Current Issue

Belongings

By Janet Flora

I am looking at my friend Beth’s boots on the floor of my closet; it’s less than a month since she has died—I wonder if I should wear them today. It’s early October, perfect weather for boots. I think of all the times I saw her in these black, lace-up, round-toed boots. Sometimes she wore them with leggings and a long sweater or a short, pleated skirt. Even while she was undergoing chemo, she never looked like a cancer patient. She never lost her hair and always wore it short, deliberately dark at the roots and platinum at the tips. There are more of her belongings in my closet.

Last night, Beth’s husband Don invited guests to their apartment to choose an accessory, an item of jewelry, or a piece of clothing—anything we wanted to help us remember her. When her diagnosis of lung cancer was made, it was already fourth stage … Beth who never smoked, Beth who lived well and holistically and took herbs and vitamins and who had become a licensed acupuncturist just two years before her diagnosis. Perhaps that’s what helped her survive slightly more than five years with weekly rounds of chemo. In the world of cancer, she was known as a responder.

Now, strolling around Don and Beth’s Manhattan co-op holding a glass of Chardonnay, I wonder if I can really take something—or just admire Beth’s belongings set out like an intimate, upscale, sample sale.

On the dining room table, pairs of sunglasses are arranged in an optical display. Several are large and oval, a few have colored frames like crimson and mustard. Was it the black, oval frames that she wore when I first met her and Don more than 12 years ago in our building lobby? I remember our first conversation. We discovered that we both lived in the K-line apartment—me on the eighth floor and they on the sixteenth. I was carrying a vintage, bedside lamp.

“Where did you get that?” Beth asked, her eyes growing wide and reaching out to touch the milky, glass base of the lamp.

“Upstate at a yard sale.”

“I love a treasure hunt!” She told me about an antique bench she found at an auction that needed a little work.

“It was more than a little work,” Don said, joining the conversation laughing. “It took me a month to refinish it.” I learned that Don was a contractor and had renovated their apartment, as well as Beth’s office two blocks away. I was glad when they invited me to a cocktail party a few weeks later. That was the beginning of many dinners, shopping excursions, and later when Beth became an acupuncturist, treatment sessions. Unless I had a date, mostly it was the three of us during our times together. Somehow that never felt awkward, while they were each unique, they were a unit.

Now, standing at her dining table, I pick up a pair of reading glasses that are still attached to a neck chain. The magnification is 1.75, the same as I wear for reading. Sliding the chain around my neck I feel the glasses rest at the top of my breasts.

I think about the last time I saw Beth. It was less than three months ago when she gave me an acupuncture treatment in my apartment. She had closed her practice two years after her diagnosis, but would still see some friends and patients at home. When I greeted her at the door and hugged her, she did seem frailer than usual. I thought of asking if she wanted to postpone the session. Before I could she was setting up her needles on my coffee table.

“How is your back?’ she asked.

“Better than last week. Almost feels perfect,” I said, feeling guilty at my good fortune of straining it during an exercise class.

“Let’s get to work,” she said looking at me with her hands on her hips as she put on the same glasses, which I just took from her dining table.

I got up on the massage table she gave me when she closed her practice. She told me it would always be useful. Then she pushed a needle near my clavicle and another between my thumb and forefinger and twisted them until I yelled, “Ouch sadist.”

She laughed and said, “That’s when we know it’s working.”

I don’t know what Beth was thinking during those treatments. Sometimes she would report the results of a test, or a change in her chemo cocktail, or sometimes that she and Don had a good weekend in their country house. But it was reportage, no complaining. Sometimes I was thinking: yes she’s frail, but she’s still giving treatments and going to the country. She has already defied her prognosis; she could go on for a long time. But that was the last time I saw her, and I wish I had hugged her frail body a little longer.

I notice it’s not just the sunglasses that are so meticulously arranged. There are scarves folded lengthwise, one overlapping the next like cloth napkins for guests at a fine dinner. Beth loved scarfs and would wear them artfully around her shoulders, or on her neck, or sometimes like a headband. At another corner of the dining table there are pieces of jewelry. Standing next to me is a woman holding a sterling silver Elsa Peretti bean on a chain.

“It’s such a simple, classic necklace,” I say.

She seems startled, then smiles. “Yes it is. I was with Beth when she bought this; we studied acupuncture together. She bought this for herself when we graduated.”

“Would you like me to fasten it for you so you can see how it looks?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

As I close the clasp she picks up a hand mirror that has been set out on the table. We both stare at the necklace in the mirror.

“I don’t know,” she says, more to her reflection than to me.

“It looks great on you.”

Turning away, she waves to a woman coming through the front door, then glances back at me and says, “Thank you.” As she walks toward the woman it seems as if she is covering the necklace with one hand.

I recognize the pair of dangling, yet casual, sterling silver earrings I always admired on Beth. She unsuccessfully helped me try to find a pair. Placing my hand beneath the table edge, I sweep the earrings into my palm and close my fingers tightly around them, as if I’m afraid someone will see.

Don is standing in front of a corkboard hung on the wall between two armchairs. The board is a collage of pictures, which include Beth’s baby and graduation photographs. There are many of Don and Beth together. There are duplicates of most of the photos so guests can take one or more if they choose. Two women stand listening and watching, as if on tour in a museum as Don gestures toward the photos.

Don sees me and motions me to join them. I learn that the two women were Beth’s chemo nurses.

Annette, the petite, blond nurse, removes one of the pictures from the board and asks Don, “Is this your wedding picture?”

We all look over her shoulder as she holds it.

Tanya, the African-American nurse examines the picture, and then says to Don, “You were babies.”

“I was eighteen; Beth was seventeen,” Don says.

Beth was 57 when she died; Don is one year older. They had been married 40 years. In the photo they are barefoot standing in front of a pond. Beth’s hair is brown and waist length. Don’s hair is almost as long. He still wears it long, although now to his shoulders and it’s gray, but his smile is the same. I realize at this moment we are all smiling. Don excuses himself.

I look from Tanya to Annette, “Quite an evening, isn’t it?” I say.

Annette notices the glasses hanging around my neck and says, “Beth always wore those to treatments. She would read a lot, and then when she got too tired, Don would read to her.”

“Don never missed a treatment,” Tanya adds.

It was just last week when I saw Don waiting for Beth in their car, which was double-parked in front of our building. He was taking her to one of those treatments.

I knocked on the car window startling him. “How’s it going?” I said.

He shrugged. “In the beginning they say you have more good days than bad days. Now we have mostly bad days.”

I wanted to say something soothing, but knew it would sound hollow, and Don was no longer looking at me but instead a skateboarder who just jumped onto the curb without his feet leaving the board.

Then he turned to me and said, “If I’ve learned anything living with Beth’s cancer these last five years, I would tell everyone to stop looking at phones, tablets and screens and go enjoy their bodies as long as they could.”

As I now stand with Beth’s chemo nurses I say, “Yes, I know he never missed a treatment.”

Anita joins the nurses and me by the corkboard. I make the introductions. Anita has lived down the hall from Don and Beth since they moved into the building. She would often have lunch with Beth and take walks with her when Don was working. She helped arrange this evening.

“Ladies,” she says, “come into the bedroom. There are more things to see in there.”

We all move into the bedroom in procession. There is a rolling rack of clothes, organized into dresses, tops, pants, and outerwear. The woman who selected the Elsa Peretti silver bean is admiring a long, black cape on her friend. She is still wearing the necklace. More of the female guests are tentatively examining clothes on the rack.

Anita says to me, “You and Beth must have been the same size. Look at this Armani shirt.”

I stare at it for what feels like minutes. Finally, I slip it on over my t-shirt. Anita pulls me toward the mirror on the closet door.

“It looks great,” she says.

“Yes, it does,” I say, almost in a whisper.

I see Annette holding a tweed pea cap; she tries it on, and Tanya nods in approval.

Along the baseboard of the wall is a line of Beth’s shoes, heels, ballet flats, and the black, lace-up boots. I know Beth and I wear the same shoe size. I pick up one of the boots; they remind me of a construction worker’s except for the feminine size.

Anita approaches me from behind and says quietly, “Put them in here,” holding a black nylon tote open.

I obey and deposit the boots along with the Armani shirt. But I worry if one item serves as a memento, do several turn me from friend to predator?

The guests are beginning depart. I find Don and say goodnight. He peeks inside the tote and smiles. For the first time this evening, I wonder if he and Beth had planned this event together.

 

Now on this cool, October morning, I decide I’m not ready to take each step today in Beth’s shoes. I do however, hang the white Armani shirt in my closet leaving extra space on each side so it’s easy to spot, and I can get used to seeing it among my own belongings. Once I’m dressed for the day, I clip on the sterling silver earrings. I like that I feel them brush the skin just beneath my earlobe. I remember how hard Beth tried to find me a pair.

Finally, I take my own reading glasses from a red, leather case and replace them with Beth’s. It’s in this moment I see that without any of these things I would never forget Beth, and it did not matter what I took or left behind. The real gift was the evening itself.  It was a final tribute where we all got to celebrate her life, her style and her treasures.  Her belongings will always bring me comfort; they are tangible proof of the living, breathing friendship we shared. More importantly I’m grateful for the unique ceremony that taught me something greater about loss, remembrance, and how we measure what we give, what we take, and what is left when one person is gone.

 

——————–

Janet Flora holds an MFA in writing from the New School. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Yalobusha Review, Sanskrit, and The Willow Review, which won best prose award in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, and North Dakota Quarterly and several other journals. Many of her stories and essays can be read on her website JanetFlora.com. She lives in New York City and teaches for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

With Paul at the Beach

By Lee Foust

“Everybody goes

Leaving those

Who fall before

Everybody goes

As far as they can

They just don’t care”

—Alex Chilton, “Holocaust”

Kate,” Paul said to me this one night while we were driving around in his car, “why aren’t we a couple? I mean, we spend so much time hanging out together, we might as well hook up, right?”

“No, Paul,” I told him straight out, “I like our friendship just the way it is. I don’t want to have a boyfriend right now. And I’m not so sure we’d be compatible as a couple anyway. We’re pretty good friends—why complicate things?”

“Okay, okay,” he said then, “I get it, just friends.” I know people hate being rejected and they always want to argue with your reasons for rejecting them, but, well, I was consciously working on shaping myself back then. That was part of the deal of becoming a performance artist. They were teaching us how we ourselves, how our lives, had to become for us a work of art. So I was hyper-aware back then of how I was living my own life through the continuum, you know, within the possibilities of time.

Because, you see, during that period when I was hanging out with Paul I had made a vow that I wasn’t going to get into a relationship with anyone for at least a year. I know how it sounds now but, at the time, decisions like that were important to me.

What I mean to say is this: Most of us live our lives open to variables, to chance, to chaos, to luck, to time itself and all of its changes. I, on the other hand, was learning from my performance art classes that I could control my life intellectually, that I could conceptually shape it. Just as an artist controls—well, you don’t really control your art, but you set it in motion—the artworks that they create. You know, for a performance artist sometimes the lines get a little blurred between your life and your work.

Call it pretentious if you like, but that’s what I was learning about and excited to be learning back then. These ideas were new to me and they changed me a lot, both the way I looked at art and the way I looked at my life. I made decisions regarding the form my life was going to take and I held to them—I let the chaos in only when I felt it, only when I needed it in order to feel alive, to appreciate the unexpected, chance, or chaos for what it was. I’ve always been an overly logical person, despite my leanings towards art.

“Let’s just be the friends that we are, okay? At least for now anyway,” and I reached out my hand to Paul to shake on it, to make the whole thing kind of funny, and to reassure him that I did like him, ‘cause I did. I like him and I always will—I’m strangely, even maniacally, loyal to most of the decisions I make about people, to the way that I feel about them.

So he laughed and said, “Okay,” took one of his hands off the steering wheel, and we shook on it. But I don’t know if it was ever quite okay for Paul, our only being friends. It’s not like he was super unattractive or anything, I mean, he’s no knockout, but I’ve dated other not especially good-looking guys. Paul was pretty non-descript, a doesn’t-stand-out-in-a-crowd type of guy. Soft-spoken, chubby, receding hairline, khakis or Dockers, button-down shirts, the full bourgeois jacket—he looked old already somehow at 22—or maybe 23 or 4, or even 25. Come to think of it, I have no idea how old he was. But that’s also why I liked hanging out with him. Knowing Paul was like having a smart older brother that I could talk to.

He was one of those professional students, already working on a second degree when I met him. He’d read an incredible number of great books, and so many obscure ones too, that he was a gold mine of information. I learned so much from him and he was always interested in what I was doing too, my performances and everything. Even though we totally disagreed about the state of the art world, I felt that just having the debate, defending our two opposing points of view, and considering the other side, was important to both of us. The more we disagreed and debated the more fun we had, I always thought.

So, maybe because of my vow, or maybe because of who he was, or how he dressed, or who I was then and what I was trying to do, how I dressed and how I wanted to see myself, Paul just wasn’t attractive to me in a boyfriend kind of way—like my type or whatever. It never occurred to me to think of him in an intimate context. Paul was my intellectual friend, the one with the briefcase, not really someone you thought of cuddling up with. It even seemed to relax me to be around him, like our meeting of the minds was so sexless that it let me totally forget about my own body and its difference when we were together. Plus I’d already been through a string of intense relationships since getting to college and, frankly, I was emotionally worn out. I felt safe and far away from all that animal boy/girl tension when I was with Paul. It didn’t feel like we were in a power struggle either. I always saw our friendship as a meeting of equals.

I especially wasn’t going to get intimate with him after Paul confessed to me that he was a virgin. It’s hard to believe, I know, but he was pretty shy and only attracted to certain women, or certain types, I guess, so it hadn’t ever happened to him. Most of the women he knew must have felt something like the way I did about him—which is a shame, because, let’s face it, I think it would have helped Paul out a lot to get around to losing his virginity. But I wasn’t going to be that girl, no way.

It’s weird thinking of someone that old still not knowing what sex is like. I can remember that feeling, trying to imagine what it would be like, and then it happening and being nothing at all like you thought it’d be—kind of disappointing actually. But then you get used to it and it is as good as you imagined, only different. Poor Paul, it damaged his credibility somehow, his being a virgin.

Anyway, the night that I was telling you about we were on our way out to Baker Beach. That’s where we had most of our intense intellectual dialogues. We’d have dinner somewhere, coffee or dessert after that, and then, around midnight or so, we’d hop into his car, find an open liquor store, grab a bottle of Bordeaux, and cruise on out to the beach. This was our late-night ritual.

On these nights of conversation and debate Paul was like my living encyclopedia. Whatever I wanted to know he could usually tell me, and point me towards the right books to learn more. Let’s face it, hanging out with him was much more fun than going to the library: We had food and wine and his big suburban car as transport. He took me to lots of places that this bus rider would never have had the patience to go. I suppose this all sounds pretty self-serving—and it must have been, at least partially—but Paul was so smart, and so kind to me, that I had real affection for him. You know what? He listened to me and respected my wanting to be an artist and that was rare ‘cause I was a 20-year-old, ripped-up leather jacket, snotty little hair-in-the-air chick with a boatload of attitude and artistic pretension. Don’t get me wrong: I regret nothing. Still, Paul had always taken me more seriously than most people and that meant a lot to me back then, more than I was actually aware of at the time. I probably acted pretty tough around him too ‘cause that’s where my head was at: I was in the process of finding out how much harder it is to be respected doing what you want to do when you’re a woman and I was taking no prisoners and no shit from anybody.

At one point I remember thinking about telling Paul that I was gay (I was hanging out with Alexis and her crowd a lot back then, and they were all pretty militant, so it might have seemed plausible). But he already knew about Stan, my old boyfriend.

As a matter of fact, that’s how I first met Paul, I think. Stan must have introduced us at some point, probably at one of his shows. Then, after he and I had broken up, I’d run into his friends around school all the time. One day I found Paul in the Depot—that’s the coffee shop in the student union out at State—and we started talking. We had an hour break at the same time three days a week that semester, so our little chats became a regular thing. Paul usually hung out with this certain group of people in the Depot and eventually we’d join that group during our parallel break ‘cause they were his friends and, well, I was interested in meeting a lot of people back then. But the day that we first spoke Paul was sitting there alone.

Now that I think back on it, he was probably alone because he wanted to get some homework done that he needed for a class that afternoon. But, well, he never got it done because we talked all during the break and right through our afternoon classes as well. He gave me a lift home afterwards, which was pretty far out of his way, and I invited him in for a cup of tea. Alexis and I were going out that night, so we talked some more at my place until she showed up and we all left together, Alexis and I for the movies, and Paul for home back in San Rafael, I guess.

I remember that clique out at school, the one Paul used to hang out with in the Depot. They only accepted me, I’m sure now, because they thought Paul and I were becoming a couple. Then, when we didn’t hook up, they started looking at me kind of strangely and finding things wrong with me that they could gossip and talk shit about.

Stan was never part of that group and even now I don’t know how he knew Paul. They certainly weren’t anything alike. Stan was a new wave clotheshorse attention-whore, all sharp angles and false intensity, while Paul was a kind of shy, calm, shapeless sort of person. They must have had a class together at some point or something. I knew that we had met before that day in the Depot because Paul knew my name, but I didn’t remember his or anything else about him. I sort of remembered his face, and he seemed innocuous enough, and I guess I didn’t feel like sitting alone that day, or maybe all of the tables were occupied, so I said “Hi,” or whatever, and sat down with him.

If I remember rightly, we talked about Stan. I was still pretty broken up about that relationship’s dissolution, and since Stan was the only thing we knew we had in common, it was a natural starting point. I was venting no doubt, bitching about how Stan had changed as soon as he’d gotten some notoriety for his act. Seriously, it was a nightmare, like a bad TV movie! The guy suddenly developed this huge ego about his performance thing. Hey, if he was going to be a big one-man-band rock star he had to start acting like a fucking rock star, right? What a joke.

So, I wasn’t too thrilled with men in general at the time and that probably helped fuel the way I felt—or didn’t feel—about Paul. Sure, I’ve been on the other end of a crush often enough. But as you get older you learn how to deal with it and not make such a fool of yourself—of course Paul had some catching up to do.

There was this one point, after we’d been friends for a while, when he seemed to be trying to act as if we were a couple in front of other people sometimes, and that was out of line. Maybe he felt like his masculinity was being offended because I hadn’t fallen for him, and it was embarrassing for him in front of people who saw us together all the time in the Depot, so he acted like we were more intimate than we actually were. He didn’t do it in front of his close friends, or any of my friends, only in front of that crowd at the coffee shop. I guess it was his ego looking out for itself, or maybe he honestly thought that we would start going out at some point and this was a totally natural way to act. Maybe it was one of his warped ways of courting me. As it wasn’t threatening or anything, I let it pass—I really didn’t care what those people thought.

I’ve noticed this sort of play-acting with a lot of people; they fucking invent things and then act like their fantasies are real, which is ridiculous. You know, like when people try to tell you what you’re thinking or feeling about something. Stan used to do that to me all the time, say things like, “I know you feel threatened,” or, “Stop being so paranoid,” or some stupid shit like that, like he knew exactly what was going on inside my head if I were upset—and of course it never had anything to do with anything that he’d done. There’s nothing worse than being psychoanalyzed by a fucking amateur! And oh, the thing he used to say that really pissed me off was, “I can feel all this hatred that you have for me.” What a stupid thing to assume about your partner! He would have liked to believe that my emotions were due to the fact I was out to get him rather than an expression of the hurt and anger I was feeling from all of the fucked-up things he’d done to me. Still, I guess he said it so much I started believing him, or at least started acting like I believed him.

It seems to me that most artists don’t have this problem as much as other people. It’s as if we put our imaginations into something else, our work, and keep it there, outside of our actual lives. Most of my close artist friends are very heavy realists and I like that. They know how to deal with things and how to treat other people. You’ve got to ask people what’s going on with them, not tell them what you think they’re feeling or thinking.

Which reminds me of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, or Victor Hugo’s, Adele. (It was Paul who told me about them—they were both famously disturbed women.) Carl Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, and Joyce even said something like the fantasies that he was working out on paper Lucia seemed to be trying to manifest in real life.

That was exactly the kind of information I got from Paul. He knew a little bit about almost everything. He had one of those fact minds. I could never believe the stuff he’d come up with from all of the books he’d read, ancient Greek poets and obscure philosophers I’d never even heard of. I guess all the time the rest of us were out doing drugs and getting laid Paul was at home with a book. Hey, I barely get through the newspaper and the art magazines that keep me up to date with the shows and artists I should know about—and maybe a novel every so often for reading on the bus. I read mostly recent stuff; I have to so I can keep up with what’s going on, and I feel like it would be impossible to go back and catch up on all of the classics, unless I get stranded on a desert island or something.

Paul used to joke about hating the twentieth century—like everything was okay until World War I came along and modernism stepped in and it all went to hell. Sometimes I could almost see his point but, well, not really. It does kind of seem like there’s a lot more despair and full-scale suffering in the twentieth century than there was before, but I think that we’ve also broken through so many barriers, artistically and socially. I mean, as a woman, a hundred years ago I probably wouldn’t have been able even to go to a university, much less think about art as a career, or have any of the ideas that I have about things at all. We’re moving ahead so much faster now than we were before, that’s all, so it’s harder for people to adjust to the speed of the changes. Paul was caught up in those old notions that art should always be beautiful and objective, but I love a lot of art that’s vicious, ugly, self-centered, and self-destructive too.

“That’s the way life goes, Paul,” I said to him as he walked around behind the car and we headed across the parking lot towards the beach. “It’s because you’re living now and not then that makes you think things were so much better before. It’s like old people who sit around talking about ‘the good old days,’ forgetting that they were just as miserable then as they are now—it’s mostly because they weren’t old yet back then that makes them pine for the past. It’s only in retrospect that all that stuff looks so great, not when you’re actually living it.”

We stepped off the pavement and onto the beach, Paul looking down, kicking at the sand in front of him. “You don’t really know what it was like at the turn of the century—you weren’t there to see it or feel how the world felt. Everything must have seemed just as fucked-up then as it does now. The rich are always running everything and the middle class being driven into extinction by some Reagan or other. But, hey, here we are! There’s always been exploitation, change, and resistance to change. But, somehow, we manage to push on through and survive.”

“So, I guess I hate life then. Thanks a lot.” Every once in a while, Paul adopted a sort of hands-in-the-air attitude, taking what you said as an insult to him personally. It signaled that he was in a bad mood. Sensing that this was going to be one of those nights—a bit of a pity party on his part—I tried to lighten the mood.

“Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it that way. Although it does seem like you have trouble seeing the positive side of things sometimes. They have cured smallpox, you know.”

“Yeah, like conceptual art?” He laughed derisively. “It’s just that all this experimentation and stuff that you think is so great is too pretentious for my taste. I have trouble enjoying art that’s so contrived and manipulated.”

Fighting the urge to pay him back in kind, as this was pretty close to a personal attack, I took a deep breath. “Well,” I began, “that’s exactly the way I feel when I try to read so many of the so-called ‘classics.’ They’re too conventional, each one imitating the others, no one daring to break the sacred patterns, the hallowed formats, which are mostly only the symptoms of someone’s posturing, only it’s done in the name of realism or naturalism or whatever.” I looked up and down the beach to see if there was anybody sketchy around.

“Can I have some wine?” he asked. I handed him the bottle. While he was drinking, feeling that the evening’s debate had pretty much reached an impasse, I got a sudden urge to run off through that loose beach sand, which is so hard to walk in, down to where the foam was sliding up onto the harder packed sand. I wanted to be able to feel and smell the ocean close-up—and not have to struggle with my balance at every step.

I remember that it was one of those super bright nights, a full moon or close to it. I looked to the left at the cliffs of Land’s End and the lighthouse, and then across the mouth of the bay towards the Marin headlands and the other lighthouse over there. The Golden Gate Bridge stretched itself out across the water, way down past the end of Baker Beach, nearly parallel with our path; it looked like a big toy or some kind of matte painting from down here. The wind, too, was making everything feel clean, and the darkness transformed the beach, the ocean, the headlands, and the dotted lights of the houses into a series of backdrops to the stage set that the moon was lighting up on the sand where we strolled. You always forget about the seashell roar of the ocean, too, but you spend your whole time at the beach shouting and hardly realize it until you shut the door and hear the sudden silence inside your car before you drive away.

“Hey!” Paul called out as he trotted down the sand after me.

“It’s so beautiful tonight—I can’t believe how bright it is.”

“But the wind’s cold.” He kept pulling his pinstriped jacket close around his belly, resting his hands there on his stomach to keep the wind from blowing it open again. He put his collar up too.

“Can I have a sip?” I took a long drink of the sweet white wine and felt fine, warm inside. “Let’s walk to the end, over to the rocks under the bridge.”

“Yeah, I’d like to sit down.”

“Sit down? On a beautifully brisk night like tonight? Sit down?”

“Well, just for a minute, okay?”

“No, no. You’re going to come running with me and work off a little of this.” I patted his hands resting on his belly.

“Hey, don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry. But come on, run with me a little ways.”

“You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”

“Paul.”

“I’m sorry, I really don’t feel up to it tonight. Can I have some more wine, please?”

“Here. Look, I’m sorry I teased you.”

“Don’t worry about it—it’s okay.”

I gave him a look then, a warning. I was getting fed up with his pouting.

“No, really, it’s okay,” he said and put his arm around me, which wasn’t much like him, but a spontaneous gesture I think. It was as if he wanted to reassure me, tell me that it really was okay, what I’d said about his belly. As soon as his arm was lying across my shoulders, though, it was awkward. He didn’t know what to do once his arm was resting there and I may have stiffened up, I don’t know, because it was such a surprising thing for him to do.

I trusted Paul, you know, but I didn’t want to get into a bad situation. I didn’t like to be kissed in those days. It felt like men were taking something away from me when they tried to kiss me, as if I had no say in the matter ‘cause you’re supposed to kiss a boy when you’re with him and like it. And it feels pretty awkward to pull away when someone tries to kiss you, to actually physically reject them, so I was trying not to get close enough to anyone for them to try it.

We walked down the beach for what seemed like a long time, talking more small talk, but it didn’t feel like anything around us was changing at all, like we were getting anywhere, walking—all of the landmarks were too far away.

“Hey, so tell me about that performance, you know, the thing you did with your friend Alexis that you wouldn’t tell me about before.” He managed to get his arm down off of my shoulders unobtrusively by stopping to take a drink from the bottle.

“Oh, that. I don’t know if you really want to hear about it, or if I want to talk about it right now.”

“Come on, it sounded so intriguing, what I heard you say about it. What could be so weird?”

“It’s pretty weird. I mean, most people think it’s kind of disgusting.”

“I know you pretty well. I’m not going to freak out or anything.”

“OK—but you asked for it.” I took a deep breath and started to tell him about it: “Do you remember when I told you I wanted to do a performance piece that reflected the things that I thought were the real parts of my education and the people who taught me more abstract, ineffable things, as opposed to my formal university education?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I decided that I wanted to combine two things for sure into a ritualistic performance. First, I had the idea to make some sort of tribute to the people who have taught me special things. I also wanted to learn some new skill that I’d need in order to perform the piece, to back up the concept that the performance would be about learning skills and putting practical knowledge to use. I wanted that knowledge to be something I would actively seek out and learn for myself from someone I chose to teach me, instead of being passively taught things that other people think are important for me to know, like the way we’re taught in school.

“Then I was reading something for my mythology class about the ancient mystery religions, and it mentioned that these cult members worshiping the earth goddess Cybele used to drink each other’s blood as a sort of tribute to the goddess. That seemed to me like a kind of beautiful gesture—and, well, challenging too. I’m pretty squeamish by nature, and I thought it would be interesting if I could learn to overcome my squeamishness as part of the performance, a kind of self-teaching through familiarity and repetition, you know, trial and error.

“Everything fell into place then. I drafted a script in which I learn to draw blood—using all the modern medical techniques—and then I use that skill to take some blood from people who I admire, which I then drink in a ritual of sharing and tribute. It all fit together perfectly—and if the whole experience helped me to get over my squeamishness and fear of blood, then I wouldn’t only have to learn a skill to be able to do the performance, but I’d be learning in a sense, too, while I was doing the piece, and that was perfect.”

I waited, but Paul didn’t say anything. When he finally looked up from the ground, “Wow” was what he said, smiling at me kind of crookedly, like he was impressed but also skeptical.

“So,” I went on, “this friend of mine who’s a nurse taught me how to draw blood and I set the whole thing up, using my friend Alexis, as my first, I don’t know, partner, I guess. I got my roommate to photo-document the whole thing. I wanted to do it privately the first time, and then actually to perform the subsequent partners as public rituals, varying the settings each time to suit the people to whom I wanted to pay tribute. It seemed better to start this way both as a trial run and also because Alexis and I have a pretty private relationship, and she had to be the first ‘cause we’re so close—and of course it had a lot to do with trust.”

“And you did it?”

“Well, kind of. I mean, yeah, I drew her blood and we put it into this beautiful crystal chalice and I took a couple of sips and then this terrible feeling that I’d made some sort of a mistake descended on the room.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it didn’t feel right at all—it was weird. Plus blood congeals a lot faster than you’d think and the glass got all thick and cloudy and I couldn’t finish drinking it and that kind of spoiled the performance.

“Poor Alexis was sitting there with a lump of her blood in a chalice and in these little vials and like doom all around, and I felt kind of bad about the whole thing. I didn’t expect that to happen at all. We didn’t know what to do. It was pretty weird.”

“That’s so interesting.”

“It taught me something—not what I expected to learn—but something.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s like a mistake that I won’t make again.”

“How did Alexis take it?”

“Pretty well. She mostly shrugged it off, but I was afraid for a while how it was going to affect our friendship. I do feel like I owe her something now. I mean, I’d be a lot quicker to do something she asked me to do than I would have been before.”

Paul laughed at that and I kind of smiled back, I guess, but I didn’t think it was all that funny. I was still worried then that Alexis was mad at me about how the tribute performance had gone but we hadn’t spoken of it directly. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up if I didn’t have to. I was waiting on her, to see if it was a real problem that we would have to deal with or just something we’d forget about after a while. I should have known better, and I guess we never did get it straight. It’s still sort of a problem between us, maybe only the fact that we’ve never discussed it.

We had almost come to the rocks way down at the end of the beach, right up under the Golden Gate. We stood looking at the brightly lit bridge looming overhead for a while and Paul said, “I still don’t know about performance art. When you explain everything behind one of your performances it’s perfectly clear and fascinating and all that, but when I see someone doing one it usually comes off as pointless to me—without an explanation it’s impossible to figure out what it’s all about.”

“Do you always have to understand things? I don’t think you have to understand a person’s reason for doing a performance to enjoy the piece while it’s happening, to get something out of it.”

“I think that I naturally want to follow a work of art though, to get more out of it by thinking about what it’s about as well as experiencing it. A painter chooses the subject of his painting, right? And that subject is as important as the colors he uses, or the style he paints in. With performance art I don’t know what the real subject is most of the time.”

“Not if it’s an abstract. Even in most still lifes the subject is often pretty much arbitrary. And what about music? Lots of people enjoy music who have no idea how it’s constructed, how scales and chords work, how it’s all mathematically based.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I wish I was better at the piano.”

He was probably thinking about the opera that he wanted to write. I still can hardly believe that Paul actually wanted to write an opera. No one else I’ve ever met from our generation even likes listening to opera, much less wants to write one. He had a tape deck in his car and sometimes we’d drive around listening to Wagner’s Ring series. He wanted to write a novel too; it was going to be set at the turn of the century and go up to the First World War, when Paul thought everything went all to hell in the Western world, a kind of “end of the world as we know it” tale.

“Oh, come on, cheer up,” I said. “Take the bottle, have some more wine.

“Thanks.”

We were at the rocks now and it occurred to me again that we shouldn’t just be standing around on such a beautiful and exuberant night, that we were wasting the unnaturally bright moonlight.

“Come on—let’s go swimming.”

It had suddenly struck me. I wanted to do something crazy and exciting, something stupid maybe, and to do it all the way. “Come on, Paul, it’ll do you good.” Maybe I was only joking at first, but the more Paul tried to shrug me off, the more serious I got.

“You’re kidding, I hope.”

I guess I don’t take being treated like a child very well. As if adulthood were only an excuse for not doing anything interesting anymore, or anything at all. “No, I’m not. Come on! For once in your life take a chance and do something crazy.”

“Do you have any idea how cold it is in that water, how dangerous it is to swim here, even in the daytime—much less at night?”

I started taking off my clothes. No, it didn’t register with me at the time that I probably shouldn’t have been stripping in front of Paul. I was doing it totally spontaneously—I really wanted to go swimming. It’s the not thinking about being naked that gets you to forget about being embarrassed. In a performance or when you do art modeling you have to concentrate on what you’re doing and forget about being naked. I’d pretty much gotten over it.

Paul kept trying to talk me out of going into the water, once he saw I was seriously stripping down to go swimming, but I wanted to show him something about living, about being in the moment and taking chances, so I laid my clothes out on the rocks and ran down the beach a ways to where it was smooth and I went down quickly into the water. Paul came up to where the surf was finishing on the sand and rolling back into the sea and he yelled at me not to go all the way in. But I dove under when I got to where it was deep enough. I never went out any further than where the water was up to my chest, but I crouched down to get my whole body under so it would be all the same temperature and I wouldn’t feel the wind as much. Yeah, it was cold, fucking freezing! I was totally numb in seconds. But it felt good too, each wave coming in at me, sliding up against my body, pushing me back towards the beach, the big ones going right over my head. It was great, that feeling of power so strong and regular, the moon brighter in the sky now that I was out in the middle of the dark water.

“Ah, the fucking universe! Woooooo!” I screamed, adrenaline coursing through every limb.

Paul was still standing at the edge of the beach yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the waves, looking worried. Of course in retrospect I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I wanted to see him come in, so I put my head underwater and started splashing around like I was in trouble. I made a pretty good show of it, too—I didn’t yell “Help!” or anything like that, which would have made it totally unbelievable—and I knew Paul was watching me pretty closely, worrying about me. I gasped for air, like I couldn’t call out, and pretended to be pulled under by a wave.

Then, when I looked up and saw him taking off his coat and dropping his shoes frantically in the sand like Clark Kent changing into Superman, I thought that I was being stupid. I didn’t want Paul to play the hero, Popeye to my Olive Oyl, I wanted him to learn to be crazy and to appreciate the rush you can get out of life if you let yourself go once in a while. Poor Paul, I could see that he was seriously worried that I might be in trouble, and I didn’t even know if he could swim. It occurred to me, too, that I was taking advantage of the fact that he cared about me and I didn’t want to do that either. He looked so awkward trying to get his pants off, with his chubby belly and all. So I got out of the water and ran up to stop him.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. I was only kidding. I was just trying to get you to come in and swim with me.”

“Oh,” and he looked at me. He was so forlorn—his shirt half unbuttoned and his pants around his feet—that I had to hug him. I felt bad. I wanted to make it all right. But then I felt his face and his breath against my neck, and I was naked and everything. I guess I kind of pushed him away, stepped back, and ran over to the rocks to get my clothes.

When I’d finished putting my clothes back on, I looked over and Paul was sitting there on the sand, the water washing up around his legs, his head bent down. He was moving the sand around in the water with his hand, playing with it. Oh, what have you done, Kate, I thought, what have you done.

 

——————–

Oakland, California native Lee Foust has lived in Florence, Italy since the mid-1990s. There Lee writes, performs—with and without banging a drum—and teaches literature and creative writing. Lee is the author of Sojourner, stories and poems gathered around the mystery of our relationship to place. “With Paul at the Beach” is part of the forthcoming collection Poison and Antidote, nine inter-connected stories of the artists, writers, musicians, and Bohemians of the San Francisco art scene during the Reagan years. www.leefoust.com

Wannabes

By Lou Gaglia

Ray and Eugene, who were cleaning the upstairs carpet at the local dealership, ignored the shouting outside until the lobby window shattered.  Glass was everywhere, and the bloody-headed driver bawled out of a Camaro’s window something about taking the goddamn car back. Salesmen squeezed themselves shivering into one small office, but the boss stood his ground and glared at the driver, who sped backward over crushed glass, into the parking lot, and all the way to the turnpike.

The boys, high school seniors, continued their steam job uncertainly, asking each other what the hell just happened, when the boss strode in. “Stop working.” He turned to a young man in a suit who stood in the doorway. “Who is that guy, a friend of yours?”

“He’s not my friend.”

“Who is he then? Where does he live?”

“I know where he lives but he’s not my friend.”

Ray and Eugene stared at each other.

“Come back next Saturday, boys,” the boss told them, and they lugged their steam machines past him and tried to hurry down the stairs. “Did he buy that car here?” they heard the boss bark to the man in the doorway.

“He bought it here but he’s not my friend.”

“Where’s the phone? Get me the phone.”

“It’s in your office. He’s not my friend—”

From Herman’s Pizza, Ray called his girlfriend Carrie and told her all about the nut who’d crashed the Camaro. “I swear these guys are, like, Mafia or something.”

“There is no Mafia,” Carrie told him mildly, and Ray rolled his eyes to Eugene, who shrugged. “You watch too many movies.”

“You weren’t there. This boss guy, he gave the death stare to his worker and said, ‘Tell your friend he’s dead.’ He scared the crap out of us.” Eugene frowned out the window.

“It’s just an expression. Kids say that to each other in the hallways all day at school: ‘You’re dead’; ‘No, you’re dead;’ ‘No, you are.’  It’s a common expression. You said it me just last—”

“You don’t believe anything, do you?”

“I believe what I perceive in my own brain and with my own eyes and ears. Hey, save me a slice, will ya? I’ll be right ova.”

II

In school on Monday, the entire hallway knew what happened, but it wasn’t news to Ray or Eugene. Ray tried to tell the gossipers that he’d been there and seen it, but big Lenny and the others talked over him about that connected, mobbed up, hit-man-hot-head who hadn’t liked his Camaro’s upholstery and crashed his car when the dealers wouldn’t take it back.

“I heard he waved a gun,” big Lenny added.

“No, there was no gun,” said Ray. “We were there, we—”

“And then the boss told him he was a dead man,” big Lenny went on. “He pointed a finger at him, like shooting a gun.”

“No he didn’t,” Ray said, and Eugene shook his head and strode away.

“Do you even know who that boss is?” said Lenny. “That whole dealership’s a front.”

“Holy crap,” someone said.

“Everyone knows it but you,” Lenny went on. “That’s why I don’t even walk by there. I don’t want to wear cement slippers.”

Ray scoffed.  “I was there, so I know—”

“That guy’s a dead man. He’s dead. He’s a dead man,” Lenny said.

“Holy mother,” someone else said.

“He’s not dead,” Ray said.

“I know he ain’t dead now,” said Lenny. “I didn’t mean it illiterately.”

III

Back to finish their rug cleaning job the following Saturday, Ray and Eugene wouldn’t even look at each other or talk much. All their steam cleaning movements were hurried, and when they had to empty dirty water and refill the steam machine tank, they hurried that too, splashing up water and cursing under their breath. When they were almost finished, Eugene told Ray he couldn’t wait to get out of there and order a couple of slices at Herman’s. “I’ve had enough mob talk to last me a lifetime,” he muttered. Then that same worker from the Saturday before stood in the doorway again.

“Hey, you two recover from last week? You both looked scared to death.”  He laughed like a horse. “You scared of broken glass?”

Ray and Eugene shrugged as they packed up their machines.

“You know what happened after that, don’t you?”

“Uh,” Ray said, and Eugene drifted to the other side of the room.

“My boss made a phone call, that’s what happened. You know what making a phone call is, right?”

“Well…”

“Sure you know. Anyway, it’s not like in the movies, where you tell a guy face to face to kill another guy and give his name and everything. You call a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy, and that guy is told who to hit.”

“Oh,” Ray said, and Eugene nodded staccato-like down at the steam machine hose he was trying to clip around the tank.

“Guess what happened, though.”

The boss roared something from the hallway, and Ray and Eugene jumped.

“Guess what happened,” the guy repeated. “That guy with the Camaro—Mike’s his name—he got the call. He got that very call, and when he heard the details, he put two and two together and knew it was himself he had to hit.” The boss bellowed, closer, but the worker ignored it and horse-laughed again. “He has to hit himself, so now he’s like—on the run, man—from himself!

The boss threw open the door. “What the hell are you doing in here? Didn’t I tell you to work the floor?”

“Sorry, I’m coming. Tell your friends.” He winked to Eugene and Ray and rushed out of the office.

IV

From the back seat of Ray’s car, Big Lenny tried to tell the story of Mike the hit man, that he had—“in point of fat”—killed himself, but Eugene cut him off.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Carrie, sitting up front with Ray, yawned, “There ain’t no Mafia. What’re you, kidding us, Lenny?”

“But listen, it’s funny,” Lenny said. “This Mike the hit man, you know, he was ordered to kill himself. Get it? You see the—what’s that word? The irony—yeah, the irony of it.”

“Look,” Eugene said, “all I care about is going to Nancy’s party and meeting some different people for a change. That’s where we’re going and that’s all I want to know.”

“There ain’t no Mafia,” Carrie repeated, looking out the window.

“Oh yeah? Then why did he do it?” Lenny said. No one answered. “I said why did he do it?”

Eugene blew out a breath. “Do what?”

“Why did he kill himself, then—because they found him just yesterday. He jumped out of a motel window.”

There was a long silence as Ray made a right turn into Nancy’s development and eased the car to a stop two blocks from Nancy’s house.

“Who told you all this?” Ray said quietly, his hands still on the wheel, while Eugene fumed at the trees outside.

“Friend I know.”

“What friend.”

“Guy I know, from the dealership.”

Ray thought for a while. “Does he laugh like a horse?”

Lenny thought. “Yeah, a little bit.”

“So he jumped out of a motel window,” Ray said flatly and looked at Carrie, who knit her brows in answer.

“Yeah, down on Route 9, that’s right,” Lenny said.

“Well, how do you frickin’ kill yourself jumping out a motel window?”

“Look, that’s all I know. The guy’s dead. It’s in the papers too, so it’s true. He was splattered all over the parking lot and everything.”

Eugene glowered out the side window. “Stupid ass,” he muttered.

“Hey, don’t yell at me, Eugene. I already got an earache. I slept on one side all last night, and it’s bugging the holy living crap out of me—all the way to holy hell.”

V

Nancy’s party was filled with intellectuals—most of them college kids and maybe only half from his own neighborhood. Eugene found himself drifting away from Big Lenny and Carrie, and even Ray, and he struck up conversations with girls and guys who were art majors and philosophy majors and lit majors. He wondered where he’d be in a year or five years, away from his neighborhood, with new people like these. There were so many other possibilities on the way, he thought as he talked with the others, and he ached for escape. After four or five drinks he felt a deep buzz and sat in a beach chair next to a girl whose name was Wilma, then Willa, then maybe Wawa, and across from him was a guy name Shaboo or Shampoo or something. Shampoo was a lit major who went on and on after finding out that Eugene knew who Scott Fitzgerald was.

“Gatsby was a horrible book,” Shampoo said. “This Side of Paradise was his masterpiece.”

Eugene shrugged. “I liked Gatsby. Old sport…I liked that.”

Shampoo spoke in monotone about Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway and Faulkner and T.S. Eliot and “that whole ridiculous twenties crowd,” and Eugene sat back, blinking away sleep. After his next drink, he raised his eyebrows to Wawa when she leaned her shoulder into him a little.

“I’m a Gatsby guy,” Eugene offered at last when Shampoo stopped droning to take a breath. “Anyway, I just like to read.”

Shampoo smirked. “Gatsby and his fake mobster friends…a bunch of wannabes. Do you know that I’ve been playing pool lately with a real hit man?”

Eugene tipped his head back against the chair, and saw the top leaves of the darkened tree above him. “Really.”

“Sure, I play at Bradley’s over near the college, and I met this guy, a really fascinating guy. We play about once a week.” He paused pregnantly. “And he told me offhand that he’s a hit man.”

Eugene leaned forward, away from Wawa’s shoulder, and stared at Shampoo. “He told you that?”

“Why not, that’s his job. He’s just a regular guy.”

“No, he’s a hit man. He kills people.”

“It’s not like that.”

“He could kill you.”

“It’s not like that. Work and pleasure are separate in this guy’s world. He wouldn’t kill me. We’re pool buddies. That’s the whole beauty of it.”

Eugene looked around for Ray but only saw Lenny swaying near the barbecue.

“Beauty of it? He kills people. I wouldn’t play pool with anyone who kills.”

“How do you know who you’re playing pool with?” Shampoo said, and Wawa’s head lolled. “But at least with this guy, it’s his job, it’s all up front, and the people he kills are bad anyway.”

“I kind of admire him,” Wawa slurred.

Eugene struggled to get out of the beach chair, pushing off Wawa to get up and away from Shampoo’s knowing smirk. His chair tipped over, and Wawa almost tipped over herself, but he didn’t stop. He gave one last sweeping look at the blurred crowd in the yard, ducked out of the front gate, and crossed the lawn. The sounds of the party dulled behind him and were soon replaced by the silence and the darkness of the tree-lined development. He circled on foot for over an hour, unable to find the turnpike. No matter what kinds of turns he took, he found himself back at the party house. In the yard again, he smiled weakly to Carrie who sidled over to him.

“You look all ready to go,” she said.

“I’m ready.” And when Carrie was quiet, he added, “I’m ready to get completely out of this crazy neighborhood, totally out of here. College can’t come fast enough.”

“You got that right,” she said.

“Since I was a kid all I’ve heard is this stupid phony mob talk. I’m sick of it.”

“There is no mob, and there ain’t no Mafia,” Carrie said, and waved across the yard to Ray.

“Amen. Thank God you don’t believe that crap.”

“I refuse to believe that crap,” Carrie said. “Ever since they threw my Uncle Nelson in the river when he couldn’t make his payments, I refuse to believe any of it. I swear on my mutha.”

 

——————–

Lou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, FRiGG, Waccamaw, Eclectica, The Brooklyner, The Hawai’i Review, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was a runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches English in upstate New York and is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner.

Pursuing a Greater Happiness

By Tammye Huf

The first time I accused him of having an affair, he laughed at me. The kind of deep, throaty rumbling you could only make if you meant it. A sincere laugh.

“No,” he said. “But why on earth would you ask me that?”

I frowned. He should have broken down in tears and begged my forgiveness, but instead he smiled. Mirthful.

“I found a receipt for a hotel in your pocket when I was doing the laundry.”

He arched his eyebrows and shook his head. It was disconcerting how silly he thought this whole thing was.

“Honey, you know I go on business trips all the time. I stay in loads of hotels. It doesn’t mean I’m having an affair. I’m working. For us.”

“It was a hotel on Long Island.” That was the point, really. If you live in Manhattan, you don’t need a hotel on Long Island for a business trip.

“Oh, the Long Island hotel. Yeah. I remember that one. There was a conference, and it got pretty late, and you hate it when I come home and wake you up. You always complain that you can never fall back to sleep, so I thought I might as well stay the night and let you rest.”

I squinted at him, trying to process this, trying to see the lie in his eyes or hear it laced through his voice. “Why didn’t you mention it to me?”

He shrugged. “It was no big deal. I only mention things worth mentioning.”

I let it go then. I had to in the face of his ostensible generosity, having no further incriminating evidence. He leaned forward and kissed me. He held my hand and was exceedingly sweet to me for the rest of the evening. Surprisingly sweet. Suspiciously sweet. Like a man with a guilty conscience.

We carried on as we always had for the next few months, which meant we saw each other very little. He usually came in too late for dinner. In the beginning I had tried to wait for him to eat, but ten, eleven, twelve o’clock became normal, and eating so late made me fat and grumpy.

Instead, I tried waiting up for him, but the nights got later. One o’clock. Two o’clock. I would fall asleep with a book on my nose or the TV playing to no one.

“Why can’t you come home at normal times?”

He sighed the long-suffering sigh exasperated parents adopt. “Clients have to be entertained. If we want their account, we have to pull out all the stops. That’s what sets us apart. It’s all about personal attention these days.”

“Relationships need personal attention too,” I countered.

He shook his head and smiled. “I’m flattered that you missed me.”

Grabbing me around the waist, he kissed me and nuzzled my ear, my neck. He was in a good mood. Later he would want to make love. It was his pattern. In many ways he was still so predictable.

He slept on his left side, his phone and watch and wallet next to him on his bedside table. I would curl up behind him, folding my body to his back, feeling the rise and fall of his breath under my splayed fingers.

When his phone vibrated early in the morning he didn’t hear it. His succession of late nights had wiped him out. I grabbed it and answered, thinking only that an early morning call is probably important.

“Who is this?” A gruff female responded to my groggy “hello.”

“This is Richard’s wife. Who is this?”

The silence dragged until it almost became amusing. Almost. Eventually, she hung up on me.

I grabbed my husband’s wallet and phone and snuck into our bathroom, trolling through old texts and emails and receipts.

He wasn’t having an affair. He was having affairs. Plural. Actively courting at least six women. Bastard, bastard, bastard. Times six.

For the first time, I understood how you could love and hate someone at the same time, and also the appeal of thumbscrews.

One email in particular told me more about my husband than seven years of marriage had done. His colleague felt guilty about being unfaithful, and Richard reassured him, telling him that he deserved to be happy. Some men like to golf, he explained, some like to ski, but some men prefer having a little fun outside their marriages. According to Richard, these men owe it to themselves to pursue a greater happiness.

I made copies of everything. Emails. Texts. I took pictures of receipts.

By the time he woke up I’d replaced his things, had showered and changed, and had already drunk three cups of coffee. I threw a splash of whiskey in the third cup because my nerves were shot and it was almost St. Patrick’s Day and I was feeling Irish by association.

“Are you happy, Richard?” I asked as he dragged himself into the bathroom. I watched his footing to see if he would falter. He did not.

“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”

“Do you think you’d like to be happier?”

He frowned at me. “I like my life just fine. I have everything I want.” He kissed my cheek. A playful peck.

“But don’t you think a person can have too much to really enjoy anything? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to focus your attention on fewer things? Maybe even just one thing?”

“Is this about having kids?”

I downed the rest of my enhanced coffee. “Are you having an affair?”

“Whoa. Where did that come from?” He grabbed my hand and kissed my palm, staring into my eyes. I hated that my body reacted to him. “I can’t keep up with you, roadrunner. You’re all over the place.”

He pulled me to him. I resisted, but he dragged me anyway and tucked me into my spot on his chest where I fit perfectly because he was still Richard and I was still Jane.

“I don’t think I’m ready for kids yet.” He kissed my forehead. “And I’m not having an affair.” He kissed my earlobe and squeezed me tight. “I have to get out of here or I’ll be late.” A peck on the top of my head, and he was gone.

I spent the morning rereading his messages and communing with the spirit of the Irish.

The next day I tried following him, but as soon as he disappeared into his office, he was lost to me.

He came home early for three days in a row, but on day four he called at ten in the evening to say that a colleague’s apartment had been broken into and he’d offered to sleep on her couch so that she wouldn’t be there alone.

“Can’t she stay at a hotel?”

“Have a heart, Jane; she’s really shaken. And she’s worried they’ll come back for the rest of her stuff. Besides, I’ve already told her I would.”

I know you’re lying, I wanted to say, but all I said was, “I see.”

Two Sundays later he said he had to go into the office for a few hours. When he hailed a taxi, I was right behind him. It always works in the movies, but in reality, there is never a free cab in New York when you want one. By the time a taxi pulled up, Richard’s cab had disappeared in a sea of cars.

My deskwork investigations proved more useful. I found his secret email account, and after a few days I figured out his password. At first I wanted to know the extent of the problem. Then I wanted to understand him, so that I could understand how to fix it. After a week of reading two years of back emails, I began having castration fantasies.

Our anniversary came and went with barely a blip on the radar, and the day after, his mother called. Richard was out, so she was forced to speak with me instead, something we both generally avoided.

“So, what did you two do for your anniversary? Or are you celebrating it this weekend?”

Richard had given me a generic card professing undying love, with his signature scrawled at he bottom.  “We went for a meal, and he bought me flowers and perfume,” I lied.

This is the power of deficient men. Their wives lie for them, too embarrassed to admit they’ve married an asshole, making it easy for the husbands to perpetuate their assholitry without reproach from the world at large.

“Anyway, I thought Richard was driving down to see you this weekend,” I said.

He’d told me that he would be visiting his mother in Pennsylvania. By mutual agreement, he’d been undertaking these visits alone for years.

“No, no. It’s next month that he’s visiting. I have it in my diary.”

I was still awake when he came home just before midnight, smelling of alcohol and cigarettes.

“Good night with your clients?”

“Oh, you know. Same as always. They want to feel like they’re the center of your world, even when they know they’re not.”

“Are you still visiting your mom this weekend?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I need to shampoo the carpets,” I lied. “I thought I’d do it while you’re away.”

“Good idea.” He kissed me good-night and started snoring almost immediately.

I crept downstairs to where his briefcase sat by the front door, tipping the contents onto the floor and reading through everything.

In a small front pocket, I found an invitation for you and your partner to attend a charity gala at the Ritz, sponsored, in part, by his company. The envelope included a hotel voucher and two tickets, one with Richard’s name printed in party-formal script; the other merely proclaimed, partner.

I stared at the partner ticket for at least five minutes in the cold, dark entranceway. Then I pocketed it, replaced his papers and climbed into bed.

I had four days until the gala, and every moment I expected him to notice the missing ticket and my erratic behavior and put it together, but his confidence made him blind.

I saw a lawyer, I visited our bank, I met with the lawyer again. He advised me against a stunt, but I wouldn’t listen.

On the day of the gala I bought a new dress and headed for the Ritz, where a throng of beautiful people loitered in their finery. Hiding behind a cluster of partygoers, I watched him arrive with a popsicle stick of a woman wearing a translucent dress and surgically enhanced boobs. His hand rested on her hip, her arm snaked around his waist, reptilelike.

Knowing is not the same as seeing. Knowing gave me a pure, focused rage and a plan. Seeing made my throat close up and my eyes sting. I blinked away the tears. I refused to cry for him, but I couldn’t do anything about my heart rate or my ragged breath or the nausea writhing in my gut.

He only had the one ticket, obviously, and was trying to talk his way into getting Boob Woman let in as his partner, explaining the second ticket had gone missing, producing the letter promising admittance for two. Eventually the usher relented and let them in.

I entered ten minutes later with my official partner ticket, walking twice in front of Richard’s line of sight to make sure he saw me. When I glanced back, his mouth hung open, eyes wide. I smirked at him as I strolled up to his boss, air-kissing both cheeks. The man glanced at Richard, at me, back at Richard. Then over to his wife.

“Let me get you a top-up, my dear.” Richard’s boss lifted the half full glass from his wife’s hand. “And I’ll bring you another too, shall I?” He nodded at my untouched champagne and fled. Men.

“I didn’t know how to tell you,” his wife said, and then embraced me like a sister, though I barely knew her.

I nodded understanding. I wouldn’t have known how to tell me either.

Downing my champagne, I made my way to my husband, who stood rooted, tracking my approach.

“I hope I’m not interrupting quality time with your mother,” I said by way of greeting.

“What are you doing here?” I could hear the fear in his voice. Good.

“I’m Jane,” I said to Boob Woman. “Richard’s wife. Soon to be ex-wife.” She gaped at me and glared at Richard.

“Honey, you’re overreacting. I can explain everything to you at home.”

“I also know about Gloria and Andrea and Sandy and Agnes and Katrina. They were surprised to find out about each other, but once they did, they became very cooperative.”

“Cooperative?”

“I brought video footage. A little too explicit for this group, I think, but you use what you’ve got.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I have some papers I want you to sign.”

“You want a divorce?”

I held his gaze without blinking, letting him feel the weight of my words. “I want everything,” I said. “And yes, also a divorce.”

“I’m not going to sign anything, Jane. We’ll talk about his when I get home.”

“A nice young man named Luigi has put a little show together and is ready to project it onto the far wall of this very room, so that you can revel in your past escapades with all your friends here tonight.” I indicated the projector fastened to the ceiling.

He pointed at me, his finger inches away from my chest, his voice climbing until it peaked. “You’re crossing a line here, Jane. You need to just calm the hell down.” A few people turned to see what was going on.

“The signal is when I raise my right hand and wave.”

“You’re bluffing,” he spat. No honeys now or I can explains.

I looked him in the eye, raised my right hand, and waved. The projector above sprang to life as white light shot across the room, silhouetting the human figures in its path against the wall. Some of the partygoers stepped out of the light beam and turned to watch in anticipation.

“Stop! Make it stop! Holy fuck! Are you crazy?”

I waved my arms and the light cut out.

“Now that I have your attention…” I handed him the pen and unfolded the paper, turning to the final page. He glared at me with scathing hate, but he signed.

“Happy now?” It came out as a growl.

“You know, Richard, I was happy before. But I’ve decided to take your advice and pursue a greater happiness. Like you say, I owe it to myself.”

Pocketing the papers, I strode toward the exit with a false calm, breathing away the knots in my stomach, steadying my hands at my sides. At the door I turned back to see him glaring venomously and mouthing curses at me. I raised my right hand and waved.

 

——————–

Tammye Huf’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Ginosko Literary Journal, and The Storyteller.  She has worked as a teacher and as an educational consultant.  Having grown-up in California and Connecticut, she currently lives in England with her husband and three children where she is seeking publication for her first novel, Butterfly Man.

A Man and a Woman in a Train Station

By Tom Joyce

Vienna West Train Station. Monday, August 25, 1947.

An officious young Viennese man, a minor clerk in the burn center at the Vienna General Hospital, stood with awkward stiffness. When he spoke it was in English, but he included the conventional Viennese words used to address a woman doctor. “I wish you a good three-day visit to Paris, Frau Doktor Marbach.”

Pamela Marbach was a doctor in the British Burn Center in the Vienna General Hospital, but she was also a major in the British army, and since she was wearing her major’s uniform, the young clerk might have addressed her as “Frau Major Marbach.” Sitting beside Pamela Marbach on a wooden bench in the West Train Station of Vienna was her husband, Vienna Police Inspector Karl Marbach.

Dr. Pamela Marbach came to Vienna with the Royal British Medical Corps in mid-1945, shortly after the end of the war in Europe. She was in Vienna for only a few days when she met and quickly fell in love with the police inspector. They were married less than one month after they met.

Now, two years later, Dr. Marbach was still with the Royal British Medical Corps in Vienna. Many people assumed she was British, but she wasn’t. She was an American who joined the Royal British Medical Corps in early 1942 after her first husband, the good man to whom she had been married for almost twenty years,was killed while serving on Bataan. His death left her consumed by a need to get into the war and serve the best way she could—which meant serving as a doctor. But back in 1942 the U.S. military wasn’t giving commissions to women doctors. So like a few other American women doctors, she joined up with the British and got a commission with the Royal British Medical Corps. She ended up practicing her profession on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy, France, and finally Germany. For what she did on battlefields she was awarded a DSO, the combat medal valued more highly than any British combat medal except the Victoria Cross.

Pamela Marbach knew she would always grieve for the husband killed in the Pacific. She could dissolve into tears when she spent even a few moments thinking about that good man. She wondered if she was unique; after all this time, painfully aware of herself as a widow while totally and completely in love with the man who, for the past two years, had been her husband, her lover…her everything.

At this moment in the West Train Station, the young clerk was continuing to stand with awkward stiffness.

“Thank you,” Pamela Marbach said. She didn’t address the clerk by name. She was embarrassed that she couldn’t recall the name. It was bad manners to not know his name. It was especially bad manners to not know his name in Vienna.

The officious young clerk made a slight bowing motion and, with an awkward walking style, went on his way.

“His name is Julius Moreau,” Police Inspector Karl Marbach said in the English he usually spoke when alone with his wife. “If you couldn’t remember his name, you could always have addressed him as ‘Herr Clerk.’” Karl Marbach followed those words with a chuckling sound.

Pamela Marbach was used to being teased by her husband. “Oh, pooh,” she said.

“Oh, Pammy,” Karl Marbach said in reply.

Pammy liked hearing the various Viennese inflections Karl used whenever he pronounced her name. There was one set of inflections when he called her “Pammy,” and a slightly different set of inflections when he called her “Dr. Pammy.”

Pammy loved Karl. Usually she called him “Karl,” but sometimes, when she felt it served her purpose, she called him “Herr Police Inspector.” It served her purposes to do that when he addressed her as “Frau Doktor Marbach.”

“Tell me, Pammy,” Karl said, “that young clerk mentioned Captain Burke. You have never introduced me to Captain Burke. I hear he is most handsome. Who is this handsome Captain Burke who is asking you to join him in Paris?”

Pammy put mock petulance into her voice. “Oh, don’t be cute! Captain Burke is an idiot and he’s at least a dozen years younger than me.”

Pammy was in her mid-forties. She fretted about the dark circles under her eyes, and she had always felt her cheeks were too round. Most certainly she had lost the freshness of youth, but odd as it seemed to her, in recent years—during the war and now afterward—she was finding that men seemed much more likely to convey appreciation for her as a woman than had been the case when she was younger. She liked the feeling of being appreciated by men—didn’t take advantage, but liked it.

Pammy cast an appreciative glance at Karl. She knew he was faithful to her. She knew for certain he was faithful to her because at the beginning of their love life, he had told her he would always be faithful, and although he sometimes spoofed her, he never lied to her. No lies, no falsehoods, not even any fibs. He never lied about anything. Not to her, not to anybody as far as she could tell. There were many things he avoided talking to her about. She didn’t like his way of avoiding talking with her about certain things, but she found it remarkable that he never lied to her. On small things, day-to-day trivia, she might lie to him, but he never lied to her. Sometimes she would tell a lie to keep him from thinking she needed something, or so he wouldn’t plan for them to go somewhere she didn’t want to go. Occasionally, she would do some fibbing to avoid talking about something she didn’t want to talk about. But not the police inspector, not him. He didn’t lie and didn’t even fib. If there wasn’t a spoof going on, he told the absolute truth or kept silent. She might tell him he looked good when he returned from one of his police cases exhausted, unshaved, messy, but he never said she looked good when she showed up after a day or two of intense hospital work, feeling worn out and knowing she looked awful.

Pammy stared at Karl. He was reading the English language magazine he had purchased for her to read on the train trip to Paris. She wanted him to put the magazine away and pay attention to her. She wanted this time between them, before her departure to Paris, to be intimate. Recently, she had become aware of a barrier growing up between them. They’d been having a lot of arguments recently. All of the arguments were connected with her son’s upcoming wedding in the United States.

Pammy regarded it as unfair of Karl to be obtuse about how important it was for her to attend the wedding. Of course there would be a lot of expense, and even with two incomes, finances were a problem for them in 1947 Vienna. And of course Karl would have to stay behind in Austria while she was gone for a week. But why was he so disinclined to talk with her about her need to go to the wedding?

Pammy held a newspaper in her trembling hands. Her hands were trembling because she was feeling anger. She grasped the newspaper fiercely, held it up close to her face. The news in the newspaper—as always these days—was bad. A darkening cloud was spreading a shadow over Europe. In recent weeks there had been Communists killing priests in Yugoslavia, and a death sentence for the anti-Communist leader Nikola Petkov in Bulgaria. In Hungary things were bad. Red threats had forced Dezso Sulyok, leader of the Liberty party, to flee. And closer to home, back last spring there had been food riots in Vienna that for a while had threatened to result in a Communist overthrow of the government.

Europe was facing the prospect of a famine. That famine, if it came, might change everything forever. Combine Communism with a famine, and the forecast was forbiddingly dark.

Pammy put aside the newspaper. Yes, terrible things were happening, but she couldn’t do anything about the terrible things. She couldn’t even do much about her own personal problems. She stole a glance at Karl. At the very least there was one piece of business they might talk about before she left on this trip.

She kept her voice firm so there would be no mistaking how important this was to her. Leo Lechner was one of her patients. “Karl, I had another long talk with Leo Lechner. I know you don’t like him, but this is important to me. I want you to see Leo. It would mean a lot to me if you would go and see him.”

The reply was delivered firmly and directly. “I knew Leo Lechner when he and I were police officers together before the war. I had no use for him then, and I have no use for him now.”

“Was Leo Lechner a monster?” Pammy bristled irritably as she continued. “Did he do something awful to you?”

“To me, Leo never did anything.”

“Then…?”

“Leo was like all the other young Nazis. The only difference was that he was more energetic than most.”

Pammy was silent for a moment. How could she explain? Words seemed futile. She was a Jew—proud of being a Jew. And she hated Nazism with a fury she was sure Karl couldn’t possibly imagine, but Leo—the mutilated former Nazi—had managed to touch her with the sincerity of his repentance.

“People change,” Pammy said, keeping her voice level and firm. “Leo has been through a lot. I like him. I think maybe you would too, if you got to know him again.”

“I hear Leo was badly burned.”

Pammy spoke her reply abrasively. “I work in the burn center.”

“If it’s important to you, I will see any of your patients, even a miserable rat like Leo Lechner.”

“Leo is no rat. If he was when you knew him, he has changed. It can happen… People can change.”

“Why is it that you and I never bicker? Do you ever wonder about that?”

Pammy delivered a gasping sound. “What do you mean we never bicker? That’s what we’re doing right now.”

“Oh…”

“And this bickering could turn into a fight. Have you forgotten all those dishes I broke yesterday? You’re lucky I didn’t break some of them over your head!”

“I have never been able to understand your incredible proclivity for breaking glassware.”

Pammy felt her temper flare, but in the next moment the soft, gentle voice of Karl wiped her anger away.

“Pammy…Pammy. You were right picking fights with me recently, and you were right about deciding to go to America to be at your son’s wedding. That is two months from now. Things are fixed. I will be going with you.”

For a moment, Pammy had trouble taking a breath. Karl was saying he would be going with her to her son’s wedding. It was difficult for her to keep her voice under control. “You’ll go with me? But that would cost a fortune. And you’re an Austrian citizen. With no passport. How…”

Aware that they were in the very public West Train Station, Pammy resisted the impulse to shout. Instead of shouting, she bolted into an upright sitting position, and spoke in a clear, direct manner. “If you didn’t mind me going, if you…if you were working on a way to come with me, why did we have to have all those fights?” A peculiar rage threatened to ignite within her, but when she looked at Karl’s face all of the fury drained out of her.

Pammy stared at Karl while he said, “You needed to get angry about something. You were getting too wound up with your work. I have my sources at the hospital. They tell me you keep things bottled up. And with me, even when you shout a bit, you always seem to back away rather than keep coming on. Your son is the only thing I’ve ever seen you willing to really fight with me about. A woman with all of your determination needs to know she can get angry when she is in the right, or even if she just thinks she is in the right. Besides, I needed time to see what could be worked out.”

Pammy clutched Karl’s arm, but she immediately resolved to not let him get away with feeling smug and superior. “I think I’ll have to check this out with your nephew, the priest. I’m not sure you are allowed to go to a Jewish religious service, a Jewish wedding.”

Karl delivered a contrived exclamation of surprise. “You never said your son is going to be married at a Jewish ceremony. Imagine that? I suppose they’ll be breaking glass. Is it from  going to Jewish ceremonies that you got your disregard for glassware?”

“You’re a beast!” After that exclamation, Pammy took a moment before saying, “I may let you accompany me to the States, but I’m not sure I’ll let you come to my son’s wedding.” She laughed in the deliberately expressive way she knew Karl liked to hear her laugh, and she snuggled her head tight against his chest. She didn’t care if they were in a public place. At this moment she liked snuggling up close.

“You always laugh in E-flat,” Karl said to Pammy. Two years ago, on the first day they met, he had told her that laughter in E-flat was his favorite female sound.

While Pammy laughed more of her carefully pitched E-flat laughter, she heard Karl say, “I understand there are marvelous mountains in America. Maybe I’ll climb one of your American mountains.”

Pammy stopped laughing. “You are much too large a man to be a mountaineer. I have climbed with you. I have seen how you climb and I have seen how the good mountaineers climb. The best of them are compact, not big characters like you.”

“Compact?”

“Yes, like the great French climber, Henri Sampeyre.”

Karl examined that remark for a moment. When he spoke he identified the Frenchman by the first name. “Henri will be in Vienna next week. I have told him he is invited to dinner.”

Yes! Oh, yes.”

“That Frenchman certainly has a way of impressing women.”

“He is a lovely, lovely man.” Pammy made a cooing sound, then said, “Oh…be still, my heart.”

“Compared to Henri, am I too large or too ugly?”

“Mostly too large.”

“Mostly?”

Pammy didn’t want to talk any more about Henri Sampeyre. Not after learning Karl would be going with her to her son’s wedding. She felt like she was filled with words, words that demanded an outlet. But she couldn’t speak. She found herself thinking about the time, three months ago, when her 22-year-old son, Sammy, and his bride-to-be, the young woman named Jennifer, had come to Vienna. Sammy, who would always be bound to his father who had died on Bataan at the beginning of the war, was initially wary of Vienna Police Inspector Karl Marbach. But early on the day Sammy and Jennifer showed up in Vienna, before wariness had a chance to get entrenched, Karl took Sammy out “to see the town.” Just the two of them together. Pammy and the bride-to-be were not included. Late in the afternoon when Karl and Sammy came back, they were laughing and joking together. One thing was obvious: They’d had a lot to drink.

Some glassware was broken because of that inebriated return. Pammy tossed dish after dish from the kitchen cabinet onto the floor, but to no effect. Sammy smiled sheepishly, kissed his bride-to-be, and trundled off to his solitary bed in his private bedroom.

After that, Karl attempted to clean up the broken glass, but he cut his hand, and the bride-to-be became his attentive nurse. The blood from the wound could barely be seen on the handkerchief feverishly administered by the moon-faced young woman named Jennifer. The final outrage for Pammy came when her rugged police inspector husband croaked that he was beginning to feel a little faint. There had been nothing for her to do but retire for the night. So she stalked off to their room. A few minutes later, when Karl was still downstairs, she went to the bedroom door and hollered for him until he came to bed.

That was three months ago. Now, sitting in the Vienna West Train Station, Pammy thought about the days that had followed that first encounter with Jennifer. The plain and simple fact of the matter was that she didn’t have a high opinion of the young woman. She told Karl that the young bride-to-be was too girlish to be getting married to Sammy.

But things had quickly changed. And it was all Karl’s doing. He arranged a mountain climbing adventure. Before the climb, he spent two days teaching Sammy and Jennifer how to do mountain climbing.

Then came the climb. A climb up the Dolomite Alps. The four of them used a cable car to get to a starting place where they began a five-hour climb high upward, fighting snow and ice. It was a grand climb! Even though the weather turned bad, they kept going until they were only a dozen meters down from the top.

It was then that Karl, leading the climb, signaled for Jennifer to come forward. He whispered something to her and shoved her upward.

On her own, Jennifer made her way the rest of the way to the top. When she got to the top, she jumped with happiness and hollered for the stragglers to “catch up.”

All of the climbing, especially the final part of the climb, had left Pammy filled with joy. It had been especially grand for her to hear the wonderful young woman call for her and the others to “catch up.”

Pammy had returned from the climb with a profound love for the woman who was going to be Sammy’s wife—not someone who was too girlish, but a wonderful young woman who was ready to be a wife.

Now, in the West Train Station, Pammy felt good knowing that a way had been found for Karl to accompany her to the wedding in America. But how had he done it? It seemed impos-sible. There was the cost…and a passport for him. How had he done it? It was like a miracle.

Pammy knew Karl well enough to be certain that whatever he had worked out, she wasn’t going to learn the details in the short time left before her train would be leaving. She told herself that it was just like Karl to wait until a few minutes before the departure of her train for the Paris trip before springing this marvelous surprise. She would be a bundle of excitement until she got back from Paris. She knew Karl must have planned it that way. Yes, most definitely, that was just like him.

Giddy in her happiness, Pammy stared intently around. Many times she had been in the West Train Station. For the past year, at least once every month or two, she’d had to go to Paris or some other city. She focused her attention on Karl. Right now, right at this moment, while pretending to be oblivious to what was going on around him, he was monitoring things in the train station. She wanted to say, Pay attention to me! She wanted to demand that Karl tell her in a quick, simple way how he had arranged the trip to America.

But something was happening.

Pammy knew it in an instant. Karl’s face that could conceal so much stopped concealing anything. He came erect and stared far back toward the rear of the train station; his entire body became tense.

At first, Pammy couldn’t tell what it was that had captured Karl’s attention. All she could see was the bustling crowd. Countless people wandering around the train station. But continuing to follow Karl’s line of sight, she saw that he was focused on two men greeting each other. She couldn’t tell which of the two men had been the one to arrive and which was doing the welcoming. After a moment an American soldier with a camera came over and took a picture of the two men. These days the Americans and Russians were taking pictures of all the people arriving in Vienna by train. The British were more selective. They photographed only the ones who might be Jewish. The French made their presence known, but seldom did any photographing at all.

Pammy stared hopelessly as Karl got to his feet and said, “Something important is going on here. I have to run.”

“Important? What?”

“There are two people here who practice the profession of burglary.”

“Burglars?”

“I have to run.”

“Burglars…? What about me?”

“I have to run. I have to follow those two men. See where they go.”

And while Pammy watched helplessly, Karl went off on one of his police chases. For a moment she was angry, but she couldn’t hold onto the anger. It evaporated. For her, all that mattered was that in this crazy mixed-up world Karl was going to be with her at Sammy’s wedding to the marvelous young woman named Jennifer.

 

——————–

My name is Thomas D. Joyce.  After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was employed by the State of Ohio at various places, including the Juvenile Diagnostic Center in Columbus, Ohio and the Ohio State Penitentiary.  During military service I worked with persons seeking denazification. I had a lot of contact with individuals who had the worst sort of Nazi records. It had a powerful impact on me.

Where was my Winnie Cooper?

By Mike Koenig

I must have been in first grade when The Wonder Years first aired.  Six years younger than the main character Kevin Arnold, the perfect age difference to really fall in love with the show.  If I was a little older, I would have been turned off by its family friendliness; and if I was a little younger I might not have cared for its plotlines involving teenage love.  As it was I was exactly the right age to really love the show, to really love its female lead, Winnie Cooper.

Yes, Winnie Cooper, the brown-eyed, dark-haired girl who lived across the street from Kevin Arnold.  There was something magical about her.  She was beautiful, without being sexy; sweet without being dull; and desirable without being provocative. To my eyes she was as perfect as girls came: attractive, caring, and available.  She was as shy as the boys who liked her, but also carried a certain intangible charm.  She was simultaneously the girl everyone would want to date and the girl anyone could date.  Perhaps that is what made Winnie special.  She was both alluring and obtainable.  But what I remember most was her voice.  It was always soft, barely louder than a whisper and had a delicate delivery as if each syllable was being carefully considered.  Her only goal in life was to remove pain and her voice, that wonderful understated gentle voice, eased the tension of not quite understanding the opposite sex.

There were other shows with teenagers and they had desirable girls in one sense or another.  But only Winnie had the voice.  Only Winnie was the right mix of alluring and obtainable.  Saved by the Bell’s Kelly Kapowski was sweet but ultimately ran with the cool kids.  Blossom’s Blossom was a nice girl but not quite pretty enough to be pined. And Kelly Bundy of Married with Children was a sex kitten with no emotional depth. They were great girls but only Winnie was approachable. She was what every boy should want and what I specifically did want.  More than a girlfriend I wanted to have that constant sense of this is what you should want from life.  And for me the Wonder Years was about Kevin Arnold learning that happiness was always right in front of him.

The show took place in the late 60s and early 70s.  It took place exactly twenty years before the show aired on television.  This means that as I approach the twentieth anniversary of starting the seventh grade (both Kevin and Winnie’s age during the first season) I am exactly as old as the narrator of the show.  And while it’s impossible or at least improbable for a real person to look back on his own life with as much nuanced reflection as the narrator of the Wonder Years looked back on his life, I do find myself wondering at the age of thirty-two: Where was my Winnie Cooper?

I had crushes in middle school.  There was always a girl I liked and like most boys it changed a few times each year. I have stories about being a pre-teen and wanting to date and not knowing how.  For most of eighth grade I really liked this blonde-haired girl whose lavish breasts I mistook for a great personality.  Strange how my eighth-grade mind found the girl with the biggest boobs to be both really smart and terrifically funny, even though my primary interactions with her were nonchalant glances down her shirt and strict denials, if asked by anyone, that I liked her at all.  So I do have memories of dating or rather of not dating, and a general understanding of what it’s like to not know how to act around the opposite sex.  What I don’t have, what I wish I did have, is an innocent love interest that I can look back on with true fondness.

My middle school life was devoid of true romantic intentions.  The closest thing I had was that big-boobed girl. I liked her for the wrong reasons, and to some extent I think I knew it even then.  At the very least I knew she didn’t like me at all.  So whatever feelings I had were too one-sided to be called teenage love.  They weren’t really feelings at all but rather infatuations that were too weak for me to actually act on in any serious way.  The closest I came to making an effort towards love or a relationship was in sixth grade when one of my friends called the girl I “liked” and asked her what she would say if I asked her out (in middle school it was always a question of if). Unknown to the girl I was listening to the phone call, hoping for some positive response, but not knowing what I’d actually do if I were to get one.

“Hi Tracy,” Matt had said with more confidence than I would have been able to muster when talking to a girl.

“Hi,” she said.

“Listen,” Matt continued, his voice as smooth as any voice I had ever heard, “What do you think of Mike Koenig.”

Tracy paused.  She was really considering the question, deciding on just the right adjective to describe me.  “He’s okay, I guess.”

At that moment I looked at Matt, we were both sitting on the floor in his room, him on one portable phone, me on a second which was muted so even my breathing wouldn’t be heard.  I was silently begging him to stop there.  There was no reason to go any further, but Matt continued, “What would you say,” Matt paused for dramatic effect, as if he were introducing Tracy’s eventual husband, “if Mike asked you out?”

Tracy’s answer was a simple, “no.”  And though Matt waited for her to give a reason, she offered no explanation.  So there was about thirty seconds of waiting.  Tracy probably thinking, anything else? And Matt thinking, why not? But neither would actually bring those thoughts to words so there was just this brutal silence.  And in that pause all I could think was it was really easy for Tracy to say no.  She didn’t hesitate, not even for a second.  She didn’t even make her voice soft or sweet to cushion the blow.  She just said, “no.” And then Matt asked her some nonsense questions about school and then they hung up.  And it was just me and Matt alone in his room, neither of us feeling good about the phone call.  But at least the question had been merely hypothetical.  Thank God, I thought, thank God I didn’t really ask her out.

That was the only time in my life I had a friend call a girl on my behalf.  That first no was too direct, too painful.  Not that I was in love, even at the time I didn’t think my feelings were that strong, but her “no” did hurt.  It was mean-spirited and I didn’t want to hear it again, even over the phone.

So I didn’t date in middle school.  I thought you should wait for the girl that wouldn’t say no so quickly.  You should wait for the girl that was so right for you that you would have to ask her out yourself; a girl so perfect that you’d be unable to not ask her out.  You should wait for Winnie Cooper, the alluring girl who was also obtainable.

But Winnie Cooper didn’t go to my school.  She didn’t live across the street and I never saw her at the movie theatre or a party or a school dance.  She only existed in the reruns of The Wonder Years that now aired after school. I’d watch those reruns and wish real life was that easy.  I wished I could meet a girl that made dating easy because she was so obviously “the one.”  But I didn’t. The perfect girl, the Winnie Cooper girl, didn’t exist.  So while I always had a girl I “liked” there was always a feeling that something was missing, that I should expect more. That dating shouldn’t have doubts.

Looking back it was a pretty silly expectation.  Maybe I believed it just so I wouldn’t have to try.  So I wouldn’t have to fail.  But I still wish there was one girl who stood out, more than breasts or looks.  I wish there was a girl, just one girl, I actually felt connected to that would make me feel special just by saying hi in a soft voice.  I wish some girl had encouraged me to make a clumsy, stupid thirteen-year-old dating move. The way Winnie had always encouraged Kevin.  Twenty years later, I really wish I had a failed middle school love.

I re-watched the Wonder Years on Netflix recently.  It probably inspired this essay and definitely got me thinking about my own wonder years.  The show holds up pretty well and I still like Kevin and Winnie’s relationship.  Her voice still kills me with its slow, soft delivery.  But as I re-watched the show I realized Winnie Cooper wasn’t that great a girl.  She rejected Kevin’s earliest advances and denied her feelings about him.  She didn’t always know what she wanted and sometimes took that out on him.  She was a confused teenager, no better or worse than the ones I went to school with. Overall she’s still a nice girl, a catch even, but she’s hardly the perfect girl I remembered. And the relationship between her and Kevin was fairly bumpy.  So as a man now as old as the narrator of that show, who thinks about his youth, with only slightly less nuanced detail, I find myself still wondering where was the Winnie Cooper of my life?  Did I really not have one?  Or was I just not enough of a Kevin Arnold to realize it when I met her?

 

——————–

Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His writing can be seen in numerous publications including Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, and The Tulane Review.

Once Upon a Snow Storm

By Jordan S Laird

The wind whipped against the small house all night.  Ryan snored through it all in her usual tangle of four odd blankets, massive amounts of red hair, and six assorted pillows.  She stirred only twice: once to acknowledge her sister Cameron crawling into bed with her at somewhere around one in the morning.  And the second, Ryan was startled awake by the storm at 5 o’clock in the morning.  She slipped out of Cameron’s embrace and the pile of blankets.  She pulled on a hoodie and padded down the hallway, her bare feet prickled on the cold wood floor.  She turned the television on and flipped to the news.  Leaning against the dull turquoise sofa, she waited for the bottom bar to scroll through alphabetically until it reached Lincoln Elementary in Chicago.  Ryan combed her fingers through her unruly hair that, if it were straightened, reached down her lower back.  Through tangles and bleary eyes she found the answer she was looking for: Cameron’s school was closed.

She called work and left a message for her manager, calling off because ‘Cameron’s sick.’  Ryan then wasted no time before crawling back under the covers.  She stroked Cameron’s mousy brown curls, so much tamer than her frizz, and kissed Cam’s pale forehead before drifting off to sleep again.

Cameron shook Ryan awake three and a half hours later.

“What? What, I’m up Cam!”  Cameron crawled on top of Ryan and bounced some more.

“Madthson is here and we want hot chocolate!”  Cameron tugged at Ryan until she sat up.  Cameron ran gleefully down the hallway.

“Madison can make his own hot chocolate,” Ryan grumbled.  She hastily tied her hair up in a messy knot of frizz before walking down the hallway.  Madison was cooking the cocoa and bacon on the stove when Ryan found him in the kitchen.  He opened his mouth to speak.

“Morning, nerd,” Ryan quipped.  Madison snapped his mouth shut and grinned.  He just shook his head and stirred the cocoa a bit.  Madison was wearing a purple flannel and gray sweatshirt with blue jeans.  His tan coat, black hat, and black boots were piled by the door.  He was tall and his skin was the color of extremely rich cocoa.  Madison’s thin hair was usually worn in a tight ponytail with wisps in the front hanging loose.  That morning it looked particularly disheveled and he kept a long wisp out of his eyes with short, intermittent puffs of breath.  Ryan popped toast in the toaster and leaned against the sink, wrapping her arms around her chilly frame.  Through the frosty window she noticed the driveway was cleared, almost pristine.

“Thanks, Madison.  You didn’t have to do that.”

“Oh, the winter gnomes shoveled the drive; I just told them where you guys lived.  They were looking for two beautiful princesses.”  Ryan cringed at the corniness of his comment but Cameron loved it.

“Really!” asked Cameron in wonder.

“Of course, they said one had long fiery hair and was very clever and the other had brown hair and was the most beautiful girl in the whole world.  I knew just who they were talking about.”  Ryan didn’t understand how he could spin such fantasies without cracking up at their ridiculousness.  He was a natural at it though.

Madison handed Ryan the first mug of cocoa and lifted Cameron up, with more difficulty than he had in past years of the child’s life, to retrieve marshmallows from a cabinet shelf for the two of them.  They feasted that frigid morning on their bacon, burnt toast with strawberry jelly, and cocoa.  Ryan munched on her bacon and tuned out the exasperating conversation Madison and Cameron had about species of gnomes.  Cameron was enthralled and Madison never grew impatient.

The shrill ring of the phone interrupted breakfast.  Cameron ran to retrieve it for Ryan.  Ryan answered it and slid away from her place at the table.

“Yes, hello?…But Nick, you know I have a little girl!… No, no Nick, I can’t today… No, wait don’t hang up!”  Ryan lightly thumped her head against the doorframe of the hallway-defeated.

Only a little over an hour later, Ryan leaned against the mahogany podium of Lula’s Café in Chicago.  Ryan wore her usual white blouse with black pants and several silver rings.  Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail behind her head, her long tresses trailing behind her.

Ryan absently picked at the finish of the podium; she had been a nail biter for a long time but had painstakingly kicked the habit at the age of seventeen.  Although she could come up with no reason to distrust Madison, Ryan felt uneasy leaving Cameron with anyone.

Cameron was her baby, her precious little girl, even though by blood they were sisters.  Ryan and Cameron’s mother, Lisa, a former bank teller, became addicted to various drugs and men, equally unhealthy for her, after Ryan’s father abruptly left them when Ryan was eight years old.  Their mother had Cameron when Ryan was 15.  Ryan raised Cameron as the pressure of such a large responsibility drove their mother to worsen her habits.  A kind law clerk that lived down the block helped Ryan take custody of Cameron exactly five months and a week after Ryan turned eighteen.  Ryan had been kicked out two days before her birthday for proposing the idea of taking custody of Cameron.

Ryan remembered all too well all the times she came home from school or work to find her mother passed out and a greasy man who could barely pass for human slinking around the apartment, looking for something to eat or something to take.  All those times Ryan rushed to the room she shared with Cameron to find her hiding in the closet.  She remembered her mother’s empty promises that she would stop bringing men back to the apartment.  And Ryan remembered vividly every waking hour of the days she was separated from Cameron while she fought for custody.  Ryan had absolutely no idea what Cameron was being exposed to, whether or not she was being regularly fed or tucked in or read her favorite books.  Ryan didn’t like trusting Cameron with anyone.

A young couple and their tiny baby asleep in its carrier seat entered the café.  Ryan was torn from her gloomy thoughts; she promptly put a smile on her face and led the family to a table.  During the brunch time Ryan rushed around, pouring coffee and chocolate milk.  Chris was the only other front room staff that day.  Chris was of medium height and strikingly handsome: sandy blonde hair, green eyes, and bronze skin.  He was pleasing to look at and banter with.  But Chris was not overly helpful.  During the morning a toddler managed to knock over two coffees.  The parents apologized profusely; Ryan didn’t mind mopping it up.  Ryan did mind that when she finally was able to circulate between her other tables, they had been left waiting.  While Chris had only one couple and another old man in his section of the café, Ryan had five full tables.  Chris was not a slacker but he was in no way an over-achiever or generous with helping his coworkers.  Apathy and lack of effort bothered Ryan considerably.

After a busy lunch rush, a half-hour break in mid-afternoon, and a steady dinner rush, Ryan’s shift was finally over.  Since his section was empty Chris clocked out early, which deeply irritated her.  Ryan had to wait patiently for her last two tables to finish their desserts and then still had to take the trash out to the dumpster.

When she finally skidded across the icy parking lot to her dark green rust bucket it had begun snowing lightly again.  She rubbed her hands together as she waited for the car’s heat to work.  A muffled beeping came from somewhere in the messy interior of her car.  She rummaged around on the floor of her passenger seat for her phone.  She found several gooey wrappers and an old t-shirt and one slightly crumpled, magenta sheet of construction paper.  The sheet wasn’t blank.  It bore Cameron’s signature crayon technique.  The picture was of three stick figures holding hands under a scribbly rainbow and under each crude figure there were names in smudged purple: ‘Rian,’ ‘Cam,’ and ‘Madson’. Ryan sat for a moment, stunned by the rudimentary piece of artwork.

Ryan drove through the back alley that led to the strips’ employee parking lot and stopped at the outlet to the main road.  She remembered her beeping phone and after more digging around, she found it.  It had one new text: ‘Be careful driving home! Love Cameron and Madison!’

Ryan wiped random moisture from her eyes, tossed the phone in the back, and quickly pulled out of the alley.  She neglected to watch and pulled out recklessly close in front of another driver who was forced to slam on his brakes and apparently his horn.  Ryan pulled all the way out and stopped.  She motioned apologetically at the other driver who only laid on the horn again before speeding away.

As Ryan drove home, her old, whining car radio could hardly pick up a single station and she punched the off button.  In the silence of the dark, empty roads, Ryan found herself, uncharacteristically, musing over what would happen if she were hurt in a car accident.  Who would take care of Cameron?  Who would care to visit her in the hospital?  These were some of the onslaught of difficult questions that pestered her as she drove home.  Although she had dreamed on several occasions of it being her ex-boyfriend, a passionate and zealous artist, James, or handsome, witty Chris, she knew the answer wasn’t either of them.  The single, glaring answer to her questions was not very handsome nor someone she felt overwhelming butterflies around.

The answer was just Madison.

Madison did not share James’ passion for photography and sketching.  Madison was working two jobs to pay his way through school in order to become a teacher.  Madison did have a passion for playing Candyland with Cameron and watching cheesy horror films with Ryan on the weekends-among other Cameron or Ryan related activities.  Madison was not nearly as good looking as Chris.  But Madison’s hair swooped in front of his friendly, chocolate eyes nicely.  And Madison’s lips quirked into a pleasant side smirk when Ryan harassed him.

Ryan recalled her month and a half of community college.  After almost two years of living on her own with Cameron she had enrolled at Chicago City College.  She was working to get a degree and become a dental assistant.  Ryan had been working at a disgusting pizza place and on welfare at the time.  It was difficult not seeing Cameron during the day and struggling to make ends meet.  Four weeks in, Ryan received a letter that told her that her welfare benefits were being reduced.  She was forced to drop out.

Ryan had to take a mandatory English class in College and that was where she first met Madison.  Ryan automatically disliked him for how loudly he laughed.  That was all: he had a dumb, obnoxious laugh.

Until one day, in the pouring rain, Ryan was waiting for the bus.  Madison approached her and offered his umbrella.  Before Ryan could protest he had pushed it into her hands and run to his next class.  After that Ryan felt obligated to talk to him.  And two years later Madison was still doing selfless things for her.

Ryan pushed the pine green door of her home open and slid off some of her layers, piling them in a heap on an old wooden chest.  Her ears were immediately met with a familiar gush of glee at her arrival.

“Ryan!!!”  Ryan walked down the hallway and entered her living room to find an even messier disaster than the one she had left that morning.  Nearly all of the home’s cushions, pillows and blankets made a massive makeshift fort in the small room.  Madison was struggling to crawl out of the structure when he saw Ryan.  He stood up sheepishly and knocked over half of the fort.

Cameron hurtled herself at Ryan who struggled to lift her sister and spin her around.  Ryan set Cameron down and Cameron promptly began scolding Madison for knocking over the ‘castle.’  Ryan laughed at the sparkly bunny ears Madison was wearing and before she realized what she was doing crossed the room and wrapped her arms around his neck.  He returned the embrace hesitantly.

“Thank you so much for watching Cameron today.  I see you were very productive Sir Bunny.” Ryan stepped back and avoided eye contact.  Madison, beaming, took the costume piece off of his head.

“It wasn’t a problem.  We had fun playing ‘space ship’ and then ‘bakery’ and finally ‘castle.’”  Ryan grimaced sympathetically although Madison really didn’t seem to mind.  Cameron crawled up Madison’s back like a monkey and Madison helped her up, patient as always.  Cameron triumphantly sat on his shoulders and he twirled around in a circle a few times before lowering her to the ground gently.

“Say goodnight to Madison and then go brush your teeth and put your pajamas on,” ordered Ryan gently.  Cameron huffed.

“I’ll be in in a minute and we’ll read before bed.”

“Okay,” sang Cameron “Goodnight Madthson!”  She scurried down the hall to her bedroom.

“Goodnight, princess.”

With the absence of Cameron, the two young adults stood in silence for an awkward moment.

“Well,” Madison finally spoke “I guess I better go.”

“Yeah, I guess.  It’s getting late.”  They walked to the door and Madison put on his boots and coat.  Ryan opened the door absently.

“Well, I’ll see you later.  And thanks so much again for doing this for me especially on short notice.”

“No problem, goodnight.”  Madison walked out onto the dully-illuminated front step before turning around to abruptly kiss Ryan.  He put one hand on her waist and the other cupped her face.  It was so quick and unexpected that Ryan didn’t even have time to react.  And then he vanished into the darkness.  Ryan stayed rooted to the spot for a moment before rushing out onto her front step.

“Drive safely!” she called into the dark.  She felt exceedingly stupid but she didn’t know what to do so she waved.  Madison’s car rumbled to life and drove away.

The next day Cameron had school.  Ryan bundled Cameron in a large purple coat, a rainbow scarf so long it had to be wrapped several times around her neck to avoid trailing on the ground and a smiling green frog hat complete with matching mittens.  Ryan put on a magenta jacket, a black overcoat, and a cream-colored cable knit hat over her loose red hair.

Ryan dropped Cameron off at school and drove to Madison’s morning job that he worked Thursday through Sunday.  He worked on those mornings at a small corner coffee shop where he cooked and baked the stock for the rest of the week: caramel nut brownies, oatmeal cookies, lemon cream cakes, pre-made and saran wrapped sandwiches.

The café’s door had bells on the handle that made a light tinkling noise at Ryan’s entrance.  The mundane noise made Ryan flinch and look around owl-eyed.  The pixie haired barista at the lonely café’s counter motioned knowingly before ducking in the back kitchen-more like a kitchenette-presumably to retrieve Madison.

Ryan sat awkwardly at a table by the frosty picture window.  She watched cars at the intersection go by.  Soon Madison joined her, brown apron in one hand and a plate of cookies and hot cocoas in the other.

“What’s up?” he looked straight into Ryan’s eyes and she looked away.

“I thought I would visit you at work.  You always feed me when I come.”

“True.”  There was an anticipatory pause.  Madison knew her too well.  Ryan twirled a piece of her hair absently before continuing.

“Well, okay, I guess I should just say what I came here for.  This may be out of the blue but-I-do you maybe want to go out sometime?”

“Aren’t we ‘out’ right now,” teased Madison.  He was smirking; he wasn’t going to make this easy on her.

“Like on a date?”  She murmured.  Madison sat back in the chair and pretended to mull it over.

“Nah,” he said leaning forward and taking her hands in his. “I want to go on a lot of dates.  Because in case you haven’t noticed you mean the world to me-you and Cameron.  And I’ve felt that way for a long time.”  Ryan felt strange fluttering in her stomach at the words she had known to be true for a while-but they were still inexplicably nice to hear.  She grinned.

“Well, I need you too.  I’m sorry I don’t always show it because I stink at this whole expression of feelings stuff.  But you really mean a lot to me.”

“I know.”

They did go on a date-many dates.  For their first date a friend watched Cameron and they saw a really terrible action film that wasn’t worth remembering in the end.  They threw popcorn at each other.  And Ryan felt ridiculous when they held hands.

 

——————–

Jordan S Laird is seventeen and lives by Lake Erie in Ohio with her mom, dad, and 6’2″ little brother. Jordan is an avid band and drama student. She plays the trombone in the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. The author enjoys reading romance, adventure, and fantasy novels. She is the Chief Editor of The Spectrum, her high school newspaper. Some of her editorial work has been published by Cleveland.com.

World Enough and Time

By Vivian Lawry

Arthur married Carolyn because it was time to settle down, and because he knew she could never hurt him. When he came home from the Pacific Theater, he left Marie’s Dear John letter behind, but not its lesson: he went to college on the G.I. Bill, worked hard, and dated little. He met Carolyn on a blind date when they both were seniors, though she was three years younger.

Two weeks before the wedding, Arthur’s mother said, “Son, if you don’t love Carolyn, don’t marry her.”

Arthur said, “Carolyn’s a good woman. She’s loyal. She’ll be a good mother. And it’s too late to get cold feet now.” Arthur wore a navy blue suit. Carolyn wore white and carried orange blossoms. Both were virgins. In retrospect, Arthur thought that was probably a big mistake, that things might have been different if he’d known how to please a woman in bed. Carolyn seemed to tolerate sex as part of her marital duty, and as a means of getting children.

But there were no children. After fifteen years trying to conceive, they had to wait four years more to adopt a white male infant. Carolyn cared for their house and son while Arthur built his upscale clothing store into a lucrative business. When need drove him to her, he found release, but the sex act held no intimacy. Friendship settled on them.

* * *

Ruth grew up in a querulous household, the threat of divorce and desertion constant. She met Tom through their work at an accounting firm. She married him for peace and stability. They never quarreled. She called him her rock. When Tom, a CPA, took a job in the business office at the college, their three children were nearly grown.

* * *

Arthur hired Ruth as a bookkeeper, part-time. Soon she was taking care of correspondence, tracking inventory, and dealing with vendors. Occasionally, she worked the floor, covering for saleswomen during illnesses, vacations, or the pre-Christmas rush. Ruth had a good eye for what the women of the town would buy. She always looked for the best in people, in situations. She was exceptionally capable. Arthur admired her.

One day when Arthur leaned over to sign a letter Ruth had just typed, his chest brushed her shoulder. The herbal scent of her hair filled his nostrils. The sound of paper sliding on paper made him hear silk. He shuddered. After that, he found himself listening for Ruth’s voice, watching for her in the grocery store and the post office.

When Arthur asked Ruth to accompany him on a buying trip, he didn’t know they would make love. He just knew he wanted to be with her. He was happy holding doors for her, smiling at her over dinner. Even when she said, “Come, lie with me,” he wasn’t sure that sex would follow.

That first time they made love—when he slid into her—he said it felt like coming home. They made love every morning and every night. Arthur laughed. “When I was young, I didn’t think I’d even want an erection when I was an old man.” Arthur was 68, Ruth 50. “Who would have imagined this?”

They had to be discreet. The size of the town demanded it. Neither wanted to hurt spouse or family. Each buying trip was an oasis that made the daily desert tolerable. Arthur bought presents for Ruth—scarves, silky black lingerie, jewelry—telling the sales clerks that she was his bride. They especially liked New York City. One spring they played on the swings in Central Park, both in business suits, toes reaching for the trees, laughter burbling on the breeze. Once they meandered through F.A.O. Schwartz, looking at fancy dolls and electric trains. Arthur tap-danced “I Want To Be Loved By You” on a giant toy keyboard on the floor while Ruth laughed and blushed. During one trip, they made early Christmas in a hotel room. Arthur bought a little artificial tree. Ruth decorated it with twists of cellophane and bits of ribbon. They tuned the radio to a Christmas concert and took turns opening their presents. Celebrating Arthur’s birthday, they sipped single malt scotch and danced naked. They wrote poetry to each other.

* * *

Arthur sat at the end of the sofa, reading glasses sliding partway down his nose. Ruth lay with her head on the armrest, her bare feet in his lap. He tapped the open book propped against Ruth’s ankles. “I wish I’d written this poem,” he said, and read aloud:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day…

As he read, Arthur stroked the ball of Ruth’s foot, pressed his thumb gently into the instep.

…Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Arthur closed the book and took off his glasses. Ruth smiled mischievously. “I’ve long known you are a romantic. But I didn’t know you were losing touch with reality. Marvell was writing about youth.”

Arthur smiled back. “You make me feel young, Ruthie. That’s just as important. You are the best damn thing that ever happened to me.”

He often said, “You are the wife of my heart.” For their third anniversary, he gave her a plain gold wedding band, which she wore from that night onward. Tom never noticed.

When Ruth had appendicitis, Arthur took chocolates and an enormous bouquet to the hospital. Carolyn said, “Are you in love with Ruth?”

Arthur said, “There’s nothing between Ruth and me that you need to worry about.”

In his early 70s, Arthur turned the business over to his son. He bought a condo in Punta Gorda, Florida, with a view of Charlotte Harbor. “I bought it for us,” he told Ruth. “Why don’t we just get married?”

Ruth said, “Now, Arthur, we settled all that years ago. We have obligations. Divorce is not an option.”

When Arthur and Carolyn celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, their son threw a big party. The local papers carried pictures. When Arthur and Ruth celebrated the 10th anniversary of their joining, no one knew. Arthur said, “I want to marry you. I want to take care of you, Ruthie. Always. I’ll build your dream house, fix the leaky faucets, plant the gardens…and every night you’ll fall asleep with words of love in your ear.”

Ruth said, “How could we, knowing what we’d done to Carolyn and Tom? They depend on us, Arthur. Our children would never forgive us.”

Arthur said, “My son would want me to be happy.”

After Arthur retired, finding reasons to be out of the house was difficult. Even a private telephone conversation was problematic. When Tom had retired as well, Arthur and Ruth struggled to find times and ways to be together.

As Carolyn’s health declined, Arthur drove her to doctors’ appointments. He nursed her after her knee surgery, her hysterectomy. They moved into a graduated assisted-living community. Arthur started feeling old. He’d already lived to a greater age than anyone else in his family. Carolyn died a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Arthur moved to the condo in Punta Gorda.

Now, Ruth could call Arthur anytime, day or night. They laughed together long distance. When she could get away, he met her. Sometimes, he flew back so they could spend an afternoon together—just an afternoon—at the airport motel, their fingers and lips and tongues dancing here, there, and everywhere. Arthur said, “I never knew sex could be like this. Before you, I sometimes wanted relief. Now I crave lovemaking. And it turns out to be better—more sensuous—than I ever imagined. I never imagined doing these things—wanting to do these things—before you. I’m an old man, Ruth. But it just gets better and better. I’m free with you. I can do anything—tell you anything—share anything. Ruth, I need to be with you.”

Ruth said, “Tom has Parkinson’s. I can’t leave him now.”

* * *

When Tom couldn’t handle tableware anymore, Ruth gave him finger foods. She shaved him, cut his toenails, dressed him. He developed Alzheimer’s, and mistook Ruth for his oldest sister. The doctors found pancreatic cancer. Still he lived, growing gaunt, so emaciated that his joints pushed sharply against papery skin. Ruth tended him night and day. Purple smudged her eyes. She lost weight. Arthur lived for her phone calls and letters, the occasional hour together.

When Tom died, Ruth started looking youthful again, much younger than her 70 years. She told Arthur she would sell the house and move to the condo in Florida. He said, “Why not come down here for awhile and we’ll talk about it?”

For the best years of his life, Arthur had dreamed of taking care of Ruth. Now he signed everything over to her—stocks, bonds, real estate—everything he hadn’t already transferred to his son. He made her the beneficiary on his life insurance policies. He said, “It’s easier if I do this now.”

She said, “Why don’t we just get married?”

He said, “I’m eighty-seven, Ruth. I’ve started losing control of my bladder. I don’t want our years together to end with you changing my diapers. One failing husband was enough. Tom was enough.”

Ruth said, “If you die before me, I’ll be ripped in half—whether we are married or not.”

They slept cupped together like spoons. Arthur got up in the night to use the toilet. When he eased back into bed, a few drops of urine leaked onto the back of Ruth’s thigh. Tears stung his closed eyes.

 

——————–

Vivian Lawry is an award winning fiction writer whose short stories have appeared in more than three dozen journals and anthologies. She is coauthor of the Chesapeake Bay Mysteries, Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart. She collects everything from dictionaries to vintage mah jongg sets. Visit her website at vivianlawry.com and become a fan on Facebook.

Judas

By Patrick Mathiasen

How does it work, Dr. Benson?”

“That’s the thing, Trent—we don’t know how it works,” I said.

“You’re kidding. You don’t know how it works?”

“Nope.”

“Then how do you know it even does?”

Trent sat on the couch across from me, next to his wife, with his arms folded across his chest. He pushed his jaw out and stared at me.

“Trent, I’m not here to force this on you,” I said. “It’s just an option. Nothing else has worked, and it is something to consider.”

“I thought they didn’t do this anymore,” he said. “I thought they stopped doing this a long time ago. I mean, come on! You’re talking about running electricity through my brain, and you don’t even know how it works. Do you think I’m crazy? I’m not crazy!”

I had heard this reaction from many patients over the years, as I discussed electroconvulsive therapy with them. The topic brought up fear and revulsion, images of Jack Nicholson strapped down and held by muscular men as the doctor in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest bent forward with the two electrodes to touch his skull and cause the violent, grimacing, arm-and-leg flopping seizure as his brain slowly melted in the grip of the electricity.

This is the image most people have when they think of Electroconvulsive Therapy. Shock treatments. They so often see the treatment as a violent assault on the brain, and at some subconscious level, it is perceived as a punishment.

A punishment—yet it is the most effective treatment we have for those so severely depressed that nothing else has helped alleviate their suffering. And even I had mixed feelings about this treatment. I tried to communicate to my patients, those who came to talk to me about it, that it was now a safe and humane treatment, free of pain. But it was also a frustrating treatment, a procedure whose mechanism we did not understand. There were theories, of course. Many of them. But it remained a puzzle. More than seventy years after its discovery, we did not know how it worked.

Perhaps this was what lay at the heart of my frustration. I could talk to my patients about all the details related to the treatments, but I had to admit to them that there was a huge gap in our understanding of this most dramatic of all psychiatric treatments. I believed in the treatment. I had seen it work with my patients, many times leading to dramatic, miraculous changes in their lives. I had seen people devastated by depression—those curled up on a bed with no hope at all for anything beyond an existence framed by the four walls of a darkened room—rise up and leave those rooms.

But how did it work? My patients, for the most part, seemed satisfied with answers like it increases the neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers between the nerve cells in the brain; the effect seems to be related to this change. But there remained the mystery of the effect. It was almost like a voodoo cure, with no rational western scientific explanation.

I looked over at Trent’s wife, Carla. She smiled weakly at me and shook her head back and forth.

“Come on, Trent,” she said. “Just listen to what he’s saying. What do you have to lose? Nothing else has worked. Nothing at all. The doctor has tried every medicine there is, and you still just mope around the house. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You tell me life isn’t worth it and you just want to die. For God’s sake, what could be worse?”

She finished speaking and leaned back on the couch. Trent looked over at her and frowned.

“Sure,” he said. “Sure. It’s all easy for you to say. You don’t have to live with this shit like I do.”

I smiled at Trent. I tried to make it a reassuring smile, but I wasn’t sure that I succeeded. Trent was a new patient for me, referred to me by his outpatient psychiatrist, Don House, who specialized in treating severely depressed patients, patients resistant to treatment with medications and therapy.

Trent’s wife switched her focus to me now. She looked away from her husband, but she kept on talking as if to him, and I could see tears beginning to form in her eyes.

“Damn it, Trent,” she said. “Who the hell do you think you are? I cringe when you wake up in the morning. I cringe when you come in through the door. Our daughter, our beautiful four-year-old daughter, she asks me all the time, ‘What’s wrong with Daddy?’ Did you know that, Trent? Huh? I don’t know what to tell her anymore, it’s been going on so long!”

Carla covered her eyes with her hands and lowered her head slowly into her lap.      I looked at her, then over at Trent. He looked at his wife sadly. Seconds passed, then minutes, as he stared at her. Finally he spoke.

“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry. This goddamn depression eats me up; it eats at me like an animal tearing at my insides until I can’t think of anything else at all.”

He reached inside his breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette. As he put it between his lips, I leaned forward—I was about to tell him that he couldn’t smoke in my office—and then I stopped. Something about Trent, something about his desperation, stopped me. I let him light the cigarette. The smoke rose from the tip of the cigarette, and the smell of tobacco spread through the room. Trent leaned back in his chair and inhaled deeply. The smoke came out through his nose and mouth, spreading out and covering everything between us.

“OK. OK. Tell me about this procedure, doctor. Tell me about these shock treatments.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Does it hurt?”

“No. No, it doesn’t hurt. An anesthesiologist puts you to sleep, and then we give you the treatment. We cause you to have a controlled seizure while you’re asleep. You don’t feel anything, and you won’t remember anything either. It all just takes maybe ten minutes or so, and then you wake up. That’s all there is to it.”

“If it’s so easy, how come more people don’t have it done?” Trent asked.

“Because they’re scared,” I said. “They’re afraid, and some of them just can’t get beyond that fear.”

Trent leaned his head back and inhaled deeply on his cigarette. He looked over at his wife and tried to smile. She had raised her head now, and she smiled back at her husband. The mascara had mixed with the tears under her eyes, and it formed dark circles in the shape of half moons.

“I’m glad you’re listening to him, baby,” she said.

“I don’t know what to do, Carla. What if this—this treatment fries my brain? What if it erases my memory, so I don’t know who you are, or who our little girl is?”

I have performed these shock treatments for going on twenty years, and I have seen so many patients in consultation tell me that they had no hope of ever getting better.  And so I reviewed the treatment with Trent, concluding with what I always told my patients.

“There’s no evidence that it will cause permanent brain damage, or any long-term memory loss. It’s true, we don’t know how it works. But we do know that it works. It can pull people up out of depression when nothing else will.”

I thought again of the puzzles in medicine. There are many treatments that we do not fully understand. For all the common medications that we use, for pain and diabetes and all manner of things, the mechanism of action of these medications is not understood. But we tell our patients that we can help them with these agents. And it seems that the more we surround our explanations with scans and machines and tests, the more convincing we become.

Trent looked at his wife and nodded. He wiped the back of his hand across his face.

“There’s nowhere else to go, Carla. I’m gonna die if I don’t do something.”

Now it was Trent’s turn to cry. The tears came suddenly, springing up into his eyes and coming out over his cheeks. He raised his right hand to try to stop them, but it was too late. His sobs racked his chest and burst out into the room.

***

We started the treatments early on a Monday morning. Two nurses wheeled Trent into the room, and he looked up at me from his stretcher as he rolled into view. He tried to smile at me, but the muscles in his face were tight, and his eyes moved back and forth as he looked around the room.

“I hope you’re ready, doctor,” he called out. “I hope you got lots of sleep last night.”

Trent smiled, and then he tried to laugh at his own joke. But the laughter caught in his throat. It rattled around and emerged in a short, choking sound that barely cleared his lips.

“I’m all set,” I said. “Just try to relax, and this will be over before you even know we started.”

And it was. The anesthesiologist injected his medicine. Trent’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he was out within a minute. That’s the thing about ECT treatments. The whole procedure takes only about twenty minutes. First, the patient gets a short-acting anesthetic. Once he loses consciousness, within a minute or two, he gets a muscle-paralyzing medicine to stop him from having violent contractions when I cause him to have the seizure. Then the anesthesiologist places a soft rubber mouth protector in his mouth, to protect his teeth and gums.

I bent down and applied a circular black paddle to each side of Trent’s head, and I adjusted the placement of the paddles to make sure that I had good contact with his skin. Then I pressed the orange button on the end of one of the paddles and watched Trent’s face.

Trent grimaced, and the muscles in his face tightened and snapped into a frozen mask as the rest of his body came up slightly off the stretcher. He stiffened for an instant, and then his arms and legs began to flutter in tiny trembling movements that grew and grew until his entire body was shaking. I watched his face as his teeth tightened down on the rubber mouth protector and the muscles flared out across his cheeks. His expression looked almost sexual as the corners of his mouth spread out and his arms and legs bounced up and down softly off of the stretcher.

The seizure lasted about forty-five seconds, and then it stopped, as quickly as it had come. Trent’s body relaxed, and his head fell back onto the pillow.

“Good seizure,” I said to the anesthesiologist.

“Great.” He nodded to the nurse and smiled. “That’s it, then.”

Trent awoke slowly over the next ten minutes, and as he came fully awake he asked what many of my patients ask after a shock treatment.

“What? Is it over? Did I have the treatment already?”

Trent had a series of nine treatments over the next three weeks. After each one, he awoke as puzzled as he was after the first. He would look around, blink a couple of times, and then slowly reconnect with his surroundings. He tolerated the treatments well, with only mild headaches and some difficulty concentrating, which made it hard for him to read.

These were common side effects, these headaches. Some patients had upset stomachs, even nausea, which could be treated easily enough. More difficult, when it happened, as it did to many people, was the short-term memory loss. There was no real way to treat this, but it would clear up once the course of treatment was finished.

But the best thing, the best thing of all, was that Trent began to feel better. This was true for 70 percent or more of patients who went through a course of six to twelve treatments. Trent started to feel his depression lift after the fourth treatment. This was when he began to smile. He didn’t even notice it at first, but his wife did.

Carla sat in front of me in one of the recovery rooms at the hospital. She was leaning back on a metal chair next to her husband, who sat in a large, padded chair.

“He’s smiling again, doctor,” Carla said. “He’s playing with our daughter. I can’t believe it. He hasn’t played with our daughter in so long I can’t even remember.”

Carla wiped the back of her hand across her face. Then she expressed the fear I knew was there.

“This won’t stop, will it? I mean, he won’t suddenly go back to how he was, will he?”

I had been asked this question so many times over the years, always with fear.

“Nothing should happen ‘suddenly,’” I said. “Depression doesn’t come on fast, and it doesn’t go away quickly either. If Trent starts to become depressed again, we should be able to catch it before it goes too far.”

“God, I just pray he’ll keep getting better. I want it more than anything. I want it for all of us.”

Trent did feel better and better, until he felt “great,” and his life began to turn around—until he was up and doing things and playing with his daughter and going to work and making love to his wife. And at that point, I stopped the course of electroconvulsive therapy and referred him back to his outpatient psychiatrist.

“Thank you, doctor,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you. You’ve given me my life back.”

I always felt a sense of sadness once I completed a course of this treatment. I worked as a consultant; these were not my regular patients. I tried to keep track of them, through their outpatient psychiatrists, but sometimes it was impossible to keep up with them.

I was happy for Trent. I felt good about my role in his treatment. But he wasn’t really my patient anymore.

***

It was several weeks later, around Christmas, that my pager vibrated while I was sitting alone in my office.

Christmas. It was a hard time of year, for me and my patients. All of the pressure to be happy, to smile, to buy gifts and hug the family. God, it could be awful. It all crashed together, and I wanted to be somewhere else.

I looked down at the number on the pager, hoping it was my wife, Leah, calling to chat. She did this every day around this time, eleven in the morning. It was our ritual. But this time, it wasn’t Leah. It was someone else. The number looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. When I dialed the number, a man’s voice on the other end picked up almost immediately.

“I can walk on water!” he shouted. “I can walk on water! I can fly! I can turn water into wine!”

The exclamations stopped only for an instant—long enough for me to get out a few words. “Pardon me?” I asked. “Do I know you?”

“Do I know you?” He repeated the question. “Does it matter? I know everyone. I know everything. Do you know who you’re talking to, my friend? Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?”

The questions came at me, one after another.

“Excuse me,”  I said. “I don’t know who you are, sir. I have no idea. Please slow down.”

The voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky, like a nail scratching over steel. But there was something about it, something …

And then I knew, and the knowledge slapped at me. It was Trent.

“I sit at the right hand of God,” he said. “That’s who I am. That’s where I sit. Now do you know who you’re talking to? That’s right. You are talking to Jesus Christ himself, right here on the telephone. In fact, you have my phone number now.”

He started to laugh, and the sound rolled out through the phone and into my ear like thunder. The laughter went on for a long time, until it slowly subsided into squeaky peals and giggles.

“You have got the personal, direct phone number of Jesus Christ himself. Put it in your Rolodex now, and don’t you lose it. And don’t be calling me collect, either. Heaven is loooong distance, and the charges add up real fast.”

The laughter burst through the line again. Then I heard voices arguing, a struggle ensuing in the background.

“Give me that phone!” someone said.

“No,” came the reply. “No. Get away from me. Give me that back.”

Then a woman’s voice came on.

“Doctor? This is Carla Mathis,” she said. “Trent is out of control. My God, he thinks he is God, and I don’t know what to do. He thinks he can fly. He thinks he can walk on water. What am I gonna do?”

“Try to calm down, Carla,” I said. “Take a deep breath and try to slow down a little.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and I waited until I thought she was ready to answer my questions.

“Now tell me, has he done anything dangerous?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “He keeps walking around the apartment looking at the windows, but I don’t think he’s going to do anything.”

“OK,”  I said. “OK. I think he’s moved into a manic phase of his illness. It happens sometimes. The most important thing is to be calm, and to try to reassure him that we’re going to take care of him, and nothing bad will happen.”

“Doctor, he’s not worried about anything bad happening. He’s not worried at all. The only thing that he’s worried about is the world and how he can take care of that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, he thinks he’s the Son of God, sent down here to save all of us from sin!”

“What’s he doing now?”

I could hear vague words on the other end of the line, two voices arguing. Then Trent’s voice came through the receiver again.

“We need to talk,” he said. “I need to tell you a few things.”

The phone clicked off before I could reply.

Fifteen minutes later, Carla and Trent walked into my office. My office. Not his outpatient psychiatrist’s office. My office.

Carla trailed behind her husband, walking slowly with her head bent forward, as if being pulled on a leash. Trent was dressed oddly, in a bathrobe cinched tight around the waist with a terrycloth belt. He was unshaven, and his eyes gleamed brightly as he marched into the room.

“Good to see you again,” he shouted. “Damn good to see you.”

His fingers encompassed my hand, and the strength of his grip folded down around my own fingers until I felt a sharp pain run through my hand and up my arm. He kept a tight grip on my hand as he spoke.

“I want to tell you something,” he said. “I have to tell you something.”

“What’s that, Trent?” I asked.

I tried to back away from him, to put some distance between us. He was frightening in the small space of the room. I had treated other patients who had switched from depression into mania—these were people who had an underlying bipolar disorder, a manic-depression—but I had never encountered someone who had flipped into such an extreme manic, psychotic phase before.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Simple, but not easy. But if you can do it, you will have everlasting life eternal. A life beyond life. Something you never dreamed possible.”

He paused and stared at me.

“Accept me as God,” he said. “Accept me in your life as God here on earth, and everything will fall into place, and you will stand on the edge of eternity.”

“The edge of eternity?” I asked.

Trent smiled, and he stretched both of his arms out wide.

“Yes, eternity!” he shouted. “Life everlasting, in a place of peace and love.” He stretched his arms out wider and thrust his head back.

“I gave up my life for you, on the cross in the burning sun and the cold night air, hanging there between two thieves with the Roman guard beneath me and my mother sweet Mary crying at my feet. Hanging there as the life slowly ran out of me until it was gone and nothing was left but pale skin and bones stretched out on the cross.”

As he spoke, Trent’s eyes shone brighter and brighter, and he looked at me in a way that frightened me even more. I tried to interrupt him.

“Trent, I don’t know what—”

Bam! Trent’s hand slammed down on the desk between us.

“Call me Jesus,” he shouted. “I am Jesus Christ, come again to be in the world. Jesus, the Son of God, the one who sits at his right hand in the halls of glory. I am love for all of time, your savior, only if you ask it of me. And I wait for you to ask it of me. I pray and hope that you will ask it of me.”

Trent spoke faster and faster, and his words flew out into the room and raced around and through it, blurring into one another until I could hardly make out what he was saying. I turned toward his wife and spoke the first words that came into my mind.

“I guess his depression has lifted,” I said.

Carla looked at me with a quizzical expression on her face. I don’t think either one of us knew what to say. Trent stood before us in my small office and spoke on and on and on. At one point, he stopped and smiled, and for an instant I thought he was going to laugh, but he didn’t. Instead he reached out and rested his hand on my forehead.

“Stop,” he said. “Stop, and listen to what I have to tell you. For even though you are not worthy, what I have to tell you holds the key to your destiny.”

Trent reached up, and his fingers pressed against my forehead as he looked down at me and smiled. He traced the sign of the cross over my forehead with his right thumb.

“Love,” he said. “Love is the key.”

Then Trent turned and walked—no, ran—out of my office.

***

I didn’t hear from Trent or Carla for a long time after that day. No phone calls. No visits. Nothing.

I called their apartment, but no one ever answered the phone, and they didn’t return my calls. I called Trent’s outpatient psychiatrist, Don House. He had not heard from Trent or Carla for several weeks. He too had left messages, but Trent never returned them.

“He was looking great when you finished his course of ECT,” Don told me. “I just thought that things were still going well.”

I scanned the newspapers and watched the news, afraid I would see something about a madman caught in a confrontation with the police, something horrible like that. But nothing appeared.

Nothing until one day in June, many weeks after I last saw Trent and Carla. My phone rang, and when I picked it up, it was Carla. I could barely make out her words.

“Please talk to him, doctor,” she pleaded. “Can I put him on? Will you please talk to him?”

I started to ask her what had happened, and then I thought better of it. Carla’s voice shook, and she sounded desperate for me to talk to Trent right away.

“Go ahead, Carla,” I said. “Put him on the phone. Let me talk to him.”

There was a rustling sound on the other end of the line, and then a jarring noise as the phone fell to the ground and bounced once, twice—and then I heard Trent’s voice.

“You have betrayed me,” he said. “You have betrayed me for such a small amount of money. You are no healer. You have betrayed me for money.”

“What do you mean, Trent?” I asked. “Tell me what you mean.”

There was a screeching sound, and then Carla’s voice came back on the line.

“The mania is gone,” she said. “It’s gone. He thinks that you took away his powers. He thinks the shock treatments robbed him of his powers. He says he’s no longer a god, that he’s no longer Jesus, and it’s all your fault.”

Then the line went dead.

***

That was the last time I heard from Trent or Carla. I called their house again, but there was no answer. The phone had been disconnected. I contacted the police, to see if they could do a welfare check, to go to Trent’s house and make sure that he was safe. And they did. They called me later to tell me there were cars in the driveway, and they could hear sounds in the house. But no one would answer the door.

The police had no search warrant, no reason to force their way into Trent and Carla’s home. There was no way they could go beyond what they had done. And I was left with my questions.

Was Trent all right? It appeared that he had cycled back into a severe, psychotic depression. He did not return to see me, to seek my help.

I think about him often. I failed to help him, and I am left to hope he will recover from his deadly spiraling disorder of moods that distorted his views of life like a funhouse mirror in the circus of his existence.

 

——————–

Patrick Mathiasen is a Psychiatrist, who practices in Seattle Washington.  He deals primarily with patients who are struggling with episodes of mental illness, and need to be hospitalized, including patients with severe depression which has not responded to medication and psychotherapy treatment.  These patients are frequently referred to him for consideration of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ie; Shock Treatments).  Much of Patrick’s fiction arises from his clinical work with patients.  He has authored and published one non-fiction book related to Alzheimer’s Disease; ‘An Ocean of Time; Tales of Hope and Forgetting’ (Scribners; 1997), and he has co-authored the book ‘Late Life Depression’ (Dell; 1998).  Patrick lives in Seattle with his wife and rescue cat Bentley, whom no one thought would survive.

The Shiny Star

By Michael Moreschi, Jr

Another day I look out through the hole in a boarded up window to the death and destruction on the streets I call home. Where I live wasn’t a nice building to begin with but since the bombings began it has become much worse. The front door is no more, as are the first two stairs at the entrance. You must come to the side of the pile of stone and pull yourself up by clutching the remains of a door frame to gain entrance to what was a modest three story walk up. Although I’m on the top floor most times the dust and sand mixed with the smell of burning wood, rubber, and the strong, distinct, pungent odor of decaying flesh makes its way in off the street and into my lungs. These were my friends and neighbors left in the rubble of their destroyed homes; I have to do all I can to keep from vomiting and adding to the stench. We’re considered the lucky ones because we still have a home, running water and our lives. When I say we I refer to me and Demal, my ward, so to speak.Demal is a six year old child with the brightest eyes and biggest smile you can ever imagine. He was left orphaned by his people and homeless by the mortar shells of our saviors, each thinking they are doing the right thing. I knew his family well, so I took him in and cared for him as my own. There were no stable organizations left for this purpose. The police force had run off and most of the larger government buildings are now used as make shift hospitals for the soon to be dead or headquarters for the soon to be leaving. It seems children, the sick and the elderly are just in the way when it comes to war.This war doesn’t just kill the body, it kills the souls of the living as well. Many nights Demal would wake screaming for his Mommy, tears and sweat covering his trembling little body. I’d cradle him in my arms rocking back and forth, his tears now mixing with my own, telling him his Mommy will be there soon, she’ll be there soon. What else could I say? How do you tell a six year old his father was killed by a crazed suicide bomber while riding a bus to get to his meager job, two weeks later he was left orphaned by a band of roaming soldiers who raped and tortured his mother before beating her to death with the butt of their rifles? How do you tell a six year old this was all done for a better future for him?

Demal would soon be home from school. The school is actually the basement room of one of the teachers, who still carried on her classes for anyone who showed up, sometimes more scavenging rats than children. As he came running home into the room a smile stretched from ear to ear as he proudly showed me his gold star pinned on his shirt. “How wonderful”, I proclaimed, “how did you earn that”? “Teacher had a math problem and I’m the only one who got it right.” He then hung his head. “What’s the matter,” I asked. “Well, I told her my mommy showed me how to do it” Demal confessed. “You know it’s not nice to tell fibs Demal,” I said, then I kissed his cheek and said “it’s OK”. This was our way of dealing with the horrors that have become our lives. Often he would tell me he saw his mommy on the corner, or his daddy helped him reach the high shelf where, when available, I’d keep a cookie as a special treat but he’d climb and get it on his own knowing it was for him anyway. Whenever he told a little fib like that I would tell him it’s not nice but still kiss him on the cheek to show that he is still very loved no matter what. “Well that’s a beautiful star”, I continued, “and you should be very proud and take very good care of it”.

 

 

Take care of it he did. He loved that star. He didn’t have any toys; the bombs on his home took care of that last year. The few stores that were left now only carried items necessary for survival, toys were unheard of. This star was the first thing he ever really had of his own in a long time that he could remember. He wore it every day. Showing it to everyone he met. Wiping it clean what seemed like every half hour, looking at it shining on his shirt, putting it under his pillow at night. Clutching it tight those nights he cried.

I was setting the table for dinner one day, as I knew Demal would be coming home from school soon and be hungry, when I felt a huge explosion rock the building. The missiles again. It shook me across the room, the plates falling to the floor. It was close. Too close, then I heard the screams. I ran down the stairs stumbling into the street. I had to fan my arms in front of my face to get through the smoke and dust. I followed the crying, the all too familiar crying. As the smoke lifted, there in the street, surrounded by smoldering debris, lay Demal. His tiny frame was twisted and lay face down in the dirt. I rushed to his side, he was breathing, and I could see some movement. Thank God he’s alive I screamed. As I turned him over, that’s when I saw it. From the explosion a huge piece of metal had pierced and was sticking out of his little stomach. Blood was pumping out uncontrolled. The whole front of his body was now covered deep red as the wound kept squirting and squirting blood in rhythm like someone turning a faucet on and off. Demal looked at me through glazed eyes. He was surely dying but had only one concern. “My star, my star is getting all dirty” he sobbed. I held him in my arms, tears gushing from my red swollen eyes, rocking him as I so often did; my hands and clothes now covered red in his innocent blood. I said “You hang on Demal. Don’t you worry Demal; don’t worry because I have a surprise. When we get you home, Mommy is there and she will fix it for you. Did you hear me, Mommy is there waiting, she’ll clean it, please lets go home. Please Demal. Please lets go home!” With that a strained smile came to Demal through the pain. He lifted his little face toward mine and gave me a soft kiss on my cheek, whispering in his final breath, before closing his teary eyes for the last time, “It’s not nice to fib, but it’s ok.”

 

——————–

Born in NYC, I now reside in a quiet suburb of New Jersey. My heart stills beats for NY. I spent 30 years in the fast paced life of Printing and was for a number of years a retail entrepreneur. Ten years ago I opted for the quieter life – and am now a Licenced Massage Therapist. I have always written short stories and poems and now am excited about sharing them.