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.

The Visitors

by Aimee LaBrie

At the age of thirty-five, Hazel finds herself living with her elderly mother in a retirement community called On Top of the World. The front of the subdivision has the name written in a golden scroll over a sun-faded globe, as if to suggest, "Here are all of the places you'll never go."

In the beginning, Hazel told herself the arrangement was only temporary. Her mother had a painful knee replacement, and now walks as if one foot is on the curb and the other in the gutter. She is doing what any good daughter would—–taking a leave of absence from her paralegal job in Philadelphia and moving down to Tampa until her mother can maneuver the grocery cart at the Publix on her own. But two weeks have turned into four, and one month into two, and in the meantime, she received a polite letter from work stating that if she doesn’t return within another week, they will be moving in a different direction (away from her).

There are moments when she and her mother are sitting down in front of Maury Povich at 4 PM with their dinner on TV trays in front of them, and  Hazel wonders if maybe she hasn't fallen a bit too far from the norm. She focuses instead on the good she's doing for her mother, recalling lines from a book she read in high school, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…” She can't remember the title, but vaguely recalls that the speaker was then decapitated.

Not that death is on her mind, but it’s hard not to think about it, living in a place where the old people drop dead at an alarming rate. The main sound effect of the community is the wail of the ambulance siren. First, Mr. Baker popped off from a coronary, then Mrs. Enzmann was found prone in her front yard with the garden hose watering her petunias, and just last week Mr. Markett, whose long suffering wife has seen him degenerate from Alzheimer’s, jumped into the shallow end of community pool. Her mother, on the other hand, seems to have a new zeal for life. One of the youngest residents at age 67, she has started going back to church again, urging Hazel to join her.

“Mother, I'm an atheist,” she has reminded her, as they sit in the living room, shoving stuffed animals into clear plastic bags. The creatures are the fruits of her mother’s crochet club; six or seven of the residents who get together to make toys for the burn victims at the Shriner's Hospital. It makes them all feel noble, as if they're really doing something good. For Hazel, it's difficult to give the stuffed animals up. She's still getting the hang of crocheting and so it takes her week to finish a stuffed dog, and, by then, she's grown fond of it and doesn't want to relinquish the toy to some stranger with burns over 75 percent of her body, who probably is suffering too much to truly appreciate it anyway.

“Oh, dear, honey, I forgot to tell you,” her mother says as they are tying up the tops of the plastic bags. “The Auttersons are coming to dinner tonight with their son. What’s his name? Could he be named Lesley?” She taps vaguely at her forehead.

“I don’t know, mother!” That’s a lie, because Hazel knows exactly who Les is. Mrs. Autterson talks about her son often, gesturing at the giant photo of him she keeps on the mantelpiece, one of those cheesy corporate photos in black and white. But he does have a nice profile, despite a slightly weak chin and slicked back hair, giving him a furtive animal look, as if he might be a biter. And she certainly noticed when he came to stay with his parents. She has, in fact, taken to riding her mother's bicycle around the subdivision. It's a ridiculous contraption, three-wheels and a wicker basket between the handlebars, looks like a giant tricycle, but it's the only way she can think of running into him, short of offering to deliver a homemade pie to the Autterson's front door.

“Well, anyway, I thought it might be nice for you to be around someone your own age,” her mother says.

“I guess I don’t have anything better to do with my time!” Hazel stomps out of the room to her bathroom, slamming the door like a teen. She stares at herself in the mirror, appraising. She looks pale and puffy, the result, no doubt of gorging on left-over Easter peeps and Mountain Dew.

Hazel is no spring chicken, that's for sure, but she’s still got an okay figure and good teeth courtesy of dear old mom and the orthodontist. She imagines how her mother might describe her if she turned up missing: "Oh, let's see. Dishwater colored hair, about shoulder-length. I think at one point, she referred to it as a bob. Brownish eyes. Slightly upturned nose." Or how the morgue workers might discuss her, should her body be found on the side of the road, like a fallen deer. She imagines them standing over her, two men in white coats, while she lies naked under a sheet on a metal table.  Would one of them note the delicate turn of her ankle before slicing her open from stem to stern?

She is losing some fundamental adult quality—this ability to reflect and evaluate a situation. She's like a child again. But if she left, her mother would be bereft! Who would take her to Eckerd’s to refill her arthritis prescription? Who would help her exercise her poor distressed knee, a knee that will now have a jagged scar across it forever? “Well, there goes my swimsuit modeling career,” her mother had joked.

Who would sit with her at night and help her puzzle out the questions on Jeopardy? “What is desperation, Alex?”

Everything around the house is broken or on the verge of breaking. The light bulb on the front porch needs replacing, and the ceiling fans are making these strange whirring sounds when turned above medium speed—sounds that make Hazel think that one of the blades is going to whir off unexpectedly, causing certain decapitation of her or her mother. The toilet leaks, the bathtub spigot won't stop dripping, and the dryer now has taken to getting their clothes only half-hardheartedly dry, chugging along and then coughing out the clothes still damp and wilted.

Since Hazel’s hiding out, they can't call the community super, Gerald, to fix anything, because that might raise suspicion of Hazel's still being there. She has taken to wearing certain minor disguises when she runs errands, a blue kerchief paired with large Jackie-O sunglasses, a straw hat and blonde wig on other days. So far, no one has approached her mother about it, but Hazel knows her days are numbered.

Every time she brings up the idea of leaving, her mother nods, says she understands. "Of course, you have things…" They both stare into the air as if wondering what things she might have to return to.  A dead end paralegal job? A dying cactus? But Hazel does have things, she has food spoiling in the fridge and acquaintances who sometimes still forward her videos of cats misbehaving. It seems that every time Hazel makes a feint toward an exit, her mother suffers another minor mishap—a dropped water glass, a misplaced checkbook, a full blown crying jag behind the thin door of her bedroom. Until finally, Hazel relents. One more week, one more week.

But just yesterday her boss, Mark Becker, called to remind her that her leave of absence ends in one week. She has been gone so long that the picture she has of him in her mind has gone fuzzy. Dark, foxy hair and a moustache. Red suspenders She'd had a from-afar crush on him for years, but he was unhappily though dedicatedly married. She has ten unheard messages on her voice mail.

"How you doing?" asks Mark Becker, Esquire. She pictures him idly snapping his red suspenders. He has a mustache. It makes him look like a villain in an old time movie. She would like him to tie her to train tracks.

"I'm on top of the world!" she says, winding the phone cord around her arm like a bracelet.

"We'd like you back. I need some help on the Vitullos." The Vitullos’ file is bloated with evidence, a divorce that's been simmering for twenty years. Every time they get close to an agreement, one of them unearths new evidence of blame–old love letters, blurry photos, a past due electric bill.

"Let me think about it," she says.

“Do you miss work?” Her mother wants to know after she hangs up. Does she? Does she miss the days of photocopying discovery for divorce cases? Of making chatter with the other paralegals over gritty coffee? Does she miss riding home on the subway in the dark, surrounded by strangers?  As she aged in Chicago, she felt herself slowly shrinking into the world of the unseen-by-men. At least here, she gets noticed by the arthritic Mr. Baker and Mr. Johnson. In the city, she has become something of a ghost.

Each morning, Hazel helps her mother with leg exercises, moving her knee up and down and around and then counter clockwise. Her mother grimaces, but she's a trooper—she's never been much of a complainer, never really been much of a talker at all. Hazel also takes her mother to the community pool, a calm place filled with elderly women doing the breaststroke sedately across the length of the pool, their hair tucked up in bright plastic bathing caps. They're like an elderly troop of Esther Williamses. Many still have distinct traces of beauty on their lined faces, and their arms are tan and strong. Many of them are widows, having had to learn how to survive on their own without the assistance of their husbands, who seemed not to have the same will to live.

When Hazel's father died five years ago, she remembers hearing her mother call for her from behind the bathroom door on the day of his funeral, using her newly-frail voice. Hazel went into the bathroom and found her mother sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, her face made up with too much rouge, her best black dress on, with a pair of panty hose crumpled in her hands.

“I need your help with these,” her mother said. She waved the panty hose.

Hazel realized that this was one of the intimacies of their marriage; this weekly Sunday ritual with her father kneeling before her mother to put on her panty hose before church. It struck her that from that moment on, he never would do so again. She pushed that thought down as best she could and bent down in front of her mother to help her with one limp foot after another. Her mother thanked her, and patted her on her arm. “You are a dear,” she said, her voice cracking. It was one of the few times in her life that she could remember her mother using such a tender word.

As soon as she could, Hazel went singing out the door, promising to return soon, promising to fulfill her daughterly duties at a later date. And now, here she is, years later, forced to make good on that promise. How much time is enough?

She leaves her mother at the library and goes to the tanning parlor. She situates herself on the tanning bed at Tans R Us in her mother's bra and underwear. It's not that she doesn't have her own a bra and underwear; it's that damn old dryer that leaves her clothes damp and smelling like mildew. She and her mother are nearly the same size, though Hazel would never think of wearing a bra like this one in real life—it's hefty, manila-colored, offering full gal coverage. Hazel remembers a time not too, too far off, when she had her own bras, pretty ones, with rosettes in the center and she wore them knowing that a man might see her naked.

The tanning bed looks like a space-age coffin with lights underneath it to illuminate the body. She lies down on the bed with her eyes shut and the warm heat thrums through her. The blond woman out front asked her how much color she wanted, and she joked, “Turn it up to skin cancer level.” The girl didn’t laugh. She just blew a giant purple bubble with her wad of gum and handed Hazel her receipt. Now, in the booth with the manufactured heat hitting her from all sides, she wiggles a little, finding it hard not to think about sex—not like she can even remember the last time she had sex.

That's not 100% true. She does remember. In fact, it's a preoccupying thought, one that comes unbidden to her at odd moments. As she pokes at a package of chicken breast in the grocery store, for instance, or when she’s brushing her teeth with the electric toothbrush, or when the old dryer starts to clunk across the floor.

George Alfonso was the last one, a married lawyer who practiced litigation and liked to joke that he would sue her if she ever told his wife about the affair. She still has nightmares about him, though in her dreams, he's changed into a doctor who always calls to deliver bad news. "I hate to tell you this, but that leg has got to come off from the knee down," he'll say in the dream. Or, "A mastectomy can be a liberating thing for some women."  In real life, he saved his own bad news for just after they've had vigorous and unsatisfying sex in her studio apartment. He had one hairy leg draped over hers when he announced it was the last time he'd be seeing her.  “Why did you come over here? Why did we just have sex?” she asked, sitting up.

“I wanted you to have something good to remember me by,” he explained, patting her arm. 

The next day, she called his wife and described his penis in exacting detail, how it curved up at the end like a question mark, and the mole on his back in the shape of Canada. The wife demanded to know her name.

“I'm no one,” she said. “No one you would know.”

When he showed up at her apartment that night, banging on the door, she sat at the kitchen table, squinting at the Thursday crossword puzzle, wondering if she had made a mistake by asserting herself. What if he really were a nice person underneath all of that seeming horribleness?

He kept pounding until one of her neighbors came out into the hall and threatened to call the police. He gave one last feeble pound. She stood on the other side of the door. Maybe, if he said one last nice thing, she might let him in. She peered through the peephole, seeing him distorted, his head a giant blur, "I know you're in there," he said, looking up. Then he left, as they always do.

While lying on the tanning bed, Hazel focuses her attention on Les. She imagines taking him into the guest room where she’s now sleeping; the one with the twin bed. Candles, there must be candles somewhere, and then she thinks about what if one of the candles got too close to the duvet and it caught on fire and then whoosh! She and Les would be recipients of knitted woodland animals from the Shriner’s Hospital. Fine, no candles, it's too hot for candles and so she imagines instead a hot tub or a pool, with willow trees overhead. Les begins strolling toward her in black bathing trunks, but then it seems that she’s left out one of her roller skates and he trips on it, lurching forward, cracking his head on the cement lip of the pool, and blood leaks into the water in red ribbons. My God, she can't even have a sexual fantasy without it ending in destruction.

Hazel sits up in the tanning bed, dizzy. She has tremors in her stomach. It’s ridiculous, but she’s nervous about meeting this strange man who will probably turn out to have a cleft palate or a love of NASCAR. 

Hazel heads to her mother's beauty shop. The lady at the counter first asks her if she wants to get her mustache removed. Hazel touches her upper lip. “Oh, yes. Fix the eyebrows too.” In the middle of it, she finds herself worrying when it will fade, or if she will have a reddish upper lip during dinner as if she's just been punched.

When she returns to the library to pick up her mother, she sees her in the new books section. Hazel watches as her mother reaches up on tiptoe to grab at a novel. When she can’t get it, she finds a step stool. Hazel considers intervening, stopping her mother, reminding her of the hurt knee.  Before she can say anything, her mother climbs up on the stool, strong as a mountain goat, to snatch up the latest Nora Roberts novel. 

Hazel ducks behind the nonfiction section. She waits to give her mother time to climb off the stool. Then, she pretends to walk in for the first time. Her mother gives a little start and waves, saying, "Oh, a nice man helped me with the seven day fiction."

Hazel has convinced her mother it’s time to make a big purchase, a new dryer for the tiny laundry room. The current dryer groans when you open it and, as the minutes tick by on the regular dry cycle, and the machine creeps slowly across the floor, as if attempting to escape out the back door, until it unplugs.

At Home Depot, she and her mother are debating the finer points of the Kenmore versus GE when the salesman swoops in.  He is a roundish guy with a pleasant face and a short crew cut. “How can I help you ladies?” he says, with a slight bow. “Tell me what you're looking for and I will find it.” 

She tries to remember how to flirt. She thinks it involves something to do with her hair, her posture. She pushes out her chest. “We’re just looking at upgrading what we have.” She smiles, wondering if she has anything between her teeth. “You know, something that’ll get the job done.”

He nods. She imagines how she must appear to him. Her hair isn’t terrible and she’s wearing a clean shirt. The salesman clasps his hands together.  “Are you and your partner hoping to take something home today, or do you want to do some comparison shopping?”

With a sinking stomach, Hazel understands how he must see them. Her mother, who still buys her clothes in the juniors section at Macy’s, and Hazel, who has taken to wearing her mother's pants with the elastic bands and on occasion, even draping a forlorn cardigan over her shoulders to ward off the freezing cold of the air conditioning—the gap in their ages has shrunk somehow in wardrobe.  A couple.

“We’ll take this one,” she says briskly, pointing at the nearest dryer. “We’ll figure out how to put it in ourselves.”

Her mother mews in protest, but Hazel can’t seem to stop herself. She must make her escape before she suffers further humiliation.

When Hazel gets home, she finds her own clothes, many still tucked away in the suitcase in the guest bedroom. She puts on a blue V-neck top, to show off her cleavage, and a denim skirt, worrying that it might be too matchy-matchy, too obvious, too like the little engine that could. But fuck it, she can't worry about everything. She has also changed into her own bra, the one with the black lace, though it's slightly damp, but a person only lives once.

The Auttersons show up exactly at 5 PM. She can imagine them waiting in the car until just the minute before. It's what all the retired people do. You wait for the next event in your day. The early bird special, bingo at the church, the two-for-one coupons in the Sunday circular, the next free meal at a funeral. Hazel finds that she is waiting too, measuring her days out in the same way with library books and crosswords and the occasional Internet porn search when her mother goes down for a nap. 

In person, Les’ eyes are closer together than she’d thought and his hair is long in the back and crunchy-looking from some kind of gel. She should feel flattered—because he’s trying. He and his khaki shorts are making an effort. He shakes her hand, leaving it wet with sweat. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m a little nervous.” The laugh he gives sounds exactly like he's saying, "Ha Ha Ha."

During dinner, the Auttersons and her mother discuss various people from church who have died or are in the midst of dying. “Oh, that poor Mrs. Crowley!” says Mrs. Autterson.  “The last time I saw her, she looked just as pale as Jesus.”

“Pale as Jesus,” Les snorts. It’s the first time he’s spoken all night. “Was Jesus notoriously pale, or are we confusing him with the Holy Ghost?”

“It's an expression, honey.” His mother says.

“I don't think these were adjectives found in the New Testament. That fatty bit of Pontius Pilot.”

“That beanpole, Joseph,” adds Hazel. Les gives her a twitch of a smile.

“These English majors,” says her mother, passing around the limp little Caesar salad for the third time. She changes the subject to Mr. O'Connor's bladder infection and the conversation patters on, but now Hazel has a bit more of Les' attention and that makes her both self-conscious and satisfied.

Les takes a sip of water. His Adam's apple bobs, and Hazel considers what it might be like to run her tongue up along it. Salty, maybe.

"So, Les, how long are you staying for?" her mother asks during a pause in the conversation.

"A week?" he says. "A week or so, depending."

"Depending on what?" her mother prods.

"Depending on if I don't hang myself in the garage before then."

Hazel snorts.

Mrs. Autterson clucks her tongue. "He just has to say things like that to ruin everyone's good time."

Throughout dinner, it's Mrs. Autterson who makes conversation with Hazel, not Les, who focuses most of his attention at a spot above her head. As Hazel talks about her life, how she's helping out her mother, how she used to work in a law firm, how she's not sure when she's going to go back, she hears how it must sound to Les—how pathetic, to be living with her mother, to have no ambitions, no plan.

“Now, how long have you been here?” asks Mrs. Autterson.

“Decades?” Hazel says, taking a long gulp of wine.

“Why, just a few weeks,” overlaps her mother.

She sees that Les is looking directly at her. Finally, she has gotten his attention.

After dinner, Mr. Autterson suggests they play a couple rounds of Uno. “No, thanks, dad,” Les says. He’s sitting on his hands.

Hazel mother clears her throat. “Why don’t you show Les around the subdivision for a few minutes?”

“Around the subdivision? It would take no more than ten minutes.” 

Mr. Autterson shuffles the deck again in the expert way he has, bellowing, “Come on, looking for the wild card!”

Les follows her into the kitchen.  “Do you really want to see the neighborhood?”  She leans her hip against the sink, unsure of what to do with her hands.  The Auttersons have the same kitchen. With a few variations, the houses are all laid out with the same linoleum, same rails on the bathtubs to prevent slipping. “If I show you the dryer, do you think you might be able to help me put it in?”  Every word she says seems to have some vague sexual innuendo to it. “God, that’s like the worst opening line for a porn movie.”

Something bright comes into his eyes. Oh, yes, finally, they’ve hit on something they may have in common.

They go into the garage and she thinks, maybe now, maybe this will be the moment, maybe they can clear a spot away on the hood of the Volvo and do it there, maybe he will grab her hair and push her against the wall in a forceful yet non-rapist way. Instead, they stand around looking at the bras hanging on the makeshift clothes line. He doesn't make a move toward her and Hazel isn't going to be the first one either; she's learned her lesson the last time she was alone with a man, throwing herself at him while he fended her off with the verbal equivalent of pepper spray by saying, “Oh, I think you're a nice girl and all, but…”

Les leans against her mother’s Volvo. "I've got to get out of here," he says. "Living with my parents is death."

"It's not so bad."

"Have you been to the bank? Have you stood in line behind anyone? It's like we're all on the same death train in a Truffaut film."

Oh, God, he's smarter than her. She loves that about him. He continues, "The cockroaches. I had one land on my face the other day." He looks at her. "You like it here?"

Does she? Yes, she likes things about it. She likes being needed. She should've been a nurse. Is it too late to change professions? Les is still talking–about his parents, about how depressing it is, about how as soon as he gets some money together, he's out of here.

She gestures to the dryer box. "I'd do anything to get this thing installed." 

"Anything?" says Les. He actually licks his lips. He leans in toward her. 

The edge of the dryer box presses into her back.  “Say something nice.” 

“I think…” He searches her face, as if looking for a single good feature. “I think you have beautiful eyebrows.” He brushes his finger across her forehead. He leans in and kisses her. It's a polite kiss, like you might give someone during a rehearsal for a play. He pulls away, wearing a puzzled look. "Do you smell something funny?"

"Like gasoline?"

"Like spoiled milk or something."

That would be her bra, she realizes. The not-quite-dry sexy bra she wore for just this purpose. Or something like it. "I don't smell anything." She pushes him back against the car, then drops to her knees, banging them painfully on the concrete. She looks up at him, and is relieved to see his eyes on her, completely, totally enthralled. "If I do this, will you do something for me?" He nods, his dear Adam's apple bobbing.

As she unzips his khaki Dockers, Mr. Autterson calls out, “Uno!”

It only takes a half an hour to move the old dryer into the garage and replace the new one. After he’s finished, Hazel takes the pineapple upside down cake out of the oven and brings into the dining room. They all look up from their cards. Her mother beams. "Now, aren’t you two a sight for sore cataracts!” she says.

Hazel takes the plates and places them carefully in front of every person, making sure they also have their own napkins and clean forks. She is the hostess with the mostest, the lady you want waiting on your table, that's for sure.

"What did you think of Lester. Lesley?" her mother asks after they leave. "He seems a little dark." 

"I like dark," says Hazel. Her mother says nothing. “Mom, I think I might have to go back soon.” She braces herself–for tears, for begging, for the wringing of hands. Her mother looks back at her with watery blue eyes. “Please don't cry.”

Her mother sneezes. “I'm not crying. I'm allergic to whatever that perfume you’ve doused yourself in. No, go back if you want. I can take care of myself,” she says, grabbing at the edge of the table to haul herself up into a standing position. She wobbles, almost falls. “Whoopsie-daisy!” she says, righting herself. “See? Good as new.”

When her mother goes to bed, Hazel calls the director of the retirement community. He doesn’t answer.  She leaves a message, roughening her voice up to make it sound older. "You should look into the Johnson's house. I believe they have a visitor who has out-stayed her welcome.” She pauses. “And the Auttersons. I think they’re bending the rules too.”

She hangs up the phone, a wash of relief running through her. She will be able to go and it won't be her fault. She can still be a good daughter.

She prepares for bed, imagining how Mark Becker will react when she returns. She tries out different expressions in the bathroom mirror—pursing her lips, widening her eyes—then leans in for a closer look. Her eyebrows do look good. Mark Becker, Esquire, she knows, will not notice. 

In the background, the dryer hums, finally in working order again.

Long Hair

by Uche Okonkwo

My parents cut my hair the day after I got my admission letter into Model Secondary School.

First, mother used her fabric scissors. She parted my hair into four sections and took them one at a time. Then father used his clippers, to make the cut smooth and neat. Mother nodded when it was done. She held me by the chin, turned my face this way and that. ‘Hair is a distraction,’ she said. ‘There will be plenty of time for it when you finish school.’

My head felt hot and swollen, but light at the same time. Naked. My parents were waiting for my ‘thank you’ so I said it, even though my throat was tight.

After packing my fallen hair into the bin I went to my room and looked in the mirror and cried. Then I asked myself what I was crying for. I have hair like mother’s; hair that never grows long even if you rub all the Virgin Hair Fertilizer in the world in it. It used to make me sad that my hair didn’t grow. But now I know that long hair can be a bad thing. If you don’t believe me, ask Jennifer.

 
 

Jennifer got transferred into our school when I was in Junior Secondary Two. They placed her in my class. Everyone kept saying how fine she was. I didn’t think she was that fine; but she was yellow and she had very long relaxer-straightened hair that reached the middle of her back. I used to stare at her a lot when she wasn’t looking.

When Jennifer first joined our school everybody asked her all the time, ‘Jennifer, are you mixed?’ ‘Jennifer, is your mother from London or America?’ Jennifer liked it when the other girls asked her these questions; you could tell she was the proud type. She would laugh and say yes to everything: Yes, I am mixed. Yes, I was born in London. Yes, my mother is related to the Queen. But we all knew she was joking. We had seen her parents – they were both fair but they were not white.

All the girls liked Jennifer but I used to look at her with side-eye; her type of hair needed an explanation. Nigerian girls don’t have this kind of long hair just like that and for no reason. We pay for her type of hair at the market, and then we pay more at the salon so they can fix it in for us with thread or glue. Then we wear the hair for six weeks so that the money we spent on it doesn’t feel wasted. And when it starts to itch we beat on our heads like drums, because everyone knows your fingers can’t reach your scalp when you’re wearing a weave.

It used to pain me the way Jennifer walked about the whole school as if it was her father’s land. Everyone knew her, even the teachers. If a teacher sent you to go and call Jennifer and you said which of the Jennifers they would say the long hair Jennifer. Or the oyinbo Jennifer. Every time I heard this I wanted to pinch their lips the way my mother does when I say something stupid. I wanted to remind them that Jennifer is not ‘oyinbo’; she’s not even as yellow as me. It’s like everyone forgot that they used to call me oyinbo, before Jennifer came with her hair.

Now they all kept saying Jennifer come, let us touch your hair, and with a sigh and a frown she would let them. She would keep the fake frown on her face as they played with her hair. They would say Jennifer you are so lucky; we wish we had hair like yours. Then Jennifer would sigh again and complain about how much shampoo and conditioner she had to buy to take care of her long hair. And the relaxer! Did they know she had to buy two big-size containers every time she needed to relax her hair? Don’t envy me, she would say, stroking her hair in a way that said the opposite.

 
 

Jennifer’s problems started when one girl had a dream. Everyone called this girl Vision, because she saw the future when she dreamt. One time she dreamt that there was heavy rain and the principal’s house collapsed, killing him and his family. She said it would happen in three weeks. Many months passed yet the principal’s house stayed standing, and nobody died. One other time she dreamt that a snake bit a student and she died. And truly, about two weeks after, some senior girls were cutting the tall elephant grass in the school’s field and they found a big snake. Vision said it was only by the mercy of God that the caretaker had been nearby to kill the snake, or else someone would have died that day. After this, everybody forgot about the principal’s house and every other bad thing Vision had said that did not happen. 

So Vision had this dream. She saw a very beautiful water demon, the type that village people call Mammy Water, sitting with all her pretty girl servants. (All Mammy Water girls are fine; everybody knows this.)  The Mammy Water was saying how she had sent an ‘agent’ to our school to make trouble. Vision had a very sweet mouth, and she knew how to tell stories. So when she started talking like this you believed her, even if you remembered that the principal was still alive and well in the house that should have killed him.

The same day that Vision told her dream, it spread throughout the whole school. After that, when any little thing happened everyone blamed the Mammy Water’s agent. It was the Mammy Water’s agent that went about the whole school stealing provisions and bath water and pooing in the wrong places. And sometimes the agent would stand outside the dorm at night dressed in black, frightening the girls who would later swear on their grandmothers’ graves that they had seen the thing with their own eyes.

Then Vision had another dream and announced that the agent was on a mission of death and anyone could be the target. We all had to be careful, she said, and sleep with one eye open because the person you call your best friend, your bunk mate, your classmate, that could be the agent, and you could be the one she was sent to kill so you won’t fulfil your destiny. Everybody grew even more afraid. Students stopped walking alone after dark. People were bedwetting more, and they blamed it on the agent. And it was true in a way; was it not fear of the agent that made girls lie on their beds and pee with their eyes wide open instead of going out to the convenience after dark? I know because it happened to me once – but that story is by the way.

Even though the school was upside down with this agent matter, Jennifer just went about as if nothing bothered her. Like she wasn’t one of us. So I whispered to my bunk mate Dumebi and told her that Jennifer’s habit of talking and laughing in her sleep was strange, that maybe she was talking to her fellow Mammy Water girls. I wasn’t doing anything bad; I only said what I was thinking. It’s not my fault that Dumebi carried the matter on her head and started asking the other girls what they thought. They were not sure if Mammy Water girls talked to each other in their sleep, they said, but it sounded right when they thought about it. Plus, someone added, all Mammy Water girls were pretty, with light skin and long hair like in Nollywood movies. Like Jennifer.

By evening the entire dorm was bubbling. Girls were whispering and pointing fingers and looking at each other in code. The agent was Jennifer and there was proof: one, her long hair; two, her fair skin and fine face; three, she spoke to her Mammy Water friends every night; four, she was such a deep sleeper that it took a whole day to wake her up, meaning her spirit travelled whenever she slept. One of the girls said that even Jennifer’s name was a sign, when you added everything else: Jennifer rhymed with Lucifer, and Lucifer was the father of all evil.

I didn’t feel sorry for Jennifer. She was busy pretending not to notice that the girls were not talking to her anymore, that nobody called her to admire her hair, or asked her to walk with them to the shops, or begged for cubes of sugar. Even her friends started finding ways to avoid her, to show everybody that no, they really weren’t that close. But Jennifer kept acting normal. I whispered to Dumebi that this was what a proper Mammy Water girl would do. Act normal while everyone ran mad. 

The next day, during evening prayers, the chapel prefect asked us to pray for protection from evil, and someone kept mentioning Jennifer’s name in their prayer. I did not see what happened next because I was busy with my own prayers, but I heard later that Jennifer jumped on the girl and that was how the fight started. We formed a circle around them as Jennifer held the girl’s body to the ground and plastered her face with slaps. Jennifer was screaming shut up shut up, and the girl was crying Jesus Jesus and trying to hit Jennifer’s face. But Jennifer was an expert. The way she lifted her neck and face up out of reach while using her knees and one hand to pin the girl down, you would know she had fought many times before. It took three prefects and the matron to separate Jennifer from her victim.

The girls whispered evidence number five amongst themselves: Jennifer was too strong for a normal girl. She had to be the agent.

It was only after they pulled Jennifer off that I noticed the other girl was Dumebi. Her face was packed with sand and swollen like a watermelon and I felt bad for wanting to laugh.

The matron dragged Jennifer and Dumebi to her house, and they did not return to the dorm until long after lights out. I know because I waited. I asked Dumebi what happened, but she just turned her back to me and covered herself with her wrapper. As if it was me who asked her to go and fight Jennifer. I turned my back too and went to sleep.

The next day Jennifer and Dumebi were sent to work with the kitchen staff as punishment. When they came into the room at the end of the day, everyone went quiet like they were expecting something to happen. But Jennifer went to her corner and Dumebi went to hers, and slowly the others went back to their business.

 
 

Dumebi kept acting funny the rest of the week. She seemed angry and wouldn’t speak to anyone. I think she was expecting us to thank her for fighting Jennifer, even though she had lost. In a way, Jennifer had lost also, because everyone was more afraid of her now. But what Dumebi did next surprised even me.

Late one night, when we were all asleep, Dumebi crept to Jennifer’s bed with a pair of scissors and started cutting off her hair. She had gone about halfway when Jennifer woke up screaming, waking the whole room. Somebody turned on the lights and we all stared from the safety of our beds with our mouths wide open. Dumebi was standing bent over Jennifer’s bed, holding the scissors in her right hand and a fistful of hair in her left. Clumps of dark hair lay scattered across Jennifer’s pillow and on the floor.

Jennifer had sat up in her lower bunk bed and was feeling the bare half of her head with shaky fingers. She looked like a confused child, and for one second I remembered the way I had felt when I first saw myself in the mirror with my new short hair. But then Jennifer flew from her bed, screaming like the demon she was, and attacked Dumebi. Everyone started to shout, a mix of anticipation and fear, as Jennifer pushed Dumebi to the floor and sat on her stomach. She grabbed handfuls of Dumebi’s hair, but it was not long enough for her to get a good grip so she started slapping and punching. But this time Dumebi was lucky, or maybe she had learned from the first fight. She managed to reach up and scratch Jennifer across her left eye. Jennifer stopped hitting and touched the scratch. Then she stared at the red stain on her finger like she’d never seen the colour of her own blood.

Seeing her chance at freedom Dumebi shoved Jennifer, who fell to the side, right next to the spot where the scissors had landed when it flew from Dumebi’s hand moments ago. Dumebi started to crawl away as Jennifer reached for the scissors, but before Dumebi could get far Jennifer sprang at her and stabbed with the sharp end into the back of Dumebi’s thigh. Blood, so dark it looked black, flowed from the wound and down Dumebi’s thigh. Dumebi stayed on her hands and knees and cried for her mummy; and Jennifer just cried. She let the scissors fall to the floor and began wiping her hands over and over on her night dress.

 
 

They sent Jennifer and Dumebi home on an indefinite suspension, after the principal paraded them before the whole school on the morning assembly. He called them ‘bad eggs’. Dumebi had a bandage wrapped around her thigh and a prefect had to help her up to the podium. Jennifer wore what was left of her hair swept to the side, to cover the bare half, but the breeze kept blowing it around. They both had their eyes fixed on a spot above our heads as they stood in front of us. The principal did not say anything about Vision or her dreams. He said there was no guarantee that Jennifer would be allowed back into the school; there would be a disciplinary panel to decide.

I kept a straight face throughout the assembly.

Dumebi never came back; her parents withdrew her from our school. I heard they also hired policemen to threaten the principal and he had to beg them not to have him arrested.

Jennifer returned, many weeks later. By then her hair was cut short like mine and Vision had had new dreams.

And Jennifer looked fine now. Pretty and normal. Like a proper Nigerian girl.

The Green Parrot

by Erik Raschke

Menno and Stacey had first run into Jacques and Coraleine at a fetish party. The party had been in a social housing flat in the center of town and the hostess, a fifty-year old swinging veteran, had met them at the door and actually called her unremarkable, rent-subsidized studio her “pied a terre," before handing Menno and Stacy an IKEA bag in which they were to put their clothes. They then had to walk through a living room outfitted with a round fake cheetah-skin heart-shaped bed, wall-to-wall cases of dildos, handcuffs, and butt-plugs, and a sex swing tucked away in what should have been a utility closet. They also passed a middle-aged, vaguely familiar woman, with sharp spiky blonde hair, who was lying on the black marble bar getting fingered hard by a chiseled an plucked half-gay boy-toy, squirting onto the liquor bottles, and bellowing her pleasure in a raspy falsetto.

Once Menno and Stacey were alone in the bathroom, and undressing, Menno jerked his cheek back and forth imitating the sound of the fingered woman’s vagina while Stacey begged him to stop.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Run.”

“Seriously. We can’t stay here.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

And right then the bathroom door opened and Jacques and Coraleine fell in, laughing.

“Thank god!” Coraleine announced, looking over Menno and Stacey with a clap of the hands, then closing the door and locking it behind her.

Jacques was tall and slim and pale and soft, but he had the kind of trustworthy smile, often punctuated by a wink that made you want to believe anything he said. Coraleine was petite and brunette with olive skin, not at all the typical buxom milk-maid that was Menno’s type, however Stacey could see that Menno was hooked by the way he stared at Coraleine with a clumsy sneakiness… for Coraleine did indeed have something about her, Stacey recognized, a perky, sexy, playfulness that hinted at something much wilder.

Both Jacques and Coraleine wore, not the expensively garish bits common to lifestyle swingers, but felt hats and tailored shirts. They carried their lingerie and underwear in an antique Spanish leather doctor’s bag, a bag in which they had also stowed silk scarves. They had fine Italian shoes as well, knee-high maroon boots for Coraleine and black loafers with a single silver buckle, for Jacques.

Jacques and Coraleine, like Menno and Stacey, were obviously not religious about physical maintenance, which is not to say that they were not unattractive professionals, but they were the kind of professionals who spent long hours in meetings, under fluorescent lighting, often skipping spin-classes to eat starchy meals with their younger children. They had all the sparkling wearisomeness of parents, the lighter wrinkles of the middle-aged, upper-middle class, who managed the odd trip to a sunny, vaguely cultural destination, who went to bed by nine on Fridays, whose bodies, while fading in firmness, retained at least half of the beauty of their early twenties.

“I’m surprised these people didn’t have a bookshelf,” Jacques smiled. “With all the great literary classics.”

Menno nodded. “It was next to the display case with the leather paddles.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Coraleine whispered, drawing them all into a conspiratorial huddle and pointing at Jacques. “My husband’s bank card doesn’t work so he can’t pay for parking. That’s the story.” Her finger then drifted toward Stacey’s husband. “What’s your name?”

“Menno.”

“Menno, you’re going to go out and pay for my husband, Jacques, using your bank card, but you’re not going to return for at least ten minutes.”

“Please don’t leave us here,” Stacey grimaced.

“After ten minutes you buzz and say that the car has been towed, but since your bank card doesn’t work we all need to go with you to get the car.”

And thankfully, the plan worked. They all got out in one piece and, because none of them had really driven, they rode their bikes to Jacques and Coraleine’s house. Jacques and Coraleine shared a similar, dark sense of humor to that of Menno and Stacey and as they pedaled through the city, the night still young, they laughed loudly about what might have been at the party and about Robin Hood and the many other unsavory characters they had come across in the last few years as swingers.

***

Jacques and Coraleine lived right off the biggest park in the city and while Coraleine and Menno chatted on the couch, Jacques lead Stacey around, explaining how they had driven sixty or seventy metal poles into the sandy ground to strengthen the foundation. Jacques was too smooth and thin for a “Jacques,” a name she connected with Caribbean pirates and beefy Frenchmen, but he had strong hands and broad gestures that excited and captivated so that, when he spoke, Stacey found herself reaching out and touching him and laughing at the slightest of jokes.

Jacques told Stacey he created IT infrastructures, but quickly steered away from the self-importance of so many middle-management engineers and showed her his photography collection. He wasn’t an Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe, but he was brave enough to get that awkwardly intimate angle that eludes so many amateur photographers. There was the woman in the alleyway urinating while her boyfriend checked his cellphone. The shot, without being obscene, was at the same level as the woman’s puddle of urine, giving the boyfriend’s indifference a heightened significance. There was another photo of a line of swingers waiting to get into a club, their anxious expressions and skimpy clothing flittering somewhere between erotic and defeated.

They had been locking eyes consistently so when Jacques finished showing Stacey his collection, he leaned down and kissed her, and while she had been expecting it for some time, the quickness in which he moved surprised her. He had nice lips, but his tongue flopped about in her mouth without any sense of direction or control. Jacques held her tightly, confidently, his palm against the flat of her back, and she could relax in his arms.

Although Stacey wasn’t into women, she had learned early on that the best way to get these things started off was by going down on another man’s wife so, when they returned to the living room couch, Stacey squeezed between Coraleine and Menno and began kissing Coraleine and was pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoyed Jacque’s wife’s body and how much better a kisser she was than her husband. In these situations, as in the cases where the husband would have a particularly small penis, Stacey wondered about the dynamics of a relationship, how each party had rationalized the deficiency of the other.

Like synchronized swimmers, the women quickly swapped places and were on the other side of the couch and going down on the other woman’s husband. Eventually, the men went down on the women and, almost simultaneously, the condoms were unfurled.

Stacey knew that Menno liked to listen to her with other men so she made more noise than usual, but every so often she’d sneak a peak at her husband going at Coraleine with an unmistakable intensity, and this, for the most part, made her happy, for she knew that if Menno left satisfied tonight, the next few weeks he would be more affectionate and even romantic.

***

The second time the four of them met, they all snorted a bit of coke and the conversation steered toward fantasies. Jacques said that, if high enough, he sometimes liked to suck men off. He had even swallowed once. This surprised Stacey and even turned her off a little for she liked her men dominant and vaguely macho.

Menno admitted that he was a bit of a cuckold, not the kind that likes to be tied up and humiliated, but more the guy peeking around the corner. He told them that he and Stacey had never really tried true cuckolding simply because Stacey was into swinging as a shared experience and she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that cuckolding was indeed a shared experience, mainly because it involved her, entirely alone, with a man other than Menno.

Coraleine, quite embarrassedly, said she had rape fantasies, awful, terrible rape fantasies where several men beat her and hit her until she was almost unconscious. She said that she had even joined an online group that shared real rape videos, mostly from Russia and Africa, via torrents. Stacey admired Coraleine’s honesty, but was secretly aghast. Even though Stacey herself had spent a few days last fall watching online beheadings in Syria on YouTube and most women she knew had rape fantasies, it felt as if Coraleine was breaking some female code by watching and thus silently condoning, actual rape videos.

When it came Stacey’s turn, she felt, as with her American fashion-sense, boring and uninspiring. She told them that she regularly fantasized about double-penetration, but had never tried it because she had been terrified by the practicalities.

Coraleine immediately jumped in and told her that double-penetration was amazing, as long as the rhythm was good. Although it wasn’t Stacey’s intention to try double-penetration on this particular night, minutes later she found herself in bed with Menno and Jacques while Coraleine directed from the corner of the room. It was, perhaps, one of the first times since they started swinging, that she had gone along with sexual experimentation out of peer-pressure and this made her tense and quiet although everyone was a bit too high to recognize her apprehension.

Since Jacques’ cock was thinner and a bit shorter than Menno’s, he would be behind her. Jacques squirted ample lube onto his penis and around her asshole. He had long nails, especially for a man, but when she told him to be gentler, he slid two then three fingers inside and it felt about right. Then she sat on Menno, rubbed him with her pussy until he got hard, placed him inside her. A few minutes later, Jacque fumbled into her ass…

The double-penetration had been intense, the coke simultaneously dulling and increasing the sensitivity, the men never really finding a proper rhythm, most likely because she kept telling them to either hurry up or slow down while she waited for her body to adapt. Also, most of the time she simply felt like she had to take a shit, but it had been quite an experience, an experience that once she knew what to expect, would most likely try again.

Later, Menno and Jacques double-penetrated Coraleine while Stacey watched this tiny woman easily take these two men. Since Menno and Jacques were on coke, neither were able to cum and having used so much lubrication, when Jacques pulled out of Coraleine, a flood of brown liquid came out over the duvet. They spent the next twenty minutes cleaning up and laughing about the accident, but after that, the mood was over.

***

The third and fourth times that they met, Coraleine and Menno remained on the couch while Jacques and Stacy moved to the bed. They had all found a way with each other’s bodies that was not necessarily better than with their spouses, but was somehow exciting and different. Stacey learned how to kiss Jacques so that his tongue wouldn’t bother her too much and, also, a way to meet his thrusts with her own thrusts so that he’d strike a spot that felt deep and satisfying in a way that was different from Menno. In fact, she even had an orgasm with Jacques that was unlike any orgasm she had had with Menno, a soft, spinning moment that left her stomach in knots.

The best part about this swap was that she could never fall in love with Jacques. He was smart and read enough, but in the end, when she asked him about politics or traveling, his lack of curiosity surfaced so, for example, when she said she had always dreamed of visiting India his immediate response was, “Too dirty for me.”

Menno had said the same thing about Coraleine. She had been talking to him at one point about chakras and meditation and Menno had tried several times to change the subject, but she was persistent. Eventually, he lied and said he had to use the bathroom, and when he returned she had fallen asleep.

***

The fifth time they met was months later, in the middle of the summer. Stacey had been suffering, as of late, from a low, dull personal crises. The kids were becoming more and more independent and now that she was almost forty, she would probably not be having any more children.

Also, Stacey had graduated from a state college and always worked for big companies, often spurring offers from smaller businesses with more potential for growth. Lately, her company had been expanding internationally and she had been inordinately busy, but had still been weighed down by the idea that she might have to be a real estate appraiser for the rest of her life. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her job, but, in the end, the challenge was limited and the fact remained that she was too old to make a decent career change.

With all this real-life responsibilities and concerns weighing her down, the need for a certain amount of escapism surfaced and the potential of a night with Jacques and Coraleine occupied her fantasies. She would find herself at work thinking about double-penetration or Menno and Coraleine in a variety of positions and she’d have to go to the bathroom to masturbate.

The night they agreed to meet, Coraleine and Jacques kids were in Sweden, at a summer camp, so they had the house to themselves. Menno and Stacey’s kids were away as well, at Menno’s parents, so when they met, eating dinner on Jacques and Coraleine’s terrace, someone suggested taking ecstasy. When Jacques and Coraleine quickly and enthusiastically agreed, the quiet romance of the dinner was overshadowed by a sexually-charged angst.

After dinner, Menno called a dealer and when the ecstasy arrived, everyone started with only a half while Jacques went for a whole. After only an hour, Jacques popped another and then another so that while Coraleine began to suck on Menno and then Menno took her from behind in the kitchen, Jacques was too high to get hard even though Stacey was deep-throating him, something he loved.

At some point, Jacques stumbled into his bathroom for Viagra, but when he couldn’t find it, came back out, limp and loose and apologetic. Stacey told him not to worry and together they went downstairs and while Jacques watched from a corner love seat, Stacey joined Coraleine and Menno in a threesome.

In one of the hottest moments in their swinging experiences, Menno was fucking Stacey without a condom, while Coraleine sat on Menno’s face. When Menno pulled out and came all over Stacey’s belly, Coraleine leaned down and licked it up.

Afterward, while Menno and Coraleine were taking a shower together, Stacey and Jacques, at Jacques suggestion, split another pill. He was wobbly and dazed and almost falling asleep all the while pressing his nose into her neck and groping her breasts as if they were footballs. Looking at the near empty bag on the table, Stacey figured Jacques’ ecstasy intake was somewhere around five in total.

The shower was quiet and she was feeling sad that Coraleine and Menno had decided to continue on without her. But she worked through the feeling, comforting herself with the fact that Menno and Coraleine were happy together and, at the end of the night, it would be Stacey and Menno who would go home and be together, both content in their own ways.

Jacques was mumbling into her ear, “You’re so fucking beautiful,” but the way he said it made her so sad because it wasn’t sincere and they were high, too high, and, really, she guessed she just wanted him to say it when they were sober as well.

“No more ecstasy for you mister,” she said rubbing her hand over his chest.

Then, eyes closed, he whispered confidentially, “She loves him.”

“Loves who?” Stacey asked, even though she already knew the answer.

***

On the taxi ride home, Stacey was leaning into Menno and watching the lights stream by while the driver hummed along to a tinkling, bubbling Farsi tune. They were caught in divergent thoughts while eagerly anticipating their king-size, brushed cotton duvet.

“I don’t think we should see them again,” Menno said after awhile.

Stacey turned, raised her eyebrows and in the dim taxi light saw how his forehead looked seemed exceedingly large, curved like some exotic Asian fruit. His hair was thinning as well, individual strands illuminated as if to prove the point. They had once travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia and had had many late night taxi rides and she had relied on him through that trip, this big, cumbersome man, and she had thought about his forehead then and how it also gave the hint of menace and how comforting that was, to have in a man, whose physical attributes suggested, only suggested, that he could become violent if necessary.

“It just feels like its time to move on,” he clarified. “The shower. Cora told me she loved me. She said she was really in love with me. I think it was just the ecstasy, but still. I didn’t like it.”

There was a distance in Menno’s eyes that she couldn’t somehow bridge, a faraway gaze that worried Stacey. Most of their swinging experiences, both good and bad, had enlightened and encouraged their relationship with each other. But now, Menno seemed farther away than ever and so she tried to bridge it with a kiss and a, “What’s not to love?” and even thought she felt very little about this revelation of Coraleine’s affections, no jealousy or anger, more just the thin rattle of sadness that accompanies a family, a family other than your own in dissolution, she did briefly wondered what Jacques and Coraleine were talking about now, if they were talking about anything at all.

***

Since the kids were away, Stacey and Menno had the Sunday to sit on the couch and do nothing except suffer through the haziness that accompanied the bumpy, hilly, jittery ride of an ecstasy hangover. While Stacey made coffee, she was forced to listen to him on the toilet again. Her head was swollen and bloated and she wasn’t even sure she wanted coffee and was swearing she was too old to do ecstasy and that’s precisely when, finished in the bathroom, hands still wet from washing, Menno came up and wrapped his arms around her and rubbed his penis on her exposed waist, and kissed her head and made a face like “let’s go have sex” even though she wasn’t even sure she could hold down the orange juice she had just finished.

“It’s been so long since we haven’t had the kids,” he pleaded.

Sex was indeed the last thing she wanted, but he was right. They rarely had mornings like this. So they got into bed and, lying on her side, turning her back to him, smelling his morning breath and old alcohol and the bite of peanut butter he had just snacked on, she tried to get into the mood. But Menno could barely get hard and she wasn’t excited, so he spit in his hand and rubbed it on his penis and pushed and prodded to get his half-limp cock inside her while, at the same time, she had to try and make sure she didn’t vomit.

Eventually, he did get it in, but because she wasn’t wet, part of her lips were rubbing painfully against her clitoris, so she wetted herself with her own spit which only marginally helped. It wasn’t until she could feel him really swelling inside of her that she herself began to enjoy the sex, but by then it was too late. He had come.

Afterward, Stacey took a shower while Menno made a huge, greasy breakfast, more geared to his needs than hers and afterward they sat at the table in silence, both fingering the edges of magazines, wishing they could read, but feeling somehow obliged to sit across from one another and try and make conversation.

Feeling too nauseous to be snarky, she watched as he smeared the last of the butter on his toast without even considering to ask her if she wanted any. In retaliation, she finished off the orange juice without asking him, but couldn’t even enjoy the juice because she was so filled with self-loathing at how she was resorting to this kind of petty, tit-for-tat nastiness.

Menno was always riding the tail end of a trend so that he perpetually came off as someone trying to catch up, at least stylistically, and lately he had been trying to grow a beard, but was unsuccessfully catching up with last year’s style. In addition, Stacey had told him that she thought beards were not only unsexy, but unhygienic as well and that his facial hair was thin and patchy so it would most likely take months before it would resemble anything full and formed. But her husband had pushed ahead with the project and now, as he ate, pieces of runny egg stuck in the hairy, uneven nest bulging off of what was otherwise a nicely proportioned chin. She would make a comment and he would grumpily wipe away about half of mess, but always leaving patches of oil or a few stubborn crumbs.

Outside, it was raining hard and the leaves in the trees were shaking with each drop. A green parrot, one of the many that had come to infest the city, landed upon a branch and braved the rain. Stacey had the urge to feed the parrot some of her butterless toast, but had once been reprimanded by an elderly ornithologist. She had been with her kids, feeding stale French bread to the city park geese at the park and he came up to her and told her that most birds couldn’t digest bread. He added that bread, especially white bread, made them feel full when they were actually starving. When the frail ornithologist accused her children of  “perpetuating genocide,” Stacey sheepishly bid good-bye and walked away and went home. She loved feeding birds bread, loved feeling that she was somehow giving back, nurturing, but when Stacey Googled what the ornithologist had said and found that most of it was indeed true.

Now, once they were through with breakfast, Menno left his dishes on the table and sat on the couch and tried to cover up a particularly loud fart by coughing. His shirt was riding over his stomach, which wasn’t terrible, but with each beer and each year, his hairy belly was becoming unsightly. Menno had his feet on one end of the couch, his house slippers on top of the couch pillows. While Stacey wasn’t a germ-freak, he did occasionally go outside in those slippers so they did come into immediate contact with litter and dog-poop and now they were flat on top of the same pillows which she liked to press her face against when she took naps.

Stacey went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and discovered that Menno hadn’t put the cap back on so the toothpaste. The toothpaste collected at the end was now glued to the sink top and to make matters worse, there was a thick black beard hair stuck in the excess blue goo collected around the opening. Stacey silently and patiently spent the next five minutes washing off the toothpaste and the hair. When she discovered that her own toothbrush was wet, she called out, barely concealing her annoyance, to ask if Menno had used it. When he shouted back that since he couldn’t find his he had indeed used hers, Stacey looked down it was in the trash, where it often fell, simply because he was too lazy to put his toothbrush in the toothbrush holder, and of course there it was, and when she explained this to him again, for the five hundredth time, he shouted back, “Why are you so grumpy this morning? Didn’t you have a good time last night?”

When she was leaving the bathroom, she tripped over a pile of clothes and the hook from his belt-buckle dug into the bottom of her foot and she let out a scream. Menno didn’t budge from the couch, but looked over at her and asked dazedly if she was all right and she said yes, although she really wasn’t. And she hated herself when tears came to her eyes, because she wasn’t and had never been the kind of girl who cried over these things.

They hadn’t watched the last season of Downton Abbey yet, so Stacey suggested they sit on the couch and get caught up. Menno was trying to convince her to go have sex again, but he still hadn’t showered and she didn’t want to tell him to shower, because if he did then he would immediately expect sex and her stomach was still wobbly. But as they watched the first episode of the first season of Downton Abbey, Menno kept sticking his hands up her shirt or down her pants, as if the sum of her person were her tits and pussy. She wasn’t responding so, at some point, he removed his pants and began licking her and while it didn’t feel good it also didn’t feel bad and it did give her the opportunity to continue watching Downton Abbey. After awhile, he asked, “Don’t you like it?” which annoyed her to no end because, what he was actually saying was that he was expecting her to make moaning sounds, which she didn’t mind, but in this particular case, moaning would only make it harder to hear the Crawley women.

Toward the end of Downton Abbey, just when the season opener was coming to a climax, Menno tried to fuck her. Grudgingly, she told him he would have to do all the work, which he did, but he was sweating so hard that her pajamas were getting soaked and his body hairs were sticking to her body and she knew she would have to shower all over again. It’s not that the sex didn’t feel good, but her headache was coming back and the ecstasy was still making her stomach queasy and he was just fucking her as if she wasn’t even there so that when he came it felt as if he had masturbated inside of her.

***

When Menno came across Lance’s profile, he suggested they meet for drinks. They had done a few threesomes before. Stacey had never been very attracted to the men, but had done it for Menno, who would love to play out his cuckold fantasies even though Stacey usually asked him to join in at some point.

There had been one man however, a Dutch soldier and Menno had invited him over and he told them about some of his Special Operations missions he had done in Afghanistan. He was not highly educated, but he had a quiet, traveled wisdom about him that she found attractive. Unfortunately, what had always been hard about living in Europe, was how many men were uncircumcised and this soldier was only not uncircumcised, but he had a thin, smooth penis that felt weird in her mouth, almost like a peeled winter carrot, so even though it was, in theory, nice having Menno behind her, and a man in her mouth, she wanted the night to end just as it was beginning.

When the soldier left however, Menno seemed angry and said aloud,

“You could have tried a little harder.”

He looked at her with a hard annoyance, an expression she had never seen before, one full of swallowed disgust and bitterness. When she asked him what he meant, he replied, “The guy drives an hour to be here and you only have sex with him once? We could have made a night of it.”

Stacey found herself lashing back and telling Menno that this was about her and her feelings and that she was indeed tired. That she had a long day at work tomorrow. That she had done this for him. She had wanted a nice night out, she said, to be gently coerced into bed, but had agreed to just have a guy over and have a straight threesome, pushing past her own needs for Menno. She was amazed at how hard it was for him to understand this.

Menno started yelling at her about being uncommunicative and cold and how he felt like there was so much going on in her head that she didn’t share and how hard it was to be with someone who didn’t talk, someone who the minute he came, wiped herself with tissues.

There was a new intensity to this fight that they had never experienced before, a certain pitch that was almost violent. They had both been in relationships where hate crept in like a filthy stray cat and became fat and full and ever-present, but they had married with the belief that their relationship was different, that they had both learned and grown from their past loves so that when hatred did come knocking, they would know how to turn it away. And perhaps they did. Perhaps they had turned hatred away, but that was also why maybe now, here, at this very moment, their rage exploded like shotgun pellet, each pellet being a minor offense that, alone, only wounded, but if they struck their target collectively, the result was lethal.

***

That night, nothing was ever concluded nor solved and they both just felt as if they were misunderstood and they fell asleep with their backs to each other and within minutes he began snoring so loudly that she had to put in earplugs.

While she was lying there, on the edge of sleep, she saw Menno’s phone light up. It was almost midnight, mid-week, and he was getting a message from Coraleine.

Stacey got out of bed and went around to Menno’s side and typed in his code and opened the message.

“Sweet dreams,” it read.

Stacey began to scroll through all the other messages. There was almost a message everyday from Coraleine, messages ranging from, “Meet me now?” to “You’re so quiet,” to naked selfies, taken in front of the bathroom mirror. The strange thing though was that Menno hadn’t responded to a single message from Coraleine. Not a single one.

Even though he hadn’t said anything to her, which was in a way dishonest, his unresponsiveness to Coraleine was a quiet loyalty all in itself.

***

Two months later, they went to a party in a warehouse at the edge of town that was once abandoned, but now was being slowly surrounded by high-rise condos and would be most likely converted, in a matter of months, into a trendy club made to resemble the abandoned warehouse that it once was. The party was a PVC, leather, trance underground event. Stacey never understood how “underground” and “event” went to together and S&M’ers weren’t exactly their kind of people, they were still a better crowd and had better music than most lifestyle swingers.

Menno was wearing what he always wore to fetish parties, black leather pants and motorcycle boots and no shirt. Each time they went to these things, his belly was a little bigger and the wrinkles around his eyes deeper and his hair a little less thick and every time Stacey wondered where the sexiness still lay in her husband, was it in the hints of graceful aging or the macho physicality or was it something else. It surely wasn’t the sexy arrogance of the aimless and insecure twenty-five year old she had once known, nor was it the thirty-something arrogance which was little more than obfuscated rage manifesting itself in an array of disinterested expressions. Menno’s arrogance, the arrogance of late, was some strange, emaciated arrogance, a man still wavering somewhere between hope and success, a man denying his own desperation through apathetic glances and condescending critique.

Menno had brought along a few pills and they had taken two on the taxi ride over and, once inside, just as they were starting to peak, they ran into Coraleine. Stacey was high and beginning that fake affection so nauseating to people not on ecstasy, but she was also feeling standoffish and, in the light of the texts, apprehensive of Coraleine.

Coraleine had lost some of her flash and charm, Stacey thought, and her gestures and expressions now had a languorous and bruised-like quality of the shell-shocked divorcée. Since the flash was gone, they might easily have walked right by her without notice. In fact, they had only seen her now, because she had called out to them.

As they were talking, a tall, lanky man who was not unattractive, but was not necessarily attractive either, just more non-descript, a guy Stacey thought she could fuck, if it came down to it, came over and wrapped his arm around Coraleine who was wearing a neon blue PVC nurses outfit while he was wearing a black leather Viking skirt and Doc Maartens. They were completely mismatched suggesting that this date was perhaps haphazard. The man introduced himself as Lodewijk and then almost immediately asked everyone if they wanted a drink before going off to the bar.

“So how are you guys?” Coraleine asked, more to Menno than Stacey. There was a tension in her voice that Stacey had never heard before, a tension that made her voice sound more like one of the green parrots that nested in the tree outside their window. Coraleine informed them that she and Jacques had tickets, but that Jacques had the flue so she had called Lodewijk, their single friend.

Menno caught up Coraleine with how they had been busy, emphasizing busy, and Stacey didn’t follow the conversation, because she spent most of her time observing, not what was being said, but more or less observing how Menno and Coraleine spoke to one another, waiting for a secret that would be revealed in a light touch to the arm or a knowing wink that punctuated a particularly trivial sentence. But as they talked, Menno maintained a stubborn disengagement that made Stacey proud, although she wondered if it was all, perhaps, an act.

When they started discussing Menno’s work and he began explaining the ups and downs, Stacey looked around and studied the evening’s prospects. Most of the men at the party were middle-aged and overcompensating in the gym or tanning, but not a single one of them looked as if he might have an interesting thought in his brain. Not only that, but being European, most of the guys had opted for the softer side of the fetish spectrum, wearing either leather thongs or vinyl skirts, outfits that made them look more feminine than domineering, which made Stacey think, what was the point.

However, there was one man standing near a pillar, watching the DJ that caught her eye. He was tall and rough and unshaven with the kind of short curly brown hair that one might see on a roman emperor. He was wearing leather pants woven together at the legs with a tasseled leather cut-off shirt, the kind of outfit that on most men might have looked old-fashioned, but on this guy had all the appeal of Jim Morrison.

At some point, the man caught Stacey looking and held her eye and smiled and she smiled back and then felt a blush come across her face. She had long learned that flirting at fetish parties made her giddier than say, at a bar, because at fetish parties flirtations almost always lead to sex. On the other had, these parties only lasted a few hours and the coupling started early and in earnest, so too much coyness could also leave you empty-handed. 

Stacey was feeling high now and her body was warm and she knew that she was getting extremely wet, which is something that always happened when she was on ecstasy, so the more this guy looked at her, the easier it was to flirt. Besides, part of her wanted to be far away from Coraleine and Menno’s conversation because, in a way, she wasn’t sure if there were secrets and she was the “clueless” wife.

Lodewijk returned with drinks and Menno and Coraleine made empty promises to find one another later, which came as a bit of relief, for Stacey wasn’t that excited about having to do anything with Lodewijk. Thankfully, as Coraleine and Lodewijk walked away, the man standing next to the pillar approached and said hello. It was a ballsy move, she thought, seeing how it was only she and Menno

“I’m going to get a drink,” Menno said with a wink.

The man who looked a bit like Jim Morrison was called Ben and he was Italian, but had actually lived in America briefly, so he wasn’t immediately spouting the stupid opinions that so many Europeans believe they are entitled only because they watch American movies and read about America in the papers.

Ben had thick eyebrows and wide, moist lips, and ridiculously perfect Mediterranean green eyes. He played basketball and talked about Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, not in a boring, statistical way, but in an eager, infectious way, and although she didn’t much care for basketball, the familiar chat of American sports made him all the more alluring.

Ben was sincere and kind, but not too kind and poked fun at the tight t-shirt she had on saying it was something that a Hooters waitresses might wear and he said it with such a nice smile that she almost immediately found herself wondering what it would be like to have sex with him.

They talked for a good thirty minutes, before Menno returned with a drink just for Stacey. The gesture was clear, yet Ben didn’t back away and Stacey couldn’t tell if she found it brave or creepy. And as they sipped their drinks, Ben tried to include Menno in the conversation, but Menno was distant and clammy and Stacey could see from his wide pupils, high as well. Menno seemed to be constantly looking about and Stacey wondered if perhaps he was looking for Coraleine or if he missed her or if he was jealous that she might be having sex with that Lodewijk or even worse, having sex with multiple men and really enjoying herself, forgetting Menno almost entirely.

Stacey had never felt so far away from Menno, in all their marriage, and yet so intertwined. There was something simultaneously liberating and disheartening about this moment, where she knew instinctively that they would always be together, that the cores of their being, not their personalities or their quirks or the hobbies, but something far more fundamental and mundane, something as unglamorous, yet as vital as toes or nails… this core or cores were one and the same and could exist apart from each other even though there would always be a frozen hollowness if they were to be permanently separated.

Even though their marriage had lost that spark, the aftertaste of what had once been intimacy, but was now little more than warm and gooey contempt, meant that they could attempt what the lifestyle swingers a “hard swap” meaning she could perhaps go off with Ben and Menno could go off with Coraleine and they could reconvene at the end of the party and pick up where they had left off, the bills, the car repairs, the endless packing of school lunches… Stacey and Menno could return to their domestic drudgery, as it were, enlivened by the spark of lust that had come with the exploration of an unfamiliar body.

Ben was trying his hardest to keep the nice vibe going and Stacey almost felt bad for him because neither she nor Menno could really hear him over the music. Not only that, but she was mostly concerned about Menno and wondered why he seemed to not be enjoying himself. These parties were, after all, more for him than her and if he didn’t enjoy himself, then the following week he would mope and be almost hostile during their lovemaking.

“What do you feel like doing?” Stacey found herself asking her husband, trying to draw him back.

The question didn’t include Ben and she could see Ben hesitating whether to walk away or to stay, so she touched his arm and held his wrist, but kept her eyes on Menno and, of course, Menno caught the gesture and smiled slyly.

“Shall the three of us go upstairs to a dark room?”

And there it was, the suggestion of sexuality had been cast and Stacey began to worry that maybe she wasn’t even sure she was ready for a threesome, especially after what had happened with the soldier, yet, on the other hand, if a hard swap had been suggested, she wasn’t sure of that as well, even though it was what she, in the end, really wanted. Stacey began to wonder if her hesitation would either dissipate in the dark rooms upstairs or manifest itself into a cold obstacle that she would have to push her mind to get over, this mental hurdle-jumping being something that happened at least half the time during sexual their experimentation.

“We could have another drink too?” she said.

“We could,” Menno replied, his usual expression of disinterest returning and shadowing his face.

“What do you think?”

“You know what I think.”

Menno was sensitive to situations, even though half the time he strolled right over them, which in its own colorful way was more destructive than ignorance, and was precisely the kind of behavior that made him attractive years ago, but now only created angst. With his suggestion being shot down, he looked about with an expression bordering on disgust, an expression designed to make his dissenters uncomfortable and guilt-ridden.

And of course, there was poor Ben, she thought. Caught like a Ping-Pong ball, knocked about court of this strange couple’s dissonance. How Stacey just wanted to be swept away by the moment, to be dominated by these two men, separately or individually, it did not matter anymore, but, instead, with a husband like Menno, the moment had been reduced to managing away every last bit of spontaneity. Ben was sincere to a fault and the only thing that kept his sincerity attractive was the way he smiled which was something between a devilish smirk and a Tom Selleck smile. She thanked god that he was quiet now, chivalrously wading through their conjugal muck.

“You guys take your time,” Menno said, his eye catching something. “I’ll find you in a bit.”

Then he leaned forward and whispered in Stacey’s ear, “We can try this…”

The fact that he was making reference to his cuckoldry made her feel hot, hotter than the ecstasy at its peak, and she felt herself suck in a big gasp of air. But the hotness wasn’t sexual, but a fear of failure for she did not want to disappoint Menno. However, disappointment was almost assured since the expectations had been so high for so long.

Menno gave her a kiss and nodded at Ben and walked away, a little unevenly, and the conversation between her and Ben evaporated into nothing, had no meaning, because it was, from this moment on, nothing more than anxious filler. So they ascended the stairs, Ben holding her hand, and she looked over his body, his wide, tattooless, waxed back, and his somewhat flat, but acceptable ass, and began to wonder what the rest of his body was like, if he would have a big enough cock or if he could effectively move beyond charming and dominate her in a way that was suitable.

Stacey often found these dark rooms to be awful places for while these parties were fetish parties and strictly for couples only, men pretending to be gay would get past the bouncers and immediately separate then rejoin in packs, dicks in their hands, preying and hunting, or just standing next to a couple copulating, gaping while happily jerking away as if they were at some free peep show. It had also been more than once that Stacey had been enjoying herself, then suddenly felt a third or fourth hand on her ass, then turned around to find some leering pervert.

And now, as she and Ben walked through the dark rooms there were indeed mostly couples, but there were the occasional stray guy, alone and sex-starved, who gaped and gawked. Ben was confident however, and considerate, and guided her past the unpleasantness until they found a seat toward the middle, just beyond a leather sex swing.

He felt around on the vinyl seats to make sure there weren’t any wet spots and when he found one, located a towel to wipe it off. He smiled and sat where the ejaculation had been and, grossed out by the discovery, she was relieved when he asked her to come sit on his lap.

She sat down and they immediately began to kiss. He was a much better kisser than Jacques, but he had the faint taste of sickness on his breath, as if he might be coming down with a cold. She offered him a piece of gum and he laughed and they resumed kissing and she was enjoying it and wondering why he was taking so long to move his hands over her body and when he finally did it felt so good, because she actually wanted him to touch her instead it being the usual thing of immediately touching…

She was the first to move her hand over his penis and she was surprised to find a nice bulge and she unzipped his fly was even more pleasantly surprised to find a nicely shaped, circumcised cock. When she asked him about it, whispering in his ear, he told her that his father was Jewish. Being married to Menno, who was, like so most European men, uncircumcised, she had almost forgotten how nice circumcised penises could be. There wasn’t any of that fleshy foreskin and the oily slipperiness underneath. There was just the head and the fine shape and no hidden surprises.

Ben was putting his hand under her skirt and well and she could feel him gingerly tracing the edge of her panties before inserting a finger inside her. She was extremely wet and his finger slipped easily in and she ordered him to put in another and then another. Soon he was fingering her and sucking on her nipples and she was giving herself entirely over to him and his hands and his lips and she wanted to feel more…

And she had almost entirely forgotten about Menno, almost completely… was thoroughly overwhelmed by the lust and the moment and it had been so long since she had been lost like this… Finally, when she could handle it no more, she whispered for him to get a condom and he began to search around in earnest and right at that break she thought to look for Menno and when she turned to her right, she saw her husband peeking behind one of the dark curtains separating their dark room from a room with the sex swing and she almost giggled because he looked like a child there, spying on the girls bathroom and when Ben came back he followed her eyes and saw Menno there. Breaking the seal of the condom wrapper with his teeth, said,

“You know there’s a cuckold chair right over there in the corner.”

And when he pointed he saw two cups chained to the wall and a leather strap with a red ball on a cushion. The idea of watching Menno being submissive terrified her, for she wondered what would happen if she could never respect him again or forever looked upon him as weak and feminine so that at first she shook her head and watched as Ben slipped the condom out of the wrapper and just as he was about to unroll it on his penis asked,

“You sure?”

Then she took one look at Menno there and recognized the sheer joy in his face over what was about to happen and, in that weird ecstasy haze, found herself nodding. Suddenly Ben was walking over Menno and pointing at the cuckold chair. Menno hesitated at first, but a second later was following Ben.

The music was thumping and room swirling and she felt so very good and confused and excited as she watched Ben strap her husband into the cuckold chair and carefully place the ball in his mouth and tighten the strap behind his head. Menno looked ridiculous yet somehow perfect, bound by the arms and gagged at the mouth, his bangs hanging over his right eye, bangs which he was only growing now, but had been the fashion two years ago when MOD was all the rage…

Here she was, watching the strong, slightly intimidating man whom she had fallen in love with, forced into passivity by a handsome stranger. When Stacey thought back to the many times she had seen the shit stains in Menno’s underwear or how disproportionately incensed he became when a driver refused to let him merge or how he sometimes ate his earwax or chewed off his toenails… What were all those things in comparison to this? To this man held captive and forced to watch, what was technically, her infidelity?

Menno was, she realized, the man who she had fallen in love with many years ago, the same strong and domineering man, the man who built the shed in their back yard or could fix a leaky pipe or hoist her in the air and fuck her hard. He was all this… less and at the same time, more. A man worn down by the demands of his job and the kids and his wife, a man whose outlets for expressing all his machismo had dried up and thus had turned to submission, bondage, a completeness of the ideal that all women secretly wanted, perhaps not sexually, but relationally. Menno was surviving not the demands of the hunt or war or farming, but the demands of the modern age, texts, e-mails, progress reports in the best way he could, with a red rubber gag in his mouth.

When Ben returned to her limp, Stacey sucked him erect again and he rolled on his condom. He tossed her on her back and entered her gently and even though it felt good, so very, very good, she couldn’t help but sneak peeks at Menno there, in the darkness, silently observing with a fiery excitement that she had never seen in him before. 

Mourning in Miami

by Marlene Olin

They sat shoulder to shoulder in the synagogue. The rabbi rocked on his heels, chanting the ancient prayers.  Behind him, a wooden cabinet housed the sacred scrolls. In front of him sat the casket. Flanking it on the right and the left were horseshoe-shaped wreaths woven with hydrangeas. Martha liked blue hydrangeas. These were white. Anyone who truly knew her would have known that she liked blue.       

Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows.  A stream of dust motes followed. And there in the last row, behind the out-of-town cousins, hidden by the creditors waiting to be paid, out of sight of the caregivers hoping to be acknowledged in Martha's will, sat the three mourners. 

Though there was extra room in the pew, their elbows almost touched.  They were strangers. Their eyes faced forward. Their feet were heavily planted on the floor.  Rapt, they listened breathlessly. The rabbi was young, thin, boyish. Swallowed by an enormous prayer shawl, he struggled to find the right words.

"Martha Blatburg lived a long life.  A very long life."

She had outlived her few remaining friends.  Her husband Isaac, may he rest in peace, had barely tolerated her temper. Her children had been alienated by her verbal abuse. Those who knew her well, who drove her to doctor's appointments and cooked her food, who bathed her like a baby and rubbed lotion on her back, took care of her because they were paid to. Kindness, they knew, was a cultivated habit. Like saying please and thank you. Like taking your dirty shoes off by the door.

"When she was a child," said the Rabbi, "Martha developed rheumatic fever. No one, least of all Martha, thought she was going to live quite this long."

The three mourners shifted in their seats. The one closest to the aisle fished a handkerchief from his pocket. Manny Behar was an accountant. He had filed tax returns for Martha and her deceased husband for the last fifty years.  He was used to attending funerals. Six months earlier, his wife Rose had passed on. It was a blessing really. A day after her eightieth birthday, she went to sleep and never woke up. 

Rose was an early riser. Usually Manny opened his eyes to an empty depression in the bed. A pot of decaf would be percolating in the kitchen. The newspaper would be laid on the table. But that morning she lay flat on her back with her mouth gaping like a fish. Her lips had already grayed. Her hands had begun to turn cold. And he knew at that moment that something inside him had died, too. Like a clogged artery, a part of him ceased to function.  And now, months later, he sat in the synagogue once more.  He let the cadence of the singsong words, the liquid Hebrew melodies wash over him.  He saw his wife’s face on their wedding day. He remembered the softness of her skin.  And a pain as real and as malignant as a tumor returned.

Next to him sat Harvey Saperstein. Harvey was young enough to be Manny's son. His father had been Isaac Blatburg's business partner for close to thirty years.  Vague memories shifted in and out of Harvey's head.  A raucous laugh. The scent of cigarette smoke. A woman wearing a fox stole. He didn't know which memories were real and which were simply the Polaroid pictures tucked inside his father's desk or covering his mother's mirror.  Martha and Isaac, Isaac and Martha. Clowning with his parent's. Vacationing with his parents. Drinking with his parents. Now all four were dead.

"A gift," said the rabbi. "She was given a gift."

As hard as he tried, Harvey couldn't remember a single conversation he had with the Blatburgs. Nor could he remember his parents' speaking of them fondly. Their relationship seemed to be based on need, on business, on getting the job done.

Shirley, call Martha on the phone, would you?  Shirley, find some room in the calendar for the Blatburgs.

Harvey's father lived to work. There was never time for baseball practice, for award ceremonies, for driving him to college on that very first day.

Schmoozing, he called it. His father needed to do some schmoozing. 

And when he wasn't schmoozing, Harvey's father was at the office. When he wasn't at the office, he was at the track. A man's got to follow his instincts, his father would tell them. A man's got to follow his gut to get ahead.

"You know what's wrong with the world?" his father would bellow. "It's filled with small people. Small people who think small and act small." Then he'd take a nicotine-stained finger and poke him in the ribs.

 "Martha," said the rabbi, "was a woman of strong opinions. A woman who didn't hesitate to make her feelings known."

"You know what your problem is?" said his father. His breath was boozy. The pointed finger shook as he spoke. "You think you're special. That's what your problem is."

The problem with dying, Harvey realized, was that death shut doors. When there's life, there's hope. Hope that people will change. Hope that people will learn to love. Death is a thief. It robs you of possibilities. It silences apologies. It deprives you of your dreams. 

Harvey's shoulders jerked up and down. Sobs wracked his body. Snot ran down his nose.

“We stand before God humbled,” said the rabbi. "Devoid of pride and cleansed of shame."

Suddenly Harvey's clothes felt too big. He fingered his face expecting to find blooms of acne.  He was back in junior high, walking the hollow corridors, shrinking from whispers and taunts.   Then wafting from the air-conditioning ducts, he heard his father's voice once more.  It felt so near and real that Harvey looked up.  And there he was. A ghost in a leisure suit, sucking on a Lucky Strike, blowing a ring of smoke in his direction.

"Get a grip, for God's sake. And stop crying! You're embarrassing yourself and you're embarrassing me. You're an embarrassment to the whole fucking world."

Next to Harvey sat Lillian Wilmer.   Powdered cheeks. Rivulets of running mascara.  Like a mime, her mouth stayed shut. Only her hands moved. They were busy hands.  Her fingers ran up and down the pages of the prayer book. She hiked her pantyhose.  She organized her purse. Lillian was constitutionally unable to sit still.

Her house was across the street from the Blatbergs’. She and her husband had poured every penny of their savings into their home. "The neighborhood is worth it," she told her husband. "They're the best public schools in town."  How they slaved to pay the mortgage, to keep the cars in the driveway polished to a shine, to wash their windows, to mow the huge lawn.  "This house," she told her husband, "is an investment. An investment in the future. Our children's future. Our future."

"This house," said her husband, "will suck us dry."

The minute the children left for college, Lillian's husband left too. Now she was sixty-years-old and alone, her life as forsaken as an empty cupboard. Martha always had the nicest hydrangeas on the block. How Lillian envied those hydrangeas.

"Let us bow our heads in prayer," said the rabbi, "as we remember Martha and those loved ones no longer with us."

Silence filled the great room. The thermostat was set on high and above their heads a pendant lit with holy light swung. The scent of suits left too long in the closet hovered.  And from the back row, the three mourners out-cried them all.

When the rabbi finished, when all the words were emptied and every empty word was shared, he slowly worked his way down the center aisle.  He shook every hand. He kissed every cheek. But when he reached the final pew, he paused.  Standing on the pulpit, the rabbi had witnessed their great grief.  And he realized that even old ladies who cheat at canasta and berate the help have redeeming qualities.  God, in his infinite wisdom, accepts all into his fold.

He gripped Manny by the shoulder. “With time, the pain of your loss will heal,” said the rabbi.

“I filled out her W-2s,” said the accountant.

The rabbi glanced at Harvey.

“To me she was a snapshot,” said the business partner’s son. “A snapshot sitting on a shelf.”

Then the rabbi reached across the two men and grabbed Lillian’s wrist.

“Her hydrangeas,” said her neighbor, “were the color of the sky.”

Long after the sanctuary cleared, the three of them remained.  One grieved his past, the other his present, while a woman feared for her future. They sobbed and they wept, listening for that still small voice, hoping that one day they too would be offered redemption. 

Secret Valley Birds

by Dave Petraglia

“The hill will break your neck, Claire Roux,” Mssr. Fabre would say.

Aside the road the last apples clung to thinning canopies, dark ghosts sapped by the season’s first frosts. The air was a crisp sigh of moist, upturned earth drafting the sweet taint of dewy leaves, moldering stalks and wood smoke. Beyond, the morning fog cut the mountains off at the waist. Soon the skies would clear and admit a day bright and dry.

The bike between her legs chattered in protest as she dropped into the pull of the treacherous hill, her hands firm on the grips and her skirt gathered back to front with the real Franc Mssr. Fabre had given her, pre-war, weighty, no shoddy aluminum Vichy marker.

For all the danger, the speed was a seduction, the tires’ wobble a thrill in the struggle to steady the handlebars. Otherwise, it would be 10 minutes’ walk down to the valley, dodging ruts gauzed with thin ice, the rimy mud crusting her soles.

Not this day. At the bottom of the hill, having surely squeezed the last from her brakes, Claire chattered off onto a side path to a gate fronting a trim stone cottage set comfortably back from the road among the trees. She walked her bike around the house and parked it inside the shed there.

It should be that Mssr. Fabre answers the door to the house, his moon-face calm and warm, his eyes moist. He should wear his signature bowtie on a crisply pressed shirt, his one indulgence for her visits. And she should press another for him, as he took his customary nap, to wear on her next visit and hang in his closet before she should leave.

Claire’s mission of mercy this day should be the delivery of the medicine he was unable to retrieve from town on his own. Along with a few staples and the occasional letter or card or cheering missive from Fr. Albert at St. Astier, their church, through which she volunteered for this work of visiting the cloistered and forgotten.

It should be that the home would be warm and light, thick with rugs and shadowed windows, the scents of the fall nosegays the two had clipped and bundled together, the ticking of two large clocks.

Now should be the time they sit and sip their tea, the light should grow warm and bright in the room and the old man smile now and again recalling old, treasured confidences.

Then should there come from high up in the house, the soft tinkle of a tinny bell.

And Mssr. Fabre should lead them in a short prayer.

This should be time for her to go upstairs to the attic to retrieve the message that had just arrived by the efforts of ‘Papi’, lord of the loft, Mssr. Fabre's prized proud Bloody Red and Blue Eye. She should return with the capsule from the pigeon’s leg, and hand it to Mssr. Fabre. As was their custom, he should open the little canister, remove the paper folded inside and, without reading it, should hand it to Claire.

“S'il vous plaît, PO” he should say, in deference to the honor ‘Premier Ordre’ conferred by General de Gaulle himself, from exile, on her third anniversary of distinguished service to the Maquis, ‘fighters of the bush’.

This is the way things should be, the way they were on all those other days but no more. Claire let herself into the cottage with a key from under a pot on the back porch.

The house was cold and musty and empty of its larger furnishings.

This day, for appearances, she brought a small tin of fresh puree from chestnuts she’d collected in town, two biscuits, and enough pipe tobacco for two bowls. Mssr. Fabre’s eyes would have misted at the sight. On the road here, Claire could use them to buy a favor if needed. One hoped.

Claire stood before the gaping cold fireplace staring vacantly at the mantle as she ate the contents of the tin then licked the spoon clean. Before her was the familiar grainy photo of a young Mssr. Fabre and his then-new bride Claudette, and Claire had to admit, having endured Mssr. Fabre’s routine decrees of her resemblance to his late wife, that the likeness was notable. The same brunette sheen, in bangs, the sharp arch of the brows, clear eyes, the smallish keen chin. The young Mssr. Fabre draped his hand gently around the slim waist of her chiffony monochrome caftan, the sheer of its fabric obvious even in this aged photograph and eclipsed only by the radiance of their wide young, hopeful smiles. They were at the entrance to an inn in Morocco, beneath a sign ‘Hotel La Vallee Des Oiseaux’: ’Valley of the Birds Hotel’.

And then, as happens, she not so much came to like him in the grandest and deepest sense as much she felt the things that she disliked simply fell away, the gaudier of the embroidery unraveled, until all she could see was the kindness and grace in ‘Old Bird’, his code name, assigned by the Maquis.

That, she wondered may be just how love happens, after all. All the time.

Not all residents of the house were gone. In time she could hear the little bell tinkling upstairs. In the attic, a few remaining members of Mssr. Fabre’s decimated flock habituated the open, messy pens of the pigeon loft. There she found the venerable Papi, reliably making the journey still, when called upon.

"Hello, little man," Claire broke a few pieces of the biscuit she'd brought, and fed Papi from her palm. No surprise that he was calm under her arm. They'd been tested enough.

"Five days since my last bath, Papi, and you harbor no ill. Or you're none the wiser."

She deciphered the note: a vehicle would leave by noon. Claire guessed it had been the latest arrival in the town square, that one high, rickety troop carrier on the Wehrmacht’s worn synthetic Bunas, overinflated, with worn treads ripe for a blowout. They would overload with so many mere boys, pink-faced, eager gangsters, and drive fast as the Germans were now on the move, autumn advancing with them, and there would be little resources or time to investigate accidents.

A chill traced Claire’s spine. She looked out the attic window, to the bottom of the hill nearby, the lane patterned with the scarlet and brown and yellow leaves from Mssr. Fabre's untended orchard turned left and disappeared up the valley, for some, this day perhaps, to eternity, adding the red of their pedigrees to the foliage-splattered roadbed.

Claire could feel her heartbeat in her ears. The attic’s silence consoled her. She wanted to stay there and not go downstairs and through the house and out to the shed and her bicycle and not be the one to haunt houses empty but for memories and old lovely photographs and find herself eating a friend's puree as predictably as the sharp coppery, melancholic charms of autumn were to yield to the cold, dark advance of yearend, as surely as the occupants of an oncoming troop carrier would obey forward motion and gravity as obediently as she’d once tipped Mssr. Fabre’s wheelbarrow its weight of melons.

She rarely thought of the danger, of being captured and the interrogation and even the possibility that she would surrender some information she couldn't help. Capture would be the result of poor planning or a lapse of caution, and against those she could guard. Or, it would be the result of betrayal and against that there was no defense. And she knew that if she weren't planted in her footsteps just now, that would be a treason of her own and the only victim of that deception would be her own humanity.

"There are moments that make saints or heroes of us all," Mssr. Fabre would say, "and some people and moments that are none of these."

She went down the stairs.

The air was chilly in the sunless lee of the house. The vines on the trellis alongside the shed had grown unruly that summer. The grapes would have done better to lapse with Mssr. Fabre as their fruit had fallen expired, staining the patio to the delight of no one, but the for the pigeons, she saw, who clucked and pecked at the bounty. Life goes on with or without pruning.

Claire picked her way around the frosty rot, and closed the door to the shed behind her.

Time was short. Inside, her breath hung in the air before her. She removed the grips from the handlebars of her bike and with a small hooked piece of wire, carefully fished tightly-wrapped cloth tubes from each side. Inside each were stacked three 9mm pistol rounds. The bullets were round-nosed and dark, frangible rounds that would disintegrate on impact, a new mix of Bakelite, tungsten and titanium. Hopes were high that these would penetrate the larger truck tires and leave no recognizable remnants of a bullet behind, marking impact as no more than an untimely blowout.

It had worked before, the previous designs effective against smaller vehicles. Two towns distant this summer, the exploit had cost the Reich a staff car and the three officers in it.

Claire had more cargo, a piece made up as a hand-pump clipped to her bike’s frame. It was the barrel of the 9mm British Welrod, a silenced pistol that another Maquis would fit to a magazine and grip, and with the ammunition she'd brought, fire from the brush alongside the road at the bottom of the hill into the tire of the oncoming truck, at very close range. It was to replace the barrel usually kept at Mssr. Fabre's disguised as the base of a table lamp but having gone missing with the furniture.

Claire wrapped the barrel and the ammunition in a rag and placed them in an urn under the potting bench. She checked both ways from the shed door, and left pushing her bike. Beyond the old orchard, she rode the footpath that led across the fields of the valley, through a rustling natural topiary of golden grasses, dried shoulder-high tussocks and crusty seedpods, to the low shoulder of hills beyond and a road that would take her back to town from a safer direction.

On the road, she came upon two nuns walking, the Srs. Marie-Thérèse and Clémence from St. Astier, the shawls they’d added to their habits loosed with the warming sun. Claire hailed her approach with her bell, the tinny peal recalling Mssr. Fabre’s loft, the birds, obligations and regret and old photographs.

And his advice to her about her job at the bakery in town, “Don’t eat too well". Or others may think you a collaborator.

She thought of nuns on foot and the Reich seizing civilian bicycles more and more each day and wondered what kind of foolishness it was to treasure the hope she had for a long, slow soak in a quiet tub.

In the distance planes in formation droned towards the front.

Then directly overhead, a Bloody Red and Blue Eye, its little wings pumping in fits and starts, rocketing his shimmering bullet-body through the bright sky on some new mission.

Claire’s legs pumped gamely to keep up, Mssr. Fabre's firmly knotted Franc keeping her skirts safely gathered.

A secret force of nature as sure as the seasons, she thought this bird in this valley.

“Papi,” Claire said, “Mssr. Papi”.

January 8, 2010

by Vincent Poturica

On the one-year anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, two weeks before Sri Lanka held its general election and Prageeth Eklinagoda, another journalist, went missing for good, after a long morning of being called a Westerner, a meddler, a bloody pest who couldn’t understand––all designations with which I agreed as I was then a white, male, twenty-four-year-old citizen of the U.S. working as a freelancer––yes, after being called many more names by a minor official at the Ministry of Defense––sudha, Americabe, big nose; I liked big nose––an official I’d asked to comment on whether there was a timeframe for when Tamil refugees in the North would be permitted to leave the teeming government camps and return to their bombed-out homes, now that the civil war was finally over, at least in theory, after thirty-five odd years––The years no one breathed, as my friend Shehan liked to say––after I focused on the minor official’s exceptionally long nose hairs that I imagined belonged to a parasite nesting in his nostrils, gorging on mucus, waving goodbye with skinny black tentacles to a world from which it preferred, sensibly, to hide, after I asked this minor official as, in his words, a Westerner, what I could understand, what traits all people could mutually agree upon as universal and necessary to lead a reasonably joyful life, after the official responded with the surprisingly wise statement, A people must feel safe, A people must feel love, after I told this official he was wise and that, although I couldn’t assure him of his safety, I could assure him of my love, after the official said, But you, Americabe, you do not know me, how can you say you love?, after I responded that it didn’t matter if I knew him or not, I loved him and everyone as best I could, albeit imperfectly, after the official told me I was not only crazy but also stupid, after I told him he was not the first person to say that, after he nodded to the security personnel standing at the door who proceeded to grab each of my arms, the barrel of one of their AK-47 rifles brushing my ear, the cold metal immediately arousing me, spawning a lump in my throat, intensifying my admiration for the guard’s delicate lips and my desire to kiss them, after the guard with the delicate lips asked me if I’d ever met Snoop Dogg as we walked down the long high-ceilinged halls leftover from the days of Britain’s imperial rule, halls charged with the colonial romance and nostalgia of a Kipling novel, after I answered, No, unfortunately, though my Dad grew up in Long Beach, after the guard responded, Oh that is too bad, I like that Snoop Doggy, after the other guard said, Shut up, Sunil, in Sinhala, after we walked from the Ministry to the first security check point wreathed in rusting razor wire, the Indian Ocean shining less than ten yards away, convincing me again of its sublimity, an observation I shared with Sunil who nodded thoughtfully and told me that he’d always dreamed of becoming a fish, or at least a sea horse, or even a stalk of kelp, in the next karmic cycle, so he could spend his next life underwater, far away from people, after I said goodbye to Sunil when the news van arrived––I didn’t recognize the middle-aged driver wearing a WWF t-shirt, but he smiled kindly––after I sat beside Gamini, my friend, who was sketching a picture of a faceless Buddha, after I said, How are you Gamini? and he replied, Oh my friend Tony, it is good to see you, after he held my hand tenderly––it’s customary for Sri Lankan men to hold hands––and asked me how my day was going, after I told him about being thrown out of the Ministry, after he laughed even though it was both funny and not funny, after I also laughed and noticed a shoeless boy from the van window, a boy throwing rocks at passing cars and clapping his hands, which made me happy, something about the purity of rebellion that, however futile or immature, always feels right, after I attempted to articulate this thought to Gamini, who nodded and said, Hmm, maybe so, as he often did when he was thinking, as he had on our recent hike into the Knuckles Mountains with his teenage daughter Mala as we walked along a green path and talked about the violin Gamini had recently been given by his Aunt Ruwanthie, an old, cheap violin, but it was still an instrument that made music if you were patient enough, after Gamini said, I do not know the right way to resist, after we talked about the weather (hot), the Conrad book I was reading (Victory), the Whitman poems I’d lent him, which he mostly liked, a Prageeth Eknaligoda cartoon he’d seen on the Internet that morning showing a giant snake attempting to swallow the egg from which it had just hatched, a snake under a full moon without a caption, after we talked about the election and I asked Gamini who he was voting for, Rajapaska or Fonseka, after Gamini said, I am not voting, I am going to stay home and play my violin, after I said nothing, after we said our goodbyes, after I picked up a jackfruit and pumpkin curry packet from by favorite kadé where the man never said a word but kept his head meticulously shaven and always made a little bow when he handed me the curry neatly folded inside the cream-colored butcher paper, after I bowed, after I thanked God for this food, after I sat down in the dusty storage room that also served as a cafeteria and kitchen, after I listened, licking my fingers sticky with pumpkin and rice, to Nisthar, one of my editors, answer my subeditor Miriam’s claim that he was a coward for not joining her and Nizla and Deepal and the many other journalists at the candlelight vigil to honor Lasantha, the journalist who had been murdered exactly a year ago for his relentless honesty, after Nisthar said, Well, of course, I am a chicken, after Miriam told him she wasn’t impressed, after Nisthar said, I do not ask you to be impressed, after Miriam said, I hope not, after Nisthar said, Do you really want to know what I think?, after Miriam––who, I must add, was quite pretty and always democratic with her sharp tongue; she often handed me back my articles, calling them shit––said, Yes, why don’t you tell us what you think for once?, after Nisthar, who was good-natured but also guarded as many are who have been badly hurt, said, Lasantha … the stubborn romantic bugger … you want to know what I think? after Miriam said, Yes, coward, tell us, after Nisthar said, We worked together at The Bottom Line then at The Nation … he was a lawyer first, you know … he came from a lawyer family … he had a bit of Dutch blood … or maybe Portuguese … the ones with power always do … always a drop of white … me, I am a brown bugger … no white in me … Allah be praised … no offense to our American friend … but Lasantha was a good sort … had the right sort of heart, as they say … he tired of corruption … became a journalist … he thought words might do some good … maybe they did before the windows were broken by bricks … before the presses were bombed to pieces … Lasantha, the bloody joker … he loved his chocolates … he loved his little boys … his wife was bit of a nag, but he loved her too … he used to hide behind doors and scare buggers in the newsroom … BOO … a mad joker … a bloody little kid to think he could have changed a thing … Allah be with him … the sun was shining when they shot him … it usually is … Lasantha … there’s a joker for you … just like me, after Miriam said she didn’t agree, after Nisthar said, That is fine, dear, after Miriam left, after Nisthar told me I needed to write an article about a Red Bull-sponsored motorcyclist from Germany demonstrating stunts at Victoria Park, after I told him about being kicked out of the Ministry, after he laughed, and said, What did you expect?, after I said, Right-o, after he said, Get out of here, you joker, after I said, Right-o, Right-o, Right-o, after Nisthar left and I walked the few blocks to Victoria Park with my hands in my pockets, whistling that perfect Jay Reatard song, It’s So Easy––It’s so easy / When your friends are dead / It’s so much easier / When you don’t even care / All these faces mean nothing to me / All these faces mean nothing to me––Jay Reatard, the Memphis punk who used to live in boxcars and who would die five days later––1/13/2010––of an overdose from alcohol and cocaine, the same blissful combination that took away River Phoenix and my Aunt Rose, after I climbed the thick branches of a nuga tree to get a better view of the motorcyclist––there was a larger crowd than I expected––after I thought about all those times my Aunt Rose had taken me to the beach or to the arcade or to the supermarket when I was small and then left me there to wander while she got high, which I didn’t blame her for, not even a little, this life isn’t easy, I thought, after I opened my notebook while waiting for the motorcycle show to start, after I sketched a picture of Sisyphus, my favorite lost soul, poor Sisyphus, hidden in some cold corner of hell, sentenced to roll his boulder up his forgotten hill even though he still hasn’t reached its apex because the boulder continues to roll back down right before he gets there, and Sisyphus will have to do his best to make it to the top again even though the boulder will continue rolling back down, over and over, forever and ever, after I made sure Sisyphus was smiling at the rock he was chained to, that his eyes were filled with the strange light of recognition, as if he saw that his curse was a door––the only door––by which to exit history’s obscene comedy, after pondering the obvious similarities between Sisyphus’s fate and our own, after laughing at the leafy branches of that nuga tree on which I sat, after watching two teenagers kissing in the shadows below me, after listening to a man––his face was so tired––on a branch beside me whistle a sad song that, like most songs, was probably about some kind of loss, I decided that I would be happy for the rest of my life, no matter what.