a white rose, put it in a vase,

and wondered if he did the same.

___

Linda Neal’s award-winning work has been published in California Quarterly, Embers, Lummox, ONTHEBUS, Pacific Coast Journal, Peregrine, and more. Her poetry memoir, Dodge & Burn, was published by Bambaz Press in 2014. She has attended the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and Squaw Valley Writer’s Conferences among others. Neal has studied Method Writing with Jack Grapes, Healing Writing with Deena Metzger, and has taken workshops with several instructors in the UCLA Writers’ Program. Her love of words and the subtle complexities of language led her to a BA in linguistics. She lives with her dog, Mantra, in a ’40’s cottage in Redondo Beach, California. 

Frenzy

by Jeanine Stevens

 

When I see gypsies select brilliant madras

at the dry goods store in Edinburgh

I think of you.

 

When I notice all things yellow: calendula,

canary, butter, camel.

 

When I buy exotic carpet I don’t need, the wrong

shape, that strange mustard color.

 

When I refuse to eat the dark meat of a goat.

When the sky mottles blue

above pale and heavy oak galls.

 

When April winds scatter cottonwood debris

in the breezeway

and crows scold the resident hawk

 

cawing above the redwood, flames reflected

in a beaded eye, I think of you.

 

How your stride cuts the brief day,

anything particle, flakes, sun dabs. Icons

 

like confetti, shred, invade, settle into me.

I fold, hold and cut scraps,

a collage of brass hearts.

___

Jeanine Stevens’ second poetry collection, Inheritor, was released by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Her most recent chapbook, Needle in the Sea, was published by Tiger’s Eye Press. Her next chapbook, Brief Immensity, winner Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award will be published in 2017. Jeanine has other awards from the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, the Ekphrasis Prize, the Stockton Arts Commission and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio. Her poems have appeared in Stoneboat, Arsenic Lobster, Rosebud, Camas, Evansville Review, The Connecticut River Review, and Sentinel and Dragonheart (UK). Jeanine recently received her fourth Pushcart nomination. She studied poetry at UC Davis and California State University and has graduate degrees in Anthropology and Education. Professor at American River College. She was raised in Indiana and now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

10 Poems—Spring 2017

by Simon Perchik

 

*

Not yet finished melting :the sun

—you can hear its sea struggling

spilling over though each morning

 

it comes from behind now

brushes against this cemetery gate

that’s still shining, floating past

 

—to this day you go home

the back way —you don’t see

your reflection or the ground

 

face to face with shoreline

—what you hear are waves :one hand

reaching for another and in the dark

 

you let your fingers unfold end over end

then close, gather in these fountains

as if they belong one side then another

 

are nearly too much stone —here

where this gate is filling its lungs

and you tearing it in two.

 

 

 

 

 

*

Again The Times, spread-eagle

the way these subway doors

once were waves opening out

 

as the faint wings beating now

between your arms and the track

—a dark, single thread

 

pulls this sea under

though on the bottom

you can’t be sure it’s morning

 

or two shorelines, side by side

crawling into that slow, climbing turn

half sand, half you never get used to

 

—page over page

covered with weeds :feathers

from a long way off  —you can touch

 

their darkness :words still dangerous

circling with seabirds :your eyes

don’t want you, are closed.

 

 

 

 

 

*

Lower and lower this fan

smells from stone and the ice

broken off your forehead

 

still in the same, tight turn

holding on, almost back —you stare

even with sunglasses, the ones

 

you wear at funerals, cooled

the way this small room

has already started as snow

 

not yet the invisible arm in arm

louder and louder overhead

without a trace and no place to go

 

to harden, take hold, darken

let its wings down, close

your eyes and the ceiling.

 

 

 

*

Appearing and disappearing, this gate

you wave between one hand

after the other and doves on cue

 

break through the way each flourish

opens midair, is helped along

clearing the rooftops, palms up

 

—on your back as the aimless path

that has such low windows

—from nowhere, no longer white

 

each stone is closing its wings

letting go the sky, the graves

and just as suddenly your shoulders.

 

 

 

*

These graves listen to you

though they lean too far

half side to side, half

 

taking hold your spine, blinded

in front by sunlight, in back

by its endless bending down

 

as if together these bones

would steady you, in time

your limp disappear

 

already the small stones

buried here, there, in the open

to tell you what happened.

 

 

 

*

To clear your lips —a simple wipe

though once spread out

your sleeve fills with shoreline

 

follows on its own, washed

with enormous wings

shaken off the stale crumbs

 

half sand, half seabirds

half before each meal

—you don’t use spoons

 

they won’t resist enough

would empty the way this bowl

is still looking for what will pour

 

easily through your heart

letting it drip and for hours

one arm circles the other

 

closer and closer, the one

that will stay with you forever

—always the wide, lower and lower

 

reaching in —your mouth

no longer clears the rim

broken open by its cry

 

to jump! and you bleed

again from your arms letting go

their dead breeze, dead sky, dead mouth.

 

 

 

*

It’s a risk, these clouds

gathered in the open, grow huge

take on the shape they need

 

though once inside this jar

escape is impossible

—you collect a cloud whose mist

 

no one studies anymore, comes

from a time rain was not yet the rain

pressing against your forehead

 

and your mouth too has aged

coming from nowhere to open

as some mountainside

 

believed by all the experts

too high for predators

or a dirt that devours

 

even its place to hide in flowers

yet you will date the jar

for their scent and later on.

 

 

 

 

 

*

And both arms more and more

spread-eagle, clasping the dirt

tearing it side to side —another sore

 

cut out the way a shrug

is divided piece by piece

carted away in songs about love

 

that no longer depend on lips

reaching across as mist

not yet sunlight or useless

 

—you dig two holes, one

for bells, the other no longer bleeds

is already moving the sky closer

 

letting it lean forward

emptying the Earth, kept open

and listening for kisses.

 

 

 

 

 

*

And when the tide slowly at first

though the palm underneath is smaller

girlish, clinging to sand and each other

 

the way all night these clams

are etched by your gentle waves

already the bond all water

 

grows used to :hand over hand

tasting from salt and each shell

counted as two —in the dark

 

it’s easy to mistake all that’s left

with a single shoreline —the sea

led down, emptied clam by clam

 

to close it, knee deep in madness

in some vineyard, kisses and kisses

counting as if you are still uncertain.

 

 

 

*

With all its weight this wall

just built and is already

tugging at your side

 

as if with every birth

its twin will block your path

with those same flowers

 

mourners still pull up

try to climb a bit longer

reach out the way these stones

 

half marble, half bubbling

interlocked, higher and higher

almost crushing you

 

with their garbled cries

as hillsides, to bring

more, to cool and one another.

___

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The B Poems published by Poets Wear Prada, 2016. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

How To

by Dave Nielsen

 

Sometimes the instructions

for the most mundane task

can be poetic—

step-by-step guides for how to tie one’s shoes

or boil water;

 

so too instructions for something

theretofore private,

rare,

or exotic:

 

dressing the dead, for instance, or dancing a rumba:

unstick the elbow;

now glue the lips.

 

Point the nose

as if staring into the future.

You can see

how these things might move you.

 

___

Dave Nielsen is the author of a collection of poems, Unfinished Figures, by Lynx House Press. He lives in Salt Lake City.

Winter Camps

by Andrea Moorhead

 

The woods glow tonight

your hands snowing

in the red raw

and thunderous

although the light shifts

from time to time

switching from eyes to wind

to the deepness under the stars

___

Andrea Moorhead is editor of Osiris and author of several collections of poems, including From a Grove of Aspen (University of Salzburg Press), De loin, and Géocide (Le Noroît). Recent translations of Francophone poetry include Night Watch by Abderrahmane Djelfaoui (Red Dragonfly Press) and Dark Menagerie by Élise Turcotte (Guernica Editions). Her work is featured in Phoenix 23 (autumn 2016 issue). In 2017, Red Dragonfly Press will publish her collection, The Carver’s Dream.

Beside the emptiness

by Andrea Moorhead

 

You haven’t chopped wood in a long time, the shed is almost empty now, bark and leaves, nesting mice, the thin veneer of activity leaving tracks in the dust, you haven’t even taken out the axe, sharpened the blade, the sledge hammer and wedges are rusted now, brown sheen where the heavy iron has split its coating, you are wandering too much, moving too slowly, you’re lost again out beyond the trees, trying to follow the deer early in the day, forgetting their tracks melt under the sun, disturb direction, indicate a false pattern, hopeful and illusive, but the woods remain closed, and you haven’t even chopped wood in a long time, the rain water leaks under the eaves and you sit by the guttering fire, wondering if birch bark burns as long as oak.

___

Andrea Moorhead is editor of Osiris and author of several collections of poems, including From a Grove of Aspen (University of Salzburg Press), De loin, and Géocide (Le Noroît). Recent translations of Francophone poetry include Night Watch by Abderrahmane Djelfaoui (Red Dragonfly Press) and Dark Menagerie by Élise Turcotte (Guernica Editions). Her work is featured in Phoenix 23 (autumn 2016 issue). In 2017, Red Dragonfly Press will publish her collection, The Carver’s Dream.

Over the Bay

by Andrea Moorhead

 

Up on the rocky neck, the spine, the solid protrusion, the trees grow tall, silver skinned and luminous, over the river, over the bay, over the next sequence of dreams you had imagined, once on the shore, in the blue-green waters, in the cold mist behind the terns, wavering as you moved off shore, flickering and shimmering, up on the rocky neck, the spine, the solid protrusion, the beech keep their leaves, walk around with the young oak, red-leaved and solid, some night you’ll see them moving about, it’s very curious, very strange, and people don’t like to admit that beech and oak, young and old, go off walking in the deep velour of night, coming home again when the grey dawn, when the rising fog, when the swiftness of the black duck passes above their hearts.

___

Andrea Moorhead is editor of Osiris and author of several collections of poems, including From a Grove of Aspen (University of Salzburg Press), De loin, and Géocide (Le Noroît). Recent translations of Francophone poetry include Night Watch by Abderrahmane Djelfaoui (Red Dragonfly Press) and Dark Menagerie by Élise Turcotte (Guernica Editions). Her work is featured in Phoenix 23 (autumn 2016 issue). In 2017, Red Dragonfly Press will publish her collection, The Carver’s Dream.

The Talon’s Grip

by Townsend Walker

 

prawled on the path, her pale skin, cherried lips, and ebony curls pressed against the green mossy stone. A lilac evening dress draped on her. I stared at the corpse. Turned, and saw the husband, seated nearby. A dark haired fellow, clothed in a silk dressing gown and velvet Albert slippers, appearing to enjoy the patter of rain, the scent of mown grass, and the blush of rose petals in early morning, only occasionally glancing at his wife’s body.

“Sir.” I tried to focus the man’s attention. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Turney.”

“Ironic,” Richard Carlyle said, “Irene dead, unable to share this splendid morning.”

An early call from the station had awakened me at home.

I tried again to shake Carlyle from his reverie, “Sir, when did you discover your wife’s body?”

“Oh yes, well I arrived home last evening before she did, woke to find her missing from her bed, searched the house, combed the grounds, then came out here. She rather favored this small garden, you know.”

Carlyle spoke little, perhaps mindful that when one speaks, one often says too much.

“Why hadn’t you come home together?”

“Happened often. Different tolerance for jollity, that sort of thing.”

There were no marks on Irene Carlyle’s face, hands or shoulders. The gown was not ripped or stained. Her face betrayed only an expression of slight surprise. The medical examiner peered closely, said, “Nothing to indicate violence or death by other than natural causes. We’ll know more, early afternoon.”

Carlyle pointed to a slate blue falcon resting on a post at the end of the garden. “Irene’s. Named her Mabel. I find few women are content without an interest, it matters little what—flowers, be they roses or hydrangeas; animals, horses or dogs; or friends, card playing or shopping—as long as pursued avidly. My wife found hers in falcons.”

“Excuse me sir, but your wife is dead, most unexpectedly. She’s lying here in front of you, and you are talking about birds.”

“Yes, the bird business started after she had been up to London one day. At the Wallace, she saw Vernet’s An Algerian Lady Hawking.” He turned toward me. “Have you seen it? Um, perhaps not.” I feigned indifference at the implied slight. “It portrays a woman in a flowing gossamer blouse, astride a magnificent white steed, seated on a crimson saddle, with a bird on the hand. This became Irene’s new self-image.”

There was little point continuing the conversation. Reality had slipped from Carlyle’s grasp. I told my men to trawl the house and grounds for clues. Carlyle requested only that they complete their work in the small garden first. He intended to do some pruning and talk to Mabel about the morning. “Figuratively, you understand, Chief Inspector.”

“I’ll be leaving one of my men here Mr. Carlyle, to keep an eye on things and see evidence is not disturbed.”

*      *     *     *     *

I returned to Pembroke Hall a little past one. In the house white flowers replaced the multi-hued ones there this morning. Carlyle was sitting at a small table nibbling on cheese and slices of cold beef. A bottle of claret caught the light, perhaps a glass left.

“Sorry to disturb your lunch, but I thought you would be interested in the medical examiner’s preliminary findings.”

“I was reminiscing about the times Irene and I vacationed in Morocco and India. That lovely hotel with the tiled arcade in Marrakesh, the chalk white inn above the caravan route at Ouarzazate, the palace in Jaipur with peacocks performing at breakfast and a subterranean blue and gold mosaic lined pool. One misses those things. Since the bird arrived a year ago, those adventures have been curtailed. Haven’t been anywhere.”

“Your wife died of asphyxiation. Most likely, someone smothered her. The examiner found some bluish discoloration around her mouth and nose, something we didn’t observe in this morning’s light. Also, congestion in the nose and sinus–typical in these cases.”

“So she stopped breathing.”

“Was stopped from breathing, sir.”

Carlyle nodded.

“And it seems she had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol.”

“Not unusual.”

“May I ask about the relationship between you and your late wife?”

“We lived together.”

“Is that all?”

“What more can one say?”

I stared out the window and saw a deer crossing the lawn. This chap seemed two biscuits short of a tin. “Tell me, Mr. Carlyle who would want your wife dead?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. None whatsoever.” Carlyle paused. “I don’t suppose that affair in London could have come back to haunt her. You remember, some ten years ago, the financier Sir George Bagot, Defense Secretary Thomson, and the showgirls. She was Irene Scarletti then.”

I did recall the scandal about government funds finding their way through a sham insurance company for a military project outside of Cairo. “We’ll look into it, but after this time, I’m sure most of the actors have moved on.”

I made to leave, put my hand in my pocket for the keys and came on some papers. “Oh, by the way, my people found these papers crumpled in the bookcase. Something from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Do you know anything about it?”

Carlyle turned, leaned forward, glanced at the paper, then shrugged. “Only that Irene was quite keen. I’ve never seen it.”

*      *      *     *     *

Carlyle’s preoccupation with the falcon was bizarrely out of place. I rang up a Mr. Elliott, a falconer of local repute. According to him, Irene Carlyle had devoted hours to Mabel: manning (acculturating to humans, becoming accustomed to the falconer, learning to associate food with the glove). Then training to hunt: the jesses and creances. Finally, she bought a telemetry transmitter for free flight hunting.

“She was uncommonly proud of that bird. When Mabel killed her first pigeon, her mistress had a taxidermist mount one of the prey’s wings. All that was left.” The disapproving curl of the lip was audible over the phone.

Elliott had been present at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Mrs. Carlyle walked in. The plight of the northern harrier was being discussed. The impending loss of its habitat in Scotland to building speculators aroused the birding contingent.

“The lady pledged some millions of pounds against the purchase of land for a sanctuary. As if the sum were a pittance.” Days after the meeting, Elliott was still unable to recount the event without stumbling over his words.

Mrs. Carlyle, on the other hand, was promptly promised (“though not guaranteed,” Elliott noted) a presentation to the Queen and an O.B.E. for her generosity. Her Majesty is patron of the RSPB. After hanging up I put Sergeant Oliver Sellman, one of my brighter lads, up from Cambridge, on the trail of the Carlyle’s finances.

Next morning, I came back to the Hall with more questions. Could Carlyle prove he came directly home? Never left his bed until morning?

No, he could not corroborate his movements. He recited events as they occurred: he and his wife went to the ball. Sipped champagne. Danced. Dined on pheasant. Played cards (he, whist, she, bridge). Heavy stakes at the bridge table required she stay longer and so he left and went home to bed.

“The Moncrieff’s, I believe it was Sara, or perhaps Hugh, I’m not sure who, volunteered to bring her home.”

“Did you sleep soundly?” I asked, wondering how natural the reply might be.

“I did. I’d been riding earlier in the day with some younger fellows and they rather extended me.” Carlyle sat back in his chair, thinking I’d be satisfied with the reply.

“Their names, please.”

“What? You doubt me?” Carlyle sat up, as if on horseback.

“In cases like this, we need to verify everything. Speaking of which, as your wife seems to have been suffocated, we’ll be sending the cushions and pillows in the sitting room and library to the laboratory in London to examine them for fingerprints and fluids.”

“Why London?”

“Very special equipment. Quite new. The materials are placed in a vacuum chamber, gold is heated up and spread like a film over the fabric. Then zinc is heated. It attaches to the gold where there are no fingerprint residues. The fingerprints are revealed as the fabric. Somewhat like a photo negative.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman stumbled into my office, a jumble of chairs, filing cabinets, and chalk boards, all dominated by my large wooden desk piled high with folders and papers. The walls were covered with some of my water colors of the Lake District. I’m a keen hiker and amateur painter. Not poor, I’ll admit. A few ribbons at local shows.

“I persuaded Mrs. Carlyle’s solicitor to share with me the principal terms of her will.”

“Good show, Oliver.”

“A small annuity to Mabel. Jewelry to her sister. The flat on Eaton Place, number 31 (three units in addition to one under the stairs) and five million pounds in Treasury bonds were left to her husband. And, the contents of a safe deposit box and numbered account in a Swiss bank to a woman in Bologna.”

“Someone connected to the Thomson affair, I presume,” the Inspector mused.

“And I know you’re not interested and it’s probably not relevant,” Sellman rushed on, “But I found out that number 31 has a bit of a history. Alan Lerner wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady in the maisonette on top and Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, kept the under stairs flat as a chamber close for his liaisons with other men.”

“No, not relevant, but an interesting sidelight, if one is fond of the West End, or politics.”

“Yes sir.”

“The amount on the RSPB pledge form would have left Carlyle a poor man,” I reckon. “I wonder if he could have held on to Pembroke Hall.”

“I suppose he was aware of the pledge.”

“Elliott, the falconer, was there when the pledge was made. He was under the distinct impression that it was a spur of the moment thing on her part.”

“So it would appear that since, or because of, the death of his wife, Mr. Carlyle is without a financial care.”

“It would.”

*     *     *     *     *

As I walked up the path to the Moncrieff’s manor, the scene of Mrs. Carlyle’s last party, I heard shouts and cries from inside. I rapped on the door, wasn’t heard over the barking man and bawling woman, rapped again, finally pushed the door, found it unlocked, and hesitantly stepped into the foyer. Sara and Hugh stood at opposite ends of the space framed by tall wooden arches, open mouthed, red faced, whirling their arms, hurling invectives at one another. As they caught sight of me, they quieted.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time?”

“Please, do come in.” Mrs. Moncrieff swept her welcoming arms towards a nearby room. “You’re here about our dear Irene, I’m sure.”

Sara Moncrieff was a tall willowy woman, chestnut hair, and freckled, more and more apparently as the angry red drained down to her neck and chest. I noticed her arms, the prominent musculature of a horsewoman. We went into the library where we sat another around a low mahogany table.

“Something to drink, Chief Inspector?” Moncrieff offered heartedly, as if to a long lost friend.

“Water will be fine.”

“A sherry,” she said.

Moncrieff returned balancing a tray with my water, his wife’s sherry, and a tumbler of whiskey. He offered a sharp contrast to his wife: short, stocky, bright blue eyes, and broken-blood-vessel ruddy cheeks.

“Before we talk of the night of Irene Carlyle’s murder, what do you know about them?”

Sara Moncrieff started. “I heard Richard found her somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, lying low after the scandal in London. You know the one I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“It was the perfect match—she was pretty, vivacious and had a bundle, apparently a payoff. He was landed gentry in a quiet spot of the country, sophisticated, with a manor going . . .” she paused.

Her husband barged in, “Say it, dammit woman, Pembroke Hall was going to ruins.  The disgrace of the county.”

This confirmed what Carlyle told me and what I’d picked up from an internet search and talking to others in the village about Pembroke.

“The night of your ball, Mr. Carlyle said one of you offered to drive his wife back to Pembroke. He had left earlier.”

“You have it turned around, Chief Inspector,” Moncrieff said, “She left first. Richard wanted to stay on.”

“I see. But, which of you drove her?”

“Was it you Hugh darling?” with an emphasis on ‘darling’ that suggested the contrary.

“Don’t you remember, it was you, old girl?” he snapped.

“Why it was. I remember now. I had to help poor Irene up the stairs and ended up setting her down in a chair in the library. I simply couldn’t carry her further.”

“Did you see anyone?” I asked. “She was found in the garden.”

“I know, poor thing. No one, but then I’d drunk a bit more than usual.”

“Than what, darling?” he interjected.

“Than usual. So you see Chief Inspector, a thing or two may have escaped me.”

“Or many things,” Moncrieff added.

“Darling,” she insisted, “we have a guest.”

I stood up and walked about, to create a different mood. “So it appears you were the last to see her alive.”

“Oh dear, I hope I said something nice to her.” Sara Moncrieff twisted her hands as if perhaps she hadn’t.

“I’m sure you did,” her husband said. “You are always considerate and sweet tempered to the wives of your male friends.”

“Especially in these times,” she said.

“These times?”

I lost the thread of the conversation.

Moncrieff leaned forward, face flushed a second time from having consumed a tumbler of whiskey. “Our Irene had become quite batty these recent months.  First the falcon, then the affectation with all those gauzy dresses. She’d become one of those bloody 70s hippies, back to nature, communing with birds, money the root of evil sort of thing, except when it came to that damn falcon.”

“Poor Richard was beside himself,” Mrs. Moncrieff added. “The money to run Pembroke was hers, and though she put a million or so into it when she arrived, it forever needs repairs.”

“Ah yes, poor Richard, who must be at every function we hold, so extraordinarily handsome, such a conversationalist, life of the party, according to my Sara, who knows him intimately.”

She got up from her chair and walked to the end of the room. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure it is relevant to the Chief Inspector’s enquiry,” he said.

“What do you mean, Mr. Moncrieff?” I asked.

She offered, “What Hugh means is that he thinks Richard and I are having an affair.”

“And you’re not.” I said.

“The very idea!” she shot back, outraged by her husband’s insinuation, but not exactly denying it.

Moncrieff lowered his lids over his eyes, slumped in the chair, and mumbled.

“If there is nothing more, I’ll be leaving,” I said. “Please let me know should you decide to leave the county for any reason.

“Let me walk you out to your car, Chief Inspector.”

At the car, Moncrieff proffered, “Something you should know about Richard’s property deals. He’s a clever sort, especially at cards. He’ll be in the middle of recounting the most wickedly funny and salacious story, seemingly paying no attention to the game, and then turns five winning tricks in a go. But from what I’ve heard, he’s been terribly unsuccessful freeing himself from his dependence on Irene’s money. Never a detail man. He never says anything, but his type always resent relying on others.”

“His type?

“The land poor upper classes at middle age.”

*     *     *     *     *

I went over to Pembroke in the evening, finding only one of the servants about, a young maid named Mary, a rosy cheeked, fair complexioned lass. Carlyle explained that his wife was most keen on having staff live in the village, not at the Hall, but last night he’d been uncomfortable in the large house and proposed someone might stay a week or two while he became accustomed to the quiet.

“Everyone begged off the duty, except young Mary here.”

I’d seen Mary around town and overheard my young constables chatting about her. Last summer she’d blossomed. Noticeably. And her spending went more to lipstick and eye liner than larger blouses. When Mary brought us whiskey and sodas, Carlyle’s languid eyes, and her mincing step suggested there may have been more to Mary’s duties than answering the door and cleaning.

“One more thing before I go. The night of the party, the Moncrieff’s seem to think that your wife left first.”

“Curious. I looked around and someone that told me she was caught up in a game of bridge.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember who told you?”

Carlyle cocked his head in a “no.”

I walked toward the door, and as a last minute thought, asked, “Tell me, what were the relations between Mr. Moncrieff and your wife? Anything more than good neighbors?”

“I rather had suspicions of something going on between them.”

“And you and Mrs. Moncrieff?”

“Really, Chief Inspector. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.”

Mary showed me to the door. As she opened it, I asked her, “We understand from the RSPB that they sent a letter by Royal Mail Sameday to Mrs. Carlyle the morning she died. Did you see the letter in the post?”

“Well, the Mister was there beside me when the post arrived and took it, actually he more like grabbed it from me hand, said he’d deliver it to the Missus.” She reached for my hand, “Sir, about . . .” And then Carlyle called her from the library. “Later,” she said, in an urgent whisper.

*     *     *     *     *

The next afternoon, when I walked into the station, Sergeant Sellman was there typing up reports. “Oliver, grab a cup of tea, one for me and let’s see where we are.”

“So, who wanted her dead?”

“Her husband, so her money didn’t go to the birds.” Sellman knew me better than to add literally. “Add to that the RSPB pledge form he claimed he knew nothing about, despite having grabbed it from Mary.”

Sellman looked back at his notes. “Then there’s Sara Moncrieff, a rival for Carlyle’s affections who might have wanted her out of the way.”

“And/or might have wanted retribution for the alleged affair between her husband and Mrs. Moncrieff,” I thought. “Or, welcomed an opportunity to switch husbands and enjoy Mrs. Carlyle’s money. Hugh Moncrieff is a bully, in addition to being borderline alcoholic.”

Sellman looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, “You know, sir, I don’t understand these people, their affairs.”

“Simple, my boy. Life can be quiet in the country.  When we lot want a bit of fun, we go down to the pub for a pint or two. That lot, they go up to the bedroom for a shag.”

“Both of them had an opportunity to smother her. Didn’t take much, given her condition. But we haven’t found the cushion or pillow that was used. Those we sent up to London for testing came back with only the servants’ prints on them.”

“Oliver, talk to Mary. Find out if she found anything amiss the next morning during her cleaning rounds.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Not so fast. If you’ve noticed, and it’s hard to believe you haven’t, this young girl is aching to get out of the village. From my experience, there are two ways, the right way and the wrong way. She appears bent on the latter.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman later reported that he found Mary at the chemist’s. “May I ask you some questions about your former mistress?”

“It’ll cost ya a tea and scone.”

They went to Bea’s Tea Room. I know the place, cozy with lace curtains, butter yellow walls and floral print chair covers. Mary said the day Mrs. Carlyle died, as every day, she counted the pillows on the chairs in the main salon and found one missing.

“She was quite particular, was the lady, didn’t trust a soul. Thought everybody was out to pinch something from her. Such a habit counting I had, even though she were a gonner, I did it anyway.”

“And did you find it?” Sellman said he nearly leaped across the table with hope.

Justified, when Mary said, “It was days later, stuffed into the linen closet, of all places. So put it back where it belonged, didn’t I. Now the others were brought back.”

Sellman bribed Mary with another scone and she took him back to Pembroke to recover the pillow.

*      *     *     *     *

After the tests on the new-found pillow were in, Sellman and I drove out to Carlyle’s house at day end. No one answered our knock. We opened the door and went through the house into the garden. Carlyle was stretched out on the chaise with a drink, Mabel on his arm. The setting sun ignited the yellow roses climbing the east wall. The remains of a cold plate and bottle of wine were on the table. A man at his ease. We watched him savor his last minutes of freedom. As the sun fell behind the wall, a murmuration of starlings traced wide circles in the evening sky.

Mabel sounded “kak, kak, kak.”

Carlyle loosened Mabel’s jesses and flung the bird into the sky. She climbed slowly, high above the starlings, wheeled, then dove and struck.

___

Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A novella in noir, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in June 2015. Some seventy-five short stories have been published in literary journals and included in ten anthologies. He has received two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award; first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He is currently writing a screenplay based on La Ronde and a novel based on original collage works of Beverly Mills. His website is www.townsendwalker.com

Everyone Must Do Great Things

by Eric Rasmussen

 

e could all tell, right away on the first day of Hjalmar’s freshman year, that he would grow up to be either president, or a super villain genius. In the teachers’ lounge at lunch we compared notes on the new kids, and Hjalmar received the most analysis. We speculated about his full suit, with vest, and his strange, almost British speech pattern. In World History he shared that he had taught himself Italian over the summer. In Calculus II, surrounded by seniors, he discussed how he intended to test out of the class at semester and start taking math courses at the university.

In Health, I got the story of his name. During the first time through the attendance list, most of the kids told me what they wanted to be called, “Josh” instead of “Joshua,” that sort of thing. When I got to Hjalmar’s name, I chuckled.

“Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad,” I said. “Not much you can do with that, is there?”

“It’s Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad, the fourth,” he said. “My great-grandfather was an admiral in the Swedish Royal Navy.”

“Cool,” I said. “So, Vilgy then? H-Blad?” A few students laughed. “Hjalvil?”

“Hjalmar will suffice,” he said, face flat, like he was choosing what type of potato he wanted with dinner. “Thank you.”

Four years later Hjalmar stopped in my room one day after school and sat in the same desk he did as a freshman, with his back impossibly straight, the knot in his tie impeccable, his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded on the writing surface. But this time he wore an expression I had never seen from him before. He was confused. “I assume they did not do it on purpose.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling while his Rhodes Scholar brain ran through all the possible explanations for the insult. “But I am unable to imagine a situation in which it could have been an accident.”

I leaned on my podium, sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know, man. I’m lost, too. I hope it wasn’t on purpose, but, you never know.” I smoothed my own tie, which was wrinkled and threadbare and covered in old yogurt stains.  “Most people are jerks. Maybe they were trying to get back at you.”

“For what?”

“You’re going to be a wildly rich uber-genius, and most of them are going to struggle to get through community college.”

“Everyone has always been quite nice to me.”

“Graduation’s just around the corner. Maybe it just occurred to them.”

The yearbook lay open on the desk between us, and under his picture and his ridiculous name was the offense we were trying analyze. H-blad had submitted an appropriately brainy and intellectual quotation, which would stand out amongst his classmates’ nuggets of wisdom courtesy of Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are,” by Soren Kirkegaard, translated from the original Dutch. Instead, what they printed, in all caps, was a little less profound. “MONEY, CASH, HOES – WHAT!” by the Kirkegaard of modern hip-hop, Jay-Z.

If Hjalmar felt offended, or embarrassed, or upset, I couldn’t tell. He looked lost. He could handle the sorts of high-level calculus problems that most of us mortals would never understand, but this problem stumped him, and not knowing the answer was a strange feeling for him.

“Do you know how it happened?” I asked.

“I spoke with Mrs. Gerhart, and she showed me the printed proofs with the correct quotation.” Hjalmar shifted in the desk. It was too small for him. It was too small for all of them. “That means someone must have altered the digital file after the final edits were entered.”

“Aren’t there thirty kids in the yearbook class? That’s a lot of suspects.”

“Students were locked out of the folder as soon as the revisions took place. Only staff members had access to it after that point.”

“Yikes.” Warm May afternoons always made my classroom too hot. I loosened my tie, wiped my forehead, and unstuck the shirt clinging to my back. “So a student must have used a teacher’s computer then.”

“That is the conclusion I came to. And there is nothing to be done. Almost two-thousand copies were printed.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“It is fine.”

High school stood for so many different things to so many different students. For some it’s the best four years of their lives, for others it’s the worst. A couple of them meet their future spouses in the brick hallways, and everyone finds a lifelong enemy or two. A lot of kids count graduation as a huge accomplishment. Not Hjalmar. For him, high school was a nuisance, a hoop, and maybe the other people in the school hated him for it.

I sat down in the desk next to him. “There’s something you should think about.”

“What’s that, Mr. Brunner?”

“How you want to get back at them. How you want to make them pay.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Hjalmar stopped back later that week, and he did everything I suggested, without question or objection. It’s what made so many people love him, and it’s what made so many people hate him.

“The first thing you need to do,” I told him, “is to show them that this little stunt didn’t harm you at all. You need to prove that you found it just as funny as they did.” Hjalmar sat in the desk in the front of my room and took notes, with perfect penmanship, perfect order, perfect lines. When I paused he looked up from his leather portfolio and hundred-dollar pen to smile, but not in a demeaning or conspiratorial way. The turn of his lip and his eye contact were simply courteous, a small act to let me know that he heard what I had to say and respected the communication. He used the same look freshmen year in Health class when I stood at the front of the room and explained the effects of illegal drugs, or the food pyramid. At first it made me nervous. Later I found myself preparing more for Hjalmar’s class period, practicing my lectures in my head over breakfast and on my drive to school. Not much after that I grew to hate Hjalmar’s stark, unflinching attention.

“I have a few ideas,” I said.

“Should we be talking about this?” asked Hjalmar. “Should you be worried about your job?”

I laughed. It was a mad scientist laugh, much louder than I meant. “No,” I said. “Absolutely not. No one pays attention to what I do. My job is totally safe.”

“I understand,” said Hjalmar. “I would love to hear your ideas, Mr. Brunner. Thank you.”

On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, six days before the end of the school year, Hjalmar finished his lunch of carrot sticks and a peanut butter sandwich, wiped out his plastic containers, and repacked them in his spotless insulated lunch bag.

“Excuse me,” he said to the people he ate lunch with, his chess club and Academic Decathlon teammates. Maybe they were friends, or maybe they all just served as resume window-dressing for each other. “I have a task to complete, so I shall speak with you all later.”

Hjalmar disposed of his empty milk carton and his napkin in the garbage can as he left the cafeteria. He nodded at the assistant principal who leaned against the wall. “Good afternoon, Mr. King,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Lindblad,” said Mr. King. “Good to see you.”

“You as well.” Hjalmar walked down the wide hallway to the main office. He straightened his tie and ran his hand through his hair before opening the heavy door.

“Hjalmar!” said one of the attendance ladies. No one in the school liked Hjalmar more than the attendance ladies. He brought them homemade fudge at Christmas and scented candles for Secretary’s Day.

Hjalmar placed his hand on the counter and looked the attendance lady in the eye. “Did your granddaughter’s ear infection clear up?”

“Yes it did, thanks for asking,” she said. She moved her computer keyboard to the side of her workspace and leaned towards Hjalmar. “And I have to say, I am absolutely flattered you invited me to your graduation party. I never get invitations to those things.”

“I would be honored if you could attend.”

“Of course I’ll be there. Can I bring anything? Your poor mother is going to be swamped trying to feed everyone.”

“That is very kind. But we will be fine.”

“You sure? I can put together a seven-layer salad.”

Hjalmar rested his hand on the attendance lady’s. “You have already done more than enough for me over the years. Please let me say thank you with the party.”

“Of course.” She straightened in her chair and shivered her shoulders.

“The reason for my visit,” he said, “is that Mr. Brunner believes he forgot some papers in the PA room. May I go in and check?”

“Absolutely.” The attendance lady handed Hjalmar the key on the long chain that hung next to her station.

“Thank you,” Hjalmar said. “Have a fantastic day.”

“You too, dear.”

Hjalmar passed the attendance desk and entered the short hallway back to the administrators’ offices. He unlocked the door to the room where the ancient announcement equipment sat stacked in the corner. He flipped every tiny knob that corresponded to every room’s speaker to “On.” From his Italian leather shoulder bag he removed an unlabeled compact disc and placed it in the old CD player they used for the school fight song and the pre-recorded messages from the superintendent. He pressed the gummy play button, then switched on the microphone. Silent as his smart kid math class during test time, he rested the microphone on the table in front of CD player speakers, grabbed his bag, and left the small room. On his way out, he mashed a ball of firm modeling clay into the lock on the door.

“Thank you very much,” he said with a nod as he handed the key back to the attendance lady and left the office with plenty of time to walk to his sixth hour class.

It was a brilliant plan. Thirty-five minutes of silence preceded the song, more than long enough to cause all the morons in the office to doubt Hjalmar’s guilt. They would figure out he was the last person in the room, but they would never believe that he would mastermind such a prank. Someone else must have snuck into the PA room. Some other hooligan must have found a way.

Halfway through sixth hour, while all the students slumped in their desks and fought to stay awake during the lectures and movies and small-group activities, while all the teachers stood at the fronts of their rooms and talked as if what they had to say mattered, as if whatever of value they had to offer the world hadn’t been co-opted years ago by Youtube, the song exploded into the school at full panic volume. Mr. Jay-Z sang about fucking all the haters, his good friend DMX joined in to discuss his willingness to shed blood for his niggaz, and the whole building awoke into a beautiful chaotic dance. The students smiled and straightened up and bounced in their desks. The teachers ran to their phones to alert administration to the crisis, or they ran to find something to cover the loudspeaker, or they ran back and forth across the fronts of their rooms, unsure of what to do but convinced they had to do something.

Down in administration, Mr. King burst out of his office. “Give the me the god-damned key,” he shouted at the attendance ladies, who rushed to bring it to him. He attempted to unlock the door, but the clay made that impossible.

“Someone jammed the lock,” he said.

“What should I do?” said the attendance lady.

“Hell if I know,” he said. “Get a paperclip so we can pick it out.”

They failed to unlock the door before the song ended. The whole time Hjalmar sat in his AP Chemistry class and continued to take notes. I didn’t have a sixth hour class, so no one got to see the look on my face.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Next, you have to make them all suffer a little,” I said, and this caused Hjalmar to look up from his portfolio.

“But I am certain this was the fault of only a few students,” said Hjalmar.

“A few students acting on behalf of your whole class.” I shook my head like this news was as painful for me to say as it was for him to hear. “This is super awkward, but you’re on a different level than all of them. Even if only a couple of them are responsible for switching the quotation, I guarantee every single one of them laughed when they saw it. They all thought you deserved it.”

“I am not willing to hurt anyone.”

“Of course,” I said. “No, for sure, we’re not talking anything illegal. It’s not like you need to shoot up the school!” I laughed, Hjalmar did not. “But you have to do something.”

Years before they hired me, the principal made a deal with the senior class. If they agreed to no senior pranks, no skip days, no big attendance or behavior problems, then the school would host an amazing all-night graduation party. And that party was incredible. Fully catered with live music from bands the kids actually listened to. Everyone who attended got a prize, hundred-dollar gift cards, electronics, all the way up to the grand prize, which was a car, a full, real, working used car, donated by one of the auto dealers out by the highway. The whole community came together to put on this unbelievable send-off for the graduates, and all they had to do was not make any trouble.

“You need to let them know that no matter how jealous they are, they can’t get away with treating people like they treated you.”

Thursday afternoon, four days before the last day of school, Hjalmar drove his spotless Range Rover two towns over to buy chickens. The farmer normally charged fifteen dollars apiece for the birds, but the old man was so impressed with Hjalmar’s polite demeanor and genuine interest in the intricacies of the corn-planting season that he sold the four hens and a rooster for only forty bucks. Hjalmar put the birds in an old dog kennel in the back of his truck and returned home.

At 2:45 in the morning, Hjalmar’s alarm went off. He dressed all in black. He drove to the school and parked back behind the auto shop, where the overhang above the service door was just low enough to climb on with the assistance of a stepladder. Before scurrying up to the roof, he tied one end of a rope to the top of the dog kennel, and clipped the other end to one of his belt loops. He pulled the kennel up slowly so he didn’t upset the birds. They clucked softly when the swinging of the cage found too big an arc, but Hjalmar’s world of lines and vectors, of forces and acceleration helped him calm the movement before each pull upward.

The center of school featured a courtyard that used to hold picnic tables, until the custodians got sick of picking lunch garbage out of the grass. One summer they landscaped the green space into a Zen garden, and locked the doors. Getting the chickens in the courtyard was easy. Hjalmar tossed them from the roof and they floated to the ground in a flurry of feathers and nearly vestigial wings. Hanging the sign in the garden where everyone would see it was quite a bit harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

No one noticed until first hour had nearly ended. Birds flew into the courtyard all the time, and the sign was so well done that it looked like it belonged there, like it had been there the whole time. But as soon as one student noticed the chickens pecking through the bushes, all the students in all the rooms that surrounded the yard rushed to the windows like a flock. That was when they all saw the sign, pleasant and inoffensive but more than clear enough to implicate the trespassers. “Good morning, Harrison High. Thanks for the ‘eggcellent’ four years! Love, the Seniors.”

The real show started in the middle of second hour, when both assistant principals, two maintenance guys, and the ag science teacher tried to catch the birds. They chased the animals, bent at the waist with arms out like toddlers chasing stray balls. One of the maintenance guys fell whenever he tried to turn a sharp corner, his fingers inches away from one of the bird’s necks. Some of the teachers in the surrounding rooms fought for their students’ attention, but they lost. For nearly an hour, all of second and well into third period, the spectators picked their favorites, man or beast, and cheered or booed at the close calls. The strictest disciplinarian teachers shut their shades, but there was nothing they could do to block out the noise of the crowd.

I didn’t have a courtyard room, so I gave my second hour class a worksheet and excused myself to the Spanish room to watch. Hjalmar had English second hour in a different part of the building, so he didn’t get to enjoy the show either. In person, at least. Dozens of videos of the circus made it online by lunchtime. But Hjalmar was back in his desk at the front of my room at the end of the day to hear the principal come on the loudspeaker.

“I hate to do this, but we have a tradition here at Harrison, and that’s something we need to take seriously. Due to the incident in the courtyard this morning, the senior post-graduation party has been cancelled. I repeat, the senior post-graduation party…”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“And most important, you have to show them that you’re not ashamed. You know who you are and you’re proud and you’re never going to let them bring you down.”

Hjalmar leaned back to think, and he came up with the exact right answer, like I knew he would.

“I could use my valedictory speech at graduation to deliver that message.”

“That’s a fantastic idea. Hjalvil for the win!” I leaned over to give him a high-five, and he hit my hand so hard it reverberated through my shoulder. Hjalmar apparently didn’t give many high-fives. “You need to let them know that you are the only one in that whole fucking auditorium who is going places. You are the only one who will succeed.” I wanted to take his pen and just write it for him. “Right? You need to let them know that whatever big plans and dreams they have aren’t going to come true. Yours will. Theirs won’t.”

“What if I title the speech ‘Everyone Must Do Great Things’? And then discuss how most of them will fall short?”

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “A really great idea.”

The graduation ceremony took place on Wednesday evening. The whole ridiculous pageant looked like it did every year. Pictures on the lawn, hollow thank-you hugs and handshakes for all the teachers. Girls in wobbly high heels and boys in too-tight ties. Mothers dabbing their eyes and younger siblings asking when they could leave. At 6:00, the crowd found their seats in the musty auditorium. The band played, the principal talked. Before the mind-numbing procession of diploma handouts, Hjalmar stood up from his seat amongst his classmates and walked to the stage. The crowd clapped for him, not long, not loud, but respectful. A more deserving valedictorian had never walked across that stage, and probably never would.

He stood tall and smiled. He didn’t bring any notes with him, because a person like Hjalmar doesn’t need notes. When his classmates were little kids imagining themselves hitting homeruns and winning beauty pageants, Hjalmar had been picturing this speech. He cleared his throat and began.

“In a few minutes, we will all graduate, and we will all embark on our journeys into this world. Some of us will travel far, others will settle closer to home. As we begin the incredible work it takes to build our lives, I would like to share something I have learned during my four years here at Harrison High, and especially over the past few weeks. Maybe happiness is not found in a resume full of accomplishments, in a long list of titles. Maybe happiness is something we find in people and in connections. Perhaps this is contrary to what we have been told, but my advice to all of us is this: Not everyone must do great things. Our greatness will be measured by the people we affect.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the speech.

The principal made all us teachers stand outside the auditorium after the ceremony in a big receiving line, and I found a place at the end. Hjalmar came out last. He shook my hand and gave me his politician smile.

“What happened in there?” I asked, lowering my voice so the English teacher standing next to us couldn’t hear. “That’s not what we talked about at all.”

“I wanted to let you know, Mr. Brunner,” Hjalmar said, still holding my hand tight, “that I used Mrs. Gerhart’s computer to determine who last accessed the yearbook file to change the quotation. I understand what happened.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The computer in your classroom was used to make the change. You made the change.” Hjalmar didn’t look confused any more. “Why did you do it?”

“Whoa. I didn’t do anything.” It was so fucking hot out, I wanted to loosen my tie, but I couldn’t. Hjalmar wouldn’t let go of my hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Most people are jerks, maybe? Is that why?”

I held eye contact with him, forcing myself to return his gaze. “You’ve got this all wrong.”

“I do not get things wrong, Mr. Brunner. I have known the whole time.”

Across the yard in front of the school, the graduates gathered into a group to throw their hats into the air, while all the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles made a big circle around them to take pictures. “Three… two… one!” shouted one of the students, and the mortarboards went up and everyone laughed like they had all done something so special. They laughed like they had accomplished anything at all. Hjalmar was the only one not in the group, but he was used to that.

“Does anyone else know?” I asked

“No,” said Hjalmar.

“What happens now?”

“That depends on who comes forward to confess to the chicken prank, and the song. That depends on whether or not we get our party.”

One week later, they got their party. The music from the gym reverberated around the building and pulsed through the walls. I wanted to stop down. Maybe some of them wanted say thanks, since I’m the reason it all worked out, but I was too busy cleaning out my desk.

___

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Sundog LitPithead ChapelBlack Fox LiteraryMulberry Fork ReviewChariton Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as Assistant Fiction Editor at The Indianola Review and founded the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand.