A-B-A

I.

Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra rolled into town during the driest weeks of August, the dog days, when even children stayed indoors because it was too hot to play outside. He had traveled for weeks across the desert, stopping at whatever villages he encountered, but no place had given him reason to stay. Most of his life had transpired that way. His horse, Prudence, who had carried him faithfully for some time, was a breath away from the glue factory. The evening before he arrived, as he sat on a hilltop overlooking the town, the old mare knelt down and refused to get up. The next morning he left her carcass lying beneath the juniper tree and walked into town, hat pulled high away from his face to show he didn’t mean any trouble.

The streets were empty; the morning sun baked everything into a hard-packed crust. A barber sat in the shade outside his shop, one leg crossed over the other. “Well,” he said as the stranger walked by, “you look like you could use a shave and a haircut. What’s your name, traveler?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “You can call me Rodolfo.” His family had a tradition of long names, and he felt a duty to uphold the custom. One of his names had been his grandfather’s, another his father’s, but since he’d never met either of them, he didn’t know which ones were theirs. Manuel, he suspected, was some kind of religious label, given to him as a small child. In fact he guessed that his first four names were all tributes of one kind or another, and that only “Rodolfo” belonged to him and him alone. The barber eyed him as he stood in the street.

“Well, Rodolfo, a shave might cool you off.”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

‟I’ve no need of a shave,” Rodolfo said. “What I need is help with my horse. She died last night, and I want to dispose of her properly. I can’t bear the thought of her rotting in the sun.”

“Normally you would talk to the sheriff about it,” the barber said. “But he’s away chasing some outlaw. I doubt anyone would help you in this heat. You might as well come inside and let me trim that mop.”

Rodolfo smiled, tipped his hat, and continued.

He found a shopkeeper willing to loan him a shovel and spent most of the afternoon digging a grave for poor old Prudence. Finally, with the sun low in the sky, he found himself trudging back through town, the shovel hung over his shoulder like a bindle. Dogs emerged from under the porches where they slept all day, and now slunk around Rodolfo’s feet.

“They recognize one of their own,” the barber called as Rodolfo passed. The man sat in the same spot as before. He pinched a cigar between thumb and forefinger.

Rodolfo narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me a dog?”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

Rodolfo had to admit that, after weeks of travel, he gave off a rather unpleasant smell. He climbed the steps, leaned his shovel against the porch railing, and went inside. The shop had only one chair, and a shelf with several pairs of scissors, straight razors, and tonic bottles of all sizes. The barber led Rodolfo straight to the backyard. He filled a tub with water and tossed Rodolfo a bar of soap and a scrub brush.

“That water is cold, but it will do the job. I have an old smock you can wear, instead of those filthy clothes.”

“I have no money,” Rodolfo said.

“You can sweep hair in my shop to make up for it. That way I can relax on the porch and watch the chickens peck the dust.”

Rodolfo saw how things would go. He would enjoy the cool of the barber’s shop for a few days, push a broom around the floor, maybe even earn more than what he owed for the bath. By the end of the week he could get an old horse, or maybe a mule if no one had anything else, and be on his way. He missed Prudence, but it seemed her death wouldn’t actually slow him down.

The barber had three customers the next day, ranch hands who eyed Rodolfo warily but didn’t ask any questions. He was used to such treatment. Men who led settled lives, who had jobs and wives and children, held no faith in the itinerant. Rodolfo swept their shorn hair while the barber sat on the porch smoking his cigars.

Late in the afternoon, a beautiful girl entered the shop. Rodolfo had never seen anyone like her. Black hair shimmered over her shoulders; her skin was brown and smooth, her eyes large and intelligent. The barber grinned as though he knew her—Rodolfo could do nothing but stare.

“Dulzura, what brings you into my shop? Surely you don’t want me to cut off that lovely hair.”

“A message from my father,” the girl said. “To remind you of the card game tonight. You wiped him out last week, and he wants to make sure you’re there so he can get revenge.”

The barber cackled. “Tell that old blowhard I plan on wiping him out again!”

Rodolfo stepped forward. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

The girl looked down quickly—but he had seen something in her eyes. A faint blush colored her face.

A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock.

The barber looked back and forth between them. “Tell your old man I’ll be there. Now you better leave my shop before I take the scissors to your hair and make a wig out of it!” The girl ran out into the street, leaving Rodolfo feeling as though he’d seen a miracle.

The barber didn’t waste any time. He pointed his shears at Rodolfo and said, “You’d better watch yourself. That’s the sheriff’s sister, and neither he nor anyone else in this town would take kindly to you bothering her.”

“It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Rodolfo said.

“Not for a wayfarer like you,” the barber said. “Besides, don’t you meet lots of women on your travels?”

“Not like her,” Rodolfo said.

That evening he carried the shovel over to the shopkeeper’s in hopes of returning it, but the store had closed for the night. The dogs came out again and followed Rodolfo through the town. A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock. He would do well to head for the coast as soon as possible.

Rounding a corner, he saw the girl walking ahead of him. She carried a bucket of water and her hips twitched from side to side. Pink and purple clouds stretched overhead as Rodolfo ran to catch up with her. The girl stiffened as she heard his footsteps, as though she already knew who it was, and when he reached her, she smiled up at him with the same blush she’d had earlier that day.

“I never got your name,” Rodolfo panted, though he had heard the barber say it.

“Dulzura.” The word was like music on her tongue.

“Dulzura,” Rodolfo said. “Meet me tonight.”

“I can’t,” the girl said. “Tonight is my father’s card game. I serve the men their whiskey.”

“Surely you can find some way,” Rodolfo said.

The girl scrunched up her face, thinking. Rodolfo fought the urge to wrap her in his arms, smother her with kisses.

“All right,” she said finally. “By the fifth or sixth hand, the men are drunk enough to forget about me. They start joking and arguing. I’ll slip away then. Meet me by the riverbank, beneath the willow.”

Rodolfo nodded and, still toting the shovel, went straight to the river, even though Dulzura wouldn’t arrive for hours. He sat on the hard clay banks and watched the water roll slowly past. Cracks split the earth high on both sides where the river used to flow. Rodolfo imagined it as it once was: a crisp, rushing torrent. It hadn’t rained in the desert in a long time.

A sliver of moon, thin as a hangnail, rose in the east and Rodolfo lay back to watch the stars—but a group of low-hanging clouds rolled in to obscure them. The moon shimmered in and out of sight. Rodolfo chewed on a stalk of grass and waited.

The first ominous rumbles had begun when Dulzura crept beside him, silent as a cat, in her white shift. Rodolfo felt a hand on his arm and there she was, her face wide and brown before his. Moonlight rendered her hair a dark shade of blue. “We can’t stay here,” Rodolfo said. “We’ll get wet.”

“I don’t care,” she breathed, and covered his mouth with hers. A throb shot through him, stronger than anything he’d ever felt. He crushed her to his chest, tore the white cloth away to reveal her young breasts, while her lips pulled and sucked at his own, her breath redolent of whiskey. He realized she was drunk but he didn’t care.

He was clutching her backside, moving her into position, when something kicked him in the head. Dulzura screamed. At first Rodolfo thought something had fallen from the tree, a branch or maybe a rock—but then he saw it again, coming at him, and he reached out and grabbed the thing: a boot.

Dulzura scrambled to her feet. “Father, no!” she cried, and Rodolfo knew exactly what had happened. He twisted the boot to one side, hoping to trip the old man, but it came off in his hand and the bare foot smashed into his face. Rodolfo tasted blood. Then a set of wiry fingers closed around his throat. He heard Dulzura screaming faintly, as though from far away, and wondered why her father hadn’t just shot him. He pried the fingers loose but they came back again. He clawed desperately at the old man’s eyes. The man made a guttural noise like an animal, and in the moonlight something flashed at his waist: a knife. Rodolfo looked around for something to fight with: the shovel.

He swung the broad end as hard as he could. The old man ran right into it, was lifted off his feet, and landed on the cracked earth. He did not move. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Rodolfo stood wheezing. Blood dripped down his chin. Dulzura knelt beside her father and shook his shoulders. Then she turned to Rodolfo and said, “He’s dead, you bastard, you son of a bitch, he’s dead!”

Rodolfo looked into the man’s face. A red hole had replaced his left eye: Rodolfo had scratched his eye out. The shovel hadn’t left any marks, but the old man lay at an awkward angle and his one good eye did not blink. “How could that have killed him?” he said. “Just one hit….”

Dulzura covered herself with the white shift. “Murderer! I’ll see you pay for this!” She ran up the bank, away from the river, wailing “Murderer!” over and over.

“What was I supposed to do?” Rodolfo said. “Let him kill me?”

“He’s an old man!” Dulzura called over her shoulder. “You could have subdued him….” And then she was gone.

Rodolfo turned in circles. He didn’t have much time. Dulzura would sprint into town, gather all the men—the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands—and they would hang poor Rodolfo before the sun rose. Well, he wouldn’t just give up. He had gotten out of scrapes before. He slid down the embankment, into the slow-moving water, and waded across. By the time he climbed up the other side, the heavens had opened up. The river became a churning, frothing monster, unrecognizable and uncrossable. He ran blindly through the rain. Lightning blasted the ground around him. The storm moved forward, washing away his tracks, and Rodolfo didn’t look back.

II.

From the precipice, the valley resembled a long green knife wedged into the earth. Broad leaves waved from stalks. Flowering plants abounded. Such a place could not be uninhabited. Rodolfo descended without knowing what to expect.

As he made his way down the path, he eyed clumps of bananas, nectarines, and other, unrecognizable fruits—but resisted the urge to pluck them. He didn’t yet know whose land he was on.

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

A naked boy, dark as a plum, appeared in front of him. Rodolfo stopped. The boy was about ten years old, and quite unashamed of his nudity—so much so that Rodolfo’s own clothes felt onerous and cumbersome upon him. He looked Rodolfo up and down. “Who are you?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“What a name!”

“Well,” Rodolfo said, “what is your name?”

“Patch,” the boy said.

“And how did you earn this name? You’re not wearing any patch that I can see.”

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

“Listen, Patch,” Rodolfo said. “I’ve traveled a long way and I’m hungry. Whose bananas are these? I don’t want to be accused of theft if I take one.”

“You’re a strange one! The bananas are nobody’s.” With that, the boy ran away down the path. But his answer made Rodolfo uneasy and, despite his hunger, he left the fruit untouched.

As he walked he became aware of a steady noise, like a faraway train, that had been there the whole time. It grew louder and louder, until Rodolfo turned a corner and saw, a hundred feet below, a waterfall cascading into a clear pool, and people everywhere—naked, swimming, basking on the flat rocks. The little boy had already scampered down the path and dived into the water. He splashed around with some other children and seemed to have no intention, as Rodolfo had feared, of alerting the others to his presence.

By the time Rodolfo climbed down, the people had seen him and gathered around to ask questions. Their eyes were bright and quick. No one, from the infants to the elderly, wore a stitch of clothing. Rodolfo addressed them all: “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra. You may call me Rodolfo. I am a traveler, without money—without anything.”

A man clasped his hand. “You must be hungry. Take whatever fruit you like. It grows faster than we can pluck it.”

“Where do you come from?” a woman asked.

“I don’t come from anywhere.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Everyone comes from somewhere.”

“Not me,” Rodolfo said.

The little boy, Patch, reappeared. “Why do you wear those old clothes? Aren’t you hot?”

Rodolfo ignored him, turning to the fellow who had taken his hand. “How is it that such a place exists in the desert? Have I stumbled into the realm of fairies?”

The man laughed. “We are men and women, I assure you. Come rest in the shade. And young Patch is right—unburden yourself of those useless clothes. There is no modesty here.”

The people began turning away, bored already by the newcomer. Rodolfo reluctantly stripped off his pants and smock, but wasn’t sure where to put them. Their mere presence seemed to sully this green place. Finally he placed them under a palm tree and walked to the water’s edge. The pool was frightfully deep but clear all the way to the bottom: children sat down there, blowing bubbles. Rodolfo hadn’t bathed in weeks, since the barber’s tub in that dusty town, and found the water exhilarating. He swam for nearly an hour before climbing out and sunning himself on a grassy spot. He ate fruit until his belly hurt. Then he watched the people as they frolicked like birds.

One of the females approached him. Like Patch, she was plum-dark; her wet hair fell over her breasts; her limbs were long and lean, her eyes almond-shaped and unknowable. Rodolfo tried to hide his body’s reaction by rolling onto his side. But such a thing, in these circumstances, couldn’t be hidden.

“Why are you hiding over here?” the girl said. “You’re the new stranger, aren’t you?”

“I’m not hiding. I’m tired from my travels, that’s all.”

The girl squatted before him. “I know what you need.” Grabbing his hips, she rolled him onto his back and, with the help of a guiding hand, lowered herself onto him. Rodolfo gasped. Every encounter he’d ever had with a woman had been clandestine: rolling around in a hayloft somewhere, meeting by night, whispering in an absent husband’s bed. And they always clung to him, closed their eyes, cried out as though they were being taken away to another planet. But this woman kept her eyes open. “Do you like this?” she asked, as Rodolfo blinked up at her.

Towards the end, the girl gasped and said, “Mmmm,” but otherwise showed no reaction. She sat on Rodolfo until he slid out of her on his own. Then she lay beside him, reached for a branch overhead, and pulled down some engorged purple fruit Rodolfo had never seen before. She tore it in half and offered him a slice, which he devoured whole.

He knew that he could wake up at any moment, back in the desert, belly grumbling, dawn cracking its glaring eye over the horizon to start a new day of sweat and thirst and wondering if he’d find shelter before the vultures began circling. He fell asleep with those thoughts. But when he woke, he was still on the cool grass. Stars twinkled overhead. Someone was beating a drum.

“Come on,” the girl said. She took his hands and led him to a clearing, where everyone sat around a fire. An old man with a long beard pounded a drum. They were holding some kind of ceremony. The girl whispered, “We almost missed Lurid.”

“Lurid?”

“The storyteller,” the girl said.

The old man let one final drumbeat hang in the air before he started to talk. His voice was sonorous, mesmerizing. His hands moved as he spoke. “Once upon a time,” he said. “Once upon a time, there was a man….”

…a wanderer who roamed from town to town, village to village, forever seeking something he couldn’t name. He ate what he could find and slept where he fell. And then one day, in a desert town, he happened upon a girl named Sweetness. When the traveler saw her, something inside him changed. He knew it was time to stop—time to settle down. But the girl’s father was a jealous old hound, and didn’t want anyone to possess his daughter—least of all some wayfarer whom no one knew and no one trusted. The traveler burned for her badly—and you know how such feelings can drive a person crazy, how awful it is to have to suppress them. That’s why we live in freedom here in the valley: so things like this won’t happen. For what happened to our traveling hero can be blamed neither on him nor on his beloved Sweetness, but only on the trickeries of the universe—only on that unjust and capricious arbiter, Fate. One summer night, these two lovers, unable to contain their passions any longer, met by the riverbank. But the girl’s father lay in wait. What were his motives? How did he know of his daughter’s secret rendezvous? That is not for us to know. What matters, dear friends, is that the father attacked, and our hero fought back, and in his passion he killed the old man. The girl, poor Sweetness, ran terrified from the scene, leaving our hero to flee once more into the desert. His troubles, sadly, had only just begun….

The old man pounded the drum once, a signal that the story was over, and people began rustling. The girl yawned and stretched, ready to bed down for the night. But Rodolfo was terrified.

He approached the old man. “Where did you learn that story?”

The man’s shrugged. “From nowhere. From the sky. From my heart.”

“Tell me the end of it,” Rodolfo said. “I have to know what happens.”

“I don’t know, myself,” the old man said. “When I sit down tomorrow, the rest of it will arrive. You’ll have to wait until then. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m leaving soon,” Rodolfo said.

A woman tugged on his arm and asked if he would stay with her for the night. His body gave a sharp, visceral response, but the old man’s story had spooked him. He couldn’t stay here. He had to move on.

III.

When Rodolfo emerged from the valley into the red desert dawn, they were already waiting for him. A dozen men on horses, with shotguns. He recognized the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands. In front sat a man with slits for eyes and shiny black hair, worn proud like an Indian’s. A sheriff’s star glittered over his breast. Rodolfo knew he was cornered.

He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic.

As the horses circled him, he considered his options. He could run back down the valley and try to hide. But that would only delay the inevitable—and it would bring these gun-toting manhunters into direct contact with the paradise below. The people down there had no weapons. If they tried to defend Rodolfo, the posse would wipe them out. His conscience wouldn’t allow it.

Running across the open desert would be futile. He’d be shot down before he ran ten paces. As for fighting his way out—well, he’d never been a fighter. And he was unarmed.

He considered lying, insisting the sheriff had tracked the wrong man—but then the barber spoke up: “Yes, that’s him. He’s wearing my old smock.” At this, a sort of pride spiked up in Rodolfo. If asked, he could never deny his own name.

He stood with raised arms in the ring of horses. An air of authority pulsated from Dulzura’s brother, the sheriff. Rodolfo knew him immediately as a man of action. The ranch hands, on the contrary, were ignorant, uncomplicated men. Rodolfo had seen their type countless times. They held jobs and wives and they did not ask questions. But this sheriff was a different sort. He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic. He used the town as his base, and he defended it with his life, but those very acts of defense led him to journey far from it, and learn about the world, and contemplate things during his lonely hours on horseback, just as Rodolfo had done all these years. Rodolfo saw all of this in a moment. They were alike in many ways, and Rodolfo clung desperately to this idea of solidarity—perhaps it could save his life.

“It is you, then?” the sheriff said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper, the noise of an eagle’s wings flapping far above the cracked earth. “Make your last action honorable, and own up to your name.”

Rodolfo lowered his arms and raised his chin. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“You raped my sister,” the sheriff said. “You murdered my father.”

“No, sir,” Rodolfo said. “I have never taken a woman by force. Your sister came to me, breathless, in the night. Your father I killed in self-defense.”

The sheriff held his shotgun loosely across his saddle. His face was windswept, inscrutable. For the briefest of moments, Rodolfo felt a connection. He knew the man believed him.

“He was an old man,” the sheriff said finally. “You might have subdued him.”

“It was an accident,” Rodolfo said. “I swung with the shovel—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“With my stolen shovel,” the shopkeeper said.

Rodolfo didn’t bother to reply. The time for arguments had passed.

The sheriff sighed. “The problem with you wayfarers is you have no responsibility. You drift through life seeking only pleasure. Life is not pleasure. Life is task.” He leveled his shotgun with one hand.

The barber looked uneasy. “Wait,” he said. “Is it right to just execute him here? We should bind him, carry him until we find a tree, do things the proper way. He swept hair in my shop for a day, after all.”

“They say unburied souls are doomed to drift through eternity,” the sheriff said. “But this man craves such a fate. To give him a proper execution, a proper burial, would be the worst kind of punishment. He rejected domesticity at every turn. He abandoned it, decidedly, in favor of a wandering existence. If we bury him, we confine him.” The sheriff spat. “I sympathize with you, stranger. Which rules the universe—order or caprice? Your death here may represent both. May you wander forever, without consequence.”

A loud bang roared forth from the shotgun, and at the same moment Rodolfo found himself lifted off his feet, hurled onto his back, just as Dulzura’s father had been. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. He spat blood into the sand. The horses clopped away, and Rodolfo looked up at the rising sun, the clear white sky, as the life drained out of him. He felt on the verge of something, some revelation, but his thoughts mingled, bled into one another, so that he couldn’t distinguish anything. And then he was walking, walking steadily across the desert, across the plains, away from this valley, away from any place, walking forever.

N. T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with his dog, Seven, and his cat, Mrs. Mia Wallace.

 

Legs

The first thing that anyone would notice was the sign. It was supposed to be a tourist trap, but nobody seemed to have put much effort into attracting visitors. The sign was just a rotted out piece of wood lying flat in the grass, a broken off stump planted in the ground next to it. The only way to tell where you were was the mailbox, which was strangely large and a bit rusted. It said “Leg Farm” on the side of it, which was the name of the place. There was no address that I could see.

I like farms. There’s something nice about places that are dirty, but where you’re totally unafraid of germs. I parked my car outside the front of the house. I got out, stumbled a little, and stretched vainly at a knot in my shoulder.

The house was a log cabin style place, the tractor shed was right next door but I couldn’t see the field. The friend who’d told me about this place said you could just go up to the door and ask the farmer if you could see the hay bale legs, and he would take you out back and show you, say something about them or not. So, I went up to the door; the knocker was shaped like a woman’s leg, rounded and smooth, even the toes were detailed. I pulled back the leg and let it kick the door. After a few seconds the farmer came out, he was wearing a wool shirt with no pattern on it and jeans. He had a deep tan and he was very thin and a little bit shorter than me.

“You must have come to see the legs.”

“Yes, I have… is that ok?”

He angled his head to the side, considered all of his words: “Oh yes you may, not too many people come to see those legs anymore.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, towards the inside of his house, and then he put the hand into a pocket. “In the realm of agri-tourism, I am a bit of a one-hit wonder.”

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house.

The house had cavernous ceilings, a big open kitchen, and a giant window facing the road.

He walked towards the kitchen and asked me if I wanted coffee; I said no.

“Myself, I go through, seven, eight, nine cups a day, thirty years of farming and you start waking up at three in the morning all the time, and I never could get myself to bed at eight p.m.”

“This is a really nice house.”

“Thank you. My favourite part is how the upstairs is only half a floor, leaves you the living room ceiling way high, a bit like you’re in a cathedral.”

He looked up at the ceiling, and then used his French press to make a pot of coffee, poured some into a mug that didn’t have a picture or writing on it. He took a deep gulp, and didn’t make any of the various sounds people tend to make when they finish drinking.

“One thing about these wooden houses is they catch dust like you would never believe. Once when my wife was still around, we had this dog died, so I buried it in the yard over there. It was winter and the ground was really hard, so I only got the dog buried a little ways in. Well, come spring, I’m up early, I’m taking a leak and out the window I see a god damned bear digging up my dog. So, I go get my gun and I just lean out the bathroom window, because I have a clear shot there, I shoot the bear. The noise of that shot, the vibrations shook about… I’d say ten odd years of dust off every surface in the house. So, it’s a fucking sandstorm. My wife she was sleeping, she explodes out the bedroom, bursts through this dust storm in her own house, she takes a running leap right into my chest, knees out, kicked my ass good.”

We both laughed, he continued: “I got the bear though, perfect shooting. Mind you, Kathleen was not exactly impressed by that portion of it.” He moved his mouth around the word “portion” like it was a piece of wood.

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house. Outside he had a white plastic table on his porch and dirty white plastic chairs all around it.

I just had to lift my eyes a little bit to see the field. It was littered with hay bales. The rounded hay bale parts were smaller because he’d used the rest of the hay to make legs coming out the top. They weren’t at all what you’d expect a leg coming out of a hay bale to look like. They were all rounded and somehow almost looked smooth, more like rock than hay. The only thing that was inaccurate about them was that the toes were farther apart than a person’s toes. The feet maybe a bit wider, but still feminine, volleyball center feet. You could tell it was supposed to be a tall woman’s feet, and through their strange and painstaking details you could tell that they were all supposed to be one specific tall woman’s left leg.

All the way to the back of the field, these bales with perfect women’s legs coming out of the top. I couldn’t count how many there were and I didn’t really want to. All of a sudden it felt like something was crowding into my eyeball and it was hard to see. I kept trying to look at the field but all I kept catching were fractured, blackening pictures, disappearing. My legs were weak, and there wasn’t a cloud within miles, and sometimes unadulterated sky crept into my vision. The leg farmer eased me into one of the chairs asked if he could bring me a water. He came back with two mugs, his full of coffee, mine water.  He put the cup down next to me. I said thanks.

He sat in a chair across from me, leaned his chair onto its back two legs. I didn’t know what was going on with me. Nothing unexpected had happened, I knew about the legs in advance, but they’d still managed to overwhelm me somehow, just the visual fact of them had. I decided to try to at least be social. I pointed at the space under his chair.

“My grade five teacher told me I’d crack my head open if I did that.”

He nodded. “You were probably sitting near a bookcase, and in case you haven’t noticed there isn’t an edge for miles.”

I remember thinking that he was right, and trying to look at the legs, losing them even as I did it. He said: “I got another gun story for you. Kind of funny that I’d tell you both because they really are my only gun stories. My kid, he dances ballet now, out in Europe. When he was about twelve I took him to the skeet shooting tournament some of my friends hold every year. Well, my kid he’d never touched a gun in his life, I just took him because his Mom was out of the house and I wanted to go. So, anyways he starts shooting, and the kid is a prodigy. They fire one up and he nails it. They fire two up, he hits ‘em both. They fire three and bang, bang, bang. He ends up winning the whole tournament, first time he ever touched a gun. Afterwards we’re all walking up to the house and my buddy Dale. I’ll say that if you think I’m a redneck farmer… well you get the idea. He’s lived around here his whole life. And he sort of hates kids, so, when we’re all walking back he kind of starts walking with my boy and tells him he shoots well, and my kid says thanks. Then Dale asks: ‘So how often do you shoot?’ My kid says never, this was my first time. Dale is pretty stunned, so he asks what does the kid do? My boy he looks right up at him and says ‘I dance ballet.’ We just left Dale standing there looking after us, mouth all hung open.”

And I sat there quietly with him, as he chewed on what was either his lip or just air for a while. Then he rocked forward in his chair and said one perfect piece of nothing.

Andrew BattershillAndrew Battershill recently completed his M.A in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto under the mentorship of Pasha Malla. He is the Fiction Editor of Dragnet Magazine.  

Smith Hill

Gabrielle had never noticed how loud Friday mornings were. Now that she slept on the couch, she felt the trash truck barreling through the walls, destroying her home. Bolting upright, she’d hear men laugh, cans tossed, the truck move on. After a few weeks of fearing she might wake to the front bumper of the trash truck hanging over her head, she wrote a note, then taped it to the half-filled can.

Dear Sirs, 

                                    Please be more considerate when you pick up the garbage.                                                The noise is enough to wake the dead.

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                    Mrs. Stephanos Pappas


The next morning, Gabrielle held still when the truck clanged to a stop, waiting for it to start up again, to move on. But there was a quick rap at the side entrance. She pulled her robe closed and opened the door.

“Yes?”

The man who stood before her was flushed and greasy. He had combed what remained of his hair over his shining head and held it in place with something equally shiny. He was short, not much taller than herself, and beefy: strong, with a solid stomach. His fingers were thick and pink. He looked like he could yell if he wanted to. Give me a break, lady. Don’t give me no grief. That was how people behaved in the neighborhood these days. You honked, and they stuck up their middle finger. You said, “I believe I was here first,” and they said, “Well, I’m here now,” then put their pack of cigarettes on the counter as if you didn’t exist.

“Morning,” the man said. “Mrs. Pappas?”

Gabrielle nodded, tensing.

“I’m Leon Federman, head of this crew. Got your note, and I’m real sorry we caused you any trouble. Me and the boys forget the rest of the world’s not up when we are. This is like ten a.m. to us. We’ll do better by you. Promise.” He dipped his head as if doffing a hat and trotted off.

The following Friday the truck eased up so quietly that Gabrielle, sipping coffee at 6:00 a.m., wondered if they had cut the engine. She lifted one of the slats on the front blinds to see a thin man raise her trash can, then tip it into the back of the truck like a dancer in slow motion. Leon Federman lowered his gloved hands in the air, directing the other man to set down the can without a sound. Then he turned to her house and waved. Gabrielle dropped the slat and sank back on the couch. Once the truck moved on, she chuckled about her small victory, how she had gotten what she wanted for once and found in the trash man the grace of a gentleman. She only wished she could repay his kindness.

Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers.

Gabrielle stepped onto her stoop the Friday after that and signaled to Leon. He wiped his brow, then hurried towards her.

“Mrs. Pappas, I hope we didn’t wake you.”

“The weatherman says it’ll be a hundred by noon, Mr. Federman,” she said. “Maybe you’d like some ice tea?”

“Please?”

It dawned on her that Mr. Federman couldn’t just step inside for a half hour while his men drummed their fingers, and she resisted inviting all of them into her home. She’d only thought of him. “Some ice tea is what I’m saying. Now or . . . later?”

Leon adjusted a piece of gum in his mouth. Then he said, “You’ll be able to fry eggs on the sidewalk by eleven. That’s when we knock off. A glass of tea would hit the spot about then.”

“Eleven,” Gabrielle nodded.

She put away her knitting, made a lemon cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, and slid a cloth over the wooden trim of her sofa and loveseat. Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers. She felt safely wrapped within her husband’s name. Mrs. Stephanos Pappas. As far as Mr. Federman knew, Stephanos still hammered away in the basement at his workbench. He was alive to the trash man.

Instead of tapping at the side entrance, Leon knocked at the front door, his gloves off and shirt buttoned to the collar. Once inside, he again had the air of someone taking off his hat.

“Awful out there, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said.

“Sure is,” he agreed.

“I’ll get you that tea.”

Leon followed her into the kitchen.

“Can I help with anything?”

“For heaven’s sake, it’s just ice tea!” she said, her voice unusually high. “Please take a seat.”

As if he did so every day, Leon pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.

Gabrielle had expected her awkwardness to evaporate, but it persisted, fumbling her fingers. She sloshed a glass before him and struggled through twenty minutes on the weather before he thanked her and saw himself out. As she ran water over the thin coating on the plate Leon had tried to scrape clean, Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed and she hummed. She had returned the trash man’s courtesy and gotten him out of her house, which he somehow managed to fill with himself in the short time he was her guest.

“You know who I had a nice conversation with?” she said to Connie that afternoon. Connie had come to fetch the tiny knitted outfits Gabrielle had made for the hospital. Her friend pronounced each one darling as she lowered it into a box.

“No, who?”

“Mr. Federman. Leon Federman?”

Connie looked up. “Leon who?”

“The . . . our . . .” Gabrielle couldn’t think of the right word. She knew there must be another name, something better than “trash man.” That couldn’t be what he put down on his taxes. “Garbage personnel” was all she came up with.

“You mean, one of those fellows who picks up the trash?”

“The head of his crew,” Gabrielle told her.

“You had a nice conversation when he got the trash?”

“Later,” she said. “He came back later.”

Connie put down the baby clothes and looked at her. “That’s nice, honey,” she said, then patted her hand. “Listen, you’re coming over tonight for spaghet. Nothing special. Family style. I’ll send Frank to get you.” Connie kissed her cheek and picked up the box.

“He’s very nice,” Gabrielle said. “Mr. Federman.”

“I’m sure he is,” Connie said. “Six o’clock, okay. You be ready.”

Gabrielle let Connie’s husband pick her up and let Connie joke over dinner about her “gentleman friend.” Apparently, Connie thought it was hysterical. Widows in Smith Hill did not have gentleman friends. They didn’t cloak themselves in black for the rest of their days anymore, but they didn’t go on dates either. They knitted booties for poor infants and worked the white elephant booth for St. Augustine. They were mothers, grandmothers. That was it.

But the next time Leon and his men drove up to her house, Gabrielle crooked a finger at him. He hurried up her walk. When he stood before her, she asked if he would like to come for dinner on Sunday. He said he’d like that fine, which she found reassuring: his easy acceptance made it seem less strange to invite a man to dinner.

“Can’t I show a person some common courtesy?” Gabrielle snapped at Dominique, who called her after talking to Grace, who’d run into Connie. “So what if he collects trash? It’s an honorable job.”

“I’m not talking honorable or dishonorable,” Dominique told her. “I’m not saying anything. I just wondered if you wanted me and Vick to help keep you company. We could barbecue. Let the men talk while we catch up.”

“I think we’re caught up,” Gabrielle said, which was the meanest thing she had said to Dominique since they were seniors in high school and she’d suggested that a silver anklet made her look cheap.

Gabrielle stuck two tapers in their star-shaped holders, then put them back in the drawer of the creaking breakfront. She turned on the radio, then turned it off. She put on lipstick and looked at herself. Her hair was too black for her age, she knew. Stephano had called her “a raven-haired beauty,” so she’d kept using “Midnight Blue” although a border of silver along her hairline strengthened after every tint. And now her lips looked too red for her face. But she thought her eyes, still the color of almonds, were pretty.

When she opened the door, Leon nodded at someone, who quickly drove off. Then he bustled inside, bearing gifts: a box of See’s chocolates, roses in plastic wrap, and a small bottle of gin. Gabrielle looked past him at the receding sedan. She had worried that Mr. Federman might show up in the trash truck and the whole neighborhood would know her business. Of course, Connie, Grace, and Dominique already knew she was making dinner for the trash man, so everyone would know soon enough anyway.

“I had my cousin drop me,” Leon said. “Damn car’s in the shop again.” Then he laughed as if it were New Year’s Eve and thrust his gifts into her hands.

“Oh, Mr. Federman, you shouldn’t have,” she said, meaning it. The chocolates and roses were too much, embarrassing. And the gin was just wrong. You didn’t bring a grandmother gin.

“Leon, Leon,” he said. “Mrs. Pappas.”

“Gabrielle,” she said softly, wishing they didn’t have to be on a first-name basis. Everyone was these days. Even the dental assistant, ten years younger than her Pamela, told her, “Gabrielle, a little wider, please. Gabrielle, turn your head to the left.” “Gabrielle” didn’t have the same significance as “Mrs. Stephanos Pappas.” She couldn’t hear her husband in it at all.

Leon smacked his lips. “Gabrielle,” he said, drawing out each sound. “Now that’s a name. I see Italian fountains and violins and moonlight in a name like that. Not like Esther. Or Ruth.”

“Those are nice names,” Gabrielle said. Leon Federman, she repeated in her head. A Jew? What was it they didn’t eat? Pigs’ feet?

He made a show of grimacing. “With them I picture chopped liver and whining. Ru-u-uth,” he said as if it were a sound a dog might make.

Gabrielle couldn’t help laughing at that. She walked into the kitchen, and Leon followed her, talking the whole time she unwrapped the roses, already dark at the tips, and stuck them one by one into the crystal vase Marcus had gotten his parents for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

“Some kids on Douglas Ave had kicked on the hydrant, and I felt like jumping in the water myself, I got to tell you,” Leon was saying. “Can’t wait for the heat to break, you know what I mean?”

“I made hors d’oeuvres,” Gabrielle said, gesturing towards a tray of small sausages wrapped in pastry. “But I don’t know if you . . .” She almost added “people,” but stopped herself.

“I eat appetizers, don’t you worry.” Leon patted his stomach. “Believe me, I’ll eat whatever’s put before me!”

He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“There’s wine.” Gabrielle grabbed the bottle’s neck, but she had no idea how to use the new opener that Marcus had said was the best.

“I’ll begin with some gin, if it’s all right with you,” Leon said and opened a cupboard, which made Gabrielle flinch. She felt as if he were looking in her medicine cabinet or under her bed. “Helps me to unwind,” he said. “Hope you’ll join me.” He got out two juice glasses and held one in front of her.

Gabrielle shook her head. She sipped water as Leon drank his gin “neat.” The alcohol didn’t change his mood. Already festive when he came through the door, Leon lavished praise on what he called her “piggies in blankies.” “Finger-licking good,” he laughed, then licked his finger and thumb as if to demonstrate his point.

They ate in the kitchen: kreatopica argostoli and tzatiki, both favorites with her husband, whose parents had come over from Greece. Gabrielle picked at the veal but drained a glass of wine—Leon tangled with the opener for her—and he had wine as well. He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“From our son,” Gabrielle said of the tiles. “From our daughter” about the mitts.

Leon asked their ages, if they were married, had any kids, saying “Ah” at each piece of information as if her children had grown up to be missionaries and brain surgeons. “And your husband . . .”

Gabrielle gripped the edge of the table. “He’s passed on,” she said, alone with Leon for the first time.

“I know,” Leon said, covering one of her hands with his own. “Terrible thing. Heart attack shoveling, right? These winters, I’ll tell you.”

She frowned. Like everyone else, the trash man knew what went on in the neighborhood. Probably more: who drank too much, who didn’t cook for her husband.

“What was he like, your husband?”

For several minutes, Gabrielle couldn’t speak. She cut her veal into pieces small enough to feed a baby, then slowly poured herself a second glass of wine. She was to tell Leon Federman about her husband at his own dinner table? What would Stephano want her to say? “Mr. Pappas had a gift,” she said, surprising herself. “This talent for handling birds. He made a splint out of a popsicle stick for a swallow that broke its wing and the bird healed in a week, good as new. Then he caught a sparrow that flew into Maria Bugatti’s kitchen. When he whistled for Connie’s parakeet, Figarello flew onto his finger like he was St. Francis himself.”

Leon looked both saddened and amused by this story as he finished his wine. “My wife isn’t part of the picture any longer either,” he told her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle murmured.

“She moved to Atlantic City fifteen years ago. Fell in love with a blackjack dealer and ran off with him.” Leon shook his head as if he admired her nerve. “I should have known better. A skinny shiksa. No offense.”

Gabrielle had heard the word shiksa but didn’t know if it was vulgar like putz. Her face puffed up, ready to register indignation. “I don’t really think—” she said.

“Not one of the ‘chosen people’ is all,” Leon smiled.

“I see,” Gabrielle said, though she had assumed Catholics were the chosen people, and she knew by then that Leon wasn’t Catholic.

“No children?”

“No, no,” Leon said, waving the possibility of them away. “Just me and the missus. Until it was her and the blackjack dealer. She sends me a card every year. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she says. Not even ‘Happy Holidays.’ Hope you’re keeping your hands clean,’ she says. That’s her little joke because of what I do for a living.” He laughed, then pressed a napkin to his glistening lips.

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. How did Leon Federman live? Did he rent an apartment? Eat frozen dinners? He might be a few years younger than she was, but not many. Surely, a man his age should have a wife, a home, some dignity.

“But it’s not a bad job,” he said, arching his back in a stretch. “Decent pay. Keeps you in shape. And you’re through by noon, so you have the whole day ahead of you.”

Gabrielle wondered how many times he’d said the same words, and to how many ladies. His line of work must have been something he’d need to account for in the dark bars men of his sort frequented. Otherwise, he’d have to go home alone to his awful apartment and heat his frozen peas and wash his trash man’s jumpsuit down in the basement in the same machine everyone else in the building used.

She poured two small cups of coffee and laid out two diamonds of baklava, waiting for Leon to finish both and leave. The wine and the cooking had heated her uncomfortably. She thought of a cool bath, of lying alone in her bed for a change and remembering Stephano, an image of perfection in contrast with Leon, who sweated when he laughed and laughed too much, laughed at nothing.

When Gabrielle stood from the table, reaching for the plates and cups, Leon stood too. He took them out of her hands and ran them under the faucet, then looked at her proudly, as if he had cleaned the entire kitchen.

“Thank you,” she said, lifting her leaden feet.

“My pleasure,” he told her.

Gabrielle walked to the middle of the living room, waiting for Leon to follow. “Do you want to call someone? Or I could give you a lift,” she added although she rarely drove at night. But there was the new Le Sabre, Stephano’s last indulgence, the black beast, squeezed into the garage. “My husband—”

Leon stepped forward and gathered Gabrielle in his arms, tipped her back, then pressed his lips against hers. He drew back and descended again as if he were breathing life into a drowning victim. Kiss, breath, kiss, breath.

Panting, she let him lead her to the master bedroom, where he sat her on the bed, then fell to his knees. He pressed his red face into the V of her knit blouse and sighed. While his hands and mouth moved over her body, he groaned as if she were the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. He slobbered and smacked as he tore at her clothes, tore away his own.

Her own hands were like dead birds by her side. She felt mesmerized by the black hairs that blossomed on Leon’s chest, the wings of black hairs on his back. He had hair everywhere except the pink scalp that shone through the long black strands he’d combed over it. Finally, she placed her palms on his shoulders, and he stopped gobbling her body. But instead of pushing him off, she cradled him against her chest. Making love to the trash man, this sweating, red-faced man, she thought of Stephano. Somehow, in touching this living skin, she was loving her husband, that each pleasure was a prayer to him, Leon Federman a conduit to heaven, a place he probably didn’t even believe existed.

“I love you,” she whispered as he collapsed on top of her. “I miss you so much.”

“I missed this too, honey,” Leon told her, pulling himself up. “It’s been a while on my side also, I don’t mind telling you.” He padded out to the kitchen and brought another inch of gin to the bed.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, smelling the bite of alcohol, then slept like the dead. When she woke, it was dawn. She heard the sound of the garage door opening, the Le Sabre turning over. Maybe Leon was going to get bagels. That’s what Jews on Broad Street did on Sunday mornings: bought fresh bagels and thin slices of salmon. She’d brew some coffee, maybe make a coffeecake for after they ate his fish-covered bread.

She had poured the batter into a pan and sprinkled on a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and pecans when she realized he’d been gone forty-five minutes. She understood that no bagels would be coming, no thin fish, no Leon. Well, he could have the car if he wanted, she thought. It didn’t matter. The man was a saint, no matter what. He had breathed life back into her and let her make love to her husband once more.

She offered up a thousand blessings on his shining head before she heard an engine turn off, the glad jangle of keys.

Cathleen CalbertCathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). She has been awarded The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she professes.

 

The Postcards

On a chilly Saturday morning in October, Donald Shieffer found a mysterious postcard in the mailbox at his townhouse in Cincinnati. It pictured a swan in flight, white wings a blur, taking off from the surface of a gray pond edged with snow. The message read, “Poetry is made in the mouth.” The card had been sent four days earlier and was postmarked New York. His name, address and the message were written in careful block letters in blue ballpoint pen.

He read it out loud, tasting the words. Pondered the message. He couldn’t think of anyone he knew in New York.

As the week wore on, he found himself unaccountably irritated, sure the postcard was a comment on his reduced productivity as a poet. Lapsed productivity, to be honest. There had been a recent conference at NYU, hadn’t there, something to do with meta-poetry and alternative expression. He’d seen a short spoof about it in The New Yorker. Maybe this was someone’s alternative poem, an enigmatic message for him to decipher. Some rival from the past was snickering at his incomprehension.

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

Mona perhaps, the tall girl with the stringy red hair in his MFA program at Cornell. “Poetry is made in the mouth” sounded like her. He thought he half-remembered it from some poem of hers. “In the mouth/thought is/made in the south as the birds/fly/nought is/a cumulus cloud, whispered aloud.” Skeins of words tangled and knotted as he searched his memory. He hadn’t thought of Mona in years and it was unlikely she’d thought of him either. Surely she had published even less than he had. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her name in print.

He’d asked her out once. The night had been clear and cold, millions of stars twinkling overhead, more than he’d ever seen back home. They’d left the workshop and were walking down the broad steps of Goldwin Smith Hall when he said impulsively, “So are you busy Saturday night, Mona?” She looked him up and down and said, “Sorry, Donny. It just wouldn’t work.”

He’d completely forgotten the incident, and how he’d smarted at her reply. It still stung. She wasn’t his type: too tall, too theatrical. He’d asked her out on a whim. He was sure she thought he had a crush on her, and he went out of his way to appear neutral and indifferent after that. He was after all indifferent, but also incensed by her pitying glances. Bitch. A memory tugged at him. Yeats. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, read aloud in class by Mona in a breathy quaver. “For poetry makes nothing happen … it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.”

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

He thought about the postcard as he went through his daily routine after work—picked up his dry cleaning, worked out at 24/7 Fitness around the corner, showered off his sweat, stopped for takeout at Chef Lau’s to eat in the kitchen at home, drank a beer as he watched the ten o’clock news before bed. He thought about it when the alarm went off in the morning. Soaping himself under the hot shower, he looked at the water running down the gold-flecked brown and yellow glass tiles and brooded, “Who even knows that I’m a poet? Who would send an anonymous postcard? Am I still a poet?”

He knew at this point in his life, in his mid-30s, he should have found other sources of meaning. Divorced, with no children, and a mid-level job at a mid-sized bank in a mid-sized Midwestern city selling mortgages, he hadn’t. His job was dull. He’d returned to Cincinnati for lack of something better to do, and his life in Cincinnati was dull. His parents had retired to Florida. His college friends had scattered. He’d bought a condo—a new two-story townhouse with a patio and small yard—but didn’t feel settled. He dated, but didn’t connect. He blamed it on the MFA experience, the expectations that came with the degree, without being clear about who or what was at fault. It was ten years since he’d dreamed of being a famous poet. Now he knew that even famous poets weren’t famous. “Yeats?” one of his blind dates had said.  “Isn’t he a mystery writer or something?” She was perfectly nice, college educated, with a good job at a software company. She didn’t read. Most people didn’t read. Not even fiction, much less poetry. He didn’t read much himself any more. He read The New Yorker, but some weeks he just looked at the cartoons and skimmed the poems. The New York Times, mostly for political news. Novels on the bestseller list if they won awards. He streamed Netflix more often than he read books.

A few weeks after receiving the postcard, he opened the Times at the breakfast table and read that Philip Roth, aged 79, author of thirty-one books, had announced the end of his writing career. He’d stuck a Post-it note to his computer screen, he said, on which he’d written, “The struggle with writing is over.” Each time he saw it he felt reinforced in his decision.

Donald spread jam on his toast and gulped down his coffee. He wished he had made a decision five years ago, instead of drifting into this state of paralysis. A Post-it announcing the end of his struggle might have brought him some peace. He thought about posting a note on his computer now, but the gesture felt false. He whispered it to himself, though, as if testing a new mantra, “The struggle with writing is over.” He rinsed his dishes and left them in the sink as he hurried off to work.

The second postcard arrived in late November. Also postmarked New York, written in the same block letters. The glossy picture was of a toad, spotted and brown, blending into a background of dry grass. The message on the other side read, “Poetry is the real toad in the imaginary garden.” This time Donald was sure of the literary reference, to Marianne Moore’s poem on poetry, but just as baffled by the postcard’s meaning. Was the grass another dig at his dried-up creativity? Or were his surroundings the sterile, imaginary garden that had killed his art? He wondered if he was being asked to re-evaluate the choices he’d made, consider what was real, what was imaginary, and what he’d given up along the way. But who would be interested enough in his fate to send two postcards? If not Mona, then another MFA student?

If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive.

He hadn’t kept up with any of them. Only one poet in the program had made a name for himself, an egotistical suck-up who always trailed after visiting poets, praising their work and asking them questions. Peter LeBlanc. No one had liked him. They should have known he’d be the one to make it, with all the ambitious networking he’d done. After graduation, Peter’s poems kept popping up in little magazines with editors he’d cultivated, and then bigger magazines. Some were dedicated to well-known poets. Then he started showing up in the back pages of Poets & Writers as a judge for contests. His adjunct position became tenure-track. Where was that? Somewhere in the Northwest where it rained a lot. Peter had never shown any interest in Donald, not even when his poems were praised in workshop. His sights were always set on bigger game. No, it wouldn’t be Peter.

The question of the mystery sender gnawed at Donald as he filled out forms and checked credit reports and thick mortgage packets and met with clients at the bank. The phone rang and he fleetingly wondered if it might be her. A name on an e-mail in his in-box looked unfamiliar and he wondered if it might be him. He sorted and stapled, put tiny blue stickers with arrows where clients had to sign documents, ran his index finger down checklists to verify that everything was complete. If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive. London would have helped, and a circle of famous writers and artists that he saw daily. Even just one friend like Ezra Pound, ready to transform the heap of poetic fragments Eliot handed over to him into a masterpiece.

Rifling through a box of old papers at home, Donald pulled out a folder of poems he’d accumulated in the first few years after the MFA. The file, marked MISC., contained a jumble of rejection letters for poems from his thesis, drafts of new poems he’d never revised, beginnings of new poems he’d never completed, ideas jotted on scraps of paper he’d never followed up on. He sat down on his heels in front of the hall closet, absent-mindedly waving away the dust motes in the air. There was no incipient masterpiece here that he could see, waste but no “Waste Land.” The MFA thesis was better, an assemblage of some thirty narrative poems, divided into thematic sections and bound in red hardcover, but he’d been dissatisfied with it at the time, sure he could do better. He hadn’t. He returned the thesis and folder to the box and stowed it on the closet shelf again, pushing over a carton of old yearbooks and a pile of winter gloves and scarves.

He’d been checking his mailbox with growing anxiety each day, not sure whether he was relieved or sorry to find no postcard, when the third arrived in January. This one was postmarked in Austin, Texas. Was the sender traveling? Who?

Donald thought about frozen beginnings and his own blighted growth as he studied the picture of green grass glittering with frost crystals, but this time the image was clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the author of the quotation: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Donald had always liked Frost’s dictum, which seemed to express the effortless grace of the great poem. How its unfolding felt inevitable and carried the reader along with it, leaving him changed. The quotation sent him to his crowded bookcase and spurred him to leaf through Frost’s Collected Poems for a few hours. He read some of the poems aloud in the impersonal privacy of his townhouse. He savored the closing lines of “Directive,” and recited them twice. “Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Uplifted, he paced the carpeted living room, looking out the picture window from time to time at the lights in the complex across the street. So many lives. Surely they weren’t all as barren as his. He wished he had someone to talk to.

On Saturday morning he ran into the mailman on the snow-dusted sidewalk outside and asked him if there was any way to trace the sender of a postcard.

The mailman was polite. “No sir, not really. Has someone been harassing you?”

“Kind of,” Donald mumbled. “Not really.”

“There’s a USPS form you can fill out. You can also refuse mail.” The mailman brushed snow off his gray coat with gloved fingers.

“Thanks. I was just asking.”

In fact Donald was beginning to think that the postcards were intended as inspiration rather than indictment. He’d started to read poetry again, and was browsing literary magazines online and considering subscriptions to one or two. For a long time the prospect of running across Peter LeBlanc’s name, or another fellow MFAer’s, had soured him on contemporary literary magazines. He saw he’d been needlessly depriving himself of something that nourished him.

He waited eagerly for the next postcard, afraid that January’s might be the last.

His boredom at work increased. How many more years could he do this? He was good at his job—friendly, orderly, precise. He’d once taken pride in that. But he was beginning to think that a competent sixth-grader could do as well. What was it all about, these contracts for colossal sums, insurance policies against catastrophe, title insurance underwriting claims to plots of land? Why commit to thirty years of monthly payments for the privilege of residing in a fragile structure that a tornado could reduce to rubble in a matter of minutes? He began to pity the bright-faced young couples that sat across from him at his desk, so eager to own their first homes. And the middle-aged couples refinancing their mortgages, ready to spend thousands to remodel kitchens and bathrooms that were perfectly serviceable the way they were. “We’ve been just dying to do this so long,” one suburban matron confided. Her double chin quivered as she nodded. “I’ve been looking at colors and tiles for years.” Donald bit his tongue, tempted to answer, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Didn’t they all, himself included, have something better to do?

It was shortly after Easter when the fourth postcard arrived, a pale pink sunrise over gray waves and a sandy beach strewn with seaweed and glittering shells. There was no indication of the location of the beach on the reverse side of the card, which was postmarked Atlanta.

“Ridiculous the waste sad time/stretching before and after.” He recognized the lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets, about mystical moments that transcended ordinary reality. He’d found them in poetic creation, and in the poems he loved best. Moments, as Emily Dickinson said, when the reader felt like the top of his head was coming off. There was nothing like it, at least nothing so far in his life. Some people might say sex, he supposed, but he’d never had sex that mind blowing. Maybe he’d never actually loved his wife Dorothy, who was beautiful but critical, impatient with his literary aspirations. “It’s just great that you got the MFA and all,” she said after a couple of years of financial struggle. “But don’t you think it’s time to grow up? Write poems if you want, but it’s not really a job, is it?”

So he’d tried grown-up life. He’d probably taken it out on her, the boredom of grown-up life and his sense of failure. It was just as well that they’d postponed kids. But if his life went on like this, the most he could hope for was a series of promotions at the bank, a heavily mortgaged house to replace the condo, and marriage to another Dorothy—blonde, beautiful, athletic, boring. He couldn’t recall what he’d thought they had in common. He’d written poems about the curve of her neck, her rosy knees, her enigmatic smile, and she seemed to enjoy them. He liked to look at her and write about her but couldn’t summon a single memorable conversation they’d had.

Dating since his divorce had been more of the same. Nice women. Pretty women. Competent women. Interchangeable women. He’d offended some of them with his inattention, but he found it hard to keep track of their names and the particulars of their lives—where this one worked and that one had gone to college. Who had the brother who was divorced, or the friend who was having trouble with her husband, or the mother getting chemotherapy. Who was allergic to shellfish.

A married colleague had fixed him up with the latest, an outgoing paralegal named Judy. She was cute, with an upturned nose and freckles. She liked to play tennis. She was a lot more interested in his job than he was. “I would just love working with people taking that wonderful big step, buying a house. Half of our firm’s work is with divorces, so I see couples falling apart, not building their lives.” Judy had a lot to say about local real estate, and her inability to find a townhouse in a complex with the right kind of tenants. “Rentals just don’t attract the sort of people you’d want as your neighbors.”

They were in bed when it came to him. The dark blue sheets were tangled; light from the street lamps outside filtered in through the partially closed vertical blinds. The slats looked like bars.

Judy had been impressed by the stack of poetry books by his bed. “Isn’t that just wonderful! I really admire someone who reads like that. I mean, how do you find the time?”

It was clear she’d never read a poem in her life.

“And all those bookcases. If only I could find a nice place, I’d like to get bookcases and books too, and settle down and read more. Maybe I’d do up a cozy reading nook, in chintz, with a standing lamp. I just love your condo, Donald. It’s one of the nicest I’ve seen. So spacious. Great for entertaining.”

“Do you want to rent it?” He was idly stroking the soft skin inside her arm, wondering if she’d go to sleep soon so he could go downstairs and read. He hadn’t planned on saying it. The words formed in his mouth as if his unconscious had suggested them.

“Do you mean it?” Judy almost squealed with glee, then seemed to remember she was supposed to be unhappy about his departure. “I’ll miss you of course. Are you being transferred?”

“I’m thinking of going away. I’ll give you a good deal.”

“Done! I’m so excited! How soon are you leaving? I’ll need to take some measurements. Get some curtains if you don’t mind, maybe with a swag for the picture window in the living room. Nothing you couldn’t take down if you came back. Do you know whether you’re coming back, by the way?”

“Probably not. We could write up a lease for a year, and then see. Maybe a rent-to-own lease, if you’re interested. You’d get the money accumulating toward your down payment back if I return, but I doubt I will.”

The next day Donald quit his job. A colleague was just back from maternity leave, so the bank was satisfied with two weeks’ notice. “We’re sorry to see you go, son,” his boss Stan said. “I guess you’ll be earning more in a bigger city, though.”

Donald wanted to quote Wordsworth, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” but instead he shook Stan’s hand and said, “Something unexpected came up,” leaving Stan to surmise whatever he wanted to.

Judy took over the sale of his car and furniture on Craigslist, and had a real estate friend draw up the lease-option documents. He put the rest of his belongings in storage, including his business suits. Less than a month had passed when he arrived in Manhattan with a laptop and a suitcase full of old poems and weekend clothes. He had some money in the bank. He’d calculated his rent and living expenses, and if he was careful, it could last six months. The housing market, still not great, was picking up. There might be as much as another year in the profit from the condo when Judy was ready to buy. He didn’t know how he was going to make a living when his money ran out, but he didn’t plan to wear a coat and tie again, whatever he ended up doing.

The room Donald rented in a single-room occupancy hotel in Brooklyn was dingy and small, not much bigger than his kitchen in Cincinnati, but it was cheap, and he liked it. Divested of the weight of unnecessary obligations and possessions, he felt buoyant, ready to begin a new life. He bought a set of sheets, a warm blanket, one plate, one bowl, cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and two glasses, in case he had company. He was in no hurry to find other poets and artists. Just knowing they were there was enough. He planned to scout out some readings, though, on the off chance he’d spot the mystery sender. The first two postcards had come from New York.

Donald’s neighbors in Brooklyn Manor struck him as battered survivors—rheumy-eyed alcoholics, ex-addicts, gamblers down on their luck, hopeful refugees from far-off countries. The walls were thin and he could hear them coughing, swearing, fighting, making love, singing in different languages to music on the radio. At night when he lay in bed, light from the streetlamp seeped in through the crooked venetian blinds, and he heard glass breaking in the street, revelers leaving the bar down the block, snatches of conversation. He didn’t have an alarm clock. Every morning he rose to the sound of garbage cans banging on the sidewalk below his window and the whoosh of traffic. He made coffee and ate a bowl of cereal, listening to NPR on his laptop. Taxis honked. Fire engines wailed. He began a sequence of poems he called “City Music.”

He was rusty. At first he just made lists of sounds, and transcribed overheard dialogue. He gazed intently at the computer screen, willing himself into a trance, and finally the music began. His fingers flew over the keys, lines shaped themselves and flowed. Stopped. Started again. Stopped. The poems entered his dreams, and often he switched on his bedside lamp in the middle of the night to jot something down, or to spend time at his computer, sometimes until gray light and the stir outside signaled the dawning day. He’d forgotten what it felt like. There was nothing comparable to the sheer exhilaration of this struggle.

Being alone in his room felt completely different than being alone in the hushed sterility of his white-carpeted condo. Alive to the sounds and smells of the city, he tasted them in his mouth as he translated them into words. He began to take long walks into unfamiliar neighborhoods, invigorated by the contact of his feet on the pavement, the stream of humanity around him. Lines of poetry unrolled as he strode the sidewalks. He kept a small notebook in his pocket and wrote them down. One day he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, reveling in the sun and wind on his face, the infinite blue sky above, the choppy gray water below, the cries of the circling gulls, the faces in the cars that sped by. He thought of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried …

In July an oversized postcard arrived, buried in a batch of mail forwarded from his old address. The picture was a collection of thumbnail-sized photos of well-known poets. Donald’s address was handwritten, but this time the message was pre-printed in small italics.

“We hope you have been enjoying the Postcard Project, created by poets Lynn Bollinger and Alex Nightingale. We are two recent MFA graduates from Cornell and Columbia, living in the Big Apple, trying to get a new poetry zine up and running online. As a former MFA graduate of one of those programs, you were selected, along with over two hundred poets like you, to receive our postcards. We are proud to announce that the first issue of Posted Poetry is now ready to be unveiled! Check us out at www.postedpoetry.com. We urge you to read us online, submit your work, and join our nationwide crew of volunteers posting poetry postcards. Keep poetry alive!”

Donald stared in disbelief.

He lowered himself onto the stool at the kitchenette counter and read the message again. He looked at the pictures of poets, noting the faces he could identify. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Bishop, Lowell. Sharon Olds? W.S. Merwin? The poets on the bottom row, probably newer, didn’t look familiar at all.

His face had become hot. For a moment he felt queasy.

There was no mystery sender. It had never been about him. He’d been a fool, duped by a marketing ploy.

He watched a cockroach crawl across the counter in search of crumbs and shook his head. He sat for a while until his stomach settled and then stood up and washed his coffee cup and cereal dish, annoyed by the lukewarm trickle of water in the sink. Another cockroach climbed up the wall behind the faucet. Donald dried the dishes carefully and returned them to the small cupboard, taking out a roach motel. He tore off the cellophane packaging and set it on the counter. He could call Judy and try to persuade her to break off the sublet. He could reapply to Wachovia, even take a job somewhere else if there was no opening in Cincinnati. But he knew he wouldn’t.

Instead he sat down at his laptop in front of the window and looked at the buildings across the street. A middle-aged man in an undershirt was smoking on his fire escape. A housewife watered a red geranium. A couple at a kitchen table gestured, miming an animated conversation he couldn’t hear. He tried to guess what they were saying. A slender girl opened her curtains and leaned out the open window, greeting the day with a joyous smile. Donald began to type. After an hour he stopped and stretched, a good long stretch, and decided to go out for a cup of coffee, maybe stop by the library to borrow a copy of Leaves of Grass. It almost felt like old Walt was right in the room with him (“Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”), about to accompany him on his walk through the neighborhood. Donald locked the door behind them and put the key in his pocket.

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her work has recently appeared in South Dakota Review, Front Porch Journal, CRATE, Ninth Letter online, Thin Air, and Frontiers. She has creative nonfiction forthcoming in Birkensnake, New Plains Review, and South Loop Review. Visit her here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

The Recluse

Minny Glorious was well aware that many fervent readers of her client, Billy Benson, would probably apply the term “recluse” to the author’s public persona. While the term wasn’t used explicitly (perhaps out of politeness) in the letter that currently sat on the edge of her dark mahogany desk, she nevertheless read the official fan club’s letter as a sign of growing frustration among the author’s most dedicated admirers. The letter nearly pleaded with the PR woman to convince the reclusive Billy into eschewing his ways and making an appearance at one of their official readings of his work.  Though Minny imagined the small club to be a sad group of bored housewives, all in their early forties, who used the nausea-inducing erotica of Mr. Benson to get their kicks, she also recognized that such opinions should not and could not interfere with her reputation as a smart, talented businesswoman.

Minny didn’t understand recluses. She had come to believe through the forging of her own career that showing strength of character and forming a respected reputation was how one succeeded in life. She prided herself in her job as a PR woman, a determined, persuasive person who could use her talent to promote others and deliver the product that people wanted to see. Billy, however, was on a different wavelength. He never made public appearances, refused to have a Twitter account, Facebook, or personal website. There wasn’t even a photograph on the back of any of his books. Billy had made it increasingly more frustrating for Minny to do her job, the thing that she felt probably most defined her.

And there was a new wrench being thrown by Billy into the otherwise smoothly-running machine of Minny’s career. The author had recently shocked his agent, editors, and the rest of the staff at Snodgrass Press by presenting his next work as a children’s book. But what Minny found even more shocking than the bizarre twist of a lowly author of erotica writing a book for children was that it was good. The editors in the office were thrilled, already proclaiming Billy as the next Robert Munsch. It was that good. The marketing staff were caught up in the hype too, floating around some crazy idea of selling Billy’s books as a two-for-one deal for mothers—the erotic fiction novel for the mom and a picture book she could give her kid.

The book, titled Salmon Ella, was a cautionary tale for children about properly preparing food, and due to the protagonist being a young salmon named Ella, was garnering comparisons to the movie Finding Nemo. If it really was going to be as big as everyone was saying, Minny was going to have the problem of denying even more requests for appearances by the recluse behind the tale, not to mention the problems she’d have controlling the wildfire of rumours that would start about a man that released no information about his life. No doubt, the little fan club had heard about the new release and their frantic letter was reflecting anxiousness to meet the author before he became even bigger in the eyes of the public.

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny crossed one high-heeled foot gracefully over the other as she sat at her desk in the office building on Clancy Street that consisted of the headquarters for Snodgrass Press. She wore bright red lipstick and her dark brown hair was pulled up elegantly. She puffed thoughtfully on a menthol cigarette. Like all the other office buildings in the city, this was a non-smoking one, but Minny guessed correctly that none of the male editors who had desks in the nearby vicinity were of the kind bold enough to challenge the confident PR woman. So she sat there puffing idly, musing to herself about the Billy Benson problem. She slid a thumb over Billy’s fan club letter, feeling the paper as she thought. Then suddenly in one quick jerk, she crumpled it under her fingers. She’d had an idea.

Quickly, she stalked over to Bruce Therrien’s desk, surprising the stocky man.

“H-hey, Minny. What’s up?” he said putting down a sandwich of peanut butter and pickle.

Minny looked disgustedly down at his lunch. “I need to contact Billy Benson,” she said. Having tried to reach Billy in the past, Minny knew the phone number the publishers had for him would no longer be in service. He had no email. Friends who might know where he was? Forget it. She knew he mostly communicated by letter, but that would take too long this time. However, she assumed that one of those letters would have an address at which he could be found, and if anyone had a copy of one, it would be Billy’s editor of six years, Bruce Therrien.

From behind thick glasses, Bruce looked her up and down curiously. “Good luck with that… You know we only hear from him when he wants to talk to us.”

“Well, I need to talk to him now. I can’t wait around.”

“Okay, I’ve got the address where you can send your letter.” He started to dig around in his desk but Minny cut him off.

“Thanks. I’m not sending him a letter, but I’ll need the address to find him anyways.”

“Oh, you won’t find him at that address. Sure, he writes his letters from there,” said Bruce, scratching his goatee. “But it’s just a cover. I think one of his relatives lives there. A little old lady answered the door last time I tried it. Probably his grandmother or something.”

“So where does he live, Bruce?” She was getting impatient. Who did Billy think he was?

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny was aware of this too. For a moment she remembered the last time he’d come into the office. He was always wearing some dopey clothing, probably as a disguise. He was afraid of being recognized by “the masses,” and when asked why would mumble something like “Look at the way John Lennon went.” It was like he was a bad undercover cop, one who was completely oblivious to the fact that his camouflage just made him look more conspicuous. She remembered once he’d come into the office to see Bruce and had been wearing a hat with the largest brim she’d ever seen. The thing flopped messily in every direction. It looked like he’d bought it in a costume store, and he’d kept batting it around and shifting it this way and that on his head so that he could see. On top of that, Bruce had once told her that Billy mentioned he often did his shopping dressed as a woman.

Shaking her head at the ridiculous memory, Minny suddenly snatched the letter, which Bruce had produced from one of his desk drawers. She was going to find Billy, and at the very least this letter would provide a start.

Forty-five minutes later, Minny found herself in the dark, musty hallway of an old apartment building on Park Street. The door to 734 was faded, patches of dark green paint peeling off onto the grimy orange carpeting beneath. She could see Billy being here after all. Wouldn’t a reclusive author like to stay in a place like this where normal people would think twice about stepping inside? Well, whether he lived here or not, as Bruce believed he didn’t, this place had some connection to Billy if he was sending and receiving his mail here.

Minny straightened herself up, wishing, as always, to appear as professional as possible, and knocked firmly on the door.

Sounds arose from within, like that of a small dog or maybe mice scurrying around on laminate floors. She heard fumbling with a chain and suddenly the door swung open in one swift motion. There stood a very short elderly woman. Her eyes were slits and she was stooped in a way that craned her head towards the floor. Minny wasn’t even sure that the woman had looked at her.

“Come in, come in,” she mumbled.

“Uh… Alright.” Surprised, Minny took a cautious step into the doorway.

“Can I make you some tea?” the dry voice crowed at her. The face rose now to meet hers, but it was covered in such thick layers of wrinkles, Minny was apt to think there was no face there at all.

“Actually, I’m just here on a quick bit of business, you see.” The apartment inside was sparse; a green sofa with that plastic covering that old people kept on, scratched floors, no T.V., the smell of boiled vegetables.

Some of the wrinkles seemed to drop and widen. “Business?”

Minny suddenly realized how strange this meeting was. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Minny Glorious.” She wondered why she’d been let in without even being asked that. Maybe the old woman was senile and thought she was someone else, or maybe just lonely and overanxious to have some form of company. “I work for Snodgrass Press, a publishing company. Do you happen to know Billy Benson?”

The old woman stood perfectly still for a moment, long enough that the fear she had had some sort of stroke began to fill Minny until she finally spoke.

“Billy? Are-are you his wife?”

“Oh-uh. No, no,” Minny stuttered, trying to stay clear of the mental picture that would conjure up. Minny wasn’t inclined to ever try to marry, though she could find men easily enough. Any husband would threaten her focus on her career, let alone Billy Benson. “Not his wife. I’m … just on business, like I said. So you know Billy?”

“Humph … He wouldn’t tell me if he was married anyway,” her voice came out low, like a strange growl. “I’m his grandmother and he won’t tell me anything.”

Taken a little off guard by the dawning accuracy of Bruce’s hunch, Minny pressed on.

“Well! You must be very proud of your grandson’s successes as a writer.”

“Humph … successes. Dirty … dirty. Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that kinda trash wouldn’t get published,” mumbled the old woman.

“Do you see him often?”

“Comes here now and then,” she picked up a broom and began sweeping idly, though it was in a haphazard way that merely resulted in pushing a few existing piles of dust back and forth aimlessly.

“Picks up some mail. Never has any groceries for his old grandmother though. Won’t come and sit with me. Not an old bat like me. Doesn’t want to hear old Granny’s stories, just wants to write his dirty porn stories. Don’t know what’s wrong with the young people these days …” she lifted her face again, and Minny felt as though she were being stared at accusingly. She fought off the urge to appease the old woman and take a cup of tea. She wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.

Then suddenly Billy’s grandmother said, “Don’t know why he can’t pick up his damn mail at the hotel …”

Minny leaned forward anxiously. “Sorry, where’s that?”

The old woman’s small peepers seemed to close more tightly now as she scrutinized her guest. “Well … he don’t want visitors you see …”

“Oh, ma’am, I assure you Billy’s privacy will be respected. But I am on urgent business from his publishers and need to see him immediately. Would you mind telling me where I can find him?”

“Hmm … well what do I care, after all? No good grandson,” she mumbled again, continuing her sweeping. “Billy lives in a hotel on Solitaire Boulevard. Only child. Inherited some good money when his dad passed, see. His father was a tycoon in the board game business. He was such a schmuck …”

She continued to babble some inaudible nonsense about the father when Minny interrupted. “A hotel? What room? Can you tell me?”

“Huh? Oh, don’t know honey, don’t know. You’ll have to ask the manager. Billy says he’s the only one who’s in the know.”

The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses.

In another twenty minutes, Minny was outside Hotel Solitaire. She had haggled only for a moment with the manager, who initially pretended not to know who Billy was. But once Minny flashed her business card, explaining that the situation was of dire importance, and using her God-given charisma on him, the manager decided promptly that it was his duty to help this damsel in distress and show her to Mr. Benson’s quarters.

Minny was led down the brightly lit hallway of the eleventh floor, passing a few identical heavy-looking blue doors with gold trim until they reached another emblazoned with the number 1103. The manager seemed to hesitate for a moment with the key in his hand. Was he questioning his loyalty to the author that resided inside? But what respect did he owe to a man who wouldn’t even share his life with his grandmother? He was probably just afraid of losing business, Minny decided.

“Maybe we should knock first?” Minny suggested.

“No,” said the manager, seemingly distracted by thought. “He won’t answer if you knock.”

Finally, the manager sighed, seemingly resigned to the action he was about to take and plunged the key into the lock, turning the handle at the same time. The door opened just a crack, but no light was emitted from the room behind.

“I almost forgot,” said the manager quietly, casting a nervous eye towards the crack. “You’ll need this.”

Out of the pocket of his jacket he pulled a small flashlight and placed it in Minny’s hands. Then quickly, he withdrew the key again, winked to Minny and skipped off down the hall.

Minny watched him go and then took a breath. With one hand, she slowly pushed the door further in. What emerged was only more blackness, and Minny began to understand the manager’s insistence on the flashlight. But no, wasn’t this nonsense? Billy was probably taking a nap and would turn on a light when he realized he had company.

“Mr. Benson!” she called. “Billy!”

Not wishing to intrude by venturing further, she knocked on the doorframe.

“What’s going on here?” a voice suddenly bellowed. “I thought we had an agreement, Kostopolous? Kostopolous?”

A great crash sounded next and Minny hastily fumbled for the switch on the flashlight. The sound of bare feet slapping and something being kicked accompanied the sudden appearance of light.

There were heaps upon the floor. Heaps and heaps. The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses. She realized this was the home of someone who rarely left. A terrible smell assaulted Minny’s nose and she now found herself running her hands up and down the walls, frantically looking for a light switch.

She found one, finally, and the great mess of the room suddenly became altogether more real. She stumbled back a pace towards the door, which she’d let close behind her. There stood, among the mounds of rubbish, like the ruler of some decrepit kingdom, Billy Benson holding a blanket in front of what was his otherwise naked body, his skin white as a ghost against the black curtains that kept out any intrusion of daylight.

Minny screamed, throwing her hands over her mouth.

Billy looked at her, eyes bugged out. A long, mangy beard shot out tufts in wild directions, and his hair appeared to function by the same code.

“Who are you? Where’s Kostopolous?”

“Wh-who?”

“The manager. He’s the only one who could have let you in!”

“I-I told him I had to speak to you. I’m Minny Glorious, I do PR for authors with the company who publishes your work, Snodgrass Press. We’ve met before, once or twice maybe.”

Billy narrowed his eyes. “We’ve never met. I’m going to have to have a good chat with Kostopolous …”

“Right, uh… okay,” Minny shook her head clear and straightened up. What way was this to conduct business? “Mr. Benson, would you put some clothes on please? We need to discuss your career.”

“I told them I only discuss business by letter.”

“This needs to be taken care of now.”

Minny’s tone made Billy freeze, look at her, bushy eyebrows raised. There was silence for a moment and then he said, “Fine,” and took a seat on the couch behind him, indicating for her to find a piece of furniture to do the same.

Minny moved further into the room now, stepping carefully around the rubbish that lay around. She went through a stack of old chairs which were piled close to Billy’s couch, looking for one that had all four legs fully functional. Finally she found one and pulled it out, seating herself across from Billy, who looked particularly ridiculous, watching her with his hands folded over his lap, which was in turn covered by the raggedy yellow blanket he held.

Minny tried to smile but the ridiculousness of the situation, her incredulousness at the person who sat across from her, not to mention the smell, made it impossible to do so.

“So,” Minny began, taking a breath, trying to focus. “Mr. Benson, you’ve delivered us a new book. A children’s book… They say it’s going to be big.” She gestured with her hands. Every word, every movement felt silly right now. She couldn’t take it.

“How,” she tried to stop herself. “How can you live like this?” she suddenly blurted. “How do you expect this new book to be a success when you live like a disgusting, filthy—do you not care what they think about you? What anyone thinks about you? This new book is going to garner you a whole new fan base, there are fans already who are nearly pleading with me to meet you. But I can’t—” she gestured towards him. “I can’t show them this. Hell, they don’t even need to meet you. They just need something. Give them something. Give me something.”

A slight smile was forming in the corners of Billy’s mouth. It was hard to tell under the beard, but it was there.

“Let me explain something to you,” his voice was quiet, low. He looked deep into Minny’s big dark eyes, heavy with eyeliner and shadow. His own eyes were puffy, red around the edges, crusted with sleep in the pockets that were carved close to the bridge of his nose. “We all exist in the world as two people: the person who we know ourselves to be and the person who others think we are. It is my belief,” and he held up a finger scientifically, “that if you let the latter dictate who you are, ‘you’ actually cease to exist.”

“Now,” he continued calmly, and Minny stared at his grimy blanket disgustedly. “There are those who spend a lot of time wishing to have their identity validated by others, who feel the need to live the way others do…” He gestured around him at the dilapidated den, indicating that he was the opposite of such people. “Who feel the need to share everything about themselves ‘out there,’ as if their thoughts and feelings aren’t real unless somebody notices them. These are the people that want a Facebook page, or a Twitter account. What those people really need,” he leaned forward and his grin became broader, more apparent beneath the scruff, “is a fucking diary.”

He settled back, satisfied it seemed, crossing a leg across the other one and opening the blanket just a tad too much for Minny’s comfort. “So the answer to what you’ve come here to ask me, to plead with me to do some sort of publicity for my latest work, is no. I’m quite satisfied to remain an anomaly. People can think what they want about me. But I have no need to feed them facts about my life. For what purpose? For them to distort those facts? For them to dig so deep into their conception of my life, that I end up heeding them and losing my own conception of myself? Absolutely not. It’s not worth it.”

There was a stack of ratty-looking books amid a tower of old take-out containers next to Minny, and she picked one of the books out with two fingers, trying not to touch it too much.

“Well Mr. Benson, if that’s your choice, then all right. I have another idea that perhaps you’ll be okay with. The other choice is that you publish this new book, Salmon Ella, under a pen name. Then you let me control that name. I’ll create the person behind it, make up their likes and dislikes, make them a website, offer some fan trivia. Of course, that man won’t make any appearances either, but at least this way there’ll be some control to what I can do with their public image and it won’t be your life being put out there. It’ll be some imaginary figure. You don’t have to be involved. Just give me your consent, and you’ll have your book published and get your royalties without having to deal with any fame, since that’s not what you want. Right?”

Billy looked at her for a moment. “If that’ll make your life easy, ma’am, then do it. I couldn’t care less.”

Minny got up, anxious to leave the stench and filth of the room. She held the book in her hands still, a copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had one more thing to say before she left this cuckoo’s nest.

“Thank you for accepting, Mr. Benson. I’d like to say, also, that your philosophy is very interesting, but don’t you too feel the need to live like others? I mean all this,” she gestured around the room, “All this is just to look the part so to speak isn’t it? To look like the mad artist, the reclusive author? Like Salinger, or Proust, or Pynchon? I think you do care about what people think. I think that you want them to think of your reclusiveness as some romantic mystery, as some sign of genius.” She threw the book down onto the pile she had pulled it from, and the whole thing toppled over.

“Goodbye, Billy.”

*     *     *

The pseudonym plan began well at first. Billy had written to the publishers that he wished for Salmon Ella to be published under the name “Eric Yahtzee,” and Minny went to work creating a website and short biography for the “new” author. No one in the office suspected Minny had anything to do with Billy’s choice to publish the story under a different name. It made sense considering the marked contrast between the nature of this new work and his previous books.

After some time, however, Minny found herself exhausted at trying to form the character of Eric Yahtzee. She had Twitter accounts, social networking pages, and she was finding it difficult to come up with new things for Yahtzee to say. She became aware of inconsistencies with the types of attitudes he displayed. She began to liken herself to an author writing a character sketch and finding it impossible to make the person rounded, interesting, or real. It was more work than she’d bargained for. She tried to get into the history of her author, thinking of what kind of family he might have grown up with, when she suddenly began thinking about Billy’s poor old grandmother. And she had a new idea.

It was then that she began visiting the old lady at her cramped little apartment in downtown, pretending to be paying friendly visits, saying how she felt bad for her that Billy never visited and that she was so lonesome. And while she was there, she would ask about Billy, what his life was like growing up. From these visits, she built the biography, the character of Eric Yahtzee. Granny was feeding her the material the whole time, and Eric Yahtzee truly did start to become Billy Benson.

Minny was feeling good, the promotion for the new book was doing well and her pride in her cunningness and in her career was refreshed. She smoked happily at her desk on Friday afternoon, congratulating herself on a job well done. Stretching her shoulders and neck satisfactorily, she settled back in her chair, planning to take it easy until 5’o clock, a gift to herself.

Suddenly there was the sound of frantic feet rushing behind her, and, springing up to fix her posture, Minny quickly swiveled around on her chair. It was Bruce Therrien, sweaty, mouth quivering. “You’ve got to fix this!”

“What? What?”

He looked at her, eyes big. He began pacing. “No, no … This was supposed to be a big one. A big seller. You haven’t heard?” He stared.

A knot formed in Minny’s stomach. “Heard what?”

“Billy tried to publish a short story with a men’s magazine…”

“Right. So? He’s writes erotic fiction.”

Bruce started pacing again, glanced at her nervously now and then. “You didn’t hear? Well, it looks like Billy sort of combined his talents for erotica and children’s tales into one story … the magazine was outraged. Called it a monstrosity of nonsense and pedophilia. And the worst part … he tried to publish it under Eric Yahtzee …”

Whatever had formed itself in Minny’s stomach now plummeted to the bottom.

“They recognized him as the author of the much-hyped Salmon Ella, and they’re badmouthing him in the press. For a children’s author, this is devastating.”

Minny stared. She felt defeated.

“Billy wrote. Probably trying to explain. It’s for you.” Bruce handed over a thin piece of lined paper filled with Billy’s spidery handwriting.

She read it over. Billy had a reason for his blunder, but Minny was sure it wasn’t the ridiculous one she saw in front of her now. Billy claimed to have mixed two stories he was working on, sending them to the magazine one late night after ingesting LSD because “that’s something Ken Kesey would have done.”

The book she’d thrown at him. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a clue. She’d been sabotaged. He probably didn’t like her using the bits about his own life for Eric Yahtzee’s character. And how had he known? Paid poor Granny a visit finally? Or had he been keeping tabs on what she was writing?

It didn’t matter. She had damage control to do.

Matt FournierTristen Matthew Fournier grew up in the frigid environment of Yellowknife in Canada’s far North. Finding that typing warmed his numb and frost bitten fingers, Fournier set out to be a writer of prose fiction and poetry, exploring human nature while blending humour and philosophy. This led him to study at Concordia University in Montreal where he has completed a degree in creative writing. He has previously published with Buttontapper Press.

 

The Yin-Yang Market

I sip my black coffee, peering up at her. I have offered her a cup of café phin―slow-drip coffee. She palms the cup with both hands. Head lowered. The cup raised to her lips. First sip. Gingerly. Her brow furrowed.

It’s so peaceful around here, she says, her partially-tilted face leaning into the morning light which glints on the fine downy hair at the base of her neck.

We live a slow life here, I say. I’m sure you’ll forget everything here by the time you go back to America.

I keep things I learn―things I select to remember.

Like what?

Like the drip coffee, she finally says, chuckling. But I’m fascinated with those rivers and canals around here. And the lives that depend on them.

I catch her gaze over the cup’s rim, serene eyes, elongated and pretty, the brow not creased this time, perhaps she is now getting used to the bitter taste of the café phin, this orphan child having been displaced to grow up into a comely girl, always exuding liveliness and consideration.

She came to my inn in the Mekong Delta with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.

The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone.

She keeps the cup uptilted, partially covering her face, as she tells me about the place she came from. Her words now paint images from her photographic memory, and I begin to see the one-story L-shaped tin-roofed, mango-wood walled house that sheltered nine orphans, four to ten in ages. Behind the orphanage was a fish pond, then a plot overgrown with banana trees whose fronds the nuns would cut and wash and later wrap foods in. In that banana grove, caught by a sudden late-afternoon thunderstorm, the head nun held her tight against her bosom, both crouching to hide from the lashing rain. The nun broke the fronds at the stems to screen themselves, then took off her headscarf and wrapped it around the little girl’s head. A streak of lightning at ground level, like a sudden flash out of a mirror, then an ear-splitting thunderclap rending the air. She plugged her ears just as another crash shook the ground, the earth rumbling in the soles of her feet, the air now thick, acrid smelling, and the sky wrinkling and pulsing with far-off lightning. Out in the open the hummingbird trees bent and snapped back and leaves flew fluttering like birds. The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone. Then a blinding white flash across the pond. It seared a hummingbird tree in midsection. The tree snapped, loud. The girl could smell the burned smoke on the wind. She said, sobbing now into the nun’s chest, I don’t want to be here, and the nun cradling her in her arms drew her against her own chest and said cooing, We’d better stay for a little while and I promise nothing shall hurt you my dear. She held still, smelling a warm, sweaty smell on the nun’s blouse just as the nun squirmed, her hand touching her blouse here and there and her voice sounding panic, I’ve got something under my blouse. The nun eased herself out and her hands came up unbuttoning her blouse. The little girl stared, saw a black thing snatched away from the nun’s chest. A caterpillar. Across the air suddenly flashed a jagged line. Then an explosion so loud her ears rang. She mashed her face in the nun’s bosom, the nun shielding her now with the open fronts of her blouse. Eyes shut, she heard the nun cooing in the manic sound of the rain. She felt the flesh warm and abundantly soft, smelling like wet leaves, and she felt raindrops trickling down her scarf-covered head to her lips, her neck and the nun was humming a lullaby. The thunder came less and less now and soon rolled into the distance and then just the rain clattered on the leaves, the smoky smell now gone from the air, and it felt dank in the susurrus of the wind. The nun gently pushed her away from her chest. It’s safe to go now, child, she said. The girl wiped rain from her cheeks, following the nun’s fingers trying to match a button against its buttonhole. She kept gazing at the ample flesh of the nun’s bosom, then at a pink ridge of a scar astride her breasts. She didn’t ask. But it had stayed with her.

*     *     *

Dawns she would rise to help the nun in the rear kitchen, sitting on her heels on the packed-earth floor, stacking up coconut leaves, brown and dry, then stripping the leaves of the stiff midribs, then tearing each leaf from its stem, and the nun would light the leaves and feed them into the hearth and then when the flames spurted quivering she poured a bowlful of rice husks into the fire. The hearth crackled, the husks exhaling acrid smokes, and the flames rose in blue tongues. She would save the midribs and the stems for the nun. The children would tie the stems together into a multilayered fan-shaped bundle into which they would fit a midriff for a handle. And that was how they made brooms. The nun would let her pour rice flour evenly onto a white gauze that screened a wide-bottomed pot, the square cloth stretched and held down drum-tight by the weight of four bricks strung from four corners of the cloth, the pot steaming with boiling water and the rice flour―a creamy white mixture of sugar and coconut extract and sesame seeds―was spread out in a round layer and the nun then lidded it with a cane cover. Like a wonder, she would stare at the rice crepe after the lid was removed shortly after, the crepe so thin now it was no longer cloud-white but opaque-white hazing from the steam. She watched the nun slide a wide wooden blade under the crepe, lifting it gently so it hung flapping, round-shaped and wet and paper-thin, and dropping it on a palm-woven sieve. As the nun bent to scoop up rice husks with a bowl to add to the fire, the girl could see the nun’s breasts through her collarless blouse, the long scar, braidlike, across her chest. They had to use up the flour just before the sun had burned off the morning mist so they could put out the sieves for the crepes to dry in the sun. By noon the crepes would dry. The children took the sieves back in and they stacked the crepes by tens, tied them down and wrapped them in brow papers and a nun would later carry them to the local market and sell them on consignment. By then the girl had forgotten about the scar.

*     *     *

A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation.

Then the flood season came. It came one morning after a three-day rain when she woke and saw floodwaters rising to the doorsteps. By noon rain had slackened and the water was coming into the house. She could no longer see the long table where they would sit eating, only the tops of  the straight-backed chairs that told where each chair was. The nuns put the children in three canoes, the long, slender canoes always tied to the trunks of the hummingbird trees behind the house, and now with the children safely together, all bunched up in their clear-plastic raincoats, the nuns began paddling away. The plain behind the house was a steely white sheet of water brimming to the horizon. Markers of boundaries between landowners’ paddy fields were the yellow-flowering riverhemp bushes, their crowns mirroring themselves, yellow on yellow, in the gray water. She could tell where they were by the familiar sights of things―clumps of half-submerged flatsedge fringing a pond―the pond now rising with cloudy water and on it floating white waterlily and blue waterlily. The head nun handed her the short paddle and reached out for a blue waterlily. She gave the girl the flower and took the paddle back. The girl asked if the nun’s arms were tired from rowing, for the nun had taught her how to row, how to paddle with the cây dầm, much shorter than an oar, made of thingan wood, polished and always light. The nun shook her head, rowed on. They would stop when they spotted small crabs taking shelter on a floating quilt of water hyacinths so the children could pick them up and play with the mottled-brown crabs that always camouflaged themselves with the color patterns of their surroundings. Sometimes late in the afternoon when the water had stopped rising, the nuns rested, the canoes now leaning against the crown of a young bushwillow with its trunk, at least two meters tall, submerged in water. Neighbored by nothing but gray sky and white water, the nuns began setting the fishing poles, fitting their butts into a bored hole in the upper side of the canoe, the poles arching over the water watching the lines plumb the water’s depth. The children ate rice balls out of their banana leaves. The girl, too, chewed a rice ball, long-grained and sticky with ground, salted sesame seeds. She could smell its bursting roasted aroma in her mouth. Eating, she touched a bushwillow’s leaf, still damp, feeling its downy hairs. Her mind grew dreamy. A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation. They caught several perches. One hand holding the line, the head nun held up a perch, its dusky-green body quaking in her hand, and as the children gawked told them this fish could walk. The children giggled and asked how. It used its tail and fins, the nun said, to move over land. The girl remembered that. The walking perch. They rowed on, the nuns stopping at times to untangle feathery roots of water lettuce from their paddles. Passing an earthen dike with only its top above the water, gapped in several spots, the head nun pointed toward a paling of cajeput stakes, closely joined, and asked if anyone knew what the barrier was for. The girl said it was to catch fish. The nun said, You’re very smart, child, but this isn’t fish weir. Then as the canoes came alongside the wet, battered-looking paling, the nun told them to look down into the water. Fish weir, she said, has stakes with a fair distance between them, and with horizontal wattling between stakes to trap fish. Do you see any wattling down there? The children said no. The nun said, This paling is to protect the dike from further water damage. You as my children live your protected lives in the house, but out here people’s lives depend much on the waterways and sometimes water encroaches their habitats and so their work never ends, the year-round mending of things in the delta. Then beyond the fence, the dike, they came around a hummock rising above the water like an elephant back. The nuns shipped the paddles, docked the canoes, and led the children up the knoll. Twilight was falling, spreading a fan-shaped glow across the water, luminous water swelling to the sagging sky. They walked under cajeput trees, between their thin pale trunks into a gloom harbored by their damp leaves, green now turned black and still dripping rainwater, then out in a clearing. A stilt hut sat three feet above the ground. Flanking the steps were clay vats, lidded and waist-high. Beneath the stairs sat a skiff covered in a moss-green plastic sheet. Outside the hut sat an old man on the bottom step. The girl recognized him. Leathery, sun-spotted face. Gap-toothed grin. He was the janitor who helped fix things around the orphanage. He built all the furniture―tables, chairs―and one time made a pen nib for her. She remembered one morning seeing him on the doorsteps pounding a leaf of gray metal cut out from a milk can. She sat by him. Making you a new pen nib as she told me to, he said, referring to the head nun, as he cut the metal into a sliver. So you can write again, he said. You write, eh? How old are you? She said, Four. He looked at her, head to toe. I don’t even know my age, he said, but I can count good with my fingers. Then, with the tip of his tongue protruding between his lips, he began hammering the metal sliver. Now he raised his hand to greet the nuns. So this is where he lives, she thought. In the ash-blue twilight beyond the clearing where bushes grew wild, she saw humps of graves plagued by needle grass and false daisy. The white, small flowers glimmered. She saw them around the orphanage. When they followed the old man up the steps and into the hut, she could hear from behind the hut the hens clucking and the throaty gargles the ducks made in their pens. The old man lit the kerosene lamp hung from a hook on a cockroach-maroon post. The hut glowed eerily in the trembling light, the corners full of shadows. The floor, lined with shorn boles of cajeput, glowed with a bone-shine. She could see a lute hung next to the lamp. Odd-looking lute, its body round as a coconut. The hearth crackled now with a fire going strong, the old man feeding the fire with cajeput wood, then dropping dry cajeput leaves onto the flames that smelled foul. Keep out them mosquitos, he said to the children sitting around the hearth. She followed a nun outside to get away from the smelly smoke. The nun knelt on a flagstone by a vat and with a knife began gutting a perch. Watching the nun prepare the fish, the girl heard heavy wings up in the dark tangles of cajeput trees. Then she saw white storks and white egrets coming home to roost for the night. The twilight stillness broke by the incessant, raw beating of wings. Someone was coming out of the hut. It was the head nun who said to her, Are you hungry, child? She nodded, Yes. How long are we staying here? The nun said, Till the water goes down, then we go back home and start cleaning up. I’ll be back shortly. The girl asked, Where’re you going? The nun pointed toward the gloom beyond the clearing. The girl saw the humps of graves now just blurred swells. What’s there? she asked. The nun looked down at the ground, then lifted her gaze again toward the graves. My daughter’s grave, she said. The girl said nothing. A sense of separation between two people came to her like a fleeting thought. Can I go with you? she asked the nun. The nun patted her head. Yes, child. And they walked in the rustles of wings to the graveyard. The small grave sat on the rim of the knoll before it sloped and disappeared into an overflowing canal now lambent with the twilight glimmers. The ground felt soft around the grave, matted with toothache plant. Aren’t they pretty? the nun said, bending to pluck a handful of the plant’s flowers. The girl asked, What’s this plant? The nun gathered the long-stemmed flowers, each shaped like a yellow-colored eyeball with a red dot in its center. Cỏ the, the nun said. Like its name says. It tastes like mint, strong enough to numb your gum. The nun placed the small bouquet on the grave. The girl gazed down at the restless water rushing headlong as though the earth was tipped, a dank smell rising from the turgid canal three meters below. Then a sudden wing rush. A pond heron shot up, coming over them so low she could see its brown-streaked plumage as it sailed into the dark vault of trees. She looked at the nun who was standing, head bowed, forming words with her lips in her prayer. Then she crossed herself. The girl imagined a presence in the grave. Forever out here. Heat. Rain. Why she died? she finally asked the nun who now took a sharp breath and then slowly exhaled. She drowned in the flood, the nun said. Something seized the girl’s mind so suddenly she found no words to say. She remembered stories about drowned people who would always float back up, bloated and blue-cold looking, after three days in the deep. So she just gazed up at the nun whose face was shadowed now by dusk with only tiny glints in her eyes. The nun said softly, Since then I’ve been always prepared for the flood, so you children shall always be safe with me. Then she patted the girl’s head, said, She was only your age. The girl couldn’t help but notice the small grave, small enough to be overlooked had it not sat alone on the tip of the knoll. She imagined the nun’s daughter then said, But this grave is so small. The nun nodded, the corners of her mouth wrinkled as if she tried to smile, then she said, It is small, my child. Just a grave. Nothing in it. I could not recover her body. But I want to remember her, that’s my wish. The girl felt the nun’s hand squeeze hers. The vegetation-damp smell coming up from the water below then reminded her that she would always be safe on a high, dry ground like this. Then the nun still holding her hand turned and led her back toward the hut. Walking the nun said, She had eyes like you. The girl looked up, met the nun’s gaze when the nun said, You have the Virgin Mary’s eyes, my child. The girl kept pace with the nun until they came to the water vats where the nun sat down and took a washcloth she kept in her blouse’s pocket, soaked it in the vat and started washing herself. From inside the hut drifted a thick smell of smoked fish. The fire in the hearth made shadows in the doorway. Leaning against a broken vat, the girl stood watching the nun clean her neck. Then unbuttoning her blouse, the nun began washing her chest. In the yellow glimmer, the girl gazed at the abundant flesh, the hand that rubbed it that went with the shadows so the flesh went from dark to alabaster. Then the hand went away, the flesh bare, milky, and across the ample flesh was the long ridgelike scar.

*     *     *

Now she hovers her hand over the cup, then closes her hand trapping the steam in it. Long, tapered fingers. Unpainted fingernails. I try to picture her as a child. I imagine hearing her gentle voice spoken in Vietnamese by a little girl. I try in vain to conjure up the child. I say to her, Maybe someday you’ll find the nun.

I think so, she says. I will come back here.

That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam.

This morning she wears a scarlet, collarless blouse. The top of the round neckline, held by a button,  opens out in a small V. A lock of raven-black hair curls over her clavicle. Something comes back to my mind.

The nun, I finally say to her, how did she have such a scar?

From a rape, the girl says.

I draw back. The chair creaks. During the war? I say.

Yes. She fought him and he cut her with a Bowie knife.

Who did?

An American Marine―when they raided her village.

What village?

One in The Plain of Reeds, where she ran her orphanage.

Where you were raised.

Yes.

Her daughter was the result of the rape?

She nods.

I raise my cup, bring it to my lips. When was the last time you were with her?

It was after she agreed to have my American mother adopt me. I cried when she told me the news. She held me a long time and when I stopped crying she told me it was the right thing to do. For me. That I shall have a future. That such a future will allow me to grow as a free spirit. That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam. I said, What is it that you want me to see? She said, A marketplace. I said, But it’s night now. She said, Yes, child, it’s the hour that matters with the event. I said, But why a marketplace? She said, You’ll see, child, it’s called ‘The Yin-Yang Market.’

I interrupt her. Do you mean Chợ Âm Dương?

Yes. Then she flicks a smile. I had the words translated in my head before I told you, because I didn’t want to say it wrong.

I know what it is.

Do you? What is it then?

We had it in the North. It’s hard to explain to the outsiders what it is.

I want to know if we’re talking about the same thing.

In the North, in this particular village in Bắc Ninh Province in the Red River Delta, there was this marketplace called ‘Chợ Âm Dương.’ It opened only once a year on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year.

Chú . . . She cuts in. Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.

I pause, peering at her, and take another sip of coffee.

The nun, she says, perking up now, was born in the North and came to the South in nineteen-fifty-four when Vietnam was separated into North and South by the Geneva Accords. She said the people who started this yin-yang market in the South were Northerners, the anti-communist Catholics. She stops, smiles at me. Now you can go on.

It makes sense, I say, drawn by her riveting gaze. And so they said the location of this marketplace used to be a battlefield back in the feudal time, centuries ago. So many had died their tragic deaths there they said the yin force just shrouds the place. So on that day, just past midnight, the market opened. Nobody carried a lamp. In the dark people then came to buy things. It was for the dead to come back and buy things from the living. Then the market closed before first light.

Yes, chú, she says as she palms her cup in her lap. The market she took me to was outside our district. It was near a river. An empty tract of land with stilts standing but no houses atop them. The nun said, There used to be a village here ten years ago. In just one day it was gone. She said the Viet Cong took cover in the village to ambush the Allies and the Allies counterattacked and shelled it to ashes. Nobody survived. The Viet Cong and the innocents.

Now she pauses, sips, her lips puckered as she sets the cup down in her lap. It was past midnight, she says, when we got there. A new hour that began a new day on the fifth of the Lunar New Year. There were no lights. I asked the nun, Why it’s so dark? She said, Just follow me, child. So she held my hand and we found our way in the dark, walking on the bare ground, stepping between people who sat with baskets and bins in front. I could hear my footfalls in the dead stillness. And wisps of murmurous voices. I could smell the steam of rice porridge, the rich odor of beef broth they used to brew porridge with. Then white steamed buns, rice balls, bánh lá—the leaf-wrapped dumplings―laid out on the sieves. Then the familiar odor of beef noodles. Finally the nun found someone. A turbaned woman who sat with a tray at her feet. The nun made me sit between her and the old woman. I bent to see better what the old woman had on the tray. What are those? I pointed at the tray and whispered to the nun. She said into my ear, Betel leaves and areca nuts. Then she picked up a betel leaf, tore it halfway and held it at my nose. I wrinkled my nose at a dark, spicy smell. That old man, the janitor, always chewed this sort of leaves with a sliver of areca nut. We the children were fascinated at how he prepared his chew as he dropped the slice of areca nut in the center of the betel leaf and brushed the leaf with wet white lime. Then he rolled the leaf into a tight quid and eased it into his mouth. He spat a lot after he chewed. I flinched the first time I saw him spit. I thought he spat blood. His spit was red. His lips too. When he grinned―he had no front teeth―you could see his tongue, his gums like they were bleeding badly. Now I thought this was some strange market but I didn’t know what to ask. It was chilly. The nun held me against her side and I rested my head on her shoulder. Blurred shapes in dark and light garments sitting all over the ground in an eerie stillness. I could smell the river in the breeze, its old muddy smell. The sky was low and moonless, so dark you could see neither stars nor lights. I didn’t know how long I had fallen asleep on the nun’s shoulder. Then someone spoke, someone answered and I woke. A woman wearing a conical hat was standing before me. She was folding a betel leaf into a quid and then worked it into a pouch in her mouth. The oyster-gray skin of her palm-leaf hat glimmered, it covering most of her face, her bà ba blouse so white she seemed to glow. She handed the turbaned woman a coin, then turned and walked away. The whiteness of her blouse sank into the blackness. Like stepping into a dark doorway. There were more people now, shuffling about, indistinct, shapeless, their attire dark-colored, the bà ba blouses, the wide-legged pantaloons. They sat down, eating from the vendors’ bowls. I could hear the slurping noise they made. The air felt cold. It felt damp on the skin, a shivering dampness not there before. I snuggled against the nun and she put her arms around me. Who’re these people? Where’d they come from? I wondered, as I rested my head on the nun’s shoulder. Around here there were no habitations. But I didn’t ask the nun. Nobody spoke. It was like seeing things in a dream, black-and-white, soundless. Someone came for a betel chew, then another. Older women. When they came the air would feel colder, like when you open the door and the rain-damp air came in after it had rained all night. I fell asleep on the nun’s shoulder and when I woke the market vendors were packing up. Now some vendors had lit their kerosene lamps, the glows painting amber lights and shadows on their faces. The turbaned woman had sold out her betel-chew condiments. The nun said something to her and she began emptying her blouse pockets onto her tray. Wrinkled arrowroot leaves, dried-up banana leaves, holed seashells, pebbles round and square. Like child’s things. Why d’you carry them in your pockets? I asked the woman. And she looked down into my eyes, about to say something when the nun said, These aren’t hers, child. They came from the people who came here to buy things from her. I glanced at them again and said, Are they worth anything to give to somebody? The nun shook her head, said, No, child. Themselves they aren’t worth anything. But they were money when those who came here paid her and other vendors. I said, They are not money. The nun said, They were money when those people were here. Then picking up a round pebble, the nun put it in my hand, said, This was a money coin when they paid her. Now she picked up a dried arrowroot leaf, said, This was paper money when they gave it to her. You see, child, those people aren’t living people, like us. They had been dead for many years now. They came back from their yin world into our yang world, this marketplace, so they could enjoy again our worldly pleasures even just for one brief moment. There was no bargaining, no asking about the prices of things in this market. They came, bought things, paid for them. It was real money when they paid. The coin money, the paper money. Only after they have left to go back to their yin world did the money then turn back to its true origins. The nun then patted my head. Now, do you understand why I said that you shall never see anything like this again after you leave Vietnam? I stood looking at the pebble in my hand. A child’s thing, like when children play buy-and-sell. We’d use seashells, pebbles, cutout papers for money.

Khanh HaKhanh Ha’s debut novel is Flesh (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.  He is at work on a new novel. His short stories have appeared in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, and forthcoming in Glint Literary Journal (2013 Summer issue), Zymbol (2013 September issue), DUCTS (2013 Summer issue), and The Long Story (2014 March anthology).  www.authorkhanhha.com

Heimlich

The thing about Danny MacIsaac was that he was average. Average weight,  average height, average brown hair. He played hockey and baseball but he was never captain of the team or Most Valuable Player or anything. At school he half-slumped in the middle of the middle row, as if to mirror the position of his grades on the bell curve: most teachers (hell, most people) forgot about him as soon as he left their field of vision.

Danny’s family was also considered average. He had a younger brother named Ian. His father Billy D. was lazy and he liked his beer, but not more than most men, and his mother Willena was a regular mom: she worked, cleaned the house, cooked dinner and played bingo.

Danny liked being average. Some people wanted to stand out but not him. When you stood out, people talked about you and gave you stupid nicknames. He knew. It had happened to him once.

 * * *

A spring evening just like summer near the end of Lent. Danny and his mom were walking home from his grandmother’s place at the units, where he had tried to sell some tickets for a cellophane dinner for his hockey team. They stopped in at Footsie’s for a loaf of bread and a treat. Danny looked longingly at a bag of ketchup chips (he’d given them up for Lent) until he spotted the pink plastic ice-cream cone leaning behind the counter. But as Footsie’s didn’t have any ice-cream yet he settled for one of the two root beer popsicles left over from last summer.

They walked in the just-like-summer evening, he and his mom, past houses whose windows were still propped open with bottles and sticks and whatever else was handy. Which is why they heard this as they arrived at the door of their company duplex:

“I made the friggin’ thing; you eat it.”

“You know I hate fuckin’ onions.”

“I’m not askin you to fuck ’em, just to eat ’em.”

She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids.

Donnie Pepsi and his wife, Joleen. Now there was a pair. Donnie was a liar and a crook but Joleen was the real entertainment. She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids. In the summer, people knew exactly how many times a week the Pepsis did it because you could hear Joleen clear across the street. They were as good as Days of our Lives. And Danny’s mother could not get enough of them.  She watched all their comings and goings and analyzed every twisty turn of their complicated existence.

‟There was a woman over there today with a briefcase” she’d say to Billy D. over the shake and bake chicken. ‟Looked like Tony Cameron’s sister, the one works for the welfare. Three o’clock in the afternoon and Herself  still in her nightgown. Josephine is staying with them again. The old man must be on a toot.”

After dark Willena often took her knitting upstairs and sat on a chair beside her bedroom window. With the lights in the room turned off she could see right into the Pepsis’ kitchen and living room (they never closed the curtains or washed them that she could tell) and during the warm months she could sometimes even hear what they were saying. So when Danny came home with his root beer popsicle that night, he gave its twin to Ian, dropped the bread on the counter and went straight upstairs.

“Don’t be drippin’ that all over the couch,” Billy D. said to Danny, not taking his eyes from the television screen. And after a few minutes‚ “Where’s your mother at?”

“I dunno.” Danny said.

When the next commercial came on, Billy D. pushed down the lever on the La-Z-Boy, hoisted his big belly out of the chair and made his way up the stairs. Danny heard the toilet flushing, the creak of footsteps in the hallway and down the carpeted treads, the refrigerator door opening and closing.

“Tell you what, Bud,” his father said when he returned to the living room. He was twisting the cap off a bottle of Keith’s. “How would you like to make a loonie?”

By suppertime the next day it was all over town how Danny had gone up the stairs quiet like, pushed open his parents’ bedroom door, stuck in his hand and flicked on the light switch. Hard to say who was more surprised Joleen or Willena or the kid himself. He must be some stupid, I guess. Willena’s mad. Don’t think Billy D’ll be getting any for a while, ha ha ha.

The name Danny Lightswitch was floated for a day or two but then someone set fire to the canteen at the arena and both the incident and the nickname were forgotten. Since that time, Danny did everything he could to stay under the radar.

So here he was, eight uneventful years later, so normal, so unremarkable, so friggin’ average that he was practically invisible as he stood on the crumbling sidewalk  in front of Cornell’s Insurance after school. He was with Jonathan MacDonnell and Corey Deveau, smoking, hawking gobs of spit and talking about the semi-finals and horses and stuff. It was bright and sunny and warm and the whole town was outside. Cars and pick-ups and the same two motorcycles went up and down Central Avenue and parked in front of the liquor store and the Co-op. Pairs of girls paraded by in sandals and shorts and summer tops.

Danny was coming down with a cold, so in between Export A’s he sucked on some cherry cough drops. He had just popped one in his mouth when three things happened: Collie MacMaster stopped to bum a smoke, a pulp truck went by in a blast of dust and flying bark, and Joleen Pepsi appeared at the end of the street.

Even from a distance Danny could tell it was Joleen. Years of hanging out on the corner had taught him that everyone in town had a gait and posture that were as recognizable as the features on their faces. With Joleen there was also her distinctive shape. Today her round middle was packed into tight white jeans and her stiff bleached hair was pouffed high on her head. Joleen and Danny were no longer neighbours. She had  moved into a low-rental after Donnie was sent to Dorchester for bank machine fraud. Now that he was back, they maintained what was known as a back-door relationship; living apart so they could both get welfare. So nothing linked Danny and Joleen anymore except that long-ago incident, now a blip in the collective memory of the town.

“I can get John L. to get the booze, but it’ll cost,” Corey was saying. Danny was about to answer, had just opened his mouth in fact, when, slick as a smelt in your hand, the cherry cough drop slid down his windpipe.

Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster.

At first he didn’t understand why he couldn’t breathe. And when he did, he realized that, having also been rendered mute, he was alone with the awful knowledge. His friends just kept laughing and horsing around: he could croak right there in front of friggin’ Cornell’s and none of the bastards would notice. Gasping, he gave Corey a shove and  pointed to his throat. Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster. But still he did nothing, just stood there like the dense friggin’ idiot he was until Danny pulled the package of Vicks from the pocket of his hoodie and grabbed his throat.

“Holy fuck!”Corey said. “He’s chokin’ on a candy.”

Behind Corey, like something slow-motion on TV, Joleen’s potent white thighs pumped against the cindery duff of the sidewalk. The turquoise globes of her breasts bobbed up and down like lobster boats on their way back to the wharf. She drew up beside them, took one look at  Danny (Elsie Rankin was just walking out of Cornell’s, she saw everything with her own eyes) stuck her big jugs up against his back, put her meaty arms around his middle and lifted him clear off the sidewalk. The candy blasted out of Danny’s mouth like a slapshot across the ice.

His life was ruined.

* * *

At first the focus of the story was on the Heimlich manoeuver. That it actually worked was judged to be remarkable. That Joleen Pepsi knew how to perform it was nothing short of astonishing.

“Where in hell did she learn that?”

“Beats me.”

“Must have been at one of them job-finding clubs.”

Then people began to dwell on how lucky young Danny had been. On what a tragedy this could have been for the family. For the whole town, in fact. (The latter not being entirely true because nothing bonded the townspeople as much as the untimely demise of one of their own. But anyway.) On how you never knew when your time was up.  Imagine, just sucking on a candy.

The next day, the teachers and students and janitors all seemed to be looking at Danny for one or two more seconds than necessary. There was interest and curiosity in their eyes. But most of all there was amusement.

So instead of chilling with the guys as he usually did after school, he went home, ate three hot dogs with ketchup and plugged in the Nintendo. He was after beating the second level of Golden Eye when he became aware of his mother’s presence in the doorway.

“Phone, Danny,” she said. ‟It’s a woman.”

Now this was unusual. But as James Bond was 110% occupied freeing hostages just then, Danny just said:

“I’ll call ‘em back.”

Returning a few seconds later, his mother leaned in the doorway and said:

“It was Joleen Dennison.” Danny had never heard her use Joleen’s real name before. “She said she just wanted to know how you were.”

He looked at his mother’s face and she looked at his and then they both looked away. On the television screen a curtain of blood signalled that he had lost the game.

* * *

He had to stop hanging out on the corner with the guys because if anyone spotted Joleen they said:

“Hey, it’s Danny’s lifesaver.”

“I’ll bet she wouldn’t choke on nuttin’.”

“It would have to be a lot bigger’n Danny’s little candy anyway.” Or something like that. And then one night he was pissed at his brother for eating all the Rocky Road ice-cream and putting the empty container back in the freezer and he had him pinned to the floor good, he was really owning him when Ian said:

“Let me go, Heimlich.”

“Wha?” Danny said.

“That’s what they call you now. Know what that makes me, fucker? Know what that makes me? Thanks a fucking lot.”

He was thinking about this the next day as he stood at the kitchen sink shovelling milk and Fruit Loops into his mouth. Rotten fucking luck he’d had choking on that cough drop. And now the name. He’d be stuck with it for the rest of his life.

The telephone rang.

“Danny?”

It was a woman. The voice was smoker-rough, sexy.

“Yipper,” he said.

“It’s me, Joleen.”

He remembered her breath on his nape, the softness of her big breasts against his back, the sweet release in her arms. His heart began to knock against his chest.

* * *

Late on a Sunday night. Danny is slowly pedalling his bicycle on the dark quiet streets of the town. He is smoking a cigarette. The bike makes long lazy arcs on the damp pavement. He almost feels like a character in a movie. Older. Mysterious. Someone who has his own apartment.

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

He turns onto Campbell Street. Joleen had told him her house was yellow with a white door. He sees it. The light is on in one of the windows. Frilly yellow curtains, must be the kitchen. Rosie said all she had to was call the welfare and she got all new curtains. Maybe she is putting the kettle on, making herself a cup of tea. (But Joleen never drinks tea, she drinks Pepsi, what else? With ketchup chips.)

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

* * *

Danny was not a virgin when he leaned his bicycle against the back of Joleen’s house. But only technically. The girl was completely wasted, it had lasted maybe three and a half minutes, and the next time he saw her she had looked at him as blandly as she ever had.

But Joleen.

In her silky embrace—he had watched her from the bathtub, floating a pink lotion, then a scented powder over her breasts and belly and arms—or next to the fragrant satiny insides of her thighs, he felt as he did when he left his friends on the beach and swam out into the ocean alone, far far out, the deep water holding him up like the hand of God.

He’d been after swimming like this for almost a month when a car drew up beside him on the highway as he walked home from Corey’s place late one night. The front doors opened and Donnie Pepsi and Mild Bill MacInnis got out. Danny began to run.

“Come here you little cocksucker,” Donnie said.

Danny ran up and up the bridge hill he was huffing and puffing it was the smoking he had to quit smoking and those Colt 45’s he just had didn’t help that Mild Bill was way too fat to run this fast he was one scary fuck as big as a truck he wished someone would drive up just now even the Mounties that would give those dicks a scare they sure must look funny all three of them running to beat the band—

They broke his nose and one of his ribs.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” his mother said as she drove him home from Outpatients. His father said:

“Time to move on, Buddy. Lots of good-lookin’ girls in town.” He winked: “If I was twenty years younger …”

His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off.

But Danny didn’t listen. He didn’t even hear. He was living in a kind of dream, where things he had once thought important, like taking Lila Murray to the Grand March and maybe getting into her pants afterwards; or seeing a Habs game on home ice; or riding a motorcycle up and down Central Avenue with Lila Murray’s boobs against his back, well, they meant little or nothing now. His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off. Lots of people were taking a year off because everyone knew that if you got your stamps the unemployment would pay you to take a trade.

In June, his uncle Lauchie got him on a grant at the nursery. All he had to do was drive a ride-on mower so he still had tons of energy when he came home. The grade-twelve parties were still going strong, in rec rooms and garages and on the beach. On the way home he’d stop in at Joleen’s. He was getting laid almost every night.

* * *

And then one damp evening at the end of August. Danny was sitting in a booth at the Grill with Corey and his cousin Kayla. They had just smoked a couple of fat ones at the bandstand and everything around him was coming into sweet sharp focus: the clink of a fork on a plate, the bass line of a song on the radio above the pie cabinet;  the smell of frying meat and hot salty gravy and ketchup, of cigarette smoke and wet sneakers. He noticed things. The way Corey looked at Kayla’s boobs when she got up to get the ketchup. A sad expression on a woman’s face. He felt  insightful and wise.

He was after wrapping his hands around a double-cheeseburger-with-the-works when the door opened and Joleen walked in. Alone.

There was a ripple in the air. A kind of disturbance in the Force. People seemed to sit up a little, pay attention. This could be good.

Joleen didn’t stand at the entrance and look around the way most people did when they entered the restaurant. She marched up to the cash and started talking with Lynn Ann. This meant she was getting take-out. She leaned on the counter as she waited for her order. She was wearing a baby-blue sweatshirt on account of the rain and a pair of tight cut-offs that dug into her butt crack. A gold chain twinkled on her ankle as she shifted her weight from one tanned, shapely leg to another.

Danny felt the eyes of the room. Going from him to Joleen and back. As if they were waiting for something to happen. He realized that he was holding his breath. That he was waiting, too. He looked at his burger. A mustardy slice of onion had slithered out between the meat patties. (He had specifically asked Lynn-Ann for no onions.) He raised it to his mouth anyway.

Joleen spotted him just as the first mouthful of soggy bread and meat went down his throat.

“Hey Danny,” she said. Looking surprised and pleased.

All over the room, chicken fingers and slices of pepperoni pizza and forkfuls of poutine paused on their way to open mouths. The waitress and the cashier stood still. The only sound in the place was the spit and sizzle of a basket of frozen french fries sinking into the deep-fryer in the kitchen. And, from the pie cabinet, Don Henley singing ‟… swear I’m gonna find you / one of these nights …

A bark exploded into the stillness. With a shock, Danny realized that it had erupted from his mouth. He tried to stop the second one but he couldn’t. It tore through his body like it had to make way for all the others coming right behind it. He coughed and coughed and coughed. And coughed some more. Finally, in a daze of pain and embarrassment, he swung his legs over the side of the bench, gripped the edge of the table with his ketchupy hands, stood up and walked to the can. There he put both hands on the washbasin and leaned in. He was probably going to die.

Corey came in then, closing the door behind him quick like some bad guys were about to bust in and said: “Hey man, you okay?” Danny nodded to him in the mirror above the basin. He caught a scary glimpse of his own face: purplish red, his nose running, his eyes pissing water.

“Did you choke on something?” Corey said.

“No!” Danny coughed, and Corey left as fast as he had entered.

When it was over he felt weak but grateful. Like that moment at the end of a stomach flu when you realize that you’re done throwing up. He blew his nose, splashed water over his face and bloodshot eyes. Had a piss. Held his hands under the tap again. When they stopped shaking, he pulled hard on the bathroom door (the hinges were loose and it dragged on the sill) stepped onto the mudwet floor of the Grill and walked out. He didn’t pay for his double-cheeseburger-with-the-works and his Pepsi.

And no one said a goddamn thing.

“Well, thanks for the memories.” Joleen smiled.

She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in a red-and-black slip, lighting a cigarette. Danny had to laugh. He had known she’d be all right. There would be others. And Donnie Pepsi still wanted her.

His parents drove him to the bus depot in Hawkesbury. His father offered to take him all the way to Halifax but Danny refused.

“Make sure you do the dishes at Wendell and Joann’s,” his mother said for the third time. “And pick up after yourself.”

But when she came back from the counter with his bus ticket she began to cry.

“Come on, Ma.” he said. He squeezed her in his arms. It was something he had not wanted to do for years. But today it felt good.

It made him feel like a man.

Anne LevesqueAnne Lévesque’s fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in Canadian and international journals. She lives on Cape Breton Island.

Take It From Me, Kid, I’m a Clown

Listen kid, I know it’s your birthday and all, that you only turn ten once, and that this is your special day, but, come on, you’re crying over your balloon animal because you wanted a giraffe and you got an Irish Wolfhound, which you say looks retarded, and that I’m retarded; please, give me some respect here—even though I go by Bozo the Clown, I’m no bozo, just part of the franchise—this is my career, my profession; sure, I studied English literature in college, discovering a love for Dante and Milton, and upon graduation I couldn’t find a job anywhere, even in my local strip mall Barnes and Noble or in any of the dozen coffee shops run by the evil empire, Starbucks, and yes, I went a little crazy snorting coke in dive bar restrooms and drinking rail whiskey in the mornings, and my mom kicked me out of the house and I lived with this hooker, kind of acting as her john until she overdosed on Methadone and her dad took her away, placing her in some upscale treatment center, and yes, I continued to squat in that shit-box apartment for a little longer, waking up in my own vomit and just existing for the hit, for the adrenalin pop of making a score, but I cleaned myself up, kid, and my mom eventually agreed to take me back in, though in the basement this time and I had a curfew and I had to promise to stop the drinking and the drugs, and so you have to believe me when I tell you I’ve been to that dark void, that negative space where rock bottom fights back, slaps you over the head, and tells you to get a grip, and kid, really, you should take my advice and stop bugging your mom about wanting a giraffe because she was the one who hired me and I only charge seventy-five bucks for the entire afternoon, which includes entertaining you and your little snot-nosed friends with magic tricks, miming man-trapped-in-a-box, and singing the entire Justin Bieber back catalogue; I have a feeling you don’t know what it takes to make it in this industry: it’s competitive as hell, and I have rivals who undercut on price (but also quality) and sport junk-ass names like Melvin the Magnificent and Chachi the Womanizer and one of these jerks I even mentored for a while, teaching the punk things like the necessary clown poise to juggle flaming torches and how to throw custard pies without blinding the victim, but I didn’t teach him everything—I had to keep something in reserve, like that unusual balloon animal (I mean who else can make a recognizable Irish Wolfhound?), which is one of my specialties, my calling card, if you will, but actually I have to give credit to this street performer, Gregor the Great, or something alliterative like that, who was a world-class twister, and seeing him model that air-filled rubber into all those wondrous taxonomies led to an epiphany that I could shape my own future, and, in fact, Gregor’s the one, even more so than my mom, who helped me pull through the DTs and the projectile vomiting, who called me when I was low—close to breaking—and told me it would be hard and I tell you it was hard for a couple of weeks, but I got my shit together and enrolled in night classes—method acting, circus skills, and contemporary dance—to reinvent myself, to give me a shot at something new, perhaps even take the clichéd route and be an artist and emigrate to Paris, and yes, kid, it took a while and I financed school with a part-time job stacking shelves at Walmart and also a life model gig at the nearby community college, letting those old folks sketch my thin wretched body for $8.50 an hour, and then later on stare at me oddly when they see me stacking incontinence pads in the aisle, but I found a girl, a real blue-eyed blonde named Val, who was a cashier and had a pierced conch, and we dated, the way I always saw couples do in movies: romantic encounters brimming with candle-lit dinners, French waiters, and fancy red wine, which I could never pronounce and never drink (for fear of reverting to my old habits), but would tell her to finish her glass, and then, by midnight, after we kissed and I left her by the bus stop, I could smell only her cherry-red lip gloss, and I went out of my mind and proposed and we got married at the town hall the next year and my mom even came and cried all the way through the ceremony, and though the marriage was annulled, as Val hooked up with Randy in Electronics, I carried on, eventually met someone else … what I’m trying to say, kid, is that it’s all right things didn’t turn out the way I hoped, or expected, as, in many ways, my life’s better and I have a son of my own now, around your age, and he’s nerdy, into board games, particularly he enjoys thrashing me at Hungry Hungry Hippos, but I still love him, apart from the crying, that’s why you should stop, celebrate life, because you have it all in front of you, even though I know you’ve been through some shit, like your mom told me on the phone she was worried about you, that your dad left a year ago, that he moved in with a slut redhead named Babs, and this is your first birthday without him, and I know that’s tough—I never met my father: he ran off after mom told him she was pregnant with me, which led to zero alimony or child support, no visiting me on Sundays, or him in the stands watching my Little League games—but you’ll survive and attend college, like I did, snag a job where you can make ends meet and make good with your mom, maybe even move across town to the suburbs, which, by the way, aren’t that bad, but are a great place to think, even read some of those college books you’re going to skip; so, come on kid—what’s your name anyhow: Tom? Bill? Phil?—your mom’s here with the cake and it looks kind of tasty, chocolate sponge, I bet, smothered in white vanilla frosting; you should get closer, yeah and I’ll sing “Happy Birthday” and cheer you on; there you go you’re almost there, the big ten-o and now, for God’s sake, blow out those fucking candles.

Christopher LinforthChristopher Linforth has fiction published in Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines.  christopherlinforth.wordpress.com

Dunn

I heard the following ghost story one February evening when I was buttonholed in a corner of a tavern where I’m a regular and go to drink and read or take in hockey games I don’t especially like, no matter I was born in this country. The man (his name was Dunn) was imposing, long haired and thickly built with a dark, challenging expression in his face, and not somebody you can easily avoid indoors, though that was my first intention. Fortunately I had drunk enough and—with no clear avenue of escape—found it prudent to hear him out amid dreary conversations at nearby tables and the sound of the big screen TV. In over an hour he unburdened himself of his demons and this is what he told me.

The first time Dunn saw the apparition was at his apartment on a Friday night when he was shit-faced. He insisted it wasn’t a question of fear—he of ferocious temperament and deadly fists, though not the wild man he once was when he hung around and partied with a notorious motorcycle gang whose clubhouse was in that end of the city. With his hair grown to the waist and tied in two pony tails, Dunn himself resembled a biker and earned a wide berth by everyone. He’d spent enough time in jail to garner the reputation of someone you didn’t dare cross, though that alone might not guarantee safety since he was also a bad drinker, prone to violent outbursts for no reason. I couldn’t help thinking of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dunn had the same kind of eyes, eyes that seemed to resist light like those animals you find run over on the street. At any rate, it was unnerving gazing into them. Later I became aware of uncomfortable rumours he killed a few guys long ago; as a favour to his biker acquaintances or at their instigation, I could only guess. To put it succinctly, nobody who wasn’t insane fucked with him.

To round out his biography: employed in a lumberyard measuring and cutting up wood before it went bankrupt and since had been a drywall contractor for businesses that weren’t completely legitimate, while selling drugs on the side. These enterprises allowed him to have a one-bedroom apartment in a rundown building owned by a pair of shady Russian brothers who sometimes waived the rent in exchange for some muscle work from him. Occasionally he screwed a prostitute or a stripper who needed to get high. Nobody ever knocked on his door or visited. The bikers he had known were dead, in hiding from other gangs, or had gone straight and wanted no trouble.

So on this particular Friday night he was smoking and drinking. The television was on as it almost always was, since (I gathered) silence was not only not a virtue there, it was held in distrust by the occupant. He had nodded off already once or twice. A bottle slipped from his grasp and beer spilled over the linoleum floor which, Dunn admitted, was never swept or washed and was incredibly dirty. (I have lived in these same shitty apartments where numerous cracks spider everywhere like crazy hieroglyphs).

When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise.

He relaxed on the sofa and closed his eyes. When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise. Then he composed himself, yet not without hesitating—partly from the beer and partly from the shock of an absolute stranger appearing out of nowhere:

“Who the fuck are you, man?”

The other did not answer. He was no more than five feet away, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt.

“I asked who you are, man. What are you doing here?”

Still he ignored Dunn. Though there wasn’t anything actually malicious to it, Dunn suggested. It almost was as if he didn’t know he was there. Whether because of the brazen audacity of the man or simply that he couldn’t see the television, Dunn raised his voice:

“Don’t fuck with me, man. Get the fuck out. Don’t make me get up.”

Then slowly the stranger turned around, as if only now realizing someone was behind him. He studied Dunn with wonder, maybe even outrage, as if Dunn was the one in the wrong, intruding on the man’s own personal space in a way that was wholly unacceptable. He leaned across the coffee table which was littered with matches, cigarette ashes, and beer bottles.

“Arsehole!” he snarled.

Without a word Dunn swung at the man, swinging through air and landing across the coffee table which cracked and splintered in two. Bottles scattered everywhere. Dazed, he lifted himself and swore angrily. In a mania, he rushed about the apartment trying to find him. When he couldn’t, he searched the hallway. Then he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t all an hallucination caused by the booze. He kicked aside the wrecked coffee table. The television was on a channel about African safaris. Dunn looked at the door a few times, believing the man was on the other side. But he didn’t bother going to check. He went to the fridge for beer. Hours later he passed out on the sofa.

He said the next few days he kept an eye on the other tenants but didn’t recognize the person who’d been in his apartment. He made a round of the floors without success and inspected the lock. There was no sign of tampering. He began thinking of his brother who lived in another city. A onetime biker who succumbed to alcoholism. Though it was a long time since they’d met, Dunn remembered the former biker’s shocking transformation into an out-and-out drunk panhandling for change near the local Beer Store, shuffling like an old man though he was two years younger. Mumbling like an idiot and completely fucked. The parents were drunks so maybe it was hereditary.

Weeks passed and he forgot the incident with the intruder. The drywall business was going slow with no work in some time. One night he entered a bar to meet his dealer who never showed up. He learned the next day he’d been arrested in a police raid, a crackdown on drugs that was in the newspapers and on television. Without much money he wasn’t doing anything when the two Russian brothers came to him.

Apparently no one knew if they were émigrés or cast outs from the Russian mob. They appeared five years ago when they took over the building with its long history of mismanagement. Nothing was ever repaired, least of all the furnace which, inexplicably, was on the roof. The elevator was so unreliable only unwary visitors used it. The new owners didn’t change a thing, and to any complaint merely shrugged and said the rent wasn’t very high, so how could they bother them with anything?

The older brother, Arkady, a fat man who came across as a horticulturist or an oenophile, told Dunn someone owed them money. They wanted him to go and retrieve it. He mentioned a sum they would pay and they would forgo the rent for next month as well. It was a good deal, wasn’t it? The younger brother, Sergey, smiled though visibly frightened of Dunn.

“Yes, it’s a good deal,” he agreed. Arkady glanced at his brother who was near the door. He stood to one side of the sofa where Dunn was smoking.

“What if he doesn’t have the money?” Dunn smiled.

Arkady held out his hands indicating how unnecessary the question was. He obviously knew what was required of him “You handle it, my friend,” Arkady said in conclusion. He wrote out an address. They hoped to see him again shortly.

Dunn said he opened a beer, the last one in the fridge. He put the bottle on a kitchen chair that replaced the coffee table. The apartment was cold and he was almost broke. He finished the beer in a bad humour, called a taxi, and left.

Two hours later he was back with a bag, inside which were stacks of bills. The guy he met, a Russian, believing Dunn was the vanguard of a gang of bikers armed with baseball bats, quickly made a few calls and within an hour placed the money in Dunn’s hands. He counted out the denominations to prove he was on the up-and-up which only annoyed Dunn.

“Don’t ever fuck with me, man,” he said. In the taxi, Dunn felt unbelievably thirsty. That one beer only made him irritable. At his apartment he phoned the Russians who were there in minutes. Arkady gave the money to his younger brother to hold. He paid Dunn and thanked him. Then the brothers were gone.

Dunn remembered looking at the fold of twenties on the chair and wishing he had asked for more. Still, the rent was taken care of for next month. His thirst became more urgent. He decided to go to a bar around the corner; once a pickup joint, but with the deaths of a few women who’d frequented it, it became just another watering hole. He dressed and went out.

According to Dunn he got pissed on rye. Several times he was at the point of punching people he suspected were eyeing him. After a few hours the bartender refused to serve him anymore. He said something. The bartender left and came back with the owner and bouncer. The owner knew Dunn and didn’t want a disturbance. He sure didn’t want the cops. He explained the situation and invited him back another time. Dunn glared at the bouncer but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. When he got to his apartment he called a place that delivers beer and alcohol. His order was dropped off within a half hour.

He said he drank beer and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. He was certain he could knock the movie star’s head off. Everybody in Hollywood was a faggot. He laughed when he thought this. Then he went to the washroom. When he came out, laughing to himself, the chair which he still was using in place of the coffee table was pulled away and the same man who’d been there before was sitting on it, watching the television.

Dunn did nothing for thirty seconds. Then he carefully shot the deadbolt on the door to the apartment and fastened the chain lock. There was no way he could get away quickly now. He took two beers from the fridge and slammed the door so hard bottles fell over inside.

He finished the first beer in minutes and tossed the drained bottle onto the sofa, even dirtier than the floor. Now he held the other beer and scrutinized the man with a malicious gleam in his eyes, a predatory kind of glee (at least this is how I imagine it). But, like the previous, occasion the man did not seem aware that Dunn was there. He wore the same short-sleeved blue shirt and jeans. The movie was at the scene where the girl jumps to her death at the bidding of the cult leader played by James Earl Jones. The stranger laughed. Dunn laughed too, then said:

“Did you think that was funny, man? After I’m done this beer I’m going to kick the shit out of you. You’re dead meat.” The man ignored Dunn, who didn’t know if the other heard him. He repeated what he said. “You fucked with the wrong guy, man.”

Then with a swiftness Dunn said he could not have foreseen the stranger leaped out of the chair. He was astonished as the man sneered and, with his thumb and finger, made the sign of the arsehole over Dunn’s forehead.

Dunn jumped up and threw himself at him, but crashed into a vacant chair that fell over and slid across the floor. Enraged, he thrashed about drunkenly, cursing horribly. He raced to the door. The deadbolt and chain hadn’t been touched. Foaming at the mouth, Dunn took in the apartment. To the left was the small kitchen. He searched the cupboards where an adult could not have crouched anyways. He checked the bathroom and shower. He peered into the closet where his coats hung. The only place left was the bedroom. Dunn smiled. This was the last spot and the game was almost over. But the man was not in the closet or beside the bed or even under it. Befuddled, he went to the living room. That was when he realized there was one hiding place he hadn’t considered: the balcony—but that seemed out of the question. The door was locked for the winter. He unlocked it and a mid-February wind blew against him. The balcony was deserted as he knew it would be. He closed the door and got to the sofa.

If it was a wet brain from all the boozing he’d done in his life, that would explain everything. That might be more comforting than the idea someone could just appear and then disappear. A chill shook his body. The apartment was cold. The goddamned Russians wouldn’t call anyone to look at the furnace that kicked off all the time. Conan the Barbarian was over so he changed the channel until he found another, John Carpenter’s Halloween. He drank without paying much attention to it. He drank himself insensible and fell asleep on the sofa. But his sleep was restless, whether from the cold or uneasy feelings about what had happened, he couldn’t be sure.

He said he didn’t awaken until noon the following day. He finished off the beer and then phoned for more. He drank until evening with the television on, then closed his eyes and a dream began.

In it, he was sitting cross-legged on grass in the presence of a huge lion whose breath stank. They were in a clearing in a wooded area that Dunn wasn’t familiar with. It didn’t look like a jungle. It could have been a park. But all the trees were dying. The leaves were dried up, falling off, and branches and trunks were split and rotting. As if to show it had eaten, the lion opened its mouth. Dunn could see bits of flesh trapped in the teeth. Blood darkened the jaws. Then a fly settled on one of Dunn’s arms. It was the biggest fly he had ever seen. The fly wandered up and down like a green shadow. Then another fly landed, followed by another and another. Soon Dunn was overrun by thousands of them, covering him like a garment. Flies crawled over his face obscuring his sight. They filled his mouth. He couldn’t raise his arms to strike them away, the weight of all of them pinned him down. He couldn’t move and was choking. He screamed and woke up in the cold apartment.

He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy.

He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy. He began to pant and slumped on the sofa. Whiskey and beer were stacked in front of the sofa. The chair was still where it was from the previous night, upended in a corner. The television was turned to a medical drama. A doctor was informing a young woman that her cancer had spread, despite their best efforts to stop it she had only a short time left to live. She nodded but tears swelled in her eyes. The woman was incredibly beautiful.

A noise came from the bedroom, like someone had bumped against something. Dunn looked in the room. It was a mess as he had left it, the blankets thrown everywhere, pornographic magazines all over the place, a lamp knocked over. No one was there. Unsteadily he returned to the living room. To his amazement he made out a figure now squatting on the floor. It was the intruder again, watching television. As quietly as he could, Dunn crept up and put a hand on his shoulder. It was like plunging into a bowl of jello. Stunned, he pulled away. He collapsed on the sofa and grabbed another beer.

For the next half hour Dunn observed the man. He hadn’t changed clothes at all. He must have been middle-aged. Nothing out of the ordinary. An average guy. Just as he thought an average guy, the man crooked his head and stared. He seemed agitated or on the verge of speaking but, instead, came over and sat beside Dunn. For the life of him Dunn couldn’t understand how this could be happening. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at the man who now was firmly fixed on the television. He said he searched his memory but couldn’t remember ever meeting the guy before. He was a total stranger, an unknown.

The two stayed side by side until the medical show ended with the woman’s death. The man laughed.

“Why did you laugh?” Dunn asked, puzzled. The man didn’t know.

“Who are you, man?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. Then he asked Dunn to see what else was on. Dunn flipped through the channels until deciding on a B movie he’d never watched. A woman in a house was hiding from a man while he stalked her with a grimace of determination. You knew he was going to kill her.

“You don’t know who you are?”

“What does it matter?” the other finally answered. Maybe he had seen the movie before but he seemed bored or uninterested in it. He shifted a bit on the sofa.

“Where are you from, man?” Dunn asked.

“I might be from here. I think so,” he said.

“You mean you used to live here?”

“Yes, I think so. But actually I’m not sure. No, probably not,” the stranger conceded.

“Why do you keep coming?”

The man shrugged.

“How do you get in here and then get out?” Dunn asked.

The man shrugged again. He just did and that was all.

Dunn drank whiskey straight from the bottle. He knocked over several beer bottles which rolled and struck the wall before coming to a halt. The girl in the movie managed to elude her pursuer by pushing him down a flight of stairs. Now she was pleading with another man that someone was after her. The man didn’t believe her, arm around her, squeezing one shoulder. She was sobbing. All this happened in a restaurant where the waiters wore black and bowed with elaborate decorum while serving couples and families. It was very loud and the dining room was full of cigarette smoke. The man told the woman she was mistaken. It was all in her imagination. The recent death of her father had pushed her over the edge. She needed rest.

Dunn said he began laughing. Maybe this was all in his imagination.

“Are you a ghost, man?” he asked.

The man didn’t know. And what exactly was a ghost? he ventured to ask. What was the exact definition? There were things nobody understood no matter what they said. He sounded sad. Dunn laughed. He wasn’t sure if he was laughing at the man or because he was so drunk. Again he put a hand on him. The sensation of jello, of something fleshless and alien like garbage, made him recoil. Then as on the previous occasions the man just disappeared—now before Dunn’s very eyes. Faded was the better word, he said. He faded like a shadow when a lot of lights are gradually turned on. Dunn was left alone in the frigid apartment.

For the next week he drank non-stop. The apparition which didn’t have a name came every day now, sharing the sofa and once in the morning when he awoke Dunn spied him on the edge of the bed, looking with curiosity at him. They had conversations that went nowhere. In the building the other tenants began whispering of the strange occurrence: they could hear Dunn talking as if someone was with him. He was boozing too much, they said. He had lost it.

No matter how often Dunn questioned the man he was never able to get a definite answer. He might have been an HVAC technician once or a poet. He couldn’t be sure. As for questions about the afterlife, the immensity of space or its solitude, the man offered little information. He liked to watch television, that’s about all he could confirm to Dunn, drooling on the sofa going from one drunk to another with his phantom companion surfing the channels.

And then one morning the Russians appeared. Sergey stayed at his post near the door. The older brother who at first figured Dunn had been partying waded through beer and whiskey bottles scattered on the floor. The place was a mess. He cast a suspicious smile at Dunn who hadn’t shaved or bathed in over a week.

“How are you, my friend?” They needed Dunn’s services again. Another account was overdue. It wasn’t a great sum of money but of course there was the principle of the matter. He wrote the address on paper and slipped it to Dunn.

“Let us know when you get back,” said Arkady and they left.

“They want me to get their money,” he said. Without being aware of it, he was speaking as if the other was with him. “This dump is freezing and they won’t fix the heat but they want their money.” He finished off the last of the beer and cleaned up, staggering to the bathroom where his reflection in the mirror didn’t inspire confidence. He shaved and showered and caught a taxi.

At first the man, another Russian, denied owing anybody any money. Dunn said he had no patience. He grabbed the man’s throat and began kicking him, vicious kicks that left him screaming. The man relented and pointed to a desk. Dunn found an envelope stuffed with twenties. He couldn’t understand why he would have denied owing such a small amount of money, barely two thousand dollars. His hands started shaking. He needed a drink badly.

There are choices fraught with dangers that tempt everyone and I include myself in this. He did not call the Russians. He went to a bar and bought cocaine from someone in the men’s washroom. He used it himself and drank rye all day. A woman wearing too much makeup sat on the stool next to him and they started a conversation. They went to her place. She snorted coke and they ended up in bed. In the evening Dunn left the woman, still sleeping, and visited several bars. He bought more cocaine and other drugs at all of them. He returned to his apartment and ordered beer and whiskey. Suddenly he began sweating. He opened the door to his balcony. The temperatures had been warmer the last few days. The phone rang but he didn’t answer. It rang minutes later and several times after that. Then it didn’t ring again.

This was as much as he told me that night. He said he had come here to get away for a few hours. He looked terrible, beat up and worn down. There were distressing indications he was out of control. Once he eyed me like I was an enemy or a rival who’d strayed without permission into his territory. Another time it was like he had just woken out of a long sleep, maybe the sleep of death, and seeing me was a reminder of something terrible or prophetic. He seemed to black out and I worried what he might do with those enormous hands that lay ominously on the table. When he finally went to the men’s room, I made my escape, relieved to get away. But there was more to come. Based on what I read in the newspapers in the upcoming days (articles that hinted at foul play and that the deceased was known to the police) I have tried to piece together what could have happened. I admit I might be completely wrong. This is how I will end it.

For the next two days he spends all the money he should have given to the Russians. He buys as much cocaine as he can and beer and liquor. He goes through the money quickly. Does he hear knocking on his door without going to it? He will have to square it with the Russians somehow. It isn’t good what he has done.

On the evening of the second day Dunn’s resident apparition steps from the balcony. He doesn’t go to the television. He looks worried or is there something else Dunn detects, some cunning possibly hinting at a joke?

“You’re in trouble,” he says.

Dunn grins.

“You screwed up this time. They aren’t going to let you do this to them. They will come for you with help.”

Dunn mumbles. The other stares intensely. Or is he smiling? Dunn doesn’t like it.

“Don’t fuck with me, man,” he says. But the man won’t stop staring, his eyes seeming to get bigger by the second. Dunn warns him a second time. Who does this asshole think he is to fuck with him? To tell him his business? To come to his place and watch his television?

He gets up, swaying a bit, but sure of what to do. His cold apartment is an extension of himself and now the apartment is going to evict someone. The man is at the open balcony door. Dunn runs at him in a clumsy fashion, stumbles out onto the balcony—into the February night—and, unable to stop his drunken charge, tumbles over the railing. He falls thirty feet.

His body was discovered next morning. His head had hit against a dumpster and then a concrete partition in the parking lot. He had been dead for hours.

Walter Gary RobinsonWalter Gary Robinson lives Ottawa, Ontario, Canada where he writes poems and short stories. His poems have been published in Canada, the UK, and India. He recently finished his first novella.

This Once, My Story

My secret is not for show, not yet, my uterus no more on display than my kidney or my spleen. I am a private person, my feelings hard to plumb, and has Jimmy ever asked? He cares that I’m a pretty thing, that I eat what’s on my plate, that I listen to his crazy stories and, more of a stretch, that I believe them. What he sees when he greets me at the door—small smile on my lips, simple wave of my right hand, noisy sparkles from the charm bracelet I consent to wear—seems to be his regular girl, and I have never wanted to be anything else. Jimmy wipes his hands on his apron, takes my wrist and pulls me close, and I, seduced by his wide smile, nearly spill my secret in happiness, forgetting that my happiness must wait its turn.

Jimmy nudges me toward the dining room. He puts his hands over my eyes. A dozen odors decorate the air, and I name them. Lemon, garlic, and butter are easy to pick out. Hazelnut. Fennel. Lavender. I even pick out mahogany and orange oil: my fingernails have dug into the dining room table’s grain before.

Jimmy whispers the details of tonight’s feast. Oysters. Pate. Chevre. Golden rustic bread. Wild salmon filleted by a jackknife. Fava beans scented with fennel. Honey wine to clear the palate, and a lavender cake for dessert, with silver charms swimming in the glaze, which I will be expected to lick clean. Each dish tells a story, and as Jimmy’s hands slide down to my waist, knotting my pink dress in his thick knuckles, I hear about Turkish markets, Napa wineries, Italian truck farms upstate. The stories end in a silver shop in Buenos Aires, where an old tinker in Gitano garb sells demitasse cups of coffee and dishes of candied pistachios. My eyes closed, I can picture it all. Leaning into Jimmy’s arms, I’ll take this ride. Jimmy whispers, “Open your eyes.”

The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again.

It’s pure bull. How many favors does Jimmy owe, how many kitchen doors has he begged from, how many chefs and waiters pity my sad, sweet boy as much as I do? His goodwill spent, how many lies must he cook up? The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again. I don’t know where Jimmy gets his money. I don’t know all his debts and obligations, but I know his stories, the ones he’s laid on me. And I know that I love my boy.

We gaze at the table. “Well?” he asks.

“Oh, Jimmy.”

He smiles.

I try to see how I’ll fit among this crowded array, my head and shoulders bumping against the butter plate, the fingerbowls of jasmine water, the salt cellars, the salad and bread and cravat of cool honey wine, the salmon filet. How does my secret fit among his tales?

He says, “Tonight I have a special surprise.”

My charm bracelet jingles as I bring my hand to my belly, the pull on my wrist not so heavy as to weigh me down. “So do I, Jimmy.”

“Hush.”

Soon it will be plain. Soon he’ll parade me around the old places along the ocean road that still grant him a tab, handing out Swishers and yelling “Look what I did!” But not yet. I keep my secret jammed under my tongue. Last night I dreamed that I opened my lips to tell, but before I could say a word, the ocean spilled into my mouth.

Jimmy pulls out my chair. He lifts my dress from my skin. I prepare to be filled.

*      *      *

I want to tell him everything. I would begin with a memory: when I was old enough to be alone on the beach, I came upon a body, a woman in a pretty blue dress, her face placid with eternal sleep, wet hair stuck to pale skin. My kindness was to take the stones from her skirts and to sing a lullaby until the next wave floated the cold, pretty woman away. That night, I slept with those stones hugged to my belly, and I dreamed of carrying them in golden light with no shadow. I awoke to the starry night drifting on my bedspread, the ocean pacing outside my window, and I went back to my dream. I knew what it meant: that I could lighten anyone’s load, that there was space in my heart for sadness, that anguish was something I could receive as a still ocean received a pebble tossed by a child. Since then, I have taken Jimmy’s hand, I have eaten Jimmy’s food, I have listened to his thousand lies. He comes back from Newfoundland or Panama or Dubai, comes back from somewhere, and adds to my bracelet’s jingling charms. I have felt his tongue in my mouth, his dick in my crotch, his simmering seed inside. His gifts I have taken to be kind, but do I expect anything back? His arms around me? Clenched hands that I unknot again and again? Any gift he places around my wrist, on my lips, champagne on my tongue, I take, not with gratitude but with quiescence, waiting for him to whisper, Thank you, on my cheek. The hand that clenches my hair more firmly than I’d like: thank you. The fucking: thank you. His weight against my pelvis. I’ll bear him up. I’ll fatten like an onion for him. I want to tell him You’re welcome. But he is the one who must start the conversation. Thank you.

*      *     *

He feeds me oysters on a tiny barbed fork and daubs the lemon juice from my chin. A crust of bread follows, and a swipe of patè. Jimmy’s hand closes my lips around a bite. He raises a wine glass to my mouth, sweetness swimming in my nose until he takes the glass away. He lifts me from the chair to the table, my fingers finding the beveled edge to grip. He offers a slice of pear and goat cheese, and it’s delicious, and when he offers another, and another, I realize he’s feeding me to clear space on the table to lay me down. Jimmy slices the salmon fillet, gathers the tender flakes. His fingers find my mouth. I suck off the lemony juice in time to receive a morsel from his other hand. And another from the first. And another. Jimmy spins a story from the boats, the year in Dutch Harbor on the Bering Sea with the Russian crew. He recites twelve Russian words for fuck. I listen for my chance, a silence long enough for my story. Jimmy’s so close, he’s whispering, and I smell his words, and wine on his breath, and garlic and lemon on his lips. He gathers my hair in a greasy fist and lays me back. My head settles among noisy plates. I want to cry his name, but his fingers drop fava beans into my mouth. The sweep of dishes and silver. The sputter of beeswax candles. Wet spots bloom on my back. Bits of sauce stick to my skin. Utensils I cannot identify dig into my sharp bones. My fingers find mahogany grain, and I press hard, dig my nails in, tiny dents that a millionaire’s wife will puzzle over when she returns.

*      *     *

When Jimmy was a boy, his dad owned a joint in Greenwich Village. The grill was behind the bar, and Jimmy’s dad held forth, and people came to watch the sizzling action and to raise a glass to the man blackening New York steaks and spinning yarns about the meals he had cooked for kings and queens. People crammed tips in the jar, and the tips were not for the skinny punk in the t-shirt who shifted greasy plates from the polished walnut bar into a grey plastic tub. Jimmy’s life was prep work during the day, dishes during the evening, and a mop in the middle of the night. When Jimmy turned sixteen, his dad, manning the grill and rattling two skillets in each hand, did not even pause his story to note his son’s apron hanging on a hook, the tip jar cleaned out, the back door swinging in the night. Maybe he expected it. Jimmy did what he had to do. Maybe his dad had done the same. I cannot say Jimmy misses the old man. His rootlessness has only become another story. He fended for himself out of dumpsters behind four-star restaurants in Manhattan. He worked his way across the country, cooking in a dozen kitchens, always volunteering to lock up, then sleeping in darkened booths after the rest of the staff had gone home. When he reached California, he cooked in the Army. After they caught him fencing sides of beef, he cooked in the clink. He’s worked both sides of the Bering Sea. He can banter in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Greek. Too many times, I’ve heard about the night in Panama, the fever brought on by the odd pinched bottle, the cobwebbed brew, smelling of anise, that tempted his tongue. Every story ends in a fight, a bitter parting with someone who did him wrong, and Jimmy forging out on his own, with pockets empty and head held high. It’s been an easy life, he claims. Plenty of folks leave doors ajar, dumpsters unlocked, delivery trucks untended; Jimmy is not the only soul walking a crooked mile. From the names that decorate his stories, I gather that plenty of pretty girls were willing to take in a pretty boy. Beatrice. Alice. Lyudmila. Melanie. Names as sweet as seventeen kinds of sugar. Honey. Agave. Cane. I don’t mind. It’s my skin he kisses. It’s my wrist he shackles with jingling charms of love, my mouth he feeds, my body that bears his seed. When he shudders with pain at a thousand failures, only I console him. I massage his scars and tattoos. I smooth the tremor in his hands. His trembling lips on my ear whisper stories that I want to believe. Sometimes, when he comes, he whispers my jittery name.

With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him.

He’s got big plans, he says. With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him. Riding the mahogany table, Jimmy’s weight upon me, Jimmy’s words crammed into my ear, I do not moan. I grit my teeth and hold on. I swallow back the lemon juice and wine pushing up in my throat.

When it’s over, my Jimmy cries and cries. Above my head, his fist smashes a millionaire’s pretty saucer of goldleaf and pink flowers. I will be the one to pick the shards from the Persian rug. The closest I come to voice, I release my fingers from the edge of the table, stroke Jimmy’s hair, and sing cooing notes, the syllables of his name.

*      *      *

We met on the beach. I was picking up rainbow-blue mussels, turning them over for the gulls to pick apart, and here’s my pretty boy sitting in the sand. He was wrapped in a blanket. I knew the look on his pretty face: I’d seen that same look when I found the woman’s body on the shore. I pulled Jimmy’s blanket away and removed sixteen stones from his pockets. I said, “Tell me the story that brought you here.” I wanted to lift that burden from him too.

His eyes tested mine for disbelief, but I was busy with my task. Stones from his pockets. Pebbles from his socks. A stone the size of a bread loaf cradled to his belly. After these, I loosened the stones from the hard hunched muscles of his back. I smoothed the knots in his neck. I learned the truth from his tattoos and scars and dusty cheeks etched with tears, and this truth aligned with his words. What a sad life. What a failure. His words, that day, were absolutely true. Except for this: he’s never thanked me for that day. Never spoken Thank you. Never.

Maybe now.

*      *      *

The empty dishes glide easily around the wet table top. Salmon skin scraped clean. Lemon rind squeezed out. Oyster shells rattling in butter and lemon. Bread crust floating in oil and vinegar. My pretty dress is stained seven shades of brown. I gather myself from the tinkling scraps, and I dangle my legs off the table. I wince hard. It should not be pain that stirs in my belly. I should be the happiest girl.

Jimmy has buckled his pants and taken my chair. The final course is a lavender cake on the sideboard, and Jimmy reaches for the cake and brings it around to me. A small thing, no wider that the span of my sticky fingers. Heart-shaped. So sweet and flowery it might dissolve into the air like perfume. I can’t eat it. Maybe it was true that I receive Jimmy’s gifts as the ocean receives a stone, but what happens when the ocean is filled to bursting? I need space for breath to expel my words. This once, I need to unburden myself of my story.

Jimmy strikes a match and lights a candle on the cake. The jittery flame steadies, and Jimmy cups the small, flickering, hopeful thing. He blows out the match. His slow pained exhalation lifts away. I wave my hand through the smoke, rattling my charms. The charms sparkle in the candle’s glow, announcing places I’ve never been. Jimmy holds the cake out to me, and I breathe the smoke. To speak, one must first inhale the sting.

“Jimmy, I have—”

Jimmy’s finger presses my lips. Hush. He makes his pretty girl promise silence. Harder. I bite my lip till it bleeds salt on my tongue.

The candle flickers in Jimmy’s shaky hand.

Jimmy’s chest inhales. His finger presses harder against my lips. With his other hand, he presses the cake platter against my belly. Presses harder. Harder.

If I mouth any words, let them be these: No harm can come to me. No harm can come to the thing inside me. I remember the woman in the water. When I let her go, I told myself she was going to grow wings. She was going to live forever. She was going to stay pretty. She would never cut her hair. Her body would not harden. She was going to hear music, and ocean, and conversations exactly right, ringing with accord, accord, the waves, the waves, and I was not the only one who dreamed perfect dreams, unperturbed by death, and who struggled now to remember them, feeling only the betrayal of my own hard senses. Acid in my mouth. Oil stuck in my hair. Crumbs on my dress. Sticky crotch. Noisy charms on my wrist. I cannot get away from the noise!

“Jimmy, listen.”

“Hush.”

I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste.

It’s like clenching through a scream. I have borne every tale. I have imagined the weight of seventeen girls’ sugary names in my ear. I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste. Pretty boy.

It is time. I am so close. My sweet boy pressing a cake to my knotting guts, his sad face, his eyes wide, he has to know right now. He has to say nothing at all.

“Jimmy.”

“The cake.”

“No, Jimmy, please. I’m not hungry anymore. I’m really full.”

“Damn you, eat the cake.”

“Jimmy. I want to tell you—”

His hands break through the frosting and into the cake. He combs through the cake violently. “Eat this. And this. Eat it.” He keeps going until he finds it—a gold engagement ring—and he holds it to me. “This! This!” A greasy, sweet, shiny this.

His hand shakes. The ring sparkles. “What do you want to tell me? What do you have to say to this? What do you have to say at all?”

“Jimmy.” I begin to sob.

He tells me a story about the Gulf of California. He was working on a cruise ship for a Norwegian line. One night, Jimmy, smoking a cig on the crew’s deck near the water line, saw an orca, marked it by the scars on its dorsal fin, and for two nights Jimmy threw scraps over the side. And Jimmy had friends, a chef’s always got friends, and no one says no to my pretty boy, so he asked around for a harpoon. One night, one single improbable shot went home, and the tension in the line sang with the orca’s anguish and pain. The orca’s spout turned red, and from there it was only a wait for death to take its turn. And when he cut open the orca’s stomach, he found this ring of turning gold. For me.

I take the ring. The story is bull, but the ring’s the real deal, even if it did come from a pawn shop. A glowing hoop that Jimmy’s expansive mind would assay at twenty one carets. I hold the ring up to the light. There’s a small world through there. Twisting the ring, I find words on the inside. Surely they do not say I love you, they do not say his name, not mine, not forever and always. But I’m used to Jimmy crying another girl’s name.

I clench the ring in my fist and look away to hide my tears. Peering through small spaces is not the only way to dream. Jimmy’s eyes track me in the candle light. He mumbles something about gazing at an angel. I slide from the table and try to run, but I stumble. He stumbles after me. We crash.

Jimmy finds the ring in my fist, and he forces it onto a finger.

“Jimmy, please. You’re hurting me.”

Too light and loose on my finger, the ring tests one finger and then another.

“Jimmy, no. I have to tell—”

He jams the ring in my mouth and clamps his hand over my jaw. Words simmer there. A burr. A metal flavor, bitterness mixing with everything I want to say.

*      *     *

            I am not beautiful. I am not brilliant. I’m not a saint. I’m not confident. I’m no more special than any girl who’s dreamed, who’s stayed up late to ponder stars, who’s soaked up promises, and who’s hardened solidly, her feet upon the ground, arms tight around her ribs, for warmth and to have something to hold.

My sweet boy’s head is nestled in my skirt. I look to the French doors for the pale morning sky over the water, but it doesn’t come. They say that someday the light from the farthest stars will be here, and the night will be as bright as day. We won’t dream anymore. I’ll be ready.

Dishes float on the mahogany sea. The dregs of a meal for a queen. I picture the woman’s body drifting on the gray water. And gulls descending, picking over her. And in a way whereby a feeling becomes a knowing, hard and certain, I know there will be no baby. Soon it will expel into the messy world, a bloody discharge sharing space with ragout and oil and wine.

My tongue slides the engagement ring to my cheek like a wad of gum. I clear my throat. This once bear me up. This once let me say my story. This once receive my words.

“Jimmy.”

I take his sleeping heavy hand. Jimmy raises his head. He looks at me and closes his eyes again. He nestles into my skirt. He is already back to his masterful sleep when his mouth mumbles, “Was there something you wanted to say?”

Evan Morgan WilliamsEvan Morgan Williams has published over thirty stories in such magazines as Witness, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and ZYZZYVA. Recent or forthcoming work appears in Digital Americana, J Journal, and Zymbol. The bearer of an ancient, tattered MFA from the University of Montana, he welcomes inquiries: www.evanmorganwilliams.blogspot.com.