The Rot

They estimate a gradual decline
in worldly production by
the lessening of the harvest,
and grain shall be in want,
but greed shall halt it from
reaching the world's market places.
And one man controls
the rot of the field-
ending with the
rot of the flesh.
And political strongholds
shall fail to prevail,
and the thunder roars-
the rain comes in tub fulls-
and the rot continues,
until flesh and grain
have become compost...
for the next springs plantings.

 

 

About the Author, EG Ted Davis: Previously published in the 80's then resigned from creative pursuits until semi retirement led me back towards such...

 

Deadheading Despair

the early lake still
the call of loons

a fishing boat trolls
the far shore

footprints of ghost foxes

geese wilding above
white wings wheeling

sweet cinnamon tea

my sleepy son
drags Paddington Bear

onto the porch
fetal-curls on my lap

it’s all kind of amazing

 

 

About the Author: Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam, New Ohio Review and Healing Muse among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.

Touched

In my high school days I spent uncounted hours in a Providence bookstore, gone these dozen years, browsing the stacks with intent to buy, and, until I understood the odds, hoping to meet like-minded girl-nerds. I had no idea that the more you strive and search for happiness outside of yourself, the more elusive it grows. And I overestimated—we're talking orders of magnitude here—the attractiveness of an aura of cool intellectuality, and, more crucially, my capacity at 17 to deliver it. Needless to say, my library grew faster than my social circle, not that that was a bad thing.

Though battered by Amazon, my affinity for bookstores endures. They are on my short list of places in which I can stomach shopping, right there next to hardware emporia and wine shops. Even so it gave me pause last year when Cheryl suggested we spend Black Friday afternoon at the newly-opened establishment two towns north. First, only a damn fool goes shopping on Black Friday; second, my impression without actually having seen it was that this bright, shiny, brand spanking new bookstore might be a little too trendy for me.

Its orientation toward the modern, away from the antiquarian, jibes with its physical newness. I'm uneasy that I'm not quite young enough to be in the target demographic, but it's liberating not to be subjected to ads for back braces and catheters. The place is overtly cheerful and laid back. I'm glad to see a local business well-attended, and I can still navigate the aisles, relieved that there's no gridlock, no subway-packed hell. I see smart phones—where do you not?—though also people wedged against shelf ends engrossed in actual books. I try to cling to my misgivings, but the place wins me over.

It's a bookstore cum café, with a compact and well-crafted menu of soups, salads, and wraps. Cheryl and I decide to make it a day on the town, opt for salads, and find the last seat in the house. They rack up points by not deprecating meat, and their espresso claims your attention. We fortify ourselves for a serious expedition.

Now that I've deemed the place worthy, I'm dying to apply my bookstore litmus test. It's simple: how much Balzac do they have? My teenage nirvana had a good foot of Penguin Balzacs. Here, I'm disappointed to find only a single volume of stories from the Comédie Humaine, but in compensation there are a half dozen volumes of Dickens, plus Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux to boot. A bookstore I went to a week later had neither Balzac nor Dickens, but several Jane Austens. My test is subjective, yet flexible; hardly any bookstore fails. It's hard not to start a virtuous circle: the more you read, the more attractive all bookstores become.

Cheryl and I wander as our separate whims take us. My neck, knees, and eyes are not as flexible as they used to be, so fighting gravity along row after row of tall shelves is not an unalloyed pleasure. An unoccupied comfy chair beckons—you might know it's that kind of bookstore. I heed the call, sit, tell my feet they're welcome, and close my eyes to throttle back the brain inputs a bit.

For a scant second I feel a hand on my knee, and a woman tells me, “Don't fall asleep.” I do not know her, and she has touched me. My aura of cool intellectuality dissolves, failing me yet again. I think I replied along the lines that I was tempted but would resist. The exchange may have continued for one or two more rounds, but I don't remember. If I did, I would certainly still be going over the words, again and again, testing meanings, inflections, nuances, and especially insinuations.

Seldom do I need to ask if I'm the target of a seduction attempt. “Never” is more accurate, but I'm as vain as any man. Is “Don't fall asleep” a pickup line? There's a good argument that it's clearly not, but we hear what we want to hear. The thing for me with pickup lines is that if they're obvious enough to be unambiguous, then they're unattractive. The proper level of ambiguity must be calibrated with care, and there are so many variables to consider.

The touch is the crux. I am aware of every touch. I take every deliberate touch personally. Does a touch on the knee signify more than a touch on the shoulder? Touch complicates things for me. I can dismiss words, but not a touch. Touch catalyzes meaning from words that signify nothing.

I've never had a problem with medical contact—a special case of deliberate touching—in its gamut from immodest to uncomfortable to distasteful, but touchy-feely alienates me. Yet I've gotten better about that; I've mellowed, and I actually notice. Though I no longer take my personal space quite so seriously, I still do not willingly choose to make myself emotionally accessible to the random stranger. People whom I've known since puberty or before are now free to hug me without repercussions.

I've eked a year of idle speculation out of this incident—no one I know is so frugal he can wring as much mileage from a fantasy. It's time to lay it to rest without regrets, and I'm pleased that it had no chance to mushroom into a sterner test of character. If I'd interpreted “Don't fall asleep” in my usual bloody-minded literal fashion, I'd have recognized it as a selfless public service and no word of a come-on, an assertion of connection and belonging. Had I nodded off, the bookstore zone of hipness would have been rent by the gaucherie of an old guy snoring and drooling. Sometimes it's a moment of grace when a thing doesn't happen.

 

About the Author: Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Westy

by J. Ray Paradiso

Bound for Deep Space

     His name was Westmoreland. Eugene Horace Greeley Westmoreland. And he was a reedy-tall grad student like Jack’s beanstalk and young Abe Lincoln. Before glorified by some. And demonized by others. And he sported a monocle like TR. And grasped Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and Proctology. That created a perfect storm. Both in and out of the classroom. And he paraded around campus in tiger-striped pajamas. Outrageously. As if Playboy’s guru, Hugh Hefner, in Karnataka, India. 

     “You’ve lounged here like a lazy skink lizard, Mr. Westmoreland. And failed flawlessly to produce a publishable dissertation. The deadline is merely seven weeks from today. Your dissertation committee is concerned you won’t meet it. Are you?” scowled the Chairman of Princeton’s Department of Theoretical Physics. A Max von Sydow wannabe. But Mel Brooks- Mini-be. In a cardboard suit and wash-and-wear shirt. With a clip-on bow tie. Black and orange. Princeton’s palette. 

     “If you don’t, your Phi Beta Kappa from Pacific University will be squandered,” mini-Mel pouted. In a faintly-lisped tone like his favorite author, Truman Capote. After several Sapphire martinis.  Snowball-crunching Westmoreland’s transcript, he exPOUNDed, “You bring new meaning to the word, ‘procrastination,’ from the Latin pro (forward) and crastinus (of tomorrow). Do you know it?” 

     “The word’s procrastinatio, procrastinationis, third declension, feminine. No worries, I’ll meet my dissertation’s deadline, Herr Eastmann,” smirked Westmoreland. In a shrill, high pitched, twitter. That masked his imperium. Peering down to mini-Mel. As if a bald eagle, an opportunistic feeder with cosmic vision, to its prey. “What you’ve MIS-characterized as science fiction is, in fact, pure science. With all due respect, my task is simply to RE-cast my dissertation in artless language your nano-mind can comprehend.” As if TR pronouncing “DE-lightful.”  DE-lightfully.

     “As you wish, Westmoreland, but I must remind you that attempting to articulate a publishable theory in terms of the steamy process of reproduction enjoys no comfort in academia. Especially within the ivy covered walls of our Institute for Advanced Study. Where the Pope of Physics, Albert Einstein, preached.”

     Racing to his dorm like a tiger chasing its quarry. “Lord Westy,” as his classmates anointed him, as if Joseph Conrad’s romantic Jim, or simply “Westy,” pondered a simpler trope to convey his novel theory.

     Westy’s mission was to alter the Arrow of Time principle. Whereby time was thought to travel forward in one direction like a rushing river. In short, he hypothesized that time was more like a frozen lake. Allowing forward and backward movement. As easily as Olympic figure skating champion, the lovely Katarina Witt. Whose poster skyed his bed. 

Most strikingly, he theorized that techno-innovators from Bi Sheng, Bacon and da Vinci to Gates, Ballmer and Bezos all skated to and fro the past and future. Enchanting forces in an increasingly disenchanted world, each showing a forthcoming generation a more ordered way to live their lives, strive and survive. 

     Westy’s first attempt to prepare his theory flopped famously like a flat soufflé. Based on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy, it posited that one’s basic needs were physiological. Like breathing, food, water, sleep, homeostasis, excretion and sex. Trashing some metaphors and similes as too vanilla and others as too spumoni for his committee’s taste, he chose sex as the most cOmfOrting and cOmfOrtable. PassiOnately. With repeated capital “Os.”

     Detailing the bi-directional nature of time and time travel in terms of the bio-chemical interaction of sexual intercourse, however, had underwhelmed his committee. 

     His next attempt, perhaps his last, must align more closely with the committee’s naive psycho-social footing. And to his mind, cheesy sense of propriety. How to do that, what trope to choose, was the unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question he pondered. Before discarding his striped garb, donning his Capt. Kirk-Star Trek nightcap and blasting into bed. Like a rocket bound for Deep Space. 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     For the next two weeks, Westy considered several options. First, the forward and backward movement of Maelzel’s metronome. Then, Leonhard’s analysis of bipolar disorder. Then, the back-and-forth sway of watching a tennis match. None passed his self-imposed acid test.

     Three weeks before deadline, while swimming in the University’s aquadome, a question suddenly splashed over him. Would the forward and backward motions of arm movements, while doing the breast stroke, the oldest in swimming tradition, pacify his committee?

     For the next two weeks, he researched the breast stroke’s history, ergonomics and technique. In the Oxford English Dictionary, he found the stroke’s description of its arm actions intriguing. Would his committee understand and appreciate his theory in terms of the breast stroke’s three-step arm activities, he wondered?  Or, would another anatomical trope incite yet another critical attack on the basis of sexual perversion?

     Seven days before deadline, panic struck. Uncharacteristically.  Like a newspaper headline, “SUPERMAN LOSES CAPE. GROUNDED INDEFINITELY.”  Contacting living techo-innovators to verify his theory, he thought, would save his dissertation. But, would they cooperate, he wondered. Gates, Ballmer and Bezos were alive and well. So, he frantically contacted them. Requesting a meeting to explain his dissertation. And seeking their support.  

     For whatever reason - Was it the legendary Harvard vs. Princeton football rivalry dating back to 1877? - Gates and Ballmer did not reply. A fellow Princeton man, Bezos, was his last hope. Bezos’ publicist did reply, but regretted, “Mr. Bezos is preoccupied with his commitment to find a cure for PBA, Pseudobulbar Affect, whose episodes are mood-incongruent. Like Mr. Bezos sometimes laughs uncontrollably when elated, angry or frustrated.” However, the publicist’s regret did include a $25 Amazon.com gift card. With no expiration date.

     The night before deadline, searching to find sharp language to convey his complex theory, he reviewed Occam’s Razor. The notion that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. He also recited the words in Grade 1’s first book, Before We Read, in Gray and Sharp’s Dick and Jane basal readers.  

     Suddenly there POPped a refreshed and refreshing equation. “Simply EX-press my theory in the language most pleasing and pleasurable to the committee, the language of Physics,” he shouted. “Mathematics is the language of Physics. And Binary Code is the language of Mathematics. Such that BC = P x M, where BC = Binary Code, P = Physics and M = Mathematics. So, RE-casting my theory in Binary Code should satisfy the committee.”

     There were a potential downside risk and an ethical dilemma to this tactic, he worried.  He would be advancing the same theory the committee rejected. But in a different cloth, medium or form. Would form, like a Jackson Pollock painting, trump content, he pondered? Would, as Marshall McLuhan theorized, the medium become the message? Did, as his prep school chum Antonio Armani philosophized, clothes make the man?

     Converting his dissertation into binary code, he grinned, would take less time than pronouncing “Soren Kierkegaard,” incorrectly.

     In seconds, he found a web site with a friendly binary encoder. So, he simply selected, copied and pasted his dissertation into the box on the right side of its screen to convert his text to binary. Beginning with his italicized addition to the first proposition in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein, his favorite philosopher: “The world is not all that is the case.”

01010100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101111 01110010 01101100 01100100 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110100 

     Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, he also prefaced his dissertation with this caution: “Perhaps this paper will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it – or at least similar thoughts. Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.”

01010000 01100101 01110010 01101000 01100001 01110000 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01110000 01100001 01110000 01100101 01110010 00100000 01110111 01101001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01110101 01101110 01100100 01100101 01110010 01110011 01110100 01101111 01101111 01100100 00100000 01101111 01101110 01101100 01111001 00100000 01100010 01111001 

     At 3 p.m. on Friday, his deadline’s final hour, Westy hand-placed a hard copy of his dissertation on mini-Mel’s ancient oak desk. Confidently. Per old-school University policy regarding dissertants’ submission guidelines.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Three weeks later, a Sunday on Cannon Green, Princeton celebrated Commencement for Advanced Degree Candidates. All members of Westy’s dissertation committee attended. Herr Eastmann bunkerd in a rickety chair on the stage. Anxious to award Westy his Ph.D., the department’s trophy for Best Dissertation and a generous stipend to continue his research as a Postdoctoral Fellow.

     Some members of Westy’s dissertation committee had applauded his work as “the Mona Lisa of dissertations,” “a walk-off home run” and “tantamount to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.”  One, after slurping a tub of Hemlock martinis at Plato’s Pub on Bombay Parkway, slurred, “Twas o-OH-or-gasmic!” SPasModicaLLy.

     Curiously, Westy was conspicuously absent from Commencement.

     Racing to Westy’s room after the last degree was conferred like a bitch in heat to her sire, his committee witnessed his nothingness. Like the absence of Pierre in a café, described in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, they sensed Westy’s absence. Not in some precise spot, but from the whole room. In stark relief.

     The one exception to the Existential void was a tiger-striped object. Which resembled a baby pacifier. But more cryptically. Like a semi-solid trapezoid or a medieval butt plug. Or the objective correlative.

     The results of repeated radiocarbon tests to determine the object’s age were inconclusive. The results of various trials to determine its nature defied commonly accepted principles of bio-chemistry.

     Eminent futurists, theologians and illusionists failed to provide quantum insights into its meaning, significance and nuance.

     Princeton officials frantically contacted Bezos, Gates and Ballmer for help. But they did not reply.

     In time, the Existential object was escorted to the basement of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. 

     Attempts to duplicate Westy’s dissertation failed. Copies appeared blank. Its one and only original was Special Delivered to the Rare Books and Special Collections Room. On the top floor of Princeton’s Firestone Library.

     Later attempts to locate both the Existential object in the Smithsonian and Westy’s dissertation in the Firestone were unsuccessful.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten.  Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming.  A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. Others, in the spirit of Occam, Dick and Jane simply mumbled, “He was some ancient-crazy motherfucker.  Whatever, who gives a shit?”

8Rs: A Theory of Infinite Realities

     “Your Vita is quite impressive, Dr. Westmoreland,” said the Director of the University of Chicago’s Department of Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology. Grinning. With a face as cold and chiseled as Mt. Rushmore. And a resolve as warm and wet as the Amazon rainforest.

     “Thank you, Dr. AL-ighieri,” twittered Westmoreland. Confidently. “Please call me Westy.”

     “In that case, please call me Beatrice.  I couldn’t find a copy of your Ph.D. dissertation. Where you been hiding? And what was your dissertation’s topic?”

     “Well, the short answer is, you know, I’ve been here and there. And my topic undermined the Arrow of Time principle. Whereby time was thought to travel forward in one direction like a rushing river. Within the broader concept of Entropy. 

     “That’s exciting stuff. Curiously, your dissertation topic reminds me of mine. But tell me more about yours.”

     “Well, I tried to convey my topic in COM-fortable and COM-forting language, but …”

     “Let’s come back to that. I’m kinda pressed for time. What are you researching now?”

     “I call it 8Rs. Where 8 symbolizes infinity with a boner. And Rs represent realities. QUID-essentially, a theory of infinity realities.”  

     “Where 8 symbolizes infinity with a what?” 

     “Well, my laptop’s keyboard lacks the symbol for infinity, so I VI-agra’d it.”

     “I like the way you think, Westy. Go on.”

     “Ok, my theory challenges Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. You know, his PAR-able about prisoners chained to a wall of a cave all their lives. Facing a blank wall, they…”

     “Look, I’m really late for a meeting with a guy in Development. So, I’ll cut to the chase. Bottom line: I can offer you a 1-year appointment as a Visiting Lecturer. You’d teach a 900-level Special Topics graduate seminar. And write a publishable paper on your current research. The fall quarter starts in a week. Agreed?”

     “AH-greed.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Over the next seven days, Westy found an apartment, explored Chicago and prepared for his seminar.

     He rented furnished digs a few blocks from The Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Where his seminar would meet. And he rode the South Shore Line train from 57th to Van Buren Street. From there, he discovered the Art Institute, Cultural Center and Elfmann’s Deli. Among other notable landmarks.  

     The Billy Goat Tavern soon became his favorite haunt. Home of the incomparable “cheezborger,” it second-homed newspaper legends like Mike Royko. 

     Would my Billy Goat capers cure my tendency to MIS-cast my theory, or drown my creativity? Westy wretched.

     Equally intriguing was an article about the tavern owner’s reputed curse. The Curse of the Billy Goat was supposedly placed on the Chicago Cubs in 1945. According to legend, Billy Goat Tavern owner, Billy Sianis, was kicked out of a World Series game because his pet goat's odor was bothering other fans. Outraged, he declared, "Them Cubs, they ain't gonna win no more.” 

     Am I cursed to lose the academic ball game, or destined to win the world’s AD-miration? Westy kvetched.

     Prepping for his seminar, he pondered required and recommended reading lists, assignments and grading systems. His re-revised required reading list included Gibson’s Neuromancer, Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Matrix Comics, Vol. 1 and 2 by Wachowski et al. Four films, all available on DVD and starring Keanu Reeves, were also recommended but not required: The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Animatrix.

     He also developed a 100-point grading system with 0-30 points for class participation, 0-30 for critiquing his Ph.D. dissertation, 0-30 for writing an original paper and 0-10 for self-evaluation. “No extra-credit points will be awarded for smiles, dioramas or questions like ‘Is there anything I can do to raise my grade?” last-lined his course syllabus.

     And, so, the fall quarter came and went. Followed by the winter term. Westy’s seminar was uneventful. Except for a student’s occasional quip about seeing him late-late night, Abe Lincoln-presiding over a mix of Aphrodite and Venus. At Tommy Moore’s Bar on the NW corner of 55th and Woodlawn.  

     And, save, for one mystical student, Lilith Passionate. Whose self-evaluation equaled zero points. For, as she wrote, “criticizing your dissertation but failing to provide a viable alternate theory.” Her name, independence and zest reminded Westy of Lilith in Jewish folklore. Who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, but dumped after she refused to become subservient. 

     Mused Westy, I’d love to gar-DEN with her.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Westy’s research was progressing, though not as quickly as scheduled. Far from “lizzard-lounging,” as he was accused at Princeton, he wisely hesitated to submit a paper to a prestigious publication like the International Journal of Theoretical Physics. Without beta-testing it on a lower level.  So he decided to submit a preliminary paper, “Toward a Theory of Infinite Realities,” for presentation during the spring at a conference. Sponsored by the South East Asia Theoretical Physics Association. Southeast Asia is still relatively warm and dry before the monsoon season, he thought. BE-sides, I lust for authentic sub-gum. 

     His paper’s thesis argued twofold.  First, it attempted to undermine Plato’s Cave Analogy. Then, to advance his theory of infinite realities.

     In his Republic (514a-520a), Socrates narrated a story about prisoners chained to a wall of a cave all their lives. Facing a blank wall, they watched shadows of things passing in front of a fire in back of them.  The shadows were as close as the prisoners got to reality.  But, in fact, Westy quarreled, people aren’t chained, they’re mobile like a Calder masterpiece.  Besides, he argued, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests there’s an unavoidable tendency of humans to influence the situation and velocity of things. Which happens just by observing them.  So, uncertainty about objects’ position and velocity makes it difficult for physicists to determine much about them.

     In short, Westy hypothesized, if there’s uncertainty about all objects, infinite realities are, at least, theoretically possible. Employing an Einsteinian thought experiment, he imagined a circle with 360 degrees or perspectives. Each offering a different view of reality. And each of the 360 views offering 360 more. And each of those 360 more ad infinitum

     Most strikingly, he theorized a Reality Converter, modeled on both the base number converter and binary encoder he discovered. But how to explain the converter’s nature and mechanics, much less develop a quantum mechanical computer model of 8Rs, was problematic. As his favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein, proposed at 6.522 in his Tractatus: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

     Recognizing that his paper’s other complex constructs had clearly not made themselves manifest, not yet anyway, he gingerly submitted it to the conference. Trusting its reviewers would recognize its preliminary footing, accept it as promising and offer constructive comments and questions.

     In sum, like Miles smirked in the movie Risky Business, he thought, SOME-times you have to say, What the fuck! Make your move!

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Weeks past without a reply. In the interim, Westy rode his bike in Hyde Park, taught his weekly seminar, and made frequent trips to the Billy Goat. Where, he’d talk with anybody and everybody who’d listen about the interface of time, space and reality.

     Finally, the reply arrived. An invitation to present his paper. But, at the last session on the last day of the conference. That’s A-ok, he thought. Few people will attend on get-a-way day. But my paper’s DIS-cussant should offer constructive COM-ments to tweak it.

     Much to Westy’s surprise, more than a few people attended his session.  And, more surprisingly, his paper’s discussant was less than gracious about it. “This paper has no place at this professional conference,” lectured an Adjunct from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Cornhusker-colored costumed in a synthetic scarlet sport coat squeezing a creamy mock turtleneck sweater. “It’s pure, unadulterated, unalloyed psycho-babble, and I say that with all due respect,” he threshed.  What he said next wasn’t as pretty.

     Discretion being the better part of popping Cornhusker’s kernel, Westy thought, but did not respond, Fuck you, husker-shit for brains. I FOR-got more theoretical physics than you’ll ever know. Then, boarded the first flight back to Chicago.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Since his appointment, Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s Divine Comedy, had become more like Westy’s guru than his supervisor. Sensing something was out of sorts upon his return, she invited him to her apartment to discuss his work over drinks.  

     Opening a third bottle of her favorite wine, she firmly asked an elegant question. “So, how’s it hangin, Westy?”

     “HANG-in?” he shrilled, “or hung?”

     “Hey, it ain’t over till it’s over. Remember Yogi Berra?”

     “Truth told, my conference paper’s DIS-cussant trashed it. And I’m wondering if it’s IR-reparably damaged.”

     “No worries, Dr. Westmoreland. Hey, what I didn’t confess during your job interview was that my Ph.D. dissertation’s Chairman totally trashed my original. Whose topic was curiously similar to yours. I thought, but didn’t reply, ‘Fuck you, shit for brains.  I forgot more theoretical physics than you’ll ever know.’”

     “Really, was he from NE-braska?  That’s exactly what I was thinking at the conference.”

     Continued Beatrice, smirking, “I thought, what’ll really pacify those cock suckers?  Hmm, how about using a metaphor that’ll tickle their weenies?  Researching ‘fellatio,’ I found an article that fit their li’l dick brains. Among its tidy tips was one titled, ‘Using your mouth and hand.’ Well, there must have been a fair number of cock suckers on my committee.  They voted six out of nine to swallow my enhanced dissertation: locks, stalk and scrotum.”

     “That’s BRILL-iant.”  Just as her cell phone sang, Don’t Back Down by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Well I won’t back down; no I won’t back down. You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

     “Oops, gotta skoot, Westy. Take a wine check?”

     “With PLEAS-ure.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Over the next few weeks, Westy revised his paper. Borrowing the juicy metaphor Beatrice used to resurrect her dissertation.

     Riding his tiger-striped TREK bike to Hyde Park’s post office to, as retro-publications required, snail-mail his polished paper to the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, a Chicago 3CCC cab driver crushed him. A Chicago police investigation concluded the cabbie wasn’t drunk. And didn’t leave the scene. So, like many drivers similarly situated, he escaped prosecution. Happily, Westy survived the crash. Sadly, he remained comatose like a grilled red hot in a sesame seed bun. Curiously, the cabbie received his employer’s monthly Efficiency Response Award. And a $25 TARGET gift card. With no expiration date.

     Beatrice taught the balance of Westy’s seminar, hired Lilith as her Research Assistant and encouraged her to study the cunnilingual underpinnings of a theory of infinite realities.  She also snail-mailed Westy’s paper and a tiger-striped pacifier to the Journal. And pursued funding for a new Institute of Infinite Realities.

     Predictably, the Journal passionately accepted Westy’s paper for publication along with its Best Paper Prize and offer to serve as a Contributing Editor.  Its editors also pondered the relevance of the tiger-striped object. Pubically. 

     Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten.  Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming.  A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. Others, in the spirit of Billy Goat beer, cheezborgers and Royko belched, “He was some ancient-crazy motherfucker.  Whatever, who gives a shit?”

The Other

     “He said he emigrated from Oman in the Middle East. That his full name was Fadil Latif Is’haaq Pias Rubani.  But, his friends just called  him ‘Flipr,’” chuckled Westy to his soul mate, Lucy, an 18-year-old, lovable and loving tabby.

     “Call me Westy,” I said.

     “When he said ‘Flipr,’ I almost peed my pants. The only Flipper I knew was a bottlenose dolphin, who starred during the 1960s in an NBC TV series. Sorta like a water Lassie, he protected an aquatic park, apprehended thugs and rescued a kid named Bud from danger. My favorite episodes were Flipper and the Seal, Flipper and the Mermaid and Flipper and the Elephant. I mean, that randy dolphin RE-ally got around.”

     “He said his Arabic name TRANS-lated as a virtuous, agreeable, laughing, fun-loving pilot.  But, I saw him, call me old-fashioned, in 3D: down, dirty, DE-termined to make a gazillion bucks as fast as possible, return to Oman and fuck himself to Jannah. Anytime, anywhere. With anyone he DE-sired.”

     “Your Princeton Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and theory of infinite realities don’t mean squat around here,” he said. “Everyone in my virtual reality game company sports a doctorate in something special from somewhere special. Like Astrophysics from MIT, Epistemological Ontology from the Sorbonne and Sarah Palin Studies from BFU. For real, I’m an equal opportunity employer.”

     “BFU?” I asked.

     “Butt Fuck U,” he replied.

     “To my mind,” he went on, “performance is all that counts. And performance is a function of intelligence and motivation. Intelligence you’ve got. But your motivation is, ah, suspect. One of my guys remembers you from Princeton as a lazy lounge lizard.”

     “Hey, I’m the MO-st motivated motherfucker on Mother Earth,” I screamed. 

     “You’ve got big cojones, Westy. Besides, I love when total strangers talk doity,” he smirked.  “Ok, here’s the skinny. I’ve got lots of shooters covering traditional genres like drama, action and comedy. What I don’t have is someone to target non-traditionals. Like, you know, other stuff. Are you IN or OUT?”

     In a NY-second, I shouted, “Let the games BE-gin!”

     “Awesome! Orientation for new guns begins at 7 a.m.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Westy loved Chicago. But New York, The Big Hokuto, was extraterrestrial. No other city on planet Earth, he thought, smelled like a fusty bouquet of flowers, produce, subway and grilled onions. With a spritz of salt water.

     The Guggenheim, Bemelmans Bar and Birdland Jazz Club were regular stops. Il Mulino for Osso Bucco and Gallagher’s for dry-aged fillet were monthly musts. And grilled Sullivan County trout over a warm spinach, walnut and lentil salad with a glass of Taittinger Cuvée Prestige Brut at SoHo’s Balthazar. Sunday’s spectacular for $49.00. Plus tax and tip.

     His favorite haunts, for conflicting reasons, were the Waverly Inn in the West Village and Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side.

     At Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn, the staff was so snooty no one would consider serving or even looking at him. PER-fect space, Westy thought, to dream up Other VR-games. Though he was tempted to special-taste, just once, Waverly’s signature truffled mac and cheese for $60.00. Tax and tip excluded. At Katz’s Deli to die for was the $31.25, 3-Meat Platter. Which fed three tourists or one regular customer with a mountain of hand sliced pastrami, brisket and corned beef. And was the unwaveringly social site of Meg Ryan's famous "I'll have what she's having" fake orgasm scene in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.

     Fake orgasim? Westy thought. Hey, my new VR-game will OUT-orgasim Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in his movie Sleeper. OUT-snoot Graydon Carter. OUT-brut Balthazar’s Taittinger Cuvée Prestige. For real. Put the BIG BANG to shame. Like Odysseus did to Cyclops. And David to GO-liath. And Miss Jones to Johnny Wadd.

     At Chez Josephine on West 42nd, owned by Jean Claude, one of jazzy Josephine Baker’s adopted kids, two 80ish women, looking totally out of place and sorts, stood up and played a piano-trumpet duet. And the floor at Shoe in SoHo so intrigued him that he asked its owner, “May I PHOTO-graph it?” “You’re not the first to ask,” she replied. “Two retired NY cops wanted to buy it. And, a mustache-Pete kinda guy said I didn’t wanna know what happened on it. My store was John Gotti’s Social Club.” 

     When I play my new VR-game, Westy smiled, I’m gonna piano-trumpet my VIC-tory and SOC-ialize with John Gotti, thought Westy.

     Westy also enjoyed long walks through Central Park. Where he met characters like Harvey, a retired ancient Roman coin dealer. And Sherman, an international securities attorney. And Tony, a toothless-homeless man. All loved roaming the Park. But shared little else in common. Like drinking and driving. And anorexia and bulimia. And darkness visible. 

     Harvey bragged about chasing le donne con grandi seni during WWII in Italy. And Tony said, “It is what it is,” whenever Westy said, “Good morning, Sir.” And Sherman detailed cases he argued at the U.S. Supreme Court. In legalese. The Babylonian king Hammurabi grounded. 

     From everyone he met, Jean Claude and Harvey and Sherman. And everywhere he went, The Guggenheim and Katz’s and Central Park. Westy was armed to beg, borrow or steal fresh ideas for Other VR-games. None surrendered. 

     Afternoons at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, Westy hoped, would refresh his imagination. The neoclassical sculpture, also known as Angel of the Waters, featured an eight-foot bronze angel. Who stood above four small cherubim representing health, purity, temperance and peace. If I don’t SUB-mit a VR-game proposal to Flipr soon, he worried, all the health, purity, TEM-perance and peace on earth won’t pay for my mani-pedi.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Over the next several weeks, his trusting and trusted Lucy listened to Westy debate the pros and cons of each topic-idea that surfaced. And like Jonathan Swift reportedly did to his servants, he read to Lucy aloud. And when she looked puzzled, he revised and revised. Until she nodded knowingly, then dozed off.  

     In time, three Other VR-game candidates survived: Small Business Management for Parish Priests, Death Education for Hospital Personnel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux. Each he carefully outlined. After analyzing its competition and market and ear lobes.

     And, so, one by one, Westy proposed his ideas for a new VR-game. Leading with Small Business Management for Parish Priests.

     “Small Business Management for Parish Priests?” Flipr howled. “Ok, a player embodies a priest, challenged to manage his parish like a business. Taking measured risks, he’d identify opportunities and secure resources. Then, utilize the resources to capitalize on the opportunities. But, for real, are you fucking kidding me? A priest? I could never return to Oman.  I’d be beheaded for blasphemy. And my family and extended family would be tortured like grilled bratwurst!”

     Death Education for Hospital Personnel suffered a similar fate. “Hey, I read Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying,” Flipr snarled, “but, her claims of being helped by spiritual guides were total bullshit. And all that stuff she said about dancing in the galaxies after she died is pure psycho-babble. Besides, who’d wanna play such a gloomy game? I mean, there’s a difference between need and want. You know?”

     Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux remained Westy’s last hope. 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     Westy rarely hung out at Flipr’s Brooklyn office. But, when he did, he favored a woman from Santa Claus, Indiana. Who lived in Harlem. “Will you chant with me?” Katia asked, after hearing rumors about his rejections.  Hoosierly. “You won’t believe its awesome power.” 

     Hey, why not? I’ve never VEN-tured North of Zabar’s Deli on 80th Street. Maybe I’ll even bump into Bill Clinton, Westy thought. Besides, the words in Irving Berlin’s Harlem on My Mind are IN-triguing: “I've got Harlem on my mind. I've a longing to be LOW-down. And my parlez-vous will not ring true with HAR-lem on my mind.”

     That Friday night, Westy subwayed to 125th Street. Then flew a few blocks NW to Amsterdam Avenue. Landing at Katia’s apartment on the third floor of a three-story, brown stone walk-up. Trudging up the stairs, he noticed iron bars on each of the front doors. Recalling Chief Quartermaster Phillips’ famous quote in the movie Apocalypse Now, he thought, Katia said I won’t BE-lieve what chanting divines. So I won’t! But one look at those doors. And I know it's gonna be h-o-t!

     Knocking on Katia’s door, he was greeted by a tuxedoed mix of basketball’s Charles Barkley and LaLa’s Ving Raines. A big, bald, black man gripped his shoulders after one step forward. “Your shoes,” he ordered. “Please remove your shoes.”

     The apartment’s living room, the only one Westy could see, gleamed snow white with high shag carpeting. But no furniture. Ten people, kneeling on their hands, palms up, chanted Nichiren Buddhism’s mantra: “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” After chanting their hands blue, they played assorted instruments: tuba, clarinet, trumpet, drum, violin, kazoo. Then, told stories about chanting’s awesome power.

     A spitting image of Popeye’s Olive Oyl storied her abduction on 127th Street. “Four guys in a cherry-colored Cadillac jumped curb, dragged me into their car, and drove me, blindfolded, to an abandoned apartment,” she cringed. “They said they’d return in three days. And if I were still alive, sacrifice me to their Savior, Beelzebub.”

     For the next three days and nights, she chanted for help: “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” When the guys returned, one pulled out a butcher knife. And held it over his head. Ready to slice her open like a juicy-ripe watermelon. Again she chanted “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” Awesomely, the knife turned to rubber. And the guys fled faster than a Dominoes’ pizza delivery.

     After more fractured fairy tales, they all tramped to a local saloon. Where Westy fantasized Berlin’s “longing to be lowdown” with Katia. But subwayed home with Saturday’s New York Times. Half-heartedly.

     Emailing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux early the next morning to Flipr, Westy chanted “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” Hoping the Buddhist mantra would PAC-ify him.

     “Finally, this some-bitch is promising,” Flipr email-replied the next day. “But it lacks zest.  I mean, playing Mr. Hyde or one of his partners is pretty cool. Imagine, assuming Hyde’s submission or his partner’s dominance. That’s awesome, but it needs more OOMPH. You know, a WOW factor. So, tweak it, make it in-fucking-credible, a big tit hit! You dig?”

     “Lacks zest, OOMPH, a WOW factor?” Westy lamented to little Lucy. “That dick-brain wouldn’t know zest from PES-ticide, WOW from Wauwatosa, a tit from Walt WHIT-man!” 

     Then, dove into deep depression. Unnaturally.

     Bad to worse, his loving and lovable Lucy fell asleep one night. But didn’t awake.  

     Westy wrapped her in his black and orange Princeton scarf, draped with a maroon U. of C. banner. And lovingly placed her in a hand woven, Groton cradle. Under a bouquet of zebra flowers. Then, weep-walked her to the Humane Society. 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

     For the next days, weeks and months, Westy paced his apartment, whispering Lucy’s name and nicknames: “Lucy, Lucifer, Lucy pussy cat, Lucy gato, Little LU-cy.” Tearfully. Powering down his smart phone, he read and re-read Gibson’s Neuromancer, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and The Matrix Comics, Vol. 1 and 2 by Wachowski et al. And, in his mind, he screened and re-screened The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Animatrix. All books and films on his required reading and recommended viewing lists. When he lectured at the U. of C.

     One stormy winter night, he dreamed about time travel. Like skating on a frozen lake under a kaleidoscope of stars. Each offering 360 views of reality. And each of those 360 more ad infinitum. Bringing order to disorder as the universe e-x-p-a-n-d-e-d.

When he awoke, he designed a VR-game, The Other, converting his 8Rs, his theory of infinite realities, to reality’s Deep Space. At its deepest point, a game for players to embody anyone, anytime, anywhere. A VR-reality game. Quintessentially.

     Amazingly, the game had no visible parts, no intermediaries, no mechanics. It seemingly came into existence all by itself like the BIG BANG! Its output was simply self-evident, self-aware, untethered. Effectively isolated from its environment, it suffered no vibrations, no electromagnetism, no heat. Unlike 2-D images on a flat screen, it discharged psychic injections, 3D-holograms in inner space and meta-cognitive constructs. Inexplicably inexpressible like Wittgenstein’s “things that cannot be put into words, that make themselves manifest, that are mystical.” For a bonus, playing the game delivered the pacifying “o-O-or-gasmic” high his Ph.D. dissertation had induced in at least one of its readers. SpASmoDICally.

     And, so, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

     Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten. Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming.  A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. In the spirit of Katz’s corned beef, Billy Goat beer and Occam’s Razor, while playing his new VR-game nonstop-incessantly, Westy thought, Flipr was some kinda STU-pid motherfucker, and Herr Eastmann and CORN-husker weren’t much smarter. WHAT-ever, who gives a shit? Smiling. Simply.

     Yet, the more Westy played The Other, the more he discovered its peaks and troughs. On the upside, he could be anyone, anytime, anywhere in Deep Space. On the downside, he couldn’t recall the past. Anticipate the future. Influence behavior. Empathize with anyone. From Eastmann, Cornhusker, Flipr. To Lilith, Beatrice, Katia. To Tony, Harvey, Sherman. For that, he needed more direct, more immediate, more personal contact. More openness and honesty and empathy. More transparency. To be Westy. Really.

     For real, beneath his simple smile, despite Stefan Zweig’s dictum, “The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite,” arose a dark conceit increasingly visible like the Pacific under the setting Sun. A conceit like Benjamin Franklin’s, “Our critics are our friends; they show us our faults.”  A darkness curiously reigniting Eastmann’s reproach about his “lounging” and Cornhusker’s rant about his conference paper’s “illusion.” An Aurora Borealis like Einstein’s general theory of relativity vs. Faraday’s electromagnetism, Darwin’s evolution vs. the Bible’s Genesis, Major League Baseball’s Mays vs. Mantle. A collision like M.L. King’s “inner flight through the wilderness on toward the promised land” with David Riesman’s ”other directed” mindset that only finds itself through the approval of others, losing any personal motivation beyond its own comfort. Alarmingly.

     Those alarms, he swore, must be silenced. As he revised his Other VR-game. To regain a reasoned and informed and considered balance between reality and virtuality. A necessary poise to recover his senses and sensibilities. Bring order to disorder. Get lowdown with Katia. Special-taste, just once, the Waverly Inn’s signature mac and cheese. Garden with his mystical U. of C. student, Lilith. Endlessly. And reclaim his tiger-striped pacifier. Existentially.

     And slave-free me. (Are you listening? That’s me. Surprised?) From playing his  phantasmagorical fantasy-roles. Anytime, anywhere. To anyone. Alive and well and willing to listen. 

     Fuck what Oscar Wilde called “the truth of masks!” Fuck supreme modernism! Deep Space-free me. His virtual avatar. His ghostly-reedy-thin Abe Lincoln. His pajama-playboy Hugh Hefner. His first-person “I’s.” Deliberately dissociated. With the QUIR-ky twitter of TR or the swag of Lord Jim. From a nervy Princeton grad student. To a ballsy university lecturer. To a mind-fucking VR game designer. I.e.: Philip Roth’s “multitudinous intensity of polarities.”

     And, oh, if you’re concerned that I wrote my story eXperImeNtallY, pushing the seams of traditional prose, piss off!  I wrote it pReCisEly as Westy wanted it written. EXactLY as he would spin it. Form and content inextricably intertwined like Einsteinian time and space: Two meanings in one and one in two.

     Always. 

     Complexly compounded. 

     Otherly.

 

 

About the Author: J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as an EXperiMENTAL writer and a street photographer. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chicago Quarterly Review, New England Review and Into the Void.

Letters From The Moving Coast

No matter how much time it takes
I want a little more
a coastline always changing
time and sea complaining

so I claim the littorals and vicissitudes
of these crowding waters
this needy weather
as any reason you might demand

but I do ask that you forgive
these letters from the moving coast
please understand they are no less true
for being unpredictable.

 

 

About the Poet: Dean Baltesson is a poet and musician living in Victoria BC Canada. He is currently working on a volume of poetry entitled There Must be Words To Describe This. His poetry and can be found in a number of online and print literary journals or on his recent CD “Covering Ground”.

Latchkey Kid

by Nina Lichtenstein

     As a kid, the key to our apartment dangled on a string around my neck. I guess my working parents felt confident I would manage on my own in the afternoons until they came home at dinnertime. If I had any spare time on my hands I did not spend it inside reading, keeping a diary or doing puzzles, but instead, I roamed the neighborhood looking for nooks and crannies to explore, for people to talk to. Sometimes that meant getting into trouble. I was a crafty, devious and curious youngster, who loved sneaking around doing my share of shoplifting candy and comic books from the corner store. I loved to befriend my older neighbors, who were looking for company and someone who would listen to their stories. These were the adults who were around and also had time to pay attention to me. Visiting with them, I did not feel awkward as I did around my peers, and the older folks would welcome me into their apartments, smiling and offering a snack or two. No need to act cool or prove my belonging here. Although their homes would often smell funny and the foods they offered seemed old fashioned compared to what I was served at home, I loved having places to go where I was welcomed, accepted and made to feel as though I mattered. My parents never worried about my safety. It might have been the times. It might have been my parents. My dad would later tell me I was raised with “freedom under responsibility.” It’s possible I might have preferred less freedom and less responsibility. 

***

     Emilie Fleischer, or Mille, as was her nickname, was in her early eighties, and had I known the word when I was a child, I would have said she looked bohemian. In her floor-length pleated black skirts and black velvet headband dramatically accenting her thinning pageboy-shaped white hair, she fancied herself an artist, or at least a connoisseur of art. Mille was a spinster like her sister Helene, and they lived together in the apartment above us in Oslo, Norway, where I grew up. Somber paintings lined the walls of their dark apartment that smelled musty and faintly like old bodies that needed to bathe. The long, deep-red velvet curtains in the archways between the large, high-ceiling rooms made their home feel dramatic, as the fabric hung heavy from massive dark wooden rods with rounded, carved finials, the drapery forming pools of red on the floor like on a theater stage. I was happy here in this unconventional and mysterious place, where my arrival was anticipated with food and companionship. 

     I often went upstairs and rang their doorbell right after I came home from school. Mille wore dentures, and sometimes she would open the door without them. I was enthralled and a little scared by the cavernous hole of her mouth, her tongue prominently visible as she lisped her greeting past lips that turned inward, wrapped over her pink gums. When Mille offered me a snack she might fish out an overripe banana from their pantry and hand me half while mashing the other half for herself, like baby food. Sometimes she would let me mash it for her, making me feel conscientious and competent. We took turns cutting up fruits on a wooden retractable cutting board hidden directly under the kitchen counter, above the top drawer. Pulling it out, she would grasp the small white porcelain knob with a silver center that had gray dirt encrusted into its circular ridge. The board was usually moist looking or full of breadcrumbs, and the middle section of the wooden surface was worn down, creating a slight dip from years of slicing bread in the same spot.  

     Sometimes when I visited, the sisters would say they wanted to celebrate—I never knew or understood what the occasion might be other than it was something special. I would help them whip up three raw eggs and several tablespoons of sugar until the foamy blend became stiff enough to hold a shape when we pulled a spoon through it to check if it was ready. The egg cream or eggedosis is a traditional Norwegian treat loved by children and is usually served on holidays. The sisters would let me portion out the sweet, creamy froth into three identical cut crystal goblets. The fancy glasses stood gleaming, lined up on the kitchen counter where I was meticulously at work making sure I achieved an equal division of the smooth, yellow blend, licking the spills from my fingers. Helene would leave the kitchen and I could hear her rummage with bottles in their antique curio cabinet in the dining room. Taking up an entire wall, the massive piece of furniture was dark and ornate with beveled glass doors and a carved wooden front, and sat heavy in the brightest but least utilized room in the apartment. Helene would return with a fancy bottle of golden brown liquid, its gilded label inscribed with foreign words I didn’t understand. Using an old, large and dented silver spoon—so tarnished even I noticed that it needed polishing—Mille would carefully measure three spoonfuls into two of the three glasses. 

     In the living room, the deep and plush, moss-colored velvet couch was supported by clawed wooden feet and adorned with a carved top rail. Sitting between them, we slowly nursed the egg cream with teaspoons while looking through their family albums of black and white photographs. The sisters had many such books—big, heavy guardians of memories, and they would share a little story for each photograph as they took turns pointing out this one or that one. Small, square or rectangular images with white zigzag borders, attached to heavyweight, matte black pages, were held in place by tiny triangular white corner pockets. Beneath the photos, most of them faded, captions were written carefully in beautiful cursive handwriting with a thick white pencil; names of people, places and dates going back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when everything looked glamorous and romantic. In some of the photos I recognized a younger Helene or Mille, their dresses long, elegant, white and full of lace. Some of the faces were blurry, and many of the people seemed serious. There were photos of the sisters as girls, posing in sailor dresses with matching hats, somberly looking at the camera from the top of the front steps of their summer home, or in front of a blooming fruit tree. 

     Time would fly like this; me, squeezed comfortably in between the sisters, the heat from their soft bodies surrounding me. I looked up toward the tall windows facing the street, only partly visible through the archway connecting their two spacious living rooms, and I noticed, but did not care, that it was growing dark outside. 

     Sometimes my mother would ring the doorbell to fetch me for dinner, but it remained my little shared secret with the sisters that we had indulged in such a decadent afternoon snack.

***

     My family never knew much about their quiet, enigmatic lives, and one day when I was about thirteen, Helene died and Mille was alone for the first time in her life. She became a recluse, and when my mother would ring her doorbell to see if we could help with food-shopping or other practical things, she would peer through the crack with the safety chain still attached, trying to discern if she could trust the caller. Sometimes she would reluctantly let my mother help, but often scrutinized the receipt and claim that she had been cheated—blaming the grocer, other times my mother. My parents bought a townhouse in the suburbs around this time, and we moved away. I missed my old neighborhood and all the connections I had made there, and although we were just a short bus-ride away, it wasn't the same. The daily-ness of it was gone. Soon we learned from other neighbors in our old building that Mille had been moved to a nursing home. I took the bus to the other side of town and visited her once or twice, and while she seemed to remember me, she had what seemed like an imaginary, confusing story to tell about the thieves in the nursing home and her many lost and stolen personal items. She kept a stash of toilet paper rolls in the basket attached to her walker. I followed Millie down the hallways of her new residence so she could show me her room. Her body hunched over the handles of her walker, she mumbled, “they sure do steal around here.” 

     I don’t remember when Mille died, or the last time I saw her. I recall my mother mention the sisters’ niece, who was making all the “arrangement.” As the next of kin, she would inherit their apartment. 

     Whenever I go back to Oslo to visit family and friends, I detour through the streets of my childhood. Passing the pre-war brick apartment building where I used to live, I look up at the windows of our old living room and my parents’ bedroom above the gateway to the inner courtyard, and above them, the windows of the Fleischer sisters’ apartment. In the place of their heavy drapes are fashionable Marimekko curtains with bold, orange flowers with black eyes, and a set of glass Ikea vases, purposefully arranged.  

     I resist ringing the doorbell. I know that seeing the inside of the apartment will alter forever my ability to vividly recall the afternoons spent in their company. How I would nestle on the couch between two warm, generous women’s bodies, and sense that I belonged. They made me feel welcome and important. Their wrinkled faces beamed as they spoke, and their hands—with paper-thin almost translucent skin—gestured with generosity, offering food and stories. Our souls were kindred and in need of one another. Their door was always open. I didn't need a key.

 

 

About Nina Lichtenstein: 
Nina is a native of Oslo, Norway, and has a PHD in French literature. She has lived in CT for nearly 30 years, where she kept busy studying, teaching and raising her three sons. An empty nester, she recently migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted. Her first book, on Jewish women writers from North Africa, just came out. Some of Nina's writing lives on her blogs https://vikingjewess.com/ and https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/, and other essays have been published on the Brevity Blog, in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and Hevria, among other places. You can learn more about Nina and her work at her website: https://www.ninalichtenstein.com/

Ferris Wheel

by James Barnett

When the Ferris wheel stopped and they were swinging ninety feet above the midway, Clara told her husband Archie she was leaving him. It was one of those late fall, carnival nights at the fairgrounds on the edge of town. Uncomfortable in high places, Archie had pleaded his fear of heights, but Clara insisted that he ride with her. He focused his eyes on the lights of Joplin to avoid glancing down and considered what his wife had said.

“I don’t love you anymore,” Clara said, as if her previous declaration needed justification.

Watching a distant streetlight change from green to yellow to red, Archie gripped the lightweight metal bar that spanned their laps and supposedly provided a measure of protection. He tried to think of something to say, but “I’m leaving you” and “I don’t love you anymore” belonged at the end of a dialog about marriage, not at the beginning.

“You’re a good man, Archie,” Clara said. She wiped a tear from her cheek with her coat sleeve. “But I don’t feel the way I use to.” 

The streetlights blurred. Archie wanted to undo whatever had been done to cause Clara to say these things. He loved their life together. During their twenty years of marriage, he had taken comfort in his wife’s companionship. Clara knew how Archie liked his eggs and his pancakes. Archie knew how Clara liked her anniversary steak at Western Sizzlin. He also knew, or thought he knew, how Clara liked her sex.

The notion that his wife might be having an affair hadn’t yet occurred to Archie, so he didn’t ask that question. Instead, he focused on fixing what was wrong. “How ‘bout you take some time off work and we go up to Lake Xavier?” he said. “I know we can work out whatever’s bothering you.”

They’d been happy at the lake. The rental cabins reminded Archie of his childhood summers. Clara read her novels on the screened porch while he spearfished down at the pier. With her job as a realtor, she could usually reschedule an appointment or two and get away for a couple of days. Time off wasn’t a problem for Archie. The local junior college didn’t renew his teaching contract; he’d been unemployed since the first of the year. 

Clara sat in silence for a few moments. A shift in the breeze intensified the swirling calliope music and blew wisps of food smells from the half-deserted midway. When she spoke, her voice had an angry edge. “We went to the lake last month. You hardly spoke to me the whole weekend.”

Archie looked at his wife. Her hazel eyes regarded him without affection. He had seen that look before, but hadn’t paid any attention, thinking she was just having a bad day. Now, he began to realize that their relationship had shifted. Clara was different. She’d added some color to her dull auburn hair and was wearing it a little longer. He’d also noticed her running shoes in the foyer and was aware that she’d been exercising, although she never mentioned it. He could have told her that she didn’t need to lose any weight; in his eyes, she was virtually the same physically as when they married, except for the pounds she retained after the birth of their daughter, Maxine.

“I don’t remember the lake weekend like that,” he said. “We watched Cardinal baseball and you surprised me with a bottle of champagne to celebrate my birthday.”

“Archie, I wanted to turn off the television so we could sit on the porch and toast your fortieth.” 

“We could’ve waited ‘til the game was over. By the time the Cards wrapped it up, you had already gone to bed.”

Clara leaned back in the seat, causing a creaking sound from the rusty cotter pins that fastened their gondola to the Ferris wheel’s ancient steel frame. Archie tightened his grip on the safety bar and was about to make another plea for the lake when he noticed Clara’s fleeting look over the side, down toward the bottom of the wheel. He followed her glance and saw a dark figure standing in the shadows, staring up in their direction.

Something else struck Archie as being odd. He and Clara were the only people riding the wheel. The boarding platform was empty. Why had the wheel stopped if no one was getting on?

While Archie was making these observations, Clara had been talking. “… and you’re content with the way things are,” she said. “Turning forty didn’t seem to bother you, but it scares the hell out of me.”

A gibbous moon floated above the lights of the regional airport, about three miles distant. “Forty’s just a number, Clara. I like our life together.” Archie searched his wife’s eyes for understanding. “Losing my teaching job has made things difficult,” he said, “but that was just a temporary setback. I’ve been working on my resumé.”

“There are things I want to do,” Clara said, “before it’s too late, before I set myself up to be a bitter old lady.”

Archie saw an opening. “Tell me what you want to do and I’ll do it with you. Is there someplace you want to go?” Clara’s expression told Archie he was on the wrong track. “Okay, let’s talk about it,” he said. “Please, tell me what you want.”

Clara wiped away another tear. “I want to write a memoir.”

Archie stared at his wife. A memoir. “Honey,” he said, “you don’t have to leave me to write a memoir.” He sensed a possible resolution to the dilemma, although it seemed too obvious. “Why, you can do it at home.” Feeling a welling of relief, he said, “I’ll fix up Maxine’s old room for you. If you need a new computer, we still have our savings.”

Clara’s laugh was merciless. “Savings? Your stretch of unemployment has wrecked our savings.” Her voice assumed a tone of superiority that Archie had never heard. “Besides, you’ve completely missed the point of what I’m trying to tell you. There’s no memoir in my life with you.”

Not knowing how to counter that statement, Archie kept quiet. 

“Tonight’s when I change that,” she said. “I want to rob a bank.”

Archie’s jaw dropped open.

Clara laughed. “Not really rob a bank, Archie. But I’ve got to do something like that, something that takes me out on the edge, where I’ll have to rely on my instincts to keep me alive.” She was staring past Archie, her eyes wide, as if she could see a thousand yards into her future. “I’ve lain awake nights with my eyes closed and watched myself assassinate Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. I’ve rescued mountain gorillas from machete-wielding poachers. Dressed completely in black, my face darkened with kohl, I’ve stolen the Mona Lisa.” Her voice lowered back to reality. “And there you are the next morning, handing me my coffee. Jesus, Archie, I’ve got to get away from who I am.”

“Does Maxine know about this?” Archie said. Their daughter was newly married and starting her senior year at Missouri State.

“Yes,” Clara said. “She doesn’t like it. She’s afraid of what it will do to you.” 

Archie felt the sting of knowing that Clara talked to Maxine before talking to him. But then, his wife could have simply left him without having this awkward Ferris wheel talk.

“Maxine wants her home place to stay the same,” Clara continued. “She wants her daddy and mommy to always be there, frozen in time, like some hokey television show.” The resentful tone was back in Clara’s voice. “I told her she was being selfish.”  Clara looked out toward the city lights. “I had to make her promise me she wouldn’t call you and tell you what I was about to do. I finally convinced her that it would be best if I talked to you.” 

“And what is it, Clara, that you’re … about to do?”

Clara leaned over and looked down at the man that ran the Ferris wheel. Turning back to Archie, she said, “That’s Blackjack Andy. He wants to take me with him when the carnival packs up tonight.” 

Blackjack Andy for Christ’s sake! It took all of Archie’s self-control to keep from laughing in Clara’s face. But the urge to laugh was only momentary. His wife was telling him she belonged to another man. With this realization, Archie’s imagination stumbled into the cheesy funhouse down on the midway, the one with wavy mirrors and demented laughter. Instead of his own twisted reflection, he saw ghastly images of Blackjack Andy in the form of some kind of human bull ravishing his wife. “Oh Jesus,” he moaned. 

Clara was talking again, “… Blackjack can give me the life experiences I need for my memoir. He wants to leave the carnival and go back to being a con artist.” With a dreamy look in her eyes, she said, “He needs a partner, and he says I’ve got what it takes.” 

“Where did you meet this guy?” Archie said, leaning back to peer over the seat. The rig’s intervening web of girders made it hard to see the figure down below. He tried unsuccessfully to recall the face of the man who helped them into the seat and clamped the safety bar in place. But people on the fringe of society can be invisible when they cross your path. They probably prefer it that way. 

“We met at the county library,” Clara said. For a moment, her face took on a quizzical expression. “He’s a carnival worker at night, but during the day Blackjack reads Proust and Melville. He said he’s working on his own memoir, and he’ll help me with mine.” Clara hesitated a moment, and then said, “That is, as soon as I can have my adventure.” 

Archie groaned. A carnival stud on the prowl in Joplin and Clara thinks he’s a goddamn intellectual. Won’t the folks at church be full of gossip about this? “Poor Archie,” they’d say, “his wife ran off with the circus boy.” He’d have to listen to their insincere condolences, while they laughed among themselves, the men secretly thankful that it was Clara and not one of their wives. The women would have their own carnival daydreams about tattooed musclemen they’d seen lifting and straining among the guy wires and canvas.  

“Don’t look so sad, Archie,” Clara said, misinterpreting her husband’s brooding face. “This won’t just be my adventure. You’ll have adventures of your own.”

Archie smirked at the thought: a library science teacher taming broncos or fighting as a mercenary in some South American jungle. He didn’t want an adventure, so he asked Clara for a compromise. “After your, uh, spree with Blackjack Andy, will you come home to write your memoir?”

Clara hesitated before speaking. “That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said, “until this next phase of my life is over.” A snippet of a calliope chorus floated past. “Archie, you should assume, for your own good, that you’ll never see me again after tonight.”

“What if I decide to file for divorce?” Archie said.

In a matter-of-fact tone, Clara said, “I’ll sign the papers, if you can find me.”

Archie put his hand on Clara’s shoulder. He didn’t know what else to say, so he simply shook his head, like when a doctor rises from the bedside of a dead patient, removes his stethoscope from his ears, and hooks it around his neck. 

While he stared at the moths circling the carnival lights, he remembered something his wife said: He wants to leave the carnival and go back to being a con artist. There it was, as plain as anything. Blackjack the con artist had conned his wife. The carney bastard probably thought he could make some money out of the deal and leave Clara stranded in some bus station.

Archie saw what he had to do. It would be painful. Clara would hate him at first, for exposing her gullibility. But she would eventually see Blackjack for what he was and beg her husband’s forgiveness for jeopardizing their marriage. 

“Clara,” Archie said, “I hate to say this because I know it will make you mad, but don’t you realize that Blackjack’s conning you? You said yourself that he’s a con artist.”  

She was staring straight ahead. Her face was a mask of indifference. Archie waited for the anger to surface, the yelling and flailing.

Clara’s laugh began as a stuttering hum contained within closed lips. Still facing straight ahead, she broke into full voice howling that segued to teary-eyed shrieking. She laughed so hard she was gasping for breath and rocking the seat alarmingly.

Finally, Clara gained control and turned toward Archie shaking her head. “Oh Archie, you think I don’t know that Blackjack’s conning me.” Another wave of laughter ensued during which Archie was afraid the bucking seat would shear those rusty cotter pins in two, casting them down through the spokes and girders. 

Archie was too bewildered to speak.

“Lord Archie,” she said, still trying to catch her breath. “I wanted to be conned. I did everything I could to make Blackjack believe I was the easiest mark he’d ever found.” She was quiet for a moment, until her breathing was steady again. “Hell, maybe I conned him,” she said. “Think about that. I wasn’t going to let that wild son of a bitch get out of this town without me.” 

The funhouse visions flooded Archie’s senses again. This time, Clara was no longer an innocent victim. She deserved whatever abuse her sideshow paramour could throw at her. More than anything, Archie wanted to leap forward in time, to catapult himself past the inconvenience and the shame waiting for him in the coming days and months.

Clara leaned over the back of the seat and waved. “I told Blackjack to stop us up here so I could talk to you without distractions,” she said. “You don’t listen to half of what I say, so I thought this,” she rocked the seat, “would help you focus on what I wanted to tell you.”

Far below, a lever clanked, and the wheel shuddered noisily. Warped music blared from gravelly speakers lashed to the spokes. They jolted forward, rolling from the wheel’s center of balance out toward the periphery of its circumference. No longer over the girders, their seat swayed above the slowly approaching midway.

Archie could see that Clara’s knuckles were white as she squeezed the safety bar. He also noticed a slight tremble in her forearms. She sat like a strapped-in astronaut during liftoff, staring straight ahead, fully committed to the journey she had begun. What she was doing took courage. How Archie resented his wife’s bravery and despised his own cowardice in the face of a life change over which he had no control. 

He turned and looked back toward the top of the wheel. Where he’d once considered that summit a place of danger, he now saw it as a lost refuge. His fear of heights had vanished. Archie now faced a more terrifying prospect – the fear of returning to earth.

 

 

 

About the Author: James Barnett’s short stories are published by The Carolina Quarterly, The Blotter Magazine, The Adirondack Review, and HCE Review. His nonfiction books are published by University Press of Mississippi. His latest nonfiction book, titled Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico, was published in April 2017. He lives in Natchez, Mississippi, with his wife, landscape artist, Sharon Richardson.