Issue 4.4

The Man Who Hides the Future in Apples

by Charles LaFave

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, is it cold to you?”

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

He nodded.

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

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

“Am I going to die?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus. You’re shitting me.”

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

“No, nothing like that.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

45) Meredith becomes short of breath.

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

76) Yellow patches appear on Meredith’s forehead.

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

341) Meredith loses control of her bowels.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?” I asked her.

“Better. You smell.”

“Like crap, I think.”

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

“You know I can’t,” I said.

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

“How is the other woman?”

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

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

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

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

Meredith puts her hand on my forearm.

“It’ll be alright,” she said.

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

“Lay down.”

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

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

“You fell asleep.”

“A little.”

“I’ll move over.”

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

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

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

“Leave the door open,” she said.

“I shouldn’t.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

“This isn’t right.”

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

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

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

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

“Do you think that’s weird?”

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

“I’ll have to call you back.”

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

“Everything alright?”

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

1) Who is Meredith?

2) Do you play shogi?

3) Have you ever heard of Terrance Avery?

4) Have you ever been to Broadway?

5) Did you ever fall in love with Jeannie?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No pies today,” he said.

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

“Never had it.”

“Right. So why no pies today?”

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

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

“Jeannie’s gone, man.”

“Gone where?”

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

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

“Hey,” I said.

“Alright, man. Chill out. Jesus.”

“Who are you and where did she go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“You leaving? With her?”

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

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

“Go on, get out.”

She laughed at me. I closed the door.

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

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

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

If so, see you soon.

___

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

caisson

by Joe Conard

 

calcium chips floating on the river

little snowstorms clouding the water

the digging equipment folds out

onto the dock, where many workers wait

little else to do until the great machine finishes.

 

With a tug, it pulls its hollow arm

from underneath the riverbed

and back into its chilly heart, sated.

“All Aboard” calls the foreman callously

the men  descend through the pipes

for another day, held in place by a Titan’s foot of pressure

 

the safety light roams the surface like a stinger-less bee

no purpose as everyone crawls in early tombs

a local mass grave already erected to their sacrifice.

Below, the gaslight

and the sand, and the penetrating mist rises

with cocky excitement, like nitrogen in the blood

to hit the water, rushing on all sides.

 

ton by ton, hour by hour, the earth obeys

bringing itself to the surface

reluctant children leaving a party

each cart chaperoned

by a black ghost in a hard hat.

 

it’s a psychosis that makes men perform miracles

the reckless servitude of the poor and the young

re-shape the earth in dreams

only the lowly tread through hell to make the dreams of others

only the lowly replace themselves with earth on the surface

and forget their face

beneath the water.

 

This poem first appeared in Loch Raven Review

___

Joe Conard lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he pursues his passion for poetry, archery and all things beautiful and Zen.

Playa Flamingo

by Franz K. Baskett


The ever-hooded tragic gestured sea.

—Wallace Stevens

I.

When you leave your life behind you

Waving bills on the runway

And go with small baggage

To a place like this

Your alternatives diminish wonderfully.

*

You can eat or beach comb,

Always read or sleep slow as a conch,

Fish the skiff off the catalinas

In waters like boiling jade.

You can go to the room above the beach

And make love on the battered bed.

Simplicity improves focus.

*

It is easier to tell what’s important:

The hard mattress and the rough sheets,

The bodies twining, sliding,

The brown skin sugared with salt.

*

II.

Sitting before the Pacific,

I know it is a mournful sea

For all this blue and light

So strong even this short stay

Will fill me with regret.

*

Tiny hermit crabs in minute shells

Cluster and teem in the deepest,

Wettest shade, and giant sand wasps,

Big as my thumb, blue-black,

Patrol the stretches shielded

From the constant wind.

*

This beautiful, mournful sea,

Like a young widow.

*

There is deep sadness in the cold current

That brings a rich soup here, to the fish,

To the brown pelicans circling like minutes,

The round bay of Playa Flamingo.

*

III.

Beside the boat in the indigo wash

Among hanks of diesel smoke

Things like starfish

Have you by your spear.

*

Held half out by the mates,

They turn the sailfish

So that he sees me.

I lean over the gunwale

And we lock gazes.

Flat eye arcs to round eye

And I rock back,

Then look again.

*

Iridescent victim

That deception and strength

Machinery and wealth

Have prevailed upon

And hauled into the raving air,

What do you see

In that thin head?

Do you know more now

Of the community of predators?

*

Flipping the hook out,

The angels let you go.

*

IV.

It is the restless end of the dry season.

Every night, fires run in the hills

That ring the sanctuary bay,

Set by farmers to burn the underbrush.

This happens every year. North,

A big one’s burned all week

In a valley behind a pastel villa

In its dark banana grove

Flames sharpen the saw-toothed ridges.

*

I dreamed my neighbor’s house burned down.

Enough to bring me up on deck at three.

*

South, over Colombia, the Milky Way

Is as distinct as I have ever seen it.

The full sweep of creation.

On the eroded quay, a single gas pump

Stands under a single light that sways

And – if you listen perfectly – squeaks.

The half moon paints the swell it causes

With cream glitter. The boat nods west.

The fires perfume the constant wind.

*

Go back down to sleep. To sleep.

It is the restless end of the dry season.

*

V.

Coming to a place

We must take care

To see it

*

Thing and eye and time

Intersecting in the instant

Boom, boom, boom

*

But we must not see it as film

Our bad habit

Flat celluloid lifeless brittle

*

We must see it as we are

In the round juicy inside

Shaking off light

*

In every direction

Light flashing off our sides

Like this Pompano at the end of my line

*

Held up in the sun

And the bright laughter of women.

*

VI.

The wind riffles the pages of Elizabeth Bishop

Here beside me on the deck.

Big Liz, as we call her

Back home in the Ozarks.

*

Home.

*

Back home the children

Will have grown two inches

In two weeks, free

Of our intent to keep them

Small and safe,

Ourselves young.

*

When we return

There will be more time in their eyes

Than we will have been gone.

*

When they ask what I did in Costa Rica,

I’ll tell them I sat on the deck of a morning

And drank the tarry coffee

And the thick juice of mangos

And the wind riffled the pages of a book

And out flew an enormous fish

And a rain forest and a plane ride

At night into a city ringed by volcanoes.

*

I’ll tell them that the world is good

And awaits them and mornings are there,

Mystical as a house beside a waterfall.

___

I am a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas. My poetry has appeared in the Southern Review, The Pacific Review, The New Orleans Review, The Houston Literary Review and Grey Sparrow Journal, et al. My book, The Accident Prone Man, was published in 1994 by Orchises Press of Washington, D.C. I am the winner of the Raymond L. Barnes Award and The Academy of American Poets Prize. I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas where I work in the newspaper industry.

Buckley’s Cave

By John Grey

The wind has a mouth.

It’s the opening of a cave.

Follow it

past bats that throb like tonsils,

stalactite teeth,

and leaking steams of chilly spit.

The wind has a gut

like the rest of us,

so deep in darkness,

so raw, so riled up,

all that it can do is blow.

*

Its intestine is

grotto after grotto,

descending past its frozen lungs,

its iceberg heart.

Keep going

by where skinny sunrays

ping off crystal,

bubbling acid pools.

*

Descend into

the coughs, the splutters,

the belches, the beats,

to where the stone dead

feels most like

a living thing.

*

The wind would rather

toss your hair around

some other place.

So go to where

it never would expect you.

Step into its crude beginnings.

Roll around its bestial belly.

Bluster a little yourself,

but without the rage, without the wallop.

Show wind that anyone can be wind.

___

John Grey is an Australian born poet, playwright, musician, US resident (Providence, RI) since late seventies. Works as financial systems analyst. Married with no children. Collects books by classic horror writers from the late 1800s, early 1900s and early copies of Mad Magazine. John is widely published and holds many Pushcart Prize nominations, recently in Xavier Review, White Wall Review and Writer’s Bloc with work upcoming in Poem, Prism International and the Cider Press Review.



Through Iridescent Changes

by A.J. Huffman

 

I see nothing wrong

with these needles

scarring my skin.

Deliberately.

Dying it

black.

Beautiful art

in ancient designs.

Modernized, of course.

But still eternal.

I will wear them

forever.

These memories.

On display

whenever I choose.

___

A.J. Huffman is a poet and freelance writer in Daytona Beach, Florida.  She has previously published her work in literary journals, in the U.K. as well as America, such as Avon Literary Intelligencer, Eastern Rainbow, Medicinal Purposes Literary Review, The Intercultural Writer’s Review, Icon, Writer’s Gazette, and The Penwood Review.

 

Chance

by Emily Grekin

 

had no choice. I had to leave her. My little Sarah, my innocent baby girl. They were coming, an unstoppable force. I was stuck. They would kill my baby Sarah, no questions asked. I could handle the pain that I would soon face. I could grit my teeth and suffer through the concentration camps. If I faced death, so be it. I would join my seven brothers and sisters in Heaven with Adonai, bless their precious souls.

But I would not allow them to take my baby Sarah and kill her. So I did what I knew in my heart was the only real option: I left her. I went deep into the damp woods in my village and wrapped her in my purple shawl that I had crocheted myself years before. I wrapped her tight, arms and legs pressed close to her red prune-like body. I never knew pain like I faced on that day. I never experienced pain like that ever again, and I don’t think I ever will. What else could possibly cause the sobs that make my eyes and throat raw? What else could cause me to feel that I was abandoning the one living thing that was a part of me, that had grown inside me? Now I am eighty-seven years old, and I can still feel that pain as if I left baby Sarah in the woods only yesterday.

But I left her nonetheless. She needed the chance to live.

I had this image, this dream, that kept me alive through the terrifying nights that soon followed. The image was that the Nazis had swept through my village without entering the woods. And whoever was left, whoever had survived the attacks or who would later travel into the town, would find my baby Sarah. They would find her and take her in as one of their own, and she would grow up to be a happy child. To know love. To not remember me at all or that I abandoned her.

It was foggy the day I left her. The mist coated my face and stung my arms as I softly crept through the woods. I placed her in a nest of leaves, next to a towering, grooved tree–whose wrinkly bark looked like my skin does now–and I walked away. Her staccato cries wove their way through the fog and pierced what was left of my desire to live.

Then the Nazis came.

They took me away. I was placed in the Janowska transit camp and then in the concentration camp in Belzec, where I was put in the administration section. 600,000 Jews perished at Belzec. When that many of your people die, you train yourself to block out the pain, to not feel anything at all. You learn that to say the Mourner’s Kaddish that many times is impossible; to dwell over every death would be impossible; to dwell on the greater concept of death is to ask for your own, for it eats away at your sanity. You realize your previous perceptions of the beauty of life have always been false. And so in the face of such tragedy, you become paralyzed. I was paralyzed.

But I survived.

I thought every day how thankful I was that I chose to leave my baby Sarah in the foggy woods. Because I was content not knowing her fate. The small chance that she had been saved kept me going.

And I don’t know why Adonai chose to watch over me. Why did I survive when so many others very similar to me were killed? Why did I deserve to live? Does it help to ask questions? No. I learned, over time, that to ask such questions is to spark an inner, blazing fire that will never be extinguished. It is just better to accept reality as it is and move along with the flow of time.

I was placed in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp for four years. What I remember most from that time was a mixture of conflicted tears, tears everywhere. People were so struck by their new surroundings, in such disbelief that they had survived, that joy flooded the body and spilled over in tears, much like soup boiling over the rim of a pot. The tears also were tears of memory: colorless flashbacks from the camps, continuous thoughts of loved ones who were killed. But together we knew that we had been blessed with precious life, and we knew, together, that we had to move on. There averaged twenty weddings a day while I was at Bergen-Belsen, one of which was my own. Only a few months after liberation, 2,000 children had been born in the camp, one of which was my own as well. I married a man named Sam, and we gave birth to a beautiful baby girl we called Rebecca. I never told Sam about my baby Sarah; the words would stick in the back of my throat and refuse to dislodge themselves. To speak of what I had done would make the situation real. I did not want it to be real. In 1949, British authorities allowed free departure from the camp. Sam’s older sister had moved to America, to New York, before the war had started, and he had always dreamed of moving there as well.

And so we made our way across the Atlantic. We were people of small villages, people of modesty, who had faced a horrific tragedy over the past few years. Now, suddenly, we were people of a huge city. Everywhere we looked, concrete buildings towered over us. The Statue of Liberty gazed down at us, silently promising us that in America, we would be safe. That Rebecca would grow up and know only freedom and opportunity. That she would never have her life suddenly ripped away from under her in only a matter of minutes.

I learned to speak English as best as I could. English is a difficult language to learn, but I picked it up as I talked to our neighbors in our new apartment building, to the American grocers, to Sam’s sister, who had a very good ear for languages and could speak English better than I could. Sam was also more confident with the language. Sometimes, when Rebecca was taking a nap on Saturday afternoons, I would make a pot of tea and Sam and I would sit at our little kitchen table in our musty apartment trying to talk to each other in our broken English.

“No, no. The correct word is ‘ugly,’ not ‘chalcious,’” he said to me once, gently, placing his hand on my knee. I was trying to come up with the right word to describe bathrooms at the subway station. “Most persons in New York do not comprehend the Yiddish words.”

“The bathrooms at the subway are ugly.” I tried again, slumping against the wooden chair. Very quickly, I lapsed back into Polish, and our conversation continued with much less strain.

Before I knew it, Rebecca started kindergarten, and my favorite part of every day was when I picked her up at school and we walked home together.  My big hand would swallow her little hand, her little finger nails, and as we walked past smoky factories and hotdog stands and chain-link fences surrounding parks, Rebecca would tell me about her classmates and teacher. “We learned the alphabet song today,” she told me once. “And I painted you and Daddy a picture of a cat. I really want a kitten, Mommy!”

I noticed a red smudge of paint on her cheek, right below her eye, and a brown crusty dab of paint on her chin. I reached down and tried to rub them away with my thumb, and then kissed both of her cheeks. “I know. But, ah, bubbala, you know how difficult it would be, in our itsy bitsy apartment.”

Rebecca started singing the Itsy-Bitsy Spider and she skipped along the cracked sidewalk to our apartment.

* * *

We joined a synagogue walking distance from our apartment building. Sam’s sister lived in the same building as we did, and she had three children who became Rebecca’s best friends. We had Shabbat dinner together every Friday night, alternating between apartments. Rebecca knew the Hebrew prayers over the challah, the wine, and the candles by heart. My brass candleholders became tarnished with time. My life had a comforting rhythm, and I was content in New York.

But I never forgot Sarah.

Every day I awoke and wondered if she would be waking up underneath the same sky, if we were both rubbing the sleep from our identical hazel eyes. The image of baby Sarah swaddled in my purple shawl was permanently trapped by my memory. When Rebecca was seven, I knew Sarah would be thirteen. I loved Rebecca more than any other mother loves her daughter. I know so many mothers say that, but for me, it was the truth. Every time I found myself trying to picture what Sarah would look like as she grew older, I felt strange emotions–some mixture of sadness and hope–that spread throughout my chest and I would decide, for the hundredth time, that I would throw every last drop of my love and warmth into Rebecca. I now admit that I felt as if I needed to make up for the fact I abandoned one daughter by giving twice the amount of love to the other. More than twice. Three, four, one hundred times the amount of love. I would bend down and squeeze my Rebecca, stroking her honey blonde hair, and she would giggle and flash a smile at me, her fleshy lips pulled taught from ear to ear. And, like a dried crispy leaf carried off by the wind, almost all of my hurt would float away.

Almost.

I have this memory. During the fall, when Rebecca was in first or second grade, I took her shopping for new clothes, to a fancy department store downtown. It wasn’t even winter yet, but sparkling Christmas decorations were displayed everywhere. As we made our way through the counters of makeup and expensive jewelry, I noticed many women with fur coats and pearl necklaces waltzing through the store. I felt embarrassed, in my rough brown sweater and brown skirt and black boots. I would never look like them, could never afford to look like them. But it didn’t matter. I was shopping for Rebecca, not for myself. Her cheeks flushed as she raced through the children’s department, grabbing a purple fuzzy sweater here, a lacy pink skirt there. “I want this, Mommy,” she gushed as she ripped a light blue satin dress off of a hanger. I laughed. “Rebecca! Let’s go try these on before we buy them.” A Christmas tree, with red and gold shiny ornaments and tinsel, was displayed outside the dressing room. We went into the small room together and I helped Rebecca try on her dress. I zipped it up for her and she squealed at she felt the smooth blue satin against her skin. “Beautiful, you are so beautiful,” I told her. “You look like a doll.” Then I glanced at the price tag. The dress was far too expensive for us. I forced a smile and looked at the price tags on the other clothes Rebecca had grabbed. The sweater was much more affordable. “Try on the sweater, Rebecca.” I pulled the dress up over her head, messing up her hair, and helped her work her arms into the sleeves of the purple sweater. We looked at our reflections in the tall mirror and I gasped.

“Oh, Mommy, it’s so soft! I want to wear it to school tomorrow.”

I tried to take a deep breath but found I could not. “No, no!” Rebecca looked at me with wide, startled eyes. “No, you cannot. It is a chalcious color. It is ugly!” I lied. My voice shook. The truth was I had never seen Rebecca in purple before, and in the mirror before me, she melted into Sarah. I couldn’t stand it.

Rebecca rolled her eyes, as she often did when I used Yiddish words, and I thought she might cry.

“Let’s buy you the blue dress,” I blurted without thinking. “You can wear it to Shabbat dinner on Friday. It is so beautiful on you.” She smiled and clapped her hands together.

When I handed over cash to pay for the dress, I realized I had spent over half of our grocery money for the week. Rebecca gripped her shopping bag with pride. I buttoned Rebecca’s coat and pulled her knit hat over her ears as we emerged into the chilly air and walked to the subway. My thoughts swirled as we pushed our way through crowds of people, and I tried very hard to think of ways I could justify this large expense to Sam.

When we got off the subway, we still had quite a ways to walk. Rebecca’s black shoes clacked against the sidewalk and she swung her shopping bag at her side so it hit my hip at regular intervals. We passed Kowalski’s Market, the only place in New York that felt at all like home. The store was bustling, with a constant flow of people entering and leaving with large grocery bags. Normally, I would stop in and pick up some cheese and potatoes to make Pierogi, or some cabbage to make Golabki. But that day we walked past the store, and the tantalizing scent of Kielbasa followed me for what seemed like blocks.

* * *

When Rebecca was about ten years old, I started to have haunting dreams. Some of them were nightmares. I would lie in bed at night facing a dark shadowy wall, with Sam’s arm draped around my waist, lacing his fingers between my own. As I entered the eerie twilight between wakefulness and sleep, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to fall asleep in my old village, without the many noises of people shouting in the streets, the cars whizzing by, the lights of the city that never seemed to dim.

Then I would rush into the dreams. My older brothers and sisters would circle my bed, staring at me, frowning, pale, with stringy hair. Their stares revealed their sadness and disappointment that I had left our tight-knit community in Poland. I had abandoned my old life completely. They would shake their heads, my sister cradling her face in her hands, sighing.

I would awake with my heart pounding, with a fear that the life I had grown up with was now completely gone. To try to calm myself a little bit, I would tip-toe from the bedroom to our tiny dark kitchen and make myself a pot of tea. I would take the kettle off of the stove before the water began to boil, because I never wanted the shrieking steam to wake up Rebecca. She needed a full night’s rest for school.

I would reach for a teacup from the cabinet and with glazed, tired eyes I would admire the thin gold rim, the smooth loopy handle, and the pads of my fingers would absorb the smoothness of the cold china. I bought this china set because it reminded me of my mother’s from when I was growing up.

It was one of those nights, when I was sipping tea alone in the kitchen, that I realized I wanted to go back to my village in Poland. It hit me all at once. I didn’t want to go back to live there—I just wanted to see it, to make sure it was still there, that my childhood had not been completely erased. I found myself reminiscing about my old house and my old school. Who knew which of my friends had lived? And of those who had, I did not know how many had chosen to stay in Poland. I needed to reassure myself that my roots were not completely plucked from the soil. I decided I would speak to Sam the very next morning.

Of course, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I felt nervous and when I did begin to drift off, I would snap back awake, sometimes kicking Sam in the leg. He would barely stir. When the sun began to rise, I could wait no longer, and I shook Sam awake.

“What?” he murmured, rubbing his eyes. “What is it, dear?” He asked me a bit louder, in Polish.

“I…I want to go back to Poland. I want to see my village.”

He squinted, as if he thought he might be dreaming. “By yourself?”

“I think I would have to go alone. You would need to be here for Rebecca.”

He sat up, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and stood, slowly. He paced the length of the bedroom three, four, five times before he stopped and looked me in the eye.

“Why? Why would you want to go back? Our life is here.” His expression was one of concern, and of curiosity. His ruddy face did not look the least bit angry. “We are happy here.”

I was careful as I thought of what to say to him. I had never told Sam about Sarah, and I wasn’t about to do so. Sixteen years had passed already. We were happy. I did not see any logical reason to bring the past into the present. Sarah was my glowing secret.

“I need to.” It was all I could think to say. I stood up so I could look at Sam’s eyes. “My brothers and sisters come to me in my sleep. It scares me.” My eyes began to water. “I don’t want all the years I spent in Poland to disappear. I need to know that they were real.”

We talked and talked and talked, as the sun rose higher and higher and higher in the sky. He said we had some money saved, that we could begin to put some money aside for my trip. We lay in bed next to each other, holding hands. He kissed me on the forehead. “I need to get ready to go to work.”

Kocham Cię,” I told him, with tears streaking down my face.

“I love you, too,” he said to me.

* * *

Months passed, but, with the help of Sam’s sister and brother-in-law, we managed to save enough money to buy me a ticket on a ship back to Europe. During that time, I began to make preparations. I wrote to old family friends in the next village, and to my surprise, they responded. After the war, they had decided to stay in their town, even though most of their surviving family and friends had come to various places in America. They said they would be happy to have me as their guest when I made the journey back to Poland.

I arranged for Rebecca to stay with her aunt and cousins in the hours after school, and Sam would come get her when he was done with work for the day. Since we lived in the same apartment building, this would be very convenient. I made sure to tell Sam’s sister that Rebecca liked to have milk and cookies every day after school. She laughed, telling me that Rebecca would be fine, that she would be well fed.

In the weeks before I left for Europe, my anticipation drastically increased. I spent long hours walking through Central Park on cloudy mornings, just thinking. I told myself that I had the perfect family and that my life was full of mazel, of luck. I was lucky to be alive at all. Though there was a part of me that wished to question the remaining villagers, to spend the rest of my life searching for baby Sarah, I knew I could not do so.

The truth is, I did not know if I was strong enough to face my baby Sarah. I did not know if I would want to be strong enough to face her. Either she lived or she died, black or white. Most likely she died. But if she had lived, if by some miracle she had been rescued, then I liked to imagine that she was happy and loved, with a mother who cooked hot matzo-ball soup for her when she was sick and stroked her hair when she was sad. I wanted to believe that she did not need my presence.

But I still craved for her to be my daughter more than anything.

I also considered that she might have been taken in by a Christian family. As difficult as it was for me, I came to realize that religion’s value is much less than the value of life. Then I would feel ridiculous for dreaming such dreams in the first place.

I didn’t want to confirm whether or not she had lived. I liked to cling to my worn, unraveling thread of hope that had remained tied to me tightly throughout the years.

These were my thoughts as I walked.

* * *

I was gone from New York for one month. After I traveled by ship, I took trains and buses. It was a long journey.

* * *

I do not know how to exactly describe what I felt upon reaching my village. When I first stepped off the bus, the smell of the air hit me hard. I was so used to the smog of New York City, the gritty floating dirt, that this air seemed almost fake to me. It was the smell of my childhood, sweet and perfumed, and I inhaled deeply. I felt like I was being pulled back in time; I shrank one foot and I was ten years old again, playing jump rope with my older brother, a very different brother than the one who haunted me in my sleep. Everywhere I looked was green. There was no green in New York. Only concrete.

The roads were still mainly dirt, but there was one paved road now that was new. There was a new grocery store, too, much bigger than the Kosher Market I had grown up with that was literally a shack.

I walked down a dirt path toward my old house. The sun shone in my eyes, and I rested my hand on my forehead to reduce the glare. I dragged my small suitcase behind me, wincing when a sharp stone made its way into my shoe. The bus that would take me to my family friend’s house didn’t come for several hours, and so I had plenty of time to explore the remnants of my crumbled childhood.

I didn’t have any expectations for what I was to see, really. I was sure my house had burned down or that another one had been built in its place.

But after walking a little ways, I turned a corner. And there it was, the house from my youth, catching me off guard. There were still little yellow flowers growing between blades of grass in the yard. The front door was still made of the same knotty wood I had memorized so well. The rims of the window were painted a bright white. Even the thatched roof looked as if it was intact. I ached to see the inside. So, I closed my eyes for a moment, puffed out my chest, and then marched to the front door. And I knocked, harder than I meant to knock.

I heard muffled Polish from inside, and I worked to steady my palpitating heart. A short, round woman answered the door. “Cześć,” I said. I explained to her that I was from America, and that I used to live in her house when I was younger. But oh, she would not listen to me. She was scared of my clothing and confidence. I was an unfamiliar face in an inbred village. She turned around and ran into the house, returning to me in a fluster, pushing papers into my face. I looked at the papers. They were settlement papers. She was worried that I was trying to reclaim my house. With an admirable strength from such a short woman, she insisted that the house was rightfully hers, and that I should leave. Disheartened, I backed away. I did not want to cause any trouble.

As I turned around and began to walk away, I remembered a small graveyard that had been located a few hundred feet behind my house. So many summer nights my brothers and sisters and I had chased each other through the graveyard, and then been scolded by our parents for being so disrespectful of the dead. I wondered if the graveyard was still there, if I could still find it.

Still dragging my suitcase behind me, I walked down the dirt path a little further before searching for the graveyard. I did not want the woman in my old house to think I was sneaking into her backyard. So I cut through a field a little further away, behind some large trees, and there it was. The graveyard, with it’s cracked stones and uneven ground and overgrown pale green weeds and dandelions.  I could almost see one of my brothers hiding behind a stone, his large ears sticking out ever so slightly, giving away his hiding spot. But now, an old man, wearing a kippah on his head, was hunched over a grave, holding a young boy’s hand. Together, they stooped to the ground, picked up jagged rocks, and placed them on the flat top of the gravestone. They did this in silence. I wanted to read the words and dates on the gravestone. I wanted to find out who they were mourning, to see what their faces looked like. The gravestone was very old. In all likelihood, the child probably had not known the deceased. The grave was most likely from years before the war. But I knew that if I were to creep closer toward them, I would be ruining their beautiful, private moment together. I did not want to be responsible for that. So I left, heading in the direction of the bus stop.

But I slowed as I neared the woods. I had been anticipating this moment for months, dreading and looking forward to confirming its existence–and there it was. The woods hissed at me, looking very different today than it did the day I left. There was no fog, only pure sunlight streaming through the branches and leaves. A bird chirped, and a mixture of sadness and comfort settled around me. The woods were so peaceful. I was glad that of all places, I had chosen to leave my baby Sarah there.

I still had some time before the bus came, so I decided to walk through the town center marketplace. I felt as if I had completed some form of a pilgrimage, that my life had finally come full circle, and I smiled. A small hole had been filled and I had experienced closure, of some sort. That, and triumph. My tour through town had been so short, only several hours, but it was all I needed. I felt satisfied, and proud that I had come from such a small community and had survived in New York City. I missed Sam and my Rebecca.

So I continued to drag my suitcase behind me, through the marketplace, and it’s zipper caught on my wool skirt. I frowned at the new rip from my left ankle to my knee. And then I realized it didn’t really matter. Who was I trying to impress?

I gazed around the marketplace at stained wooden barrels of wheat and grain covered by large canvas umbrellas. There were shades of brown and beige everywhere, surrounding me everywhere I looked. Many people wandered through the market, speaking Polish words that danced through the air and washed over me like a light rain. They exchanged money for grain.

And then I saw, within the mounds of blandness, purple.

There was only one time I had ever seen this exact purple before.

I couldn’t breathe.

The girl stood about fifty feet away from me. She had long dark hair trailing down her back in waves, glittering in the sun, and through her locks of hair, a fuzzy purple shawl was visibly wrapped around her shoulders.

Suddenly my feet were numb and every bone in my body turned to challah dough. So many thoughts rushed through my mind, I could never sort them out now. Thoughts of hope, thoughts trying to not get my hopes up, thoughts trying to grasp the concept that maybe, just maybe, all of my dreams I had for Sarah while I was in Belzec were actually reality.

I was watching myself from a far distance. I had no control. I forgot that I did not have the strength, the will, or the right.

I left my suitcase sitting next to a barrel. Shaking, I slowly walked up to the girl with the purple shawl.

___

I hold a B.A. in English with a subconcentration in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. During my senior year I wrote an 80-page fiction thesis and was a semi-finalist for the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards for Creative Writing. I recently moved to Athens, Ohio to pursue my M.A. in Creative Writing (fiction) at Ohio University, and I began reading for theNew Ohio Review in September. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Eunoia Review, The William and Mary Review, and has been highlighted on Fictiondaily.org.

 

I Don’t Understand What This Means

by Grant Kittrell

 

“Take an apple

in your hand,

toss it up then

 

watch it

 

hear it

 

feel it

 

land and fit

back in the palm

of your hand.

And do it

twice,

(if need be),

thrice or

twice

again,

 

then

 

tell me

you don’t understand

what I’m talking about.”

___

Grant Kittrell grew up in Fernandina Beach, Florida and is currently studying English and Philosophy at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. His main areas of focus/interest are poetry, literary theory, and the visual arts. He wears a tweed flat cap and often hesitates before he stutters.

Blues from a Gun, chapter ten: Who Can You Trust?

by Bryan Pedersen

 

S it safe?”

I’m not sure how I expected him to answer. I’m not even sure why I bothered to ask. If he’d have said yes, would I have believed him? Of course not. If he’d have said no, what could I do about it?

“The food should be.”

And what sort of answer was that? Reassure a girl, k? Help me out a little bit. Tell me that this gorgeous apartment is an impenetrable ivory tower and nobody’s getting up here unless I let my hair down for them.

“The food should be.”

Smart ass.

The elevator doors closed over him and he was gone. I didn’t know for how long so I moved quickly. I sprang from the couch and started in his bedroom. I scrounged through drawers, dug under socks and t-shirts, looking for money to finance my way out of here. All this time and I’m still trying to fund my grand getaway.

Nothing spectacular in any of the drawers so I moved on to the closet, but I was stopped before I got there. On the nightstand beside his unmade bed, sitting right out in the open, was a stack of cash. A big and beautiful bunch of bills folded together and waiting for me. I decided to consider it a donation and stuffed them in my pocket. On my way out I borrowed a nice, heavy overcoat from one of his closets, pressed a button on the wall, and a few seconds later the elevator opened up, quiet and smooth and efficient, beckoning me inside.

Now, from the time the doors closed to when they opened again to reveal the parking garage beneath the building, it couldn’t have been more than seven or eight seconds. That’s hardly time enough for a person to take two deep breaths. It surely couldn’t be enough time for someone to completely change their mind.

Except it was.

So that was me a couple of hours ago, and here’s the crappy new part of the tale: I can’t get back up. I’ve ridden the elevator a few times trying to figure out a way to do it, but you need some sort of key or card or code or something to get it to let you into the apartment, and whatever that thing is I don’t have it. All I have are his jacket and money, and right now that’s not enough.

So I give up. I’ve stood and I’ve sat, but mostly I’ve waited because he has to come back at some point, and I’m fairly certain that means he has to come back to this spot here. At least I hope there’s no sneaky back way in for him to take. It’s really not getting any warmer out here.

While waiting I’ve been waiting I’ve been wondering why I changed my mind, why I’m not running. And maybe even more important than that, I’ve been wondering if I can trust this guy. It’s taken the past three hours to come to a conclusion. Basically what I’ve decided is no, I can’t. But then again, and probably the most important point of all, what choice do I have?

“Nice coat.”

I didn’t see him walking up to me, but I play it off, try not to jump.

“It’s warm,” I tell him.

“My apartment’s warmer,” Wex says.

“Wow, that’s awful forward, mister.”

“Hey, I just figured a little girl like you, out here all by herself, who knows what sort of people she might run into?”

“Present company excluded?”

“Included,” he says.

“Well, I’m not exactly Little Red Riding Hood.”

“And I am not the Big Bad Wolf,” he says and the elevator doors open. “Going up?”

“Should I?”

“I don’t know. What did your mom tell you about accepting rides from strangers?”

“That it was cool so long as she wasn’t dating him.”

An eyebrow cocks, his forehead furrows a bit.

“You know,” I say, “she didn’t like the competition.”

Up in the apartment he points at the couch, indicates I should sit. Normally I don’t like pushy men, but since I’m wearing his coat and have his money in my pocket I figure I’ll let him get away with a bit of pushing for now.

“You want something to drink?” he calls from the kitchen.

“Sure.”

So I sit and wait. I take off his coat and when he comes over to give me a bottle of beer identical to the one in his other hand I offer him the cash I took off his dresser.

“What’s that?”

“It’s yours.”

He checks it out, then looks sideways at me before stuffing it in his pants pocket. “Thanks, I guess.” Then he sits. “Listen, we need to talk.”

“Are you breaking up with me?” I say and I like that he laughs. It’s better than when he’s all serious. His serious look kinda worries me some.

“What’d you do?” he asks.

“Um? I stole your money? Sorry about that.”

“No, not that.”

“Oh. You mean about last night? The whole damsel in distress thing?”

“Yeah. That.”

“I stole some money,” I tell him. “Sorry.”

He stares at me, so I stare back. He takes a sip of his beer, so I do the same. Finally he picks up a remote from the coffee table and presses a button. Music comes on, smooth trip-hop sounds fill the air.

“You think this is about money?” he asks.

“Isn’t it usually?”

“Most of the time it is.”

“So why wouldn’t it be now?”

He stares at me some more. I’m starting to think that’s his code for: slow down, I’m thinking. A bit more time, a little more thought, and he says, “Because I know these guys.”

“You mean the guy from last night? The one you…?”

“Yeah, I know him. Knew.”

“Oh. And?”

“And that makes me think that this is about more than money.”

“It does?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay then.”

And we sit silently, listening to the music.

“I need to know if I can I trust you,” he says after a minute.

“Trust me? Can I trust you?”

“Huh. Let’s see, I’ve already killed someone for you. What does that tell you?”

“Exactly. All that proves is you’re a killer. Are killers especially trustworthy people, Wex?”

“Not especially, no.”

“Well then.”

He reaches back into his pocket, pulls out the cash I stole and tosses it on the table top between us. “And you’ve stolen from me already.”

“I gave it back.”

“All that proves is you’re a thief, and a shitty one at that. Are thieves especially trustworthy people, Allie?”

“Not especially, no.”

The music keeps playing. I swear, this song goes on forever. I take another pull from the bottle and set it back down.

“You said you knew him,” I say. “That guy from last night.”

“I did.”

“What did you know about him?”

“Little things, mostly. That he was a prick. That he had a shitty sense of humor.”

“Okay.”

“And I know the sort of work he does. Did.”

“How do you know that?”

He stares at me again. I’m guessing he’s trying to decide whether he wants to be honest with me or not. I guess that means I’ll have to decide whether or not to believe him.

“I know about the sort of work he did,” Wex finally says, “because I do it too.”

And okay, yeah, I believe him.

After a few more minutes of song from the stereo and stunned silence from me, a DJ comes on, tells us about Morcheeba, and that we’re listening to station KXYZ, then it’s more music.

“What’d Frank tell you?” I ask.

“Not much. Just that you needed some help.”

“That’s all?”

“That was all.”

“Wow. You’re pretty loyal.”

“He’s a friend,” Wex says. “What’d you tell Frank?”

“Not much,” I say.

“Just that you needed help?”

“Pretty much.”

“Wow,” he says, mocking me, I think. “You’re pretty lucky.”

And more music. The window across from me stretches from floor to ceiling and looks out over the city. The sky has gone black. Scattered city lights dot the buildings across from us, lighting up the horizon with little man made constellations.

“So, what did you do?” Wex asks again.

“You know, you were wrong before, about the money. I do think money is what this is about, ultimately.”

“You stole some money, now they want you dead?”

“How come you don’t say we?”

“What do you mean?”

“How come you don’t say, now we want you dead? Aren’t you one of them? Aren’t they who you work for?”

Because really, that’s what I’m worried about. Sure, and fuck it, I don’t have anywhere else to turn. And also, yes, the only person in a longtime I felt able to trust was Frank and he sent this killer to me. So either I shouldn’t have put my faith in Frank to begin with, which wouldn’t surprise me too much to discover, or it’s all just a too confusing. But really, and here’s my point, how do I know if I should trust this guy?

“I don’t know,” he says.

It’s not the best answer. It’s definitely not reassuring. But it feels honest, so at least there’s that.

“Okay, fine. I sold some stuff. For money.” I tell him because if he can try to be honest, I suppose I can, too. “You’ve heard about poor people, college students, that sort, selling plasma for a few bucks?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it began like that.”

“And?”

“And it became more than that. At first it was just some small studies. You know, those medical studies where you go in, become a guinea pig and let them try out new drugs on you.”

“Okay.”

“Well, that’s how it started.”

“What came next?”

“What came next was more. Next was I started selling myself, a little piece at a time.” It always feels dirty and I hate admitting it, but maybe it’s time to start. “You ever hear about how some guys donate sperm? Did you know you can get almost a hundred bucks for that? And that’s easy for guys. Squirt that stuff out a few times a week, a guy could pay his rent that way if he wanted.”

“Okay.”

“How much do you think you can get for an egg?”

“An egg?”

“Yeah.”

“I take it we’re not talking omelets.”

“You don’t know any of this stuff?”

“I know where eggs come from, Allie.”

“Good, but I mean about the donations. You work for them, don’t you?”

“It’s not like that.”

“What is it like?”

He leans back on the couch and exhales, looks around for words printed on the walls or ceiling. Silly little me thought it was an easy question.

“Well?”

“It’s bigger than that,” he says. “It’s hard to explain.”

“This isn’t easy for me. Maybe a little mutual sharing might make it easier for both of us. Maybe you could try.”

“Or maybe I’ve already saved your ass, fed you, given you a place to sleep. Seems a bit one sided on the give and take, doesn’t it?”

“Don’t be a dick.”

He stands and heads back to the kitchen. His bottle of beer is still on the coffee table where he left it, three-quarters full. When he returns a minute later he’s got a large glass of orange juice.

“It’s hard to explain because I don’t really know much about it myself,” he says after he sits back down. “I know that the people I work for, that the company’s huge, that it owns dozens of other companies in countries all over the world. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, I don’t really know. But we’re talking banks, law firms, energy resources, all sorts of stuff, and, as you know, medical research. The one thing I am sure of is that I don’t even know the half of it. All I know is what they tell me to do, what they pay me for.”

I want to ask him flat out what exactly that is, but I kinda already know the answer and I’m not sure I want to know any more than that. So I’ll let it pass, for now.

“Have you ever been poor?” I say instead. “Really needed the money? Wondered how you were going to pay your overdue rent bill, frustrated because they shut off your heat again, afraid to answer the phone or door because you knew it was another bill collector? You ever been that brand of poor?”

“No.”

“But you hear people talk about it sometimes, right? About how it weighs on you. How you worry about money and the necessities and how that worry sucks the life out of you, crushes your soul, how after awhile… So I did some stuff.”

“Is this the, I was young, I needed the money, speech?”

“Like I said, don’t be a dick.”

“Well?”

“It started out that way. Alright? I started selling little things like plasma, did some more studies, after awhile you start recognizing faces, not just the doctors and nurses, but the other donors, the regulars. That’s how you realize you’re a regular, too.”

He’s drinking his orange juice but the beer still tastes fine to me so I work on finishing off my bottle before I go on.

“One night I’m out and I run into this guy I know from the studies, Carlos. Only this isn’t the same shabby-shoed guy I knew from the labs, okay? This guy was driving a shiny Benz, had on a suit that probably cost a couple grand. I saw him step from that car and did a double-take. At first I figured I found his doppelganger, but he caught me eyeballing him and smiled back and waved, strutted right on over, and that was the other thing. He had a strut. You wouldn’t get that, I guess, but thing is, us people in those studies, we were poor, desperate, and when you get like that you tend to shuffle along. You end up moving like a dog that’s used to being kicked. It’s just what happens. This guy, Carlos, seeing him in that suit, bouncing out of that car, that was weird enough, but that strut, the smile on his face. He was beaming.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, I figured he’d won the lottery. In a way, he had. He came over and hugged me. There was this piece of trashy platinum arm candy with him who didn’t care to be ignored. She huffed about him paying attention to me and he told her to fuck off. That felt good.”

I finish my bottle, reach across the table and start in on his.

“So she stomped off and he took me inside. It was this fancy French place and it was gorgeous and right away he tells me all about how it happened. How it’s true and how fantastic it is.”

“What is?”

“The whitest of white whales, Wex. The mother of ‘em all.”

“Allie?”

“I’m telling you, okay. Just…” I take another sip and set the bottle back down, but I fuck up and almost spill it. I catch it right before it tips over on its side but still splash some beer across the glass surface.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

“D you have a towel? I’ll–“

“Don’t worry about it,” he says again, a little firmer.

“It wasn’t just because I was poor. It was, I don’t know. I was really tired.”

“What’d you do?”

“Later that night Carlos told me all about how it works. First off, they have to approach you. If you ask about it you’re blacklisted straight away, just like that. They say it’s legal, but only kinda, so they need to keep it quiet or, well, they just do. He told me which doctors to cozy up to, how to hint that I’d be interested.”

“Allie, let’s not make this a riddle, okay?”

I reach for the beer again but then pull back.

“For one little egg a gal can get almost five thousand dollars. Do you believe that? Five thousand dollars for such a tiny thing. Sure, that’s for the upper echelon types, ladies with Ivy League degrees or donors whose eggs have already gone on to become healthy bundles of joy, but even the low-end of the scale is still around three grand.”

“For one egg.”

“Yep. It’s a way to get by, you know, if it doesn’t bother you.”

“Did it?”

“That’s kinda personal.” The DJ comes on and then a commercial and for some reason I let them do all their talking and schilling and return to their music before I continue. “Yeah, it did some. Not enough.”

“I’m going to assume Carlos wasn’t selling eggs.”

“If you can get a few thousand dollars for a tiny little egg,” I say. “What do you think you can get for everything?”

“You mean…?”

“I mean two kidneys, a liver…” I don’t look at him when I say it because there’s something embarrassing about suicide. And no matter how you do it, that’s what this comes down to. I think it’s got something to do with how we’re taught that giving up is a moral failure, a personal shortcoming, and I guess that maybe it is, really.

“Everything?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, still staring at the carpet. “The deluxe package.”

“How much do they pay for that?”

“You wanna know something? It turns out in the end that it’s really more a question of how long than how much. You get a year,” I tell him. “They give you twelve months and a checking account that fills up with cash every two weeks. You can’t leave the country and they make you check in once a week, but the money is… Just wow. It’s so much money that it’s not even money, it’s wish fulfillment. You can travel, splurge, indulge. It’s enough to share, to shower your friends with life changing gifts.”

I glance up and try to read how he’s judging me. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.

“It’s the sort of money that, let’s say you’ve got a loved one, someone you want taken care of after you’re gone, maybe you want to make sure he gets off to college, gets a chance at the things you didn’t. This money’d get him there.”

“One year.”

“Yeah.”

“So what is this now, second thoughts? Your year’s up and you’ve changed your mind?”

I take a drink of beer again, this time to buy some time, then ask, “How many people have you killed?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your turn.”

“Who said we were taking turns?” He says but I wait him out. The DJ is giving us another song before he answers. “Enough. More than.”

“So there have been lots more than just that one asshole last night.”

“There have.”

“And I guess you kill whoever they tell you to?”

“That’s my job.”

I wait, take another drink. I wait some more and finally he adds to it.

“I do.”

“How long has that been your job, Wex?”

“About five years.”

“Wow. So I’m also guessing all of that death paid for this fancy pad.”

“Good guess.”

“That must be a lot of blood. Now tell me this, you ever say no?”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s say your boss gives you a name, you ever say, no, sir, I don’t think I want to ruin anyone’s life today?”

I wait longer this time, but he doesn’t say anything. After awhile I figure that’s an answer in its own right.

“This boss of yours, he ever tell you to kill a friend?”

Again no answer, but I think I see his jaw tighten some.

“And your boss, say someday he shows you a picture of little old me, tells you I’m next up on your list. What happens then? What do you do?”

We wait. I want an answer, even if it’s the wrong one. Even it it’s a good one but a lie I want to have some idea of where he stands. He said he helped me as a favor for a friend. I would like to know how far that favor extends.

“There has to be collateral,” he says. “Some sort of penalty.”

“What do you mean?”

“For your contract to work. They give you money and a year, fine, but there has to be a reason for you to come in after that year. You don’t spend a year living in luxury and eating at five star restaurants then gladly call it quits. There has to be something to keep you from running. They have something on you, don’t they?”

Now I’m the one not answering.

“Or had.” He pauses and thinks. “One of two things must have happened; either you decided to screw over your collateral, to forfeit it, or it was the other way around.”

“Don’t worry about it too much,” I tell him.

“But that’s just it, I am worried. I worry because you’re here and I’m pretty sure of what that means for me if someone finds out. I’m also worried because I’m sensing that you have a track record of screwing over people you once found important to you. Am I right? There was a someone, wasn’t there? It’d have to be a person; it couldn’t be a thing because you were poor. There was a person who had to take your place if you didn’t show up to fulfill your part of the contract, right? So, Allie, where’s that person now?”

I swear to Christ if I start to cry right here I am going to be so pissed.

“How long into that year did it take for you to change your mind?”

“I didn’t… Fuck this,” I say and stand up.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Thanks for the help last night, you’re a hell of a guy, but I should go now.”

Wex doesn’t say anything as I go to the elevator and press the button. He doesn’t say anything else and I’m glad because I’m trying not to think about Ben in that hospital bed, trying not to remember that he’s dead now and how that makes me feel. Finally the elevator doors open and I step inside. He still doesn’t say anything. And then they close.

When they open again I’m hit by the cold of the parking garage. It’s dark and cold and I walk out and realize that, once again, still, I have nowhere to go.

The elevator doors shut behind me and the wind slaps my face. I left the jacket upstairs because it was his and because I wanted to get out quickly, but I’m starting to regret that. It’s freezing as the wind whips around these tunnels, and fuck me I’m starting to cry. I want to go back in time and do it all over again, want to trade places with Ben, want to so badly, but I can’t. I can’t. He’s dead and buried and I’ll be that way soon, too.

The parking lot ramps up to the left and to the right, each side leading up to a street, shuttling cars out to the city and suburbs, and I don’t know which way to go so I just stand still and wipe freezing tears off my cheeks with the back of my hand.

After a minute I hear a sound and turn around. It’s Wex standing in the elevator. He’s wearing a coat and gloves and starts to step out but sees me and stops. I stare at him and he stares back at me, then he motions with his head, signaling that I should get in with him.

“Why?” I ask.

His brow furrows like it’s the dumbest question he’s heard all year. “It’s freezing out here.”

He holds the elevator and waits, and after a minute of him not saying anything else I get in. The doors shut and as I start to warm back up I notice I’ve been shivering, and that I’m starting to stop.

It only takes a moment to reach his floor, and when the doors part he holds them open for me. But I have to know, so before I get out I ask, one more time, “Can I really trust you?”

He thinks about it, and there’s something deep and sad about his face when he says softly, “No.”

At least he’s honest.

 

Bugged-Out

by Bruce McRae

 

Bugs in drawers, in display cabinets.

Bugs on the stilts of silver stick-pins,

their compound eyes, yes, bugged out,

victims of their own success, Jurassic survivors

now at odds with the vicissitudes of Man,

unreasonable mankind’s gases and oils

making mockery of a Creator’s favoured creatures,

whom He, in His all-knowing beneficence,

sprinkled far and wide over the countryside,

outnumbering sand grains and stars,

slaughtered for their itches, bites and stings,

butchered for their crawling and buzzing,

for going on six or eight legs; or more.

For daring to challenge our existence.

___

Canadian Bruce McRae has had almost 600 publications in the past 12 years. Originally from Niagara Falls, he has moved extensively, currently residing in Vancouver BC. A musician, who has recorded and toured, many of his poems have been set to music receiving airplay in the UK, U.S., Canada and Australia. His website is www.bpmcrae.com. His first collection, The So-Called Sonnets, was written in London between 2002 and 2006.

 

A Friend Indeed

by Bruce McRae

 

That’s some giant,

people would say

when I brought him to town.

Holy cow, or smokes, or moses,

they’d say;

I’d rather pay his board

than keep him.

And we’d laugh and we’d talk

about all things giant,

and my giant, well hell,

he’d laugh too.

Then I’d knock on his toe

and say “Let’s go.”

And, happily, he’d follow

___

AUTHOR BIO

Canadian Bruce McRae has had almost 600 publications in the past 12 years. Originally from Niagara Falls, he has moved extensively, currently residing in Vancouver BC. A musician, who has recorded and toured, many of his poems have been set to music receiving airplay in the UK, U.S., Canada and Australia. His website is www.bpmcrae.com. His first collection, The So-Called Sonnets, was written in London between 2002 and 2006.