11.4

Damning with Faint Praise

By Lenny Levine

t must have been a hundred degrees in the auditorium. Michael Trowbridge, sweating bullets under his robe and mortarboard cap, strained to hear what the principal was saying. He didn’t want to look like an idiot and miss his name when he was called to the stage.

His friend Ralphie wasn’t helping, trying to tell him a stupid joke about someone giving advice on what to say on a blind date, whispering in his left ear.

“So the guy’s buddy says, ‘You’ve gotta compliment her, right off the bat. You’ve gotta say something nice to her as soon as she opens the door.’” Ralphie giggled in anticipation of the punch line, as Michael desperately tried to ignore him.

“Well, he gets to the girl’s house and she’s ugly as sin, a real porker. I mean, grotesque to the max. But the guy remembers his buddy’s advice, so he says, ‘Hey, you don’t seem to sweat much for a fat girl!’”

Ralphie cracked up laughing as the principal intoned, “And the winner of this year’s award for Perfect Attendance is…Michael Trowbridge.”

“Way to go, genius!” said Ralphie, slapping him on the back and cracking up again.

Michael stood and made his way down the aisle, to the feeble clap-clapping of his parents in the balcony. His fellow graduates watched him impassively as he gingerly mounted the steps to the stage, trying not to trip on his gown and humiliate himself for all eternity.

The Perfect Attendance Award. He’d never known such a thing existed until this morning, when they told him he’d won it. Now, here he was, forced to stand in front of everyone, right along with the Science Award winner, the History Award winner, and all the other brainiacs.

He’d been lucky to even graduate this year. If the gym teacher hadn’t taken pity and given him a B, bringing him up to the required C average, he’d be getting ready for summer school right now.

The principal gave him the plaque and shook his hand, barely glancing at him. Michael took his place between Phil Gennero, the Math Award winner, and Jane Sadowski, the Economics Award winner. Phil Gennero had never spoken a word to Michael before, but he did now.

“They say success is just showing up, so I guess you’re the proof of it.”

Jane Sadowski chuckled softly.

Michael’s face reddened. He looked down at the plaque he was holding and saw that they’d spelled his name “Trobridge.”

He wanted to cry.

Then a thought occurred, unbidden. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?

He had no idea where it came from, or what it meant. Did it have something to do with the dream he had last night, the one that yanked him out of his sleep at two a.m.?

Usually, he remembered nightmares, at least for the first few seconds afterward. But he’d forgotten this one as soon as he opened his eyes. He was wide awake and sitting straight up in bed, unable to go back to sleep and unable to shake a feeling of impending disaster.

The principal was introducing the valedictorian now, a tiny, birdlike girl who seemed almost swallowed up in her gown. He lowered the microphone for her, stepped aside, and she began her speech in a whispery voice.

It was about learning to think independently. Michael barely paid attention, still wondering what he was doing there, feeling like everyone was secretly laughing at him.

The girl was speaking. “And just as you must ignore people who discourage you, you must doubly ignore people who praise you.”

Michael felt a twinge of unease. He didn’t know why, but it made him start listening to her.

“We all love praise,” she went on, in that whispery voice that was starting to sound creepy, “but praise is like candy. It tastes so sweet, you want more and more of it, until you can’t get enough.”

If he was sweating before, now it was pouring out of him. He blinked, trying to clear his vision as the vast auditorium in front of him began swimming before his eyes. What was happening?

“But inside each delicious morsel of praise is a tiny grain of poison. You can’t taste it, but it will fester within you and slowly eat away your soul until it dies.”

Michael fainted.

*   *   *

He lay on a cot in the nurse’s office, a tube running into his right arm for hydration, as his parents stood over him.

“Leave it to you,” his mother said, “spoiling that poor girl’s moment.”

She was an obese woman, whose body practically eclipsed his father’s slight frame as he stood behind her. Ralphie sat across the room, one hand over his mouth to hide the smirk.

“Come on, Edna,” said his father, “it was the heat. Give him a break!”

“I’m sorry, Bill, but he’s always looking for some way to call attention to himself, and it’s not right.”

“He wasn’t trying to…”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“Listen, everybody, I’m fine,” said Michael.

He’d been out for only a second, and he’d immediately tried to get up. But the principal had insisted he lie there until the nurse could come to the stage and examine him, completing his mortification.

“One thing’s for sure,” his mother declared, “you’re calling off that stupid band rehearsal tonight and staying home.”

Ralphie’s smirk vanished. “Hey, no, please, Mrs. Trowbridge, don’t make him do that. We’ve got a manager coming to see us, and…”

“Don’t worry, Ralphie,” Michael interjected, raising his head from the pillow. “We’re not calling off the rehearsal tonight. No friggin’ way.”

“You watch your mouth!” said his mother. “Just ’cause you graduated high school doesn’t mean you get to use foul language.”

“Sorry, Mom, but we really do need to rehearse tonight, especially me. And incidentally, I’m fine.” He looked up at the bag attached to his arm, wishing the nurse would unhook him already, so he could get out of there.

After a few minutes, his wish was granted. She came back into the room, checked his blood pressure and pulse, disconnected the IV, and pronounced him good to go.

“Great!” he said, grabbing his cap and gown, his diploma, and the useless award they’d given him. “Let’s rock and roll!”

But he still didn’t know what came over him on that stage. And he still didn’t know why he had this feeling that something awful was about to happen. Or worse, that it already had.

*   *   *

They called their band The Plug-ins. Ralphie played drums, their friend Steve Philbart played bass, and Michael played guitar and sang. They basically sucked, but he didn’t care. As embarrassed as he’d been during graduation, that’s how liberated Michael felt whenever he was in front of a microphone, croaking out Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi songs off-key on open-mic nights.

The audiences either ignored them or shouted rude remarks. It didn’t matter. Michael would close his eyes and, for a few brief moments, become the Boss, sending a packed stadium into a frenzy.

Last night, maybe because graduation was the next day and they’d been distracted, their set was particularly sloppy. As they were packing up, a short, stocky man wearing a brown suit and a toupee came up and introduced himself as Harry Magnus. He handed each of them a business card that read Magnus Management: We Make Music Legends.

“I’ve seen lots of bands,” he told them, “but I think you guys are something special. If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn you into superstars.”

He claimed to have been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Sting, John Mayer, Bruno Mars, and many others.

“Now, I know you’re gonna Google me, and you’ll think I’m full of shit because you won’t find anything at all. But that’s the way I work, behind the scenes. Deeply behind the scenes.”

“So,” Ralphie asked reasonably, “how do we know you really aren’t full of shit?”

“Because I’ll prove it to you. How would you like to open for Joe Walsh this Saturday night at the Rock Palace?”

“What?!” they said.

“I can do it with a simple call. And I will. Check out the ad for the show in tomorrow’s paper and you’ll see your name there, right under Joe Walsh.”

The three of them nodded slowly.

“In the meantime, I’d like to come to a rehearsal, give you a few pointers. Where do you guys get together?”

“Steve’s parents’ garage,” Michael said and instantly regretted it. This man could be crazy. He sure sounded like he was. Michael wondered if he should’ve told him even that much.

“What’s the address?”

Steve gave it to him before Michael could say anything. The man wrote it down.

“When’s your next rehearsal?”

“Tomorrow night,” said Ralphie, “but this gig you just got us, if it’s real, is only two days away. Do you think we’re ready?”

“Oh, you’re ready,” the man said with a smile. “See you at the rehearsal tomorrow night.”

He shook hands with all of them and departed.

“Wow, how about that?” Ralphie said.

“How about nothing,” said Michael. “This is ridiculous; the guy is certifiable. We’ll check out the paper tomorrow morning, and that’ll be the end of it.”

But unbelievably, in the Friday Entertainment section, there it was:

 

Saturday, June 5th, at 9 P.M., The Rock Palace Presents

An Evening With Joe Walsh!

Then in smaller type, but not much smaller:

 

Special Added Attraction, The Plug-ins!

 

*   *   *

They told no one. They’d agreed to secrecy in hurried whispers as they got ready to march down the aisle with their classmates. If anyone happened to notice the ad in the paper, there was nothing they could do. But most people didn’t even know what their band was called, so they probably didn’t have to worry.

That night, when they got together in the garage, Michael told them he might have figured out what was going on.

“Obviously, there’s another group called The Plug-ins. I mean, it’s not impossible, right? That ad has been in the paper all week. When he noticed our band had the same name, he decided to prank us. I’ll bet if we check yesterday’s paper, we’ll see the same ad as today’s, with our name included.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” said Ralphie, whipping out his phone.

But they couldn’t find any ads for the show in the online version of the paper.

“Shit, we need to find a print version,” said Michael.

“I think I may have one,” said Steve, moving over to the back wall. “My parents always stack the papers and recyclables here in the garage. Wait a minute.”

He rummaged around briefly and came up with it. “Yes!” he said.

The others peered over his shoulder as he turned to the Entertainment section.

The ad referred only to Joe Walsh. No mention of The Plug-ins or anyone else.

“Hey there, guys!”

Harry Magnus was standing in the open garage doorway. He seemed to have just appeared there. They’d been so intent on finding the ad that they hadn’t seen him walking up the driveway, even though it was long and straight, and the exterior lights were on.

“I see you have some pretty crappy equipment here,” he said, stepping inside and looking around. “Not to worry. You’ll have a state-of-the-art setup tomorrow night.”

Michael was the first to find his voice. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Magnus? Why are you doing this? We’re not nearly good enough. In fact, we suck. Anyone who hears us knows that immediately.”

“You mind if I close this?” asked Magnus, reaching up and pushing the button that shuts the garage door. “There, that’s better.”

He stood with his back to it, facing the three of them.

“I know what you think of yourselves. But it’s only because you haven’t begun to work with me yet. It will all change, you’ll see.”

“By tomorrow night?” Michael said.

“Sooner than that. Pick up your instruments and play something for me. Anything.”

Ralphie moved behind the drums while Steve and Michael put on their bass and guitar. They spent a few seconds tuning up, a process that was mostly successful and as close as they usually got.

“What are we gonna play?” Steve asked. “Something Springsteen?”

“Let’s do ‘Dancing in the Dark,’” Michael suggested.

Ralphie counted it off and they launched into it, much faster than the count-off. It immediately became slower, then faster again.

Michael closed his eyes, stepped up to the mic, and let it rip.

I get up in the evening (flat on the last two notes) and I ain’t got nothin’ to say. I come home in the morning (the same two notes now painfully sharp) I go to bed feeling the same way. I ain’t nothin’ but tired…

Steve tilted his bass and whipped his head back to make his hair fly, playing several wrong notes and not noticing.

Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself. Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help…

Ralphie had stopped playing at this point. He was bent over, trying to retrieve one of the sticks he’d dropped trying to twirl it. He picked it up and then did the same with the tempo.

You can’t start a fire, Michael rasped, as Ralphie pulled ahead of him. You can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire…

“Okay, stop!” Harry Magnus called out.

He strode across the garage to the drums and stood over Ralphie. “Look me in the eye.” Ralphie blinked and then did as he was told.

“You’re an empty barrel, Ralphie; all you do is make a lot of noise. But not anymore.” Ralphie blinked again. “I’m going to turn you into Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, and Ginger Baker, all wrapped up in one.”

Michael wondered how he knew Ralphie’s name. They never told him their names, aside from the one reference to Steve’s parents’ garage.

“Give me your sticks, stand up, and move away from the drum set, please.”

Ralphie, with a shrug to the other guys, complied. Magnus sat down at the drums.

“You’re going to watch everything I do,” he said, and suddenly Ralphie was mesmerized.

“Good,” said Magnus.

He then proceeded to play the most incredible drum solo they’d ever heard. It went on for several minutes, with explosive crescendos and intricate polyrhythmic figures. His sticks were a blur, flashing from cymbals to snare to toms and back again with blinding speed, his feet pounding the double bass drums like artillery fire. It concluded with a crash that rattled the garage walls.

“There,” he said, standing up and returning the sticks to Ralphie. “Now sit back down.” Ralphie did so in a daze.

“Steve,” said Magnus, turning to him, “you’re not going through a very good time right now, are you? It’s tough when your parents are getting a divorce.”

“Holy shit, Steve,” Michael blurted out, this being news to him. “Is that true?”

It was news to Ralphie too, but he was still in a trance.

“You feel like you’re alone in the world,” Magnus went on as Steve gaped at him, “because all your parents care about is their hatred for each other. It really sucks, doesn’t it? The only thing that gives you any pleasure at all is that bass around your neck, the one you play so godawful shitty.”

Steve nodded meekly.

“But that’s all in the past, Steve. You’re going to become an amazing bass player, right up there with the greatest musicians who ever played bass. Give me your instrument, please.”

Michael would swear he never saw Steve take off the bass. It seemed to float from his shoulders into Magnus’s hands. “Don’t look away from me,” he said, and Steve instantly became a zombie like Ralphie.

Magnus began playing a funk figure, making the strings pop with percussive sounds, moving to an unexpected chord change and back, laying down an infectious groove. It morphed into a Motown-style bass line that would have been the rock-steady heart of a sixties mega-hit. He kept it going, adding a melody on top with the use of harmonics. Finally, he slipped into a smooth jazz progression that Miles Davis would have been proud to improvise over, before tearing into the dizzying string of descending notes that concluded it.

“You got all that?” he asked Steve, handing him back his bass. “Good.”

“Now, Michael . . .” Michael’s palms went clammy. “Your mother has a pretty low opinion of you, doesn’t she? She says you shouldn’t try to call attention to yourself, because you don’t deserve it. She’s absolutely right, you know.”

Tears sprang to his eyes. He tried to speak, but his lips wouldn’t open.

“Look at yourself. Why should anyone pay attention to you? You barely made it through high school. You can’t sing, you can’t play. All you can do is close your eyes up there and masturbate in front of everyone.”

“Please, don’t…” Michael managed, before his mouth stopped working again.

“And the thing is, you know it. You know it deep down in your soul, and you hate yourself for it. You wish that, somehow, it could all magically change, that by some miracle, you could be like Bruce Springsteen. The glorious object of praise.”

The tears were running down Michael’s face.

“Well, guess what?” said Magnus. “You can. Give me your guitar.”

Michael was unaware of taking it off. The next thing he knew, Magnus was wearing his guitar.

“You will not look away,” Magnus told him, “even for a nanosecond.”

He tore into a rapid-fire solo, his fingers dancing along the strings as the guitar keened and wailed and tore virtual holes in the air. Then he switched to a driving rhythm figure, growling as it boiled.

He began to sing to it, a song Michael had never heard before.

Hey, baby, look at me

The only one you’ll ever see

From now throughout eternity

And that’s the way it’s gonna be

His voice was rough, smooth, mellifluous, and earthy, all at the same time. He repeated the chorus, varying the melody and displaying a vast range that went from deep bass to a screaming falsetto, finally shrieking out the last note.

He took off the guitar and gave it back to a stupefied Michael.

“Okay, fellas,” he said, “let’s hear ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ take two.”

They stared at each other. Then, almost robotically, Ralphie counted it off.

The tempo was locked in now, so tight it squeaked. Steve’s bass lay down a solid foundation for Michael’s guitar, both of them now perfectly in tune and playing off each other. Michael opened his mouth and couldn’t believe what came out.

His voice was pure Springsteen, just like the record, and he wasn’t imagining it. He really sounded that way. Not only that, he was varying the original melody, doing vocal riffs off of it, taking it to another level. The song ended and they stood there in wonder.

“Not too shabby,” said Magnus. “Okay, here’s the deal. You’ll do six songs tomorrow night, all Springsteen. I’ll give you the set list before you go on. Don’t worry, you’ll perform them just as well as you did this one.

“You will not rehearse between now and then because it won’t do you any good. The only time you’ll sound this way is tomorrow night on that stage. After that, we’ll discuss the future.”

“Are you gonna ask us to sign some sort of contract?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” said Magnus. “We all shook hands last night at the club, remember? That’s the only contract I’ve ever needed.”

A wisp of a memory tickled the back of Michael’s brain. It was that dream, and it faded instantly again, replaced by the same feeling of dread, only more of it.

*   *   *

It was an absolute triumph! They did the set list Magnus gave them, starting with “Glory Days” and ending with “Born to Run,” and they played and sang amazingly.

But Michael couldn’t enjoy it, somehow. The strangeness seemed to overwhelm the wonder. He hadn’t told his parents, saying he was going to another rehearsal tonight. His father was curious about why they’d rehearse on a Saturday night, but he didn’t make a thing over it.

Ralphie and Steve hadn’t told anyone either, perhaps in fear that it might turn out to be an embarrassment after all. It was far from it.

The audience, at first, gave them lukewarm applause, but then they really got into it. These were, after all, great Classic Rock songs they were hearing, and Michael sounded exactly like Bruce. By the end, the crowd was on its feet, cheering.

It was surreal, as they drifted off the stage and into the wings. One of Joe Walsh’s roadies, going the other way, complimented Michael on his guitar.

“Nice Strat, dude,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Michael, even though it was just an ordinary Stratocaster and beat up, besides.

A group of girls was standing by the fire exit. “Love your shirt,” one of them said. “Love Springsteen,” said another.

“Thanks,” Michael said again, that ominous feeling growing.

Ralphie and Steve had preceded him into the dressing room. They were oohing and aahing over the buffet that had been left for them while they were onstage.

“This is really something, ain’t it?” said Ralphie, grinning widely.

“I could sure get used to this,” said Steve, picking up a canape and throwing it into his mouth.

Michael had no appetite. He couldn’t stop feeling like something was terribly wrong.

The door opened and Magnus came in.

“Well, guys, how did you like it?”

“It was great!” Ralphie and Steve said together.

“How about you, Michael?”

“Yeah, it was great,” he muttered.

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “I sense some hesitation on your part. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

They were the same words he’d thought on stage at graduation, just before the girl started speaking. It made him think of the dream again. It was there now, just beneath his consciousness.

“You wanted praise,” said Magnus. “I got it for you. I even got you that Perfect Attendance award, as a show of good faith.”

“But that’s nothing,” Michael blurted out. “Getting an award for just being there? It’s embarrassing.”

“I can’t help that,” said Magnus. “Didn’t you like what that roadie said to you, or those girls outside the dressing room?”

“He liked my guitar! What’s that got to do with me? And one girl liked my goddamn shirt! And the other one didn’t say anything about me. She just liked Springsteen!”

And then he remembered the dream.

He was standing in a field, and there was a raging fire in the distance. It was getting closer. He knew he had to run, but he couldn’t move. The heat was becoming more and more intense. He could see a face forming in the middle of the flames, Magnus’s face.

It spoke the same words Magnus would use in the garage the next night. About how Michael hated himself and wished his life could magically change, that by some miracle, he could become like Bruce Springsteen, the glorious object of praise. It asked him what he’d give for that.

“Everything,” he’d said.

And that’s when he woke up in a cold sweat.

“I told you guys that after the show we’d discuss the future,” Magnus was now saying. “Well, here’s the future. You’re going back to your lives just as they were. No more rock ’n’ roll acclaim for you. I said I’d turn you into superstars, but I never said for how long. And anyway, who gives a shit about a Bruce Springsteen cover band?

“You will not remember any of this. You’ll go home, and whatever is supposed to happen in your lives will happen. But in the end, even if you don’t think you deserve it, and believe me, nobody thinks they do, I’ll be there. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain. You’ll fulfill yours.”

He gave a malevolent grin and then vanished, leaving a burnt match smell behind.

The three of them stood there, stupefied. They didn’t even hear the knock on the door.

It came again, louder, and the door opened. A bearded man in his thirties stuck his head into the room.

“Hi, my name is Van Simmons,” he said, “and I’m a producer with Parkhill Records. I saw your show just now.” He grinned and shook his head. “Man, I’ve seen lots of rock ’n’ roll bands, but you guys are something special. Each and every one of you has such good posture!”

With a cheery wave, he stepped back outside and closed the door.

___

Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, he performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bitter Oleander, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The Griffin, Hobo Pancakes, The Jabberwock Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Penmen Review, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, Rougarou, Verdad, Westview, and Wild Violet. He received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.

The Voyeur

By Arthur Davis

t began this past April.

It was a bright, sky-blue Wednesday. I once thought it might have been April first, April Fool’s Day, the birthplace of lunacy, mayhem, and ill fortune.

I was working in a machine shop and doing odd jobs around town. No one took particular notice of a stocky, unremarkable thirty-four-year-old man with a slight stoop, who children considered peculiar and parents made a habit of acknowledging, if only tentatively, on the street.

Then, on that fateful April morning, beyond wandering around the endless garden plots, over the meandering paths that twisted and wove a labyrinth that enveloped my birthplace of Bainbridge Falls, Illinois, I took a lingering notice of the town cemetery.

I walked toward the cemetery, moving cautiously up the winding road, and paused between the mighty bronze gates, a gift from a local metal stamping company that went bankrupt in the early 1970s.

From the hilltop you could see all of Bainbridge Falls, although the town of four thousand wasn’t much of a sight. I roamed through the hodgepodge of overgrowth and weather-worn tombstones, reading the names and dates, making note of how peaceful such a lonesome stretch of earth could be.

I was quickly aware of a sense of belonging, yet this consecrated soil had been here all my life, swelling with life’s unfortunate finalists.

I continued my walk and absently slipped my hand into my pocket, and with my fingers traced the outline of what felt like a drill bit. I removed the object from my overalls and let it roll back and forth in my hand.

The five-inch, threaded strip of steel was so light that it felt like a bright metal feather. There wasn’t a scratch on the shank or tip of the gunmetal shaft. It was warm, and oddly comforting, though I couldn’t recall how it got there.

“Where’d you get this?” Gregory Clemmons asked, examining the bit the following afternoon in his machine shop.

Thoughts have always had a difficult time transforming themselves into speech for me, and when they finally arrived, they invariably had a way of exposing my simplicity.

This made many suspect. It gave them cause for concern and kept them at a distance. It gave them an excuse to turn their eyes away and pretend I wasn’t there. And so I learned not to be there for them, or for myself.

“Found it,” I managed to eke out. “Around.”

“Well, I never seen anything like it. Feels funny too.”

Gregory Clemmons was a large, beefy, indifferent sort, who had inherited the machine shop from his father, a man who elevated himself from junkyard dealer to mechanic to machinist to serving two short terms in the state penitentiary over in Joliet for auto theft. The father repented his sins, recanted his misdeeds, and became a devoted family man settling in Bainbridge.

Gregory worshipped him and in kind inherited his father’s late-blooming compassion for those less fortunate. So, when I showed up at his door a few years back he generously gave me what his father had taught him, what God would have wanted for the less fortunate.

“Yeah.” Then, in my halting stammer, I asked him if the silvery bit he had dropped back into my hand would cut through two or three inches of hardwood.

He first considered me, then my question, as though both were incapable of occupying the same space at the same time. “You going to use it in a drill press?”

“No,” I said with a short head shake. I often communicated with the slightest movement of eye, head, and lips, a shrug, wince, or frown.

“Hand drill?”

I picked up an electric drill.

“Small rechargeable hand drill?”

I nodded.

“Through two or three inches of hardwood?” he repeated.

I nodded again.

“Don’t know,” he said flipping a dog-eared catalog across his work bench, “but if you have any questions, whatever you’re looking for is probably going to be in there.”

The 1986 Everett’s Handtool Catalogue came from California, which I had heard was a place of decadence and desire. I carefully flipped through the pages. The schematics and detailed descriptions fascinated me.

I took the catalogue over to my cramped workbench and, page by page, flipped from electric sanders to power saws until I came to drill bits.

“It’ll take a month of Sundays if you do it that way, boy,” Clemmons said and returned to flirting with the Foley twins, a pair of overweight twenty-year-old girls who, it was rumored, liked to share their boyfriends.

I pulled the bit from my pocket and set in over many of the hundreds of illustrations, but none matched.

I put Everett’s Catalogue back with the dozens of other worn testaments to mechanical ingenuity and reexamined the plan that had wakened me this morning.

And it wasn’t that it came to me strange, from remote parts. It was just there. Fresh in my mind like the crest of a new midnight moon.

A week later I borrowed a battery-powered hand drill from Clemmons’ shop, salvaged a hollow aluminum tube about six feet long and two inches in diameter from the scrap heap out back, and returned to the exact spot on the side of the hill in the middle of the cemetery where it was difficult to be seen from every direction.

The gravestone of Linus Millard, the town’s last blacksmith, stood as a helpful marker.

I pressed the hollow opening of the tube into the soft earth directly over Melvin Connaught’s three-year-old grave. I pressed it down into the earth while rotating the tube in my hands, over and over. Every few inches I withdrew the tube and tamped out the core of earth that had collected in the bottom.

I’d never met Melvin Connaught and only learned of his death over in Rider Junction through the newspaper. He was a pharmaceutical salesman and lived with his stepfather. It was only when I saw him in my dreams, selling little red and blue pills, what the article described as amphetamines, to children that I knew he was the one.

The end of the tube was down around my knees when I felt it strike an obstruction. I pulled it up and emptied the core again.

Small rasps of wood were embedded in the bottom edge of the raw aluminum shaft. It was the coffin, and only four feet or so below the surface.

I wanted to go tell someone, anyone who would understand, but there was no one near and no one in my life who could grasp the importance of my mission.

I lived all my life this way, a kind, gentle soul living every moment in isolation and shades of failure, locked between the jaws of speechless abandon, yet infused with bubbling intentions.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing over there?”

I spun around sharply. It was Rusty Garner, the cemetery groundskeeper.

Instead of letting outright panic get the best of me, I simply raised my hands in surrender and walked toward him.

“Oh hell, man, it’s only you. You got me scared there for a second,” Rusty said. “What the hell are you doing up here?”

I shook my head and pointed to the wet stain on my knees.

“You fall?”

I nodded.

“Lost?”

I nodded again, this time with craven calculation.

“Spooky place,” Rusty said, setting his thumbs under his belt and looking down toward town. “Been up here so long, whenever I get visitors I think they’re intruding on my private property. Sounds crazy doesn’t it?”

I pointed to the path he had come up on and shook my head up and down, hoping to direct his attention away from where I had been caught.

“Come on,” he said, motioning me ahead of him, “and we’ll get you out of here.”

I walked back to town, crestfallen. I had been given a righteous task, and though the complete plan was not yet clear to me, it was mine, and it was exciting, and no one had handed it to me as a gratuity for which I was bound to be eternally beholden.

I was busy for the next few days, making repairs on a dozen small chain-saw motors a man named Hutchinson had bought in bulk from a dealer over in Lancaster. I liked the work. It kept me busy and I was good at it.

I finally mustered the courage to retrieve my equipment and drill bit. That was the week Doc Martin got pneumonia. He brought most of us into the world, and had he not been on vacation and left my mother to the incompetent devices of his young partner, Brian Willoughby, I believe my life might have turned out different.

A week of worsening illness finally took Doctor James Pearson Martin from those to whom he had devoted his life.

I planned to attend the funeral and honor the devoted eighty-four-year-old. I wanted to go, but seeing an opportunity, I decided to stay in town that stagnant, mournful, May afternoon.

I went around back to his office, pushed open the window and slipped into his examining room. I went to the sideboard and removed a small black case, opened it up to examine the contents, locked it up again, and left.

I knew this made me a thief, but not of Doc Martin, only of his loathsome partner, who I would have preferred be laid to rest in his place. And if it cost Willoughby something to replace what I had taken, then it was small compensation for leaving me maimed like this on the delivery room floor.

Dr. Brian Willoughby arrived that night in the delivery room drunk and, with the assistance of Ms. Carmine Dennison, his first cousin and as sorry an excuse for a registered nurse as there ever was, wrenched me from my mother’s womb, compressing my spinal column in such a fashion so as to leave me with a permanent twist in my frame, one side of my face frozen for all time and a weakening of my mind.

The next day I got up before dawn with my canvas bag of equipment and made my way to the cemetery through a different route to where Melvin Connaught was resting.

I sat on my haunches and scanned the rolling contours of Bainbridge Falls’ illustrious graveyard. I was again beset by that sweet, enticing silence. I felt at home. I could taste the warm welcome that surrounded me.

The hole I had driven in Melvin’s grave was barely noticeable. I picked up the piece of tubing and slipped it back into the hole and struck the coffin.

I attached a flexible extension rod to the mouth of the portable electric drill, and locked the bit onto the other end of the rod. I slipped the bit down into the tube until it could go no further.

I hesitated before turning on the switch. What had I done in my past lives to earn my incapacity, and which now left me hovering over a man’s grave and festering with suspicions that plagued me night and day?

I switched on the drill and pressed down. I could feel the bit grind into the hardwood coffin. I pressed down again, more cautiously this time. The magic bit easily breached the lid of Melvin’s tomb. When I pulled it up, there wasn’t a mark on it or a curl of wood snaking along the groves of the shaft.

I opened the wooden box I had taken from Doc Martin’s office and removed the two yards of flexible fiber-optic cable. Holding the cable in hand, I quickly realized how easily I had deceived myself.

“Stupid,” I moaned. “You forgot the monitor.”

Trying to get past the setback, I dropped the probe at the end of the black cable into the top of the aluminum tube, manipulating the control device at the other end of the instrument.

Instead of peering up into a live patient’s rectum, this had to count as some measure of success. I tried to imagine old Melvin down there. The clothes he was buried in would have to be sagging from what remained of his skeletal frame.

“What if he’s alive?” I considered, and pulled away from the grave. “Melvin?” I called out softly, my lips grazing the top of the aluminum tube. “Melvin, if you’re alive, knock twice.”

I had to make sure.

Nothing.

Maybe he stepped out for a smoke, or to get lunch? I grinned at the imagery.

I worked the flexible cable controls long after I told Clemmons I would return to repair a chain saw he had set out for me the night before. But I couldn’t tear myself away from the possibilities waiting before me in darkness.

Finally, I removed the cable and aluminum tube, packed up my kit, and walked down the hillside to the rickety old fence at the back side of the cemetery as though I had been transformed by this singular event and was immune from discovery or regret.

“Hey, you did a great job with the chain saw,” Clemmons said the next morning.

I wasn’t listening.

Connaught, for all his evil, died in the prime of life. Then, as quickly as I bordered on sympathy for the man, I realized that I had been blindly moving my probe into the darkness below for all that time without encountering any resistance.

But that couldn’t be. Where was Melvin Connaught?

Where were his remains or the fabric surrounding his body? Then I considered the possibility that I hadn’t pushed the probe deep enough into the coffin to actually make contact.

In my apprehension and ignorance, I had misjudged the distance between fact and fright. Melvin lay beyond the tip of the scope, probably laughing to himself about the fool who had tried to invade his privacy.

“Too bad about Doc Willoughby,” Clemmons mentioned, more to himself, when I entered.

I rapped on my workbench. It meant I wanted his attention. Sometimes it worked; mostly it took two or three tries for him to gather enough interest in my behalf to respond.

“Yeah?”

“Willoughby?” I muttered.

“He’s in the hospital,” I overheard one of the twins say. “It would be a shame to lose him after what just happened to Doc Martin.”

“Is he dying?” I motioned.

“No,” Clemmons said, “but he’s having a pretty bad time of it.”

As I reluctantly considered entering Doc Martin’s office, the idea of invading Willoughby’s space possessed me with absolute exhilaration.

“Liver problems. You know, he’s always been fond of the bottle.”

I knew. Everybody knew.

“I’m sure he’ll pull through, just as long as he isn’t treating himself,” Clemmons said and attended to the ringing phone on his desk.

Before the sun broke over the horizon I was inside Brian Willoughby’s office.

A large monitor rested on a corner table, which I started to separate from its electrical moorings then noticed a small leather suitcase in back of Willoughby’s examining table. I opened the suitcase cover and pulled out a small hand-held camera with a black connecting cable whose twisting configuration looked all too familiar.

It was a compact, portable version of what I was so laboriously trying to assemble.

Uncoiling the flexible black cable minutes later, I set the probe into the aluminum shaft, connected the cable the small hand-held camera, and switched on the light at the other end.

In the dream that had pitched me in this direction and toward this singular man without reason, I only saw myself cutting into the thick, arched top of the coffin, never beyond. Now, hovering with the scope in hand, I was well beyond the boundaries of my greatest fears.

It took some time before I was able to manipulate the probe below and focus the camera image on the small, hand-held monitor.

I scanned the length and into every corner. There were no remains. No bones. No deep purple shroud. No wonderfully soft pillow and rich robe that traditionally enshrouded the body.

A drop of rain crashed into the back of my head. Another drop. I looked up at a large, billowy white cloud hovering directly over Melvin’s grave.

It had spit out two droplets of water at me and me alone. I suspected they were a warning.

I worked the tip of the probe toward the top of the coffin. I pushed the tip right up against the apex of the corner as though I were nearly blind and needed to touch it to believe it was real. I then ran the tip along the length of the side until I came to the base. I moved the tip across the base then back up the other side to the top of the coffin.

I could feel myself fall into a sadness. I knew the feeling well. It had followed and plagued and rattled me as any unforgiving taskmaster.

After searching for the obvious, there was no doubt that Melvin Connaught’s coffin was empty. There was also no evidence that Melvin was ever there.

My brain and body froze with the possibility.

Why was I so driven to this moment, to this place in time, taking risks that could compromise my life and what little hope I had for a future I had only recently been able to cobble together?

I wiped the sweat from my eyes, quickly ran the scope back and forth in the empty space, simply to enjoy the bitterness of what I had discovered when I noticed a faint line cutting across the grain at about the bottom third of the casket. I let the probe trace the line from one side of the coffin across to the other.

Then I realized that even the lining of the coffin was gone.

I positioned the tip of the probe over the line, which was more a groove, a cut in the wood that was as straight as if it were set there by machine. I pressed the probe down with a little more force and the faint fine line abruptly thickened into a wide crack.

I applied a little more pressure to the tip and a two-foot-long section of the bottom dropped out from the floor of the coffin.

Two drops slammed into the back of my neck. I turned my head toward the sky,

“Stop it right now. You ain’t a-goin’ to scare me off of what’s mine. So stop your antics and leave me alone.” The puffy white cloud held its position and so did I. “I’m warning you. Enough of that. I ain’t going to tell you again.”

And in that moment I heard my voice as never before: unyielding, threatening, and resolute with clarity and purpose.

It didn’t take long to snake the illuminated tip down between the base of the coffin and beyond the section that had fallen away. I pointed the tip straight down into the crevice.

The probe light penetrated a good seven or eight feet into the dirt opening under the casket. Beyond that was total darkness.

I pulled up the probe and made sure the warm bit was in my pocket before I made for town.

“Where the hell have you been?” Clemmons asked. “And for Christ’s sake, you look like you was rolling around in the mud like some barn animal. Hey, Fred, look here. Our mechanical genius has been wallowing in the mud with the pigs.”

They made fun of me that afternoon in ways I haven’t heard since I was a kid. I grew up in the shadow of ridicule and resented the lash of their laughter.

The next day I awoke a different man. This time there was no fancy technology involved in my mission. I stood over the grave, crossed myself twice, and jammed the edge of the shovel deep into the soft earth. At about four feet I struck the top of the coffin.

I bent down and cleared away the dirt from the top. The drill hole in the top of the coffin had vanished.

“Impossible,” I said, and mustered up enough resolve to tear away the lid of the coffin and the evil I had been tasked to expose.

I bent down and tried to pry off the top of Melvin’s coffin as voices approached me from behind.

“There he is,” one said accusingly.

“I’ll get him,” said another.

I planted my feet beyond the edge of the lid and tried again to pry it loose.

“Over there.”

I had to unearth this before they got here and threw me in chains. That’s what they do to grave robbers. They throw them into chains and then into the deepest pit in the deepest jail, so reprehensible is the act they committed.

“Hold it right here,” I heard Rusty threaten.

I continued to pull up on the sides of the lid.

“Stop where you are,” another demanded.

“Hey, it’s the idiot mechanic who works for Greg Clemmons.”

“This is Lucas Donner, the sheriff. You stop what you’re doing right there, son.”

I could feel myself gain strength with each threat. I could feel the power in my arms, the lift in my back, the desire in my heart. I managed to wrench up the lid another five or six inches when the first hand reached down and grabbed my shirt.

The lid slid sideways another few inches when I felt fingers grab hold of my neck. With whatever remained in my soul I gave one last tug, lifting the lid just enough to see the body of a man, along with the trimmings of material that enrobed him, being slowly taken down towards the base of the coffin.

I saw his legs disappear and reached out to grab his hand when a blow to the back of my head sent everything into darkness.

I awoke in jail, though not in chains. The back of my head hurt terribly. Blood had crusted on my cheek. I was filthy, thirsty, and sadder than I had ever been in my life.

A court-appointed lawyer appeared on the second day of my incarceration and read the charges.

“I’m trying to get the trial venue switched. We don’t want it here where everyone’s ready to lynch you. Besides the theft, if you tried to rob a grave a few decades ago, you would never have made it to the safety of a jail.”

I agreed with him.

What he didn’t know was that Linus Millard’s grave was on my left and not on my right when I was overtaken. I was so agitated, so completely caught up in my mission that I had approached the gravesite from a different direction; now from the front gate rather from the frayed iron fence and didn’t realize it until right before I was pulled from the grave of Calvin Lawrence who passed away less than a month ago.

The passion and possession that drove me to the cemetery, that I was summoned by the Almighty to protect those from the evil that I knew had taken hold over that sacred ground and do battle with the most pernicious of his foes alone, I believed would convince a judge of my intentions and innocence.

What I was about to explain to the court, what I saw of Melvin Connaught’s empty coffin and the remains of Calvin Lawrence being dragged down to the sanctuary of hell itself, would forever change the soul of Bainbridge Falls.

I had been summoned, skillfully chosen by the highest of higher powers, who because of my difference, recognized the purity of my heart and spirit.

I had done what was asked and sacrificed myself in the process. Whatever I was facing because of my commitment was so much less fearful than failure.

“Invoking the excuse that the Lord had chosen you to a task is of little legal merit,” my attorney advised, “and the appearance of a magical bit is hardly grounds for a defense.”

“I’ll tell the judge that I knew what I saw, and if she doesn’t believe me she can follow me out there and set me loose among the sea of empty coffins.”

The character of my voice was as great a surprise to those who had known me all my life, as it was to me. And yet that transformation was of little interest to me.

And so it went.

Greg Clemmons never came by and, as far as I know, never inquired. And that made sense. Who would stand by a grave-robber anyway?

My first and last visitor appeared in my darkened cell late that same night, long after the jail lights had gone out.

I gazed up at him with less surprise than what might have been expected.

In a clear and menacing tone, Rusty cautioned me that, “If you set foot in my cemetery again, with or without a judge or your attorney, you will not leave alive.”

I could not help but stare at the apparition before me, as real and threatening as he was when he dragged me from Calvin Lawrence’s grave.

“And if you speak of what you saw, the sheriff or one of the guardians of the cemetery will find you and end you.”

I think he was waiting for a response, recognition that I understood the consequences of my story and my defiance as I considered how little life remained in my spirit.

“What happened to Calvin Lawrence and the others will be insignificant,” he promised, “when compared to the eternal fire of your fate.”

“It’s wrong,” I said clearly. “It ain’t meant to be that way.”

Maybe it was the depth of blackness I saw in his eyes. Maybe I finally understood that no one would believe what I had seen or the mission I had embraced.

Maybe it no longer made a difference.

Finally, when the silence could no longer be sustained, he pulled out a long piece of torn sheet from his overall pocket and snaked it in a pile on the concrete floor next to where he stood.

A guard came by my cell, glanced in and moved on.

When I looked back to where Rusty had been standing, he was gone.

I was alone, sitting on the edge of my bunk, and realized I had peed myself.

The stain in my crotch drained over to my pocket. Without thinking I reached in and felt the drill bit. It was warm and sharp. It was in my pocket when I was arrested, strip-searched, and issued prison overalls.

I must have been frisked a dozen times in the last few days and yet it clung to me as I clung to my beliefs. There were no scratches or flecks of wood on it. It was as perfect as the day it found me.

It was a sign. My destiny had been fulfilled.

Now, with absolute certainty, I wound the sheet tight into a long rope, coiled half of it around my neck and the remains around a cell bar high overhead.

It was Wednesday. That brought the faintest smile to my lips.

The rest was simple, quick, and I found, of uncommon relief.

___

Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, taught at The New School and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s committee on boxing reform and testified as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Over eighty tales of fiction have been published. He was featured in a single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award and, twice nominated, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. More at www.talesofourtime.com.

Underwater

By Jim Ray Daniels

hey sat on separate branches of the bare tree. Early March in Pittsburgh, but no signs of green, despite the bright, setting sun, the kind of sun that made Beano want to bow down and believe again. He looked at Claire sitting on a branch slightly below him. She smiled shyly.

“We’re safe up here.” She squinted up at him.

“But we can’t stay up here,” he said.

“I’ve been up here a long time,” she said.

*   *   *

In December, at age fifty-five, Beano had taken early retirement from teaching. In July, he took his first peek at the want ads. Want ads. He found it reassuringthat desire’s possibilities were limited only by the $19.95 for three days classified. He liked sitting in the position of rejecting overtures, even if they were only imaginary, generalized. He could take them personally, and dismiss them personally, with one of the Sharpie markers he’d thrown in the box of things when he’d abruptly emptied his desk. He’d left every single sheet of paper there in a jumbled pile, graded or ungraded.

Beano, seeing nothing that might lure him into a second career (no one was asking for his main asset, sarcasm), moved on to the personals. That’s how he met Claire, who’d set about with a bored, mechanical detachment at age fifty to find someone she could trust, through the unlikely network of the daily newspaper.

*   *   *

Beano and Claire sitting in a tree talking about k-i-s-s-i-n-g. She liked his name. She didn’t think anyone named Beano would hurt her. Their first date, and they’d ended up in the climbing tree in her yard. It seemed magical, as if a freak storm had lifted them there on the way home from dinner at the spaghetti place down the road. She’d suggested it after he admitted he never went out to eat. “The whole ‘dining alone’ thing,” he explained. “I don’t want people looking at me like I’m some sad soul when I’m perfectly content to eat by myself.”

The whole ‘alone” thing. Clear, direct. Not like the guy who wanted her to cook dinner for him as some kind of audition. She was beginning to think middle-aged men were simply too set in their ways to move off their own square to meet her on some middle ground.

“Nobody ever climbed this tree with me before…any tree with me,” Claire said, marveling at the view she’d forgotten—a glimpse of downtown towers, lights from the stadium, the dark, twisting line of the Monongahela River.

“It’s kind of romantic,” he said, sighing. “If I was over on your branch, I might try to kiss you.”

“That might be a disaster,” she said.

He thought about the ways it might be a disaster. “Disaster’s a big word,” he said. Too big for a night like this.”

“Let’s just listen to it for awhile—the night,” she said.

Some birds had returned early, or else had never left. He only knew the names of brightly colored birds like blue jays and cardinals. The ones he was listening to just blended into the grayness, waiting for spring.

The tree sat on the far edge of her yard. She had inherited her parents’ house when they died. She’d never left. The tree grew at a 45˚ angle, making it easy to climb, even when she was very young. Her parents vaguely remembered a storm tilting the tree. Tilted, but it never died, never stopped growing.

The lightning of her Uncle Robert, her father’s twin. Jolly Uncle Robert, tickling her on his lap. Her father’s denial, then rage, the family tree split and charred forever. The neat box of silence that sealed it off, buried now that all principals were dead except her.  She’d been the classic maiden aunt nursing her dying parents, but she’d felt anything but classic. The past was like a blackout curtain hanging over the window of her life. At fifty, she decided the war might be over and risked letting some light in again.

“This might be the last time for me, Claire,” Beano said. “Climbing.” He was glad he’d found someone close to his own age so he didn’t have to try to be younger. Someone who wasn’t carrying around a checklist, who didn’t seem to be keeping score for future reference. Plus, she was more beautiful than anyone he imagined would be placing one of those ads.

“My back is going to be as crooked as this tree if we don’t climb down soon,” he said, smiling, trying not to look pained.

“Party pooper,” she said. It pleased her to say it, something vaguely risqué, as if she herself was willing to continue whatever party was at hand.

*   *   *

In the old-fashioned restaurant darkness of Mama Rita’s,they emptied the basket of garlic bread, wiping the sauce from their plates in near unison. They talked about Bloomfield, Claire’s neighborhood, and he seemed genuinely interested. Beano was a South Hills guy who’d taught at a suburban high school outside Pittsburgh. He’d spent little time in Bloomfield, an old Italian enclave. Claire was half-Polish, half-Italian, and they talked about the safe clichés of that mix. Beano told the story of his nickname, and surprised himself by enjoying the telling. The grandfather he’d worshipped had given him the name, taken from a comic book in England he’d read during the war. It’d been years since he met anyone who’d wanted to know. “Beano was a little rascal, I guess,” and he chuckled.

After dinner, they decided it was too early to abandon each other. Claire wondered how much the weather had to do with it. The first night of the year remotely warm enough for anyone to consider getting ice cream. Dairy Dee-lite had taken the boards off its glass a week earlier and had stuck the “Open For Season” letters up on its cheap plastic sign.  They both got the chocolate-vanilla swirl.

Ice cream on the way back to her place, then the tree. She did not invite him in, but she invited him to climb the tree. She laughed at her own audacity, the silliness. Two middle-aged geezers sitting in a tree, overdressed. Thirsty from garlic and ice cream, but she would not let him in for a drink.

“No initials carved anywhere?” he asked as he lowered himself down, stifling a grunt.The question left her stymied, though it had a simple answer. She knew the worn path they were headed down. “A beautiful woman like you?”

The first warm night, Trash Night. The smell of garbage wafted in from the alley lined with large blackplastic bags.

She flashed him a smile. “I don’t believe in marring a tree like that.”

“You’ve got a point,” he said. As much as she wished, she knew her point would be dismissed, would not count. If there was any carving to be done, she wanted to be holding the knife. She’d tell him soon or never see him again. She didn’t want to waste another season of reawakening. As Claire’s years passed alone, her uncle’s shadow would not fade. It spread, a shapeless, malignant blob, an oil-spill of silence over her life.

*   *   *

Who wrote those things, he used to wonder. Their name, the personals, suggested a lurid voyeurism in anyone who even read them. Despite the made-for-TV clichés, he allowed himself some vague hope.The tears of a clown when there’s no one around. The fool on the hill. King Lear in his beer. Looking for Ms. Right when he barely had the initiative to change the channel on the TV with the remote right in his hand. Retirement, sweet retirement. If he were renting out the place, he’d be his own perfect tenant: no kids, no pets, no spouse around the house.

Beano had been part of a secret fraternity of public school teachers who had found a corrupt doctor to give them medical leaves due to stress, which allowed them to take early retirement even earlier than the buyout mandated. They never met anymore, for once their conspiracy had succeeded, they found they had nothing much left to say to each other, and in fact were sick of seeing each other’s faces across the sticky lunchroom tables for at least twenty years. They knew each other’s jokes and tics and spouses and ex-spouses and children and pets and idle lusts. They knew the same doctor.

At school, few people called him Beano. He was Larry. He had another nickname that was never spoken to his face: Larry the Lech. He’d hated teaching for at least half of his thirty years. In retirement, the bitterness cultivated in the teacher’s lounge smelling of burned popcorn, burned coffee, and burned-out colleagues stewed inside him. He’d been hoping it would dissipate, would’ve been happy with a slow leak, but he was sealed up tight. Without the complex maze of principals and school boards and parents to negotiate, he found himself lost on the long straight line of a futurecleared of obstacles, dead ends, potholes, toll booths, stop lights. What he wouldn’t give for a good roadblock, just to give himself something to talk his way out of.

He felt above placing an ad himself. He simply answered hers. He’d been a history teacher with a history of bad relationships, though only married once, so he could edit out a lot of the smaller skirmishes in the chapter on romance in the version he imagined he’s have to tell Claire.

What was it about her ad that drew him in? The phrase, “Comfortable, but Not.”

*   *   *

“My ex-wife,” he began. Inside, she groaned. He’d picked the spaghetti place again. Their second date, and he was already expecting the same thing. She felt reckless with disappointment. The spaghetti house was a stuffy, muffled restaurant where secrets could be told without the ancient waitresses hearing.

When he asked if she wanted to get ice cream again, despite the cool, cloudy, evening, she ordered a refill on her cold coffee, and she told him. She just wanted to get it out of the way, but it was clear immediately that he saw it as a complication, even a burden.

“Listen, Claire, I feel bad about your Uncle. I mean, bad for you about him. What he did.” They were splitting the bill. He was doing the math. “I’ve been pretty much of a shit to women all my life, I admit, but I never—taking advantage of a little girl. His niece. That totally creeps me out. I’d go kick his ass, but I imagine he’s dead by now.

“He is. I killed him.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you had.”

“The guilt killed him.” Claire was pulling at the ends of her white cloth napkin. He wished she’d put it down.

“How old were you?” he asked, though he suspected she’d already told him.

“Thirteen.”

Thirteen. The freshmen he lusted after at the high school were fourteen. And if he was honest with himself, if he missed anything in his retirement, it was daily access to the parade of young girls down the hall as he stood outside his classroom waiting for the bell to ring. He’d been a miserable old sleaze during his last years, leering unabashedly at girls in his classes. The principal was relieved when he took the buyout. Beano liked to imagine his eyes wandered just to keep him from getting bored, but he thought about those girls way too much when he got home from school at night.

He noticed a spot of spaghetti sauce on his blue shirt. He wet his napkin and dabbed at it. Ice cream, he thought, they needed ice cream.

She’d told him the secret of her life, but he wasn’t budging—his secret nearly intersected with hers. They were in separate lanes of the same road. They touched the same yellow line.

He’d run off with a girl right after she graduated, leaving his wife behind with two small children. He lived with the girl all summer, hiding out in a tiny cottage on Lake Erie. Her parents wanted to kill him. The school could find no evidence that the affair had started during the school year. She was eighteen, and she wasn’t fessing up to anything before her birthday. He was thirty-six. The union kept his job for him.

He wanted to follow her to college. Her parents said they wouldn’t pay for college if she didn’t dump him. The girl, Sarah, went away to Penn State, joined a sorority, and he never heard from her again. Maybe she just tired of it all, that gray area where nobody comes out alive, a malevolent limbo. He came back to school, Larry the Lech. The school watched him closely, but they couldn’t bust him just for looking.

His wife divorced him and moved away with the kids. He gave her whatever she wanted in order to avoid a hearing where it’d become public, in court records. The school rumors died off as class after class graduated and the students moved on. The teachers stayed, and the teachers knew. His children, adults now, did not speak to him. He was a grandfather now, he’d heard.

He finally looked up. She was staring. He shook his head and grimaced for Claire. A good-looking woman like her, he thought.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even like ice cream,” she said.

*   *   *

Claire asked Beano into her house when he took her home—she couldn’t explain it. She’d stood on the porch fumbling with her keys and, and now she was letting him in. She was mad but didn’t want to let him go. She felt she had something to prove, and she didn’t want him to go until she figured out what it was.

The house, a modest three-bedroom ranch near the Parkway East. Built in the twenties or thirties, Beano guessed, before freeways. At the end of the block, a high brick wall had been erected to try and tamp down the noise, but inside her house, he could hear the steady whoosh of traffic.

She’d spent a lot of money on the inside. Everything looked remodeled, new, spotless. Claire worked for Liberty Bank, where she’d gotten her first job out of high school. She’d taken night classes for ten years to get a college degree and was now a branch manager. She’d slept with four men in her life, but none in years. She paid a woman to clean for her.

She led Beano into a dim living room with pale green carpeting, a dark green leather couch, and the most tasteless coffee table he had ever seen, featuring a slimy green mermaid with her head rising above the glass top of the table, the rest of her body ‘underwater,’ visible below the glass. The mermaid destroyed all of his theories about Claire. A tidal wave of bad taste canceling all the stamps he’d just licked and stuck to the envelope of her story. He almost wanted to climb the tree again.

“Wow,” he said. “That’s some table.” He sat down on the slick couch. It slanted down. He felt like he’d slide off if he let go of the armrest.

She remained standing in the hallway. “There’s a story behind that,” she said.

“I’m glad,” he said.

“Beano,” she said. “Everything has a story.”

Why’d she tell him her story? He felt like his own privacy had been invaded.

“Well, don’t you want a tour?” she said, her voice rising into a shrill squeak.

“Sure,” he said, pushing himself up. She wouldn’t agree to visit his condo, but here she was giving him the grand tour. He stared back at the mermaid’s large emerald breasts as she led him from the room.

She had a guest room, though she’d had no guests, no one to dirty the walls, muss the bed, stain the carpet. Her own room was Spartan in its furnishings: twin bed, dresser, nightstand, mirror.  No knickknacks, no table cluttered with makeup and perfume and jewelry like his ex-wife Dell had.

Beano noticed that the kitchen was immaculate—no sign of recent activity. As if it was a prop. He’d been ready to bail out, but he surprised himself by walking over to her and slowly embracing her from behind.

“No, no,” she said. He didn’t know if she meant let go, don’t go in my kitchen, or both. “Let’s just sit down,” she said. “I feel like we need to get back to—tell me more about yourself. Happy things. Then I’ll tell you some happy things.” She forced a smile.

*   *   *

After the tour, Claire sat hugging herself in a corner of the couch, the side of her face pressed into the bumpy pattern of a throw pillow. She noticed the smudge he’d made on the glass coffee table.

“I guess I shouldn’t have told you. Too soon,” she said, her voice stretching into a defeated sigh.

Beano hadn’t felt so stupid in front of a woman since before he married Dell. He was shocked by the raw exposure of her pain after so much dignity and sophistication. He was thinking about baggage. How far would he have to carry that weight? Would she even let him help after carrying it so long herself?

“Of course, I’m still crazy about you. It’s just. Please don’t cry.” He laughed nervously. “I mean—you know what I mean. Help me out here, Claire. I don’t know anything about this stuff.” He didn’t want to know what lurked beneath the soft leather of that pristine couch. He didn’t want her to trust him just because his name was Beano and he was past fifty and remembered every bad TV show from the sixties. He wanted a new beginning. Not this plunge into another person’s pain. Not a haunting, for he was no exorcist, just a retired history teacher with one long clean blackboard in front of him. A decent pension and a condo that was paid for. He didn’t want to choke on the scrawled layers of dusty chalk. That’s what erasers were for.

“I ruined everything,” she said, though she didn’t sound concerned about the loss. No tears. Just weary, sad.

*   *   *

Beano realized that she must have been abused in one of those rooms. The tiny, tiled pink bathroom with the claw-foot tub? The musty third bedroom now used for storage? Right in the living room? Did he spend the night in the guest room and slip in to her bed?

Once she’d mentioned it, he carefully avoided the subject, so he did not know. Not how frequently, for what duration, what specifically he did, or made her do? It must’ve been close to forty years ago. Was he trying to pretend it didn’t happen, like her parents? He knew no one had believed her.

Claire’s long black hair streaked with gray fell nearly to her waist. She still wore it down or in a ponytail. If she’d dyed her hair, she’d look at least ten years younger. Beano knew about dyeing hair. What little he had left. He’d been balding since age thirty. When the fringe around his ears began turning gray, enough was enough. His ex-wife had ridiculed him when he showed up at her mother’s funeral. “What are you going to do next, start wearing gold chains and hanging out in singles bars? You’re an old man,” she taunted. She didn’t have to say what she meant, that the days of convincing an eighteen-year old to run away with him were long, long gone.

“You have my sympathy,” he managed to say. He wore a gold chain beneath his shirt. He’d been to singles bars.

*   *   *

“Tell me about the mermaid,” he said after a long silence. “I can’t think of any good things right now.”

“Well, she began, then paused. “I always loved mermaids. Kind of childish, I guess. And I know this table is hideous—no, no, it is—but I don’t care, see? My cousin Jill gave me this because she knew—she knew I loved mermaids. After my parents’ died. She said to make it my own house now. Once I got the mermaid, I was able to change everything else.”

“What do you think it is about mermaids?” he asked, bearing down on the novelty of it. He hadn’t thought of Sarah in a long time—they’d had no contact since she went to Penn State. He suspected she was embarrassed to have run off with him, that she would cringe if she saw him now—tired, old man. But he thought of her now, naked in Lake Erie, emerging and running up him on shore where he wrapped her in a towel and warmed her cold, clammy skin, her hard nipples. Everything about her was as fresh as cold lake water. She woke him up, and nothing else mattered. She woke him into a fool and a cliché, but nothing else mattered.

“I like mermaids because….” It was like a school essay. She may have even written that essay, though if she did, she had no copy of it. She liked mermaids because they were free. They were two things at once. They had no burden. They were too smart and quick for the nets. They lived in silence and did not need to explain themselves. They were almost liquid—slippery, fluid, carried by tides. Claire wanted to explain something about the table to make it less hideous, to make Beano see it the way she saw it.

“The only time anyone touches me is when my hairdresser washes my hair,” she said.

“Wow,” he said, and reached over to squeeze her hand. She’s piling it on, he thought. Pitiful. How had such a beauty kept men away from her? Surely someone at her job had put a hand on her shoulder in a friendly way? At school, he knew better than to even brush up against any of the girls after his return from Erie. He was trying to figure out if Claire was ready to break the surface, emerge. Maybe he needed to follow her, let her lead him away from the shore of his own shame.

“You must think that’s pretty pitiful,” she said, pulling her hand away to brush a strand of hair out of her face.

“No, no,” he said. “It must feel good to have someone else wash your hair.”

She frowned. “That wasn’t my point.”

He sighed. He heard his own breath catch, resume.

“It does feel good,” she said. He wondered whether he should try to kiss her. Or at least touch her hair. He felt like a teenager again, and not in a good way. “To have someone else wash your hair. You lean back over the sink and close your eyes.” She closed her eyes.“I feel like a mermaid then,” she said, smiling, blushing.

He leaned in so that he felt her breath warm against his face. He closed his eyes and brushed his lips against her cheek, but she pulled quickly away. He thought he understood why others had run out of patience or stamina, but he swore he would not. After all the years, he might finally have a grown-up relationship, something not completely wrapped up in sex.

“It’s like the sea running through my hair, the gentle sea that judges no one.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant by “judging.” Who had judged who about what? He found himself linking everything to her abuse, and he wondered if she still did, or whether it was because it was news to him. He just wanted to think of the poetry of what she’d said, not the facts. He knew he shouldn’t ask any questions. Just accept her, be happy she’d taken him into her confidence. It was a gift, and he shouldn’t spoil things by looking for the price tag. He hadn’t contributed anything, happy or sad. He was cheating her, cheating on her.

“The only thing like that I can think of is a dentist chair. Some guy telling me when to spit. I don’t like not being in control. Being, being at somebody”—he thought of her uncle again—“at somebody’s mercy.”

“Mercy. That’s such an odd word, isn’t it?” she said. “It implies someone already has power over someone else in order to grant ‘mercy’. I don’t like it.”

She slid her hand over the glass surface of the coffee table. “I knew you’d ask about it,” she said. “The mermaid.” No magazines or coffee-table books—just clear glass. “But I couldn’t come up with a better story…It’s odd, mermaids have been one constant thing in my life.”

“Do you swim?” he asked. He was sitting near the mermaid’s torso, trying not to stare at the detailed breasts near eye level.

“No,”” she said, startled. ”Why, do you?”

“Only with mermaids,” he said, and moved close to touch her cheek.

She flinched.

“Never married?”

“There was no point,” she said, “no point at which I was ready. And then I turned forty and….Beano, that’s personal. Maybe you need to tell me something personal.”

“You never stop looking,” he said.

“You don’t?” she replied.

“No harm in looking,” he said. “It makes us human, looking. Noticing. I mean, if I stop noticing pretty girls—women—you may as well shoot me….Back at the school…,” he began, then stopped.

“Back at the school?” she said. “Tell me about your life’s work.” She curled her knees up against the couch.

“Well you know,” he said feebly. “Between classes and such. History gets kind of boring—never changes. Lots of girls to look at—they change.Year after year….It’s like the mermaid. I can’t sit here and not look at her breasts. Why should I not look at them?”

“Do you want to touch them?” she asked.

Beano laughed nervously. “They’re not real,” he said. “Why would I want to touch stone?”

“Why would you?” she asked. “ If you like them young, why did you answer my ad?”

Her tone shifted. He pressed both hands against the glass tabletop, then lifted them, watched his impressions fade.

“I don’t,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. Jut the one, and she knew what she was doing.”

“Who?”

“The girl. The one girl. She was legal. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“At what age do women get taken off the ‘look’ list?”

“You’re twisting it. Claire, you’re a real looker. I could look at you all day. I answered the ad—I wanted someone like…‘take it or leave it,’ no games.”

“Take what? Leave what?”
“Me. You. How we are.”

“You want to have sex? With me? Right now?” she cocked her head. She reached her hands up to the buttons on her blouse.

Beano pushed himself against the back of the couch. He felt like he had to defy gravity to stay on board.

“We can’t just….No, no. Not after talking like this. I can’t believe…”

She cut him off. “Oh, that wasn’t an offer. We’re just talking, right? So, your answer is no. Mine is no. See, we agree. We are kindred spirits, Beano.” She paused and swallowed. “Did you know the legend says mermaids drown men out of spite? I’ve gotten rid of my spite. Most of it. When I look at this table, it reminds me to breathe.”

“Are you playing with me?” Beano asked.

“You’ll have to ask me out again and see,” she said. “We can both see. I’m not sure myself.”

“Telling secrets. There’s a reason for secrets. People our age….”

“Nobody believed my secret,” she said. “That’s why I had to tell you.”

“It’s a conversation piece, that’s for sure,” Beano said. He stared at the mermaid, her long green flowing hair, her serene face, her large breasts.

“You can’t change history, that’s what you said,” her voice rising. “But that doesn’t make it boring. Isn’t it all about the interpretation?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should get going.”

“Too much truth?” she said. “Maybe we should just tell each other lies.” He rose from the couch, and she noticed the indentation his body had made. She wondered how long it would take to disappear.

He moved toward the door, but stopped and turned back. “We could call them myths,” he said.

“I carved initials in the tree,” she said.

“My children love me,” he said.

He wanted to stroke the mermaid’s hair. To show her he could be gentle. He wanted to touch the mermaid’s breasts. To show he had moved beyond shame.

“We’ll live forever,” she said.

The cars on the freeway continued their steady hum.

“We’re all half one thing, half another,” he said.

“That’s not a myth, that’s the truth,” she said.

They stood by the door, caught in the bright artificial light of her foyer. Behind them, the mermaid swam away or drowned.

___

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of five collections of short fiction, including, most recently, Eight Mile High, Michigan State University Press, a Michigan Notable Book and a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. He is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

My Rembrandt

By Michael Andreoni

ight away the night looks screwed when I pull in from the alley and Donnie’s Escalade is at the back door to the office. It’s never once been a good thing when my boss figured we needed a face to face instead of an e-mail, or mister yellow sticky-note waving from my desktop. Normally our shifts overlap about once a month, except nothing is normal anymore with that idiot in the White House screaming about illegal immigrants. Every time his big mouth opens we lose workers like they’re grapes he’s bit from our vine.

I park the truck and pop the hood to yank the battery lead because my locks don’t lock anymore. I’m guessing Donnie’s stayed late to slam me over losing another account. Like I have a magic wand to replace the twenty highly motivated Latino cleaning machines we lost. Like I’m not pulling my hair out trying to run his business with the local fuck-ups who stumble in on application days, lying their punk asses off they know how to clean restaurants.

The boss is in my chair at my desk when I come in through the storeroom past the broken vacuums and mop buckets. Donnie’s big into non-verbal intimidation, with a dead stare full of understanding that intimidation has another year to work on me because we both know this job keeps my P.O. happy-snappy. Those black-hole eyes are an unsmiling universe that if I’m honest is why I took the job. You get used to that look in the penitentiary. After two months starving on the outside, a dozen interviews with smiling pieces of shit who weren’t ever going to hire a parolee but wouldn’t come out and say it had me dreaming about going back to taking what I needed at gunpoint. It felt like coming home seeing Donnie’s kill you or kill me makes no difference face. Far as I know he’s never been inside a day, which at first was a real mystery as to how he pulled off the part so well. A few months cleaning restaurants seven nights a week put me straight on that.

Donnie’s put on a few pounds since I started with him. I take credit for managing the operation so he doesn’t need to run around to thirty restaurants on the midnight shift anymore. These days he looks like Buddha-Who-Never-Smiles, spilling out of the chair, watching me slip my jacket off. I’d congratulate him on attaining Enlightenment before age fifty, except Donnie doesn’t do jokes.

“Who’s at Frenchy’s?”

            The thing about my boss is he never asks unless he already knows. Any lies you tell get saved up for a rainy day—and guaranteed, the rain will be coming down hard on your head, not his.

            “I got that Yolanda Green in there. She’s doing real good.”

            “You like her, huh?”

            You can’t read Donnie but I glance his way because it’s plain he knows something I don’t, which is dangerous. His stone face is a reminder that my job depends on knowing what’s up at every account. “She’s the best we got since Guillermo and Rafael and Rita, and all the others, disappeared.”

            “She’s stealing.”

            “No Way.” A sudden sharp pressure behind my eyes says Donnie wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t so, even if I don’t want to believe him. I hired Yolanda Green, so my ass is on the line. “I check up on her all the time,” I protest. It’s embarrassing how desperate that sounds.

            My boss’s shoulders twitch like I’m wasting his time. “I was there today. They caught her taking fry oil.”

            It’s always cash and steaks and lobsters when we have a theft. “Like, oil from the pantry?”

            “The used stuff they keep in the back.”

            It feels like someone’s thumbs are digging into my eyes. “They complained she’s taking dirty oil?”

            Donnie heaves out of my chair like a seal going for a fish. His hand brings up the tail of the Escalade’s fob from a pocket. When the fob comes out your ship has sailed, because Donnie’s said as much as he thinks is necessary. His unspoken argument being that once you start on the dirty fry oil it’s only a matter of time before you’re cleaning out the safe and making for someplace warm. It’s now my job to fire Yolanda, hire a replacement, work with them night after night until they’re trained, plus take care of everything else. I should be used to this crap after two years with Donnie. Even so, it sure does burn. He disappears into the storeroom. The back door slams and now it’s just me, rubbing my eyes, pulling up Yolanda’s info on the computer so I can go get the keys back from the only decent cleaner I got left. Her address is another nasty jolt that has me staring at the screen. Yeah, tonight is definitely headed south big-time.

*   *   *

Every day of my eight to twelve I thought I knew what getting out would look like. It was a cloudless summer sky over a shiny blue lake, with me somewhere in the picture, maybe lying on the beach, though the promises my mind painted were never clear on where I fit in. The point was it represented everything I had never done when I took walking down the street for granted. Prison counselors gave me a bunch of crap about writing an Action Plan. Job one was lining up someone to stay with until you found work. Then make up a list of businesses that maybe would hire someone fresh out of prison. They brought ex-cons into the cell-block to preach how to beat the system by getting right with God and keeping on course through prayer. The secret, they said, was applying for work every day plus reading your bible every day. When a job came along you showed up on time, did what you were told, no matter what. Everyone insisted the biggest thing I had to do was break the patterns that got me arrested. Like keeping out of every bar I ever hung out in just in case my old knucklehead buddies were hiding under the tables, ready to run me back down the path back to prison. Getting out felt like moving to another country.

Maybe it’s why I connected with the people who came north over the border to find another life. We were new together in a strange place, where we couldn’t trust ourselves to know the right thing to do. It didn’t take long for living on the outside to kill whatever I’d imagined I could do after prison. Outside looked nothing like summer sun kissing a lake. It was hundred degree heat in kitchens slimy with grease. It looked like acres of floors caked with winter slop. Outside was all about restaurant managers screaming their toilets weren’t as clean as Donnie had promised.

So now I’m driving under an iron shell of winter dusk to make my life worse by firing this Yolanda for no good reason. Not much sense thinking back to how great it was after I hired Guillermo, but what the hell, I’m on the freeway, and the radio doesn’t work. I first saw him on a below-zero morning last winter, coming home exhausted from trying to run Donnie’s business with the idiots we were hiring. The damn wind is rattling at me through the rust holes in my doors as I’m rolling past Home Depot, and there they are in the parking lot, bunch of guys holding up signs under a flickering light. At first it seemed they were protesting something, like maybe the cheap-ass hoses Home Depot had sold me that were already leaking. If the traffic light hadn’t turned I never would have read their signs: SHOVEL SNOW; PAINTING; CLEANING. Eight young men in the kind of ragged jeans that don’t come that way from the store. Two wore light jackets, the rest were in shirts, their arms locked tight around themselves. Faces that reflected the same enduring patience I saw every morning in the mirror. I had to turn into the lot.

Those faces dipped to check me out through the windshield as I pulled up. One of them came forward then, moving woodenly, as though frozen through, and yet somehow he unstuck a smile. I cracked the frosty window. Guillermo, he called against the wind. A little brown guy like a million little brown guys, and I’m a million ex-cons leaning out of a rusty truck. For a long breath we hesitate, silent and still, while winter sunrise paints us in an instant onto graying snow plowed up into mountains. I guess you’d call the picture Poor and Poorer. Prison gave me a few words of Spanish; Guillermo had a few more words of English. They all knew how to clean, he promised, and restaurants seven midnights a week sounded bueno. Did they have a car? No, but they could get the late bus or walk. The other men hung back, as if they were okay with letting Guillermo talk for them. That they all seemed too good to be true didn’t stop me from putting them in the picture.

Here’s what’s different about employing illegal aliens: I never had to fire one. They always showed up, they always worked like hell. After a while they brought their friends and relatives to me. I didn’t care one moment about their immigration status. We were together in a struggle to live without government interference. They paid taxes out of their pay same as any other employee, after I got Donnie to see the light on hiring them. He was dead against it, from the moment he glanced up from checking the payroll and there’s Guillermo and his friends ganged up outside his office, smiling away. All the while I spun my idea Donnie’s laser eyes raked them over. “No,” he grunted across the desk. Probably he thought that was enough to put an end to this nonsense from his new Manager, except that was one time when Donnie trapped himself. I’d been promoted because he was worn thin working day and night trying to make the customers happy. Didn’t matter how much he worked, our lazy-ass, no-show workers lost us the accounts faster than he could pick them up. So in the end he’d pretty much had to give Guillermo and Friends a try before his business dried up and blew away.

And those guys sure did keep the customers happy, until that idiot in Washington screwed everything up. I just wish one of them had tipped me a hint they needed to disappear. It’s understandable wanting to lay low until this craziness shakes out. We’re all waiting on that. They could have come to me for help. There are a few decent hiding places around this town that would have kept them local. At least I could have given lifts to the bus station, maybe hit up Donnie for some traveling money as thanks for their excellent work. It was a couple months before I could accept that they needed to go quick and quiet, and wish them all the best. Whoever hires them next is one lucky boss.

*   *   *

I’m looking to get through tonight without any drama over asking this Yolanda for her keys to the restaurant. The workers we get now don’t always give them up with a smile when I cut them loose from their ten an hour. Donnie won’t be happy if he has to come up with a story for Frenchy’s about how their keys came to be flushed down the toilet “accidentally” and please, could we have another set? Yolanda’s been solid from day one so it seems unlikely she’ll be a problem, though if this job teaches anything it’s prepare for the worst. No one who knows the score asks how you’re doing in the restaurant cleaning business. You’re wading in filth seven midnights a week, no benefits, no holidays, is how you’re doing. In that way it’s like the penitentiary.

Yolanda Green’s address bothers me, as though rolling back to 321 Elm might vacuum me back up into my old life. My last address before the state required my presence elsewhere, and of course the place must have changed in the years I’ve been gone, or maybe I hoped The Hideaway Motel had disappeared. Back in the day it was the kind of place you never went barefoot in for fear of stepping on a syringe embedded in what was left of the carpet. The joke among the local criminal establishment was whoever named it The Hideaway got it right. The place backed up to an abandoned train yard littered with derelict rail cars and track, twisted together as though a God had worked off some serious frustration. Once you made it through the hole in the fence it took a helicopter or a dog to track you. I don’t imagine Yolanda Green is living there for the quick get-away, but she is supposedly stealing the used fry oil, so you never know.

She had reminded me of Guillermo and his friends at the interview, because she also looked too good to be true. Short and stocky, with dark molasses skin, a charcoal briquette of a woman dressed to impress in heavy work pants and a sweat shirt. We get these idiots in all the time wearing designer business casual. Maybe they think they’re interviewing for vice president of the bank and need to impress me. The one thing I care about is if they can impress grease off the kitchen floors. Now this Yolanda was something, the way she made eye contact when we shook hands. The way she sat quietly across my desk while I looked over her application, without once fooling with her phone.

“So you worked for a maid service up until last week. What happened?”

“What happened, they short my check every week for six months.”

“Before that you cleaned at the high school for almost a year. How come you left?”

“They say file for unemployment ‘cuz no money left in the budget. Teachers gonna sweep they own classrooms.”

Her answers came without hesitation. Either it was the truth or she rehearsed everything—and why take that much trouble for a cleaning job? Donnie tells everyone we run background checks, though we almost never do. For one it costs money, and for two, we already know more than half of everyone who applies has a police record. No sense wasting time finding out what you pretty much can count on. Mainly we interview to weed out the mass murderers. Anyone left with the breath to fog up a mirror is a candidate for a set of keys and a mop.

“You got a car?”

“Naw.”

“Well, we got an opening on the bus line. You ever cleaned a restaurant?”

“I did the cafeteria at the high school. Can’t be worse.”

And that was all of it, short and sweet. Never asked what we were paying, or about the benefits and holidays she wasn’t going to get. She started at Frenchy’s that night, and one night was all it took her to learn it. The woman was not afraid of the mop. I popped in once a week to check if there were problems. There never were. The customer loved her, plus Yolanda seemed happy enough—at least she didn’t complain. You don’t look for cleaners to be like those TV actors who get so happy over the new improved toothpaste they start dancing like morons. I know most everyone would take the commercial over cleaning, but at least we don’t have to dance about the fucking toothpaste for our money.

A couple issues are chasing me by the time I get off the freeway at Elm: There’s the unfairness of firing Yolanda. I don’t for a moment believe she’s stealing and even if she is, it’s dirty fry oil, so who cares. On top of that I’ve got this strong aversion to going back to the place where I was someone I don’t want to be anymore. I could call and ask Yolanda to meet me up the street at the gas station, if that’s still there. Just the thought of it hots me up with embarrassment. Firing workers never bothered me before, so why now? This is nothing new, I’m telling myself, so I’m going straight to 321 Elm, whatever it is now. I’m not a criminal anymore. Stopping in where I used to live won’t turn me back to armed robbery. I think. I just wish it felt easier.

My foot wants to let up on the gas when I get close, until I’m creeping like a criminal down Elm. On the left a street light etches crazy shapes into the emptiness beyond the sidewalk, which probably means the old train yard is still there. Then the low brick building I remember too well extends out of the headlights. I stop the truck in the middle of the street. The place looks the same, though the office isn’t lit up pink by the flashing Hideaway Motel sign that once hung in the window. Most of the rooms are dark. The last door on the far end is room 8, my old home. I have zero desire to see if the inside is what I remember. Pull the truck over and get out. Yolanda is around the back in 12. I lean against the hood and just look at the place. I shouldn’t have to do this. Isn’t it enough for one night to have come back? I’m here, and the fear of returning proves I’m not the person I was. That should earn me the right to get back in the truck, to go about my business. Let Donnie get rid of Yolanda, is the argument, even if I know it can’t work like that. It’s my job to give her the bad news.

So, knock knock room 12. I hope short and sweet is in my future: Sorry it didn’t work out, feel free to use us as a reference, we just need your keys, have a great life. That’s five minutes work if she’s reasonable, then back in the truck with the night’s work before me. I knock again. What a drag if she’s not home. I try a third time with my ear pressed to the door—nothing’s going on inside. I should have called first. It’s freezing out here, with no choice now except to catch her at the restaurant, which isn’t ideal if she wants to take it personal. Frenchy’s hired us to clean the place, not have scenes their late-night staff can watch and maybe get ideas from. I guess age thirty-five is past due to stop wishing that something goes easy. Taking the cash and running was easy, and look what it got me. Yolanda’s door gets a couple revenge kicks before I step away.

“What you want!” comes through the door, like somebody’s been waiting on the other side the whole time. It sounds like her, but I don’t know.

“It’s Steve from Donnie’s Cleaning. I need to talk to Yolanda.”

The door cracks. Yolanda is dressed for the restaurant, unless work pants and a sweatshirt are what she wears all the time. She doesn’t look happy to see me.

“Why you here?”

“Uh . . . something’s come up I didn’t want to tell you at Frenchy’s.”

She leans halfway out the door to look both ways, like maybe I brought cops with me, or something worse. It’s that kind of neighborhood. She checks it out, shakes her head before backing in. A hand waves me in. “C’mon.”

Probably The Hideaway Motel’s original business plan didn’t rely on renting month to month to the poor. Exactly when it went from respectable motel to fleabag apartments is something I wondered about when I inhabited room 8. The condition of the place, even back then, was an argument for The Hideaway abandoning travelers to our fair city long before I arrived. Maid service had definitely been discontinued. And since a ten by ten room with adjoining closet bathroom tends to fill up quickly with everyday clutter, most of my fellow residents had long since given up on cleaning. Paths from door to bed to bathroom were the norm.

“Ugh, you been huffing something in here?” It’s like walking into a paint factory. I take small breaths; already I feel kind of floaty. Then I forget the smell, because dead dogs are what I’m seeing. Pictures of dead dogs hang from the walls all around me.

“Well, you gonna shut the damn door or not?”

It eventually penetrates she’s asked twice. I close it, and even the back of the door holds a picture. A hook has been screwed in through the old room regulations. A rectangle of what looks like white cardboard hangs from the hook, and on it a dog, a black lab, has been painted. The stomach is torn out. Everything that’s supposed to be inside is spilling in colors so much brighter than seems right that I have to look away. At a narrow cot pushed against the far wall next to a bench piled up with cardboard. Not much else in the room but tubes of paint and brushes on the carpet, framed by once-painted cinderblock walls. They’re lined with poodles, pit bulls, dogs I’ve never seen, hung floor to ceiling with their insides hanging exposed in colors that should be for flowers and balloons.

“God. They’re all dead.”

Yolanda shakes her head. “Naw. They all right now. They been changing.” She runs a hand back and forth over a fluffy white poodle hanging by her bed as though petting it.

“Right. Into dead dogs.”

A sharp frown twists her. “Why you here,” she repeats, stroking Fluffy.

“Uh . . . It’s probably not you, but Frenchy’s—”

“The oil, yeah.” Yolanda flicks the non-stroking hand as though to get rid of the thought. “I knew that was trouble.”

“So you took it?”

She looks me in the eye. “Yeah, I took some.”

“Dirty fry oil. Why?”

She turns back to the poodle. “She my favorite. See her eyes?”

Something about the eyes isn’t right. I slide between the cot and the bench to get a closer look. This dog died a terrible death . . . but the eyes . . . so warm and wet, like they understand everything you ever been through. The line of the jaws is like a smile. If a dog could laugh it would look like this, except not with a stomach torn up like that.

“She died happy,” I say, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure of much right about now. I’m not sure I can get out of here alive.

“None of them dead, but yeah, you got it right. Oil makes the eyes shine.”

“They’re definitely shiny. Tell me you didn’t kill these dogs so you could paint them.”

“I tell you they not dead. They changing.”

“Into what?”

“What they want.”

“With their guts coming out?”

Yolanda pulls her sweatshirt up. I step back in case she’s going for whatever she killed these poor dogs with.

“See it?”

A ridge of pink brown scarring on her stomach shows above the belt. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say about it. “That looks serious.”

She pulls the sweatshirt down. “Exit wound. Four years this month.”

Again I don’t know what to say. A headache is coming on from the paint and I still need to deliver the bad news. Why can’t this be easy? Just please let me get out of here with the keys so I can go clean Frenchy’s.

“How’d you get shot?” If she was the usual shitty worker we get I’d ask for the keys now. Instead, I’m standing around wasting time, surrounded by dead dogs. I feel like I have to hear her out, which is weak as hell. Donnie would never do it like this. He’d already be gone with the keys.

Yolanda sits on the cot. “Wrong place. Coming out the liquor store, two fools shootin each other shoot me instead.”

“That’s a tough break.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking that in the hospital, screamin with the pain. Then after a while a change comes. I figure drinkin that beer like I been gonna put me in the wrong place rest of my life. That’s when I quit drinkin that beer. Four years this month.”

She’s looking at her favorite poodle. I see their eyes are a match, oil for tears, which is my fault for asking about stuff that should be left alone. Sure as shit I’m stuck here until she settles down to where I can fire her without ending up like these dogs. There’s nothing but the cot for sitting on. I sink down onto green carpet torn like pawed-up grass.

“You said she’s changing. What does she want?”

“Be something better. Something different.” Yolanda’s head shakes. “Not sure exactly. Just different.”

“How’s she get there?”

“She don’t know that either. I catch her in the moment after the changing. What come next is something no one can say.”

“Why dogs?”

Yolanda rubs her eyes dry. A weird little snorting comes out. It’s a long moment before I realize she laughed. “What’s funny?”

“I do cats first. Didn’t come out right.”

“Like the dogs, with their insides out?”

She laughs again. “Drowned. Wasn’t the same.”

“You didn’t drown them, did you?” That feels wrong the instant as it comes out, because I’m starting to think she wouldn’t. “I’m sorry. I take it back.”

Yolanda gets off the cot. I have to bend my head back to see she’s turned that sharpish frown on me again. “I paint them from memory,” she says, rubbing her belly.

“All right.”

She goes back to loving Fluffy. I look at the other laughing dead dogs. They’re not bad—I mean she paints them pretty good, not that I think any normal person would want one. Except for the insides coming out it’s as though they’ve just run in from a good romp and now it’s dinnertime.

“You come here to fire me?”

There it is. She’s petting the dog, her eyes are somewhere else, and all I have to answer is yes. She’s ready to give up the keys now—I know she will. Then I’m gone out of here. All I have to answer is yes.

“How come you don’t use oil from the store?”

“I show you.” She takes Fluffy off the wall to hold the cardboard in front of me. “Look at her. Stuff from the store is new. It don’t sit on the eyes right, like old burnt stuff. Frenchy’s oil been used and abused. Perfect for her.”

“I see that.” Strange as it is, I kinda do. Every dog in here has the same pain in their eyes. That will always be with them, whatever they change into. I guess eyes remember everything. I turn to the black Lab, those eyes . . . that smile. Even torn up like that, damn if he doesn’t have the happiest face you’ll ever see on anyone. I point.

“You think you could do me one like him?”

“He a she,” she says, re-hanging the poodle. “I don’t know. Paint costs, ‘specially if I’m not working.” She points that sharpish frown at me again.

“You keep talking like we’re getting rid of you. I had to ask about the oil because Frenchy’s complained. That’s no big deal as long as you don’t take any more. Donnie sent me to offer you a job as my assistant. We hired all these idiots don’t know how to do shit, so you can help train them. Pays a buck an hour more. You in?”

Yolanda smiles. “How much you pay me for the painting?”

“Depends. I don’t want one with his insides out. Could you do it where he’s all healed up from the change?”

“ Maybe. I think about it.”

“Well think about it in the truck. We got a heavy schedule tonight.”

*   *   *

 Donnie’s sitting on the hood giving me the murder stare through the windshield all the way down the freeway. He won’t go for it unless I can sell Yolanda to him like Guillermo. I figure bring her into the office in the morning. We’re a package deal, I’ll tell him, fire one, fire us both. Because people like us need to stick together. It’s like there’s a war coming on against the ones who do the grunt work in this country. Maybe I should say another war, or the latest war. We have to get our changing done so we can be ready. We have to get organized. I steal a glance at Yolanda, sitting next to me. What did it cost her to come through the changes; what’s it cost me? No more than Guillermo and his friends are paying. Yolanda’s dogs know the price. It feels right to have one for my little apartment, yet at the same time so damn strange I have to laugh.

“What’s funny?” Yolanda asks.

“It’s like I’m rich, buying a painting.”

“It’s a change,” she says.

Another change, and how much it will hurt I can’t tell. That this feels good now, in this moment, is something I haven’t had in a long time. Maybe that dog and I have come through the worst, plenty torn, but smiling to say we’re still here. It’s dark in the truck to look at my eyes in the rear-view.  First thing I have to do when we hit Frenchy’s is find a mirror.

___

Michael Andreoni’s fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Euphony, Calliope, Avalon Review, Pif Magazine, and other publications. A working-class writer, his stories explore the complexities of low-income life. His story collection, The Window is a Mirror, is forthcoming from BHC Press.