Angle

by Glen Pourciau

I’m looking at my phone in a comfy chair at the mall, more or less unaware of anything around me, when a man sits in the matching chair to my right and starts in on me with his story.  I think nothing of the way he looks or dresses, but he’s intent on making eye contact and that seems intrusive to me.

Forgive me, he begins, do you have a moment?  I’ve just witnessed something.  I travel in my work and I’m away from home and don’t know anyone nearby to talk to.  I could call someone, but I’m not married and not in a relationship and I don’t want to intrude on anyone who could be busy.  And what could they do about this situation since they’re not here?  I see that you’re occupied with your phone and it could be that you have something urgent to tend to.  No?   Then if you don’t mind, here’s what happened.

Without waiting for answers, he keeps talking, but he strikes me as being a little too interested in making me believe his story.  Why tell me his relationship status and why he’s not calling someone he knows?  More explaining than seems natural, something unconvincing about him, more like a person absorbed in his own head than someone who needs to talk about whatever he claims to have seen.  Does he mean to suggest that because I’m present he’ll expect me to take some action, and if action is needed, why hasn’t he taken it?

I stop by malls to stretch my legs, he continues hurriedly, to be around other people, pleasant environment, weather’s not a problem, get some exercise, quick bite in the food court, then on my way. I’m going out to my car and I see a youngish man and woman arguing, not just a discussion but heated and loud, and some people, like me, are standing outside the exit watching them.  The man is demanding that the woman get in the car, but she won’t do it and shouts so that all of us can hear that she’s not going anywhere with him.  I have no idea how long this has been in full uproar, but my car is on the other side of this scene or incident, and I’m not about to walk through it, not knowing what could erupt at any moment.  The man’s frustration with the woman grows and we can’t hear every word they say to each other but all of it is heated and finally the man turns and smashes his fist into a side window.  The window does not break, and the man cries out in agony and shakes his hand as if he’s broken most of his knuckles and then rubs his shoulder and curses and yells:  You see what you do to me!  She’s furious that he blames her for the window punching, and she starts away from him toward the mall, toward us, the watchers.  I take an instinctive step back, as do most of us, but the man runs after her and grabs her arm and pulls her back.  I notice that a few of the watchers are talking to their phones, reporting the incident, I guess, or perhaps telling their friends.  I turn and come back into the mall, unsure what I should do.  I don’t see a security person anywhere and I would think that at least one of the phone users was calling someone to take charge.  Not sure if I sound coherent, I’m still rattled.  I mean, the guy was rough and he could have had a weapon, who knows?  I couldn’t try to stop him without risk to my safety, could I?  I’m not trained to handle this type of crisis.  So what do you think?  Should we go out there?  Maybe we could find a way to help her.  She wasn’t giving in to him, but how long can she protect herself and what will happen to her once he gets her in the car with him?  They’re right out there, he says, and points toward a corridor that leads to covered parking.

I don’t answer, don’t get up, don’t react, don’t know whether to trust this stranger.  I come to the mall about twice a week and I’ve never seen anything like what he’s described. Why has he chosen me to speak to?  Is it because I’m somewhat older than he is and he presumes I have more experience, or does he hope to lure me outside and overpower me because he thinks I’m too old to put up much of a fight?  What would happen if I went to the parking lot with him?  Would he walk me to the car where he’d say he witnessed the scene?  Would someone be there waiting for us, someone working with him? What’s his angle? Does he have one?  Could he be doing this just for fun?

Did you hear what I said? he asks. Don’t you feel any responsibility for what happens to that woman?  Are you saying you don’t care about the danger she could be in? Is that what you’re implying?

His face takes on an expression approaching outrage. Is his growing emotion real? Has he seen something he doesn’t know how to deal with? Is he sincere in wanting my help? I don’t answer his questions, not any of them.

Are you judging me for walking away from them? How can you do that when you sit there in silence, basking in the neutrality of this processed mall atmosphere?  What is it, in your mind, that makes you human? Not the power of speech, apparently.  For God’s sake, answer me. You think I’m sitting here talking to you because I want to be ignored and therefore disrespected?

As he speaks, a woman with a phone that she’s already fingering approaches an empty chair opposite us, but hearing the anger in the talker’s voice, changes her mind and goes on her way. I hesitate to do as she has done, my distrust causing me to wonder what forces could be at work. I fear the talker will follow me if I attempt to walk away from him, that he could have a partner whose eyes are on us and the two of them could converge on me as I get in my car.

Don’t you have anything at all to say? the talker demands to know, but he sees that nothing will come from me. He stares at me with disgust, as if his eyes could tear a response from me, and then stands and heads toward the exit where he says the argument took place. Why should he be indignant, assuming he was sincere and he did come across a violent altercation? Didn’t he flee the scene? If he was looking for help, why didn’t he ask anyone there to help him? I can’t make any sense of his behavior or his sudden anger, so why should I accept what he’s telling me? If I went with him and confirmed too late that his story was part of a con, these questions would be ones I’d later think should have been heeded.

Yet, I’m tempted to follow him at a distance to see if anything might still be going on, to see if I can learn something that will help me understand why he has told me the story. Not that much time has passed and a police car could be in the parking lot and bystanders could be gathered. But I haven’t seen people rushing toward the exit to catch sight of some unfolding drama. If I follow him, would I be letting him maneuver me with his story and accusing insults? Would he be watching for me?  Is that idea ridiculous?

I pocket my phone and look around for anything that seems suspicious. I picture myself walking along the wall of the corridor he’s pointed to until I reach one side of the exit doors. I peek out and see him talking to a man who’s almost a head taller than he is, both of them close to the trunk of a parked car, the conversation animated, the man appearing to be known to him.

The longer I sit, the more I feel like a target. I get up and take a walk around the mall, vigilant, wondering how much he could know about who I am.  I see nothing that arouses my concern, but as I start to relax I imagine a man smashing his fist into a car window, his bones giving way on impact, the woman possibly seeing her reflection in the glass.

I’m not parked near where we were sitting and not in a covered lot. Eventually I walk into the open air.         

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.  

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. 

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.

The Climatologist

by Micah White

On the stick two pink lines appear. The climatologist curses and throws the applicator in the trash before fishing it out and examining it again. She sits on the toilet in her cabin, her underwear in a heap at her feet. Her job is to save the planet, she reminds herself, not impose upon it another mouth to feed. She considers the postgrads, the damage done. 

She pulls a cocktail dress from her suitcase. Sequins sheen beneath the cabin’s fluorescent bulbs. She dresses, accents herself with heels, mascara, Indonesian pearls. She’d rather not attend the party, even though it is for her. One, two: contact lenses in. Glasses on the nightstand, secure in their case. Today she is forty-two, far over the hill and bound by slowly shrinking ice. She slips her bare arms into her parka to thwart the hallway’s frost.

Through the canteen door she spots her students drinking beer and wonders whose genetic material she bears. She enters the room, her hands on her stomach. The two students stand and smile. The crew begins to sing. A cake is brought. Jazz seeps through speakers. Arctic sea nudges the hull. Balloons burst. Confetti falls like rain.

Adam had been apprehensive. He worried about consequences. He asked if he should get something but she said: no, there’s no need. In the dark of her cabin his beard scratched her neck, and she warmed her hands on shoulders sculpted by years toiling atop glacial fields.

In his toast Adam says: to my mentor. Everyone drinks.

Clint had lost the timidness and stutter she remembered from his freshman year. In his cabin, amid her giggles and his fumbling with her buttons, she begged him to be quiet, to heed the walls. He ran to his dresser, searching, but she said: no, there’s no need.

In his toast Clint says: to my muse. Everyone drinks.

The party slows. She draws her two students close and says: Come, I want to show you something. In the lab she takes from the freezer a six-foot core she drilled this morning. They huddle around it, their heads near enough to feel each other’s heat. In the ice they see the world as it used to be.