One to One

by Jay Merill

Señor José Fuentes sits with a folded smile today.  You cannot read his eyes.  They are not exactly closed not exactly open.  He is squinting and all you can see are the many tiny creases that lead inwards to where the eyes are hiding. It is Seven O Clock in the morning.  Señor Fuentes waits for the daily newspaper to be brought; he is impatient for his morning tea. There is a gleam inside him as he anticipates the smell of the print, the rustle of the paper, the comfort of the gossip he will find in it, the sharp taste of the tea he will wash it down with.  As I shift the bucket to the other side of the bed I sense his hopes.

I wash the floor around all the beds in the ward.  Señor Fuentes is in the bed next to the door.  When I take the bucket out and pour away the washing water into the drain I think of how he lies in his bed waiting for the arrival of small things.  These are what hold his life together now.  I imagine him attached to the world by a thin strip of sticky paper.  If it comes away he is left in pieces. What will happen if the things he waits for do not come?  Will he crumble?   When I return to the ward with the antiseptic spray and a soft cloth I see that there has been a development.  The face of Señor Fuentes is concealed behind his newspaper.  I hear that soft cluck clucking sound he makes with his lips when he is half contented.  When the tea appears there will come from his throat a little rasping croak of a noise.  This is his sound of full happiness.

Now I begin washing the doors of the six bedside cabinets starting with the one to the left of the door and returning last to Señor Fuentes whose bed is on the right.  When I have finished them all I pass out of the ward.  Still his tea has not come.  He is not clucking any more; he is as quiet as possible, listening for the sound of the trolley in the corridor, his longing now acute.  I see the silver gleam of the tea urn coming towards me like an old ship.  The trolley groans with its weight.  The nurse guides the wheels round the doorpost and into the ward, stops by the bed of Señor Fuentes.  I picture the joy he will feel at this moment and I wait at the door for the sound of his delight.  It comes, the strange croaking, more froglike than human if you stop and listen.   I laugh when I hear it and think about the predictability of things, how necessary this is for him, and maybe for all of us.

Soon I move on to the next ward with the antiseptic cleaner and my cloth.  There more patients lie in their beds, some propped on pillows, some concealed in blankets.  I suppose they are all waiting; that everyone in the hospital is waiting.  Some have passed beyond the small saviours of Señor Fuentes.  They are the ones who are only waiting to die.

For two weeks I have worked as a cleaner here at the hospital in Cusco.  There are many patients but Señor Fuentes is the one that I notice.  Even as I clean the floor on the far side of his ward and with my back to where he lies, I can’t help being aware that he is there. When I walk out again through the door I pass close to his bed and glance across quickly. I sense his thoughts.  When his bed has been made, he has had his shower, eaten lunch, they have switched on the tv for him to watch and there are no concerns to trouble him, his forehead is smooth with acceptance. Yet there is not a look of pleasure.  I understand that as all these things have taken place there is now nothing more to look forward to.  He does not cluck his lips or make the croaking sound low in his throat he simply closes his eyes and sleeps. He will sleep on for most of the afternoon.  His snores are a quiet soft purring.

In the evening I work in the paediatric wing and I will not see him again till the morning.  I do not know how he passes the late hours of the day. At eight pm after we have cleaned out the fridges in the kitchen we can leave.  I am staying with two girls of about my age, which is better than sleeping in the courtyard at the back of the hospital as some of the cleaners do.  It is said that it isn’t safe as there are many gangs in the neighbourhood and if they pass by in the night some will rob you as you sleep. Mayssa and Belén are the names of the girls and they live not too far from here.  We walk there together.  When I started working here Mayssa, who is fifteen, and a little older than me, asked me if I’d like to stop with them as they often have someone to stay as a lodger and their mother would not charge me very much.  Mayssa said since their father had left them two years ago, their mother was always in need of a little extra money to help out.  I share a small room with them and also a younger sister but it is not so bad as I have my own mattress next to the window and also it is clean. The three sisters sleep together in the double bed.

When we arrive at their place in the evenings we have some supper, usually Jaucha or tacu tacu or sometimes a dish of hot bean stew.  As the mother bustles about, preparing places at the table for us to sit down I find that I look forward to this meal very much and then I again think of Señor Fuentes and feel a sympathy for the pattern of his daily need.

Sometimes at the hospital I have to go and clean out the rooms where they store the laundry.  Today I must take the piles of bed linen and night clothes out of the cupboards and put fresh paper on the shelves.  It takes some time and I am late arriving at the wards. Señor Fuentes has already received his newspaper and his tea.  The paper is rolled up and lying on one side of the bed, the tea mug is empty. When I pass near him with the cleaning fluids and the buckets I am almost sure that he winks at me. The creased pouches beneath his eyes quiver.  I stop walking and hover near the foot of his bed.  Mother has always said it is rude to stare at anyone so I try to look at him discreetly from the side of my eye. No, there is nothing.  I believe he is sleeping.  I go over and wipe the paint work on the window sills and then I must clean the windows themselves.  They are always coated with a brownish dust even though they are washed every day.  At last I carry out the buckets and cleaning rags.  As I pass Señor Fuentes I see he has the rolled up paper in his hand now as though about to swat a fly.  There are no flies to be seen and I can’t help smiling.  Then, as I watch him I see him lift up his hand as if bearing the burden of a great weight.  I notice how huge his hand is, and how little energy there seems to be in it. After a minute or two I realise he is trying to attract my attention.  Surely he can’t be meaning me.  I look around.  Perhaps he wants to speak to one of the nurses.  Now he is waving the paper in a slow arc to left and right above his head like a man might do if he were drowning.  So I go across to him.                                                                                                                                     

‘Can I be of assistance Señor?’ I ask him in my most careful Spanish.                                                                  

‘What name do you have?’ Señor Fuentes asks me back.                                                                                         

 ‘I am called Chaska, Señor,’ I tell him.                                                                                                              

‘Please would you speak a bit louder,’ he says.  ‘My hearing is not so good.’                                                 

This is the first time a patient has spoken to me and it takes me a little while to feel at ease.                     

‘I am José Fuentes,’ he then tells me.  He lowers the paper now and releases it from his hand.  Then he nods to me and I understand he was just introducing himself.  I nod back and walk on out through the door.

This is the start of a recognition between myself and Señor Fuentes.  Each day when I come into the ward he nods to me and I am watching out for this.  We smile in a polite small way like acquaintances at a social function. And I have noticed that we acknowledge no one else like this.  Also it is unusual as in general we cleaners are apart and do not mix.  The patients in particular, are aloof from us. Now my head is ready to nod as I come through the door into the ward in the mornings and I am never disappointed for Señor Fuentes is always ready too and earnestly looking out for me.  I have come to see that my salutation is a thing of importance to Señor Fuentes; an extra thing he waits each day to receive.  I am honoured and also made nervous by this. My contract at the hospital is for a three- month period only.  Then I must go home to Cajamarca. I am working here for this time so I can save enough to purchase my ticket.  My mother will need me then.  In January Mother is expecting twins.  She has asked for me to come and it is the plan that I will go to her. As I cannot remain here after that time I feel a little sorry.  Señor Fuentes has no idea my stay will be so short and yet I do not wish to discourage his friendliness. I see his eyes anticipating me as I enter the ward in the mornings.  Before the paper, before the tea arrives, his waits to greet me with a wave of his hand.

There is a morning that he calls me over.  It surprises me to hear my own name on his lips although I gave it him myself.  As I go to him I have the strangest feeling. As if he is not really there where I can see him and I am not here where I walk across the floor.  I have this sense of being in another era, or rather in a dimension where all of this we are going through is occurring after all in a different time and place and is not now happening.                                                                                         

‘Good morning Chaska my dear,’ Señor Fuentes says to me.  I wonder if you would do a little something for me today.  Just an errand.’                                                                                                               

‘Yes,’ I agree.                                                                                                                                                                   

He then reaches out for a small packet lying next to him on the bed.  His hand shakes very much today I see.  He then passes this packet to me.  It is only a tissue paper wrapping and I open it easily.  Inside is a small gold crucifix and I see that the link with the chain has broken.                                                                                                                                                 

‘So Chaska would you take this crucifix for me to the menders and ask them to fix the chain where it has come apart.  There is a good place very near the hospital.  Let me show you.’  He has a map and points out a street on it, which I see is only one block away.                                                                               

‘I have a break at mid day and I will take it then,’ I tell him.                                                                          

‘You are a kind girl Chaska,’ Señor Fuentes says.

At the menders they tell me that they can let me have it back tomorrow.  I ask if it will be ready by eight o clock tonight because tomorrow I do not think I can come for it. They agree to this.  The reason is that tomorrow is the day my brother Uchu is to meet me in Cusco and we are spending the whole day together and are going to all the best places in the city, like tourists.  We will have lunch out somewhere not near the hospital. I let Señor Fuentes know about this when I get back and he does not mind.                                                                                                                                                                

‘The next day then,’ he says.  And he is very interested to hear about my brother, what he looks like, what kind of a guy he is, how long a time it is since we saw one another.                                                       

I tell Señor Fuentes of my excitement at seeing Uchu and that I do not know how I will go to sleep tonight.  He smiles in a sad way and I sense that he feels himself old, suddenly aware that he has lost much enthusiasm for the things of life.

I’m up early on the morning I am to meet my brother.  I did not sleep much during the night, as I had expected.  But even so, I could not force myself to stay in bed once I saw the flush of dawn at the window.  I have already been in Cusco for a few weeks but Uchu was not able to come sooner than this.  The first day I arrived I walked round many small hotels and guest houses asking for work and was told that they were looking for cleaners at the local hospital. I went there and they were happy to take me on. So here I am.  Cusco is a large city.  Since Lima I have not been in such built up busy places. I feel all tremorous about meeting Uchu as I have not seen him for quite a while.  Will he be very different?  I know one thing about him, the main thing, I should say.  Uchu is a serious minded guy and I am sure this cannot have changed.  My instinct tells me that I will know him as soon as I see him.  He may look a little altered from before.  He will be older and with much more experience, which also changes one’s appearance I think. But I am confident that even so I will recognise him the minute he appears in this room. The room is the café adjoining the railway station. It is here that I sit and wait for him.  I am far too early.  It is in my character to be always at a meeting place some time before the meeting is to take place.

When Uchu arrives in the doorway it is as if we were never apart.  He is taller and older but I would know him anywhere.  I am happy about this.  As I rush towards him across the floor I see him hesitate.  Perhaps his hesitation is a good thing.  It is what restrains me.  After a second or two he does look pleased to see me. I should not feel anything negative about his moment’s circumspection.  It is in Uchu’s nature to be cautious, I already knew that and must not be at all dismayed therefore.  If he had run to greet me, as I to him, that would have been the remarkable thing, wouldn’t it.  I know I am far more immediate in my senses than my brother and I should not feel hurt.  He is just himself.  After I have given myself a moment’s talking to I feel quite comfortable again and I go across to him, almost as openly as I began.  I take his hand in both of mine and smile into his eyes.                                                                                                                                                                        

‘Do you find me changed?’ he at once wants to know.

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘You are exactly the same careful person, only more handsome.’

‘And you dearest Chaska are more beautiful,’ Uchu says.

We laugh together.  My forgetful laugh and Uchu’s self-reflecting one.                                                                           

‘What would you like to do?’ he asks me.

I had told him by letter that I wished to see certain important places in Cusco so he would be prepared.  I’ve already planned where I would like us to see.   ‘Koricancha,’ I say.  So that is where we go.

Earlier in the year I went to Machu Picchu and since then I’ve developed a taste for visiting archaeological sites.  I am enchanted with Koricancho, which means Temple of the Sun.  We look at the round and perfect wall which still remains.  It is said there was a courtyard of gold and the walls were built of golden plaques.  The thought of such opulence amazes me.  I see that Uchu is looking thoughtful.

‘What is it?’ I ask him.

He does not reply at first then says,  ‘And where, little girl, are the Inca now?’

I say nothing.  He is entitled to his ways of seeing but I myself do not wish to lose my sense of enchantment.

Uchu continues in this thoughtful mood and doesn’t say very much then he suddenly comes out with, ‘Even a room entirely filled with gold will not save you.’ 

And I know he is speaking of Atahualpa the last Inca king who it is said had such a room to offer to Pizarro when the conquistadores came.

We then walk round the church of Santo Domingo mostly in silence. This is Our day together and I find him a little on the miserable side.  I admit this privately to myself.

Coming later to the main square of Cusco, Uchu cheers up a little. We have some snacks. Rocoto relleno, plus one or two other favourites. I have not tasted empanadas more delicious. It seems a long time since I have eaten any of these.  Uchu tells me that he is not himself returning to Cajamarca, not yet at any rate, and I feel surprise as I thought he was planning to go home at last. I ask him if he doesn’t miss being home.  He does not speak for quite a few moments and I am just thinking he intends to say nothing when he suddenly takes me by the hand and looks at my face intently.

‘Little sister,’ he says, and remembering how he used to call me that in the old days we both smile.

‘Everything changes,’ he says.  ‘We can therefore never go back anywhere.’

I say I do not think things change so much as he is telling me but Uchu says that I am sentimental and it is wishful thinking in order to protect my dream.

We walk round the centre of Cusco.  There is the sound of much traffic, the calls of street vendors, the chatter of those passing by.  ‘Let’s go to drink coffee,’ I say and I feel I’d like to talk some more in a place which is quieter. 

‘In a minute,’ Uchu says.

‘It’s just that I want to talk,’ I admit to him.

‘Walking thoughts are not the same thing as sitting thoughts,’ he tells me quickly.  ‘I can speak more truthfully while we’re on the move.’ 

So we walk on and on, moving to a less busy street and finally ending up on the Plaza San Francisco where we stroll along together by the fountains.  The sound of the water pleases me. 

‘Anyway,’ I say to Uchu, ‘Water is very helpful for speaking and I am sure the best thoughts of all will come to us while we are here.’

He agrees then after a pause says how he feels he has to keep moving.  I ask him if he thinks this constant movement is such a good thing.  Uchu says he supposes it would be better to have balance but tells me he just can’t seem to stop. 

‘Why is that?’ I ask him.  My voice must be very serious for he laughs and calls me ‘Little Sister’ again.                                                                                                                                                                               

‘I think it is because I am afraid,’ he confides suddenly, his voice gone quiet, and I squeeze his hand.  For a moment I think he is going to cry but he does not, he just clears his throat and speaks a little bit louder.  ‘It is true.  I am afraid,’ he repeats, his voice now more clear.

I go through this in my mind, then I say to Uchu, ‘Yes, I understand what you are saying and the thing that makes you frightened.’ 

He looks at me with surprise I see, as though he does not expect to hear anyone speak in sympathy, least of all his little sister.                                                                                           

‘Change is the thing that you dread.’

‘Yes, you’re right,’ he agrees then goes on to tell me that he is afraid of getting too attached to anything because it will only let you down.  ‘And the more you pursue it the less you will find what you are looking for. Nothing is lasting. And you’ll find you have suffered in vain because what you seek is nowhere to be found.’

I notice that now his voice has some excitement in it and I realise that though he has this fear he likes to talk of it and is pleased to share these thoughts with someone.

‘That is why I want to keep travelling,’ Uchu says.  ‘To keep on travelling without looking back is the happiest way to be. Believe me, that is the way of least regret.’

I remind him he spoke earlier of having balance and I say I do not think someone would achieve balance if they followed his advice. I become quite angry for a second saying this is the real world where people have real feelings.  I can’t finish and end up by crying. 

Uchu thinks for a minute and then he tells me he will reflect on this.  After a short silence he says he is already sure what I say is right and he well knows that he is in danger of being one sided and rigid in his views. 

I know he has always been intense and has struggled to have greater flexibility and lightness but still, no-one can achieve perfection, not even him.

So I tell him that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself and to keep on with the travelling if that helps him.   

He looks slightly glad to hear what I say and slightly ashamed at the same time.  He squeezes my hand and tells me I am an amazing girl and I cry a little more then and Uchu wipes away my tears with the corner of his tee shirt sleeve.

That evening he comes with me to Mayssa and Belén’s house and their mother makes us a special dish of spicy pork.  We all talk pleasantly afterwards and all are interested to learn of Uchu’s plan to travel north to Huancabamba to visit a curandero

When it is very late Uchu kisses me goodbye and says he enjoyed our talk more than he can say and it has given him fresh things to consider.  I make myself say that I hope he will come to Cajamarca to visit; that he will do this for me if not for himself.  I stand at the door with him and then he goes away into the night.

Next morning we three girls walk to the hospital at 7am to begin our morning work.  I feel the little gold crucifix in the pocket of my overall and am happy to think of how pleased Señor Fuentes will be when I give it to him.  I practically run into the ward with the crucifix in my hand and then I stop.  His bed is empty, stripped even of the blankets.  Also his name plate is absent. The head nurse sees me and comes over and says that Señor Fuentes died early this morning and that he told her he wanted me to have the crucifix.  She asks me if I understand what he meant?  I explain what had happened and show her the crucifix which is hanging down from my hand by its chain.  My hand is trembling, my whole body is shaking.  The ward around me is turning dark.  And then I am sitting in a chair in the corridor, the nurse telling me I had fainted.  She says she is sorry.  She says it is not really a good idea to get too emotionally involved with patients but she understands.  I am still very young.  She admires the crucifix, which is beautiful, delicate.  Then puts it on for me and strokes my arm.

Christmas at Norma’s Pizza

by Manek R. Mistry

She knows her staff steals from the register.  Not a lot—surprising, because stoners can’t always manage subtlety—but enough to be noticeable, even though she doesn’t actually balance the till. 

She’s inclined to let it slide, if it doesn’t get worse.  They’re all just kids, and she pays them shit, and besides, what’s she going to do—make them spy on each other?  Set up video cameras? Hire a detective?  She hasn’t talked to Mark about it, but she knows what he’d say: fire them all.  Wouldn’t do any good though; she’d just have to start watching the new ones.

She lights a cigarette and leans back in her chair, blowing smoke into the pizza-tinted air.  Her office—a cramped, windowless firetrap at the back of the restaurant—is messier than usual, filled with Christmas presents waiting to be wrapped.  She could make one of the girls do it, maybe.  Kelly’s neat and organized; she looks like she’d make nice crisp packages.  Have to pay her extra, though, because she wouldn’t get any tips, stuck back here instead of out front.

She regrets buying the big flat-screen for Mark, now that he’s acting like a jerk.  She knows he’s having an affair—with the skinny bitch who does the books at Cartwright’s—but she doesn’t care, so why does he have to take his guilt out on her by being such an asshole?

Ok, maybe she cares a little bit, but it’s not like she hasn’t cheated on him, too, before the kids were born, so she can’t confront him— that would open a whole can of worms.  Maybe she can return the TV; the receipt’s got to be around here somewheres. 

She rests her cigarette on the ashtray— a mess of clay and glaze Petey made in third grade— and shifts papers around on her desk.  Most of them are invoices she hasn’t paid yet— some green, some pink, some white, all different sizes.  Why can’t they make them all the same?  She comes across a letter from her lawyer— have to deal with that, sometime— and the notice from the health department.  After a minute, she gives up looking.  Let him have the damn TV; he won’t be a jackass forever.  The affair will fizzle—like they do—and he’ll get all sweet and affectionate for a while.  That’ll be annoying, too, but then things will go back to normal, and he might as well have a nice TV then.

She retrieves her cigarette, picks up the newspaper, and turns to the puzzle page.  This Sunday morning ritual proves she’s middle-aged: the younger Norma would have ridiculed any of her friends who wasted time on the crossword, or the jumble, but she’s come to like it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.  This morning, she can’t find a pen, though.  How can there not be a single pen in here?  She shifts the papers around again, hunts through the desk drawers, and checks her purse: nothing. 

Annoyed, she gets up and walks through the kitchen.  It’s all stainless steel, but not one bit of it is shiny like it was when she and Mark bought the place all those years ago.  What the hell had they been thinking?  Still, dumb as they were, it had worked out, and the pressure’s less, now that the kids are grown and the house paid off.  Maybe she can hire someone to come in here and scrub everything so it shines again, just to make it look nice and clean, like it was back then, before the residue of a thousand pizzas had accumulated.

She pushes out through the swinging door and threads her way between close-packed tables—the waitresses have always complained that there are too many—to the corner where the register sits.  The cup where they keep the pens is empty.  Damn it!

Just then, someone knocks on the front door.  Through the tinted glass, she sees big snow boots, a burly parka, and a scraggly snow-covered beard sticking out from inside the puffy hood.  It’s Ugly Beans, a guy who sometimes stops by for large quantities of pot that he deals to the college kids down in Amherst.

She gets her keys out, unlocks the door, and opens it, letting in a swirl of snow.  “Hey,” she says. “Need something?”

He nods, and she lets him in and locks the door behind him.

“Don’t have much on hand,” she says.  “You gotta call ahead.”

He stamps snow off his boots and pulls his hood off, revealing a bleeding lip and a pair of black eyes so fresh they look painted on.

“Holy crap, Beaner!”  She examines him.  “You want some ice for your face?  What happened?”

“Yeah, I know.”  He touches his lip with his fingers.  “Pretty bad, huh?”  His voice is thick; his words difficult to understand.  He holds one arm flat across his body, but she can’t tell through the thick coat if it’s his arm or his gut, or both.

She leads him into the kitchen and turns on the tap.  “Maybe some cold water first.”  She finds a rag under the sink and holds it out.  “Wash some of that blood off.”

“Is it still bleeding?”  He touches his lip again, then takes the cloth.

“You got blood in your beard, too.  What happened?”  She grabs a bowl, walks to the ice machine, and fills it.  “Here.”

He thanks her, takes a handful, and holds it to his eyes.  “Fuck, that hurts.”

He smells rotten, like he’s slept in a tub of rancid meat for a week, and his fingernails are black with grime. “Who was it?” she asks.

“Tiny and them guys.”

“You owe him?”

“He thinks I do.”

She nods. “I guess that’s what matters.  Wanna sit down?”  She guides him out of the kitchen to her office and clears papers off a chair. “I’ve got a story about Tiny. It’s a Christmas story, sort of.”

Ugly Beans tilts his head back, a cube of ice held to each eye with red fingers, the bowl in his lap. He’s undone his coat, but he still pins his left elbow to his ribs, like he’s wearing an invisible sling. “The one about the Santa at the mall?”

“Better.” She sits down at her desk across from him. “Your arm ok?”

“Yeah.” Dark threads of blood dribble from his beard down his neck and disappear into his grubby clothes. “What’s the story?”

“Back when his kids were little he had a Christmas party at his house—he had this big old house he got when his mom died.”  She remembers Tiny’s mom—short skirts, long legs, big boobs.  Rumor was she slept with all the dads in town.  “This guy Jimmy—you know Jimmy?—he got wasted and stepped on some presents under the tree. So Tiny’s all pissed off, and he pulls a knife and pokes Jimmy in the gut.  The cops come, and Jimmy goes to the hospital and gets stitched up and he’s fine.  Then—”

“Tiny go to jail?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “Just a year in county.  It was his first felony assault, I think.”

“First time he got caught, you mean.”

“Probably.  But listen to this: the cops can’t find the knife, so they seal off the house and come back with a warrant, and they go through the whole place, the garage, the yard, everything.  No knife.” 

He shifts in his chair, head still tilted back.

She can see a vein thumping in his neck, like there’s something inside trying to get out, and she wonders what he’s on.  Not just a little weed; something harder, she thinks.  “Turns out he put it in the tree like an ornament, just resting on a branch next to Santa and Rudolph.”

Ugly Beans snorts.  “What an asshole.”

“Yeah,” she agrees.  “Smart, though.  He went to college.”

I went to college.”  He drops the ice cubes back in the bowl.  The area around his eyes has grown darker and puffier. “UCLA.” 

“No shit?”

He nods.  “Engineering.  Anyway. How much you got for me?”

“Ten ounces, maybe. If that.” She opens a drawer, finds her scale, and sets it on the mess of papers.  Then, bending over in her chair, she reaches into the low cupboard behind her and takes out the locked metal box that holds her stash. When she turns back to face him, he’s looming over her with what looks at first like a machete. The blade is long and rusty with one bright sharp edge gleaming silver in the dim light.  His coat is unzipped, and his b.o.— rancid meat—is stronger and more oppressive than before.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“What the hell?”  She stares at him, more annoyed than afraid, her box of pot resting on her lap.  It’s not a machete, she realizes; it’s a lawnmower blade, with duct tape wrapped around one end to make a handle.  “Seriously? This is what you want to do?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.  The tip of the lawnmower blade dips toward the floor, and he jerks it back up again.

“You’re a dick,” she says.

“I know. I’m really, really sorry.”  His hands are shaking, and he grips his makeshift weapon so tightly that his red fingers turn yellow-white.

“I could prob’ly get that away from you.” She’s got a baseball bat, but it’s behind the stack of unwrapped presents.  There’s also a revolver in the bottom drawer, missing its firing pin; now she wishes she’d got around to fixing it.

He waves the lawnmower blade at her face. “Don’t try. I don’t wanna hurt you.”

She puts the box on the desk. “Get out of here.”

“Open it,” he says.

“You open it, asshole.” She throws her keys at him. He has to bend over to pick them up, but she doesn’t bother making a move.  She’s pissed, but she feels sorry for him too, she realizes as she watches him fumble to unlock the box.  Stinky, smelly, beat-up loser.

“Where’s the cash?” he asks.

“In my hairy cunt.”  She bites the word out, so the ‘T’ stays in the air between them.

“Come on, Norma.” He holds the weapon up, but he’s still focused on the box. Finally he gets it open. “I need that cash.”

She glares at him and folds her arms.

He scoops ziplock bags of weed out of the box and shoves them into the pockets of his parka. The blade flops sideways and hits her on the cheek, and she jerks back, lifting her fingers to the spot, eyes stinging with the sudden pain. “Ow!”

“Sorry!”  He jams the last baggie in his pocket. “God, Norma, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to…”

“Asshole,” she mutters.  Her cheek is numb and wet with blood, and her right eye is tearing up. “Fuck!”

“I swear I didn’t mean to…  Just give me the cash, and I’ll get out of here.”

She finds her purse, pulls out a roll of bills wrapped in rubber bands, and throws it at him.

He catches it, crams it in his jeans pocket, and backs toward the hall.  Lowering the fake machete, he hesitates in the doorway.  “You still got that monster bong here? Wanna smoke a bowl with me before I go?”

“No, I don’t want to smoke a fucking bowl with you,” she hisses.  “What the fuck’s wrong with you?  Are you retarded?”

He zips the lawnmower blade under his coat and pins it to his side with his elbow “I’ll pay you back,” he says.  “No hard feelings.”

“Fuck you,” she growls.  “Get out of here.”

He looks as though he’s about to say something, but then he turns without speaking and walks away.  She closes her eyes, and feels sweat prickling her skin. Ten ounces, plus—how much cash?—at least four hundred. He shoulda taken the flat-screen TV; it’s worth more. Harder to carry, though.

She hears a noise, opens her eyes, and sees him standing in the doorway again. “What?”

“I can’t get out,” he says sheepishly. 

“Jesus Christ!” She grabs her keys off the desk, pushes past him, and marches through the kitchen into the dining room. “Give me the cash back and I’ll open the door.”

“Norma, I can’t.” He unzips his coat, reaching inside for the lawnmower blade.

“Aw, fuck, don’t bother.” She unlocks the door, holds it open for him, and smacks the back of his head as he walks through into bright snowy daylight.

When he turns, his whole face is an apology, overlaid with blood and bruises. “Norma…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Whatever.”

They stand there for a few seconds, looking at each other as snow covers his balding head.  “Merry Christmas,” he says finally.

“Get the fuck out of here.” She wishes she had something to throw at him.

He looks at her for another few seconds, then lifts his hood, turns, and trudges away through the snow, his oversized boots leaving fat footprints in the dirty white drifts.

She closes the door, locks it, and watches him cross the street, then walks down the smelly dark hallway to the bathroom.  She flips the light switch, turns on the faucet, and examines her cheek.  He nicked the skin, and there’s a red spot already darkening into a bruise. “Shit.” She rests her hands on the sink, shaking.  Without any warning, she starts to cry; tears stream down her face, and soon she’s sobbing, wishing she could go home and expect to find Mark there. She’d curl up with him on the couch, and tell him about Ugly Beans and his ghetto sword, and he’d hold her and give her a kiss, or storm out to find the bastard and beat the crap out of him for her.

But she can’t do that, because he’s probably off with the skinny bookkeeper, so instead she washes and dries her face and returns to the office. She pulls the flat-screen out of its box, carefully separating it from the Styrofoam packing, then finds her bat behind the stack of other presents, and takes a deep breath.  The shock of each blow travels up past her elbows as she hammers it again and again, clobbering the screen until every millimeter of glass is cracked. Then, sweating and panting, she repacks the TV, safeguarding it with the Styrofoam, and closes the box.  I’ll get Kelly to wrap it, she thinks, and I’ll put it under the tree.  Mark will love it.  I can’t wait to see his face.

A Day at the Races

by A. Scanlan O'Hearn

When Jimmy said they’d spend a day at the races, Jaycee thought of the expression, It’s a dog’s life, and then, what the fuck is that about? Any dog she ever knew was layin’ in the dirt in a hole-strewn back yard on a short leash next to an empty bowl.  But Jimmy really did mean a day at the races, not like they’d stand trackside or sit in the grandstand looking down on the horses. Definitely not the clubhouse.  He meant the OTB.   You’re my goddamn lucky rabbit’s foot, he said leading her by the arm to put down for the first trifecta, then forgot she was there and left Jaycee to wander off. She might have been the only female in the place, everyone either old or male or both standing around faces bent over racing forms, or staring at screens then running to windows before the bell to win or lose again. Jimmy’d find her when he needed her, so she made her way to the ‘cafetorium.’  At least they had beer.

From her table, Jaycee scanned the crowd, mostly they were looking at her.  She knew she still looked good and tried to stay fit, keep her hair fashionably cut, wore jeans and heels when she was goin’ out. That’s the way Jimmy liked it, too. If I wanted a mother fuckin’ mother, I’da stayed home, he told her.  You don’t got kids, do ya?  When she said yeah, but long gone, that satisfied him. They’d been living together for a year.

A young woman at a corner table caught Jaycee’s eye. A bit pretty, alone.  The girl was scanning the crowd too.  Jaycee tried to picture her man, maybe an older guy who’d treat her right for the day, maybe another Jimmy who needed luck.  Maybe the girl really was alone, too, just here for the beer. The girl continued to look around, then oddly landed her gaze on Jaycee and smiled. Uh oh, one of those. Then Jaycee knew she wasn’t. The girl was on her way over. Jaycee put her head down, pretending to rummage through her bag.  When she looked up the girl was at her table, a real shit eatin’ grin on her face. Like she was stoned, or just coming off somethin’.

 Jaycee wanted to get up and walk away. She wanted to call Dean, the one person she could call at any time and he’d answer. She’d raised him after all. But the girl’s face made Jaycee stick. 

‘Can I show you somethin’?’

‘I’m sorry?’ The girl was prettier than Jaycee first thought, but tired, pale, her eyes heavy, like she just woke up in a car outside. Probably did.

‘There’s somethin’ I need to show you,’ and the girl put her hand on Jaycee’s arm, reaching and then resting it there heavy. They stayed like that a second. Again, Jaycee wanted to leave.

‘It’s this way,’ and with that the girl was looking over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee followed.  Jaycee sat a second.  She wanted to call Dean, reached into her bag. The girl was back.

‘Please.’

Everything told her not to. She’d been that girl, had run that game herself. 

‘This better be good,’ and Jaycee got up from her seat, slung the plastic cup of beer back. 

By the time she had downed it the girl was out the cafetorium door and into the crowd under the monitors, now denser than before, people running from bet to bet as the chances at winning grew smaller and smaller.  Jaycee couldn’t see Jimmy anywhere, but they all blended together, now a few more women, too, all eyes on the screens above their heads.  Jaycee spotted the girl twenty or so feet ahead, looking again over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee was behind her.  She thought for a minute she’d duck out.  It wasn’t too hot and she could wait by the car, although it might be a couple of hours, but the girl kept moving forward, and Jaycee followed.  Jaycee fished around in her bag for the phone.  She’d call Dean.  He’d talk her out of it, or through it.

Ma, what’s the matter? I’m workin’

Dean?

Yeah, Ma, this isn’t a great time, can I call-

Dean, I’m about to get into somethin’

Ma, I can’t talk.  I’ll give you a call later.

Dean, you know when you’re headed for somethin’ you shouldn’t?

Ma, really, I gotta go.

The girl entered the ladies room and Jaycee followed.  Son of a bitch.  He had no time for her.  She couldn’t blame him, though, twenty-five, carefree.  Living the good life, the one she gave him and lost herself. The girl was right inside the door when Jaycee swung it open. Then she was standing firmly rooted right in front of the stalls, her arms nearly wrapped around herself twice.

‘What’re you sellin’?’

‘Huh?’  The girl looked at Jaycee like she’d never seen her; her face had gone sheet white and Jaycee noticed for the first time her clothes were dirty, her hair around her neck matted and sweaty.  The girl started to shake and Jaycee knew she had a drug addict on her hands.  The girl didn’t move, stood stuck with her feet planted on the tile floor.

‘It’s there.’

‘Listen, honey, I don’t want it whatever it is’ and Jaycee reached into her purse.  She’d give her a twenty and get out.  She shouldn’t have come, but it was something about the girl, the way she reminded Jaycee of being young, although Jaycee suddenly wondered if being young had been all that great.

‘Just look at it, that’s all,’ and the girl, her feet still unmoving, her body in a gesture so pathetic, the way she reached, Jaycee thought she’d fall over. 

‘There, in the last sink, ‘ and Jaycee looked down the wall past the stalls to where a bank of sinks ran under some dim lights, the bulbs above mostly dark.  Jaycee could make something out in the last sink.  Was the girl trying to sell her clothes?  It was a dark mass of something and then Jaycee thought for a minute it was moving.  She moved closer to look without getting too close, suddenly afraid of something biting her.  She’d known of people selling exotic pets.  The girl could have brought her boyfriend’s cobra, for Christ’s sake.

Brown and crumpled paper towels filled the sink and now Jaycee knew something in there was moving.  She could make out what looked like the arm of something, dark and wet. No, she wasn’t interested in any reptiles, thank you. The thing let out a cry and Jaycee jumped.   A cat?  Whatever it was it was in distress, the cry a half choking sound, it reminded Jaycee of something.  And then it hit her. It was a baby, the fuckin’ thing was covered in blood, just about dried.  It was dark, maybe black, as Jaycee looked closer, she could see its arms and legs entangled in the towels, its mouth sucking on a wadded up corner, the thing struggling to survive.

‘Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?’ she turned to the girl.  But the girl was gone.

Even if It’s Only Me

by Lance Dyzak

Carolyn read somewhere that in the ‘90s mothers were dropping their babies into public toilets. Tiny corpses discovered by the janitors and covered in wet toilet paper, the umbilical cord still attached. And she reassured herself with this knowledge – Steven could have had it worse.

She laid the suitcase at the end of the bed. The hard-covered American Tourister that her father had given her when she went away for college. She remembered the old excitement of snapping open the catches. The hinges yawned as she unfolded it, and the smell of it was musty, like a vacant motel room. Carolyn ran her fingers over the satin lining and felt the current of her adrenaline like an electricity. She’d sent Steven out to ride his bike and told him not to come back for an hour so that she could concentrate. All morning she’d been clumsy with anticipation. When she’d pulled the suitcase away from the closet door, she banged the wooden jamb so hard that it chipped the paint. For the first time it seemed possible. This was step one. Step one was required before you could get to step two. Step one meant that she was on her way. Step one was part of the process.

The sun poured in through the bushes in front of her bedroom window and left their pattern on the wall. The bedroom was spotless; everything dusted and cleaned, the bed sheets pulled taught against the mattress and tucked into the corners. The bedcover, with its pattern of country flowers, was flat against the sheets like a canvas. There were no distractions.

She might have run around the world. Instead, she went to Steven’s room.

Just the essentials, enough to get him through. She went to his dresser at the far wall. All of his winter clothes were in the bottom drawers. She tugged the lowest one open and took out two of his sweaters and a long-sleeved thermal tee-shirt. She gathered them into her arms and went back down the hallway. It would have been more efficient to bring the suitcase into Steven’s room, but it felt better to do it this way; in steps. Every round-trip with another load of essentials was one more step. She went from the lowest drawer to the highest: two pairs of jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, three undershirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks. She went to his closet: two buttoned-down dress shirts, one pair of dress pants, his dress shoes, his winter coat, a stocking cap, a pair of gloves. She went into the hallway bathroom: his toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a container of shampoo. Slowly the suitcase filled. It was so big, and everything he had seemed small in it. She didn’t notice Steven behind her.

“You’re acting weird,” he said. The noise made her jump.

“Jesus kid, you scared me,” she said, and tried to smile. “What did you say?”

“Why are you acting weird?”

Carolyn went for her bathroom.

“I’m not acting weird,” she said, over her shoulder. “I thought I told you not to come back—”

“It’s been like two hours. How long will we be gone?” He stood in the doorway, thumbs hooked into the front belt loops of his jeans.

“I told you, I don’t know yet.”

She’d told him the week prior that they were going away on a long trip to see some friends. It was such a simple thing to tell him then, this shapeless thing that they were going to do together. But when he’d walked in just now she was unguarded and lightheaded from the idea of it. She didn’t trust what she might say to him. Everything rang in a high pitch. She knew he’d want more details, had prepared for more details, but now she pushed the details away. Carolyn shut the door right in his face. He knew which lines not to cross. The floor tiles were cool on her bare feet.

“What about school?” His voice reduced, dribbled in through the cracks. His feet little dark spots at the bottom, flitting in and out of the grim light beyond the door.

“We’ll worry about all that later.” The shower walls were lined with ceramic tiles just like the floor, all blues and grays. “This is summer vacation,” she said, speaking to the tiles. “School isn’t going anywhere.” She waited in the bathroom until she heard him leave. Then Carolyn went out and closed the suitcase, snapping everything shut. It wasn’t like him to interrupt. She saw that he was spooked, and that she needed to be careful.

He came out of his room a few hours later. Carolyn made turkey sandwiches and served them with corn chips and cherry Pepsi. They sat at the kitchen island under the dull glow of the pendant lamp. Steven ate slowly, taking small bites as Carolyn studied him. He was fidgeting with the digital watch that she’d given him for his birthday, breathing through his mouth like he did whenever he was concentrating. The questions from that morning had all dried up. The watch didn’t keep great time and he was always adjusting it. She listened to his breathing and the little electronic chirps. She cleared the dishes (the little bites up to the edge of the crusts), and Steven wiped down the table.

That night they watched a rerun of All in the Family on the Me-TV channel. The one where Edith asks Archie how he wants his bowling shoes laced and Archie tells her what’s the difference? Steven went to bed without being told, something that Carolyn had instilled early on. All the lights were off in the living room; there was just the flickering and the steady murmur from the television. Carolyn watched as he slid down from the recliner and disappeared into the hallway. Carolyn turned off the television a short time later. As she passed Steven’s room, she could hear him moving around on his mattress.

She was glad that she’d decided to put fresh sheets on her bed. It was satisfying to feel them fold away neatly as she turned them down. They were cool on her feet just like the bathroom tiles, and she loved the way they made her feel enveloped, neatly folded. But Carolyn’s mind wouldn’t slow down enough for sleep. She’d taken a pill, but her thoughts still somehow slogged through and ping-ponged around in her skull.

She and Marc on a day trip to Door County. They’d taken the ferry out to Rock Island and hiked around the lighthouse. Early October and the temperature just above freezing, but warmed by the sun inside of their ski jackets. Marc with his beard grown out for the deer season. Inside the little tavern with the worn leather and the ancient dark timber.

 Hey… he’d said, after she finally told him. Hey, hey, hey… Just kept saying it over and over again, like a lullaby. Kept wiping his beard with his thumbs. The tears leaking out as if she were cracked open. Keeping it is the right thing to do he’d said. I love you he’d said. I’ll be a father for you he’d said. We can still get through school. You can still have a career. This will all work out.

The bizarre way Steven had seemed to her as a baby. Sexless in the beginning. The nose and the ears too big for the face. The skin dry. The strange way it would slough off around the scalp. An old man, shrunken and useless.

It. That’s how she’d referred to him during those first days. There were two times she’d said it out loud. The doctor presenting him like a waiter with a bottle of wine. Why is it so red? Her limbs distended and obscene against the whiteness of the recovery room. Marc reading off baby names. I don’t give a shit, Marc. Call it whatever you want. The nurse excusing herself and the click of her shoes. She had to train herself to call him by his name. It became a taboo word, like fuck or cunt. But it’d taken months before she could cleanse the word entirely from the way she thought about him – Steven.

Outside her door she heard the sharp snap of the hallway light switch, and a cold anxiety passed through her. It meant Steven had had another nightmare. He began calling for her, as he always did. His voice, tinny and stranded in the hallway, normally irritated her during these episodes, and she would yell to him from under her bed sheets to go back to sleep. But tonight was unlike those nights. A few empty seconds passed. Carolyn took a deep breath and held it against the weight of the silence. Then she heard the soft thud of him backing up against her door and the hiss of his body sliding down the length of it. She rose slowly and crossed over the room toward him. When she opened the door she could feel his weight pushing it inward, as if the hinges were spring-loaded. He rolled back slightly – crouched into a ball with his arms slung over his knees – and lolled his head up toward her. He was wearing the footed pajamas again.

“I thought I told you to put those in the Goodwill box,” she said. “You’re twelve years old now.” He was picking the lint balls off of the sleeves.

“It was the guy with the big head again. He was standing in the doorway.” The big-headed guy was a frequent visitor. Carolyn looked down the hall toward Steven’s bedroom and knelt down beside him.

“Look at your door,” she said. “Is he there now?”

“No,” he said, into the crook between his knees. She nudged him on the shoulder. “C’mon then. Back to your room.”

“Can you tuck me in?”

Carolyn stood over him and ran her hands through her hair, holding it in a heavy, wiry ball above her forehead.

“Yeah, I can do that,” she said, and started down the hallway toward his room. She turned back toward him at the doorway. Steven was trailing timidly behind, using one hand to trace the length of the wall with his fingertips. “C’mon kid, I’m tired.”

She opened his closet door and yanked on the pull chain for the light. The metal grommet leapt up and rattled against the bulb. She pushed the door forward with the tips of her fingers and let it swing slowly open to let the light pour out. She’d forgotten that his closet was now mostly empty and the sight of it caught her for a moment.

“Hey mom…”

“Hmm? Yeah?” She looked back over her shoulder. Steven walked to his bed along the far wall and went back in stiffly under the covers.

“What’s it like in Nebraska?”

She didn’t mean to laugh, but it was so absurd. She’d never really thought about it. “I just—” she started. His expression shifted and she knew that he was puzzled by her reaction. He’d assumed she’d deliver something a bit more standard. Rolling hills? Omaha?

She made a gesture toward the closet door. “Look, he’s not in here either.” Steven rolled toward the wall, which gave Carolyn an odd sense of relief. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it was just a dream.”

“I’m not afraid,” he said.

“Then why are you bothering me?” She stepped past him. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow so you should get some sleep.”

“Hey mom…” Carolyn paused at the doorway. “I mean I’m afraid at first, and then it goes away. It’s like I’m still dreaming when I first wake up.”

“Yeah, I know.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I have nightmares, too, kiddo. You just get used to it, Steven. It’s part of growing up.”

Carolyn left his door open a few inches, just enough to let the light from the hallway fall over his face. He wasn’t a bad kid, just so goddamned needy. And she was so sick with it; too sick most of the time to give anything away anymore. The pill was making her feel groggy and swollen; she could feel her pulse in her lips. Sleep wasn’t an option, so she went into the spare bedroom and sat behind the small, laminated computer desk to wake up her laptop. There was the light from the screen.

She’d mapped the route over a month ago. But back then it was just a whim, like when she would pretend to sign up for classes at the UW-Extension. It was roughly seven hundred miles from the house in Marinette, on the thumb of Lake Michigan, to Douglas County, just over the Nebraska border. She studied the screen without blinking, and read the estimated time and distance, over and over. Ten hours, twenty-seven minutes. They could drive straight through and be there the same day. The route looked tedious, a diagonal slice through the Fox Valley (Kaukauna, Winnebago) along Hwy 151 toward the Mississippi River (Mineral Point, Platteville), crossing over it at Dubuque, and then through the entire length of Iowa.

There were similar laws in other states. Texas called theirs the Baby Moses Law. But the one they passed four months ago in Nebraska was different because they didn’t set an age limit. They called it the Nebraska Safe Haven Law, which for some reason made Carolyn think of a bird’s nest. Thirteen Nebraska babies had been discovered dead and abandoned within a span of ten months. A genuine epidemic. One was unearthed by a dog, wrapped in aluminum foil. So they passed a law. Meredith, one of the girls from Cosmetics, was fanatical about it. She was always yelling about the latest details as she flipped through the newspaper in the break room. Jesus, Carolyn. I mean shit! Did you hear about this guy that dropped off his entire family? It seemed like there was a new story every week. Carolyn would always nod and make an impatient expression, a halfway smile. Another one, Carolyn! Another one! Did you see it?

Carolyn had kept the idea incubated in her mind, quarantined to barracks unpatrolled by her conscience. She had kept the idea and used it in the same way the terminally ill keep a suicide cocktail. For comfort. But then the news stories had kept coming and coming and she knew they would ruin everything. She knew she would have to decide.

#

The morning arrived cloudless and stifling, but the house was surrounded by tall evergreen trees, which kept it cool and dim. She’s meant to get them on the road before noon, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something Steven might need. She kept drilling him for answers. Do you have your extra pair of glasses? Where’s the wallet I gave you? And so they left later that afternoon. When Carolyn finally stepped out the front door and out of the shadows, the shock of the sun temporarily blinded her and she squinted her eyes against it. With the weight of the suitcase, she stumbled from the narrow walk onto the grass. August had been dry – it hadn’t rained in weeks – and so the grass was brown and the blades crunched with each footfall. After a few steps she stopped and slowly widened her eyes as they adjusted. Everything was drained of color. She turned and saw Steven as he struggled with the door, a dark lump against the shade of the house. He had to tug on the knob to force the door shut. The keys jangled as he pried the tumblers of the lock into position. Carolyn winced when the deadbolt finally snapped and wished she’d thought to let him out first – to be relieved of this spectacle. It was just last year that she’d handed him his first key ring with the set for the front door.

He had his backpack slung loose, and the bottom of it hung down below his belt, weighted down by whatever he could fit. She’d told him to bring along his favorite things. As Steven jogged toward her, it jostled up and down on his narrow shoulders. Carolyn opened the rear door of the car, and he heaved it into the backseat. As Carolyn pulled away from the curb, an elderly woman with a watering can flapped her arm at them.

#

On the day the news broke that Nebraska was going to set an age limit there was a related story in the paper about a woman – out of work and a thousand miles from any semblance of her extended family – who took her daughters to the hospital. She told the ER staff that the girls had a strange rash and didn’t know what to do. Then, while the nurse knelt down to look them over, she excused herself to use the bathroom and didn’t return. So simple. So clean. One moment she was a mother. And then she wasn’t anymore.

Meredith had been beside herself. The headline read: Another ‘Safe Haven’, and directly underneath it there was a full color photo of the mother. The reporter had dredged up a mug shot, a DUI judging from her glassy-eyed expression. She looked too young to have children, and Carolyn had wondered absently if either of her daughters were around when the picture was taken. She didn’t look crazy or vengeful, just confused. Maybe a bit naïve. Her eyes averted the camera.

Carolyn imagined this woman holding one of the babies with the same glassy-eyed expression that she wore in her mug shot. She wondered if Meredith considered herself a good mother. Probably. Meredith was just as full of shit as everyone else. Carolyn had never claimed to be a good mother. But she had been a guardian. Keeper and provider. She gave her son food when he was hungry. She cleaned him when he was soiled. When he was cold, she put more clothes on him. But there was an emptiness in the way she did these things, and she derived no pleasure from it. It was as if he were assigned to her.

“Six and eight years old. Can you even imagine it?” Meredith had asked.

“No, Meredith. I can’t imagine.”

“Where do you think they get—”

“The first of September it all ends, Meredith. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

#

They were just a few hours from the Nebraska state border when last gasp of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. There was no moon. Ahead, beyond the pallor of the headlights, there was darkness. Darkness like Carolyn had never seen. It seemed to have a thickness, a heaviness that weighed down on them.

“Where are we?” Steven asked. In the darkness, Carolyn could only see his face, lit by the electric blue lights of the dashboard. He looked frail, corpselike.

“We’re almost to Des Moines.” Her voice was monotone. She looked at the clock. It was almost ten. “I thought we could make it there, but then the sun went down and it sapped everything out of me. I have to stop for a bit. Just for a bit. We’ll pull over so I can sleep.”

There were no other cars on the road, but out of habit, Carolyn flipped the turn signal anyway. The amber light flashed against the pavement as she veered the car over to the shoulder. The tires whined against the pattern of the rumble strip, and then whispered over the gravel shoulder as she brought it to a stop. The night had grown cold – cold enough that she’d switched off the AC and had the heater running.

In the trunk there was an old woolen blanket that she kept for emergencies. She took it and climbed back in behind the wheel. Steven was slumped back against the window. Carolyn reclined her seat as far back as it would go, and she hit the automatic locks.

“I just need like twenty minutes of sleep,” she said. “Christ, it’s too quiet.” She turned the keys forward in the ignition, and the dashboard sparked back to life. “Why don’t you try to find something on the radio.”

He began to play with the dial, but there was only static. It pulsed over the speakers in waves.

“There’s no signal,” he said.

“Just keep trying,” she said, and spread the blanket over her. Steven shifted in his seat and paused with his fingers on the knob.

“Mom?” His voice was just above a whisper, and there was no depth to it.

“What…” She had begun to nod off. The words were muffled under the blanket.

“Why don’t you have a suitcase?”

#

Her sleep was shallow, just below the barrier of consciousness. In her dreams Carolyn was back in her own bed, burrowed under the weight of the comforter with the country flowers. She thought she was alone, but then a small voice from across the room disturbed her. Somehow she knew that it was Marc. He kept asking to borrow the car, a test to see if she were awake. But she pretended to be asleep. When she peeked at him she saw that Marc was a boy, maybe thirteen years old. He was reaching into her sock drawer where she kept the jar of spare change. She became angry, saying, “If you touch that jar, I will kill you.” He paused, caught for a moment, and then turned suddenly toward her. His eyes were full of tears, and there was a curious look of surprise, as if he’d not realized she was there.

“I missed my mother,” he said, the words weighted with sadness. “I miss…”

He came over to the bed then and crawled in with her. But when she felt him – his embrace, his hot tears against her neck – she was not his mother. She sobbed along with him. There was a feeling of admitting, of blissful release. “I know… I know… I know…”

When Carolyn woke, it was cold inside of the car. She could feel it at the tip of her nose and her fingers. The wool fibers of the blanket were damp from her breathing. For a moment she lay still and felt her heart beat against her chest. There was a crackling sound coming from the radio, and behind the static a man’s voice sputtered. She pawed for the edge of the blanket and peeled it away from her face. The pale light of the dashboard reflected on the window. She could see the reversed numbers of the clock. It was after midnight.

“Shit.” Her throat was raw from breathing in the cold air. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” She turned toward the passenger’s seat, but Steven had moved into the back while she slept. Half-dazed, she was momentarily unable to process his absence.

In the back of the car, his form was barely visible in the darkness. He had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, and his hands were jammed into the front pocket. She leaned in closer, squinting her eyes, which allowed her to see the slow rise and fall of his torso as he breathed. Carolyn gripped the top of the driver’s seat and collapsed over the headrest. She was looking out of the backdoor window, but with the light from the dashboard the window became a mirror. She studied the small, metallic levers on the armrest, the slim cylinder of the door lock, flared out at the top so you could pull it up and push it back down. So simple. Just two options. It was pushed down.

“Steven, wake up.”

“I’m not asleep,” he said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“I do, too. C’mon, we’ll go out by the bushes.”

Caroline put the high beams on. They illuminated the terrain just beyond the edge of the gravel. There were no bushes. There was only the long grass in the ditch along shoulder and then the endless fields. She took the blanket and went out to the trunk. She watched Steven walking gingerly away from her, toward where the corn started. He slipped beyond the reach of the headlights, and then she couldn’t see him anymore.

“Steven?” But he didn’t respond. Several seconds passed. Then the splashing sound of his urinating. The splashing stopped, and she heard him struggling in the grass coming back toward the car. He reappeared out of the darkness like a ghost.

“Get back in the car and wait for me,” she said. “I still have to go.”

She’d overslept, but there was still time to make it.

When she got back to the car she saw that Steven had returned to the back seat. Carolyn turned the keys in the ignition. She moved the shifter into drive. The car lurched forward. She pulled back onto the highway. The man on the radio kept talking. A student was shot at a high school in Knoxville. The United States won a gold medal in men’s basketball. Hurricane Gustav was pummeling the Gulf Coast. Carolyn switched it off. Steven lay in the back. He had his head on his suitcase.

The Conclusion of the Species

by Soren Gauger

It was now two hours I had been waiting in the anteroom of Doctor Porcheria's office. There had only been one patient before me, a slight Chinese gentleman whose eyebrows drooped at their outer edges, giving him an expression of continual woe. At the doctor's signal, an irate metallic buzz, he slipped in through the office door and they immediately launched into a loud and impassioned dialogue. This gradually petered into more civil tones, then a confidential murmur, and now, perhaps two hours later, I could hardly be certain, howevermuch I strained my ears, that they were still in the office at all. Through the frosted glass it seemed I still saw the rough outlines of their silhouettes; but these were perfectly motionless, and truth to tell, they could have been anything – a table lamp and a decanter.

My gaze drifted about the anteroom. There was a gilded screen behind the likes of which a woman might have disrobed in some Oriental fantasy, a table fanned with magazines, and a number of pictures in frames: landscape paintings. 

I had come to Doctor Porcheria with a certain ailment of a very private nature, an ailment which my sense of dignity – an outdated thing, my acquaintances kept telling me – had not allowed me to disclose to anyone, not even those nearest to me. I would say without exaggeration that my ailment had given me a renewed sense of the obscenity of the human body. With it came a peculiar sort of shame, a distant cousin to how the pubescent feels upon discovering the new workings of his body; but in place of the young man's accompanying shudder of excitement, I found this horrible discovery had laid a stone in my chest, and one which has lodged in place to this day.

At the time, however, I had experienced only the first forebodings, a dark glimmer of what was yet to come. I had only gone so far as to mention to an old friend that I was deeply troubled by this certain ailment, and with a snap of his fingers he was off to make a few telephone calls; half an hour later he had, much to his evident satisfaction, fixed me up a rare appointment to see Porcheria.

When he was done, he insisted we drink a coffee, standing up in the Waldorf, and he spent a long time fingering his little stubbly mustache before he spoke. The Italians, he said, should never be trusted in matters which require a scrupulous attention to detail; but our Porcheria (he actually said our Porcheria) was in fact from Switzerland, he confided, and this was quite another thing altogether. Naturally, he would not invite a Swiss man over to his home for dinner to meet his family – as he had on previous occasions, I would be astonished to learn, a German urologist, a wiry man with sharp features, whose laugh was a painful, choking thing to behold, it sounded quite as though he were trying to dislodge a fish bone from the back of his throat – much as he would not permit a Swiss man to make serious advances upon his daughter; but he would, for example, allow a Swiss man to borrow his toothbrush, something that would be out of the question with a Greek or a Hungarian (he flinched at the word), and he would most certainly allow a Swiss man to make a discreet medical examination, even an Italian Swiss, though perhaps not a Swiss-born Italian; this last matter required more attention. At any rate, our Porcheria, my old friend assured me, waggling his eyebrows, was simply the most thorough medical professional in the country, and thoroughness, he added, was a doctor's cardinal virtue. In some quarters he was unfairly dismissed because he was incorrectly supposed to be Italian, and not Italian-Swiss, as he, my old friend, had mentioned, and because [here he dropped his voice to a stage whisper, though the two of us were practically alone in the cafe] he is monstrously fat, and to be obese – and with a name like Porcheria, on top of everything – was seen, in some quarters, as a thing that was incompatible with his practice as a doctor, or which even nullified his medical opinion. These people are nothing more than wrong-headed idiots, he said, his face betraying a rare flash of emotion, who have confused form with content to their own stupid detriment. By the nature of things, my old friend confessed, he himself did experience shudders of discomfort around the grossly obese, but this was not because he considered them unsightly – though, he stressed, there was no denying this simple fact – nor because he was continually mindful of their overtaxed hearts and caving muscles, but it was rather a question of the physical disproportion, the sense that he was a dwarf before another man, this was what kept him from feeling at ease, if he was to be perfectly frank. Or then again, perhaps it was the knowledge that this human body, being of the same species as other human bodies, lithe and supple ones that made the heart leap and palpitate in erotic convulsions, showed bodies as such to be a thing of total repugnance when the proportions were only slightly adjusted. Whatever the case, he concluded with a stiff shake of my hand, he trusted that I would not let any of this superstition come between me and the soundest medical advice the country could offer.

Of course, so far I knew Porcheria only, as the saying goes, by reputation, and by the muffled sound of his voice, and there was no good reason, I recalled, that he should have the little snub nose and the sausage fingers I was imagining; he could be, I reasoned, the kind of fat man who looks neat and prim in an expensive suit.

With this resolved I picked up one of the glossy magazines on the table and found, much to my surprise, that it was filled with nineteenth-century engravings. As if this were not peculiar enough, the engravings were nothing more than a cavalcade of grotesqueries – beasts half-human and half-ape, in various stages of evolution or devolution. A top-hatted man swung from a lamppost by his tail, a chimpanzee turned to stare quizzically at her hairless derriere or painted her toenails. I was beginning to find the pieces rather witty, if in questionable taste, and I turned to read the note on the artist:

Dudley Horner – a 19th-century bookbinder, a tubercular, possibly related to the inventor of the Zoetrope (1833). The vulgar, sometimes degenerate scenes he portrayed in his hundreds of drawings are purported to reflect the viewer's hiddenmost thoughts (a technique which Horner was wont to call “Spectrism.” He died in 1889, alone and rejected by all except his housekeeper.

My eyes drifted to the adjacent page and grew wide – for there I saw two naked humans, faces grimly set with resolve, copulating in the most bestial sort of fashion, the female, it seemed, screeching in pain. The image quite naturally captured my attention, I became quite engrossed in it for several seconds, that is, until I heard a gentle cough from the seat beside me.

Sitting next to me was a rather plain woman in a tan skirt and a frilly top, holding her hat in her lap, looking quite embarrassed for me. Her features were regular but uncomely, her eyes had something vaguely dazed about them, so that even when they looked straight into mine, I did not really feel as though we were seeing each other. I slapped the magazine shut and gave her a look that said I was a decent and respectable man, and that it would be lunacy to hop to any conclusions.

This look, however, missed the mark.

She shrugged her shoulders. It is not as though it is the first time it has happened, she said in a gentle, almost monotonous voice. You sit here for a couple of hours and the trance takes hold. It is in the slow dimming of the lights (this was true: the room had grown darker since my arrival), the insipid music (for the first time I noticed music playing a repetitive piano piece, distorted, as though heard underwater), the furniture, which seems to cradle you in its arms. I've been watching you stare absently at that engraving for almost twenty minutes.

This was a jolt. I took a hasty look at my watch, which made her chuckle. Apart from being a medical doctor, she confided, her voice dropping to a whisper, Porcheria is a marvelous hypnotist. Hypnotism was his first love. All of his things her are just saturated with hypnosis.

Her lips, plump and red, drew so close that they grazed my ear.

No one knows how much he can actually hear through that frosted glass, she continued in her throaty whisper. There could, of course, be microphones.

He is said to have archives in one of these walls, filled with conversations between patients. Piles of old reel-to-reel tapes. Ten minutes of anteroom conversation tells him more, they say, than any conventional patient interview. So of course we must watch what we say.

With these last words I could now feel the moisture of her lips on my ear, which was not altogether unpleasant. She inclined her body at such an angle that I could feel her warmth beat up from under her shirt in pulsing waves.

A sick feeling slid up my throat and I abruptly stood, wiped my palms on my trousers, and strode over to examine the paintings on the walls, inquiring, with an air of idle curiosity, into what sort of disease had brought her to see the doctor. Her look showed me that she found my question rather piquant; she began fiddling with the buttons on her blouse and explaining that such things were of an extremely intimate nature, because, here she tilted her head and smiled, there was something in a disease, didn't I think, which burrowed into the nether stuff, which touched and probed our nightmares, our anxieties, and yes, also our fantasies, though she hoped I wouldn't demand that she explain just precisely what she meant, it was all rather muddled in her head, and as she was thus speaking I bent over to examine a painting to find it was not an undulating landscape at all, on the contrary, it was the naked body of a woman lying on her back, an arm folded over her face as though to block out the sun. The light, however, had grown so dim that I had to squint to make it out. It was an easy, even a natural mistake from a distance, the woman's body rippled and furrowed, quite imitating the supple contours of the hills, the crevices and hazy colors of an autumnal landscape.

I unfolded my reading glasses from a breast pocket, trying to make out her gesture – was she fainting or shielding her eyes? – and found now, to my astonishment, that her features had an incredible affinity to Lisa's. The bend in her arm, the slope of her neck, it was all quite unmistakeable. And what was this memory that foisted itself upon me?

Ah yes, the last time I lay beside her naked, a faraway, perhaps disappointed look in her eye as she shielded her face from the glare slicing through the crack between the curtains, explaining to me that it was remarkable how, given the strength and, she had once erroneously supposed, invincibility of the feelings she had nurtured for me, it was inexpressibly odd to be lying there beside me now without the faintest glimmer of emotion. And I may only be stating the obvious when I say that her words sounded scripted, her voice unnatural and metallic, as though filtered through a machine. I even found myself wondering: Who has penned this script? Or: Who has built this machine? Was it possible either of us was to blame? And, not without a sense of absurdity, I began weeping softly, now, fourteen years after the fact, hunched over to scrutinize this pornographic picture.

I slid my fingers under my glasses to wipe the tears, the world smeared about then sharpened, and I turned to see if the women had been observing the maudlin scene I had been making. She had not – in fact, her chair was empty, and now I swept my eyes around the room a bit frantically to find where she had gone to, terrified for a moment that I had concocted her, that the lights and the music – now a barely audible waltz – had so played havoc with my senses that I had begun seeing things that were pure fantasy. But then, I reminded myself: If indeed I had fantasized a woman, then why had I chosen to make her so thoroughly unremarkable, so unalluring to the extreme, when this choice for once was apparently mine to make. Why had I made her hair so limp, her face so like a horse's?

The thud of a falling shoe made me swivel to face the pseudo-Oriental screen; I could discern through the gap beneath it that the woman was letting her shoes drop from her feet, unrolling her stockings so that they puddled on the floor.

This Porcheria, I thought, he is completely out of his mind.

My thoughts were flying feverishly now, trying to unravel it: Why was this woman undressing? And no matter how I framed the situation, it always came back to the same thing. She was undressing for me.

This was more than I could bear, that they – for there could be no doubt that Porcheria was at the bottom of this – would have me just sit still and allow this to unfold, as if I were not a man with my own drives and convictions, as if all this were a matter of supreme indifference. 

Keeping one eye trained on the pseudo-Oriental screen I began edging toward the door, my shoes muffled in the plush carpet, and I managed to get the door open without so much as a click, then I padded down the hallway and out the front door, not looking back, not even for an instant.

I Hope You Have Now Found The Peace There You Couldn’t Find Here

by James Hartman

A few weeks later I saw her at Kroger near the red delicious apples.  When I moved to Lexington–where I had used to live with my parents for three years when I was nine–I looked up all my old friends, on Facebook, Twitter, I even joined Match.com.  I wasn’t delusional, I expected many of my friends, crushes, etc. to be long gone, married, or unconverted to social media, and I was right.  But I never expected to stumble upon, while hiking, a brown bench commemorated to the memory of one Timothy J. Richardson, my best friend when I was nine. 

He loved wars, and Gettysburg was his favorite movie.  Nearly every Friday night we’d put it on his parent’s big-screen and when watching it no longer tethered our interest, we’d reenact specific scenes.  He was always, always, even when I begged him to switch, the Confederate soldier charging Little Round Top only to fall inches short of the Union line, his chest pummeled by bullets.  He’d variate the ways in which he’d get shot, but most often he’d take a bullet to the shoulder and spin around fast before somersaulting to the floor, his body convulsing as if still being pummeled.  He was, generally, a rambunctious kid, acting up in class and drawing a couple detention sessions a month.  I thought maybe he had enlisted and died in either Afghanistan or Iraq and was struck by such an overwhelming mix of awe and pride that I had to sit down to catch my breath, right there on my best friend’s bench.

On Facebook, I found a memorial page–comments filled with happy memories, wishes he were still here, some claiming to feel him always around.  His Dad, big gorilla of a guy but calm as a rabbit and grilled you an extra burger if you asked, begged for his support and guidance in making important business decisions.  But not one mention of the Army, nor war, nor Afghanistan or Iraq.  I scrolled all the way to 2007, the date on the bench’s gold commemorative plaque, the year I graduated from college with a BA in Journalism.  June 23rd was soaked with comments–“I had no idea you were struggling so much” and “I wish I would have answered the phone.”  A Robert Valentine said, “I hope you have now found the peace there you couldn’t find here.”

Lying in my bed at three in the morning, all the pills and wine boiling me more than assuaging my anxiety, my Macbook on my chest, I cried.  I don’t know why, but that night I remembered the day when Timmy and I had been playing Pongs and none of his would flip but all of mine were, and I looked up suddenly and he slapped me quick in the face, stood without a word, and walked away.  I didn’t see him again until the next night, Friday.  He took a bullet to his shoulder and swung around, smiling as if there were a glorious thrill now to dying, and somersaulted over, his whole body vibrating for a full minute from all the bullets.

The day after I read those comments I friend requested Timmy’s sister Bree.  I asked her how she was, if she remembered me.  Bree was two years older–smart, the biggest tomboy with the sexiest legs, and she had a crush on me.  When my family and I moved Timmy and I weren’t close, but I was in what I thought to be love with Bree.

Didn’t you used to live next door to us in Heartland way back, like 15 years ago???

Her profile photo was of her and a young boy under her shoulder with the same light hair as her own, behind them a handsome guy with black hair and blue eyes.

You do remember 🙂

I wanted to be wrong about Timmy, that the kid who loved Gettysburg and Pongs was not the same young man who could have killed himself so when she asked how I was I gave her my brief history: my parents back in PA, me newly divorced and just moved from Vermont, and my brother, Alex, working and living in Chicago.

What about you?

It was, I believed, a harmless summary and even a more harmless question, but she did not respond.

Exactly 36 days passed when I saw her by those apples, lifting one after the other to her inspecting eye.  Taking one deep breath and then another, I found myself standing right beside her, each reaching for the same apple.  Her fingers skimmed mine, and when she looked at me I was all too ready to smile.  When recognition still did not form in her face I took a step back, regrouped my smile more gently and stuck out my hand.

“Hey, Bree, Michael.  Long, long time, huh?”

She stumbled back.  Her eyes seemed to dart in two different directions at once.  Before she completely swiveled around she strangely grabbed at random a red delicious apple, and when I finally blinked out of my daze she had disappeared.

At home, my Macbook on my chest, full of wine and pills that were having no effect, I typed an apology to Bree but before I pressed send the question nagged at me:  What was it exactly you were apologizing for? 

It’s been eight days and still that message sits in the rectangle beneath our conversation, unsent.

I continue hiking twice a week, sometimes more, always alone, having made no new friendships nor reestablished old ones.  But whenever I pass my old best friend’s bench I automatically jerk my shoulder, twist my body around and around and around and then, dizzy, finally topple to the dirt and leaves.

Hitler in Pasadena

by Brett Jackson

I was standing at the snack bar window on a Saturday in 1980 when Jack walked up and told me that Adolf Hitler was alive and living in Pasadena.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Hitler killed himself.”

“No, he didn’t. Everything we learned is wrong.” 

I hadn’t seen Jack since he’d gone to visit a friend in LA at the end of June. He was supposed to be gone for just a few days, but nearly three weeks had passed without so much as a phone call. Meanwhile, I spent my days stuffed inside the snack bar with a couple of high school kids. It was basically a steam room with a griddle, and by the time I left work my clothes always reeked of fries and body odor. I wanted Jack to apologize – both for disappearing and for convincing me to come to Palo Alto in the first place – but now that he stood in front of me, I couldn’t bring myself to confront him. 

I handed him a burger. “The Allies executed a bunch of top Nazis. I know you love conspiracies, but do you honestly believe that they let Hitler fake his death and move to Southern California?”

“I don’t know who was involved or who knows. All I know is that he’s alive.”

Nothing he was saying made any sense. I grabbed a napkin and wiped some sweat from my forehead, then balled up the napkin and crushed an ant on the windowsill. “Let’s say, just for the hell of it, that Hitler survived the war. He’d be dead of old age anyway.” 

Jack grinned. “Nope. He was born in 1889. He’s 91.”

I could see that reasoning with Jack wasn’t going to get me far. The more I heard, the more his theory sounded like one of his theories about JFK or Bigfoot.

“Ok, Jack, you found Hitler. Congratulations. If you ask nicely, maybe Mr. Freeman will give you your job back.”

Mr. Freeman was the manager of Palo Alto Country Club, where we’d taken summer jobs. We’d originally planned to spend the summer backpacking in Europe. Jack claimed that World War III was inevitable if Carter lost the election, and he wanted to get to Europe before it was destroyed. Then, in mid-April, Jack had changed his mind and applied for a job teaching tennis in Palo Alto. He explained that we’d go to Europe after graduation, when we’d saved more money. At first I was furious. I’d already turned down an offer to assist my archaeology professor on a dig in Wyoming. But then Jack suggested that I join him in Palo Alto and even put in a good word for me with Mr. Freeman, so I didn’t stay upset for long.

“My job? Who cares about my job?” Jack said now. He told me that he was grabbing a few things that he’d left in Palo Alto, then heading back to LA to continue his investigation. “Come with me, Roy. I’ve got a sublet and everything.”

“Come with you? What would I do in LA?”

He shrugged. “Surf, see some movie stars, help me with the investigation.”

A chubby brat waddled up to the snack bar. Jack stepped aside, pulled a comb out of his pocket, and dragged it through his hair. He was always combing his hair. Even when he forgot his wallet, he’d remember a comb.

“I don’t know,” I told Jack when the kid waddled off a few minutes later with a root beer and two cheeseburgers. “I have a responsibility to the snack bar. And I’m sort of seeing Brandi.”

“The lifeguard? Forget her. She’s got nice tits, but it’s not like she’s that cute. Blondes with big tits grow like wildflowers in LA.” He paused. “Unless you’d rather spend the summer getting root beers for fat kids.”

In truth, there was nothing keeping me in Palo Alto. Sure, I felt some vague sense of responsibility toward the job, but it wasn’t like the country club would fall apart without me. And I certainly wasn’t going to stay in Palo Alto for Brandi, who seemed content to string me along between first base and second base forever. The problem was Jack. As much as I wanted to spend the summer with him, I worried that he’d just disappear again once we got to LA.

“Why don’t you stay here?” I said. “We’ll go to LA for a few weeks at the end of the summer.”

Jack shook his head. “This can’t wait. I’m leaving tomorrow morning, with or without you.”

Despite my concerns, I decided to go with Jack. Yes, he was unpredictable. Yes, he might disappear again. But Jack had transformed my life, and I wanted to support him. College had started badly. Everybody else made friends with ease, but I ate meals alone and spent my Friday nights in the school library. Even my roommate, a wrestler from Seattle, seemed indifferent to my existence. I spent so many hours on the phone with my mother that I was practically living at home. Then, just when I was about to give up on college altogether, I’d met Jack. He immediately treated me like an old friend, taking me to parties and introducing me to dozens of people. Jack saw something different in me. He gave me confidence.

“Ok, I’m in,” I said. “Why are you so convinced that this guy is Hitler, anyway?”

Jack smiled. “It’s a long story. I’ll explain on the way to LA.”

 
 

As we glided down the 101 the next day, leaving the Bay Area behind, Jack outlined his theory. He believed that Hitler had escaped to South America on a U-boat, then entered the United States using a new identity – Helmut Koch – in 1949.

“Come on,” I said. “Hitler faked his death and traveled across the world in a submarine?”

“Why not? Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann fled to Argentina on U-boats, and Hitler had more power than they did. Why couldn’t he have done the same thing?”

“Because he was dead.”

“Allegedly. That’s disputed. And not just by me.”

It didn’t surprise me that Jack believed that Hitler had escaped to South America. He had become obsessed with fugitive Nazis after we’d seen The Boys From Brazil. He couldn’t accept a world where men who had terrorized so many lived full lives, never punished for their actions. He was particularly obsessed with Mengele, the Nazi doctor whose behavior at Auschwitz earned him the nickname “Angel of Death.” Jack had stopped talking about Mengele a few months later, and I figured that he’d lost interest in Nazi war criminals, but apparently he’d just moved on to a bigger target.

“So what’s Hitler – sorry, Koch – doing in Pasadena?” I asked.

“He’s retired. Used to own two pet stores. One in Pasadena, the other in Van Nuys.”

“That doesn’t sound too evil.” An image of Hitler strolling into a pet store every morning and greeting each of the puppies, kittens, parrots, and turtles with the Nazi salute popped into my head.

“Hitler was a vegetarian, you know,” Jack said. “He loved animals.”

“What’s your point?”

“Both Helmut Koch and Hitler are animal lovers.”

I shook my head. “Well, in that case he must be Hitler. Seriously, though, why Pasadena? LA’s got to have one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. Wouldn’t somewhere rural be better for Hitler?”

Jack shrugged. “He’d stick out in some small town. LA’s an enormous city with tons of foreigners. It’s easier to blend in.”

“I hope that isn’t your best argument.”

“Of course not,” Jack said, but it turned out that the rest of his theory was just as flimsy. He kept tossing out facts about Koch – his age, his height, the year he’d immigrated – like this information somehow proved that Koch was Hitler. Even after a detailed explanation, I still didn’t understand how Jack could possibly believe that Koch was Hitler.

 
 

We arrived in Los Angeles that afternoon. I hoped for a beach bungalow, or at least something hip and “LA,” but Jack’s sublet was located in a depressing three-story building near the 405 Freeway. Splotches of grass were missing from the lawn and a broken sprinkler spewed water into the parking lot. The apartment itself was no better. Dark and musty, it was furnished with nothing more than a dresser, a sofa, an old television, and a bed. There wasn’t even a coffee table. It was barely suitable for one person, let alone the two of us.

After I cracked open a window and put on a swimsuit, we walked to the swimming pool. I needed a breather, and I hoped that Jack would shut up about Hitler and Helmut Koch long enough for me to relax.

A thick layer of leaves and twigs covered the pool, almost like a family of trees had swum earlier in the day. Despite this, two girls in bikinis reclined on lounge chairs next to the pool, smoking and drinking Tabs. One, a blonde, had sunburnt shoulders and a face full of freckles. The other girl had feathered brown hair and wore gaudy teardrop earrings. We sat down near the girls.

“Looks like the pool boy needs to be fired,” I said.

The brunette laughed. I smiled, struggling to keep my eyes above her chest.

“You guys must be new,” the blonde said. She tapped the ash from her cigarette in an exaggerated manner, almost like she’d copied the gesture from a movie. “The pool’s been like this for weeks, but the super doesn’t care. We mostly just go to the beach now.”

We all introduced ourselves. Rosa, the brunette, attended UCLA, and Melissa, the blonde, was an aspiring actress. Within a few minutes, I developed a crush on both girls. I waited for Jack to tip his hand so that I would know which girl he wanted, but he seemed distracted and barely spoke.

The girls stood up after a while. “See you around,” Rosa said, winking. She walked off, hips swaying. My eyes were glued to her bikini bottom, which, fortunately, seemed to be too small. After they walked maybe twenty feet, she stopped, turned, and whispered something to Melissa. I figured that she’d caught me staring. Girls seemed to have a sixth sense for that sort of thing.

“Do you guys want to come by for a drink tonight?” Melissa said. “We’re in Apartment 307.”

“We can’t,” Jack immediately responded.

The wonderful fantasies dancing around inside my head vanished, replaced by an urge to crush every bone in Jack’s throat. “Give us a minute,” I said to the girls.

I leaned in close to Jack. “What are you doing?”

“We’re meeting a contact tonight.”

“A contact?” It took me a moment to grasp that he was talking about his stupid Hitler investigation. “Come on, Jack. Have you seen these girls?”

“They aren’t going anywhere.”

I peeked at Melissa and Rosa. They were giggling about something. “No offense, but –”

“I thought you were going to help me out,” he said.

“I am. But you said we’d have fun too.”  

He nodded. “We will. I scheduled this meeting a week ago. You weren’t even down here. How could I know that we’d meet anybody tonight?”

I sighed. “Fine.”

I walked over to the girls. They stared at me, waiting, eager looks on their faces.

“Rain check?” I said, forcing the words out of my mouth. We agreed to get together sometime soon, but I suspected that I’d blown my one opportunity.

 
 

We met Jack’s contact, Alex, at Lefty’s, a bar on La Cienega. The drinks were modern, but the piano music and checkered floors reminded me of a bar from an old movie. I could almost imagine Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant walking in the door.

“Alex is a Nazi hunter,” Jack said.

I studied Alex, trying to imagine him hunting Nazis. He was small and smelled like cheap cologne, with a boyish face that clashed with his receding hairline.

Alex laughed. “I keep telling Jack that I’m not a Nazi hunter, but he doesn’t listen.”

I sipped my cocktail. “He has that problem sometimes.”

“Alex is being modest. He works at the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” Jack said, waiting for a reaction. I shrugged. The name meant nothing to me. “As in the Simon Wiesenthal. The world’s most famous Nazi hunter.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m a Nazi hunter,” Alex said. “I work in education outreach. Trust me, I don’t hunt Nazis. I have enough trouble finding my keys.”

Jack cleared his throat. “So, Alex, are you ready to have your mind blown?”

“Oh, is this the mysterious investigation? Jack’s been promising me a bombshell, but he hasn’t told me anything. This should be good.”

Jack either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Alex was teasing him. He began to explain his theory, speaking so rapidly that he barely paused to breathe between sentences.

Alex quickly stopped him. “Let me get this straight. Hitler’s living in Pasadena?” Alex said. Jack nodded. “Well, shit, let’s call the cops.”

“I’m serious,” Jack said.

Alex put his arm around Jack’s shoulder. “Of course you are. That’s what I love about you. How about Eva Braun? Is she in Pasadena right now knitting a quilt?”

I chuckled. Jack glared at me, then pushed Alex’s arm away.

“I want you to get involved in the investigation,” Jack said to Alex.

“You realize that they found Hitler’s body, right?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “The Soviets found Hitler. The Soviets. You know what they found? Burned remains.”

The waitress brought us a bowl of pretzels and we ordered another round of drinks.

“Anyway,” Jack said. “Stalin – whose own army discovered the remains – was convinced that the Allies had Hitler stashed away somewhere. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

Jack smirked, but Alex didn’t seem impressed. “Ok. So Hitler somehow fakes his death. Then what?”

“Best I can tell he went to South America first, then eventually made his way to LA. There were rumors about Hitler being spotted in Argentina.”

“The CIA investigated those rumors. They found nothing.”

“That’s because he didn’t stay there.”

“So he moved to LA and somehow was never recognized?” Alex said, his mouth stuffed with pretzels. I couldn’t believe how easily Alex rejected Jack’s arguments. Jack had an explanation for everything, and Alex had a response for every explanation. It was like watching a tennis match.

“Would you recognize Hitler without a mustache? With a different haircut?” Jack said.

Alex turned to me. “So what do you think, Roy? Do you believe this crap?”

They stared at me, waiting. Jack still seemed to think that he could convince me about Koch. Maybe, if I sided with Alex, Jack might finally comprehend the absurdity of his theory. But I couldn’t support Alex. Not now. To publically reject Jack’s theory – to Alex, of all people – would be a betrayal of our friendship. Jack would never forgive me.

“It seems unlikely,” I said. “But Jack’s one of the smartest people I know, so I’m trying to stay open-minded.”

Jack grinned.

“Look,” Alex said. “In case you aren’t aware, Hitler had serious health problems. I’m only telling you this because I don’t want you guys to waste your time.”

“Health problems?” I said. All the videos I’d seen of Hitler showed an absurdly energetic man. Mentally unstable, yes, but physically healthy.

Alex nodded. “Parkinson’s disease, maybe. Do you really think that somebody who was in such bad shape in 1945 is still kicking around in 1980?”

I glanced at Jack. He didn’t look even mildly concerned. Whether or not he already knew about Hitler’s health problems, he disregarded the information with the skill of a religious zealot. “We’re going to his house tomorrow, Alex,” Jack said. “Why don’t you come see him for yourself?”

“We are?” I said.

Jack ignored me. “Come with us. Just one time. That’s all I ask.”

Alex shook his head. “Sorry, Jack, but this is way too farfetched.”

 
 

We waited until after rush hour the next morning, but traffic was still a slow crawl. Hundreds of movies and TV shows had failed to prepare me for the sprawling reality of Los Angeles. Except for downtown LA, which seemed to be more eyesore than destination, I saw little of the city from the confines of the freeway.

After nearly an hour of driving, Jack parked across the street from Koch’s ranch-style house and we began our stakeout. The house was located on a quiet street, the kind of street where children rode bikes without worrying about speeding cars. Everything screamed American dream – the cottonwoods blanketing the house with shade, the freshly-mowed lawn, the knee-high fence separating the sidewalk from the lawn. The house might as well have come from central casting.

I pointed out the Reagan for President sign sticking out of the lawn.

“So?” Jack said.

“Do you really think that Hitler would cheat death, travel across the world, and assume a new identity, just to campaign for Reagan?”

Jack considered the question. “You think he’d be more of a Carter guy?”

I opened my window and extended my arm, letting the warm breeze roll over my skin. “That’s not what I’m saying. Why campaign for anybody? Wouldn’t it be smarter to keep a low profile?”

“It’s just a sign.”

“Ok, Jack. Whatever you say,” I said, giving up. I pulled a magazine out of my backpack and began to read. Jack said something about two sets of eyes being better than one, but I had no desire to stare at an old man’s house all day long.

 
 

I hoped that we’d explore LA after lunch, which we ate at a nearby pizza place, but Jack drove back to Koch’s house. “I want you to see him,” he explained in response to my protests.

“Why don’t we just knock on the door and ask him if he’s Hitler? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

A serious look came over Jack’s face. “He’ll disappear the second that he senses something’s off.”

So, again, we parked across the street and stared at the house, waiting for something – anything – to happen. Were real police stakeouts this dull? The most likely scenario at this point seemed to involve a bored housewife standing at her kitchen window, writing down our license plate, and calling the cops, convinced that we were burglars casing the neighborhood. Two kids carrying tennis rackets walked by around 1:00 p.m., then the street was lifeless until the mailman arrived around 1:30 p.m.

“I wonder what type of mail Koch gets,” Jack said.

I shrugged. “What do old people read? National Geographic?”

“Let’s check.”

“His mail? That’s illegal.”

Jack chuckled. “Then you’d better keep an eye out for the FBI.” He slid out of the car, strolled over to the mailbox, and reviewed the contents, then hurried back to the car. “Just bills,” he said, disappointed, as if he’d expected to find a letter from a neo-Nazi organization.

“I hope we aren’t coming back tomorrow,” I said. Today, Jack wanted to sift through Koch’s mail; tomorrow, it might be his garbage. “Surveillance doesn’t seem useful.”

Jack pulled a comb out of his jeans and began to style his hair in the rearview mirror. “Actually, I was thinking we’d head to the Central Library tomorrow. Or maybe UCLA.”

I shifted my weight. I’d spent the past two days in the car, and the previous night sleeping on Jack’s sofa, so my tailbone was tender. “Let’s go somewhere interesting tomorrow.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. I want to actually see LA.”

“Relax. You haven’t even been here a day.”

“Whatever,” I said. I wasn’t interested in arguing. “Let me know if anything happens.”

I reclined my seat, shut my eyes, and covered my face with a baseball cap. As my breathing slowed, I imagined a world in which Jack’s theory was correct. How would people react? Would he be executed after all this time? If so, what country would execute him?

Jack nudged me after a while, startling me from my half-sleep. “Here he comes.”

I raised the seat and rubbed my eyes. By this point I was beyond curious to see Helmut Koch. Admittedly, though I found Jack’s theory laughable, a small part of me expected Koch to march out of the house in full Nazi attire. Instead, a man with thin white hair and a slight hunchback shuffled down the path to the sidewalk. He wore a long-sleeve shirt tucked into pleated slacks that were hiked up at least two inches above his waist.

“Do you see the resemblance?” Jack said when Koch reached the mailbox. I squinted, trying to see Hitler in Koch’s face, trying to imagine a toothbrush mustache on his upper lip, but all I saw was an old man.

Koch must have sensed that he was being watched because he lifted his head and stared at the car, squinting. He smiled and tentatively raised his hand in greeting. I couldn’t decide whether to wave back, so I followed Jack’s lead and sat there, frozen, staring back at Koch. Koch dropped his hand, then turned and shuffled back to his house.

Jack started the car and sped off, driving through two stop signs. He pulled over after several blocks and started pounding the steering wheel with his hands.

“Shit, shit, shit. He knows.”

“Knows what?” I said.

“That we’re on to him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We spooked him. He looked scared.”

“Jack, we were parked in front of his house, just staring at him. We didn’t even return his greeting. That would spook anyone.”

Jack slapped his forehead with his palm. “He’s going to disappear. I know it. He’s going to disappear.”

The prospect of the frail old man we’d just encountered disappearing from anywhere seemed absurd, but Jack wouldn’t listen, no matter how many times I told him that there was nothing to worry about. He remained frantic during the entire drive back to the apartment, analyzing every miniscule detail of Koch’s actions.

 
 

Jack paced around the apartment, scratching his stubble, while I watched TV. “We can’t let him disappear,” he kept repeating.

After twenty or thirty minutes, somebody knocked on the door. I opened the door, expecting to meet an angry downstairs neighbor, but it was Melissa.

“We’re heading to the beach for a few hours and thought you guys might want to join?” she said.

“Can’t. We’re on our way to Pasadena,” Jack said.

“No, we’re not,” I snapped. I didn’t know what Jack was planning, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going all the way back to Pasadena, and I certainly wasn’t going to blow another chance with Melissa and Rosa.

Melissa glanced back and forth between Jack and me. “Maybe we should just get together another time?”     

“No, I’m coming with you,” I said. “Just let me change my clothes. Meet downstairs in ten?” 

She smiled. “Sounds good.”

I shut the door and turned toward Jack.

“We can’t let Koch disappear,” he said.

I nodded. “Got it.”

“If you got it, you wouldn’t be running off on some beach date. We can’t let him slip through our hands.”

I changed into my swimsuit. “We’ll go back to Koch’s tomorrow, ok?”

“Tomorrow’s too late. He’s on to us. He’ll be gone by tomorrow.” He paused. “We’re going to have to snatch him.”

“Snatch him? Like kidnap?”

“Not kidnap. Just temporarily borrow. We’ll tie him up and leave him at the Wiesenthal Center with a letter explaining who he is.”

“Do you hear yourself? I mean, honestly, are you insane?”

“Don’t worry. Nobody will catch us.”

“Of course they’ll catch you. You told Alex all about Koch, remember? But that doesn’t even matter. You’re talking about kidnapping somebody. You can’t go around kidnapping people.”

“He’s not people. He’s Hitler.”

“He’s not Hitler! Jesus, you’re like one of those guys who wastes his life searching for the Loch Ness Monster. Do what you want, but I’m going to the beach.”

I tried to walk away, but Jack clamped his hand around my wrist. “We have to do this,” he said. He was standing so close that I could smell the sourness of his breath. “Please. I need your help. After this the investigation is done.”

For a moment, my resolution wavered. “Done?”

“Done. I promise. I can’t do this without you, man.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I couldn’t force Jack to behave rationally, but I refused to follow his delusions any further. “I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.”

He squeezed my wrist tighter. I struggled to wriggle free, but his grip remained strong. “Let go,” I said, trying to pry his fingers from my wrist. My chest tightened and the rage inside me began to grow, becoming larger and larger until it felt like my body was going to burst. “Let go, Jack.”

But he still wouldn’t loosen his grip. My free hand balled into a fist and my arm began to swing. By the time Jack saw the fist it was too late, and his head recoiled from the impact. He released my wrist and took a step backward. We stared at each other. There was wonder in his eyes.

I grabbed Jack’s car keys and sprinted out the door. He chased me down the stairs. I didn’t know where I was going; all that mattered was outrunning Jack. But he was fast. I could hear him behind me, and I realized that it was only a matter of seconds before he caught up to me. I turned left and ran toward the pool. As I approached the pool, I pulled my arm back and flung the keys. They landed on top of a pile of leaves, then plopped into the water.

I turned and faced Jack. “You aren’t kidnapping anyone without keys,” I shouted, triumphant.

He stared at me, lip quivering, a piercing look in his eyes. Then he lowered his head and charged, slamming his head into my chest and forcing the wind out of me. I fell to the ground and gasped for air.

Jack pulled off his shoes and dove into the water. A few seconds passed, and then a few more, and he still hadn’t come up for air. I stood near the edge of the pool and tried to spot him amongst the tangle of leaves and branches, but I couldn’t find him. I removed my shirt and prepared to jump in. Suddenly, Jack emerged from the water and grabbed the edge of the pool. His head and upper body were covered with leaves. He took several deep breaths, sucking oxygen into his lungs.

“Jack,” I said, but he didn’t seem to hear me. “Come on, Jack. Get out of the pool.”

He glanced at me, an empty look on his face. “We can’t let him get away,” he said. Then he disappeared back into the dark water.

Whatever You Can Spare

by Thomas Kearnes

I never stand outside the store for long. At least, it never seems long after the first kind stranger presses a five or a wad of singles into my hand. The sky is fat with rainclouds. So far, though, no rain. I pray for enough time. It is the least the Lord owes me.

Tyson flicks his gaze, and I catch his eyes in the rearview mirror—the same pale, unsettling green I see every day while brushing my teeth. Tyson’s eyes, just like his father’s. Whenever my grandson takes me to the store, I try to imagine Leon looking back at me, needing his mother, but I could never kid myself. It’s Tyson, my only grandbaby, and he needs things.

“Did you remember the sign?” Tyson asks Adele. She rides beside him.

“Jesus, you expect me to take care of everything?”

“That was your sole responsibility.”

Adele leans over the seat, the bump in her belly hard and proud below her small breasts, and rummages through the clothes and fast-food wrappers heaped beside me. “Mema, where’d you put the damn sign?”

“Honey, it’s in the trunk,” I say, my voice trembling. It wouldn’t do any good if they flew off the handle and turned around. It hasn’t been nearly long enough. “That’s what you asked me to do, wasn’t it?”

“No, I told you to—”

“Baby,” Tyson cut in, “what does it matter?”

Adele sinks back into her seat. “She got the old, pathetic part down, don’t she?” She lights a cigarette and blows out a quivering cloud.

Actually, neither of them asked me to put the sign back there. On purpose, I left it in the hall. My stunt won me a string of profanities from Adele and silent disappointment from my grandson, his neck tense and stringy. I needed an excuse to check the iron one last time. I always forget whether I’ve left it on. I also checked to make sure neither had moved my bulging tortoise-skin suitcase from inside the car’s trunk. I can’t afford any mistakes. That house is my universe—Tyson, Adele and me.

“Don’t talk that way to Mema,” Tyson says. “You show her respect.”

“I’ll show her respect when we get the damn money.”

Tyson shoots Adele a warning glare. The store, it was her idea when she came to live with us. She thought I was asleep. Baby, she whispered, we just need enough for gas. I promise she won’t mind. You know she loves you. She’ll make money real quick. Listening, I felt the true measurement of old age: helplessness.

It’s our exit. My withered hand clenches the armrest as we enter the feeder road. The large, impervious Wal-Mart squats behind a sprawling parking lot. People hurry and stop, conceding to those faster. Sunlight glints off the cars puttering through the lot. I glance into the sky, and notice the clouds darkening. I pray to the Almighty that the rain wait just a little while. I need more time. We crawl through the lot.

The vendor hawking homemade crosses is gone today, Adele announces. Better yet, no police cruisers lurking at the far corners of the lot. “You’ll get thirty bucks in no time, Mema,” she says, her voice airy like cotton candy.

Tyson drives solemnly toward the handicap spaces. Dark curly hair from his mullet tumbles down his neck. He worries that he and Adele might attract attention, parked in a space meant for cripples but never leaving the car.

“We’ll keep an eye on you, Mema,” he told me the first time I asked the world for its pocket change and compassion. Tears falling down my face and Adele refusing me a tissue because I’d make more money unkempt, Tyson assured me that Adele would never make money as fast. “If she could, I’d force her ass out in a second,” he said. I pretended to believe him.

I rush from the backseat when Tyson parks. Of course, he has the keys, but I brought a spare that I keep underneath the Kleenex box in my room. I unlock the trunk as silently as I can. When Adele hops out, hand over her belly as if a cantaloupe swelled beneath her blouse, I say feebly that she shouldn’t trouble herself, a girl in her condition. I’d get the sign myself.

“You wouldn’t have to if you’d listened to me the first time,” she says.

“Honey, this is so hard on me. I just want—”

She rolls her eyes and slaps the hood. “You didn’t live eighty years by being a big baby.”

“Adele,” Tyson calls. “What have I told you about respect.”

“I have to pee,” she answers.

“Be quick about it.” Tyson lights an unfiltered cigarette. Leon couldn’t get enough of those, said it was like fireworks tumbling down his throat. Sometimes late at night, while Tyson and Adele sleep, I sneak one myself. “I don’t want Mema out too long in this damp cold.”

“Hello? Pregnant woman here!’

He shakes his head, turning his back on her. He smiles, and I see my late husband’s smile and Leon’s smile and the smiles of all the boys yet to be born. I smile back and promise I’ll do my best. He embraces me and apologizes for this happening. He truly believes he has no choice. “We’re not budgeted for a second tank of gas,” he says.  “Adele thinks the car runs on magic beans.”

His compassionate reverie stops cold. “Mema, what are you doing? Don’t let anyone see that here!” His voice is harsh and scratchy, urging me to hide it. “Adele’s coming back.”

I peek at the large-lettered word—it’s the closest thing to gospel in our house. It reads HOMELESS. My face falls. Tyson awkwardly glances about the lot, eyes so bleary that he surely can’t see much. Carefully, he takes the sign from me.

“Don’t do the whole dog-and-pony show, Mema. Not today.”

“Your father would be so proud of you,” I say.

Tyson tosses the HOMELESS sign in the backseat. I think about my suitcase snug in the trunk, my whole life condensed down to a single bag. I didn’t like all this tomfoolery, but every family has secrets, secrets in every house, festering in every room. I have another secret: last night I tucked almost two hundred dollars inside my brassier before packing it. I learned early that Tyson and Adele didn’t pay close attention to how much I made each time I begged.

A minivan passes the entrance, revealing Adele in its wake. She sips a large Coke and tosses back her two-toned kinky hair as if the whole world’s watching. She’s too many weeks along to wear shorts that tight, and those flip-flops don’t give her any arch support. In the beginning, I encouraged her to act more appropriately, like a young lady, but it became clear that the house on 1249 Windfall Avenue, my house, belongs to me in name only. I’m always close but forever ignored. Adele treats it like her home and treats me like a sideshow attraction that knows how to iron and wash clothes. She insists on plug-in air fresheners in every outlet. The home I shared fifty-seven years with my late husband smells like the mall.

“They serving soda pop in the ladies’ room?” Tyson sneers. Adele shoots her bad finger high and proud. I look forward to my job—I suppose you could call begging a job—starting if it means escaping Tyson and Adele’s latest spat.

Over the months, I learned things. First, stand in front of the entrance, not the exit. Most shoppers leave the store as broke as any beggar. Never count on church groups, they’re full of misers. They might offer you a meal or a night at a shelter but never cash. Also, don’t beg at night. Most importantly, be sweet and fragile like snow; no one gives to jackasses. Finally, I learned no encounter will thrill and shame you as fiercely as the first.

I was terrified but not about getting caught. Even before Tyson assured me it wouldn’t happen, I knew no one complains about little old ladies asking for change. They’d pity me, they’d protect me—here, ma’am, take everything I have. We hadn’t made a sign yet, that came later. I’d simply walk up with my hand out. It sounds so simple, no wonder it’s a crime.

Foolishly, we first went begging at night. It was sticky and still, a typical July evening. I wore a paisley blouse and slacks. Again, we didn’t know any better.

After I left Tyson and Adele in the car, I wandered along the storefront, avoiding the smokers inside a verandah at the Gardening department, afraid they knew. I can’t recall my own encounters with beggars in the city. To me, those dirty and desperate people seem vaguely menacing, reminders that God may forsake anyone at any time.  I understand why most, including myself, avoid them. Having no idea how to approach, I inched toward somebody but backed away the moment he noticed.

I heard Tyson’s voice in my head: You gotta do this, Mema, or Adele’s cell phone gets shut off. Finally, I saw a stout middle-aged woman with large breasts and a pained expression. Her oversized T-shirt read, This Lady Don’t Need Luck. I thought a miserable person would be more giving than a happy one. During these months, I’ve been proven right more often than not. The woman, though, lurched forward as if I was a copperhead hidden in tall grass. Unable to comprehend her disgust (I had a home, a car, a family—I was just like her!), I dumbly kept after her into the parking lot.

I didn’t see the SUV until the driver blared his horn. I staggered, crudely dancing, not recognizing the sound or whether it was meant for me. The vehicle whipped around, followed by others, their drivers impatient, honking like I was a stray dog. I called out for Tyson, I even called out for Adele—no one came. I stopped drifting when an olive green Honda pulled up beside me.

“You poor woman, do you know where you are?”

He was a nice-looking man, a clean man, a type of man that Leon will never become. His pinstriped suit was the color of blueberries, and his tie was a rich, deep red. He didn’t seem to be wearing his clothes so much as they wore him.

“Are you here with someone?” he asked.

“Please, sir,” I said. “Whatever you can spare.”

He frowned a bit and his eyes grew soft. “Do you have a home?”

My mouth open, I twisted my neck and pretended to look at the asphalt. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Tyson never said there’d be questions.

“Here, ma’am,” he said, some bills folded crisply between two fingers. In the movies, it’s the way men offer strippers money. “There’s a cheap motel less than a mile down the road. Just be sure to lock the door.”

I can’t recall what went through my mind after the man spoke. Desperation is a tongue easy to learn. As I fanned the bills in my hand, two twenties and a five, my breath caught and I felt Grace had dropped upon me from the sky followed by the welcome numbness I always associate with eating too much chocolate. I kept staring at the money.

“Ma’am? Do you need a ride?”

I was startled but didn’t look up. Whatever it was we did, I thought it was over. I don’t think I remembered to thank him. With just one donation, I was more than halfway toward covering Adele’s debt. I still wonder if that clean man in the blueberry suit remembers me.

I’m doing well enough. Hopefully, Adele hasn’t figured out I’m not being vigilant like those other times when I knew the faster I reached the total, the sooner I’d be home. A little girl with long, loose pigtails and a red floppy hat offers me a cherry sucker. Embarrassed, her mother jams a few dollars into my hand. Two Army enlistees ask what I’ll do for fifty bucks then zip inside before I blush. Another child, a boy, stops his parents, their cart full of fertilizer, and asks them why I look sad. I manage to get through.

The older man tearing off his tan overcoat, however, has something more extravagant in mind for me. “My beautiful siren,” he says, whipping the overcoat around my shoulders like a cape, “I will not let you stand in this horrible weather and beg like a dog.” His name is Ferdinand and his skin is a deep bronze, darker in his face’s folds. Starchy gray hairs sprout from his temples like weeds. He speaks like I’m a dishwasher being showcased on a game show. He’s what my late sister would call a fancy man, a confirmed bachelor.

“Sir, you’re too kind. I can’t take this.”

He pulls the lapels together, wrapping me tight. Over his shoulder, I spy Tyson and Adele kissing deep while parked in the handicap slot. I remember when watching young people kiss made me smile.

Ferdinand slaps his meaty hands against my cheeks. “Madame, I will cook you a meal. I have several bedrooms to your liking. When I come to this country, they tell me this time of year is for family. Madame, I will be your family.”

I’m trying to step back from his embrace, but he is strong and determined. Other customers might be watching. Should I call for help? I can’t afford to make a scene. If I don’t return with Tyson and Adele to the house, it’ll ruin everything. Finally, I yank myself free and he halts, stunned at my ingratitude. I’ve made things worse.

“Sir, thank you so much for the coat. You’re very kind, but I can’t go with you.”

Instead of arguing like I expected, his eyebrows jump and he abruptly flits into the lot. I turn to see what spooked him and nearly collide with a potbellied man wearing a Wal-Mart smock and nametag. He’s barely thirty, but his hair and mustache are trimmed with such precision, I wonder how proudly he told his wife (his kind always has a wife) about making management.

“Ma’am, unless you need medical assistance, I need you to come with me.” His hand is raised, cupped. Will he grab my arm if I resist? I follow, risking one last glance at the car before we enter the store. They’re still kissing. Every time, Tyson promises to watch over me. Every time, when I look at their car, I hope I’ll find those green eyes that have watched me grow old, watched from one man’s face, then another and finally another.

He hustles me through the front, along the line of storefronts most Wal-Marts host: nail salon, hairdresser, optometrist and more. When we pass the bank, I notice a homemade poster with shaky lettering stuck above a large cardboard box. The sign reads, Help Our Employees Who Can’t Afford Thanksgiving. That makes no sense to me. If you have a job, you can afford food. That’s why people work, after all. If Tyson could break his bad luck, we’d be eating better than Hamburger Helper every night.

“Sir,” I ask, “why not just pay your people enough so they can eat?”

He whips open a narrow door. “Please, ma’am, I have other responsibilities waiting.”

A tight staircase lifts from the floor.

His office could be anyone’s office. Even the personal touches tell me nothing. Ferdinand’s coat carries his whole history, it seems, embedded in the wool. The photo of the homely woman and sole-eyed son on his desk could be anyone’s wife and child. I pull the coat around me. There’s no heat. I don’t see windows, either. No wonder I always feel sad after shopping here.

He insists I call him Jimmy. He never tells me his last name or official title. No one’s calling the police, he assures me, switching to that damn patronizing tone everyone uses when you reach your expiration date. They’re concerned about me. Employees remember me, they have me on videotape. A few of the customers threatened to call some agency. I’m panicking like a trapeze acrobat reaching out to find no waiting bar. I wonder once again whether I left the iron on.

“You didn’t drive here, did you, Missus…?”

“Call me Mema. I love the sound of that name.”

Jimmy chuckles and I feel sick. “Do you have any identification?”

“No… I don’t drive anymore so who knows where it is? Maybe I left it—”

“At home? You live close to here?”

I blink, my eyelids sticking. I’m not used to rooms without windows. It tickles me that, despite my slip, this manager is so concerned about my welfare but his workers are starving and surrounded by food. I clear my throat. Do they know about Tyson? Are he and Adele on tape acting like horny ferrets while dignity slips from my bones?

“Sir,” I say, bracing myself to stand. Jimmy rushes to assist me but I won’t have it. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. You know, my own family has passed on.”

“Even your children?”

“All part of God’s plan, I suppose.”

“What about those other times we’ve seen you?”

“Young man, I can’t answer why this person or that person saw one thing or another.” As I inch toward the door, Jimmy makes no move to stop me. “I hope you don’t make a habit of hassling little old ladies…”

Jimmy’s eyes snap wide and he gulps. “Not at all, ma’am. Should I help you out?”

“You should give your workers some sandwiches. Thank you for your concern.”

“Ma’am!” he cries, rushing toward me, his fist jammed in his pocket, rummaging. He offers me a hundred dollar bill, wadded up in his open hand. I must truly seem out to pasture for such generosity. If you pretend you’re helpless long enough, you forget that it’s an act, and even when you try to explain yourself, prove your worth, it doesn’t matter. People would rather throw a couple of bucks at you and be done with it. If no one needs help, the whole world falls out of balance. Victims are essential. Without them, there’d be no heroes.

I take the cash and smile, call him Jimmy. I wish him a happy Thanksgiving. He reaches above my head and pops open the door. It sticks to the frame; there’s a soft crack. “Ma’am,” he says. I don’t bother to look back. “Please don’t return to this Wal-Mart. Next time, we will call the authorities.” I hesitate on the steps. All he sees are my slumped shoulders, ruined shoes and the wispy home perm Adele insisted she’d been doing since junior high.

In a brisk wind, I hustle across the lot to the car. Tyson shoves off Adele and wipes his hand across his mouth.

“Where the hell have you been, Gladys?” she snaps, maneuvering a breast back into her brassiere. It’s so rare I hear my Christian name, I’ve begun to think of Gladys as a wholly different woman, one who would never do what I’ve done.

“Sweetheart, I’ve told you. Call me Mema.”

“We have to get home, Mema,” Tyson said. “I bowl tonight. Gotta get my shoes.”

I gingerly open the back door and slide in. The HOMELESS sign glares up at me. We back out and leave the lot. I should thank Tyson for letting me leave the sign, Adele snarls. He takes care of your scrawny ass, she says. She whips around and bends over the seat, staring blankly at me like I have something she needs and I’m stupid for not knowing it.

“Babe,” Tyson says, “we’ll handle it at home.”

I ask how long we’ve been gone. Tyson says maybe an hour, but Adele thinks it’s been longer. I gaze into the sky. It never did manage to rain. God is gracious, God is good. Cruising down the interstate, Tyson and Adele squabble about which flavor of Hamburger Helper we’ll eat. I’m expected to cook, of course, and I’m not invited to bowl. Adele mutters that if I have any ideas, I should spit them out. I sigh, rest my head against the window and tell her to surprise me.

Adele notices the smoke after our first left into the neighborhood. We’re still four blocks from Windfall Lane. Alarmed, Tyson wonders whether it’s a house fire. Adele isn’t worried, there’s not enough smoke. The rising clouds thicken, however, the closer we come to home.

“Holy shit, baby, I think it’s our street!” Adele screams for him to hurry.

“Mema, stay back there! Don’t get out of the car!” We’re still moving.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

My elation bubbles like champagne as we speed down Windfall, and my dear grandson and his tramp fiancée confront total disaster. The house at 1249 Windfall, the house in which I’ve spent over sixty years of my life, is burning.

I knew I’d left the iron on. I left it on and face-down atop a pile of newspapers.

It seems so long ago, but Tyson was already in high school when Leon burned his wife to death inside their home. He waited till Tyson was away. I wonder if my grandson has ever accorded that fact its true weight. He called me from the back of that honky-tonk where he met the woman he later killed. He’d caught her after she lost her balance dancing on a pool table. He said he needed me to take his boy. Tyson needs you now, Mama, he said. Of course, I promised I’d do whatever I could for as long as I could. It was easier to say yes back then because my husband hadn’t departed. Just don’t get overwhelmed, he said. You promise me, Mama? You promise you’ll look after yourself? I heard sirens in the background. I told him to stop with the nonsense. Leon knows my family is my universe.

Tyson jumps the curve and bolts from the car. One crew is already fighting the fire, water spraying while the men shout instructions to each another. Tyson tries to pull one aside but they shrug him off as casually as they might their own kids. My grandson pushes his palms against his temples, teeth gritted. It’s like he’s watching the moments before a terrible wreck, the doomed vehicles charging toward one another. He’s forgotten about Adele and me.

“Why is our house burning, Mema?” Adele whimpers. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”

She’s left the car but remains on the curb, absently rubbing her belly and gazing dumbstruck at all she believed was hers turning black and crisp. I’m surprised she isn’t crying. I’m standing only a few feet beside her and while she keeps addressing me, she won’t look at me; the fire’s allure is too powerful. She babbles and jerks her head from side to side. She keeps saying my name, but I can’t follow what she means.

I know something that might help.

I slip off my tan overcoat from the fancy man and wrap it around Adele’s delicate shoulders. She pulls it around herself without noticing it. I tell her she might catch cold standing out here wearing next to nothing. She nods and then I reach into the backseat and grab the HOMELESS sign. I hand it to her. I don’t want to, I truly don’t, but she might need it now and I certainly have no use for it. She takes the sign like someone passed her popcorn at a movie.

“Check the pocket,” I tell her. “There’s something for you and Tyson.”

Adele does nothing, her lips moving but no sound coming out. Finally, I dip into the coat pocket myself and pull out the hundred. I tell her there’s a cheap motel by the interstate, but she’d best lock the door. It’s not a great neighborhood.

While Tyson sinks to his knees and sobs, I open the trunk and haul out my suitcase. The force of its weight nearly topples me. Carrying your whole life in one bag isn’t easy—every life is heavy but you can’t leave it behind. I hobble a bit as I begin down the sidewalk, away from Adele and Tyson, away from what used to be my home. It’s chilly, the wind penetrating to my bones. I think about that luxurious tan overcoat but shake loose the notion. Adele needs it more than me.

When my husband first drove me out to that house, decades and decades ago, he wouldn’t tell me which house was ours. I had to guess. He laughed and laughed when I guessed wrong. Can’t you find your own way home, he’d say and laugh. I never guessed 1249 Windfall Avenue. I guessed the one to the left and the one to the right, but not that one. I loved watching those green eyes twinkle as he teased.

I don’t know if he’d understand why I did what I did. He’s not here to ask.

I’m getting tired. This block is longer than it seems from inside the car. I need to rest but I refuse to sit on that filthy curb. Maybe that nice lady pruning her roses will give me a glass of water. Her house looks so pretty. You can tell a good deal about a woman by how well she keeps her home.

Fan Belts

by Leonard Kress

The summer my fiancée Kylie and I finished up with grad school, I was lucky enough to secure a teaching position beginning in the fall. Kylie seemed happy enough to follow me to the bluffs of northwest Wisconsin, preparing our wedding, making a home, and carving out time to complete the novel she’d recently begun. We had two months to kill before moving.  Our lease was iron-clad and the landlord told us in no uncertain terms that we could say goodbye to our sizable security deposit if we tried to break it. Besides, we weren’t in rush—we had friends in town, favorite cafes and restaurants, a good bookstore, and the natural sluggishness nurtured by three years of torpid graduate seminars. 

It was too late in the summer to get the usual university jobs, but everyone told us to try a temp service. Manpower was hiring and Kylie and I went to the office to fill out applications and take the required tests. Even though this was a college town and untold numbers of grads and grad students had signed up for temp work, Kylie scored the highest ever on the alphabetizing test. So high, the office manager quipped, “If I wasn’t standing over you the whole time watching, I’d think you’re a cheater. Instead I’m sending a note to corporate because it makes me look good.” Actually, Kylie told me later, he was attempting to look down her blouse the whole time, and when that approach failed, moved back to his desk and tried looking up her skirt. As high as Kylie scored, though, I took things to another level. My vocabulary and reading comprehension were perfect—something he claimed never happened in the long illustrious history of Manpower, Inc. Needless to say, we were hired on the spot and because he thought we were a “cute couple,” he shifted things around, rearranged schedules, re-assessed work details, and assigned us to the same job. We were to report the to a warehouse that stored a completely uninventoried, decades-old supply of automobile fan belts. As he explained, it was a simple case of one corp taking over another and not knowing what they got for their money. 

The warehouse was an old Chevron Gas Station that had been gutted and fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelving. The old sign, visible from the interstate, was still standing though unlit. The shelves were stuffed with packaged fan belts in total disarray. It was our job to enter data into two computers placed on back-to-back desks in the center of the room. To get to them we had to wade through hundreds of unmarked, unpackaged belts entangled and looping in and out of each other. First we found a shovel out back and cleared a path; even so, it was rare that one of us didn’t arrive at our workstation with a black fan belt or two looped around an ankle. This was to be—for six weeks left of our summer break—our very own snake-filled pit, not quite harmless and not quite daunting. Every day we’d sprint through the front door, Kylie in front and slip into our seats, the backs of our chairs touching when one of us squirmed or made a small adjustment.

The work was mindless. Our strategy was to proceed at a slow enough pace to keep us from ever having to handle actual fan belts. There was enough data—new codes and inventory numbers, price adjustments, mailing list updates and culling, forms to re-format–to keep us busy for weeks. To pass the time, I suggested we play books on tape. That way we could feel we hadn’t totally abandoned our grad school sensibilities, and we could catch up on some reading we’d always wanted to do. I suggested Dickens or Balzac or even George Elliot. Kylie thought we’d do better with something lighter, and I was willing to follow her lead—I was always the serious one, the nerdy one, head buried in a book who knew all the answers in high school quiz bowl. I was eager to shed that image, especially in front of Kylie, who’d been a high school cheerleader and who still kept up with the top-forty. It was a sad fact that our lives resembled many of those popular hits she listened to, where the smart guy gets the hot chick and agonizes over his undeserved luck.  I desperately wanted to change the equation. Kylie wanted something like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers or Danielle Steele’s Kaleidoscope, but I surprised both of us by suggesting Anne Rice.  Kylie liked the idea and we went to the library and checked out Interview with the Vampire, complete on twelve cassette tapes. This was a strange choice for me, since the only vampire novel I’d ever read was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in high school at the urging of a friend and maybe this had something to do with the fact that I’d recently gotten a postcard announcing her engagement. More likely, though, it was the word interview that attracted my attention—having gone through a whole round of interviews during my job search. And, I thought, more popular literature might in some way ameliorate my anomalous engagement to Kylie!

It took a few days to get acclimated to the work and to be certain that our boss, a manager several years younger, would be on the road and wouldn’t drop by unexpectedly. I know he made Kylie nervous at the beginning, when it seemed as though he was hanging around her desk, leaning over it, explaining the ins-and-outs of the fan belt business. And he had gone too far when he grabbed one of the unwrapped belts, held it out in front of his chest and stretched it apart, his arms straining. 

“Hah,” said Kylie, before realizing it was the worst comment she could have made, “just like those bust-developers my junior high girlfriends had.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m pretty sure you didn’t need one..”

I wanted to grab the belt and flog him—but I just seethed in silence. I was used to the kind of attention that Kylie got from most males. She always claimed she played no part in the flirtation and I partly believed her.  In her defense, her behavior was mostly unconscious, and habitual and the moment she realized her role, she quickly shut it down.

At first I was bored by the brusque voice on the tape reading Interview with the Vampire. I told Kylie that I was either going to turn it off, buy silencing headphones, or destroy the tape. “Just give it some time,” she insisted.  I did and soon, against my will, began to follow the story. I became engrossed in the tale of Louis, the young plantation owner from New Orleans. And the vampire Lestat, who turns him into a vampire so they could become immortal companions. Feeding off humans.

It was shortly after Louis kills Lestat, burning him inside his home—after romps in Eastern Europe and Paris—both Kylie and I lost interest. And even though it remained playing, barely audible, our afternoons turned into enticingly strange question and answer sessions, our own interviews. It was mostly Kylie who shot the questions over her shoulder, neither of us halting our attention to the computer monitors in front of us. To me it seemed as though her questions came out of nowhere, random and unrelated.

“Did you have lots of guy friends in high school? What were they like?  Were they jocks or nerds (like you, just kidding, haha) or frat boy types?” 

At first I tried to brush off the questions, preferring to think they were just meaningless attempts to make conversation to counteract the boredom of the job. But Kylie demanded answers and part of me was pleased that she expressed interest. I told her that at first I thought they were mostly nerds (like me, haha) but that the more I thought about it, I realized it was the frat boys, the student congress reps, the guys who dressed from the Gap with good hair and good haircuts, and the athletes who didn’t seem to sweat or grunt, like quarterbacks, basketball guards, the middle-weight wrestlers. Guys who would have played lacrosse if my high school had it. Kylie’s interrogation continued. What did I like about them, what qualities…..short or tall, short hair or long hair, blond or dark-haired, smart or smart-ass, hairy or hairless? We could see a picture emerging, and I found myself admiring the kind of friend I imagined having, even though no one close to that composite ever befriended me or even existed. She asked about showers after gym class and about stories I heard in the locker room—whether I thought any of the guys fooled around with each other, even if only pretending. I recalled one time to her, when an especially trim guy with well-defined abs removed his own towel and tucked his penis in between his legs and strutted around flamboyantly, pretending to admire the other guys’ penises. I observed this from afar, hiding behind an open locker door. 

“Speaking of those guys,” she asked, almost in a whisper leaning, as if her voice was actually blushing, “which did you prefer—the circumcised or uncircumcised? I’ve always been a bit weirded-out by uncircumcised ones.” 

I couldn’t answer, mostly because I never framed such a question. In fact I had only seen an uncircumcised penis a few times and all of them belonged to this group of Ukrainian guys who hung out together and spoke in their own language when they weren’t in class. “Ummmm,” I muttered, hoping that she’d drop this line of questioning which was clearly unnerving me.

Kylie, however, continued, raising her voice as if to press me into answering, ‘Well, then how about this–big or medium-sized?” She seemed fascinated by this silly adolescent play but she kept probing—“thick or thin?” Did anyone ever have an erection? Did I ever have an erection in the showers? In spite of myself I was becoming more and more intrigued.

“Well, maybe just once,” I admitted, so timidly Kylie had to goad me into continuing.  

“You can’t hold back now,” she said. “You’ve piqued my curiosity to the point where it absolutely must be satisfied.”

“I’m not completely sure about it,” I continued, hemming and hawing—at this point, less about revealing and more because I was really unsure whether it actually happened the way I was now recalling it. “It was a long time ago.”

“So,” she insisted. I don’t think I would forget something like that. “I think that would be something that stuck with me—so don’t let your memory go limp on me.”

“OK,” I said, “I think it was after a game of shirts and skins basketball and I was thrilled to have been one of the shirts this time. And there was this one fat kid who had the misfortune of being one of the skins and spent the whole game with his arms folded trying to hide the fact that he had breasts that jiggled when he ran. He was standing all the way in the shower, almost huddled in the corner with his back to everyone, when some kid—probably some jock—rolled up a wet towel and began slapping it against his back.  The jock was pretending to be a fencer.”

“Ah,” Kylie sighed, “demonstrating his thrust and his parry.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said—clearly embellishing my story because Kylie seemed so intrigued, “but the guy doing the slapping became more aggressive, trying to whip the towel at the fat guy’s front. And I remember that the fat guy had this teeny-tiny penis, almost nothing there, and what was there seemed to be buried in a fold of fat.”

“And the jock’s cock?” she said, “Did you notice that?

“Yes, I did,” I said.  “It was really erect and it was bright red.”

Kylie let out a quick gasp. “Oh,” she said, turning back to her computer screen and growing silent. I was pleased that we never got to the point of discussing the state of my arousal, even though I really don’t think I was. Then again, I could have been.

As the days went on, Kylie demanded to know–since she was about to marry me–everything. I was flattered, and soon I was telling her about my obsession with the Sears catalogue when I was still in elementary school. How I placed bookmarks in the pages that showed men demonstrating power tools like arc welders and standing, uniformed, beside stacked drawers of ratchet kits. And how I would sneak down into the basement to gaze at the men, never shirtless, modeling jockey shorts. I was perplexed by Kylie’s interest in this part of my past, and even more baffled that she wanted to hear all about the pile of slick muscle-building magazines behind my father’s workbench.  I think I only looked at them a few times, so disturbed by the sight of greased bodies and cartoon biceps with their creepy worm-like veins. At first I thought she might have been interested in the men themselves—so different from bookish, introverted, geekish me. I thought they were more like the males she encountered in her small-town Indiana high school. Wrestlers and football players and their uncles with slicked back hair and denim jackets and cigarettes. And the closest to someone like me was probably some clarinet or euphonium band member who sat next to her in the alphabetically arranged classroom, and who harbored a serious crush on her all four years of high school. Who lived for the once-a-year lab-partner project, where he could have her all to himself for forty-five minutes, just him and the dangerously hot beaker and flaring Bunsen burner.

It wasn’t that Kylie never spoke about her old boyfriends, who numbered in the dozens or even hundreds, I conjectured, but that I really didn’t want to hear about them. I didn’t want to have to compete with them in her memory because I knew that I would never be able to match their prowess, both athletic and sexual. I could never be as charming and persuasive and incorrigible, never an object of desire, of her desire. Of course, over the two years we’d been together she had often referred to, obliquely, some of her most significant experiences.  In my mind, though, they all run together, merge into non-stop looping film trailer beginning with her, age thirteen, almost pinned to her living room carpet by a wrestler, him almost inside her, interrupted when his brother came to fetch him. And continuing with an older guy zooming in on his Harley to take her out to the lagoon, and an uncle who broke in when she was babysitting her younger sister on the pretext of fixing a lock that he had broken, and a football player in the pup tent in his family farm’s meadow, and the van with shag carpeting and another van with an air mattress, and the mayor of her small town, drunkenly serenading her and wishing her a happy birthday at a 4th-of-July picnic. All before she graduated high school! That’s as far as I would let her go, though I do remember, that the part of her telling that most intrigued me had nothing to do with her, naked, willing or unwilling, responding or not, but with the guys and how they looked and what they might have been thinking and feeling. The glazed look in their eyes as they seemed to be getting what they had worked so hard to get—the feel of her breast, the clamminess of her thigh, the cushiony texture of her lips upon them. 

“I’m glad I learned these things about you,” she said, as I was repacking the vampire tapes to return to the library. “I had my suspicions, but they were pretty vague.”

“Suspicions?” I responded. “What do you mean by that?” I immediately felt as though something profound and disturbing about me had been uncovered and revealed. But I wasn’t even sure what that secret was. Kylie gave me broad smile, almost flirtatious, even though she rarely if ever, flirted with me. Even when we first started seeing each together, the looks she gave me were decidedly bland and unprovocative—so much so that I suspected she was merely bored and between boyfriends. I never considered that she might have been recently dumped or even desperate for attention. I was too pleased and giddy that she wanted to spend time with me. So at first I viewed her energetic smile as some sort of validation, speculation that she had, at long last, begun to see me as an object of desire. An object of her desire.

“I wonder if you’ve ever considered exploring these things,” Kylie said.

“What things?” I asked, though I already knew what she was driving at, and even as I was asking the question, I had a hollow feeling in my gut. I knew I had revealed too much and that I wouldn’t be able to take any of it back. I felt myself getting flushed and warm as if the room was heating up incrementally, and like a frog in a pot of water getting hotter and hotter, that would not leap out, even as it boiled. By the time she answered my question, I was sweating profusely and I felt a certain eagerness take hold of me, a giddiness.

“All those things we’ve been discussing. All those desires. Un-acted upon desires. All those unanswered questions. All that unresolved gender stuff,” she said, turning back to her computer screen. I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t say anything. “I think it’s something we should both consider,” she said, “don’t you?  I mean if we’re going to get married, it’s all going to come out anyway, sooner or later.”

Off Island

by David Ackley

There were only six passengers aboard the small ferry when it came about from the island dock and began to beat thickly through the cold grey November swells toward the main. Waiting at the landing, the four who lived on the island year-round had exchanged greetings, two old women and a burly man in cap and wool plaid jacket using each other’s first names—Edna, Coretta, Rodney –but calling the fourth, a woman in her thirties, “missus.” The three were lifelong islanders, she a newcomer, Cleo Lansman, dressed in a vaguely English manner in Shetland sweater, waterproof jacket and slacks, who’d moved to the island the previous May with her adolescent daughter.

But when the boat pulled away, the four, and the two off-islanders who’d waited off from the others, spread through the cabin warmed by the big Halliburton diesel. The island fell behind, a dark mound in the mist. Cleo and the two older women faced each other from benches along the starboard and port sides while the others chose spots among the double row of benches faced forward like church pews; they could see through a half-door the pilot’s broad back and a bit of dash, gauges and lights, and quarters of the wheel, rocking in the pilot’s hands. It was the slow season and soon this mid-day ferry would be shut down leaving only morning and evening runs, primarily for the kids who attended high school on the main. “Weather Permitting” warned the schedule, indicating less willingness than the island lobstermen to front gale, rough seas, blizzard, or killer fog. “Pickled in brine,” the islanders joked, “tough as a fuckin’ boot.”

The two old women were clad alike in faded print dresses with hems that fell below orange slickers like the ones their husbands wore on their boats—or had worn, in the case of the widowed Edna Bingham, who also wore Harold’s black rubber boots. Her companion was a few years younger than her cousin, smaller and less imposing, and was helping Edna to her appointment with a rheumatologist in Devonsport.

In a middle pew, a young man with a nylon briefcase shuffled through the papers inside, his complexion suggesting he might soon need to remove to  the narrow deck cabin-side, wind or no. Taking note, Edna nudged Coretta and tipped her head his way. There was a woman, in jeans and parka with a small pack beside her on the bench, from which she presently took an apple; an offseason day-tripper, of no interest to the others. In the back, from the moment he sat, Rodney had begun to doze, swaying forward and back to the rise and fall of the bow, more at home than in his own bed back on the island.

The island was a few miles off the mainland, and the blunt little ferry beating against the tide made slow progress. Cleo took a paperback from her coat pocket, opening it to a marked page, and Coretta attacked a purple swatch and yarn from her handbag with her quick knitting needles, her eyes darting here and there as she worked, though never falling on her deft, independent fingers.

After a few minutes, Edna Bingham began to speak, at first in brief murmurs to her companion, then louder, so as to benefit all the other passengers.

“Been on that island all my life, that’s the fact of it. Won’t be long I’ll be up to the graveyard with Harold, my husband that was, lookin’ down on God’s house and the boatyard.” Coretta nodded and glanced toward her cousin, with a musical hum, brief and supportive, that Edna drew from her now and then, like a chorus. Edna coughed. “About all I know’s that island. Some might call that plain ignorance.” She barked a laugh–possibly at her own expense.

It was hard to tell where she was looking, with her fleshy features folded among mounds and ripples, her eyes all but buried, with only an occasional blue glint like water through trees. Her head was tipped slightly toward the deck though she would lift it regularly to look through the glass next to Cleo, monitoring the blow in the way of those who take their living at the pleasure of the sea. “I ‘spose it’s better to know one thing pretty well than a pittance about half the clutter goes on these days.”

She paused, foraging in her coat pocket for a pack of Camels, from which she tapped one, circled the cabin with a challenging look, and lit it with a paper match. “Course they’s plenty as thinks they knows the island.” Coretta gave her little hum and her needles clicked audibly.

Cleo pressed her book a little harder into her lap: a copy of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa which she’d picked up, amused by the thought it might cast refracted light on the tribe she’d found herself, mystified, living among.

“We was even studied up by the university, some mucky-muck professor, come after us with all these questions, then wrote us up. All about kin and such, who was married to who. Who’s goin’ to stay in such a place ‘cept them was born to it? I says to him. Who they going to marry but someone else raised there? They’s families go back two hundred year and more on that island, all twined together like squid in a bucket.”

Cleo’s own family, smaller and of briefer duration, had been sundered by a savage divorce; the friends all went to Douglas, leaving her only Melissa, fourteen then, whom she’d wanted to distance from all that mess and had brought somewhat kicking and screaming to the sanctuary of the island, where Cleo could paint and hide and Melissa would adjust, as kids do. As, in fact, she had–in so short a time it seemed to surprise her too.

Coretta leaned toward Edna, murmured a few words and Edna barked again. “Goddam right… Coretta can give her whole genealogy by heart, name every one of them five generations back… Kin and kind is what a island is. And how it gets on under the hard life we chose….Not that I got anything against a newcomer. Hell, their money’s good as anybody’s.” She laughed her hard laugh again. “Don’t hurt if they know what they’re gettin’ into. You hate for someone to be thinking they can wall off a piece and call it their own island. Hiring on carpenters and masons from off island when we got men right here could use the work.”

Across from her Cleo’s head moved slightly, though she didn’t look up from her book.

“Not that it’s any business of mine. I’m not one to put my nose in other people’s business, no matter what some might say.”

She paused, puffing on the cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, its ash growing dangerously longer, until she tipped the ash into her hand and ground it and the butt under her rubber boot. For a time her head sank lower toward her ample chest, as if she had lost interest in her own conversation. There was a sense of relief; her voice intimidated with its roughness and confidence.

The wind’s wail had grown steadier, and there was a slight yaw to the boat, as it fell off to one side of a rising wave now and again.

The young man rose from his seat, said, “Guess I’ll step out for a breath,” and opened the cabin door which blew in hard against his grasp. Feeling the gust, the pilot turned, then shrugged and went back to his wheel. The passenger went out, yanking the door shut behind him.

“‘Spose we ought tell him ‘bout not puking to windward,” Edna said, reviving. She was leaning forward, speaking again loudly but with a confidential air as if what she conveyed was not for all. Her legs were spread and her right arm rested across her thick right thigh. “He’ll have to figure it out his self. And course some never does. Always gazing the other way, painting their pictures of the sunset and such.”

Cleo raised her head, smiling a gentle, placating smile at no-one in particular and lowered her gaze to her book again. The smile meant to soften the atmosphere on the boat. It said, I know I’m different, I know they don’t like me. But it’s all right. It’s their island. I have no claim. I just want to live on a small piece and look at it, the sky, the sea.

“All the same,” the old woman resumed a bit later. “It’s nice when a new child comes, gives ours someone fresh to know. I like to see them waiting on the ferry for school, playing and fooling around. Not naming any names they’s one girl, cute little brown-haired thing, goes to the tenth grade with Bobby Colter and his cousin Dennis.” With an inner start, Cleo recognized Melissa, recast as a stranger in the old woman’s description of her. Coretta smiled and nodded, her needles unceasing.

“Me and Harold wasn’t lucky in that way. Don’t know whose fault it was. God’s will, I ‘spose. But, way it is on an island, sometimes it feels like they’re all mine anyway. Come Halloween they’re at my door in their costumes and I give them as much candy as they can carry off. I get to know them, watching from my window every day…I see them growing up, the boys and girls apart, then after a while starting to take notice of one ‘nother.” 

The young man came back inside and re-took his seat. The wind had begun to abate, and the swells were lower, less abrupt from crest to trough; they were coming under the modulating influence of the great continent.

“They’re good kids, island kids, good as any off-islander as claims to look down on them. You take my nephew Ralph Taylor’s son, Peter, in his senior year already, been hauling’ traps on Ralph’s boat since he was twelve. Plays the high school basketball. Big strapping, good-looking boy. I seen the Pittman girls get into it over him, Peter standing by, laughing his ass off. But the boy’s got his head turned now, ain’t for me to say who. Whoever she be, she ain’t got a worry with a serious boy like that. Not one to run away, he ain’t, even if they’re wishin’ he’d a tied a knot in it.”

She paused again, sensitive to the boat’s lunge as it turned from the channel and the fast, outrunning tide into the easier waters of the inner harbor.

“And they’s other things I see,” she presently resumed, “like how a girl’s coloring will sometimes change. I ‘spose cause it never happened to me I’m always watching for the signs. Like when she starts to favor certain clothes, wearing a sweatshirt, or a big coat even on the warm days. I ain’t usually  wrong.  I ‘spose someone else mightn’t notice, thinking she’s just dressing like the others do, to fit in — even someone close…if the girl didn’t want them to know …”

She’d shifted slightly to the right, her eyes on the woman reading her book. Coretta mirrored the look, her needles stilled, and even big, laconic Rodney, who rarely attended to the talk of women, had wakened to watch Cleo from under the bill of his cap. “I guess that’s why some people comes to an island, so they can pick and choose, closing their eyes to whatever ain’t so elegant.”

Cleo’s head was still bowed, but she gave the impression she was no longer reading the words, that the page had gone blank on her.

“Course there’s one telltale as never fails. You won’t see a woman do it much ‘cept them that’s carrying. Can’t help it I ‘spose — always folding their arms tight across their bellies — wanting all the time to be feeling what’s growing inside…Can’t miss that, ‘specially if you carried one of your own, can you, Missus?”

Missus. Misses. Missed…

They felt the engine begin to throttle back.

 “Coming into the main,” she said. “Time to go see some young knowall thinks he knows from books what it’s like to get old with the arthritis.”

Very carefully, Cleo had closed her book and put it back in her coat pocket, her head raised, looking straight at the old woman but seeming not to see her, as if someone else stood between them. Her fine hands were twisted together in her lap. She was seated by the door to the deck on the starboard side, and, when, one by one, the other passengers moved past her to debark, none but the old woman was able to refrain from glancing at her as they went by, her face taut and pale, gazing straight ahead, her lips silently forming words they were just as glad not to hear.

She stays until they’ve all gone ashore, then leaves the ferry for a picnic bench by the landing. The harbor is calm out to a band of turbulence along the channel, as if something is swimming just under the surface. A pair of gulls kite to the water and settle without a splash. How easily they change state. She hasn’t found it so.

The old woman’s words have the blunt force of a mugging, reducing Cleo’s feelings to a numb prickle, her thoughts only to reclaim her daughter and get away, quick and far.

She’ll wait until the kids come down to the landing, waylay Melissa with cheerful lies about a mother-daughter night in town, shopping, maybe a movie, a sleepover in this neat bed and breakfast she knows: It’ll be fun! They’ll watch Melissa’s friends pull away on the boat, in their rough play pretending to shove each other overboard, the tall boy a little apart on the deck, looking back at them. Melissa waving goodbye until they’re out of sight. In Cleo’s vision, the tall boy, Peter, doesn’t return the wave, sensing that they won’t be coming back. When the boat has passed from view, she’ll tell Melissa that she knows and that it’s okay.

She’s the mother. She’s fought this battle before and won against an enemy fiercer than any tribe of throwbacks dying out on a pile of rock. Try a desperate, scheming ex-husband with pots of money and a school of Great Whites for lawyers. There will be time to decide, time to grow up. If there’s to be a child, they can bring her up together—two mothers quite enough, no villages need apply, thank you very much—loving over her watchfully until… but no use to plan that far, which is like trying to look beyond the point where the harbor ends to the invisible sea beyond, the island out there somewhere in the mist. For now it will be enough that the boat leaves and that they’re behind on the shore.

In that invisible beyond there will be objections, arguments, recriminations, self and otherwise. Love might be offered in counter-claim, oh all sorts of things will try to pull her child from her arms. So was first roused the fear, choking and irrational, walking along the sidewalk in the crowded city, the air cold and filled with dread, that in the next moment some stranger might come from the crowd, tear her baby from her arms and disappear. How tight she’d clasp her, eyes on each passing face. Through all the years of Melissa’s growing up, her fear awoke with each threat, real or imagined. For herself risk could be taken in stride, at times welcomed. But the fear could own her, and she, a free woman, didn’t like it. To be yanked bolt upright from exhausted sleep, senses vivid as a hunter’s, at what? A held breath, a stitch in the silence.  It was hyper-alert, clamoring at hints, intimations, nothings: the slack manner and glazed look of a babysitter; the sudden churn of the plump little legs toward the curb; the airy, too-precocious “Oh, he’s harmless,” for a sullen, knowing friend; the junior high cheerleader who let slip the phrase “blow job;” the older boy with a fast car, resplendent to the fear’s hound nose with tequila, vomit, weed. Most of all a constant, anxious whine, warning of the soi-disant father grooming his pubescent daughter, like the call girls he patronized, opening his wallet to every teasing caress, happy to pay for what he chose to call love. During the warfare of the divorce proceedings it grew, taking almost all the breathing room.

It crowded her from the inside.

And then they’d moved to the island, she woke one morning and it was gone. She could breathe and reclaim herself. The island coiled around them.

Occasionally, in a seascape, she’d paint a few stripes of white for a lobster boat, adding dabs of orange for the slickered lobsterman. They must have loved that. To be “picturesque?” To have all the grind and struggle stilled in a few dabs of orange? No wonder they hated her. She’d seen only the serenity, the verities of sea, rock and sky and the enduring islanders who seemed to partake of them, and looked away from whatever wasn’t that; the charge is just, even from the vile mouth of an ignorant old woman in black rubber boots.

It pants at the edge of awareness, feeling for a way back in. Her attention drifts away, allowing it closer. She recalls reading of an island overrun by a predatory species, where the mothers lie awake at night, machetes at hand, watching over the children, at risk even asleep in their beds under the teeming rafters. She’d sought to separate herself from her fear and leave it whimpering on the shore when she went away. She wonders if she should have held it close, her very child.