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had come to Doctor Porcheria with a certain ailment of a very private nature, an ailment which my sense of dignity – an outdated thing, my acquaintances kept telling me – had not allowed me to disclose to anyone, not even those nearest to me.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.”

Long Hair

by Uche Okonkwo

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

I kept a straight face throughout the assembly.

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

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

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

Born Out of Love

by Andrew Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m telling Dad,” Sean said.
        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get off him,” Dominic said. 
        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Parrot

by Erik Raschke

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

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

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Run.”

“Seriously. We can’t stay here.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Menno.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You could have tried a little harder.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Sweet dreams,” it read.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?”

“You know what I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning in Miami

by Marlene Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rabbi glanced at Harvey.

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

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

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

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

Secret Valley Birds

by Dave Petraglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She went down the stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the distance planes in formation droned towards the front.

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

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

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

“Papi,” Claire said, “Mssr. Papi”.