Issue 13.1

Go Down Easy

By Max Bayer

turned onto my street. The usual discarded cans, plastic bottles, and food wrappers lined the curb and sidewalk. Taking a deep breath, I prepared myself for the unexpected. Rolling over bottles, cans, and debris, I parked in front of my house. Before entering, I strode next door to greet Hassan. This Black man and myself had become friendly. He was always in front of the abandoned house plying his trade.

It was some months before, as the weather got warmer, when I first noticed Hassan. He was standing outside, and cars stopped. Approaching the car, a window opened, and an exchange occurred. At first, I didn’t think much about it. But he didn’t live on the street, and it soon became clear he was a dealer. Since he had lots of downtime in between sales, and I often took breaks on the steps of the house I was renovating, we got to talking.

“Yeah, that’s a nice house across the street. It was rehabbed, but the tenants are trashing it,” he told me. Turned out he used to work in real estate. Said his brother was an attorney and would handle his sales. And his sister, too, was doing well, with a good city job in New York. I never asked about his chosen profession, but he said some things went wrong, “and I’m doing this in between jobs, you know, until I get settled?”

Being seventy-five, I always found the young guys a little strange. Hassan, with his tight jeans, pointy shoes, and well-fitted shirts, hardly looked more than twenty-five. I was impressed that his pants rested on his waist and not a foot below, as is common in Newark.

Once, I locked myself out of my truck. Hassan saw my distress. “Don’t worry, Pops,” he said. He had taken to calling me that, although I told him my name was Mark. Since my one remaining African tenant called me “Daddy,” and now this young fellow was calling me “Pops,” I decided to let people call me what they wanted. Hassan picked up his phone, and five minutes later, a swanky BMW pulled up. “Hey, yo, where’s the truck?” the thin Black man asked as he jumped out of his car.

Hassan pointed to my truck. “Don’t worry, Pops, this will take five minutes,” as he retrieved a leather case filled with instruments. How did he know my name was Pops? But who cared, since my truck was quickly opened. I reached into my wallet to tip the guy, but Hassan yelled, “No, he owes me. You’re a good guy, Pops, and I wanted to repay you for that favor the other day.” He was probably referring to the time he went behind the abandoned house to pee and asked me to watch the front. “If anyone comes, just tell them I’m out back checking inventory and will be out in a second. Some of my customers try to create trouble, but they won’t bother you.”

I think our friendship blossomed when he mentioned something about his twenty-fifth birthday. The next day, I brought two big sandwiches, soda, and donuts. I didn’t put any candles on the donuts, but he remained speechless as I handed him the food. “We can eat out here,” I told him. He reached into his pocket to give me money. “Hey, it’s your birthday,” I told him. With his head down, he unwrapped the sandwich slowly. He looked at my writing on the bag, which wished him happy birthday.

I think it was on that day we became friends. From then on, I didn’t feel so bad about going to my rental property in Newark and almost dreaded the time when my fix-up would be completed.

On my last visit, looking forward to a nice chat with Hassan, I was surprised to see a crowd of young men next door. There were ribbons, candles, and an assortment of bottles circled around the parking sign. A lady from across the street, whom I knew by sight, yelled from the window for me to stay clear of these men.

Not one to heed warnings, I walked up and asked, “What’s going on?”

“It’s private, just move on,” a tall man covered in tattoos said.

“No, wait,” another from the crowd yelled, “that’s Pops, you know, Hassan’s friend.”

When I asked about Hassan, someone said, “He’s dead. Two men got into an argument with him and stabbed him. He bled out on the way to the hospital.”

I stumbled and couldn’t speak.

“Yeah, man, the motherfuckers killed him. We’re paying our respects.”

Two more cars pulled up. Several men came into the crowd. One was carrying a young baby. One of them pulled out a phone and music started, and the crowd went into a rap about their friend Hassan. I had now become part of this crowd, and one of them yelled, “Hey, Pops, say some words for our friend.”

I swallowed hard, knowing I had to say something.

“Hassan was a friend of mine. He helped me, and I helped him. We celebrated his birthday only days before. I found him to be a good man. May God have mercy on his soul. And, Father, we ask for your blessing for all of us here today in the name of your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Murmurs of agreement.

Someone unwrapped bottles and passed them around. I had not taken a drink in forty-five years, for reasons I didn’t wish to discuss. The bottle came to me and everyone looked. I raised it and took a swig. I tried not to cough. “That’s it, Pops, let it go down easy.”

All of us stood for a long time. No one wanted to leave. Driving home, I despaired about the drink I took and, worse still, for the second one I wanted.

I returned the next day. Passing Hassan’s spot, I noticed something in the alley. I walked through the debris and looked down. I picked up a wallet, which must have been Hassan’s. It was mostly empty except for two photos; his brother and sister, I assumed. Also sticking out was a piece of cut-out paper. It was from the bag that contained the sandwich I gave him.

To Hassan, for your birthday, it read. Signed, Pops.

I held the little note for a long time. I walked to my van. I didn’t feel like working, and drove home.

 

 

——————–
Max Bayer was born to immigrant parents who fled war-torn Europe in 1942. He came to writing late in life when he discovered that his parents—Holocaust escapees—left a daughter in Germany when they fled to America. He has worked as a health care consultant and is currently a CBD hemp grower in the Hudson Valley while pursuing his passion for building and writing.

Elizabeth II

By Randy Fowler

ouisville, on the day of my arrival, was enjoying a respite from a treacherous and unyielding summer and from where I stood in the doorway of the bus station, winter was nowhere in sight. Leaves on nearby trees were swaying to a tune I couldn’t hear against a sky bluer than I remembered. The city that sought absolution for its past failings seemed to have achieved some kind of internal peace for the moment, ready to settle for what it had grown into, and the weather pled for clemency on its behalf.

I never intended to return. I grew up on the west side, in an area next to the Ohio River, officially labeled a toxic-waste site responsible for almost half of the county’s pollution. Nothing could have brought me back short of the news that my only son was missing. I had neglected him when he most needed a father, and now, in spite of my parole status in California, I couldn’t turn my back on him in a crunch.

I cased the area. Two patrol cars, one state and one metro, were parked at the curb. For a parolee, the slightest misgivings can give even a brain-dead Johnny Law probable cause, and my gut said they were looking for me.

To my left, a loud noise caught my attention. A fat man had dropped two of his bags with a thud. He wore a plaid shirt, two sizes too small, and Levi’s drawn tight below a belly that I feared might pop the buttons from his shirt, a sight I hoped to avoid. I hurried to help gather his things and returned his bag to its upright position.

“Why, thank you so much!” he said. “I don’t see a baggage handler around, do you?” He raised his eyebrows as he spoke, making it seem like a question.

I suggested he carry my lighter satchel along with his smallest bag, and I would help him get his other two over to the cab stand. He said his name was Ralph. “Just a short trip to visit my aging sister,” he said. “Only be here for three days. I live just outside Cincinnati, you know. I’m heading downtown to a reasonably priced Holiday Inn, willing to share a cab with you to split the expense. You interested?”

Luckily, I had found me a talker. A natural camouflage.

“My, my! This satchel feels like it’s empty,” he said.

I wasn’t about to tell him that a hundred fifty grand in hundred-dollar bills only weighs a little more than three pounds. Instead, I said, “A small gift for a relative.”

With my son missing, I had pulled together all my liquid assets in case of a ransom demand, and under the circumstances, it felt better having someone else carry all that cash as we walked past the police. Plausible deniability can sometimes create favorable confusion.

As soon as possible after hearing about my son, I jumped on a plane to Cincinnati. You can’t get to Louisville non-stop from the west coast unless you travel in a UPS box, but four hours from LA and you’re landing in Cincinnati, only ninety minutes from Louisville by bus. Besides, I thought the bus would let me sneak in without detection.

As we walked by, I dismissed the two local cops as rookies as they eyeballed the crowd from inside their car. I relaxed a bit as one of them stepped from his car and leaned against it to light a cigarette. He was eyeing a young woman in tight denims and a tank top. Humans are so fucking predictable.

One State Trooper, in summer-issue uniform of French gray trousers with a one-inch stripe, chukka high top shoes and short-sleeved shirt, his badge on the left side of his shirt spelling out Johnathon L. Clark, stood alertly next to the passenger side of his Ford Crown Victoria. He was looking over my head at the crowd of people shuffling along. I noticed badge number 635 as I walked past, smiling my usual, decoy smile, which caused him to look away rather than be bothered by some overly fawning civilian. He fiddled with his trooper hat as he gazed at his female partner who was fast approaching the car with two steaming cups in her hands.

At the taxi stand, I insisted my new friend take the first one in line, saying no to his offer to share a cab.

“Opportunity only knocks once,” he said.

And misfortune just barges right in. “Well, maybe I’ll ride with you as far as the Brown Hotel,” I said. It had suddenly occurred to me that it might be wise to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

The cab we approached had a typical Jefferson County taxi license plate, with the number 1843. I took my satchel from Ralph and placed it inside the cab, on the back-seat floor, and returned to the trunk to deal with his luggage. He didn’t offer to help. I fumbled with rearranging some miscellaneous crap the driver had stored in the trunk—like it never occurred to him that his next fare might have luggage—and began cramming Ralph’s bags inside. I finally got the damn lid closed, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The back door—which I was sure I had closed—was open. I saw a man in a hoodie running down the street. He jumped into a waiting, nondescript black Chevy and was off.

“So, do you still want to go to the Brown?” the driver asked.

I said. “Yes, and could you please go slow; I’d like to see if we can spot that getaway car or the hooded guy.

“What hooded guy?” Ralph asked.

“You want me to what?” The driver was looking in the rearview mirror.

It was too much trouble to explain. Something I felt I wouldn’t have had to do in LA. Processing new information seems easier and faster on the west coast. Another reason I never wanted to return to my dear old home town.  I looked for the hooded little thief and his getaway Chevy as we drove but saw nothing. At the hotel, I handed Ralph twenty-five bucks, even though the meter said twelve.

I walked slowly through the entrance of the hotel and rode the escalator up to the lobby. I needed help, and there was only one person I still knew in town.

“This is Eddie Mayer,” I said to the woman who answered the phone. “Is Michael Barzini there?”

Michael’s greeting was a familiar welcome. “Hello,” he said. “I thought it might be you.”

“Sorry, Michael, but this is not the call you expected. I’ve run into even more trouble, and I need your help sooner than I thought.”

“When you called from Cincinnati, I put out some feelers on your son. Nothing yet, if that is what is on your mind,” he said.

“Nothing…you heard nothing?” I asked.

“No. These things are sometimes hard to ferret out,” he said. “Maybe we get word soon.”

“Well, I’ve got another problem that I don’t want to discuss over the phone. Can we get together?” I asked. “Do you still live downtown in that great place over on Third?”

“Yes, I am pleased to say,” he said. “Where are you presently?”

“I’m on Fourth. Only a few blocks away. It would only take a few minutes for me to get there, if you’re up for it.”

“I will come to you. Where will I find you?”

“There’s a café on Fourth, a half block from Broadway, close to the Brown Hotel.”

I took a table on the sidewalk at the café—trying to imagine where my satchel might be, and whether the snatcher had yet discovered what was in it—and ordered a coffee.

When we first met, Michael was a curly-haired, nerdy kid. He was often doing something technical, like building a radar detector for measuring the speed of passing cars just for the hell of it, and I was constantly in trouble with the authorities. I was fifteen; he was thirteen, almost fourteen. We immediately disliked each other, but over time that changed, and we began running together, off and on.

When he developed a gambling problem, we somehow grew closer. Overnight, he discovered hard times, and getting in trouble was an affliction I knew something about. I guess I’m drawn to people with flaws, having firsthand knowledge with personality defects. We were more often in trouble than not, and on a couple of occasions, we found ourselves cellmates in the county jail. When I left Kentucky for California, he was in a medium-security correctional institute in eastern Kentucky for running an illegal (and crooked) casino.

Michael arrived as the waiter poured my third cup. I told him about my ordeal at the bus station.

“That doesn’t sound like you. How much were you carrying?” he asked.

“A hundred fifty large,” I said.

“That’s a sizable amount. Was it yours?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “I should tell you I jumped parole to get here.”

“Ah ha, ah ha. So what is the plan now?”

“Well, I guess I’ll register at the Brown and then get started. I have to find William, but I admit I don’t know where to start. Don’t have a clue how to go about getting my money back. I was hoping you could help with that. I don’t have your connections.”

I looked for a response. No reaction to being categorized as to being connected would mean he still was. I had picked the right guy.

“I have lost track of many of the people we used to know. Things change and memory plays tricks when you have been away so long, but I will do what I can” he said. “However. you will not be checking into any hotel. You will stay with me, at least until we get the lay of the land. We will try to figure out what we’re dealing with and go from there.”

***

I met Meredith when I was twenty-three and she was twenty. I had just been recently released from county jail where I had been held awaiting trial for larceny. She married me for the danger she sensed when we first met and divorced me for the same reason. Skirting the edge and defying the establishment was fun at first. We were both wild and unsettled, filled with boundless energy and iconoclastic views.

Then the baby came, and Meredith wouldn’t leave the house. She was obsessed with taking care of our son. She nagged me constantly about my lack of responsibility. A real man would be out looking for a job that paid a salary. She resented me and my activities more and more; I had lost my partner and began to resent the boy for the imposition. Her attorney telling the divorce court we had grown apart was like calling WWII a disagreement.

Meredith married her attorney two years after I left Kentucky. They moved to the outskirts of Louisville, on the east side, near St. Matthews, the other side of town from where I grew up in every aspect of the word. Her new husband changed jobs three years later to become an assistant commonwealth attorney—what everyone except Kentuckians call a DA—working somewhere in the bowels of state bureaucracy. Just the type Meredith and I had both spent our lives trying to avoid when we first were married.

I went to southern California. Working alone and realizing all the advantages of specialization, I found a niche that took advantage of my athleticism and limited the competition at the same time. My new job evolved organically, one step at a time. I became known as one of the best high-story men in the business, rising in a business that was declining. Others felt the work was dangerous and too hard. With my new work notoriety came, and with-it ego, I guess you would say.

At first I tried to keep in touch with William, our son, who worshiped me without reservation. His mother’s anger made me reluctant to keep it up, and as I called more infrequently, her tone softened a bit, and his interest faded. Her married name was now Young, but my son still used my last name—even today—which is the one thing I held on to as I phoned her.

“Meredith. It’s Eddie. Have you heard anything, like a ransom demand—or worse?”

“Who’s this, again?”

“C’mon, Meredith. Goddamnit, don’t fuck with me. This is serious.”

“You think I don’t know?”

“I take it you haven’t heard anything then,” I said.

“No, Shirley,” she said. “It’s not today. Tomorrow, at Mike Linning’s, out on Cane Run Road. You know, by the river, for lunch, around one. Remember?”

“I take it your dear beloved came into the room just now and you can’t talk, right?”

“Okay, I’ll see you there at lunch time then.”

I have always been so impressed with how instinctively and automatically she could pull off a common ruse. Except when it was on me, of course.

***

Staying in Michael’s house seemed natural at first; getting used to his habits was another matter. He amused himself with still-life oil painting for short periods of time, which drove me nuts. I wanted some action. When he went out with some of his buddies without saying a word, I was looking for news about my son or my money when he returned, but he said nothing.

“Any news, Michael?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” he replied.

“Michael, I’m going crazy here. We’re not doing anything; nothing is happening. I can’t just sit around doing nothing. I have to take some action. My son is still missing, not to mention my money?”

“Nothing can be done at this point. Just relax,” Michael said. “I have a game with some influential friends tonight. Maybe I hear something. People brag, drink too much, maybe drop a hint about your son or that dough you lost—it was a big haul after all. You never know.”

“A poker game?” I asked. “What time will it be over?”

“Game starts tonight. Sometimes lasts a day or two, maybe less, maybe more.”

Idleness for the rest of the day almost sucked me under. Fortunately, Elizabeth, Michael’s girlfriend, came home early from her work at the main public library on Third. I found her knowledge on a wide range of topics interesting and her smile calming. All the while, I was trying to think of something I could do without waiting for Michael.

The next morning, the house was empty, and I had no way of getting in touch with Michael. I walked to the library hoping to find Elizabeth, but she wasn’t there. I scanned some of the magazines hoping some article would suggest a useful person or helpful action, but nothing came. I began to feel a little uncentered. I tried thinking about everyone I’d ever known in the area but came up empty.

Embarrassed, I returned to the house thinking Michael might return sooner than I thought. At noon, a knock on the door brought a man I didn’t know with a note from Michael. It read: Go back to the café on Fourth at four p.m.. Wear a white shirt, no jacket, order a coffee, and wait.

I don’t do the patience thing very well. Elizabeth came home for a late lunch at one, and I felt an unexpected excitement. Not just for the promise of action later, but because she was there. I didn’t understand my interest. In LA, I tended to be drawn to what I would call a hint of urgent lust, a great figure with a degree of dangerous looseness, a sexiness as obvious as the need to be discovered. A woman in tight jeans and high-heel shoes with a kind of aloof confidence that bordered on arrogance was what got my attention.

But Elizabeth was different; she wouldn’t generally be considered pretty if not for her kind smile and glowing aura. Today she wore a charcoal blazer over a knee-length yellow shirt with a navy-blue and white polka-dot skirt and beige medium-high heels. She looked elegant, with her scarf draped casually around her neck picking up some of the outfit colors. Not the type I generally went for, but I very much found myself drawn to her. I could feel the vibe of kindness, gentleness, what people describe as a good heart.

“You’re all dressed up,” I said. “Very stylish, very nice.”

“Some VIPs, big donors, were at the library today, and we were trying to make a good impression. They wanted a tour of the place. The remodeling’s going to cost a bundle.”

“When do you think Michael will return from his game?” I asked.

“No telling. I’m thinking sometime tomorrow.”

At four, I did as the note suggested. Halfway through my second cup at the café, a man walked by my table without even a glance in my direction. I looked closely at the satchel he was carrying—my satchel—and when he passed me, still without looking, he dropped it at my feet. I finished my coffee, picked up the satchel nonchalantly, tucked it under my arm, and walked back to Michael’s house. I immediately dumped the contents on the floor and began to count it. When I looked up, Michael was smiling.

“There’s fifteen Gs missing,” I said.

“You expected to get away without paying the vig?” he asked. “I told the little weaselly twerp to take his cut. Thank God nothing in life is free. Otherwise, guys like you and me would get no leverage. It was small juice to pay for justice or —if you prefer—ninety percent justice. Beats the shit out of no justice at all, does it not?”

I was glad to have the bulk of my life savings back. “Here, I want you to have this. Thanks for helping,” I said, handing him another fifteen grand. “You deserve it.”

“You are my friend. I didn’t do it for money,” he said.

“Still, I need to thank you.”

I learned long ago: kicking up is as important as taking care of people below. Eating alone is the problem, it strains friendship and loses points.

***

I had ordered my fish sandwich and fries before she arrived and went to an outside table. She joined me.

“So, I take it your wonderful husband was home when I called yesterday,” I said.

“Ever thought about taking up police work?” Meredith responded.

“What do you want from me?”

“My son.”

“He’s not just your son, he’s also my son. Do you remember how much time I spent with him before we parted?”

“Well, your so-called career gave you a lot of time to spend with him during the day, didn’t it?”

“I think about those times constantly. We did everything together, spent most every day doing something together until he was—what? —ten or so. Emulating my every gesture in those days haunts me even now, and I can’t stand the idea that I’m too incompetent to help him when he needs me most. I have to apologize to him for being so unavailable these last few years.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think? He’s missed you so much. He’s just like you in every way I can think of. That’s probably why he and Alan have always been at odds with each other.”

“I feel bad enough—you don’t have to rub it in. I get the insult,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll eventually turn it into a compliment.” Her brow was furrowed, eyes lowered. “How’s the fish?”

“What has your husband, his stepfather, done to help find William?”

“He refuses to talk about it.”

“What! Are you kidding? Why? He knows a lot of people, people in high places: police, detectives, DAs, probably most everybody in town. You’ve been married for twelve years, for God’s sake, and he’s been a prosecutor most of that time. And he’s done nothing? What the fuck is his problem?”

“He says Bill is a disappointment. He thinks he has just run away, he’ll be back. ‘Just give it time,’ he says. In the meantime, I’ve heard nothing—nothing—not a word. I’m worried sick. And nobody is doing anything about it. No ransom, no information, no nothing? What the fuck are you doing, for that matter, except criticizing others?”

“I’m trying. Don’t have a lead yet, can’t find a handle, but I am trying—have feelers out, but so far, nothing. By the way, I guess your legal-beagle husband came into the room while we were talking. Is that why you called me Shirley?”

She only stared and shrugged. Uncomfortable, I turned away to watch the river flow for a moment. The current was hypnotic enough to ease my discomfort.

“So how is the marriage anyway?” I asked, still staring at the river.

“Complicated.”

“Is…was William happy…before—?”

“Yes, well, he was reasonably happy until recently. But he and Alan always had a strained relationship, I guess.”

“Why?”

“I think Bill—he prefers Bill to William—has always missed you, and Alan, I think, is jealous, although he won’t admit it.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Her words tore my heart out. How could I have left my flesh and blood and been in contact so seldom? I felt guilt like I had never felt it before. When my eyes teared up, something that almost never happens, I didn’t know what to say. “What was going on with Bill…before he, you know…?” I turned away.

“Bill has always been troublesome, headstrong, if you know what I mean—of course you do—but something happened recently… He stopped speaking to Alan altogether… I asked Alan about it, and he blew me off. Said something about how Bill needed to learn to mind his own business.”

“What the hell did he mean by that?” I asked. “What a strange thing to say unless—”

“Don’t really know. Not sure,” she interrupted. “He’s been acting strange though, recently.”

“Bill, you mean?”

“No, Alan,” she said.

“What’s that about?”

“Don’t know,” she said.

“Then, take a guess. Your intuition has always been spot-on.”

“Well, I only know there was an investment banker that’s been coming to see Alan a lot. The last few times he showed up, Bill left the house, slamming the door.”

“Who was it? I mean, do you know him and why he was there?”

“Don’t know, really. I assumed he was advising Alan on investments. He’s been talking about retirement…he would like to take an early one…talks about how difficult it is for a government employee.”

“And his name was…?” I asked, prompting.

“Not sure. I think his last name was Walter, or Walker, or something like that.

“Do you have any reason to think this investment guy did anything to Bill to make him want to leave the house? Did he have any interaction with Bill at all?”

“I don’t think so. The visits seemed like normal business to me. I don’t know what Bill was thinking, but he and Alan spoke even less than usual.”

Confused, I wanted to leave before I said something I would regret. I thanked her for agreeing to meet with me, and for the ancient memory of the tasty fish sandwich. When I tried to give her a peck on the cheek in parting, she moved away.

***

The odds against winning the lottery are the same for the loser as for the winner before the draw. Despite my inability to calculate the probability, I took a long shot on locating the only cop I respected, the last one to arrest me before I left the area. Not only did I discover he was still in town, but I discovered he was still on the force and was back walking a beat in old Butchertown.

That area was shear hell when I was a kid. You took your life in your hands when you entered. Now, instead of cattle carcasses, its brick buildings contained upscale boutiques and gift shops.

I didn’t ask about his being back on the beat; I had picked up on a rumor of a disciplinarian problem, which confirmed my choice. Instead, an introductory question seemed best.

“They still call you Whitey?” I asked.

“Yeah. What do they call you?” he responded.

“Eddie Meyer. You locked me up for burglary long ago. You probably don’t remember, do you?”

“Vaguely. No, as a matter of fact, I do remember you. I remember you as someone who was in touch with himself, in an odd sort of way. What do you want?”

“Just wanted to thank you. For getting me to go straight. Now I need help with a problem—when you’re off duty, of course. Maybe buy you a coffee and talk? I could use some sound advice. What could it hurt?”

He was skeptical, reluctant to get suckered in. He repeatedly turned down meeting me at all. I began to think he didn’t want anything to do with me, and the odds for my long shot were getting slimmer by the minute, until I suggested White Castle on Broadway. He agreed to meet me there for a quick bite before his evening shift the next day.

I discussed the Whitey meeting with Michael, who warned me to be careful. Although he didn’t know Whitey, nor had he ever done business with him, he had heard a rumor of a gambling problem. I knew I was asking fate to cover her ears as I listened to a rumor of a gambling problem told by someone with a gambling problem who heard it from a third person with a gambling problem, but what the hell was I to do?

I chose to not show up at my scheduled meeting with Whitey in favor of easing in the gate before stepping into the lion’s den. That very day Michael was able to determine that Whitey was down twelve thousand to a fellow gambler by the name of Vernon “the Roach” Jackson (whose nickname derived from the fact that a number of attempts on his life failed—it was generally believed he could survive the apocalypse). I gave Michael twenty thousand for him to pass on to his friend the Roach to cover Whitey’s debt and for an additional eight-thousand marker.

The next day I found Whitey on the job.

“I don’t like being stood up,” he said, walking by slowly as I pretended to stare at a shop display.

“Sorry, I had some business to conduct,” I replied.

“Apparently. It would seem your business is more than just your business,” he said. “Same time, same place, tomorrow. But don’t stand me up.” His mumble was barely audible.

I accepted with a single quick nod. He turned quickly and stopped abruptly to ask the proprietor of the boutique a question, smiling, nodding. He slapped the shop owner on the back, then shuffled off down the middle of the common courtyard.

The next day, I arrived at the White Castle before he did and ordered a half dozen with mustard. He held up ten fingers to the woman at the counter before acknowledging me. Suddenly the informality of the situation hit me as preposterous. We’re ordering stupid little hamburgers while my son is still missing and might possibly be injured or even dead. I’m helpless and at the mercy of a cop I barely know. Michael hasn’t come up with anything. Am I being a fool? My stomach knotted; the tension, combined with the smell of onions, caused me to gasp for breath. I was going to be sick. I took two deep breaths and hoped for mercy.

“You don’t have White Castles in California?” Whitey asked.

“You’ve been doing your homework,” I said, relaxing a bit.

“I know you are still on parole. I know you jumped when your son went missing. I know I can arrest you anytime I choose but have elected, under the circumstances, to let it go for now.” Whitey raised his eyebrows, as any cop with over twenty years on the force might do.

“What do you know about my son?” I asked. “What have you heard?”

“I don’t know where he is, if that’s what you’re asking,” Whitey said.

“His stepfather is a commonwealth attorney. You ever hear of a guy named Young? ACA Alan Young?”

“Yeah, I know him,” Whitey said as he stepped away to fetch his lunch from the counter.

“And?” I asked.

“I don’t know him that well,” Whitey said. Don’t much like him, seems full of himself, doesn’t speak to anyone below his level, if you know what I mean.”

“Apparently, my son doesn’t like him either. Have you ever heard of an investment banker named Walter or Walker, something like that?” I asked.

“No. Who is he?”

“Someone my ex-wife mentioned,” I said. “Maybe not important. She said she thought he had been coming around to help with investments. My son refuses to be there when he’s there. Don’t know if it means anything or not.”

“I’ll ask around,” Whitey volunteered.

“My ex-wife got a ransom call last night,” I said.

“Jesus Christ! I would think you’d have mentioned that before now,” Whitey said. “That changes everything.”

“I was trying to take it one step at a time, carefully,” I said. “For all I knew, you might have been good friends with my son’s stepfather. But a ransom demand makes it all so real. Thinking of what has to happen now scares the shit out of me.”

“What’d they say?”

“Half a mil. She told them—or rather it, since it sounded like a computerized voice—we don’t have that kind of money. They threatened something bad would happen if we didn’t get it by midday Saturday.”

“That’s an odd time,” he said.

“I don’t know what drives it, but now what do I do? I can’t just sit on my ass and do nothing.”

“Hang on a second,” he said. He left the table and walked outside.

He was on his cell for a good ten minutes. I got another Coke and waited patiently until he finally returned.

“That name you gave me: you said Walter or Walker, something like that. Could it be Waters?” Whitey asked.

“Yes, maybe, I guess so; it sounds right. Waters. Why?” I asked.

“Charles Waters is a big-deal financier, and I found out he knows your buddy, ACA Young.”

“So, he’s legit?”

“I didn’t say that. I asked some of my friends, and one, Bob, a detective, said he’s been investigating Mr. Waters for possible fraud, money laundering and other crimes. Bob suspected as far back as eight months ago that Waters was pulling off some kind of financial scam. It’s still an open investigation.”

“What’s he doing with Young?”

“Don’t know yet. I’ll find out,” Whitey said. “What are you doing about the half-mil?”

“I’ve got it covered,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”

***

Michael had offered up the ransom. I asked Meredith to call me as soon as she had any further instructions. She did, but when I suggested to Whitey that I act as courier, he pooh-poohed the idea. “They haven’t contacted you, only your ex-wife. Let’s not change anything. Let her do it. That leaves the two of us for backup.”

I thought Meredith should not do it. I should instead; after all, I’m the adrenalin junkie, it’s an integral part of my work so to speak. But this was different. This was serious, way beyond a threat to reputation or loss of freedom. This was too dangerous: somebody could get killed. But there was no way I could talk Meredith out of it.

They wanted delivery the next day. She was to board the Belle of Louisville for the one-o’clock, after-lunch voyage. The money had to be in an otherwise empty tote bag, not a hard case. She was to board close to launch time and stand at the top of the gangplank, then wait.

Whitey suggested I board first and stand back in the crowd to watch the drop, in case Meredith needed me. He would wander around outside, on the street.

“You never know how these things will go down,” he said. “There is often a problem, a wrinkle of some kind that can’t be anticipated. We have to be ready for anything and everything.”

Everyone was in place by five to one. At close to one o’clock, two boat staffers approached the gangplank to prepare for launch. At that exact moment, a young woman approached Meredith and reached for the bag. I saw Meredith resist at first. She had only heard a deep voice on the phone, and I surmised that the woman threw her off. I caught her eye and shook my head discreetly from side to side. She caught on and released the tote. Just as the gangplank removal began, the young woman sprang into action, jumped on the ramp, knocking it out of the hands of the startled sailors. I heard the woman say, “Sorry, I have to get off before I get sick.” She ran pell-mell down the gangplank into a small crowd, across a parking lot and up toward the downtown area.

My first thought as I saw the woman run down the plank was that it was already too late for William. When I approached Meredith, she cursed at me and hissed that we were fools to not have assured his safety before giving up the money.

“If he’s hurt, it’s all your fault and I’ll never forgive you.” Both Meredith and I were stuck on a three-hour cruise neither of us wanted to take. It was the worst riverboat ride imaginable. I could only hope Whitey was on that woman’s trail.

Meredith was furious. Scared for William, she doubted aloud that Whitey and I knew what we were doing and suspected the bag didn’t even have five hundred Gs in it. Everything I said to reassure her failed. Probably because I didn’t believe what I was saying myself.

Low on options, we weren’t even speaking by the time we disembarked. I went by cab to Whitey’s beat. When I finally spotted him, I stopped in front of a shop and waited for him to approach. I saw him do a double take, look around, then approach.

“Meet me in an hour in the Brown bar,” he whispered.

I got there early. Pacing, I imagined the worst: we had failed. I had allowed us to be snookered. I was already seated when he entered and sat down.

“I followed the woman into the Galt House, where she went up in the elevator with the bag,” Whitey said. “I thought there was a good chance I’d never see her or the bag again.”

I quickly wrote the rest of the scene in my head. Whitey loses track of the money, finds the bag is in some trash can, and no one knows where William is.

“But just in case,” he said, “I sat in the lobby watching the elevator traffic. Within five minutes, a man emerged carrying the bag under his arm like he was ashamed of it. He rushed through the exit to the parking garage so fast I damned near missed him.”

“Could you tell who it was?”

“No. But I followed him to an apartment building in St. Matthews. The man had to wait a while to be buzzed into the building, so I guessed he didn’t live there. I sat in a bus shelter across the street alongside a woman who said she lived there and took the bus to town every day. I struck up a conversation, figuring I’d give him the fifteen minutes before her bus arrived. He came out in eight. The nice lady said she didn’t recognize him. I watched him walk away down the street empty-handed.”

“Damn it. Damn it!” I hit the table with my fist so hard the waiter came to see if we needed something. For cover, I ordered a bourbon, and Whitey followed suit.

“You give up on me too soon,” he said, with a wink. “I’m a cop, remember? A very good cop, regardless of what you might think. I tapped into our database and discovered that a Charles Waters lives in that building.”

“I may kiss you,” I said. “After I find William.”

***

Over the next couple of days I gathered information about Mr. Waters from every available source. Charlie Waters was indeed a registered investment banker, whose primary activity was real-estate development. As General Partner in his many syndicated deals, he distributed enough income and tax deductions to keep the limited partners on the hook while he formulated arguable reasons to not pay his vendors, holding them at bay by sometimes suing them for nonperformance and saying the most outlandish things imaginable to hurt their reputation, always presenting himself as the eventual savior in press releases. The projects were often kept afloat until—at the moment before disaster, sometimes four years later—an out-of-court settlement favorable to his syndicate was reached. In the interim, he used borrowings against projected cash flow to start other developments and repeated the cycle time after time.

I asked Whitey to check with the officers who had been investigating Waters for the latest status of their case. He reported back that there had been no additional progress on the fraud case but that his limo driver, Tommy “the Snake” Piccolo, had been recently arrested for assault of a detective who had been tailing Waters, and was awaiting trial. As a well-known gangster for hire, he’d only recently landed the job as driver for Waters.

Michael gave me the name of the restaurant and bar Tommy the Snake frequented. I went there for the next four nights, stopping by during the day several times just in case. No luck.

I asked the bartender. He said, “I ain’t seen Tommy around lately. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the last time I seen him. You never know: he may slither in anytime, you know what I mean?” he said. His laugh was so loud it made me wonder if I missed something.

Having lost the ransom and making no progress, I became lonely and depressed. It had been too long since William’s disappearance, and I was worried—worried that I wasn’t doing my share. I had to find the Snake. The weather had turned; it was dark and cold. Winter had arrived with a vengeance. I went out for a walk, and out of habit I headed toward the Snake’s hangout.

The wind had skeletonized the street, blown away all activity. I was as cold as I’d ever been. No real traffic; an occasional car crept along the snow-covered streets, going slowly, seemingly searching for something rather than going someplace. People were indoors; I walked alone on sidewalks wide enough for four. Snow fell. The wind blew flakes into my face. I pulled my collar tight around my neck like a hangman’s noose, reducing my sense of exposure as a parolee with no civil rights. The pub’s glowing lights helped my mood somewhat.

As I approached, I noticed a prostitute standing outside, smoking and looking innocent enough. I asked if I could bum a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, just to have someone to talk to. She struck up an engaging conversation and generously offered the pack. I said no, I didn’t smoke that much and offered to buy drinks inside.

I asked if she knew Tommy Piccolo.

“Sure, everybody knows the Snake,” she said. “Why?”

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” I lied.

“Oh, he comes in mostly on the weekends but just happens to be here right now—over there, in the corner,” she said, nodding in his direction.

I thanked her and asked what she generally charged for her time. She said she didn’t charge anything for talking.

“Oh, come on. I’ve taken a lot of your time—time when you could have been on the clock. Tell me what you would have charged if I was a customer.”

“Three hundred is the going price.”

I gave her three bills. “You’ve been very helpful,” I said. “I’ll hand over another one for you not mentioning anything about me or that I was looking for him.”

“How could I tell anything about you? I don’t even know your name,” she said. “Not passing on information I don’t have is free: keep your money.”

Tommy Piccolo reminded me of a man I’d spent several months in jail with long ago. He was unsure of himself and unsure if he wanted to change. He seemed permanently hooked on negative thinking, supposing it was the only way to keep one step ahead of disaster. He was drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks, and I asked the bartender to keep them coming. I had locally bottled beer.

After two drinks, I concluded he would do most anything for money. Telling him my story wouldn’t sway him one way or the other; he was only interested in what was in it for him. I asked questions about Mr. Waters, prodding in a way that might lead to some of his habits and issues regarding his schedule.

“Aw, I do not know if it is in my best interest to talk about my boss,” he said, under his breath. “Are you planning something?”

“What do you care?”

“I care to not get caught in any resulting crossfire.”

“I promise you that whatever I do will not involve you or your limo. You will be in no way involved,” I said, with as much sincerity as I could muster. “And I’ll give you ten Gs for information on his activities.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, frowning. “Sounds too risky.”

I could see the drinks were sneaking up on him.

“I have reason to believe he has a half mil in his condo,” I said, to bait him with the money he took from me.

“Oh, he’s got lots more than that, I can tell you that for sure,” he said, shaking his head. Laughing, he continued, “Oh yeah, he’s got lots more than that.”

“Tell you what,” I said, leaning in. “You meet me tomorrow for lunch at Dolci Italiano in Butchertown. I’ll have the ten big ones for you if you answer my questions, and if it turns out that he has more than the five hundred as you say, I’ll meet you back here with another fifteen. Deal?”

“I will go so far as agree to meet you for lunch tomorrow. Then we’ll see.”

As we walked out together, his legs wouldn’t hold him. I grabbed ahold as he lost his balance and almost fell. I had encouraged him to keep drinking, but now I was sure that if I hadn’t stayed with him he would have broken God knows how many bones. Somehow he was able to make it to a cab, and I watched him fall into the back seat.

Over the next several days, I learned more than I’d expected. I gave him the original ten and another five. Now I was getting somewhere, finally making progress, even though I was down to eighty-five thousand, less miscellaneous expenses.

At some point, he began talking freely about how Waters financed other criminal activities while staying clear of getting involved directly himself, how Tommy, as personal driver, was often sent to pick up bags of cash and bring them to Waters’ condo.

Getting close was never my problem; knowing what was too close required a talent I’d never developed. Like a moderately competent horseback rider, I questioned whether I could keep my saddle at racetrack speeds.

“One night I personally picked up four bags containing over three million and left them inside his empty condo,” he volunteered. “It stayed in his wall safe for a day or so, then it mysteriously went someplace two days later.”

I wanted to say: So, his condo is the rinse cycle for funds left soaking overnight. But I restrained myself.

***

It was six o’clock by the time I arrived back at Michael’s house after the spending a long lunch with Tommy the Snake. I told Michael all I had learned about Waters from Tommy.

“What is going on inside that head of yours?” he asked.

“I hope to get your half mil back and then some,” I responded. “What would you do in my place?”

“I would be very careful,” he said. His eyes flashing about as though something might be sneaking up on us.

“I always try,” I said. “Maybe you could verify some of my info with your friends—when you can, of course.”

“I will try,” he said. “I have to go, but I will do what I can.”

By the time I showered and shaved, Elizabeth was there. Our dinners together had become old hat when Michael was at poker. I had convinced her to try an upscale restaurant three blocks from Butchertown which Whitey had put me on to. Elizabeth had softened, seemed to enjoy our times together more and more. She was free in spirit, easy to talk to, and her eyes sparkled as I spoke. I was excited and flattered. She reminded me of the early days with Meredith. It felt warm, like admiration.

I don’t normally drink wine or have desert, but I took both because she wanted them. We lingered after-dinner, telling stories of our childhood and laughing at the idiocy of things we considered important as kids.

Leaving, we couldn’t remember where she had parked. We searched for a moment or two before I spotted her car. I had driven to the restaurant at her request, but now I thought better of it. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“I think I had too much to drive home.” I said. She slipped her arm around my waist as we walked the twenty yards in silence.

The silence lasted longer than I intended; it seemed to take on a life of its own.

“I just now realized the high point of my day is when you come home,” I said. “You are most fascinating.”

“If I hadn’t gotten to know you so well, I might think you believed what you were saying,” she said. “But I know you’ve been around, seen a lot. I’ve never really been anywhere, or seen much, not like you have. I can’t believe you’re serious, but thanks.”

“I am serious.”

She looked down, bashfully, and I kissed the side of her neck.

“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.

“Didn’t you notice I had only a few sips of wine tonight?”

“I didn’t. I knew you hadn’t had much, but not that little. Are you not feeling well?”

“I feel fine, but guilty for drinking. I’m trying to stop, but it’s been very difficult. I think I may have a problem with alcohol. But I’m determined.”

“Why?”

“I’m pregnant,” she whispered.

“My God! You’re pregnant?” I whispered back.

“Start of third trimester. I’ve been reckless, but I’m going to stop. No more.”

“Is the father someone you work with?”

“No. There is no father.”

“All the more reason you need to take care. No more alcohol, my dear. Fatherless births are special, you know. We still honor the last one.”

She touched my cheek. She held her hand there until I thought my heart would burst. She fondled my earlobe for a second, gazing into my eyes. She slid her hand slowly down my cheek, touched my chest, and let it rest there. She looked away. I wanted to speak but nothing came out. We stood for several minutes in silence before getting into the car; the grace of the moment was too extraordinary to tamper with.

***

Tommy confirmed that on the date of the ransom delivery, a bag like the one I described containing a sizable amount of cash showed up at Waters’ condo. Beyond anything I expected, he mentioned his boss was expecting between a million and two million on a night he was to receive an award at a dinner downtown. I slipped the Snake another fifteen grand for the info. True to his nickname, Tommy was able to swallow it in one gulp. Now I was down to seventy thousand.

I remember how excitement filled the air the next afternoon. This was to be the quintessential event of my entire career, the job everything else had been training me for. The past lost its meaning except as example.

The execution was perfect. The take was a little on the plus side, totaling two million three. I dallied a moment over taking more than the five hundred I felt was mine but justified taking the whole bundle as my reward for the grief they caused me. I rationalized a moral ground somewhat higher than I was used to walking, thinking no report was likely to be filed. I was taking money that was not his in the first place.

After a week it seemed I was home free. But it turned out that some of the money had been siphoned from a Federal construction job and that made it a bigger deal than I counted on. My active parole status in California was bad enough, and now the potential for even deeper trouble seemed imminent; I didn’t need the Feds looking for me as well. I learned long ago that when you’re in a hole it’s best to stop digging, and it’s important to get rid of the extra dirt. So, I gave back Michael’s half-mil and contemplated where to stash the rest. Beyond that, I decided I really should lay low for a while, but the need to find William was greater.

***

“Hello?” I answered a call I wasn’t expecting.

“This is Meredith.”

“Did you hear something? Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I’ve got two things to tell you, so just listen,” she said. “First, I’m so Goddamned frustrated I want to kick somebody’s ass, yours included, and I got word from the police that they are giving up. William is about to become a cold case. They have no leads and assume he is a runaway.”

“Can your wonderful husband do anything?”

“Stop asking that. He’s not going to do a damn thing. He says there’s nothing he can do.”

“What about the ransom demand?” I asked. “That proves he’s not a runaway.”

“Mentioning that raises more questions than I can deal with right now.”

“Smart. That’s probably smart, you’re right.”

“But thank God, I then heard from Bill. I was so relieved but still frustrated that I couldn’t tell anyone.”

“Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know; he wouldn’t say. He is going to call you, wanted your number.”

“Me? Why?”

“I don’t know, but I told him where you were. If he calls, please call me as soon as you can. I have to know what’s going on.”

It was only a few days ago that I thought he might be injured or dead. What can I say to the kid to indicate how I feel without appearing like an old fool? How can he forgive me for not calling or coming to see him?

***

Two days can seem an eternity. But he finally called.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“William. Where the hell are you? Are you okay? I asked.

“Stop it. There’s something you have to do. Quickly,” he said.

“Wait! Wait! First, are you okay?”

“As if you care.” His voice sounded detached and distant.

“Are you kidding? Don’t do this. I’ve been worried sick about you. Are you okay?” I repeated.

“Let’s just skip the preliminaries,” he said. “This is serious, and I called you because I don’t know who else could possibly fix it. Mom’s about to get taken to the cleaners.”

“How?”

“They’re trying to sell the house,” he said.

“Come on, William. How can that happen? What’s going on?”

“Alan’s been scheming with that Waters guy. They plan to put the house up for sale soon. Mom’s oblivious.”

“How do you know?”

“I overheard them talking, before I became the enemy. The mortgage is down to about three hundred fifty thousand, but the current value of the house is around a million, more or less. After Waters’ take—which I gather from what they said will be about a hundred thousand or so—Alan expects to net over a half million. He wants a million; the other half million comes from my ransom—”

I interrupted. “And where did they think it would come from?”

“They know Mom doesn’t have that kind of money, but they figured you did, or could raise it—at least you could finagle a way to raise it.”

“What in god’s name are they thinking?”

“Alan is trying to figure out how to run away with a woman not much older than me.

“Son of a bitch! I’ll kill the bastard.”

“Don’t give them the money. I got free.”

“How? When?”

“Couple of days ago. The guys holding me weren’t too bright. I was sure they would get lax, and I used the time to plan a getaway.”

“I have to see you. I want to see you. After this ordeal…we need to stay in contact. I’ve missed you.”

“No, stop already,” he said.

“Can’t we meet someplace? I have to see you.”

“Enough. I need to get my head straight.”

“Was it dangerous getting away?”

“No, not really. There was a ledge outside the only window in the room I was in, and I used to sit in the window to get fresh air—at least that’s what I told them. The woman living on the floor below always left her window open; she left every day around ten and never closed that window unless it was raining. At the right moment, I shinnied down a drainpipe to a small balcony one floor down. It worked.”

“How could a father not love a son like that? You’re a block off the old chip.”

“Do not pay the ransom, and I’m asking you to save Mom,” He said. “Where I am is nobody’s business. I want to be left alone right now. Just don’t pay the ransom, and fix Mom’s problem, I beg you. I figure you should at least be good for that. That’s all I called about. Goodbye.”

“Where are you? Can I come to you? Let me help you. What can I do?”

“Not to worry,” he said. “Be safe, take care of Mom.”

“Keep in touch then—often, you have my number—when and if you’re up to it.”

I knew he was going to be okay.

***

The first item of business was to call Meredith and report the essence of the conversation, and to ask her to check every checking and savings account, every loan they had, and reconcile every incoming and outgoing transaction she could think of, with an eye toward anything that stood out, any item that seemed out of order.

She called me back the next day.

“Everything seems normal, except one account,” she said. “Maybe I’m mistaken, but I could swear we had a savings account with over a hundred thousand in it. I have no idea what happened, but it now has less than three hundred dollars.”

“Go to the bank and find out the dates of the last ten transactions. And then go to a different bank and open an account in your name only. Call me back when you finish.”

The next day she called to say Alan had made a withdrawal a month ago and put the funds into an account in only his name.

“I’ll need the routing numbers and account numbers for both accounts. Then monitor the joint account, hourly. When you see a large amount deposited to the joint account, write a check to pay off the mortgage on the house. You did open an account in just your name at a different bank, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then move the remainder into that account, the one that’s in your name only. Use that account to buy CDs of different denominations with staggered vesting dates. Then get an attorney to file for divorce and get him or her to immediately start working on getting the house in only your name. At least tie it up legally so it can’t be sold.”

I diverted her questions and asked her to listen to me: it is what Bill wants. That seemed to quiet her for a bit.

I then went to Tommy the Snake. I offered him twenty-five grand to get me the details on Waters’ offshore bank accounts. When he didn’t return at the agreed time, I went to his pub.

“I got the dope,” he said, “but I need more. I damned near got caught messing with his computer. He suspects I’m up to something, and I have to warn you, he’s tied you to the money he lost—he didn’t hear it from me. Can’t say for sure, but I would guess we are both   be in danger. Your offer of twenty-five is not enough.”

“What is enough?”

“I’ve already quit my job, even if I’m the only one that knows it. I have to get out of here. I got a trial coming up in three weeks. Now would be a good time, but I need more.”

“How about another twenty-five?”

“Still not enough. I’m taking a lot of risk here. I got a place all picked out.”

“I gave you a lot before.”

“Still got it. Still ain’t enough.”

“How about a hundred?”

“Make it a hundred fifty. That should last a while where I’m going. You got the cash now?”

He turned over the details of Waters’ account when I handed him the money the next day.

***

Agreements with hawala operatives are always verbal. With no paper trail, the deals depend on personal trust. I arranged for a local hawaladar to transfer eight hundred fifty thousand to his counterpart in the islands, who further transferred it into Waters’ account. Their commission was twenty percent. The hundred sixty Gs bought their mutual trust.

When the transfer was complete, I moved it from Waters’ account into ACA Alan Young’s account. That part was easy: I had the necessary information and that path was well-worn. But I ran into a snag when I tried to transfer the dough into the joint account for Alan and Meredith Young. Some newbie, eager to avoid mistakes and apply all the rules, kept asking questions and requiring proof of authorization. I adeptly supplied answers that should have worked, but he kept coming at me. Finally, in desperation, I asked to speak to his manager.

“Before you put me on hold, in case we lose the connection, would you tell me the name of the manager you are transferring me to?”

“Leon Taylor is manager of this branch. I’ll see if he’s available. Hold, please.”

As the music began, I hung up. I emailed Meredith and used my personal phone to call her.

“Meredith, there is a problem, but nothing we can’t handle,” I said. “Would you please call the bank number I just emailed to you and pull from your end? I told them I was Alan Young and that may be part of the problem—the guy I spoke to may or may not be convinced of that, and even if he believes me, remember Alan made a sizable withdrawal recently without your knowledge from this same account, and they may be trying to be very careful. You need to convince him the person he just spoke with is your husband, Alan Young, and since you and Alan are individual signatories, you can ask to talk with a manager by the name of Leon Taylor—and make him aware that you are expecting a sizable transfer. Get mad, threaten to raise hell—you know the routine—and demand to know what the fucking hang-up is.”

“Got it,” she said. “Feels like old times.”

“Don’t forget,” I added, “as soon as the transfer is complete, write a check to pay off the mortgage. Then move the rest into your account and buy CDs with varying maturing dates so you can roll them over as you need to. Also, good luck.”

It worked. By the end of the week, Meredith’s mortgage was paid off, and she had five hundred thousand tucked away in CDs.

Two of Michael’s friends, acting as intermediaries for me, each bought a Mercedes in the names of two guys in LA who had helped me out over the years and had them delivered by carrier to addresses in LA I gave them. The hundred sixty thousand paid them back handsomely and would undoubtedly come back to me in kind, all laundered and spiffy.

I offered to cover Whitey’s expense for a high-end gambler’s rehab facility, which I estimated to cost around forty grand for top-notch care or, alternatively, to refresh his marker by the same amount. He chose to renew his marker, saying that in-patient rehab would jeopardize his employment and be a waste of time, anyway.

***

Walking up the five steps from street level to the brick walkway leading to the front door of Michael’s house, I saw rapidly moving silhouettes inside the first-floor window. The Gothic architecture provided many protrusions, massive gables, lancets arches around windows and doors, each a potential hand or foothold large enough to accommodate even an amateur’s awkward step.

Climbing to the second story windows was easy. I saw Elizabeth standing behind a huge wingback chair large enough to provide a false sense of safety, but she didn’t see me at the window. I motioned; she still didn’t see me. Finally, I got her attention and motioned for her to unlock the window. I climbed through.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Her eyes registered bewilderment: they were wide open but unseeing. She tried but couldn’t find her voice.

“Did they hurt you?”

“No. They…not up here,” she murmured.

“Is there a gun in the house?”

She shook her head no and shrugged again.

“Sit tight, stay here. I’m going down there.”

The stairway leading down had a banister on each side, the one on my right attached to the wall. I moved as far right as far as possible, knowing the steps were less likely to creak closest to their support. I turned my back to the wall, my right-hand gripping low on the banister, my left grasping at a higher level up, and I put as much of my weight as I could on my hands, somewhat relieving the load on the steps, and quietly inched my way down.

I could hear yelling. There were two men who were demanding the return of the two million three. I continued down, slowly, one step at a time, trying to survey the action, ducking my head slightly, bending at the waist to increase my view.

I felt myself spinning, my body gyrating uncontrollably, and my eyes lost focus as I tried to locate the source of the noise in my ears. The stairway began to shake and vibrate, the steps contorted as though they were made of rubber, for which I was grateful since I knew they were moving toward me and I longed for a soft landing. In all the commotion, with me rotating and the staircase circling, I found myself hitting the floor and lying there with one of the men standing over me.

Michael was tied to a chair, his chin on his chest; blood everywhere, his feet splayed, his torso slumped over. Then came a chilling scream from the top of the stairway. I was able to turn enough to see a man coming down with Elizabeth in tow. Halfway down she jerked, and he snatched; missing his grip, she kicked, and he shoved. I saw her fall.

She tumbled down the steps hitting the bottom on her back and sliding almost to where I lay on the floor. I closed my eyes and reopened them in disbelief. She obviously needed immediate medical attention. All I could say to the two men was, “Please help her.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the bald-headed one said. He was pointing a pistol at my head. “Where’s the money?”

“What money?”

“You know what money,” he said. As he spoke he lifted his hand, and I heard the explosion. Michael’s body jumped.

“Don’t…don’t…” I couldn’t make another sound.

“Shut up. It’s over.”

I heard nothing else before the piercing pressure and a sense of suffocation overcame all further feeling and thought. I sank into a black abyss.

What sounded like a woodpecker’s incessant knocking caught my attention. It stopped for a period and then resumed. It went on until the pain in my side forced me into awareness. It was dark; night had fallen, and whatever was at the door became more insistent. The door squeaked open.

I heard, “Hello? Hello, is anyone here?”

A day and a half later, with the help of a doctor friend of Whitey’s, I was able to walk around. Tight bandaging around my upper chest and a sling for my left arm slowed me down for a while, but gradually I could pretend to be almost normal. I took a cab to Jewish Hospital.

Both Elizabeth and the baby were in distress; she was in a coma. Michael was pretty beat up before they’d shot him and was in critical condition. In response to my questions, the nurse said he was in and out, and I could talk to him only when he was awake and stable. They were both in ICU, with limited visitor access.

“How are you, Michael?” I asked, when the nurses finally let me see him.

His voice was weak. “I got snake bit,” he said.

He passed out and I left.

When I returned, I walked straight toward ICU. No one was at the main desk, which was unusual, so I walked straight to her room. There was a flurry of activity, four nurses and an intern surrounded the bed. I peeked around them. I saw Elizabeth lying there, uncovered, her abdomen sliced open. Her eyes were open and staring at nothing.

I couldn’t stand it. I closed my eyes so tight it hurt. I wanted to unclose them but couldn’t. Unable to achieve the impossible task of looking, unable to distinguish what was real from what wasn’t, became unbearable.

Where is the baby? I need to see the baby! I wondered why no one was listening. I felt or heard a thud somewhere between my back and my injured arm, or maybe at the base of my neck, and I remember thinking it didn’t matter, all was lost anyway.

A nurse came and knelt by me, raised my head into her arms, and screamed “Stat!”

I whispered to her, “What happened to Elizabeth? Where’s the baby?”

The next morning, I awoke in my own room. A nurse was standing there.

“Lie still: you broke a few ribs and re-injured your wound. You’ll have some pain for a while,” she said.

She gave me a shot and I began to feel better almost immediately.

“Where’s Elizabeth, and where’s the baby?

“We did everything we could,” she said. “Elizabeth took a turn for the worse. She never woke up, and the doctor had to take the baby. He waited as long as he could. He only did it when he knew we couldn’t save her. Didn’t even have time to get to the OR. The baby’s fine. She’s in the nursery. Would you like to see your baby, Mr. Mayer?”

“Where is Michael?” I asked.

When I finally opened my eyes the next morning, my brain had died. My body, in sympathy, wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t wake up. Forcing my eyes to focus, I still didn’t feel conscious; I couldn’t believe what I thought I remembered. Whenever I tried, my mind went blank. It was just too horrible to think about.

Even the following day, I was not able to imagine the event; I almost passed out struggling with it. But the day after, it helped to visit the baby; I missed Elizabeth and could sense the baby did, too. I tried to visualize the baby as being her mother, incarnate. My view of the universe had changed. I felt an anxiety of complete doom: it couldn’t possibly be worse.

Reality began to seep in after a few more days.

“Mr. Mayer,” Nurse Luanne said, “the nursery has been asking about when the father is going to sign the birth certificate, and what name you have chosen for your little girl.”

“Is Michael still in a coma?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s in a medically induced coma, and you’ll probably be able to take the baby home before he’s discharged.”

“I want to go see the baby. I haven’t seen her today.”

“You should lie there and rest for a bit.”

“I want to see the baby.”

She took me to the nursery in a wheelchair. The sweetest little girl I had ever seen opened her eyes for only a few seconds, and I fell in love all over again. I spent the next few hours there, staring in disbelief.

I looked through the window at people passing by outside. I wondered how they could go on living in view of the disaster, how they could choose to live under these circumstances. Then I thought about the baby, and I understood. Vaguely.

I didn’t take care of my only son when I had a chance, why did I so desperately want to take care of this one.

“It won’t be easy, but you’ll be just fine with your little girl,” the nurse said. “She’s so precious. I’ve gone to see her every day, and I pray for her every day. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know her mother.”

“She was special,” I mumbled.

Nurse Luanne smiled and nodded.

***

At the last moment before leaving, I wrote ‘Elizabeth Barzini’ on the birth certificate. For the first few days at home, I had no idea what I was doing. I never left her side. I was scared to death something bad would happen. But with the formula and diapers the hospital had given me, and the constant visits of Michael’s friends and their wives bringing food and supplies, we managed.

Three weeks after Michael came home, I began to trust him to look after the baby for short periods of time. Eventually, when I could leave for an hour or two, I drove across the bridge to Indiana to meet a man Michael knew who was able to create a new human existence: an Indiana driver’s license, a new social security card, and a birth certificate for me. It cost me two hundred fifty. He did such a good job I tipped him another hundred.

I read in the paper that the police had two suspects for the attacks. The article indicated there was not enough evidence to get a search warrant; the possible charges were numerous, including murder. They had police sketches of the suspects in the paper, but it could have been anyone, as far as I could see.

Michael had told me they had taken his wallet which contained about eight hundred dollars, his Rolex, and a few other items, to make it look like a robbery, he thought. And he was sure, relatively sure, they had also taken Elizabeth’s diamond necklace.

“The cops asked me to confirm the accuracy of the sketches. I declined.” Michael said.

“But you’re reasonably sure these are the guys, right?” I asked.

“Yes, especially the one with the dragon tattoo on his neck. I won’t forget that.”

“Then, don’t identify them if they ask you again,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Whitey was able to get an address from his friends working the case. They lived in a run-down apartment house, and from the room designation I guessed they lived on the fifth floor. The next afternoon, I asked Michael to watch the baby for a couple of hours.

The building had iron bars on the windows, and the front door was kept locked. I was unsuccessful in moving fast enough to get to the door before it closed behind a heavily perfumed and tattooed man with the face of a bear. I’ve found that people want to trust all but the most suspicious-looking, so with well-rehearsed timing and boldness, I was able to talk a tenant with the thinnest grasp on reality into holding the door for me as she entered.

Picking the lock on the door of the apartment was a freshman’s assignment. I searched the place, looking for answers to questions I hadn’t formulated yet. There was a small stand-alone safe on the floor in a closet, an inexpensive one designed to stop the near-honest and slow down the not-so-honest. It contained a surprise: about a hundred credit cards of all types with a variety of names. There were three of Elizabeth’s, and the one and only credit card Michael owned. I took Michael’s and left Elizabeth’s there.

In a top drawer of a dresser, beneath some odd-looking T-shirts and tank tops, I found about twenty watches and some odd pieces of jewelry. I spread them out on the bed. One necklace was exactly like Elizabeth’s, so I put it in my pocket for later examination and left everything else on the bed just to let them know someone had been there.

Using several of the credit cards from the safe, I called ten stores from an old directory using their phone: electronic stores, clothing stores, and a jeweler. I bought a total of twenty items, about fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of goods. I gave the thugs’ real address and phone number, and for added measure, I asked that they be delivered to the names I had read in the paper. Even if the information was incomplete and the dates a bit out of whack, it should be enough to give the police probable cause and a search warrant.

***

The guilt and remorse I felt about Elizabeth’s death wouldn’t go away. I had always been used to operating in a background of nagging guilt, juggling conflicting feelings like a clown tosses bowling pins in the air, and like the clown, my trick was always to never look directly at any one of them. But that was not working now. I had to look things in the face. I had to let someone I trusted in on my plans, in case something happened to me. I felt responsible for little Elizabeth’s welfare and decided to tell Michael.

“I got a job,” I said. “And I’m buying a house, on the east side of town, not too far out. Would you like to come live with us? Me and little Elizabeth?”

A reflective moment followed. The house had a nice nursery for Elizabeth, and I made sure it had a separate guest house in case William ever showed up. I still hope to find a way to reconcile with my son but doubt it will come anytime soon.

Michael picked something up from the table. “Hey, I see you found Liz’s necklace. Where did you find it?”

“In a drawer,” I said. “Elizabeth told me she wanted her baby to have it. By the way, from now on please call me Edwardo Barzini, your two-years-older brother. I changed my name. You okay with that?”

“It’ll take some getting used to. Even so, I doubt it would be a good idea to cohabitate,” he said. “And you got a job, did you?”

I said nothing in response as he let the question sink in.

“How did you get a fucking job, anyway?” Michael challenged my stare. “A job? With your record? Really?”

“I got the offer today, by phone, and Edwardo Barzini doesn’t have a record. I interviewed a week ago. Supposed to start two weeks from now.”

“Where?”

“Out at the airport. Mechanic.”

“Which airline?”

“No airline. Trucks. A fleet of trucks to be exact. I passed a test, and now they’re going to train me. The pay’s…well, let’s just say the pay’s not falling from the sky in clumps like the old days, but not bad either.”

“Starting a new job, changing your name, buying a house?” He stared in disbelief. “You’re still Eddie to me. You financially okay?”

“Okay, as long as the authorities leave me alone,” I said.

The thought made my heart rate go through the roof. Jumping parole is a problem that won’t go away by itself. California won’t give up, and who would look after little Elizabeth then?

He looked longingly at the necklace in his hand, kissed it, then slowly lay it down. He turned to gaze out the window. I walked to where he stood and put my hand on his shoulder.

“You have been a better friend than I deserve,” I said.

His eyes darted around the room, looking for something he had lost.

 

 

——————–

Randy Fowler was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the Univ. of Louisville, a Master of Science from Arizona State University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from Stanford University. He lives with his wife, Karen, in California. They have two grown children and four grandchildren. His previous work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and in Chicago Quarterly Review.

Farther, Sayeth the Spider

By James la Vigne

he word rishida has the twin meaning of “name” and “spirit.” To give a name is to give life and form; the human power to do so is what keeps the Void beyond the Mountains at bay. After the death of her father, the girl wanders from the Village with the pretext of searching for flowers to honor him. When close to dark she returns empty-handed and quiet no one questions her. Every day she ventures farther. She hopes to glimpse something as-yet nameless, something yet to emerge from non-being, and with a carefully chosen (as-yet unspoken) utterance to make it part of the World.

One day as the sun embraces two peaks she halts, for the way forward is blocked by an enormous spider’s web. Unnatural patterns are spun into the silk. She steps closer. Were she literate, she would recognize these patterns as the glyphs of an arcane, long-dead alphabet, one that sang the verse of a civilization that thrived and perished before the Village was founded along the river bank. She checks the points of contact between the web and the surrounding trees and brush for the resident spider but can’t locate it. Now she hears a tenuous ghost voice, a dry subverbal utterance that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She can feel it like a mild quake of the earth. The spider crawls into sight: a female black widow, much too small to have produced such vast intricate webbing. It moves toward the web’s center, where it stops. Its legs continue to wriggle, and it displays the marking on its abdomen, a symbol whose meaning is more entrenched even than language. At last it greets the girl in her tongue, the physical force of its introduction now absent.

She replies politely as her father taught her.

“What is your name?” the spider asks.

“Lenasta,” she replies.

“Pleased to meet you,” the spider says. “I am—” It pronounces a string of syllables impossible for her to repeat.

“Spiders don’t have names,” she points out.

“You have come far from the Village,” it observes.

“Not so far I can’t get back before dark,” the girl replies, looking over her shoulder. The cold line of the river cuts through the green and brown of the terrain. The smear of tan and red along on the bank has housed every one of her memories so far, and someday would be where she would be buried unwed and childless like Tesha. She turns back to the spider.

“But you must go farther,” it tells her. It spins more silk until the girl can discern a new vision of her future in the very curves and intersections of the web.

***

The girl comes across a narrow path through the Mountains, which she has understood to be unscalable except by goats and the gods. The light retreats like slow fingers over the slopes. Hours later she encounters on the other side not a Void to be named into existence, but a world that pulses with familiarity. The moonlit trees shaking around her, the smell of the blossoming hyacinths, the earth soft under her feet, the very air she inhales–all are like the reflections she used to ponder in the river when she washed her family’s clothes. Having brought no provisions and having nothing to eat or drink but a scant few berries, she grows thirsty and famished but continues, assured by what she saw in the spider’s web. At last she grows too weary to continue. She uses a pile of fallen leaves for a pillow and sleeps in the dirt. She dreams but on waking she remembers little: whispers, mountains flattening into what would be called valleys, the peel of an orange in her father’s hands.

When she wakes, she finds a pile of rocks topped with cooked meat (rabbit) and a pot of water, which first she sips, then guzzles: cold and fresh like the water from a way downstream from the Village. The birds are busy with songs in the trees. When she stands, she strains to remember which direction to go: the cluster of bark and leaves in every direction gives her no hints. After filling herself on meat and berries, she finally wonders who had left these provisions for her, if only for a moment. She can hear something and follows the sound until she discovers a stream just wide enough to prevent leaping across without getting wet. She fills the pot and follows the river until she finds a middle-aged man rinsing rags in it, the first true stranger of the girl’s life. His language is familiar enough for them to converse politely, but on the way to his hut he uses a few words unlike any she had heard before, such as entoya, which means “to discover,” but she does not pester him with questions. He feeds her and then leads her to the village.

The huts become more common. They are clay and stone habitats she was familiar with, but many-chambered and taller, and all of them were adorned with strange coils. Soon the villagers gather to hear her story. She tells them she comes from over the Mountains, which shocks them since they are too treacherous to scale. They ask her why she fled from home if not war or famine–two more words the girl does not know. She cannot tell them of her quest for the Void, to go beyond human boundaries to usher into this world something new. After the crowd disbands the girl meets the leader, who is the elderly widow of her predecessor. The leader takes the girl into her dwelling. She allows the girl to inspect curtains, hinged wooden doors and separate rooms instead of one common living space. Offering to house the girl, she talks in a near-whisper, wrapped in the alien glow of candles.

That night a boy emerges from the woodlands, one she knows from the village, though not very well.

***

“You could have been killed,” the widow says some days later. “By man or beast. The wilderness is no safe place, even for a grown woman.”

The destiny the spider wove for her precluded the risks of the journey. “The danger didn’t bother me,” she says.

“Why did you leave your home?”

“I left a place,” she answers, “but it wasn’t home.”

***

Though she is female, in light of her natural inquisitiveness, the widow ensures that the girl receives proper instruction from the resident sages, alongside the boy. They learn to read and write in several languages. They learn of geometry and empires, of cities across the sea so vast you couldn’t hope to cross them in a day’s journey. They adopt temperamental new gods. They learn that history doesn’t vanish like a long gust of wind or cycle like the seasons but accumulates forever in books. They learn of wealth and nobility and the instruments of war. They learn of romantic, rather than ritual, love. They learn lyrical and epic poetry, some of it by heart. She learns of Platonic ideals and comes to recognize that her childhood had been spent in a cave.

The girl learns the traditional songs on the lyzat, a wooden string instrument. She learns Sappho’s most beloved songs and soon sets her favorite passages of Homer to music. She plays these songs while seated on the stone barrier to the central basin, smiling at the passersby. Next, she composes her own songs. She sings of the spright flowers of Phoenicia and the shimmering shores of Thrace and the rugged cliffs of Britannia, of the legendary creatures of Ovid and Virgil, of the plight of those who suffered Jupiter’s wrath. She sings of love and heartbreak. People linger around the basin. Soon there is a small crowd before she arrives. One day she debuts a song, after which she receives applause so effusive that she flushes. “Thank you,” she says.

That night she dreams of the spider spinning letters into its web, but she still can’t read them. The words disintegrate and from a blue mist the future appears again, clearer than before: “You must go farther.”

***

The widow sends the pair to the city to continue their education, alongside an elderly guide. The roads here are like flowing rivers cutting through an endless landscape of impossible architecture. At first, she greets everyone on the street, but the guide quickly dissuades her of this practice. They rent a house that was built by carpenters rather than its owners or their servants. The profiled faces on the coins are replicated with perfect precision. The pair stop at every sculpture and fountain; in particular, she admires one depicting the birth of Minerva from Jupiter’s head, water cascading over the skull from around the infant’s waist. When they visit a library, the girl encounters a map of the world–every patch of land scaled, settled into, and named. Descending the steps of the library she halts to ask the boy what lay beyond this lapping sea before them.

He hesitates while her gaze is fixed upon the sea. “There are islands,” he replies at last. “To the west and—”

“What are they called?”

“Well, there’s Corsica,” he answers, pointing though her face is averted. “And then there’s—”

“And east!” she exclaims, turning. “I suppose you know what is over those mountains?”

“There isn’t much but small towns. But if you go far enough, you’ll reach the Adriatic Sea.”

“And then what?”

Again, he hesitates.

“What’s beyond the Adriatic Sea? I suppose it has a name?”

“You know the answers as well as I do.”

The girl sinks onto the stone steps and weeps. People on their way into the library pass them without much concern.

The boy sits beside her. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Did I say something?”

She shakes her head.

“What’s troubling you?”

“Names,” she manages.

“Names,” he repeats. The sound of the fitful sea.

She stops sobbing. “Everything has a name,” she says.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you sometimes. You are a strange girl.”

“When I was a child,” she begins, sniffling, “I thought our village was all there was. I thought that mountains that surrounded it were the boundary of existence, and past them there was only Nothingness. I left to escape from such a small place. But I was wrong. Beyond the mountains there were just more trees, more water, more people, more mountains! The farther I go,” she concludes, “the smaller the world appears. Everything has been discovered, named, and put into books.”

“I feel the same way,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yes, the Village was the world. It’s quite a shock to be here.”

“Yes,” she says, standing back up, “but a thousand thousands of people have lived here.”

“You want to go somewhere new?” the boy says, more confidently than before.

“Not just that, I want to create something new. Something beautiful.”

“What about your songs?” the boy asks. “They are new. And you created them. And they are beautiful to me, every time I hear them.”

“I’m not talking about those,” the girl responds.

***

The girl performs in a public square outside the bustling marketplace. People linger for a song or two. As night gathers, an elderly man watches her for some time before he invites her to entertain an audience during the intermissions of a theatrical attraction two nights later. There, the audience in the outdoor amphitheater dwarfs the village of her birth. When the performance begins the actors’ voices are carried with such clarity it is a though they are conversing casually just a few paces away. She realizes that the visceral content of her planned songs might not mesh well with its tone. She opts to play something more low-key. When she is called onto stage her smiling companion wishes her good luck. A wall of faces rising to meet the somber tree in the distance, every one of them possessing some name unknown to her. Afterward the elderly man asks her to join the performers and owners for a small party. At this point her companion departs, but not before effusive praise for her performance. At the party the girl gets intoxicated for the first time in her life.

The next morning, down some crooked alleyway she encounters the spider’s web. The earth trembles with its indecipherable voice before it speaks plainly, “You have come far, my dear.”

“O thank you, my guide,” she says. “I had the best day of my life and owe it to your wisdom!”

“But you must go farther,” it replies, spinning her future into its web.

***

“I don’t want to go back,” the girl says, her feet bare on the cold floor of her quarters.

“You can’t just abandon your home,” the boy replies, peering out the window toward the shoreline.

“My home is here.”

The boy turns to face her. “For how long?” he asks. “How long before you decide your home is somewhere else? Out there somewhere? Whatever you’re looking for you won’t find it here.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do!” he insists, stepping closer. “You left the village of your birth because it was too small, and then the next one. And now we’re in Rome, the greatest city ever built, and still it will be too small for you.”

“No. I’m happy here!” she exclaims. “Actually happy.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. And I was never happy in the villages. But I am now, here. This is where I always belonged.”

“But it won’t last!” He sits beside her on the bed. “Soon you’ll have visited every shrine and seen every sculpture and performed every venue and at the Colosseum. And then what?”

“Well, what about you?” she counters. “Haven’t you been with me all this way? What are you looking for?”

He thinks a moment. “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he says as though to himself, thumbing at the fabric of the bed between them.

“Then Rome isn’t enough for you either.”

“You’re right. I didn’t come for Rome.”

A gull squawks outside. His gaze is hot against her cheek, but she watches the doorknob as though expecting it to turn.

“I didn’t leave the village,” the boy begins, “because it was small. I had no concept of size. I didn’t leave the village because a voice called me from beyond the mountains. I heard only the voices of my family and the villagers. I was happy there. I was happy to learn my father’s skill, to marry and raise children and die a hundred passi from where I was born.”

She expected him to go on, but he didn’t. “Do you mean that you are not happier here?” she asked. “Or that you wish you had never left?”

“No,” he replied. “I mean only that I could have lived my life there. But you couldn’t have. I think your father was the last thing that kept you connected, and when he died, you were lost. You started going on long walks and wouldn’t return until nightfall. I was worried you would get lost or worse. And then one day you didn’t turn back, and I couldn’t leave you alone in the wilderness. It was dark and–”

“You followed me into the mountains?”

“Yes. What else could I do? I didn’t—”

The girl’s spine straightens as she gasps at a realization. “And it was you who left the meat and water while I slept?”

“Yes, that was me. You had gone far without anything to eat or drink and I didn’t want you to be afraid. Then you continued away from the village and I had to make a decision.”

“To go back alone or—”

“To stay with you.”

“I always thought,” she says into her hands. She begins to cry. “I always thought no one would have cared if I left.”

“I did, for one. And I’m sure they did too. Your mother and sister, I’m sure they missed you very much.”

“Do you think so?” she says.

“Yes,” he replies. “But I doubt they were surprised. You were always…separate. When we were little, I remember we would play our games, but you preferred to spend the afternoon on the riverbed, drawing shapes in the sand with a stick.”

“I remember that.” She stops crying. The gull squawks, closer to the window. She rests her head upon his shoulder. He embraces her. “Do you miss your family?”

“Of course.”

“You want to go back to the village.”

“Our village, yes,” he replies.

“But I can’t go back,” she says. Her hand grips the neck of the lyzat in its spot on her bed. “You can go back. But I can’t.”

“Maybe I can’t either. I tried. I walked ten mile passi along the mountainside and couldn’t find the path we had taken through them. It was almost as though it had closed up after us. I don’t think I can go back either. Not unless–” He doesn’t finish his sentence.

The girl considers this mystery with closed eyes. The gull squawks yet again, now closer, as though stubbornly searching for some kernel on a barren shore. The sound of a thousand thousand gulls on this endless coast. “Unless?” she asks.

The boy disengages her from his. embrace. “There is something I need to show you,” he whispers.

“Yes?”

“I am afraid.”

“You can show me.”

“OK.” He stands with his back to her. Then he seems to be unbuttoning his shirt. Swiftly he drops the shirt from his shoulders, revealing nothing unusual in his muscular backside–no noticeable scars or strange birthmarks.

“I hope you have something else to show me,” she remarks.

“I do.”

The boy turns around. And there, hovering at the midpoint of his sternum, is a black luminous gem, the glare of its surface shifting as though from candlelight or a distant lightning storm. Here it is, unmistakably, the chaotic Void which had called to her since before the spider had urged her onward armed with a vision of the future, the thing she had travelled from the isolated village over mountains and seas, woodlands and cities, to discover. Every step of the way, she hadn’t been chasing it, but fleeing from it. Yet still it had always been at her side, all the way to Rome.

A silence ensues, the thing between them like a sleeping infant they are wary to disturb. Their eyes meet.

“You,” the girl begins.

“You’re the only person who can see it,” the boy explains, “but it’s been with me since my youth.”

“All this time,” she says, almost inaudibly.

“I always believed that it first appeared the moment I fell in love with you. It was painful because I never thought you could love anyone–especially me–and so I thought it would be my burden forever.”

“I do love you,” she proclaims.

“If that’s the case,” he wonders, “then why doesn’t it go away?”

“I know what to do,” she says. “Sit down beside me.”

He complies. She puts a hand to the black gem. It is warm and pulses under her palm like a living thing. She presses it to his chest. She knows the word to pronounce, and it is in her native tongue. “Rishita,” she says as though pronouncing a spell.

They embrace. The scent of his neck is new. The gull’s squawk is new. When they let go something pings against the floor: a necklace with a golden key strung to it. The girl picks it up and stashes it into her pocket.

She looks into his eyes, a gentle brown that could be the start of her most beautiful song yet.

***

The couple return to the second village and marry. At the wedding the girl doubles as the bride and the entertainment. She plays a few of her old songs as well as a few composed for the event, never to be played again. She sings solo until the last song, which is a duet between her and her husband, who sings timidly with a flushed face. She, too, abandons the theatrics of earlier performances for this song. At the close of this song they kiss, and the villagers applaud.

After this unusual wedding, the couple retire to the elderly widow’s house. The widow is ill and was unable to attend. They find her out of bed for the first time in days, sitting in a chair facing the entrance, a blanket draped over her lap. “Greetings to the happy couple,” she says in a withered voice. While they talk with the widow, they must stand very close to hear her. “I knew this day would come,” she proclaims, “the moment you arrived. It is no accident you both come from the same world. That bond is stronger than you think.” She coughs quietly and the couple wait. “Have you ever thought of returning home?” The boy explains that he has, mentioning the mysterious disappearance of the passage through the mountains. “Such things don’t vanish,” the widow assures them. “You will find your way home.” She has a dog and a pair of mules prepared for them, alongside enough provisions to last a week’s journey. The girl brings her lyzat to introduce her family and the rest of the village to the pleasures of a non-percussive music.

They set off, going over their recollections of the passage on the way to the mountains. The girl’s recollections are far spottier and vaguer than the boy’s, but there are points of agreement. The boy having already failed to find a path at a foot of the mountain, they decide to climb up a few hundred passi to search for passages at that elevation. The slopes look as impossible as their reputation, but after a few hours they chance upon a promising passage that cuts into the mountainside. They follow this path until they reach, alas, a monstrous spider’s web spread from slope to slope.

Before the boy can react to this peculiar sight—before he can discern the innumerable hieroglyphs or feel the vibration of the tiny spider’s voice—the girl launches herself into the wall of silk to tear it down with windmill arms. In her frenzy the girl gets web into her clothes and hair and face. The spider does not appear with the scant offerings of the future or its admonishments to “go farther.” She wants only to walk beside this man who has been with her since before she ever recognized it. Stumbling and breathless she declares the path no longer obstructed. As they continue the boy simply remarks that she is a strange girl while he removes web from her face and hair.

The sun sets and the couple unfurl their blankets to sleep. They start a campfire and eat. The girl falls asleep and dreams. She dreams of the village, empty except her father, who she finds crouched at a cup of tea in their old hut. The walls are far away, almost nonexistent. He is smaller than she remembers. He shivers from a coldness the girl does not feel, perhaps the coldness of being a ghost. “Did you find any pretty rocks today?” he asks. She tells him she has. He asks to see it and she produces the glassy black gem of the Void. He turns it in his hands. “Rocks never change,” he says as it shifts and morphs. “This is a relic of the time before there was man, when there was only the land, the river, and the gods in the mountains.” Her mother and sister suddenly crowd the room, and her father remembers he died long ago and disappears. The girl awakens and reaches for her lyzat.

Her husband is sitting upright beside her in the moonlight, for the fire has died. “You’re awake,” he says.

“Have you been awake this whole time?” she asks.

“Oh, I awoke just before you,” he says, but she knows he is lying.

“When we get there,” she says, “nothing is going to be the same, is it?”

“All the better,” he yawns. He lies down and puts an arm over her. “Go back to sleep.”

 

 

——————–

James la Vigne is a fiction writer and accused poet living in Seattle Washington, where he trains wooden parrots to sit very still. His stories and flights of fancy have appeared or are forthcoming in Cardinal Sins, Literary Heist, Metaworker, Modern Literature, Grey Sparrow, and Headway.

Storms and Possibilities

By Sam Moore

picked up another stone and tossed it out into the gray blue waters. It made a tiny splash, and then all was silent again. Small ripples spread and grew and disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. How many stones had I tossed in the waters now, and still no response? I leaned back, let my legs dangle over the edge, let the subtle waves lap at my feet. All around this tiny island was nothing but water and sky. Nothing more than a tiny crag barely tall enough to keep from being buried underneath the endless ocean.

I grabbed another stone, let it plop into the waters.

This was my favorite spot. Follow a worn out path until it wears out completely, cut through a shadowy canopy of trees, up one small hill and down another. The route spat out into a tiny haven, an edge without any shoreline. The waters were bottomless as soon as you stepped into them. No gradual declination here, just a bottomless pool beneath your feet. As I looked out and saw only a great and overwhelming nothing, this spot made me feel like I was at the edge of the world itself. I came here often.

Another stone, another plop in the same spot.

The clouds swirled and churned overhead like the concoction of some dark potion. Not terribly different than the waters below, I thought. Endless sky above, endless waters below. Trapped between two infinities, both full of wonder and power and destruction. The thin line in the distance where the two met seemed to blur more and more each day. Perhaps that far off into the horizon they are one and the same, not that anyone on this tiny rock would know. When was the last time anyone left? Or, came back after they did? I couldn’t remember.

Plop.

Maybe they weren’t coming today, I thought. Oh, well. I could lay here for a while either way and ponder my plan for tonight. One last throw and then I fell back, resting on the ground with my hands behind my head and watching the sky as if waiting for it to speak.

I heard a slightly bigger splash than the ones my small rocks had made. Then, one landed next to my head as it bounced and rolled behind me.

“You called?” said a gurgly voice I knew well.

I sat up. “I didn’t think you’d come,” I said. “Almost ran out of rocks.”

“Have I ever once missed a day when you called?” The squid lifted several tendrils out of the water, each holding a stone. “I couldn’t help but try and catch as many as I could on my way up. A game of sorts. Have to find enjoyment where you can, no?” The squid then deposited the stones onto the ground next to me in a neat pile. “For next time,” it gurgled.

“I hope there’s a next time,” I said, gazing up at the sky. “A great storm is on the way. Probably tonight.”

The squid rubbed its temple as if trying to decipher a riddle, and then disappeared under the water. It resurfaced a few seconds later several feet away. “Yes, probably tonight,” it offered. “But I dislike your choice of words.” It dove under once more, popping up in a different spot. The creature did this often. I imagined it swimming about, gathering up its thoughts in a neat pile on its way back up just like the stones I tossed in. “There is always a next time, and this time is no different. You’ve seen plenty of storms, have you not? Same as always. You know how to handle a mere tempest. You air-breathers are a resilient lot.”

My plan for when a storm approached was always the same—I had discovered a tiny cave far up the cliffs, elevated beyond what most people explored. I’d gather some wood for fire, enough food for the night (perhaps some berries, or a piece of fruit), and stay hidden away. Then, wait for it to pass. Each and every time I’d done this, and I’d survived thus far.

“Yes,” I said. “I know how to handle one.”

“Of course you do,” the squid agreed. “Then why so frightened?”

“This one feels different.”

The squid disappeared under the water once more. Several seconds passed, but it had still not resurfaced. The seconds stretched on. Still nothing. What had happened? Was something wrong? Had I misspoke? The wind felt like it was picking up. I thought I felt a raindrop. I wondered if the creature hadn’t left altogether. But it wouldn’t—?

A sudden splash and the squid was back, apparently having gathered up all its thoughts.

“It might feel different, but that doesn’t mean it will be.

I said nothing back.

“Look,” the strange creature continued. “I’ve come to look forward to these talks. As always, I look forward to the next one. You surface dwellers are such odd folk. I still have so much to learn about you and your kind! Don’t let one tiny little tempest stop my quest for knowledge.”

“Yes, well, I’m jealous of your kind whenever a storm hits up here. What trouble is water falling from the sky if you live beneath it anyway?”

“Don’t worry,” the creature said. “The seas are full of their own terrors.”

We sat in silence for a brief moment as the wind swirled around us. “I should probably prepare for tonight,” I finally said. I stood up to leave, but tossed one last thing into the water. The creature quickly scooped it up in a tentacle and examined it like a treasure hunter appraising a rare jewel.

“What might this be?” it asked.

“A berry. For eating.”

“A berry,” it said barely above a whisper. “Fascinating.”

I made my way back through the canopy of trees, back onto the worn out trail as I ventured inland. The wind had picked up noticeably by now. Tree branches looked like flailing limbs trying to tread water as they bobbed up and down in the gales. The sky grew darker, and a heaviness was settling onto the air.

After some time I stopped to rest my feet. I sat on a large rock on the side of the path and munched on a few berries. Not too many—had to save the rest for tonight. My small bag was still roughly halfway full, which was enough to get through an overnight storm.

A rustling behind me. I quickly tied up my sack of food and turned around. Through the tall and wavering grass and brush was a figure approaching my way. I could hear slashing and then crunching underfoot as it made its way towards me.

An older man emerged from the brush. His face was bitter and weathered and reminded me of the craggy cliffs where the waves crashed the strongest. He huffed and cursed as he finally made his way out. He held a large knife in his hands.

“Damned overgrown brush,” he muttered. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I said quickly, avoiding eye contact.

The old man huffed again like a tired beast. “Storms brewing. A bad one. I always know these things. Feel it in my bones. Bones never lied to me yet. Only thing I can trust anymore.” I said nothing back, offered up a slight nod.

“What’ve you got there?” the man asked, pointing at my bag with his knife.

I hesitated a second too long, wondering how to respond. Tell the truth and he might try and take my only food for the night, tell a lie and he might become suspicious and angry.

“Only a few berries for the night,” I coughed up.

The man grunted. “Not worth the trouble, then,” he decided. “Be glad you answered honest, child. Another thing I can always tell—whether someone speaks true or not. The trick isn’t in the words themselves but how the words are said. The voice, the language of the body, the eyes. You look too frail and frightened to speak falsely. Wise choice, young one. If you’d have even answered ‘Nothing’, I’d have snatched your bag away by any means just to sate my curiosity. Never know what you might need for days like today, what might come in handy for survival. A bad storm approaches, indeed.”

I opened the bag and held out several berries in my hand. “You can have some,” I offered.

The man’s face scrunched up in confusion. Then, he laughed madly. “You’re a fool, you know that? Say—now that I think about it, you’re that odd child that’s always running off and speaking to strange creatures aren’t you?”

I said nothing back. My eyes gazed down at my dirty feet and collapsing shoes, waiting for the man to continue. A drizzle had begun, barely noticeable except for the tiny dots of darkened ground appearing beneath me, like someone was dotting the earth with ink blots from a fine brush.

“Yes, yes you are,” the man continued. “I see it now. Not many of us left here, I’m surprised I didn’t realize it sooner. All alone, you find company and conversation in the oddest of animals. Truly, a fool! You shouldn’t trust the words of man, let alone the words of strange beasts. Best to brush off any advice they give you, whether it be the beasts of the air or of the deep. Nothing good comes from either.” The man spat out a single syllable of coarse laughter, apparently realizing something amusing, and added, “Not that anything good comes from the surface, I suppose.”

The man began to stride off in another direction. “Keep your berries,” he called out over his back. “Our tiny rock will be washed away by the morrow, anyway.”

I walked for a great deal of time, switching to climbing when the elevation made walking impossible. This entire section of the island—where my hidden sanctuary resided—was ignored by most of its inhabitants. Aside from the elevation which made the journey difficult and tiring, rumors of its dangers had spread. Murmurs of strange poisonous creatures, sinister things that lurked in the shadows of its thick trees and in between the rocks of the jagged cliffs, of traps and loose ground, had reached the ears of everyone by now. My own experiences taught me these were all false. Certainly, there were strange creatures and patches of difficult terrain but I’d never had a problem with either. The journey wasn’t so much dangerous as it was draining. Nobody had taken the time to figure that out, however.

The rain was picking up, now a step above a mere drizzle. A palpable heaviness permeated the air as if the entire sky itself was about to plummet. I snatched some pieces of wood along the way to make a fire. Hopefully they weren’t too wet to be of use by the time I reached my destination.

Finally, I reached my destination. Dead center in the middle of the section everyone else ignored. My legs felt as if they might collapse underneath me. The cave was small enough that I had to duck slightly to get inside. It wasn’t much bigger on the inside, either. Much closer to a small hut than an expansive cavern. Only a tiny fraction of remaining daylight peered in. I set about making a fire—it took some time, the wood being slightly damp in places, but I finally got it started. I warmed myself, and waited.

Night had arrived. I could see leaves scuttling by in the winds as they grew stronger, branches swinging back and forth, plunging up and down like they were weak ships being tossed about by mighty waves. I sat motionless for I don’t know how long. Waiting.

When the sky did finally crack open with a piercing bolt, it felt like there would be no sky left by the time it was over.

A curtain of heavy rain blocked the exit of the cave. I felt as if I was at the bottom of the ocean inside a tiny bubble. Branches were ripped apart and thrown about. Flashes of blinding white light illuminated the sky followed by bursts and explosions nearby.

A new fear entered my mind—what if someone else found this place? Would they attack me? Try to take my little bit of food left? Kick me out forcibly?

Another explosion outside, the sound of something bursting into pieces.

Nobody had found this place before, but that didn’t mean that wouldn’t change today.

What if the storm never stopped? If the skies emptied themselves out, dry as sand, until the waters reached even my hidden sanctuary? What if that man was right, and the storm buried our island underneath the waves?

What if?

What if?

Another deafening crack.

What if? Anything was possible—which made me think back to my conversation earlier…

It might feel different, but that doesn’t mean it will be.

I thought about that strange creature’s words. Perhaps if anything was possible, that meant it was possible that this, too, would pass, just as it had before. The worst-case scenario could happen, but that also meant a multitude of other scenarios could happen instead.

Those words rang in my head as I leaned back against the hard walls of the cave, drifting off as the flames danced around my shelter from the storm.

 

 

——————–

Sam Moore is a writer from Michigan. His works have appeared in Qua, The Courtship of Winds, HOPE: A Comic For Flint (Source Point Press), and others. When he’s not writing short stories or comics, he enjoys playing music, video games, and reading anything weird and imaginative. He can be found on twitter @SamsoniteMoore.

A Momentary Disturbance of Air

By David H Weinberger

he lives deep in a year-round arctic-like valley. Towering evergreens surround her decrepit house, blocking the sun’s ability to melt the ever-present snow. Frigid temperatures and glacial winds are constant companions. Deer, raccoon, moose, and rodents of various size forage in her yard, burrowing through the snow in search of elusive morsels to eat.

These seemingly inhospitable conditions cannot stop her from leaving her house and returning. She works full-time in a nearby city. A short drive through the valley, followed by a shorter drive down the busy freeway, and she transitions to sunshine and greenery. She is a sales representative at an herbal supplement company. She has an innate knowledge of herbs and their medicinal and restorative powers, perhaps magical powers too, and hence is constantly awarded for her domineering sales volume.

After work, before returning to her snowbound oasis, she heads to the local bars to mingle with friends, drink to abandonment, and perhaps catch a lucky man to spend the evening or more with. Her standby drink is vodka: shots, vodka tonic, Cape Cods, Russians, in whatever way you can mix vodka. Top shelf of course. She drinks and dances. And talks. To friends or to potential partners. She slurs her words of affection through mists of vodka. And while she wins awards at work for her sales acumen, at the bars she wins virtual awards for her acquisition of men. With a little vodka on her side, she has no problem attracting men. Quite often, she takes them back to her home and shows them the passion they have been talking about over drinks and dancing. Most of the men desire to stay afterwards, but she always sends them away. Almost always.

It is not uncommon to have a man get caught up in her world. So caught up that he cannot leave and she allows him to stay. Such was the situation Mitchell found himself in not long ago.

They met at Gravitational Pull in the city. She was drinking vodka and he was drinking red wine, the only drink he cared for. The usual took place. She approached him, spoke to him, bought him a drink, and invited him to dance. Mitchell barely comprehended her words, the touch of her hands on his enough to understand her desire. They spent the evening alternating drinks and dance and soon no one else existed around them. It all unfurled as she planned, and they ended up in the valley drinking vodka shots and fucking into the morning.

This time, for reasons only she is privy to, she did not send him away. They stayed in her bedroom for the weekend and when Monday night came she invited him for dinner. Mitchell didn’t know of her past, nothing about her identity, where she came from, other men she may have been involved with. He liked her and thought dinner would be a good way to get to know her better. They ate steaks and ended the evening playing Scrabble and drinking vodka sodas. He stayed the night and it was in the air that he would do so more often. Mitchell did not quite know how it happened but he found himself in an ongoing relationship with her.

One month on. He is living at the house in the snow-covered valley. The sex started changing from unbridled passion to simply ambiguous. He senses a growing disconnect between them. As if her words of affection fail to match her acts of affection. And she has become cruel. Taunting him, finding fault. She has again been visiting the bars after work. She comes home very late. He thinks nothing of it though. Instead, he thinks she is overworked, needs to relax, unwind.

Two months on. The Scrabble board sits between them. Random words adding up to nothing. Mitchell views their lives as a Scrabble game. They build word upon word yet the connection, the meanings, between the words remain a mystery. The vodka he now exclusively drinks, helps make a few tentative connections. Helps to make the meaninglessness less obtrusive. Yet with each play, she speaks affectionately, playfully. As if each word were just another blank slate laid upon a barren board. No points, no scores. But she always scores. She is continually racking up points.

She plays as if she is winning the game. In spite of the real score. She plays as if she determines who wins, who loses. She knows the real score can change in an instant. And it can be manipulated. A fake play. A set up, someone falls for the deception, and points are earned. At least, secreted away for a later date, a later self-serving purpose. Mitchell is leery of playing Scrabble with her.

She tries to comfort Mitchell. Perhaps I can be of service. Perhaps I can assuage your fear. It’s just me. I’m here to help along the way. Her salvo. Her constant refrain. Words of affection. Mists of vodka.

No, Mitchell thinks. Fear is all I have. Don’t relieve me of it. It is the only remaining contact I have with reality. With the truth that seems so distant and elusive.

Three months on. Mitchell can no longer tell when the words have meaning or are just a disturbance of air. She is saying things for the sake of saying them. Mitchell is carried along. He listens and believes the words he hears, though the subtle smell of vodka tickles his senses and puts him on alert. The small intrigue in the mystery of her words. To go along or follow his intellect. He goes along and she gently continues to speak. Enough to keep Mitchell listening to what follows. She speaks of the future. Buying a new house. Raising kids together. But her words betray her feelings. She sees no future. Sees no together. Mitchell does. Mitchell acts as if they both do.

Four months on. She speaks as if her words were ordained. She speaks as if everyone, including Mitchell, can believe the sincerity of what she says. And she says plenty. Mitchell is confused by her pronouncements. With her endless smile, she claims that she is devoted to him and they need to hold on to what they have. But it is unclear to Mitchell what they have. He cannot hold what they have, cannot touch what they have. What do they have? Just her word that they are one. Her word that they are together. Yet she is distant and unreachable.

Five months on. She now speaks openly to Mitchell about men she has met at work or at the bars. She assures him they are just friends but there is a hint of untruth to what she says. Not quite a brick hitting him, perhaps a small pebble. Such is the distance he is willing to travel to believe her. She begins to spend more time away from home. He is alone in the house surrounded by snow. One night, when she comes home at three in the morning he confronts her about her behavior, her late-night outings. She assures him of her love and devotion. She assures him that she is simply unwinding after stressful days. The air moves around her lips but Mitchell fails to understand the words being spoken. And he begins to question her honesty.

In the morning, there is one more rodent foraging in the snow-covered yard.

 

 

——————–

David H Weinberger is an American author writing in Bremen, Germany. His stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Ravens Perch, Gravel, and elsewhere, and can be read at his website davidhweinberger.com. He holds a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and taught kindergarten for eight years in Salt Lake City, Utah.

12 Poems—November 2019

By Simon Perchik

*
You can’t tell from these clouds
why this afternoon was set on fire
is burning through some lullaby

you’re singing to yourself
by gathering a few leaves, some twigs
for the gentleness falling out your mouth

–you dead know how it is, each hush
must be buried on the way back
with lips that bleed when rinsed in rainwater

leaving a sky that no longer takes root
is drifting into its hiding place
and each night listens for the word after word

returning as the small stones around you
that warm your hands, that listen the way smoke
reaches out from ashes and step by step.

 

 

*
It’s easy to fake her shadow
–you face each wall till its overcast
begins to fall as snow

fills the room with footprints
that reach for the light
before it leaves this bedside lamp

camouflaged as the curve no longer warm
–it’s simple, turn your head and the wall
goes along though each corner

is always winter, left open
where the light from her breasts
covered one hand with the other

to keep from freezing, stays
the way each shadow long ago
lost its echo though you forget

still listen for this door to open
to hold this room together till it arrives
as the same cold only colder.

 

 

*
You whisper as if smoke
still follows some plane
that left it behind

–mourners understand this
wave goodbye to your words
by leaning closer

the way fires start
though each stone left here
will collide with the sun

–no one would notice
it’s two in the afternoon
and all Earth is warming itself

lighting up the sky
no more than ever
hears you talk louder

say where in your mouth
a kiss can be found
came for you and stayed.

 

 

*
How could a moon so dim
see the room being taken away
–the door was closed from behind

as if nothing will return
except to light the stars
with evenings though the bed

stays empty, was uprooted
pulled further from the wall
now mined for its darkness

where each night pours sand
little by little through the blanket
over a room that died.

 

 

*
To not hear her leaving
and though this snapshot is wrinkled
it’s carried off in a shirt pocket

that never closes, stays with you
by reaching out as eyes
waiting for tears and emptiness

–you remember who filled the camera
except there was sunlight –a shadow
must say something, must want

to be lifted, brought back, caressed
the way a well is dug for the dead
who want only water and each other

–you try, pull the corners closer
over and over folded till you are facing
the ground, the dry grass, her.

 

 

*
To the dirt that no longer moves
you offer a mask the way a flower
over and over is readied for mornings

where time begins again as stars
sensing honey and more darkness
–by evening your death

will be used to footsteps one by one
broken off a great loneliness
returning row by row as the small stones

cut out for the mouth and eyes
to sweeten it, ask
where you are going by yourself.

 

 

*
Though there’s no sea nearby
this sidewalk smells from sand
no longer struggling–you point

where the crack will come
when you take your hand away
letting it lie in the street

–what drips from your fingertip
is one wound bathing another
with evenings and shores

covered with the inhuman cries
from small shells still in pain
scattered and not moving.

 

 

*
Slowly this coral
braces for the back and forth
by changing colors

beginning with moonlight –in time
the leaves become tea, gutted
the way an old woman with beads

weighs your palm for riverbeds
then spreads each finger
whose only memory is the darkness

that helps you breathe
underwater till it burns out
smells from emptiness

and standing in a circle while you drink
from a cup filled with some meadow
overgrown, forgotten, all at once.

 

 

*
Without the map you make a turn
the way someone pawns a coat
and butterflies disappear

though you remember the road
before it forked, became a valley
and the town, driving through

with the trunk propped open
helping you count over and over
to ten, half someone’s breath

half moonlight pressing against the hood
to open it, let out the wings, the road
and how much longer.

 

 

*
Don’t look around –it’s this conch
whispering back, keeping you awake
the way sailors embrace the stars

with rope when the rigging loosens
as the coming wave
falling to its death in your ear

–a nameless shell holds your hand
so it stays wet when lifted by moonlight
swollen from the darkness it needs

to flood the Earth, let go the railing
jump from the afternoons –you should look
for piling to carry away

on your shoulders as the voice
still circling overhead, almost a sea
almost all from your eyes.

 

 

*
You swallow head down
the way this hillside
sets for some far place

as evenings –it’s safe now
to drink from the birdbath
then throw your head back

purified by the pebbles
now gathered in a circle
as if they were the ones

you dead listen for
with your eyes closed
–in such a darkness

water becomes distance
finds the place in your mouth
for a field where a plane

skims by to cover you
as mist from its descent
still burning in the ground.

 

 

*
It was a birthday gift, sent alone
the day before your heart leaves
for a place that’s safer –a book

on travel, what to listen for, by yourself
in walls that let you look back
while your shadow is taken away

–it’s too soon! the ribbon is still splendid
will spend the night the way a sailor
learns to tie huge sails between each arm

stretch out, not yet rope, clinging to a sea
from a boat that’s lost, is closing
while you embrace the dark gray pages.

 

 

——————–

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by boxofchalk 2017. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com. To view one of his interviews please follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSK774rtfx8

Confetti

By Jeanine Stevens

             after a black and white photo
                                             Asher ReTech

Homage to brief decades, the suitcase,
the kind you buy in a set of three
at Sav-On Drugs,
             slumps in a back alley
among scattered rubble, scraps and litter.

Flimsy, cardboard and cloth,
made for domestic destinations,
it has survived many depots and terminals.

Rain soaked, black mold, beginning to sag,
             one side curls and peels.

No matter how worn,
you can always find bits of life
inside the satin lining: frayed ribbon,
a few peanuts, ticket stub,
             small toy.

This is what I see through my good eye.
If I look with the other,
objects glaze and shimmer,
             as if put through a gentle

             shredder—even soiled scraps transform:
glacial chips, slick obsidian, candy-colored confetti!

The rain over, everything settles, like the quiet
after the carnival ends, the revelers gone home.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Limberlost and Inheritor (Future Cycle Press) and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Her latest chapbook, Citadels, was published by Folded Word Press, 2019. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, The Ekphrasis Prize, Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference, and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Jeanine studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento. Poems have been published in Evansville Review, Forge, Chiron Review, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Verse Wisconsin, The Curator and North Dakota Quarterly. She also enjoys Romanian folk dance and working with collage. Jeanine is Professor Emerita at American River College having taught Anthropology, Psychology and Women’s Studies for thirty two years.

Mistral

By Jeanine Stevens

Windy days at co-op pre-school,
kids unruly: kicking shins, tossing
graham crackers and carrot sticks into the air,
some even preferring the taste of crayons.

So I’m ready for this gale
(said to drive one mad).
Coming north from Nice to Arles,
legs infected with flea bites, wearing
scratchy tights, already edgy, half crazed.

My real intent:
find color, tattered billboards,
collage scraps, great strips
I stuff into my parka,
twisted and wrinkled all the better.

Gruff gusts,
rings clang on iron poles,
café umbrellas flap
in blue cold and dry sun—
blinding azure, Midas gold.

I take a warm Earl Gray at a sidewalk shop.
Across the courtyard,
the Mistral removes sticky webs
from Vincent’s dense shrubbery.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Limberlost and Inheritor (Future Cycle Press) and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Her latest chapbook, Citadels, was published by Folded Word Press, 2019. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, The Ekphrasis Prize, Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference, and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Jeanine studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento. Poems have been published in Evansville Review, Forge, Chiron Review, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Verse Wisconsin, The Curator and North Dakota Quarterly. She also enjoys Romanian folk dance and working with collage. Jeanine is Professor Emerita at American River College having taught Anthropology, Psychology and Women’s Studies for thirty two years.

Cabbage Patch

By Jeanine Stevens

               Erasure: after Angele Ellis, “A Man in a Truck by a River.”
               Grasslimb vol. 13, No. 1, 2015

It took forever to reach you          so much mud. I picked my way
like a lost shorebird among
                                                used rubbers, gnawed chicken bones.

 

I sort of knew you
           a guy with strong muscles who got paid in cash.

           You climbed into your dirt-brown Bronco
           and flipped the passenger door lock.
                                                           My clumsy entrance
knocked your wallet                 onto the floor mat. It fell open—
photo of you with a woman on your lap.
                                                                       You
were grinning as if celebrating a winning
                                                           a scratch-off Lotto card?
                                                   Her Pirates baseball jersey,
                                               clung to her cantaloupe breasts.

                                                                I ran my hand down
your thigh like an apology.

    Later, I realized that every time
                                                 you left me,   you put your truck
                                                             in gear and went to her

                                                                       that the baby
           crying in the background every time I called was yours.

                                               Later, I realized that even
the pieces of trash that end up on the shore
                                                  are part of someone’s fantasies.

                          Night after night, I’m in the cauliflower beds
on my friend’s farm              rows of heads,              leaves secured

with a clothespin, the kind with teeth.
           I panic, seeing the vegetables as the diapered rumps of babies.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Limberlost and Inheritor (Future Cycle Press) and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Her latest chapbook, Citadels, was published by Folded Word Press, 2019. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, The Ekphrasis Prize, Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference, and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Jeanine studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento. Poems have been published in Evansville Review, Forge, Chiron Review, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Verse Wisconsin, The Curator and North Dakota Quarterly. She also enjoys Romanian folk dance and working with collage. Jeanine is Professor Emerita at American River College having taught Anthropology, Psychology and Women’s Studies for thirty two years.

Issue 13.1

Welcome to forgejournal.com, the online iteration of Forge.

Nunc lego qui nunc scribunt – I read now those who write now

-Robert of Cricklade

Welcome to issue 13.1 of Forge!

Seatbelts on, friends: it’s time for another ride on the Forgemobile. The November 2019 issue is now up for your enjoyment!

~Melissa Venables

Uber-editor,
Forge 13.1

Forge is an independent endeavor. We do not receive money from any institutional patrons – we are completely reader supported. If you enjoy what you find here, consider buying a hard copy of a journal issue, or submitting a donation by clicking on the button below. Thanks!

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CONTENTS

—Prose—

Max Bayer: Go Down Easy

Randy Fowler: Elizabeth II

James la Vigne: Farther, Sayeth the Spider

Sam Moore: Storms and Possibilities

David H Weinberger: A Momentary Disturbance of Air

—Poetry—

Simon Perchik: 12 Poems—November 2019

Jeanine Stevens: Confetti | Mistral | Cabbage Patch