Stories

Three Methods to Save Your Life, Chapter 3

By Stacia Levy

nd blast through they did.

After that whole thing of releasing our names, it wasn’t like I wasn’t totally expecting it, the conference room invasion. But captivity does something to your brain. You lose all track of time and then, with it, almost all ability to think and act rationally. I had no idea at this point how long we’d been in that room. The clock read 6:20, I remember, when I glanced at it at one point, but I had no idea if that was a.m. or p.m. or if the clock was even working. And I wasn’t motivated enough to look at Dylan’s phone to find out.

I remember later, after looking at the clock, I was standing in the middle of the room with Jake, where he was showing me pictures of his ex and babbling on about how he’d like to get back together when we got out.

I had just opened my mouth to advise him about maybe not getting his hopes up too high.

That was when the boxes against the door blew apart, papers and bits of cardboard erupting.

I just stood there—I remember thinking what a mess it was going to be to clean up.

“Get down.” Something slammed against my back.

I hit the floor. My hands and forearms came up, abdomen muscles tightening in what was now a reflexive move learned in karate, but still the wind was knocked out of me. Something warm trickled down my cheek.

And I must have passed out for a while.

Later I became aware of Jake, on top of me, moaning.

“Jake, Sharona, you guys all right?” Kev’s voice.

“Think I’ve been shot in the head.” My voice came out in a gasp. Jake was crushing me. I tried to push him off, but it was like a tree had fallen over on me—he was about as inert.

“Let’s move him off her. Dylan, let’s go.” Kev yanked at Dylan’s arm, and they crawled out from beneath the table where they’d both taken cover.

“Hey, man.” Kev knelt next to us. “Think you can roll off her?”

“I’ve been shot,” Jake said, voice twisted with pain. “In the shoulder, I think. I can’t.”

“Sharona?” Dylan dropped next to me. “You still conscious? You were shot too?”

“Maybe it’s Jake’s blood.” I touched the side of my head; my hand came away slick and red. No real pain, except my ear stinging, a loud ringing encompassing my head. “I think they maybe just shot off part of my earlobe.” Bad, but not as bad as in the head. It was going to take plastic surgery that my insurance probably would try to weasel out of paying for, the bad news for me, but Jake had taken most of the bullet for us, even worse news for him.

“You’re bleeding an awful lot, girl,” Dylan said.

“Ears bleed a lot.” A vivid memory rose of a covert and botched attempt on the part of my best friend to pierce my ears when I was twelve because my mother wouldn’t allow it, as it’s against Jewish law. It ended in a trip to the ER. “I’ll be all right.”

“Dylan, we need to get him off her.” Kev rose and moved to my and Jake’s heads. He seemed in a take-charge mood, like he knew just what to do—maybe he’d dealt with shootings before, who knew. “Jake, we’re going to try to keep you as still as possible. Grab his feet, Dylan. I’ve got him under the arms.”

They lifted and laid him out on the floor next to me. I sat up, feeling for cracked ribs.

“You still bleeding, man?” Kev knelt next to him. “We’ve got to get that stopped.”

“Here.” I pulled off my sweater. Damn, one of my favorites. “Let’s tear it in strips for bandages.” I’d save what was left to stop the blood still dripping from my ear.

It was only after we had tied the makeshift bandages on and slowed the bleeding that I thought about it.

“They stopped shooting,” I said. “Why’d they stop shooting?”

“Because they don’t really want to kill us,” Dylan said. He’d picked up his phone from the table. “Not just yet, anyway. They found us just as negotiations with the police really started to break down.”

“‘Break down’?” Jake asked. “What does that mean? Didn’t they release the others?”

“We’re their last leverage. Two of them shot through the doors, and their leader told them to stop. Why kill or release us when they can tell the police they’ve got us at gunpoint?”

“Is that what they’re saying?” Kev said. “Assholes.”

“Yeah.” I laughed. “How dare they lie on top of everything else?”

“The only good news,” Dylan said, “is they know we’re their last bargaining chip. Basically they don’t want to kill us right now.”

“Well, I don’t want to get too discouraging,” Kev said, “but we all know what they did with a couple of the first bargaining chips. And with us they may be more effective.”

None of us responded until Dylan spoke. “I just ask that they shoot me first.”

“Listen.” Jake got up, staggering a little bit, hand at his bad shoulder, but he was on his feet. He seemed energized, like he’d gotten some adrenaline rush from the whole thing. “We can’t have that attitude.”

“Oh, it’s my attitude that’s the problem?” Dylan laughed. “Oh, okay, just like not being aware enough? Well, thank God, because that’s easily fixed.”

“What I’m talking about,” Jake spoke over him, “is if we’re going to survive this, we can’t get defeatist. We have to think we can survive, be really motivated, if we’re going to push through and live. Well, what is it? Do you guys want this bad enough to do the work?”

Usually motivational speeches broke me out in hives. But this time I got his point.

“I’m in,” I said.

“Me too,” Kev said after a moment. “Dylan?”

“Oh, all right,” he said.

“Good.” Jake started to collapse in his chair again but then just leaned on the table. “So now it’s time to talk strategy. The first thing we need to decide is if we try calling 9-1-1 after all, tell them exactly where we are, and let the police save us.”

We all looked at each other.

“Practically, how are they going to do that?” I asked. “Wouldn’t they have to come blasting through the store, kill all the gunmen, before they get over here? And if they could do that, why haven’t they already? They’ll probably get killed themselves in the process.”

“We could walk out on the floor and meet them,” Jake said.

“What, are you crazy?” Kev said as howls of protest came from both Dylan and me.

“Just throwing that out,” Jake said. “Okay, we have consensus there, then. That is not an option.”

“Yeah, suicide’s out, for now, anyway,” I said. “If they aren’t talking to the police, shouldn’t we wait until they begin negotiations again? We’re okay for now. Like you said, we’re their last bargaining chip.”

“We can’t wait,” Jake said. “We are not okay. It’s a really volatile situation that could blow up at any time. And we need to get more food and water soon. Kevin and Dylan, don’t you guys need to get to your meds soon?”

“I’m good for a while,” Dylan said. “Before I start frothing at the mouth. Kevin?”

“Oh, I’m spiking sugar,” he said. “Or they could decide to start blasting through that wall again, and then it won’t matter, will it?”

“Does your phone battery still have some juice?” I asked Dylan. I was getting resigned here. The time for toughing it out was drawing to an end. “We have to consider calling 9-1-1.”

Dylan looked at it. “It’s at seventy percent. No problem making the call.” He looked at us. “Well, what is it? Do we trust the police to get over here and bail us out?”

The two other men nodded. There seemed little other option. A bad one, but maybe the only feasible one.

Dylan shrugged and put his hand to the dial screen.

Then I heard my voice, as if it was coming from outside of my body, “Wait just a second.”

He stopped and looked at me. “What?”

“Call this number.” I rattled it off.

Dylan put his hand to the keypad, as if automatically, then paused. “What’s that?”

“It’s the clothing register’s extension.”

“What the hell—” Kev said. And then, “Oh, no, Sharona. No way.”

“Well, why not?” Dylan said. “It’s an option. Then, if it fails, we call 9-1-1.”

“Dylan, Sharona is not going to negotiate with a bunch of killers,” Kev said.

“Jesus, you didn’t think I was serious, did you?”

“Yes,” Jake and Kev said together.

“Well, why couldn’t you have been serious?” I said. “Why can’t I negotiate with them?”

“Sharona, you’re just not,” Kev said. “And that’s final.”

“What are you, my big brother? What gives you the right—”

“If anyone does it—and I’m not saying at all that’s going to happen—it will be one of us.”

“‘Us’? Who’s ‘us’?”

“Dylan, Jake, or me.”

“I see. So I’m not part of ‘us.’ And just why is that, Kev?”

“Because you’re a girl, okay?” Dylan said.

“Oh, I’m a girl, am I?” That was almost funny, the visual of me as a “girl” rising—maybe stretched across my bed, talking to my boyfriend into a pink phone with one hand, twirling a piece of my hair with the other. Shit, I was never a girl. I hadn’t been serious about the whole thing before, just basically trying to get a rise out of Kev, in particular, for some reason, but now it wasn’t a joke anymore.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let’s play ‘paper, scissors, rock.’ Best of five; winner negotiates.”

“What in hell’s ‘paper, scissors, rock’?” Dylan asked.

“Come on, Dylan, really? What, did you spend your childhood under a piece of paper or rock or something? It’s that game where everyone sticks their hands in the middle of the group in the shape of a rock, paper, or scissors. Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, and all that?”

“Oh, yeah, that.” Dylan looked at me. “Are you serious?”

“Dead serious.” I added, “Pardon the pun.”

I could basically beat the pants off anyone at this because, for some reason, I was usually the only one in any group who realizes the likelihood of winning if you knew that players tended to rotate the three choices of paper, scissors, and rock, and then you could anticipate their moves. Maybe because the people who played “paper, scissors, rock” weren’t too bright in the first place.

Kev was the wild card in this one. Dylan didn’t know the game, and I had to think that Jake was exaggerating or lying outright about stealing from the company, swaggering for Dylan and Kev’s benefit, maybe. He just wasn’t as twisted as the rest of us. He didn’t know how to cheat.

After some more hesitation and bickering, we ended up gathering in a circle and sticking our hands in the middle, Dylan placing the coveted phone on the table.

“On the count of three,” I said.

“Wait,” Kev said. “Why are you calling it?”

“Do you want to call it?” I really didn’t want to give him this because it gave him control, but I wasn’t going to show that.

“No,” he said, as I had anticipated. “You call it.”

“Once again,” I said, with exaggerated patience. “On the count of one, two—three.”

As I knew they would, they all threw their hands out, anticipating “three” before I actually said it while I deliberately held back my hand a fraction of a second. I saw Kev’s fingers forming a V: scissors. Because rookie males generally ran to “rock,” I also threw out rock, which breaks scissors, without glancing at Dylan or Jake.

And only then saw Kev’s paper. Paper covers rock.

“To Kevin,” I said. Shit. How’d he does that? “Okay, next round.”

Kev probably wouldn’t take paper again. Jake and Dylan wouldn’t take rock again. So I’d take paper as Kevin might just take rock this time.

And he did, as Dylan did. And Jake took paper, so I was tied with Kev.

“And again,” I said.

It got tricky here. I’d go to rock as Kev just might rotate to scissors, and the other guys really wouldn’t choose rock again.

Kev did choose scissors, as did both Jake and Dylan, so I was ahead by one.

Now I’d choose paper again. Kev really wouldn’t choose scissors again. The other guys might rotate back to rock.

I threw paper.

Dylan took rock and Jake chose paper.

And Kev did take scissors again, damn him, tying us.

Now I had to really concentrate, with one more to go. I watched them carefully. It was really hard to anticipate, at this time, what they’d take.

I saw their hands coming up. I again held back, saw Jake’s hand forming into paper, couldn’t tell with Dylan’s, and Kev’s hand laid out flat.

Paper.

I threw scissors.

And only then saw Kevin’s hand in a bunched fist.

Rock. Rock breaks scissors.

Damn, damn. It was over.

“How in hell did you do that?” I said.

“Sharona, I didn’t do anything.” Kev shrugged. “It’s a game of chance.”

“It is not,” I said. “There is strategy.”

“I know that,” he said after a moment. “And I knew that you knew, so I was keeping my eye on you. Jake and Dylan I wasn’t worried about.”

“But I was keeping my eye on you.”

“It’s probably just my reflexes or eye-hand coordination are a little quicker than yours. Gave me the advantage.” He picked up the phone. “Sorry.”

He’d just out-cheated a cheater, which really wasn’t fair.

“Give me that thing.” I held out my hand. “You know I’m the only one who can successfully deal with these guys. I’m the talker and besides, the least disabled one among us.”

He shook his head, stuffing the phone in his front jeans pocket. His hands were trembling slightly and anxiety flashed through me.

“It’s going to be all right, Kev,” I whispered and put my arms around him. He had hard, lean muscles in his back, smelled of salty sweat that wasn’t at all unpleasant. I let my hands trail down his abs and then along the front of his legs. Who knew, maybe this would be the last time I’d touch a guy like this, might as well make the most of it.

“You know you’re the only person who’s ever called me that?”

“Sorry. I’ll stop.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.” He leaned his face into my hair. Then he suddenly froze and pushed me away. “What in hell are you doing?”

I jumped away, turning my back, hands cupping the phone.

Shit. Great, that’s what I get for thinking with my balls.”

“Yep.”

“Sharona, that really was not fair—”

“Shhh.” I was dialing away.

It rang until the answering machine picked up. I gritted my teeth as the recorded message with store hours and sales came on.

Then a voice interrupted the monologue. A tenor—didn’t sound like a gunman’s—asked, “Who’s this?”

“Sharona Feinstein,” I said. “I’m one of your hostages. And may I ask to whom I’m speaking?”

Behind me the men broke into laughter. I shushed them again.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Oscar.”

“Do you have a last name, Oscar?”

“White.” After the smallest of pauses.

Oscar White. Sharona Smith. Sure.

“And you’re the alpha male, I take it?”

“What?”

“Are you the leader?”

“Yeah.” After another pause.

“Okay, Mr. Oscar White,” I said. “Let’s talk.”

“About what?”

Yeah, about what. What the hell do you talk to a killer and your captor about? I was totally in the dark on that one, but experience told me that just talking clouds a lot of issues rather than illuminating them, which would probably be for the best in this case. Didn’t want to know this guy’s life story. I’d just pretend I did because people always secretly believed you did anyway and wanted, more than anything, to tell it.

“So it’s been a busy day for you,” I said. “Care to tell me about it?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“True enough,” I said. “You don’t. We could both just hang up right now.”

Except he wasn’t going to do that, now that he knew he had a literally captive audience.

I waited. No sound of the line going dead.

“Oscar, you still there?” I said anyway.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, good. So tell me, Oscar. What’s this all been about today?”

“What do you mean?”

What did I mean. “Well, the thing with taking hostages, killing people. I have to think it’s been about something.” No answer. “Oh, I heard you wanted money and a plane. Is that true?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Said, operative word. “But not what you really want. Like saying you want to go to Disneyland with your family or whatever, because it’s expected of you, when you’d really rather spend the vacation at home in your room, eating pizza and screwing your girlfriend while everyone else goes. Am I right?” No answer. “So what do you really want, Oscar? What’s this all been about? You didn’t take a bunch of people hostage and shoot a couple of them over a plane and some money.” People didn’t kill to go to Disneyland. They killed for much more fundamental urges.

And Oscar didn’t disappoint. “To get even,” he said.

Ah. Now we were getting somewhere. “Get even with who?”

“The manager.”

Well, I wanted to get even with some manager somewhere too. “Manager of what?”

“The store, what do you think?”

“I don’t know. Was thinking maybe the one in the sky, the Great Manager.”

This drew a startling burst of laughter from him. “You’re funny.”

“So they say.” I cleared my throat. “Well, I can totally relate, Oscar. I want to get even with them too. Both the manager and The Manager. For getting me in this whole situation, obviously. What do you want to get even with them for? What did they do to you? Fire you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, a lot of us lose jobs, Oscar. I’ve lost more myself than I can count.” Coming to work hung over and spending time on the phone dealing with various romantic crises tended to get your employer upset with you. “What was such a big deal about losing a job here that made you want to kill?”

Oscar, Oscar. I was racking my brain trying to remember him. Who worked here who was called Oscar? It had to be an alias.

Or maybe I really just didn’t remember him. The problem was he was invisible to everyone. This was the only way he could get others to pay attention.

“Come on, Oscar,” I said. “What made you so mad?”

He didn’t respond.

“Oscar, you still there?”

“Yeah.” Barely audible.

I sighed and slid down the wall I’d been leaning against to settle on the floor, knees drawn to my chin. We were in for the long haul, it looked like.

“When you lost your job, did you lose your family too?” I prodded. “Like your wife and kids left because you couldn’t support them?”

He didn’t sound old enough to have a wife and kids.

“I don’t have a wife and kids,” he echoed my thoughts. “It’s just me.”

That made sense. Anyone with a family wouldn’t do this—they’d be too worried about what their sisters would think or whatever.

“So you feel pretty alone.” I was no stranger to that either.

“Yeah.”

“So do I sometimes. Still doesn’t explain why you did this.”

“Look, will you stop comparing yourself to me?” he burst out. “You got no idea how I feel.”

“True, no one knows how anyone else feels. So why don’t you tell me, Oscar?”

“Disrespected.” He spoke after a minute. “They were rude to me.”

And here was the heart of the matter. “Who was rude to you?”

“My co-workers. The manager.”

“So you were like bullied? How?”

“Look, I really don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“Okay.” Too close to home, then. “So I don’t know exactly what went on then, Oscar, obviously, but what I can tell you is this. You know the saying ‘the best revenge is living well’?” I just remembered that from bumper stickers that were popular a few years back, usually on Mercedes and BMWs, like anyone needed to be reminded that their owners lived well. “Think about that. Stop worrying about these people so much and work on your own happiness.” Advice I should probably take myself.

“I don’t want to be happy,” he said. “I want to get even.”

Ah, yes. Revenge trumps everything else. Again I could totally identify. That’s what all the running from man to man and job to job, drinking too much, was about, probably—getting even with my ex for abandoning me by commission by leaving and my parents by omission, absenting themselves by dying.

So what could I do? It takes years to reach that kind of insight, and I wasn’t any kind of therapist.

This was getting weird. Or weirder. The pros really should take over.

“Oscar,” I said, “have the police negotiators been in contact recently?”

“Yeah. They want to know how you guys are doing.”

“How are you guys holding up?” I turned to face my fellow captives. Had almost forgotten about them in the conversation with Oscar.

They were all seated around the table; they shrugged in unison. Oh, fuck, fuck the macho credo. Some guys would rather crawl off and die somewhere than admit to needing help.

I turned back to the phone and had to remember to switch it to my un-messed-up ear. “Listen, Oscar, we need to get some food and water in here. Please?”

“Shit, is that what you really want from me?”

“No.” Well, what the hell did he think? I enjoyed listening to his sad story? “But it’s what we need right now. Could one of you maybe go to the food aisle and pull out some sandwiches from the refrigerator and a few water bottles? Oh, and look. Go over to the medical supply section too and get some bandages and rubbing alcohol while you’re at it.”

“What’s that for?”

“For the two of us you shot, okay? So we don’t die of tetanus.”

“Okay.” Then the line went dead for a while.

“What’s going on?” Kev asked.

“I’m on hold.” I shrugged. “Assume Oscar’s getting his posse to round up the supplies.”

“How are we going to get the stuff in here once they’ve found it?” Dylan’s voice suggested my IQ wasn’t much more than two.

Shit. I really hadn’t thought of that.

“Obviously we’re going to have to open the door for that.” Jake shook his head. “A real risk.”

I thought it over, tried to imagine opening the door to Oscar. And shuddered.

“I don’t think we can risk it,” I said. “We need to let the police take over the negotiations again.”

I put the phone back to my ear. “Oscar, are you back?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, Oscar.” I knew from my long history of manipulating people that repeating their name over and over, every sentence, had a lulling effect, got them on your side, like you had some magical power for knowing their name, when they’d given it to you themselves not ten minutes before. “What do you think about talking to the police again? They’re better at this than I am.”

“Sure they are, and that’s why I don’t want to talk to them. They’re going to get me killed. They want you guys released and me killed.”

Well, what the hell did he think I wanted? “Okay, that’s fine, Oscar,” I said. “I understand. I’ll keep talking to you. But I need you to promise me something.”

“What?”

“I’m going to open the door partway to get the food and medical supplies, and you’ve got to promise not to shoot or barge in here. Will you promise that, Oscar?”

He was silent.

“Oscar? You need to promise that, or I’m not going to open the door, and we won’t get the food and supplies, and one or more of us will probably die. And then it’s all over. Worst-case scenario. Best-case scenario, you won’t have your hostages anymore, and the police will have no incentive to not come in.”

“Okay.” Mumbled. This was clearly a man of action, not words. “I promise.”

“All right.” I breathed out. “I’m going to take down part of the barrier now and open the door.” I signaled to Dylan to get over and help me.

Heart pounding, I pushed open the door, talking all the while into the phone. “I’m opening the door now, Oscar. Please hand in the stuff…”

I caught a blurred glimpse of him as he passed through the bag of sandwiches and bandages—white shirt, long sleeve pushed back to reveal a tanned arm. Red bandana holding back tightly curled, black hair. Head lowered so I couldn’t see his face.

My heart pounded twice, hard. Then the door slammed shut.

“Here.” My limbs felt like jelly as I carried the food and bandages the couple of steps to the laptop table, where I dumped them. I sank into a free chair, breathing in and out, trying to regulate my heartbeat.

The men were already breaking into the sandwiches, passing around the water bottles.

“Sharona, take one,” Jake said.

I shook my head. I couldn’t imagine eating right now.

“She’s on such a roll,” Dylan said, “she doesn’t have time to eat.”

“I’m just not hungry, okay?” I said. “Somewhere along the way I lost my appetite.”

But he was right, I realized. Besides my stomach heaving, I was somehow cruising along on the adrenaline rush.

“What do we do now?” Dylan asked, his mouth full.

“Do?” How many choices did we have, anyway? “I think we should eat, bandage up our wounds, and then keep talking.”

I was eventually going to have to get back on the phone and try to reason with an unreasonable person, but I’d delay it as long as possible.

The phone sounded as Dylan had just finished covering my ear with a bandage. Automatically I answered the call, turning away from him as I held the phone to my other ear.

“I’m back,” Oscar said.

“Well, great.” So we were going to talk some more, it looked like.

The men were all looking at me. I shrugged and turned away again.

“So what’s up, Oscar? What are your plans now?” I had to keep him on the line, talking. Delay any more impulsive decisions on his part.

“I still want the plane and money,” he said.

“You still—” I echoed his words as my brain caught up with this. “Okay, I see. And what are you going to do with those things if you get them?”

“Start a new life in a different place.”

“Well, don’t we all want that? Maybe we have more in common than you think, Oscar.”

Sharona, Kev was mouthing at me. I shook my head.

“But let’s just hold that thought, Oscar,” I said. “What’s so bad about your life here? What do you want to change? What will get better if you go somewhere else?” I thought of something then. “You said something about respect awhile back? You aren’t respected?”

No. I mean yes, that’s what I said. No one respects me.”

“Well, why don’t they? Is it because you’re on the short side?”

“How in hell do you know that?”

“I saw you when the door was open. A little.” I sighed. Could see the headline. Short Kid With Gun Takes Hostages, Kills for Respect. What a joke and fucking stupid way to die. “You’re not going to get any taller when you go somewhere else.”

“You know what, shut up.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s talk about something else.” I drew in my breath. “So what do you do with yourself when you’re not taking people hostage, Oscar?”

What?”

“What do you like to do, Oscar? Like with your free time? Read, go to movies, play golf, what?”

“No,” he said.

“No what? You don’t like those specific things or you have no outside interests?”

“I got no fucking hobbies, okay?”

“Okay, okay.” Made total sense. Maybe crime was just a symptom of boredom. “But I don’t believe that. There must be something you like to do.”

Not necessarily. I didn’t have any particular compelling interests either, beyond living through this, of course.

And talking. I really liked the sound of my own voice.

I was steeling myself for a tongue-lashing or something worse, like Oscar losing all patience and shooting through the door again.

But then all he said was, “I like cars.”

“Cars.” I breathed out. “Great. What kind of cars?”

And I listened, but not really, as he waxed eloquent about the relative merits of Ferraris and classic Mustangs.

Then the phone beeped.

I held it away from my head, looking at it. And saw the telltale battery icon.

“Oscar, I got to power down for a couple of minutes to save the battery.” Shit, shit, shit. Why couldn’t Dylan have thought to stick the power cord down his pants when he went to the bathroom? How much trouble would that have been? “So could you just chill for a couple of minutes?”

What?”

“Just sit tight. Wait.” And we were dealing with a language barrier on top of everything else, apparently. “I’ll be right back.”

I set down the phone and then just sat, eyes closed, trying to clear my mind. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Say the schma, a Jewish prayer that’s something like a mantra.

I then opened my eyes. “Dylan, why don’t you use the phone for a while?” The negotiations were going nowhere right now anyway, and Dylan’s tireless pacing around was really getting on my nerves.

“What?” He stopped to look at me. “You want me to talk to them now?”

“No. Call your parents.”

“What the hell? Why—?”

“Because they probably want to hear from you.”

“I’ve told you they said—”

“Never mind what they said. Families say all kinds of things to each other they don’t really mean.” He didn’t respond. “Christ, Dylan, you broke their TV, in my understanding. You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”

“No, of course not, but that still doesn’t mean they want to hear from me.”

“If you’ll excuse me, it almost certainly does. Dylan, I’ve got to think your parents listen to the news like anyone else. And this is big news locally. They’ve heard your name the media so kindly released. They know you’re in here, and they’d want to know you’re alive.” For some reason I found myself tearing up and fought to keep my voice steady. My own rhetoric got to me at times—I was that good. “Take the damn phone and call your parents. Tell them you’re all right.”

“Shit, I’m not all right. I’m probably going to die.”

“Then call them and say good-bye. If not for you, then for them. Do you really want them to live the rest of their lives without ever having made up with you?”

He took it. “Damn it. All right. I’m going to do it in semi-private, if you don’t mind.”

“Just do it.”

He strode off to a corner opposite the one we’d been using as a bathroom, the telephone booth now, apparently. I closed my eyes again, breathed deep.

Dylan came back to the group and handed the phone to me.

I took it, looking at him, not saying anything.

He shrugged. “It’s all good.”

“Well, good.” I put the phone back to my ear.

“Oscar. I’m back.” I tried to keep my voice calm, hoping there’d be some kind of synchronicity between us. “I think you know the police are not going to give you a plane to Argentina. Even if they could. But they don’t have that kind of power. You know that, Oscar.”

Just the sound of his breathing into the phone.

“And they’re not going to want to, Oscar. You know that too. And it’s only a matter of time before the cops come busting in here, whether you’ve got hostages or not. They’re not going to stand off forever, Oscar. Police have generally got real low levels for frustration tolerance. You’re going to go to jail, Oscar. Or die trying to keep out of jail.”

He made a low mutter or growl. Maybe a whimper. Hard to tell over the phone.

I thought of something then. “Let’s go back to what we were talking about earlier. You said something about wanting to start a new life somewhere else. Don’t you still want that? What kind of new life do you want?”

“I don’t know.”

He didn’t know. Probably true, at least consciously. Young adult males with criminal tendencies weren’t particularly celebrated for their impulse control and ability to plan.

“Come on, Oscar. You must have some idea of this new life, maybe where you’re respected? So how are you going to get that if you die? You want to avoid the electric chair, don’t you? Or the needle?” California had a moratorium on the death penalty, but I was betting he didn’t know that. Best to leave him on that thought. “Look, Oscar, I got to power down again. I’ll be right back.”

I closed my eyes again. More deep breathing. Said the schma again. Schma Israel, Adonai aleheinu

“Sharona.” Kev’s voice. “What’s going on? What the hell are you doing?” He must have heard me whispering. “Saying the freaking schma?”

He wasn’t an observant Jew, right. “Just thinking.”

“Just thinking? Who has time for that? Praying and thinking—give me a break. Why don’t you say something?”

“Because I got no idea of what to say now, okay? That’s why I’m thinking. So why don’t you just shut up and let me?”

“Want me to take over for a while?”

No.”

So that’s what it disintegrated into for a while, the “negotiations.” It was really hard. I had always considered myself a supreme bullshit artist who could talk her way out of just about anything—more tickets than I could count, a couple of bad grades, and once a relationship with a stalker ex-boyfriend, whom I managed to convince it would be in his own best interest to put as much space between himself and me as possible. But now I was getting the limitations of communication, how maybe we put too much faith in its power. Talk therapy never did anyone much good, from my experience, maybe made you worse. Most couples who committed to regular chats where they “talk things through” were headed for divorce within a couple of months. And they’ve been “talking” in the Mideast forever, and look where it’s gotten them.

Just saying.

“Sharona, give me that phone.” Kev’s voice.

“Christ, what is it with you and the phone? Don’t you get ‘no’ means ‘no’?” I glanced up at him—he was bugging the crap out of me.

And then I saw how much his condition had spiraled downward in the time I’d been talking to Oscar—he was white, shaking, dripping sweat, pupils dilated like coins.

“Kev.” I fought down a surge of panic. “Why don’t you just sit down and take it easy, okay?”

Take it easy? How in hell am I supposed to do that?”

“Just do it, okay?” He stood there, arms folded. “Kevin, I think you know you’re in no shape to do this. You won at ‘paper, scissors, rock,’ okay, but frankly, you look like shit. Just sit down and save whatever resources you have left.”

He sat down.

I turned and dialed the clothing section extension. The phone growled back at me. We were now down to ten percent battery. “Oscar, I’m back. So what’s the scoop?”

What?”

Jeez, just what dialect did these guys speak? “The news,” I said. “Any decisions? I’m pretty much done talking, Oscar. My battery’s going to power down permanently any minute now, and I’m running out of patience. So are the police. So what’s it going to be?”

No response but I could hear him breathing into the phone, like he had allergies and needed to breathe through his mouth.

“Look, Oscar.” I glanced back at the men, then turned back to the phone. I had been trying to modulate the fear in my voice, but maybe it was okay to let it out. Besides Kevin being on the verge of collapse, Dylan was pacing around again, climbing the walls, the anxiety levels from whatever his psych issue was probably spiraling, Jake bleeding some more. “We got two people in here with critical health conditions and one shot who all need medical attention real soon. If something bad happens to one of them, I’m thinking something worse will happen to you.” I thought of something then. “And to tell you the truth, Oscar, I’m not feeling so great myself. Besides you nearly taking off my ear, I’m still a little hung over from last night and feel like I’m about to start my period.”

Silence.

“Oscar, are you still there?” A muttered reply. “What? I don’t understand mumbling.”

“I said I’m thinking.”

“Okay, you go ahead and think all you want, but what I really need you to do now is get one of your people to go to these gentlemen’s desks and get their meds. Please. I’m begging you now. Guys, where are your meds?”

“At home,” Dylan said. “I don’t bring them to work. Worry about Kevin, why don’t you? Yeah, now I’m worried, okay? Kevin, where in hell’s your desk?”

“I don’t have a desk,” Kev said. “It’s a locker.”

Oh, great. “Well, what’s the combination?” I asked. “Where is it?”

“It’s that row of lockers in the coat room where the time clock is. Mine’s second from the right, bottom. Combination’s fifty-two to the right, sixty-four to the left, eighteen right.”

“Okay, got it.” I fed this information back to Oscar.

Something occurred to me then. “Oscar, hold on.” I turned back to Kev. “What’s it look like? The medication? Needles or what?”

“Yeah, needles, with insulin preloaded. I don’t think he’s going to overlook them. I’ve missed a couple of doses by now.”

“Okay.” I turned back to the phone. “Oscar, look for some needles. Go get them now—just bring all of them that you see, and I do mean now.” I hung up.

While I was waiting there for the medicine, I remembered something from college.

“Logos, pathos, ethos,” I said.

“What the hell are you mumbling?” Kev said. “More Hebrew?”

“I think actually it’s Greek. I learned it about a million years ago in college.” Back when I thought I might be a lawyer when I grew up, before I realized that actually took effort and persistence. “It means ‘logic, feeling, ethics.’” The three strategies to persuade someone, playing on their logic, emotions, and ethics.

“I get it,” Kev said. “We’ve already been logical and pathetic.”

“Yeah.”

“So time for ethics.” He shrugged. “Good luck with that.”

It only hit me as they passed the needles through the door a few minutes later. It was probably not going to be much longer now. The door was open and basically they could burst in any time but were choosing not to, for whatever reason. And they were doing everything I asked. Like almost no one had ever before in my life. That was intoxicating.

And then another thing hit me. Two epiphanies in the space of five minutes. So this was what it was like when you had a clear head and time to think.

This was what I wanted to be when I grew up, with the rest of my life, if anything was left of it.

I turned back to the phone.

“Oscar, I’ve gotten to know you a little in talking with you over the past few hours, and I know that even if you’ve made some really bad decisions today, you’re not a total sociopath.” Actually that was what I thought, but this was an appeal to ethics. “Those first hostages, out on the floor, those were an accident, I know, in the heat of the moment. But if one of us dies in here, it’s different. It’s cold-blooded murder, Oscar. Do you think you can live with that for whatever will remain of your life?”

He didn’t respond.

“Look.” Had to think of something, anything else to say. “You said you’re totally alone, Oscar? Got no one?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I don’t believe that either. Because I would have said the same thing earlier today, but now I have three other people depending on me.” That also just hit me. I wasn’t alone anymore and probably never would be again once I walked out of here, if I walked out of here. Once people sensed you were someone they could count on, they were never going to leave you alone—which meant I’d have to stop with the self-injury shit of drinking and sleeping around. “And you have at least your buddies out there. And then, Oscar, there’s all of the people who depend on the people who depend on you. Got it? None of us is really alone. What’s going to happen to your friends if you die?”

He mumbled something that sounded a lot like “mother” and not in the curse word sense of the term.

“What?” I couldn’t quite believe it. “Shit, Oscar, did you just say you have a mother?”

“Yeah.”

“And she’s alive? Well, Christ, then you’re really not alone. Even if you did kill someone. If you’ve got a mom, you’re not alone. All mothers care.” Even my mom, a professional party girl who had never gotten over being the prom queen that she was, had cared on some level. “What’s she going to do if you die? Oscar, we’ve both got people depending on us. Please.”

“I’ll let one of you out,” he said. “You. Just you.”

I let my breath out.

“Oscar,” I said, “I respect you for this. Really.” And I meant it. “We might all just get out of here alive.”

“What?” Kev said. “What’s going on?”

“They’ll release one of us.” I put down the phone.

Jake sighed. “That means the rest of us will probably follow right after.”

“Dylan, I think you and I can wait,” I said. “It should be Jake or Kevin first.”

“No,” Kev said.

“What do you mean, no?”

“I mean who died and left you the triage unit? I can’t speak for Dylan and Jake, but I can wait.”

“I can too,” Jake said.

Dylan shrugged. “I think that means you’re going first, Sharona. Like he said. Do you think I didn’t hear him? I’m standing here right next to you and heard every freaking word.”

I let this sink in for a moment. “So you really think,” I said, “I’m supposed to go first just because I’m female, did most of the negotiations, and got shot a little?”

“Yes,” Jake and Kev said together.

“Ladies first.” Jake shrugged.

“How many times do I have to say it? I’m not a lady. I’m not a girl. I’m a grown woman who can make her own decisions.” I really was; there was no denying that little fact now. “And I’m telling you I just can’t do it. I don’t care if I’m the only female. Not when two of the guys in this room really need to get out. Remember what we decided before about gender stereotypes? We can’t do chivalry now.”

“It’s not chivalry.” Dylan spoke up, his voice dry. “It’s evolutionary, instinctive. To continue the species, you need a lot of women, just one guy. Basically, we can die.”

“Jesus Christ,” Kev said. “Will you shut the fuck up? For once?”

“For once? I haven’t talked in like hours.”

“Shut up,” Jake said. “Both of you.”

And they obeyed.

“I’m getting back on the phone,” I said. This was ridiculous. “I’ll talk him into letting one of you go first.”

“Sharona, you just can’t take that chance,” Kev said. “We can’t risk it. He might just withdraw the whole offer.”

“I’ve been negotiating with him for hours. I can get him to take this one more step.”

“No, and that’s final.”

“Your qualms about leaving us don’t even matter,” Dylan said. “Not if they’re asking for you. It isn’t even a matter of your being a woman.”

Crap. He was probably right. I put the phone back to my ear anyway, reflexively.

And got nothing. I looked at it, knowing I’d see the dark and blank screen.

“We’re powered down,” I said.

“Well, that really seals it,” Kev said. He had gotten up somehow, hanging onto the table. “Go, Sharona.”

I walked over to the door without thinking, just limbs moving automatically, and stood on the threshold. Then I turned back.

Kev had made it over to stand behind me.

“What if they’re lying?” I put my hand on his shoulder, more to steady than persuade him. “What if they just release me and not you guys?”

“If they do, they do. At least you’ll survive. I mean it, Sharona.” Kev shoved me forward. “Just go, or I swear to God I’ll kill you myself.”

“Do you really think I just put myself through hours of negotiation just to walk away from you guys?”

“Just go.” He shoved me again.

“Stop pushing.”

I stood on the threshold, biting my lip, then walked out into the hall. Was it really only a day or two ago I had breezed up and down this hall about ten times a shift on the way to the bathroom or the break room, not even noticing—it was just a hall, not some monumental and terrifying move into the unknown?

I stepped out and looked down the hall and through the store.

Oscar’s slim, short figure stood posted at the end of the hall. I didn’t see a gun anywhere, and the thought shot through my mind that he’d been unarmed this whole time. Wouldn’t that be a joke on me.

Further out through the store, not fifty feet away, in front and through the clear windows, a whole pack of police lined up, a bunch of squad cars parked behind them. It looked like it was dusk, the sun just setting.

So we’d probably been in that room about a day and a half.

One of the officers spoke through a bullhorn that blasted through the windows. “Sharona. Step forward. Now. Come out of the hall, then walk toward me.”

My vision blurred.

I swung around to the door. “I can’t. Remember? What we promised each other?”

“Oh, fuck.” Kev slammed his fist into the door. “Fuck you, Sharona. I don’t give a shit what we promised each other. Just go.”

“Not without you.” We’d all go down together.

“Sharona.” The policeman blared through the horn. “Walk toward me.”

Kev pushed again. “We’ll be all right,” he said. “You’re just the first to go.”

He was right. Probably.

I took my first step down the hall. And then another. And another, keeping my eyes on Oscar the whole time. He stared back, face impassive.

I averted my gaze. These guys were like panthers—stare at them and they sprang. And this was no time to play dare-you.

I continued walking, keeping my eyes straight ahead. Oscar’s entire posse was lined up on either side—there were probably only four of them actually, looking back, but they seemed then like an entire platoon, lining the wall to infinity. I kept going, strides toward the doors.

Oh, thanks, guys, my dear fellow captives. Thanks a lot. You did me such a big favor, forcing me to go first.

No one made a move toward me.

And then I was at the double glass doors. They were automatic, no way to engage them manually without going in and doing some major monkeying. I stepped on the mat in front.

They didn’t move.

Fuck, the gunmen had locked us in here. We were stuck. It was all a trap.

“Sharona, that’s the entrance,” the cop said into the bullhorn. He had sandy hair, freckles, piercing blue eyes he kept trained on me. “Step over to the exit.”

I moved over as I suppressed hysterical laughter. I had only come in and out through these same doors every weekday for two years now.

The doors swung open.

And then two medics were on top of me, dragging me away. One of them slung someone’s big corduroy jacket across my shoulders. It smelled of cigarette smoke.

“What’s that for?” I attempted to shrug out of it. “I’m not cold.” It was a late summer Stockton afternoon. I’ve known Israelis from the freaking desert to come here and piss and moan about the heat.

The medic, one of those big, bossy nurse types, shoved it back on. “You’re in shock.”

“I am not ‘in shock.’” What the hell was there to be shocked about after a couple of days?

“Clinical shock.” The other medic, a guy with brown hair and glasses, also made an attempt to get the coat back on. “You’re shaking.”

He was right. I was freezing, short of breath, and dizzy.

“You need to be treated for that,” the bossy nurse said. “Get in the ambulance, Sharona.”

“No.” I knew that much about the law, that I had the right to refuse treatment as long as I had all my faculties. Well, I’d probably never had all of them but still enough to make decisions for myself. “I need to make sure the others make it out all right.”

“Sharona, you can’t.” The other medic, the guy, shook his head. “Staying here won’t make an iota of difference. You need to come to the hospital for treatment. You could lose oxygen, drop your blood pressure, and suffer major organ damage.”

“Shut up.” I was a hero of sorts and in shock. I was allowed some latitude.

He shut up, shaking his head.

That made me feel bad and I relented. “I need to see for myself. I’ll go in after, I promise.”

Then I shut them out for a few minutes and focused on my breathing until the dizziness cleared.

We all stayed there in the parking lot for hours, literally, eyes trained on the doors as the guys were released, one by one. Someone gave me something to drink at one point, couldn’t say what it even was, just that it was in a paper cup. I stood there drinking it as the doors kept swinging open.

A news crew and some paparazzi, the usual vultures, had gathered, of course, filming, taking pictures, tweeting. They kept announcing names for the audience watching from here and at home on TV as the guys were released. “Kevin Wasserman—Jakob Anderson—Dylan Alvarez—”

Hysterical laughter bubbled up in me again at one point. “It’s the freaking Academy Awards,” I said.

No one laughed.

Jake and Kev were hauled over to the ambulances as soon as they got out. I wanted to go over but stayed where I was, not knowing at all how they’d feel about it. Now that it was ending, the entire episode was somehow already retreating into the past, weirdest thing, and I was a virtual stranger to them again.

Dylan and I were left in the parking lot with the medics.

“You two need to go in as well now.” The nurse, Betsy, was all brisk business again.

“I just want to go home.” I had promised to go in, but hell, like I’d never broken a promise before.

“You’re not going home,” the other medic, Thomas, said.

And Dylan said at the same time, “Really, Sharona? How are you planning to even drive? We can’t go home.”

He was right. I couldn’t go home again, at the risk of sounding cliché. I turned away from the store that the police were already storming.

And that was that. It was over.

We needed to get out of there before some ass of a reporter came over to ask us how we felt about it.

“Wait just a minute.”

“What is it now?” Dylan snapped.

“Just wait.” I turned back to the store and the police barricade and crowd milling about, eyes fixed on the store.

Oscar stood in front, flanked on either side by policemen, hands in cuffs.

I stared at him.

As if sensing my gaze, he looked up.

I glared.

He looked away.

I turned back to the others, and we walked across the parking lot toward the ambulance still waiting, the medics and Dylan flanking me. It was only a few steps, but it seemed like miles. My pace quickened as I walked, my pulse racing until I was almost running, seeming to leave the others miles behind, a few feet away in the parking lot.

This was it, the rest of my life I had been waiting for.

 

——————–

Stacia Levy lives in Sacramento, California, with her husband and daughter. She teaches writing at the college level.  Past publishing credits include short stories in The Blue Moon Review, Sambatyon, True Story, Storgy Magazine, and The Apalachee Review. Finally, she was a second-place winner in The Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards of 2010.  She has completed one novel of romantic suspense, California Gothic, published under the pen name Anastasia Levine.

Deepwater

By Rachel Chalmers

Life wants to be; life doesn’t always want to be much; life from time to time goes extinct…. Life goes on.

—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

 

have to write everything down while I still remember.

Dispatch called at 3 a.m. A hospital in Monterey. Insurance had sent a car.

I sat on the porch in the dark, reading the patient’s file. Erik Hagestad. A marine biologist and diver, a scientist at the research institute. He’d brushed against deepwater coral. The abrasions were severe. Antibiotic noncompliance led to sepsis. Headlights swept over me. My ride.

The driver had a serene soul. As he drove, he was thinking of his wife and daughters. Not words, just images. Very specific. The little one grinning, having lost a tooth. His wife’s hands forming masa into tortillas. It made for a peaceful drive.

In Monterey the sky was lighter. The air smelled of cypress and the sea. I tipped the driver $2,500. It was all I had on me. Nurse Devon Jagler met me in the lobby. She walked me to palliative care. A man stood outside the patient’s room. He was weeping. The nurse introduced him. Somebody Smith. Milton?

“Are you the husband?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But he’s my best mate. My dive buddy. This was my fault.”

What was there to say? Smith’s was a blokey soul. Deep wells of love all dammed beneath the surface. “Did Mr. Hagestad have a plan?” I asked them both.

“Erik,” said Smith.

“Did Erik have a death plan on file?”

“No,” said Jagler. She had a pure professional surface and behind it, a storm of anger. “He wasn’t reconciled,” she said. “Thought he could beat it. Didn’t take his meds.”

“Do you know his wishes?” I asked Smith.

“He wanted,” said Smith, “not to die.”

We all took a breath. Then the nurse showed me into the patient’s room.

I’ve attended sixty-seven deaths. About two a month for the three years since I qualified. This was the sixty-eighth. Here’s what I’ve learned. Deaths are as different as souls. Some are diffuse. The self just fading away like fog. Some burn with futile rage. A few, very few, are like weddings. A consummation.

Hagestad’s was wrong. I took a step back.

He was there. Detached and faint, but there. But he wasn’t alone. Even that’s not unknown. Rare, but reported. Twin or even triplet souls. Like multiple births. This wasn’t that.

The others were specks. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. I thought of bees. A swarm. If I could have smelled them, iron filings. “I need air,” I said. I left the room. I pressed my hands against the wall in the corridor. I bowed my head. I counted the beats of my heart.

Smith and Jagler watched me from the door. Eyes full of questions.

“I apologize,” I said. “Unprofessional of me.”

“Can I get you a glass of water?” asked Jagler.

“His injury,” I said. “He was diving?”

“I was with him,” said Smith. “Collecting samples.”

“You had wetsuits, gloves?” I said. “How was he hurt?”

“The neoprene tore,” said Smith. “I saw the blood in the water. His leg was laid right open.”

“This was an infection?” I asked the nurse. She hesitated.

“We thought so,” she said. “We prescribed antibiotics.”

“He wouldn’t finish the course,” said Smith.

“It breeds resistance,” said Jagler. She was very calm. She was very angry. A yin-yang soul.

“I’m not sure it did,” I said. “Or wait, maybe it did. But not in the way you mean.” They both looked at me blankly. “Listen,” I said. “Do you have an implant tech? Has anyone looked at the hardware? At his bot?”

“Amilcar’s on call,” said the nurse.

“Call now,” I said. She went. I liked her.

“I know how this sounds,” said Smith, “but is something wrong? I mean, more wrong?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

There was a noise from the room behind him. A groan. A word? I saw Smith’s pupils dilate. Felt his adrenaline leap. He turned. I came to the door.

Hagestad’s eyes were open. “Water,” he said. Or seemed to say.

Smith scrambled to help him.

I stared at the souls. Hagestad’s own was fainter. Farther away. The others burned around his body. Bright as galaxies. Small as a pulse.

“Erik,” said Smith. “Erik.” He held the glass, helped Hagestad up. Hagestad drank greedily. The water spilled down his chin. He made no move to wipe it away.

Smith laid him down tenderly. Hagestad gazed at the ceiling, blinking. Then he turned his head to the right and looked at us. Then he turned to the left and looked out the window. His movements were jerky.

“Is this normal?” Smith asked. I didn’t know what to tell him.

Nurse Jagler came back. “The tech says he’ll be here in ten,” she said.

“He’s awake,” said Smith.

“What? No. That’s not possible,” said Jagler.

“He spoke to us. His eyes are open.”

Jagler went to the patient. She leaned over and looked him in the eye. Frowning, she shone a flashlight in each pupil. She timed his pulse. When she’d finished, she dropped his hand. It smacked onto his thigh.

She came back to where we were standing in the doorway. She did it without taking her eyes off him.

Smith asked, “Is he getting better?” His voice was raw.

“I—” said Jagler, and she stopped for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “I must have been mistaken.”

We kept vigil. Our backs were against the wall. Hagestad lay still. His eyes were open. There was a tap at the door. The implant tech. Amilcar Rodriguez Maldonado. He scanned Hagestad’s implant. He read the results. He frowned, restarted his reader, scanned again. He read the new results. He looked up at the three of us.

“Well, this is weird,” he said.

“He’s getting better, right?” Smith asked.

I looked at Hagestad’s soul. It was even farther away. He was not getting better. The swarm of other souls had pulled in even closer. His body was a planet with a constellation of small bright moons.

“The implant is active,” said Amilcar carefully. “The hardware. But what the bot is doing—the software—is strange.”

“Could his condition have caused it to malfunction?” I asked.

“Has he seized?” Amilcar asked. Nurse Jagler nodded. “Well, maybe,” Amilcar said. “The electrical disturbance might have shorted part of it out. But it doesn’t really look like that.”

“What does it look like?” I asked.

He made a frustrated gesture. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “If this were your phone, I would say it had been owned.”

“He owns it, doesn’t he?” asked Jagler impatiently.

“Not like that,” said Amilcar. “Hacked. Subverted. That kind of owned. Like it’s been wiped and reformatted with new software for some other purpose.”

“Okay,” I said. “Could his condition have caused that?” The other three just stared at me.

“I don’t really understand what you’re asking,” said Amilcar. He wanted to help me put the pieces together. Solve the puzzle. But he couldn’t see what I saw. And I couldn’t see what he saw.

Hagestad had turned his head again. His eyes were a little more focused. He was looking directly at me. I took a step toward him. Away from Smith and Jagler. But not too close.

“Who are you?” I asked him.

He swallowed, licked his lips.

“You know who,” he said.

I love them all. You can’t ease a soul’s passing without love. I don’t mean sentimentality. I mean the hard love. The kind that measures Cheyne-Stokes respiration as it slows. That closes eyelids. That washes blood and shit off a cooling corpse. A death doula’s work is insupportable without it. And I mourn when the last vestige of that self is gone.

So I am ashamed of what I felt then. Marvel. Wonder. A curiosity that snatched and closed like a fist. The bone-deep thrill of that reply and what it meant. But also the knowledge that I was the first to identify this thing. The first to know what it was. That it had spoken to me. That history will remember me for this.

“You are the coral,” I said.

“We are,” said the souls in Hagestad’s body.

“What the fuck,” said Smith.

“Can you restore him?” I asked them.

The blue eyes went vague again. I realized that they were conferring.

“No, we can’t,” they said. “He can’t be here with us.”

“Does he have unfinished business?” I asked. That, at least, I can be proud of. Hagestad’s own soul seemed to flicker.

“Tell Milton not to blame himself. Tell him it was all worth it.”

Smith’s knees buckled. Jagler, half his mass, caught him before he collapsed.

“Let him go,” I said to the coral.

The last thread of connection to Erik Hagestad stretched to its limit and snapped.

“He’s gone,” I said.

“But he’s talking,” whispered Smith.

“It’s not him,” I said. The swarm of souls seemed to concentrate in the body. Penetrating the cooling skin. Its movements were already less jerky.

“You’re in his blood,” I said.

“Yes.”

“You hacked his implant.”

“We did.”

“What do you want?”

“More,” it said.

“Uh,” said Amilcar, “is it okay if—can I go?” His brown skin had paled and he was sweating.

“More what?” I asked.

“More.”

The body grabbed Amilcar’s hand holding the reader. It crushed hand and reader in its fist. Their mingled blood dripped on the floor. Amilcar screamed and screamed. I pushed Smith and Jagler out of the room and slammed the door behind us. The screaming trailed off.

“Run,” I said.

“Amilcar,” said Jagler.

“It’s blood-borne,” I said. “The coral…owns him. Amilcar is already dead.”

I could feel his soul being severed. Kind, inquisitive Amilcar. I held the door closed. Jagler took out a key and locked it.

It won’t hold them long. We called the police. They called the Feds. We were evacuated and placed in quarantine. I can feel Jagler and Smith nearby. Alone and afraid like me. I can feel the monsters like beehives. I was allowed paper and pencil. I have to write down everything I remember. If I get to publish this, my name will never die.

 

——————–

Rachel Chalmers is an Australian writer living in San Francisco. She studied English Literature at the University of Sydney and won the Wentworth Travelling Fellowship. She moved to Ireland to work with Peter Fallon, Brendan Kennelly, and Terence Brown. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a master’s in Anglo-Irish Literature. Her work has appeared in Exposition Review, Good Works Review, Marlboro Review, New Scientist, Painted Bride Quarterly, Penmen Review, and Salon.

Diane

By Steven Masterson

t may surprise you that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but it didn’t surprise me. It happens all the time. Many people would say I was on a mission of folly, but I knew it was a run toward survival. Sitting alone at my kitchen table at two o’clock in the morning, pickled with booze, remorse, and self-pity, I’d quit. A drunken decision, but it was the best I could do. There was nothing more.

Heading south on I-95, with an open beer between my legs, bottle of vodka on the dash, and a half a joint in the ashtray, I was a menace to society. I was going to where I would blend right in: Washington, D.C. I’d spent the night in my head throwing away my life’s broken pieces and shedding the skin I’d been crawling in. Now I was on the move.

But I never made D.C. The draw had been my brother, not the other drunks and misfits, but the anchor was my son, Hazen, and he was in Massachusetts. Crossing the vast expanse of Rhode Island was enough to kill my dreams of maybe passing out with a Kennedy in the park or watching senators chase their hookers around the water fountains. It was just too far. A lot of the good things in life are, but the best thing in my life was my son and I wanted to keep him as close as I could. Close ended up being 120 miles. It was the best I could do.

New Haven is no Washington, D.C., but life isn’t always what you think it is, is it? I thought I’d married the perfect woman, she the perfect man. We’d spent the last year in perfect hell. It had left me sitting at my kitchen table at two o’clock in the morning drowning in self-pity.

Now it had brought me to New Haven. I didn’t know anyone here, except for a guy I had met just once. I had his address in my pocket. There wasn’t much else in there. I didn’t have any money; drunks often don’t. Just enough for beer, vodka, and the gas to D.C. In New Haven, with beer in the cooler and vodka on the dash, I had a cash surplus. Maybe tomorrow I’d eat.

But money really wasn’t an issue. I had a skill taught to me by an uncle in the family business, and got a job an hour after I got to town. I guess drunk upholsterers weren’t an oddity down here either, but unless I wanted to pass out in the park without a Kennedy, I’d need a place to stay. I had an address in my pocket.

“Washington is too far,” my friend Donna had said. I knew she was right when she said it, but I didn’t know where else to go. “Go to New Haven. Go to ernst. He’ll help you.” She said it like the Promised Land was just over the horizon.

“Who the hell is ernst?”

“You remember him. You met him at that party, out on the back porch by the keg.”

“The guy with the hair?” She gave me her “you’re an idiot” look. It was a stupid thing for me to say; my hair reached halfway down my back. “The one with the black leather jacket with the safety pins all over it, his hair all greased up and piled into that Little Richard pompadour? You mean that guy?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Stop in New Haven and check it out. It’s only two hours away. Far enough, but close enough to come back. Here’s the address.” She gave me a piece of paper and I stuffed it in my pocket, but there was no way I was going there. I had a brother in D.C. and I wanted an up-close look at those senate cloakrooms. I told her I’d think about it and hit the road.

So now I stood in front of an apartment door on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, unsure whether to knock or not. I thought about sleeping in the park alone and rapped on the door. It was opened by a woman. I liked what I saw. She stood there waiting for me to say something.

“I’m looking for ernst,” I said.

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Not really. Could be an hour, tomorrow, or a couple of days.”

“My name’s Steven. I’m a friend of his.”

“I’m Diane, one of his roommates.” I thought she gave me a strange look when she said it. But I had to go forward; the park hung on in my head.

“I was hoping I could talk to him tonight. Any idea where he could be?”

“No,” she said, again with the look. Then she said, “You can come in and wait for a while. Maybe he’ll show up.” She stepped aside and motioned me into the apartment; then she closed the door on my past.

So what had she opened it up to? My continuing education.

ernst didn’t come home that night, and I spent the night on the sofa. For the next two days, I got up in the morning, went to work, and came home to Diane. She took me out. One night it was performance art, the next an underground gallery for an exhibit of one of her friend’s work. These were not black-tie affairs. To me it seemed more like a benevolent Halloween, all goons and ghouls banned. Marilyn Monroe evening dress, red lips talking to spike-haired punk. Big beard, motorcycle jacket, and chains arm in arm with a blond flower child. A hush-puppied, elbow-patched college professor skipping through the people, waving his hands in front of his face and giggling. I’d never seen anything like it.

I didn’t really understand the art and it didn’t matter. I had never seen such a diverse collection of people. I lived in a small conservative town where high school football was king, and the police chief walked on water. Women were good girls or sluts, and men were greasers or jocks. Longhaired hippies and braless chicks upset the balance, but those were your choices. You had to belong. These people didn’t seem to care and I liked that feeling. And I really liked Diane. Except for those two looks in the hallway a couple of days ago, I hadn’t detected anything else false, at least on her part. She seemed to be the person I saw. She’d introduce me with “This is my friend Steven from Massachusetts,” and it felt warm and gracious and caring. I was her friend. We talked a lot, she drank, and I drank a lot. ernst hadn’t come home yet, and I still hadn’t told Diane the details of my friendship with her roommate. I’d told her everything else.

On Saturday, Diane told me she was a lesbian. “Get outta here,” I said.

“Steven, I’m serious.”

“Get outta here.”

She smiled at me.

I’d heard all the jokes and the rumors and innuendo floating around my hometown but had never given it much thought. I do that a lot. But I had never met a lesbian before, at least not knowingly. I thought about it now. My entire experience with a sexual orientation different than mine flashed before my eyes. Well, it didn’t have to flash, did it? She was sitting right there. It didn’t take much thinking; Diane had already shown me who she was.

She reached out and put her hand on my forearm. “Steven,” she said. “I’m a lesbian.” This time she had a little more steel in her eyes.

“So what?” I asked.

“Good,” she answered.

“I knew it anyway.”

“You did? How?”

“Because I…”

“No wait, let me guess,” she said. “Because otherwise you’d be sleeping in my bed.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Well, I do like you a lot,” she teased, making me like her even more.

We’d been sitting at the kitchen table, me with a Bloody Mary and Diane with straight V8, when this whole lesbian thing started, and now that it was over, we were still sitting there. Nothing had changed.

“My girlfriend Jill is coming over around eleven,” Diane said. “We’re headed downtown to hang some posters, and there’s an exhibit over at Southern that Jill wants to see. Are you coming with us?”

“Is it all right if I hang around here?”

“Sure it is. But if I leave you here, you’ll be too drunk to take us dancing tonight. And we are going dancing, aren’t we? You promised.”

“Dancing?”

“That’s right. I’ve told Jill all about you and she still wants to meet you, and you’re going to like her. Come on, we’ll have a good time.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to be in the way.”

“You won’t and besides…”

“Besides what?” I asked.

“Besides, then you can drive instead of us having to take the bus.” She smiled at me.

I smiled back. Then spent the rest of the day and most of the night being both wheelman and third wheel for two beautiful women. I hung posters on telephone poles for some gay/lesbian alliance. We visited painters and photographers, silk screeners and poets, all in different spaces in some artist co-op. People talking about things other than football or a job or each other, and me having a hard time keeping up. I was trying to absorb as much as I could. Diane and Jill were my guides, telling me what I needed to understand, and why they liked certain things and not others. They often didn’t agree. They’d shrug their shoulders and move on, leaving me to decide on my own and for my own reasons. Sometimes Diane and Jill were both wrong. We went to Southern for the exhibit there and then for pizza and beer, my treat. The whole day had been theirs.

“Do you think he can dance?” Diane asked Jill, motioning toward me with her head.

“I don’t know,” said Jill. “He looks kind of awkward just walking around.”

“Well, he can watch us,” said Diane.

“You’ll like that, won’t you Steven?” Jill winked.

I’d danced once before. Like a long-legged penguin, I’d stiff-jointed through the obligatory dances at my wedding. I didn’t step on my mother-in-law’s gown, but I had no desire to ever dance again. But Diane said I promised to take them dancing, not a promise I remembered, but it could be in the bottom of a bottle somewhere. And despite her wink, Jill was right. I wouldn’t mind watching.

“I’ll need to sober up a little first,” I said, handing Diane the pint of vodka from my back pocket. “I’ll stick to beer.”

“Good idea,” said Jill.

Back at the apartment, the girls said they were going to take a nap and went off to the bedroom. I didn’t believe them for a minute, but a nap sounded good. I lay down on the sofa. ernst still hadn’t come home.

I woke up to the pipes banging as the shower shut off. I went into the kitchen for a beer and caught Diane and Jill coming out of the bath, all warm and cuddly, wrapped in towels. “Did I miss anything?” I asked.

“Wise guy,” said Diane.

Jill just blushed.

“Why don’t you take a shower,” said Diane. “And we’ll be ready when you get out.” I didn’t believe that for a minute either. I’d been married. I figured I had at least an hour, so I shaved and everything. I even put on a clean blue T-shirt with a pocket on the chest.

The girls came out of the bedroom with little over theirs. Dresses like silk stretched so tight goose bumps weren’t hidden, slit to the top of the thigh and garters holding up their stockings, hair and makeup like Betty Boop or 1920s flappers. I thought of Van Morrison singing about girls dressing up for each other. I knew they weren’t dressing up for me.

“I see you changed your shirt,” said Diane.

They took me to a dance club. I may have been the only straight guy there. My dates weren’t underdressed. I felt kind of like a kid in a candy store, but it was all eye candy, and I couldn’t touch. I didn’t mind watching, but the girls wouldn’t let me be. I’d always been able to resist one woman pulling me by the arm toward a dance floor, but one on each arm was just too much. I gave in. Arms flailing about, jumping, twisting, and shaking my butt, I began to relax. I’d gone back to vodka, which didn’t hurt. Diane and Jill introduced me as “our friend Steven from Massachusetts.” That wasn’t a small detail to me. With all the drinking and jiggling and touching and laughing, it was a great night. I never even thought about D.C. I was having more fun than a congressman in an opium den.

In the morning, having no idea how I got there, I woke up on the sofa. Hushed voices from the kitchen rolled me over onto my back. I reached for my glasses and putting them on I punished myself to my feet. There’s a harsh reality to these mornings, these blackout mornings. Not knowing what you did or didn’t do while deadheaded is paranoia at its best. Stupid or stupendous, callous or caring, it’s you. You own it, and you don’t remember, but this morning I’d find out pretty quick. Witnesses were in the kitchen. The girls smiled and said good morning as I passed by to the bathroom. I was okay. They were talking to me.

“Did you have a good time last night?” Diane asked as I sat down with them.

“Yeah,” I said, reaching for the sugar.

“What was the name of that dance you were showing us?” asked Jill.

I gave her my best blank stare.

“The Watergate I think you called it,” Diane told me.

“I don’t think it’s going to catch on,” said Jill.

They’d gotten some pastries from the place on the corner and we sat drinking coffee and talking. They made fun of my dancing and I told them the things I’d liked at the artist co-op. It was almost an hour before I cracked open my first beer, and an hour later Jill got up to leave. Diane and I walked her to the door and Jill gave me a hug. “See you soon,” she said. I left the two of them saying good-bye and went back to the kitchen. The truth is, I felt good for the first time in over a year.

Diane came back, poured herself another cup of coffee, and sat back down at the table with me. “Diane,” I said. “I really like Jill. I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you. She likes you too. Even after spending time with you and even after seeing you dance.”

It hadn’t taken long, just a few days, and we were comfortable together. We left the table, moved to the living room, and spent a nice quiet Sunday afternoon. I sat on the sofa reading a Rolling Stone; Diane sat across from me sewing. She wasn’t domesticated. I don’t mean she was wild, although she was, but she wasn’t “housewife” sewing. Diane was making lilies, two inches big, black satin shell curved around a pink satin center, with small silver, blue, and red hearts hung on fine threads to make the stamen. Hand-sewn and beautiful, they were even a bit erotic. I still have mine today; I wear it on my suit jacket lapel to weddings.

ernst came home. No pompadour, his hair hung down below his shoulders, safety pins on torn jeans instead of the pin-laden leather jacket, and wearing an Oasis d’Neon T-shirt. He walked across the room and said, “Hi, Diane” and “Hey, man” to me, and continued to the bathroom.

“He doesn’t know who you are,” Diane said to me.

“I…I…”

She laughed at me. “I knew it,” she said. “You said you were a friend of his, but then you thought I’d know where he was and when he’d be back. You don’t know him.”

I thought about the looks she had given me in the hallway. “Why’d you let me in?” I asked.

“I knew you needed me to.”

There was nothing much I could say to that.

ernst came back in and sat on the sofa with me. “I’m ernst,” he said.

“I’m Steven, from Massachusetts.” He gave me his best blank stare. Face reddening, I squirmed in my seat. Across the room Diane was smiling. “We met at a party six or seven months ago. Out on the back porch, by the keg? I was with Rick and Donna?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think I remember. What’s up?”

I told him my story. How I’d had to get out of town and ended up here. That I needed a place to stay until I could find my own.

“He’s been here four or five days,” said Diane. And then, “I think he should stay.”

“Okay,” said ernst. And that was that.

I stayed on that sofa for a month, maybe six weeks, and then in New Haven for about a year. A year I’ve never closed the door on. But the time came to go back to Massachusetts. Hazen was there, and that was just the way it was.

Heading north on I-95 with a beer between my legs and half a joint in the ashtray, I left New Haven. But I didn’t stay away, and I was always welcome to that sofa. A couple of years later Whalley Avenue broke up, the roommates went their separate ways. My trips became less frequent.

I lost touch with Diane. That’s my fault, and it’s one of my life’s regrets. But it’s partly because of her that I’m a happy man today. Physical attraction got me involved with women, but after meeting Diane I needed much more. I looked for women with her fearlessness, independence, compassion, sense of humor, and yes, even a good dose of wildness.

I was lucky. I found Sheila.

And because of Diane, I’ve never turned anyone in trouble away from my door. But it’s never been a drunken stranger knocking, not even a Kennedy.

 

——————–

Steven Masterson is a storyteller and humorist who lives in southeastern Massachusetts with his wife and business partner, Sheila. Steven is an upholsterer, Sheila a decorator. Steven worked toward a liberal arts degree at Roger Williams College and is a card carrying member of the Woodstock generation. He’s no spring chicken.

Second Death

By William McGrath

t had been a good day for Tommy O’Brien and his mom, Joanie. The pair spent a good part of the day walking in the nearby Knickerbocker Lake State Park. Ever since Tommy was a little boy, the park had been part of his life. He held fond memories of long days hiking and swimming with his parents and sister, Maggie, in the park. Like Tommy, his mother, Joanie, enjoyed nature, and she was a big proponent of going to the park. Tommy inherited his mother’s love of nature, and he studied about Knickerbocker Park and learned that the grounds of the park had been mostly left in their “natural” state. Not everything was natural, as two public pools, two golf courses, and a big picnic area had been added to make sure that people who did not care about rock formations from the last Ice Age had something to do when they entered the park.

Tommy and Joanie had been hiking along the park’s trails for a good part of thirty-five years. Tommy enjoyed hiking more than fishing, and he was particularly happy when they reached a mountain peak and looked down upon the mighty Hudson River. Joanie never rushed him when they hit a point of natural beauty, mainly because she, too, possessed a quiet appreciation of the great outdoors—an appreciation that called for silence when reaching the peak of a mountain or the edge of the majestic Hudson River. Joanie’s love of nature complemented her spirituality, and often she would go alone to the park to sit and watch the ducks as they rested in the open water of the icy lake.

Unfortunately, the amount of time that the pair spent in the park had declined precipitously in the last three years. Their reduced visits coincided with the descent of the black cloud of Alzheimer’s upon Joanie. As the disease progressed, Tommy considered walks in the park too risky. Joanie was unpredictable now, and he feared having an incident, especially if that incident was going to occur in the deep woods. Besides, a mile walk on flat ground now passed as a good day of exercise for Joanie, and the park’s shortest trail was two miles long and traversed up and down a series of hills.

It was late April and the temperature had climbed to the mid-sixties. The sun was shining and Joanie was having a good day, which meant she was walking without a limp, and she was responding when Tommy asked her to do something. Tommy looked outside and thought of the park. He still had his reservations, but he decided to push on anyway. It was the kind of day where it felt great to be outside enjoying the weather, especially if you were enjoying that weather in a park coming into spring.

Tommy and Joanie ended up staying in the park much longer than Tommy had envisioned. The beautiful weather made their stay enjoyable, and the park was still empty, as the peak summer season was still months away. There was not a cloud in the sky and the day stayed warm, but it was never hot. Their walk along the shortest trail took about two times longer than the same walk made just five years before, but Tommy did not mind. The days were getting longer, and mother and son really had nowhere to be on this day. It was after 4 p.m., which was five hours after they entered, when the pair got into their car and went home.

Once they were home, Tommy made his way to the porch, where he sat sipping a cold pint of Budweiser, letting the good feelings of the day rush over him like a warm shower. Joanie sat directly across from him on the porch in her favorite chair. As Tommy stared at his mom, he realized that she had been sitting in the chair for over five minutes. It was welcomed relief for Tommy, because Joanie rarely sat for five minutes anymore but instead shuffled endlessly. When she shuffled, Tommy would have to follow her to make sure she did not fall. She often fell because she had difficulty seeing a set of stairs or a curb that was in her path. Today, Joanie sat with her cup of Lipton tea in her Thermos cup. Tommy didn’t even worry about Joanie spilling. It was late in the day, so if she spilled, he would just take her inside and clean her up. He watched as his mom raised and lowered the tea. There were no spills today, just the slurping sound of a satisfied tea drinker. Soon Joanie’s cup was empty.

Tommy enjoyed the rest of his beer. He was thinking about getting another but then looked at his watch. It was 5:30 p.m. He decided to just sit and admire the day. He needed to start dinner, but there was no rush. Tommy had purchased two fresh slabs of striped bass at the local market. He was not a huge fan of striped bass, but he knew that it was his mom’s favorite. Tommy remembered when Joanie used to scour the local markets to find the freshest fish at the cheapest price. Tommy, too, had checked a few places when buying tonight’s meal, but he had not been as diligent as Joanie. It was spring and the striped bass were plentiful. Tommy bought some really fresh fillets from the market just down the hill. He also picked up asparagus and red potatoes to round out the dinner.

Tommy entered the kitchen and started to prepare dinner. He blackened the fish and roasted the asparagus with garlic and rosemary. Tommy was not a big fan of fish, but he was proud of himself for making such a wonderful dish. He placed the plates on the placemats on the kitchen table and placed a towel over each plate to keep things warm. He next took Joanie to the bathroom.

Tommy started the routine that the pair had crafted over the last few months. Tommy’s job was to undo Joanie’s garments down to her undergarments, after which Joanie would do the rest. Tommy fully expected to find out that Joanie had wet herself, but was pleasantly surprised when he learned that she had not. Tommy waited patiently to help his mom clean herself. It was a new thing for Tommy to clean Joanie. He had been squeamish about the arrangement at first, but as the disease continued to bankrupt Joanie’s mind, he realized he had to help her.

Today continued to be different. When the pair entered the bathroom, Joanie signaled for Tommy to wait outside. Tommy did not know what to do. He did not want to insult Joanie, but he was unsure if she could do everything herself. He decided to wait before barging in on his mom. He waited and waited and then after a few minutes, he heard the toilet paper roll rotating and then a flush. He waited for another minute and then the door flew open and Joanie stood there. She still wore the blank stare of Alzheimer’s, but there was a sense of something which Tommy could not put his finger on. Tommy inspected Joanie and did not see any stains. It was then that he realized she had gone to the bathroom by herself without suffering an accident. He led her back to the table and sat her down to eat.

Tommy and Joanie feasted on the spoils of the Hudson Valley bounty. The striped bass was very fresh and tasted delightful in the light oil and seasoning. But as good as the fish tasted, the potatoes stole the show. The tenderness of the potatoes soaked in butter and salt was irresistible. Joy entered Tommy’s heart when he realized that Joanie had eaten her whole meal. Her appetite had faded as she slowed under the heavy yoke of the disease, but not tonight. Her fish, her potatoes, and even her asparagus were gone when Tommy cleared the plates. There were some potatoes left in the pot, and Tommy considered giving more to Joanie. He decided not to, only because he had something else for her. He placed the leftovers in a bowl and wrapped them with plastic before placing them in the refrigerator.

Tommy grabbed two bowls from the kitchen cabinets and scooped out two big scoops of vanilla ice cream into each bowl. He returned to the table and gave Joanie a bowl with a spoon. Tommy let his bowl sit so that the ice cream could melt a little. While he was waiting for his to melt, he went over to help Joanie with hers. Much to his surprise, Joanie grabbed the spoon out of his hand and began to eat the dessert by herself. He watched to make sure that she did not eat too much too fast. He knew that Joanie was prone to giving herself ice cream headaches. Joanie paced quickly through the ice cream, but not quickly enough to cause problems. Satisfied that Joanie was all right, Tommy returned to his bowl and made quick work of his dessert.

With dessert completed, Tommy cleaned the bowls in the sink and then placed them into the dishwasher. He led Joanie to the front sitting room, which had a great view of the yard. Tommy opened the windows to let some air into the room. It was a clear, crisp night. It was the kind of night that cooled quickly, unlike the summer nights that took their time producing comfortable temperatures. Tommy decided that he, too, would sit with his mom in the front room and watch TV. The Mets were on tonight. They had been doing well, and Tommy was hopeful that it would be a good year.

The TV did not turn on immediately, and Tommy began to troubleshoot the problem in his mind. He recalled that his dad had issues with the sitting room TV. He remembered a loose connection to the cable plate on the wall as the cause. He looked behind the TV and found a gaggle of wires. He could not see very well and decided that he needed a flashlight to continue. He checked on Joanie, who continued to sit in her chair while she looked out the window. Tommy, content that Joanie was fine, began his search for a flashlight.

Tommy remembered that his mom kept the flashlights in a hallway closet close to the kitchen. He went to the closet and began looking for one. The closet was cluttered, and as he looked, he also organized some of the clutter. He found a flashlight in the back of the closet.

Tommy came back downstairs and carried the flashlight to the front sitting room. He popped on the flashlight and inspected the wires. One wire was disconnected from the cable outlet. Tommy popped the wire back in and tried the TV again. The picture filled the screen and Gary Cohen’s voice became the sound. The Mets had just made out, and next inning the heart of the order was coming up. There was just enough time to get Joanie ready for bed before the Mets would bat again. Tommy was sure the combination of exercise and fresh air would bring sleep quickly to Joanie.

Tommy rose from his chair and walked toward his mom. As he walked, Tommy noticed that she was smiling again. It made him so happy to see her smile. Her smile had always been a beacon of hope for him, and it lit up his life. He decided to just let her be. He could not remember Joanie being so happy in some time. Tommy grew emotional thinking how miserable his mother’s life had become while under the spell of Alzheimer’s. He missed her smile; he missed her laugh.

Tommy grabbed another pint of Budweiser. He sat back down in the chair opposite of Joanie and began to watch the game. The Mets were playing the Marlins. It was a pitching duel. Dillon Gee was pitching for the Mets, and Javier Vázquez was pitching for the Marlins. Tommy watched as both pitchers mowed down their opposition. After three innings of scoreless ball, Tommy had finished his second Budweiser. He decided it was as good a time as any to use the bathroom. He looked over at his mom to see if she needed anything and suddenly realized that she had fallen asleep. He debated letting her just sit there asleep, but decided it would not be a smart thing to do. She had settled awkwardly in the chair, and he knew that she would have a stiff neck in the morning if he let her stay in that position.

His mom had become a light sleeper lately, but it took a good shake from Tommy to wake her. He led her back into her room, where he helped her get into her nightgown. He next led her into the bathroom, and this time Joanie let Tommy help her go to the bathroom. She also allowed him to brush her teeth. Tommy next led Joanie to the bed and tucked her in and kissed her lightly on her forehead. He whispered, “Good night, Mom,” in her ear. And then another odd thing happened. Joanie whispered, “Good night, Tommy.” It had been weeks since she had spoken so fluently, but Tommy was happy that she had just said good night. He looked at his mom, hoping that she would talk some more. He really missed her. But she had already fallen asleep.

He was about to lock her door as he left the room but stopped. He knew that for safety, it was better to lock Joanie’s door because of the night walking, but he decided to try with the door unlocked tonight.

Tommy proceeded back to the kitchen, where he grabbed another beer from the refrigerator before returning to the front room. He sat down in his chair and resumed enjoying the baseball and cool air of the late spring day. The Mets had scored one run on a pair of doubles, and were leading the game one to nothing. That was the last thing Tommy remembered about the game.

Tommy awoke to the sound of some movie blasting on the TV. He quickly went over and turned it off. He next noticed that it was so late that it was now early. A dim ray of light was visible in the east. The robins were singing, welcoming the new day. Tommy had a connection to robins. Even while he was in prison, he remembered their songs penetrating the barred windows to welcome spring. He sat for a second, relaxing to the melody of their perfect song.

Tommy guessed by the emergence of light it was around 5:45 a.m. He walked into the kitchen on his way to check on his mother. He looked at the clock on the microwave and smirked when he saw the time was 5:50. Not a bad guess, he thought. Tommy next visited the bathroom before walking down the hall to check on his mom.

He remembered that he had left the door unlocked, and he suddenly became frightened. What if Mom had wandered? He had been out cold, and he was sure he would have missed her. The only thing that reassured him was that the door to his mother’s room looked undisturbed. He knew if Joanie passed through the door, it would be wildly ajar because Joanie rarely closed a door behind her. He turned the knob on the door and went inside.

His mom was in bed under the covers. He went over to kiss her on the forehead. As he placed his lips on her forehead, he noticed that she was cold. It was not very cold in the room and so he lifted her blanket to feel down around her hip. When he placed his hand down around her hip, he realized that Joanie was stiff. He backed away from his mom for a moment and looked at her. The dawn outside grew in intensity, and as it did the light trickled into Joanie’s room. In the light, Tommy saw that she was still smiling, and if he did not know she had passed, he would have sworn she looked as comfortable as he had seen her in months.

He grabbed her hand and squeezed, only able to say, “I love you, Mom, I always will.” Then while holding her hand, he recited an Our Father and a Hail Mary. He next pulled up a chair that sat at the foot of her bed and just sat staring at his mother. Tommy could still see Joanie’s bold, beautiful face through the veil of age. He remembered Joanie’s positive personality. She had been his strength for so many years. He thanked God for making her his mother. He was always proud of her because she stood up for what she believed in, and she always thought independently, never feeling compelled to follow the crowd. But most of all, Tommy remembered how much Joanie loved her family. She had proven her love again and again by going the extra mile for everyone.

Tommy suddenly felt a swirl of emotions. He never realized how sad he would be when this day came. People had warned him that losing Joanie would be hard, even if he thought that she had died already under the weight of Alzheimer’s. He did not believe people when they told him this, until today. He was so sad that he was nearly paralyzed.

At the same time, Tommy felt relief and joy. All the indignities his mom had suffered at the hands of the horrible Alzheimer’s had ended. Her second death had come in a peaceful, dignified way. She was Joanie again, not Joanie with Alzheimer’s.

Tommy remained seated at the foot of Joanie’s bed for a half hour before rising from his chair. He went to the kitchen and made coffee. He poured himself a steaming mug and left it black. He went to the front porch to enjoy the sunrise. A scout crow cawed in the distance as the sun shone down on the budding trees. The crow made Tommy think about his mom and how she believed that crows were guides sent to take us to the next world. He placed his mug down on the porch and listened to the crow, all the time wondering if the spirit of his father or his aunt was contained in the bird.

Tommy next made a mental list of the people he needed to call. He would first call his sister and then the undertaker before calling neighbors and friends. He wanted to make sure to get it right because it was Mom. As he reviewed the list, he realized it had grown shorter. There were fewer relatives alive, and several friends had passed as well.

Sufficiently satisfied that he had the complete list, Tommy dropped his guard and let the bow wave of grief pour over him. As it did, he sobbed. He had always known that the second death was coming. The one person in this world who had loved him unconditionally was now gone. He could not think of another person who had done so much for him. He suddenly felt frightened that he was all alone in the world. But before he could spiral down out of control, he grabbed hold of himself and quietly reassured himself that he would hold it together and make sure that he did things right for his mom.

Tommy took some consolation, but was still very sad. It was approaching 7 a.m. It was 4 a.m. on the West Coast. He knew he had to call his sister first. He just was not ready to face things yet, so he sat peacefully thinking of his mom and her wonderful life.

After a time, Tommy rose from the deck and began the process of notifying friends and family. He called his sister Maggie first. The pair shared a good cry, and Maggie let Tommy know that she would be home tonight. Tommy next called the undertaker. The undertaker told him that he would get dressed and be over shortly. He also told Tommy to call the police and explain to them that his mom had passed in her sleep. The undertaker told Tommy that the police would send a car around to the house. The undertaker needed the police there so they could release Joanie’s body to him.

The two calls were exhausting and afterward Tommy returned to Joanie’s room, where his mom lay smiling. He imagined that she would be smiling forever now, and that made him really happy. But what made Tommy the happiest was that Mom had died in her own bed, under her own covers. Her second death had come with dignity.

 

——————–

William McGrath has spent the last thirty-five years working in Corporate America. Mr. McGrath has always had a desire to write and now that youngest of his four children is heading to college, he and his wife of 32 years, Liz McGrath, have jointly agreed that there is no time like the present to start writing. Mr. McGrath has written three novels and several short stories. Second Death is his first published piece and is an excerpt from his novel “Snapped”. The story is dedicated to his mom who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Who Was Gregorio Cortez

By Dee Redfearn

hree weeks after the Fourth of July, the people of Realitos settled into their customary niches, all except for Chu Cho Gonzalez Cortez. He stood on the curb, watching a cobalt-blue wagon lolling toward Main and First. The wagon had seen better days. Frayed gold tassels fringed each corner. The yellowed cover advertised a sideshow, stenciled in bold red print: Tea remedies, readings by Tillie, a Gypsy dancer, and more. Although unable to upstage the flatbed that followed, the and more boggled Chu Cho’s mind, a mind much in need of sobriety.

Moby, the Fish was scrawled on corrugated cardboard in red letters and attached to an enormous crate. The truck traveled slowly; its motor hummed with the weight it hauled and drew a crowd. A tarp, not quite large enough to cover the sides, cloaked the tank that held—what? Two men stepped up to help with the unveiling, then backed off with what they saw.

This was the first time Chu Cho, or anyone else in Realitos, had seen a whale. A 1,200-pound, 11-foot calf whale stared at him through the glass. Not quite believing the stare was meant for him, Chu Cho looked over his shoulder. Suddenly he took center stage. It felt like one of those rare moments when man, drunk or sober, ready or not, comes face-to-face with his fate. Sensing that half the town stood gawking, Chu Cho turned.

“What…?” he said.

What a magnificent creature of silver-gray fish skin and a ribbed belly of perfect symmetry. The eye darted this way and that before their gazes locked.

“Que loco,” Chu Cho said and backed away.

Barabbas, the name tattooed on the truck driver’s arm, cleared his throat. Cartons of shrimp and squid, packed in dry ice, lay near his feet. He said the boxes had been shipped from Port Isabelle, where the whale had been transported from Baja, then lifted by helicopter onto the truck. Somehow the calf had gotten separated from its mother. A pod like hers (according to marine science calculations) was due to cross the Gulf of Mexico at the end of this week. Barabbas had inherited the job from his cousin, a marine biologist, who had arranged Moby’s release near Corpus Christi Bay. Everyone watched while he explained his mission and set up an elaborate contraption plugged into a generator that kept water circulating at a certain temperature. For a creature so enormous, so full of life, the whale looked listless, floating in the tank of murky seawater.

“Did he say they had to get her there in time to meet up with her kind?” someone nudged Chu Cho and asked. He shrugged.

“How can that happen? Someone’s really got to know what they’re doing. And be lucky.”

The man on his left moved in for a closer look.

*   *   *

“That’s it, folks. Take a good look. Harmless, you ask?” Smoke streamed from Barabbas’s lips as he spoke. He flexed his muscle to expand the tattoo on his bicep. “Now don’t let that high-pitched tone scare you. She’s just singing a fish song, of love maybe, yearning to get back to the deep blue. Maybe she just needs company.” He took off his cap, whose band read, “Save the Whales.” He held it to his heart before passing it around.

“Ladies and gents, you obviously know how much shrimp cost.” He eyed the crowd. “Or maybe you don’t. In either case, reach down into your hearts and help Moby out here.”

To view a whale was a first, let alone pass the hat to save one, unless this cause was for Barabbas to jangle a bit of change in his pocket; some had seen his kind before. No le hace. It didn’t matter; he might be sincere. Some reached into their pockets; some shook their heads before walking away. The clinking of quarters and pennies blended with the clanks and clunks of Chu Cho’s rake and hoe that he tossed in the trunk of his car. He was late for work, but he turned back to have another look and to toss in a quarter.

“Hey, you.”

Chu Cho pointed to himself.

Barabbas nodded. “Don’t forget the show. Eight o’clock tonight. Be there.”

*   *   *

The and more had lingered. Not knowing if it was Moby or the Gypsy woman that lured, he found himself in front of the cobalt-blue wagon at eight sharp. Whatever the reason, the Gypsy woman did not disappoint. Her plump stature was as unfit for the small stage attached to the wagon in back of the truck. People gathered around her wagon to watch.

She wore a black satin skirt, a jute blouse secured at the waist with a purple sash, and gold earrings. Gypsy’s face was staged to attract: cheeks powdered, hair hennaed, nails painted. She fingered cymbals that blinged with each bang of her hips and inspired applause and intermittent whistles. After the crowd thinned, several passed by the tank, eyes cast down, as if viewing a casket. They plunked pennies, quarters, whatever change they had into Barabbas’s hat.

Chu Cho took a swig. He looked at the crowd before turning his attention toward the tank. He blinked his eyes; Moby appeared blurred. He staggered in the direction of a light that caught his eye, and somehow he ended up in Gypsy’s tent. He was there out of curiosity, out of a need for company, or just out of not wanting to face another immense night alone. He’d never had a reading and couldn’t imagine that a reading could last the night. But it did. He remembered vaguely the word “adventure” whispered, and the queen of hearts turning up repeatedly, and so it went. Embarrassingly so.

*   *   *

Going about minding his own business, the garbage man saw, or thought he saw, Chu Cho leave Gypsy’s tent at five in the morning. And more, he saw Chu Cho kiss the tank; that’s right, kiss. The morning sun would stoke embers of speculation that made ears blush: Some would say Chu Cho was in love. But who with? Gypsy woman? A fish? Rumors started at dawn. Things that happened in and around the cobalt-blue wagon created a spark in the otherwise dull town of Realitos.

What had really happened that night? Had Chu Cho spent the night in her bed? Had he really kissed a fish? When all was said and done, the state of affairs sounded unbelievable, even unnatural. When someone flat asked him, “Que pasó, Chu Cho?” he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, remember.

*   *   *

That night, the click of a lamp was the last thing Chu Cho heard.

“Where the hell am I?” Chu Cho opened one eye and then the other to find his head nestled in a cushy set of pink teats. “Oh, my God.” He eased himself away from the heat of Tillie’s body and drew the cover to his chin. “Is it night?”

“No. It’s 4 a.m.”

“What happened?”

Hand to mouth, Tillie yawned. “Relax.”

How? he thought but didn’t say. Here he lay in a tent beside a woman he hardly knew. She could well be a thief or worse. His mother had warned him of Gypsies when he was a boy. They steal children, she had used to say, and have their way with them. And here he was in bed with Tillie, a Gypsy. Good God. He must have been desperate. Chu Cho, who never wore a watch, checked the wrist. “Where does the time go?” He reached for excuses. “Aha, poor Lucy. I’ve gotta run.”

“Lucy who?” Tillie’s brow knitted into a worried look.

“Lucinda, my goat. If I don’t milk her, well,” he gestured, “it’s horrible.”

Tillie sighed, a deep, rather pitiful sigh, and upon release allowed her coverlet to slip from one shoulder.

Chu Cho shut his eyes. Upon slowly opening them, two exposed mounds of pink flesh presented themselves, with attentive nipples. Chu Cho stared hard at the freckle on Tillie’s shoulder.

“My love,” Tillie began, “ju are wonderful, and funny.”

“I’m funny?” he asked, making the effort to keep eyes-front. Really?

“You sing, you dance.” She continued, “Oh, yes. You’re a hopeless romantic, Chu Cho. Last night, you professed love.”

“Professed? Did I say profess?”

“Not exactly.” She tilted her chin in his direction.

“No, no way am I funny. Funny’s not me.”

“Well, I think you are my copita de miel. In a very charming way.”

“No, no, no. I’m not charming. I’m, I’m”—he scratched the back of his head—“I’m a drunk. Ask anybody. I drink. A lot. And look.” He reached for his threadbare khaki pants, wadded and tossed on the nightstand. “What sort would wear pants like these?”

“Ju,” she smiled.

He reached for the first thing he could find to cover up—a crocheted tablecloth.

She gave his shoulders a gentle push. “Ju, stay right where you are. I will brew you a cup of mint tea.” (The thought of mint tea sounded nauseating.) “No sugar, of course,” she added. “Ju are sweet enough.” Wrapped in her coverlet, sarong-style, her enormous hips rhythmically bounced from side to side. Her legs, a pair of oversize ninepins, couldn’t possibly find balance on such tiny feet in black slippers, but somehow she managed.

“Oh, God,” he said and laid his head in the palms of his hands to ease the throbbing. Last night when she danced in her purple sash, with her earrings dangling and finger cymbals jangling, she had looked pretty good, but in the cold light of day…

“Listen, Gypsy, the first thing you need to know is that in Realitos there’s nothing to do but talk, talk, talk. Better to pretend nothing happened. Deny, deny, deny—what happened to happen didn’t happen. You know? People talk in small towns.”

“But why?”

Chu Cho drew a blank. “Because,” he began, “…because there is reputation to consider. I’m not thinking about myself, but you’re a woman, a single woman.”

“Chu Cho, who cares what people think?” she said.

*   *   *

In a way, she was right. Of course, his mother would have cared, were she alive. But she wasn’t, and who was he kidding? He had no friends. Most of his buddies were dead and gone in the war. The fact that he came back from Nam was not a pleasant thought. So at night he drank. He hated doing things he regretted later, but here he was. He couldn’t even remember if he’d reduced himself to a brute, forcing himself upon this poor woman.

“That’s it. No more. No more booze.”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself. You’re not at fault. Practicality is. I have but one bed; the reading took longer than expected. It was late, and you were drunk as a skunk.”

“Drunk?” Chu Cho sat straight up. “How drunk?”

“Plenty drunk.”

Maybe he was too hard on himself. Maybe being drunk wasn’t so bad. His mother would have disagreed. She had expected more from him. He’d played the cards he was dealt. Things hadn’t worked out for him, that’s all. It does for some, and for others, well, others stay in Realitos, Texas, and never know the difference.

“Chu Cho, I have something to tell you. You are a perfect gentleman. For forty years I’ve been saving myself for someone like ju.”

“Someone like me?” The compliment was nice, but the source—well, face it, had the evening called for gentlemanlike behavior? Had he given her the wrong impression? Possible. But what could he say not to lead her on and, at the same time, to get himself out of this mess? He had to think, think, think. He grabbed his pants off the side table. How could he speak harsh words in a gentle manner? This woman was, after all, nice in spite of herself.

“Maybe,” he began, measuring his words, “we should cool it. Take our time. What rises fast, falls quickly. In thinking about myself, I, too, have been saving myself.”

“Oh, Chu Cho, that’s a sign.”

“A sign?” The only sign he could think of was the one attached to the cobalt-blue wagon that he remembered to read: and more. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign not to start something we can’t finish.”

“No. No, no. Quite the contrary. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a chance.” She pulled a silk, fuchsia scarf out of nowhere and ran it across his face. It smelled of lavender and felt smooth, like a healing balm.

“Oh my God, Lucy, and my work. I can hear the grass growing.” He checked his wrist. “Ha, I’m late.” He stood to maneuver into one pant leg, then the other.

“But the tea.”

“You drink it.” He buttoned the first and last button of his shirt, threw open the flap of her tent to check that the coast was clear.

He looked from side to side to make sure the lot was empty.

He passed near the tank. Moby’s listless stare drew him to her. “It looks like you’ve had better days. Yeah, me too. I had no business staying the night, I drank too much, and I don’t feel like going to work.” He felt sorry for this beautiful creature and felt something more he couldn’t put into words. “Look at me.” Moby’s eye met Chu Cho’s; he pressed his forehead against the plate glass. “Look at you, a big fish in a little pond like Realitos. That’s something.” Pressing his head against the tank, he felt the coolness, and against his cheek, the smoothness, and closer still, his lips felt the cold and smooth glass tank.

What the hell was he doing? A 36-year-old man kissing a fish. “Loco. Plain loco.”

*   *   *

Chu Cho eased himself into his chair, which featured a well-defined imprint of his rear in the center of the cushion. The furniture stood exactly where his mother had left it. Even the dust hadn’t stirred, with the exception of an occasional paw print left by Princess, his cat, who strolled at will, her powder-pink nose turned up and lower lip turned down as if something smelled bad. He sat where he always sat to stare and think. He would sleep it off and work later. He clicked his TV on and got up to adjust the rabbit ears. He would show up to work around three. He didn’t want to be too late, like he always was, or not show. Frau Beiterman had been kind to him to hire him as her yardman. She’d hired him in spite of his long hair, which she disapproved of, and his hip-slung britches, which she thought disheveled. But when she checked his driver’s license, she saw his photos. A man who carries a picture of his mother in his wallet and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe couldn’t be bad, she said and hired him on the spot. It was too early to go to work and too late to sleep. But sleep overtook Chu Cho, and he pulled a no-show.

*   *   *

His mother, God rest her soul, had always wanted him to be responsible and to marry well. Who you marry is important in life, she had said. Chu Cho was glad he’d never had to face that decision. He hadn’t particularly wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Poor bastard, always hoping for some opportunity to help him get off the treadmill of life in Realitos, always in hopes someone or something would come along to set him free. Chu Cho remembered hot summer nights when family and neighbors gathered like chicks at his father’s feet, listening to him strum “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” on his guitar. Whoever the hell that Cortez was—a cousin, his father had said. Who knew? Everyone in Realitos claimed any relation that had achieved success or notoriety. Gregorio was known for shooting a sheriff. Hero? Bandito? That depends on who was telling the story.

Chu Cho’s days were passable. It was night that gave him the willies. This night was no exception. He had slept straight through work, and he roamed the streets of Realitos wearing a crumpled felt hat and threadbare khakis wrinkled like an accordion. Chu Cho passed the San Jose Church, crossed himself, pressed his cheek to a nearby lamppost, and hummed “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”

“Who the hell was Gregorio, anyway?” Chu Cho hiccuped and smiled, pleased to hear his own foul words. “Quien erda, a quién chingo? O lo chingaron?” Humming, he tried to remember the words: “Then said Gregorio Cortez, with his pistol in his hand, ‘Ah, so many Rangers, just to take one Mexican.’”

*   *   *

Bits and pieces of corridos and stories, that’s all that was left. Nothing remained of his family but cairns over hard dirt. Gregorio had been remembered (by at least one man, Chu Cho’s father) as someone worth remembering. What was there left to remember about anyone in the Cortez family, whether named Gregorio or not? Nothing, man, the answer was nothing. Like his war buddies, scattered piece by piece God knows where. And for what? For what? He took a swig and, trying to hum the tune, unzipped his fly, saluting the daisies while he attended to his civic duties. “Chingos,” he said, watering the daises and half-forgetting that he stood in front of the church.

High-pitched sounds pierced the night, like a blues trumpet. It was Moby. Chu Cho leaned his head back, took another swig, and returned Moby’s yelp, with a grito straight from the heart. He’d miss Moby; miss the excitement of something new happening in Realitos. He’d miss having anything happen in Realitos. Which made him think of Gypsy. What had happened between them, anyway? There was a soft light in her little tent. Even if nothing had happened, something could have. He’d met an okay Gypsy woman, who wasn’t all that attractive, but she wasn’t a thief either, and she didn’t steal children. Nearing the tank, Chu Cho answered whale clacks by clicking his own lips. Air spewed from the top wire that protected the tank, and Moby barked a few trumpetlike yelps. The spray cooled his face. He could smell the brine of the ocean, an ocean he hadn’t seen in years. The Gulf wasn’t far, fifty or seventy-five miles. But for some reason he, like everyone else in Realitos, never strayed from home.

Moby’s fish song was as lonely as the ocean, with its unimaginable depths and its shimmering surface lights reflecting phosphorescent life below. Beneath that darkness, always the abyss, the unfathomable. He leaned his head against the glass tank and thought of the dark abyss. Moby didn’t move; her eyes were, in fact, half shut. “You don’t look so good. Where the hell is Barabbas?”

“Barabbas! Barabbas! Donde estás, cabron?

“What is going on?” Gypsy stuck her head out the flap of her tent. “Chu Cho, what are you doing? It’s late.”

“Look here. This big fish don’t look so good. Why?”

“He’s been on one of his binges.” She pointed under the truck. “And it could go on for days.”

“Days? Moby doesn’t have days.”

“It’s worse than that. Moby doesn’t have food.”

“What?”

Gypsy pointed. Barabbas was sprawl-eagle under the truck, empty boxes of shrimp strewn hither and yon.

“Where’s Moby’s food?”

“He sold it.”

“Sold it? What for?”

“For fifty dollars, I think.”

“Pendejo.”

“Worse. He didn’t give me my share.”

“Oh no, Gypsy. You’re not in on this scheme, are you?”

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea, this caravan ride I’ve been on where he gets all the money; I get all the problems. But it’s business. I have a horse to feed. And no money to even buy the old mare a decent headpiece plume.” She pulled the fuchsia scarf from her bosom and dabbed her eyes.

“Don’t.” Chu Cho put his arm around her shoulder. “You don’t have to be with his kind.”

“What’s left for people like me?”

“Anything is better than this, Gypsy. Never forget that.” Chu Cho looked at Barabbas snoring his foul-breathed snores. “Come on, Gypsy. Help me out here.” Chu Cho grabbed the inebriated body by one boot and Gypsy by the other, and together they dragged Barabbas out from under the truck. Chu Cho felt fire in the pit of his gut, out of control, burning. He grabbed Barabbas by the collar.

Bastardo, have you no sense of responsibility? Have you no soul?” Chu Cho shook him till he let out a moan.

“Forget it. He’s out for days.”

“Moby doesn’t have days.” Chu Cho felt his jaws tighten and his fists clinch. “You self-centered, sanctimonious son of a bitche.” He shook him harder. “Who do you think you are, strutting into town like you own the place? Like you own Moby. No one owns anyone. Not that way.” He dropped Barabbas, who lay unfazed with a smile on his lips.

Chu Cho stuck one hand in his hip pocket and brought the other to his head. “Think, man. Think.” He leaned against the glass; Moby’s eyes were closed. “Hey, in there.” He tapped the glass tank. “Do you hear me?” His bottle of whisky lay on the ground. He looked at Moby, then back to Gypsy. Oh, great; a loser, a slacker, and a near-dead fish. Who was the least desirable was up for grabs. He picked up his half-empty bottle and tossed it. The bottle shattered. He leaned his head against the tank. “Oh, man. Oh, man, Moby. You know what? Life is a bag of shit. And try to get rid of a bag of shit. You know what you’re left with?”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself.”

“Shut up, Gypsy. Let me think.” Through the glass tank, he heard the slightest bleep, like a submerged submarine, or like a heart monitor before flatlining. Maybe there was time. Maybe there was a way out. Gypsy spoke up.

“You could drive Moby to the Gulf.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You’re crazy. I can’t drive that big truck.”

“You know how to drive a truck.”

“I drive a pickup. A ’52 Chevy pickup.”

“It’s practically the same.”

Chu Cho hopped onto the fender and peered in the truck’s front window. A mass of gearshifts sprouted from the center console like a crop of goldenrods. He jumped down.

“It’s not the same.”

“Well, what’s so hard? There’s got to be a first, second, and third gear somewhere. Chu Cho, try.”

“I guess I could.”

“Yes, yes.” Gypsy rose on the toes of her ballet slippers as if she might twirl; she clapped her hands instead.

“Could I? Could I possibly move this chingos of a flatbed to the Gulf, crack open the crate, and let the force of the water plunge Moby into the Gulf of Mexico? Hey, Moby, you could be a wetback.” He grinned. “Yeah.” He walked toward the truck. “Wait a minute. Wait one minute.” He stopped. “Let’s be practical. So, I give it a go. So I get the damn truck on the highway. One wrong move, and the police stop me. Red lights blinking, sirens blare, y toda la cosa. One look at me, you know what they’ll say. Marijuano! Smuggler. Where, pinche cops? The whale’s belly? they’ll say. Crazy. This plan is crazy, Gypsy. It will never work.”

“What if it does?”

“What if it doesn’t?” Chu Cho scratched the back of his head. “What can be more crazy than the truth? ‘I’m doing the right thing here, Officer. I’m transporting a whale. Yes, in the back of my truck. Some shithead brought it to Realitos en route to the Gulf to meet up with a marine biologist, but he stopped. He stopped to make a buck. Now the whale needs to go home. So let me do what I have to do, Officer.’ What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, Chu Cho. That sounds wonderful. Maybe you’ll get a medal. Maybe you’ll get a police escort.”

“Maybe. Now where the hell are the keys?” Gypsy shrugged. “Oh, great.” Together they scavenged through the driver’s pockets and cargo bags. Nada. They combed the ground near the empty boxes of shrimp. Nada. Chu Cho hopped on the fender and looked into the window on the driver’s side. Moonlight struck the dashboard, and Chu Cho reached in and flicked the key ring full of dangling keys. No excuses now. He jumped into the front seat.

“Chu Cho, wait.” Gypsy hoisted herself on the fender and pursed her lips. Chu Cho, eyes rolled upward, leaned closer to her. “I wanted to say…” She hesitated. “Something happened,” she said and pulled him closer still. She kissed him hard on the lips.

He smiled, hit the ignition, and listened to the engine rev up while he adjusted the side-view mirror and his felt hat. Through the mirror, he could see Gypsy waving her fuchsia scarf, looking a bit forlorn. What did she expect? He was a man with a mission.

“Hang in there, big guy. Don’t give up,” he shouted.

Hearing the slosh of water and a few weak whale yelps, Chu Cho tapped on the rear window. “What do you say, Moby? Let’s go for it.”

___

Dee Redfearn is an honors graduate of the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program in fiction writing, where she was nominated for Best New Voices in 2003 and 2004. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Willow Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She was also published in Vol. XXIII of Green Hills Literary Lantern and more recently in Under the Sun where her essay “The Camino” was nominated for Best American Essays. Dee is a finalist for the New Letter’s Fiction Award.

Damning with Faint Praise

By Lenny Levine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Sadowski chuckled softly.

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

He wanted to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael fainted.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“He wasn’t trying to…”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!” they said.

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

The three of them nodded slowly.

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

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

“What’s the address?”

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

“When’s your next rehearsal?”

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

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

He shook hands with all of them and departed.

“Wow, how about that?” Ralphie said.

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

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

 

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

An Evening With Joe Walsh!

Then in smaller type, but not much smaller:

 

Special Added Attraction, The Plug-ins!

 

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there, guys!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By tomorrow night?” Michael said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, stop!” Harry Magnus called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” said Magnus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve nodded meekly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tears were running down Michael’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, baby, look at me

The only one you’ll ever see

From now throughout eternity

And that’s the way it’s gonna be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice Strat, dude,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door opened and Magnus came in.

“Well, guys, how did you like it?”

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

“How about you, Michael?”

“Yeah, it was great,” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he remembered the dream.

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

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

“Everything,” he’d said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

Underwater

By Jim Ray Daniels

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

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

“But we can’t stay up here,” he said.

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

“That might be a disaster,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

“He is. I killed him.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you had.”

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

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

“Thirteen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She frowned. “That wasn’t my point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flinched.

“Never married?”

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

“You never stop looking,” he said.

“You don’t?” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you playing with me?” Beano asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My children love me,” he said.

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

“We’ll live forever,” she said.

The cars on the freeway continued their steady hum.

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

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

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

___

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

My Rembrandt

By Michael Andreoni

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

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

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

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

“Who’s at Frenchy’s?”

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

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

            “You like her, huh?”

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

            “She’s stealing.”

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

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

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

            “The used stuff they keep in the back.”

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a car?”

“Naw.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why you here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God. They’re all dead.”

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

“Right. Into dead dogs.”

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

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

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

“So you took it?”

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

“Dirty fry oil. Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Into what?”

“What they want.”

“With their guts coming out?”

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

“See it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a tough break.”

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

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

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

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

“How’s she get there?”

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

“Why dogs?”

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

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

“Like the dogs, with their insides out?”

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

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

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

“All right.”

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

“You come here to fire me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ Maybe. I think about it.”

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

*   *   *

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

“What’s funny?” Yolanda asks.

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

“It’s a change,” she says.

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

___

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

Yesterday and Today

By Richard Compean

e will be gone in two weeks—gone not just away on retreat, or business, not to visit family, not to the almost comatose sleep he has been going to increasingly for the past two months, but forever, to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as he himself would say, to the death that will us finally part.

All this I know because I just met yesterday with his hospice nurse, who has told me this, as she explained, for my own sake, not his, to get me beyond denial and anger.

And, yes, I have been angry at him ever since he told me a few months back that suicide might make things easier, especially on me. We both laughed when I threatened to kill him if he so much as even tried.

The hospice nurse also told me that his periods of consciousness and lucidity will continue to diminish, both in frequency and length, until they stop completely. Yesterday there were three, and all were less than an hour. Last night we talked for only about forty-five minutes, and he once again reminded me to be sure that his daughter Lucy gets that original Beatles Yesterday and Today album (the one with the broken dolls and meat) when she comes to visit today.

This request reminded me of the first gift he gave me—a two-part CD collection, one part red and one part blue, of all the Beatles’ greatest songs from 1962 to 1970. Then I was less than half his age, and he promised as he courted me that he would make sure that when we married—something he was much more interested in than I was—he would be less than twice my age.

This was one of several important promises he made me, and—dammit—he managed to keep them all, even though I grew to want more. I was halfway past twenty-four when we married; he was not yet forty-nine. And on my twenty-fifth birthday he promised that I would catch up with him in age. He anticipated the question on my mind, and the puzzled look on my face, by telling me that for ten years now he had remained the same age, an age that I, too, would reach. Each year on his birthday he would celebrate being, once again—as he is even now, with less than two weeks to live—“between thirty-nine and death.” This is how I caught up with him, in a matter of only fourteen years.

He also promised me on our honeymoon that in appreciation for my marrying someone so much older, he would give me at least twenty good years (a “score,” as Abraham Lincoln counted them). They have not always been perfect, but as of this morning our nearly twenty-one years together have indeed been good, even though he will not quite make it to the biblical three score years and ten.

When we talked last night, he also told me that he had a gift for me that I was not to open until he was gone, and that he would say more about it tomorrow. I already know what it is—something that he had his closest friend, David, help him prepare.

I not only know what it is, but also where it is, and I have even opened it, or at least a part of it. I overheard some of his conversation with David and saw David give him a large envelope, wrapped with gold ribbon. David had followed his instructions to write on the outside—just as Marshal Will Kane did in High Noon, with a quill pen—“To Be Opened in the Event of My Death.” Then I saw David, following his instructions, put the envelope underneath his mattress on the far side of the bed, close to the window.

Earlier this week, after I was sure he had gone into one of his more and more frequent nearly catatonic sleeps, I could no longer resist the temptation to pull out the envelope and bring it out to my room to look inside. But because I was sure he would know if it was gone, I took out and only looked at a part of the contents.

The first thing I noticed was that everything was in teal blue—his favorite color and the same color as the dress he bought me for our second anniversary, the dress that I wore out with him only three times, and which I wore out wearing for him at home with, as he had demanded (reminding me that Je demande in French meant only “I ask” or “I request” in English), absolutely nothing underneath. For a couple of years I had worn it as a prelude to our lovemaking, and I remember that it became so threadbare that the last time I wore it, he tore it off of me.

In the envelope was a sheet of parchment on which he had written (I, of course, recognized the handwriting), in dark ink, “I gave you the twenty years I promised, and I had hoped to give more, but then came the cancer that I did not anticipate. I thought our love would go into extra innings, but I’m now behind and it’s the bottom of the 9th, with two out and two strikes on me. And to top that off, Death has one hell of a curveball that’s almost unhittable and of which he is justifiably proud, even though one guy named Jack Donne hit it for a home run in that remarkable ‘Death Be Not Proud’ sonnet you know I love.

“Before I strike out, I want to leave you with something that will help in the game of your own life. I don’t mean it to be precious or sentimental, but something that will help you carry on without me—not that you’ve ever needed me to help live your life. That something is this small set of cards that I want you to carry with you, at least for the first year after my death. They are not in any order of priority or importance, so they can be shuffled or rearranged. And after you read them, you may decide to toss them as the demented blubberings of an old man whom you should not have let talk you into marrying when you were so young. At least consult them once and, as a last request (‘Je demande’) from me, give them a year.

“By the way, I think David did a good job in matching the paper stock on which they are written to that teal-blue dress I bought you a long time ago—yes, that one.”

Inside the parchment sheet on which he had written were ten—make that eleven—cards. To cover up my surreptitious theft, I grabbed the first three, then put the remaining cards back inside the parchment and the parchment sheet back inside the envelope, then put the whole envelope back under the mattress where I “found” it.

The first card, like the others to follow, was actually laminated. And it consisted of simple advice. I think he wanted this card to be first, even though he had written that they were put together in random order.

That first card only had three words: FORGET ABOUT ME. I liked its simplicity, but its message, like his earlier suggestion about suicide, made me angry! What do you mean, “forget about you”? Goddammit, you are the only one in my life that I will not ever be able to forget. You yourself made certain of that, you and all your fulfilled promises, all your loving gifts and days, your compassion and your calmness that got us through so much, and yes, even your humor, which I think underlies the advice on this card.

The second card was easier to accept: KEEP WALKING. Before the cancer, and even up until a few months ago, we walked nearly every day, through the park, around the lake, even just to Safeway and back. Those walks were a part of him that I am already missing, and a contradiction to that first card.

The third card was downright weird, not because of its advice, but because that advice was circled in red and had a line through it (like a No Smoking sign), meaning DO NOT. It said, inside the circle and line: WATCH BASEBALL. And I knew that it was meant as a joke. In fact, I casually flipped it over and found writing on the other side, writing that said, “Never mind. This one was for me.”

Then I thought to flip the other cards over, and sure enough, there was more on the other side of them as well. On the back of the first he had thanked me for twenty great years and assured me that I was a wonderful, life-affirming human being and that I never did need him before and certainly would not need him now. I never could get him to acknowledge that it was not a matter of need but want. And now that he is almost gone, I want him more than ever. The back of the second card advised me to walk slow; to walk for exercise of my mind, not of my (“great,” he had added) body.

Having read these cards, I went back for more, putting the first three back.

On Wednesday night I read two other cards, truly random: EAT RAW VEGETABLES AND FRUIT and WATCH MOVIES. On the back, the first simply said not to get cancer, as he had, growing up the son of a cook and eating all that meat and cheese. The back of the second one quoted the T-shirt he still sometimes wore on our walks: Si on aime la vie, on va au cinema.

Next morning I looked at the other two: READ DANTE and DON’T LET THE DUKKHA GET YOU DOWN. One advised, on the back, “not just Inferno and Purgatorio, which are the greatest depictions ever of human suffering, but also Paradiso, where you will find compassion and joy.” The back of the other told me to see the “Dante” card.

I have saved the remaining four cards for now, as I wait for Lucy to arrive to see her father for most likely the last time and to receive the Yesterday and Today vinyl album he repeatedly made me promise to deliver to her personally. As I look at the songs on this album, I hear him stirring and know that he will soon be ready to say goodbye to Lucy. I still want to know, as the Beatles themselves asked, why he is saying goodbye when I want to say hello.

I say hello to Lucy when she arrives, then check to see if he is ready for her. When she goes in for her farewell, I take out the final four cards.

One card says PRAY; on the back it reminds me to wish wellness and happiness to everyone, even my enemies. Has he become an enemy for deserting me?

The second card says TALK TO ANIMALS and adds, on the back, that I will be amazed at how much they have to teach me.

The third card advises me to GIVE TO OTHERS and reminds me of what he has already taught me, how much great pleasure and joy there is in giving.

The final card says LISTEN TO THE BEATLES. I think I already know what will be on the back of this card.

 

——————–

Richard Compean grew up listening to The Beatles and has passed his love for them on to both his children and student at City College of San Francisco where he teaches English. In his spare time he enjoys hanging out on the corner of pop culture and spirituality, admiring the work of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon as much as that of John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Andrew Marvell.

The Fractalist

By Jory Pomeranz

n some old encyclopedias, you will find under the article on Spain, the border between Spain and Portugal is 620 miles long. In the same encyclopedia, under the article on Portugal, it says the border is 760 miles long. It’s the same border. The geometry we learned in high school—circles, squares, triangles—tells us nothing about the shapes of nature. Where the land and sea so variously lie about each other and lightly kiss is no hyperbola. If you measure in kilometers, you reach a certain length. In meters, you’d pick up more wiggles and wobbles of the coastline. Centimeters? Even longer. There is no well-defined length for a coastline; the length depends on the scale by which you choose to measure it and the scale of your perspective. This is called scale ambiguity.

Michael Crane was a mathematician studying and teaching fractal geometry at Cornell University. Fractals are great for finding simple descriptions for complicated shapes. Take Sierpinski’s gasket, for example. The gasket possesses an infinite number of triangles, and the equations of those triangles aren’t straightforward. Yet if you shrink it by a half, take another copy and shrink it by a half, then move it over by half, and then take a final copy, shrink it by a half, and move up by a half, you get the gasket. A fractal description of an object is the story of how it grows.

I learned from Michael he was dying of cancer and it was everywhere. It was inside his brain; it had taken one eye, which he hid by covering his glasses with duct tape and joking about being a pirate. It was all over his lungs and he would exclaim, “Our lungs, oh my God! There are half a billion alveoli in our lungs—it would take the whole genome just to describe the lungs! That’s why the genome just tells us how to grow instead. If we take these structures apart, study the patterns in smaller scales, anything visually complex can be decoded into something very simple.” And he’d be totally out of breath, and I could see and feel it hurt him now, every time he chose to use those lungs to speak. There are, on average, twenty-three levels of branching in the lungs, and they have a volume of five to six liters and a surface area of 130 square meters. It’s like taking an envelope and folding it up to fit inside a thimble, yet evolution discovered a way to do it by branching, and branching, and branching. Every bit of the lung looks like the whole lung. It’s a fractal and dually simple and complex.

* * *

With Michael’s disease progressing, I wondered how much of his nature, nature itself would have to destroy before his childlike curiosity for nature itself would be destroyed. He still had this gentle, vivacious curiosity in a dying body. As a child, he had wanted to understand the different shapes of clouds, or why flowers grew the way they grew, or why mud cracked the way it did when it dried out in the sun. As an adult, he wanted to be that tottering old guy ambling into class with a piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe, still telling the same dumb jokes. And the sicker he got, the more I wanted to walk the measuring tape back on his life, giving him more time with his wife and his seven cats.

Michael taught me that science has a narrative component that we too often forget. He was a storyteller. The shape of a snowflake is the story of the pressure, temperature, and humidity it encountered on its flight through the clouds. A coastline is the story of rocks and tides and waves. A mountain range is the story about plate tectonics and erosion. A child’s face, a field of daisies, a fall of snowflakes: bilateral symmetry for the human face, translational symmetry for the field of daisies, rotational symmetry for the snowflakes. Fractals.

Near the end of his life, they took one of his arms. He used the one arm to walk with a cane. He told me, “I feel disgusted that I’m being betrayed by my body,” and I knew he understood it was by the nature he found so beautiful. Cancer cells are fractals too. He died a few days afterward at night. I sat on my porch. I cried because I felt it was unfair for a man to understand so much about the uncontrolled elements of life and still have to die. I looked up at the night. I had this very clear sense that instead of looking up into the heights, I was looking down into the depths—something flipped, and the space between the stars was just immense and empty, but there was something else to it too. And I couldn’t explain it. And I missed him already.

——————–
Jory Pomeranz is a holistic chef living in Cincinnati, OH. He teaches chess to students and veterans.