For Official Use Only

by Charles Rafferty

Marcus saw the station wagon pull away from the shoulder of Route 25, leaving behind a pile of fresh flowers in the snow. He was on his way to meet Trisha at her apartment. Trisha had separated from her husband, and a mutual friend had introduced them. Though they had met for an afternoon coffee two days before, this was their first real date.

The flowers were part of a roadside memorial. Someone had died there, and they had a lot of friends, a large and Waltons-like family. Marcus could tell this by the variety of bouquets and stuffed animals, the many tire tracks traced into the snow-covered grass.

Marcus made a snap decision. He hooked a left into one of those U-turns they have for cops and firetrucks. He saw the sign for official use only and he ignored it. He accelerated and took another illegal U-turn a mile up the road, and then he was headed back to the memorial, fitting himself into the tracks where the other cars had been.

He was out of the car for less than a minute as the traffic sped by, the drivers probably thinking he was one of the grievers, that he was saying some kind of prayer as he picked out the freshest and most durable of the flowers. And then he was back on the road, with an armload of calla lilies and orange mums. The whole thing was barely a hiccup. He wouldn't even be late.

People give Marcus a funny look when he tells them all this, but he doesn't see anything wrong with it. Those flowers weren't doing David any good out there on the highway, he says. That was his name. Marcus saw it written in red spangles on several of the wire hearts. Apparently David was somebody's husband, and his wife wasn't ready to let him go. Marcus reasoned that the flowers would be destroyed the next day. Another storm was coming, and the plow would surely cover them as it scraped its way towards Bridgeport. David's friends and family had built the memorial too close to the shoulder. Marcus thought it might be on the very spot where David had died. Or perhaps they had lost all foresight in their time of flowers and snow. Either way, Marcus says, he didn't take them all.

When Marcus showed up at Trisha's door, she was surprised. No one had ever brought her flowers. She invited him in for a pre-dinner drink, but it was already clear to Marcus that they'd never make it to their reservation. The flowers had something to do with it.

Marcus liked the look of her as she stretched for a couple of highball glasses on the top shelf, and Trisha liked that he didn't turn away as her shirt rode up, exposing the small of her back. She held each glass up to the light, then ran them under the faucet to get rid of the dust. Their fingers brushed when she handed him the drink, and they ended up undressing each other right there in the kitchen. Marcus kept thinking the husband might walk in through the front door, but from the sound of things, Trisha hadn't considered the possibility. Afterward, they lay in a heap on the cold linoleum, laughing together, a little embarrassed. They decided to have Thai food delivered.

Later, when Trisha fell asleep in the bed, Marcus pulled the newspaper from the basket beside her toilet. He found David's obituary and the write-up in the police blotter. Killed by a drunk was the main message. The drunk was fine, naturally. He sounded like Marcus — the same age, the same penchant for driving when the bar had closed. Marcus came out of the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen through the dark. He proceeded by a series of tiny steps, afraid that he might bump into something. He found the vodka bottle and poured himself a drink. He downed it while standing over the dripping kitchen faucet.

Less than two weeks later, Trisha and Marcus were finished. They had run their course. They had had sex in a variety of locations and positions — a movie theater, a Safeway parking lot, in every room of their two apartments. Trisha found out that he was allergic to shrimp and preferred tragedies to comedies. Marcus found out that she was still in love with her husband and didn't have a washing machine.

They parted ways. Marcus remained the only man who had ever brought her flowers, and a snowplow destroyed the roadside memorial, as Marcus had predicted.

Immortal Longings

by Charles Rammelkamp

“I see Fahrenheit 9/11 is showing at the Bijou along with Princess Diaries 2.  When did Brent Mitchum open a second screening room, anyway?  The Bijou was always a single-screen cinema when I was growing up.”

“How else are you going to keep up with the multiplexes?” Jodie asks rhetorically.

“The Bijou has a monopoly in Potawatomi Rapids, though.  Of course, you can always drive over to Muskegon or wherever if you want to see a movie that bad, if it’s not here.”

“What’s that?” Caroline Castleman demands.   Roger wonders at his mother’s deafness, the insulation from noise it suggests.  He imagines sounds for her are muffled and distant, as if trying to penetrate a cocoon.  Especially over the last dozen years of the ninety-seven she has lived, she has been slowly, gradually losing her hearing.

“We were just talking about the movies at the Bijou,” Roger shouts.  “When I was a kid they only had one movie at a time; now they have two.”

“Oh yes, Brent Mitchum opened a second room upstairs where the balcony used to be.  The kids from the college are the only ones who go to the Bijou any more, I understand.” 

“When does school start again?”

“What?”

“I said, when does school start again?” Castleman shouts.  “At Potawatomi Rapids College?”

“Haven’t they started already?”

“I don’t know.  Have they?”

“Yes, I think they may have started last week.  It’s stupid the way they have classes in August.  Didn’t used to start until after Labor Day.”

“Probably why Fahrenheit 9/11’s showing.  The college kids.”

“I’d like to see Princess Diaries 2,” Lily declares.

“I’d like to see Outfoxed,” Jodie says, “the one about Rupert Murdoch that’s due out next week.”

“I want to see Garden State,” Carol says to Lily.  They know all the current offerings. Alien vs. Predator is coming to the theaters in Baltimore, and another Benji movie about the dog and another Exorcist are also due out.  There’s no end.

“We’ve already seen Fahrenheit 9/11 once.  I don’t need to see it again.  Did you see it, Mom?”  They’re discussing the options for evening entertainment.  They’ve been to the beach already.  They’ve eaten dinner and are sitting on the porch, facing the lake.  Maybe they should go for a walk downtown, Castleman thinks.

“What?” Caroline Castleman calls out again.

Castleman raises his voice again.  “Fahrenheit 9/11.  Have you seen it yet?”

“Oh yes.   Marilyn Schumacher took me to see it.  You know Bush was up in Traverse City yesterday?”

“I saw that in the paper.  First sitting president ever to stop there, or something.  Where is he today?  Pennsylvania?  West Virginia?  I guess he comes to Michigan a lot, since you’re supposed to be up for grabs.  Nobody comes to Maryland.”

“Which is fine with me,” Jodie comments.

“I read where some 55-year old social studies teacher wasn’t allowed to go inside the Grand Traverse County Civic Center where Bush was speaking because she had a Kerry sticker on her blouse,” Castleman marvels.  “The campaign security people ripped up her admission ticket and wouldn’t allow her in.”

“What’s that?”

“A schoolteacher wasn’t allowed in to see Bush because she had a Kerry sticker on!”

“Oh, I saw that!  Isn’t it dreadful?”  Caroline Castleman is a registered Democrat, her party affiliation dating back to New Deal days.

“Come on, Lily, let’s go down to the beach,” Carol says to her sister.  She can tell the adults aren’t about to move any time soon.  The girls run off the porch and down to the lake.  An evening calm has come over the water, and the sun is sinking over in Wisconsin.

“I belong to a writers group,” Castleman tells his mother, his voice raised, “and there are these two guys who are on opposite sides of the issue.  One’s a Bush supporter and the other’s a Kerry supporter.  One guy writes super-patriot stories about a Middle School basketball coach who’s a spy on the side, and the other writes screenplays that expose American greed.”

“It’s just awful,” Caroline Castleman declares.  “What he’s done to the economy with these tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and it just horrifies me the way he’s removing the barriers between church and state.  Faith-based initiatives.  What a disgrace!  What a – what a shipwreck!” she concludes, at a loss for the right description.

“People should look up the definition of ‘evangelism’ in their Funk & Waganalls’ if you ask me,” Caroline Castleman goes on, unheeding.  “Crusaders!  That’s what they are.  Zealots!  People should be more concerned about the political activism of the evangelicals than they are.  All they do is propagandize and proselytize.  They want the government to do the job their preaching isn't doing for them, and they’re too hidebound to recognize nobody wants to hear any of it!  Nobody’s buying what they’re selling at all.  But they aren't going to be happy until they’ve imposed a theocracy on all of us.  People are just too complacent about these fanatics.  These lunatics.”

“Religion should be kept personal,” Castleman agrees.  “Or at least within the circle of people who share the same beliefs you have.   Evangelists and missionaries may do a lot of good, but they don't do it out of altruistic motives.  They do it to promote their agendas.  Sure, they run homeless shelters and soup kitchens. A meal or a warm place to sleep attracts a captive audience. Eat the meal or use the cot and you are obliged to sit and listen to their sales pitch.   An age-old practice. Sometimes it’s used to promote Jesus.  Sometimes it’s used to promote timeshares.  I just don’t see the religious people getting into some of these programs out of the goodness of their hearts. They have ulterior motives, and I would hate to see their causes financed with tax dollars.  I don't trust those guys any more than I would a timeshare peddler.”

It’s a bravura performance on Castleman’s part.  He hasn’t talked so much in ages.  Or at such a loud volume. 

“So you think Al can get in on the faith-based initiative money?” Jodie asks, amused.  Roger’s brother is a storefront preacher in Saint Augustine, Florida, a confidence man.  He has a plan to bottle vials of water from the “Fountain of Youth” and sell them on the internet.  Everywhere, “anti-aging” strategies are popping up on the internet spam everyday.  Why not take this to its logical conclusion?

“Why not?  He outlined his paradise strategy to me when I talked to him on the phone yesterday.  Paradise.  He’s parlayed his credentials as a preacher into peddling paradise.  He was going on and on about the various conceptions of paradise.  It all ties into the Fountain of Youth scheme.  So sure, if he hypes up the born-again aspects of his grand vision, I bet he can be sucking on that faith-based initiative tit as much as any fundamentalist preacher.  Nobody knows about his sub rosa activities.”

“You don’t think they’ll poke around his ‘sub rosa activities,’ as you call them?  Flush him out in a minute?

“What about Paradise, anyway?”

“Paradise?” Caroline Castleman exclaims, the word penetrating the wall of her deafness.  “Has Al been talking to you about Paradise, too?”

Raising his voice so that his mother can hear him, Castleman summarizes his conversation with his brother.  “First of all, he mentioned the idea of ‘immortal longings’ that he says are the basis of what it means to be human – happiness, harmony, an essential ‘stillness’ that amounts to immortality and eternal youth.”

“Immortal longings,” Castleman emphasizes, ever the English professor.  “That’s what Cleopatra says just before she applies the asp to her breast, commits suicide to join Antony in death.  ‘I have immortal longings in me.’  Act five, scene two.”  In a lower voice, self-mocking the pedant professor, he adds to Jodie, “Of course the asp is an obvious phallic symbol.”

“What?” Caroline Castleman demands.

“Shakespeare!” Castleman shouts.  “Al was going on about these immortal longings that form the basis of his sales pitch.  Talk about timeshare salesmen, Al’s offering a slice of paradise.  Even before there was a Garden of Eden, he says, which was made for humans, there was a city identified in ancient Sumerian myth called Dilmun which was made exclusively for the gods, a paradise.  It’s in the myth of Enki and Ninhursaga.  Enki was the god of fresh water that flows under the earth, and Ninhursaga was his consort.  Dilmun is modern-day Bahrain.  Dilmun was ‘pure’ and ‘virginal’.  There was no disease, no death, no getting old. 

“What Al doesn’t mention, by the way, is that even though this notion of paradise goes all the way back to Mesopotamian myth, it’s literally a ‘utopia’ – a ‘no place’.  Because Enki persuades Ninhursaga to have sex with him, and then after she gives birth to a daughter, Enki has sex with the daughter, and then the daughter’s daughter and so on.  The point is that you can’t have paradise and civilization both.  The only way there’s an absence of death is if there’s an absence of birth.  There’s no sense of nostalgia for Dilmun the way there is for Eden.

“But anyway, Al launches into these original myths of paradise to prove that there really is a paradise, because people have always believed and longed for it, so it must be so, and not only that, but it’s available now; you don’t have to die to get there.”

“Who is he telling this to?”

“Nobody yet, at least I don’t think so.  He’s gotten some senior citizens to worry about getting Alzheimer’s, but I don’t think he’s taken the next step yet.  It’s possible that he worked some of this stuff up in his sermons back in L.A., too.”

“Al was telling me some interesting things about – I don’t know, the Aztecs, the Celts.”  Caroline Castleman gestures vaguely and looks out toward the horizon on the lake.

“That’s right,” Roger recalls.  “Aztec paradise was called Tlalocan or something else that’s equally difficult to pronounce.”

“Avalon for the Celts, the place where King Arthur went to die,” his mother muses.  “A blessed place where it’s always summer and full of fruits and flowers and nobody experiences sorrow.”

“And don’t forget Valhalla!” Jodie adds sardonically.  “Odin’s palace in Asgard.  You get to it by crossing the rainbow bridge, Bifrost.  But I forget whether you take a left or a right once you’ve crossed the bridge.”  She ignores Caroline Castleman’s request to repeat herself since it would only spoil it to explain her joke.

“Only warriors get to go there, though,” Castleman clarifies, “only those slain in battle.  And the only females there are the Valkyries.  At least the heroes’ goblets never run out of mead.”

“It doesn’t last forever anyway, does it?  Valhalla.  They live in the palace until Doomsday – Ragnarok.  Then they have to do battle against giants, with Odin.  They’d probably be feeling pretty restless by then anyway.”

“Then there was Hades in Greek mythology, and Olympus, of course, where the Gods cavorted.  Sheol is the Jewish equivalent of Hades.  A gloomy place with insubstantial shades flitting about,” Castleman ticks off other afterlife venues, almost as if he’s listing the movie selections at area cinemas.  “Islamic paradise is an eternal place of bliss and comfort, the ‘garden underneath which rivers flow.’  And of course we all know about the houris, the virgins of paradise that righteous men will get to enjoy for their good actions on earth.  Suicide bombers.”

“The word ‘houri’ comes from the Arabic ‘hur,’ which means ‘astonishment’,” Jodie says.

“The Australian Aborigines believe in a time beyond living memory that they call The Dreaming.  When a person dies, his spirit goes there, to join the ancestors.  It’s not a reward or a punishment.  It’s idyllic, though.”

“African religions have a similar belief in an ancestral afterlife where the dead exist as spirits in this life, but the Bachwa tribe in the Congo have a belief in an afterlife where there’s no illness or hunger or death.  Just comfort, happiness and easy hunting.  And then there are the Rastafarians of Jamaica, former Christians, who believe that Ethiopia is the site of the original Eden, or paradise, and they smoke dope, the ‘holy herb,’ ganja, to help meditate on holiness or whatever. 

“Rastafarian paradise is a perfect example of one of Al’s themes, by the way, exile and return.  That’s Miltonic, too, the exile from the garden.  The nature of existence is exile; the goal is to return.  Al preaches that we can return to the garden, and he knows the way.  For a price, of course.  The Golden Age, the Elysian Fields, the Isle of the Blessed.”

“I don’t know where he’s going with all this,” Caroline frets.  “It’s comforting, I suppose.  People need comfort.”

“Where he’s going with it,” Castleman echoes.  “All the way to the bank, he hopes.”

“So have we decided what we’re going to do this evening?” Jodie asks, bringing the conversation back to its origin.

“What?” Caroline asks, scrinching her face, and all at once her son realizes they’ve been blithely talking about how to cheat the grim reaper, how little time his mother actually has, how soon she’ll be gone, how much he is going to miss her.  The slow, inevitable tumble into oblivion, as in a dream.  

Born Out of Love

by Andrew Rhodes

My mom was forty-two years old when I was born, and my dad was forty-nine.  They were unequipped parents and did not sign me up for sports or activities, which assured my status as interloper from a very young age.  One time, when I was twelve, I destroyed the backyard garden in a fit of nameless rage and they didn’t say a word about it. 
        

Most nights my dad sat in his office reading and chewing on his pipe stem.  When he spoke it was slow and clear.  He seemed depressed and I wondered how much of it had to do with aging.  My mom, on the other hand, never seemed happy or unhappy, and always wore a look of slight confusion.  One time Dad told me that Mom had the worst memory in the world—she was like a permanent amnesiac—and that’s why her temperament was so consistently tranquil.   
        

I had only one friend.  His name was Sean Carrigan, and he lived with his dad, an Episcopal Priest, and his older brother, Nelson.  In the searing Mississippi summer, Sean and I would ride our bikes down to the river where we would goof around on a rope swing, or walk on the railroad tracks and throw rocks at cars passing on the nearby highway.  Or we would ride to Devil’s Tower which was a just an abandoned grain silo covered in graffiti.  Devil’s heads and cuss words.  We were on the lookout for any devil worshippers, wanting to get our fix of fear.  In the fall we tried to make a haunted house for some neighborhood kids.  We painted our faces in black and red, fake blood and everything, and when we looked in the mirror we were both kind of scared.  We didn’t go through with the haunted house.  Though we did not admit it to each other, we both wondered if, by dressing up as demons, we were inviting pain and terror into our lives.
       

Unlike my quiet home, something was always going on at Sean’s, and it usually involved Sean fighting with Nelson.  One morning I rode my bike over to Sean’s, and when I got there Sean was lying on his back in the front yard.  Nelson and his friend Dominic were leaning over and talking to Sean. 
        

“Hey Stake,” Nelson said.  “Stake” was a nickname Nelson had given me; it was short for “Mistake,” which is what he claimed I was since my parents were so old.   
        

Sean rolled on to his side and squinted and groaned.  He had grass clippings in his hair and stuck to his face.  He tried to take deep breaths. 
        

“See, you got your wind back,” Nelson said.  “He just got the wind knocked out of him.  Been laying there for twenty minutes to make it more dramatic,” he said to me.
        

“He pushed me off the roof,” Sean said.
        

“I didn’t push you, you lost your footing.  I wouldn’t push somebody off a roof,” Nelson said.
        

I looked at Dominic but he didn’t offer any more explanation, just put his hands on his hips.
        

“He fell off the roof?” I said, looking at the one-story house.  The foundation of the house was not raised, but it seemed like he could have broken something.
        

“The bush softened his fall,” Nelson said.  He pointed at a camellia bush that was split with cracked branches making the core of the bush visible.  “He’s fine.”
        

“I’m telling Dad,” Sean said.
        

This threat did not sit well and the two brothers argued.  Their dad was, like my parents, hands-off, but he could get very angry in the right circumstances.  He certainly would make Nelson pay for pushing his brother off the roof, accident or not.  Though he was a priest, he didn’t seem religious.  He didn’t pray before meals.
        

“What do you want from me?  You want to go somewhere.  Don’t say a word and you can hang out with me and Dominic.  How’s that?” Nelson said.     
        

“I don’t want to hang out with you,” Sean said, still lying on his back.  I didn’t believe him because Nelson was all he ever talked about.  “Take us to a movie,” Sean said.  “Your treat.”
        

We wanted to see The Crow.  Sean had the soundtrack and we had read magazine articles about how the movie’s star, Brandon Lee, had died in real life while filming.  Nelson and Dominic brought us to the theater in Nelson’s Jetta, and he went up to the counter—he knew a guy who worked there—and got us two tickets to the R rated movie.  He said to Sean, “I just broke a fifty dollar bill for you, punk.”   
        

In the movie, of course, a loving young couple gets murdered—the woman gets raped first—and then the man comes back to life as a superhero to have his revenge.  I felt sick when they raped the girl, tingling with frustration and anger, and I was glad to see the hero get his revenge in such extreme fashion, but something didn’t sit right.  How did he come back to life?  What force was behind this return from the dead?  Was it all due to a magic crow?  Where did the magic crow come from?  I understood the viewer had to be kept in the dark on this to some extent, but the revenge plot seemed insignificant when compared to issues of immortality and God, or whatever was supposed to make this supernatural event possible.  Still, we left the theater saying we loved the movie.    
        

The thing was, Sean and I were both in love with the same girl at school.  Her name was Jill, and after the movie I knew Sean was doing the same thing I was doing—picturing some variation on the story with Jill as the victim and himself as the hero.  Thinking about eternal union with his beloved.  It made me jealous that we were both thinking the same way about Jill, and that there was nothing that made my fantasy scenario any more likely than his.  We were picturing the same pitch black night, rescuing her from torture. 
        

After the movie we had to wait two hours for Nelson and Dominic to come pick us up.  We sat on the front steps and watched crowds come and go from the theater, both wondering if somehow Jill would be among them, which she was not. 
        

The Jetta pulled up at almost six o’clock and we got in the car.  “You and Stake like that movie?” Nelson asked.  Sean nodded. 

Nelson said we were going to hang out with him tonight.  “Another special treat,” he said.  He must have still felt guilty about pushing Sean off the roof and felt like he had not bribed him enough quite yet.  He said we were going to the midget house.  During the drive there he turned up the music and rolled down the windows so that the wind blew through.  I thought about the four of us in the car.  I thought about our relationship to the higher power, about what we believed.  In Mississippi everyone knows what church someone goes to, and many people feel the need to explain their affiliation.  Your church was part of your casual biography.  Though I rarely went to church, I was a Baptist and believed in God in a typical way.  Sean said he believed in God but not the same way his dad did.  He believed God was somehow involved with outer space and aliens in ways that Christianity wouldn’t condone.  Dominic was Catholic—he never spoke about it—but I had seen him cross himself before eating.  And I didn’t know about Nelson.  He didn’t seem like he could care one way or the other.  It was strange to me that we could all believe slightly or very different things and be in the same world, the same town, the same car. 

        

The midget house was an abandoned dwelling on a narrow road off 40th Avenue.  It was in the woods behind a strip mall that was empty except for a prosthetic limb manufacturer that was closed on weekends.  The house was by itself with no neighboring structures, and it was easy to imagine the dwarf owner or owners, some years ago, deliberately isolating themselves in the woods to avoid attention.  The small front yard had gone back to nature, weeds having taken over the grass and vines running up all sides of the house. 
        

It was literally a miniature house, with everything half the size of a normal house.  The counters came up to my knees, cabinets and ceilings were low, and I had to duck to walk inside and through the kitchen where the linoleum on the floor was bubbled up and curling in the corners of the room.  In all parts of the house the floor was beginning to give, the wood softening, and there were plenty of signs of decay, enough that even some teenagers refused to walk inside.  The two bedrooms were empty other than random trash like fast food bags in the corners.  In the den area the ceiling was higher, and there was a short ladder leading up to a second floor loft that was more like a crawl space.  I never figured out what the loft was supposed to be.  There had been a miniature side table and TV stand in the den, but both had been burned in a bonfire behind the house during a New Year’s Eve party last year.  I had been here plenty of times before, but never at night.  There were plenty of ghost rumors, and we all wanted to believe them.   
        

The knob was broken off the front door.  We followed Nelson and Dominic ducking through the kitchen into the den.  All the windows were broken out but the house still smelled musty like rotting wood.  An evening breeze swept through the den, and there were people behind the house yelling and laughing.       
        

In the den there were two guys and a girl sitting on the floor smoking cigarettes.  It was dusk and there was just enough light for those of us inside the house to see.  The people said hey to Nelson and Dominic asked if there was beer.   There wasn’t.  Nelson and Dominic immediately joined a card game the people were playing.  Sean and I were not introduced to them, and the people on the floor didn’t seem to take any notice of us.  We walked around.
        

Something had happened since I’d been here last.  The ceiling below the loft was starting to cave in.  Somebody had probably gone up there to be funny and stomped around too much.  Or maybe they had sex and the weight of two teenager bodies was too much for the dying structure. 
        

We heard a sudden scream come from the backyard—a teenage boy’s sandpaper scream—the voice rising and cracking in fear.  The seated people dropped their cards and got up to look out the window.  Nelson immediately went for the back door; Sean and I followed, not yet aware what was happening.  Outside, in the backyard, next to a make-shift fire pit that was inactive on this pleasant spring night, a guy was kneeling down one knee and had what looked like a knife at another guy’s throat.  A group of people—ten or so—were standing around watching this like it was a play.  I knew the guys’ names.  The one with the knife was named Carl Gordon and the other one was Daniel Therry.  Daniel Therry had scoliosis and was an atheist.  I knew he had scoliosis because my mother was a nurse and had taken care of him in the hospital, and also he had slight curve of his upper spine that was only noticeable if you looked closely.  And I knew he was an atheist because he always told people.  His father, an Accounting professor at the local university, often wrote letters to the newspaper editor criticizing religion.  Being an atheist made Daniel different than everyone else and made him seem dangerous, which is what he wanted.
        

“I could kill you right now, cousin,” Carl Gordon said.
        

“Man, no.  Man.  Listen.  What happened?”  Daniel Therry’s voice was cracking again. 
        

Looking back, I know that Carl Gordon had no intention of cutting him.  He was making a statement about himself that had very little to do with Daniel Therry. 
        

“Get off him,” Dominic said. 
        

“Get the fuck off him, Carl,” Nelson said, trying to strengthen Dominic’s plea.  He tried to sound casual at the same time, but there was fear in his voice that he couldn’t hide.
        

When Carl finally brought the knife away from Daniel’s throat, someone in the crowd said, “You’re losing it, buddy.”  Carl stood up, still looking down like Daniel was a deer he had killed, making a scene out of it.  He folded the knife and put it in his pocket. 
        

In my life I have seen many things that have surprised me.  But what Sean did next may be the most unexpected event I have ever witnessed.  The moment after Carl put the knife in his pocket, Sean ran and jumped on him, wrapped his arm around Carl’s neck and started choking him like a pro wrestler.  Sean was not an aggressive person, but here he was attacking a guy four years older and twice his size.  I knew this attack was partly due to the movie we had seen and something about the older people present, the pressure to be a part of something.  For a moment, everyone seemed frozen in disbelief.  Carl fell down to his knees and very quickly unfastened Sean from his neck and dropped him on the ground and pummeled him.  Nelson and Dominic had jumped in and were trying to break them up.  Nelson got some licks in on Carl.  Daniel Therry had gotten up and was stumbling away.  It quickly turned into a scrum, and I couldn’t tell who was fighting who.  Dust rose from their feet and knees.  Sean stood up and then fell back down.  Then Nelson had Sean under his arms and pulled him away, pulled him all the way to the car with Sean screaming. 
        

Around the time of the fight, back at my house—for some reason I imagine it happened right at the moment when Carl took the knife away from Daniel Therry’s throat—an embolus from my dad's heart became large enough to block the flow of blood in his artery wall and he suffered a stroke.  He lay on the office floor, unresponsive, though his left eye remained open.  My mother discovered him and called an ambulance.  She tried to get some kind of response from Dad. 
 

Driving away from the midget house, Nelson told us the knife to the throat was because Daniel had kissed Carl’s girlfriend, but we later found out that Daniel had stolen Carl’s wallet at a baseball game a few months before, and that Carl had just found out about it. 
        

When I got home it was dark.  The house was empty, and there was no sign of my parents’ whereabouts.  It was not like them to leave in the evening, and certainly not without a note explaining where they were and a phone number to reach them.  I walked around the house, walked in each room, and called for them.  I imagined them gone forever, disappeared from the earth, and I felt terrified and free.  In my rational mind I knew they were not gone forever.  They had probably stepped out for a moment on some ordinary chore, and they would be back any second.  Still, I convinced myself they were gone.  After the midget house, my house felt so huge.  Every room was overwhelming.

I went into my parents’ bedroom where the light was off.  I went into the dark closet and sat on the carpeted floor.  In darkness I felt the silence that ruled so much of the universe.  In a weird way it felt like the silence was alive.
        

When my mother got home and told me what had happened to dad, I could not face it.  Even when I went to the hospital to see him—he had survived the stroke and was in stable condition, though he could not yet speak—I denied that his pain had anything to do with me.  These people were my parents, but what did that really mean?  They would be gone one day and I would be alone, so why wrap myself in the world of their decline?  I retreated to thoughts about the movie and about Jill.           

Monday at school Jill looked beautiful.  Her hair was shiny and she wore a blue jean jacket.  It was a bright, cool day outside, and our classroom was lit with cold fluorescent light.  The world wasn’t dark and rainy and ominous like in the movie. 

Still, it seemed possible that somehow, by chance, I might one day save her from something so bad she would be forced to love me.  For that to happen, I would have to save her from suffering and pain.  She would have to face terrible violence, like the woman in the movie.  Could a fantasy so dependent on pain and terror be born out of love? It didn’t seem right.  Yet there it was again, running through my mind.      

Everything was cold and clean.   I had done nothing to win Jill’s love and there were no magic birds.  She and I would never meet in the dark.  

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. 

Best of Three

by John Sawney

Bing Crosby comes on the jukebox and now them silly little gets round the pool table are carrying on again, pissed out of their heads, singing along about how they’re dreaming of a shite Christmas. It’s just winding every bugger up now, but Arthur dun’t say owt. He just skulks behind the bar like he dun’t want the hassle. I’m just about to get up and say summat meself, but then them big heavy doors come banging in like they’ve been kicked open by the coppers. Only it in’t the coppers, and every bugger knows it. It’s Bert Green.

There he is in the doorway with the snow all blowing in round him, and now the whole bloody place is freezing cold and quiet as the grave. Nobody says a peep. Every bugger’s staring down into their pints like they’re trying to read the small print on the beer mats underneath.

Bert Green’s barred. He’s always been barred.

But there he is, standing there like a bloody great big statue, eyes glazed over, face all red. He must have been at it all day. Now he’s walking in and he’s got a holly wreath in his hand, all tattered, like he’s ragged it off someone’s front door. He slams it down on the bar and his knuckles are all torn up and covered in dried blood. Maybe it’s from the cold. Probably not.

‘Happy fuckin Christmas,’ he says, spraying spit all over the shop. Arthur dun’t say owt. It was Arthur that barred him.

‘I says happy Christmas.’

Arthur looks up. ‘Happy Christmas, Bert. Pint, is it?’

Bert nods and slams a tenner down on the bar next to the holly wreath. ‘And me change in twenties for the table.’

Them silly little gets are nowhere to be seen now. It looks like Bert’s got the pool table to hisself. He picks up his pint and takes a big swallow. You can see half of it trickling down his beard from where I’m sat. He jangles the little pile of twenties in his big scabby fist.

‘Who’ll have us a game?’

The fine print on them beer mats must be right interesting, cos every bugger’s still reading them.

‘I says who’ll have us a game?’

You never knew anyone who could shout like Bert Green. Me teeth are rattling in me head from it. He’d have made a belting sergeant-major if he could stay off the piss for five minutes. You can see it’s gonna get nasty any minute now. Any minute and he’ll grab for one of them pool cues and wrap it round some bugger’s head.

Arthur’s got to say summat, for Christ’s sake.

Then there’s a peep from the end of the bar. Young lad on a stool, little blond fella, scraggly beard. Bert spins round on him.

‘What’s that?’

The lad clears his throat.

‘I said I’ll have you a game.’

I recognise him now—it’s Arthur’s nephew, the posh one that went away to university trying to be a doctor. Name’s Gareth, or Gavin, or Kevin, or summat. Bit of a nancy. Only now he’s had a skinful and he thinks he’s ten men.

Bert looks down at him, then shoves twenty pence into his hand.

‘Fire on, then.’

The lad walks over—shuffles, staggers over—to the pool table and racks them up. You can see right off that it’s gonna end up bad. Bert lets him break and he pots two. He pots another, then another, then just barely misses. It’s Bert’s go now, but he’s all over the shop. It’s all he can do to hit the white. The young lad’s bladdered as well, like, but by Christ he can handle a pool cue. He dun’t see the look on Bert’s face. He dun’t realise the danger he’s in.

Let him win, I’m saying to meself, trying to push the words into the lad’s head with me mind. It’s no good. The lad’s obviously not one of them psychic Uri Gagarin fellas off the telly. Now he’s on the black, and Bert still han’t potted a bloody thing. The lad nominates his pocket and pots it. Now he’s grinning his head off, holding out his hand to Bert Green like he han’t just signed his own death warrant.

‘Best of three?’ he says.

His little hand disappears into Bert’s great big scabby fist, and it looks like Bert’s just gonna squeeze it and break every little bone. But he just leans in, gritting his teeth.

‘I’ll be seeing you.’ He says it all quiet, like, but there in’t a sound in the whole pub and you can hear him clear as a bell. The smile disappears right off the lad’s face. He’s realised. Bert shoves the pool cue into his hands and starts stamping towards the door, face like thunder. He stops at one of the tables where these two fellas are looking down, trying not to notice him. He grabs hold of the table and just tips it over. Their pints smash all over the floor, and then Bert’s gone with the big heavy doors swinging shut behind him, out into the snow.

Now you’ll not believe this, but Bert Green in’t a bad fella. Not really. If you meet him when he’s sober, then he’s the nicest fella you’ll ever meet. Only, you won’t meet him when he’s sober. The problem’s his wife. Everyone knows she’s the town bike, that she’s had all sorts in the house while he’s out at work. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. Bert can’t control her, so now he’s stopped trying to control hisself an’all.

There was the fella he killed that time, the one who won the card game. Bert beat his head against the pavement till it cracked open like a bloody Easter egg. Someone took the fella to hospital—tried to, anyway. The car hit a wall, and his head got banged about all over again. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men… well, you know. Sub-durum-homo-summat, they called it. Brain bleed, I call it. Only they couldn’t prove it was Bert that killed him, rather than the car crash, so they dropped the murder charge and did him for aggravated assault. Back out in eighteen months. Redebilitation, they call it. Bollocks, I call it.

But he’s not a bad fella when he’s sober.

So now it’s the next day, and everyone’s acting like nowt ever happened. Them three dickheads are round the pool table again, singing about how Frosty the Snowman had a carrot up his bum. Arthur’s skulking behind the bar again, not saying owt. The young lad’s sat on his stool at the end of the bar, drooping over his pint like a broken scarecrow. Now I’m wondering what’s his story, why he’s sat here in his uncle’s pub in the middle of the day and not bossing people round in some hospital somewhere.

Right, I’ll bloody ask him.

‘Eh up, son,’ I says. He looks up like he dun’t know me, and maybe he dun’t. His eyes are all bloodshot and slitted up. His face looks like he’s borrowed someone else’s skin for the day, and it dun’t fit him too well.

‘Hello.’ He’s got a right croak on him today.

‘How come you’re in here?’ I says to him.

‘Where?’

‘In the pub. How come you’re not in some hospital somewhere bossing nurses round and pulling in a big wage?’ He looks at me like I’m a bloody head-the-ball, but I’ll not let it put me off. ‘Well? You’re a doctor, aren’t you?’

He kind of smirks, looking half asleep. ‘Of philosophy.’

‘Eh?’

‘Not medicine. I can’t help you with your dementia or erectile dysfunction. Sorry.’

‘Eh?’

He shakes his head. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘Eh… er… aye, thanks son. Half a mild when you’re ready. Much obliged.’

He in’t a bad lad after all. Arthur plonks me drink down in front of me, but no money changes hands. The lad dun’t even look up. I feel like I should make some conversation while I’m here, cos he certainly dun’t look up to it.

‘So what’s a doctor of philosophy do then?’ I says to him.

He manages a smile. ‘Sign on, mostly. Maybe the odd shift at Sports Direct if you did well in your thesis.’

So he’s a benefits scrounger. Bloody hell, that explains it all.

‘You’re not working then.’

He waves a hand towards them three daft gets round the pool table. Now they’re singing about shepherds washing their socks by night.

‘Is anyone in here working? I guess you must be retired.’

Nosy get.

‘Oh, aye,’ I says. ‘Long since now.’

‘And what did you do before?’

‘Oh, erm…’

I’m just about to tell him to mind his own bloody business when them doors come banging in again, and you don’t need to look round to know who’s standing there. He’s got another bloody holly wreath from somewhere. Arthur takes one look at him and disappears into the back. Gaynor’s working the bar today as well, though, and she’s having none of it.

‘Get out of it, Bert,’ she says. ‘You know you’re barred.’

Bert dun’t even look at her, just mutters ‘shut yer gob’ and makes straight for me and the lad. Only he in’t interested in me.

‘Think you’re clever, do you?’ he says, whacking the lad round the head with the holly wreath. ‘Eh?’

You forget how big Bert Green is till he’s stood next to you. The pub seems to shrink around him.

‘Leave the lad alone, Bert,’ I says. ‘He’s doing no harm.’

‘Half a mild for this un, Gaynor,’ Bert shouts, and I feel me teeth rattle again. He’s not such a bad fella, really.

‘I told you, Bert, you’re barred. Now sod off out of it.’

He drops the wreath on the floor and prods the lad in the ribs. ‘You. Outside.’

The lad can barely lift his head. He manages to croak something about not wanting any trouble, but Bert just drowns him out.

‘Outside. Now.’

You know in films, when a prisoner marches along at gunpoint all quiet and obedient, even though they know they’re going to die anyway? Or when they walk the plank and end getting torn to pieces by sharks just cos someone’s pointing a bloody sword at them? I always thought that was daft. But that’s what happens here. The young lad dun’t make a fuss, or try and run away. He just gets down off his bar stool and lets Bert Green march him out into the snow. Summat tells me there’s gonna be another sub-mural-heemer-toner any minute now.

Gaynor’s got the phone to her ear, looking all serious.

‘Yeah, can you get a police car to The Camel Inn on Albion Street, please? Soon as you can. It’s Bert Green again; he’s about to make a right mess of this lad outside…’

I follow them out. It’s bloody freezing, and I’m not really supposed to take me drink outside, but I can’t just sit in there while this is going on. At first I just see two sets of footprints in the snow—big uns and little uns—and then I spot the pair of them on the other side of the road, near the bookies. Bert’s dragging the lad about by the scruff of his neck, and now he throws him back against the wall. He cocks his right and throws it, but the lad dodges out of the way. Bert swings again and misses. And again. Christ, this lad’s bobbing and weaving like Joe Frazier. Trouble is, he in’t hitting like Joe Frazier…

Finally Bert swings a big right into the poor lad’s guts, and he just drops like a sack of shite. Sinks to his knees, doubles over, and throws up all over the pavement. I’ve never seen so much sick come out of one person. It’s melting the snow. Bert takes a few steps back, like he’s trying to stop it getting on his shoes, then he takes a few more steps. I realise what he’s doing, and I start to feel a bit sick meself. He’s taking a run up to kick him in the head. Like it’s the eightieth minute of the Challenge Cup, and he’s about to score the two points that’ll bring the silver home. The rotten bastard.

‘Don’t do it, Bert!’ I shout, but he’s already started running. He brings his right leg up behind him—he was a bloody good scrum half when he was younger, was Bert Green—then he skids off at a funny angle and his feet slide out from under him. For a moment he seems to hang in the air, like in a cartoon, and then he lands with a big thump in the road. There’s an awful sound as his head hits the kerb. Like a cricket ball hitting the wood. Now there’s a big pink halo spreading out in the snow around his head, and the young lad is starting to get to his feet. He looks like he dun’t know where he is.

I step out onto the road, mixing in my footprints with theirs in the snow.

‘Here you go lad,’ I says, and I hand him my half a mild. He nearly spills it all over hisself, he’s shaking so bad. In the end he manages to take a sip.

‘How do you drink this stuff?’ he says, pulling his face. ‘It’s horrible. What happened?’

‘Bert slipped in your sick. I think that means you won.’

I look down at Bert. One of his eyelids is fluttering, but that’s the only thing moving now. The lad gulps down the last of the mild.

‘Won…’ he says, rubbing his head. ‘Won what?’

‘Best of three.’

Now I can hear the police sirens on the wind. I hope there’s an ambulance an’all. You might say that Bert got what he deserved, but even so, I hope they can do summat for him. He han’t had a nice life. I hear the doors go again behind me—them three soft gets have followed us out from the pub. Paper crowns on their heads. They obviously han’t seen the state of Bert, cos they burst into song, swaying together from side to side with their arms round each other’s shoulders.

We three kings of orient are
One in a taxi, one in a car
One in a scooter, picking his hooter
Smoking a big cigar!

Leveling

by Chad Schuster

It was gray and cloudy but hot as shit. We were sweating through our t-shirts as we rode our bikes alongside the gridlocked highway, a stretch overrun by stoplights and big-box stores and Korean barbecue joints. Past the windshield repair place, past the massage parlor, past the tire store we rode through the heat and exhaust, half-inflated innertubes hung around our necks. I had a nice chrome bike because I'd stolen it, whereas Allen and James had nice bikes because their parents had money.

The lake was a shit show that day as always, horny teenagers crowding the shore, all kinds of contraband lurking in their sand-covered backpacks. The cumulative base from the stereos in the parking lot was enough to make you go deaf. It was the kind of urban lake that had lost all dignity, having been forced to swallow motor oil and fertilizer and pissed-out meds from a secretly medicated city. Not to mention the goose shit everywhere, a gray film covering the lake, the only revenge for flocks of ornery birds whose ancestors had laid claim to this rotting place decades ago and then left them with nothing to do but stalk the grounds and honk at the people who'd ruined paradise.

We didn't care about any of it. We just wanted to take off our shirts and feel the sun on our chests, stare at girls in bikinis. Maybe weasel some beers from the older kids. We locked up our bikes, blew up our innertubes and set out for the small uninhabited island at the center of the lake. The water was boiling, offering little relief from the sun that had burned through the haze during our bike ride. I was dizzy from blowing up the innertube and my mouth tasted like plastic, but I felt good, free, as we paddled away from shore. Over the splashing I could hear James and Allen ribbing one another up ahead of me.

"You're full of shit," Allen said. "Laura did not blow you. She's too straight for that."

"Whatever, man," James said. "Just cause your girlfriend won't give it up." I dunked my head underwater, preferring the sound of oblivion to their chirping.

When we got to the island we ditched our tubes on the shore. The island was small, about a hundred yards long, a decidedly overgrown and deserted place with only a few clearings people had carved out to camp or party. With no particular destination in mind, we made our way through the network of tunnels that had been cut through the all-consuming blackberry bushes. The tunnels were so short we had to duck as we walked, being careful to avoid the thorns, rotten blackberries littering the path below, smelling sickly sweet. 

"Kyle, your family could probably live here," Allen said to me over his shoulder. "You know, when you guys get evicted again."

"Fuck yourself, rich boy," I said. This was normal for us. We communicated via conflict. We came to one of the clearings and stopped to look around. No one was on the island – we'd already walked its perimeter and seen no signs of life – but someone had been there recently. We saw the remnants of a campfire, some garbage strewn nearby. Beer cans, toilet paper, candy wrappers. James crouched to examine something behind a log. "Check this out," he said. "Some junkies were here."

"Let me see," Allen said.

"Don't touch it, dumbass!" James said, but Allen ignored him.

He reached down gingerly and picked the object up. When he lifted it in the air I could see it was a syringe. "How about that, Kyle," he said. "Looks like your brother has been here."

I was ready to kill him right there. I wanted to. Another part of me wanted to cry, which was something I couldn't allow to happen. I said nothing.

"Jesus, Allen," James said. "You're ruthless."

"What?" he said. "We've been talking shit about dildo's junkie brother for years."

"Right," James said. "Then he went missing, remember? Jackass."

No one knew what to say then, so we paced around for a few minutes, swatting away summer bugs.

"Let's go back," I said finally, knowing it was up to me to break the silence. "Maybe we can score some beer."

"Gotta piss first," Allen said.

"Me too," said James.

While they were in the bushes I picked up the syringe, using a plastic bag I found nearby as a glove. I walked ahead of them and used the needle to poke a hole in Allen's tube. I was only going to make one hole, as a joke, but once I got started I couldn't stop. I just kept stabbing the thing. We were maybe a hundred feet from shore when Allen started sinking. "What the fuck?" He yelled. "Who messed with my tube?" James and I were laughing, paddling ahead. We didn't know Allen was such a bad swimmer. I figured he was being dramatic as he yelled and thrashed behind us, but we soon realized he was in trouble. We swam back and James offered to share his tube, knowing I wasn't in a charitable mood.

No one spoke as we paddled toward the mainland, me at the front of the pack. I knew James and Allen were behind me somewhere, but I felt alone. Even from a great distance I could see our bikes chained to a rack in the parking lot, their chrome bodies gleaming in the sunlight. In front of that clusters of people on the beach had oriented themselves toward the water like there was something out there to see, like no one seemed to know it was just a lake. There was no wind, no boats nearby, but the surface of the water was choppy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my shadow, paddling dutifully, another me, its hand pushing water aside, and I couldn't tell by looking which one of us was forcing the action. I looked forward again and took a wave in my mouth. I accidentally swallowed some, causing me to gag. The water was hot, it tasted communal, the waste of generations infiltrating my body. I pictured myself drowning, the water overwhelming me, my body sinking, columns of murky light illuminating the depths until I reached the cool floor of the lake where it was dark and my limbs became entangled in chemically fed weeds. The bottom looking up: this was home.

The dock was packed with kids laughing, smoking, dangling their legs. I climbed the ladder, set my tube down and folded my arms across my chest. The sun was already drying me off, I could feel beads of water evaporatoring on my back as I stood there, waiting. James came up the ladder first, followed by Allen. I was surprised by how excited I was to see Allen's chubby face rise above the edge of the dock. He looked at me then looked away as he brushed his darkened hair out if his eyes. Water dripped from his red trunks as he walked toward me. James, dragging the tube behind him, tried to distract from what had just happened. "Lots of girls today," he said. "Let's see if we can get some to go back to Allen's."

We were quiet for a bit, then Allen spoke up. "That was fucked up," he said to me. "I'd make you buy me a new tube if I thought you had any money." He wouldn't look me in the eye, which made me happy. I knew he wasn't yet committed. I could change that.

"You had it coming," I said. "Talking shit is one thing, but not about my brother. Not anymore."

"Don't be such a pussy," he said. "It was a fucking joke."

"You're a fucking joke," I said reflexively. I stopped to gather myself and Allen laughed, not in a friendly way.

"You make jokes about your family all the time," he said. "Don't get all high and mighty on me now." His gestures were becoming more animated now. He was talking louder, his tone had changed. People nearby were starting to listen in. "Listen," he said. "Nobody picks their family. It's not your fault you were born into a crack house."

I looked down at my feet, then back to the island in the distance before locking eyes with him. "You're right," I said, nodding. "You can only do so much. Take your sister, for instance. Daddy could afford to send her out of state for college, but he couldn't keep my junkie brother out of her panties."

"Sure, right," he said. "Your brother nailed my sister."

"Like twenty times," I said.

"Right," he said. "We've covered that.”

"I walked in on them once," I said. "She was pretty into it, just so you know. My brother may be strung out, but he knew a few things about how to make her come."

The people who'd gathered nearby, watching the conflict escalate, laughed nervously. Allen laughed too but he was mad, his body was stiffening, gathering strength. "Too bad he's probably dead now," he said. "Or sucking dick for smack in an alley somewhere." He was talking himself into anger now, I could see the lines in his face sharpening as he got going. He was almost yelling. I chose not to speak. Let him do his thing, I thought. Let him think he's in control. His mouth was all drama now, I watched it tremble and contort, spittle gathering at its edges, but I was unwilling to grant his words meaning. The power to ignore was something I owned, and so I transformed his speech into shapeless sounds, dull rumblings, distant thunderclaps I sacrificed to the sun. I stood there and absorbed the noise, smiling, watching his mouth while also registering more figures closing in on us, sunburned kids with expectant faces, the unkind smiles of a crowd that craves violence.

The dock was burning my feet but I remained planted while Allen shifted his weight back and forth. I saw James over Allen's shoulder, watching, a ghost inside his pale, freckled skin, orange hair, tired eyes, not the problem but not a solution either. He was always lingering at the edge, looking on indifferently, unwilling to take a position. I kept my hands at my sides, clenched and unclenched my fists, waiting for the moment to ripen, keeping time by my pulse, the base of a distant stereo pounding at roughly the same tempo, giving me the sense that this place and me had merged into one entity, I was performing some kind of religious rite and the job of everyone here was simply to watch. Hit hard, hit first. This is one of the few worthwhile things my father ever taught me. He knew nothing of books or learning but he had mastered his fists, along the way cataloguing hundreds of methods for swiftly ending conflict. Aggression, disregard, will: These are the forces that shape the events in books anyway. By using them my father was a writer and, despite everything else, I could love him for that.

I waited for more people to show up. I wanted them to see what would happen, all of us together creating a scene I could keep with me long after Allen and I were no longer friends. They began shouting at us, some of them telling us to stop but most of them encouraging us to get to it. I could tell the crowd was fueling Allen's anger. He had become their instrument, the localized expression of their collective unrest. "Allen," I said calmly, but he couldn't see me, he was yelling through me. "Allen," I said again without raising my voice. " Allen. Allen. Allen." I cupped my hands to my mouth and inhaled deeply, as if I were about to yell, and he snapped back to attention, pausing to hear what I would say. I hesitated for an uncomfortably long time. The crowd, still growing, muttered. "Allen," I whispered through my cupped hands. "I fucked your sister once too. I stepped in because my brother needed a break."

He was unreadable suddenly, quiet, uncertain. Then he struck. I saw a flash of light on my left cheek, felt the pain of his right fist connecting flush. Disoriented, I stumbled back but did not fall. He came at me wordlessly, trying to wrap his arms around my midsection, his first mistake, I knew this right away without having to think about it, because don't grapple until you have no other choice, but then again what does this kid know about real struggle? I tasted blood in my mouth, salt and iron, a rush of saliva that I spat on his bare back as he tried to grab me because I wanted him to know this was not a game. I lifted my knee into his lowered chin, causing his head to jerk back sickeningly. I heard yelling, cackling somewhere around us after the impact, the crowd was impressed, but the noises were all muddled, like they were being routed through a cable on the bottom of the lake, and anyway I was too busy going to work on Allen, dropping him to his back, climbing on top, throwing fists not with rage but with precision because you can't lose your head, the emotional one always loses. Shot after shot I landed and now he was covering up, it was about to be finished, people would soon break this up, I knew, but not before I looked over and saw my shadow wailing away, that was me over there again, me letting myself find the deepest bottom available, neither loving nor hating the process, just doing what the men in my family have always done, the one thing we've always been good at, and I'm not sure I was smiling exactly, but that's how it went down in my memory, me with a big bloody grin, a silhouette in action on the shore of a troubled lake, caring for nothing but the moment, the sunburn on my neck, the pain in my knuckles, my ribs, my jaw. The only thing that mattered was that there was blood sizzling on the planks of the dock, some of it Allen's, some of it mine, and in the heat and frenzy of disconnected instants no one could tell whose was whose.

An Odd Eleven Scenes

by Joshua Trach

“I can’t help it, listen to me,” I tell her.       

“Yes you can,” my mother spits. I wonder how she can always be so sure and yet still have no clue what I go through. What I endure. “You just have to want it, Nate,” she finishes in a self-satisfied succor. Walking away, she looks back at me over her shoulder to let me know that’s Finis. I am angry, but also wasting time. If I don’t start up the stairs right now I won’t reach my room before dinner, when I will have to come back down either way. So I do that. The stairs come in neat pairs, every second-step receiving my right foot softly.      

The inner machine of my mind is unstoppable and relentless; tirelessly, without mercy it goes. It seems bent on destroying itself, imploding like a black hole, or the Earth opening its own fault lines. The San Andreas Fault lies underneath the Californian highways. The scientists (and geologists) say that when it opens up, or even considers opening up, the state is going down. All vanquished; nothing to be done except wonder why the Americans continued expanding the city, and marvel at the general courage of all the Californians.     

What I’m trying to say is that I think of myself as being like California. — 

I spent four hours writing that section. There had to be an even number of words (220). That’s a good, round number. My psychologist says that as my symptoms continue to progress, I’ll be trapped ruminating over the character count, as well; but I already do. I’m just avoiding the Mad House.

There were 1,200 characters in total, if you include the spaces. That’s a good number. Not the best, though: 220 goes into 1,200 five times, which is an odd number. Even so, five is not as bad as seven, so I don’t have to make some changes up there, yet. If my symptoms stop progressing, I might not have to ever.      

If you haven’t realized, I have OCD. My name is Nathanial (like Hawthorne), and I just had a fleeting thought (what if I made every section 220 words?) that I’ll be forced to comply with, no matter how vehemently, how desperately I try not to.

My psychologist says that it’s an anxiety disorder, which makes sense I guess. Anxiety is how it starts, and I’d assume there’s some sort of deficiency in my brain that made me susceptible to thinking I need to step on the sidewalk crack every second step, and then actually having to. I can’t shake the feeling of impending catastrophe if I don’t.

                                                         —  

980 characters not counting spaces, 1,200 with them, with 220 words. Good. It’s the same way with the first section, I’ve noticed, so all the rest will have to follow this established form. It can’t be helped, and since I have tons of time on my hands, I guess it’s not the worst I’ve ever done.

Returning to my mother and what I have or haven’t done: this is a sort of testimony. She scares me since she loathes me. The day I showed symptoms was the day she essentially gave up as a care giver, just like that. Describing that feeling, emotional whiplash is the term that comes to mind. She’s found the whole ‘charade’ inconceivable, like a foreign language. She isn’t improving, either; she doesn’t want to, maybe. I couldn’t say.

If anything happens to me, she’ll say it was my fault. I can hear her now in fact, waving it all away. My Nathanial should have minded himself better, he was not good at that. Mom will go on with her drawl, saying I could’ve saved myself. I always told him Mind over matter. What she doesn’t seem capable of considering is that my mind really is overcoming matter; it overcomes my body with oscillating waves of paranoia and panic.

She is on the phone, slighting me.

—      

I feel complete finishing these sections like this, as if by not filling in my pre-formed template, the universe would be compelled to warp, wrapping around me and silencing my anomie. Without finishing one when it’s started, sleep is impossible. So I do one a day, taking my five whole hours of freedom (average) to get them done.                

For this running testimony, I’d like to present some running dialogue overheard on the phone last night.

“What’d I do to deserve this? I was so loving… Yes… All that hard work though, for nothing. Life does that to you, I guess… Oh really? You’re sure? … I should tell him that. Maybe he’ll snap out of it.” Not likely. “You ask him… That’s what I thought… He’s like, oh, I dunno, an alien or something… No, neither do I.”      

This happens regularly; I cry at night, only to be driven into the bathroom so I can soak my face with a hot towel for any length of time between a half hour to an hour so late that my eyelids shake with the effort it takes to keep them open. If I don’t, the tear-salt might cause my skin to decay. If I don’t, the universe might decide to silence me. I know that wouldn’t happen; I continue.

980: hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Sandman.–

I can explain. Last night I passed out at my desk, woke up in a cold sweat and shaking. The universe was shaking. That previous section was three quarters finished. The dialogue made my already chosen ratio impossible if I was to stay true to my mom’s words. I fought against my self-imposed event horizon for another hour until the sun rose. Those hurried concluding scrawls feel wrong, yet acceptable enough to keep. Hopefully they stay like that.

Today I’ll stumble down the stairs with an even number of steps, right foot every second time in a hopefully short amount of time, avoiding my mom. When we do at last cross paths, she’ll cut me with a toxic comment and the letters will pierce my skin, bubbling underneath. I hope there’s an even number of them. Hah hah.       

There is a chance that today will be the day she forces me to put my left foot down on the last even step and then drag me away. She’s been threatening for weeks now, I should have spent more time fortifying myself for the inevitable. It probably wouldn’t have helped. Passivity is now my normal state, I am a walking talking reaction; I put nothing into the world. I hate this, and I’m starting to hate myself, but I won’t cry.

My doctor advises “de-stressing,” because with “these stress levels,” I’m going to experience immune system “deficiencies.” Med School apparently taught him little about OCD. Nobody’s medication works; I just don’t know what to do. Isolating myself in my room would be a good idea if my staircase journeys hadn’t become rituals.

Today I stood at the top of the stairs until my mom left, just before noon; I made the trek in an almost-record of a half hour. On that positive note I made two pancakes, eating them both without incident. It took me 32 bites, which is 18 bites per pancake. An even number. As I stopped counting there, I have high hopes for today. Writing from the kitchen, my plate sits in front of me, and I’m scared to move it in case a compulsion strikes me. In any case, there might be time to sneak a nap today.   

Update, two hours later: I fell asleep on the couch in the sunlight, feeling like a normal person – that was the best part. However, when she came home, my mother did not share my enthusiasm. She took my impromptu napping as evidence that I could break out of any cycle I chose by putting my mind to it. We shouted at each other until our voices were hoarse, naturally.

—      

I’m booked for an appointment that I’ll do my best to keep with my psychologist soon; but things are changing and my mom won’t be willing to drive me there anymore, as during our recent screaming match she said: “I’m done enabling your stupid delusions.”  Words wouldn’t paint the satisfaction scrawled over her features. I told her I couldn’t, which all of my comebacks can be boiled down to if you try. My mom and I both want the same thing, which makes her blindness the worst part of my debacle.         

Her malice is not new to me, but that threat in particular is. Until now her goal has been to force me to rehabilitate, as clumsy as it sounds. I guess she’ll be moving on to some twisted silent treatment now. I know this new distance will only make me worse. Hopefully she’ll figure that out soon. Telling her would be impossible right now, but I could use her help; a little bit of support would go a long way. In reality I don’t hold any expectations; so, getting there is my biggest problem. I’ve never gotten my driver’s licence because I can’t trust myself; besides, it’s obvious my mom wouldn’t give me the car. Nobody knows what would happen, probably not even the man tasked with healing me.

I kept the appointment with my psychologist. I was surprised finding myself in his office, impressed I’d made it all the way here, where a Freudian couch was nestled under a window, and Dr. Lahr sat behind a handmade desk. He asked me how I was and got a running commentary of everything I’ve written down here. There were less constraint-related stylistic decisions, so it was an easy retelling. He seemed to think I wasn’t regressing and was maintaining my sanity, so I showed him this record. Unsurprisingly, he found it neither healthy nor encouraging. I don’t think he truly understood what was happening until he read this.    

In his office, he asks me to stop writing for a little while, citing the stress my counting is causing. I tell him that I’ll always be counting; at least this way it’s pretty predictable. Dr. Lahr does not agree, and thinks that sort of resignation will do more harm than good; so I tell him it took me 14 steps to reach his desk, and that 2 goes into 14 seven times. Seven is the worst odd number; that’s why I had to pace the length of his desk before sitting down. 20 steps, cumulatively.

I should mention that I walked to his office from a bus stop 20 minutes away.

—      

My mother is gloating that today will be the day: today she is going to forcefully rehabilitate me into normalcy. She lords this over me happily, watches me shake and quiver in solitude and fear. I hate the way she has such power to ruin my moods, and at the same time how her presence is so acutely missed.

On the subject of barricading myself in my room: that’s a solid option. Thinking that leaving won’t be possible without unthinkable consequences is the only thing stopping me. Leaving anything behind would be the end, Fin; and then what about food? Even so, there’re two dressers, one table, and one desk that I can, and probably will, drag in front of the door. That isn’t two-and-two identical pairs, but since it is two-and-two, it’s good enough. I can get food when Mom leaves the house.   

Normalcy is a foreign impossibility: a distant spec seen in a telescopic view of the universe. Isolation has won out and I am destined to become an article in a journal somewhere, a caricature of what can go wrong: Mental Illness.

I’ll take one last cry before I seclude myself; and when I’m done cleaning my face I’ll run back to my room (From then on, The Room), and I’ll do what needs to be done.

—      

My life has become rather cyclical in the past three days, even more so than it used to be, and I’m questioning why I bother with this record anymore. It’s unlikely anybody will read it. But for the sake of finishing things, this section will describe my days from now on.

Day One was a catastrophe, as its oddness suggests. Mom beat against the door for seven full minutes and then called me every name she could. Her despair almost convinced me to open the door. I didn’t eat, drink, or use the bathroom. Day 2 was better, since Mom left around noon. I careened down the stairs, ate a package of Pop Tarts with one apple and one banana, and filled up 2 thermoses with water. I used the bathroom and closed The Room’s door behind me just as she came home. Day Three, today, is fairly indistinguishable from Day One, and I find myself wishing I ate more yesterday. Tomorrow she’ll probably leave around noon and I’ll be ready.       

Mother’s epithets are swelling in their hatred: “Nobody’s ever heard of such stupidity, you got that right. I should move out and leave him here for the next poor bastards.” Nothing different from the usual, I suppose, but it feels more focused now.                                 

I have hope for Day 4.

—      

Day 4 is turning out to be the worst day of my life, and it’s only one-thirty. Everything was going as expected; my mom had left and I was scavenging in the pantry like my life depended on it, which isn’t really a lie. Mom came back a half hour earlier than usual with Dr. Lahr, so I understood things were worse than previously thought. I instantly scurried up the stairs, thoughtless, knowing I still had a thermos of water that could get me through the day.

It was Dr. Lahr who tried calling me back, “Nate, hold on a sec,” but his voice diminished with every second that I ran, until it wasn’t real anymore. Somebody thundered up the stairs when I closed the door, and collided with it, shaking the doorknob violently. The dresser was too heavy to move in time; nothing else would have done the trick against the incoming rage – my door flew open. In walked my mother, followed by Dr. Lahr. Her hair was tousled madly and her shoulders rose trying to catch her breath. Dr. Lahr: “Collect your things, your mother wants to take you somewhere.” Asylum, I think. I’ve five minutes, and then departure. I’ll take this with me, finish it later.        

A new cycle begins, and I feel my fault lines trembling.    

The Wrath of the Norsemen

by Lee Upton

When I consulted Audrey about my decision we were in a restaurant that smelled vaguely of parmesan cheese and old carpeting—a partly sweet, almost burning smell.  Audrey was concentrating on the bowl of olive oil dipping sauce.   A fly floated amidst the rosemary, its little arms crossed.

“I’m not going,” I announced.  I had the sensation of sidestepping a calamity—like in an old movie where a piano falls forty floors but a man walks on, unscathed, dust shooting up behind him.  

Audrey reached across the table and squeezed my hand.  For all her talk of being sensible, she is a woman of supernatural empathy, the bringer of gift baskets to sick friends and the purchaser of sympathy cards on the occasion of the death of cats.  

“You know what?” she said. “You’ll go.  You’ve already registered.  It will be good for you.   Besides, they’ll never give you your money back—or not all of it.” 

The camp was devoted to men like me, men who suffered from anxiety.  Normal everyday anxiety for everyday normal people.  

Sunlight poured into the car, flecked with sparkles.  I imagined that outside the car it was too hot and that the pines that took over so much of the landscape were boiling in their resin while the papery bark of the birches buckled.  I calmed myself by reading billboards: Home of the Croissant, the Waffle Parlor, Dumpling Dan’s. Shadowy blobs in the distance: beef cattle.  Another patch of billboards:  Advanced Heart Care at Pocono Hospital and then, in devilish irony, The Cheesecake Factory,  followed by, fast approaching, a graveyard.

I was feeling guilty on the drive because I hadn’t been entirely honest with Audrey.  I wasn’t only going to the camp because of anxiety.  I was going  because I had learned the camp was run by someone I knew in high school: Julian Pusser.  Now that’s a name that can ruin a kid’s life, and maybe that’s why Julian developed certain capacities.  Like he believed he could channel voices.  Old de Groot, principally. 

Julian Pusser used to say that Old de Groot strangled him from the inside, like thick hands clutched ladder rungs inside his throat so that Julian would mouth whatever the spirit of Old de Groot demanded.  Julian would channel that voice as some of us guys stared at him.  Because it was pretty convincing.  Julian said that when Old de Groot was alive he wore a frilled neck collar over a raw neck as reddish-pink as a vulture’s.  Old de Groot.  Julian could gargle and vomit but couldn’t get him out of his throat once Old de Groot wanted in.  Old de Groot, a mean dirty-minded freak who never had a good word to say to anyone when he was living.  He wasn’t going to change his habits now that he was dead. 

Julian said he didn’t even understand what Old de Groot was saying—except it sounded like Dutch.  When he stopped gabbling in that Dutch voice,  Julian shook his shoulders and became himself again.  I remember one time I asked Julian what it was like to be Old de Groot’s “host.” Julian said it was like a meatball fell on gravel and kept rolling, picking up pebbles, and that meatball flew up into your mouth and started talking. 

That was the Julian Pusser I knew.  I also knew about some of Julian Pusser’s other tricks.  I confess that years ago I fell for one of his tricks—and it’s a miracle I’m not dead.   

I arrived at the camp in late afternoon.  Standing at a picnic table—registering by all appearances—was a  guy who looked like a Viking.  Gold hair twisted into a thick braid hung down the guy’s back.  Leaning up against his leg was a backpack with a sleeping bag roll and a water canteen.  In the heat his t-shirt was stippling like push pins on a military map. The Viking was so broad that the staff member seated at the picnic table was only visible by an elbow. “Is it okay that I brought along a machete?” the Viking asked.  I couldn’t hear the staff member’s answer.   When it was my turn the man at the table considered me with what looked like relief. 

“Where is everyone?” I asked. 

“It’s FOB time—flat on back time.  We’ll ask that you gather yourself in preparation for the commitment dinner.  You have a half hour.”

“Gather myself?”

“Turn inward. Contemplate your purpose.  In silence.”

“Oh shit.”  It was the Viking.  He had stopped in his tracks several feet away but apparently was listening. 

Flat on back time.  I had a roommate in my cabin: George, a market analyst.  I’ll let you make up your own mind about George.  That night I left the commitment dinner early, before anybody spoke or made a commitment.  I waited back in the cabin and counted on hearing what all happened at the dinner from George.  I knew Julian Pusser would show up at the end of the dinner and give one of his talks about ways to defeat anxiety.  I was just too nervous to attend.  When George returned he wasn’t alone.  He brought back the young guy who looked like a Viking and another guy, a gnarly guy with the widest cheeks I’d ever seen on a man: Kevin.  George was a social animal and liked to have at least one other person around him the way some people like to have companion animals.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation until Kevin began describing Julian Pusser.  “He doesn’t move.  He hardly blinks when he talks.” 

George asked, “What are you talking about?”         

“I’m talking about our leader,” Kevin said.  “Julian Pusser.  He has enormous self-control.  Not to blink.”

George sat down next to me on my cot, punching the mattress with both fists, and said,  “This isn’t as thin as my mattress.”   He turned his attention back to Kevin.  “How does he get anyone to listen to him? That’s the mystery.  With a name like Julian Pusser.”  Hearing George, I momentarily felt transported back to high school.  

“That’s nothing,” Kevin said.  “I know a guy named Barton Peuker.” 

“You got the first session, right?” George asked.  “Out of everybody you got the first private session.  What did Pusser tell you?”   

“He told me to stop hiding.”

“You seem to be in plain sight to me.”

“Julian, my man Julian Pusser, advised me: Get visible.  Be seen.”  Kevin smiled, lifting his face up and flinging his arms out.   “Plus he told me to make a gnome hut.  With sticks.  A little homemade stick hut for sheltering your fears.  It’s a spiritual task, he said.  He’s a man of the spirit and for the spirit.”  Kevin called over to the young guy who looked like a Viking:  “What about you?  Do you have a private appointment too?”

The Viking, sitting by the door and staring at the ceiling, told Kevin that his appointment wasn’t until four o’clock on Tuesday. 

Already by then, out of anyone in that cabin and anyone in the camp, except for Julian Pusser, the Viking interested me most.  I couldn’t figure out why such a vigorous-looking guy was at the retreat.  Wasn’t he too young to feel anxious?  Up close, he looked especially young.  A peach scum of new beard filmed his chin. 

 The Viking. Maybe I got so interested in him because every time I looked at him I thought of the movie The Vikings.  Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.  In the movie Kirk Douglas rides a tiny pony, so tiny that Douglas’s feet just about touch the ground.  Ragnar—Ernest Borgnine—voluntarily jumps to his death into a wolf hound pit, dying with his sword in his hand.  I ask you: why didn’t Ragnar just stab all the wolf hounds?  Janet Leigh—she was Tony Curtis’s wife and in the movie you felt the sexual tension between them anyhow.  And there’s a scene where the Vikings are going to assail the castle and one of the extras is smiling in this goofy cheerful way.  Brilliant.  And then there’s the witch’s weird warbling call to Odin when Tony Curtis is chained in the crab pool and the tide goes out.  And when Kirk Douglas as Einar busts through a chapel window feet first he cries out to a praying monk, “Take your magic elsewhere, holy  man!”  Julian and I used to watch that movie together a lot. For a class project we even wrote a collaborative series of haikus about the movie and got in trouble for the words horny and bastard.   I still remember those haikus—although maybe not exactly:

Heads prickle with prongs.

Eric’s horny heart thunders.

Northumbria, huh?

Take time to pillage!

Let every vat boil with foam!

Dance on oars, Einar!

Big knees drag on ground:

Einar rides tiny pony.

Janet can’t stand him.

Einar and Eric:

Brothers!  Sorry about that

stab.  Bastard, you’re home!

“I guess there are people who could find value-added because of Pusser,” George was saying.  “I’m not all that impressed yet, but I guess what he’s selling sells.” 

I couldn’t resist.   “Obfuscation?” I said.  My voice came out in a bleat.

“That sells,” George said, patting the mattress between us.  “Sounds like a men’s cologne.  People feel important, hearing a word like that.  Obfuscation.   I bet you felt important using that word.  Yeah, that word sounds like one of those unisex colognes—they’re not coming back again ever, by the way.  Women don’t want to smell like their dad.  It’s that simple.   I will say Pusser’s got intense eyes.  They’re like eyes that see by the light that falls on a playground and you’re walking past and thinking I bet those kids get splinters in their hands, and that old tire swing has probably been the source of more than one concussion.  Those are his eyes.”

Those were his eyes.  I hadn’t realized those were his eyes when Julian and I were kids.  As George kept talking, what felt like a barbed hook ripped through my chest.   When the squeezing subsided into a crackling dart I reflected on the fact that the signs of a heart attack are vague.  One website I consulted months earlier listed as a primary symptom “feelings of impending doom.”   That couldn’t be abnormal.  If I hadn’t endured these symptoms for years—acute anxiety masquerading as heart trouble—I would be headed for the ER.

It was the Viking who said to Kevin, “What’s with your face?”

Kevin’s hand flew to his nose.  He pulled his hand away and gawked at his own fingers.

“Do you need to lie down?” I said.

The Viking was crouching over Kevin like an umpire and saying, “Lean forward.  Pinch your nose.”  

“No big deal,” Kevin said, smearing his chin. “No big deal.”

“You look like you’ve got a head wound,” George said.  “Isn’t this supposed to happen to—you know, to non-adults?” Blood sprayed onto Kevin’s sandals.   

The Viking grabbed some paper towels George kept on his side of the cabin, handed one bunch to Kevin, and spread the other towels to catch blood.  The Viking kept mopping things up, patting Kevin’s back, then using his own shirt to blot up blood from Kevin’s chin then repeating the cycle.

“It’s not a big deal,” Kevin repeated.  By then his teeth were red.  “It must be the altitude.  My body is more sensitive than I am.  I’ve seen a lot of my own blood.  It never fails to surprise me.”  He spread out his hands.  Inside each palm: more blood. “I just never stopped getting these nose problems.  When I’m anxious, you know?  It’s not easy being here.”

George was laughing.  “You’ll need to duck your head in a bucket, guy.”  He pointed his sandal toward the Viking.  “Come on, buddy, it’s not like you’re bailing out a rowboat.  Calm down.  Take your time.”

“I’m cool,” Kevin said.  “It’s like a faucet.  It’s turning off.  I can feel it drying up in there.  Thanks, guys.  I mean, really, thanks.”  A bubble of blood peeped out of his nose. 

Abruptly the Viking sat on the floor,  his face covered by his gold mop of hair.    

In the middle of the night the cabin door banged open and cool air was sucked into the room. I switched on the light.   The Viking was standing inside the doorway.  By then George was backed up against the wall at the rear of the cabin.  I hadn’t even seen him run out of bed in terror.

The Viking breathed heavily and informed us,  “I got a discount by saying I’d sleep in the woods.  Then I got lost in the woods.   I came here to gain a sense of direction and I got lost.” 

“You’re lucky.  You could have stayed lost,” George said. 

The Viking sat with his back against the door.  After he started to snore, an unexpectedly light snore—like someone sucking an ice cube with a coffee straw—George said, “He’s cheap.  He bargained for the cheapest rate.  Now he’s afraid of the woods.  Meanwhile we pay full rate.”

 “He’s just a kid.”    

George snorted. “I would hate to think the program isn’t getting the financial support it needs.”  

A tall man in an elevator handed me a sack. The sack was heavy—so heavy that I woke up and translated: He left me holding the bag.   In the dream it was Julian Pusser who gave me that bag.

The next morning, stepping over the Viking where he was curled by the door, I walked out onto the grounds.   The dawn light was coming through the pines in shafts.  Rain drops clung to bushes.   I hadn’t listened to so many birds in a long time or seen so many pine needles shining or so much thick brush shuddering with living things.  The sizzling sound in the air made me think of Tarzan movies and how sounds were recycled movie to movie—a shriek and a swishing of leaves, the camera panning to high branches.  In the next scene Tarzan was standing in front of a movie of a charging rhino.   In the end Tarzan sequestered Jane.   It was a perfect world for a misanthrope.  Rope bridges, towers.  Tall plants.  Like Pier I Imports.  Maybe I’d ask Audrey to marry me—ask again.  We could have an actual family before it was too late.  Even mass murderers were known to have wives.   And here I was—a non-violent man, regrettably not an entirely well-toned specimen, granted “a fly swatter could put you to death,” Audrey once told me before she apologized.  So what was Audrey waiting for?  Other than someone else?  Wasn’t I supposed to be the one to resist commitment?  I resisted nothing.  I always felt better around Audrey.  In fact, without her to talk to, my insomnia was back. I glanced up the slope at the staff cabins and instinctively ducked my head.

When I circled back to my cabin, the Viking was awake and rubbing his eyes.   I was happy to see him. He struck me as being like a giant golden rabbit’s foot—a token of luck for anyone but the rabbit or maybe the Viking himself.   George was awake too, pulling a shirt over his head and then staring at the Viking with disdain.

The wall of the cabin shook.  I recognized Kevin’s voice.  

“Can’t you knock like other people?” George said, opening the door.

“I’m not like other people.”

The Viking stood up. He seemed taller than yesterday. Like a good night’s sleep stretched him.   “What did you hit the wall with?” he asked Kevin.

“A squirrel.”  Kevin added quickly, “It was not what you might call a live squirrel.”

“After you bury that squirrel,” the Viking said to Kevin, his voice stern, “why don’t you come down to the meeting hall and drink some coffee.”  I was surprised by the Viking’s tone.  Last night he was tending to Kevin the way you’d tend to a five-year-old boy and this morning he was defending a dead squirrel.  Maybe there wasn’t a lot of difference in behavior. The Viking was acting like Kevin’s father even though he had to be two decades younger.

“I think it’s actually elk droppings,” Kevin said.  “It’s not exactly coffee.”

“So why don’t you come down and drink some elk droppings.  First, take care of that squirrel.” The Viking’s voice sounded not only stern but strained, like it was an effort for him to engage in a conversation of this length.

 “I don’t know why you’re so sensitive about that dead squirrel,” George said, as if he was Kevin’s proper defender.   “It’s not like all of Kevin’s kinfolk ate squirrels.” 

The gnome hut was easy to help Kevin make and wasn’t heavy, just awkward to carry.  Gradually, the other men were out far ahead on the trail back to camp, the Viking towering over George, with a new guy called Dylan gesticulating every few feet at something. 

Kevin, who tended to be slow anyway, waited for me as I grappled with his gnome hut.   When we were side by side on the path he spoke in a low voice.  “I want to tell you something.”

The gnome hut dug into my wrists.  “Okay,” I said.  “Tell me something.” 

“It’s about Mark.”

“Who’s Mark?”

Kevin outlined a refrigerator in the air.

“Oh, the Viking,” I said.   “Mark.”  I would never get used to calling the Viking by the name Mark.

“I know why he’s here,” Kevin said.  “His in-laws.”  

I considered the matter: To think that the Viking—Mark—was forced to come here at the command of his in-laws.  Too sad.

Kevin explained that Mark’s father-in-law saw the ad for the retreat, even set up the appointment for an individual counseling session for the Viking.  Because, Kevin said, of what happened to the Viking’s wife and his little boy.  “I’ll give you the basic version.  Mark and his wife had a fight.  After too many beers Mark was sleeping away from his wife in a room off the kitchen.  He woke only once maybe.  Or was more likely half-awake when he heard a ripping sound above him, like carpet being torn up.  Nothing.  Squirrels in the ceiling.  Nothing.  He fell back to sleep.  The fire had already spread into the walls.   They passed away—the wife and the little boy.  The kid was four years old.”

I set the gnome hut down.

“How do you know all this?”

“I asked Mark why he was here.  He treated it like a punishment—telling me.  Part of his punishment was telling me.”

“And now you’re telling me.”

“I’m not telling anyone else.  Not George.  Don’t worry about that.” Kevin picked up the gnome hut.  “Mark should be watched.  He brought a machete.  That’s weird in itself.  He wants to be a chef, though, so that’s a good thing—a machete could cut up a lot of fruits.  That shows advance planning for a possible future.  But, still, he should be watched.”

 “How does being a chef—?”

“That’s what she was—his wife.”

 I had been lucky—not once had I run into Julian Pusser.  I went to a session on “Dream Shifting” because I was pretty sure Julian wouldn’t be there.  We were supposed to crawl down into a hole in our minds and meet our spirit guides.  We were warned that some people could never crawl down into their hole because they kept getting spewed out to the upper world.  I was doing pretty well at mentally crawling down into a hole until the dream shifting leader put on a recording of drums and I was startled back into my own life.   

It was the third night of camp and I’d attended two sessions on meditation and gone on a “wildflower walk” and managed to avoid all the night sessions where Julian Pusser gave his talks.  Sitting by the campfire seemed pretty safe.  According to George, Julian Pusser disappeared after he gave his talks.     

The firelight shook and flared comfortingly, and after a while I was the only one by the fire until the Viking showed up.  We were silent for a long time, companionably looking into the campfire, until he said, “I went to the private session.”

“Was it okay?”

“I know Kevin told you about me.  I told that guy, that Pusser guy about what happened.   I made myself tell him.  He looked at me and wouldn’t talk at first.  All I felt about myself—it was there.  Right there in him.”

Across the way a figure limped off toward the lower cabins.  A pickup door slammed shut. 

“He said I shouldn’t let myself get away with it.  He said I wanted them to die.   He said I knew what I was doing when I fell back to sleep.  He said I was slow, that he’d noticed how slow I was right away.  You like to be slow, he said.  He called it resistance.” 

 “When he was telling you these things—how did he look, you know, what was his expression like?”

The Viking paused.  A chunk of log fell into the fire and the flames snapped.  “He looked—happy.”

The night was growing cooler and damp, like my face was being passed over with a wet brush.  Dread locked my knees.   Julian was visible in a window of the largest cabin on the rise.  The cabin—it was a trick of the dark—was breathing like something made of cells from a lung.  My heart was doing strange things.  I thought I couldn’t take another step.  And then Julian was crouching to fit his upper body into the window frame.   “Hey, Sean,” he called out.  “I wondered when you were going to admit you knew me.”  

 I managed to stumble up the steps.   Once I was inside the cabin I was struck by the smell of wet ash.  A smell as intense as if the cabin was recently set on fire.   Mold speckled the floorboards.  A vague piney rot had to be distilled in the walls. 

A box of cereal lay on its side on the coffee table.  Some non-generic cheap cereal.  Was it a sign that Julian might be the ascetic he convinced others he was, a spiritual man who lived on wilted corn flakes and actually liked to breathe the fetid air inside this cottage?

The smell in the room got worse : wet towels left to harden and crust.  I sat down on a rickety kitchen chair.  Julian lowered himself into an armchair and smiled in a way I remembered.  “Where have you been hiding all these years?” he asked. He lifted his hands and the chair’s armrests gave off a greasy shine.

“I haven’t been hiding.”  

It was harder than I expected to keep my eyes on him. 

“Listen,” he said.  “You have problems.  I tried to help you. But you know what, I can employ you.” 

 I managed to say, “I thought I had problems.”

 “A long time ago I saw you for what you could be.  Except for one thing.  Where it counts you never pushed the envelope.  But I saw—I did see what you could be.” 

I thought of what he must have meant.  The newspaper reported the incident.  The woman who swerved filed a report. But no one ever found out about me.  I couldn’t be sure Julian had even heard that I followed through.  The thing was: I didn’t feel braver afterwards. 

I remembered the reason for my walk up the path to Julian’s cabin and asked, “What’d you do to Mark?”

“Who’s Mark?”

“The big kid.  The unhappy one. You had an appointment.”

“If he’s not satisfied I’ll meet with him again.”

“That’s not what he needs.”

“All right. You know what he needs.  That’s reassuring.  I’m reassured. I’m not refunding anything. I don’t think the retreat’s been all that bad, do you?”  An easy smile, a shrug.   “All my life I’ve wanted to help people.  Some people are easier to help than others.  You shouldn’t drink, Sean.  That’s friendly advice.  You and drinking—not good.  Remember that.”

“It doesn’t work,” I said.  “What you’re trying to accomplish with me.”  I made myself look into Julian’s eyes. 

 “It never did.  You were always good at self-hatred.  You should see your face right now.”

 I was such a naïve kid.  Julian had been practicing on me.  Practicing his “techniques.”  He was always smarter, always the leader.  For a long time I pretty much worshipped him.  Lying down on the highway was the test.   Lying down on the highway on the night a mother of three was driving home from night shift at the hospital.  She swerved.  I could have ruined her life.  I was supposed to lie there—a challenge, a test, to see what I was made of—and I was supposed to jump up at the last opportunity.  I didn’t jump up.  Once I was lying on my back on that pavement it was like I was paralyzed. 

I don’t remember walking out of Julian’s cabin.  I do remember heading down the path, my head whirling before I felt my body falling into space without landing. 

The next thing I knew the Viking—Mark—was holding me up and somehow my head was hanging out the window of the cabin and I was suddenly recalling something I’d forgotten for decades: in middle school I did two book reports on the life of the great baseball player Dizzy Dean.  How did I get away with that?  

The camp wasn’t over for three days.  What were those men going to tell their wives or partners when they got home?  Did they believe the camp had revealed anything to them, changed them, made them less anxious, less startled, less prone to insomnia and night horrors? 

I was leaving early.  As a parting gift, Kevin gave me his gnome shelter.  It leaned against the cabin railing like a depressed rodent’s nightmare.   Before he headed  out for a meditation session George said that by leaving I was wasting an opportunity of a lifetime.  Mark, the Viking, was curled on the floor in the corner while I packed.  He had gone back to sleep after breakfast and missed the testimonials. 

When the Viking lifted his head he looked like he forgot where he was.  He looked that confused and panicked.   And that’s when I asked him to do a big favor for me.    

 I pounded on the gas pedal, telling myself I could reverse the sensations I had been getting nearly every day by then, the pliers of anxiety squeezing between my ribs.  There was a soft snap—something falling off the gnome hut in the back seat of the car.  It was like driving a tumbleweed. The steering wheel was hot under my fingers.    

Mark, the Viking, had agreed to ride with me.  I’d told him I was worried about driving back home alone. My anxiety, etc.  The truth was: I wanted to get him away from Julian Pusser before Julian did more damage.  I knew that the Viking, so anxious to be useful, to save anybody from anything, couldn’t refuse to help me out.

The Viking was leaning forward in the passenger seat and bracing his hand against the dashboard every time we took a curve.  I asked him,  “Why’d you bring the machete?”

“I thought it might come in handy.  Like now.  Like if you plunge off a bridge I can break a window while we’re underwater.” 

On the billboard up ahead, two people were stuck inside a mammoth champagne glass.  A honeymoon resort.  I tried to imagine myself and Audrey stuffed in one of those champagne glasses—like shrimp cocktail—and couldn’t.  I pointed out the billboard to the Viking, who was looking over at me anxiously from the passenger’s seat.  What was I doing?  That billboard really wasn’t the thing to point out to a guy who lost his wife.

I concentrated on the scenery to quiet my heart.  I tried to imagine telling Audrey about what I was seeing, how ponds were set into the hollows of hills, and the cliffs were dark with slate, gray and black slate with ferns growing in fissures and the ferns waving in the wind running down from the hills. 

The road ahead was clear—no traffic even.  Just the same, I kept fearing something in my path—a habit of mine, even though I’d never run over anything, always missed, except once when a rabbit hurled itself at my wheels, skittered right into my path before I could stop.

In another mile the Viking proved essential.  He took over the wheel and got us to the emergency room at Stroudsburg.  What saved me: a stent for my heart.     

I didn’t expect to see the Viking soon after that and I didn’t.  But the following summer he stopped by my place out of the blue.  Audrey had at last moved in with me.  It only took a heart attack.

“Hello, stranger!” the Viking called out.  I was on my lawn picking up sticks from a storm.  “Making a new gnome hut?” 

I could hardly stop laughing—I was that glad to see him. I had told Audrey about the Viking—Mark—so many times that she’d finally asked me to stop talking about him, and now here the kid was, looking jolly, unscathed.  Right away, with pride in his voice, the Viking announced he actually had a job.

“Great,” I said.  “Absolutely great.”

He said he was going to work for the summer up at the strength retreat in the Poconos.

“Are you crazy? You’re kidding me, right? You’re not going to work for that psychopath.  Don’t tell me that.”

“He helped me out.”

“What do you mean he helped you out?”

“I saw him again—before we left.  It was just a test, what he was saying to me.  Like he was extracting the voices from my head—the worst voices—so that I could examine them. He has a method.”

“He has a method that could kill people.  That’s his method.”

The Viking clearly didn’t want to pursue this idea and said,  “I’ve got somebody I want you to meet—in my truck.”

Somebody turned out to be a malamute.  A huge animal with black mask-like markings on its white and grey face and a long dripping tongue.  The animal’s mouth didn’t close, like it was perpetually smiling.  Its tail curled up and over and onto its back like a big happy plume happy to say hello to its ass.  A really idiotic looking dog.

“He’s something.  That he is,” Mark said.  “Yeah, well. They don’t allow dogs up at the retreat. Liability issues and all that. So many anxious people have trouble with dogs.  So I was wondering–.”

“No.  Audrey—she wouldn’t like that.  We don’t do dogs.”  I regretting saying “do dogs”—it sounded vaguely sexual.  We don’t do dogs.  No, rethink that.

“What I mean is we don’t have a lot of room and we’re not dog people.  We’re not even cat people.”

“You mean that?  That’s something I don’t understand.  Listen, he eats a lot. He’s expensive, but he’s a good boy.”  The Viking turned to the dog for corroboration.  “Tell him.  You’re a good boy.”  He swung back in my direction.  “Actually he’s a malamute. He can’t tell you much of anything.”

“About Julian Pusser—how could he help you?  I don’t believe he helped you.”

“He told me to get a dog—Rumpus here. ”

“Rumpus? This is Rumpus?  And he tells you to get a dog, but then won’t let you bring the dog with you when you work for him?  That doesn’t bother you?”

“I need the work.  He helped me.  He has a method, really.”  And then the Viking was bending over, hands on his knees, like he was sick.  When he unbent he was laughing.  “Oh man oh man oh man oh man.  The look on your face!  I can’t keep it up!  Man.  I gotta stop. I’m gonna have to take you back to the ER if I keep on. Oh man.  I’m just kidding with you.  Are you crazy?  I’d never work for that asshole.  I got a job in Saskatch, New Mexico.  Working for a hotel there.  Dining services.  You believed me about Julian Pusser?  Wow.  You believed me.”

“You were so convincing.  Like you had seen him again.”

“I did see him.  Before you and I left.  He was helpful.  Actually.  He did tell me stuff that was helpful. And to get a dog.  He had a message for you too.”

“You’re kidding again.”

“No, man.  It was a weird message. I thought you kind of didn’t need to hear it then anyway.”

“Well, tell me.  What did he say?”

“It didn’t make sense.  Except for one part. He said you really need a dog even more than I do.  But the rest didn’t make sense.”

“I don’t expect it to make sense.”

“Okay.  He told me to tell you that the last time he talked to you—at the camp—he said that was Old Goobers talking.  Not him.”

“You mean Old de Groot.”

Mark had to hit the road, and all too soon he drove off.  The hours seemed longer than usual afterwards. I was alone because Audrey had left directly from work for dinner and a movie with girlfriends. 

It was instinct and a sense of uneasiness that led me, later, to look out the kitchen window.  That’s when I saw the malamute—Rumpus.  Tied to the branch of the walnut tree.  I might not have noticed the dog except for the glint of its collar.  Otherwise the animal faded into the background, like it was made of camouflage.  I hurried outside and untangled the leash from the tree and led the dog into the house.  The animal followed dutifully, tail wagging.

“You must be hungry and thirsty.  You were abandoned, weren’t you?  Left to your own devices.”

Later when I talked to Audrey about what happened I was surprised that I didn’t sound angry—and so was she.

“You made it absolutely clear that we weren’t taking the dog?” she said, suspicion in her voice.  “You’re sure you made it clear?”     

After I once more recounted the whole incident, Audrey said, “How does your friend know that we won’t just let the dog wander off or deliver him to the pound?  He’s not our dog, after all.  We don’t owe the dog anything.  It’s a nice looking dog though.”  She was petting the dog behind the ears then shaking its paw, which it kept lifting to her like an overeager salesman.  “Aren’t you nice looking?” she said to the dog.  “Aren’t you indeed.  Indeedy do.  A handsome fellow.”

“Yes, I guess I am,” I said, hoping she’d laugh.  “Have you ever seen a movie—an old movie called The Vikings?”

She thought maybe she had but couldn’t remember the plot.  I took my time telling her about it.  She didn’t seem to mind.  Soon the dog was resting its head on her feet and sleeping.  I told her about the two brothers, how one was a bastard.  The brothers didn’t know they were brothers.  They were trying to kill each other.  Audrey said she would watch the movie with me if I picked up a copy or found it on Netflix, but only for the fjords. 

Entanglement

by Sally Wagner

Christine is cleaning the kitchen for her mother when she turns around, and in the low evening light sees her neighbor, Nick Brower, at the back screen door. He is holding a cantaloupe and two spoons. Christine is startled and looks away when their eyes meet.

“Hungry?” Nick asks. “I got this at the store today and thought you’d like some.” He smiles like a comfortable old friend although she hardly knows him.

Christine hesitates.

“Hey, I thought you could use some company with your mom at work. I won’t bite, promise.”

Her eyes dart from his face to the floor.

“Why don’t you get a plate,” he says through the door.

“Well…okay,” she replies, grateful for a prompt. She puts down the wet dishcloth.

Christine expects Nick to stay on the back porch, but hears the squeak of the screen door as she walks to the kitchen counter. The hairs on the back of her neck rise as she opens a cabinet and pulls out a medium-sized plate. The lady down the street said he did time in prison.

“Got a knife we can cut it with?” he asks, now standing beside her. A faint smell of alcohol has drifted into the kitchen with Nick. It reminds Christine of her father.

“Yeah, somewhere….” says Christine, nervously pawing through a drawer. She gets out a knife and hands it to him. She watches Nick put the cantaloupe on the counter and make a clean cut. He scoops the seeds into the sink, places one half of the melon on a plate and holds it out for her to take.

Nick’s dark, shoulder length hair, loosely tied in a rubber band at the nape of his neck, is streaked with silver. Christine catches the outline of an octopus tattoo on his arm.

“I’ll just hold mine,” he says. “No need to dirty another plate.”

“Why don’t we go out back,” Christine says in a higher-than-usual voice. She points to the screen door then wipes beads of sweat off of her upper lip with the back of her hand.

“You in high school?” Nick asks as they walk outdoors.

“Yeah, tenth grade,” she says.

“Last day just around the corner, huh?”

“Yeah, next Friday.”

Christine drags an aluminum lawn chair to him across the cement porch as she balances her plate of cantaloupe, then gets one for herself. Nick settles into the chair and spoons out the shimmering flesh of the melon. The back yard is surrounded by a rusty chain link fence and crowded with oak trees and overgrown bushes that seclude them from neighbors. The grass is mostly patchy and brown except where occasional flecks of sunlight beat out the shade. The faint noise of traffic filters through the vegetation from the main road, otherwise the neighborhood is free of human sound. Christine glances at the small paw sticking out of the newspaper shavings in a cage by the house.

“Nothing better than fresh cantaloupe. Now aren’t you glad I decided to share it with you?” He smiles at her again revealing straight, white teeth.

Christine nods while she slips a chunk of the fruit into her mouth. The evening air is humid and she suddenly feels too warm in her black jeans and T-shirt. She glances at Nick, his facial creases prominent in the outdoor light. She sees the tattoo wrapped around most of his bicep below the short sleeve of his cotton shirt.

“My mom won’t let me get one of those,” she gestures toward the tattoo, “but a lot of kids at school have them.”

“Maybe you can get one in a few years.”

“Maybe. Was it painful?”

“Yeah, especially around my wrist.”

Christine studies the wavy tentacles that reach down Nick’s arm, like the octopus is swimming in its own world far below the surface of the ocean. Small fish in bright shades of pink, green and purple dodge the detailed suckers that line the tentacles. She can see how humanlike the eye is. It is the eye of a cartoon princess—clear blue, heavily lashed and innocent. She looks away.

“Don’t like it?” he asks.

“It’s okay. Sort of reminds me of my old lunch box, the mermaid one I had when I was little. At least the eye does.”

“So what kind of tattoo would you get?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

She looks down at the smeared black ink letters she sketched on her arm yesterday at school. The words I AM ALONE are still faintly legible.

“Always write on yourself like that?” Nick asks.

“Sometimes…when I feel like it.”

“Your own version of a tattoo?”

“I guess,” she laughs.

Christine’s not sure what she’d choose—so many options. The girl next to her in math class got a tattoo. A dragonfly. Figures she’d have to be pretty sure of something so permanent.

Except for the pulsing cricket songs from the bushes the yard is still quiet. Christine raises her eyes and stares into the evening sky while she leafs through mental files. She remembers the mess before her mother got completely fed up with her father’s drinking. It was hard not to be on edge constantly. She’d watch for clues that would signal his mood changes. When her father struggled to keep his chin from falling to the kitchen table things would get real bad. His head would bob on the overstretched spring of his neck and his eyes fade into an alcoholic haze. He hit her if she didn’t do what he said even when she tried to follow his orders exactly. Never could get it quite right. So much better with him gone.

Nick shifts in the chair and the tubular aluminum grates on the cement, the sharp, high-pitched sound startles Christine. The young, orphaned raccoon she begged her mother for panics and rustles in its shredded newspaper bedding. Christine glances over as the animal’s paw disappears.

“I hate these old webbed chairs,” she says. “I wish we could get new ones.”

“Yeah, I wonder if I’m going to break through this frayed webbing and wind up on my ass.”

“They’re a pain to fix if they break.”

“Don’t worry your pretty head about that. Just tell your mom I know how to fix them.”

Christine cheeks redden. Pretty is not a word people use to describe her. She pulls her brown hair forward against her face to hide a breakout of pimples and her pale complexion.

“Don’t look at me that way,” she says, when she senses Nick’s eyes on her.

“Hey, I’m just looking at you regular.”

Christine wonders if she’s imagining. She gets things wrong a lot.

“Everyone knows you were in prison,” she says.

“That’s right. It’s not a secret.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I’m not sure that it’s any of your business. But I can tell you I know what it’s like on the other side and I don’t want to go back. I did my time, the slate’s wiped clean, now I’m just like anyone else.”

Christine feels somewhat reassured and fidgets with the lock of long brown hair that still obscures her face. She looks at the raccoon cage pushed against the house. The raccoon ventures to the front and stretches its paw through the chicken wire toward an acorn just beyond its grasp. Christine stands up and walks over. She stoops and reaches for the nut, then hands it to the raccoon. It grabs the food, pulls it into the cage and rotates it between its paws.

“Must not be very hungry or maybe he’s just a picky SOB,” Nick says. He snorts a laugh. Christine sees the raccoon startle again, drop the acorn and run to the far side of the cage.

“You scared him,” she says.

Christine glares at Nick from where she is crouching. The octopus tattoo gyrates oddly on his arm as he processes her accusation. The eye half winks at her while the raccoon jumps at the back of the cage.

“You poor little thing. Did that guy scare you?”

She unlatches the door.

“You know that’s a wild animal in there. No telling what he’s carrying,” Nick says.

“He’s fine. I pick him up all the time.”

“What do you want with that dumb thing anyway?” he asks.

Christine puts her hand into the cage, her palm flat and motionless. The raccoon watches her fingers, approaches and raises its velvety snout upward; black leather nostrils move with the constancy of a heartbeat, sniffing, as if to gauge her character by scent. She waits as it climbs into the warm cradle of her palm. Christine closes her hand and pulls it through the door. She pets the top of its head, and in seconds it starts to push back against her fingers.

Christine smiles as she strokes the animal’s back, the silky fur under its chin. A mosquito worries its way around her damp neckline as it looks for a clear path to dive and bite. She hears its high-pitched whining, shakes her head to thwart the attack and it swerves sideways into the ebbing light of the humid summer evening as if alerted to the danger by mission control.

“Do you want to hold him?” Christine asks.

“Not really.”

“He won’t bite you. Put out your hands and I’ll bet he’ll crawl right on.”

Nick holds his palms out and she pushes the small animal out to him. The raccoon stalls suspiciously and sniffs the air.

“C’mon little guy,” Nick coaxes softly. C’mon, you can do it.” Christine is encouraged that Nick is willing to hold the animal.

“Go on,” she says. “He won’t hurt you.”

Evening fades. A neighbor’s living room lamp gleams through a window casting shadows. Fireflies emerge from their damp underworld homes into the heavy night air. Christine remembers as a child chasing one through the trees and catching it in her small, grimy hands. She let it crawl around her palm, watched its translucent abdomen blink on and off and smelled its faint musky odor as it traveled up her finger and launched itself into empty space.

“That’s right,” Nick whispers to the raccoon. He takes his forefinger and presses it into the vulnerable underside of the raccoon’s neck. “I won’t hurt you.”

Christine closes her eyes as she takes a deep breath. She looks at the sky, then back at Nick. The raccoon is struggling to claw itself out of his hands. She notices the warmth of Nick’s brown eyes and curve of his high cheekbones. She trembles and wraps her arms around herself tightly.

“Take this guy, will you.” Nick says.

“Okay. Here, I’ll put him back in the cage.”

She recovers the agitated raccoon, puts it back in the hutch and locks the door so it can’t escape.

“I need a drink of water after that. Damn thing scratched me. Get me one would you,” Nick says.

Christine goes into the house, gets out two glasses from the kitchen cabinet and fills them with cold water from the faucet. She opens the freezer, finds ice and drops several cubes in each glass. When she arrives full-handed at the screen door Nick opens it. She waits for him to move aside so she can bring the glasses out to the porch. But he doesn’t move. He half joking and boyishly blocks the way, like he suddenly decides he wants to play a game. Then he pushes her into the kitchen.

“Didn’t you forget something?” he asks.

“Stop it! Why did you push me?” she blurts.

Nick pushes Christine again and water sloshes out of the glasses making a puddle on the kitchen floor.

“God you’re clumsy,” he says. He pushes her a third time.

Christine struggles to keep her balance while more water jumps out of the glasses.

“I think you’d better go,” she says.

Christine hears the engine of a car on the street out front. Nick raises his head as if he has heard a police siren in the distance.

“That’s my mother,” she says.

Nick’s eyes shift back and forth as he scans the kitchen for an exit. For a moment he is like a frantic animal, locked in a summer cottage, hopeful to claw itself through a weak spot in the wall.

“You’d better not be lying to me,” he says. He glares at her, his brown eyes gone a flat black, as he hurries out of the house and slips into the hot night.

Christine runs to the door, grabs the handle with one hand and turns the lever with another—locked—then she races to the front door and locks it—her heart on an involuntary marathon. She laughs as if she has crossed a finish line or made it to first base ahead of the ball. Safe! The thrill of it suddenly feels good. She laughs again, her body releasing tension—satisfying like the first surge of an opiate hitting the pleasure centers of her brain.

She wonders what Nick will do next. She’s read about stalkers. Will he try to sneak into the house at night? What will she do if she wakes up and finds him looking down at her?

Christine rises and begins to turn slowly in a circle, like a young girl on the playground making herself dizzy, enjoying the singular feeling of being alive, then twirls again and again, faster, grinning a goofy, bare-toothed smile, laughing a pirate laugh as if she has discovered gold buried in her yard. She weaves down the narrow hall to her bedroom where she stops and studies herself in the splotchy mirror above the dresser her mother found at the local thrift. She strokes and smoothes her hair until it glistens like the surface of black coffee, then pulls it forward to frame her face and partially cover the fullness of her cheeks. Her face looks thinner when she turns and gets a sideways view in the mirror. She likes that. She lifts her chin and pouts like a fashion model she saw in a magazine as she pulls the crew neck of her baggy black shirt into a plunging V-neck that reveals the cleavage above her thick belly. Giggling, Christine falls back on the striped bedspread that covers her sagging mattress, the taste of cantaloupe still in her mouth, entangled in fantasies that wrap tight around her like octopus tentacles.

She remembers one year at the beach before she could swim. Her father warned her not to go far out in the choppy sound. She ignored him and walked on tiptoe into the gray-blue water up to her neck, thinking she was in control until she stepped into a hole carved out in the smooth bottom sand. The brackish water was just an inch over her head and she could look up through it at the summer sky. She pushed down hard against the bottom with her toes and sprang upward for a gulp of air. She yelled for help. She bounced again and again, yelled out each time, only fully aware of the danger when the current began to sweep her further out. It was forever until she felt her father’s hand twist around her exhausted body to snatch her from danger, to pull her into the shallow water, closer to shore, his deep voice cut through her for disobedience of his order, his body a slippery dolphin as she tried to cling to him and breathe.

Christine rolls over onto her elbow, the curve of her body sinks into the mattress as the memory drifts away. No one can give her orders anymore. She wonders what it would be like to have a man next to her in this moment, a man like Nick, holding her, caressing the side of her body. She can feel herself pressing against him, wanting to be a part of him. She can sneak him into her room at night, he can climb into her first floor window from the backyard and no one will know.

From her window she sees the lights on in Nick’s house. She imagines that he is watching an interview on the Late Show with an actor, a mass of a man with bulky shoulders, who saves his family from a catastrophic earthquake in his latest Hollywood action hit. He’s the kind of man who stays with his wife and children. During a commercial Nick goes to the refrigerator, opens a bottle of Budweiser and returns to the sofa. He lifts his feet onto the coffee table, puts his tattooed arm on the back of the sofa where she imagines she is sitting, then he curls it around her and pulls her into his world. She puts her head on his shoulder and he strokes her hair.

Christine knows she can walk down the dim hall back into the living room, her hands can touch the lock in a matter of seconds. She will turn the lever and open the door to the night and the fireflies, the mosquitoes, the brittle-shelled, black June bugs that are bouncing against the window screens.

Painted Walls

by Will Walton

She dipped the roller in the pan then smeared streaks of pink across the blue wall. Drops of paint ran down like tears. It made her think back to the tadpoles skimming blindly across the top of the water in the stream behind her childhood home. She smoothed down the runs and dipped the roller again. She heard the old hardwood floor creaking, footsteps passing by in the hall—one door being opened and shut and then another.

Niobe!?

In here, she hollered.

He opened the bedroom door. She was standing with her back to him, facing the painted wall, holding the roller with her left, her right, contouring her stomach.

Why did you do this?! he asked. We talked about this! We agreed to wait this time!

She turned her head slightly and rested her chin on her shoulder, said nothing. He waited for a moment, then walked out of the empty room and back down the hall. She put on one more row.

After unscrewing the roller from its extension, she dropped it in a bucket of water to soak. She poured the leftover paint from the pan back into the can and beat the lid down tight with the
butt-end of a flathead, then wedged the tip of her middle finger between the label and the handle and watched it rise and fall into the fold of her fingers as she stood up. The drop cloth, she left spread out on the floor, and then walked over to the closet.

She slid the door open, took a breath. Sitting in the back corner, up under a hanging row of tagged clothing, was another can of paint—dried runs of baby blue down its side. She sat the pink on top and let the handle fall to the side.

She was sliding the door closed, and then she stopped.  Put her hands to her stomach. Smiled. It was the second time in a long time—the first came earlier that day, just before she bought the paint.