This has little or nothing to do with economics. You know how “all work and no play” goes. So perhaps in a vain attempt to avoid being a dull boy or dull economist, I do both (work and play, that is).

My play: Over the years, I’ve written short stories, and for those who may be interested, here are a few.

Sometimes, a guy just needs a break.

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A CHILD IN ARMS

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell:.

Here is how we have come.
That first spring day, Shannon danced along the cliff path, gripping her older brother’s hand, as he kept her safely from the sheer edge. She was five, and Sean ten, and she loved him dear.
He oft lent her his toys and his guidance. He instructed her in the ways of children and gave her the knowledge he had gathered. She was young. All she had to give him was her love. It was enough.
The sunshine allowed Shannon to forget the evil clouds hanging above the far Northern hills. And the thunder from the North, she could forget that too, though she knew it was not thunder. It was distant cannon. And not always distant, too.
None on our green isle remembered when the eternal war began or why. Shannon heard it concerned religion, whatever that was, or with secret, awful things that had been done by “them of the North.” Whoever they were. She had not yet learned The Anger.
Generations had suffered the fighting. Every family had produced victims. Every victim demanded revenge. Every revenge demanded revenge. The war excused everything and satisfied nothing.
Neither North nor South owned the vigor to win or the frailty to lose — two weary brawlers clawing and gouging, with even the hope of victory and the fear of defeat disappeared.
Some Southerns planted bombs. These men and women were called “heroes.” Their lives were difficult. The most charmed were shot on their first night sowing. The less fortunate, were caught and tortured. The least-favored escaped and were obligated to repeat. Endlessly.
A car erupted in enemy North. Two dead, ten maimed. The Southerns laughed and toasted. Two dead, ten maimed.
It was not enough. Two Northern dead did not restore a raped Southern wife. Ten maimed did not return a torn child. The enemy remained. The laughter spoiled and rotted.
The North boasted its own heroes. A tavern exploded in our South. Six dead, twelve maimed. The North laughed and toasted. We remained. Nothing changed.
Bombers risked death knowing their work was pointless, knowing that everything, even laughter, would die. They forgot or could not bear to ask, “What is the meaning of my life when my work, and even my death, has no meaning?”
Here the cliff bent back to form a small bay, and the path followed around the horseshoe bend, so Shannon could see across the bay. There on the far side something moved, three tiny figures — men, it seemed — dressed in black and carrying a wooden box.
“We shall go home now,” Sean said, for he had seen them, too.
One of the men looked up, saw Sean and pointed at him, then began to run around the bend toward him. Sean turned and ran, holding tight to Shannon’s hand. He himself was fast as a bird, and might have escaped, but Shannon was young.
The men gained ground in pounding, angry strides. Sean would not release Shannon’s hand, even to save himself.
The men closed on the children.
Sean said, “Oh darling, we are done.” He turned toward the men, shielding her.
Shannon saw their evil faces, their murderous eyes, eyes she did not understand. She saw their hands, curled like hawk’s talons, clinging to their wooden box.
She closed her eyes and squeezed her brother’s hand. He said, “Pray to God, darling.”
A sudden force took Shannon unconscious.

After some time the haze lifted from her mind and the sound of the ocean breakers returned and there was a burning on her skin.
The men had disappeared with their wooden box. The cliff where they had been running had disappeared too, replaced by a smoking hole to the sea.
Shannon still held her brother’s hand. He did not return the squeeze she gave it. She looked to him, but his sweet face was gone as was most of him.
A scream forced into her throat and lodged there, finally emerging as a silent puff of breath. Shannon rose and ran toward home, screaming silently and dragging the last part of her brother behind her.

     The day of Sean’s funeral was filled with a chill drizzle, as such days often are. People huddled into the dubious shelter of tall grave stones.
The preacher’s words and mood came shrill. He spoke of Jesus and of love. He spoke of evil and of revenge in Jesus’s name. He spoke of the North. He spoke of death. He called forth The Anger.
A wooden box was lowered into the ground and the people took turns, each throwing a shovelful of earth on it. When her turn came, Shannon shoveled earth, too. It meant nothing, a wooden box in a hole. Shoveling earth was a game. But when her turn ended, vague realization began, and she would not release the shovel, and kept digging furiously.
The people watched and murmured as Shannon dug and threw and dug and threw, her movements growing manic. Her father tried to take the shovel from her, but she would have none of that. She would not stop until the box was hid and the hole filled and mounded with earth and her trust.
Exhausted, and coated in mud and drizzle and sweat and hate, Shannon lay down the shovel, and turned and walked through the parting crowd. She had destroyed that awful hole and covered that awful box, and now she would go to play with her dear brother.
When she arrived home, and Sean did not answer her call, Shannon knelt at her bed and wept. “I am sorry you are dead. What is it like? I hope it does not hurt. Do you want any of my toys? I brought the things you like best. I miss you so. Daddy says someone must punish the bad people. When I grow up I will do it. I will. When I say it, mommy cries. But I will.”

When Shannon reached ten, times had gone worse. She now was told to hurry past parked cars lest they explode while she idled nearby. She could not attend church, not since the horror last month that took her cousins, the preacher and twenty worshipers.
She busied herself with poems and thoughts. In there, she could look to the horizon and spread her arms to the wind. In there, she could climb down to the surf and let the waves run up the beach over her ankles. In there, she could hold Sean’s hand and punish those who had taken him.
One day her father came home out of breath and time, and shouted they must move. There would be no opportunity to pack anything, not even Shannon’s poems or drawings. It was “Hurry. Hurry, now,” and Shannon heard something in her father’s voice she never had heard before. Terror.
They were met at the door by three Northern men in black shirts and black ski masks. One held Shannon’s mother, who struggled futilely. The other two held guns.
The men tied her father to a chair. Then they tied Shannon and her mother to chairs facing her father and made them watch.
The men put her father’s feet into a metal bucket of water and attached an electric wire to it. They attached another wire to her father. Shannon watched her father drool and shake, and the blood seep between his teeth and stain his beard, as the Northern men slowly shredded him with electricity.
They would stop long enough for her father to whimper and beg and answer their questions, then they would start in again. Shannon heard him speak the names of people she knew. And when he had no more names to give, the men tore him again and again, merely for their amusement.
Later the Northern men took Shannon and her mother outside and burned the house. Shannon listened to her father’s terrible, high screams, and she imagined the house itself was crying out.

By her fourteenth year, Shannon and her mother had moved many times. They now lived with a group of Southern heroes.
She had grown tall and beautiful and cold. Her green eyes never smiled. She slept little and spoke little. And The Anger filling the house filled her, too.
Shannon watched what the adults did in the basement, the plans, the bombs, the count of casualties. Here, she learned well.
One evening, Shannon came home from an errand. Before she entered she saw through a window that Northern men were inside. The floor was covered with blood and death. Of the Southern people, only Shannon’s mother remained alive and she was tied naked on a bed.
When the Northern men began to finish with her mother, Shannon turned and went away to the streets. Exhausted, crouching in war rubble, she dreamed of Sean. There he told her, “None can hide from themselves.” She knew he meant for her to go forth.
During the next months, Shannon honed her hatred and became good at bombs. The stealing, the building, the delivering, the toasting afterward, she became good at everything.
She learned electricity and became good at that to, the keeping of an enemy alive for days. She prolonged the tortures well beyond the need for information. She turned as cruel as the winter sea.

By eighteen, she had become famous. Her methods showed style. She poisoned bomb shrapnel, so any of the North receiving a cut, even when plucking through rubble, would feel horrifying pain before dying. Disguised as a whore, she lured men to deaths.
“Come with me and I shall grant you a night, lad, such as none before. Now young stallion, spread back upon my bed like Leonardo’s man and allow me to admire your grace. Ah, the great mass of you, so thick I scarcely can circle you with my fingers. Do you like that? My lips? Patience, and you shall have more than you can imagine. Close your eyes, now. How old? But nineteen? And already so ample?
“How many innocent Southern maids have you required to shriek their innocence? Did their agonies please you? Yes? Well, it is time for regrets.
“Do as this pistol asks. Lock these irons to your wrists and ankles. Tightly now, then to the bedposts. There, done. No, I shan’t shoot. The good work is done by this blade. Let me show you its bite. You sweat so in this cool room? Twisting and bucking will not avail you.
“Ah, so much blood from a single rip. Another slice. Another. There, you are half the man. See the prize I hold? Useless now. And these two gems, I shall saw them away as well. You’ll not need them.
“Ah, blood and sweat, this lovely stew fills the floor. Your flesh pales. Your screams fade. Wait, think before you drowse. Your life remains. Ask, and I still may preserve it.
“No, offer not your pain or pleas. Submit your regret, that I might save you. Ah, sorry you? Good. I am pleased. Then one last kindness, please. Give me back my beautiful Sean. No? Then I must carve more.”
Her addiction was hate. She needed ever more vile missions, each eclipsing the last in monstrous offense to life. She basked in notoriety. She became a symbol of war’s horror, though her acts had no strategy for combat, but rather for her own needs. And like the demands of war and revenge, the demands of the self never end.
Her doctrine was scribbled on walls everywhere and spoken everywhere. “N.F.” Shannon carved the initials into her arm and into her enemies. “N.F.” They meant, “Never Forgive; Never Forget.”
And oh, but they came after her, they of the North, for to capture her was every Northerner’s dream, greater even than the winning of this unwinnable war. Each day she slept in a different place, and always clothed. Each night she moved to yet another secret place where often a different nameless man comforted her.

At nineteen Shannon again dreamed of Sean. Lying beside her, he said, “You cannot drink the ocean.” When she woke she acknowledged what she already knew, that after his death, she had accomplished nothing.
There were too many enemies to terrorize and kill. Her brother, father, and mother remained dead, joined by relatives and friends. She had not prevented even one murder, nor brought victory even one hour closer. She had not written even one poem. Nor had she achieved satisfaction.
Her life, the life she had filled with death, remained empty, but for The Anger. And every day the enemy crept closer.
She rose from her bed, and packing a small bag of clothing and paper and pencils, she went into the hills to think.

In her absence, The Anger remained with the people. The killing in her name proceeded at its steady rhythm, like a sleeping heartbeat, neither slower nor faster. Shannon the symbol, owned its own existence separate from Shannon the person, an existence that enlarged without her.
While in the hills she wrote and thought, and she studied her thoughts and learned about her futility. For the first time in years, she remembered. Her mind walked the cliff path with Sean and looked out over the ocean. She played again with the other town children, so many of whom had died. She nestled in her mother’s arms. She stood beside her father at his chores. She allowed the past, its joy and its grief, to flow out of her until she became a fragile husk.
The beginnings of rebirth began. Reason entered her. She saw; she believed; she regretted; she feared; she desired. All was so new. Her walls crumbled. She was ready to receive.
Then did Sean return in a dream, and whisper to her, “My beautiful Shannon, know this. A child in arms cannot walk.”
The words told her everything. She stretched her fingers to the sky. At last she understood. She was not all futility. She was allowed to feel. She had a purpose.
And she had a plan.
Shannon returned from the hills, and did what no one else could have. She ended the war. She videotaped herself giving a speech and mailed copies to the television stations and newspapers:
“My dear, fellow Southerners. Today I greet you in love. You remember me. I am the evil side of you. I have drunk the blood of our enemies. I have misused the blood of our friends. I have caused the streets of North and South to burn. I have tortured in anger and in pleasure. I have killed for the killing. I have smeared my awful slogan across our green hills.
“I have given our enemy cause for hatred, and you have suffered their revenge.
“My fury sucks the joy from your lives. I have cast my darkness over our grieving island. Compared to me, the worst of you is God’s most beloved.
“Northern widows and orphans weep the same tears as do Southern. North and South are bound by our mutual misery. To direct blame is belated, for blame has found us all. The victimizer has become the victim. We writhe in the grave of our own digging. We remember too much.
“I know now, I have traveled a fool’s road. Revenge is an unquenchable thirst. There always will be another to kill. And were I to cause our every enemy a long and painful death, that would not resurrect even one of our loved ones, nor redeem our own lives from the horror we have created.
“One can defeat horror only with hope. And if I, the worst amongst you can learn that, surely you shall see it, too.
“And ah, the world turns. Today, we waken to opportunity singing its sweet serenade. We lift the shroud of night. Our spirit emerges, rises, soars free.
“Upon this blessed moment, let the war be ended. No more bombing, nor shooting, no torture, nor killing for an impostor God or contrived honor, none given and none received. It is ended.
“Yet, a war that has filled us and given our lives purpose, false though it may be, will not submit to a vacuum. We must feed our rage with true purpose and mission, and to please ourselves we first must please God.
“So as our mission, we shall care for our Northern brothers. We shall tend their wounded. We shall shelter their homeless. We shall feed their starving. We shall employ their jobless. We shall school their unlearned. We shall go to them with open arms, and traveling upon the wide road of compassion, thus shall we find our destiny. We shall lift them in our arms for they are children of the same God to whom we pray.
“If some Northerns continue the vain killing, we shall conquer their sin with our goodness, and so defend the unborn and the new-born of both sides. Though the night has continued for decades, we always shall remember today as the golden moment of our dawn.
“Our children shall live in innocence. Our elderly shall live in serenity. We shall travel together, hand in hand, across our emerald hills, under the sunshine. We shall live again, forever.
“Thus, shall it begin. Tomorrow, I walk our glorious seashore, unarmed and unafraid. I shall bathe in cleansing waters. I shall breathe the pure air. I shall sip the nectar of mercy. With your hand held in mine, I shall reach across the line, to embrace the people of the North. United shall we toast the victory of humankind over evil.
“And now, dear friends, I ask you to join me in this march of triumph, not for South, not for North, but for all humankind.”

And so she did march. On a day, clear, calm and green, she began alone at the southernmost point of the cliff path and walked in sunshine, toward the north. She plucked flowers from the wayside and carried them against her breast.
Soon she was met by one other, a broad-shouldered man, who saying not a word, took her hand in his and walked beside her. Then came two more men, then a woman, another man, a couple, and soon she was followed by others, all calm, quiet and determined, walking with heads raised in peace.
A wagon filled with food, clothing and supplies came down a hill path and entered in behind her. Then another wagon and more people. Music. The people danced and sang. They sang of love. They sang of freedom. They sang of God. They wept in the realization of what they had lost — the years and the lives — and of what they were to receive.
They knelt and bowed as Shannon passed, and they reached to touch the hem of her dress. She blessed them each and all.
A final bomb sounded in the distance. No one chose to hear. The war echoes died, replaced by the music of euphoria.
Shannon and her army of love arrived at the Northern border. Across the line waited ten thousand. All had suffered at her hand. Mothers, brothers, others who were loved and lamented, all lost at her hand. Their hatred for her was a shimmering wall through which no thing may pass.
Shannon halted. She looked at the furious faces before her. No one and no thing moved. Minutes passed. Shannon raised her palms to the sky and spoke to the silence. “Children of the North. Cast aside the hatred that burdens you. The few years God gives us have dwindled. Let us not squander more. Come to me. I lift you in my arms and carry you safe across the fire, that together we may live in the house of the Lord, forever.”
Shannon stepped across the border into the land of the North, and surprised the nearest person, a huge bearded man bearing a sword, by embracing him. “God has given you this opportunity,” she whispered in his ear, “to be remembered as the man who ended the war. March with me into everlasting fame and gratitude.”
The man hesitated, then amidst cheers from both sides, he thrust his sword into the ground and took in beside her. The crowd roar grew as she strode forth and the people encouraged her every step. The line behind her now trailed beyond the horizon, and music was heard over the land.
Shannon arrived triumphant at the capital city of the North, where a great crowd and hopes awaited her. She entered the central square. She climbed to a balcony, and looked out over the joyful mass. She raised her hand and there was silence.
In a gentle voice she again spoke the words that had brought her here. “Come, children of the North, I lift you in to my breast.” She commanded that the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the homeless be sheltered. Her Southern followers obeyed. That is why they had come.
After a week of growing hope, the Northern leader, the Reverend came to her, and though she recognized him as one of them who had tortured her father, she fell to her knees before him and kissed his shoe and begged his forgiveness. He whispered, “Arise, woman. What is this you do?”
She stood and embraced him and kissed his cheek and said to him, “Forgive us father, for we have sinned. No punishment of us is cruel enough to quicken the dead nor to soothe yesterday’s suffering. God has told us we may enter His house only through the door of deeds. The door has opened. Let us walk through, arm in arm.”
“And how shall we do that, with so many hearts locked?”
“God has the key,” she said, and she told him her plan. The South was wealthier than the North, or so she said, and as a signal to God, the South would give money to Northern men who had no jobs, and to Northern mothers who had no husbands, according to how many children the unfortunate women supported. For its penance, the South would provide free food and free lodging and free medicine to all who needed it. “Though we cannot undo, we shall redo. It is the best of which we are capable.”
“And what do you expect in return?” he asked.
“The North need but receive this humble offering, for the giver can be blessed only when the receiver is twice blessed. If we shall live as brothers and sisters in peace, what greater gift can we ask?”
“And do you expect us to forgive your deeds and forget our dead? The cuts run too deep for cleansing by mere gifts.”
“I do not ask you to forgive, neither to forget. I ask you to lead. If I can enlist my people to give, surely you have the courage to persuade yours to accept. This is the moment you were born for, dear Reverend. History will remember you for what you do this day.”
The Reverend could do not but accept her generosity. And as they embraced again, peace came over our land.
With the economic burden of war lifted, we in the South could afford our charity, though we chafed and wondered at the gifts we sent our former enemy. As Shannon directed ever more Southern money and food to the unemployed men and unmarried women of the North, some in the South came to resent such excessive mercy. They cried, “Do you not remember the killings? You lost your own kin. These people have not changed.”
Shannon would reply, “A hundred years of war did not change them. Twenty years of peace will accomplish what the war failed.” We disagreed, but we obeyed her will, for at least the killing had ended, and it was she who had returned our lives to us.

Ten years fled. Shannon wept publicly for the unfortunate of the North. She visited their ghettos and hospitals and jails. She bound their sores with her own hands. She blessed their poor. She fed soup in mass kitchens. She built housing for their homeless. She subsidized unwed mothers and their children. She maintained those who could not work.
The Reverend demanded more assistance, then more and yet more. He reminded Shannon of pain she had caused the North and in response, she ordered us to increase our efforts. Often, we grew restless with the giving. We did not understand. “What of us,” we demanded. “What of the South? We have needs, too. Let the North care for itself. Do not continue yielding to the Reverend’s endless calls.”
But on television, we would meet Shannon’s calm, clear eyes and her calm, clear words, “Patience, dear Southern brothers and sisters. We cast our bread upon the waters. In the house of the Lord, the giver is exalted. We give for our children and for our children’s children.”
And we listened. What else could we do? Shannon’s armistice had brought us prosperity, though as our charity grew so did the Reverend’s demands. Our prosperity and his demands, each followed the other and they flourished together, like twin shoats feasting from the same trough.
As the truce endured and our wealth extended, North and South acclaimed Shannon a national hero. We blessed her with many prizes named “Peace.” She was assured sainthood.

Twenty years. A generation of Northern children have matured without suffering the pain and indignity of labor or duty. Neither have they been burdened with blame nor obligation. None has asked them to accept responsibility. We of the South have paid them not to work or to wed. A generation of the North has become dependant upon Southern benevolence.
Though the war long ago had ended, some of the North still carried The Anger, always encouraged by the Reverend and his coalition. Many of the South believed Shannon deceived by the Reverend, who had grown to wealth in his defense of the poor.
But Shannon redoubled her efforts, and redoubled again. For each Northern complaint she provided yet one more endowment. For each Northern malady she provided yet one more balm. No Northern misdeed went unexcused. No Northern pain went unrewarded. No Northern fault went unveiled.
But with the North producing nothing, there never could be enough Southern charity to bring the North beyond poverty. Southern aid diminished Northern desire, which dulled Northern ambition, which deadened Northern hope. Northerns wallowed deeper, deeper in the mire of their indolence.
Their consuming worthlessness could be soothed only by liquor, then by drugs, then not at all. The foundations of their society crumbled. Marriage, education, labor, compassion, life, all gave way to savage despair.
Northern children, seeing no future, formed gangs to kill each other first for drugmoney, then just for the killing. Their murders escalated and became more vicious as self-hatred became their lone emotion.
Northern leaders, who had gained authority by their ability to demand and extract more from the South while asking less of the North, demanded more and ever more. Yet each Southern gift was both resented and insufficient. So while the body of the North withered, its soul died.
And as the nation watched, Shannon wept. She spoke again and again, “Children of the North, do not despair. I will not forsake you. I bring you salvation. I lift you in my arms.”
“Children” she always called them. “Children.” For they now were children in all ways.

Many years fade by. Today, the sun glows warm. Shannon stands on the cathedral balcony, high above the Southern throng. She is old and bent, but her eyes are clear and as sharp as the rocks below the cliffs.
She sees over Southern heads to our sunlit hills, rich with crops. She looks beyond to our thriving Southern villages and beyond again to our towering, prosperous cities, gleaming on the horizon, and beyond still to smoke rising from Northern riots.
She turns and looks to the cliff path and to the ocean and to the spray rainbow, sparkling in the sun. She breathes in the green and salt air. She listens to the song of the gulls. And it is good.
Then she speaks.
“My dear fellow Southerns. I greet you in love. You remember me. Together we have marched the many miles. Together we emerged from the acrid clouds of war into the sweet scent of peace. Together we have prospered in our charity.
“We have cast our bread upon the waters and, look around you, see how it has returned to us a thousand-fold. In humility we have found wisdom. In repentance we have found hope. In compassion we have found strength. In virtue we have found God.
“Together we have heard God’s voice and He has erased our doubts. Now He speaks to us yet again. He commands that we enlarge our efforts and yet enlarge them once more.
He tells us we are his angels, sent by Him to this good earth, so we may lift the fallen. He has given us wealth on this earth and has promised us eternal life beside him in heaven, if we accept the duty such wages bring.”
She urges them to the greater assistance they must provide to the unfortunate people of the North. And she speaks of the rewards the South has received and will receive in these good efforts.
The people of the South cheer and sob and hug one another, and first one group, then another begins to snake dance in joy and exuberance. Then, as though on signal, all face the balcony and begin to chant, “Shan-non, Shan-non, Shan-non.
Shannon looks out over them and a smile of bliss plays across her lips. She lifts her hand above them and they slide to their knees in silent reverence. “Now let us pray thanks to our God from whom all is rendered and to whom all is owed.” Humbly, she bows her head. And everywhere is silence in our grateful land.
Shannon closes her eyes and remembers again her brother’s words. “A child in arms cannot walk.” She feels a shuddering up her thighs. With her head still bowed, she fashions a terrible, secret smile and breathes The Anger between her tightened teeth.
“Yes Sean darling, yes my love. At last, in your name, vengeance is ours.”

-End-

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INTERVIEW WITH A JAPANESE HERO

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Two muddy ruts led to the top. Sunlight flickered through the trees and across my windshield, and caused blinding reflections as I circled up.
Even the sweet fragrance of cool mountain air couldn’t calm me, for this was the most important day of my life, the day I had prayed for since my first minute in journalism school. I was about to interview a genuine, world-beloved hero, a man who had not allowed an interview in many years — my giant step toward success.
I had been told to look for a path flanked by two small, stone lanterns. At last, there it hid, the lanterns almost concealed by bushes. To make room for the rare soul who may yet drive past, I pulled off to into the brush, while worrying whether I’d damaged some important plant, worrying whether my car would become stuck in the mud, worrying, worrying.
I breathed deep to calm my nerves, gathered my pencil and paper, and reached for my tape recorder, but feeling a modern, electronic device would be inappropriate to the occasion, I let the recorder lie. Then I put back the pencil and paper. Even these would be presumptuous. Everything must be perfect.
From here I would have to climb on foot. I followed an indefinite, rocky path, where dew and moss covered the stones and made walking slippery. The air was scented with green leaves and moist earth, and I’d have preferred to take time to admire the living forest and the sporadic view of the valley from between the bushes and trees. I knew Fuji hung dim in the distance, always almost yet not quite, in view.
But anxiety pushed me along. I would have all my years to admire scenery, but one chance for an interview like this. By day’s end my life will have changed.
After thirty, tired minutes the tiny house disclosed through the leaves, perched on stilts at the peak of the hill. The sun on its straw roof made it shimmer like woven gold.
As I approached, the withered, old man waited at the door and greeted me, smiling and bowing. “Yes,” he whispered, when at last I stood panting before him, “You are man from magazine.”
He was small, almost child-like, and his voice rustled quiet as wind on fall leaves. “Please to come in.”
I followed him into a small, tatami room with paper walls and as its sole furniture, two cushions rested in the center of the room and a low, wooden cabinet stood against one wall.
A samurai-style sword leaned in a corner. The sword seemed out of place as though put there for an immediate purpose. Later I would discover this purpose.
As the old man lowered himself onto one cushion, I almost expected to hear his ancient joints rasp. He nodded and smiled me toward the other cushion. When I sat, I grunted. My knees would not fold, and my back would hurt tomorrow. His was a courtesy too pure to notice my discomfort.
Someone kneeled beside me. I turned to see his tomato-plump, little, kimono-clad wife who set on the floor a tray holding a tea pot and two cups. After she poured for me, she covered her smile with her hand, bowed and crawled beside her husband to deliver the other cup.
He whispered, “We are honor to have so illustrious journalist visit our humble dwelling.”
I heard myself whisper, too. Quiet surroundings do that. “It is I who am honored, the first reporter in so long to be allowed the precious time of the most renowned of all takekogeika, bamboo craft artists — you who are named a Living National Treasure.”
I saluted him with my cup. He did not move. I wondered whether I was to drink from the cup now. Still he did not move so I set the cup down.
I was so anxious to begin, I departed from the etiquette of casual conversation and burst into the interview. “I’m curious. Why now? After all these years, why do you now permit an interview?”
“I see you not have pen and paper. Is good. Not need. You will see.”
I didn’t feel as confident as he, that I would remember without taking notes, but I was pleased at his comment. He sat for several minutes, then sipped and looked into his cup. I wasn’t sure he understood or remembered my question, and I wanted to clarify my meaning, but I was afraid to disturb his silence.
When he lifted his eyes, he said, “Every time must come. Regret is the passing of proper time. The preacher say, ‘All thing have season.’ The moving finger write. All man’s work futile. More tea? It soothes the anxious spirit.”
I tried to smile through my embarrassment at having been so aggressive and been seen as an “anxious spirit.” What had he meant by his “futile” remark? He nodded toward his wife, who slid beside me and refilled my cup. “Yes, thank you,” I said. “I’m surprised at your excellent English.”
His voice was gentle. I had to strain to hear. “After war, Americans are so kind to forgive former enemy status and allow this person to assist resurrection of my land. I learn your language well, though I use seldom now and have forgotten much.”
Again, he lowered his face and stared down. I wondered what he was thinking and why he had sent for me. I looked around the room. “I’d love to see your baskets and to discuss how you make them. My readers …”
He lifted his feeble hand to me, so I waited. He looked at his wife and nodded and she bowed to him. Then he looked at me. “Yes, the baskets. Please to understand, they are mere bamboo. Grass, not even living. I have become old. Strength departed, even for baskets. I too, am overdue to die and become as one with dead grass of baskets.
Years past, in gesture to my teachers, I produce for exhibit, samples of every basket type I learn in four decades. More than eighty traditional shapes. A television station learn of this, and broadcast throughout this land and elsewhere. Exhibit become famous, even in other country. I am surprise. I am told your Smithsonian displays four such baskets. It is great embarrassment.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them. They are magnificent.”
“Ah, yes. So they have been called, `magnificent grass baskets.’ Yet I knew I no longer was doing my best work. I had begun to take shortcut. Perhaps not visible, but I know. Other takekogeika know, too. Even baskets know. They rest in shame for display.
“And bamboo is but bamboo. Even all finest baskets together would not equal in beauty the life of one leper. Life greater than art. Many years for me to learn. All man create futility. Your bible say. I pray it true.
“Exhibit was revere, not for my meager skill, nor even for trivial baskets themselves, but for tradition. We Japanese, cling to tiny archipelago, succeed within tradition. Heritage give strength and sanctuary and direction to soul. My unworthy exhibit somehow define this notion. Even foreign persons understand this, so universal it is.
“The mind simplifies. In mind of all, I became Japanese tradition. So this inferior basket maker pose and smile and bow, as though he had done wonderful thing. Yet I was fraud. I had done nothing. Those few pleasant baskets. Many other kagoshi, basket makers, can do far better. One mother nursing child worth more than all weavers of dead grass.
“I accepted such homage in silence, most disgraceful form of pride, for silence pretend humility. ‘A time for silence, a time for speaking.’ Ah, such wisdom there.”
His wife’s eyes had filled with tears. Something strange was happening I did not yet understand. His modesty, though poignant, didn’t warrant such tears.
He continued, his frail voice growing even weaker. “In many way, because exhibit become symbol of Japan itself, symbol of our proud history, I too become symbol of what we wish to believe about ourselves — pure, dedicated, modest, honorable and peaceful. Though we are these things no more nor less than other peoples, it is our chosen belief, our chosen vanity. Greatest vanity is claim of greatest modesty. So I become legend. Of such frail reeds are legends woven.
“In some Christianity you choose saints. We do not dare take God’s prerogative. Yet, I was chosen saint. All from baskets. Grass. It was lies, of course. I was not saint.
Please forgive unintended insult, but there are no saint, merely person who has been given role to live. Role to live and costume to disguise. “It is role that is sainted — role and costume — not person.
We spend lives toil in roles. I allow myself to believe I was my role. I wore costume, even in quiet of bed. I accept lies. So vain. So false. Lies like subtle poison. The futile deceit of man before face of God.”
He lowered his eyes and shook his head, as though wondering at his own wicked naivety. His wife covered her face, leaned her head against his shoulder and sobbed. Shivers ran through me. He was telling me something important. But, what. And why? His words and manner resembled a requiem. I felt my heart thump.
I said, “But you deserve the accolades. You did so much more than make baskets. Before that, you were one of the early champions of peace. Many years ago you spoke against the outrage of atomic warfare. You were one of the great rallying points for the peace movement. You sanctified life. The symbol you provided helped the world to see the truth.”
“Ah, truth. Man invents truth. Yet all becomes dust. Nothing deceives more than truth. Yes? As you say, I march against atomic weapons. I had met such horror drift out of Hiroshima. Half-living human. Body living but spirit dead. All Japanese innocents, who suffered and died … yet, some say atomic bomb was necessary. It shorten war and so, saved lives, American and Japanese, also. Some say a million lives saved. Death by bullet no worse. I know all reasons and excuses. Ah yes, perhaps, perhaps …
“Wise American soldier tell me, `Every seed has season. Every wrong has reason.’ I understand. It is revelation. I march against so fiendish device. I would not accept it saved lives, even if true.
“I march at front, strut amid flags and flowers, but not for living-dead. For me. I march for my own needs.” He sipped his tea and studied his cup as though reading the leaves. “I also march in army.”
The silence that followed held his words, `I also march in army.’ I wondered whether this was what bothered this good, gentle soul, his service in the army? All Japanese men had. Surely, he had little choice. They took every able-bodied man and some not so able-bodied. I wanted to mitigate the negative implication. “But as I recall … you were a doctor in the army?”
“So yes, doctor. Scientist. What make human different from beast? We both born; we both die; world continue. So what is difference? We human dread ignorance. We crave to seek, to find, to share . . . we crave truth. Even wicked truth. Human are compelled to make science and art. Both are search for truth. Even basket art. Much truth in baskets. Dishonestly made basket is wretched as dishonestly made man. Youth finds truth in future, where innovation conceived. Elderly look to past, source of excellence. Both truth for us.
“Yes, I was doctor. I pretend to search for truth. So I find lie.”
“What did you do?”
“Experiment.”
The word was whispered so low, I almost couldn’t hear.      “Experiment?” The room seemed to dim. He said nothing. I said nothing. A chill shuddered through me. I was sorry I had asked. I didn’t want to know. The word “experiment” took on grotesque and evil meanings. Yet, I was a journalist, one of the seekers of truth he had alluded to. I did not want to pretend to search and find lies, so after a long silence, I whispered, “What sort of experiment?”
An exhausted voice choked from his fragile body. “To assist war, we did what we could. We were doctor and there were so many disease. Our soldiers were dying from such disease. Terrible to die in war, far from family and tradition.”
He closed his eyes and began to rock. “We were young innocent, away in strange land. China. We had left our true culture behind, you see. Instead, as thoughtless youth, we bring false culture name `conceit.’ Japanese without his culture does not exist as person. Whoever told us how to act, so we did. We were not forced. We did not resist. We acted because we consider no other direction necessary for thought. We had swagger of the ignorant.”
His wife touched his lips with her fingers as though to stop him from speaking further. He put his hand on hers and the two exchanged looks of such sadness, I felt despair pierce my own heart. Then, shaking with silent sobs, she crawled away, glanced at the sword as she passed it, and crept from the room.
“Our leaders want to know about terrible disease infecting us. Plague. What it does. How it does. Chinese were not people. We were told this. Our arrogance accept this.”
He kept his face down so that his voice mumbled up from the floor. “We saw how plague kill, but we need to learn more. A time for love; a time for hate. We had neither. Time stop.
“I wait in tent, not know what to expect. Older men were tell jokes I did not understand. A lovely Chinese boy, so pretty a face, I believe he was about 17 years, who been given plague …”
“Given? Do you mean . . .?”
“Yes, by injection and other procedure. We did this. We need to know. He was brought into tent. He was naked and shaking. Disease and fear. Suffer terrible, but he say nothing. He knew it was finish for him.
He did not resist. They spread him on wood bed and tie hands and feet to bed posts. I did not know what to do. I never had seen this before.
“Doctor gave me order. There was to be no anesthetic. We had none, and it was unnecessary. Boy was to die, anyway. And he was only Chinese. I hesitated, not in compassion, but in fear. I cared nothing for Chinese. My fear was for me.
“Doctor shout at me. Boy remain silent, but his eyes open wide. He saw me pick up scalpel. I walk to him and he close his eyes.
“I touch his chest with point of scalpel. He scream. I press point into his chest and draw blade all way down, down his stomach and beyond, all way down.
“His screams, long, high, awful sounds in that small room. Listen, you cannot hear them? I can. I hear them now, like wind in trees. Always, I hear.
His body buck and twist. I could not believe or describe hideous sounds terror and pain can force from human lips. I am very frighten.
“I lay scalpel down. I feel I might faint. Doctor gave another order. I did not think to hesitate this time. I reach in with both hands and open boy. Doctor command, `Wider, so I can see.’
“Boy’s screams became gurgles as blood erupt from mouth. Blood splash everywhere. Doctor take notes. He command me to pull out certain organs so he could look behind and see others. Boy remain alive as I prowl through him. For sanity, I need to imagine Chinese were beneath human, even beneath life. In this I succeed. I could not do this to a beast, yet I do to Chinese.
“Doctor finish with notes. I untie boy, and with help of others, roll him off bed into large metal barrel. I think he is dead by then. It was not important, then.
“This was first of many, so I remember it best. Much has turned to darkness in my aged mind. I knew some boys lived, even into barrels. Sometimes I heard sounds from barrels.
One time I look into barrel, and face look back and make hiss at me, like serpent. I never look into barrel again. I dream of that hiss sound. Breeze at night make such sound. I never go out into dark forest. Memory live there.
“Experiment taught us much about plague. Knowledge save many Japanese lives. Perhaps Chinese too, ultimately. I do not know.
“Now, do you see? My life tells lie. Lie makes poison to heart. All the years, poison of lie build inside me. I am grown old. It is said, if man take lie to his grave, lie remain atop man for eternity, cover like heavy stone, like smothering blanket. I do not wish such burden. So?”
I didn’t know whether he expected an answer. His pleading eyes came up to mine. “Now, you may visit baskets. You always will remember this day, this day when we both uncover truth.”
His wife must have listened beyond the door, for she entered and walked, not crawled, to me, lifted my hand and led me out to a storage shed smelling of bamboo and filled with baskets. There she left me to stand alone amidst the dead grass. That is how I saw the baskets now, as arrangements of dead grass, as the truth uncovered from dead lies.
I do not remember what the baskets looked like or how long I remained in the shed, but I know I saw much and learned much, not about baskets but about the world. I had uncovered truth, as the old man had said, but had lost something far greater, my belief in truth. The world needs its lies. That is why I would write no article about the old man or his baskets or his search — or mine — and why later I would leave journalism.
When I returned to the house, the sword no longer rested in the corner, and the old man and his wife were gone. I went outside to find them, but the night had become complete. It would have been futile to search for them and I knew they would not return to this empty house.
There was nothing more for me, so I left. I edged my way down. The mountain path was dark. The bamboo groaned and whimpered as the breeze hissed through the leaves. A chill mist had settled in, making the stones much slicker than they had been this morning.
And coming down always is harder.

-End-

.

.

.


THE SWEET TASTE OF CRABAPPLE

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

She has turned thirteen and he is two years older. She has been his girlfriend since last fall, which is a long time. They like to ride his bicycle together, her seated side-saddle on the bar. He keeps the seat so high he scarcely can reach the pedals. It’s harder for him to ride that way but it makes his bike look bigger, not like some little kid’s.
She knows he thinks it makes him look tall. But he’s the better athlete and stronger, so it doesn’t matter too much that she is the taller.
The summer sun has crept down behind the houses, and the quiet air, fragrant of grass and fainter of street tar, remains hot enough for him to ride without his shirt. She rests her head against his hairless chest to let him smell her new cologne.
She talks more than he does, but he likes to hear her. He thinks about things and the way they are, but she talks about people and how they are, and he likes that, because he can’t do it.
She knows that when he is with the guys, they stand around hardly saying anything, except when a girl walks by they make silly faces and giggle and nudge, still hardly say anything. That’s how boys are.
She has started to mature and has the start of breasts and he knows she knows he looks at them. He leans forward over her shoulder to see them under her neckline. But the bicycle shakes and she says, “What are you doing?” Then she laughs and he laughs too, because they know.
They’ve ridden together many times all summer, but this hot, late-August evening seems different. The peaceful quiet makes her feel tense and she can’t explain why. The west sky holds on to a pale version of daytime blue, while night has taken over everywhere else.
Yet there’s more than the heat and the velvet sky and her new cologne. There’s . . . more.
For once they ride quietly, not because they have nothing to say but because neither of them wants to spoil this strange, peaceful, tense feeling.
His control of the bicycle has grown expert; he has acquired more control and strength in his shoulders and his arms and hands. He can take one hand off, even with her as a rider. He enjoys showing his skill. She knows he has practiced to impress her.
He doesn’t know she likes to look at his strong hands and to imagine how they would feel touching her. He doesn’t know recently she has had new, exciting thoughts, at night especially, thoughts about boys and especially thoughts about him.
“When does school start?” She turns her face and speaks softly and he bends his head close to her mouth.
“What?” He heard but he wants to hold his head close to her lips.
“School start?” She whispers and lets her lips brush his ear, sending shivers through him. And through her.
“A week from tomorrow,” he whispers too, “isn’t it?”
“I guess. I’m glad.”
“I’m not. Why?”
“Summer’s nice, but after a while there’s nothing left to do.” She pushes the word “do” into a whine. “You know?”
“Yah, but I still like it, the sun and all. No snow shoveling or slush. Do? Like what?”
“Oh, like stuff. Fun. Everything’s getting kind of old. I’m tired of the heat. It’s kind of boring.”
“Are you bored?”
“Not now, I mean. But you know. Don’t you feel like doing something different?”
“Yes, some. . .” His throat tightens and he lets the word hang.
As he pedals into the park, she thinks about what she had said — about summer getting old. Did she mean it? Summer boring? Is she bored? In a way she is, but she’s excited, too. Bored with yesterday, but excited about . . . now, tonight? Funny how she can feel bored and excited at the same time. She wonders if other people can.
She pretends to herself she doesn’t know why she feels this way, then she denies her thoughts. It’s confused and scary, almost like two people thinking in her one brain. When it has happened before, she has wondered which is her, really.
The park is empty except at one end where she sees some older kids on a blanket, with a radio turned up to old songs. A man’s voice sings, “They Tried To Tell Us We’re Too Young.” It’s one of her favorite old songs. Most kids never even heard of it.
She can’t see what the people on the blanket are doing but she imagines. She imagines every night now, it seems.
The park. Almost every day he comes here to play baseball or football, or “I got it,” which is the opposite of “it,” because everybody chases one person instead of the other way around. He likes “I got it” best. He’s very good. Except he will have to quit when school starts, because he thinks he’s grown too big. It’s a game for the younger kids.
She plays there too, not really plays, but stands on the fringe, watching and giggling with the other girls. They talk about boys, mostly. If only the boys knew. But the boys never do. It’s as though boys look past everything.
He knows the park. He knows every tree, every hole, the places where the grass is thin. He says he could walk through the park with his eyes closed and tell where the baseball diamond is, and the sewer cover that trips you in left field, and where the bush near first base is, and where the old crabapple tree stands.
But summer has turned long and slow and he knows she’s right, there’s nothing to do. So he says, when he thinks about school and winter, it maybe doesn’t seem so bad. Even the shoveling.
She wonders whether he feels the same things she does and decides he doesn’t. A boy doesn’t feel the same way a girl does.
They ride near the crabapple tree. “It’s dark here,” she uses her most mysterious voice, and her own words make her heart beat faster. Some of the older kids have said that crabapples are poison and taste bitter. She’s afraid to taste. Her mom says they’re poisonous, too.
Real night has come. His profile is so dark she scarcely can see him but she can feel his chest against her. She imagines him in the darkness. He slides forward on his bicycle seat and presses against her. He pretends it’s nothing. But it’s something.
“Let’s stop a while,” she says. “My rear hurts.”
“I’ll rub it,” he says, and they both laugh. It wasn’t all that funny, but she giggles and so does he. It feels good, giggling together. She wants to say, “O.K., do it,” but she can’t.
They get off the bicycle and sit under the tree, leaning against the trunk, with their shoulders touching. He takes a blade of grass between his thumbs, and blows and makes a screeching noise.
“Oh, stop,” she laughs, “that hurt my ears.”
So he does it again but the grass tears and a squeak comes out. And they both laugh. Everything’s funny now. He reaches for another blade but she grabs at him and they wrestle, rolling on each other.
He likes to use his strength against her and to feel her yield to him, and she sort of likes it, too. He rolls on top, straddles her waist and holds her wrists to the ground. It excites her but it scares her. She tells herself she doesn’t know why, but she does know why and everything’s confused. It must scare him too, because he climbs off and sits against the tree. They are out of breath. For no reason. It wasn’t that hard, wrestling, but they are out of breath.
She crawls over and sits between his legs with her back nestled against his chest. They never have sat this way before, although she has seen the big kids do it.
He doesn’t know where to put his hands. He rests them on her stomach. After a while she says, “I can’t see my hand, can you?” He says he can’t so he holds up his own hand and says he can’t see it, either.
“It’s really dark.” She whispers as though there were danger.
“Yes. Are you still here?” he jokes.
“I don’t know. I feel me so I must be. But it’s kind of scary.”
He reaches across her chest and holds her shoulder, with his arm resting on her breasts. His arm is strong. She can feel him breathe. Or is it her own breath? She can’t tell.
He says, “I’ll protect you.”
She leans her head back until her ear touches his cheek. “You will? Promise?”
“Yes. I promise.”
“We’re alone. Nobody can see us.” She doesn’t know what else to say. She hopes he will . . . do something, say something, but she guesses he doesn’t know what. She notices she can’t hear the radio. They are alone.
While he squeezes her closer, his other hand fiddles with something on the ground.
“What’s that?” she whispers.
“A crabapple. I stuck my thumbnail in and got juice on my hand.”
“Let me taste.” She takes his hand in hers and brings it to her face and presses it against her lips. She licks his thumb, up and down, then slides it into her mouth and holds it there and sucks on it. She’s surprised, crabapples taste sweet. She keeps his thumb in her mouth and rolls her tongue around it.
He says, “Do you like it?”
She takes his thumb from her mouth, kisses it, then lowers his hand onto her breast and holds it there. “Yes. It tastes good. Have you ever done it?”
He doesn’t move his hand. “Done what?” He knows what she means, but he wants her to say it.
“You know. It. Don’t act dopey.”
“Oh, that. No. But I saw a film once.”
“Neither have I.” She’s glad he hasn’t either. “What kind of film?”
“At home. My folks had a party and I was supposed to be asleep but there’s a mirror in the hall so I saw the reflection from my bed. The mirror made it backwards.”
“Backwards?” She giggles. “What was it like?”
He still doesn’t move his hand on her breast. Maybe he’s afraid she’ll stop him, afraid she’ll say she wants to go home. She has done that to boys, acted flirty and then when they did something, acted insulted or bored or giggly. She doesn’t know why. All the girls do.
“It was goofy. They stood around and right away they took off their clothes and started doing it.”
“How?”
“Well he got on top of her . . . you know.”
“But what happened? I really don’t.” She hears herself talking fast. “I never did it. Did it hurt her? Did she say anything. Did she cry?”
“I couldn’t tell. But now I know how.”
“I never saw a boy naked.”
“I have. What’s the big deal?”
“Show me?”
“Here? It’s dark. You couldn’t see anything anyway.”
“No one’ll know. I promise I won’t tell. Will you?”
“No, I won’t tell.”
“I just want to see what it looks like.”
“It’s too dark to see.”
“Maybe I can touch it. Would you like to touch me?”
“O.K.”
She unbuttons her blouse and takes his hand and puts it in against her chest.
“It’s soft.” His voice is shaky.
“It’s supposed to be. Now can I touch you?”
“My chest?”
“No, silly.”
“O.K.”
She rolls out of his arms and kneels beside him. “Where is it?”
“I have to open the buttons. Jeans’ buttons are tough. There.”
“Where?”
“Here, I’ll take your hand.”
“Gosh.”
“What?”
“It’s different from what I thought. It’s hard and it’s big. I thought they were softer, kind of little wormy things, sort of like my baby brother’s, only bigger. Is it supposed to be like that?”
“Just sometimes. When I think about girls. But sometimes I don’t know why. Like in school or walking or anywhere. Dumb.”
“Does it hurt when I touch it?”
“No.”
“Want to touch mine?”
“Yes.”
“Put your hand down in there. Farther. Oh.”
“Did I hurt you?”
“No, it felt kind of . . . I don’t know. Let’s do it. Show me how. But go slow. Let’s kiss, first.” She lies on her back and he rolls onto her and kisses her.
He says, “I can taste the crabapple on your lips. It’s sort of sweet.”
“I told you.”
He tries to push her jeans down. He says, “O.K. I think this is the . . . Gosh.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Your jeans are in the way. But it’s all right, I guess.”
“What did they say?”
“Who?
“In the movie.”
“Mostly `I love you.’ It was hard to hear.”
“Say that.”
“I love you? OK, I love you.”
It feels good, him telling her that. “Me too. I love you.” She holds him to her and looks up at the night sky. The stars, everything is beautiful. “I love you. I do. I really do.” And she does.
She tries to spread her knees and move against him, but her jeans still are in the way. When she wiggles to get them down he stiffens. “Oh.” He stiffens again, then he slumps against her.
She kisses his cheek. “What’s wrong? Is it in?”
“I don’t . . . I couldn’t help it.”
They lie still. He says, “I’m sorry.” He rolls off and lying on his back, buttons his jeans.
She doesn’t move. “It wasn’t hardly in. A little I think.”
“I know. Your jeans were hurting me.”
“But it felt good. You did real good. I liked it. I really did.” She rests until an invisible cloud begins to cover the stars. “Maybe we should go home.”
“O.K. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.”
“Is it supposed to be that fast?”
“In the movie it lasted longer.”
“It was just a movie.”

-/-
At home, she curls under her blankets, hugs her pillow in her arms and legs, and kisses it and whispers to it and promises she’ll only do it with him and won’t do that with anyone else, ever. “Not ever,” she vows. “Not ever. Not ever.”

-/-
School begins. He tells her that he had visited the tree and had picked some crabapples to take home, but they were sour, and everyone told him that’s the way crabapples always taste and he was surprised, because it had tasted sweet on her lips.
She decided she wouldn’t go to the park and taste a crabapple.
Soon, he moved away and she knew they never again would see each other. They never again would talk together or ride together or lie together in the park. It was the first time she had thought about the “never agains” that would creep silent and regretful, one by one into her life.

-/-
Now it is years later, and she knows he still remembers. She can’t say whether he remembers her name or even her face, but she knows he remembers that night, her perfume and the air and the color of the sunset, that night he first did it, almost. And it still will anger him that he hadn’t been smart enough to take her jeans all the way down.
And she, though she has broken her vow many times and with many men, she never will forget him. She won’t forget his slender body and his pretty face, nor the good smell and feel of him, nor the innocence. She’ll carry in her forever the special, romantic feelings she had that first, that one real time in her life.
And always, always she’ll remember that sweet taste of crabapple.

-End-

.

.


THE ARROW OF TIME

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1997, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

The flight of stars grinds down, lingers in one infinite instant of balance, then reverses and begins the trillion year collapse toward the next lower dimension.

Sadly, but three will remain.

     When all the years before have passed, Jon’s time for birth arrives. The indication came one century ago, when men were required to install his carved granite head stone. It was cracked and moss-covered then, but the years made the cracks heal and the moss shrink and disappear, until the stone weathered to a smooth, crisp shine. Then last year they removed the stone and left the mound and a foot stone.
On this spring day, brown leaves form out of dust, and the sun paints them as they leap from the damp earth and fly in the wind, twirling like carousel horses, up, up to the trees. Stones trail long, eerie shadows, whose strong colors harmonize like the art now being removed from museums for the genius, edwerd hoppir, to erase in his beautiful, strange style.
Two men sag at their shovels, and sweat in anticipation of effort. Then they dig Jon’s embark, soft earth flying into a pile, until his vessel shows bare.
Welcomers arrive, those who will befriend Jon, those who will love him, and those who come because they must. (Though, of course, they all come because they must.)
One of Jon’s brothers bows his head. The other will not arrive for several years. Jon’s wife weeps and tries to accept the inevitability of life. Jon’s small son, who arrived many years ago, no longer understands and cannot even try.
Reporters wait outside this private ceremony. The last of the words preceding this incident soon will be erased. Jon’s vessel rises. As a sign of respect, the welcomers bend to remove unfolding flowers from its cover. The pastor speaks surely and authoritatively of God’s wishes and of the bitter sweetness of this life and of others.
Six grim men lift Jon’s vessel to their shoulders and carry it to be admitted to his carriage. The welcomers say customary words and kiss the air and touch cheeks and hug and shake hands, then shuffle back.
Their cars, long and shiny black, reflect the gaping crowds and bursting camera lights, and file through the gate, honk out into the boulevard, out and away. The stones and their shadows remain. The leaves whirling high and far, soon will bind to their greening trees. It is October, the time for life.
Jon’s vessel is conveyed to the home, where great masses of flowers smooth the way, all unnoticed by the six struggling men who shoulder Jon to the receiving room.
His cover is lifted. Welcomers comment on his progress, examine him and pass before him.
A woman says, “Isn’t it a shame? Look how smooth around the eyes.”
A man says, “And his mouth. I would judge fifty years, perhaps less. Maybe forty-eight with that face. Short stay, surely.”
“Do you actually know? Life indoors can lengthen it. you see a creased, sallow skin and you think, `long stay.’ But the sun, a virus, tobacco, stress — who knows — will remove wrinkles faster. So he may live healthy indoors and stay longer.”
He frowns, “Sun or no, I know a short stay when I see one.” They turn away and laugh with others, who also laugh. None will become Jon’s friends. His friends-to-be know how long he will stay. They do not laugh.
After a suitable time of conversation and speeches, the welcomers leave. Jon waits alone. In another room, rests a tiny girl with clear skin and innocent smile. Her loved ones know she soon will be gone. She lies surrounded by tears. Thus states the universe.
For Jon, the next two days are filled with darkness. Still in his vessel, he is rolled to another room where clothing and makeup and poisons are removed. Then he is transferred to the sanitarium and into the operating room, where the doctors work on his shattered head. Though the doctors are expert, only the spontaneous exit of the bullet and time itself, however brief, can repair such wounds. As time always does.

-/-     He first awakens to the instant of pain and streak of red. His sleep-furred mind had heard, “Help him. Oh, God.” Then, “Anyway the people love you, Jon. This heat is brutal.” Her voice is good. “Won’t that be nice? This evening we’ll go to bed early.”
Jon waves and smiles to the blur and lets the sound and heat beat in him. Sweat covers his face and body. There come smells — rubber, sweat, leather, asphalt, grass, perfume — all throbbing like the sound.
He smiles and waves and opens his eyes. Jacwilin laughs, “You’ll have plenty of time for that. Bunny, don’t sleep. Enjoy the acclaim.” He closes his eyes. His open car rolls past the white cloud of cheering faces and waving hands.
He tolerates the long ride to the hotel, and to the airplane and to the car and to the white house, where he squints at the brilliant white of the pillars. That is the first day he knows.
The flavors of his first meal leave him, while the sun, rises through the western window and receives light from his eyes and the eyes of billions who live upon this earth and elsewhere in creation. On the second evening he watches himself speak on television. That afternoon he presents his speech and by morning, he begins to rehearse.

-/- 

Jon is left with his imagination. Normah steps through the door. “We can’t do this again,” she says. As she tosses off her clothes her wan smile reveals her embarrassment.
The small candle flame struggles for life, pulling atoms from the air in the dim room and turning them to wax. Jon sits up and stares at her. She stands naked before him, then lies beside him. They embrace one time, wet and exhausted. She rests her head on his chest. They fondle without a word, lovers with no love in them.
Words surprise him, “Normah, I love you, too.”
“I do. I love you, Jon.”
He feels her fluids enter him. For a while he can say nothing.
She draws up his undershorts and trousers and takes her face from his lap. Her breasts are heavy in his hands. She buckles his belt, reaches up, and kneels before him.
The elastic has pressed her skin. He sees red lines on her back. There are three hooks that close. He watches her hook her brassiere.
She turns to him. A drop of sweat rises from her brassiere. It travels up between her breasts to her neck.
She picks up her clothes. She steps into her skirt. It slips up over her hips. The black cloth closes as Jon hears the raspy sound and watches the zipper.
Her skin sparkles in the candlelight. Her blouse flutters like a wounded, white bird, up from the floor. It wraps her arms and shoulders. All the buttons are open. Her blouse is of transparent cotton. She presses each button through its hole. She stands before him as he watches.
The small candle flame flares, then disappears into the match.
“Very well, together, we light a candle.”
“Give me your hand,” he reaches for her.
“But I like to see your pretty face, Jon. A candle is romantic.”
“We do not need the light,” he says. “You see a tree filled with apples. You know their colors and their shape. Yet you know nothing if you never will taste an apple.”
He is surprised at how he feels, breathless as though about to descend stairs.
She kisses him. She is golden and shiny, like a sleek goddess. Jon is glad Normah is here, and cannot know he was not glad, earlier.
That evening, while Jacwilin is in France, where they love her best, beautiful Normah, all yellow-haired and blowzy, with sleep lines dividing her face, came to lie in Jon’s bed.
The evening sun still shines from his bed and his room and his eyes, lighting the sky with red. From his nostrils and out through the open windows passes the smell of flowers and earth and thoughts of her.
Jon does not know, nor would he care, that last year, before Jon’s birth, Normah Joan comforted Jon’s brother, Rober.

-/- 

Rober faces the window. He was born earlier than Jon. He too had carried a bullet. Two brothers born with bullets. Improbable but true.
Jon is an eminent eradicator. He will eradicate poems, novels and philosophy, and was acclaimed for years before he arrived.
Rober asks, “What will you eradicate soon?”
“A science novel. It contains things called `computers,’ which if they existed, would make eradicating easier. The mechanical eradicator is cumbersome.”
“What is the novel called?”
“`The Arrow of Time.’ It is about a universe different from ours, where the stars fly apart rather than coming together. Effect follows cause. Information is gained rather than lost.”
“How is this possible? Gained from where?”
“From nowhere. From nothing. As iron emerges from the deoxygenation of rust, so do facts come together and information results. That is one way it is unlike the real world, where all knowledge existed in the beginning, and dissipates through the centuries.”
“More slowly, now that there is so much less. Some believe there will be eras in which almost no knowledge at all is lost. How else is this strange world different?”
“There, the people are said to come from the union of their mothers and fathers, and emerge from their mothers, smooth and tiny no matter how many years they have.”
“Good heavens, emerge from their mothers? How grotesque. And when their time comes to leave, what happens?”
“They leave, whenever. There is no special time and no way to foresee it. Things happen to them and then they are put into the ground to dissolve.”
“As though earth is the receiver instead of the mother? You say that a body is disintegrated by the earth, your molecules rip apart and travel who knows where? Horrifying. And in that world, you never know how many years you have left.”
“Robber, we don’t know with certainty, now.”
“But we have a good estimate. Within a few hours, anyway. In that backward time you could eradicate unexpectedly. You’d never know.”
“Maybe that would be better.”
“God no, but Jon, there’s something worse I’ve thought of. In backward time you’d squander the feel-good, the tender years of innocence first, only to look ahead to cracked flesh and arthritic pain. I expect everyone would wish for short lives in such a world. Why would anyone wish to live long?”
“Yet they do, at least in my book.”
“Anyhow, you said your novel was scientific?”
“It describes a paradox. In our real world, order increases through the centuries. That is the natural course of things. The stars gain mass by attracting energy from the universe. It’s called, “The second law of thermodynamics.” Yet though knowledge is order, our knowledge decreases. Each hundred years humankind forgets much of what we know. In fifty thousand, we’ll be beasts. Nearly all knowledge will be lost.”
Rober asks, “How can order and knowledge be the same, while one increases and the other decreases?”
“That’s the paradox. As you know, we will end with nothing. Our group knowledge leaves us, as we lose our memories to the years. New people arrive who will have much less to forget. I’m a senator. Do you think the next generation will know I once was president? Of course, not. Even I won’t be sure. Gone, all gone, knowledge ends in the blowing ashes of time.”
“So in the world of your novel, how does knowledge begin?”
“It says when time runs backward, information is created out of nothing. Events precede memory. Humans learn to travel to the stars, to the most distant ends of the universe. As long as the stars fly apart the total of human knowledge grows.
Eventually we know everything and our thoughts alone stir the universe. But, the stars turn and began to converge. That’s why time now runs forward. In trillions of years, the stars all will crash together, rebound, and begin the cycle again. That fact remains on the edge of my memory.”
Rober smiled. “It’s still hard to accept time running backward. Imagine the terror. You and I end in boxes, lowered into the ground, lie there as our atoms disperse. Our bullets would have burrowed in while we were awake. Logically then, everyone and everything, including you and me, a trillion, trillion years ago, we’d have done this before. Backward. Or maybe many times before. Depends on how often the universe bounces.”
“You see the idea. There would be imperfections in the time line. Each cycle would include subtle differences from the last and the next. But yes, that’s the theme of my book, not that I necessarily believe it.”
Rober began to giggle. “Necessarily? In that world, disease could grow and end us, rather than dying and drawing us forth. When you said, …`thoughts stirred the universe…’, do you mean people would have the illusion that they alter the course of the universe, rather than the universe altering them? But, the path of every atom already is determined. How could people change that?”
“They can’t, of course. It’s a story.
“I prefer the real world.”
“Perhaps, but do you realize a few years ago, we walked on the moon. Now we’ve forgotten how. Lives are shorter than they used to be and will continue to grow shorter. In the distant past we may have lived for thousands of years. And there are fewer people produced. Once fertile and prolific, mother earth is runs down.”
“That’s the natural course. And about your bouncing universe Jon, will you ever know whether you’re coming or going?
“If I ever do,” he laughed, “It’ll be about time.”

-/- 

Summer begins its departure. Each day, the sun arrives later and leaves earlier, and first the flowers and then the leaves, shrink into the tree branches. Then, comes winter. Jon watches as frost emerges from the ground, and builds to snow that flies to the clouds, and more frost emerges, and more snow, then less as the last, few flakes rise into the gray skies. The days lengthen and leaves of all colors form from the earth, and they lift and drift in the breeze up into the branches and green there, and the days become warm again, and it is a year.

-/-
There will be an election in two years. Jon will be happy to leave the senate. His back gives him great pain when he first stands, though after a few hours on his feet, his pain eases somewhat. He is idolized and there is talk of Camelot.

-/-
Jacwilin says, “Since we divorced I’ve been alone, so I’m glad to have you here with me. Before you, Avion was an unattractive man, but kind, though I never received with him. He arrived later than I, and will continue for many years after me. Avion is very wealthy, though not so pretty as you. Soon we’ll forget you are my second husband.”
“The words soothe me.”
“Do you never tire of it?”
“Your story Jackee, tell me again.”

-/-
An infant son comes to Jon and Jacwilin. They have felt sadness for years. They’d watched the dates, engraved in the cemetery stone, grow sharper, and men taking the stone away. Still, one never becomes immune to the horror of an infant born.
The vessel rises from the earth. It is so tiny, Jon carries it in his own arms. He and Jacwilin take the infant to the home, and later to the hospital. The doctor reassures them about the procedure. He will do this many times.
The child is wiped with a bloody towel, then he is forced into Jacwilin, whose screams begin as bare gasps, gurgling deep in her throat, and grow to racking shrieks, hours and hours of her ghastly screams. When it is done, Jon and she drive home together and through the next months, while their son dissolves into her, they feel the joy of his coming. Though she was his receiver, Jacwilin never had the opportunity to know this child merging with her. That is how life goes.

-/-
Jacwilin notices Jon’s face is smooth and there is no gray in his hair. “We’ll be single soon,” she says. “I feel sad about that.”
She gives him a mirror. He inspects his face, and is disappointed to see how old it has become. Nearly all wrinkles have disappeared. “Well … if we’re like most people, at least we’ll soon enter the most pleasant days of our lives. College, high school. Carefree play succeeds responsibility. The bliss of innocence is our reward for living.”
“Some find it stressful.”
“But think how we’ll feel. I’ll get rid of this back pain. You’ll have the vigor of age. God’s reward.”
“I hate the forgetting.”
“Much of life is best forgotten,” he muses.

-/-
One winter morning, Jon and Jacwilin skip outside, holding hands. She wears icedrop baguettes in her hair and lashes, and Jon looks at her with more passion than he ever felt. They run into the house, throw off their heavy jackets, merge and begin to plan for their divorce. It will be beautiful.

-/-
The divorce night is joyous, beginning when the exhausted guests arrive, there to be stimulated by hours of dance and sweets and dinner. The evening ends with the most lovely ceremony ever seen by the six hundred attending. Jacwilin looks elegant in white, and Jon regrets they would know each other only a short time longer.

-/-
As Jon says, college is the best of times. With nineteen years still to come, he finds his final union with a girl he’d been surprised to learn had only sixteen years ahead of her. He does not know her name.
They merge in the back seat of his last car. It is her final union too, very urgent and passionate. Then after suitable cuddling they go to eat and see a movie. That day, at the amusement park, Jon sees her for the last time, never learning that nine months earlier she had received a daughter, and half the seed of her child had entered him.
During the next seven years Jon provides his own comfort, and with just twelve years ahead, ceases even that.

-/-
By this time Jon moves in with his parents. During high school Jon shrinks so fast he is the smallest boy in the ninth grade.
He eradicates his last poem. It speaks of the seasons. He likes least when the days became chill and dim, and butterflies wrap themselves in their chrysalis, and the leaves fold into buds and enter the twigs. He loves best to run outside and feel his skin warmed by the rays it sends to the sun.
With six years left, he becomes quite small, and he charges among his dreams. His receiver spoils him foolish, for these were to be the best of the best years, when each day is a glorious, perfumed waft of honeyed sunshine and magic.
He forgets his pains and cares, and lives for the moment. And the moment is good.

-/-
Time melts and hazes and divides into random events. Jon’s life focuses on his receiver. She is kindness and gentleness and goodness. He cuddles in her lap, his ear to her heartbeat.

-/-
On his last day, his receiver wraps him in his blanket and takes him to the sanitarium, where he dozes most of the time, often sleeping in her arms. The nurses roll him, enclosed in his incubator, to the large room with the sharp lights overhead.
People lift him and remove his blanket and hold him chilly and squirming above his naked, sweating mother, and smear him with warm, sticky fluid and begin the insertion.
Fear strikes him, and he screams as feet first he enters her. She churns warm inside. He hears her moan. His legs are in. It is tight. His chest. She says, “Oh, oh, oh,” in staccato puffs. His shoulders twist to enter. Her body throbs and bucks. Hot fluid rushes past him into her.
The doctor presses Jon’s head. In slides his chin, his nose, his forehead. So much pressure. In. In. To where it feels warm and dark and safe.
Jon’s receiver whimpers and twists as he draws his knees up and binds to her. He feels her writhe and contract in waves, and hears her voice far away. Her heart pounds through him, shocking him like lightning on a primeval ocean. He settles back deeper as the waves of pressure ease.
It happens in minutes. Not like some children who resist for hours, or those unfortunate few who must enter a recently born woman.
Soon her sobs end and her writhing ends and her heart slows to its normal, loving rhythm. Jon’s body begins its wonderful merge with hers, the flesh and the bone and the essence of him channel into his receiver.
Cell by atom he enters and flows and becomes her, and finally, peacefully they become one, the most beautiful moment in all creation.

-/-
One distant day, receiver earth runs out of humans to yield. For a while, she continues to bring forth other creatures, some huge, followed by smaller creatures and smaller still. Until there are none. Then the mother herself begins to heat and melt and disassemble, parts of her drift off into ever smaller parts, then into molecules, into atoms into elementary particles and beyond, all part of the barren universe speeding faster, faster, faster, toward singularity.

The arrow of time springs from the mark and accelerates, drawn to the bowstring in the inevitable course of the universe. The dimensions disappear, dull flat in the next cycle and stark linear in the next. How magnificent the universe must have been in the previous times, when dimensions were counted in the grandeur of infinities.

-End-

.

.

.


PERFECT BLOOD

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

“I can give you only fifteen minutes,” the doctor said. She realized she shouldn’t have said “only.” It diminished the gesture. She should have said, “Oh good, I can give you fifteen minutes.” So she did. “I mean, I’m pleased I can give you fifteen minutes.”
“That would be more than sufficient, although I expect you will change your mind. I’m here Mrs. . . . I’m here doctor, because I’ve committed an unspeakable evil.”
“An evil?” To the psychiatrist, this slender, little man sitting across the desk from her looked like the timid soul whose greatest sin might have come when he peaked over someone’s shoulder on a grade school test, or perhaps shoplifted a candy bar when he was six. Yet, one never knows. In one way or another, they all have done evil.
She never had seen him before, but he had called and demanded an appointment. “Emergency,” he had said. She had heard that before. Aren’t they all “emergencies?” But the intensity of his voice swayed her. She made room. Fifteen minutes.
“Yes. I know you’ve heard that before, but I’m sure you will find this evil to be quite different.”
“Can you talk about it?” she said.
“You think I’m exaggerating?”
“Here, only what you think matters. And what do you think?” She glanced at the personal history he had completed, and was surprised to see he was forty-five. His quivering hands and ashen complexion made him seem much older. She looked over his head, avoiding his eyes. “Why not say whatever occurs to you.” She paused. “Do you want to do that?”
“Sure, you don’t want to be directive, but you want some babble, right? I know the drill.”
These were the most difficult patients, the ones who “know the drill.” While the doctor analyzes them, they analyze the doctor. It becomes a game rather than a treatment. “If you wish.”
“OK, I’m a short guy as you can see, and shy. In school, I didn’t have close friends. I went to class and came home. I don’t remember much happening in between. No dates. No clubs. Not like you, I’ll bet. Tall, beautiful, brilliant. You had all the guys panting, right? You must have been the Miss Perfect Prom Queen.”
It was an interesting choice of words, she thought, all things considered. When she didn’t answer, he jumped up, crossed the room, opened the window and hung his head far out. “Got to have some air. This room’s strangling me.”
She kept her voice calm and soft. “Would you prefer to sit here while you talk? I’ll hear you better.”
“Are you afraid I’m going to jump? It’s thirty floors. It shouldn’t take too long to hit bottom, much less than the fifteen minutes. I’ll try not to make a mess. I’ll carry a napkin.”
Again, she whispered, “Why are you thinking about that?”
“Ever have anyone jump?”
“No. We always have found better solutions. There always are better solutions, you know, though sometimes they are difficult to see. Shall we explore them together?”
“There’s always a first time, isn’t there doc? Maybe it’ll be me. I wonder whether I’d bounce, or just go splat? Wouldn’t it be a kick if I bounced right back in?”
“You could have jumped from any number of windows before you came to see me. Did you make this long trip to a psychiatrist and argue for an appointment, so you could jump from that particular window?”
“Smart cookie, aren’t you. OK, I’ll sit.” He brought his head in from the window and flopped into the chair. “How long you been a shrink?”
“Ten years. Why do you ask?”
“Guess by now you’ve heard it all. Got everybody figured, right? So tell me what I’m thinking.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you did the telling?”
“Ten years. By now it’s automatic pilot for you, doc. Like a machine. I say something. You ask, `Why?’ I answer. You ask, `How do you feel about that?’ And away we go. A damn machine could do your job. Let me ask you something. Who’s responsible for a kid, his biological parents or his nurturing parents?”
Even before the question finished, she said, “What do you believe?” Later, the meaning of his question would strike her.
“See? Automatic. I toss in a non sequitur, and you don’t even blink. Right away its, `What do you believe? How do you feel?’ You shrinks are so pompous. So removed. People come to you glowing in agony. This whole room is radioactive with people’s pain, but nothing gets through your shiny armor. Well, we’ll see.”
She said nothing. Silence always was her best speech motivator.
He looked over his shoulder, then back to her, leaned forward and whispered in a gangster voice, “O.K., here’s the scoop, lady. I’m involved in a murder. I’ve killed a kid. Now, are you certain you want to hear about this?”
“If you had murdered someone, even your doctor would be required to report …”
“Yah, yah, all that `required to report’ crap.” He leaned back, fidgeted, took out a cigarette and said, “Do you mind?”
“No.”
He put the cigarette away. “Liar. Of course you mind. No ash trays here. You don’t smoke. Non-smokers always mind. Don’t worry, I don’t smoke either. Gave it up. Guess why.”
She said nothing, but gave him her best “I-sympathize-with-you” look.
“I gave up cigarettes, because they didn’t work. They didn’t relax me or give me pleasure. And you know what was worst of all?”
“No.”
“They didn’t kill me like they’re supposed to. See? You can’t trust anyone.” He crushed the cigarette in his hands and made a small pile of tobacco on her desk. “Never heard that one before, did you? You thought you knew all the answers. Lady, you don’t even begin. But you will. Oh yes, you will. How’s my time?”
“About ten minutes left.”
“Another lie. There’s about five. So the extra time means I’ve caught your interest.” He slouched back in his chair and closed his eyes, then leaned forward and spoke in the breathless voice children use when they tell ghost stories. “I got married young, to the first woman I’d ever dated. She was six years older. I asked her and no one else had, so she said, `Yes.’ I loved her then, and though I can’t imagine she felt much for me, she was as good and kind to me as anyone ever was or will be. Still taping?”
“Yes, is that all right?”
“It’s what I want, Miss Perfect Prom Queen. There has to be a record of this so everyone will understand. Anyway, after a couple years, we had a son. I was excited, because I’d hoped for, no expected, a tall, strong, handsome, athletic son, who’d wreak havoc on the female population, if you get my meaning. Now you’re supposed to say, `What is your meaning?'”
She had been about to, but she elected to remain silent. It was important to maintain control while appearing to give the patient complete latitude. Why was deception so important? Why was control so important? She couldn’t think of the reasons, but she knew there were some — some very good reasons.
Sometimes, when listening to a patient, she imagined herself in a cage with a beast, trying to tame its imagined illnesses. But the beast would not tame. It wanted its wildness. That was its strength. It used its insanity to intimidate, to control. Yes, that was why she had to control them, so they would not control her. Mental illness was the most selfish affliction.
His was a story she had heard numerous times. The weak father who wants to live through his son. Perhaps this patient was right. Perhaps she was on automatic pilot. Were her patients people? Or had they become trite stories?
Her husband teased her about being a “porcelain princess.” In high school she had been the prom queen, and now this patient calls her, “Miss Perfect Prom Queen.” It’s true that she had begun to classify patients as “story `A,'” “story `B,'” and so on. But how else can you protect yourself? This man was a “B,” except his self-proclaimed murder confession was unique for a “B.”
He continued. “OK, the silent method. I named him `Eric,’ which means `powerful.’ As it turns out, Eric was sweet and nice and all that, but not powerful, and after a while I saw he was going to be like me, in other words, a classic nerd.
“Maybe I tried to be a loving father. I don’t know. It wasn’t in me. I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t good. I was there. For a long time I thought I was great, because I knew of fathers who weren’t even there.
“Anyway, Eric got on real well with his mother, and my feelings about that were mixed up. You know, Oedipus and all that, not that he . . . Any way, we went along until when he was thirteen years old, he started feeling sick. At first we thought it was a series of colds or allergies or something, but when the symptoms wouldn’t clear up we took him to a doctor.
“The doctor did all kinds of tests on Eric and then did some tests on my wife and me. That kind of surprised us. When the results came back, he called us all in. He had Eric wait in the lobby while my wife and I went into the office.
“The doctor looked shook, and right away I figured the kid was very sick. I was right, but it was much worse even than I’d guessed.”
He stopped and looked at her, playing the same silent game she had played. They stared at each other for two minutes, until he said, “OK, you’re better at this than me. Want to know what the doctor told us? Now you say, `Would you like to tell me?’
“Is that what you’d like me to say?”
“Damn right I would. Jeez, that’s irritating. Smug and irritating. That’s why I came to you. The doctor started by telling us Eric did have allergies and they caused all the symptoms. I started to smile, but he held up his hand. The allergies were nothing. The real problem was, in doing all the tests, they discovered Eric also had Huntington’s. As you know it’s a genetic disease, not immediately fatal, but degenerative. No cure. No hope. When Eric would reach thirty, his mind would start to deteriorate and by fifty he’d die a slobbering fool.
“My wife cried, and I guess even I did, too. I said, `Did he get it from my wife or from me?’ Right away I was sorry I’d asked such a dumb question. I didn’t know much about Huntington’s then and I was sort of hoping it wasn’t me.
“But I saw a strange look come into the doctor’s eyes. He said, `Huntington’s is rare. It comes from both parents and neither of you has it. But obviously . . . Eric is . . . adopted?’
“`No,’ I said, `What makes you think that?’ He took a deep breath and said, “Surely, you’re aware . . . I mean, of course you’re aware . . . he isn’t your biological son. I can see from the tests. Wrong blood type, wrong genes.’ Good heavens, didn’t you know this? How can that be? I’m so sorry. What a terrible way to learn.’
“I said, ‘Not my biological son? That’s impossible. Unless my wife was cheating around.’ I was still being stupid.
“He said, `I don’t know what this is all about, but he isn’t her biological son, either. I can’t imagine you didn’t know.’
“‘That’s nuts,’ I said. ‘He’s the same kid we took home from . . . Hey, are you telling me there was some kind of mixup in the hospital? We took home the wrong kid?’
“He sort of winced and said, `I know this. Eric wasn’t born to your wife or to any other woman you could have impregnated. He’s not the biological child of either of you. I feel terrible. I’m shocked. I had no idea you didn’t know.’
“I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. A week later, my wife and I decided it wouldn’t be fair to keep the Huntington’s a secret from Eric. After all, it was his life, and there weren’t going to be that many years left. As for the other thing, we decided to tell that, too.”
The psychiatrist stood and walked to the window. She did not want to hear any more of this story. She felt so weary now, weary of trying to tame the beasts, weary of failure.
She put her head out and let the wind blow across her ears, to silence the sounds from inside. Below, ant-like people were scurrying around, carrying their ant-like problems.
Early in her career, when any of them visited her office and sat across from her, they grew to giant size and their problems became horrific, smothering masses. Then, she had wondered, how can they survive such unbearable existences? She knew she never could.
So she had learned to hold herself apart. She allowed herself no problems, just questions starting with “how” or “why” and always containing the word, “you.” That way, the problems were not real and the patients were not people. They were cases. They were stories. She had no more relation to the problems than a foot doctor has to a fungus. Don’t touch it and you won’t catch it. She was not a person for her patients to infect. She was a doctor. She felt justified, and believed that any psychiatrist who denies this is lying.
It was later, after her son was born, that her patients became beasts.
She brought her head in from the window. The wind had mussed her hair. She walked to the mirror to pat the few stray strands back in place. She would not turn back to face him.
“Hey doc, you OK? Something bother you?”
“No, yes, please continue.” The words slipped out. She had forgotten to ask a question.
“We have five minutes left doc, even on your clock. You sure you want to keep going?”
“If you want to. Don’t worry about the time.”
“Right. If I want to. That’s better. So we told Eric, and he took it well. Kids can handle being told they have a fatal illness. Better than adults. Kids don’t believe they’re going to die and anyhow, thirty seems like a long way off to a teenager. The part about not being our biological child didn’t phase him at all. We were still his folks. See how great he was?
“After a while though, an obsession started growing in me. I had to find my blood son. I needed to see him, to see how he turned out. That’s what I called him, my ‘blood’ son. The worst part was, we all knew I meant my ‘real’ son.
“I contacted the hospital, but got no help there. All they cared was, might I sue. My wife begged me to stop. `Can’t you see what you’re doing to Eric, with all this talk about your `blood’ son. Eric is your son, your real son, your only son. And what will you do if you find this other boy? What will you do?’
“I had no answer for that. I didn’t need one. Nothing mattered except finding him. I spent my days at City Hall going over birth records, trying to find any boy born at the same time, and in the same hospital.
It was weird. I couldn’t find anything. At that hospital, no other boy had been born within two days of Eric. Almost as though the records had been wiped out. Almost, you understand?
“I got so crazed, I didn’t see what was happening in my own family. I didn’t pay attention to my wife’s complaints about not feeling well. I didn’t notice Eric closing in on himself. He seldom came out of his room any more. I couldn’t see anything.
“One day my wife phoned me from a hospital. She’d been in such pain, she’d checked herself in. They found cancer all through her. Within two weeks she was gone.
Some lousy husband I’d been during those last agonizing days of her life. I hadn’t even the sense to comfort her when she needed me. What a hell of a way to die, in pain and being ignored by your own husband. Can you think of a worse death?
“As bad as I feel now, Eric took it worse. He stopped talking. Literally. I had to take him out of school. Doctors couldn’t do anything. Eric sat in a corner with his arms around his knees, and rocked and rocked. But even that couldn’t stop me from searching for my blood son. Can you believe it?
“I kept going back to the hospital where he was born, talking to anyone who would talk to me. Janitors, cops, anyone. Finally, an older nurse, she must have felt sorry for me, or got tired of me, or something. She slipped me a piece of paper. It had a family name and address. A big house in the suburbs.
“I drove there and sat in my car and waited. After a couple hours a kid came out. He was tall and strong and good looking. But as different as he was from me, I could see his features were mine.”
The psychiatrist continued to face the mirror. “How long ago was this?”
“Yesterday morning.”
The psychiatrist stiffened. “Just yesterday morning? You saw the boy yesterday?” She turned to him. Her voice rose. “What did you do?”
“Have I sort of caught your interest, doc? Oh Jeez, I think my fifteen minutes are up. I guess I better go.”
“No, you tell me. Just tell me, now. What did you do?”
“O.K., if you insist. I got out of the car and walked toward him. He was shooting baskets into a hoop mounted on the garage. He was good too, the way he moved, real smooth and athletic. I didn’t know what I was going to do. There was no plan. But the ball bounced to me, and without thinking I took a shot. Believe it or not, it went in.
“I said to him, `How was that . . . son?’ He said, `Not bad. Want to play horse?’ His voice was my voice, younger but mine. We played horse, and he whipped my butt, naturally. We shook hands and I drove off, and that was it. I never even learned his name. So that’s it. Done. The end.”
The psychiatrist walked behind her desk and snapped, “That’s it? Done? I doubt it. I’m sure there’s much more, so you might as well get on with it. Why are you here and what do you want?”
“Oh, there is one more little thing.”
“I thought there might be.” Her voice was cold. “Listen to me. It’s too late. If you try to change the past, you will destroy the future, yours, Eric’s, everyone’s who is involved.”
“True, it is too late to change the past. Poetic and true. If you change the past you destroy the future, but it’s not too late to know the past, is it? When I came home last night I found Eric dead. He’d hung himself from our balcony.”
“Oh, dear God.” The psychiatrist fell to her knees and covered her face in her hands. “Oh, dear God.”
“So, like I said, I’m involved in a murder. I helped kill Eric, my dear son, who wanted nothing from me but my love. But it’s worse for you, isn’t it?”
Her shoulders shook with sobs, and she was unable to lift her face from her hands.
He stood and looked down at her. “You’re so perfect. You made sure your new baby had every conceivable test, and when you learned your son had Huntington’s, you couldn’t bear the thought of raising an imperfect child. As though, somehow that would make you less than perfect. I don’t know how you arranged it, but you’re a doctor. You had access. Somehow, you made the switch. Eric was yours. You changed the past and destroyed the future. Now Eric is dead and you’ve participated in the murder of your own blood child,doctor.”

-/- 

Several minutes later, still on her knees, she took her hands from her swollen eyes. She looked around. He was not in the room. The drapes hung out the window, fluttering in the wind. She knew what to do, of course.
She crawled to her feet and walked back to the mirror. Standing erect, she straightened her dress, then turning right and left, she smoothed her hair. She searched in her purse for her lipstick, applied it and blotted. She went to her chair and sat down. She gathered all the papers on her desk into a neat stack and placed them in a drawer. Her desk now was clean and perfect. She buzzed her intercom and told her secretary to cancel the rest of the day’s appointments. There would be plenty of time to contact those coming later. Her secretary would handle it.
She remembered the recorder still was running. She considered destroying the tape, then changed her mind because a tape eliminates the need for notes. There had to be an explanation. There had to be.
She walked to the window and looked down. The street was clean. The air was clear. A crowd of those ant-people had gathered below in a perfect circle around an object. Far off, an ambulance siren cried two pure, alternating notes. Nothing else intruded on the quiet. Nothing moved. It all seemed so right, so perfect, like a finished painting. It could not be better.
“How?” The question was ripped from her lips.
The people’s onrushing faces turned up to her and filled with horror.
She heard a scream in the wind. It was the answer. By habit, she tried to formulate another question, but there were no more questions, and in her last fleeting moment she felt her first regret.

-End-

.

.

.


HONEYMOON NIGHT

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1997, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

     The small, balding man drove timidly in the dusk, his bony hands clutching the wheel. The sky was clear now, but the mountain road, descending from high above the shore, still glistened, slick from this afternoon’s rain.
Small puffs of ground fog spun across the asphalt and brushed the trees below, but the view out to the sea was clear. The low sun reflecting off the water, cast glowing red slashes on the rocks and shrubs, and beside the road a rivulet flowed red as though with blood.
“We shall stop here,” the tall, young woman whispered in her throaty voice. It was not a question.
“Here, on the curve? It’s dangerous. If a car comes around, we’re kind of hard to see here. And it’s a long fall.”
She laughed, “You worry so. We shall stop but for the moment. There is not traffic. I know this road. And you shall find lovely the sight from up high. Feel how this restless day ends in calmness. Look upon the boat far out. Can you see? It seems to float above the water. Almost, it is part of the sun. And smell the ocean. You must breathe it to know its life.”
“Yes, but there’ll be time. We’ve got weeks to travel and see the sights and things. A lifetime, really. We’re tired now. I thought you’d want to get to the hotel, shower, rest a bit — maybe have a few minutes of . . . you know, privacy . . . before we hit the Casino. We’re married now, and I’ve been waiting for . . . you know. And tomorrow, we’ve got to wake up early for golf.”
“The moment, our first evening, the sight such as this, we cannot allow it to pass unsavored. You shall have eternity for your privacy and your Casino and your golf. This I promise. Come out from the car. Stand with me, a man beside his wife. I wish to watch the sun dip into the ocean. I wish to wait for the second star.”
“The second?”
“Yes, you my new husband, you are my first star this night, bright as a great nova. And beneath the stars, I wish to hear you say you love me. Would you deny me this on our honeymoon evening — to watch the sun set, to see the stars emerge while my first star tells me of his love? This is the dream of every woman. We shall go out now and live this dream.”
“O.K., but be careful. That gravel looks slippery and it’s a straight drop.” He turned to the darkness of the back seat. “Your mother and I’ll be back in a second. You sleep or something.”
A distant cloud of birds rose high and far and free, soaring at will, black against the sky, then swooping low above the water. Scents of moisture and evening flowers hung thick and sweet in the still air.
A sudden breeze fluttered his tie and annoyed his hair. He brushed back the strands and held them to his head.
She watched the last sun slip through the thin, red cloud layers aligned on the horizon. The rest of the sky was clear, beginning with creamy blue to the west and turning deepest blue-black above them, where a star struggled through.
She pointed out to sea. “See how boats cast their long shadows all the way to the shore. And down there, how the roofs still glow like rubies in the light. Heaven could not be more lovely. We never shall forget this sight.”
“Yes, sure. It’s beautiful, almost as beautiful as you. So now, can we go back . . .?”
“Such a man as you gives purpose to my life. That is my beauty, the purpose you give me. Oh, look. See below, how the house lights come on like stars.” She stepped beside him and touched his elbow forward. “Look, do you see down there?”
“Careful near the edge. Must be two hundred feet straight down. I don’t want to be a widower the same day I’m married,” he giggled.
“Ah no, you shall have me forever. It is promised. Your former wife, she had strong feelings for you?”
“Sure, but why bring her up?”
“She felt great pain, great anger, when you told her the news? It was a great shock for her, that you should leave after all the years?”
“Her? I suppose it was a shock. But she’ll get over it. Let’s not talk about . . .”
“Life’s strongest feelings come when love and hatred blend. You take your love and your fortune from her and you give them to me. Without love, she is left with her hatred?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. She’ll be OK.”
“Perhaps one day you would take from me and give to another?”
He held her hand and brought it to his lips. “No, my new Mrs. Carson. You’ve got nothing to fear. You know I’d never hurt you. Anyway, I gave her enough. And when I die, she gets tons more. She’s got no complaints. Let’s forget . . .”
“Yes, you are the generous, thoughtful man. You are all I hoped for. There remains one more thing before we go to our delicious privacy.”
“Anything for you.”
“The words. Let me hear the words. Tell me you will love me only, and never will leave to take your love from me. These are the words I want.”
“That? I’ve told you a million times. Maybe a billion, give or take. You know my feelings.”
“Please tell me once more. I so would enjoy to hear these precise words. I need them to be spoken, here on this lovely honeymoon night. It is my dream.”
They stood next to each other looking out over the darkening land and sea. She put her arm around his slender shoulders, drew him to her, turned her head and touched her tongue to his ear.
“Husband, give to me what I want. Then we may go to the seclusion you so crave.”
“Well, as long as you put it that way.” He stepped around to face her and gazed up at her face fading to black in the fallen sun. He took her to him and kissed her cool lips and stepped back. “If it means so much to you . . . Ready, milady?”
“Yes. Now. Speak loud; speak bold, so the hills and the ocean and the stars will hear your promise of eternal love.”
She was invisible in shadow as he gave her his most courtly bow and said, “Goddess, I love you. I’ll love you as long as I live. Never, never will I leave th. . .”
From the darkness, she thrust her hands hard against his frail shoulders, propelling him into space. For one moment, he hung silhouetted, motionless against the dim sky. Then his wide eyes disappeared into the night, and his voice floated up to echo, “. . . thee-e-e–e—e—-e—–e.”
And then was quiet.
She waited to see the last vague color slip behind the sea. She waited to see the black birds circle down toward the shore, and to see stars form from the remaining light. Below the road, house lights appeared, and out in the sea, boat lights flickered. They blended together, land and sea and sky, and all were a smooth blackness and stars being born. The universe was one.
She stared out at the night, and stretched her arms toward where the sun had drowned. She embraced the soft breeze that drifted through her, ruffling her sheer dress. She watched each star appear, each struggling to light its bit of darkness. So many stars. Another and another, and there, another. She smiled. Stars. Always, there would come another.
When the chill wind arrived, she murmured, “Liar,” and turned to the car. She opened the door with care, sat behind the wheel, lifted the phone and dialed, then in a flat, emotionless whisper, “Yes Mrs. Carson, it is done. Just as agreed. I will send the tape tomorrow. Leave the money in the box.”
She pressed the “End” button, then dialed again. “I am available. I can begin tomorrow. Fine, just as agreed.” This time when she pressed the “End” button, she replaced the phone.
A startled voice mumbled from the back seat, “Mommy, the man . . .?”
“He has gone, my baby, left me and gone to his privacy. I am sorry I woke you.”
“Was he a bad man, too? Like the others?”
She touched her fingers to her lips, turned and brushed them on the child’s forehead. “He was a man.”
The child’s drowsiness began to creep back. “Mommy, are we almost there?”
“Yes, dear one.”
“But where?”
“To the next day. Always to the next.”
“I had my dream. Bad men came and we ran and we ran, and we never could get away.”
“Again? Oh, my sweet child. And we have come so far. But do try to forget dreams. You shall learn about dreams, my precious baby, as I have.” She looked up and the stars reflected in her eyes. “Dreams are not real.”
The child curled against the seat, and before slipping back into sleep mumbled, “Some dreams are, mommy. Some dreams are very real.”
-End-

.

.

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THE ART LIVER

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1997, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Standing, shaking, listening here in the vestibule, you remember this was how you met Elaine on a blind date. Things were different then. And now, six months have disappeared since your wife of twenty, years died and what else? Remains?
You loved her more than being. Together, you travel, you travel the world, but the details lose to the blur of years. You remember she gave and gave and gave in. Giving, she took your soul. She made you, you, you need her, then almost satisfied your need. All most. All. Most.
Her sun-brilliance frightened you and seduced you and seared you as she held you. Tightly saved your life. For her. Then went and released you into the void, with nothing to hold to, not even memories. Of what can anyone recall the sun? Or see the spring breeze, knowing? How is kindness named? And love is tamed? And perfection is samed?
There was no one and no thing like Elaine, nothing to hook your mind. Too, you loved her, but you can’t remember. Your love is a need, but hers was all around you, all through you.
Fish can’t remember thirsty drinking.
So you try to remember her death. But you think you feel guilt. Or something similar. She said, “Leave now. You can’t help me.” She asked nothing you could have done, but often now, you try to prevent her unpreventable death. “Comes next time, I’ll . . . next time.” All you have is the dim emptiness and her voice saying over and over, “Leave now. You can’t help me. You can’t help me. You can’t help me.”
So like a fluff of down and down you drift from her fingers and float, never able to settle. For her memory reaches forth and you reach back, to emptiness.
Two months ago they tell you again, “Can’t be a hermit . . . not healthy to be alone . . . unnatural . . . need someone to talk to . . . I know a nice lady who . . .”
Oh lord, have four months passed already? To go, where? Have you been? What? Have you done? How? Have you existed? Four months and twenty years, gone and not a single clear memory saved.
One month ago, your body awakens and you help you up in bed. The next night you rent an “X” video. From where no one else is in the store. You avert your eyes from the teen-aged, acne girl behind the count her. Because she looks familiar, like . . . ? You? Like you, sneak a look at her tight, black sweater, and when you crawl up to her eyes, she smiles for no damn good reason, so you look back down to her sweat her sweat.
“Can I help you?” she says. Help you? Reach across the counter? Count her. Sweat her.
Now at home you imagine stories about her. In the worst ways. She is turned to. Your all-purpose woman-thing. To whom you give love. Romance. Sex. Brutality. Torture. Torch her. Things. You think you never would do, you do to her. Except talk, of course. What can you say to a teen-aged, acne girl? Except count her sweat her.
You fall to bed to try to help you, but you can’t. Get up, dress and go to drop the unwatched video into the return slot, so you won’t have to face the acne colored girl. And fire engines and police are running all around. One looks hard at you, too, to two others carry a long, black bag into the ambulance. It’s not what it seems.
Last week was better. You must have pulled up the courage to mention around the office that you might not mind the company of a woman, just for dinner mind you, to have a female voice to answer. You feel guilty to hell. With a guy you know — his name is “Al,” — tells you about a friend who “lost her husband and has real nice. Real nice `bod’ and a great personality” or something like that. Right?
Right. Great personality. Arf. Arf. But you meet her for dinner and you get the vague impression she is bright and attractive, and she probably does have nice and a nice ‘bod’ and a great personality you can’t seem to concentrate on. What’s she saying? And you can’t bring her face into focus the way she laughs at how shy you are. “A shy boy, I can help you. I can help you. Help you.”
After dinner she asks you,”Will you come up?”
“I don’t know if I can anymore. Or less.” Unless. You stay for a while — you do not know how long — then you leave. As far as you remember nothing much happened except you think you called her by your wife’s name, but you are not sure and anyway, it doesn’t matter. Batter.
Better, you go home and crawl into bed and you shiver all night, even with an extra blanket. In the morning, nothing remains of last night. The mirror says you have been crying. And you can’t remember crying. Because, your mouth tastes bad. You leave, always leave, for work, missing the train you always catch.
Al looks down and doesn’t say anything. The other people leave you alone. When you go to the washroom you see in the mirror you forgot to shave and comb your hair.
You go back to your desk, open envelopes, read a note, write a note, file both papers and open another envelope. Elope. You begin to feel you’re nuts and the feeling pleases you. Feel what? Madness may protect you from pain. Isn’t it the purpose of madness? It’s a minor inconvenience, a bit of ache to protect you from the real agony of awareness. So you feel your nuts.
After several days, a personal ad has got into your alternative newspaper. “ART LIVER,” reads the lead. Should be “LOVER,” but these free papers are nuts for poor editing.

“ART LIVER, I
love to paint longing
for a man who dreams together
we will create beautiful reality.”

It means nothing. How do you paint longing or dream together? The words make you angry. You crumple the ad and fling it toward the basket, but miss.
It lies; it lies; it lies on the ground until you pick it up and put it in your drawer where you can’t see it lying. The drawer opens. You take out the paper. Fate will decide. You’ll toss it toward the basket. If it goes in that’s the end of it. If you miss you’ll call.
You throw. It goes in. You sit there looking at the basket. Then you roll your chair over, grab the ad out and throw it into your desk.
Two days later, the ad has got out of your drawer and onto your desk. You drag yourself to the phone and dial the number and mouth the words, “. . . and I don’t know that much about art, but I guess I’ve had a few dreams, if that qualifies me.”
Her voice sounds tall. Who can tell from voices? In high school, you were fixed up and her phone voice sounds warty, but when you meet her she’s beautiful and you’re so stunned you fall into instant love and act creepy, and she dusts you off before the night is over. Next. Day you ride your bicycle to her house, ringing your bell all the way, so the people will step aside and know you’re happy once. You stand on her porch. She says, “I can’t help you.” She doesn’t want you to come. In. You do anyway and after, take her out . . . somewhere. Later, when people ask you if you saw her, you say, “No.” Did this happen? Or is this another false memory?
You think about her for months after, maybe even years, maybe days, maybe never. But that was long ago. Funny you should think of her now. She resembles the girl in the video store. Did.
The girl on the phone says her name is “Imogene.” Says, “Are you an art liver who dreams together?”
“Sure, I dream . . . together?”
“Be here Friday at eight, and bring your dreams.” She gives you her name and address, and hangs up and that’s it. You set the phone down. You didn’t have the chance to tell her your name, so you still can back out. Maybe that would be best. You call her back. The phone rings and rings. No one answers. You say, “Hello.”
So here it is. The night. Your finger hesitates over a line of door-bell buttons in a dark vestibule. You hope she isn’t young. You don’t feel like dealing with energy. You let your mind move so your finger won’t have to.
You hate the young who say everything’s the same. Black, the same as white. Sick, the same as healthy. Stupid, the same as smart. Women, the same as men. Animals, the same as people, for chrissakes. Damnit, nothing’s the same . . . any more. You scatter thirty seconds mouthing those sentiments. Hate feels good. Emotions are comfortable walls. Or amusing toys. A musing toy.
You imagine what she — Imogene, can you imagine? — looks like. How bad could it be? As long as she’s not fat. You hadn’t asked her about pimples. How the hell do you ask about pimples?
You read all the door-bell names to make sure you push the right button, and you take out that paper in your pocket to make sure you’re looking for the right name. The tag under the button reads, “Imagine.” You know it’s supposed to be “Imogene.” It changes to “Imogene.”
You push before it changes again. You hear nothing. The door doesn’t buzz you in. Again, you push. Again, nothing. Again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Nothing. No thing. Think. The hell with it.
You walk to the outside door to anger and relief three steps out on the sidewalk. You think you hear the buzzer debating you back, but the buzzer’s stopped, if ever it was. You, who pushed the button when the door buzzes and you go in and you look for the elevator and you get on and you realize you’ve forgotten what floor she’s on. You think, “two,” so you press three and when the doors open, you’re in a long hall, the wall all small doors fall away into the pall.
You don’t remember her apartment number, too. Two? To what now? You can get back on the elevator, ride down, go out to the vestibule, look at the number on the name tag — was there one? — but by then the door would lock and you’d have to ring again. And anyway, the elevator door is closed, so here you are.
“Imogene?” You whisper, trying to reach her while avoiding the ears of other tenants. “Imogene?” Dead quiet answers you turn to the elevator door next to you scares you by flying open.
“Hi, lost?” says five feet tall, chunky features, but waist thin, so she’s a pillow tied in the middle, which isn’t altogether bad, and she has frizzy hair and a nose and huge glasses. Without pimples. Thank God, for that, anyway. And she’s maybe five years younger than you, which is the best news of all. And all. This you see in the first second. “Hi. Imogene?”
Her face reminds you of someone.
She laughs. “Yup, I’m me, Imogene. Yup, yup.” Jeez, she’s doing a Mortimer Snerd imitation. Who? Where do you know his name?
“Hi, I’m Robert. Bob, really.”
“Robert-Bob, maybe you know.”
“Know what.”
“You know what?” she croaks.
“You said, maybe I know.”
“No, I said maybe you know. Why do they call `Robert,’ `Bob?’ Or why’s `William,’ `Bill?’ Or Richard, Dick. Should be `Rob,’ `Will’ and ‘Rich,’which sometimes it is, but in your case it isn’t, but it should be. So I think, because of your hair color I’ll call you `Orange,’ if you don’t mind, which you don’t because the rule of blind-dates is, you have to be polite, for the first half hour anyway. Come on in, Orange.”
“How about, `Red.’ Purple sometimes call me, `Red.'”
She grabs a handful of your hair and pulls you to her apartment door is open. “Look in the mirror. Is that red? No way. Closest is orange. That’s reality. So you’re `Orange.’ Don’t run from reality.”
You’re not allowed to resist. It’s still the first half hour. “O.K., have it your . . .” Color hits you from everywhere pictures cover every inch of wall and ceiling and her furniture is solid fluorescent yellow, bright as the sun.
“Quick tour,” she announces, and waves across the living room. “Public room,” she says. She tugs your hand. You start to resist but she pulls harder. “Come on. This h’yars . . .” She goes into a John Wayne voice. Or is it John Snerd? “. . . the ol’ mess hall. `Eat-in kitchen,’ for you tenderfeet.”
The cabinets, the chairs, even the table are decorated — not decorated, covered — with flowers, birds, trees, and animals. African veldt, ocean, river, forest, mountain and desert — all places you and Elaine go — and two humans.
The flowers are specific and detailed — roses, lilies, hibiscus, stamens, veins, arteries, pumping, pumping. Oaks, maples, blood red for the fall, and dogwoods and palms and hands; the catalpas have brown pods like fingers. Lions, tigers, bears, goats, whales, birds drink, run, eat, die. It’s what you need, you and Elaine.
The humans are naked. And they are making love, missionary style. Right on the top of the “mess hall” table. The man faces down but the woman looks right at you. Her face looks familiar.
“I draw,” she says.
“I can see that. It’s very . . .”
“I see, you draw, too.”
“I? No, I . . .”
“Conclusions. And you’re drawing a whole shit-load, now. Not only that . . .”
You wish you hadn’t come. She talks. She bounces. She pulls your hand. She looks in your face, peering into you, inspecting, prying. Opening. You feel naked as the people on the table. Her energy beats at you. Drowns you. You slip off the raft in a Colorado River rapids. Sound crashes in on you. Water fire-hoses you from all sides, blasting up into your mouth and nose. You whirl and bounce off rocks and gravel. You force your body to stop struggling and let your life vest and the current spin you to the shallow, calm water at the shore. Just goes with the flow. Does nothing. Spins to the shore. This too, shall pass. It worked last time.
She pauses, waiting for words from you. You give her three, “You’re an artist.”
She giggles. “What a stupid comment. That’s like telling Noah, `You’re a sailor.’ No, I’m not an artist. I’m an art liver.”
She drags you to her bedroom. It’s different from the other rooms. It’s frilly and lacy and gauzy, and little-girlish, and pure white with not even a speck of color. Here she uses a movie seductive voice, maybe Marilyn Monroe or Mae West. Mae, who? “This is my reward room,” she purrs.
She doesn’t move. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t pull on your hand. She just stands there, with her wide hips and her narrow waist and her big boobs and her nose and her glasses and her big boobs and her big boobs — all aimed at you. And what are you supposed to do?
She said it was her reward room. Is that supposed to be some broad hint? Some broad’s hint. Fat chance, lady. Fat. This was a mistake. Too soon. You’re not ready for this. Be courteous. Take her out. Take her home. And forget it.
Again, “This is my reward room.”
“That’s . . . interesting.”
“Sometimes it is.”
“Well,” you say, turning to the door, “shall we go? Our reservations are . . .”
“You have reservations. So why are you here?”
“Your ad . . . I called . . .”
“Yes, the ad. `ART LIVER, I love to paint longing for a man who dreams together we will create beautiful reality. True?”
“Yes, sure I dream, but what . . .?
“So beautiful Orange Reality, the reason you’re here is to dream together. This room is pure and white, waiting for you to paint it. Art liver, take me and paint me your dreams.”
She pats the bed beside her she’s changed to not as chunky. She takes off her glasses and smooths her hair and her face is pretty when you sit beside her.
She puts her hand in your lap and leans to you. “What’s your favorite dream.”
From so close, she looks different. Almost beautiful. And familiar. “Do I know you from somewhere? You look so . . . wait, did we go to school, I’m sure.”
Her fingers move up your inner thigh. “You don’t seem sure. You seem nervous.”
“Yes, I know you went to high school together we even went out once. Do you remember?”
“Do you?”
“And I was so knocked out by your looks I acted like a total dope, and you brushed me off and I thought about you for a long time after.”
“What did you think about?”
“You know, kissing you, making love the agony and the ecstasy reaching in you twisting, cutting you, ripping . . .” Your teeth and fists hurt from clenching. “This is kind of stupid. I don’t remember anything or do anything. I was a kid. I wasn’t even there with you.”
“I’m here now. Am I as beautiful as you remember?”
“Yes, more, but . . .” You take her hand from your lap. “Look, I don’t know. Maybe we should go out first. Have dinner. Talk about . . .”
“Aren’t I who you dreamed about?”
“You can’t be. I’m married. Everything’s different. Can we just have dinner?”
“If you came for dinner, leave now. You can’t help me.” Her voice, those words. Where have you heard her voice and those words?
She won’t stop. “You won’t give me your dreams and next time you will. Leave now. You can’t help me.”
“But I want to. I will.” You reach toward her.
You’re standing in front of the elevator. All doors in the hall are closed. You can’t remember which is hers. You knock on the nearest. No one answers. You go to the next, the next, the next. No answer. You run to the elevator and punch the button and race down the stairs to the vestibule and punch all the bell buttons, but you can’t hear them ring. And the door doesn’t buzz.

-/-
Yesterday was color and frenzy. This morning’s ride to work is gray and misty and filled with regret that Elaine went from you can’t recall the girl in high school that you hurt the video girl. What video girl? Did you hurt a video, girl? What the hell is a video, girl? Regret at what happened yesterday, whatever it was regret that so much has disappeared. You can’t remember why or for what, you feel regret, pure and alone.
Yet, regret’s better than the gray nothing.
You don’t have her number any more. And something happened to the ad when you drive to the building, you’re not sure if it’s the right one, and her name isn’t on the bell. And you’re not sure if it’s the right one.
You pick up the next issue of the free paper and look for the ad, but don’t find it the next week, the same. And the next.
On the fourth week you see,
“ART LIVER, you
long to color your gray
nothings beautiful,
Orange Reality.”
The phone number is different, as you recall, and when you phone the voice is more different. Yet you say, “Imogene? I’m answering your ad again. I thought you were someone else.”
“I am.”
“I’m sorry I thought . . .”
“Ailene.”
“You’re . . . ?”
“Do you dream gray?”
“Orange. Is that all right?”
“I’m sorry you didn’t come earlier.”
“I’ll try to come now.”
“We’ll see.”
“Me?”

-/-
It’s an old house with an unlit porch. When you ring, you hear a bicycle bell that you push with your thumb and the people on the sidewalk step aside and you say, “Thank you” and smile, because otherwise they get mad. You ride to her house. She doesn’t want you to come. In. But you do, later she doesn’t want to go with you, and something bad happens.
Ailene comes to the door without her face, and with her voice back in the dark, “Come on in,” she says and sticks out her hand, “Isabel. I can see why you want to dream orange.”
“Isabel? I thought you said, `Ailene.'”
“That was a joke. I get stood up so often, people must think I lean. Get it?”
“You remind me of someone. Your voice . . .?”
“Isabel.”
“I know. You told . . .”
“It’s a bell. It’s a bell. My voice is what you hear when you push my button.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
The rooms are white and stiff. And hard, chalky furniture juts from the walls. “It’s dark in here. I can’t see your face.”
“Yes, you can. I see you. Take your seat. What else can I get you?”
“I just want to see you.”
“I told you last night. I’m not interested. Leave now. You can’t help me.”
You reach for her. “You shouldn’t have screamed. I didn’t want to hurt you.” You ride your bicycle home and no one knows. Not even you.

-/-
“Have you had any dreams recently?”
“Something bad always happens.”
“Like what?”
The lights are blinding, but the room is dark. The wall begins to move. Lions. Tigers. Bears. “Like lions and tigers and bears.”
“Oh, my. Do you know who I am?”
“Are you Madelaine?”
“Madelaine? No, my name is . . .”
“I know your name, I said, `Are you mad Elaine?'”
She becomes a blurry cloud. From the cloud you hear, “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-m-m-i-i-i-n-a-a-m-m-i-z-z-z-z.” Her voice echoes.

-/-
They lock you in a room. The walls are filled with paintings. The bear’s teeth are long and deep. The night of running is long and deep. The dreams are long and deep. The pain is long and deep.
She lies on the table, looking up at you. Her hands are tied. “Welcome. Well? Come.”
Lions and tigers and bears. Her coat is white. Her sweater is tight. Lions and tigers and bears. You hate white. You fight and bite. “You can’t help me,” Elaine screams. Lions and tigers and bears. The sound grows louder. “OOOcnep eee. OOhhnooo. OOhhhh nooooooo.” Stop. Stop. You put your hands to your ears. Stop. Lions and tigers and bears. Lionsandtigersandbears. LIONSANDTIGERSANDBEARS.
“Oh my-y-y-y-y-y-y–y—y—-y————y.”

A needle comes from the sky. The good sun enters you are the good sun. Safe here in the forest. People walk in the white room. Sometimes they look out at you, but they never see you. Elaine is here. And the others. They have brought their love to you, here in this green forest.
A man sits shaking in the white room. A jacket pins his arms. His teeth are locked. Blood drips from his mouth. His face looks familiar.
You recognize him, for the very first time. You are disappointed. You thought he would be larger.

-End-

.

.


THE TUNNEL

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

“Mollie,” the woman in black extends her hand, “What can I say? I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. He was a good man. God moves in strange ways. He decides what’s important to you, lends it to you, then He takes it away.”

-/-Elmer Boyd was a man, when being a man was important. Elmer’s life began in the tunnel and ended in the tunnel. He waited there now. He smelled the damp concrete and listened to the cleats echo from the walls. He pressed his fists together. He jostled the man beside him and rolled his head to loosen his neck. He flexed his shoulders and tightened his stomach and gulped breaths. And when he felt that his mind and body could take no more waiting, his time came.
The first rank of men jogged forward, then the next, then Elmer’s. He trotted toward the glow and the sound. The college stadium roared like an lion demanding its share, voicing its pride, insisting, threatening. The noise and light grew as Elmer pressed ahead.
Suddenly, he was blind in the sun and deaf in the sound, and out in the cool air. He lifted his face and arms to heaven. A trillion voices merged into one voice, God’s voice on loudspeakers. The howl of the crowd pounded him and deadened his brain. Elmer lowered his head and ran, creating himself into an unthinking, unfeeling object charging between lines of faceless people and burred sweaters and colored pompons, hopping, spinning, shouting something, shouting nothing. Elmer squinted them from sight and rolled through them, sweeping them aside like unwanted memories.
His shoulder pads cantilevered beyond his vision, parodies of the human anatomy. Yet he hunched his shoulders to make them look larger, and stuffed his head into his neck and ran without moving his fists from his chest and leaned forward to shape himself into an artillery shell, an irresistible force plowing through the shaft of spinning, leaping sweaters.
He charged toward the mob of uniforms and threw himself on their backs and burrowed in and joined their prayers, promises and persuasions, and emitted shouts of aggression, then turned and raced onto the field.
A whistle. A thud. Run, run, run. He felt the impacts and smelled the sweat and tasted the blood, and he heard his name and the school song and the screams of strong, young men as they saw their futures destroyed when they learned they weren’t invulnerable. Elmer loved the battles, the victories, the swaggering off the field, the lifting of his helmet and index finger to the crowd, the hot showers and the snapping towels and the grab-ass and evenings of beer with the guys and the nights of teaching of moony coeds about pleasure and pain.
Then it ended. The season, the semester, school, everything.
He had known it would end someday, but he wasn’t prepared for the emptiness. He tried for the Chicago Bears. There was no tunnel here. There were no pompons, no crowds to witness the blood-serious business of eighty strong, young men grappling for space in a shelter that holds forty. One day he was called to a dreaded discussion with an assistant coach, where he was cut.
The fall weather had descended to cold and sleet, and no one else wanted him.

-/-Elmer married Betty because she was beautiful and she wanted him and it showed he still was a man. Everyone else had married. He hadn’t made the pro’s. Playing football was what he wanted, and it had been taken from him. Betty was the best he could hope for.
“Betty, you’re the best I could hope for.” She took it as a compliment, though he’d said it in regret. She told him he was her hero, strong and handsome and made good love. He couldn’t accept her praise. His mirror disagreed with her. As did his belt. And his comb. And he couldn’t seem to get her pregnant.
He wanted a boy, a large, robust child who’s name would be announced to the stadium crowd, “Elmer Boyd, Jr.” At first Elmer allowed himself to make love carelessly. If a baby came, it came. If not this month, then next month. By not trying, there could be no failure.
But the baby didn’t come. Not this month or the next or the next. So they tried. They took Betty’s temperature and timed her periods. They made love in the morning and in the evening. They used various positions and ate various foods.
Nothing.
Everyone else was making children. Betty said they should see a doctor, but Elmer wouldn’t go to some quack who’d charge big for a dozen visits and two dozen sugar pills. Anyway, he didn’t want to hear what the quack might say.
Betty went. She came back bouncing and smiling. The doctor said she was fine. There was no reason she couldn’t become pregnant. “Isn’t that wonderful, honey?”
It was the worst possible news.
Betty insisted he go to a doctor too, just to make sure, although she knew her big hunk of man couldn’t have any problems, and likely the next time they made love something would pop. But nothing popped, so without telling her, he went.
The nurse smiled up at him. As she left the room, he patted her bottom and she smiled, again. She returned holding a Playboy Magazine. “Time for a sample. Need help?”
“You offering?”
“Any time.”
“I’ll take the magazine now, and you later.”
She laughed and wiggled away. He put the Playboy down and visualized the nurse as he created his sample.

-/-
A week later Elmer sat in the same dressing room. The nurse passed the door. He couldn’t catch her eye. His doctor came in, took a breath and looked at Elmer.”I won’t feed you any medical mumbo-jumbo. Briefly, you’re sterile.”
“Can’t be.” Elmer stood. “Look at me.”
“Biceps don’t make sperm. You have none. Sorry. If you want to know why . . .”
Elmer cursed the gods who had brought him down, pushed the doctor aside and strode from the office, past the nurse who still didn’t look at him. He had to do something. Desperate men in desperate times find desperate solutions. He already knew what had to be done. Now he needed to find someone to do it.

-/-     The row boat rocked gently. Elmer inserted the tip of his fishing pole into wisps of fog. “We’ve been friends a long time, Perry.”
“Since college.”
“Fished here a thousand times.”
“And caught maybe three fish.”
“We’ve done a lot.”
“Everything, about.”
“Thing’s we never could tell anyone.”
“Damn right.”
“Like I’d never tell Mollie about you and your neighbor lady.”
“Jeez, Elmer forget that. You tell Mollie and I’m dead. She’d rip my stones.”
“I won’t. Remember Bear try-outs? You were Perry Carmichael, the `Blond Bomber’. You lasted a month longer than me.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
“It’s because I took out Hanson’s knee for you. Coach was stuck with you until he picked up Newsome.”
“To bad you didn’t take out Newsome, too. I still might be there.”
“I would have, but I was released already. The Bears never gave me a fair shot. Anyhow, now I’m the one who needs a favor. A tough one.”
“I hope not money. Naw, I’m kidding. How much do you need?”
“I wish that’s all it was.” Elmer leaned forward. “You can’t tell anyone. Never.”
“Sounds bad. You’re not sick . . . ?”
“No, not sick. Sort of. Secret, OK? Even from Mollie. Even from God.”
“There’s plenty I don’t tell anyone, especially God.”
“OK, let me ask you something. Mollie had how many miscarriages before you decided to adopt?”
“Three.”
“What was the problem?”
“Something with Mollie’s chemistry. The embryo didn’t do something. I don’t know the science of it. Anyway, the way all the doctors explained it, there was no chance.”
“Anything wrong with you?”
“No. Doctors said I could be a baby machine. Why?
“Plenty of sperm?”
“Sure, barrels. I could plant `em. Mollie just couldn’t grow `em. Now what’s this all about?”
“Betty and I can’t have children, either.”
“Betty?
“No, me.”
“Jeez, I’m sorry. But that’s not the worst thing in the world. You could adopt, too.”
“I have a different idea. I want one of yours.”
“Hey, great. Take the first one and pay for college.”
“I’m serious. That’s what I want. One of your kids.”
With the sunrise, the fog began to lift and stray light reflected on the dark water.
“What’s the joke?”
“I’m not going to adopt some whore’s throw-away baby. Sorry, didn’t mean it that way. I’m sure your kids are fine. Anyway, it wasn’t your fault. See, that’s the important thing. Not your fault. So yes, I’m asking you to give me a kid.”
“How the hell am I supposed to . . . ?”
“Doc said I don’t have sperm. You have good sperm. I want your sperm to give Betty a baby.”
“Chrise, I thought for a minute you flipped. Well, I’m honored. Betty carrying my baby. You talking about in vitro? I jerk into a test tube? What does Betty say?”
“She doesn’t know.”
“Oh.” Perry lifted his lure from the water, took in the line and began to pack his fishing pole. “Maybe we better row back. Anyhow, if I did this I wouldn’t tell anyone, not even Mollie or my kids, if that’s what you want. If it’s what Betty wants . . . I guess it would be OK. I’ll sleep on it, but I don’t know why not. Let me know what Betty says.”
“Betty can’t know. Nobody can. Just you and me. I don’t want anyone to hear I’m shooting blanks like some swish hair dresser. You’re the only one I can trust for this.”
“How’s Betty not going to know? She might sort of catch on when the doctor holds up a test tube and says, `Spread `em.’ You saying, you don’t want her to know it’s mine? That’s O.K., if you want it private. Better that way. Might embarrass her to know it’s mine.”
“Listen, will you. It’s not going to be a test tube. Damn it, I’m asking you to screw my wife.”
The sun penetrated the fog and entered the water. The fog was forced to sidle away. Soon it would be gone. Perry rowed toward shore, using the exercise to combat his tension. “You’re nuts. Think, man. How does that solve anything? Anyway she’d never go for something so stupid. I know sure as hell Mollie wouldn’t. I mean Betty’s a class act. Don’t even bother to ask her. Don’t even bother.”
“What about you?”
“What can I say? Betty married you instead of me. I hurt for a while. She’s a great looking lady. So, maybe I have a few fantasies about her. Not in a bad way. But fantasies are fantasies and this is real. Nothing would be the same, after. What the hell kind of relationship would we all have. Anyway, how’s she not going to know? Would I wear a bag over my head? Jeez, this is so dumb. What the hell are we doing, anyway? Can we just get off this?”
“Is Betty as great looking as your neighbor lady?”
“That again. It was nothing. A couple of . . .”
“Not `nothing’ to her husband. I gave you an alibi, remember? I saved your butt. And if I wanted to, not that I do, but I still could get the word out. So, will you?”
“Talk about blackmail from a so-called friend. Even if I said, `Yes,’ then what? What are we talking about?”
“Next Wednesday, Betty’s at her peak. We’ve got it timed.”
“You time her?”
“Trying to get her pregnant. What the hell do you think we’ve been doing? She’s a clock. Timed to the second.”
“So?”
“Wednesday, Betty and I’ll go out for dinner and celebrate some damn thing or another. I’ll push drinks down her. Then when we get home, I’ll keep boozing her until she passes out. You know how she gets.”
“Like she’s dead . . . so you’ve told me. Don’t give me the fish eye. We never did anything.”
“Then you come to the house, I undress her, you do your business and go. Next morning, she wakes up with a hangover and my baby. Done. No one knows, but you and me, and we aren’t telling.”
“This is stupid.”
“Damn, you don’t understand crap. I’m desperate. It’s my only way. I need this baby. Everything’s gone to garbage. I’m telling you I’ve got to have this baby, and you’ll do it, and you’ll shut up about it. You owe me big.”

-/-“I can’t do it with you hanging over my shoulder. Out, would you. I won’t hurt her. I want this over as quick as you.”
“I’ll be right outside. Do it and be done. No extraneous stuff.”
Betty lay naked, her arms at her sides, her breathing soft and even, her face calm. And still beautiful.
Perry bent and kissed her. He put a pillow beneath her hips, then parted her thighs. He ran his hand over her body to try to arouse himself. He spit in his hand and wet her, and entered her with his finger.
She sighed and moved her hips. Perry was afraid she would wake. Touching inside her stimulated him so he lay atop her and penetrated her and finished in a few seconds. But he continued to lie on her and whispered, “Betty, I love you.” He put his arm under her head and kissed her cheek.
Her face and body had changed little from college. On the lawn back of the fraternity, they had danced to party music pouring through the windows. They had driven to the sticks, but she refused to make love to him. Afterward, she was all he could think of, and he dreamed of marrying her, but was afraid she would refuse him, again.
After graduation, Betty told him she was marrying Elmer. Perry kept Elmer as his friend so he could see her. She still owned part of Perry’s mind. Now from nowhere, he may have given her his baby.
He kissed her again, stood, looked at her one last time, then left the room. “It’s done.”
“How did it go? What took so long?”
Perry threw on his clothes. “It went. I had trouble getting started.”
“What else did you do?”
Perry walked to the door. “Nothing. This was your idea. Now forget it. It’s finished. Whether this works or not, you and I are even. And don’t call me. We won’t see each other again. I did this for one reason. I knew you’d make Betty’s life miserable until you had your trophy baby. Now I’m out of your life. Goodby, Elmer.”

-/-The baby was a big, blond, squalling beauty. Elmer told Betty he’d be called “Elmer, Jr.” Elmer showed pictures, and everyone laughed about Jr.’s blond hair and blue eyes, since both Elmer and Betty were dark. Elmer laughed too, at first.
“Elmer honey, how come we never see Perry around? It’s been ages. You two were thick as flies.”
“Maybe he’s jealous of our kid.”
“Jealous? He has two.”
“Sure, adopted. I have a real son, and Jr. is better looking.”
She looked at Jr. He was beautiful. But, Perry jealous? His daughters were nice too, though maybe not as pretty as Jr. “No, really, is Perry OK? You should call him.”
“Maybe he’s found other friends. Maybe he won the lottery and bought an island. I’ll give him your concern, if I ever see him.”
Betty watched Jr. sleep. She wouldn’t say this to Elmer, but Jr. looked more like Perry than like Elmer. Perry was one of the good guys. She could have married him. But he never asked. Elmer asked, and he had so much confidence and drive. Betty could imagine him being successful. So she had said, “Yes.”
Ironically, it was Perry who had success. Elmer rambled among jobs, always looking for something. Perry seemed to accept her marrying Elmer, but she suspected Perry still had feelings for her.
At first, Elmer was a good husband. He treated her well, but their lack of children had become an issue. Elmer had been acting more and more angry, and Betty had grown concerned for their marriage. Thank God for Jr.
Within a year it became clear to Betty that Jr. would not be enough. Elmer began to ignore him. She tried to bring them together. “He wants to play with you, honey.”
“Later. I’m not good with little kids. When he’s older.”
“Honey, Jr. needs his father’s love.”
“Jr. needs. You need. Everybody needs. What about me? I have needs.”
“Well, big boy,” she teased, while resting her chin against his chest, “Tell mamma your needs. Maybe mamma can satisfy a few.”
“What I need, you can’t give.” He walked away from her tears, out into the drizzle. He drove empty streets, without direction. Somehow he wound up at the stadium. He regretted what he had said to Betty. She was a good woman, but it was true. She couldn’t give him what he needed. What he needed? What the hell was that?
He parked at the stadium, found an unlocked gate and went in. He sauntered to the locker room. They’d put in new lockers. New carpeting. New equipment in the workout room. Chrome and mirrors. Nothing like he remembered.
He went out to the tunnel. Thank God the tunnel hadn’t changed. Looked the same. Smelled the same. He heard the cheers. He hunched his shoulders and trotted in place. The walls echoed with the sound of cleats and crowd roar. He jogged forward. The sound grew louder and the light grew brighter. He ran out into the sunshine, arms upraised, face turned to the crowd and the sun. Except there was no sun. Just grey drizzle in his eyes. And no crowd, just him, yesterday’s jock running stupid in the rain.
He wiped his face, looked up and said, “Thanks for nothing.” A guard walked toward him and said, “Hey, my man.”
“I’m going. Don’t get your crotch in an uproar. And I’m not your man. I’m not anyone’s man.” He walked to the car and drove home. It was over.
He fell into Betty’s arms. “Betty,” he wept, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK honey.” She held him and patted his back. “You’re soaked. Let’s go upstairs, get out of these clothes, and play make up.”
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m really sorry.”
“Honey, it’s O.K.”
“Betty . . . I want a divorce. I’m sorry.”

-/-The phone rang in Elmer’s apartment. Now that he lived alone, no one called him. He waited. Betty always had answered the phone. Even after a month, he had trouble getting used to answering. “Hello?”
“Mr. Boyd? Sergeant Tidings of the police.”
“Sorry, I don’t do phone contributions.”
“Is this Elmer Boyd, husband of Betty Boyd?”
“Yes. We’re separated. What do you want?”
“I’m sending someone to pick you up. There’s been an . . . incident. We need you to identify . . . Mrs. Boyd.”
“What happened?”
“I’m afraid she’s . . . dead. I’ll explain more when you get here.”
On the way there, his thoughts embarrassed him. He found himself concerned with stupid things like maybe the police thought he did something to Betty. Or maybe she was with another man. He didn’t have much of an alibi. He’d been home all day.
Then it struck him. Betty was dead. Grief penetrated his heart. His Betty, the Betty he had married, the Betty he realized he loved, was dead.
He remembered things they’d done together. Now she was gone. Had he caused this? Maybe they’ll arrive and discover it isn’t her, just someone who just looks like her.
The car stopped. He didn’t want to get out. An officer opened the door and helped Elmer stand. “I’m sergeant Tidings. Please come this way.”
“What happened?”
“Carbon monoxide. We found her in her car. The garage was closed.”
Elmer bumped his head crawling up into the ambulance. Someone pulled back the sheet. Betty was still beautiful. Her face was calm. She looked asleep. He bent to kiss her. A hand on his shoulder held him back.
“Mr. Boyd, is that your wife, Betty Boyd?”
“Honey, I’m sorry. Oh God, I’m so sorry. I’m a fool, a stupid, selfish fool.” He slammed the heels of both hands against his forehead and sobbed.
“Mr. Boyd?”
“We can make it. I’ll be the best damn husband you ever saw. Please, honey. Please.”
“Mr. Boyd, I’m sorry, but is that . . .?”
“Yes. Yes. It’s her. Oh God, I did this. Honey, I’m sorry. Please.”
“Mr. Boyd, I must warn you that you have the right . . .”
“I broke her heart. She was innocent. She was good, and I was a selfish bastard. Betty honey, come back. We can make it.”
He bent over her and kissed her cold lips and held her and rocked her in his arms, until the police separated them and led Elmer into the house. It was bad in there too, because nothing had changed. Even their vacation pictures, showing them laughing and hugging, remained on the wall.
As the police questioned him, Elmer half expected Betty to walk into the room and he kept looking around for her. Sometimes he thought he heard her footsteps or her breathing and he would turn and say, “Betty?”
“Well, Mr. Boyd, we’re through here. May I take you back to your apartment?”
“No, I’ll stay here a while.”
“Sure you’re O.K.?”
“I’ll never be O.K.”

-/-The phone rang in Elmer’s apartment. Maybe they were calling to tell him it had been a mistake. Betty wasn’t dead, just unconscious, like she was when she drank too much, like she was that night with Perry.
“Hello.”
“Elmer, it’s Perry.”
“Perry, you? Weird. I was just thinking about you. God, it’s been . . . not since . .”
“Right. Not since. True about Betty? Suicide?”
“No. I don’t know. No one’s sure. Carbon monoxide. Garage door closed. No note. Maybe an accident . . . I hope.”
“And Jr?”
“He’s O.K. Lives with me now.”
“How’s that going?”
“Hard. A nurse comes during the day. He cries a lot. I’m trying, I really am. He’s a good little guy. He doesn’t understand. I guess I’m not that great with kids. I keep looking for Betty to help me out.”
“Do any fishing lately?”
“Naw. Haven’t done much of anything.”
“We have to go fishing.”
“Perry, I don’t feel like . . .”
“I said, we have to go fishing. It’s important.”
“I don’t even own a pole.”
“I’ll bring everything. Pick you up at five tomorrow.”

-/-At the lake, the sun waits below the horizon.
“OK, Perry. We’re here. We’re sitting. We’re fishing. I appreciate your trying to buck me up, but I’m not ready.
“I’m not interested in bucking you up.”
“So, what this is?”
“Let’s row. We never catch anything in close here.”
“Not too far. Deep water gets me nervous. Neither of us knows how to swim a lick. Anyhow, I don’t care about catching fish. What the hell would I do with fish, now?”
“A little farther. Listen, this is hard to explain. We’ve done a lot for each other. Either one can say, “You owe me,” and he’d be right and he’d be wrong. See?”
“No, but I guess you’ll tell me.”
“The toughest thing I ever did was giving Betty that baby.”
“Right. You loved every second.”
“Know what? You’re right. I loved Betty before you knew her. I loved her all the while you were married. More than you ever did. You loved you. Period. So I admit, I wish I could have come over every night and made love to her, although not like that. After that night, I didn’t want to see you any more. I felt like I had made her dirty. And there’d be too much temptation if I saw her. Unlike you, I respected her.”
“You’re a real hero. But you’re right about one thing. I loved me. That was the whole problem. I see it now that I’ve lost the most important thing in my life.”
“I’m not sorry I made love to Betty, conscious or not. That’s not what made it the toughest thing I ever did.”
“Which is?”
“Jr. He’s mine and I can’t walk away. I’ve tried, but no go.”
“You’re saying?”
“I want Jr. You can’t take care of him. A day-nurse coming in. Who’s the mother? For Chrise sakes, who’s the father?”
“You and Mollie want to care for Jr?”
“Not care for. Adopt. I understand you weren’t even close to him.”
“That’ll change. Anyway, close or not, his name is `Elmer Boyd, Jr’. Boyd, get that? One day he’ll run through that tunnel and the announcer will say, “Elmer Boyd,” and the place will go nuts. God took football. He took my balls. He took my wife. He isn’t taking my name. I’m tired being robbed. I screwed up, but to lose your wife . . .? Now row back. I don’t like being so far out.”
“Elmer think, don’t just react. Where would Jr. be better off? With you and `nursie’ or with Mollie and me?”
“Hell, your kids’d be better off with the Rockefellers. You ready to give them up? A kid’s better off with his daddy.”
“And who’s that, Elmer? Jr. looks like me. I’ve seen him. After you left Betty I learned where you lived. He has my face and my expressions. Even you can see he’s my kid.”
“You sick bastard. I raised him. I stayed up all night with his ear aches. I changed diapers. He has my name. Elmer Boyd. What did you do? One shot to an unconscious woman. Ask Jr. who his daddy is.”
“The law says I’m his blood father.”
“Sure. You going to sue me? You didn’t tell Mollie about making it with Betty?”
“I told her you were having trouble raising Jr. and I wanted to adopt him. She was surprised, but you know Mollie and kids. She’d have ten.”
“How’s about I tell her you knocked up Betty, who you always had hots for? And how’s about I tell her you bonked the neighbor lady, too.”
“You’d just hurt everyone. Mollie, me, you, Betty’s memory and mostly, you’d hurt Jr. You want to hurt everyone? Again? This way, I adopt my natural son. Nobody has to know the history. You can pretend to be his “blood” father. Jr. gets a good home and you don’t need to worry about `being great with kids.’ A good deal for every one. You can see him any time, I promise. Don’t even call. Just come over.”
“Right, anytime. Except I’m outside, looking in. Why’d you bring this up? For chrissakes, can’t you see I’m hurting? My wife is dead. What’s wrong with you?”
“Can’t help it. I’m hurting, too. Haven’t slept since that night with Betty. When Jr. was born, it drove me nuts. He’s the only baby I’ll ever make. He is mine, you know.”
“You come to a dying man and want to rip out his heart? You bastard. Well I’m calling your bluff. You won’t tell Mollie what happened. You won’t screw up your whole world. Now, row back. We’ve been drifting farther and farther. I don’t like it out here. This conversation is over.”
“It figured. You always had more pride than brains. You never gave a damn for anyone. Not for Betty. Not for Jr. You haven’t changed.”
“I lost Betty. I’m not losing Jr. Now shut up and row.”
“Did I tell you I’m a good swimmer? Practiced every day for the past six months. It’s not that hard, once you get the hang of it. You could do it, if you worked on it for six months, too. Of course, you won’t have that long. Anyhow, think of it this way. This is all for Jr.’s benefit.”
“Sit down, jerk. You’ll sink the damned boat.”
“How far out are we? A hundred yards? No problem. I can swim twice that. I wish there were another way, Elmer. No, I don’t. I’m glad it’s going down this way. See, I hate your damn guts. You killed Betty, leaving her like that.” Perry pressed his foot against the rail. “I made a mistake going along with that stupid plan of yours. But it’s done. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Jr. is my son. Nothing can change that. Now damn you to hell.”
Perry puts all his weight on the rail. As the boat tips over, Elmer leaps across the seats and grabs Perry’s shirt in a death grip. They topple into the lake, struggling, thrashing, clawing, gouging. They continue to battle under water, taking their rage down with them, leaving nothing but the ripples of their passing.
Twisting beneath the surface, Elmer looks up through the blackness and sees light and hears a roar in his ears. It’s the sound of the tunnel. Colors whirl before him, like a million dancing pompons. He jogs forward. His son’s name is announced in deep, slow tones, and as the light dims, for the first time in so long, he feels peace.

-/-“Mollie,” the woman in black extends her hand, “What can I say? I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. He was a good man. God moves in strange ways. He decides what’s important to you, lends it to you, then takes it away.”
“What will you do, now?”
“There’s so much to think about. Financially, I’m fine. I’m planning to adopt Elmer’s little boy, Jr. That beautiful child has no one. He’ll fit right in with us. I think Elmer would have wanted it.”
“Two good men gone. It makes you wonder, what was God’s purpose in all this?”
“Despite all the misery, I feel sure He must have had one. I wonder, if I were God, would I do things differently?”

-End-

.

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NOISE

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.
Milton Mellow wanted quiet. Was that too much to ask? Milton was a reserved man, a private man, a gentle man who gritted his teeth in prayer and endured amidst a welter of annoyances, vexations, irritations, provocations, nuisances, chaos, commotion, tumult, turmoil and above all, noise.
Take his too-friendly neighbor Crotchet. This rough person whistled. And what Crotchet whistled was indecipherable. There was neither music nor meaning, neither poetry nor purpose, neither gladness nor grief to Crotchet’s whistle, just a train-whistle, police-whistle, factory-whistle drawn-out, shrill, discordant, incessant, infuriating, maddening screech of a whistle.
When Crotchet stood below Milton’s window, and this was all day on weekends, and some of every night, Milton was forced to close his windows and his storm windows and even his shutters, and when that wasn’t enough, which it never was, he fled to the basement. But the screaking, shrieking, warbling whistle sound penetrated sod, soil, cement and soul. Milton could hear Crotchet’s whistle in his shower and in his bed and in his head.
Milton wished to speak with Crotchet about his whistling. He rehearsed what he would say, and what Crotchet would say, and then what he would say in response. He prepared for every combination, every deviation, every permutation the conversation could follow. But Milton never found the time just right for a dialogue of this magnitude.
The right time, of course, would be when Crotchet took a break from whistling. But Crotchet never did stop. And of course, if he had, there would have been no need for the conversation.
Every afternoon, when Milton returned from work, there stood Crotchet, waving to Milton and whistling and grinning. Milton often wondered, how does Crotchet do that, whistle and grin at the same time? But Milton wouldn’t stop to ask. What if Crotchet were able to whistle, grin and talk at the same time? Milton shuddered when he envisioned a whistling, grinning, talking Crotchet, so he just waved back and grinned back and escaped into his house.
Then there was Ethyl, the waitress at the restaurant with the irritating broken sign, the GO D FOOD Café. (Milton believed they kept the sign that way as an annoyance or a blasphemy.) Ethyl knew everything about everything that happened in town, and not only knew, but told. And not only told, but embellished, elaborated, adorned and garnished, always different each time. Everything about everything.
Milton went there each noon to receive the cup of cottage cheese and the canned peach slice he never ordered. As soon as he would step through the door of the GO D FOOD, Ethyl would signal him to sit at one of her tables. Without asking, she would slam his dish cottage cheese and a canned peach slice — what if just once, he would have wanted something else? — onto the table, and then she would sit down next to him and talk. And talk.
Her voice chimed like a parrot’s with a nose cold. And she made about as much sense as a parrot with a nose cold. Milton would sit there, nodding and smiling. Being offered no occasion to speak, he didn’t, though he wouldn’t if he had one. (Speak and occasion, that is.) He just nodded at what seemed appropriate moments, though the continuum of her chatter made every moment neither appropriate nor inappropriate. He never finished his cottage cheese, though he always ate one bite of it out of courtesy, and he always finished the peach slice out of hunger. After all these years of serving him cottage cheese, Ethyl never seemed to notice that Milton didn’t eat it. Or maybe she did and that’s why she did. (Notice and serve it, that is.)
In addition to Crotchet and Ethyl, there was Mr. Overbund, the principal at the high school where Milton taught algebra. Mr. Overbund’s fog-horn, jack hammer, jet engine voice made important announcements over the school speakers, at least twenty per day. “There will be a sign-up for our new braille art team at three,” or “Students are asked to close their lockers before, during and after each use,” or “Whoever has been throwing burning paper down the mail slot, please report to Miss Narling.”
Every day, all through the day, Mr. Overbund bellowed useless, irritating, exasperating, insipid announcements that everyone heard and no one listened to.
Occasionally, Mr. Overbund announced in his gravelly, grating, grinding voice, “Mr. Mellow, please report to the principal.” That was the worst, for when Milton arrived at the office, Mr. Overbund told Milton he would be doing Mr. Overbund a certain favor. “Milton, would you mind driving Boopsie for her grooming, after school. I wouldn’t ask you but I have an important board meeting and you’re my most dependable old friend, old friend.”
Boopsie was Mr. Overbund’s cat, which hated Milton, and to which Milton was allergic. Or perhaps it was Milton who hated the cat and the cat that was allergic to Milton. Or both. During the drive to the groomer, the cat would hiss and spit and howl and bawl like a boiled baby, and rasp it’s claws over the windows, like chalk on the blackboard, and transform the rear seat into a litter box and convert the arm-rests into scratching posts. Milton never said, “No,” to Mr. Overbund, though each trip to the groomer left him with a week’s worth of wheezes and hives and rattled nerves.
The students too, went out of their way to bother Milton, who was sure they referred to him as “Marsh Mellow,” as though he couldn’t hear their raucous, giggly, nickering, snickering, sniggering comments. Ursula Bovniac, built amazingly for a tenth grader, made it a point always to sit in the front, where she could raise her arms above her head and flaunt her gifts at Milton’s eyes and then laugh at his embarrassment. Every day she did and then she did. (Flaunt and laugh, that is.)
Ursula was stupid the way all teenagers are, but more so, if such a thing were possible. Milton estimated her intelligence at just above a politician’s and just below an apple’s, though at least an apple had the good sense to be quiet. So when Ursula was not flaunting her physical gifts and laughing, she was flaunting her stupidity and laughing, and all this flaunting and laughing was almost more than Milton could endure.
After every class, as Milton left the room, Ursula would scream, “Oh, Mr. Mellow, Oh, Mr. Mellow.” When he turned she would smile between her leaking pimples, then huddle with the other girls, hide her red, sticky face with her hands, and cackle her witch’s laugh. All to annoy Milton.
The boys preferred to skulk and cavort in the rear of the room, plotting some new mischief. It was them. Milton knew it was them. That fire in Milton’s waste basket did not start all by itself. Nor did his chair acquire one short leg unassisted. Nor did the chalk dip itself into honey. Nor did the rubber snake crawl into his coat pocket. It was the boys, the head-scratching, ear-picking, snot-snuffling boys.
When Milton would face the blackboard and try to enjoy writing a pure, predictable, pleasing equation (as all of them were), some one would ruin it for him. They would smack a book down on their desk, causing a huge bang that would make Milton jump and gasp, “What was that?” But everyone looked angelic, as though nothing had happened. When he turned back to the board he could hear the giggling.
Milton always knew it was coming, and he tried not to respond. As he faced the board and wrote, he steeled himself. “This time,” he always thought, “I’ll pretend to have heard nothing.” But the boys waited, too. Oh, they were sly.
As Milton neared the end of the equation, he grew more tense. Three more terms to write, then he could turn around. Two more. Just one … BANG! Milton jumped and exclaimed, “What was that?” And nine hands scratched nine heads, and five fingers picked five ears and seventeen noses snuffled snot, all in innocence.
Milton’s list of irritations continued. It contained Royko, the newspaper boy, who never laid the paper on the porch. He would fling it so it pounded against the window of the house and fall invisible behind the foundation plantings, a most difficult throw at which Royko was expert. Milton thought, “One day he’ll break the window”, and one day he did. It was the day before Christmas, and the next day Royko laid the paper quietly and elegantly upon the porch, along with a touching Christmas card that depicted the baby Jesus riding a newsboy’s bike, plus an envelope for a Christmas tip.
And Milton’s list contained Charley, the mechanic, who always kept Milton’s car at least a week, even for a simple tune-up, and afterward the car always banged and groaned and sputtered smoke and quivered and shivered through the neighborhood like some berserk locomotive, attracting stares from everywhere, until Milton took it back for a “re-tune,” as Charley called it.
Milton planned to tell Charlie, “Why don’t you do the `re-tune’ first so we could dispense with the tune-up?” but he never could find the right moment.
And there was Grabowski, Milton’s neighbor on the other side, who spent half his life, clanging and banging and crashing and smashing pipes with the tools he borrowed from Milton and once, when Milton asked to borrow his own wrench back, Grabowski said he was sorry but he still was using it. But Milton knew Grabowski wasn’t (sorry or using it).
And there was Milton’s wife, Birdy. Her wraith-thin body supported skeletal hands that advertised the rope-like blue veins running wrist to knuckle. She began every sentence with her special whine, “Why don’t you . . .,” as in “Why don’t you wear your nice new jacket I bought you,” or “Why don’t you sit down for dinner.” Birdie’s “Why” came out, “Whaaaiiieeeee,” sending shivers through Milton. No matter how often he heard it, he never adapted to it.
Now, Milton had no real objection to wearing his new jacket, though the pattern was loud for his tastes, and he had no objection to eating dinner, though Birdy clattered her utensils and smacked her gums when she chewed and belched through her nose and picked her teeth with her fork. All these Milton could tolerate. But it was Birdy’s whining way that turned each dinner comment into a strident dissonance of accusations and insinuations.
The badgering and harassing and tormenting circled Milton like a plague of buzzing mosquitoes, awakened him early, followed him through the day, and refused him even the relief of sleep. Day after night after raucous day.
Sometimes, Milton tried to go off by himself, to a quiet place in the woods, but the students knew his haunts, and something always awaited him, like the hidden tape recorder that roared growling bear sounds, or when he returned to his car, the firecrackers that went off in his trunk, or the instant glue on the steering wheel.
The students didn’t seem to do that to the other teachers. Birdy said it was because the students liked him, and teasing and pranks were the way teenagers acted to people they liked, but who didn’t return their like. “Whaaaiiieeeee don’t you see that they just want to be close to you. Whaaaiiieeeee don’t you act nice to them? Whaaaiiieeeee don’t you . . .” but by then Milton had left the room and gone upstairs, with Birdie’s “Whaaaiiieeeee” following close behind.
It all was no use. Even in the woods, Milton could hear Crotchet’s whistling, Ethyl’s gossip, Mr. Overbund’s announcements, Ursula’s cackle, Royko’s pounding paper, Charley’s sputtering tune-ups, Grabowski’s pipe banging, and Birdy’s whine.
But he never said anything to them. He never voiced his complaints. He never criticized. He never expressed his anger. Never. He didn’t want to add his own voice to the cacophony that impaled his head each day. So he smiled and held it all in.
One morning Milton struggled from his bed, did his exercise, which consisted of almost one push-up and one sit-up, recently reduced from two, showered, flossed, brushed, shaved and combed, when he realized he couldn’t hear something.
He listened and what he could hear was Birdy’s wheeze-snore, the leaky toilet, an airplane buzzing too low, a lawn mower in need of a muffler and the breeze rattling the shutters and the trees. But what Milton could not hear was Crotchet’s whistle.
Now that was strange.
Milton went down, ate his eggs and jam after suffering Birdy’s, “Whaaaiiieeeee don’t you eat your nice eggs and jam,” went to school, tried to avoid looking at, or listening to, Ursula Bovniac, smiled as Ethyl served his cottage cheese and peach, took Mr. Overbund’s cat to the groomer, and came home to find Grabowski beating on pipes in Milton’s garage, with one of Milton’s tools.
But there was no Crotchet.
Milton returned the smile and wave he received from Grabowski, who then clanked more aggressively, and went inside. Birdy lay on the couch with a black mask over her eyes and shiny purple stuff on her face. It being the time of her afternoon beauty sleep, the benefit of which was questionable, she was not whining, though she was snoring and her snores sounded very much like her whines with just a few trembling snorts added.
Milton tried not to disturb her. But when he walked past the couch, and was half way up the stairs to change out of his suit, which he did every day after school, he was pierced by her sniveling wail, “Whaaaiiieeeee don’t you go upstairs and change out of your suit.”
Milton shuddered as her voice chased him up the stairs, but when he reached the top he thought of how he had not seen Crotchet, and had not heard Crotchet’s whistle, neither this morning nor this afternoon. He had received the blessing of an entire day without Crotchet.
After several lovely days of still not hearing Crotchet, Milton asked Birdy, “Seen Crotchet lately?” But she hardly reacted, if at all. She just scurried about the kitchen, whining and strumming the veins on her hands, so Milton decided not to ask her again. It was just as well. He didn’t need or want to hear about Crotchet.
A week later, still without Crotchet’s noise, Milton went into the GO D FOOD. Ethyl wasn’t there to ambush him. He looked around then went to her regular table, sat down and gave his order to a blank-faced young man. “Cottage cheese, peach slice.”
After a week of lunches without Ethyl, Milton wanted to ask the blank-faced young man, “Where’s Ethyl?” But the blank face looked at him blankly and Milton did not want to disturb its blankness, so he didn’t ask.
That evening, Milton pulled into his garage and saw all his tools had been returned, most he couldn’t remember having owned. He walked out of the garage and looked for Grabowski to thank him. It was the civilized thing to do, though Milton didn’t want to talk with Grabowski and seldom had before. Grabowski borrows without asking and waves without conversing.
Grabowski wasn’t outside, so Milton went next door to Grabowski’s house and rang the doorbell, which made a huge vibrating gong sound, like some great cathedral bell. It occurred to Milton he never had been in Grabowski’s yard, much less rung the bell, though Grabowski had lived in Milton’s garage for years.
After one ring no one answered, and Milton thought that one ring was sufficient so he went home, where Birdy whined him upstairs to change and sniveled him to the kitchen table for dinner.
The next week went gently. With not a whistle from Crotchet, nor a clang from Grabowski, nor a cottage cheesed, peach-sliced commentary on everything from Ethyl, the primary disturbance to Milton’s bliss came from the loss of a pound caused by his failure to eat any of the cottage cheese, and a single bite of the peach.
It was the second consecutive day that Ursula and her cackle were not in class, and Mr. Overbund’s rule was that if a child were absent two consecutive days, the teacher must call the child’s home. That morning at break, Milton made the call, wondering whether Ursula’s mother owned the same ample body and harsh laugh as her daughter.
He tolerated the phone ringing three times, then hung up, before remembering Mr. Overbund’s second rule: If the child’s parents could not be reached, the teacher must report the matter to Mr. Overbund. Milton reached for the phone again, preferring to chance Ursula’s mother’s phone voice rather than experiencing Mr. Overbund’s loudspeaker voice, face-to-face.
But if he called now, Ursula’s mother would know he had just called and hung up, and then who knows what her cackle would sound like. So, he was forced to bear Mr. Overbund.
Milton stood and stood for many seconds in front of Mr. Overbund’s secretary’s desk, watching as she put meaningless numbers on her computer, before she looked up. Milton said, “Mr. Overbund?” the question mark at the end meaning, “May I please see Mr. Overbund?”
The secretary stared at him with an uncomprehending look on her face, then turned back to her computer. Milton cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Overbund?” but this time the secretary did not look up. When after a few seconds, he said, “Mr. Overbund?” the third time, she rose and left the office.
Milton Mellow was faced with the choice of knocking on Mr. Overbund’s door, which he could not do, or of leaving, which he did.
That afternoon, while driving home, it occurred to Milton that he had not heard a Mr. Overbund announcement for several days, peculiar because the previous record was two hours. Even more peculiar was the fact that his car ran perfectly, despite his having picked it up from Charley’s yesterday. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Charley had hired a new mechanic, a quiet guy named . . . well, Milton hadn’t caught his name, and Charley hadn’t been around to ask.
When Milton arrived home, Birdy and her whine weren’t there, which was unusual but restful. When she didn’t show up by seven o’clock, Milton opened a can of the beans she hated, ate them lovingly, lounged on Birdie’s couch and watched his nature programs rather than having to endure her television talk shows, then went to bed.
The next morning was luscious quiet. Even Royko’s morning paper was found resting at peace on the porch.
Birdy must have come home late, after Milton had gone to bed, for there she was in the kitchen as usual. Well, not as usual, because she wasn’t whining. She quietly served Milton’s eggs and jam and just as quietly departed.
As Milton left the house, there was Crotchet who had returned and now was puttering about as usual, but not whistling. Crotchet didn’t look up as Milton walked to the garage, and didn’t look up as Milton backed the car down the driveway and didn’t look up as Milton drove away.
Ursula had returned to class, though she looked and acted different, perhaps because she had been ill. Her body seemed far less buxom, if fact not buxom at all, and she neither smiled nor giggled. She kept her eyes down to her work, as did the other students. Even the boys were not jiggling, jabbing or jumping, and none of them attempted even a single skulk. Milton completed several formulas on the blackboard without any books being dropped.
After a silent morning, which included no announcements or favor requests from Mr. Overbund, Milton went to the GOOD FOOD Café — the sign had been fixed — and ordered cottage cheese and a peach slice from Ethyl, who had returned. This time she didn’t sit down beside him. Instead, she slid his dish onto the table, and left him alone.
That evening, Birdy said nothing. She cooked and served his dinner, ate beside him, then stood, cleared the dishes quietly, washed them quietly, put them on shelves quietly, then quietly went upstairs to sew. She didn’t even strum her veins. And all the time, her blank expression never changed.
At one point, Milton had tried to make conversation. “How was your nap yesterday?” But Birdy had reacted as though his voice were very faint and very far away. She wrinkled her brow and squinted her eyes and tilted her head as though trying to hear something in the next room. Then her face recomposed and she said nothing as she slipped from the room.
It was just as well. It was just as well that Crotchet didn’t whistle and that Ethyl didn’t gossip in his ear. It was just as well that Mr. Overbund didn’t make announcements or request favors, and that Ursula didn’t cackle or flaunt her now diminished body, and that Grabowski didn’t clang pipes, and that Royko didn’t bang papers, and that Charley’s tune-ups didn’t sputter, and most of all, it was just as well that Birdy no longer whined. More than “just as well,” it was heaven.
Heaven continued for several days, with each day in its place and not a jarring sound to disturb the good order. Of course, there were times when Milton had made approaches at dialogue. And these times had begun to increase.
One afternoon he had asked Ethyl, “What’s new?” — surely that would be enough to get her started — but she had acted as though she hadn’t heard, as had Ursula, when for the first time, Milton had said, “Hello,” to her in the hall.
Milton began making a greater effort to talk to Birdy, though he had difficulty thinking of what to say. He would ask questions like, “Do you like lawns?” and “How are your toenails?” and “What color is the post office?” It was the best he could do. But Birdy floated through the room, neither smiling nor frowning nor reacting in any purposeful way. Sometimes she hesitated, as though listening for something just out of hearing range, but mostly she didn’t respond at all.
Now weeks passed, and Milton began trying to talk to everyone, while neither receiving nor expecting any words in return. He followed Ethyl around the GOOD FOOD with requests for the latest gossip. She always seemed preoccupied. He tried to joke with Ursula’s group, but they kept talking and giggling to each other in silence, especially Ursula, whose snicker, coming in the middle of Milton’s sentences, had become barely audible. He even said, “Good morning,” and “Good evening,” to Crotchet, who gave no sign of hearing him or of speaking to him or even of whistling.
The stillness went increasingly on and on. The people who once had annoyed him, now had drifted away from him like mist in the breeze, one by one disappearing from his world. They were there, but they were gone, as though separated from him by a thick wall of glass.
The most lacking were Birdy’s whines, which Milton realized had been her bizarre displays of affection. Yes, they were most lacking, for Milton found that without them, he had begun to feel unconnected, as though he lived in a house where nobody was home. Sweet Birdy, once so lively and so loving, no longer was either. The woman who lived with him was not Birdy. She had Birdy’s eyes and Birdy’s mouth and Birdy’s pretty figure and Birdy’s veins. But Birdy had gone, replaced by a quiet, efficient automaton. They all had. All gone behind the glass wall. In wishing to wall them out he had walled himself in.
And so, one silent afternoon, Milton walked into his hushed woods carrying a small leather bag, and sat against a tree. “Goodby, Crotchet,” he whispered, then listened for a whistle in the silence. He heard nothing. “Goodby Ethyl. Goodby Mr. Overbund. Goodby Ursula. Goodby Grabowski. Goodby Royko. Goodby Charley.” But no sound answered him.
“Goodby Birdy,” he called, and when even Birdy didn’t answer, he opened the bag, removed a gun, rested his forehead against the gun barrel and pulled the trigger. And contained in the momentary, jarring violence, was the last harsh, blessed sound Milton Mellow ever heard.
-End-

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.

.


THE LINE

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.
Darkness came early that time of year. The long freight train, having struggled, hammered and moaned through its own steam and lights, lumbered between the huge iron gates, past part-lit, searchlit, silhouetted, screaming, arm-waving figures until it screeched and jerked and stopped. Starting from far at the rear, boxcar doors were slammed open one by one, the sound as regular as the marching boots of a giant soldier.
The shipment tumbled blinking out into the snow, to be beaten with truncheons flying from the dark, and forced forward into the line.
The heroes already had died. They had given to others their blankets, their clothes, their water and their air, and they had died. The weak too, had died. Those who could not be saved by blankets, clothes, water and air — those who had given and those who had needed more than they were given — all had died. The remainder shuffled and crawled forth. They were the spent, broken, half-alive, half-humans, shrugging and bowing and cringing before the slicing whips, into the line.
They were thousands, yet they were none. Even history would forget they once had names, hopes, fears, loves, souls. Now they had none of these. Some would receive numbers etched into their remaining skin. For others, there would be no time even for that scant identification. And it all would be decided in the line.
Exhorted to hurry, the mass crept forward in inches. The shipment had traveled three days, packed and enclosed standing, the living and the dead crushed together face-to-face. For three days they who survived passed through pain, anguish and horror, then lived through resignation and numbness. But even of those, many would not survive the last hour of the line.
With a twitch of his baton, Hans sent this one to the left and that one to the right. Once he had known the logic of it. Age, gender, the ability to work, there had been reasons for sending some left and some right. But every unrelenting day there had come so many through the line, and still so many more, endless numbers, that the logic had been destroyed and forgotten. Left, left, right, left, right, right, right, right, right, left. It meant nothing, as useless as life in a place of death.
Hans was sergeant of the line, a huge man, a powerful man of once powerful will. A lifetime ago, he saw, he thought and he cared. Standing erect, he had peered down into their twisted features, measuring their fear and their courage. Most looked down. They did not resist, and were sent any which way.
A very few looked at him with vicious animal eyes, that confronted and frightened him. He admired and feared these creatures, who looked like they might spring at him and rip his throat. He sent them into the line of more immediate death, lest somehow they escape and come for him in his dreams.
The hardest were those who gazed at him with sympathetic eyes, as though it were they who felt sorry for him. He wanted to tell them not to worry, that he would be fine. They brought him such sadness, once he had wept in front of the guards. They had laughed at him, but they understood. They too sometimes had cried, most of them, and those who hadn’t were beyond human.
In the beginning he separated those who clung together. He vaguely had felt that to survive he must resist all their demands, even those unspoken. No exceptions.
Later, he reversed and allowed those who wished it, to die united. He felt as though he were doing a good in God’s eyes.
Now, he neither saw, nor thought nor cared. He turned himself to stone. The other guards had told him it was the way. They were right. After several months, the only guards who cared were the torturers. They were aroused by the pain and horror.
The torturers had invented the punishment box. It was of iron and the size of a phone booth. Four people were crammed standing inside and the iron door was locked behind them. The first died usually within two days, and the others languished in darkness, pressed against the rotting corpse. The last would suffer a week. The torturers made wagers on this. In a place of death, a “punishment” box had to be special.
Hans envied the tortures. They alone found peace in this chaos. They and the dead.
A figure stepped before him. Man, woman, child? He did not see. He offered a mere twitch, hardly visible in the steam and darkness and snow. Often the signal was not seen or was misinterpreted. So a left went right. And a right went left. But it did not matter. Nothing did. Left and right were the same in the line.
His baton did what his mind would not. He looked above the line and thought of his family. He thought of his youth. He thought of playing soccer with the bigger boys and how well he had done in that one game, scoring two goals. It was his best game ever. And when his parents had taken him skiing, the snow was cold on his face. Like today. And the trees had blurred past, an endless parade of black trunks, nameless, meaningless. Like today’s endless parade of dark, nameless, meaningless shapes. And all the while his baton continued its work, right, right, left.
Despite his having turned to stone, at least once a day, the horrors and the truths would penetrate him and bite off a piece of his soul. So through the months, he could feel himself diminishing, bite by bite. There had been times when he had thought about the end, how the war would wind down and the trains no longer would come and the camp would close. He had thought about how he would return to being a carpenter. He had been a good carpenter and had helped build many fine houses. Most of his neighbors lived in houses he had made. They knew the good work he did.
In the winters, when there would be less employment for carpenters, he would use the time to be with his beautiful wife and daughters. They would travel together and stay home together, and play together and it would be good.
But as the war did not wind down and the trains continued to arrive, day after night after day, he had learned to distrust the future. The future did not exist, or if it did, it lied. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, all were the same at the head of the long, black line. And so it went, left, left, right, left, until his replacement tapped him on the shoulder. The evening’s work was finished.
Hans left the head of the line to drive to town, to his home and family. As the wire and the towers and lights faded behind him, so did the tension and urgency. The line was a nightmare for the shipment, but they were dazed and soon their nightmare would end. Hans refused to feel for them. His nightmare was worse for it renewed each day. “Let them feel for me,” he tried to convince himself.
The road was welcome, dark and quiet, though he had to drive ten minutes before he was sure he no longer could hear the shouts and bullets of the guards, and another five minutes to reach home. Then he had to sit in his car yet another five minutes to put on the right face for his family.
As usual, Frieda met him at the door with a kiss and a long embrace. Hans wondered whether this tall, blond, gentle woman knew what he held captive in his mind. Did she see him wait in the parked car before he was able to come in? Had she ever wondered at him sitting there, smoking his one cigarette of the day?
Gretchen, his older daughter, smiled up at him from her knitting. Hildy, the younger, threw her skinny, thirteen-year-old body into his arms, kissed him, whispered, “Hi, daddy,” then ran back to help in the kitchen.
The meal went quietly. Hans never spoke of his work and his women did not ask. They knew he worked as an official in the nearby camp. If they knew the truth of what he did, they disguised it well. Yet they could not know. No one who has not stood at the head of the line, or heard the moans from the punishment box, could even begin to imagine what transpired there. It was beyond knowing, for knowing would bring madness. Even Hans, hiding in denial, no longer knew.
On his days off, when the sun shone in through the window and Hans, with Frieda at his side, watched their girls dance through the snow, the truth seemed far away and unreal. And so it was.
Of all, Hildy was unique. Her very long blond hair that hung below her waist, and her crisp blue eyes, hinted at the greater beauty that bubbled up from within her. She was ever in motion and in love. A tree, a pet chicken, her family, the current season whatever it was, all were wonderful in her sunny world. At five she had kept a grasshopper in a glass and fed him leaves. She believed her tender care would give him life. When he died, she had wept then had given him a proper funeral, with a match box as a coffin.
There was no darkness in her, no sullen moods teenagers often affect. She was all light and cheer and melody.
Hans watched her studying her school work, her body swaying to a silent rhythm as her finger followed the words on the page. She was his joy. Of course, Frieda and Gretchen were special too, but Hildy was the one.
When Hildy was younger, Hans liked to lift her to sit beside him in his big chair and to read to her. She preferred stories about girls growing up. How often she had said, “When I grow up . . .” And now she has, or at least she has begun. With each passing year she has grown more beautiful, within and without.
They no longer sit together in his big chair — she says she is too old now — and Hans misses that. He knows one day, after this terrible war ends, she will marry a fine boy and go with him. Before the war, Hans had wondered how it would be, without her in the house. Now, he no longer wonders anything.
The next morning and it would be another day. Another line. The same line. Right, right, left, left.
Daylight yielded to darkness. It was colder after the sun set, so early now. He wore his heaviest leather coat, with sweaters beneath. Still the chill came through.
On such a night, more of the shipment came stiff and frozen from the box cars. They were rolled out like logs and piled on gurneys like logs, and soon they would end as logs end, in the furnace. But that part was not Hans’s work. He had his own problems. Left, right, right, right.
Now, the line was nearly gone. Fewer than a hundred remained. That was rare. In the past the line never ended, but lately there had been times when there was no line at all. Hans hated those times, because he had nothing to do but resist thought.
His shift was ending. Hans noticed unusual movement at the rear of the line. A guard was clubbing a woman with his rifle butt, while pulling a teen-aged girl from her arms. Hans stopped twitching his baton to watch. The soldier hit the woman again and again, and when she fell, he continued to smash her head.
This duty did that to the guards. They became enraged for no reason. They had to be allowed this freedom, to lash out, to release the anger and loathing before it drove them insane. At least once a day, it happened. A guard would beat one to death for no reason. There were no reasons here. The exertion would be enough to calm the man and the line would continue.
This time was different. After finishing with the woman, the guard turned to the girl. Usually, one was enough. “This guard must be a volcano,” Hans thought. He watched as the guard slapped the girl, dropping her to her knees, then dragged her by her hair from the train platform off into the darkness.
Hans turned to his friend Kort, and said, “This is not good. Have someone continue.” He walked to the end of the line and turned into the darkness, in the direction he had seen the guard take the girl.
The darkness away from the platform was deep, and Hans at first could see nothing. He stopped walking and waited for his vision. As he stood there he began to hear sounds in the darkness. A girl’s voice was gasping, “No, ugh, no, ugh, no, …” Hans stepped forward, stopped, took another step, stopped, always following the sound, until he came around the back of a tool shed.
Something was squirming on the ground. Hans had to step around to get a better angle on the dim light, before he realized what it was. The guard had stripped the girl and thrown her naked onto the snow and was raping her.
Hans watched and waited, to allow the guard his moment of relief. It would not be good to stop this “volcano” guard before then. When it was finished, Hans reached his massive hand down and grabbed the guard’s collar and wrenched him up. “Pig. You do this? With filth? Do you forget who you are? You lie with animals? Lift your pants and go. Go, before I have you shot.”
It was not good, this rape during the line. If one guard did it, others would, and soon the discipline would be gone. How do fifty guards control a thousand animals? Discipline. How does one sergeant control fifty guards, grown savage by what they’ve experienced? Discipline. Absolute and predictable. It was the way. Hans had been told that by some one, at some time in the invisible past.
As the guard ran back to the platform, Hans turned to the girl. She lay shivering and bleeding in the snow. Hans took her hand and pulled her to her feet. Her naked body was slender and sweet. Blood streamed from her broken nose and had begun to freeze around her lips. She might have been pretty. Some were. A few. Most were hideous, with their wild hair and fear-distorted, starving faces. She was better than most, and young, perhaps Hildy’s age. In a strange way, she reminded him of Hildy. He had not seen Hildy naked in many years, and he looked at this girl and wondered whether that was how Hildy now looked.
His eyes blurred and he almost . . . almost imagined she was Hildy. He removed his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. “I am sorry,” he said, wondering why he said it. “It is cold. Here is a coat. I will find your clothes. You may go back to the . . .”
She lashed out at him with her finger nails, ripping three bloody grooves in his cheek. “Sorry?” she screamed. “Murderer. Beast. He killed my mother. My mother . . , oh God. ” She covered her face and began to sob.
Hans felt the blood run down his cheek and almost comfortably, he allowed himself to lose control. He had suppressed his feelings for months. He had not allowed his anger to bubble forth. Now, this foul creature whom he had tried to help, is this her appreciation? To tear at him with her filthy talons? Hatred boiled in him. “It is the damned whore bitches like you who tempt and cheat and taint our people. No pain is too great for such as you. No death is too brutal.”
He grabbed her arm and yanked her to her knees, dislocating her shoulder with a popping sound, then he broke her arm across his knee.
She gagged in agony, and her body shook violently. He lifted her and carried her on one shoulder, like a naked sack. Kort, who had trailed behind and had seen everything, shouted, “Where are you going?” but Hans had too much rage left in him to answer. He marched across the dark field toward the large brick building with the three great smoke stacks.
Still carrying the girl across his shoulder, he strode into the light, past the guards and workers, ignoring their surprised stares. The girl was conscious, though her pain took away any strength she had for struggle or sound.
Hans stomped through the doorway and felt the stifling heat surround him. “Open,” he commanded. A prisoner pulled open the steel door. The radiation of the inferno blasted against his face like some solid thing, and together with the monstrous howl sound of the flames, staggered him.
“Get back,” he screamed, and as the men fell back, he took the girl down from his shoulder and hurled her live into the flames.
She did not scream, or if she did, he did not hear her above the roaring sound. He watched her body writhe and char a few moments, then it glowed bright as a star and was gone.
Hans turned and went outside into the cold, fell to his knees and threw up repeatedly, even after he was empty. Kort who had followed, helped his friend stand, and steadied him and supported him as they walked back to the platform.
“O.K.?” asked Kort, when they arrived at the head of the line. “Want me to finish?”
“No, I can do it. It is all right.” Hans’ mind had gone void. He knew one thing. Right, right, left, left, left. He let his baton do his thinking for him.
The shift ended. The line was gone. The platform was deserted but for Hans and Kort. “Hans? You ready?” At the start of the shift, Hans had invited Kort, a bachelor, for a home-cooked dinner. It was time to go home, away from this place.
“Ready.” Hans heard his own voice come from far away.
“Well come on then. I’m always ready for Frieda’s cooking. This barracks food is killing me.”
During the ride Hans said nothing nor did he listen to Kort’s chatter. Yet he was glad Kort was there, else the ride would have been much worse than usual. Hans concentrated on the slippery road and thought about Frieda and the girls. By the time the car arrived in front of the house, the shift was forgotten as much as such things ever can be forgotten.
Dinner was steaming and good and ample. The soup going down took Hans’ chill and the rabbit stew took his tension. And the alcohol took his memory. For every drink Hans had, he poured one for Kort. The game began without announcement, to see who could outdrink the other. Hans always won. Kort never learned to hold his alcohol. Soon Kort was talking and chattering like an old maid, a sure sign he was getting drunk.
Frieda and the girls had been silent. Finally, it was Hildy who spoke. “Pappa dear, you have scratches on your face.”
“Yes? It is nothing. An accident.”
Kort, who was well intoxicated shouted, “Nothing? You call that girl `nothing’?”
“Silence. It is nothing. You are talking stupid.”
“Ladies, he is too modest. Nothing? He offered a prisoner his coat. A poor, young bitch who was freezing, and what did she do as thanks? Scratched him like an animal.”
“Quiet. Enough. Not in front of the women.”
“He rescued her from a love-starved guard.” Kort laughed at his joke. “You should have seen. Dragged the guard right off of her. Of course he was gentleman enough to allow the guard to finish.”
“Enough, fool. No one wants to hear.”
“But no matter what Hans did for her, in the end she got burned up,” Kort howled and choked with laughter.
Hans stood and pounded his fist on the table. “Silence.” Then in a quiet whisper, “It is enough.”
“But you helped save the fatherland from the mongrel dogs. He did, Hildy. He carried that ungrateful bitch across the field and threw her into the fire. One less filthy bitch to contaminate us.”
The table froze to silence. Realization penetrated Kort’s foggy mind and he lowered his head. No one moved.
At last, Hildy said, “Pappa?” but Hans could say nothing.
“Pappa? Is it true? Into a fire?”
Hans turned and walked from the room and out the front door into the snow and stood there looking at the stars. After a time, Kort came out, and Hans drove him home.
When Hans returned, everyone had gone to their rooms. He sat up most of the evening thinking and smoking his pipe. What is done cannot be undone. The camp had taken him as it had taken so many guards, as it took everyone who entered. In the morning he would apply for a transfer. It was time. He had served his country. He had pulled strings for this assignment, not realizing what it was, so he could be near his home. A transfer would mean he could not return to the arms of his family each night, but he must change before his sanity left him.
“Tomorrow I will make application, and in the evening I will tell the girls.” That decided, he went to bed, though not to sleep.
The next day at camp he submitted his application and was told it would require at least a month to process. On the way home he felt relief. It was to be another month, but he had survived this long. He would survive another month. Then he would not have to hear the screams and see the faces and smell the overpowering stench that hung in the air.
When the shift ended, and he drove up to the house, Frieda came running to him. “Hildy is not with you? Oh, God. I was afraid of this.”
“With me? How could she be with me? Stop blubbering and tell me, woman.”
“She was very upset about last night. She sat on her bed and cried the evening through. I could not console her. This morning she went to school, but left early. The teacher telephoned me.”
“Left to where? Did she say anything?”
“She told the teacher she was going to the camp. She said she had to see what you do. Did you . . .”
“See her? Of course not. She would not be able to enter the camp. They would send her away. Only guards are allowed in the camp. To see what I do? What I do?”
“Yes, Kort’s story upset her terribly. Was it true? About the girl and the fire?”
“Kort is a dunce. Drunk talk. Anyway, Hildy would know she cannot enter the camp.”
“The teacher told her that, but she said, `I know a way.'”
“A way? A way? There is no way. No one can enter the camp. Only the guards.”
Frieda turned to face him, her eyes opened wide. “Only guards, Hans? No one but the guards enters the camp? Hans, think. No one else?”
“Oh my dear God. She would not.”
“The train slows outside the camp, does it not? Could a person climb on and be carried in?”
Hans whispered, “The line,” then dashed to his car, spun it around and sped to the camp. A guard stopped him at the gate. “Hans, you are back? Your shift does not begin for hours. Do not tell me you love the work so much.”
“Out of my way fool, I have no time.” He scrambled from his car, and leaving it at the gate, raced inside.
He ran along the platform, to the back of the line and began sorting through it, like searching through a rack of coats. “Not you. Not you. Get out of my way. A blond girl, have you seen her. Not you. Not you.” Having made it to the head of the line without finding Hildy, he raced toward the large, brick building with the three, tall, smoking chimneys. To a passing guard he shouted. “You. Come here. A young, blond girl. Thirteen. Pretty. Have you seen her?”
“You are looking for a girl, sir? There were many girls in the last line.”
“Damnit fool, you would remember her. Very long, blond hair. Thin. Blue eyes. A beautiful child. Quick man, have you seen her?”
“Long blond hair? There was such a one, sir. Do you not remember?”
“Remember? I? No. Where? Speak. Where did you see her?”
“I am surprised you do not remember such an exceptional one, sir. I myself could not remove my eyes from her. She was among the last on your shift.”
“My shift? My shift?”
“Yes sir, you sent her to the left as I recall.”
“I sent her? I sent her to the left? What is the left?”
“The left, sir? To the chimneys, of course.”
Hans raced to the building, where guards lounged in the hall. He screamed, “The last group, where are they?”
“Inside,” the guard motioned with his thumb toward the room designed to look like a mass shower. Guards would promise the starving prisoners a warm shower, to be followed by food. Two hundred starving souls, men, women and children, would be crushed into a room scarcely able to hold one hundred. Then, after the heavy concrete door was slammed shut and locked, the lights would be turned out and the final terror began.
Gas pellets would fall from the ceiling. The guards could hear the screams and thuds even through the thick concrete, as the doomed clawed and fought for one more instant of painful breath. After thirty seconds, during which the building would shake with the victims’ struggles and pain, there would come the silence. Later, the doors would be opened, and the dead and the almost dead, loaded into the ovens for their final journey up the chimneys.
Hans leaped to the concrete door and tried to wrestle it open.
“Sir, it is locked.”
“Open it. Now.”
“I cannot. We must allow the gas to vent.”
Hans lifted the guard by the throat. “Open it now, or die.” The guard fumbled for the key. Hans grabbed it from him and unlocked the door and hurled it open.
The smell was sharp and sweet. The exhaust fans had not yet finished. Bodies lay piled and tangled and twisted, like broken mannequins. A few still twitched. Hans dove in and began pulling at arms and legs, dragging the bodies, one off the other, looking at faces, looking, looking, looking.
Not here. Not here. The gas residue made him dizzy. The bodies seemed to acquire a green aura. His own body grew weak and sweaty, but he would not stop. Not here. Not here. Thank God, not here. He had looked everywhere he believed, and was about to leave, when his eye caught a bit of yellow.
Hildy lay in the corner, her slender figure contorted by her fight for her last breaths. She was partly covered by others, also contorted.
As he wrestled them off her, he saw her face and body were cut and bruised and one arm was broken. When the gas pellet had dropped in the darkness, and there had begun the futile clawing, crushing battle of madness in hell, the weaker, first the children then the elderly then the women, were tossed and trampled and suffocated beneath the men.
Thus had Hildy died, not remembering the sweetness of her life, nor the love of her family, but in desperate terror and pain and burning with the memory of what her father had committed. She had left her life in agony.
He lifted her naked body in his arms, and kissed her broken face and carried her out of the shower room past the gaping guards, and out of the building into the snow. As he walked toward the platform, he saw that another train had disgorged its load into yet another line.
He carried Hildy along the platform, beside the line. He did not see the people as he passed them, while he walked back toward the end of the line and beyond. Nor did they, shuffling forward under the whips, notice him or the beautiful child he carried, as he disappeared into the darkness, like smoke from a chimney.
-End-

.

.


TIMMY AND MARY

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.
Father has died and now Timmy does bad things. He can’t help it. The world comes at him with very bright and loud needles and he can’t seem to keep them from piercing his head. People shout and whisper at the same time, as do knives and tables and trees.
Timmy’s mother makes him stand naked in the dark closet and tells him not to come out until he’s good. She locks the door. She tells him spiders crawl in there. Sometimes he has to stand a long time, cold and afraid of the crawling spiders.
When she unlocks the door, her words are all mixed and jumbled and shrill. She smiles with sharp teeth and shrieks at him in echoes, “I’ll let out you, only but if you’ll good and be do as told you’re told, told, told, t-o-o-o-l-d.” He thinks he promises her something. Anything.
She is naked, and she hugs his naked body to her smothering breasts, and tells him she loves him. “Tonight you to want me call, Diana. Do you will that, that, that?” her voice resounds in an empty, steel drum. “Call will you me call me, Diana-ana-ana?”
He will. Yes. He is drowning in her arms. There is no air. Anything.
She kisses him on the lips and kneeling down, kisses him all over his shaking body. She lifts him and carries him to her bed, where she plays games with him, under the sheets. After a while, her hands become hard and strong and sharp, the games turn very painful, and he hears screams forced from his throat, “Diana-ana-ana, Diana-ana, Diana,” with all their strength. If the screams come loud enough, maybe the pain will stop, but it doesn’t stop. Please. Please. Anything

-/-
Mary’s mirror was hung too high, as was everything. When you’re five feet tall, the whole world hangs too high. So Mary stood on her toes to try to see most of herself and awaited another lonely day.
She dragged a brush through her frizzy hair, while behind her glasses, she sought the imperfections of her skin and her entire being. She hated to see herself nude. She believed people saw her as ugly, and this ugliness had cost her friends, both boy and girl, all through her life, even here in college, where everyone else had friends.
Mary had one friend. Chandra who was not really a friend so much as a person who would talk to Mary. But Chandra went her own way, and they saw each other no more than once a week. Chandra was a senior, a year ahead of Mary, and she lived on the dorm floor above. Uninvited and unexpected, she’d stop down to Mary’s room to talk poetry and philosophy and boys.
For Mary, it was narcotic. Boys always had been bad to her, but Chandra relished in them. Chandra would straddle the chair, her arms resting on the back, her spread knees revealing that she didn’t wear underwear beneath her skirt, and Mary would sit on the bed. That was the way. Chandra’s thoughts unfolded like her name, Eastern, mysterious, drifting off center, and Mary looked forward to seeing her. Chandra’s words flowed through Mary, caressing her, mesmerizing her, taking her far away, to a warm blurry world of alien feelings.
“A man,” Chandra said, “is like the ocean, moving without purpose, but like the ocean, a man has one purpose. For the sailing. I do not try to guide the ocean. I do not care to guide a man. The ocean currents and tides stream where they will. I sail the ocean because I know the currents and the tides. I make them carry me where I wish to go. I do not fear the occasional storms. They are part of heaven’s plan. I am the sailing woman. I sail men.”
Ten minutes. A half hour. An hour. No more. Then Chandra would rise and float through the door, with neither “farewell” nor even notice of Mary. Each visit was barely enough to last until the next time.
But it had been more than a week and now Mary stood alone, brushing her hair for no one to see on a Friday evening that had nothing to do. On the bed lay a text book that didn’t want her reading it, and behind the bed waited television that wouldn’t let her watch, and on the television were compact disks that could not remember her pleasures. They all were unfair and hopeless.
Chandra sailed joyfully upon the ocean Mary was unable to enter for fear of drowning. Mary had her poetry, of course. Dark, morose, deep, revealing, it had seemed to say so much while she wrote it. It had seemed then to express those hidden truths and ironies that made her life so uniquely sad. But on the next day’s reading, it always turned self-indulgent and shallow and pathetic. Later still, when it had become merely embarrassing, she tore it to pieces, and burned the pieces. And that showed her poetry. So, there.
Embarrassing. Yes, that was the word that described her life best. At three in the morning her dreams heard the word “embarrassing” describe cracks in her skin and pus on her teeth. The word reminded her of the party, the time a boy had walked across the room toward her, smiling and calling, “Hello, beautiful.” She had responded with her own smile, and stupidly had answered, “Hello,” but he walked past her to someone else and left her standing there with her smile frozen to her face and the sweat oozing from her arm pits and her “Hello” echoing throughout the room. For all to hear.
She had fled, because she couldn’t bear their laughter, their ceaseless, mocking laughter. It was a year ago but even today she knew they laughed at her when they thought she couldn’t hear, or even when they knew she could.
It was her own stupid fault, actually thinking someone would say, “Hello, beautiful” to her. It always was her own stupid fault. Like the time she stood in the rain, waiting for the date that never came. He’d said, “I’ll meet you on the corner at six.” So she arrived at five-to-six, and by ten-after, it had begun to rain, and she’d taken no umbrella, no raincoat, nor even a scarf to cover her hair.
And she waited there, because she wanted so much to see him. And six-thirty came, and still she waited, and seven. She’d lost track of time. With rain in her eyes she composed a wonderful poem about a woman who waits for a man, and finally, when he arrives, he’s so apologetic, and he’ll do anything to make it up to her, and he begs her and tells her how much he loves her. And she forgives him.
She wished she had a pencil and paper to write the poem, because she knew she’d forget the beautiful words. She tried to plant them in her memory through repetition, but even as she thought the lines, again and again, the words had begun to jumble and disappear. Finally, they had gone, and by seven thirty the rain had grown much harder. So she went home.
The next day, she passed him in the street, and he said, “Hi,” and she said, “Hi,” as though nothing had happened, and they walked on. As though nothing had happened. But her body quivered inside, and she didn’t sleep that evening.
She’d thought about him every day, every hour, but he never called her nor even spoke to her, except on those infrequent occasions when they would pass in the street, and then he’d say, “Hi,” and she, her heart pounding beneath her frilly blouse, would answer, “Hi.”
She even wrote him a poem, and sent it to him unsigned, hoping he wouldn’t know, yet would know, who wrote it. It spoke of pain. It spoke of love. It pleaded, silently.
Later, when she passed him walking with other boys, and after she spoke her usual greeting, she could hear them behind her laughing, and she knew they must be laughing at her standing in the rain, at her sending him her foolish poem, at her begging for his affection. Laughing at her, like all the boys did.
So the next time they passed, she didn’t answer his “Hi.” For weeks she went out of her way to see him, so she could pass him and not answer him. Eventually, he stopped speaking or even looking at her.
And though last year he graduated and left school, still she went to the places she’d seen him most often, hoping somehow to see him once more, hoping he’d tell her he was sorry he’d left her standing in the rain, hoping he’d tell her he was sorry he’d laughed at her. Then, after a time, she’d forgive him.
But she never saw him again.
Today, Mary realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and here it was six-thirty, so she decided she’d take a bus and a book down to Ralph’s Pizza And Bar-B, to sit at the table that was cramped into her corner, to eat a beef with one hand, and to hold her book with the other.
From behind her book she could watch the kids come and go, and maybe she’d know one or two. And maybe one of them would ask her to join the bunch, and at first she’d refuse, because she had “this reading to do.”
But maybe they’d persist, and finally she’d join them, and it wouldn’t be so bad, so long as they didn’t go off and leave her alone, again. It would be better to be let alone than to be left alone. Or maybe not.
She brushed a few more strokes, then searched for an appropriate book, something not too raunchy for them to laugh at, but a little sexy, so they’d know she’s a woman.
She knew after she ate, she’d have to take a bus home. Probably no one would offer to drive her. And lately there have been those killings. Someone had stabbed three girls on campus, all within the last two months. She would have to be careful.

-/-
The kids hadn’t arrived yet at Ralph’s. The empty tables gleamed at her, cold and white, reflecting the bright fluorescents into her eyes. Later, when the booths and chairs filled with sweaters and jackets and people, Ralph’s magically would turn jungle-wild and dark to frighten her.
Ralph said, “Evening Mary beef Coke?” all in one flat voice.
“Yes please, not too much sauce.”
She went to her corner table, which ignored her, and sat with her back to the wall, so she could see everyone who came in, yet lower her eyes, if she needed to. The beef sandwich came with too much sauce, as usual, but she didn’t complain. “That O.K. Mary anything else?” Ralph had forgotten her Coke again, but she’d rather drink water, anyway. “No, that’s fine.”
The sandwich permitted her to nibble tiny mouse bites, to make sure it lasted until the kids came. The sandwich knew she would look strange, sitting there without any food. Eating as slowly as she was allowed, she had finished half the sandwich when they arrived, a wild storm-surge of boys, loud, swaggering, laughing, pushing, bumping, punching, chair scraping, table-thumping, wind-driven boys.
Occasionally, one sneaked a glance at her, then turned back and laughed with the others, laughed at her, she was sure. She wished she hadn’t come. Again. She had seen this movie so often she knew all the words.
Then the girls, in two’s and three’s they drifted in like foam, giggling, pretending, whispering, twirling, flirting, floating girls. They wiggled in their chairs, and stretched their arms over their heads to emphasize their chests. They tossed their heads to look dramatic, and pushed their hair up in back to look sexy, then let it fall again to look exotic.
Mary had practiced these moves in her mirror, but once when she had tried them in public, a boy had said, “Got a twitch?”
The boys pulled the chairs around, so that everyone, all twenty or so, sat together in a giant, noisy turbulence, as Ralph and his gawky little high-school kids raced around bringing Cokes and fries and pizzas, while trying to keep track of the separate checks.
Mary waited at the edge of an ice-cold pool. She knew everyone but not one person knew her.
“O.K., who ordered the pepperoni?” “Want something?” “Trig sucks.” “My onions?” “Snarf it down, tubby.” “Where you sitting at the game?” “She something?”
Mary peeked over her book. It all seemed so casual, so natural. They could say anything, shout anything, insults and jokes, and no one seemed embarrassed. The girls sang a popular song, and clapped in unison like cheerleaders, and rocked back and forth like a tide of sweet smiles.
A boy put his arm around a girl, and she rested her head on his shoulder while they both sang. Later he took his arm away and they both turned to talk with other people. It hadn’t mattered at all that seconds before, his arm had been around her. Mary knew that if a boy put his arm around her, it would matter to her a great deal. Yet here were the kids, just doing it without plan or memory. To them it was mere froth upon the breakers.
The last bite of sandwich forced itself between her teeth, and hardly gave her time to chew before it slid down and away. The water glass touched her lips. One swallow would be enough. She read a page of her book without seeing it. Still, no one asked her to join them, or even noticed her. She wasn’t surprised. No one ever spoke to her. No one knew her. No one cared about her.
She needed to go to the ladies room, but didn’t want to get up. Someone might ask her where she was going. And she’d have to say, “To the ladies room.” And they’d all laugh. So she just read and dawdled at her water, though that intensified her need for the ladies room.
Suddenly, someone did notice her. “Hey girl, it’s Friday. No more books. Join the world.” An invitation. Her heart thumped. She decided not to risk saying, “No,” because they might not ask a second time, so she smiled, then looked for someone to bring her a check. It took time to catch one of the teenage eyes that always seemed to look in another direction, and more time to pay the check, and even more time to get her change. Her leg bounced in urgency. What if the kids decided to leave and her check had not yet decided to arrive? Would she run after them, right out the door, without paying?
Her check came. She was able to pay without all of her change spilling onto the floor. She stuffed her wallet into her purse, the zipper getting stuck only briefly. And she walked to the group, which was the hardest part of all. What if they forgot they had invited her?
She couldn’t find an empty chair so she stood, trying to be in the group by laughing when everyone else laughed, and listening when everyone else listened. But she didn’t speak and no one spoke to her, so she knew she wasn’t really part of things. Jetsam shriveling on the shore, waiting for the wave that never comes. Like all those days sitting in her room, looking out the window, watching the kids play and not wanting to go out. But wanting to.
They joked and teased and poked and hugged and rocked for an hour or more. Mary really had to go to the ladies room now, when one of the girls who lived in town said to the group, “Hey, my folks are away. How about coming over? Party in the backyard. Screw with the neighbors. Or without the neighbors. Harry? Judy? You guys?”
Everyone seemed to think that was a wonderful idea, though it was the kind of stuff they did all the time. “Who has cars?” “I can fit five. Bill, Mike, you ladies.” “I’ll take seven.” “I got the wagon.” “Everyone north of this line.” And so it went.
Mary wasn’t sure whether anyone had pointed to her.
They paid their bills and rushed out the door. She trailed them to the street, and watched as they clambered into their cars. “Sit on my lap.” “Hey, watch your hands.” “My foot’s not in.”
The cars filled and squealed off, one by one. The last one was so crammed, the kids couldn’t reach the door to close it. “Hey, girl. Yo. Close the door, would you? Everybody, breathe out.”
Mary walked to the car and carefully leaned against the door until it decided to close, making sure not to pinch any fingers, then watched as the car drove away, and watched as it turned the corner, and watched the empty street until she couldn’t hear their laughter any more.
Then she went back into Ralph’s, straight into the ladies room without looking at anyone, though she knew Ralph and those teenagers he called “waiters” looked at her. After washing her hands, she studied herself in the mirror, found the usual imperfections plus a few extras that had chosen this evening to emerge and tried to will them away. They ignored her wishes.
She turned, and as she came through the door, she remembered she had forgotten her book on her table. She saw it wasn’t there, and was about to ask Ralph if anyone had turned it in, when she noticed a boy standing near the counter, thumbing through her book.
She walked to him, hoping he simply would put it down. But he didn’t. So she spoke. “Excuse me.”
He looked up, with a smile, accented by dark eyes and dark, curly hair. He stood about five feet nine, she estimated, and he radiated friendliness, the sincere kind, not the phony, loud-mouth stuff the other boys put on — that fake, “Hey, great to see you. Really great. Excuse me. Gotta run”.
He looked up with a smile. “Yes? Oh, is this yours? I saw it on the table.”
“Yes.” She put out her hand, but he didn’t return the book. He continued to thumb through it, as though trying to think of something.
She felt so conspicuous, with her hand held out, so she lowered it and waited, while he read parts of one page, parts of another, another. Then without looking up, “Do you believe this?”
She didn’t understand. “Believe what?”
“The heroine … I guess she’s the heroine … says, `Love takes a long time, and we don’t have a long time.’ Do you believe that?”
She found him so attractive, the way his mouth curved up, so he seemed to smile, even when his face relaxed. “Well …”
He jumped in. “I think love can come right away. Sometimes you look at a person, and you feel things. Don’t you agree? Have you ever had that happen?”
It was happening to her now. “I don’t know.”
“I see your friends left without you.”
“They weren’t my friends. I couldn’t go. Too much to do. Studying.”
Solemnly, “Oh, studying.” Then brightening, “My mother calls me `Timmy.’ That’s short for … I forget.”
She smiled and lowered her eyes. “I get that way sometimes. My name’s Mary.”
“I like your name. Mary. Nice.”
“Timothy’s nice, too.”
“No,” he said loudly, then softly, “She calls me `Timmy.'” He stepped close to her and whispered, “I know a lot about you.”
The way he said it, so cryptically, so privately, she found breathing difficult. “What?”
“You’re intelligent. And introspective. And just a little shy. You have great depth, strong emotions that you struggle to keep below the surface. No one knows the love in you, the powerful emotions that want to burst free.”
She couldn’t believe that such lovely words could emerge from this stranger, this beautiful boy, who seemed to know her thoughts. “How … why do you think so?”
“You own this book. I know this book. It’s quality. None of those helium heads would voluntarily read this book, much less pay money for it. Intelligence. You actually brought intelligence here — to Ralph’s, for God’s sake — and you sat way back in the corner, where you could study the people while you pretended to read.”
“No, really I …”
“Introspective and shy. They walked off and left you. I saw the whole thing. But you didn’t let on. Shy but strong. You even closed the car door for them. No complaint. Not even a sign of disappointment. You felt terrible, but you didn’t let on. Emotions bound up. Don’t …”
“Really, I have to …”
“… deny it. I know. I’m the same way you are. You have no idea how hard it was for me to pick up the nerve … I saw the book. I wanted to talk with you. I stood by the table. When you came back, my heart pounded. And then …” He began to laugh, a low and gentle and understanding laugh, a secret kind of laugh friends share, not the harsh cutting laughs she had heard so often.
“Yes? And then?”
“And then you ran straight to the washroom. I thought I’d faint.”
They laughed together, hard, with tears starting to run down their faces. “I wanted to run … in after … you.” He barely could get the words out, he laughed so hard.
She, too. “Oh, that would have been wonderful. Can you imagine Ralph? He’d have an attack.”
Timmy inhaled to stop the giggles, though occasionally one would break through. “So. Here we are. Boy meets girl. It worked. I’ve actually met you. Step one. So.”
“So?”
“So, do you have a boyfriend, a special boyfriend, I mean?”
“Well . . . no. Not really a special one, I guess.”
“Good. That’s great. Not great, I mean,” He put on a doctor’s manner. “I mean, quite interesting, young lady. Harrumph. Actually hard to believe, a girl so beautiful, but I was hoping. Well, so …”
He took her hand and looked into her with his warm brown eyes, “Do you think that a lovely girl named, `Mary,’ could spare a few minutes of her busy life to keep a boy called, `Timmy,’ from suffering the agonies of a lonely Friday night?”
“Well …”
“Say, `Yes.’ Mary. Say, `Yes.'”
“Yes, but I don’t know what you mean.”
“How about this. If, just if, I had a great looking sports car. And my great looking sports car had a cassette deck. And if, just if, I had a few terrific cassettes. Two people could drive and listen to music, and talk philosophy and decide the fate of humankind and the universe, and from there graduate to important subjects.”
“Well, I guess . . . I don’t know. I mean, where …”
“Wait. Before you decide, let me show you something. He took her arm and led her to Ralph’s front door. He opened the door for her with a bow and a grand flourish. “Pretty impressive, the way I did that, huh?”
“Yes, very elegant.”
“Learned my manners from movies of the Elizabethan court.”
“They had movies then?” She smiled at her own humor.
“Oh, you are wonderful.” He laughed and spun in a circle. “Note, my Gene Kelly act. I mean it, Mary. Let’s try to remember everything. I just have a hunch this is an important day in our lives.” He skipped across the sidewalk to a red convertible sports car and grasped the door handle. “Would you like a ride home in this?” He emphasized the word “this,” as he bowed and gestured toward the car like a master of ceremonies.
“I don’t … know. It’s not such …”
“A good idea? Yes, yes it is. It’s a wonderful idea.” He flung his arms up and spun again, while she giggled at his silliness.
“Listen, Diana. Can I call you `Diana?’ Yes, of course I can. Diana. Diana. Diana. There, see?”
“Why, `Diana?’ she giggled.
“It means `divine,’ like you. Listen Diana, I appreciate you. You have depth. You have meaning. I can do my Gene Kelly act for you and you’ll enjoy it.”
“Well-l-l …”
“And I feel so happy just talking with you, and suddenly I have no troubles, and we just met but I’m having fun, and I don’t really know why but I truly am, and I think you’re having fun too, and if you say you’re not I’ll lie down here and hold my breath.”
And he did. He flopped down on his back, spread his arms and legs and took a huge gulp of air to demonstrate how he was about to hold his breath.
She looked around and covered her giggles with her hand. “Get up. Oh, please get up. People are watching.”
He shook his head and puffed his cheeks. “Mmmmph.”
“Oh, you are so insane.” She laughed and waggled her finger at him. “You’ll get your clothes all dirty.”
“Mmmmph.”
“O.K., O.K. I’m having fun too. O.K. I said it. Now please get up.” She tried to sound harsh but she couldn’t cover the wonderful feelings of joy bubbling up in her, joy that had been locked up for so very long.
He leaped to his feet. “Fantastic. You’ve saved my life. I would have died there. I’m forever in your debt. What may I do for you, lovely Diana.”
“Well. I suppose it would be all right. Yes you may drive me home, but straight home, kind sir.”
“Ah yes, did I mention? I have no car.”
“That …?” She pointed at the sports car.
“Not mine. I merely asked if you’d like a ride. Unfortunately I can’t give you one. But …” He put one hand on his head, the other on his hip, and jumped up, clicking his heels twice before landing. “Actually we’re lucky I can’t. Ask me why.”
“Why?”
“Good. I like obedience. The reason is simple. Where do you live?”
“Trinity Towers.”
“Yes. Sixth Street? Near Daniel? Yes. This is Market Avenue. Maybe a four minute drive. Tops. Four more minutes and you’d be gone. Out of my life. Who knows when we’d meet again. No time even to fit words between `Hello’ and `Goodby.’ I’d know I’d spend the rest of the evening twisting in agony. So in my desperation I might get fresh.”
“That wouldn’t be good.”
“No. Terrible. But now we can walk. Maybe twenty minutes or so. We can talk. We can share. I can tell you everything in the world that I know. That will take about three minutes. Then you can tell me all about Diana. Your last name is …?”
“Mims. Mary Mims.”
“A sweet name for a sweet lady. All about Diana, alias Mary Mims. I want to know everything. Everything.” His words tumbled out and filled the air and whirled about her. “What’s your favorite breakfast food? Can you swim on your back? Do you brush your top teeth first? Can you say, `Black bug’s blood,’ five times fast? Did you ever taste a crayon? Do you floss before brushing or after? How small is your closet?” His voice lowered, “Are you in love with someone?”
He looked at her with the most gentle eyes and the most gentle smile she’d ever seen. And his dark, curly hair . . . her fingers ached to touch it, to run through it. A foolish idea crept in that she would like very much to kiss him, to know what it was to kiss a boy, for she never had. And he looked so lovely standing there with his eyes and his smile and that curly hair. So very lovely.
She found herself reaching up toward his head but a quick look of fear flashed across his face as he backed away from her hand. “Well, Diana, alias Miss Mary Mims? Well? May I accompany you home?”
“Yes, Mr….?”
“Timothy.”
“I meant your last name.”
“Timmy Timothy. Isn’t that wonderful? Can you imagine? She calls me Timmy Timothy.” `Oh, Timmy Timothy,’ she says. `Tiny Timmy Timothy. Look here, see how tiny you are.”
“She?”
“My mother. I think she’s dead now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. But you said, `calls.’ As though it still happens.”
“Sometimes she comes back and talks to me.”
“I understand. What was she like?”
“Big then. Small now, like you. Long dark hair, like yours. She scolds me. Punishes me. Tells me if I’m bad. Then after, we play . . . so I don’t know if I am bad. Do you think I’m bad. Well, any way … so, Diana, alias Mary Mims . . . Talk to me. Tell me everything.”
“Well, I’m … uh … twenty years old …” Her words began, first in a hesitant trickle, then pent up so long and now released, they flowed, they gushed, they spouted. Her life, her thoughts, her wishes, her dreams, her fantasies, he sucked them from her with his eyes and his smile and his nodding head.
“Yes,” he would say, “Yes, tell me more. More.”
When they neared her building they turned up another street to lengthen the walk. No one ever had listened to her. She had so much to say and he had so much to listen. As she spoke her heart and her soul and the everything of her, she felt herself flow into him and join him.
They walked for two hours in which she fell in love with this curly-headed boy who heard everything and understood everything. Finally he said, “I think it’s time,” and he turned for her building.
For Mary, two hours and yet too soon they arrived at her building. With all her words and feelings revealed, the happiest moments of her life were about to end.
“Well, Diana, also known as `Miss Mary Mims,’ I’m afraid this is it.”
“It?”
“You live here if I’m not mistaken, so now we must part.”
“Oh.”
“I could be with you forever, Diana.”
“Yes.”
“But, I wouldn’t presume to invite myself up to your apartment.”
“Oh.”
“We’ve just met. You’re a lady and I’m a gentleman.”
“Yes.”
“But there is one favor I must ask.”
“Yes? Yes? What is it?”
“May I … how shall I say it? May I presume to come up just to go into your closet?”
“Into my closet?”
“Your water closet. Your bathroom, milady.”
“Oh yes, of course. Please come up. Absolutely. Don’t be silly. Of course you can come up.”
“I’ll be in and out in a moment.”
“It’s fine. Fine. Please come up. Do come up.”

-/-
When he came out of the bathroom she had put a plate of cookies on the table. “You don’t really have to run off. I mean, if you have nothing to do. My mother sent these to me.”
“Your mother?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Your mother …”
“Yes, did I tell you?” He clutched his chest and fell on the bed, his legs and arms pointing straight up. “She’s dead. Dead as a bug. But …,” He lowered his voice to a Vincent Price imitation, “Her ghost walks the night.” He began to laugh, a sharp unnatural sound. “May I tell you my poem?”
“Of course, I’d love to hear it.”
He sat on the bed and pressed his palms together in a prayer pose, and let his eyes stare unfocussed as he whispered,
“Your black cloud hovers
lower down my body
covers the real me
lifts my pain
higher than I’ve been
again your black cloud let me
fall down and down to crash, to shatter
the earth opens for me
a ladder rises here I am.”
“Oh, Timmy. That’s so beautiful.”
“No, beauty lies.”
“Lies?”
“Lies naked. The cloud. The cloud.” He stood, snatched the blanket from the bed, and held it on his head like a monk’s cowl. “She walks the night, and tells me I’m bad.” He spun in circles, the blanket flying out, then wrapping itself around him.
Mary covered her mouth not knowing whether to laugh or feel frightened. She did both. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that,” she giggled. “Please.”
He stopped and gazed at her, then took the blanket off and walked to her. “Wait. This is most remarkable. Look at yourself.”
He put the blanket on her head, and wrapped it around her shoulders, just the way he had worn it, and turned her toward the mirror. “Look. See an angel.”
As she looked in the mirror, he stood behind her and wrapped the blanket all around her, pinning her arms to her sides, and he laughed, “This is how the spiders do it.”
“What spiders?” her voice trembled.
He turned her, still wrapped in the blanket, to face him, and put his arms around her. “The spiders in the closet.” She couldn’t see that he had slipped his belt from his jeans and now held it behind her back. He hugged her gently and pressed her head to rest against his chest. He whispered, “I love you. Oh Diane, I love you so much.”
She lifted her face to look at him. “Timmy, I’m frightened. I’ve never . . .”
“Will you play with me?”
“I don’t know . . .”
His voice grew sharp. “Yes, of course you do. Our games. Our touching games. You know.”
“Timmy, I …”
“Don’t pretend. Don’t be bad. Or I’ll have to punish you.”
He wrapped his belt around the blanket that held her and buckled it. “Now you be good and do as you’re told.”
“What are you doing?” Her frightened voice was drowned by his excited talk.
“You’ll see. We’ll have fun. We’ll play games. Be good. Be good.” He pulled the belt to the next tighter notch.
“Timmy. Don’t hurt me.”
“You always hurt the one you love.” He pushed her onto the bed. “I’m sorry, but you’ve been bad. The games. I’ve been bad. I’ll be good. I promise. I’ll even play the games. See? I’ll play the games.”
He slid his jeans and underwear to the floor and stood next to the bed. “Here I am. Look. Here I am. Tiny Timmy. We can play now.” He reached under the blanket and under her skirt and pulled her panties down her kicking legs and over her feet.
He crawled onto the bed, wrestled her knees far apart, and tried to enter her. “Play nice. Play nice.”
Wrapped in the blanket, with her arms pinned she twisted and fought. Though she battled not to let him in he was too strong. As he tried to enter her he reached climax, then slid away and rose on his hands and knees.
When she looked at his face smiling down, she released a long, wailing scream, “No-o-o-o-o-o.” Her rage exploded and she lashed out with her legs, smashing him in the groin. He rolled off the bed to the floor in agony.
Her savage shaking and twisting finally slipped the belt above her shoulders. She threw the blanket off, ran into the kitchen and returned carrying a long knife.
She found him crouching on the floor, holding himself. When he saw the knife he began a whimpering laugh. “Diane, never again.”
She stood above him, took a deep breath, whispered through gritted teeth, “Yes, never again,” then bent, and drove the knife down into his chest.
He threw his head back. “Oh Diane, the pain.”
“Good. Now you feel pain, just like you gave.”
“The pain, Diane . . . it’s finally gone.”
For one last moment he remained on his knees, supported by her fist against his chest. Then he tilted forward, dead.
She stood, breathed deeply and pressed her toe against his body and rolled him face up. “Thank you Timmy. By the way jerk, you really aren’t so good looking.”
She undressed quickly and took a long, satisfying shower, then lay in the tub and douched. Everything she did, everywhere she touched felt wonderful. Is this the way boys feel when they win a football game? Or score on a beautiful girl? She imagined girls seldom have that sort of exultation.
She came out of the shower naked but for the towel wrapped around her head. She went to the window and liked her reflection on the glass. When she refocused her eyes she saw people walking on the street down below. They looked small and weak.
She took the towel down from her hair and wrapped herself in it as Timmy had wrapped her. She slowly turned around and around, holding the towel tight against her, then she dropped it and continued to dance naked, admiring herself in an imaginary mirror.
After she dried and set her hair she put on a blouse and a skirt, but no underwear, and felt the cloth slide against her skin. She picked up the phone, dialed 911 and said, “There’s no rush. It’s over now. I killed a creep who raped . . . tried to rape me.”
“Are you O.K.?” said the voice.
“Actually, I’ve never felt better.”
Mary put down the phone. She probably should be shaking and sobbing. Maybe later she would. But now she felt as though she were looking at herself from outside. Something had happened. She had made a man fall in love with her and had defeated a girl’s worst nightmare, both in the same day. Thank you Timmy Timothy, or whatever your real name was.
Soon the police would come and ask a lot of questions. She hoped it would be a police man, not a woman. A big, strong man whom she could sail, for she now was the sailing woman. She giggled. Tonight was still young. Maybe there would be someone at Ralph’s, or the hell with Ralph’s, maybe there were better places. She knew there would be no more shyness and no more fear.
Beware world. Out there, the only thing to be afraid of would be Mary Mims.
There was a knock at the door. Mary unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse, opened the door and said to the tall policeman, “Welcome aboard.”
-End-

.

.


DIME STORE

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

So this is the old neighborhood, and right here’s where my dime store was. I loved that dime store. I loved the look of it and the smell and sound of it.
I loved the comic books and the coloring books and the yellow stuff that looked like puke, except it was fake, and the wax teeth and the glasses with a nose and mustache and eyebrows, and the crayons and the rubber spiders and the malted milk balls and the comic books and the disappearing ink and the rolls of caps for a cap gun, and . . . all.
I loved the wooden floors that squeaked when I walked and the smeary glass cases with pistachio nuts that made my hands red, and the candy corn and the little wax bottles I chewed the tops off and red liquid came out, and the soda fountain on the side, where I could get a banana-split with five toppings and real bananas, or maybe a chocolate soda with a long spoon that wasn’t quite long enough, so my hand got gooey.
The dime store was where I could find anything I ever wanted when I had money.
But the neighborhood’s gone now. Everything is. It’s a world where all the real dime stores have closed. Although, as I think about it, my dime store ended for me after that one bad day.
I remember, after I looked through every inch of every counter, because I had to be careful not to buy the wrong thing, I decided on the plastic belt that glows in the dark. It cost a dime which was a pretty good deal for something that fine, and a dime was all I had. I couldn’t wait to take that belt home and go into my closet to see it glow. I figured this was one of the best things I’d ever bought. Really.
I walked up to the cash register, holding the belt and my dime, but Mrs. Kratzer, who owned the store, was talking to some man, who told her something about her having to pay the rent, and she smiled at him and said she didn’t have it but is there anything else she could do for him, or something stupid like that.
Mrs. Kratzer was so mean to kids. She always had been mean. Maybe not always. My mother says that Mrs. Kratzer, before she was married, was real pretty and did a lot of things that people didn’t like. After she was married, too. But ever since her husband died she had kind of pruned up and became sort of witchy.
Now she was one of those religious ladies who always talked about how much she loved God. She yelled at us kids, “Don’t touch. Don’t run around. Did you pay for that?” Nobody liked Mrs. Kratzer, even adults. I’ll bet even God didn’t like her. But she owned the store.
I waited and waited but Mrs. Kratzer didn’t turn around and I wanted to get home right away to see my belt glow in the dark. When I got itchy and said, “Mrs Kratzer . . .?” she gave me her “Can’t-you-see-I-am-talking-to-someone?” face. Just mean. That’s all she was.
After a while I couldn’t wait any more. I saw the register drawer was sitting open so I held out my hand to drop in my dime and then I could go. But the dime slipped out of my fingers and fell into the quarters section. I thought at first that might be all right and then I thought maybe it wouldn’t be, because I might get yelled at. So I reached in to get the dime, but Mrs. Kratzer spotted my hand and shouted, “No.” She must of thought I was stealing or something. Like I ever would steal in her store, I’d be so nervous.
I pulled back my hand just as she slammed the drawer with her hip. But I was too slow because the sharp edge of the drawer sliced off the skin tip of my finger and dropped it in with the dimes.
At first I wasn’t sure what happened. It didn’t hurt that much, but I didn’t want to see if I was bleeding because I knew I must be, so I grabbed my hand tight to my chest and ran out of the store.
I was so scared, instead of running away, I stood outside the door and waited. I didn’t know what to do, I guess. See, I wanted to run away, but I had the belt and I wanted to tell Mrs. Kratzer I paid so she wouldn’t yell at me next time. So there I was outside, while blood smeared all over me, while the tip of my finger sat inside with the dimes.
For a long time, it seemed like, it was quiet and I just waited there, I don’t know what for. Then I heard Mrs. Kratzer scream real loud and long and awful, like some kind of weird animal at night, when I was alone and my folks were out.
Then she looked out through the glass door and saw me. I guess I had blood all over the front of my shirt and had got some on my face, too. They told me my face looked real pasty white too, and my eyes opened wide like some kind of spook. When Mrs. Kratzer saw me she really screamed, like that first scream was a whisper compared to this. I mean her tongue hung out and I think I saw her tonsils, if you get the idea.
So I ran home, I’ll tell you, I ran.
Well, as I remember, my finger started to hurt a lot and it kept bleeding and all, but as things turned out it wasn’t so very bad. I mean, it was just the skin tip got cut off. Not even the nail or anything. No big deal. So it got better after a while, and all I had was a little round scar which you can’t even see unless you look real hard. See, right here?
But Mrs. Kratzer, it served her right. That was all I could think in my bed every night. I’d even whisper it, “It served her right.” Sometimes even in the day time. It was my favorite thing to say. “It served her right.” I was glad about it. Can you beat that? I’m the one who did all the bleeding, and still I was glad.
I never went to her store again. Everyone talked about the “incident” and how much it scared the heck out of Mrs. Kratzer and how she must of thought it was a warning from God to change her ways and act nicer, which she did.
I heard the only thing she talked about was “that poor little boy,” who I guess was me, and she stopped yelling at people and she even gave free candy to the kids, except we all knew she really didn’t want to, but I’ll bet she was afraid God would get her. So just to bother her, the kids would come in and ask for free candy and not buy anything and even when she made a bad face, they got the candy.
But I never went back there. A couple months later the store closed and the building got torn down, and a little while after that, Mrs. Kratzer died. My folks said she had stopped eating and had starved herself to death because she was so depressed. I was surprised about that. I didn’t know she could feel depressed.
I think about her, and how she got depressed and died, and it doesn’t bother me, even though I know that’s not right. And that glow-in-the-dark belt? It didn’t, not even in my darkest closet with the door shut tight. It was a darn fake. I’ll tell you, the whole thing sure served that Mrs. Kratzer right. She was just pure mean. I hope I don’t get that way when I’m old.
Anyhow, here’s where my dime store was, and as you can see, it’s an empty lot with weeds and bricks. That’s how things have gone.
-End-

.

.


MEMORIES FOR ETERNITY

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

The plague came, and unconcerned, took the children, first.
Father’s shadow bends over me and kisses my forehead with cool lips. Father’s voice whispers things I can’t quite hear, though I know they are good things, then the shadow steps away and smiles to me. I want to smile back, but I am too tired.
Mother strokes back my hair and moistens my mouth with a damp cloth. I hear her voice go far away and return. Her words mix and murmur, “You can go now to play. Your friends are waiting.”
I turn my eyes to look out and yes, there stand my friends, all I ever have known, waiting for me. So I rise up and go out the door. My friends have brought me smiles and touches and laughter. “Let’s go,” they shout, “It’s time, time, time, their voices fade to the distance.”
Rennie’s funny bird voice is here. And Barry still can’t run very fast. Charles brought his accordion that he says he hates but really is proud of. Janet’s blond hair in sixth grade shines like the sun. Someone hits a baseball very far, Marv I think. Debra paints a sign that will say, “Vote for Rodger.” Sherwin changes his name to Larry. Marsha’s sled breaks and she cries. Richard’s mother will not want him to run and get all perspired, but he does. Rhalla won’t do what I want her to do. My kite is in the tree. The dog next door has puppies. I get a good grade in math, where I always get good grades.
We run up the grassy hill, raising dandelion powder and clover perfume, then we slide down again and slip and roll, through different games and different times and different people all together. Soon we come to our favorite place, the vacation lake no one else knows.
I turn back to wave to mother, but she and father have dimmed into light and fluffy color, and our house too has paled, and the distant hills that once were red like the fire of a billion torches, and the mountains with their plastic tops and the shiny black oceans far beyond, they all fade away and away and away.
Until they disappear.
When I look to my friends, they too have begun to blur and fade to pastel, and their laughter turns to tiny bell sounds tinkling from far on the wind. And soon, they with their smiles and their touches and their laughter, they disappear.
All but one. My love.
We walk together, hand in hand. We throw off our clothes and splash into the lake. Unashamed, we let the water brush the hot sun from our bodies and swirl around and through us. We swim and play until we grow tired. Then we come out and make footprints across the sand.
We lay on the prickly grass. I close my eyes while my love kisses my cheek. A voice floats to me and whispers hints of what we’ve done and of what we will do someday. And of music. And of colors. And of love.
And of many things.
-End-

.

.


TRANSFORMATION

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

We stood apart in the desert land we created, two naked bodies under a harsh sun. I turned to the east and she turned to the west.
The sun pierced our skin. The air was aflame, seething and snapping at us. I would not reach back to touch her. Once, I had, but she had remained a white-hot brand. Her fiery crust had scalded, and blistered me, and I could not forget or forgive.
There were times when she had begun to tell me her agony. Sometimes she had cried out. But I’d heard only the sound of my own flesh charring, and I’d felt only my own pain.
Now the radiation from her grew like a blow torch in my mind. I needed to say something. “You are too damned hot.”
“No, you are. You are a hard, steel bar, taken fire-white from Hades’ furnace.”
“You are a red, searing coal, glowing and sputtering in infernal fury,” I answered.
“No, you are.”
“No, you,” I said. “You walk, and beneath your footprints the earth withers and recoils from your spitting flame.”
“You breathe, and the inferno of a volcano fries the sky.”
“No, you.”
“You. You. You,” she shrieked.
“You’ve tortured my life in your raging firestorm pit, and turned my soul to ashes.”
“You’ve incinerated my dreams in your hell-fire.”
“You.”
“No, you.”
And we circled, now she facing east, now I facing west. Our passions raged and fumed, destroying everything we touched, until the holocaust of our wrath consumed us.
Then she whispered, “I think you’re melting.”
“Never,” but when I looked down I saw it was true. A puddle had formed at my feet. The fires of anger had begun to exhaust me and the essence of me melted, slowly at first, then faster, faster.
“You too,” I said, “you too.”
She saw it was true. She too had begun to melt.
My puddle grew at my feet, or where my feet were, for there no longer were feet, just the growing liquid of me. My consciousness flickered and divided, so I was I, and I was the puddle. I looked down at myself growing and spreading like a hot amoeba along the earth. I looked up at myself glistening and shrinking and quivering. I saw my arms wave wildly. The energy flowed down from me into me as I melted and spread.
And for her it was the same.
I was mostly liquid now. For the first time in so many years, I looked at the sky and discovered it was blue. I felt cool green grass beneath me. A spring breeze blew across my surface and I felt the soft fragrance of life.
As did she.
I had turned almost completely to liquid. Only my head remained. Hers, too. Still, the surface tension kept us from touching. Then we melted completely, and spread over the earth, and spanned the distance between us.
We touched.
In an instant the tension broke and we flowed together, mixing and turning in a whirl of color and form. The molecules of us grazed and spun in a dance of joy and disbelief as our essence merged into one.
The clean wind blew on us, and we rose and flew in a mist, as a soft cloud high above the land and trees and oceans. We mingled and touched and wrapped around each other. We saw, for the first time, we saw. We felt. We understood.
So now we dance apart, then together. We twine and intertwine, weaving in a joyous vapor, beside each other, within each other, surrounding, holding, blending. We shimmer in the good sun. We reflect and refract our lights, each adding to the beauty of the other. Far below, the people, holding hands, look up and see our rainbow spread across the sky.
And we are born.
-End-

.

.


FLASHLIGHT

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Guess I’ll go to the stupid party at my friend’s house. I don’t feel like it, but there’s nothing else to do, and I’m so bored. His parents went out bowling or they moved away forever or died or something, so he’s having some kids over. He’s not supposed to, which makes it a little better.
“With you, it’s six boys and six girls,” he says. So I say I’ll come, but I’m sort of nervous about it. Not nervous, exactly. The girls are from school. I know who they are, but I don’t know them. I know two boys. One’s my friend. One’s not. I’m the youngest by a couple years. That’s what’s got me uptight, being the youngest. I know I shouldn’t go because my mom’ll have a cow if she hears I went to a boy/girl party without adults. She treats me like a baby, even though I’m already thirteen, for gosh sakes.
So I go. I’m the last one there, which kind of surprised me, and when I come in, all the girls come around and hug me and pat me on the head and laugh like I just told some great joke, and I don’t even know them, but I figure they’re laughing because I’m the youngest and also the shortest. That’s what’s got me bugged, always being the shortest. So I stand there like a dope, with my head down.
Everybody is drinking booze, but I don’t want any. It’s alcohol, for gosh sakes, the same junk they use to kill germs. Why would anyone put that stuff into their mouth? So I let them give me a glass of something, but I don’t drink any, even though I put it up to my lips a few times.
I mill around, and I see boys talking stupid to boys, and girls giggling off on one wall or messing in the kitchen. I hang out, not talking much, because I don’t know what to say. Anyhow, my voice is changing so I sound somewhere between Clint and Clarabelle..
Pretty soon two of the girls put on some music and start to dance and after a while they both come over and tell two of the guys to dance with them. They start doing all kinds of back-bends and other show-off stuff, and then another girl comes over and tells another guy.
Now there’s just a couple of us left and I pray nobody asks me, because I don’t know how to dance, and anyhow, all the girls are taller. Everybody’s drinking except me. The kids pretend to have a good old time so I pretend too, but they’re better at it than I am. It’s not late or anything, but I’m ready to go. I must of known why I came but I can’t remember now, and I feel pretty stupid standing here with a glass in my hand.
My friend sees I’m mopey, so he goes, “Stick around, because it’s going to get real good,” and he laughs like he’s got this great secret. Sure. So anyway I stick around. I’d look dumb leaving, with everyone having so much fun.
All of a sudden, my friend stands in the middle of the living room and he goes, “O.K., everyone. What time is it?” Everybody looks at him and starts to laugh. He looks around with this big grin and he says, “I said, `What time is it?'”
Now everybody’s laughing up a storm. My friend says, “O.K., one more time is it?” He waits a second, then shouts, “It’s . . .” and he takes a deep breath, and everyone screams all at once, “FLASHLIGHT time.” Then everyone cheers. Me too. Like I’m supposed to know what that is. I haven’t got a clue.
It’s some kind of game. I never liked the goofy games they play at parties, like charades and puke in the punch and all. But what can I do? The boys pull five chairs around into a big circle and put one more chair in the middle. My friend takes this one girl by the hand and when he sits on the middle chair, she sits on his lap. Then he says, “Last one down turns off the lights.”
I see the girls and boys are picking each other out. They pair off, with each boy sitting on a chair and a girl sitting on his lap. It happened real fast. I guess they all knew what to do, but I sure didn’t. Now all of a sudden everyone is sitting except one of the girls and me. She’s pretty nice looking. I thinks she’s the oldest, maybe about sixteen, and she doesn’t look too happy she’s stuck with me. Maybe that’s my imagination. I don’t know how to feel, because I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe that’s why I’m starting to get scared.
Someone yells, “Lights,” so I sit on the last chair. The girl gives me a look, walks over to the switch, turns out the light and gropes back in the dark and comes to sit on my lap.
And right away she starts kissing me. Man, I can’t figure it. I don’t even know her name. But it’s O.K., I can say that. Her lipstick tastes like oranges.
I recognize her from school. She’s not in any of my classes, but I’ve seen her. She hangs out with the leather-jacket guys, and there’s some stories about her. She’s taller than me, so it’s kind of awkward with her on my lap.
And while I’m thinking all this she’s half in my mouth. I mean, she’s kissing me. This is wild. I’ve never kissed a girl, though I’ve thought about it quite a great deal lately. I don’t tell anybody that.
All of a sudden the flashlight shines on us, then goes off. It shines on two other kids and everyone starts to yell, “Flashlight, flashlight.” And bang, my girl stops kissing, and she’s yelling,”Flashlight,” too. So I yell too, but quietly.
Now I get the picture. The kids in the middle flash the light on anyone they want. If you get caught not kissing you’ve got to sit in the middle with the flashlight. While the kids switch places they keep the flashlight on, so I get to look at my girl. She’s pretty good. But she doesn’t look at me or say anything. It’s weird. Ten seconds ago she was licking my tonsils. Now she’s ignoring me like I’m spit. She’s just playing this stupid game and that’s it. So the heck with her. I wish I could get out of here.
Before the light goes off she shifts around so she’s just sitting on one of my legs and her knees are between my knees. It doesn’t hurt much because she’s real thin. But not everyplace, as I’ve noticed. I’ve got one arm around her back so she doesn’t slip off, and my other hand is on her lap. Now in the dark she reaches around and puts both her hands behind my head and pulls me forward and man, we are kissing like I think I’m going to drown.
I can feel her breathing faster and faster and I figure she’s having trouble cause her mouth is open so wide and she’s got her tongue out. The flashlight shines on us but we’re kissing. I tell you, kissing. She wiggles around on my lap and I feel embarrassed because she’s rubbing up against it and I wonder whether she can tell I’m getting kind of hairy.
Once in a while the light flashes on us but they never catch us, because we keep kissing, and I’ve got to admit it, my heart has started going a mile a minute. All I can think about is her wiggling and rubbing up against it, like she’s doing it on purpose, up and down, up and down, and I pray I don’t have an accident. Everything is going on inside me. I’m scared and horny and I don’t know what to do. I feel my whole body shaking.
She’s breathing hard and wiggling fast when she pushes my hand off her thigh, down to her knee. I can’t decide whether that means she pushed my hand away from her, or toward her bare knee. I don’t know what she wants me to do. I’m afraid to move it in either direction, so I rub her knee.
I guess this is right because her leg starts to bounce up and down. She takes my hand and moves it up under her skirt. That’s pretty good, so I move it up some more. She doesn’t stop me. Instead, she bounces more.
It’s real smooth and soft up there. I think I can hear my heart. She starts to make small, funny, little sounds. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. But what the heck. I figure I might as well keep going.
Higher and higher I go with my hand. I guess the light shines on us a couple times but we’re kissing. We sure are.
Her legs are bouncing and I’m sweating. Oh man. I get up to her pants and I’m surprised to feel they’re real damp. Jeez. What the heck’s that? I hope she didn’t pee.
I just kind of rub her pants and she pushes against me, and I don’t know what to do. So I just rub around. Then she reaches down and pulls her pants to the side and puts my hand there and it kind of slides a little and then more and it’s real wet and her legs stick out stiff and she throws back her head and she’s pointing her toes and making noises and the damn light shines in my face and we’re not kissing so we’re supposed to go sit in the center, but she holds my hand there and wiggles real hard a few more times, and shivers, and then she stops.
She hangs her chin on her chest and takes a big breath. My hands’s still there, but she takes it away and stands up and shakes down her skirt, and pulls me up and takes me over to the chair in the middle. I can hardly walk.
Everyone laughs at something. I’m embarrassed about standing up, even though it’s dark and nobody can see and I’ve got the light. While we’re sitting there and I’m flashing the light around, pretending I’m trying to catch someone, I whisper to her, “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” but she doesn’t say anything.
After the game she hung around for a while but I was too shy to talk. I felt like I had done something stupid and made a fool of myself.
A few weeks later it hits me what happened. Jeez, am I dumb, or what? She liked it. She would of let me do something. But damn me if I’m not afraid to call her or even talk to her, because of how stupid I’ve been.

-/-
It’s years now. Sometimes I still think about that night and what could have been and how stupid I was for never even trying. I’ll bet most every guy has the same thing. There’s a girl he sometimes thinks about and she doesn’t remember him from spit. Or does she?
I never played “flashlight” again. But when I’m nervous about doing something I get reminded of that night, and I think about that girl and how scared I was then and how I’ve discovered there was nothing to be scared of, and how everything turned out fine and how I could have made it turn out even better. That always gives me a big boost and I get strong enough to do many things I wouldn’t have the guts to do otherwise. All from that one stupid night in my life.
So, if I ever see that girl again, I’m going to go right up to her and thank her for the best, most important night I ever knew. Man, I’ll bet that would freak her.
-End-

.

.


HIGH COOL

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Last year I was in the second grade. I’ll always remember that one day, how good I felt, with my pretty teacher, who I liked a lot, acting excited and all, when I turned in my poem. All it said was:
“The bosses are mad.
People ask for something bad.
They ask for freedom.”
She told me she was “. . .amazed at the sophistication and irony coming from the pencil of my second grader.” I told her I didn’t know what she meant, but she smiled and gave me a hug and said, it’s “high cool.” Well, I knew what that was, all right, and it made me feel real good, her giving me a hug and me being high cool.
Anyway, she had got all laughing and jumping and she told me that tomorrow she wanted me to read it to the whole class.
The next morning I had to get dressed up, because I had told my mom and she made me. Before class, my pretty teacher asked me where I learned to write high cool, and what was I going to tell the class the poem meant.
She looked funny when I told her I didn’t know how I learned to write high cool, and it wasn’t a good poem because I didn’t have time to make it rhyme at the end, but “It means you better not get your boss mad.”
In class the teacher said she would save the last fifteen minutes for some of the kids to read their poems. She called on one kid and then another, and I figured she was saving me for last, because she was so excited about my poem. But the time went by and I guess she forgot to call on me, because I never did get to read to the class, although I told my mom I did because she would of been disappointed.
But I still think about my pretty teacher. And I’ll always remember how good that day was.
-End-

.

.


THE MEANING OF AWARENESS

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

I am nothing. I was it before it was. I am you before there was you. I have no memory. I am smoke. I am haze. I am a formless vapor of random energy. I have been this way since the before the beginning. Now I find myself floating in the center of my sphere, a sphere that is expanding at enormous speed. Or perhaps I am growing smaller and it isn’t expanding at all. I have no knowledge.
My time has come. I was brought here to take the Awareness test. I am to visualize levels of comprehension. This is the final trial that will determine what I will be. The first level I’m given is, “I know.”
I have no trouble visualizing that, and though this level may seem trivial, by comprehending it I already have passed the measureless majority who have turned to sun and stone.
From here I feel the endless plasma and that is all.
Level two is presented, “I know, that you know.” Again, it is no problem for my intellect. I see it clearly. From here I feel the earth and sense the fragrance of life. There are others who are like me.
The third level, “I know that you know, that I know,” requires only slightly more thought. I align and force myself into focus on this level, hoping to imprint it for the levels to come. I feel good. I’m sure even most of those that have progressed beyond stone, now have failed. From here I see the sky and the land, though they have little meaning for me. There are others like me and still others who are different.
Then comes the fourth level, “I know that you know, that I know, that you know.” This requires deeper thought. I can visualize it by imagining an interaction with another. I sense the other and communicate, “I know you know. And you know it. And I know you know that.” By alternately referring to the imaginary other and then to myself, I can track the concept and see it in my mind. From here I see the differences in the others like me and the others different from me, and these differences are important.
I am succeeding. The slope from the first level to the third was quite flat, and even going to the fourth level didn’t tax me. I see no limits.
But when the fifth level arrives, I find it is terribly difficult. “I know that you know, that I know, that you know, that I know.” I barely can wrap my mind around it, and then only for a few moments at a time, before it disappears. I’m reminded of the two-dimensional illusion, in which I mentally force a figure to look like the inside of a cube or like the outside. I had no trouble defeating those, though many others who took that test were unable to see a cube at all. From here I see beauty and irony and most important, I see me.
I can think, and then think about myself thinking. And I can think about that. How many levels of comprehension am I capable of? That is the test. I wonder about it, and realize that in my wondering, I have entered another level. While I struggle with the puzzle, I think about myself struggling with the puzzle. Another level. The comprehension of levels is self-awareness, and awareness of self is the measure of being. That is what separates a cognitive being from the physical universe. That is what separates me from the stones.
I return to my problem. Level six seems so very difficult. I wonder whether any mind can master it. I hesitate to try too hard for fear I will become trapped within the puzzle, and drift and dissipate there, never to coalesce as a sentient entity. And I do so want to.
Level six stays tantalizingly out of my range. Sometimes I feel a flicker of understanding, but too brief to be sure. So I begin again. Again. I must try harder. Again.
Then in one all-consuming burst, I discard my fear, and organizing my structure, I exert my every mental effort. “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you know . . .” Yes. There. I saw it. Only for a second, but I did see it. From here I see infinity. Triumph. I have attained level six. Yet in my triumph I feel despair, for I see now that I never shall understand level seven. It is beyond my aptitude.
Somehow I know outside my sphere, another universe moves. I know there are suns and skies. I know there is life and there is death. And it all is happening without me. If I rise up and shout, “Finished,” I could join them beyond. But as what? Here, I am locked away from the manifold flow of the cosmos. Yet I am here. Possibilities, however slim, exist. Out there, nothing more is given.
I think of opportunities and regrets, of choices made and not made, and I know there were none for me, neither opportunities, nor regrets, nor even choices. We all must go from pole to pole, each along our own line of longitude. My time moves on my one narrow thread and the years dwindle. I have no control. Who am I to fight the forces of the universe? It began in unity. It will end in unity. There is nothing I can do to change that. Every path has its beginning and ending there. But of so many beautiful paths, which will I follow?
I gather myself and cry out, “Will you tell me? I have achieved level six. Please tell me. What level is possible?”
The soundless voice rumbles from infinity, “Knowledge is not free. It costs pain.”
“I am prepared.”
“Then know this: There are those who have achieved level one hundred.”
“No,” I cry. “That cannot be. One hundred. What glories can such incredible creatures know? What is their universe?”
“They know beyond an infinity of infinities. They see all the multitude of dimensions. They visualize this cosmos and all the others beside it. They understand time before the beginning and time after the end.”
I feel my energy dwindle. A hundred levels when I barely could manage six. “Then, what shall I become?”
“You shall become a human.”
“Only human? That is my destiny? Oh, the agony.” I feel myself losing coherence and drifting apart in disappointment. Having achieved level six, still I will be but mortal human and nothing more? No, I refuse to surrender. I am more than level six. I know it. I know it.
And that is why, in my universe without choice, I choose. I shall continue, though I may continue forever. “I know that you know, that I know, that you know, that I know, that . . .”
-End-

.

.


INVASION

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

That night I had to stay home alone, because mother said I was big enough to be without a baby sitter and she might come home real late, depending on how things go. When mother left, it still was light outside and I looked out the window and I could see in the car that this one had a grey beard.
The sky got dark as soon as she was gone. To test myself, I turned off the lights in just one room and stayed there with my eyes shut. I could do it with the radio on because then I couldn’t hear the house noises. Left to itself our house made noises like someone walking and like door knobs turning.
It got real dark out. I heard the front door creaking like it was opening. I sneaked over and took the knife from the kitchen drawer and crawled into the bedroom and didn’t turn on the light. I hid there but I couldn’t keep my eyes going in all that dark.
Once or twice I think I fell asleep just for a second or two, but enough. Maybe it was more. So I had to crawl back to the kitchen where it was light and I listened for noises but I couldn’t hear any. And I guess the front door didn’t open because it was locked. At least it was now.
So I wondered what to do. In the living room mother kept her big house plant on the three-legged stand that had tipped over twice last week, which wasn’t my fault because I hardly touched it. The plant looked like a bunch of green spikes. It had got bigger than it was when she bought it, but I never could see where it had grown. I mean there were no baby spears, just big, old, tough ones.
I turned on all the lights in the living room so I’d forget I was alone and I went to see if this time I could see where the plant grew. I put my head close and looked in and it was almost like being in the jungle. Those spears were ten feet tall. That was how I felt.
I noticed that some kind of moss or something was growing all over the earth in the pot. It was almost white, like dirty cotton with crooked threads creeping out, and when I didn’t look straight at it the threads moved. They did.
I never saw moss move before. When I looked close it stopped but when I pretended to look away it started to wiggle again. I figured it was watching me just like I was watching it. I was pretty sure that was how creatures from another planet acted. Like that movie I saw where the aliens invaded and before anybody knew, they blew out these spores that floated around and got into people and made them like zombies with roots growing out of their faces.
I got scared. I figured I better kill those aliens before their spores got into me. I went to the medicine chest and brought down the iodine bottle with the skull outside and the thin glass thing inside. Whenever I cut myself mother touched the sore with iodine and it stung and she told me to be brave. Sometimes I used to cry even when I tried not to. I never saw mother put iodine on herself, not even once.
Not looking at the skull, because I didn’t like those holes where the eyes should of been, I wiggled the cork back and forth to get the bottle open without spilling it too much, just a little. Then I went and touched the glass thing against the moss.
Right away the white threads waved as though they were trying to push the iodine away. They waved even when I looked right at them, almost.
I touched another place and another place and wherever I touched the moss sort of squirmed and waved, especially if I didn’t look at it too straight on.
Pretty soon it stopped moving. It was all brown and limp and flat all over instead of standing up like it was. I wondered whether it knew what I did and whether it would try to rise up and come after me and blow spores on me and turn me into a zombie. I touched it once more just to make sure.
I never will tell mother. There have been some other nights when she went out and the moss grew again and I brought down the iodine and I saved the whole world.
Except last time I used up the rest of the iodine. Now tonight mother went out again, this time with one that has a mustache, and the moss is growing and I don’t have any more iodine and those spores are probably drifting around, getting into me and everything, and pretty soon mother will come home and maybe I will have turned into a zombie with roots growing out of my face and I’ll be dead. Maybe everyone will.
I try to be big, like mother says. I know I’m really not. But I won’t tell mother because she says she has enough problems.
-End-

.

.


KIDDIELAND

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Dad’s convertible rolled through the country road to Kiddieland. Mom and dad were talking. I rested in back, looking at the sky, watching clouds pass over me. Birds and tree branches and telephone poles all flew over me. I rubbed the leather seats and made them squeak. They sounded like birds.
The parking lot gets dust in my eyes. I want to run, but dad holds my hand. I want to ride the ponies first. I’m not afraid of them. Only a little.
The ponies had leather seats, and the man who led them wore a leather hat, or it looked like leather but maybe it wasn’t. The ponies smelled like wet hay. They walked slowly around the dusty pony track, rocking and baking in the sun, and threw their heads around and chewed on something.
The bright carousel horses just slide up and down their shiny poles. The music sounds loud. Everyone laughs. The carousel goes around until I feel dizzy and have to get off. But the carousel won’t stop. Not for a long time.
The best was the train. It made steam and blew its whistle. The engine was red and the seats were red leather, just like a real train. We had to wait a long time in line.
I run to the last car because it is best. A girl sits next to me. She smiles and she is beautiful. When the train starts I forget to hold out the ticket and the man has to run after me. The girl wears something like perfume and her hair flies in the wind. Sometimes her hair brushes my face. Once a strand slips into my mouth and I hold it there. The ride lasts a minute or two. She gets off first. She turns back to smile at me again, then goes off with her parents.
I never told my folks, but the next time we came, and every time after, I looked for her. She never was there again, although several times I thought I saw her. But it always was someone else.
Always someone else.
-End-

.

.


AN ATTEMPT AT RESOLUTION

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Years. Their marriage, a venture that began in exhilaration, winds down in repetition. She provided the start-up money, and he never has hit her. So they’re a good couple.
They’ve suffered growing annoyance until these days sarcasm begets sarcasm, not from emotion, but from habit. They don’t suspect that it began when they no longer amused each other.
Occasionally one makes half an attempt. “Mrs, it’s a long time since we’ve talked. If we ever did.”
“Mister, that’s all we do, talk.”
He waives his hand to show he has something important to say, and it won’t be easy, and he realizes what she said is true, but there’s no use arguing — all in one motion.
“Mrs, I know our problem. I don’t believe in fashion. What do I mean? Waste is fashion. Your dear friends, those pale, gossamer phantoms in eye shadow, they float about in dead animal skins, making pronouncements as though they know something, which they don’t. They’re clichés who always arrive late, even coming to a conclusion. What a waste.”
“How droll.”
“For instance name something your trendie friends wouldn’t call art. Good art costs megabucks. That’s how you know it’s good. Trendies buy glass rods for thousands of dollars. Everyone says, `oooh,’ in their phantom voices, as though witnessing the burning bush. Tomorrow, glass rods will be passé, and sequined dog turds will be the rage, so long as they’re sold by a foreigner with wild hair. Then I’ll be stepping over sequined dog turds.”
Now, again he drifts into automatic pilot. He learns from himself what he thinks. “I remember a few years ago in Chicago, a guy lay under a glass sheet for twenty four hours. He peed in his pants. `Performance art,’ they called it. Should have called it `piss art.’ A guy floated basketballs in a tub of water. Fashion art. He sold the whole deal — the tub, the basketballs, even the water — to a trendie for mucho thousands. I’m afraid to take a bath. Might be balls in there.”
“Only yours, dear, if you had any.”
His words feel too good in his mouth to allow him to hear the slice. “Everything’s `beautiful, dahling,'” he says. “A weed. A one-inch fetus. Street people. Snot. Black. Barf lumps. The Queen of England, for God’s sake. You name it and some trendie decrees it’s beautiful. They examine without seeing. Discuss without hearing. They don’t learn; they become. They don’t enjoy; they attend. They don’t meet; they connect. They don’t say; they send signals or make statements, fashion statements.”
He needs a point, so he searches for one. “The years have taught you I don’t understand fashion. Your friends escape the agony of thought and failure. They never can be wrong. Things are what they say they are. Like those damn glass rods –a waste of life’s few hours. This marriage has been difficult for you, because you need something more than reality. Like dressing for the opera. So phony. Why listen to music in formal clothes? You know why. It’s so very fashion.”
“Mister, dressing for opera makes me feel special.”
“Sure, opera, art, life, whales, cripples, the poor — all things are special in the eyes of God. If everything’s special, what’s special? You talk to God praying someone else’s written words. I’m sure He appreciates the sentiment. If religion opiates the masses, fashion drugs the trendies. `Oh, my dear, isn’t he’ — the guy who floats basketballs — `wonderful.’ I could gag. Was the opera good? I’ll tell you when I read tomorrow’s paper. Phony, phony and I hate the waste.”
He tries to examine his feelings. Does he hate opera because of waste? Maybe not. But he’s rolling and he’s afraid he’ll forget what he’s saying. “And because I won’t join you in surreality, you feel as though I’ve stolen your life. How humiliating to attend opera alone or to have a husband who laughs at the ridiculous art collections your friends have amassed.
“Mrs, I never pretended. You knew that when you signed on. Fashion is too heavy for a working boy like me. I learned reality. I worked and paid for college. Reality has helped us become wealthier, which I enjoy, not to see a guy wet his pants, but to buy freedom. I do what I damn want, and they can go to hell if they don’t like it, whoever `they’ may be. And we have two kids, such as they are, and we each enjoy our lives. So all’s well, presumably.”
He pauses. This is an old trick. As soon as she inhales to talk, he’ll talk first. Now. “Yet, you drop unsubtle hints that all is not well. You’ve turned an acceptably dull situation into something tense.”
“Finished?” she asks.
“On second thought, maybe phoniness isn’t so bad. After all, I own an advertising agency. No, it’s waste. You waste your brain, your talent, your life. Your idea of a day is lunch and shopping — determining whether baroque pearls are worn in the afternoon. Institutional narcissism. Don’t you want to leave something behind?”
The question echoes through her mind. Leave what? To whom? “Mister, is this about immortality? Should I worry about what my contributions have been after I’m gone? You’re a working boy? I’m a farm girl. What do I want you to remember after you close the lid on me? How great we were that first afternoon we made love. Next? My name, I guess. Will you be able to remember that?”
She enjoys that one, a good shot. “I remember the day when I thought you had it all. Those wonderful, romantic letters, your funny poems, that outrageous threat to jump off Memorial Stadium during a game if I didn’t marry you. It was great. We made love like two people who meant it. Yes, I do believe in things like beauty and art and the social graces. That’s what makes me a person, not a beast. Damn, why did you marry me if you thought I was a trendie as you call my friends? And you knew that when you signed on. For mymoney? Don’t answer. I don’t want to hear.
She knows she’s scoring. “So maybe our boys didn’t grow up the way you wanted. But they’re good people, and you should be proud rather than throwing that macho junk at them. Anyway, I believe deep down, and that’s way, way deep down, you have feelings that are kind of, sort of, like understanding, almost. You can’t be as cold and narrow as you pretend, although you’ve done a darned good job acting the part. And for reasons beyond reason, I love you. So let it be. I’m here and I’ll be here, for the foreseeable future, anyway.”
She’s disappointed he doesn’t react to the implied threat. “Sometimes this does get me freaky, so have patience with that. You could try to fake it once in a while.”
She too, had honed her speech for many years, and now that the time had come she found he’d made her slip off the track. “But wait a second. That’s so typical. You define the problem and then solve it. I’m not talking about social art and beauty, for heaven’s sake. Sure, you can do your way and I’ll do mine. I don’t care if you never look at a painting or even talk to my friends. You don’t even know what I’m talking about. That’s how far apart we live. What hurts me most is you don’t respect me. Maybe you don’t respect anyone. Still, I want it for me. Respect. Do you see?”
He sits motionless. “Gosh,” she says, “This is so useless. How can you ask someone to respect you? It just has to come. Well, this is how I feel, so you know.”
Can she talk to him like this? To Mister? “You have no idea how smart I am, how emotional I am, how strong I am. I could do wonderful things, given a chance. I have greatness in me.” She presses her fist against her chest. “I could accomplish so much but you bury me with your demeaning comments, oh so sly, not overt, but just enough. I wanted to join you in the business. I had ideas. But you wouldn’t hear of it. Your wife stays home. You force me into the world you profess to hate.
“And when I did start my cookie business, you suddenly made all those important demands on my time. I couldn’t put two minutes together without having to run some menial errand for you. Finally my business fell apart, which `proved’ I’m not cut out for higher endeavors. And now you damn hypocrite, you ask whether I want to leave something behind. You don’t want me to. You’re threatened. Bashes the old masculinity? You don’t respect the things I love, and when I try to do the things you love, like run a business, or run anything, you make sure I fail at that too. Everything is you, you, you. Self-centered, egotistic you. You’re the success, the accomplished one, brilliant, creative. I’m nothing. My friends, too. They’re not even people. They’re trendies. How quaint.
“Mister, I’m smart but I can’t look back at one proud accomplishment. Not one. Everybody needs one. And don’t remind me of the accomplishments of my womb. I won’t cry. I said I won’t cry and I won’t,” she says as a tear lies waiting in her eye. “My tombstone will read, `She lived. She died.’ Nothing in between. But her womb lives on. So when you ask whether I want to leave something behind, that’s more irony than I can handle.”
She clenches her fists at the thought. “Once, you could make me laugh and make me cry. I loved those times. Then later, you only made me cry. Now, not even that. Nothing. We were going along, having fun and somewhere along the way, you died. Now when I look at you all I see is a dead man.”
He leans back in his most relaxed posture to demonstrate his amusement at her outburst. “You’re implying that I sabotage your little efforts?”
“Yes, my `little’ efforts. Perfect. You’ll see. I have something better in me and one day you’ll need me as you once did, maybe more. Meanwhile, I’m here, and it sure wouldn’t hurt your precious ego if you could show a little something, love, respect, even if you don’t mean it. You will need me. And when you do, we’ll have so much fun again.”
“Yes, I understand,” he says with a smile, He pauses and takes a deep breath, as though giving the matter deep thought, then slices her. “Fine, as you requested, I’ll try to fake it once in a while, if that will help.”
“Mister, the cruelty. I’m hurting. I’m hurting. Can’t you see? My God, I’m the woman you married and I’m hurting so bad. Look at me. I’m grovelling on the ground. You wouldn’t torture your enemies like this. What have I done? I’m your wife. Come to me. Lift me up. Help me. It hurts so bad. Mister please, I’m begging.”
He sits unmoving. He watches her drop to her knees. He listens to her words. He imagines her pain. He wants to lift her in his arms and tell her what she hopes to hear. He wants to begin again. But it’s been so long the words feel artificial. He can’t speak them. It’s slipping away. His marriage, his life. He wants to tell her of his dreams and his desires and of his love for her. But the ugly, wounding words have come out, and now he can’t speak.
“Mister, please. Say something.”
He drops his chin, takes a deep breath, stands and walks from the room, without looking back.

-/-
Sometime later she rises to her feet and goes to the mirror. She touches around her hair until it satisfies her. She straightens herself to stand tall, and looks approvingly at her reflection. “Not bad,” she says. “Not bad. A lot of women would love to be me.”
-End-

.

.


THE SCENE

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

“This a dinner flight?”
I didn’t know the woman who sat next to me, but I’d noticed when she came down the aisle her hands shook, and by the time the plane took off she’d dabbed at her eyes several times. Now she kept her magazine in front of her when she answered. “I suppose.”
I stretched one leg into the aisle, brought it back, then adjusted my seat for the third time. “What are they serving? Do you know?”
“No,” came from behind her magazine.
I picked a magazine out of the seat pocket and flipped through it. “Should be a dinner flight even though it’s late. I mean, the flight’s so long. Eating’s the only thing to do.” I found the ear phones and put them on and fiddled with the control, then took them off. “You look awfully familiar? Do I know you? Live in New York?”
She lowered her magazine into her lap and while looking straight ahead said between stiff lips, “No,” then jerked the magazine up in front of her.
I continued, “Sorry. Don’t mean to bother you, but it’s a long flight and these seats . . . I’ve read the magazine, and if there’s no meal . . . anyway, sorry for talking so much. Mind?”
With her magazine returned to her lap, the woman leaned her head back against the pillow, closed her eyes and sighed, “No.”
“Live in New York? You sure look familiar.”
Her eyes remained closed. “Once. Los Angeles now.”
“I’m New York. Travelling on business or personal?” I noticed her lips quiver. When she didn’t answer, I said, “I’m coming back from business.”
“Personal. Both. Personal business.”
“What do you do?”
“What do I do.” She said it as a statement while nodding her head, and she seemed surprised, as though no one ever had asked that before. “What do I do.”
She seemed reluctant, so I jumped in. “I’m a struggling attorney. Don’t hate me. A show business attorney. You know, movies and all that. Do you teach?”
“Teach?”
“Yes, you look like you teach.”
She turned toward the window and pulled down the shade, then leaned back and closed her eyes, again. “No, but I’ve been taught.”
“That wasn’t an insult or anything. You just have a nice face. I know that doesn’t mean anything about teaching, but you look like you’d be good with kids.”
She leaned forward, reached into her purse and brought out a shredded tissue and squeezed it against her eyes and held it there. When she lowered the tissue she looked straight ahead. “I never even went to college. Married too young.”
“Guess I am talking too much. Rather sleep?”
She inhaled and let it out. “It’s all right . . .” She paused as though to say more, then closed her eyes. “You’re a struggling attorney.”
“Entertainment. Well, maybe not struggling, but the lawyer business isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Not what I thought it would be thirty years ago when I took the bar. But, I guess I’m sort of lucky, because I love movies. You know, entertainment. You like movies?”
She smiled. “Of course. But you don’t like being a lawyer?”
“The law has no soul. It’s all tricks and technicalities and what judge do you know. Same paragraphs in the same contracts, and the clients are spoiled brats. I’d rather write a novel, or paint landscapes or maybe write beautiful music. But I’d have to give up income and it’s too late to start now. I wonder if they have a movie on this flight. I’ve probably seen it.”
“It’s sad to spend an entire life doing what you don’t like. Have you tried your writing or painting?”
“Well, money’s money. Yes, in a way I’ve tried. See, these people I work with make huge dollars for ideas. That’s the system. I heard of a man who got thirty thousand for an idea for one scene. Not even the whole movie. Really. One scene.”
“Sounds too easy. What was the scene?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Something for one of the big action flicks. But it gets to you, how someone can make so much from nothing. The system is nuts. Even I wrote a scene. Can you believe it? But nobody’s interested in hearing my idea. I’m not from the right group. I’m a lawyer, not a writer. I should have been a writer, but in school . . . anyway, like to hear about my scene?”
She didn’t say anything and her eyes were closed, so I thought she was asleep. But when I was about to pick up that magazine again, she said, “All right.”
“Sure? I don’t want to be a pest, but this flight . . .”
“Yes I know. Long flight. It’s all right.”
“O.K. Stop me if you get bored. I always wanted to see a movie with this scene in it. I don’t know what the rest of the movie would be. Crazy? Well, the scene starts in subjective camera. You know, where the camera is the eyes of one character so that the viewer . . . .”
“Yes, I know.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean . . . anyway, it’s rainy and thundering and the background music is ominous. A man runs through the forest. Trees flash past, strobed by lightning, and you hear the man’s breathing . . . real heavy. The camera looks down and you see his shoes, the fancy, pointed shoes royalty wore a few centuries ago.
“He’s really crashing through. Something comes after him. The sound track throbs. You know how thunder sounds when it’s far away? Deep and rumbly. The rumble grows. It shakes you. You feel like you’re inside a bass drum.
“Louder. Louder. It vibrates the ground. It trembles the trees. You just about can see the air shake, the way the camera vibrates. The man falls down. He’s exhausted.
“Now switch to objective camera. That’s where the camera is outside . . . you know?”
“Yes.”
“So we see the man is a prince. The clothing tells you. He’s not so young or handsome, and his fancy clothing is torn up and he’s got blood on him. He presses his hands against his ears to shut out the sound. His face twists. He writhes in the mud. His mouth opens wide but no sound comes out. He starts to faint.
“Back to subjective camera. The prince is almost unconscious. He sees in soft focus. Shadows of people rush at him from all around. They push in close. They murmur and mutter. At first we can’t tell what they say. The murmur builds to a chant and then to a roar. `Liberty. Liberty.’ Like this, “Li-ber-ty.” Like a football cheer.
“They bring up a horse-drawn cart and drag the prince up and on. The cart bumps down the road. Vibration smears everything into a blur until the cart comes out onto a boulevard lined with manic people waving torches. A star filter on the lens makes the firelights streak. Everyone screams, `Li-ber-ty. Li-ber-ty.’ Like it so far?”
The sudden question surprised her. She turned to me and her eyes wandered as she tried to visualize. “It’s . . . exciting, the way you describe it.”
“Oh, that’s nothing. Wait `till you hear the good part. So as they gallop along, the prince notices a woman standing next to him in the cart. He sees she’s dressed like a peasant.
“He asks her, `Who are you? Where do we go?’
“She says, `My lord, I am your pitiful servant.’
“`Where do they take me?'”
“`We take you to die, my lord of cruelty and arrogance and greed, and your death will give me liberty.’
“The cart stops and the prince and the woman step down and walk to a flight of wooden stairs. The sound track begins its heavy drum beat again. The woman lifts the prince’s elbow and they climb, up above the crowd. They reach a platform where two hooded monks wait.
“The woman touches the prince’s shoulder and says, `Kneel.’
“He kneels, then looks up to the woman and says, `But you love your prince. Are you sure you want this?’
“`Yes,’ she says. `I want liberty.’ She presses his head forward, slides the wooden collar down on his neck and puts a straw bowl under his head. Then she steps back and looks at the sky. The sound track pounds louder and louder. The sky fills with lightning, and the blade, high in the scaffold, glints and reflects the flashes.
“The drum builds. The crowd cheers. The prince struggles against the collar. One monk starts to chant a list of the prince’s crimes. We can’t hear it all because of the thunder and drums, but we know they’re reading how bad he’s been to the people. This builds the suspense.
“When the audience squirms because they wonder how the prince is going to get out of this, a monk, his face hidden in the darkness of his hood, yells, `Guilty.’
A monstrous flash of lightning reveals the monk’s screaming, horrible, twisted face, and the thunder and the drums crash, and the wind and rain whip around, and it’s like the end of the world. Can you visualize it?”
“Of course. I can visualize the end of the world. I’ve seen the end of the world.”
“So, the two monks grab the rope, and together with the woman, they pull. We hear a loud click to indicate the blade is released. The track booms and the sky flashes and the blade starts to fall, in a strobe effect against the lightning.
“Everything switches to super slow motion while the music turns bass and moaning and drawn out. Except you begin to hear one slow whisper, `No . . . No . . . No . . .,’ soft and regular. It’s the prince thinking, `No. No. No . . .’ as regular and flat as a metronome while the blade falls.
“Finally . . . and this is the good part . . . remember we’re in the prince’s subjective camera. Through the prince’s eyes, you see the inside bottom of the basket, and now you hear a slow and terrible `thunk’ sound. The blade has hit. The bottom of the basket comes at you — still in super slow motion and then there’s all this blurry, tumbling motion. Get it? The director makes the camera tumble into the basket, like it’s the head tumbling.
“So there’s this blurry motion as the camera tumbles, and then you see the sky. See, the head doesn’t die instantly. It stays alive for a few seconds after the blade hits until the blood runs out. So it still can see, even while it’s in the basket.
“The head has fallen face up, and the camera sees the insides and the rim of the basket and the guillotine and the lightning in slow, flickery motion and the black sky.
“Then the camera sees one monk lean over you, moving slow and strobe-lit by lightning. He reaches down to the prince’s head and you hear the whisper, `Don’t . . . hurt . . . me.’ See, the head thinks, `Don’t hurt me.’
“The monk reaches down with his thumb and middle finger. And you hear his harsh voice say, `Here, madam.’ The monk is about to pick up the head by the eye sockets, like a bowling ball, and give it to the peasant woman.
“You watch these two fingers come closer, closer until suddenly the screen bursts into bright red, then fades to dull red and to black. The sound fades too, until when the screen is almost black, the sound has become very soft.”
“You wait through ten seconds of slow darkening and quieting. Then you hear this awful, this long, this drawn out, aching, horror-filled scream. It’s the peasant woman. `Oh God, forgive me, my dear lord. No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.’ Just like that.
“See, her prince has died and suddenly she realizes that instead of gaining liberty, she’s lost everything in her life. He was evil in lots of ways but he stabilized her existence and protected her from the unknown. Now she’s vulnerable to the world.
“Finally the screen becomes absolutely black and after ten more seconds all sound stops too.”
Our airplane droned through the sky, somewhere between Los Angeles and New York. “Well?” I asked. “How did you like it?”
The woman sat up in her seat and looked into my face. Her eyes were puffy and her voice was thick. “Do you think of those kinds of things all the time?”
“Pretty grisly, I guess. Sorry if it upset you. It just seemed like a good scene. I don’t think that way all the time. But it just seemed like a good scene. I wish to God I could get someone to agree. But if wishing did any good, I’d be rich and famous. I know if I had become a writer instead of a lawyer, people would respect . . .”
She put her hand on my sleeve, and with the smallest smile said, “Yes. I understand. More than you imagine. It is a good scene. I haven’t seen a better one.” Then she closed her eyes, leaned back and turned away from me.
We never said another word. When the plane landed she was first off. And that was it.
Except two days later I read about this actress. I recognized the woman from her picture. She had gone to New York to finalize her divorce. But she changed her mind and right there in court she made a scene, screaming and begging to call the divorce off.
But as it turned out the husband wasn’t interested any more. I guess she had pulled that stunt before. So the divorce went through, but I envy her. She did real well. She had a tough attorney and the judge must have been on her side, because he gave her everything she asked for. Hell, he just about handed that actress her husband’s head on a platter.
-End-

.

.


THE SLED

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Waiting takes a long time when you’re five.
Mommy is having a cry day so she told me to go out and play with my friends. I don’t tell her I haven’t got any friends who I like. Mommy helps me put on my fat, old parka and those mittens with the string and my thumb sticking out, and my father’s scarf she wraps around my face three times, and a cousin’s boots I’ll grow into.
Mommy says, “Take your new sled. You haven’t played with it once. It just sits by your bed.” I know. I keep it there after that bad time. Anyway it’s not new. My father gave it to me.
So I take it out and pull it bumping down our back stairs, and it doesn’t even break. No one’s outside. Just some mean, old snow. It’s the kind that feels sharp and doesn’t make into snowballs and won’t melt all summer, I bet. You never want to touch that snow.
There’s nothing to do. I pull my sled behind while I slide on the sidewalk, back and forth. The sliding here’s not so good. My boots stick where the sidewalk shows through, and my feet slip inside. The ice is better next door, but I stay here in front of my building. I see big boys playing down the block. If they come I’ll hide in back.
Dogs made some snow yellow. It’s ugly. Everything is, now. Christmas was O.K., except I didn’t get hardly anything. Now, days are short, mommy says. But I think they’re long, because it got colder and I have to stay outside and there’s never anything to do.
So I wonder things. That’s my favorite. Do leaves hide inside the branches and wait to come out? And can rich people eat all they want? And how do birds walk barefoot on snow? I saw some bird the dogs got. Its head was not there.
Or do kids tongues stick on doorknobs and firemen have to saw their tongues off? I look at doorknobs to find tongues but I never see any except one had this rough place where it could of been somebody’s tongue. Maybe from one of the big boys. I wish.
Last summer the sky looked far away. Now the sky hangs low and comes at you and clouds are like dirty old cement. But white snow’s in the clouds, so that’s weird.
In the wind, hard little snow falls like salt. It hurts sharp in your forehead like ice cream when you bite too much. When there’s no wind, big flakes fall. They feel soft and warm like my quilt and sort of look like it.
That’s the stuff I wonder.
When mommy looks for jobs she never gets, the baby sitter comes over, who I don’t like. She eats all the food.
I stay close to the building because those big boys are still down at the corner. They never get cold. They have hard elbows and fists and red noses with green stuff hanging out. They wear jackets open. They play loud and rough. They bang into things and it doesn’t hurt. Their necks have boils. Their teeth are green. They say bad words and spit.
I wish I could spit. Mine gets on my chin.
Once, big boys took my hat and threw it. I tried to get it but they tripped me on my back and one kneeled on my shoulders. Some adult got him off but the boy said, “I’ll get you next time.” Now I’m afraid every day I go out. Afraid every day.
Last month they broke the sled mommy gave me. It was my favorite thing. They laughed when they jumped on it with their shoes. They don’t wear boots. I laughed and pretended I liked the game. But I didn’t like it because I knew they would break my sled.
After, I took the pieces into the basement and fixed it with the black tape father keeps, or did when he was around. It stuck good in the basement but outside it came apart. I went upstairs when I finished crying and mommy couldn’t tell.
I told mommy someone took my sled and broke it and she didn’t even yell. She just hugged me and said, “I know how losing feels, honey. When you’re big, you’ll fight for what’s yours. Anyway, maybe your father will get you a new one when he visits.”
I forgot to use the bathroom. I held it in all day and now the cold makes it worse. I wonder how much longer I have to stay outside. I wonder why the cold makes it worse.
I wish father was here. He knew lots. It would be nice to play with him. There is nobody except those big boys. I like to stand in my bed and look out the window and watch the big boys, because they look small.
It has got colder and I really have to go. I could go in the alley but someone would see me. It is not time to go upstairs. Mommy would ask why.
When I grow bigger I could play with those kids.
I guess I’ve sort of been dreaming. I didn’t notice two big boys going to play in the park across the street. It’s too late to run into the back and I have to go to the bathroom real bad. Last time they chased me, so I stand still.
They look at me. I pretend I don’t see them, but they come. “Hey, another sled?” one boy says. I smile.
“Let’s have a try.”
They grab my sled but I won’t let go of the rope. They pull so hard I fall but I don’t open my fingers even when they twist my arm.
They rub my face against the hard snow and my lip bleeds. They kick my side and I lose my breath. Tears make my eyes cold. I lie on my face, holding the rope. They pull my fingers. They get one finger off and bend it, and it hurts but I close my eyes and hold on and don’t think about anything.
Then I don’t know what happened. But they go away. Maybe they got bored or something. I stay on my stomach and don’t move until they’re gone.
I feel lots of shivers. I guess I wet my pants. I roll over which is hard in my snow suit and I see the sky sort of dark. The day must be late enough so I can go upstairs.
“Look at you,” mommy says. “What happened to you?”
“I was playing. With my friends.”
“You look frozen. Let’s get your clothes off. Oh, what’s this?”
“I had an accident.”
“Aren’t you too big for that? Why didn’t you come in?”
“I was playing with my friends.”
I have got shivers while I get undressed but these shivers feel better than the ones outside.
“Look, you cut your hand. I’ll put iodine on. And your lip. What were you doing?”
“I was . . . Will it hurt?”
“A little. But you’re the brave little man of the house now, aren’t you? It always hurts before it gets better. That’s what people tell me. There, not so bad, was it? Now, jump in the tub.”
It does hurt, but I don’t let mommy know because she gets sad a lot lately. I put my sled by the bathtub and climb in and snuggle in the warm water. It feels good to move the water around me. My toes stick up like islands and when I move, this wave crashes down on the islands and washes all the people off. I can do it anytime I want.
Mommy says, “Do you need to hold your sled even when you take a bath?”
“It’s mine.”
I’m big. I chase the big boys away. They come back to play when I want them to. First I beat up the biggest one and the others are scared.
“What?” mommy says while she washes my hair.
“Will I be big?”
“When you stop wetting your pants.”
“I will.”

-/-
In bed I think about my sled, which is next to my bed, and the big boy who said he’s going to get me. My father would of beat him up but my father isn’t here any more.
I try to wait before I call mommy.
“What’s wrong?”
“I’m hungry.” “Oh honey, we don’t . . . How about if I sing to you?”
She sits on the bed and tucks my blanket around me and smooths my hair, and she sings, “Sleep my angel boy . . . ,” It feels good when she sings, like the water in the tub, only better.
After she leaves the room I can hear her cry, but I’m so tired. And everything feels warm and nice.
-End-

.

.


LAST NIGHT IN THE CITY

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

A warm, black blanket smothers me. I twist and turn my head, searching for air. Searching . . .
I see this beat down street where these old buildings fall away in pieces. I feel the dirt and the grey, where the tired, useless old people come to die. Some are not old, but they seem so.
Bars and hovels called `HOTEL’ fester on the next block. And when the people have drunk their last penny, and can’t afford even cheap rooms for the night, they drift here amid the darkened shells of buildings, and they wait.
I sit curled in my tattered clothing, on the low stoop of a doorway, hidden in the dark. I don’t know how I got here. I’m so surprised. One day things kind of slipped, and I thought I’d have no trouble getting up. But the days came and went, and the next day and the next day. Now I look back to so long ago, when I came here from the world that rejected me, to this place that ignores me, and my name hasn’t been spoken for a long time. I’m just a seamless continuation of the street.
I shiver in this chill night, scarcely aware of the smell of tar that drifts past. Nothing moves on the street. Those who have a place, have gone to it. The others lie in their own shadows. Occasionally a cough echoes, or there is the noise of a violent retch, but these are noises of the night and I do not think of them.
Then comes an alien sound, and the street recoils and the buildings tremble in fear. Slicing through the grimy air comes the laughter of children. Loud, confident, nervous, cruel, that’s the way these children laugh, and its harshness stabs my brain. Again it pierces me, and again, and then I hear the long, shrill, sad whine of a small dog in torture.
I raise my head above my knees, and look in both directions, into the blackness. Seeing nothing, and now hearing nothing, my eyes close and my head flops back on my knees. So weary am I from this exertion, I nod again to sleep. But the sound repeats.
Again I raise my head and again I see nothing, but then again I hear the at once meaningless and meaningful pair of sounds, the heartless laughter and the cry of pain. This small pantomime repeats, like a mad machine without purpose, until with much effort I lift my wasted body, and totter to my feet and search for the source of the sound.
I look to the roof of the one-story, flat-top building to which my doorway harbor belongs, and I see five or six boys of early teen age. They have the hard features, the shabbiness and the cruel, wise faces of young people who’ve grown too old by what they’ve experienced. Their game is to torture a small puppy by dipping it in the large tub of hot tar, left on the roof from the day’s labor. The puppy whines in fear and pain, sounding like a human baby, a sad, anguished sound.
“Hey, you godambaserds,” I croak, struggling to make my voice heard, “What’n hell’r y’doin?”
The laughter from the roof stops. Even the puppy’s whine stops, as though it too listens, and for a very long time, there is silence. Then, a giggling and shuffling comes from the roof, and a high, hard voice calls, “Ol’ man, we’re gonna kill this mutt. What’r you gonna do `bout it?”
I stand swaying and look at the rooftop. “Ain’ no ol’ man, godambaserds.” I feel surprise that I care about what happens to that puppy, yet my heart beats faster and a hate builds within me, hate and fear. “Don’ you hurt `at dog or I’ll break yer godambaserd necks.”
They scream in laughter, and the mocking voice calls back, “Oh yah, wise guy? Watch this. Here’s what we think of your stupid mutt.” With that, one of them holds the puppy by his hind legs out over the side of the roof, and lets him fall the fifteen feet in the narrow space between buildings. The thump of its body on the ground, and its high-pitched scream begin together, and the scream lasts for several seconds, or hours.
“You godambaserds,” I say to myself, “now wadya haffa do at fer, you godambaserds.” I trudge to the narrow separation between buildings and thrust my head in, but see darkness. I hear though, the puppy’s hoarse breathing and occasional whimper. “Here poochie.” I whisper, “C’mon out. I won’ hurt you.” But the puppy will not or can not come.
“Oh, poor poochie, c’mon out. C’mon out,” I call and call, then turning sideways, I begin to edge between the walls. The chill, rough brick scrapes me, front and back. It’s dark in here, and the space is narrower than it seemed. My head is turned in the direction I move. The cold walls grow closer together. I try to turn my head, and my nose scrapes the icy bricks in front, while the back of my skull bangs against the other wall.
I try to reach up to rub the back of my head, but the bulk of my coat against the rough, confining walls locks my arm to my side.
“Oh godamit, godambaserds.” I must have scraped the skin on my nose to blood. I taste the salty wetness on my tongue. I stop to listen for the puppy. I hear the short, quick, raspy breathing. “Here fella. Gonna help you, fella. C’mon fella.”
I labor against the walls, shiver from the cold and fight to move even the scantiest inch forward. I hurt myself with every move. I feel blood trickle down my scraped face. My coat buttons dig edgewise into my ribs, and worst, the stifling, confined closeness of the walls. Breathing comes harder.
“Crazy to break my ass for a stupid mutt.” I grope for the missing concepts. It’s been so long since I thought of the what and the why that I lose myself. My rusty mind retraces and begins again, and enmeshes itself in a confusion of thoughts and pictures. I know what the events have been, but I can’t determine whether they happened. How long has it been since I was sure whether I was awake or asleep?
My eyes see nothing in the blackness, but my mind forms pictures, and I see myself between the walls . . .
People outside wait for me. They applaud when I emerge, carrying the puppy. “I must get this dog to the hospital. You,” I say, pointing to one of the onlookers, “get in your car. Take us to the hospital.”
“Yes, sir. Right away.”
Cradling the puppy in my arms, I step through the admiring crowd at the hospital, and say to the doctor, “. . . move now, quick . . .”
Held this way between the walls, I shake with fear. I cough once, and a sharp ache drives through my ribs. I can hardly breath, and I can’t move, and drowsiness creeps over me. My mind carries me from between the walls and I drift to long forgotten memories of distant days . . .
I was a child, and I still can remember the sunshine. It always was bright then, bright with the summer sun and the children and the games we played.
I had a girl friend I loved, thin with blond hair and a chipped tooth, and we ride our bicycles together to a place at the end of the path in the woods. Here runs a stream where we swim, and the water always feels warm. We live here in the summer, two thirteen year olds, laughing and splashing, naked and unashamed, in our secret place.
Later we come out and shake ourselves dry, like two puppies, and pedal home fast to beat the darkness. The special plans we made, the things we’ll do when we grow up, discussed with confidence that it all will happen.
Standing at bat, my first time playing baseball with a hard ball, I’m afraid. The pitcher, a boy much bigger than me, is strong and tough. The pitch comes right at my face. I try to jerk away . . .
I bang my elbow against one of the sharp bricks, and the pain shoots through me and almost awakens me. . .
I run to my mother. Her large soft arms reach to me. She is ready with kisses . . .
“Hey ol’ man, you down there?”
“I see `im, see there?” Someone shines a light down on me.
I feel so tired. The puppy is conscious now, and when I say, `Ged outa here,’ he runs away. I’m alone and trapped and so tired. “Ged outa here, y’ godambaserds.”
“Oh yah? Let’s give it to `im.”
I smell the warm tar and hear it fall before it hits me in a hot, sticky, smothering river, on my head, and into my eyes and over my face, my nose and mouth. My arms are locked to my sides by the walls. I mumble through the tar, “O Chrise, not now. O Chrise. . .”
I see mother again, arms wide and welcoming. Mother whispers, “That’s all right. Mommy’s here. Don’t cry, mommy’s little one. You’ll make your beautiful eyes all red . . .”

-/-
A distant voice says, “Boy, see that poor guy? What a way.”
“For these guys, if it’s not one way it’s another. What the hell’s the difference? Just a bum, is all. A worthless bum.” . . .
But it’s warm in here, warm and gentle in the sunshine of our private place, and mother is here and my friend is here to tell me how nice I am, and to hold me and to love me, and to tell me how wonderful our tomorrows will be.
-End-


THE THING

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

He was twelve. He went alone to the movies, that winter afternoon. Of course, he always went alone, but it wasn’t so bad.
He saw through his fingers, a film titled, `The Thing From Outer Space.’ A terrible creature had crashed its space ship at the north pole and had frozen in an ice block. People found it, thawed it, and were attacked by the creature when it became flexible. The movie was filled with leapings-out and jumpings-up. The music rumbled with sound he could feel and jolted him with cymbal crashes. In between, there were eerie organ notes and mysterious bells. He was scared.
When it ended, his relief lasted until he passed through the theater door. Outside, darkness had come, and the marquee lights reflected weird colors on the snow. Multiple shadows of people slid along the walls beside him. Behind him, boots crunched on the frozen slush, just like the Thing’s boots did.
But at first, walking wasn’t all that bad, with so many people around and the bright street lights. He felt he could make it home OK, but after a block the people had drifted off into cars or restaurants or simply vanished somewhere. When he looked around, he was alone. And he still had seven blocks to go. And the streets ahead were dark.
He started down the first block. Residual light from the street behind him cast his shadow ahead. Not one shadow, but three, so it looked like people were beside him or worse, behind him. He started to run to the dim street at the middle of the block, but running was hard. The sidewalk was slippery and his heavy boots made every step clumsy.
He fell and scraped his hand on the sharp snow. The cold made his fingers hurt more.
The street lights were so very far apart. Once, when he started to run, he heard a loud, gruff barking come from off to one side or another. He stopped so that the creature wouldn’t chase him. (He knew that things chase you when you run, but maybe not when you walk.) So he had to walk slowly through the shadows. The bushes hid things that might squat, ready to leap on him. He almost could hear them breathe and squat. Almost.
A car drove past and its bright headlights felt good, but the car went around the corner and left an even more ominous darkness behind. Once more, he was alone.
He saw ahead of him a strange silhouette on the snow. It seemed to move, wavering like a shadow in the wind. He was sure something waited in the bushes. He turned to cross the street, but even worse shadows waited there too. He couldn’t move. He closed his eyes, but the sound of the darkness made him look around. Was that a growl from the bushes? The thought shivered him. Are those eyes . . . eyes glowing, yellow and terrible? He covered his face with his hands, just like he did in the theater, and peeked through his fingers as he walked past the bush, past the shadows and the glowing eyes. He could hear the thing beside him, snuffle in the bush, but he didn’t dare look. He just kept walking.
Now the bush was behind him. Each step took him farther away. He thought maybe it would be all right. Maybe if he walked quietly enough and casually enough, the monster would stay put. Ten steps, fifteen steps, if he just could make it to the corner, there was a light there. But the corner was almost half a block away.
He squinted his eyes to shut out the darkness, and counted his steps. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-. Suddenly, behind him, he heard paws run on the snow. He froze. He couldn’t walk and he couldn’t turn around. The sound came closer. He covered his head with his hands. Closer it came.
The thing attacked. The creature growled and jumped on his back and pushed him down. It snarled and snapped as he rolled to his back. Its breath was on him. He felt its hot saliva. He couldn’t get a scream out. He twisted in the snow to escape. He flailed with his arms and legs. When he opened my eyes, he could see it. A monster.
No, it was a dog, black like the darkness, growling and shaking its head. Now, he wasn’t afraid. He knew dogs. They weren’t creatures or strange things. They were dogs, for gosh sakes. He owned dogs. He knew dogs better than people. Dogs were his friends.
His voice came back. He shouted, “No! Down! Bad dog! Sit! SIT!” The dog stopped growling. It sat in the snow as he had commanded, and hung its head and whimpered. He yanked the chain that hung from its collar. “Come!” The dog came and licked his face. He stood. “Heel!” The dog stood beside him and tilted its head and looked at him with large, round eyes.
He walked. “Heel!” The dog walked with him, and guarded him from the darkness, all the way home. There would be no more monsters to squat the bushes. Not with the dog beside him. It was easy, then.
“Mother, this dog is lost. Let’s look at the tag and call its owners.”
That night, he woke and needed the bathroom. But his old enemy, the darkness, hovered over the room. And his dogs were in the basement. He hid under his blankets as long as he could, then ran to the bathroom, finished, flushed, and flew back to the covers. He wished he had his dogs with him.
Next morning, the shadows were gone. But each night, they will return to him. His fear of shadows is the reality, and the safety of the day, an illusion. The future never feels safe. Something will go wrong. Night always comes even after the brightest day. No matter how many people he’s with, eventually they leave. He knows the night monsters probably are friendly dogs. But, this night marks the beginning of his vague but clarifying realization that at his core, he always will lie alone in the dark.
-End-


TRUTH

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

My mother’s voice came down at me and said, “Didn’t I tell you? Now you’ll have no friends. Nobody will like you. We’re so very disappointed in you. So very, very, very disappointed.”
“Mother, I’m sorry,” I cried, but when I opened my eyes she wasn’t there.

I stand in darkness feeling
innocence has many doors I open
revealing worlds of brilliant thoughts burning
so dazzle me. The end.
Almost everything was wrong, and what wasn’t wrong wasn’t anything at all. I could see nothing, and when I reached out I could touch nothing. I was alone and needing.
The dimness resolved into an infinity of doors. In desperation, I opened one, and found emptiness. I opened another to anger, then another to hopelessness, and another to fear, another to jealousy, another to pain, another to despair, another to regret, another to memories lost, another to lies, and another and another. I opened one to light.
Glass trees refracted the sharp winter sun into countless, blinding, colored spots. Transparent branches bent the light overhead into rainbows that filled the sky with vibrating hues. Radiance exploded everywhere around me.
I caught my breath in wonder. When I stepped through the door, diamond shards crunched beneath my boots and resolved into glistening powder footprints. Cut crystal air blew clean and cold against my cheeks and caused the cellophane bushes to tinkle like wind chimes. Clear, lacquered ice mounded higher than my head and shimmered like a polished carriage carrying a queen.
The carriage door opened, and from within came a beautiful girl. Her seductive dress was spun chocolate ice cream trimmed with autographed baseballs. She spoke with the sweetest voice. “Yo, what a wretched child. You-uns been eatin’ honey and rollin’ in cat fur?”
“Why, no. I’m clean. I just bathed.”
“Why, `no?’ There’s de proof. Clean boys never bathe. And you don’ even know what’s a cat fur.”
“Yes. I mean, no. I don’t know.”
“Like I said. And what’s a gopher? A chauffeur? A coffer? A camphor? A feoffor? A kefir? A sulphur?”
“I give up. What are they for?”
Don’t axe me. They’s English, and how they got that way I can’t say. But it shore is a shame on whoever done it. Anyways, I been a patient to find you.”
“Do you mean `impatient’?”
“A patient always is impatient. So they’s equal. Axe any curse.”
“I’ll bet you must mean `nurse’?” “Curse, nurse, hearse, they always comes in that order. So, they count like equals. That’s numbers, and how they got that way I can’t say. But it shore is a shame on whoever done it. Anyways, I heal thins about you. That’s a fat.”
“This time I don’t know what you mean, miss.”
“I teach you what boys know about girls. It’s called `miss understanding.’ You kin call me `Princess.’
“You want me to call you, ‘Princess?’ Are you one?”
“Is you kin? Well yes, I is one, and as you know, one is greater than all.” She stepped out into the light. Her candy-frosting crown sparkled and twinkled and threw me pieces of the sun from its million facets.
“How can one be greater than all?” I asked.
“Young man, does you learn? There can be trillions of ones, but there can be only a single, lonely all.”
“Never more?”
“With all your ravin’, next you going to want to try Poe. Does you know what that is called?”
“When I try Poe?
“Shore. It’s called a Poe-try. Does you see how neat the world fit together?
“Of course, Princess.”
“Speaking of `coarse,’ what fruit do a file eat?”
“A file eat? I can’t imagine.”
“Can’t imagine? What a horrible state. The answer are raspberries. Is you clear?”
“No.”
“Pity. This glass slipper am. But it don’t fit.”
I took the slipper from her and slipped it onto my foot. “Why look, it fits. Isn’t that wonderful.”
“You was supposed to put it on me,” she said. “Now, as a single, lonely all, I got to enter my marriage.” She entered the carriage and closed the door, then looked out and said, “I see you tonight; you is going to be my king and my friend.”
“Did you say, `Marriage’? Is a marriage like a carriage? Will I be your friend?”
“Shore, a marriage is like a carriage. It open the door to you and it take you for a wild, windy ride, and when it stop, you gets out.” Before I could speak, the princess closed her eyes, turned into a clown and entered her marriage. “And everyone get in with their eyes closed.” she said, and drove off laughing.
I turned and walked along the glass road, and thought how envious everyone would be when the clown princess came this evening to make me her friend. Soon I met a glass bird. It lay on the frozen ground and looked at me with its one sad eye.
“Hello,” I said, “Who are you, glass bird?”
“I am `The Truth,’ the one-eyed, glass bird.”
“I see.”
“Sure, you see. You have two eyes. You see what you like, so that means you like me. Do you know me?”
“No.”
“Most people don’t. I’m not a glass bird. I’m a dead bird covered with ice. But I prefer your invention. From this moment I’m a glass bird. Much more romantic, don’t you think?”
“I wish you hadn’t told me. I see now you are just a dead bird covered with ice. How dreadful.”
“Now you’ve learned something, my young friend. Learning destroys imagination. When you know nothing, everything is possible. And when you know everything, nothing more is possible. That’s God’s current problem. So try to learn nothing as soon as you can.”
“But that’s a lie. Why do you say it?” The glass bird looked at me with his transparent eye, shuddered his glass wings, rose into the air and glided in circles around me. “Because,” he sang, “I am The Truth. Be careful not to know me too well. The worst lies come from The Truth. When The Truth lies before you, you must lie after.”
“You make me dizzy. How can you speak if you’re dead?”
“We dead speak very well. Have you ever tried to argue with the dead?”
“No, and I wouldn’t want to.”
“It’s because the dead lie in their graves. That’s called `history,’ all dead and all lies.”
“I don’t want to speak of the dead. They’re ugly. Excuse me, except you.”
“Ugly? Behold the eye of beauty. Those who see ugliness have no eye. You must see beauty to see at all.”
“How can I see what isn’t there?”
“By seeing that it isn’t there. Now I will sing you and play you so you may understand your potential.”
“Actually, I’d prefer just to be the princess’s friend.”
“Then I must free you from humility. That way you shall not have to see where you stand.”
“But I want to see where I stand.”
“Then see fear.” I looked down and I saw I stood atop a glass mountain, which crested in so narrow a peak I couldn’t rest both feet on it. The Truth flew around me faster, until it became a bright light tugging at me and toppling me from where I stood, out into space. Spinning, spinning, through the aeons, I fell far to the ground.
As I lay on the grass, my mother’s voice came down at me and said, “Didn’t I tell you? Now you’ll have no friends. We’re so very disappointed. So very, very, very disappointed.”
“Mother, I’m sorry.” But I couldn’t find my mother no matter how hard I ran through her dark disappointment, darker than nowhere. Until I could run no more. And when I stopped running, before me lay the glass bird, frozen in his tomb of ice. His unblinking eye fixed upon me, his beak open and still.
I wept, “The Truth, you were the last to fly above the earth, and now you’re gone. Who’ll sing me? Who’ll play me? Who’ll free me from humility to be a friend?”
But my questions won’t be answered in this frozen land that is my home. And I fear I never again will hear The Truth or see its beauty. And no one will like me.
-End-


THE SECRET OF WOMEN

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Little Jack sits tall, trying to look powerful, yet inconspicuous, in the pink-flowered, velvet-wallpapered, sorority living room. He’s never met his date. He’ll have to struggle out of the deep sofa when she comes down. But if he stands now, he won’t know how to act while he waits.
The fashion is to wear sweaters and old jeans to show you don’t care, like the boy who sits next to him. Jack wears a suit. He had opened his collar and pulled his tie down an inch but that wasn’t enough, or maybe too much, so he put them back. Now he keeps his chin down.
His date’s name is Faith. Her folks are farmers. Farm girls don’t require explanations. They’ve seen animals. That’s what he’s heard, though he’s never had a women, so it might be he who needs the explanations.
At seven-fifty he struggles out of the sofa, trying not to grunt or to leave gas in the cushion, and walks to the pledge who’s tonight’s phone monitor. He stands at her desk waiting for her to finish her whispered phone snickers. She looks up with a face that says, “What do you want?”
“Jack’s here to see . . . uh, Faith.” Jack always forgets names under pressure.
The pledge resumes her phone snickers. Jack doesn’t know whether she will deliver his message, but he returns to the sofa, not knowing what to do and feeling like a jerk. Everybody heard him forget Faith’s name.
A curvy girl with tight jeans and bare waist, prances down the stairs to obtain maximum bounce from her blouse. Jack’s sofa partner stands, grins, wraps his arm around her waist, puts his middle finger into her naval, and winks at Jack, who winks back as though they’d become partners in some cool conspiracy. Jack hates him, whoever the hell he is.
Everyone lounges and talks, looking natural and at ease. Jack crosses his legs. His sock is frayed. He stands to hide the sock. Somehow, eight o’clock arrives. If Faith doesn’t appear within one minute he’ll leave. Or maybe he will anyway.

-/-
Faith had tried to act like the other girls do before their dates come, bubbly and cool, giggly and mature, whispery and shrill, in control and wild, and very, very special, but it was all a fake and people looked at her funny. Giggly and bubbly don’t work in large girls.
She stands still beside her bed, so as not to mess herself. She closes her eyes and counts seconds, then opens her eyes to see how close her count was. She always is disappointed.
The phone rings. He’s here.
She must make him wait. For his own good. The second hand moves achingly. She takes her millionth look in the mirror. She touches her hair, careful not to move it, brushes her skirt to dry her hand, walks to her door, and waits.
It’s eight. Her hand rests on the knob. She decides she’ll wait as long as she can hold her breath. After fifteen seconds she feels he’s waited enough. No use to be mean. She takes a breath and walks out to the top of the stairs.
When descending stairs, it isn’t cool to look down. She clutches the handrail and descends elegantly, tripping only twice.
Everyone knows whose she is. She wears a matched skirt and sweater and worst, brand new shoes. A fashion malaprop.
Jack glances up, then out the window. He concentrates on school and where his car is parked. Maybe she’ll go away.
She surveys, then comes right to him. “Hi, I’m Faith. We have a date.”
She had recognized him as he had, her. He wonders, could it be the socks? “Oh yah, hi. We sure do have a date, all right. You’re Faith. How’d you know I was me?”
She doesn’t answer, which is worse. He trails several steps behind her toward the door, so it will seem they aren’t together. She’s bigger than him, long nose, angular face, overly voluptuous figure, not ugly, but not pretty, and at this moment Jack is controlled by his extremist mood, in which not pretty equals awful.
He waves at the street. “Car’s there,” vaguely hoping she won’t find it.
“The bilious green one? Where to?”
“Where’d you like?” he says by habit.
“Oh.”
“What’s, `Oh?'”
“You didn’t make plans. The man’s supposed to. I read it somewhere.”
“Look, if you don’t want to . . .”
“Let’s go to a movie,” she smiles, “They have a creature flick at the Avon. Electric sparks, neck bites — all that.”
“Those get me pretty wild.”
“Really? Let me see your teeth.”
He shows her his teeth.
“Remarkable,” she says.
“What is?”
“How did you get your victims’ blood off?”
“I flossed.”
He again hangs a pace back, as they come into the movie and later, as they leave, always hoping no one will know they’re together.
“Hungry?” he’s required to ask.
“Sure. Looking for someone?”
“Junior’s O.K? No, why?”
“Junior’s is good. You keep looking around like you expected someone.”
“No, just looking around,” and he looks around again to demonstrate.
They drive to Junior’s in silence. When he parks she says, “I know what you were doing.” He doesn’t respond, but makes a mental note: Smarter than she looks.
They face each other across the table. Her face continues not to be pretty. But her figure looks good in her sweater.
“Don’t you blink?”
He blinks. “What?”
“You were staring at me,” she laughs.
“I always stare at my victims.”
“Let me see those teeth again. Actually, you were staring at my sweater.”
“I’m a connoisseur of virgin wools.”
“How do you know they’re virgin?”
“I assume the wool is virgin anyway.”
“Virginity’s best in wool.”
They eat and are back in the street by ten. He wonders, what did she mean that `virginity’s best in wool’? Was she saying she’s not a virgin? Or she is a virgin and doesn’t want to stay one? Or was she just being clever? Girls are tricky. Can’t trust them.
“What do you want to do now?” he asks, hoping she’ll suggest something involving her sweater.
“Would you rather take me home?”
“We can stay out a while longer, I guess.”
“Want to walk?”
He catches himself looking around, then answers, “Let’s go for a drive.” Driving is better. Anything can happen in a car. And no one can see them. Perfect.
It’s three minutes to the countryside from the center of town.
“You love your car, don’t you?”
“Actually, I’m in love with my raincoat. My car and I are just good friends.”
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Extraordinarily perceptive.”
“My, you use big words. Do you do that to impress all us farm girls?”
“I know some others. Encyclopedia. Delicatessen. Are you a farm girl?”
“Amazing. Know any more?”
“Don’t have to. Those two get me through life. Knowledge and food. I just throw them in whenever I can. “Like, `Do you sell encyclopedias in your delicatessen?'”
“Who could resist such a line.”
“Never misses. You’re a farm girl?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Where’s your gingham dress?”
“I use it for milking and churning.”
“You really live on a farm?”
“My folks do.”
“Where?”
“Five miles. Want to see it?”
“And you live in that sorority?”
“Where should I live?”
“I mean you could drive to school, easy. Cheaper.”
“Can’t meet any people on a farm, just cows and pigs.”
“That’s all I’ve been meeting lately. Which way?” He looks ahead so as not to see her react to his snide comment.
“Turn right. Nobody’s home.”
He smiles and thinks this could turn out better than he feared. “I’ve never been on a farm. You really have cows?”
“We have cow. We grow mostly corn. Used to have a big farm, but daddy made enough money, so he sold out and bought this little place. Someone else works it. My folks are Paris now.”
“Paris?”
“Farmers go there, too.”
“Sounds like you’re rich. Any pigs?”
“Daddy is rich, I guess. It’s kind of embarrassing, although I wouldn’t want him to give it back. No pigs. Or sheep or mules or llamas.”
“Some farm without llamas. If I were rich I’d brag it all over. No llamas?”
“They chase the goats.”
“You have goats?”
“Nope. Llamas chased them.”
“They’re known for that. Where now?”
“See that light up ahead?”
“No.”
“That’s it”
“It?”
“The place with no light. I told you nobody’s home. Turn in on this road.”
“This is a road? You don’t believe in pavement.”
“Daddy doesn’t drive all that much. Besides, you can just go slow. Farm life is slow. That’s what I love about it.”
“I know what love is.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Love is when your girlfriend farts and you pretend not to notice.”
“Raunchy, but good. I know one. Love is when your boyfriend passes gas and you turn to a third party and say, `Excuse me.'”
“That’s a woman’s approach. I’d turn to the same third party, wrinkle my nose and say, `Jeez, enjoy your lunch?'”
They drive over the deep holes and bottom-scraping bumps for more than a mile. “Nice little place you have here.”
“Few hundred acres. I don’t know how many. That’s all that’s left.”
“Stop here?”
“Yep. Road ends, unless you like driving in corn fields. We walk from here. About fifty yards.”
“Looks the same as the road. Ugh, what was that?”
“Be careful of pies.” “All that from one cow? Tell daddy not to feed them so well. I’ll want new shoes.”
“Use that boot scraper. I’ll get a light.”
“I don’t believe it. A kerosene lantern.”
“We’re old fashioned. We even have a gas TV. We use the lantern when the electricity goes out, which is all the time. Here, I’ll get the real lights.”
As his eyes grow accustomed he looks around at the inside of one of the largest houses he’s ever entered. Lace hangs everywhere, lace draperies, tablecloths, doilies for the backs of chairs, everywhere. “Sort of frilly and girly. Where does your father live?”
“Mom sews.”
“Does mom sleep or eat? Lots of rooms, looks like. So I guess, lots of lace.”
“My brothers are grown up and married now. Want some home-made bread and jam?”
“With bossie’s milk?”
“No, she’s dried out. Just a pet, now. We use store-boughten.”
“Gee, a pet cow. How sophisticated. How long have you lived here?”
“Raspberry?”
“Do you grow raspberries?”
“Mom tends a garden.”
“A garden on a farm?”
“Who knows more about gardening than farmers? Seven years. We came from Ohio.”
“Jam’s good. Let’s just use the kerosene lamp. I liked that.”
“I’m prettier in kerosene light.”
“Maybe you could get your sorority to switch over. It smells funny though. But then, so does your sorority. Something like wet toads.”
“We changed our room deodorizer to `wet toads’ from `old diaper’. Next week we try `barf’. Hope you like it. But I can see there’s no pleasing you.”
“Yes there is, my lovely toad. And you know how.”
“Let me see those teeth again.”
“Is there an upstairs?”
“Yes, that’s what the stairway is for.”
“Cute. How’d you like a fat lip?”
“I already have two. All we toads do. Come on, I’ll show you. Take your berries. Shall we kerosene it?”
“I’m full. Why not. Sort of spooky that way. I think I heard the sound of chains upstairs.”
“Oh, that’s just our crazed killer. We keep him in the closet. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”
“What made him crazed?”
“If you were a harmless killer, wouldn’t that craze you?”
“Reasonable. That’s not your room. I can tell from the toys.”
“No, my brother was the weight lifter. He has muscles bigger than my . . .”
“Astounding.”
“Kindly lift your eyes from my sweater. Bigger than my head, you fool.”
“That small?”
“This is my room. I liked to sit in this window and watch the wheat.”
“Didn’t you say you grow corn?”
“We’re the only ones. Daddy was an individualist. Or is. Everyone else grows wheat. You can see a neighbors farm from here. We’re on a hill sort of, and if you watch the wheat, it’s like a golden river . . .”
“Excuse me, but when you mentioned a golden river . . .”
“Around the corner. Gosh, you have the soul of a poet. The one with the crescent cut in the door. Not really.”
“Hey farm girl, got any corn cobs?” “Sure, use the red one first. Then use the yellow one to see if you need to use the another red one.”
He finds the bathroom and it is laced and curtained, of course. Although she is not pretty, and she is big, she is here and she is built and she wants it and he is here, and no one will see them together, so why not? And in the kerosene light she almost is pretty, too. She probably does not have many dates. So maybe he will do her a favor. And she is rich.
Why is it better with rich girls? Everyone says it is. “What did you mean?” he calls out from the bathroom. “You said I have the soul of a poet, but the way you said it meant you thought I didn’t. Or something like that.”
“Are you poetic?”
“Sure. There once was a man from Adair, who screwed a young girl on the stair. When the bannister . . .”
“Forget it.”
“You don’t like sex?”
“Sex can be O.K. Some, anyway. I just don’t like to hear poems about it.”
“Doing is better.”
“Yes, at the right time with the right person.”
“Is this the right time?” he says, emerging from the bathroom.
“I suppose, but you’re not the right person. Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. Just a dumb joke. You know, joke? You’re nice, real nice in fact, but I don’t know you. Don’t get that castrated look on your face. It wasn’t a put down.”
“Sure. I guess you get a million offers. Phone always rings. Right?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t spoil everything. I didn’t mean . . .”
“What’s to spoil? A movie, a hamburger and a visit to the old homestead? Big deal.”
“I thought we were having fun. Why are you mad?”
He doesn’t know why. Maybe he’s angry asking her. Moneyor no, she’s beneath him. She should have been grateful. It’s complex. He hoped she’d refuse. He wouldn’t have been able to brag about her. So he asked her crudely to assure refusal. But when she refused he felt rejected.
Knowing she’d refuse, he’d prepared his anger. Now his anger has momentum and he can’t shut it off. “Because you think you’re a princess with your money. You’re no princess. Take a look in the mirror. Be thankful for small favors.”
“Must be the smallest favor on campus. No thanks. Get out. Get out of my house.”
“Fine with me. Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
“I am home. I know I’m not pretty. I’m a great big toad, like you said, but is pretty everything? Guys, who needs you? Go away.”
“I mean back to the sorority. Oh sure. Perfect. Now you’re going to cry. Girls must practice tears. Is that supposed to get my sympathy?”
“Sympathy? From you? You’re one of those cold people who can put on the nice guy act, but you don’t care about anyone. I’ll stay here. Go away. I don’t want you. Just get out. Someday you’ll see.”
“No problem. Stay here and go to hell.” He finds the stairs in the dark house, stumbles and almost falls as he goes down.
“Careful,” she says by reflex.
He stamps hard for effect but she says nothing and only when he is just about to slam the door does he hear her say, “Anyway, I already have.” He completes his obligatory door slam and, as his last-word gesture, makes his tires throw mud and gravel as he bumps down the road.
Speeding back to town, he turns on the radio and hearing a song he likes, he beats out the rhythm on the steering wheel. As a whole, it turned out better than expected. No one he knew saw them. Yet . . . she did have her nice ways. Kind of attractive, that big body. Not so bad at all. And one of these days maybe he will do her a favor.

-/-
She wanders around the house and sees nothing to occupy her. She goes back to her room, sits at the window and stares into the night. Her first date in so long and it ends like this. Why did she make that dumb remark? What the girls always say, how true. Men are boobies. He isn’t good-looking. But he made her laugh. She never knew what he might say next. Kind of entertaining, like a movie.
She has no way to get back to the sorority and she feels so embarrassed. She walks to her bed and lies on her back. She imagines making love to him. She imagines dying here and him finding her, and the guilt he’d feel. She takes her blanket and holds it in her arms and legs, and falls asleep.
The next morning she slogs to the road, and hitches a ride back to her sorority. Some of her sorority sisters see her slip in at seven A.M. still dressed in her last night’s clothing. She hears the whispers and giggles as she climbs the stairs. She likes it. Let them think she spent the night entertaining a man. Let them think she’s done things.

-/-
The next day Jack calls the sorority and leaves a message for Faith to call him. She doesn’t.
The day after, he ambles there to see her, but she won’t come down.
He’s surprised and annoyed, but intrigued. Now he has to win. He composes a letter confessing how sorry he is, and could he see her again? That will have to work.
He learns she pinned his letter to the bulletin board under a sign that reads, “A note from Wacky Jackie.”
Jack, as a novice lover, finds his interest turn to teeth-clenching obsession. He can’t be stopped by mere humiliation. Each day he sends a letter containing ever more imaginative and passionate expressions of his undying love. They produce no effect other than as potential bulletin board fodder, which he takes a perverse pride in — though she doesn’t display them.
Weeks pass. He has run out of ideas. His first letters not only praised her qualities in excruciating detail, but portrayed him as deplorable, miserable, wretched, contemptible, and low. He’d read that women like men who act humble, but he begins to wonder whether Faith has any interest in a deplorable, miserable, wretched, contemptible and low man.
Next, humor. He writes a poem that, to his calculations, should elicit some sort of reaction, good or bad, which would be better than the no reaction he suffers now:

Ode To Toad
Of all the friendlies I have knowed,
None compares with my dear Toad.
Not bugs a-crawl nor snakes a-creep,
Can melt my heart like dear barrreeeep.
Lest your affections I inhibit,
I have to say I love your ribbbitt.
This saintly vision before my eyes,
You sitting there and tonguing flies.
I’m a man. I’ve set my goal.
I want to be your tadpole soul.
The bug at the tip of your tongue, Jack.
Incredibly, no reaction. He needs a more scientific plan. He settles under a tree facing the library steps, where all the students like to “congregate to conjugate.,” He watches the boys and girls mix and mill about and he looks for patterns. He conducts his research at least one hour each day, for a week. And he makes a remarkable discovery, which later through life he’ll reveal to many listeners
“Good guys get stiffed. You take a nice, neat, gentlemanly guy. He gets nowhere. It’s the mean, greasy, hoodlum guys, who look like they might do something outrageous, who get the girls. Women are bored. Their lives are too inevitable. They know what’s coming. Marriage. Housework. Babies to talk to. What a drag. So ultimately, all women ask of men is entertainment.”
He decides to test his theory. He sprints home and changes to his jeans, first tearing both knees, and a paint-dripped tee shirt, that he never wears. He greases back his hair and buys mirrored sun glasses with black, race-car frames and red iridescent lenses. Then he strolls back to the library steps and waits for the afternoon crowd.
A heavy, concrete flower pot stands on the low, stone wall surrounding the library. He saunters to the pot, and applying all his strength, forces the pot to tilt and crash onto the sidewalk. The crowd sound clicks off the moment the pot shatters.
He turns his back to the broken pot, leans against the wall and insolently reads a newspaper. Soon the uncombed semi-blond with the black eyebrows, see-through half-blouse and mini-skirt, snakes up to him and mumbles through her bubble gum, “Why’d’ja do it?”
He lifts his eyes, barely visible behind his mirrored sunglasses, and looks through her face with his most menacing scowl. And says nothing.
“We better split,” she says, “before the campus cops grab you. I got a car.”
She reaches for his hand, but he puts his arm around her waist, lets his thumb brush the bottom of her breast and his finger poke in her naval, and swaggers her to her car. He gets in and waits until they reach the first stoplight before he opens the door, steps out and walks away.
“Hey, where you going?” she calls, but he just keeps on walking. Oh, that was too, too cool. Success.
And now for Faith.
He decides to gamble everything on a one-time, all-or-nothing, drop-your-load-and-jump-the-chasm effort. He composes a note and drops it in Faith’s mailbox. It reads, “If you don’t answer, I’ll parade naked in front of your house, and I’ll carry a sign that reads, `HAVE FAITH. THE END IS IN SIGHT.’ I’ll be in jail and we’ll both be in the papers. I mean it.”
Seemingly this is the news she had waited for, because she dashes to his fraternity, explodes into his room where he lies napping, and flings herself onto him.
“Would you have?” she screams. “Would you have? Do it. Please do it. I’m here. I love you. But do it anyway. Please, please, please, please, sugar on it, frosting, malted milk balls, please.” And between screams she kisses him. Scream, kiss, scream kiss.
In time the screams grow less and the kisses grow more, now to be augmented by feeling, wrestling, biting, sucking, snarling, licking and gasping, during which they make love with most of their clothes on and again with most of their clothes off. And this way and that way.
“At least I know what you like,” he says afterward. “Love letters, no. Threats, yes. Woman, thy name is `perversity’. But thanks, I learned a lot.” He tells her his theory of women.
“Interesting philosophy mister but wrongo as regards me. I adored the letters. Cherished the letters. Saved every one. Read each one a thousand times. They’re raggy from refolding. No woman on this planet ever has received such wonderful tributes to her beauty, her personality, her all around good stuff. No man has expressed his love in such passion, in such a variety of plans for a woman’s body, outside and in. I about ruined my underwear. I hardly could wait for the next one. I loved the toad poem.”
“So why wouldn’t you see me?”
“Oh you, you . . . man! Dumb. I thought you learned something. If I saw you, the letters would stop. Forever. I’d never have that again. Don’t you see? Women go to bed praying that once in their empty lives they’ll get one letter like that. And here I was getting one every day. Eat your heart, world.
“But when you threatened to do something so stupid and embarrassing, the party was over. It would be your last play. I knew no matter what happened you’d never write another letter. I figured I better save you from jail, even though, I’d have loved to see you parading buck naked down the street. What a kick. In fact, come to think of it, I’d love to see you buck naked any place,” and she kisses him and does whatever’s appropriate to prepare him for yet another effort.
He doesn’t resist her kisses. Nor does he resist all that follows, the sweetest, gentlest, loveliest, wildest, lunatic afternoon either of them has known.
Nor does he resist the suggestion made two months later, that they should get married, since they already have begun their child. He agrees, calculating that, one: she won’t abort, two: she’d milk him dry in support payments, three: her folks have money, and four, she’s not all that bad-looking. Not really.
One month before his graduation, and one year before hers, Faith waddles down the aisle under a loose, white dress, and Jack smiles at her father, whose lips form the word, “Asshole.”
Long afterward, Jack muses about it all. Breaking the flower pot had attracted a girl of dubious, and therefore desirable, morals. His threat to parade naked had worked with Faith. So had he found the secret? Are women bored and searching for interest in their lives, no matter how brutal? Is that why nice guys never have dates? Or should he accept her explanation about his pretty love letters?
“Aw, what the hell’s the difference,” he says, knowing there is a difference but knowing too, he doesn’t want to learn it.
Life’s O.K. He tries to be a decent husband, according to his own definition. They live well with daddy’s money, and Jack’s does well, too. It’s all country clubs, conspicuous charities and travel to foreign countries, and his private women are rich, young, pretty and discrete.
He and Faith had experienced that one wonderful, incredible, unforgettable day, which is more than most people get. But Faith was right. He never again will send her a love letter nor even say those things she wants to hear.
Not ever again.
-End-


ZOO

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

I have lived forever.
The animals of the zoo have come loose. I try to persuade them back into their cages. But they run mad and savage in the multi-hued mist, and their cages conceal their doors from the innocent. I pray because no else is allowed in this place.
When the first small animals treasoned and spread beyond the while and way, I did not object. So many remained and flowered lovely. But too soon the larger animals scuffled by, rasping rude and past, and now comes the bear. Black and relentless and void of soul, the bear has waited ’til last.
I turn away and step away and flail away, all to deny the beast. I flutter my arms and cry out and fling my pain to its eyes. But I know. The bear comes just for me. I must go, know, no, no.
The bear pursues. Closer. I will find no place. I will not find freedom from this zoo. The bear closes, bringing the torture of its awful claw. My skinny neck rattles for help. No one minds.
I run and hide in sticky, sharp-thorned, formless bushes. They tangle narrow and dark as deeper I go, a snarled passage, wet and thick-webbed. The branches hold my arms and reach up between my legs.
I crawl. The bear follows. The first turn shivers and the next fevers, deeper, dizzy, dazed until I confront the Wall. The bear reaches. The claw extends.
I do not own my voice, or anything. But if I turn within, if I curl silence about me, perhaps the bear will not find me.
Light. The Wall exposes its window. The inside of the basement glares out and reveals the old, ugly, bent one, his fingers ripped naked into talons, he shrivels and types his frenzy down there. He never sees me while he tells the story of the zoo, and his fury makes the whole thing happen.
He shrinks as he types, and as he shrinks he types that someone comes in, so someone comes in. The someone is large and strong and new, and he has a beautiful woman, who paws at his body. The someone blows the now faded, shrunken ghost of the bent one away to dust and down the black hole into the forgotten.
The someone starts to type and as he types the woman dissolves to fog and the someone withers to a blurred and bent old one. He types someone will come, someone large and strong and new, with a beautiful woman, who will blow this old one away and take his place. And someone comes in. The pulse revisits, again and again until the last old man types I will come in.
I stride to the door. It falls before my boot. I stand large and strong and new. A beautiful woman tears at my clothes. I brush the spirit of the old man aside and tower before the typewriter. I shall not submit like the old men. I shall create a different word. I shall unwrap great thoughts and purpose. I shall reach for the sky and grasp the sun. I shall join God and live forever.
But clouds invade my mind and my fingers refuse to wait. Unfair. The paper runs through faster, filling with words. I do not look. I know what these terrible words will say. Still, I scream when I feel my bent finger and long nail. My woman has dissolved. I cannot stop it.
Someone knocks, beating, beating at the door. No matter. I never can tell and he never can believe. I hold my turn and I will not leave. I will not leave. I will not leave my rage. The door falls and the dark hole growls open before me. I cannot see.
Someone comes in.
-End-


MAD JOAN

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

They had seized her at Compiegne. Mortal men of mortal mind had seized her in God’s full view and compliance, and they had brought her to be judged guilty.
As she stood tethered on the pyre, awaiting the torch, she listened for the voice she first had heard at age thirteen.
“Awaken child,” He had said then, “Soon comes the morning of thy existence, for I hast chosen thee.”
“Who speaks?” she had murmured to the darkness.
His voice was a vast whisper, surrounding her and filling her world and trembling her body. “Thy Lord hath received thy prayers and hath seen truth rise up from thy heart to heaven. Thus, hast thee been chosen.”
Still she had seen only darkness. So she had wondered at her emotions. She had felt no fear. Nor even awe. She had felt not the wonder of an encounter with God, but only the spreading, encircling, enveloping warmth of His goodness as it entered her. She had knelt on her bed and had spoken in her thoughts, “Tell me, dear Lord of all, whom I love with my entire existence, tell me.”
And so He had told her.
The noisy crowd came for the spectacle. The delicious elation watching a human writhe and melt and scream in the agony of the flames, drew them from miles distant. They came afoot and by horse and by wagon. They came sober and drunk. They came fearful and brave. And they brought their children to see and to learn and to enjoy.
But the crowd did not exist for Joan. She looked to the sky and saw her memories. “Thou shalt learn the manner of the discipline” He had said. “Thou shalt offer thyself to the journey. Thou shalt see the way and the other-way. Then thou shalt go.”
“Yes Lord, your servant shall pursue thee. Show her thy way and she shall follow.”
But there was no answer, just the darkness and the sense of departed perfection. She remained on her knees in bed until the morning sun cast its first light into her room. Then she rose for her chores.
Most everyone believed she was mad. Even as a shy, young child, she seemed to listen to voices others could not hear. She smiled and nodded at inappropriate times, or erupted into silent tears. She mumbled in tongues. She wrapped her arms around herself and turned in slow circles and crooned strange, discordant chants. She whispered questions to the air and waited for answers. She busied herself with mysterious projects. She arranged stones in circles. She fashioned branches and leaves into small havens into which she would secretly snuggle.
A few said she was cursed and travelled with the devil. But most felt she was mad. She grew without obvious friends, other than the creatures of the field and the forest, though she seemed happy enough in her timid way. She was a mouse hiding in the corner, always there yet never quite there.
It was her father Jacque, the plowman, who some days after her visit from the Lord, noticed the changes in her. His shy child had become sure and determined. Now she read and re-read the bible aloud and strictly lived its Word. Now she spoke forcefully of virtue and of fate. Now she gave her moments to others’ care and demanded that others do the same.
She attracted the people’s attention with her bold manner, both in voice and in step. She called upon the heavens for favors and they were granted. The people saw. On her father’s fields the rains arrived promptly and departed promptly, and the lands around her rippled green and strong and fine. And the people saw. She lived each day in melody and in verse, and all was goodness and mercy about her. And the people followed her way, though many were frightened of her and believed her mad.
After three years, she almost forgot how her new way had begun. So she was surprised when He came again to her, this time as a summer cloud that descended from the sky, rolled down the hills and surrounded her. “Child. It is thy time.”
She spoke to the vapor, “But am I ready Lord? So soon, Lord? Am I ready for thy will?”
“Thy innocence shall deliver Orleans from its oppressors and thou shalt carry the Dauphin to his destiny.”
“Yet can it be Lord, that thou hast chosen this frail one for such a task?” Life had become so delicate and fine, she shuddered at the thought of leaving it to engage in war. And such a sacrifice as this for the weakling Dauphin, whom she neither loved nor even respected? Her thoughts begged that He would yet choose another.
“I hath created thee as I chose, neither more nor less. Fear not but me. None are frail behind the sword and the shield of the Lord. So hath I written thus for all history, then and to be. Thou art the one, beloved child. Thou art the one. Only thou.”

-/-The Dominican climbed upon the logs to console her with his gentle words. Joan needed none and would hear none. She said, “I thank thee for thy good heart, gentle soul. But I hath heard the pure, honest Word of the Lord. Thus the base words of man hold no meaning to me. But do this, if it pleases thee. Thy crucifix, carry it high. Reach it well above the coming flames, that I may see the Lord with my last eyes.” The Dominican nodded, climbed back down, and turning his face from her to hide his own tears of shame and grief, held the crucifix aloft. The crowd shouted and laughed in agitation. “Now,” they cried, “now, now, now.” The executioner approached, carrying his torch.

-/-
Her mother found Joan bundling her possessions for travel, and began to implore Joan to stay. “Thou art too young, my dear one. Surely your Lord dost understand this.” She held Joan to her bosom, hoping through touch to flow sense and reason into her daughter.
“Our Lord dost understand all, darling mother. He is the all-seeing Father.”
“Then curse the father who wouldst dispatch his infant daughter into men’s battle.”
Joan wept with her mother. “Nay, curse the infant daughter who dost refuse her father any virtuous thing.” Then she kissed her mother and her brothers and set off to save the Dauphin.
God’s way was difficult and filled with forebodings. Some of those to whom Joan told of her conversations with God, believed her a witch, and on several occasions her life came into exhausting jeopardy. Each time, she called out, “Dear Lord, guide me now. Your servant cannot continue. She drowns in her own fears and doubts and loneliness. She shall die before she completes thy mission.”
And each time Joan called, He answered. “There is none to fear for I am the Lord, thy God, Ruler of the Universe. I am thy sword and thy shield. There is none to doubt, as I am thy truth and thy way. There is none to desire, as I am thy all, and there is none to long for, as I am together with thee, and thou shalt dwell amidst my love forever.” She heard and believed these Words that renewed her.
Arriving alone at Vaucouleurs, a fortress still true to the Dauphin, Joan met failure. The captain there, doubted the story of this sixteen-year-old girl who claimed to speak with God and who said she was going to crown the Dauphin, so he sent her away.
“Oh Father, I hast failed all. I hast abandoned my family, and travelled this fool’s road. I hast failed them who loved me and I hast failed the God who sent me. What shall I become, Lord, what shall I become?”
“Thou art whom thee hast always been and always shall be, the child and issue of the Lord. Listen and know the seven stages of the Lord’s way. Without evil, there can be no good. Without struggle, good cannot overcome evil. Without trial there can be no struggle. Without doubt there can be no trial. Without hope, there can be no doubt. Without triumph, there can be no hope. And without the Lord, there can be no triumph. Thus, shall ye triumph, for thee must pass through the first six stages to find the seventh. Go now, and return anew.”
Six months later she returned to Vaucouleurs. This time her fresh-faced beauty and enthusiasm and honesty persuaded the captain, and he arranged for her to be accompanied through enemy territory to Chinon, where lived the Dauphin.
Disguised as a man, she strode along the road. The six soldiers escorting her struggled to maintain her pace. Her confidence and resolve had been renewed by the numerous reassurances she had received from the Lord and by her success with the captain at Vaucouleurs.
Now the castle of Chinon came into view. Within, hid the Dauphin. Joan marched across the moat bridge, undaunted by the high stone walls before her. Though her fists were small, when she struck them upon the great wooden doors a vast thunder roared and echoed throughout the castle, as though a thousand cannon had exploded.
They of the Dauphin cranked open the doors to admit this powerful stranger, but seeing it was a girl, they seized her and sent her guardian soldiers away. Joan was flung down into dark confinement, where she was chained against a wall.

-/-
The executioner climbed to her, his face and head covered in a black leather mask, and his torch held aloft. He lay the fire before her feet and stepped down to admire what he had done.
The flames approached her, tentative at first, like frightened children, then gaining confidence and impudence they advanced. Joan heard their laughter crackle and felt the searing heat of their breath, all amidst the shouts of the crowd.
The flames touched her feet. She could see through the smoke to the crucifix held high by the Dominican. “What for thee?” she cried to it. “What for thee?”

-/-
For two days Joan had occupied the Dauphin’s dungeon with such loud prayer and laughing assurance as to terrify her guards. She promised salvation to those who would release her and agonizing hell to those who bound her. Word of her pronouncements crept up to the Dauphin, who was persuaded to give her audience. When she entered the great hall, still dressed in the rags of her confinement, she strode toward the throne. After a few steps, though she never had seen the Dauphin, nor seen even a likeness of him, her heart knew this man seated there was not he.
To test her claims of heavenly guidance, the Dauphin had hidden amongst his attendants. But Joan turned straight to him. “Thou art the Dauphin. Cower not from any person, for only God can decide thy future and God hath decided.” Then she told him he would favor her intention to destroy the siege of Orleans and lead him to his coronation at Riems.
The Dauphin did not answer, so frightened was he. Rather he ordered his theologians to test her resolve and her piety. For three weeks they presented her with the questions of men, and for three weeks she gave them the answers of God. Finally, the Dauphin, desperate for any relief in a failing war, even the aid of a mad woman, bade her to go forth in God’s venture.
And so she did.
The Dauphin’s enemies fell before her sword and her bearing. She stood alone at the enemies walls, flourished her weapon and dared any to defy the Lord. Those who did, died. The rest surrendered to this girl.
Each night she lay in her restless bed, and wondering at what pain she had caused, wept for those she had killed in the Lord’s name. “Who is this person?” she wondered, “who buries her fear beneath the cover of her bible, then cringes beneath the cover of her bed? Who is this weak child-woman, who hath given life to those who follow her, and taken life from those who oppose? Dare she be as God, the giver and the taker? Does she kill of His desire, or of hers? Who is this Joan?”
The countryside rallied to her, as her courage and God’s shield put the English to route. Joan stalked through the bloody land, ignored her own wounds and the doubts of others and carried with her the timid Dauphin.
In July, came the triumph God had created. Joan brought the Dauphin to Riems for his coronation and consecration. She stood aside for this hallowed ceremony, to allow the full light of the people’s adoration to shine upon the Dauphin. Afterward, for the first time, she knelt before him and addressed him as king. In gratitude for all, the Dauphin issued orders ennobling Joan and the family she had not seen all these past years.
Thus, though she did not know it then, would God’s mission end for her, and she began her lonely walk down the far side of the mountain. With the Dauphin as her ruler, Joan stopped speaking to God. She continued to assist the Dauphin in his battles against the English, but without God’s help, she could not prevail. After some defeats, she was captured and unfairly tried by the English. She saw in her trial, that the English too called God’s name often.

-/-
As the flames ate her feet, the once-festive crowd was silenced and cowed by her agonies and her cries of, “What for thee?” Her grief and loneliness filled their souls with dread. Into each mind came His words, “For thee shall live in thine own mercy and perish in thine own fire.” Some rushed forward to extinguish the blaze surrounding Joan. But their realization came too late. The flames were upon her.
The Dominican called to her, “They shall makest of thee a saint.”
“How shall they knowest?” she wept.
“God shall tell them.”
“And He?” she moaned, half delirious, “How shall He knowest?”
“He knowest all,” came the Dominican’s voice, through the sizzling smoke. And in overpowering echo, she felt God’s mighty voice speak into her. “Thy Lord knowest all.”
“Then,” she gasped her final from within the fire, “He knowest she was ne’er a saint, nor ever wished it. She hoped only to be Joan.”
“And so thou art, child of mine. So thou art. Welcome to my kingdom. Mine arms open to thee. The seventh stage is thine.”

-End-


DRAW

Short story by
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
phyllisrgarber@yahoo.com

This version reproduced November 12, 2007

Copyright 1996, 1998, 2001, 2007 Rodger Malcolm Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this collection of short stories may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written consent of Rodger Malcolm Mitchell.

Draw:
1. To produce a likeness.
2. To eviscerate.
3. To attract.
4. To bring out a weapon.
5. To leave a game undecided.

CHAPTER 1 — Judd
Father had killed often.
It hadn’t mattered. At first, killing had been Father’s way of business. Later, killing became Father’s way of life. But it hadn’t mattered to you.
Father hadn’t told you of it, and though you may have known, you didn’t dare to ask. Then Father died, never having spoken of it.
Later, his People told you and told you well. So it didn’t die with Father. It lives in your nightly dream where you wander lost through rooms, while a million mirrors stare at you and ask you questions and make demands. Mirrors. Questions. Demands. And now the killing matters.
You are Judd, twenty-six and so much swarms around you. Father decreed you next in line, ahead of your older brother, Stow. Why? Stow, strong and brutal, would do so much better.
Yet Father has spoken and it is done.
Now his People expect you to be Father. Though you never see Father in your mirrors, you must do this. Father knows. His People know. They’re watching.
You sit on this bench beside Father’s grave, bent against the swirling snow. You lean forward and brush snow from the brass picture frame set into Father’s headstone. Father’s eyes, in life so fierce, look gentle now, serene, almost innocent. The killing he did hasn’t lingered in those eyes.
Sunlight dazzles you, glaring through snowy mist that glistens like your room-of-mirrors dream. This world feels no more real than do those reflections.
You cannot see back to the road through the brilliance, nor even to the nearby graves. You surrender to the brightness and close your eyes. Chill seeps into you. Hard grains of wind-tossed snow graze the back of your neck. Your shivers tumble the grains deep inside your fur collar.
Snow piles against you. You doze from emotional fatigue. Your surprised eyes open to a dimmed sky. You rise and brush snow from your hair and from your collar. The bench has wet your pants … like when you were Father’s little boy. He didn’t like his son to wet his pants.
“I’m sorry, Father, we love you.” Your words slip into the wind and are gone, but the ambivalence remains.
You close the picture-frame cover. You stand and trudge back through the cold, toward the car. Gravestones hunch, black on their lee, and tree trunks and bushes bend, black and white in this divided world.
The looming, shadow form of the large man emerges from the limousine and thrusts aside the rear door. He hadn’t come down to the grave, though it contains his father, too. He hadn’t given Father love nor respect. Father knew. Stow had no love nor respect to give. That’s why, for many years, Father showed him more love. To balance things. Yet, in the end, Father had chosen you.
The rear door waits, so you enter and sit in the cold wetness of your pants. The large man pushes in after you, shaking the car and filling it with his darkness. You look up at him. His hate surrounds you like a thick smell, the hate of brother at brother. Genesis.
You look at him. “Did you call?” you whisper.
He stares forward. “Sure. Verified.” Little more than a grunt.
Submissive looks at dominant. Dominant looks up and away. Father taught that. Stow learned. You couldn’t.
“Of course. You always know. Tell me exactly.” You turn to the driver and speak through the glass, “Drive … please.” You shouldn’t say “please” to the driver.
The large man continues his scowl ahead. “He cut a deal. He’ll testify. Then goodbye, he’s invisible. Witness protection.”
“What will he tell?” Your hand strays to the large man’s sleeve. Don’t do that. Weakness. The baby brother. You remove it. That too, says “weakness.” Everything seems to. “What will …”
He shrugs. “He knows everything. He’ll tell everything.”
The car doesn’t move. Blowing snow rasps like sand against the roof. “He needn’t.” Your index finger points to the large man. Your hand quivers, thin beside his wide fist. “He can tell the meaningless, the insubstantial. But he can forget. He can obtain his immunity and still protect his friends. We would forget. Perhaps he’ll forget, too.”
The large man doesn’t respond. Such is his response to you. Your finger scratches at his sleeve. “Are you sure?”
He lifts his arm away, his eyes unmoving. “It goes down this month. He’ll tell the whole story. He’ll spit on our father’s grave. Spit on us. He’ll open his belly and spill all he has in him.”
“Why … without reason? The crime isn’t just to injure us, but to injure us without reason.” You hear your voice rising in a whine, so you lower it. “I don’t under…”
“Our father killed his brother.”
“That? It was forever ago. They weren’t yet even our age. We weren’t born. Now Father lies dead. Does nothing end? You’re sure about this?”
The large man turns his eyes on you. They thrust pain into you. You resist, but they penetrate with his voice. “We got a girl in his office. She heard him talk to his lawyer.”
“A girl.” You show him your contempt, puny against his. “In his office. In his bed, you mean. A whore. We’ve come to this? Bed news? A whore speaks and our world obeys?”
The car hasn’t moved. This driver insults you. You pretend not to notice. The corners of the large man’s mouth remain hard. He’s had whores. How do they bear his huge body crushing them, his drooling face covering their mouths, the painful things he does to them? Through their agony they tell him they love him. Whores will say anything. “Whores will say anything. How do you …”
He covers your words. “A smart whore. Bed news is good news,” he laughs without humor.
You look out at snow. It’s fallen deep now and Father’s grave lies hidden among the others. He lived walking on graves. You went out to him walking on graves. Your footsteps have disappeared. Father too, has disappeared, though not his footsteps.
“You must talk to him. Tell him of loyalty and friendship. Remind him how we love him, how we call him, `Uncle.’ He put his arm around us and called us `my little serious faces.’ Still, even today. Remind him of the years. Loyalty and friendship. And love. Remind …”
“Sure. Love, loyalty, `serious faces.’ All that.”
“Tell him he needn’t injure us. He’ll understand. He was Father’s friend. That incident years ago … Father did what was required. There were business reasons. It was done mercifully, without anger, without pain.”
The car doesn’t move. Damn you driver. Ignore him? Remind him? “Remind him. If he refuses you, I’ll talk with him. He loves me. He’s told me many times.”
The large man says nothing. The car’s grown cold from standing idle. You brush fog from the window and see everything white, like fresh, waiting sheets. “I asked you to drive . . . please.” No, not please. Damn you, remember it. Believe it.
The driver’s eyes go to the mirror. The large man nods. The car starts and creeps along the cemetery road. You squint through the window. Snow continues, heavier. The cemetery lies pure and calm and white. You resolve never to return, though you know you never can leave.
The car reaches the exit and honks and slithers into Chicago’s traffic. The large man leans against you, trapping your arm against your side. You’d have to struggle to remove it. You won’t give him the satisfaction. You sigh, feigning comfort, and say nothing.
The streets ahead wait, dirty and slippery and difficult. You let the large man direct the driver, because you don’t know the route. You debate about that, but it’s easier this way. And the driver might not obey you.

CHAPTER 2 – The Sparrow
The voice speaks from the office shadows, “You do good work, Sparrow.”
Work? No need to answer shadows.
“But it’s time to relax. Come on over here,” the shadow voice of the lawyer says what’s always said.
Move toward the voice. Hands pull at shoulders. Lips push against lips. Chin stubble scrapes. Cigarette breath penetrates. “You like working for me, don’t you Sparrow? But you know, all work and no play … Tonight, we party. You’ll be able to write one of your little poems about this.”

They had a party for us children
and the parents
drank and laughed loud mostly
daddy gave hugs and kisses.
Then they divided up the children.
The room has a floor and a couch and a desk and a chair. Which one tonight? Whichever.
The lawyer’s voice, “And I know the part you like best, don’t I.”
Best?
With the heat turned down for the night, the room has chilled. Some have been hot, cold, sunny, dark, everything, even windy. The body for all seasons. They always laugh, but then they say, `What are you laughing at?’
The lawyer’s hands release the shoulders. The lawyer unzips and moves to the chair. So, it’ll be the chair.
Out the window, downtown lights blur through falling snow. Far away neon oozes through like blood on cotton. The window stands open a crack, and frosted air slices through, screaming and cold.

Cold room and naked wrists
tied to the bed and the misters smelled
bad pushing in hurt and something screams.
The lawyer sits and pulls the hand. The voice says, “Start down there. And go slow, my little poet. I want this to last.” The room has gone to ice and the bare floor bites the knees. A hand presses the head down into the hot smell. “No teeth,” the voice says.
Drowning in hot smell. Drowning. Don’t breathe. People argue far down on the street. The garbage truck roars and screeches. The car alarm sounds. Someone calls nothing for no reason. The building makes sounds, different from other buildings. For no reason.
What is the lawyer’s name? Has the lawyer a name? Tonight brings the last time. Again. They say the lawyer dies soon. Or the lawyer’s client. Something dies soon. Maybe both. Can’t breathe. Drowning.

Another mister started and another
says it’s supposed to hurt
the first time relax
and enjoy it finished soon
a bloody towel.
Finished soon. Something dies soon. What dies? What is, to die? The client of the lawyer dies soon. The car alarm has stopped. Street arguing has stopped. The calling for no reason has stopped.

Mister had electric fingers
shut in the scream comes blackness
no teeth daddy said don’t tell anyone
you’re a good girl and beautiful
on daddy’s bed remember to say your prayers.
The lawyer’s hands slide under the shoulders and pull up to sit astride the lawyer’s lap. Silence sneaks in through shadows. The building has quieted. Just the “nuh, nuh, nuh” of the lawyer’s breathing.

Other parties and sparrow tried to be
good, daddy didn’t like tears
don’t, go away,
the sparrow’s tears
sent Daddy away.
Forever.
“Damn you. What the hell is this? Why didn’t you tell me you had your period? Damn you, bitch. Look at this mess. How the hell am I going to go home? Get a damn towel.”
Home? It’s finished. The sparrow did as the People asked and as the lawyer asked and as everyone asked and soon the client of the lawyer will die.

After
the sparrow sat folded on the bed and didn’t speak
with words.
Home. Memory fades. The shower washes away the rest. Tomorrow, whenever that comes, the sparrow almost will remember the lawyer or the lawyer’s client who soon will die.

She had brought home silver stars for reading
and for obedience she kept them
on her dresser where she could see them every day
she played ring around the rosie with daddy
gave her a china rose.
All fall down.The stars are lost, but the china rose remains on the dresser. Waiting for daddy.

CHAPTER 3 – Carson
It’s good to own a woods.
I drive to Schiller Park forest preserve, to my farthest parking area. March has brought me its first warm breeze. Thank you, March. Yesterday’s whiteness left in one day and the sky, paling from its hard winter blue, pleases me with its hushed spring color. Oh, the pleasure spring gives me.
No one parks here yet to disturb me. I lift my drawing pad and colored pencils and folding chair from my trunk, and lug them in through stalks of trees that plan to bud soon. Around and down the hill paved with last year’s moss and leaves, I shuffle to one of my quiet places. Here.
I nestle deep into these soft evergreen bushes, where I can see my gentle stream and not be seen. Soon they’ll enter, my animals of this forest. Animals are good. They accept the face and fate of things. They don’t judge or demand or lie like people. Animals understand the indecency of lies. They’ll come to have me render their portraits.
I’ve drawn all the years of my life. Paints, pencils, crayons, my wet finger on my mirror — anything that makes my mark on something. I draw secrets. I draw the subtlety of a cloudless sky. I draw my toes. I draw a stubborn soap bubble, yesterday’s underwear, animals. And me, Carson. I draw many pictures of me.
There’s a reason, though I don’t quite know what it is, but I feel better, safer, with each completed picture of me. As though they, whoever “they” is, can’t hurt me if there are enough pictures of me.
No one draws better. Oh, maybe Dali. Maybe not. But no one else. And Dali’s dead.
So are my folks. I don’t remember my father, but I remember my mother. She always said, “Be careful.” Her voice made me see demons and darkness. She warned me of people — the shootings, kidnappings, violence. Animals live their lives to a pattern. People have no pattern. They destroy at whim. Mother understood that.
I also remember her saying, “Food doesn’t taste the way it did.” I didn’t grasp what she mean until I found her in her wheel chair. The doctor said, “Malnutrition.” She must have stopped eating. I hadn’t noticed. And so that was it.
I wish I hadn’t felt relief. What kind of son was I? Though I doubt I could have saved her, I should have known to try.
I save my drawings. None are sold or destroyed or given away. No one understands. The drawings are solid and permanent. The whole is contained. Not like people. Art is reality. Everything has its place.
The morning sun winks brightness through the leaves. Its rays are like towers of light rising through the mist, straight to the sky. Cool forest air touches my skin. The breeze teases shadow lines into patterns and comes smelling of good mud and fresh green mold. The stream entertains me with chime sounds as this between-season day forms and colors. Form and color are the only reality I accept.
I squat to watch minnows circle through roots, slipping in shadows and ripples where the current rests. They lived through the winter. So did I. The minnows swim as though engaged in some big thing. I could change their world with my foot. To minnows, all people are gods, even me.
The water surface is toned by reflections of the sky and my face. Tree branches twist above me, black laced against the light. I see the shapes of pebbles at my feet, the texture of earth, the shifting patterns of sun on the ground.
I come here because others don’t. There’s no path for them, no tables, no space to throw their reckless ball, nor to build their destroying fire nor to spread their smothering blankets. Isolation is my most comforting companion. It’s natural and good to create and to be alone. Like God must.
I finish this drawing and start another. The frog appears on my paper, every skin-fold, each toe nail, each droplet of water, reflecting and refracting. The rock, the stream, the liquid ripples, all real. More than real. Perfect.
Suddenly, something. A sound stumbles down from the hill. My pencils shape hill shadows. The sound, again. Deer? If I’ve seen them before, I’ll recognize their patterns.
The sound cracks louder. Not deer. Deer make silent sounds.
Louder. Some person invades my place? Loud. More than one? Up to the right I see shadows through the trees. Two silhouettes clamber down, into the broken light at the steam. One man is large. His massive form sucks light from the air. The small man holds his hands behind him, tied with a long, yellow rope that trails him.
The large man wears a shiny, black slicker and carries a silver shovel that reflects sun into my eyes. He grips the tied man by the elbow. They stop where the sunlight squeezes through, the hard shaft illuminating them. The tied man is made to stand in the stream. I draw the angry shadows falling across the two men’s faces.
The tied man falls to his knees in the stream, mindless of the icy water creeping up his legs. His words drift to me. “Why, why, why …?”
The large man leans his shovel against the tree. He knots the rope end and throws it over a tree limb, then pulls down on the knot. The tied man cries out as he’s hauled to his feet. Another pull and the tied man lifts into the air, his arms twisting up behind him. He dangles, turning above the water. His white face hangs from his neck like a daffodil as it flickers through patches of light.
I draw the large man winding the end of the rope around the tree trunk. His face, I’ve seen it somewhere. Where? It’s a face easily remembered and easily drawn.
He returns, and grasps the tied man’s ankles. And pulls down. The tied man’s arms wrench far up behind him until they point straight over his head. His shoulders have disappeared. He screams and gasps many words. ” …please … anything … why?… “
The large man makes no sound. He grins and his metal tooth shines like the shovel when it catches sun. I draw his nose bent on his dim, ponderous face.
Sounds pour from the tied man. He contorts and kicks, spraying water all about. His legs and body create a moving moire against the tree trunks behind him. Dappled light dances on the tied man as though he were a performing harlequin.
The forest has quieted except for the light breeze winding through, and the rippling stream and the tied man. His voice comes fast and high, like birds chattering or like squirrels chasing through trees. There are no birds however, nor squirrels. They’ve gone. Useless cruelty is alien to them and they have no interest. Only humans are fascinated by torture.
The large man sits on a fallen log. His knees support his elbows. He puffs his cigar and dips a slender branch into the stream and blows smoke rings and jabs his finger through them. But the large man doesn’t speak, nor even look at the tied man twisting and sobbing behind him.
He takes his time finishing his cigar, then throws the stub into the stream. As he watches it float and bob past my hiding place, I see his terrible eyes.
He rises and stretches and yawns and scratches, and walks to the tied man. He unbuckles the tied man’s belt and opens his zipper and takes his trousers and underwear to his ankles. The tied man’s legs sparkle of sweat below his dark triangle. Sparkles are difficult to draw, because their beauty is in their motion. But I can draw them. Better than anyone.
The large man reaches into his pocket. He takes out and unfolds a long knife that flashes wild lights through the forest. I shrink into my bushes to deceive the searching rays.
The large man steps in front of the tied man, his shoes disappearing into the water, and points his knife at the tied man. He reaches the knife into the triangle. Steam emerges from the triangle. The tied man’s scream comes long and high. “Mommy-y-y-y-y-y-y-y.” He twists his head. He kicks at phantoms. Vomit bubbles between his lips.
The large man’s shoulders and elbows move in slow, steady rhythm. Again the tied man screams, and again, again, until his voice grows soft, like the call of distant geese carried on the spring air. And his kicking grows soft too, his legs are supple white stems that quiver in the breeze.
The large man unbuttons the tied man’s shirt, and pulls it apart to expose the white stomach rapidly vibrating. The large man continues his work in unhurried ease. His knife goes in and out, in and out. The water fills with shapes and turns dark. Clouds and shadows in the gentle stream drift past me. The minnows hide, not caring that a god dies.
The front of the large man’s slicker dulls. The air thickens. Nothing can breathe.
When some place especially sensitive is touched, the tied man kicks feebly. The large man continues. He never varies his pace, a dispassionate killing machine.
At last the tied man no longer kicks, but hangs still and empty. No matter what the large man does.
The large man goes for the shovel and returns. He stabs the soft earth of the stream bank. He ignores the tied man swaying from the rope. Beneath the tied man’s shirt hangs frayed blackness. The tied man’s face is white, and though the eyes are fixed open now and calm, the wide mouth screams its agony in silence.
The digging goes quickly and soon the hole becomes large enough. The large man unwinds the rope from the tree trunk and takes the tied man’s body down and sits it on the ground. The body’s arms remain twisted over its head. The large man forces the arms back down behind it before laying it on its back. He rolls the wet body to the hole. Black earth covers the skin and enters the open eyes and mouth. I expect to hear the tied man choking, but of course, he won’t.
One more push and the tied man drops into the hole. The large man gathers the rest of the tied man on his shovel and throws that in, too. He fills the hole with wet mud, and places branches on top.
He squats and washes his hands and shovel and slicker and knife in the stream. He stands and looks around, his black eyes visible even in the blackness of his face. His eyes search the bushes. He seems to sense me watching.
He walks toward me, squinting at me. I should have crouched deeper into the bushes. It’s too late now. I stay still.
He comes closer. The cigar smell in his clothing finds me. He pushes aside bushes, looking, looking. I’ve heard that owls think they’re invisible, and won’t move when predators stalk them. I am an owl.
He’s right above me now. I hear his rough breathing. The evil of him gags me, engulfs me. I desperately want to cough, to move, to run.
Now he turns and walks away. He steps over the tied man’s grave and clambers up the hill. I don’t move. I hear the large man crushing last year’s leaves and branches, as he grows more distant.
The large man is gone now, and the tied man is gone, and the screams are gone. I wait. In time, dusk settles around me. I hear only the stream. But I won’t leave.
When my forest becomes black and the stars blink through, I stand, close my drawing pad and my chair, and carry them up and out to my car. I move a quickly as I can, because I expect any moment to feel the large man’s hands on my throat and his knife in my back.
I leap into my car and start it and throw gravel as I drive away. I pass a heavy, black car with its antenna bent. Its motor awakens and now its lights reveal the hulking trees, then it too creeps out behind me. I see in my mirror how the quiet night returns to the welcoming arms of my forest. I drive faster.
My mind flits. I remember things well. I remember my mother, wasted in her wheel chair. I remember I put her in a home and didn’t tend her myself as I should have. And I remember everything of today. But if I choose, I can forget too, everything but mothers sadness when I’d leave after a too-rare visit, and what she’d always tell me. “Careful, careful.” She gave me so much more love than I gave her. That never leaves me.
I glance again to my mirror, but I don’t see the forest or thankfully, the black car.

CHAPTER 4 – JuddYou sit here, heading your long table. Not yours, really. Father’s. Always, Father’s. You should buy another table if you feel that way. But not yet. You don’t know whether you can.
“Have a seat. Have some lunch. Excellent pasta. I’ll have the girl bring some to you.” You summon the empty-faced girl. “You.” She needs no name.
The large man remains standing above you. The girl glances to him and he shakes his head. The girl scurries from the room. You see these things. You know meanings. She obeys Stow. So far.
Father had advised you, “If you want them to obey, give them orders they’ll follow.” You never were sure how to interpret it. Did Father mean you, or was it a general rule? Was he referring to your weakness, or were there orders even Father wouldn’t give? What kind of orders could those be? What order could no one obey? Perhaps the order to love.
The large man faces the window, covering the light. “Taken care of.”
“Good. You spoke with him? You told him of friends and family and injuring us without reason? You told him how we love him and …?”
“Sure, sure. I told him.”
“Good. So? What did he say?”
“So, he didn’t listen.”
“Didn’t? Terrible. I believed he’d reconsider. I expected him to understand, to remember who we are. Perhaps I should see him. Shake his hand, reassure him of our friendship. So you’re certain he’ll talk to the …?”
“Talk?” The large man laughs, flashing his gold tooth. “No, he won’t talk. Your name was his last word.”
“Last? You mean …? I didn’t want this. I told you I’d talk to him. What’ve you done?”
“No time. Tomorrow it would’ve started. My butt was on the line, too.”
“So unnecessary. Why did he show us such cruelty? We never injured him. Uncle, we are sorry.” You inhale and let air stream out between your lips. But it’s important to appear strong. Or sharks will eat you. Father told you that. “So, finished. See to his wife and son. Give them what they need. Allow them to live in dignity. You’ll do this?”
Does the large man nod? It seems so. You don’t care about the wife and children. It’s just something to command. Father said to be in command you must give commands. You return calmness to your voice. “Any problems?”
“No problems. Nothing that can’t be handled.”
“Handled?” You look up at the large man, who continues to stare out the window. Insolence. He’ll force you to beg it from him. Say nothing. He who waits, wins.
You crave to ask, “What does `handled’ mean?” But you wait.
Eventually the large man says, “There was someone in the woods.”
Good. You forced him to speak first. A victory. You realize what he said. “Someone? Who? Did they see?” He who asks, wins.
The large man pretends indifference. Does he feel fear as you do? Or has fear become lost in that massive chest? Listen for the voice of fear.
“Not likely. A guy. Artist or something. Had a drawing pad. Didn’t notice his car until after. I waited. He came out later. He went straight home. That’s it. Followed him. If he’d of seen anything, he’d of run to the cops. But I’ll keep an eye on it. I know where he lives and where he works.” The large man turns toward the hall. His voice didn’t seem afraid. And he did say many words. Long explanations show fear. Father said this.
“Damn, damn, damn.” You mustn’t allow him his smugness. You push your plate away. “Where is that girl? God, we despise these problems. So serious. So dangerous. So unnecessary.”
The large man stops. He keeps his back to you and says, “Done. Finished. The end. Don’t make something out of nothing. Eat your desert, wipe your chin and don’t worry. Leave the worrying to me.” He takes two steps toward the door, turns back and laughs, “Boss,” then leaves the house.
You stand and go before the hall mirror. There’s nothing on your chin. Anger twists in you. “I still don’t see you, Father. I’ll never be like you.”
You turn from the mirror and drift into the parlor and sit in your large, leather chair. Not yours, the chair too, remains Father’s. You hear his voice in the squeak of its leather. You smell him. You see him slouching here.
At the nod of his head, worlds crashed. Once, you believed his power was held in the chair. But now you’re here, and you don’t feel it. You feel only weakness.
You call the empty-faced girl and take her to the couch and empty your anger into her. On this mean afternoon, she delivers her body to you, not to Stow, and for those few unsatisfying moments you won’t think of what happened in the woods.
This evening, the empty-faced girl will serve you dinner. After dinner, you’ll take her again, then give her too muchmoney and tell her not to return. You feel virtuous. If she stayed too long she’d learn things dangerous to her. And this way, Stow won’t have her in his hands.

CHAPTER 5 – The SparrowIt begins again. Display the smile that hints at things beyond. No thought or plan past that. It’s all been done so often. Seduction by rote. “Thanks sir, for staying after hours. It’s difficult to get away during the day.”
The advertising agency male says, “As I told you honey, we don’t need …
“Though the given name’s Amy …” The clerk at Unemployment, in gratitude for favors given, went through the records to find any female who recently left the agency’s biggest competitor. An `Amy Jordan’ worked in account service. So now, the sparrow is `Amy Jordan.’ They could check on that, if they need a reference. “… Though the name is ‘Amy,’ daddy used the name, `sparrow.’ Please say, `sparrow.'” Like daddy did.
“Sure, O.K. Sparrow. Whatever’s good enough for daddy, is good enough for me.”
“Yes, whatever’s good enough for daddy …”
“Anyhow, we really don’t have a job for you. Fact is, we’ve let people go. Budgets. But you said it was urgent … survival of the agency and all. So tell me honey, what’s the big urgent deal, and why couldn’t you talk to me on the phone?”
“The job with the other agency provided opportunities to see its plans.” The story. The job involved new business strategies, the competitor’s scheme to steal this agency’s largest client. Hint and suggest. Prod the male up each hill, to reveal one higher. Tell the thousand and one tales.
Then, when it’s time, “…And … oh dear, there is so much more to tell. The important things, really. But it’s grown late. Unsafe for a female to go home alone at this hour.” The agency male has a car. Research pre-determined this. The agency male will offer to drive.
“No problem, Sparrow. I’ll drive you home.”
The agency male drives to the apartment.
“Please come up.” The male will come up, not for more business information, but for the thoughts and desires that have been sown in the male’s mind.
Take the arm. Offer the smile. Divide the wine. During the hour given, the male agrees to the hire, is rewarded, and leaves during the sparrow’s pretended sleep.
The sparrow rises in darkness and steps into the shower. The agency male probably won’t die, though so many have. But soap and steam will scour the male away tonight. Or maybe not. Whatever. There always will be another.
Dry while looking away from the mirror, and change sheets and slide in. Tomorrow will arrive early for the new job at the agency. An artist works there and the sparrow will do with the artist what is to be done, and then like the others, the artist will die. All fall down.
Whatever.

CHAPTER 6 – CarsonMy woods chase my mind.
I’ve prepared dinner, but now, rather than eating, I stir the food on my plate into patterns. I see faces there. I see faces in everything, but these faces scream. I see the ragged black drip, drip, drip into the stream. I see clouds drift past me in the water, the life of the tied man gliding by and away.
I realize I won’t be able to forget. I’ve discovered beauty in pain. It attracts the mind. It draws the soul. The torture fascinated me. The screams changed the colors and forms of the forest. The twisting of the tied man was like the ripples that twist the stream. Agony is reality. I can draw it.
What’s happened to me? What do I feel now, fear of being taken into them, the grotesque masses of people who revel in pain? Lead me not to temptation. “Be careful,” mother said from her wheel chair. “Be careful.”
I open my pad. There the tied man’s head tilts back. The mouth opens wide. The knife enters. It was done gracefully, almost … beautifully. Pleasure molds the large man’s face.
I sit here at my drawing table and rub the smooth sides of my felt-tipped pens and smell the ink. A good and perfect smell. Lassitude creeps over me. I want to sleep. I want to forget. I want to escape guilt. Why guilt? For not detesting the torture I saw? For not being careful? For letting mother die in her wheel chair?
I go to my phone. Twice, I dial. Twice, I dial wrong. The third time a woman says, “Police,” in a harsh, cruel voice. That’s how those people are. Most people are. Is that true?
I hold the phone away so Harsh Voice won’t hear my breathing. Harsh Voice says, “Hello. Police. What do you need?” and again, “Hello? Police. Anyone there?”
I lower my phone. The voice says, “Hello, is anybody …?” And that’s how my night ends.
The morning sun pesters me. I face away, but I feel unease, so I decide to wake. I still wear yesterday’s clothes, even my shoes. I discover I’ve slept on my couch.
Mud from my shoes has dried and fallen to crumbs on my cushions. I’ve carried the woods into my house. A trickle of fear enters my throat.
I undress and drop my clothes out of sight down the laundry chute. I shower and shave and bury yesterday beneath scented, blue after-shave and fresh clothes.
My work awaits me. I draw story boards, those comic strips that plot action in television commercials. I’m known as the best. Any action, any mood, I draw quickly and perfectly. At my previous agency I asked if, when my story boards no longer were needed, I could take them home. They said, “No.” That day, I left. My new agency recognizes my needs.
Our largest client manufactures candy, and today my agency will present six story boards. I drew them all, fifty panels rendered perfectly in one day. No other artist could have done it so well. I’ll attend the meeting. My agency knows the client will want changes and knows I’ll draw them as the client wants.
Here we are. The men wear dark jackets and red ties and the beautiful young woman, whom I’ve not seen before, she too dresses in jacket and tie. For me, jeans, thin at my knee, and my hand painted tee shirt. I’m the artist.
I find the foot of the conference table, away from people. My client will occupy the head, and the others cluster there, whispering in anticipation. Before the client arrives, I fill two pages in my pad.
The client and his chauffeur enter, and the client strides to the tan cork wall where my storyboards are pinned. The agency people say, “Good morning,” but he doesn’t answer. He lights a cigarette while he inspects my story boards. He alone smokes. His smoke drifts over my storyboards and the people at that end of the table. No one dares cough.
He doesn’t look at people. “Morning,” he mumbles. Then he sits.
His chauffeur stands near the door. My client wears a tie but no jacket, and the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled, exposing bony arms, and he has very little time. He sits gray-faced and wicked, and he thrusts his chin, and his every sentence begins, “I think ….” A late-weaned man, always he places emphasis on the first word. “I think the boy should be a girl.” “I think the car should be a horse.” “I think the girl should be twins.”
Agency people repeat the client’s words to me, as though his words, like his smoke, don’t reach to my end of the table. “The boy should be a girl.” “The car should be a horse.” “The girl should be twins.” As I draw each new panel, which I lay on the table, the beautiful young woman stands, takes the panel in one hand and a glass tack in another and walks through the smoke to the cork wall and impales each panel to the wall.
Glass tacks glint and distract in the smoky light, but no one seems to mind, because nothing can distract from the beautiful young woman’s long perfect legs, made even longer and more perfect by her short skirt.
My client’s eyes follow the beautiful young woman’s legs. Then he winks at one man, who smiles and winks back. Any man receiving the client’s wink will be treated well the rest of the day, though not necessarily beyond.
I draw that too, the winking, the burnished smiles, the beautiful young woman’s legs. After three hours, I’ve completed six pages of drawings and new panels. No one speaks to me except to repeat the client’s words.
The meeting ends when the client rises and his chauffeur opens the door. As the door closes some say “Good morning,” and some say “Goodbye” and after, they allow themselves to cough from the smoke, then debate which words of greeting and farewell they will use next time. I say nothing. I’m not involved.
I return to my cubicle. I have no tasks, but I remain until five o’clock. No one visits. The beautiful young woman lingers in my mind. I wonder why. I fill my time drawing her.
Five. My pad and pencil box slide into my art case. The five-twenty train has less crowd here on the upper level. Some short woman sits beside me. Her face, pale and shiny and peaceful, ignores the graying on her upper lip that betrays where she shaves. I superimpose her over previous drawings, allowing them to show through. The visual irony of two unrelated drawings, always pleases me.
The woman leans to see her portrait. She whispers, “Oh my God.” Her eyes are round. Her teeth are separated. Her lipstick is orange. Orange isn’t good. She should lighten it, so I do, on my drawing, creating a better her.
She gathers her coat and hurries to the lower level, out of my sight. But I remember her. Before my train stops, I’ve drawn several portraits of her. As I close my pad, I’m surprised to see I’ve drawn fright in the shadows of her face. I drew it, so it must have been there. Whatever I draw is real.
A black car waits outside the station parking lot. It looks like the same car I saw in the woods, but I can’t be sure. Many cars are black and this one is too far away, and it drives away as I go to my car.
Foreboding shivers through me. I know why, though I pretend to myself I don’t. I know somewhere behind me lurks a black car, like a dark evil in the woods.

CHAPTER 7 – Judd”But Stow, what time did he leave?” You pace before the mirror, pretending not to look at it. You must appear strong to command sharks. Father said it.
The large man sits back, covering the chair and beyond, and pulls on his wet cigar. “Time?” Again, his insolence.
“Yes Stow, time. Time of day. Hour. What time did the artist leave the park? Was it …?”
“What’s the difference? Six-thirty, maybe. Told you, it’s nothing. He wasn’t anywhere near us. Anyhow, we followed him. So we’re on it. And nothing. Forget it.”
You must remain controlled. Don’t allow him to see your anger. Emotion is weakness. `Show emotion only for effect, but never feel it.’ Father said. “Nothing? It was dark? Stow, when he left, it was dark? That is what we …”
Irritation rises to a threat in his voice. “Sure, right, dark. Do you have a point? I’ve got a couple things to do.” Rings of smoke emerge in a file from his black mouth, and each ring breaks at a thrust of his hand. He begins to rise.
You pause. Take your breath. Rehearse your words. “Stow tell me …” You pull back on the bow. “… why …” and now you let fly the arrow. “… why would an artist stay in the woods after dark?”
The large man sits back, takes his cigar from his mouth and inspects its ragged end. Wet tobacco flakes stick to his lips. You wait, allowing him to speak. “Packing up? Lost? Fell asleep? Who the hell knows.”
You hear tension. The first edge of apprehension. Your arrow has hit. Now you must twist it. “Yes, who the hell knows? Lost, packing, or … perhaps hiding? Did that occur to you? Hiding. Consider this. He saw you and became so frightened he hid until he was sure you …?”
Stow stands. Menace curls his lip. “Look, we watched him. He went straight home. Stayed all night. Next morning, went to work. If he’d of seen anything he’d of called the cops. They’d of come over, or he’d of gone there. But he didn’t go to the cops. They didn’t come to him. So he saw nothing. He’s O.K … O.K?”
Your heart hammers. “He’s O.K? The worst are those who are O.K. An O.K. man killed our older brother. Remember? Our brother, in his own basement, while upstairs his wife and children trusted the future. An O.K. man who had eaten dinner there with …”
“Enough. I’ll take care of it. Done.”
You watch your fist press the table. Take care of it? You understand meanings. “No. This isn’t what I want. You know how I feel about unnecessary stuff. Especially to citizens. Increases the danger. The police don’t care about deceased People. But kill a civilian and the sky falls. Continue to follow him. Learn whom he meets. But don’t hurt him. Search his house when he is away. Determine if this artist saw or even drew something we won’t appreciate. If he did, then you may eliminate him. But until then, no civilians for the ten o’clock news. And don’t …” You suck in your breath. “… blunder this time.”
You watch his teeth clench around his cigar. He steps at you and looks down at you and reveals cigar-stained teeth. “Sure thing, boss,” he laughs. You knew he would laugh, but it could have been done more skillfully, more fearfully. It was an unconvincing laugh. You’ve taken the first step.
You look out the window. The large man, entering his car, glances toward you. You move back behind the curtain. Though you feel progress, you aren’t yet ready to confront his eyes. But soon, Father. Soon. And when you do, only one of Father’s sons will survive.

CHAPTER 8 – Carson and the SparrowThis morning I attend another client meeting. This client says, “I think …,” while I draw. He is less wealthy. He has no chauffeur. His bright checked shirt disturbs this room dulled by dark jackets. He responds to “Good mornings” and his, “I think …,” accents the second word.
Yesterday’s beautiful young woman is here again, pencilling notes. She touches my mind. I feel her presence drift across to me. Though she doesn’t look at me, the color tingeing her cheeks and the tilt of her head and the blink of her eyes tell me she feels me, too.
Her black hair and dark lipstick match her tie and her suit and her frilled and filled, sheer blouse. I draw her in pieces, the sweet helix of her ear, the straight line of her nose, gentle curves in her long hair, her tender chin, the pucker of her lips. I draw each from angles, then combine the parts into her whole, wonderful face. I shake inside.
The meeting ends. All leave but the beautiful young woman and me. She writes, bending to her work. The frilled front of her blouse rubs the table. She purses her lips in concentration.
I tilt my chair back to draw in my lap. It’s time to leave, but I find myself debating it. I can’t stop watching the front of her blouse rub back and forth against the table. The room has filled with her. Every wall and corner disappear in the tone and tint of her. I drift to the sweep of her manner, to the arch and the bend and turn of her. I can’t focus. I see her as liquid color behind gauze. She saturates me.

The artist won’t talk first. It hasn’t spoken in two meetings. Bring the eyes up with surprise in the face and voice. “Oh, sorry …” Whisper. Don’t frighten the artist. “… didn’t realize there was …” And smile demurely. Males pursue demure. Like geisha. “… weren’t introduced.” Go to the artist. Slowly. Innocently.
She stands. I’m drawn to the long lines of her legs, rising to her skirt and under. Only a benevolent god could create lines like those.
She’s coming to me. Why? She extends her hand to me. I’m supposed to do something. She speaks. Her voice sounds low, coming as though from a distance.

“Say hello to `Sparrow.’ New employee. Just started yesterday. That was rare, wasn’t it? Two client meetings in the first two days. The Account Supervisor arranged it.”
I wonder how her hand feels. It’s round and small. Child-like. I’d like to touch it. But I know my hands are wet. Her glasses sit large on her face. They make her dark eyes look intense. Her sheer blouse doesn’t quite tell what hides beneath. She blushes. I’ve embarrassed her somehow. And me. What ceremony of words is required?

“The artist is well known. Actually sort of famous around here.” The artist looks down and packs pencils, one by one into slots. Smile at the drawing pad. Talk art. “Oh, it’s like looking in a mirror. How beautiful. Not the face itself … the drawings. It’s often said the artist is a genius.”
She reaches for my pad. I close it. Why did I do that? Rude. But if my train is missed, I’ll have to eat dinner late. I’ll have less time after, for drawing. My evening will be ruined. No, that isn’t it at all. Who cares about the train? I’m frightened. That’s reality. No, am I? Yes. But of what? Of her. Or something. Of how I feel. Like when I saw my first Dali. Why do I feel this? Insanity at first sight.

The hand moved too quickly. But don’t bring it back. Float it where it is, like befriending an animal. Let the artist sniff at it. Here, artist, sniff the hand. “Sorry. Artists shouldn’t be asked to accept judgment from ignorance. This hand writes poetry it won’t let people see. They won’t understand the poems though they will criticize.” Good. The artist is intrigued. Stops packing and sits motionless, but still looking at the table. “So of course the artist doesn’t let people look at its work.” Eyes stay down. This artist, different, yet a man like the others. So, not different? Whatever.
We’re alone here, she and I, but I’m not afraid. “But I’m not afraid.”

Its response begins. “Afraid?”
Why did I say `afraid.’ Is that what I meant? “I meant, I’m not afraid they won’t like my pictures.” Try to sit still and not fidget. What should I do about her hand? She seems to understand things. “They’ll say they like my pictures. Everyone says it.” Now she’ll think I’m conceited. But it’s true, everyone says it. I keep saying stupid things. And my voice sounds so loud. It echoes from the walls, it booms like the bellow of a beast.

Don’t move. Don’t touch. “Lucky. Not lucky that people like the work. Lucky to do work people like. Understand?”
“They don’t know.” There’s so much in my mind and all I give her are stupid comments. I can’t look at her face. One peek. No, she’s looking at me. I’m acting like a child. Like I’ve never seen a beautiful woman before. I haven’t, not one like her.
What does she want? What should I understand? “Understand what?”

It whispers to the table. Almost funny. Funny? What is `funny’? Strange thought. “Isn’t that … funny, to feel the same way. Poems should be hidden. But they need to be read, too.” Come on artist, bring up those eyes. “So they’re sent to magazines under a pseudonym. Isn’t that dumb?” It clears its throat. But no words emerge. Will it curl into the fetal position next? Try shock treatment. “Well, anyway, if there will be no showing of the artist’s pictures, goodbye.” Well, well. It pushes the pad here. “Oh, thanks. Truly.”
She makes me uncomfortable, yet I don’t want her to leave. Actually it isn’t she who makes me uncomfortable. I do it to myself. She sits beside me. She opens my cover with her finger tips, as though my pad were fragile. She studies my pictures, leaning close, Japanese style. With her eyes on my art, I can look at her, the bow of her neck, how her index finger guides her eyes, the color of her cheeks, the shape of her lips.

Linger on each drawing. The artist will watch for that. Now look up, but not at. Doesn’t like eye-contact, this citizen. “The artists feelings are understood …”
Males all are attracted to understanding. Later they disdain it as weakness.
The table wants polishing. My finger traces patterns of color in the wax film. Tonight I’ll produce the effect, maybe with my chalk. That’s the wonder of my art. I can do anything there. And nothing here.

” … and why none of these pictures ever are sold. They’re too good to sell. What if the buyer didn’t love them?” Understanding and love, so valuable, yet males try to obtain them free.
My finger skids on the table and leaves my streak behind. I can control colors by moving my head. “You understand?” God, she makes me squint from the brightness of her. Why is she talking to me. To me? She said something about love. Love? “Love?”

“Of course. The poet gives birth to the poem, and some voice says it doesn’t like it. The poet is damaged. The poet shows it to someone else and they say they like it, but they don’t. The poet knows. They’ve ruined the poet’s child.” First tiny steps. Now to keep it talking.
My finger on the table sketches her without her glasses, without her jacket, without her tie. My breath comes short. She shows her poems and people injure her. I feel a rush of anger at anyone who would hurt her. “Then why show …?”

A question. Questions beg for continuation. “Why does the poet show poems? Why risk it? In art, truth is an illusion, so unworthy praise can bring the illusion of pain. An artist needs … and despises … its audience and the praise.”
“You write …” The upright lace collar of her blouse makes shadow patterns on her chin. If I drew only the patterns, her chin would emerge. ” … for praise?” The question has no meaning for me. I don’t care about the answer. I just want to hear her voice brush over me, again.

“The poems come in dreams. A mere stenographer writes them. Where should the praise go? Daddy said, `Good girl … you are beautiful.’ An attack with meager praise.” It stands?
Time’s late. I’ll miss my last uncrowded train and have to sit squeezed among people. I’d like to touch your hand, Sparrow. I turn away. My train. Just let me leave. If I stay I’ll say something stupid. “My train …” When I get home I’ll draw you.

“This reluctance, is it the room? Client talk has tainted the room. This art is too fine for this room. Is that silly?” Speak artist, say something.
The cork wall blurs. Every day my art is pinned there, impaled, wounded. My clients babble, “I think … I think …,” and my story boards are redrawn and stabbed and forgotten. The pins remain, piercing my story boards … piercing me. Endless piercing. “No, not silly.” My legs stand me up. My hands open my case to accept my drawing pad. My fingers zip it around. I don’t want to go. Please Sparrow, keep me here with you.

Stand close and use the urgent voice. “Artist, some poems must be read. Some art must be revealed. But not here.” It’s moving to the door. Lower the voice. “O.K, the words will be said. Come over tonight. Carry in dinner. Don’t say `No,’ because this was hard to say.”
How strange, the way she always calls me, `Artist.’ But pleasing, somehow. The artist of me always has been freer, stronger, less afraid, than the me of me. I look to the wall again. I have everything in my case. I’ve already walked to the door and I’m about to open it. Everything’s done, but I can’t leave. My arms almost can feel her. “I want …” to touch you. God, I almost said it.

It was about to say something. Smile at the floor. Breathe and square the shoulders and look up to the artist’s eyes. Close the gap, but not too near. “Please?”
My plans for tonight …? I’ll go home. Get into my pajamas. I’ll search for something in my freezer and eat and wash my dishes and go upstairs to draw. And by nine I’ll get sleepy and flop into my bed and wake at four and draw until six. And I won’t have to talk to anyone the whole time. But I want to go to your apartment. “… I suppose.”

“Is that a `yes?’ Great. It’s in Evanston.” No eye contact. The artist lives in the town next door, Wilmette. The planned convenience. “Chinese?” Smile and keep looking away. “But dutch treat, O.K?”
“If that makes you feel better.” Was I sarcastic? It seemed cleverer than it came out. I better go, so I won’t need to say more. “O.K, I’ll … just go now.”

“Bring the latest art work, what’s been done in the last few days. That will say who the artist is, not who the artist was.”
“See you later.” My turn-away feels awkward. I have to think about moving each leg, each muscle in each leg, like directing a puppet, awkward and stiff and unnatural. The door opens harder than I remember. I have to tug at it. She watches me. I escape into the hall. As the door closes, her voice follows me out, “Goodbye, artist. Remember to bring the latest artwork.”
“Yes, of course … Sparrow.” Sparrow.
The latest artwork.
Sparrow.

CHAPTER 9 – Judd”Thank you Judd … sir, for seeing me.”
“Of course.” You pretend you don’t know why she has come. You pretend you haven’t been aroused by your anticipation of this meeting. “You always are welcome in our home.”
“I’m coming for my husband. I hoped …”
“Yes?” As always, she wears her skirt high above her knee, while her sweater is cut low and tight and she overfills it well. “For your husband? But he isn’t here.”
“I mean, not for him. Just … you know what …”
“You mean, `on behalf of.’ Please, step into my parlor. Tell me what we can do for `uncle.'”
“He’s gone. I mean, he hasn’t come home, you know. He hasn’t called. He doesn’t do that, stay away without calling. He’s a good man, a dependable man. I’m sort of worried. Very worried, you know.”
“Yes, I know. A good man.”
“I think maybe he’s, well … I hope just sort of hiding. I don’t mean hiding. Why would he need to hide? Maybe he thinks he’s got to. I hope I’m not, you know, too late. Can you help …?”
“Hiding? Too late? How would I be able to help?” You spread your hands, palms-up. “Perhaps he found some … well you, of all women, have seen how men are.” Her eyes wander in confusion for she doesn’t realize the insult. Her thoughts stay in their narrow channel.
“You’ve known each other a really long time. You even call him, you know, `uncle.’ It’s … he loves you. You’re his `serious faces,’ you and Stow. There’s so much love between you. I love you, too. We all love you. So I came. Because I love you and he loves you, too.”
“Yes …” Smile? No. Keep your eyes hard. Make her uncertain. You’re glad she wore that sweater. You focus your eyes on it to show her what you are thinking. She smiles and thrusts her chest. She feels she is succeeding. You finish your sentence. “… he did.”
“Did?” Her eyes open wide. “Did? Do you mean … Is he …?”
“He always did call us that. `Serious face’. In affection. Please, sit.” Calm. Smooth. You enjoy your intentional miscommunication.
She sits and leans her sweater to you. “I know I’m new to the family. They didn’t like me, my being twenty years younger than his last wife, and how I dress and all, and what I used to do for a living. So O.K, but I didn’t hide it from him. He loved me anyhow. And I gave him what he wanted. His first wife didn’t. So he’s given me love and loyalty. Judd, do you see? He’s a loyal man. He never would hurt anyone he loves. Like me. Like you. We both …”
“Of course, a loyal man. He never will hurt me.” You feel excitement watching your hints attempt to penetrate her gauzy mind. This control feels like sex. Better, actually.
Her voice rises. “I heard you’re angry at him. People tell lies. Something about business. I don’t know. He never talks business. Can you believe it? I don’t know what he does, and I don’t ask. That’s how closed-mouth he is. He doesn’t even tell his wife. Do you see what…?”
Yes, you see. You see her sweater. You see how she crosses her legs to force her skirt up her thigh. “Yes, I see.” She smiles and recrosses her legs. You see she doesn’t wear underwear. “You needn’t be so curious about mere rumors. Curiosity killed the pussy … cat.”
Your words bore into her and control her. She begins to sob, but without tears. “Please Judd, don’t hurt him. He won’t tell anything. He’d sooner die in jail. He’s a good man. A loyal man. I said that, didn’t I?”
She leans farther forward and puts her hand on your knee. You put your hand on hers. It all plays as meaningful. “Of course he is. I don’t doubt it. But, what is there to tell?”
“I guess … I mean, I don’t know. He’d be mad if he heard I was here. I had to do something. You know? I love the family. The women call me, “tramp,” “gold digger” and all. They don’t understand what a man needs. I do. I understand and I care. And I love you all. I’m part of you. I never had a family until you.”
Finally, tears. They slide down her cheeks. Impressive. You never would be able to produce tears on cue. Some movie stars do it by thinking sad thoughts. What sad thoughts does she use now? “Have you spoken with your lawyers?” She has. Stow told us. Her eyes blink. She is transparent as air.
“Lawyers? Why should I? I’m just his woman, his wife. I dress for him. I undress for him. What would I know? He tells me nothing. I don’t have anything for any lawyers. If you had a wife, you’d understand. I mean, I’m sorry …”
Her eyes flick down and to the right. The creative pose. She lies poorly. She knows much. She said she came for her husband, but she came for herself. To save her own life. You have that power, to save her life. She’s lovely. Yet now she lies. “Your lawyers might have told you not to speak to me.”
“I wouldn’t listen … if they did.”
You stand. She stands facing close to you. You see what must happen, now and later. Nausea climbs in your throat. There is no way this can unhappen. Why do you care? But you do. “Well, I’ll see what I can do.” Next she’ll beg.
“Please, Judd, don’t send me away. I’ll do anything to save him. Tell me you won’t hurt him, please. Anything.”
She presses her face against your chest, and the sobs shaking her seem almost real. You keep your eyes up, away. You don’t wish this. You can save her or not. The burden of a god’s power. Don’t comfort her with a hug. She should run away, now. You should tell her that. She takes both your hands in hers and looks at you. Just go. Run.
“Anything Judd. I know that you … like me. I feel the same. More. I love you. Don’t hurt him. I’m scared. I understand how things go. If he did something bad, he has to be punished. But if there’s mercy in your heart, I ask for it. I’ll give you anything. Let me show you my love as I’ve wanted to for so long, and you show me your mercy. Don’t hurt me, and I’ll give you what you want … Judd?”
She uses her beauty, the one technique she knows. She says, `…he has to be punished.’ She asks mercy only for herself. You look at her. When she slipped into the family, she was the tramp they all said. But she was blond and sexy and giggling and fun, part naive, part clever. No room felt lonely having her in it. Her lies were harmless. Not meant to deceive but to entertain. She wanted too much to be liked, and in the wanting she failed.
She was the only one your age. She was vibrant amid the stone women — the stooped, black-scarved, mustached, asexual, bitter, gossiping women their husbands, being men, had to cheat on.
When she came to the family, she didn’t conceal that many men had sampled her. Then she did only for her husband. And he did for her, though not only. It was the best bargain either could find. But over the months she asked too much and learned too much and hinted too much. She discovered secrets. She didn’t see danger. Now she is here. This tramp. This liar. This sly innocent. This child frightened at seeing reality, wishing to make it go away.
And you are God. You don’t want to hurt her. What can you do? You’re a helpless God.
“Judd? Will you promise you won’t hurt him?”
It’s too late for her lies, too late for her to run, too late for her. You walk to the parlor door and close it and lock it and return to her and take her shoulders. “And if I promise not to hurt him, can you promise he won’t speak to the authorities?”
She turns her seductive smile on you. “Yes. I promise. He won’t say anything. I give you my word …” she touches her tongue to her teeth, “… and anything else you want.”
It’s done. If somehow her answer could have been different … If there would be some reason, something to believe … But any wisp of doubt has evaporated. Had she been surprised or puzzled about `authorities,’ or even had she said, `I’ll talk with him,’ you might have tried to believe. But her answer, so quick and sure and confident, proves she knows. And she lies. And when she learns what has happened to her husband, she will tell, just as he was planning to do.
Weariness speaks in your voice. You pause every few words. The breath has left you. “So? … the innocent and unknowing wife? … you have this power? You speak for … your husband? You make this decision? … without knowing what I’m talking about? … without even asking him?”
She did this, not you. She came here. Dressed like that. Soliciting you. Begging you. Threatening you with sweet promises. Forcing you.
Her mouth opens and closes and her eyes dance, as realizing her error she searches for her response. Your hands slide up her shoulders to her neck and bring her face to yours. Your thumbs squeeze against her throat. You watch her eyes open in fear. “Judd, no …”
You have obligations. Father didn’t enjoy this. Often he suffered. But he did what had to be done. To strangers, to friends, even to people he loved. All the terrible obligations and regrets. Father was forced to be strong. You must be strong, too.
She twists and struggles, and the word, “Please,” squeezes out as her knees sag. Her neck feels slender and soft. Her life fades under your hands. This awful power. This delicious power.
Your teeth grind. You feel the urge to crush her tender throat. What have you become? She cannot fight you. You squeeze tighter. Her face contorts. Her eyes accuse. You want this.
You release her throat and let her fall gasping to her knees. You feel your heart pounding. You try to calm your breathing. “Very well, I give you this promise. I won’t hurt him. But you must do something for me.”
From the floor she looks up at you. Surprise and relief come to her eyes. She coughs and rubs her neck. “Yes, yes. I will. Tell me what you want.” Hope, first replaced by terror, now has returned. You control her thoughts, her emotions, her life. You control everything. Yet everything controls you, because you have but one path.
You sit and put on your smile. That must frighten her, to see your out-of-context smile. You lace your fingers behind your head and lean back and let your legs stretch wide as you slouch deep into Father’s leather chair. She made the decision to come here. She made the decision to tempt you and to lie to you. She gave you no options.
You can do this without guilt. She’ll be gone soon, so nothing that happens now will matter. You’ll have regrets enough. Why add to those regrets, why endure her face and body in your mind, when it doesn’t matter? And you do want her. Once, when Stow had growled, “I’d like a half hour with her,” a jolt of excitement and horror ran through you. It was what you wanted, too.
“The offer you made. Anything I want? Anything?”
“Yes Judd, for you, anything.”
“We want you to take off your clothing. I want you to kneel and beg me to take you. I want you to take me in your mouth. I want you to give me your body. Will you do that to save your husband?”
She smiles. “I have feelings for you, Judd. I always wanted to make love to you, too. Very much. I’m sure you knew …”
“Enough talk. Will you do it?”
She stands and looks around the room, starts toward the door, then turns back to you. “Where?”
“Here.” You point to the floor.
She grins and comes to you, and true happiness lights her face as she reaches for her skirt zipper.

CHAPTER 10 – Carson and the SparrowI knew the train would be crowded.
I’ve taken out my pencils but I haven’t opened my pad. Instead I sit and stare out my window. A man sleeps across the aisle. I haven’t examined the placement of his eyes nor the shape of his nose nor the color of his skin. I turn away and I can’t remember his face. My attention won’t hold still. My thoughts won’t clear. I’m dazed inside a stranger’s body.
The conductor’s shout, “Wilmette,” doesn’t penetrate and I almost miss my stop. I’m half off the train when I need to run back to pick up my pad, then jump from the train as the doors close.
The parking lot. My car needs washing. I’d planned to wash it today. Too late. But she won’t see it. But what if we drive somewhere? We won’t. I wipe the passenger seat with my handkerchief, just in case.
My home. Two stories of white wood and green shutters. The shadow of my chimney touches my driveway. Next week, the shadow won’t reach that far. I try to fix in my mind the exact colors of my grass in sun and in shadow. Next month, for the higher sun, the contrast will be deeper. How beautiful, the realities of art.
Upstairs. In two bedrooms, cabinets line the walls. Each has twenty, flat drawers. Everything is dated and organized. This drawer holds photos. Others hold my drawings.
I open the three-years-ago drawer and take out several pads, and leaf through them and put them back. No, I won’t select anything special for her. That’d seem as though I didn’t trust my latest work. I resist doing what she asked, as though to demonstrate to me my independence. But she was right. My latest is my best. I go downstairs to the pad I worked on today.
I phone the Chinese take-out. “Ready in twenty minutes,” they say. Fifty items on their menu, and always ready in twenty minutes. When the apocalypse comes, China will be ready in twenty minutes.
I wait. I draw her profile on a napkin. I draw mine facing hers. I fold the napkin, bringing our profiles nose to nose. I crumple the napkin, then smooth it and look at it, then crumple it again and throw it in my trash can.
I haven’t had many women, just two — or three if I count the time I was fourteen and she was older and I’m not sure it happened completely or at all. These women were not perfect. When I was with them, I’d found myself studying their skin, the stray lines and moles and pock marks and pores. They were subjects. I felt for them no more than I feel when I study the frog in the pond.
Now I see Sparrow, her long legs, her waist, her breasts, her face, all perfect.
As I leave, I think tonight when I return, I’ll destroy the crumpled napkin so no one ever will see.
All Chinese food smells and tastes the same, no matter what I order. It’s good only while I’m hungry, but afterward it never leaves me feeling good.
I drive slowly so as not to miss her building or tip the containers. There it’s. She’d described it, “Old, red brick that has a soft, mushy look, as though the brick were tired.” The poet in her would say that. Poets can empathize with brick.
A small building, three floors, one apartment on each floor. I park and walk into her outer foyer. Stucco walls are pale yellow. Three brass mailboxes display last names on plastic labels. White bell buttons protrude beneath. I inspect the last names, realizing I’ve forgotten hers, looking for a clue. Not even an “S” first initial. Did Sparrow even tell me her last name? I don’t know which button to push. I could push them all. Stupid.
Maybe I should just leave. I feel some relief in that thought. I turn away, open the outside door and step through.
The buzzer sounds. I return, and before the buzzer stops, I open the inner door. Her voice says, “Come on up. Top floor. Is the artist is in good shape? Nothing comes easy here.”
Her sweatshirt stops above her knees and hangs so loose I feel her nakedness beneath it. Her feet are small and round and smooth, without veins, like her child’s hands. And she still looks beautiful. Even more so.

“Made it. Didn’t know which bell to ring? Thought about that and tried to call. Phone’s unlisted. Does the artist hide from creditors?” Slow it. Too much pitch. Look away.
She looks away from me. Her shyness reminds me of my forest animals. Like deer. Why are shy women more attractive? “Hiding …?”

“Just kidding. Saw the car drive up. Not waiting in the window or anything. Just sort of noticed.” Hint at interest. They like hints, if not too subtle. Males don’t understand subtle.
I come in and close the door. “Why would anyone list their home phone?” Again, stupid words. I hook the chain, though I’ve no reason to other than it’s hanging there.
I hand her the food cartons. “Don’t spill.” She takes the food to the kitchen.

“Already has. Check the car later. Eat in the dining room. Special occasion. Better mood, there. Poets even eat in mood.”
Her apartment has the unlit, mysterious atmosphere of a hooded face. The deep green dining room waits to my left. Brown paper lace, protecting the large table, is ornamented by flatware of mixed patterns and black plastic plates. A dusty, moth-ball smell reminds me of my grandmother’s apartment, and feels wrong here. Much feels wrong here. How I feel, feels wrong here. Attracted, yet afraid.
She has placed on the table a small vase containing a china rose, so white it would burn my finger to touch it. I mumble, “I guess I should have brought flowers for the occasion.”

“This is better. This china rose may not live, but it never will die. An artist should understand.” The artist, from what world does it come? Surely not this one. The other males reach and take. The artist hides behind a wall of drawing paper. “But sit in the living room, until this gunk gets put into bowls. White or red?”
White or red bowls? Am I supposed to know, because I’m an artist? “White. Red … conflicts with the walls … you decide.” I walk into the living room.
Walls, moldings, everything suffers a thick, heavy, deadness. Somber, deep-gray paint has the rounded look of many layers. No pictures, nothing interrupts the mood. The wood floor has a line showing a past rug. The dense, rust-colored couch beneath fat black cushions, the dark-wood coffee table, the awkward bronze floor lamp, the unplugged television set on its wheeled cart, all seem transient, as though put here yesterday rather than lived among. They’re cheap but not worn. They don’t belong to this apartment and they don’t belong to this woman.
She comes holding two juice glasses and two bottles of wine, one white and one red. I’m an idiot. “Red or white,” meant wine, not bowls. My comment that red conflicts with the walls sounds even dumber referring to wine. I sit to one side of the couch, the idiot that I am. The couch surrenders to me, like I’m falling into a pile of leaves.

Other males would sprawl in the middle, and spread their arms. But the artist sits crouched in the corner. And the eyes, how they search. The apartment puzzles the artist. It sniffs at the air. It senses. It wonders. Answer its unspoken question. “A couple months. It’s not great, but it’s affordable.”
She sets bottles and glasses on the coffee table. The red is unopened, but the white is well used. She sits at the other end of the couch, far from me. I don’t know what to do so I inspect a bottle. “I don’t want to drink.”

Why not? Frightened? “What else to drink? Anything, so long as it’s water or diet cola, slightly flat.” Stay light. It likes females pleasant and shy. Females? Maybe a high school crush. Maybe another or two. Surely not more. White won’t last. Pour a glass for the sparrow. Finish the bottle. Or not. Whatever. Raise the glass in a toast. “Special occasion.” Was that said already? “No trouble finding this place? Good, the pictures. Just one pad? The most recent?”
“It’s enough.” Did I sound curt? I’m always saying what I don’t mean.

Look at the pictures now. That’s the purpose. But there’s time. What’s there will be there. Why rush? “Might as well eat while it’s hot.” Take the artist’s hand to the dining room. Finish the wine, then take glasses and bottles into the kitchen. Need a little more wine. Need? Something’s different today. The sparrow doesn’t have needs.
She goes into the kitchen and brings out bowls. They’re the kind used for cooking. She says, “Too much food. How much did it cost? This is dutch treat.”
“Next ti … It’s all right.”

“Next time?”
Why did I say that? “I mean …” She’s not wearing her glasses. Her nose has red marks from her glasses, and her cheekbones show white lines where the frames rested. She’s tucked her hair behind her ears. Her face, can it have become even more beautiful? When I see a sunset, and it can’t get any prettier, and a cloud slides in and light rays web the sky, and it’s become even prettier — her face gives me feelings like that.
She holds her fork wrong, in her fist, little girl style, and she takes small bites and blots her lips on her fingers and finishes her wine.

Keep the conversation going. “How does the artist work? Like a poet? This poet uses music. Certain songs. `A Whiter Shade of Pale’ … know it? … over and over. Then after an hour or so, switch to something else. Maybe, `Harvest.’ What does the artist …”
She’s telling me something about things important to her. I watch her face and hear the sound of her voice, but I don’t hear what she says, because I’m where there’s no meaning. Nothing but her, the color and form and spirit of her. She fills me with her.

” … do? Artist?”
Did she call me? “Yes?”

“Do all artists dream and not eat?”
“I like to dream.”

“Go sit in the living room and dream while the table is cleared.”
This time I sit in the middle of her couch. I hear the breaking dish, but she comes right out. She holds her three ring, cardboard binder in both hands.

“Nothing. It’ll be cleaned later. First look at the poems, then show the pictures.” What’s the stall? Look at the artist’s pictures and be done. No, just a couple poems first. That won’t hurt. Poems need to be seen by outside eyes.

Sit next to the artist and lay the binder on its lap. “This isn’t all of it, just the most recent.” Why the apology? First came needs, now concern. Concern doesn’t feel good.
Her binder is brown and frayed and stamped to resemble leather. I open it carefully to keep from tearing it. The rings don’t meet. They have torn the blue-lined paper and the first page has reinforcements glued to the holes, but the reinforcements are torn, too.
Words are hand-printed in the center. I’m expected to read them.

WITHOUT YOU
Now without you I
never can trust this person
I was with you.I begin to turn the page, but too soon. Some people looked at my drawings that way. Glancing through one page, then another. Then they looked up and said, “Wonderful.” That’s why I stopped showing them. But here I am doing the same thing.
I look at the page again. Her printing is round and open. Very legible. In grade school I wrote on blue-lined paper like this. My teacher taught me to write by moving my arm instead of my wrist. Now I draw that way. Thanks to my teacher.
I guess I know what her poem means. Why are poets so intense? They probe, insinuate, find consequence in dust. Everything means something else. Why can’t they see the world as it is? That’s how I draw it.
Enough time has passed. I turn the page, mindful to nod my head twice in approval. The next page has more words, also hand-printed and also in the center. I’ll have to take longer with this one.
She wrote the poem elsewhere and copied it onto this page. Still, one word is written wrong and scratched out. She didn’t bother to copy it again. Interesting how that makes it more real.

Diary
She flew up to the room
and undressed, he came through the door
without speaking, they made love
after paying, he finished and left her
lying
to the clerk she smiled and spun
out in the sun light tearing
a long time until I can see without pain
I stop at some phone booth to tell
mommy I hurt
my hand slamming the receiver, and nothing more
happened today.I see her staring at me. So I read twice more. I’m surprised to feel like crying. Nerves. I close her binder and close my eyes. I try to see the girl in her poem. She looks like … Sparrow. “It bothers me.” I set her binder on the coffee table and look at her. My eyes feel wet.

“Because it doesn’t rhyme?”
I pick up the binder again, open it and look at Diary, then at her. “It does rhyme. Sort of. It rhymes with you. It’s beautiful ….” My face turns away. “… like you.”

The sparrow’s legs stand and walk to the window. Nothing out there. Turn and stare into the room, and nothing’s there, either. Just the artist, and soon the artist may … will be dead. Like all the others.

The thought isn’t good.
She raises her arms and laces her fingers on her head. Her sweat shirt lifts high on her thighs.

“It’s just a poem, not a person.” Why the talk? Look at the pictures, get this job over and go away. The island. Anywhere.
I reach for my drawing pad, close the pages and stand. I feel afraid of my thoughts and feelings.

The artist stands. Ask to see the pictures. No more delays. “Not going so soon?” Laugh. Make it friendly. The artist turns and walks toward the front door. “Hey, this isn’t fair. What about the promise to show the art work.” The artist mustn’t go. The artist must show its pictures.
She tugs at my sleeve. I take my arm from her. I shake my head and unhook the door chain. Why am I going? I don’t want to. Don’t let me. Say something to stop me.

“O.K, silent type. Talks with pencil and brush. Consider this favor. Confession. This is the real reason for the invitation to dinner. Not really, but … can a drawing be made of my poem?” A challenge to the artist’s pride. Get the artist drawing. Then there will be the opportunity to see its pictures.
“You’re asking whether I can draw this poem?”

“It’s hard, maybe too hard? But possible?”
“God, yes. Of course. I can draw anything. But it would help to have a model to …” I can’t trust my voice further.
She points to the closed door at the far end of the dining room and says, “There.” She hugs my arm, leans her head on my shoulder and together we walk.
Her bed room is dim and painted dark. Her bed hides under its rose-colored blanket and sheet. She has room for a brown arm chair, an old maple dresser, a suit bag and an empty metal closet. Empty? How little she has. Does she keep all her clothing in the suit bag?
I sit and open my case. I take out my pad and my box of paint sticks. She stands next to her bed, her arms at her sides, her eyes half closed and her lips forming a faint smile. What do I say? “Turn your shoulder. Cross your arms.”

“Like this?”
I take more time than usual with her mouth, feeling my paint kiss her lips. “Sit on the bed. Lean back on your elbows.” You are beautiful. My line is not so clean, for the shaking in my body.

“This?”
I nod and draw. “Now stand. Turn to your left.” I let my paint tone the shadows and leave the rest white. “Lift off your shirt.” The words tripped out. Have I gone too far? I can’t breathe. I feel dizzy. She turns toward me. I shouldn’t have said it. “I’m sor…”

“Does that mean …?” The artist’s voice now asks what all voices ask. For the naked sparrow.
“I’m sorry.” I look at my pad. She sees into me. She sees the fool, the lusting child.

“There’s nothing underneath.” Look away. This is what the little artist wants, a shy virgin. Come artist, here is the shy virgin.
Should I apologize more? Should I leave? I raise my eyes. She puts her fingers into her collar. She glances at me again, but her face doesn’t change. Still the small, enigmatic smile. She lifts her collar over her head. From within her shirt comes her voice.

“Only for an artist.” Give the artist its reward, then look at its pictures. There’s time. Plenty of time. Soon this will end and the artist will be dead. All fall down.
Her hem comes up across her hips. Her legs are slender and perfect all the way. Below her arched back she’s melon round. Her stomach is flat. Her fur is sparse. She struggles to pull her arms out of her sleeves. She lifts her shirt higher, her hem coming over her chest, her shoulders. When her face emerges she shakes her head to settle her hair. She doesn’t look at me. If she did, I’d have to look away.
The setting sun comes through the window and makes her skin glow. The back of her is outlined in red. Her front is shadowed, hardly visible. Her breasts rise full and tight. She stands, holding her shirt above her head.

“What should …?”
“Put it down and cross your arms under your chest. Yes. Give me a second. O.K, good. Now cover your face in your hands.” I finish five sketches of her. “Now sit. Lean forward. Elbows on your thighs, lace your fingers. Hold there. Good. Now cross your hands between your knees. Let your hair hang in front. That’s fine.” I hardly can bear to look at her. She blinds me. I force the artist in me to dominate. The artist can look at her, because the artist is blind while I see too well.
“Now lean back, elbows on your bed. Very nice. O.K, lie on your back. Don’t lift your knees. Let your legs hang over the side. There, I have all I need. It’s enough. I can finish any time. Good. That’s good.” I’m babbling. What now? Where do I go. I want. I want so intensely, yet I don’t know what. Why deny? Of course I do.

“The artist has seen better.” Laughing while lying on the bed, makes the bed bounce. Every other male would have been between these knees by now. The artist doesn’t know what to do. It needs assistance. “What is wanted now?”
Is there any question? She lies there, before me. What should I say? “Please … stand.” I put the drawing pad down beside the chair. She stands, half lit and half in shadow.

“Finished? Is there to be nothing more?”
My eyes follow the curve that begins at the back of her head, down to her shoulders, in at her waist, around to her thighs, knees. The rest is darkness. I raise my hand toward her and close one eye, and in the air I trace the curve of her. My eyes cloud and she smears into soft, pale colors. I squeeze my eyes shut. Still I see her. I want to touch her. I stand and walk to her. Her face turns to me, while her body doesn’t move. Her arms remain at her sides.

“If this is finished, it’s time to look at the pictures.”
I put my fingertips on her shoulder. She turns her body to me.

“The pictures?” Yes, the artist will show them. The artist will do anything for the naked sparrow.
She tilts her face up to me. I put my hands over her ears. They’re hot and her face too, is warm. I bend to her and her mouth opens to mine and I pull her close, and she is small in my arms. She reaches in and unbuttons my shirt and takes it from my shoulders. Her fingers are at my waist. She unbuckles my belt. She sits on her bed and opens my zipper. She takes down my clothing.

The artist puts its hands under these shoulders and lifts, and stares into the eyes and looks at the face. The feet dangle above the ground. The males demonstrate strength that way. Now held close. As always. And the kiss. Always the same. The males think the delay is wanted. Then having given the delay, males rush to take the rest.

And after, when the artist’s passion has drained away, the pictures will be seen. But this embrace is good and this kiss is good. How strange.
The last sun has disappeared and darkness has entered her room. I set her down, letting her body slide against mine. I look at the two of us in her dresser mirror. My body is sharp and bony. Hers, long and smooth. She takes my hands and backs up to her bed and sits and reaches forward and puts her hands on my hips and draws me to her mouth.
I feel heat and softness in her lips. I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold back. She turns and rolls onto her bed and slides under her blanket. I follow her. Her sheet isn’t fresh. I don’t mind. I lie beside her and put my arm under her head. The dusty smell of her blankets mixes with the warm, moist perfume of her skin. I slide her to me and turn and kiss her and run my fingers across her stomach and up her chest.

“The sparrow is a novice at this. Please be gentle.” The usual words to prevent violence afterward. When males are empty, hatred fills them for the experienced female, but compassion for the innocent they have seduced. Such is males.
Her body slips with sweat and her heart beats under my hand. Her ribs are twigs, almost too fragile to support her. “Yes, I’ll be gentle.”

“Tell the sparrow what is wanted. Help the sparrow to please the artist.”
What I want? I want you. Just you. I bring my hand to my mouth and spit in it and cupping it, bring it down then up between her thighs.

“Yes artist, it feels good. Gentle like that. Yes. Like that.”
With my eyes closed, I see her in my pictures. Her back glows in faint light. Her lips kiss darkness. I am with her. Her legs surround me. She pulls me in, in. Sparrow, I love you. In you. In you. Please. I love you. Please. In, in, in, oh God. “Oh God, oh God, God, GodGodGod. Sparrow, I love you.” I do love her. I’m glad I said it, because I do.

“Yes. That felt good. Rest now. Later, leave the pad of pictures.”
“Sparrow, I love you.”
“That’s good. It was meant to be.”

When I wake, the sky hints of dawn. I sit and look at the sheet. No blood. She assured me I wasn’t hurting her. I promised to be gentle, yet there came the moment when I pushed hard, and she sucked in her breath and made small sounds, and that made me push even harder, and I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth and saw myself on her, in her, wanting my entire self to enter her, wanting to hear her sounds. After, I touched her and told her what I felt. And I said, “love,” several times.
Now morning grows late. I don’t want to leave, but I know I must and she said I must. I slip out of her bed and look down on her in the dimness. She sleeps on her back, her lips smiling on her calm face and her tangled hair covering her eyes. I lean over her to inspect. She looks different on her back. She looks very young.
Guilt washes over me. For her youth, for her innocence. I should beg forgiveness, but I don’t want to wake her. And I don’t want forgiveness.
I search for my clothes. They are scattered, not laid out as they’d have been at home. Nothing is neat as it would have been if I’d gone home last night. I put on my clothes. Yesterday’s sweat has dried in them.
Her eyes remained closed. I turn my face away. The blur of last night is fluids and scents and emotions. Though I’d promised, I hadn’t been gentle and I maybe I had hurt her. And I’d told her I love her.
Her drowsy voice comes unexpected.

“Was it pleasing?”
“Yes.”

“That was good. Oh, and leave the pad.”
“Did I please you?” She sleeps and doesn’t answer. I take my art case to her living room. My drawings aren’t ready and I promised I’d leave them for her. Or did I? I can’t remember. Did I actually promise? Or is this my excuse to justify what I want to do? I probably promised. But I broke my promise not to hurt her.
I leave the bedroom and go out to the couch and open my pad. My center drawing shows her standing nude, her arms crossing her chest. Her face, the curves of her, the glow, the essence of her, all live on my paper. I stare at my drawing. She looks even more beautiful here. I never do that. I draw accurately.
Yet I’ve made subtle improvements in her. The reason is important, but I bury the thought in my work. As I always have.
I tiptoe back into her bedroom to look at her face. She is white in darkness. I lean close and touch my lips to her hair. She doesn’t stir. I kneel next to the bed and watch her breathe. Her hand moves. Her fingers are small. I kiss the smallest finger, and a giggle tries to rise in me. I leave the room.
All my drawings are finished now, and below as the caption, I print her poem, Diary. Before I leave, I prop my pad open on her coffee table, so she will see it when she comes out. I never give my art to anyone. I’ll ask for it back later. That’ll give me an opportunity to ask her to see me again.
I don’t even think about it being the same pad I took to the woods. Actually, I don’t care. She won’t care either, I’m sure.

CHAPTER 11 – CarsonI drive toward my house. I’ll shower and change and get to work on time. Sparrow still slept when I left. If she oversleeps, she might lose her job for being late to work. I’ll phone her in the morning. Do I know her number? Must be listed, according to her comment last night. Do I know her last name? Can I love her this way and still not even know her last name?
I unlock my front door. Something’s wrong. I go into my living room, then my dining room, kitchen, family room. Everything looks right. But wrong. A smell. The barest, faintest, slightest odor of … of what? Cigar? I sniff my clothing. Sometimes when I come home, I find smoke on my clothing. Some agency people smoke so much. But today I smell like … Sparrow.
I have to call her. I walk into my kitchen and pick up my phone to call information. What’s her last name? I notice again the smell, stronger now. On my phone. How could my phone smell of cigar? Something about its plastic body? But it never smelled that way before. Did it?
I walk into my hall. I sniff it. Everything looks … my closet door is open. Doors should be closed. I never leave doors open. Someone was here.
I check the outer doors. Locked. No scratches. I run to each of the windows. Locked. But someone was here. How? Maybe they came through my basement window. They might be here, now.
I run back to the kitchen. I grab my longest knife. I stand beside the door to my basement stairs. It’s locked from this side, as always. Means nothing. They could have done that when they left. If they left.
I twist the door handle, trying to make no sound. I yank open the door and thrust my knife into darkness. No one. I click on the light and tiptoe down. The air feels dim and musty, and I feel cigar smoke here too, very faint, barely detectible.
I check windows. They carry a reassuring grime that makes them look unmoved. Except this one. It’s unlocked and the dust below is disturbed. Someone came in here.
Noise, imagined or real, spins me around. Holding my knife like my cross before a vampire, I stare into corners but see only shadows. My house starts to make dark noises, clicks and mumbles that have no reason. When I turn toward the source, the sound stops and begins behind me. Knowing it’s illusion doesn’t help.
I run up the stairs, leaving the shadows and noises. I lock my basement door, and breathe fresh daylight.
I haven’t been to my second floor, yet. My stairs squeak though I walk lightly. All my bedroom doors are closed. I’ll have to open them.
I grip my knife, and nudge my master bedroom door open. No one. Three quick steps to the next bedroom door and throw it open. No one. My cabinets stand solid and reassuring and normal. The last room, the same. Or … not quite the same. One drawer is open a crack. Not even a crack. But enough. I’d never leave it that way.
Inside the drawer, my art pads are wrong. One is turned so its bound edge doesn’t face the rear. That’s wrong. Someone moved my art.
I open the next drawer. My top pad has one page folded under. I smooth the page but the crease remains. Someone has been handling, rummaging their hands through my art. And now again, as I breathe deeply, I sense the hint of cigar.
I open each drawer. All were touched. Things were moved. Disarranged. The bottom drawer. My gold pocket watch gleams up at me. Anyone could see it’s expensive. Yet, not taken. The intruders wanted just to see my drawings. Not even to take them. I giggle at this rejection by critics I don’t know.
Someone came and left part of themselves behind. Their smell curls through my house. I back into the corner and slide down to sit on the floor, and lower my face into my arms. With closed eyes, I see the room as it was, my cabinets secure, my drawings safe within. Everything where it belongs.
I sit like this until my room returns to me. But when I raise my head and open my eyes, not just my room but my whole house has changed. The shadows are permanent. Whoever invaded here may come again, maybe even today.
I go to my phone and dial. The voice says, “Police …” As before, I cut off the voice by pressing the button. What if they asked about the woods? Why would they? But what if they did, and anyway, what would I tell them about my house? A drawer was open? Artwork was moved but not taken? Vague, tentative clues of no interest to police.
I wander to my bedroom. I’ll lay out fresh clothes, shower and go to work. What else can I do? And at work I’ll see Sparrow. That thought lifts me.
Standing in the shower, I remember that Hitchcock movie where the woman was stabbed. I get out quickly and dry myself. Nothing ever will be the same, not even my showers.

CHAPTER 12 – JuddYou sit in Father’s leather chair and wave away Stow’s cigar smoke and his terrible words that batter you.
“Would of been a shame to waste that body. She did plenty of teasing, flaunting it and all. You saw how she dressed. You know what she was. Some of the boys been thinking about her for a long time. Me too, as far as that goes.”
“Stow, I don’t want to hear this. I told you. Damn I told you, `Make it quick and easy.’ She wasn’t a bad person. Almost a citizen. She didn’t deserve such pain.”
“Sure. Always got to throw a few scraps to the boys.”
“How many boys? How long did your garbage go …?”
“Six. Maybe a couple hours. Hell, she liked it. At first anyhow. Got a little messy later, after we tied her on the table. Don’t worry, no one heard. We stuffed her mouth. But that’s not what I came to tell you.”
His black smoke and blacker words surround you. You lower your face into your hands. “Six boys? Two hours? I didn’t want that. Everything flies out of control. Blood. It’s a drug. It solves problems. But one develops immunity. More is needed. Then you want to add pain. Then more. More. Damn it, no more. It ends. Finished. Do you hear …?”
“Yah, right. Anyway, we checked his house. His pictures. Nothing. Animals and trees, that kind of crap. Works at an advertising agency. We already got the whore there. So it’s covered. More than it needs. Closed issue. Guy saw nothing.”
“Check again. It isn’t closed until you know he didn’t see anything. You don’t absolutely know. When you can tell me that …”
“What’s absolute? Cut the worrying. Like an old lady. And quit thinking about the gold digger. Like I said, why waste it? You always got to throw a few scraps to the boys.”
Yes Stow, but it depends on who’s throwing … and what if it’s you who’s among the scraps?

CHAPTER 13 – Carson and the Sparrow
The agency. I couldn’t phone Sparrow. I’ve surrendered to the admission that I don’t know her name. I go straight to her desk, but she’s not there. I shuffle to my office and close my door and sit at my board.
I reach for my yellow felt-tip marker and sketch. Yellow is morning. Yellow will settle me. I let my eyes and mind go blank while my hand works. My marker makes pale lines on my white paper. I see her face. Sparrow. What if she doesn’t come? I’ll wait a half hour, then leave and drive to her.
I put away my marker, lean forward and lay my head on my drawing. At first, the knock at my door doesn’t register, but I lift my head when her voice says, “Artist, last night was the …” I whisper to my drawing, “Sparrow, they came in.”

“Came in? What did?”
I turn to her. She’s here. “People who smoked. People who touched my pictures.”

It begins again. The People have started to move on the artist. Soon it will be dead. Like the others. Did the People see the artist’s pictures from the forest? If they did, the artist is dead already. If not … If not, what? These eyes have seen the pictures. The sparrow knows. So …? So the artist has seen the forest. So the artist must die. And the sparrow has seen the forest, too. In the artist’s pictures. So the sparrow must die.

“Were the intruders seen? Is there evidence?”
“Pictures were moved. My drawers opened. The cigar smell. I know.” I stand and step to her, to take her in my arms. She leans back and that stops me.

The People have come. The artist has seen the forest in the artist’s pictures. The artist must die. The sparrow must die. “Did they take anything? What smell? Were the police called?” No police. No police.
“No. They took nothing. They smelled like bad cigar. No police.” Her questions pummel me. Why does she ask these questions?

Cigar. Probably Stow. Took nothing, therefore saw nothing. No pictures at the artist’s home. So are all the pictures in the apartment? “Why were the police not called?” The reason is important to predict what the artist will do.
“Police… ” I sigh. I feel so exhausted. I want to lay my head against her. I want to sleep … in her arms. “I don’t want to get started with police. They would hover, push questions at me, accuse me. I’ve hoped it would go away by itself.”

“If not the police, was anyone else told? Has anyone else seen the pictures you left at the apartment?”
“Nobody sees my pictures. Who would I …? Just you.” I want to kiss her and be with last night’s Sparrow. But this Sparrow holds away my arms.

The People suspect, but maybe not sure the artist was in the woods. The People may even guess the artist has seen nothing. “Listen.” Hint at the seriousness to control the situation. “Those weren’t ordinary burglars.”
“Ordinary? What’s a `not ordinary’ burglar?” There’s something she wants to tell me, something I don’t want to hear. She grips my sleeve.

“Artist, listen to these words … go to the apartment.” Do other pictures exist? Can’t discuss it here. With no other pictures, those at the apartment can be destroyed. The artist will have seen nothing. The sparrow will have seen nothing. Nothing will die. Is this important? Yes, but why? “Hurry, artist. Stand up. Hurry.”
I rest my forehead in my hands, and my elbows on my board, and I close my eyes. I want to sleep, to escape. Words and pictures and connections and alien thoughts create bizarre drawings in my mind. I see my woods. Smoke drifts through my storyboards pinned to the wall. Sparrow pins them there. My clients march through. Sparrow stands naked before them. They examine her. They pin her to the wall. I go to her. She slides her long legs around me. Smoke smothers me. I want to cough but I can’t. She won’t let me. I want to run away. She holds me. Sparrow. Everywhere, everything, Sparrow.

“Meet in the garage in five minutes. Ride in the sparrow’s car. Something happened. It can’t be ignored any longer. Life isn’t a drawing pad. This page won’t turn. Don’t talk. Don’t think. No decisions. O.K?”
“Yes.” Yes? Yes, what? The word comes from me and I don’t know what it means. What have I agreed to?

Rest a hand on the artist’s shoulder. The artist’s shoulder shakes. Will the artist survive? Calm, calm, artist. Maybe it won’t die. Before leaving, a kiss on the cheek. “Last night was wonderful. Think about last night.”
She’s gone. I must go, too. But I pick up my white felt tip marker. I draw her. She’s almost invisible on the white paper. Like fog. She said life isn’t my drawing pad. She said I can’t turn the page. But the page is turning.
And I’m not turning it.

CHAPTER 14 – The SparrowHere in the sparrow’s office, whisper into the phone to Stow, “What plan is there for the artist?” Curiosity is alien. Uncomfortable. Curiosity killed the sparrow.
“Nothing. Judd’s pissed. `No civilians,’ he says. `Period.’ he says. The little … Anyhow, that’s where it’s for now.”
“This order will be obeyed?”
“Got to, now. Our People respected Father. And they like it that Judd’s clean. Judd’s the man, for now. Just let me know the situation. Has your artist got any other pictures anywhere? There wasn’t anything at his house.”
“It would help to know what pictures to look for.” The sparrow makes its innocent sounds, but Stow recognizes them.
“Don’t ask questions. If you see, you’ll know. Bad pictures. Pictures the police’d like. You’ll know.”
“And what if the pictures are found? Does that create problems for the sparrow?” Where ignorance survives, the ignorant survives.
“Do as you’re told and you’re under my protection. Don’t I always take care of you?”
“Yes, of course. Appreciated. Anyhow the artist hasn’t gone to the police. That doesn’t prove there aren’t any pictures, but it mightn’t matter one way or another. The artist lives curled in the tight little world of art. No pictures ever are sold, given or tossed. Even if there were pictures, they’d be filed away, never to see the sun.”
“Probably true at this stage. But I can’t assume it. Judd’s calling that shot. If you do find them, burn them and flush the ashes down the toilet. Don’t carry them around. Don’t bring them to me. Just burn and flush.”
“Cautiously. Pictures comprise the artist’s family. If any knowledge is in the artist, this mustn’t tip the artist over the edge. The visit to the house could have precipitated a call to authorities … though it didn’t.”
“That was Judd’s idea. I’d of finished this thing already.”
“But if these pictures exist they could be anywhere, on an envelope or a piece of Kleenex. They could be found in the event of the artist’s death. All steps must be taken slowly so the artist doesn’t alarm. That is … if pictures exist.”
“I don’t like this fooling around. Better if we burned him and his house. That way we get everything.”
“Except the office, safe deposit, lawyer, girl friend, whoever. Anyway, the People won’t …”
“The People. Judd. Right. That’s today. Things change. The People’ll get wise to Judd. The kid’s soft and gone half nuts since our father died. I’m counting on you to keep this under control.”
“Don’t worry. The artist is controlled.”
“He better be. Or you will be.”
“Like the gold digger?”
“Where’d you get that?”
“Things are said. Words in the wind. General bullshit. But there’s no meaning, no interest. It’s forgotten before it’s remembered.”
“Things are said? Where?
“Nowhere. Just vague crap. Gossip speculation. It’s nothing. Nothing is repeated. Like the monkeys. Hear nothing, see nothing …”
“It’s not so good for you to hear things, not even nothings. Don’t hear nothings. Or else yes, like the gold digger. Only a whole lot slower and better. I can be your friend, lady, or your nightmare. Remember it.”

CHAPTER 15 – Carson and the SparrowHer apartment still holds its pale mood of emptiness, the feeling that no one lives here or ever has, or ever will. I look around but don’t see the drawing pad I left here this morning. She leads me into the living room.

“Sit. Coffee?” The artist swims in boiling soup. The need is to discover whether other pictures exist. Then the artist can go, and the sparrow can go, and it will be ended and no one will die, not even the artist.
“My drawings?” She nods, goes into her bedroom and returns carrying my pad. Her face has no expression, almost as though she were dreaming or a robot.

“The drawings are beautiful. Of course. There are the several in the woods, however …”
I sit on the couch, taking my pad on my lap. I keep my eyes down, pretending to examine the cover and edges. She walks around the room, circling the couch, but not sitting. It strikes me that she wants something of me. What is it?

” … it’s important to discuss the fate of the pictures.”
She wants the pictures? She knows I don’t give them away. Maybe that’s why she’s acting so strangely. “I wanted you to like them. Your poem was lovely. But I never…”

“Poem? No, not those pictures. The ones in the woods.”
My mind shifts. The woods. My animal drawings? She wants them more than the pictures of her own poem? They’re among my favorites, the woods. But this pad contains … the incident of the other day. The tied man. The lack of color, all black and white and gray, bright silver shovel, cigar smoke coiling and revealing the rays of sun, the tied man turning and shuddering, dead leaves trembling on branches. She wants those? I’m surprised, though they are good. She may like the smoky feel. The cigar smoke … cigar smoke … something triggers in my brain. Cigar smoke. There’s a meaning to cigar smoke. Cigar smoke was in my house.
She continues to circle the couch. Her chin shows tense little creases but her eyes remain blank.

“The artist does very detailed work — the mole on the male’s chin, a tiny scar above one eye, something an observer might miss. Everything perfect. Like little jewels. Like photographs.”
“Better.”

“Yes, better. The artist sees different angles. Changes in light. The pictures merge them into one drawing. The pictures show more than a camera can see.”
She understands. My drawings are better than photographs. That’s why they’re superior art. Why would anyone settle for the smears and random marks of accidental art? Chaos art. My pictures are “little jewels,” she said. Yes.

“Want some coffee?” There’s no need for delay, yet these words emerged. Strange words for the time, as though reluctant to conclude.
She walks into the kitchen. I turn my pad over on my lap and begin to draw on the cardboard back. My hand moves while I listen to her voice emerge from the kitchen.

“But the pictures of the sparrow aren’t the same. They resemble, but not as accurate. They are … well, beautiful. The sparrow doesn’t own such beauty, much less display it.”
I look up. I hear surprise color my voice, “You don’t think so?” I lower my head and whisper, “I do.” I look at the drawings I’ve just done of her. Today her face seems different from yesterday’s drawings. Blank. Unreadable. Yet tense. Alert. Like the deer, sometimes. She comes out, holding her coffee but not drinking it. Just holding it and standing in the doorway, as though not wanting to approach me with what she has to say.

“How does one tell of this? The drawings of the males bring danger. Understand? They aren’t just drawings of death. They are death.”
Her voice touches and embraces me, warm and good. I’d like to draw her voice. Draw her voice? Yes, I see it swirling in pale warms. I see her voice like clear water, prismed in sun. To draw the sound of someone’s voice … to draw feel and smell and touch. I could do that. I could create reality beyond reality.

The artist doesn’t listen. It hides in its dreams. “The People wouldn’t allow the police to see what happened in the woods. The artist drew a murder and the face of the performer. And now the artist has these drawings. The People don’t permit such vulnerability.
I’ll use liquid colors for the sound of her and the smell and feel of her, and I’ll set them free, to flow and blend. Accidental art. I almost understand. I’ve never done that. But I see what others have attempted. A revelation. Accidental art is the only way.

“Do there exist any other pictures of those males? On a piece of paper? A chunk of wood? A wall? Or is everything there, in the pad?”
Her voice darkens. Becomes more red and ordered and sinewed. When I draw her voice, I’ll include all of its moods. “All here.”

“These pictures must be destroyed. Wait, before objecting, what happened to that male could happen again to the artist. Those drawings would provide police with strong evidence, fatal evidence. And now that they have been seen by these eyes, the same would happen to the sparrow. All evidence must be gone.”
Evidence? Destroy the pictures? “I’ll hide them. No one will know.” She comes to me and sits next to me and leans against me. I feel her hand on the back of my neck and her fingers run into my hair. “I won’t tell.”

“Let the sparrow look with the artist at all the drawings.” Smooth and cool. The artist mustn’t be tempted to snatch the pictures and run.
Her voice has turned pale again, soft and calming. I hold the pad in my lap while she turns pages. Her arm rests on my shoulders and feels good. The pictures uncover bits of my memory. There’s the lady on the train, her face revealing her fear. I’d superimposed her over one scene from the woods. All is mist and gray, the lady and the woods. The tied man’s arms point straight up, like horns thrusting from the lady’s head. The flayed stomach merges with her red mouth. The pale legs shadow the cords of her neck. I can refocus my eyes to see the tied man, then her.

“Any others, artist? Anywhere?” It shakes its head while these fingers turn pages. There is the female in Diary, standing at the bed. The picture is well-crafted.
Her young body curves smooth and tight. Her shining, beautiful face … her shining, beautiful face.

“What is it?” Its eyes skip from the picture to this face and back.
“You are beautiful.”

Pull the artist’s head closer to kiss its cheek. The artist turns and puts its arms around the sparrow. The pad slides to the floor.
She’s here in my arms. Not a drawing. She feels like form and light and tone. I feel her in me, all good and new.

“The words flatter. Now think.” The sparrow leans away and holds the artist’s face in the hands. “Are there any other pictures of the males? Because all evidence must be gone.”
“I … Sparrow.”

“Are there?”
“No.”

“Then these will be destroyed and it will be done.” Reach down for the pad on the floor. “It’s good not to go to the police. Now all evidence will be gone and the artist can continue and the sparrow can continue.” As the pad lifts, a glance at the back falls upon pictures there. The sparrow’s face, and the men in the woods, all perfect. “This wasn’t here before. When were these drawn? Just now? While the sparrow was in the kitchen? From memory? The artist can do such perfection from memory?”
“Yes, of course. I can draw anything from memory.” Her face change. Not sadness. Not fear. Puzzlement? Incomprehension? Displeasure? Different from the faces she’s shown me. I would draw her, but she has taken my pad.

“The pictures reside in the mind? Artist, they’re stored in memory?” What is to be done now? The evidence is in the artist’s brain. All evidence must be destroyed. All evidence stored in the artist’s brain . . . must be destroyed.

CHAPTER 16 – Judd”She must be terribly talented Stow, securing a job both in the lawyer’s office and in an advertising agency.” You lean back in your chair.
The large man puffs his cigar and laughs. At you? “Right, talented.”
You laugh to share the joke. But the large man stops and you find yourself laughing alone in the silence he has created. You stop, too. You were trying to please him. There is no reason. Father said you must be as he was, boss. The People agreed. But the large man seems determined to resist. Not overtly, but in his way. You always feel tension when you are with him. More than tension. Perhaps, fear. Admit it. What you feel is fear.
You cross your hands on your stomach to pretend you are relaxed. “So she said …?
Stow acts bored. His eyes close. Does he do this for your benefit? “She said it’s nothing. Guy saw nothing. He was nowhere near there. No pictures. No nothing. It’s done. Nobody ever goes there. A thousand years from now somebody will dig up bones and send them to a museum.”
He laughs again, but you don’t. You won’t be fooled twice. But you feel contrived, not laughing when he is laughing. “Is she sure? How is she so sure?”
“She’s sure. Men tell her things. She knows her job. She finds a way. That’s what she does. Never been wrong. She’s the best there is.”
You must appear strong. Thrust forth an aggressive question. “Did you ever tell her things?”
He looks at you. “What things?”
“Things. Things boastful men tell women. Never mind. Women, you think you can trust them. But women wink over your shoulder. Do you understand? While you walk them or dance them or love them, they wink over your shoulder.” Why are you telling him this?
He walks toward the door. “Anything else?” The way he says it, dismissing you as though you are a child. You despise him, as you always have, but even more now. “What if she’s wrong? Or lying. Are you sure you can trust her?”
“Trust her enough. She knows what would happen.” He draws his finger across his fat neck, then turns to leave.
You whisper, “Like the gold digger?” Perhaps you wished him to hear. Perhaps not.
Stow stops. “Aw hell, you … too?” He tried to stifle the word, `too,’ but it had spilled out, and you heard.
“`Too?’ `You, too,’ what?” You stand and make your face angry. Father told you to watch for these moments when the opening appears. And there it lies before you. “You said, `too.’ Somebody else spoke of the gold digger. Who? I demand, who?”
He takes the cigar from his mouth. “Demand?” He stubs it in the tray. “Nobody. The girl.” You see his face fall slack and now his voice becomes weak. You’ve caught him. “The whore.”
The moment is come. “What?” You make your voice rise. “Speak up. Whore? Your whore? How did she hear about the gold digger? What does your whore know?” You advance toward the large man. Can you dare do this?
“I don’t know. Nothing, I think.” The large man’s face has paled. “I’m checking it out.”
You let your voice bellow. “You think. Yes. Do that. Check her out, and while you’re checking, check the artist. I don’t trust your whore. You brought her in and I don’t trust her. Your whore says there are no pictures. I don’t believe it. The artist was in the woods after dark. There must be a reason.”
“Why should she lie?” His voice, barely audible. You can’t believe it. You shout, “Because she is a whore. Lying is what whores do. `Honey, I love you. You are the best. You are so big. That felt so good.’ A whore’s business is not kissing or sucking or screwing. A whore’s business is lying. Think. Mightn’t your whore fear to tell you she saw the pictures? Mightn’t your whore understand that if she admits seeing the pictures, she’ll die? The man’s an artist. He stayed in the woods after dark. Follow the artist. Follow your whore, too. Your whore troubles me. She talks about you. Your name is in her mouth and on the street. She knows about the gold digger. I don’t like it and our People won’t like it. You know what that means. You have troubles.”
The large man wipes his forehead in his handkerchief. “It’s just talk. Someone disappears. People figure. `Must of been this, must of been that.’ All kinds of `must of beens. Nobody knows anything. It’s all just talk. I’ll take care of the whore.”
Do you wish him to take care of the whore? “No. None of your usual bumbling. She isn’t your first problem. Whatever she knows, she learned from someone. That someone is your first problem. Bug her apartment. Follow her. See where she goes and to whom else she speaks. And stay with the artist, too. Use two cars. Keep trying to learn, did he or did he not see you? Are there pictures? Your whore will be cared for later. Do you understand me?”
“Yes …” He turns toward the door and hesitates. “… Boss.”
“What did you say?” Where’s your voice now, large man? Where’s your cigar? Your insolent manner?
“Yes, boss.” All sarcasm has left his voice.
After he leaves, you rise and stretch and walk to the mirror. You smile at what you see. You stride to the window, pull back the curtain and watch the large man enter his car. He glances back and sees you smiling. You don’t move or change your expression. He looks away.
“Thank you little whore,” you whisper to the window. The large man closes his car door and looks back again at you. And you remain. Smiling. He drives away. You’ve won.
Perhaps his little whore is pretty. She must be, to be so effective. Of whores you have seen, few were fine. Father brought you your first for your thirteenth birthday. Her face was young and pretty and smiled, and her thin body was well curved, though she smelled of powder or something. She tried various things, but you didn’t enjoy her touch. When you didn’t do as expected, she spoke her fear. “Please … you won’t tell your father we didn’t do it?”
“No, I promise.”
But you told Father. In anger, he sent for the whore, and made you watch him have her and do things to her, while she twisted and screamed until her voice became hoarse. Then Father sent for men who took her away.
That night, you dreamed about the things Father did. And for many nights you dreamed, all during the years after.
Months later, you saw the whore huddled in a street doorway. She cast you a terrible look from her broken face.
There since have been other whores, some pretty but none good. They didn’t interest you. The memory of what Father did to the whore has begun lately to fill you with frightening desires. Your night thoughts have turned to hopeful pretense. You imagine the whore screaming and begging beneath your hands, as she did beneath Father’s. You pretend you don’t wish to think of these things. Yet you do.
Stow’s whore, is she young or old? Young would be better. Young whores frighten you less. Small whore’s too. A small, thin, young whore would be best.
The gold digger, she tried to be good that night, tried to be willing, tried to be strong and active and cooperative. At first you had difficulty. But she let you do little, hurting things. That helped. And you imagined her husband tied in the room, watching. That helped even more.
You weren’t there when the boys tied her on the table, though you try to imagine it. You’ve heard that when they did something to her she broke one of the ropes. The boys laughed about that. And she lasted two hours. Two hours. Now she’s gone. You never again will see her smile or hear her giggle, or speak to her or feel her stretched beneath you. You never will have the chance to see her tied to the table.
You turn from the window and go to Father’s leather chair. You slouch and spread your arms and legs. You’re strong now, in control. For the first time, ever. “Yes, thank you, little whore.”
How pleased Father will be that you seized the moment from Stow and put Stow back on his heels. Many years ago, Father had defeated his own brother, and perhaps this is the way it began.
You close your eyes. You see the gold digger spread upon the table, struggling and gasping and arching in agony. Will Stow’s whore be as good?
You walk to the mirror and make your face look hard. How far you’ve come. Yet within your triumph lies doubt. Is this your way? The battle against Stow has begun. Even if you win, will you survive?

CHAPTER 17 – Carson and the SparrowShe told me to stay on the couch, so here I sit. She went into her bedroom to phone someone. She didn’t close the door, so I hear enough of her conversation to think it concerns me, but not enough to understand. “… just a citizen … yes, nothing… fell asleep there … nothing … that’s what the sparrow does best …”
I hear her hang up the phone, and I know from the lack of sound that she’s not moving, just staying there. I don’t know what to do.
Finally she comes out.

“Artist …”
She looks down at me and says nothing more. She sits near to me and puts her arm behind me on the back of the couch, but she doesn’t touch me, nor even look at me. “Artist.” She shakes her head hard as though jostling devils from her mind, then rests until again she says, “Artist.” But I don’t answer. I know it wasn’t asked. She breathes and turns to face me.

“Why was the visit to the forest necessary that day?”
“I go there sometimes. I can find peace for drawing.”

“Find peace? Yes well … that’s one way.
She moves closer to me and puts her hand on my shoulder.

“Here it is. The all of it. When the artist went into the woods and saw those males, it drew them as clear as photographs. `Better,’ as is said. And … and they know. Those males know the artist was there. They saw the car. They followed it. They know the artist’s name. They know the agency. They know the artist’s skills.”
“How do they know?”

How much can the artist be told? Will it do something stupid and destroy the world? There’s no other way. “A bird told them. The sparrow works for them. As a spy. They send the sparrow to learn things. Up until now, simple stuff, business garbage like how much money is this restaurant taking in, or who owns what, runs what, wants what, is afraid of what. The sparrow’s body is good. It persuades males, in their desire and pretense, to tell things.” The artist reddens and turns away. It’s so unlike the others.
She moves her finger tips along the back of my neck. It feels good, having her talk to me this way. I’ve hardly heard what she’s saying. Something about her being a spy.

“But suddenly it’s serious. They wanted the plans of the lawyer for the male that died. `Get a job as a receptionist or something.’ A male was persuaded to offer the job. On his office floor. The job may have been available without that persuasion. Whatever. The sparrow’s mind is smart and its body will work cheaply. Why not? The People pay it well. So jobs are easily obtained.”
I watch her lips move and feel the sound of her words as they wash over me. Everything is delayed. Meanings come some seconds after she speaks. Her lips are soft and full. Her fingers on my neck send shivers through me. I remember, when mother read to me, she stroked my neck and I shivered. I loved my mother. I listen and hear her cautions to, “Be careful.” I should have tended her. I allowed her to die in her wheelchair, without my love.

“Then they wanted to learn whether the artist had talked to the police and whether the artist had drawn anything interesting. It wasn’t known what to look for. They said, `If you see, you’ll know. Bad pictures. Pictures the police would like.’ So, the sparrow took the job at the agency. The same way as usual. The sparrow was not told what those pictures might be. Or that once its eyes saw them, its body would be dead. Too dangerous for the People to leave it alive. Understand?”
The music of her voice alerts me and indicates I’m expected to answer, but I’ve not caught up to all the meanings. And her sound is too sweet to interrupt. I understand she’s asking me for secrecy of some sort, so I mumble, “I didn’t tell anyone.” She leans so close her lips brush my ear.

“So these lips lied. Had to. They told Stow — that is one of the People the sparrow works for — the artist has drawn nothing, seen nothing, knows nothing. The artist came out of the woods so late — they say that happened, did it? — because he fell asleep in there. Now officially, the artist saw nothing, nor did these eyes. The pictures must be destroyed and the artist must never draw another. Never. Erase it from the mind, even from dreams. That’s the one way they’ll let the artist and the sparrow live.”
“I didn’t fall asleep. I was afraid.” She takes my head in her hands and touches her lips to my forehead and down my nose, and stops on my lips and lingers there before leaning away. She said she lied to me, and now I hear the words. I wasn’t special. It wasn’t special. Not to her. I see her rolling on the lawyers’ office floor. And her job at the agency. She got it the same way. On the floor of someone’s office. I want to ask her whose. Everything hurts me, in my head, in my chest.

“And if the artist does as it’s told, the People won’t kill it. That’s the best that can be done. Sometimes the best to be hoped for is just to stay alive. Maybe that’s what’s meant by `the worst of times.'”
“When we were together, you said I was your first. So maybe this is another lie.”

“Yes, something of a lie. But maybe not. In a way that was the first. The sparrow’s body has given over to many evils. Males have cared nothing for it and have given it pain. Its revenge was that it cared nothing for them … and gave them death. Then the gentle artist. Never before … there came an unfamiliar moment, a little girl, emotions before memory … and now maybe, never again. But for the moment, it was new and sweet and good.”
She touches my face under her finger tips.

“Lying beneath an honest body, the sparrow came to a strange world, where there exists something called `feeling’ … marriage of a person to a male who has a mother and an Aunt Tillie, and children come to the home in the suburbs, and this male lifts the sparrow when it falls and salves the hurts, and together they live ever after. If that alien world were to come, it would come with the artist in mind. So, it was truth. The artist was the first.”
“Aunt Tillie?”

“Yes, of course, Aunt Tillie. The male must have an Aunt Tillie, and live away from the hot city. But that’s for another life. For now, stay here tonight. All right?”
“Yes.” I have no will. I feel weak, enervated. I would have said `yes’ to anything.

“Good. Wait.”
She rises, and carries my pad into her bathroom. I hear the door lock, hear paper tear and smell smoke and hear the toilet flush. And again and again. When she comes out, she no longer holds the pad, and though she has opened the bathroom window, the smoke smell remains strong. She goes around to the windows and opens them, then comes to me. She bends to me and kisses me and takes my hand and walks me to her bedroom.

“Artist, come to the room of forgetting. Much needs to be lost.”
“Sparrow, you said these are the worst of times because the best we can hope for is to stay alive? But I think the worst of times are when you have nothing to hope for.”

“And what does an artist hope for?”
“That we have many years.”

“We?”
“And about the pictures … I don’t feel too bad. They remain in my mind. If I want to, I can redraw them. Any time I feel like.”

The night was good, better even than before, and next morning when I wake, she’s gone. Her closets and drawers are empty. The smell of smoke almost has vanished. Only the furniture remains. I know she won’t return to this place.
I dress, then shuffle into the living room and sit on the couch and speak her name, “Sparrow,” and listen to the good sound of it linger. I look around to remember everything, then go to the door and out.

As I enter my driveway I see parked across the street, the heavy, black car of the bent antenna. I saw it in the forest and in the train parking lot. Two men sit inside. I can tell they pretend not to see me, just as I pretend not to see them.
But we both know.

CHAPTER 18 – Judd”She must’ve gone down the back way. We were sitting out front watching her car, but it never moved. The artist guy came down, so we figured she’s still there. We kept waiting and when she didn’t show, we figured what the hell, so we went up. The place was cleaned. Drawers empty. Closets empty. Bathroom empty, except for a couple little pieces of burned paper behind the toilet. Smelled like ashes. She burned something and flushed it, looks like.”
You, standing behind Father’s leather chair, tap your letter opener in your hand. Its sharp point makes its unspoken threat. “Stow, you do remain consistent. `Out front watching her car, but it never moved.’ Did it occur to you that if she wished to elude you, she’d use the back stairs and walk away from her car?”
“Why would she try to duck us? Never did before. Already told her she’s under my protection. Can’t figure what would of set her off.”
“Under your protection? That would frighten anyone. She ran because she is smarter than you. Something made her believe she had become a target. What could that something be? Don’t answer. Listen. What could she have burned? Her toast? No, she must have burned the pictures. Therefore she must have seen the pictures. Therefore there were pictures. And therefore, the artist saw you. The remaining question: Did the whore burn all the pictures, or does she merely wish us to believe the pictures are destroyed, so we won’t work too hard to find her?”
You look at Stow’s face, then down to the point of the letter opener that you press against your hand, then back to Stow. He understands the message. “Now, two citizens know what you did in the woods. You have accumulated some liability. If any of the pictures still exist, you have accumulated even greater liability.”
Stow lowers onto a straight-back chair and sits sagging before you. “Judd, it’s not right. I did my best. Stuck with you when …”
The simpering sound of him feels ugly, like the screech of an infant, and it angers you. “Don’t sit, stand.”
He stands and says, “I stuck with you when the …”
Another perfect opening. “Stuck?” you scream. The sudden sound makes Stow step back. You clasp the letter opener in both hands, raise you arms and stab the letter opener deep into the leather back of Father’s chair. “Stuck? This is stuck. You see, Stow? Stuck. Stuck. Stuck.” The letter opener lifts and stabs down again and then again, ripping through the soft leather. “You see? This is stuck. This is stuck. And this, this, this.” Stow backs away.
His hollow voice says, “Yes.”
“Yes, what?”
“Yes, boss.”
“No, fool. What do you see?” Stow stands at the far end of the room. His mouth opens and closes and his head shakes. But no words came out. You glare at Stow, then begin again to slash. Stow’s eyes follow the blade as it disappears and emerges. Father’s leather shrieks and whimpers and sighs. Again the blade. And again. Father’s cotton batting disintegrates into dust that floats and drifts and spins then settles in a white mist. Your face and hair whiten in sweated cotton. Your breathing rasps. Again the blade. Your shoulders ache from effort. Dust covers furniture, white and still as snow.
You stop and walk toward Stow, fondling the letter opener. “I’ll tell you what you see. You see your future. You see our People slicing your skin, just like that chair. You see your endless night of agony and death.”
You touch the letter opener to Stow’s cheek, and smile. “It’s a sight that disturbs you.”
“Sure, it …”
“Quiet,” you shout, then softly, “Do I look like Jesus?” Stow remains frozen. You wait in your silence, then whisper, “Yes? No? Something take your tongue? An interesting concept, to take your tongue. I should look like Jesus. Do you know why?” Stow shakes his head. You point to the cotton dust on your hair and face. “Because I have white hair and a white beard. And not only do I resemble Jesus, but I can raise the dead to life. Do you understand?” Stow’s handkerchief flutters over his face, but he doesn’t speak.
“Because Stow, you are dead. Dead as the stones in Father’s cemetery. Dead as what lies beneath them. Dead, though not yet killed. When I inform our People that a citizen saw you, and that two citizens know where you hid the body, our People will lay you screaming into the adjoining hole. They have heard how you enjoyed the gold digger’s last hours. They would provide you with even greater entertainment.” You pause for effect and to watch shivers trace across Stows shoulders. “But I can raise you to life. I can save you.”
“I was loyal. You always said …”
“Don’t fling my words at my face. `Loyal?’ I doubt it. And certainly not effective. Perhaps, for your cowardly whining alone, I should give you over to our People.”
“Please, Judd. I’ll find her. I’ll take care of her.”
“But she’s under your protection, is she not?”
“Screw that. I’ll find her. Depend on it.”
“Stow, you’ll bring her to me. You won’t harm her. I’ll question her. Her first answer will tell us nothing. It’s her next answer we must consider. Do you see?” But Stow cannot see. He has seen the slashing of the chair, and now stares at you, maniac, hair and face of cotton white. You grin. “No? Let me explain it. Whether she has seen the pictures or not, she first will say she hasn’t seen them, hoping to avoid trouble. But after some assistance, she may or may not lie, but I’ll know truth.”
“How?”
“If after substantial persuasion she continues to deny seeing the pictures, I’ll believe her. If she confesses to seeing them, but says she destroyed them, I’ll assume she has hidden them. After enduring so much, she won’t want to waste her pain by telling the whole truth.”
“Waste her pain?”
“Understand the human condition. We don’t wish to lose our investment. She’ll have invested great pain to keep the truth from us. She won’t want to surrender this truth all at once. Even were she to admit she hid them, she’d lie about where. At first, any way.”
“So you’re sure she’s hidden the pictures?”
“If she admits she’s seen them, she’ll claim she’s hidden some as a bartering device. You know, `The pictures are with a friend and if you hurt me, he’ll give them to the police.’ That sort of thing.”
You lower into the remnants of the chair and let torn leather and cotton surround you. Stow nods. “I under …”
“Don’t understand. Don’t try. Just go. Find your whore. Be friendly. Bring her here. Don’t reveal what we know. I’ll speak with her. Then after, perhaps we shall enjoy her. Now go.”
Stow fakes his smile as he leaves. You fondle the letter opener and nestle your back deeper into the shredded chair, so cotton and the leather shelter you. Churned dust has settled. Soon the whore will be gone. And the artist. And Stow. And no one will trespass.
Father told you, “Life is power.” But death is power, too.

CHAPTER 19 – Carson and the SparrowI ignore the evil-looking men in the evil-looking car parked across the street. I enter my empty house. The main floor remains as I left it this morning, shaped by my familiar furniture. Yet changed. The living room, the same, but now alien. The dining room, the kitchen, the family room, all as I left them. And all alien. I climb the stairs to my pictures.
Through the years, they were real. I created them, touched them, spoke to them, befriended them, loved them, protected them.
Now they’re pictures. Nothing more. Paper and color. Cold and thin and shallow and meaningless. Something has replaced them. I speak her name and its sound fills my house. “Sparrow.”

The large male came to the airport. The sparrow might have stayed in Chicago and hidden someplace. But there is no place. Or taken the train or bus or rented a car. But they don’t run fast enough or far enough, and they don’t go to St. John. That is refuge when life becomes dust in Chicago’s eyes.

And of course, stupid mind, the large male knows all of this, knows there can be no train or bus or car, knows of St. John. So there it lurks and squints beside the gate.
“Hey, little lady, where’re you going?”

Emerge the voice, flat. “A message was left on the machine. There were no pictures. Now, a vacation. Just a week.”
“Yes, I got the message. It was great news. But you forgot to collect your pay.”

“It’ll be there next week.”
“You did a good job. Two good jobs. Judd said to give you a bonus. Takes care of his people.”

“Pity, there weren’t any interesting pictures.”
“Don’t be sorry. No news was good news. Anyhow, Judd wants to meet you.”

“Doesn’t this male avoid contact? No connections to anything?”
“I told him you were smart and good looking. He’s a bachelor. What can I tell you?”

Why not begin with truth? That there will be questions and pain for the sparrow, and nothing can change that. It all is decided. “O.K, next week.”
“No, now.”

“The bags are on the plane.”
“I’ll have the boys pick them up at the other end.”

“This gets the sparrow too close to the action. A promise was made.” What is the purpose of delay? Next week, today, whatever.
“Not smart to say, `No’ to him. Anyway, this is an honor for you, a face-to-face with the boss. Some of the boys never get that. After you see him I’ll put you on tomorrow’s plane. Promise.”

“Is everything all right? All that was asked was done.” How much does it know and how much does it only suspect?
“Sure, you did great. No fret.”

There will be no answers from Stow. It has no authority. The brother decides. The brother will want to know what the pictures held and whether any still exist. In any event they’ll need to protect themselves. They’ll move the corpse, if they haven’t already. “All right. First … look, a phone call. Aunt Tillie will be waiting at the airport. Aunt will be worried …”
“No, let’s just get going. He’s waiting.”

“… so worried, she’ll call the police. The boss won’t like that.”
“O.K. But be quick.”
My phone rings. There’s no reason for my phone to ring. It can’t be good. Funny, my mother used to say that, and I thought how weird it was. And here I am saying it. “Hello?”

“Hi Aunt Tillie,” her voice says. “Look, there isn’t much time.”
“Sparrow?”

“Yes, Aunt Tillie, that’s the sound of an airplane … at the airport … a message came … important business meeting. So the sparrow won’t arrive tonight.” Her voice pauses.
“Sparrow, I don’t understand.”

“… with the head of the company. Believe it? The head of the whole company. It’s a great honor. They sent a limousine. … tomorrow’s flight …. Yes, listen, today go to that favorite place. They’re pulling. Got to go. Remember, it’s important. Today, go to the favorite place. And Aunt Tillie … think love. Bye.”
I hear dial tone, so I put down the phone. “I love you, too.”

“Done. Aunt Tillie won’t worry now.” A stranger drives. A tinted window separates front from rear. Darkness here in back flows from the large male. A hand placed on this knee slides up. The knee moves itself away.

“Hey, what’s the problem? It’s an hour’s ride. Time for a quick one.”

“Has it been mentioned? This body is leaving the business. It will stay in St. John. It doesn’t want to return. Maybe find a good male. A gentle male. Maybe an accountant. A male that doesn’t carry a box filled of problems. Live in suburbs. Garden, shop, kids. All that.”
“Right. Sure. You, settling down with any one man. That’ll be the day. And a good man? Like maybe an artist?”

“Yes, maybe. Artist. Lawyer. Plumber. Why not? A citizen. No more People to please.”
“That sounds nice. Maybe an artist. But who knows? Judd’s a nice looking kid. After you meet Judd, who knows?”

“No, not the brother. Away from the business. The brother would be the last male. But don’t report this was said.”
“The last? I don’t think so. No, I won’t tell him. The last male. That’s pretty funny. Now come on over here.”
I go to the kitchen and sit at my table. But I don’t draw. Her words on the phone had sounded strange. Someone must have been with her. She called me “Aunt Tillie.” Yesterday she said she’d marry a man who had an Aunt Tillie. So was this a proposal, almost? And did I accept? Almost? She said she was going to meet with the head of the company. The head of the company? In her apartment she told me she worked for someone named “Stow.” The name, so odd a name, seems familiar. I’ve seen that name somewhere. Is Stow the head of the company?
I walk upstairs to the cabinet that contains newspaper clippings. I need fifteen minutes to find the article mentioning a “Stow.” There’s the picture. The man, Stow, acts as a pallbearer in a criminal’s funeral. Stow is barely visible in shadows. But I recognize him. Yes … he is the large man, from the woods. And next to him walks the person the newspaper identifies as Stow’s brother Judd, and it’s clear from the article that Judd is the head of the company.
I stare at the photo. When I look away, the halftone dots disperse and reassemble. Sparrow said I must go to my favorite place. Her strange voice, Aunt Tillie, the head of the company, my favorite place, the men parked outside, all mix and swirl within halftone dots. I stare at the light and force everything to assemble into a perfect picture.
And now I understand. The who and what and how and why, I understand them all. I know what Sparrow told me.
I take the clipping and one unused drawing pad and my box of pencils and several large brown envelopes, and lay them all at the top of the stairs. I run up to the attic and take down my small duffel bag. I pack my extra shirt, jeans, shoes, towel and soap, and rush everything down to the kitchen.
I sit at my drawing board and close my eyes to think. I draw several pictures. Though I hurry, they take longer than usual. But they must be the best I’ve ever done. They must be more than perfect. For Sparrow.
I put the last drawing into one of the brown envelopes and print my message on the outside. I put the pad and pencils and envelopes and the rest of the drawings into my duffel and go to my garage. I take the box of large, black, plastic leaf bags and my shovel from the wall, and go out to my car. Everything — duffel, shovel, plastic bags, knife, — goes into my trunk, all except the one brown envelope.
I close my trunk and back my car out. The black car still crouches across the street. Good. I back toward the car. The men inside stare away, though their engine starts. They keep their heads turned until I’m close, until they no longer can pretend and their faces come up. My car stops beside theirs and I step out. Surprise and anger twist out from their eyes and onto their faces.
I walk to the driver’s door. All windows remain closed. The men’s lips turn thin. Soundless hostility penetrates the glass. Otherwise their faces don’t move.
I lift the windshield wiper and place my envelope under and allow the wiper to snap back. The sharp sound frightens the bird from the nearby tree. I let the circling bird settle before I turn and walk back to my car and drive away.
On the envelope I’ve printed a message for the men to read through their windshield. “Take this to Judd. Do it. NOW.” As I round the corner I look back, but already their car has gone.
My bright red car is easy to see and to remember. So I’ll rent a small black one, safe and unobtrusive. When the time comes, they won’t recognize me. And the time is coming. Yes it’s. And won’t they be surprised.

CHAPTER 20 – The Sparrow and Judd”Please call me, `Judd.’ You are lovely as Stow said.” Strange, she doesn’t present the hard eyes of the whore. Rather, they are vacant, flat, almost unfocused, as though you don’t exist.

“Thanks. This is an honor.” It’s small and soft looking. This is Stow’s brother? Always it has been the small ones that hurt most.
She is better than you imagined. Her fine face, the curves of her body, and her long slender legs, no wonder she is good at her job. “Why?”

“Why?”
“Yes, miss. Why is this an honor?”

“Well … Stow talks about the brother. Many good things …”
“Stow talks? I can’t believe it. Stow do you talk about me?”
“No, boss. Never.”
“There, you see. Stow doesn’t talk about me. Yet you’ve heard things. So, if not from Stow, then from where? That’s the problem we have. Do you see?”

The trapping, small-talk of the bully. Small ones do that. “Problem, sir?” It all will be played out. There will be questions. There will be answers. There will be pain. And in the end … will the sparrow live? Does the sparrow now live? Whatever. But what of the artist?
“Yes. You’ve heard things. Perhaps things you shouldn’t hear. Things about me. Things about Stow. Things about others. It isn’t good for you to hear things.” This whore of Stow’s, her eyes look afar. She doesn’t reveal fear or any other emotion. She speaks as though reading.

“Nothing important is heard. This female does some legwork for Stow and reports to him. These eyes keep open and this mouth remains closed.”
“Your eyes open?”

“The job given is the job taken.”
“And beautiful eyes they are. So you are out there doing leg work, with your beautiful eyes open, seeing nothing important? How do you avoid seeing important things?”

“Thank you. The question? Please explain.”
“You are seeing with your beautiful eyes. You are doing leg work. And did I mention what lovely legs you have? They are quite beautifully shaped, perhaps your best feature. Yes, I should judge, your very best feature. And perhaps you see something important. What do you do?”

It enjoys its game. It enjoys its cleverness. It entertains itself. “Unsure. It hasn’t happened. What would be expected?”
“Your job is seeing things. Keeping abreast. And … excuse me, but you have exquisite breasts. Your job is seeing things and you never have seen anything important? How strange. To answer your question, I would wish you to tell me about it. Me and no one else. Will you do that?”

“Of course. All requests will be entertained.” And all entertainment will be requested. And it will be done.
“Good girl. I’d be angry if you withheld important information. You do understand what happens to people who anger me?”

Daddy said the sparrow was a good girl. But then daddy went away. “Yes, understood.”
“And what do you understand?”

Words, words, questions for which it already knows answers, and doesn’t want them. But soon it will finish. “They become dead.”
“Dead? Where did you hear that?”

“Here. There. It’s common … Maybe from Stow.”
“Again Stow? Really? Stow, did you ever tell this lovely, sensual woman such a thing? People become dead?”
“No boss, never.”
“Now this is becoming serious, young lady. The second time you have given me false information. Do you know about the gold digger?”

“The name has been heard.”
“Do you know what happened to her?”

“Some, not much.”
“Stow, does she know?”
“She knows, boss. She told me she knows.”
“There you have it. The third lie. This angers me.”

“Anger is vain.” Because the angry are vain. A poem spoke of the vanity of anger and the anger of vanity. It was one of the poems the artist didn’t see. Maybe, one day the artist will read the sparrow’s poems. Maybe, one day …
“Vain? We’ll see. Tell me about the gold digger’s demise.” You want to hear the words on her lips.

“Males tied the female on a table and did things.”
“I hope you won’t cry. Tears disturb me. What things?”

“There can be no tears. Things males will do if given the opportunity. Torture is the pleasure of the deficient.”
Arrogant bitch. We’ll see who’s deficient. “Tell me, what things?”

It plays its game. Like those who have said, `Talk dirty to me.’ Deficient. “Uncertain. They inserted a hook and pulled out her insides.”
So that was it. And Stow enjoyed her. Look at the pleasure in his eyes. “What was in the pictures you burned?”

Yes, now to the point. “There was nothing … what pictures?”
“Nothing? Then why did you burn them?”

“No pictures were burned.”
“Stow, how long did the gold digger’s entertainment last?”
“About two hours or so.”
“Two? Take this young lady into the basement and provide at least three hours worth. And don’t stuff her mouth. I want to hear her screams up here.”

It doesn’t want that. It wants this body for itself. It wishes to see fear. Give it what it wishes, as always. All entertainment is requested. All requests are entertained. “Wait. There were pictures. They showed Stow in the woods. But they all have been burned. All gone to ashes.”
Not so arrogant now. But this comes too abruptly. She shows no fear, then abruptly confesses. Which is pretense, the insolence or the fear? Perhaps she never will tell the truth. Perhaps she will die with a lie on her lips. So be it. “All gone?”

“Yes, gone. Burned.”
“Then you have nothing more to tell me. I can let Stow have you.”

“Except for two. Two. Left with a lawyer. If anything …”
“Yes, of course. If anything happens to you, this lawyer will give the pictures to the police. How original. Stow, give me your hand cuffs and leave us. I want to have a private discussion with this lady with the beautiful eyes, the exquisite breasts and the long, lovely legs.”
“O.K. I’ll be outside.”
“Now Miss, we shall talk. It can be pleasant for you. Or painful. It depends upon how you answer my questions. First, place your hands behind you. I apologize for making these handcuffs so tight.” You squeeze them but she doesn’t wince. She continues to seem far away, unaware. “Now come here to the bathroom. I don’t want to soil the rug. Kneel down so I can lay you on your back. I imagine this discomforts you, lying with your arms behind you on the hard tile.”
Lying here, she is the loveliest whore you ever have seen. Like a child, sweet, almost innocent. Her eyes close as though in sleep. Is she toying with you? “So … tell us the name of the lawyer who has the pictures. There is no lawyer, is there?”

“Yes, there is a lawyer. In the suburbs.”
A mood rushes through you. Anger. Her voice echoes flat, without meaning, around the glare white of the bathroom. The cold of the hard tile floor enters your knees. Father smiles at you. A smile of scorn. You should do better. You can if you try. There are ways. “We hate panty hose … lift up. Women have so many of these buttons … hooks … endless … stupid. There, that’s better. Pardon me while I undress, too.”

“All information has been given. What more is wanted?”
“I want to sample your skills. You’ve done this many times. You should be quite expert.”

“It would help to remove the handcuffs, though handcuffs are preferred by some males.”
“No.” Father, she is no better than the rest. She winks over my shoulder. I can feel it. “Damn. Damn you. Damn you.”

“It’s O.K. Just stay cool.”
“Damn you.”

“The anger is vain. This body could be of help. Remove the …”
“Like the other whores. Perhaps you believe this is humorous. I hear your laughter. I know how to end laughter.”

“It’s all right. There’s no rush. Nor laughter. Remove …”
“I know you whores. Father told me. He was right. You lie. Father showed me how to treat you whores. Do you know what this is?”

“A knife to open envelopes.”
“Wrong. A truth machine. You’ll see. Feel the sharpness. Now tell me the name of the lawyer.”

The sparrow is good daddy says
so the Misters’ had electric fingers.”Hurts bad.”
Finally, a reaction from her. Not so smart now. “So, you aren’t impervious to pain. Yes, it does hurt, doesn’t it. Now I want to hear you cry and feel you fight.”

Daddy went away and nothing hurt any more
Misters hurt the bad sparrow cry ple-e-e-a-se
where are you daddy”Da-a-a-a-d-d-y-y-y-y.”
“Yes, not so cool now. Here’s your daddy. The only one you have. Tell daddy everything. The artist, does he have any of the pictures.”

Don’t tell
daddy was heavy and hurt worse than tears
don’t remember
you are a good girl.”Answer, or do you wish it deeper?”

“Daddy … No pictures … daddy, no pictures … Please … don’t tell. Don’t tell … good girl. Good … can’t tell … hurts so bad … artist remembers, remembers, remem …”

The dumpster doctor’s door opened to the alley females
give cash in advance the dumpster doctor said
whiskey helps but the sparrow wanted punishment
and got more than it wanted later
the sparrow saw it newspaper-wrapped in the dumpster
doctor didn’t feel anything.”Sweat like the whore you are. But don’t faint. Father said don’t allow them to faint. Remembers? Who remembers?”

“Artist … remembers everything …. everything … please … killing … no, no, no … no … daddy, everything … every … ev…”
“Artist remembers? Remembers what? Are you saying he remembers what he has drawn and can re-draw it? Stay conscious, damn you.”

“Everything … yes … please, daddy, where are you … God, dying … dying …”
“So, the artist remembers. Thank you. Now, a little deeper, whore? Is there more you wish to tell to end this agony?”

“Daddy … told … everything … daddy said … don’t tell. Bad sparrow … bad … bad … sparrow.”
“Thank you. We are finished. You’ve made a mess here. Stow can take you now and do what he does.”
Daddy … sparrow told … sorry … hurt so bad
sparrow will die and no more pain.
“You did well. Now you may go with Stow.” Stow is a beast. He’ll take her and do God knows. Yet it was you who did this. You’ve become the beast. You don’t want to think about this. You stand and look into the mirror, and cruelty looks back. It’s a stranger’s face, dead white with staring eyes. What do you feel, with the whore at your feet? Exhaustion. You must go away from here.
“I’ll return in a moment. Stow, come in … what is that you’re holding?”
“It’s … the boys just brought it. Artist gave it to them. What did the whore say?”
“The boys talked to the artist?”
“No talk. He gave them the envelope and scrammed. Anyhow, what did the whore say?”
“They had the artist and didn’t grab him?”
“You said no citizens, until we’re sure. We weren’t sure. But we are now.”
“Give it here. Well, well, a photo of the woods. No, not a photo. A drawing. Is it? Yes, a drawing. Amazing. The perfection of it. There hangs your dear friend. His face is in shadow, but every other detail is clear and correct. And that fat body, unquestionably belongs to you. Absolutely perfect. But the artist didn’t draw your faces. He must not have seen them. Is that possible? Well, at least we know the artist was in the woods. He saw the act. And most importantly, he knows where the deceased lies. What will you do?”
“I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry. Couple hours. She dead? What did she say?”
“No, fainted. She said all the pictures are destroyed. I believe she was telling the truth, considering the duress she encountered. You’re going there to move the deceased?” “Right. So she said there’s no more pictures? What about this one?”
“She said he kept one. This must be it. But there are no more. Of that I’m sure. Take her with you. Find a new hole for the deceased.” Interesting. No faces. Everything else, but no faces. Yet the whore said … Strange. Why did he draw the picture with no faces? What does it mean? “Keep her alive until you have moved the body and all is done. In case we need her. After you deal with the artist … I suppose you must finish with her. There is no other way. She knows everything. Stow, there is no other way, is there?”
“No. No other way. I’ll handle it. You look like crap. You O.K?”
“Of course. O.K.” You are O.K. An O.K. guy killed your brother. O.K. guys do many evil things.
After Stow leaves, you walk back to the bathroom. Blood darkens the tile. Not too much. Just small patches. It seemed like more, when it ran along her thighs. And when she screamed for her “daddy.”
You wet some toilet paper and kneel to wipe away her blood. You felt her pain and in your passion, thought you enjoyed it. Suddenly you fill with crushing remorse and regret. You think of her and she no longer is “the whore.” You hear her voice echo from the tile. Her blood smears beneath your finger tips. You wish to tell her how sorry you are. You wish to brush her hair from her eyes and to kiss her forehead.
Lines of tile dislocate before you. Her face is in the lines. Like a Picasso. You never liked Picasso. The angular and the ugly. And later, fat women. Father didn’t like him.
Her face asks, `Who are you become?’ The words, “Who are you become,” when you speak them aloud they surprise you. What does it mean, `Who are you become?’ Is this who you are become?
If she dies, you will have killed her. Your first killing and it’s a young woman. And she has left you with feelings. Like love, no, not love. Like compassion, like pity, like … something strong in your chest, twisting, a feeling you haven’t had, something with no name.
Father didn’t tell you of these feelings. Perhaps he didn’t know. Or if he knew, he didn’t share. Father didn’t share. He gave sometimes, and sometimes he took. But he didn’t share.
You feel tired. You want to sleep on this cool tile, to sleep on the shadows of her blood. Everything is changed. You realize what you knew. Though you tried, this isn’t you. It’s Father and it’s Stow and it’s the others. Father named you boss, and you took it as an honor and as love, but now you see it was spite. Father saw your weakness. He despised you, because he couldn’t understand. His eyes watch you. They accuse you of fear.
Her blood, seeped dark into the spaces between the tiles, won’t come out. You take out your tooth brush and soap it, and you scrub and scrub, but the dark lines of her remain.
And why did you lie to Stow about knowing there’s only that one picture? Father said always to lie half the time. It keeps them unsure. Everything now is unsure.
You sit alone in your torn leather chair. You squint at the photo-perfect drawing spread on your lap, then lean back, deep into the loose, white cotton.
`The artist remembers,’ she had said. The artist can redraw what he has seen. But this drawing doesn’t show faces. So perhaps the artist couldn’t see the faces. Perhaps he was too far, or the shadows were too deep. Pity, for if he had seen the faces, and drawn them in his photo-perfect manner, it would be the end of Stow. The People would demand it. “Why, artist, why did you not draw the faces?”
The artist witnessed. He drew the scene, but without faces, only the corpse itself can provide conclusive evidence. The corpse will be moved and hidden. Then the artist and the whore can be laid with the corpse, and his faceless pictures will mean nothing.
You let the picture slide to the floor and close your eyes. You see the tree limb sag above the tied man. Sun rays sift through branches and define black shadows across the tied man’s invisible face. The rope disappears into the tied man’s wrists, stretched high above the head. The tied man’s head tilts back in a long, silent scream. The hollow body and the mud below it ooze blackness. A man holds a knife, but he turns away. No one is recognized.
And below, in calm, graceful script, float the words, “Release her.”
“If only you had drawn faces.”

CHAPTER 21 – CarsonSun crawls up through the bushes, not yet to the trees. I park and lift my shovel from my car trunk and edge down through Schiller Park woods to my favorite place, where I never will come again.
The breeze isn’t quiet. Though soft, it screams with the tied man’s voice. Bare tree limbs, like the tied man’s arms, rise up in agony. The feel of horror hangs in the air.
I need to keep going. Digging goes easily. The earth yields to me, fresh, soft, innocent spring soil. Good soil.
But the tied man is bad. Though my knife is sharp, the tied man struggles and contorts and resists this one last time. Gasses and liquid blues and whites and dark colors and twisted and puffed and muddy and terrible smells and loose pieces, requiring two large, plastic bags, one to hold the body, and one to hold the legs and head.
I refill the hole, but before the final shovelful, I throw in the brown envelope, where the first digger will find it.
The tied man slips apart in the bags and makes himself difficult to carry and difficult to put in my trunk.
I spread a cloth to protect the driver’s seat from mud, then drive several miles to the Skokie Lagoons, another forest preserve. I park in a remote area and carry the tied man in his bag to the place least visible from the road and seldom visited by people, though animals know it well.
I trudge back to my car and return with my shovel and duffel. Here, root-filled land resists me, but I won’t be stopped. I roll the bag of tied man into the ground where he now belongs and cover everything.
I take off all my clothes. Cold lagoon water penetrates me and numbs my shoulders. Shivering, I soap all over and rinse, savoring the icy pain that strengthens my purpose, and I scrub dry with the towel and pull on fresh clothes from my duffel.
I climb to the road and squint back toward where I’ve been, then all around at the far shore. All is peace. The surface of the water reflects the distant trees, clear as the trees themselves. I ache to draw it, but I’m captive to the situation now.
I toss my duffel and shovel into my trunk, then sit in the front seat. I put several drawings and maps in the large brown envelope I’ve stamped and addressed to myself at the agency. The envelope will arrive there and remain on my desk. No one will open it unless I don’t come in for at least two or three days. If all goes well, I’ll have time to retrieve the drawings and maps. If not, they’re a measure of insurance. They tell everything.
My car engine growls in the stillness. The rumble reflects from the far shore. I maneuver the empty road, out of the park, into traffic, and search until I find a mail box.
Then I drive back toward the Schiller Park area, where the tied man hung. My mind fights to stay with the plan, but keeps leaping back to Sparrow. I pray they haven’t hurt her. I love her so much my body shakes. How can I love a person I don’t know? Maybe that’s the only love I can have.
Sparrow, I miss you so much. I hope to God, I’m doing right.
I park hidden outside the park entrance and walk in to my place. Soon they will come. And I will see them and see if they have found the envelope and follow them out and know where they go.
And I will deliver them another message.

CHAPTER 22 – Carson and the Sparrow and JuddHere comes the car. I know it by the ominous black of it, seeming to suck the color and life from the air. Callous tires crush the road gravel. The doors wrench open. Two men come out. One is the large man.

These hands are still behind so there must be handcuffs. Things happen outside the body, but pain has left and there remains only weariness, deep and dark, in the back of this car. And as sleep comes and goes, the large male does what he does … and does … and does. But it’s done to another body or at another time, because nothing is felt. Forever.

It stops.

Light enters here. Metal rattles outside. The weight lifts off and the large male struggles out and zips and buttons and tucks shirt into pants and hooks the belt.

The hand reaches back into the car and pulls this body out onto the gravel with knees. A face comes from somewhere, down to peer into these eyes. Thumbs hold the lids open. A finger touches the side of the neck. The face turns and nods up to the large male. The arm of the large male lifts the body. Two shovels stand under a hand.
They have Sparrow. They have Sparrow and they have hurt her. She lives. But they have her and they have hurt her.

The head must have flopped back because sun becomes bright in these eyes. A hand pulls the head forward. The car door reflects the body, its hair hanging in wet strings, and dark blood on the hanging legs and no shoes.

An arm is under these shoulders, and a hand holds to a breast. Lips press the side of the forehead.
My body quivers to rush at them, to fling upon them, to tear at their eyes, to rip and claw and chew at their throats. I need their blood on my teeth. I need death. I need it.
No. Don’t do something that will kill Sparrow. They’re taking her to the place. They’ll find the envelope. They’ll know with certainty that I saw them and can draw them. They’ll want me. They’ll need Sparrow to keep me from the police. Only me alive and free can keep her alive.

Down into the woods, these toes must be dragging through gravel and grass and mud and old leaves and darkness, though nothing is sensed. Strange how nothing is sensed. It comforts.

All is blurred. Digging happens. Mud and curses. The ground hole opens, dark and peaceful, a place for sleep. The large male holds this body above the hole. It’s time and there is no concern. Lay the body large male, and cover it against tomorrow.

But the large male turns away and carries out of the woods. The body hangs over its shoulder. A shovel is dirty. There is a brown envelope. The car door opens. This body is laid inside. A voice says, “Want a shot? I’ll drive.” There, a knee comes up. It must belong to this body. And there, another. Some Mister climbs between. The Mister is heavy. But there are no electric fingers, and no hurt. How odd.
The grinding sound of gravel fades and disappears. My hatred flays me. Hot irons sizzle through my flesh to my bones. My anger is real. My emotion colors my senses. I can’t turn the page. I have reality to do and nothing to copy. And that’s a very good thing. My anger is good. My hatred is good. I revel in it. Why? Sparrow.
“Gone? What do you mean Stow, `Gone’?”
“Gone. Dug up. Someone took him and stuck this envelope in the hole.”
You take the envelope and remove the drawing. The tree limb sags above the tied man. The rope disappears into the tied man’s wrists, stretched high above the head. The hollow body and the mud ooze blackness. A man holds a knife, but he faces away. Sun sifts through branches and defines black shadows across the tied man’s face, which this time is visible and every detail of the face is perfect.
And below, in the calm, graceful script, again are written the words, “Release her.”
You press your lips to hold in the tense laughter that aches to explode. “Someone took …?” you mock. You stand and walk to the window, facing away so that Stow doesn’t see your twisted face. “Who… do you think took?”
“The artist. I thought you said there weren’t any more pictures.”
“Yes, the artist. And he presents us with another picture. What do we know with certainty? The artist saw the killing. He took the body. The first picture contained no faces. This picture contains one, the corpse’s. But none other. Why? When he first saw you, was it too dark to see features, and only now, when he digs up the body, is he able to see that one face and draw it? No. Not possible. The face would be distorted by death and worms. This drawing doesn’t depict a buried man’s face. The face lives. It screams. So why now the one face? And the girl? Where is she? How is her health?”
“Bleeding’s almost stopped. Sleeping, last I saw. Head’s kind of hot. Can’t stand. Legs don’t work. She’s in the car with one of the boys. Figured we better hold on to her.”
“Good. Smart. Get her off the street. Bring her in here for now. The artist seems not to want to speak with the police while we have her. The key is to find the body. He can prove nothing without the body. Our holding the girl will give you time to find the artist. You’ll need to encourage him to tell you where the body is. Then hide it, and take care of the rest.”
“Sure, real simple. How do we find …”
“Go to his home. Wait for him.”
“Why there? He knows we’re looking for him. That’d be the last place he’d hide.”
“He’ll go there. I understand him now. His life is there. His home. His pictures. Bring the girl in to me. He wants the girl. He needs to meet you to negotiate her release. Yes, go to the artist’s house. In fact, he expects you.”

CHAPTER 23 – Judd and the Sparrow and CarsonStow has left to find the artist. You sit alone and empty. Everything has gone from you but your thoughts. Thoughts and regrets. They’ve come home.
You’ve carried her up to your bedroom, and now she lies small and frail on the covers. You kneel. Her hand hangs toward the floor. You hold it in both of yours. Her skin is so very pale. Her chest sometimes rises, then falls, and you wait for each rise, expecting there never will be another.
You rest your lips on her hot cheek. You kiss her closed eyes. You wet a cloth and bring it to her head. Who did this awful thing to her? You did. No. Can it be?
You were nothing for so long. Now you’ve gone from nothing to something evil. The old man denies his age while he wonders, when did this happen? The evil man denies, but doesn’t wonder. He doesn’t wish to know.
Her lips move and a word hisses out. But you can’t hear it. A shiver trembles through her. You take a light blanket and cover her. You don’t know what to do. Hot skin and cold shivers. How does one treat that?

Cold Christmas tied to the bed reindeer
ride the magic red towel high
and away they can’t reach with sharp gray fingers
pay … gray,play,pray …”Please, God.”
Her lips fluttered again. Something. “`God?’ You called to God? Yes, He loves you.” She stops as though she hears. There was no reason for this. You didn’t want this. Father wanted it. And Stow. And the gold digger. And our People. “Don’t die, little one. I’ll care for you here. I won’t let them hurt you any more.” Them?
You feel madness, and welcome the protection it brings you. Madness saturates the world. Father, Stow, our People, all mad. The tortures, madness. The killing, madness. The fear, the greed, the hatred, all madness. And you are caught in this, surrounded like snow at Fathers grave, whirling within mirrors that expose your evil. You are caught in this. More than caught. You are this. Yet you aren’t and can’t be this. Oh, torn. Tied between stallions.
What is this girl’s real name? You did this and you don’t know her name. You notice tears chilling your face. Tears? You? It pleases you, not to fight the appearance of weakness. Let the sharks see. Let the sharks chew one another.
The girl will die. To die alone in a strange place, or to die in the company of strangers. That is the greatest sorrow. Greater than death itself.
Someone prowls around outside. Where are the boys? You sent them to the artist. Is it the mailman? No, ringing the bell. Mailmen don’t ring bells? Go downstairs and look though the peephole. A kid. “Get out of here kid.”
“Messenger.”
He has a brown envelope. Another damned brown envelope from the damned artist? He must know where you live. Humorous. You know where he lives and he knows where you live. It’s even.
“Give it here, kid.”
What is the latest damned picture from the damned artist? Again, the woods. The same as the previous pictures, except there stands recognizable Stow. Finally. A perfect portrait of Stow. Stow’s eyes look out from the paper. Is that fear? Or guilt? No, Stow doesn’t know those feelings. It’s rage. These are the eyes of the captured animal. The artist has imprisoned Stow on paper. More than imprisoned. Killed. The People will see to it.
The artist surely has created other pictures containing Stow. Probably sent some to the police. By now the world has seen Stow at work. Clumsy, stupid Stow allowed himself to be seen.
So clumsy, stupid Stow must die. It’s Father’s way. It must be your way. Perhaps Stow will already have killed the artist. Perhaps not. No matter. The artist can’t prove you were involved. If Stow dies and the girl dies, the proof dies. They are the only ones who can implicate you.
You lift the gun from the drawer to bring it upstairs. It resists, heavy in your hand. You never have fired it or any gun, and that shames you.
You carry the gun into the bedroom and point it at the girl. “I’m sorry about you, little girl. So very sorry. You will die. It isn’t my doing. It began with Father. And perhaps, with Father’s father. They created the pattern I’m obliged to follow.”
You place your hand on her closed eyes. “Your head still feels hot. Stow is the fortunate one. He’ll die in the company of his brother in his brother’s house. He won’t know the sorrow of loneliness.
“But little girl, you won’t be so blessed. I understand. I grew up alone. Though I lived in the same house as Father, I lived apart. Father tended business and without glancing back, designed my life.
“I didn’t mean to injure you, little girl. I can’t have meant that. I can’t have meant anything, for there’s no meaning to anything.”
Your shoulder aches from extending the gun toward her. You let your arm fall. There’s time. You fear the gun. You fear its sound, its power, its violence, the way it will kick in your hand, perhaps hurting you. You turn from her and sit on the floor, leaning your back against the bed. “We’ll wait together. I can give you that much time. Until Stow arrives.”
I park a block away and run beneath the sallow sky to my house. The large man might have arrived already. I look around for the black car. Not here. Maybe he took another.
I have to hurry. He’ll soon come. I fold my picture into the envelope and place it inside my storm door. The envelope will be the first thing the large man will see. It’ll be the last picture. No more will be needed. The mark of an artist is knowing where to stop.
I turn to get away from here, but I see the black car come around the corner. Have to get out of view. Where? In the house. I open the door and get in and close the door. What if they saw me? What if they come in?
Where can I hide? Basement? No, they go there. Where? Attic.
I race upstairs and pull down the attic ladder and climb up and pull the ladder up after me and close the attic door. No light, except what seeps through the roof vent. If they come in, they won’t expect me to be up here. But they probably won’t come in. The envelope will stop them.
They’ve hurt Sparrow, my friend, my love. I feel wildness. I feel fury quake in my hands and my chest. Fear and fury, red and black. And love. What are the colors of love? What are the shapes? All new to me, and frightening.
Their voices enter the attic through the roof vent as though they are above me rather than below. They find the picture between the doors. “Well, damn. Look at this picture. What the hell does it mean? The artist’s got Judd holding the knife. Can you believe it? Better get this to Judd.” Nervous laughter.
“Stow, he thinks Judd did it, instead of… ” ” … Shut up. Gimme that picture. Let’s take another look around before we get out of here.”
Their voices come softer through the vent. Soon, their laughter has disappeared, but I still feel their fear. Or is it mine?
Have they gone? I don’t move. I can’t hear anything. A sound. Something’s happening. I hear them. In the house. They came in through the basement.
“We already been through this.” “One more look won’t hurt. Try those drawers again.” “There’s nothing, like before. Just some faces and feet and crap.” “How about the attic?” “Does this place have an attic?” “That’s the door, up there in the ceiling. Pull it down.”
Light glares through as the door opens and the ladder slides down. I shrink into the darkest, farthest corner. A face comes up, lit from below in demon fashion.
“Nothing up here. Just dust. He doesn’t keep anything in the attic.” “Let me see.”
The face disappears and is replaced by the animal face of the large man. His eyes look toward me, piercing the dark. My calf cramps under me. I can’t hold this position. I have to move. I have to. His eyes penetrate me. Please, the pain …
His face disappears. The door closes. It’s dark again. I hear them outside now, through the roof vent. Their voices disappear. They’ve gone and taken with them the picture that shows Judd committing the murder.
I climb down from the attic, carrying my fear and my fury and my love. I wait a short while before calling the police. This time, when the voice answers, I speak.
You watch the shallow tremble of her chest. “Keep breathing, little girl. Take one, then another. Don’t surrender. You have time remaining. Meaningless time perhaps, but that is all there is in this meaningless world.”
Ah, you hear the car. Stow arrives. The rasp of his voice pierces the wall. “You boys go take a walk. Leave the car here. I want to talk with Judd alone.”
You hear Stow enter the house. “Hey, Judd. Yo, Judd.”
You don’t move. You don’t speak.
“Judd, you up there? Come on down. I want to show you something.”
You slide behind the bedroom door. The gun weighs on you. The metal smells sharp and fierce in your hand. The gun knocks against the door and the sound echoes down the stairs.
“Judd, that you?”
You hear the stairs groan under him. The large man stalks, he climbs one step, another, placing his shoes flat to stifle his tread.
He stops. Silence. Silence.
“Judd?” His voice feels soft. “It’s me, Stow. Your brother. I’ve got something to show you. It’s good.” His words flow like warm milk. He calls you his brother. He never speaks with such friendship. It’s to trap you. He knows where you are, and knowing where, he knows why. He knows you plan to kill him and he will kill you first. He must know about the latest picture from the artist. He has come to kill his own brother. Without reason.
You hear Stow’s gun click to ready. Do you? Was the sound real? Stow takes one step up. “Judd?” He takes another step. Another. He almost is at the top. It’s now. He will kill you. You must kill him first. You must. You must.
He calls out, “Judd This clears us. The artist didn’t see as much as we thought. He’s just guessing.”
You leap from behind the door.
Stow sees your face and your gun. He screams, “Wait. What the hell kind of game …?”
Father gave you this gun, but you never have used it, and as you aim it, you wonder whether it will fire. Perhaps the gun is too old. Or the bullets are stale. Or the lock is on.
And you wonder whether you will aim well enough.
And how terrible the jolt to your arm will feel.
And how loud the sound will be.
And how many shots will be required to stop that massive hulk.
You wonder all this as you watch rage twist Stow’s face, just like in the artist’s picture.
You wonder all this as Stow’s arms come up before his face. Something’s wrong.
And as his head ducks to the side, something’s wrong.
And as his massive shoulders twist away. Wrong.
And as his body tilts backwards, and as a dot appears on his forehead. And as you try to remember pulling the trigger. You must have, but you can’t remember.
The great pulsing sound surrounds you and beats at you in a slow, deep cadence. Stow rises from the stairs, up and up, and he glides back into space. Something was wrong. But it’s too late now.
His legs drift up and over, turn, turn, turn. Much time passes before his head contacts the floor below and his body follows, crushing down on his head, as though his body were a huge mass of soft clay.
The pulsing sound quiets. Stow doesn’t move. Something was wrong. Blood emerges from the depression in his head and puddles against his face and over one of his open eyes, and enters his mouth. Soon the blood covers his eye, but Stow doesn’t blink.
One question was answered. Only a single shot was required. The rest is mystery. But something was wrong. What was it?
You walk down the stairs to Stow. His right hand holds an envelope, one more damned envelope from the damned artist. Stow’s left hand holds nothing. Your eyes explore the stairs and the floor. You roll his body over to search beneath. But there’s nothing. The nothing is the something. Stow didn’t have a gun.
You realize you knew that before you pulled the trigger. You could have stopped. You remember the instant of awareness when you could have taken your finger from the trigger. But you didn’t.
You squat beside Stow. His face sags to one side. His open eye is covered by congealing blood. The other, its light extinguishing, stares at you. It sees nothing so there is no more need for you to pretend.
“I’m sorry, Stow. Father made me evil. Father made you evil, too. Now you’re gone, so there’s less evil in the world. Each time an evil dies, the world becomes better. With your help, I’ve made the world better.”
You take the envelope from Stow’s hand and walk to Fathers ragged chair. You slide out the picture. Again the woods. Again the tied man, in loving detail. And something different. Stow isn’t there. Who is the man with the knife?
You. The artist has placed you at the scene. But you weren’t there. Not even close. Yet there you are, as clear as in a photograph. The artist has seen you or seen a photograph of you, and he inserted your face and figure into the killing. The face looks out at you. It’s perfect. It’s beyond perfect. It’s you.
You stare at the picture. Its perfection creates the false memory that you were there. You hold the knife. Your hand enters the tied man’s body. Steaming blood pours over your arm. And the tied man looks at you … with Stow’s face.
You stare into the picture and see yourself. You see the slit, snake eyes and sharpened teeth the mirrors had hidden. You see the cruelty, the cowardice, the evil. It’s you, this alien face. The artist knows you. How can he?
The eyes are Father’s. You never noticed that before. And the lips, Father’s. The face is the brass-framed photo on Father’s grave.
It all is so funny. Laughter churns inside you, but won’t come out. It just boils and beats against the inside of your chest.
What’s that sound outside? Lights blinking. You rise and go to the window. Police cars. So soon? How did they know? You can claim self defense. Stow tried to kill you. You took his gun from him. Yes, self defense would work.
But what of the picture showing you at the scene? Destroy it. But if the artist drew one, he could draw another. But even if he drew a hundred, courts could never convict you from a drawing.
But The People won’t wait for courts. The People don’t like police eyes. They’ll believe you endanger them. For them, you’re ended. Like the gold digger. Everything for the People, even your life. This is Father’s design.
Will you stay for the People? Will you crouch in terror, waiting for the friend who isn’t a friend, the O.K. guy? Will you hide far away, to be tracked and found? Will you beg for their mercy? Will you allow them to remove pieces of you at their leisure and amusement?
Father grants you his answer. Relief. It’s over. No more cursing the fates. No more fear. No more lies to the mirror. You realize the voice you’ve heard in your dreams is Father’s, calling you, pulling you, drawing you to him. You ran away, you tried to escape the mad chaos, yet you were drawn by the irresistible force from the grave.
Needles of regret pierce you. Never to have loved a woman. Never to have loved at all. Never to have been loved. And … the girl and the gold digger, both sacrificed on the alter. They didn’t deserve it. The gold digger’s husband didn’t deserve it. Stow didn’t deserve it. You don’t deserve it.
Everyone gets what they don’t deserve.
You walk back up to the girl. She hasn’t moved on the bed. “Well little girl, it looks like I am the fortunate one, after all. I’ll be taken away. My pain will disappear and you still have yours. What will become of you without me? What will become of the world?” You wish you hadn’t hurt her. Perhaps one day she would have been the one to love you. You take a sheet of paper and pen. There is something important you must say, something profound and revealing, to give purpose to your pain. But all you can think of is:

“Father:

I’m sorry I didn’t deserve.

Judd”
It’s enough.
You step to the place beside the bed, exactly where Father stood that night. Suddenly you remember. You saw it, and now you remember it clearly.
Exactly as Father did, you place the gun under your chin, and you wonder how loud the sound will be.
“And how will the jolt feel, Father?
And will there be pain?
And is there a hell? And Father, will we be togeth…”

CHAPTER 24 – Carson and the Sparrow”Doctor, will she be …?”
“With coma, hard to tell. Massive infection. Temperature. For a young person, she hasn’t taken care of herself. Abused her body. Internally she’s older than she looks. You are her …?”
“Friend.”
“Has she family? They should be called.”
“None that I know. Only me.”
“The next few hours, a day or two at most … then we’ll know. It could go one way or the other.”
“She wouldn’t want to be on machines. You know, endlessly.”
“Right now, machines are all she has.”
“I want to stay with her.”
“I understand, though it’s unnecessary. She won’t know you’re here. She’ll be out a while. A nurse will sit in the room to watch her.”
“May I talk to her.”
“Yes, but don’t expect a reaction. There’s a long way to go, if ever … the sharp object … her spine … nerve …”
The doctors words fade out and away beyond the horizon. I stand alone within myself, not letting light or sound or feeling enter me.
The meager room crushes us with its stained walls and unwashed windows that admit neither day nor night. The nurse crowds to her tiny desk, writing, shuffling, folding papers. She wears a white uniform and a hat shaped like a white, china rose.
The bed seems too small for a person, except Sparrow has shrunk into it. Liquid dripping down the plastic tube is pale pink, like watered blood, pale and thin and weak. A droplet grows in the top of the vial. When it’s large enough, it falls to the bottom and disappears, and already another has begun.
“Sparrow, can you hear me, wherever you are? It’s Carson, your artist. I have things to tell you. And to ask you.”
The nurse clears her throat. Is it to remind me she is here? So I won’t say anything to embarrass anyone? To embarrass whom? Not Sparrow. Not me. Her, the nurse. “I love her very much.”
“I know. I can tell.”
“I hope you don’t mind if I tell her.”
“No. Maybe it’ll help. Strong love’s strong medicine.”
“We haven’t known each other very long. Not much more than a few hours. Yet I love her with all my life.”
“That happens.”
“Have you ever felt that way?”
“Yes. Briefly.”
“Then what happened?”
“I got to know him better and I met other men, and then I didn’t love him so much.”
“That happened to me.” I cared for me only. But now I know me better. And I met her. And now I don’t love me as much. I’ve learned.”
“It’s a hard way.”
I’ve learned the tied man was human, even after he died. Judd was human. Even Stow. Sparrow is, and so am I. Not pictures, but real people. “The bottle almost is empty.”
“Time for a new one.”
“The doctor thinks she’s going to die. I can tell.”
“It’s not up to the doctor. It’s up to God. She’s alive. Don’t give up on her.”
“I never will.” A drop comes every four seconds. A thousand and one, a thousand and two… She breathes every two drops. Flimsy, shuddering little breaths. Drip, drip, breathe. “Sparrow, it’s me. I’m still here. I’ll stay with you. I’ll never leave you.” Drip, drip, breathe. Drip, drip, breathe.
I don’t know how long I’ve sat here. Maybe four or five hours. We have a new nurse. The first nurse left a glow in her corner that this nurse has smothered. The bottle has been changed twice. And I’ve been talking to Sparrow the whole time, more talking than I’ve done in my life.
The first nurse said talking might help, but I’m not sure whether she meant Sparrow or me. Or was it even a nurse who said it?
I didn’t tend my mother.
I’ve grown less self-conscious about the nurse, and I’ve begun tell Sparrow details of how I feel about her, my thoughts in the agency conference room and in her apartment and when I drew the pictures.

I must have slept. Night struggles through the window, but in here it’s the same light. Sparrow continues her shallow breaths. Except for the tubes, she doesn’t look sick. Her face is pale, like the face of a porcelain princess, pale and calm and pretty and still.
I lean forward to kiss her cheek, and I feel my muscle stiffness. I stand and stretch and look down at her. Her face has moved. Is that a smile?
The nurse with blank eyes changes a bottle. Her manner says it’s meaningless, this changing of bottles. It’s what hospitals do when there’s nothing else. The nurse with blank eyes has served death too long even to ask for the order. She knows. When her own time comes, she’ll walk hand-in-hand with her patron, leading the way.
I take Sparrow’s hand. It dangles cool and damp and limp. I bend and kiss her fingers. I remember kneeling beside her bed in her apartment. “I love you. Can you hear me? I love you.” I am overwhelmed with love and dread — the most powerful love.
Morning light and the doctor arrive at about the same time. He isn’t the same doctor as yesterday. He glances at Sparrow, then studies his clipboard.
“Doctor, is there anything …?”
“I’m sorry.”
Sorry? Why is he sorry? What is he telling me? I don’t want to hear. “I love her.” Why did I say that? I wanted him to understand that he has to do something, that he can’t ignore her and study charts, that she isn’t just something attached to tubes. She’s important. She’s somebody I love. She’s somebody.
But he wouldn’t care. She’s one of so many he must visit, one of so many charts he must study. She’s not important to him. Only to me. I believe she’s not even important to herself.
But the doctor says he’s sorry. Everyone’s sorry. Judd’s note said he was sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tend my mother. My mother was sorry food didn’t taste the way it used to. It’s a sorry world.
I realize I haven’t eaten. “Why doctor, why are you sorry? You don’t even know her name.” God, I don’t know her name. No one does. The agency thinks it’s Amy Jordan. The agency’s insurance thinks it’s Amy Jordan.
“Yes it’s, ah … Jordan. Sorry for disturbing you. You should go home and rest. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“But you Doctor, is there anything you can do here?”
“No frankly, nothing.”
“And Sparrow, is there anything she …”
“Who?”
“Sparrow. Her.”
“Oh, is that her name? Pretty name.”
“No, that’s not her name. It’s what people call her, but it’s not her name. Her doctor doesn’t know her name. The man who loves her doesn’t know her name. She’ll die without her name.”
“Go home. Get some sleep. We’ll call you if …”
“What will you call me?” Giggles surprise me. How clever that line was. What can anyone call me? Carson? But Carson draws. Giggles engulf me and when I look around the doctor has gone and nurse is changing a bottle.
At noon they bring me a tray. It was nice of them. I try to nibble, but I’m sorry, food doesn’t taste the way it used to.

At four, I have to go to the bathroom, bad. But when I go in and sit, the feeling leaves me. I decide to stay there, with the light out.

I fell asleep and bumped my head on the wall. I didn’t go. When I come out the room is empty. Even the bed is gone. I’m disoriented. Why am I here? Where is here?
“Sparrow,” I call. “Sparrow, where are you?” I run down the hall. “Sparrow, Sparrow. Nurse, where is she? Why did they move her?”
“The lady in …?”
“Yes, yes. Where? Why?
“They took her to another … There’s the doctor.”
“Doctor, where is she.”
“Room 709. But please don’t …”
I rush past the doctor, into her room. Her skin matches the sheets. I don’t see her breathe. There are no drips to make her breathe. “Oh Sparrow, please don’t be dead. Honey, I need you.” I kiss her cool lips and whisper, “I love you, Sparrow. I’ll stay here with you until you’re better. Tell me, honey. Tell me what you feel.”

Far away. Sounds. Voices. Words. Far away. Everything’s far away. Except the pain.

Huddle in lightning
raining lye peels skin and muscles
smoke to the bone again
the thunder sounds nuh, nuh, nuh words
rising from deep boiling waters.”Sparrow, I won’t leave you. I don’t have an Aunt Tillie, but I’ll lift you when you fall and I’ll salve your hurts, and we’ll live ever after.”

“I’m glad. Carson.”
The doctor takes my arm and pulls me from the room. He looks like he was just hit in the head. “I don’t know what you did, but … anyhow, now you must let her rest. The next few days are important.”
“Doctor will she be all right”
“She’s had very serious trauma. A great deal of damage, physical, emotional. But she’s doing surprisingly well. In other words, who the hell knows. I’m amazed she’s got this far. O.K? Now, let’s give her time. Go home. Rest. You look worse than she does. Rest, then come in tomorrow.”

I slept well last night, and this morning I wake amazed at past events. They seem unreal. I call her hospital room, but there’s no answer. I call the floor and a nurse tells me they’ve taken her back into surgery, but there’s no word.
I drive to the hospital. The desk says she’s still in surgery. The doctor has left a message. “She said she doesn’t want to see you now. You’re supposed to go home. Call in periodically.”
The day has passed in exhaustion. Several calls to the hospital have yielded nothing. I’m not hungry for dinner, but I cook it anyway. The phone rings. It’s the doctor. The operation was “difficult … some problems … infection … nerve damage … recuperate … convalescence … I’m sorry … She doesn’t want to see you. I think it would be best for her if you didn’t come to the hospital yet.”

Each day for the past three weeks I’ve called. Each time I’m told nothing other than she is improving, but she was most emphatic that she didn’t want to see me. Now as I dial, it’s almost by rote, expecting the same answers to the same questions. The same and the same and the same.
Except this time, they tell me she’s left the hospital.
“Gone? Where did she go?”
They don’t know.
“But how was she. Is she O.K? Did she transfer to another hospital?”
There’s nothing more they can say. I’m not a relative. Sparrow asked that all information remain confidential. They’re sorry, but that’s all they can tell me.
So that’s it. She’s gone. She entered my life and then she left. She promised nothing and asked nothing. She didn’t ask for my soul. I offered it. She didn’t take it. I threw it after her.
I rushed to her, like in a TV commercial shot in a field, rushed with my arms spread. But she turned from me.
And now she’s gone.

CHAPTER 25 – Carson and SparrowThree years later.
The woman says, “Carson, you’ve been acting strangely since that letter came, studying it off and on for days. Who is it from?”
“Someone I used to know.”
“Someone who writes from St. John? Who?
“You don’t know her.
“Her?”
I hear her apprehension. I have been acting strangely, and it has been since the letter arrived. I’d wanted to tell her about Sparrow. I couldn’t.
Though memories remain, the ache has softened. I’ve even stopped drawing her. There’s no way to explain what my feelings for Sparrow were or are. I loved a stranger. I felt the blend of passion and fear, powerful yet fragile. It was a “stranger-love,” in all variations of meaning. Now for many months I haven’t spoken Sparrow’s name.
“Carson, tell me about this woman.”
“We once were friends, sort of.”
She tries to hide her shuddering breath. “An old girlfriend? What’s her name. Have you ever mentioned her? Hey, where are you going? It’s the middle of the night. Come back to bed.”
Was Sparrow my girlfriend? “No, not a girlfriend. Not like you. Her name? I guess, I really don’t know.” I want to leave now. “I’m going to the airport.”
“You’re going to meet her. Wait, if you insist on acting crazy, I’ll come with you.”
“No, I have to go alone.” I look across at her, this gentle person to whom I’ve promised much and given almost, but not quite, all I’ve promised. Not a wedding. Almost everything but that. Does she want the wedding more than she wants me? That’s unfair. She’s been true. And I do feel a kind of love for her.
“Must you?”
And now Sparrow. What do I feel for her? Guilt? Regret? Why am I doing this? Everything is fine. Planned, orderly and fine. I have a good woman. I’ll have a good marriage and good children and a good life. My painful memories have been worn down by time. Everything’s perfect. Yet incomplete. Wanting. Wanting. “Yes, I must.”
“Carson, don’t go. I mean it. It’s a snowstorm outside. Please, dear. I don’t like this. Carson, don’t leave. You’re scaring me with that look on your face. When will you be back?”
“I don’t know. Soon.” I hear her weep as I walk down the stairs, and even when I’ve closed the door behind me, I feel her tears. Should I go? Stay? It’s wrong. Undeserved. Stupid.
Sparrow. I suffered from illusions of you. The real world has broken through, and I have a real woman who gives me real love.
And then this letter.

“Dear Carson, I’ve learned so much. The island helped me to remember and to forget and to find what I needed and to lose the rest. I’ve healed as well as I ever will, I guess. As well as I need to.
It meant so much, you there at my bedside, and learning you had rescued me and watched over me in the hospital. It taught me I’m a person, which I hadn’t understood. That was the important step. For that alone, I owe you my life.
I’m sorry if I hurt you by leaving. Did I? You spoke of love, but I wasn’t ready to have your love, or anyone’s, not even my own. During most of these three years, while many walls tumbled, I hadn’t allowed passions to enter. Until recently.
My dearest friends are a sweet older couple I met here, plus the warm sun and the music of the water and the smile of another healing day. The couple sort of adopted me, God knows why. I learned from them about knowing and caring and loving, first for me — that was the hardest — and then even for other people. It was amazing. I learned how to believe.
At first I craved needles, then despised them, then ignored them. Now I don’t use them.
I see the world you see. I watch waves run clear to the horizon. I see slanting rain pock the sand. I study the patterns and pigments in wet stone. I meet an ocean dressed in its colors and emotions, gray for anger, white for fury, blue for harmony, red for serenity.
If I sit still, the quiet morning beach gets fuzzy with critters, each showing a personality.
I keep new mementoes to celebrate my new life.
You were right. I was the woman in Diary.
I still can have a baby. The doctors promised.
I have a distance to go with my all emotions, but I’ve begun to know I can return to the real world and to you, and I’m ready to try. In the past months I’ve thought of you more, and would enjoy seeing you again. That’s a very good sign.
If you want to meet me, I’ll arrive at the United terminal at 11:48 PM, Friday, the 30th. Don’t feel obligated however. I’ve reserved a limousine for myself, just in case you can’t make it.
If you do come to the gate, don’t be impatient. Wheel chairs are last off.
Love,
Sparrow”

Carson, decide. What are you doing? What are you going to do? If you don’t go it will end. Will it? She’s a crippled woman, tied to a wheel chair. Is that what you want? A wheel chair? Walk away. A WHEEL CHAIR.

CHAPTER 26 – Sparrow and CarsonThey carry me from the plane. That’s the worst. The carrying. That and having to hide my once-vain legs beneath these dowager blankets. “Set me light, boys. I’ll drive it from here.” It’s to laugh. The porters buzzard around me. They don’t dare push out tip hands to a cripple. I release them from their distress. “Here you go, boys. Thanks loads.” I’m so cool.
Most of the welcomers are gone now. The remainder, stood up or screwed up. None are Carson. I told him I’d be late, so maybe he misjudged the time. Oh, sure. Face it, he won’t come. The wheel chair thing. That must have smeared his paints. Or filled his pants.
At least I was honest. Great. Every time I’m honest I get kicked in the butt. Hey, at least I can’t feel butt kicking, so far. But I can feel.
Why should he come, anyway? I was a zombie when he knew me. He said he loved me, but he was stressed. Who the hell could have loved me, then? Come to think of it, who could love me now? So I can’t run yet, so what? I can do lots of other things. Carson, I still can do the things you like.
I guess I’ll sit here a while. Who knows, he might … what else can I do?
Everyone looks cornerly at me. Don’t stare at the crip. Why not? I feel ridiculous, sitting here, waiting for the man who never comes. I’m always waiting for the man who never comes. And if he does, what then? Who am I? Does he even remember me? What am I to him? To anyone?
I’m a person. Carson, you showed me that. Almost a complete person. I was a one-night stand … who can’t stand … herself … This is all so dramatic.

To see down to the street
needs standing,
waiting tip-toed drizzle slides down
the window sees all
Daddys only in the droplets
at first they are just
upside-down men
never leave
reasons
why?
An airport is the loneliest place to wait … There’s no day, no night, no time at all. So you can’t see the end to the waiting … Is that him? No, too short … except maybe waiting at a dance. There, you can’t even look around or people will know you’re lonely.
He won’t come. Not even out of curiosity? He did say he loved me. But I was dead, then. It’s easier to love the dead.
He won’t come. It’s a damn blizzard outside. He’d think my plane is delayed. But he could call. But these airlines never give the right information.
How could he not come?
Will he recognize me? I’ve changed. That’s sure. Everything has changed. Everything?
One more minute. I’ll count to sixty. One … two … three … maybe in that bunch coming down the aisle. No. Two … three … what’s the hope? I’ll grow old sitting here.

The old foster parents didn’t understand
what young kids thought about
trading braces for pimples eventually
the girl was pulled into the boy’s locker
room five laughing young football heros were expelled.
The laughing young heros came back in two weeks
the girl didn’t.St. John did what it was supposed to. At first I couldn’t roll my chair on the sand, but I tried. It gave me a focus for my hopelessness. I didn’t have to worry about minor stuff like walking, running, standing, living. I figured I’d never do those. So I concentrated on dreaming and writing and rolling my chair on the sand. I had this idea that when I could do them pretty well, I’d come back to my artist.
So I did. I dreamed a lot and I wrote a lot and finally I rolled on the sand. And here I am. So where’s my trophy?
An airport after midnight. I guess that describes my life, all right. An airport after midnight.

School and the fosters and all were better
off left alone nothing’s cold as midnight walking in slush
even being dead the good pimp took it in for heat after
the People killed him and Stow took the sparrow
won’t have to walk midnights in slush.When weather’s always warm, like in St. John, you can dream easier than think, and dreaming’s better. In the beginning, my legs were perfect for me, feeling nothing.
I slept the first year.
The past arrived and showed me the hatred for men I’d buried beneath `whatever.’
The next two years, I dreamed about love and my artist who showed it to me. And pretty soon my dreams turned from “never” to “possibly.”

We’re lying
on the beach the sun could blister a coconut
we both feel hot when he lifts me
and carries me to the water and walks in waist high and holds me
floating
on the ocean so water flows around my legs
hold him so we make love then
he carries me out to rest in the sun.And that’s pretty much the way we’ll live.
I never want to be cold again. Maybe Chicago isn’t such a good idea. Maybe he won’t come. Maybe he’s dead. None of this entered my dreams in St. John. Of course, that’s the whole idea of dreams. And of St. John. Nothing enters my mind there.
So now what? I’m sitting here at the last gate. I’ve just realized how stupid this is.
Everyone’s gone. The hall is empty, like an endless tunnel, empty of people, empty of anything. And I have nowhere to go. I’m useless, unwanted, shrinking away, an ice cube on the sand. Darn you, Carson. I thought you loved me. You said you did and I listened. How could you leave me alone and helpless here? I loved you, damn you Carson, I love you. Honey, I love you so much. Damn you Carson, please come to me.
Tears are like rain on the window. I look through tears and see upside-down men, never the one I want. That’s all life is, waiting, only to be disappointed, then waiting to be disappointed. But always waiting and always being disappointed. I’m still waiting to walk.
Someone’s blurred and tiny way at the end of the hall. Coming this way. A cleaning man? Carson?
I waited for daddy and he never came back. And my good pimp never came back. And my legs never came back. Whatever. No, not `whatever.’ Never again, `whatever.’ Believe. Someday.
It’s him. God, it’s. It really is. The couple extra pounds look good. Look at that grin. It’s the same grin, just like I saw in my St. John thoughts. “Artist … Carson, you came.”
He bends to me and his kiss tastes as I remember it and as I dreamed of it. “Oh Carson, it’s so great to see you. Sorry I can’t stand yet to give you a big one, but I still can do some great things sitting or lying …”

When I saw her from a distance, it wasn’t her, just a stranger in a wheel chair. But now up close, I see her face, tan and beautiful, and I hear her voice and my feelings for her return. I want to lift her in my arms like I did that first night. I want to hold her and lay her down and stretch out beside her.
“I was afraid you’d chicken out coming, with my wheel chair and all. I wanted you to know about the wheel chair, so it wouldn’t freeze your juices. You did so much for me, and it wouldn’t be fair not to be honest. Or is that, wouldn’t be honest not to be fair? God, you look gorgeous.”

I see every minute we spent together, the agency, your apartment, the hospital, all blend. I can’t speak. I felt that way when we first met. Nothing has changed. But everything has changed. I’m living with a woman. She’s real. My life is real. Sparrow, you’re an illusion.
“Still the same artist, doesn’t talk much. You talk better with your pencil, don’t you? Hah, did you get the double entendre? Wait, let me talk. I’ve rehearsed it. Before you, I had no life. I had no me. But you cared. Honey, you cared. Not just to climb into me, but to help me climb out. Your two-dimensional art world was so much wider than my one-dimensional existence. You knew beauty. I felt it as we talked and as we made love, and I knew it when I woke to your face … your beautiful face. God, I’d like to make love to you, right here in the aisle. Wouldn’t that be a howl? A rolling rut.
“I can still do it you know. On St. John, I had to settle for hand-me-downs. Get it? The feeling’s there. Just can’t do much below. Not yet. Sorry if I’m babbling. I thought I had this all thought out, but I’m just so excited to see you. Tell me, do you have an Aunt Tillie? God, I hope so. Quick, give me one more good, slobbering kiss, then let’s get in your car and I’ll show you I haven’t forgotten how. I didn’t reserve a limo. I just said that so you wouldn’t feel …

“Sparrow …”
He kneels down to me and puts his head in my lap. I touch my lips to his hair and hold his shoulders. “I know honey, I feel the same way. You’re about all I’ve thought of lately. Wrote poems, lots of poems, all about you. Remember the china rose that never dies and never lives? I threw it into the ocean. God, it’s good to be free and alive. And you’re here. I weep for the years we’ve missed. But don’t mind these tears. I had to learn to cry. And I’ve done it. Isn’t that great?”

“Sparrow …”
He looks up with his beautiful eyes. He takes my face in his hands. His lips feel as I remember and have thought about. Dear God, I love him. I want to kiss the tears from those beautiful eyes. Outside the snow whips and screams in colors through the airport lights. But here in his hands, it’s quiet and warm and safe and good.

“Sparrow, please honey. There’s something I have to tell you.”
He stands and puts his hands under my shoulders and lifts me. I look down to see my toes touching the floor. One day, with him to hold me, maybe I’ll learn to stand. Maybe I’ll even learn to walk. Maybe. Dear God, thank you, thank you for my Carson. “Yes, tell me, honey. It feels wonderful in your arms. Remember, I can’t support my weight, so when you set me down … be careful. Don’t drop me.”

Her words, “be careful,” resonate in me and clutch at me and draw me. “Yes, I do remember. I won’t drop you.”

EpilogueThe island girls and boys, playing at the shore beneath the cliffs, were attracted by glinting reflections and found an old wheel chair wedged in the rocks, as though having fallen or been thrown from above. It had hidden there so long the salt spray had pitted and rusted much of the metal.
They found an exquisite drawing of a beautiful woman’s face scratched into the brittle leather seat back, but the children couldn’t identify the face. “… well, there’s that one woman who sort of … but she’s old, not young and pretty like this face.” Nor could they remember any woman who ever had needed to use a wheel chair. Not in their short lifetimes.
They pulled the wheel chair out and carried it around to the beach and took turns riding in it. At first they had difficulty moving it on the sand, but when they learned the technique, they rolled it faster and faster, all the while laughing and chirping like innocent birds.
When day drew to a close, the children left their new toy on the beach to await the tide, and ran to their homes.
By morning it was gone, the chair and its beautiful portrait, all gone to the sea. But oh, the pleasure that wheel chair gave them.

-End-