A Day at the Races

by A. Scanlan O'Hearn

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

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

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

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

‘Can I show you somethin’?’

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

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

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

‘Please.’

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

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

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

Ma, what’s the matter? I’m workin’

Dean?

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

Dean, I’m about to get into somethin’

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

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

Ma, really, I gotta go.

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

‘What’re you sellin’?’

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

‘It’s there.’

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

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

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

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

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

Even if It’s Only Me

by Lance Dyzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you acting weird?”

Carolyn went for her bathroom.

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

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

“I told you, I don’t know yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you tuck me in?”

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

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

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

“Hey mom…”

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

“What’s it like in Nebraska?”

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

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

“I’m not afraid,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“No, Meredith. I can’t imagine.”

“Where do you think they get—”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s no signal,” he said.

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

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

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

“Why don’t you have a suitcase?”

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Steven, wake up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conclusion of the Species

by Soren Gauger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This look, however, missed the mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by James Hartman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do remember 🙂

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

What about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitler in Pasadena

by Brett Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

“Because he was dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your point?”

“Both Helmut Koch and Hitler are animal lovers.”

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t,” Jack immediately responded.

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

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

“We’re meeting a contact tonight.”

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

“They aren’t going anywhere.”

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

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

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

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

I sighed. “Fine.”

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

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

 
 

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

“Alex is a Nazi hunter,” Jack said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m serious,” Jack said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack grinned.

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

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

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

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

“We are?” I said.

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

“So?” Jack said.

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

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

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

“It’s just a sign.”

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s check.”

“His mail? That’s illegal.”

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

“Anywhere. I want to actually see LA.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit, shit, shit. He knows.”

“Knows what?” I said.

“That we’re on to him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We spooked him. He looked scared.”

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “Sounds good.”

I shut the door and turned toward Jack.

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

I nodded. “Got it.”

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

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

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

“Snatch him? Like kidnap?”

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

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

“Don’t worry. Nobody will catch us.”

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

“He’s not people. He’s Hitler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever You Can Spare

by Thomas Kearnes

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

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

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

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

“That was your sole responsibility.”

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

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

“No, I told you to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to pee,” she answers.

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

“Hello? Pregnant woman here!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you here with someone?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am? Do you need a ride?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tight staircase lifts from the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At home? You live close to here?”

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

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

“Even your children?”

“All part of God’s plan, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know something that might help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Belts

by Leonard Kress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off Island

by David Ackley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missus. Misses. Missed…

They felt the engine begin to throttle back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It crowded her from the inside.

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

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

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

The Visitors

by Aimee LaBrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Let me think about it," she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Depending on what?" her mother prods.

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

Hazel snorts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's not so bad."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like gasoline?"

"Like spoiled milk or something."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Embrace

by Catharine Leggett

So many of them Naomi had never met, the people who populated Eric’s life. Each one saying how well she was holding up, especially given the suddenness of his death, as they pressed their warm, moist palms into hers and offered their condolences and encouragement.

I knew him from the Rotary, from Kinsmen. He helped with Christmas hampers. We worked out together at the gym. We curled together. We were golf buddies. We belonged to the same bike club. We were in toastmasters. We were members of the Walk for Prostate committee. We volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity. We met on Thursday nights for pub darts. We were fishing buddies. We worked together. A parade of introductions as they came to say goodbye. 

They spoke of his disposition: considerate, generous, caring, giving, creative, outgoing. An amazing sense of humour, a leader, an innovative thinker, a tireless worker, generous, a community member, full of surprises, so proud of his family. Many said it was a wonder they hadn’t met Naomi until today, and how regrettable under such a sad occasion. Some looked at her as if wondering if she really could be his wife. But here she was, in the flesh, solidly filling in any hazy notions they might have had of her.

Monday, moments after finishing her yoga class and taking her phone off mute and seeing a list of unknown calls filling the screen, the phone rang. Eric had collapsed near the eighth hole. An ambulance was called. 

She ran out of the gym, across the parking lot to the car. At a stoplight, the act of waiting stretched on, magnified by an emergency. Should she run the red light? Should she cry? Bash her fist against the steering wheel? How should a person act? She anticipated the green, concentrated on putting pressure on the gas pedal. She noticed everything – the height of the light stand, the giant X through a no parking sign, a man leaning forward as he walked ‑- and somehow nothing seemed familiar. Time flexed, extended and contracted, all at once.  She didn’t recognize her usual route, though she wasn’t lost.

She thrust away thoughts of how serious Eric’s condition might be, allowing them no time to fully shape. He’d be fine; the heat had gotten to him on the course. He’d suffered a spell, a setback. He’d be fine.

An older man with a fringe of white hair, pink scalp and a fiery complexion, asked, “Was there any indication, that this was coming?”

“None at all,” Naomi said.  In fact, Eric just got the all-clear from the family doctor.

At the hospital, as they were prepping Eric for surgery, a doctor came out to speak to Naomi about what the procedure might entail. Naomi nodded, but she wasn’t hearing; she was thinking how the surgeon seemed to be wrinkle free, except in the neck. She must have had a little nip tuck, maybe she had a friend who did it for free. Surgeons would have surgeon friends, wouldn’t they?

After, when she came out to explain what had gone wrong, something about total blockage, Naomi laughed. This woman, this surgeon, couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about; she was lying or misinformed, or playing some hideous joke on her. That was it, a joke! She could even be an imposter.

A grief counsellor joined Naomi in the waiting room. Her reassuring voice explained how tragic news was processed differently and how grieving was an individual process – there was no right way, no wrong way. Naomi should let her emotions out however they needed to come; she shouldn’t hold back or be embarrassed. She had one hand on Naomi’s back, the other on her arm. Naomi felt confined, trapped by the stranger with a silken voice, and oddly vulnerable dressed in her yoga clothes.

When Naomi brought her yoga outfit home and held it for Eric to see, he eyed it as if it might be a small animal that would escape her hands and run up the curtains. “How does that help you be more flexible?” he asked, as he unloosened his tie, and she repeated what she thought she’d already explained. Some moves had you practically upside down, the stretches so extended you almost fell over. “And for that you need a uniform?” he asked.

“A workout outfit, yes,” she said. He wanted to know the cost, and she shaved a bit off. He never begrudged her money, that wasn’t it, but he had the need to say something, to give some kind of qualifier. What she knew, and he would never say, was that he didn’t want her taking on anything new, taking steps in her own life, because it altered the balance of his. It wasn’t that he wanted her home either, not explicitly; he wanted her how she was, unchanging, something he could rely on. A ballast, he sometimes called her during moments of affection; she was his ballast, and a ballast must stay rooted, must hold firm.

“He was so outgoing,” a woman with smooth blond hair said. “He could always make me laugh.” 

“He had a great sense of humour,” Naomi agreed. How easily he worked up a room, got people going, filled it with his charm and sense of timing. But when it was just the two of them, he became restless, as if being inside his own skin caused him considerable discomfort. As if he was trapped inside himself.

When the children came, she quit her job and stayed home, shutting the door on the world of business, insulating herself in their development and in domesticity. The inconsolable temper tantrums of a two-year-old became preferable to the ego-driven mood swings of her forty-something boss. When the kids were little, Eric came home late, stepping into the mayhem of end-of-the-day crankiness, slipped into his biking costume, and headed for the trails with his buddies. Later, after the kids had gone to bed, they had dinner together, though she usually only picked away at a salad, having eaten earlier with the kids. 

When the kids got older, he became more involved, their mature brains more agreeable to him. Sometimes he subbed for her and took the boys to soccer, football and hockey, or drove Jennifer to figure skating and dance. He even managed to go to some of her recitals.

One-by-one the kids left home, and the house filled slowly with a crushing silence. The sound of the door closing as Eric left for one of his commitments seemed to grow louder, seemed to seal her in more tightly.  

Naomi looked down the reception line at her three adult children as they received guests and condolences, and felt a surge of pride. They were holding up well. Like most kids, after they left home, they’d been busy filling their lives with work, school and their busy social schedules. They thought they knew their dad. They’d think of him often now that he was gone, sort through memories, reshape them into a workable story of how involved he was as a father, see him in a vibrant light. They wouldn’t remember how, more often, he was either at the office or working on one of his many projects. Naomi was the one who could be counted on, with boring predictability. When the time came, her light would not shine as brightly.

After the reception, when they went back to the house, would she tell them then, when they were sifting through the comments about how people remembered their father? Would she tell them and see their looks of disbelief and uncertainty that would challenge everything they ever knew or accepted about him – about themselves?  Would they believe her?

“He gave a very moving and very funny speech at Kinsmen last year,” a man with curly brown hair was saying. “He could have been a stand-up comedian.”

“I’ll never forget the time he showed up at my door with a Christmas hamper,” an older woman with stooped shoulders and a walker said, her voice quaking with age. “I was so grateful.”

Naomi planned activities against the house’s stillness, after the kids left. Every Wednesday she watched Bollywood movies with Carla, her next door neighbour – who Eric called the neighbourhood gossip – and that ignited a desire to take up belly dancing. Together, they signed up for classes at the university, then started their own group and met every Tuesday at Naomi’s, fifteen women who came in their sweat pants, leotards, shorts, sashes, long skirts, and strapped on multi-stranded beads around their hips. When Naomi put on hers, raised her hands above her head, began the slow undulations released by the music, heard the chatter of the beads – water gushing over loose stones in a faraway brook – she flowed out of herself.

The group became accomplished dancers. They received invitations to perform: senior’s residences, schools, the community centre, the library, birthday parties. The Swivelling Hips started to have a reputation.

Naomi spotted two of them down the line, making their way towards her. They’d come for her, since they didn’t know Eric. He only ever paused at the living room door to catch a quick glimpse of their gyrations, then vanished upstairs to change and head back out the door.

Eric fidgeted when people complimented her on her slimness and fitness and she told them it was on account of the belly dancing. “They don’t need to know the details,” he said. Sometimes at the grocery store, someone would step up and say they’d seen her dance with the group at some event. They always said what fun the women looked like they were having. He’d walk away. He didn’t mind her doing it, she didn’t think, but he didn’t want to hear about it.

For a long time, Naomi had trouble sleeping. She’d wake up in the night and feel distressed, with no idea of why. Worry tumbled her thoughts in the darkness, and in the light of day these same thoughts bleached away.

One night, lying awake looking up at the ceiling, she had an idea that put an end to her troubled nights. She would go to India. She would go alone. She didn’t know why she settled on this, but it felt right. She kept the plan to herself, searching the internet for a travel group, and signed on for a three-week tour that would concentrate on the Ganges. At first, the only person she told was Carla. “But why alone?” Carla asked.

The night of the women’s shelter auction fundraiser, for which Eric was a key organizer through his company’s sponsorship, she was out with Carla to a fashion show. On the way to the car after the event, she spotted Eric across the street, walking with a tall woman, headed in the opposite direction, miles away from the women’s shelter. They were laughing and talking, stepping briskly, and the woman’s shoulder-length hair blew in the wind. Carla saw him too, but didn’t say anything, as if she knew something Naomi didn’t. Later, Naomi asked him if he went anywhere after the fundraiser and he said no, he hadn’t, and turned off the bedside lamp.

She let it drop. She shifted all her thoughts on the India trip. Eric was surprised when she told him her plan. “India? Really? So far away? By yourself?” Not exactly, but with a travel group of strangers. He started to look at her differently, to pull his head back away from her, wondering perhaps who she was or who she was becoming. And what impact that would have on him. 

Naomi wanted to kick off her shoes; her feet hurt from standing too long. The stories, this oral shrine to Eric, kept a steady flow past her. She looked forward to going home and stretching out on the couch, ordering in some food, taking in the sounds of her children who would disappear back to their lives in a few days, and she would once again face silence.

When she stepped off the plane she felt as if she was drowning in the Indian air. Spice ridden, sweet soured by the smell of decay, effluence, street cooking and flower vendors, shook her awake after the long flight.

The tour took her to several places along the Ganges, but after two and a half weeks, when they returned to the Holy City of Varanasi, she told the Global Trekker guide she would extend her stay. He discouraged her decision, but eventually agreed after she paid him more money for the administrative costs of re-arranging her return trip with another group in six weeks, and for his time. She phoned home and left a message for Eric, then she turned her cell phone off for the rest of her visit. Now she was “out there”, away from him, away from everyone, on her own, suspended in an existence that people could only wonder about and not know about with any kind of certainty.

Naomi found a room in Varanasi with shared cooking facilities in a quiet building close to the Ganges. Every day she went to watch the people worship at the river. The meditative chants of their voices soothed and reassured, though she didn’t understand a word. She met a man, a silver-haired man with bright eyes and an inquisitive intellect, a widower and a professor of religion at the university. He was studying ritual, and came here every day to observe and interview the worshippers who prayed by the river and immerse themselves in the sacred water. She tried to explain ritual where she came from, in Canada, but it sounded more like routine, structures to prevent boredom, treatments against spiritual numbness. He said it sounded busy, perhaps not the most soothing, nothing like what the people gathered at the Ganges sought. They had long discussions about faith, belief, release, ritual, worship, what it meant to feel connected, and about the nature of time and memory. She avoided telling him anything about herself, the life she came from, rerouting his questions about her as quickly as possible. She fell into his voice, listened for its lilt and rhythms, broken often by the sound of laughter. 

One night, awake in the heat and awash in the sounds coming through the window – screech owls, footsteps on the street, the shouts of late-night hawkers – she went to the window. Moonlight showered over the rooftops that descended down to the water. It reminded her of a painting. She slipped light cotton pants on over her nightgown, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and followed the narrow stairways to the river, the same route she took every day, though now in darkness it seemed unfamiliar. It surprised her how many worshippers there were at night. Chanting, their hands held before them in prayer, their voices sounded as natural as the drone of crickets or the whoosh of the wind, as they stood with faces down to the water or upturned to the moon. 

She removed her sandals, stepped down the stairs and slipped into the river, careful not to make a splash, surprised by its warmth. A mild stink rose up; she would never dream of wading into such water at home. No one noticed her or picked her out as an interloper, drawn there by nothing more than an interest in what others held sacred. She waded out until she was up to her shoulders, held her breath, and stepped out further until the water was over her head. She stayed there, completely submerged. She opened her eyes and stared into darkness.

Panic seized her, gripped her neck, struck her heart; she wanted to leap to the surface and breathe, but resisted, as if this were some kind of test and rising too soon would leave her permanently damaged. Her eyes bulged with the pressure of holding her breath and she thought she might pass out. Through the murkiness, a ball of light floated towards her and stopped just before her. Inside its glow she saw her house. The walls of the house fell away and she peered into her kitchen, where everyone was seated around the table, talking, laughing. All of them, much younger.  Calmness came over her; she could stay this way forever, suspended in time with this vision.

Her lungs were about to give. She pushed up to the water’s surface and choked in the air. At the river’s bank, as she started to the steps leading out, a hand came down and gripped hers and a melodic voice said, “Let me help you.”

“Recreational or ritual?” the professor asked. 

Naomi stared at him as he stood bathed in the blue moonlight. “I’ve no idea.”

The professor smiled, and gave a little laugh. He asked for no further explanation. He escorted her home, assisting her up the narrow stairs. She invited him in. Without saying another word, she led him to her bed. They held each other until morning came.

In the weeks that followed, he asked her to stay in Varanasi. She told him she was married and he said he knew. “Nevertheless,” he said. “I shall still miss you. I will miss our daily conversations. You have put me in touch with my life and my late wife, I believe.” He held his hand affectionately over his heart. “Our conversations remind me of the ones I had with her. She was a very clever woman.”

Tiredness, stifling heat inside the funeral home, and the ongoing stories about Eric made her long for this to be over, and yet, as she peered down the line she saw there were still about twenty more to pass, mostly middle-aged men and a tall woman with shoulder-length hair she thought she should know, but couldn’t place. Before she had time to think of where it might have been she’d seen her before, a fellow member of The Swivelling Hips stepped up and gave her a mighty hug.   

When she got back from India, Eric met her at the airport with flowers. He brought her home, poured her wine, made her toast and jam and tucked her into bed. He’d taken the night off from one of his activities, but the next night he was gone again, and Carla came over to hear about her trip.

After a couple glasses of wine, Carla said she had something to tell her, and she wasn’t sure if she should, but the information had kept her awake at night. “Here goes,” she said, taking a sip before proceeding. After Naomi left for India, the woman they’d seen on the street with Eric, the night of the fashion show, came to Naomi’s house. Several times her car stayed in the driveway overnight. 

Naomi had been far away in India, his ballast gone, having what she could call her own affair, though there was nothing more than the embrace. They’d clung together as an act of remembrance, a human monument of longing, desire, cherishing what each of them once had. She knew then, throughout that night, locked in the professor’s arms, that she’d been as much a part of letting go, of drifting, as Eric had. Forever passive, comfortable with her resentments, her need to be present but remain in the shadows. In India she knew she must find her way out.

Naomi told Eric he had to cut back on his activities, stay at home, get to know her again, because she was someone worth knowing. She surprised him, but he went along with her, and she suspected he knew that she knew about the tall woman. With Carla as their neighbour, he should have guessed as much, should have been more discreet. They went out together on dates, he deflected phone calls. They were in the process of rebuilding and he was putting his whole heart into it. Naomi knew he’d ended it, wondered if it might have ended before she came back from India, but she never asked.

Before her stood the last person in line, the tall woman with the shoulder-length hair. She hesitated before extending her hand out, but Naomi would not take it. Naomi held her gaze on the woman’s which seemed full of shame and sadness, and when she went to speak Naomi said, “No.” She reached out with both hands and drew the woman towards her, held her. She would not tell the children, not ever.