Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me

       They were playing behind the shrubbery, in the chill darkness under the front porch. Their presence was concealed by the green-painted frame latticing that extended the length of the house three feet from the bottom of the weathered porch to the ground.

       Lowering his voice to a whisper tinged with suspicion, Jimmy turned to Chris. “Why’d you bring me under here? I don’t like it.”

       The two eight-year-old boys crouched low on the cold earth to avoid bumping their skulls on the blackened overhead beams. 

       “Over there’s the secret I wanted to show you.” Chris pointed through the shadowy darkness to a long, narrow mound of earth at the far side of the crawl space. “Can you believe it?”

       “That’s all?”

       “See for yourself.”

       Emboldened by Chris’s challenge, Jimmy, crawling on all fours, threaded a wary path through the detritus that had been shoved under the porch over the years—half-used bags of concrete mix and gravel, rusted garden tools, paint cans, broken lawn furniture. With distaste, he raised the arm of his winter jacket to swat away the tattered cobwebs dangling from the rafters that increased the closer he got to the oblong mound. Chris followed in his friend’s wake.

       “It’s not just a pile of dirt,” Chris said, his voice preternaturally calm, when the two boys reached the raised earth. “Don’t you see? It’s a grave.”  

       The nylon whisper of the boys’ parkas as each hugged himself against the cold was the only sound to disturb the dead hush that followed. Gray light slanted through the latticing and cast a grid of cross-hatched shadows, grotesquely elongated, over the mound.

       “You mean somebody’s buried here?” Jimmy’s eyes widened, imagining how neatly its dimensions would accommodate a corpse. An adult corpse, to be precise. 

       “Course it’s a grave,” Chris said. His thin treble, muffled by the beams overhead, was subdued but certain. He ran a pale hand over the top of the mound. The soil was damp to the touch, as if it had been freshly turned. And yet, paradoxically, it felt packed as hard as clay. When he lifted his hand, black dust clung to his palm. “I was exploring under here last Friday, while you were at your grandma’s for Thanksgiving. That’s when I found it—” Chris gazed at the grave “—and that was two days after Uncle Harry died.”

       “The old creep’s dead? No way! I figured he’d just gone to live with some other relatives like he always does.” 

       “That’s what Mommy and Daddy want me to believe. When I got home from school Wednesday, they just said he’d ‘gone for good’ and ‘God’s riddance.’ But I know better.” Chris paused. For years during Uncle Harry’s off-and-on stays, he had shared Chris’s room, sleeping in the same bed, the furnace of his heavy, hairy, snoring body forming a valley in the center of the spongy double mattress from which Chris fought to keep himself from rolling. But when Uncle Harry had showed up this September—the cousins in Sulphur Springs had had enough of him—his parents had darkly informed Chris that the boy would be sleeping on the foldout sofa in the den while Harry stayed in Chris’s room. Chris had felt a surge of relief.  

       “I know he’s not just gone.” A scoffing tone entered Chris’s voice. “The day before, I heard Daddy talking on the phone ‘bout a coffin, and you’ve gotta have a coffin if somebody’s gonna die.”

       “You saying your mom and dad buried him down here? And didn’t even tell you?”

       Chris hesitated. 

       “Maybe they didn’t want to scare me.”

       “Why?”

       “Remember how mean Uncle Harry was?”

       “Don’t I, always cussing at us, smacking our heads if we got to close.” 

       Chris thought about the many times he’d awoken in the middle of the night to the smells of stale tobacco and liquor, his uncle’s heavy arm straight-jacketing him in the sweaty bed sheets. “Mommy and Daddy were always warning him he was in for it if he didn’t repent his ways.” 

       “But why bury him here?”

       “Sure you want to know?”

       Jimmy nodded. He’d drawn his knees up to his chin and encircled his legs with his arms.

       “You got to keep it a secret. The way I figure, maybe this is where you have to be buried, if you’re wicked enough to … to go down there.”   

       Jimmy tried to laugh. “That’s stupid.” Yet his body shuttered, as if warding off the blow of an invisible antagonist. “Like this is some special doorway to … to Hell? That’s way too weird. I’m going back outside.”  

       Chris cast a last look at his uncle’s resting place, then trailed Jimmy to the opposite end of the crawl space. The two boys squirmed through the small door built into the facing of the lattice on the side of the porch and emerged into the pale light of the failing afternoon.

       Wordlessly they pushed their way through the boxwoods and dead chrysanthemums fringing the house, kicked at the drifts of brittle leaves littering the brown lawn, its spotty covering of grass as withered as the sparse hairs on Uncle Harry’s scabby cranium. Reaching the street, they sat on the cold cement curb and stared upwards at the surrounding trees, whose bared limbs stretched upwards toward a darkening sky that showed no flush of sunset.

       Tentatively, Chris spoke. “I didn’t meant to spook you.” To himself, he thought you’re my best friend. I needed to tell somebody my secret.

       “Nah, I wasn’t scared. It just made me feel creepy, I mean creepy, being there, right beside it. Like his ghost was about to reach out and pull me down into the ground. You know?”  

       “I know.” Chris watched an invisible gust of wind rattle the trees overhead. “I’ve had weird feelings, too, ever since I found it.”

       “Like what?”  

       Chris affected a laugh. “Like maybe it’s my turn to die next.”

       “Good kids don’t die. My mom promised me.”

       “Okay.” But the words of Chris’s father reverberated, darkly, in his mind: All children are born into depravity, deserving of eternal death unless they spend all their days atoning. 

       “Why don’t you come over to my place? We can play video games.”  

       The temptation was overwhelming; Chris’s parents didn’t allow video games, called them the work of the Devil. But he knew better than to ask permission to join Jimmy tonight; it was his evening to read the Scripture, and he needed to practice before his dad came home. If Chris stumbled over the words, even those impossibly big words, his father would devise some new punishment; he always did. The family had been reading the New Testament, from the start, after dinner, for over a year now. God’s word must you hide in your heart, so that you sin not against Him, his father reminded him, drumming the hickory switch against his palm as he waited for Chris to bend face downwards over the bed.

       “Nah, not today.  Maybe after school tomorrow?”

       “Sure thing.”

       Rising and stretching, Jimmy retrieved his skateboard from where he’d propped it against the front steps, and as Chris watched, his friend leapt onto the decal-festooned board. Theirs was a quiet neighborhood—not a moving car to dodge—but still, Chris admired Jimmy’s derring-do as he zigzagged down the steep hill towards his house. That was something else his parents didn’t allow—skateboards, and certainly not ones decorated in flames of red and gold and black. 

       A damp chill made Chris shiver as he returned the yard. The strange feeling that he’d tried to explain to Jimmy washed over him, a sensation, a tingle as hard to identify as bristles of a dry paintbrush passing lightly over the back of his neck, and it filled his mind with an answer he had not known till this moment:

       It was going to happen soon.

*

       Erika Fowles fretted. She tested the flounder: yes, it had thawed, but she dared not put it in the oven until she was sure Joash was on his way home. Then again, nothing would be worse than his arriving before dinner was ready to set out—especially if, as she had reason to suspect, her husband had undergone another trying day at Grace Christian. Joash hadn’t answered when she’d called him at his office twenty minutes ago.  If only he believed in smart phones or text-messaging life would be so much easier. But he didn’t, more work of the Devil to distract the weak from the Light. From the vacant look of teens about town, glued to the ghostly screens they always had in hand, Erika had to admit he was probably right. She looked out the window over the kitchen sink, into the darkening driveway, no headlights in sight. Dare she steal a few minutes and return to her desk, shoved into the corner of the den, open her Milton, and see if she could make any progress on the masters thesis that she refused to admit she had all but abandoned years ago?

       Sitting at the kitchen table as he filled in the blanks on his math worksheet, Chris watched his mother from the corner of his eyes. She was more skittish than usual, he’d noted that she’d already taken several tablespoons from the brandied fruit incubating in the glass jar on the kitchen counter—“to steady my nerves,” she said. That was right after he’d asked her, ever so casually, if Uncle Harry would be back for Christmas. “No!” she exclaimed, then hastily turned her face away. “I mean, no, it’s unlikely.”

       Five days had passed, it was Friday, and still nothing had happened. He didn’t know what the event would be, but the nightmares told him it was imminent. They had commenced after Uncle Harry had disappeared, and they had intensified ever since Chris had found the grave-shaped mound of earth under the front porch. Strange forms had infiltrated his dreams, then burrowed their way into reality till they seemed living forces filling the darkness of his bedroom—now that he was sleeping, again, in his own bed, the foul scent of Uncle Harry yet clinging to the duvet—and they whispered to him that he was wasn’t dreaming, that he was awake, their gentle voices close by his ear murmuring, Walk forth with us. But he couldn’t have been awake, there was no one in his room, no one trying to pull him under, the silenced cries that struggled to exit his throat and the warm touch of fingers that paralyzed him were not real. And yet, every night, he’d woken choking, trying to scream out loud the horror that he felt, the horror that knew no bounds between waking and sleeping.

       “Chris, honey? You’ve the most peculiar look on your face—”

       The sound of a car engine revving to pull into the steep driveway diverted his mother; his father was home. He watched as she quickly dashed paprika on the pale flesh of the fish, slipped the casserole dish into the pre-heated oven. Flesh of our flesh. Fishes and loaves for the multitude. The blessed ones.

       Joash Fowles was indeed in the surly mood that his wife anticipated when he slammed open the back door and stomped wearily into the kitchen—a mood so familiar to Chris that the boy immediately willed himself into invisibility. The weight of the world—not simply the weight of serving as second-in-command of the sixty-odd students enrolled at Grace Christian Academy—tugged at the man’s shoulders as he crossed the room. Have pity on me! Such trials as I suffer for all the little children of the world, every hour of every day, so that they may someday learn to walk in the light of Lord! That was the message that each of his heavy footsteps conveyed to the fraying linoleum as he dropped his briefcase on the formica top of the kitchen table, sending Chris’s math sheet spiraling to the floor.

       Erica fluttered to his side, fragile as a moth flitting around a flame that yearned but dared not touch. “Dinner’ll be ready by the time you wash up!” 

       A half hour later, hunched over the oak table in the dining room, Joash was not yet done pontificating about the indignities he’d suffered throughout his day. The head master was leaning hard on him because next year’s projected enrollments were down. And he suspected that the new history teacher, despite her training in Kingdom Education theology, wasn’t as strict a creationist as she’d led him to believe when he’d signed her up for a two-year contract.  

       “How can we lead the child to Christ, build the child up in Christ, if his teachers walk in darkness?”  

       But worst of all, he’d had to deal with Spud Conway, a junior caught in possession of a forbidden novel—its title unnamed in Chris’s presence. Joash had advocated immediate suspension, but the head master peremptorily overruled him. Spud’s parents, he reminded Joash, were two of the Academy’s most vociferous fundraisers; and Spud was dating Chastity Riddlebury, whose father served on the Board of Trustees. Rules are rules, and infractions infractions, Joash doggedly countered: in the final reckoning we shall all be measured equally before God’s throne. But the head master had barely deigned to listen, so Joash bemoaned as he scooped the last white flakes of tasteless flounder into his mouth; Mammon was establishing a foothold in their precious school, so Joash lamented. Erika attempted to lighten the mood by reminding him of the Church Fathers who had tried to silence Milton, calling his masterpiece the work of an apostate, but he shrugged her off. What Erika really wanted to tell her husband was that she’d called Lamont College about the cost of re-enrolling for completion credits in January, so that she could finish her thesis once and for all.

       Chris drifted in and out of the conversation as he picked at his soggy vegetables, studying his father’s hands. They lay with palms turned down on either side of his place setting, gripping the edge of the table convulsively. The long, thick fingers, tipped by bitten fingernails, crossed with bluish veins, covered with silky black hair, seemed to vibrate with rage. So unlike like his mother’s small thin hands, nervously winging their way here and there, fingering the utensils, stroking the buttons on the high collar of her white blouse, folding and unfolding her napkin.  

       Night had completely drowned the last vestiges of twilight when the family resettled in the front room by a glowering fire as Mr. Fowles prepared to read the evening scripture. Corinthians. Second Corinthians, Chris corrected himself as he looked out the front window into the starless blackness, pondering the approaching time, when, alone, he would have to face the dreaming and waking terrors that threatened to suck him beneath the wave-like shadow of night.  

       “Jeans, eh?”

       Chris turned from the window—he had been noticed, for this one instant had actually become a livingbreathingbeing in his father’s eyes.  

       For his father was talking to him, a rare note of approval in his voice. On Fridays, students were permitted forego the Academy’s dress code and wear jeans if they donated two dollars to a designated missionary fund. Yes, his mother chimed in, eagerly, we should be so proud, Chris took the money from his book fund to give the mission in Zaire—so many lost souls and so much disease! Why hadn’t his father noticed that he was wearing jeans this morning, Chris wondered? He had been sitting right by his father’s side in the car as they drove to school. No time for rumination, though: Mr. Fowles handed the opened Book to Chris, who read his ten verses carefully, his words punctuated by the cracks of firewood yielding to the flames that leaped fitfully between them. He made no mistakes. Mr. Fowles took over where Chris had left off.

       “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached; or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him …”

       And Chris’s thoughts again wandered, thinking of the night to come, of his growing certainty that something would happen any night now, that the forces battling within his dreams, straining at him, pulling him from all sides, were readying for a final assault. Against such horrors, Chris willed his mind to return to the living room, to his father’s powerful if bowed body outlined by the flickering beams of the fire, to his mother leaning back in her rocker, eyelids closing, then fluttering open, as she submitted to utter stillness. He had spied her taking more spoonfuls of syrup from the brandied fruit jar in the kitchen when the two of them had cleared away the dinner plates. 

       “… for such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

       Lying the Book aside, Mr. Fowles commenced a prayer—“Pray that we, your faithful servants, are not deceived by the False Prophet, nor led from the inerrant Word”—and he was just uttering “Amen” when the telephone in its nook by the dining room rang shrilly. Exasperation lit his face, presaging an outburst of temper that Mrs. Fowles attempted to divert by asking Chris, in as light a lilt as she could manage, to answer the phone.  

       He dashed out of the overheated room and put the heavy receiver to his ear. “Hey, it’s me, Jimmy. My parents said it was cool if you want to do a sleepover here tomorrow.”  

       Jimmy’s words entered Chris’s soul like the answer to a prayer. If only his parents said yes, he would make it through tomorrow tonight, if he were at Jimmy’s, if only . . . so he waited, feigning patience, as he conveyed Jimmy’s invitation and his parents deliberated. True, the boy was an A student at Grace Christian, but Joash frowned on the fact that Jimmy’s parents had joined First Methodist rather than their own Church of the Final Believers. Still, a boy should have friends, Chris’s mother said, and better a good Christian boy like Jimmy. . . . “Well, as long as you get home in plenty of time to dress for Sunday School,” Mr. Fowles gave his assent, and Chris dashed back to the phone nook to convey the good news, biting his lower lip in something like joy. Tomorrow night he would be safe. Now he only need worry about tonight.

       “Don’t forget to take the trash to the curb,” his mother called from the living room as he put the receiver down. 

       It was his final Friday night task before brushing his teeth for bed. On the way out the kitchen door, Chris noticed the flashlight on the shelf above the dishwasher and took it with him. After lugging the waste receptacles to the street, he wandered across the front yard, dimly lit by street lamps, until he found two sticks he thought were the right size. He pulled some twine from his jeans’ pocket and, taking off his mittens, tied the sticks together hastily. His hands shook with cold as he tiptoed to the side of the front porch and flicked on the flashlight. His heart was pounding but that didn’t stop him from stooping to breach the entrance leading to the underside of the porch. Nor did it stop him from crawling over to Uncle Harry’s grave, spectrally lit in the golden beam of the flashlight, and laying his crudely fashioned cross on top of the mound. He raced out, heart still throbbing fiercely, praying that his action had secured a night of calm from the forces rallying in the darkness of his room.


       First they’d played Super Smash Brothers, and then they’d raced each other in Mario Kart Eight, manipulating their controls with lightening-speed fingers as they sat raptly in front of the 48 inch flat-screen television. Flat-screen! For Chris, the sleek clarity of the image was even greater than the thrill of playing video games that would have sent his parents into lamentations about the end of civilization. Earlier in the evening, he and Jimmy had constructed a fort out of cardboard boxes, chairs, and a sheet, smack in the middle of Jimmy’s bedroom, and his mom had allowed them to eat their dinner on the floor inside the citadel: mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets—not a vegetable in sight.

       And now, best because most forbidden of all, Jimmy’s dad was letting them watch as he navigated “The Last of Us,” a gruesome video game in which a diseased and putrefying earth is on its last legs, and in which the few humans who have escaped the pestilence are killing each other for sustenance: an End of Days scenario even more vivid than the Revelations of St. John to which the minister in the Church of the Final Believers had recently subjected the congregation. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mom indulged her “little men” with all variety of treats: carmel popcorn, scoops of chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice-cream, and, most miraculous of all, cans of Dr. Pepper. Chris’s parents frowned on soft drinks—Chris had been lectured time and again about how they stunted a child’s growth. The slippery slope from “soft” to “hard” drink addiction was one avoided by the truly righteous. 

       Jimmy tilted his head, drained his can in one swallow, and Chris, not to be outdone, followed suit. The soda’s fizz was intoxicating. He grinned at Jimmy and let out a belch, and Jimmy obligingly belched back. But Chris’s grin vanished as he felt his throat constrict and mouth pucker, and before he quite knew what was happening he’d vomited all over the hardwood floor.


       “Why, why, did I have to get sick?” Chris moaned in the darkness of his own room. Thirty minutes ago, his parents had fetched him from Jimmy’s house. Yes, Chris may have also overeaten, Jimmy’s parents admitted over the phone, but his forehead’s burning hot, he’s definitely come down with a fever. Chris had protested, with tears, that he’d be fine, but to no avail—both sets of parents agreed he must go home. And he’d protested, again, when his mother administered a dose of medicine that tasted as bitter, to his fevered imagination, as a potion concocted by a coven of witches and warlocks. When she turned out the light in his room, he’d protested again, crying despite himself. The hall light filtering in from the half-closed door revealed a look of genuine concern on Mrs. Fowles’ face as she retraced her steps to the side of Chris’s bed and stroked his hand.  

       “What’s gotten into you, honey? Be my brave little soldier.” God’s Soldier, Chris thought, the words springing loose from some remote place deep within his fevered thoughts. She touched his hot forehead with her cool lips, whispered that he must sleepsleepsleep, and tiptoed out of the room, leaving the room in utter darkness when she shut the door. Chris knew he would not be alone for long. So he willed himself to stay awake, to remain alert against the coming forces. He was drowsy, though, the urge to close his eyes swept over him in waves, was it an effect of the bitter drug he’d been forced to swallow, its taste still benumbing his tongue? 

And then it hit him, with more force than it had ever unleashed before.


       Jimmy felt fit as a fiddle when he woke up the next morning. He was buttoning his shirt when he spotted Chris’s scuffed blue backpack, sagging forlornly in the corner of his bedroom; it had been forgotten in the rush of last night’s events, when the Fowleses arrived in a fuss to convey Chris home. He knew it contained Chris’s homework assignments, plus his marble collection and favorite baseball cap, to say nothing of his Bible, so after breakfast he called his friend to let him know he’d left the bag here. Only when no one answered did Jimmy remember the Fowles’ strict rule about never answering the phone on the Lord’s Day. He bet Chris was already feeling better, so he asked his parents if he might dash up the hill to return the bag. Sure, they agreed, but be quick, since the Fowleses always leave early for church—and for the Lord’s sake don’t get near the boy if he’s still ailing!


       The wintry day was blustery, the frigid air stung Jimmy’s cheeks shining red as he dashed off on his mission of mercy, backpack hitched over his shoulder. Huffing and puffing up the hill to Chris’s house, he watched his breath condense into white vapor. Fast-moving, heavy clouds were moving in from the east, portending the first snow of the season. Jimmy made a mental note to wax his sled’s blades this afternoon. With any luck, he would soon be sledding down this very hill.

       Out of breath but filled with energy, he entered Chris’s yard. Frost covered the ground, crunching under the soles of his shoes as he stepped across the lawn. Following his usual route, he headed around the side of the house to the kitchen door. But before he’d gone more than a few steps, he heard raised voices emanating from within. Angry, combative voices, the words muffled to meaninglessness by the clapboard siding but belonging Chris’s parents, sounds rising and falling in a rhythm of dispute the likes of which Jimmy had never before witnessed between the couple, always so quiet, so removed, in his presence.  

       The strident tones gave Jimmy pause, and he looked around, uncertain whether to continue forward. Maybe this wasn’t the time to interrupt them. Chris’s backpack could wait.  

       “I wonder,” Jimmy thought, randomly, not really knowing what he wondered as he retraced his steps along the side of the house. Approaching the front yard, he noticed that the small door in the latticing leading under the porch had swung open. It creaked to and fro in a wintry gust of air that set the choir of tree limbs overhead sighing as the branches bowed and swayed.

       “I wonder,” Jimmy thought again, and without quite knowing what he was doing, he approached the opening, put down Chris’s backpack, and entered the underbelly of the porch, taking a deep breath as he squirmed forward in the direction of Uncle Harry’s grave. The crawl space was pitch black, no daylight yet penetrated its length. Though he was seized with second thoughts, a feeling compelled Jimmy to make his way to the far side of the porch. Gradually, his vision adjusted to the darkness.

       “Here we are,” he said to himself, coming to a stop by Uncle Harry’s grave. A broken cross, made of sticks, lay across its top.

       Instantly, he caught his breath. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged from his parted lips as he gazed before him. There, in the dim shadows, he realized he was looking at two mounds of earth. And the second was but half the length of the first.

About the author, Joseph Boone: I am the author of three works of nonfiction and the libretto for a musical based on Melville's The Confidence-Man. Four stories have recently been accepted for publication, one of which placed third in the Hackney national fiction competition. Another story was a top-ten finalist in the New South competition. I have recently completed my first novel.

Music From Funeral Marches

Rows of ashen clouds rolled over Cape Cod like lines of soldiers marching from battle, the remains of a furious storm that pounded the shore long into the night.  Wind still bullied the trees, combing the long field grass in the yard before whistling through the cracks in the window caulking chilling the small bedroom.

Dennis opened his eyes to blurry images around the tiny bedroom.  It had been a fitful sleep, clouded with shadows and music from funeral marches.  Even unable to focus without his glasses he knew each of the furnishings and articles by heart.  In his mind they stood out clearly, etched deeply in his memory.  The faded black and white wedding picture atop the bureau had been in the same spot for fifty-one years.  In it he appeared stern, tie clamping his neck like a vise. He vividly recalled the pinching and chafing of his prominent Adam’s apple.  Thick, curly brown hair was matted like a hat about his long face.  Ellen said his eyes betrayed his fear.  He was certainly nervous but fear was not an emotion he felt on his wedding day.  On the contrary, it had been one of the happiest days of his life.  He couldn’t help it if his expressions weren’t always connected to his heart.  Though he had the appearance of a bookkeeper, his tall athletic body belied that notion.  True to form, his lips, thin as potato peels, held a hard line.  

Ellen turned her head on the pillow and gazed at him.  She’d been up for hours. Though she smiled, he recognized the anguish in her blue eyes as he slipped on his glasses.  Nodding slowly with a slight smile, he reached under the blankets and gave her limp arm a careful squeeze.  She had always been his strength, his energy.  It was even evident in the wedding photo, her stance, sure and steady, announcing to the world that the pairing was the right thing.  Though a foot shorter than he she seemed to support his lanky body.  Her broad face beamed with a bright smile and eyes shined with quiet, but obvious confidence.

He proposed to her on a scalding day on the New Jersey shore.  Windblown and sunburned he knelt over her trying to ignore the butterflies banging in his stomach.  Even after five years he wasn’t sure if she would accept, though both were thirty years old.   As the question limped over his tongue she watched the flight of a lone gull.  Children’s cries echoed off the calm water and bathers went about their business.  His question hung in the salty breeze and he blushed as he waited, irritated at himself because his timing seemed wrong. She was distracted by the bird, interested in its proud display of freedom and power. He should have recognized that but he became anxious, throat dry and tongue swollen, fearful he might back out if he didn’t jump on the chance.  After years of planning and practicing, he panicked.  Her inquisitive gaze, eyes darting after the flight of the gull, conveyed her independence, the strength he would never corral. His admiration for her strength was what drove his love for her.  

She heard his dull inflection and stiff delivery which lacked creativity and originality and hesitated for a moment, deciding she should make him pay for the pitiful performance.  After all those years she deserved better, she really did. But in the end it was the content that was most important, not the tone of the delivery.  What was she, a dog?  Still, right before she accepted she thought it would be hilarious to say, “I’m sorry.  What did you say?  I wasn’t paying attention,” but knew he might never gather the nerve again. They had been stuck in neutral for years and had to throw the vehicle into drive so they could get on with their lives.

When she finally said, “Yes,” he missed it.  He followed her gaze and caught up with the seagull in flight, admiring both of their quests for freedom and began manufacturing a mask to cover his devastation, a ruse that would allow him to walk away with his head held high – protect his pride.

This would be comical if it wasn’t so important and overdue, she thought as she watched his gaze – his light blue eyes, already bordered with crow’s feet, following the gull. She knew exactly what he was doing.  While she still had the chance, before he decided on his exit strategy and retreated for good, she shifted onto her knees, the sun-drenched blanket warm on her joints and reiterated, “I said yes, you know.”

He took a double take, digesting her words and was so relieved he forgot to smile, express his excitement; though he never, for one moment throughout all the years forgot the exhilaration of that moment.  Besides the birth of their children and the actual wedding, it ranked as the most important event in his life and whenever he felt deflated he drifted back to that hot day in the sand and could recreate the sounds, the smells and the sights that surrounded his euphoria.

“Morning,” she whispered faintly.

He leaned over her and kissed her lightly, their lips like sandpaper brushing across each other, then rearranged her thick curls on the pillow. Once jet-black, they were now heavily streaked with gray. He shifted onto his elbow, bones creaking as he leaned over her.  She had shrunk, her head hardly evident on the pillow, her body just a small crease under the comforter.  “It looks like the storm passed.”  The old house had shaken and quaked in the fierce wind.  Rain drove like nails against the window through much of the night.   The trees groaned as their branches yielded and sprung back, while small twigs were swiped off and thrown unmercifully against the house.  “You’d think I would get use to storms like that, let them follow their course without worrying,” he sighed, head bent down in surrender.

Her blue eyes twinkled like pools of water.  She responded by blinking.  The storms had the same effect on her.

Crawling to his side of the bed and sitting up, his feet smacked the cold wood floor. Feeling the tightness in his lower back, he stretched his right arm behind his head and leaned as hard as he could to the left, waiting for the tightness to subside and provide him full movement.  Then he did the same with his left arm. His knees cracked when he stood and walked around to the stainless pot that caught the flow from her catheter.  Stooping down, he gazed at the picture of the family posed before their small sailboat.  Even though the picture was black and white their tans and sun-bleached hair leapt from it.  After a passerby took the picture, he had taken his son Bobby out on the boat while Ellen remained ashore with their daughter Penny.

Bobby’s bony rib cage struck out with playful pride, ever the protector of his sister, while demure Penny leaned against him.  Their windswept hair signaled their lack of vanity, their youthful innocence.  It was the only picture he could remember in which he smiled broadly – a reflection of his own pride. Taken when Bobby was ten and Penny five, it was a constant reminder of the fickle temperament of the forces over which he had no control.

He lifted the pot, balancing it carefully so not to spill its contents.  The bleach-like odor was a result of the mixture of drugs she took four times a day.  Her bladder, because of the catheter, had grown weak and pretty much useless, just like the rest of her muscles, but at least it wasn’t causing her pain.  After emptying the pot in the toilet and washing it out, he asked, “Hungry?”

She shook her head in the pillow.  “Thirsty, though.  Need my meds too.”

He nodded and walked to the kitchen past the dining room.  The maple table held piles of newspapers and magazines – none of which he’d looked at – always promising himself he’d catch up on them but the layer of dust was evidence of his failure to do so.  The table had become a repository – a staging area for waste.

  

“You have to leave it be,” Ellen gasped, staring strongly across the table at him, slamming her fork on the table, tears welling in her eyes.  “It is over,” she insisted, glancing at Penny, then a teenager, who gazed blankly at her untouched dinner. “We are helpless to do anything about it now. We have to move on.”

Dennis knew better than to argue. He couldn’t recall ever winning one in their married life.  He shrugged, wiping his own tears.  He looked at the empty chair, then at his wife and daughter, his jaw quivering.  Despite his need to talk about it, he would respect her wishes.


She’d been bedridden for 8 months, suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis that had all but paralyzed her.  Only the painkillers made life bearable.  He winced as he recalled her energy and curiosity for life.  He rarely left her alone  – only when Penny came by to check in on them did he feel it all right to be out of hearing distance.        

The kitchen needed straightening. Actually it needed cleaning. He had never been very attentive to housekeeping chores. The only domestic talent on which he prided himself was baking apple pies, with apples picked from a small orchard at the end of the yard.  He hadn’t done that for years, not since the children were young. Even back then, he took grief for not cleaning up after himself.  Somehow he used his focus and energy on the creative process and was too tired afterwards to clean. Actually, he thought the pedestrian task of cleaning beneath him. Tall stacks of dirty dishes by the sink reminded him he hadn’t done them for days. He hadn’t swept the floor in over a week.  It didn’t really bother him. They hadn’t entertained friends in years.  Basically there was no one left to entertain.  All the friends of their youth had either left the area or died.  

Penny continued to berate him for his slovenliness, but he actually looked forward to it, because he had turned it into a game.  It was too quiet in the house.  When it pulsed with the overbearing and never ending noise of four people continually expressing opposing opinions, he never thought for a moment that he would rue the day when silence reigned. He never thought he would miss the arguments and miss them so much he started them whenever Penny arrived.  The only argument he hated was the one about them moving into a nursing home.  It had become Ellen’s favorite subject.  Penny also joined in, constantly harping on the subject, but she was his child, and he found ignoring her simple, though his silence usually threw her into a tirade about how he never listened to her, had never respected her.  A slight smile came to his thin lips when he thought about her diatribes.  

She always had a habit of making bad decisions, and though he wished it wasn’t the case, he never hesitated to remind her, and felt strongly that it was the only way to teach her the proper way to make a decision. If she couldn’t understand that after all these years, whose fault was it? Though he would only admit it to himself, these arguments were a defense mechanism in hopes of drawing his family’s attention away from their favorite subject – putting him in some damn nursing home.

Reaching for a clean glass in the cupboard he knocked a dirty one with his elbow, sending it careening off the counter across the floor where it shattered against the wall into a hundred tiny pieces.  He watched with a dazed smile as the shards of glass spun vibrantly like dancing drunks before wobbling to a halt.

“Dennis!” Ellen called.  “Are you all right?”

“Damn,” he whispered.  Then he called out, “I’m fine!  Stupid glass jumped right off the counter.  If Penny doesn’t get here soon to do the dishes….” She was due later that morning.  He smiled to himself, knowing full well how that would irritate Ellen.  He picked his moments of sarcasm with Ellen carefully, understanding her condition could only withstand so many and he didn’t want to wear her out.

“Did you clean it up?” she asked as he came back into the bedroom with a glass of water and her pills.

“Penny will get it when she gets here.”

“It’s not fair to expect her to have to take care of us,” Ellen argued.

“What’s wrong with her taking care of us?  She’s our child.”

“With plenty of responsibilities of her own and certainly not enough time to dote on us.  If you can’t sweep up a broken glass…” 

“Don’t you dare bring it up again!” he growled, anticipating her direction.  “I’m not doing it.  I’m perfectly capable of taking care of us.  Hell, if you hadn’t spoiled me all these years I’d be cleaning up in there, alleviating all the pitfalls. But because you were so insistent on taking care of me, I now lack the training.”  His eyes twinkled as he grinned mischievously, rubbing his hands together.

“Jesus,” she sighed, futilely trying to hide her amusement by turning her head from him.

“Didn’t think it would come to this, when you were washing all those dishes over the years, did you?”

She shut her eyes and shook her head.  “I didn’t think I’d end up chained to a damn bed, either.”  Her amusement vanished and she puckered her lips.

“But, that’s not your fault.”  Her tone smothered his impish joy and a cloud of seriousness washed across his face.

“No.  And neither are our old age and my need for the care that you can no longer provide.”  She stopped and looked directly at him, fully aware her words would hurt his pride.  

His features grew hard, cheeks flexing and chin sticking out defensively.  Feeling self pity, ignoring the accuracy of her statements, he fell silent while he gently slipped the pills into her mouth, lifting her head under his arm, tilting her chin, and holding the glass of water so she could sip, before dabbing her lips with a napkin.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” she sighed, familiar with his childish, self- centered behavior and how he loved to use it as a guilt provoking tool.  She was too weak to argue for long periods, even though she knew it inspired him in some strange way.

He looked away and mumbled, “I can handle the situation.  I always have.”  It had been his regular response over the past year.  It had become a signal to stop the discussion. When he first recited it, he had no doubt about its validity, but lately even he had begun questioning his abilities, the weakness in his legs, the shortness of breath and most of all, the forgetfulness.  The statement had taken on a dual purpose – the second a reminder to him to ignore his own weaknesses in hopes they would miraculously disappear and he would grow stronger. 

“What happens if something happens to you?  I can’t call Penny. I can’t even reach a phone.”

He scowled at her.  “I don’t want you talking like that.  Nothing is gonna happen to me.  I’m fit as hell.”  He avoided her gaze and looked out the window.

“We never know.  I was fit too.”

He shook his head and ran his hand through his thinning hair.  “I can’t, damn it!  We both know that once were in, it’s a death sentence, the last day of freedom. Might as well stick me in the ground.”

“But it’s a nice place.”

“According to Penny, but what does she know?  She’s not the one going to jail.”


Tall pines lined the road like sentries in front of her parent’s house.  When Penny was having a good day she took delight in their whimsical beauty; the way the branches swayed gracefully in the breeze.  It reminded her of her youth.  When she was struggling with her life she recognized their strength and tried to draw from it.  Ever since she was a child she had seen them as a symbol of her parents.

She was in the midst of a string of good days.  Her oldest daughter Sherry had called that morning just to bring her up to date on her own three daughters.  Of all her children, Sherry was most like Penny - a strong, nurturing individual who wasn’t afraid to tackle a problem.  Penny used to be that type of person.

Sitting in the driveway, she wondered how she had become a parent with whom her kids visited only periodically.  She was no longer a major part of their lives – hardly more than a footnote, or number three or maybe even six on their to-do lists.  The other two called every so often, more often than not when they needed something or needed to complain to someone.  As much as she missed having them living locally, she refused to harp on it and always put up a strong front while speaking to them.  Complaining about it would only drive them further away, both figuratively and physically.

She adjusted the rearview mirror and checked her makeup.  It had become a habit in high school when her father complained her makeup made her look like a whore.  “Looks like you’re wearing three coats of enamel,” he commented as she prepared for her first date with Paul, her future husband.  It was his way of telling her she was too young to date.  Her mother was her protector, a vicious defender who would drop everything to race to her side during the constant arguments with her father.

“Maybe I have to because I look more like you than Mom,” she screamed, severely hurt by his attack, but also just as angry because her tears meant she had to wash her face and apply the makeup all over again.  After the third cycle of attacks and face washing, Paul was at the door and she had to go out with a scrubbed, tear blotched face.  It was a wonder he showed up for a second date. 

After the divorce, Dennis gloated rather than offer support.  “You were too damn young for marriage.  Besides I never could see anything in him.”  He never explained his comments, just made them, fully expecting everyone to understand him, and accept whatever he said as gospel.  

She sat in the car building up her strength before going into see them. Turning up the volume on the radio, letting the easy jazz soothe her, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, attempting to shut out the world, at least to delay the inevitable when she walked through the door. The small Cape Cod house, white with green shutters, was her childhood home.  She had the second bedroom on the first floor and Bobby slept in the attic.  He had an advantage, the rule of the roost; able to shut himself away when their father became angry, leaving her an unprotected target for his cruel verbal attacks.  The structure was too small and cramped and all too often her memories were of the screaming matches between father and Bobby, Bobby and herself, and Father and her echoing abrasively throughout the tiny rooms.  The only positive constant was Mother as the mediator, the protector.

The tension was still evident, even though the causes were different, and her visits rarely went smoothly.  Even if she felt good going in, some outburst from her father would ensue and she would leave feeling terribly sorry for her mother and even sorrier for herself.  She had become their parent, taking on the role of enforcer, though admittedly, not an entirely effective one.  

Her last visit had been a disaster.  She made it a habit to follow a set routine upon her arrival - give her mother a kiss, make sure she was as comfortable as she could be, considering her condition, grunt a greeting to her father, then march right into the kitchen and clean up the mess he always left.  He loved seeing her in the kitchen and never failed to watch her.

The routine usually went swimmingly and she was even able to ignore his irritating presence, but after washing the dishes during the last visit, while drying them, he whistled from the doorway.  “Kind of losing your speed, aren’t ya, kiddo?”

It was a playful barb.  She realized that, but he had the knack of stabbing at the wrong time, (or right time, depending upon his intention), and she flung the towel at him.  He straightened abruptly, shocked at the action, anger oozing from his cool blue eyes because he took it as a sign of disrespect.

“No, Dad!  It’s you who is getting slower.  Look at this mess,” she cried, feeling the tears well in her eyes as her throat closed.  She hated crying when she became angry, knowing he considered it a sign of weakness.  “What self-respecting adult would leave a crap house like this?”  Unlike his barb, there was no humor, not even sarcasm in her tone – only bitterness.  She was tired of being his verbal punching bag.  “What right do you have to constantly downgrade me?  All I’ve ever tried to do is help!”

That was the end of the conversation.  The look on his haggard face was a mixture of astonishment and agony, but he just bit his lip and limped away, leaving Penny alone in the kitchen, guilt ridden midst the echoes of her assault and dreading having to face her mother after such an attack.


“You can’t cut it off like this!  Not again!”  Ellen cried, tears welling. “I’m not giving in anymore.  Yesterday you dropped a plate on the way in here.  Today, you break a glass in the kitchen.  What the hell is going to happen tomorrow?  What if the house caught fire?  How could you get me out?”  She was grasping for any excuse, the more extreme the better, because she realized, even if he didn’t, each of these disasters could happen any time.  They were defenseless.

Trying to ignore her while pulling on a pair of gray flannels, he yanked the belt to the last hole, bunching the waistband into an accordion of folds.  He glanced in the mirror and saw a three-day stubble, but refused to worry about it as he once would have because no one was around to witness it.  Besides, it was much sparser than it used to be.  

“I’ll tell you one thing that isn’t happening today or tomorrow, and that’s us moving into a damn home!”  With a frustrated wave of his hand he stomped out of the room and on his way outside, slammed the door, making sure it resounded like the crack of a rifle shot.

“Dennis!  You get back here!”

“Who the hell does she think she is?” he muttered as he marched across the backyard.  Chest pounding, hands trembling, he tasted blood as he bit his lip in an attempt to control himself.    

White billowy clouds had replaced the storm clouds and they rode high on a warm breeze.  Blue jays chattered and chased each other through the bushes.  Their words replayed in his mind and he bounced between self-pity and anger. Her loss of confidence in him was plain to see, but what was more aggravating was the stark realization he might be losing his own.

“I see he’s been up to his old tricks again,” Penny remarked as she entered the tiny bedroom after cleaning the kitchen.

“You mean the glass in the kitchen?” Ellen sighed.

“Breaking it is one thing, but why does he always leave the mess for me to clean?”

  She sat on the edge of the bed by her mother’s feet.  It was a place she’d been occupying since she was a child.  She recalled the slippery coolness of the silk comforter on winter mornings when she crept in to wake them, the invigorating chill seeping through the window they kept open at night.

“Why does he do anything he does?  He’s so damn stubborn I could kill him.”

“Don’t.  Then there’d be a long trial, and transporting you back and forth to the courthouse would be just too much of a burden.”  Penny smiled and winked.  “Have you had your meds?”

“He gave them to me.”

“One thing he’s good for.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough to keep him around, though.  I guess the piss bowl would over flow without him.  If you add that to occasionally changing my diaper, the few times that’s needed, I still don’t know if it’s enough.”

“Tough morning, huh?”

“I was pretty tough on him.  His ego is a bit bruised.”

“Ah, the sweet smell of revenge.”

Ellen chuckled.

“I suppose it was the retirement home thing again.”

“We’ve been retired for years.  We’re in need of nursing now.”

“Not Dad.  He needs nothing.  Just ask him.  Never has needed anything from anyone.”

Ellen grew serious.  “Penny, he needs both of us and you know it.”

Penny frowned.  “He needed Bobby.  I’m not so sure he needs me.”

“Father and son.  It’s not unusual.”

Penny stood up and stretched.  She suddenly felt tired.  Repetition of the same argument wore her to the point of exhaustion.  She needed some breakthrough in her life.  “I’m just so damn sick of the attacks, the constant degradation.”

“Unfortunate as they are, it seems our burden to bear.”

“He would never treat Bobby the way he treats me.”

“He did.  You just refuse to remember.  That is his way.  I married him too damn late.  He was set in his ways and I couldn’t soften him.  He’s always been a strict, stubborn bastard who thinks his way is the only way.”

“Merciless is a better description. Whenever Bobby got in trouble, he’d escape upstairs after the screaming match and I would get the remaining brunt of his anger.  I never did anything, but was a convenient target just because I lived here.  I didn’t choose him as a father!”

“He loves you.  Strictness is just one way of showing it, one way of protecting you.”

“Strictness is one thing, but sarcastic and hurtful attacking is entirely different. What upsets me most is the fact I’m expected to accept him the way he is when he’s always trying to change me.”

“He never tried to change you.  He just expresses his opinions openly.  Never once did he stop you from doing what you wanted.  He just warned you.  He told you what he thought, but he never stopped you and never loved you less when you went ahead and did it.”

“And he’d be the first to remind me of his wisdom when it didn’t work out. Just loved to rub the salt into my deep wounds, and if they weren’t deep enough he’d dig them deeper.”

“Often times too tough, but just another expression of his opinion.”

“Of Paul?”

“He was your husband, not his.  Just because he may not have liked him didn’t mean you couldn’t.  He always felt it was his right as his father to let you know what was on his mind. Actually, he felt it was his responsibility to make sure you saw everything, understood everything.”

Tears welled in Penny’s eyes.  “Why the hell did he have to be so right all the time?”

Ellen chuckled.

Wiping her tears, Penny asked, “Where is the old coot, anyway?”

Ellen turned to the clock.  “God!  It’s been an hour since he stomped out of here.  You better go look for him.”


The back of the property was lined with a row of crooked apple trees crumpled like arthritic hands.  The bright red apples beckoned to him.  It had been years since he made an apple pie. 

Scurrying back to the garage, he grabbed a basket and hobbled to the brink of a deep ditch that separated him from the trees.  He wound up, grimacing as he tossed it across to the foot of the trees, bringing on tightness in his shoulder and a new ping in his lower back.  At one time he thought nothing of rearing back and leaping the width of the ditch, but suddenly, standing there peering into its rocky mouth, he found it difficult to believe he’d accomplished it so easily.  A coat of sweat engulfed him as he imagined the flight. His heartbeat quickened as he took a few steps back and started for the edge, knees cracking, calves tightening over cramping ankles. Two steps into the approach he was winded.  Airborne, arms flapping wildly, he knew he’d leapt too soon. It was as though he were weighted down. He braced himself for the worst as he lost momentum immediately and fell short.  Legs crumbling beneath him as he met the far side with a jarring force, he reeled back.  Twirling around him were glimpses of trees followed by flashes of thick white clouds as he tumbled dizzily backwards into the ditch.  The intensity with which he landed knocked the wind from him and shot a mesmerizing jolt of pain from his lower back up his spine into his head where an explosion of colors knocked him unconscious.


“Dad!  Where are you?”  Penny called as she wandered down the path, peering into bushes and around trees.  The panic brought a grating tightness in her stomach as she tried to dispel harrowing images of his corpse and the following pain and suffering they would have to endure.

“Over here.” The shrillness of his voice surprised both of them and embarrassed him.

“Oh my God!” she cried as she crouched down, peering into the ditch.  “Are you all right? Can you move?  What are you doing here?”  The sight of his crumpled body shocked her. 

“Don’t ask,” he groaned.  The ease with which she reached him, then held him, made him realize how old and out of control he'd become.  Her concern was that of a mother for a child.

“What hurts?”

He did a mental inventory.  Besides shortness of breath he seemed intact. “Nothing, it seems. I just kinda ran out of steam in mid-air.”

Effortlessly she had him on his feet.  He was brittle and paper thin. Wrapped in her arms, he laid his head against her breast.  When had she grown taller?  As she rocked him, he gulped a sob.

“Can you walk back?”

He pulled back and stared at her for a moment.  Her features were Ellen’s, especially the brightness of her eyes, the strength of her jaw.  “Would you help me to the beach?”

“To the beach?  Are you out of your mind?  Is that where you were headed when this happened?”  She held him steady, astonished by the malleability of his frame.  “What about Mom?”

He shook his head.  “She’ll be napping. Please. I need to go there.”

“You wait here and I’ll go tell her what we’re doing.”

The craggy sea grass glowed purple in the cloudy light.  She reached around and supported him as they struggled up the dune; the wet sand slippery and dangerous as he limped along, determined to reach the peak. The sea still raged from the storm.  Leaning on each other, they struggled to catch their breath at the top of the dune.  Against the wind, they gazed out at the whitecaps.  The air was wet with salt and he smiled as it coated his face.

“It’s the only thing I can count on to remain the same,” he murmured.  Surveying the horizon, he inhaled deeply.  “It’s so overwhelming.  So perfect.”  Even in its angry state, sand and water churning with frightening force, its beauty and energy were awe-inspiring.

The billowy clouds raced inland across wide swatches of blue sky.

He pointed to a large whitecap.  “That’s mine.  You pick one.”

“Over there!” she laughed.  It was a game they had played when she was a child.  Follow the whitecap to shore.  Bobby’s wave always won.

The excitement and anxiety brought a blush to her cheeks as she urged her wave on to victory.  She screamed and danced over the sand, waving her arms wildly.  “I finally won!”

He clapped.  The wild panorama was no different than forty years earlier when he scaled the dune with the telegram in hand.  The sea’s roar masked his anguished screams.  Bobby’s ship had gone down in a storm off the coast of Viet Nam.  He had left the table with Ellen holding Penny.  All were paralyzed with grief.

He slipped his arm around her waist.  “I shouldn’t have let him enlist,” he admitted solemnly.  “He still had another year before he had to go.”

She squared his shoulders, turning him to her and peered into his tired eyes. His age screamed in the layers of wrinkles around them, and she finally recognized the toll life had taken on him.  “You can’t blame yourself.”

“It was the only time in my life I held back.  Didn’t express my feelings.”

“He wouldn’t have listened, Dad.”

He shook his head and wiped a tear. “I suppose not.  No one around here ever has.  But I could’ve withheld my signature on the papers.”

“He would have forged it and run away.”

He smiled sadly as he gazed at the horizon.  “Seems stubbornness is a family trait.”

“Not a particularly good one, but at least it is something we all have in common.”


Dusk’s shadows crept slowly across the bedroom.  Taking Ellen’s hand in his, he smiled down at her. She gazed at him, her blue eyes, though nestled in webs of wrinkles, showed the vibrancy of a young woman.

“You’re right.  It’s time for us to move,” he whispered.  There was no reason to go into all the details.  

She knew better than to ask why he had changed his mind after all this time, but she could finally stop worrying about him, knowing he would be in a safe place, knowing Penny wouldn’t be burdened by him.

Smiling and shutting her eyes, she was back on the beach by the boat where Bobby took her hand.

 

About the Author: After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have appeared in Full of Crow, Potluck, Dirty Chai, The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Brief Wilderness, Poydras Review, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Journal,Midway Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review and Temptation Press Anthology - Private Lessons.

Just Another Fish Story

     Tried fishing once. Went with an old Army buddy named Rick. Drove all day, almost, upstate, then down a long dirt road till we came to a river out in the middle of friggin' nowhere. Told me this river was teeming with fish just begging to be caught. "So many fish they jump out of the water into your arms," he said. "No fishing rod needed," he claimed. "Sounds like a fish story to me," I tell him. But I went anyway, just to get out of the house. Found it a waste of time, just standing around in the river all day, wet, cold. Luckily we'd brought beer. Only thing I caught was my thumb.

     The next day, after much yelling and many threats, my wife makes me go food shopping with her. Usually I manage to weasel my way out by faking the sudden onset of some exotic tropical disease . . . or a promise to clean the gutters. But this particular Saturday she's pissed-off about something. Who knows what. So I find myself driving her down to the local shopping center, just off Route 2. 

     When we get to the Stop & Shop, she drops me off in the produce section and tells me to pick out some fruit. "Make sure you get prunes," she says as she heads off with her binder-load of coupons. "You need more fiber." What I need is less aggravation, I say under my breath.

     I cruise the produce section, taking my sweet time, sampling the many varieties of grapes and berries. I pass by the packaged prunes. When I've had my fill, I look for the little old lady handing out samples of what Stop & Shop calls hors d'oeuvres. She usually sets up her little table by the deli section. I walk over and chat her up, sampling her wares until I wear out my welcome – and she runs out of samples.  

     I continue trolling. Sometimes the bakery hands out pastry samples. But not today. I find myself in the rear of the store where, much to my surprise, I discover this Stop & Shop sells fish! They're just lying there, on ice, already skinned and gutted, patiently waiting for a fry pan or broiler. 

     Never went fishing again. The next time my buddy asks if I want to go fishing, I inform him that, number one, they sell fish at the local Stop & Shop, and number two, if fishing is just an excuse to get away from his wife and drink beer, there's a bar with a large TV just down the road from his house – and I know for a fact they have ESPN. 

     I have to confess, though, that that wasn't the first time I'd been on a fishing trip. There was another trip, long ago and far away. I was in an armed convoy, on a bridge, trying to cross a river. We were on our way to an exotic place where the locals patiently waited, hoping to kill me and a couple hundred buddies of mine.

     I was sitting on the deck of a track – an M-113A1 Armored Personnel Carrier, the Army calls it - waiting. I'm hot, hungry, and pissed off - I'd missed morning chow. I stood up, wiped a filthy brow with an equally filthy arm and yelled - to no one in particular - "What's the friggin' holdup?" At the time it didn't occur to me that perhaps it was better we take our time getting to that exotic place where those locals patiently waited. Looking back, years later, I chalk it up to youthful impetuosity.

     So I'm sitting there, hot, hungry, and pissed off when I notice two kids on the bank of the river, fishing with small nets. An old lady squats nearby, collecting their meager catch in a basket. One kid looks my way, smiles and waves. I wave back. I reach into the cargo hold of our track and pick out a couple of C-Ration accessory packs from an open case and toss both into the river. The two kids quickly swim out, collect the packs, swim back and smile - I smile back hoping they're related to the angry locals I know are waiting for us on the far side of the river.

     Just ahead, I catch sight of a G.I. tossing something else into the river, something that looks suspiciously like a grenade - I'm hoping those two kids don't swim out thinking it's another accessory pack. 

     There's a splash, followed a few seconds later by a 'whump' that throws up a fountain of brown-green water. The G.I. and his buddy laugh. The two kids standing on the bank of the river hesitate, then dive in and dog paddle out to retrieve the stunned and dead fish that float to the surface.

     "What the fuck you doin'?" I yell to the G.I. fisherman. 

     "What the fuck's it look like? I'm fishin'," he yells back, laughing. Then his buddy pulls the pin on another grenade and tosses it out into the river. There’s another 'whump', followed by another fountain of brown-green water. The two grenade-tossing idiots laugh. I'm thinking this must be why the locals call us dien cai dau, local lingo for 'crazy.'

     More fish float to the surface. The two kids swim out again and retrieve the fish. And once again they give their catch to the old lady standing nearby. 

     Now, I've done this myself, this tossing of grenades into a river. But the tossing was done at night while guarding another bridge. The grenades were meant to discourage underwater sappers from planting charges that would blow up the bridge we're guarding – and standing on. But these two idiots – the idiots in the track just ahead - aren’t guarding any bridge. They're in a convoy like me, waiting to get to that exotic place where those locals patiently wait.

     At one end of the bridge I notice a dusty, concrete and sandbagged bunker, manned by two equally bored ARVN’s who pay no attention to these two dien cai dau Americans. One reads a dog-eared magazine while the other just stares off into space. They’d probably seen it all before, no doubt. 

     When I see one of the two G.I.'s toss back and finish a can of beer, crush it, laugh, then toss the crumpled empty into the river, I understand. These two idiots aren't bored, they're shit-faced. 

     Just as I'm about to climb down and walk to the front of our convoy to check on the holdup, one of the two idiots heaves a large white rectangular bundle – a bundle that looks suspiciously like several blocks of C-4 taped together  - into the river, this time a little farther out. C-4 is a VERY high explosive used to move any obstacle foolish enough to get in our way. The local fish are in for a very rough day, I'm thinking. 

     Anyway, the large white bundle hits the water with a splash, sinks, and after a few seconds, goes off with a thundering 'whump' this time, sending a big-ass column of brown-green water high into the sky. The concussion hits me like a punch to the chest, knocking me off my feet. I'm momentarily stunned. 

     The blast also startles the locals crossing the bridge. They're used to explosions, I'm sure, but maybe not so close. They scream, thinking they're being mortared. The blast knocks over the locals standing on the bank of this river.

     Knowing this would be one hell of a 'boom,' the two idiots who'd tossed the C-4 duck down into the cargo hold of their track. After the blast, the two emerge with a "Fuck, yeah!" look on their faces, then break out laughing. "Thanks, asshole," I yell over the idling engines. 

     Well, what goes up must come down - I think that’s some law of physics or gravity or whatever. The towering column of water sent up by the C-4 comes down like a torrential monsoon rain, soaking everyone and everything within a fifty-yard radius - could of been more. 

     Mixed in with the brown-green rain are fish. Shitloads of fish. I mean it's raining fish. There must have been a million of 'em - could have been more.

     One large fish lands on the bridge next to an old man knocked down in the rush to escape the blast. He wipes brown-green river water from his eyes, blinks, spots the fish lying next to him and yells something in the local lingo - probably something like, 'Holy shit! Look what I found!'  He runs away waving what will probably be his lunch. Other locals scramble around, collecting the monsoon of fish that fall on the bridge.

     Unfortunately, this large blast catches the attention of some fat captain further up the column who comes waddling back to investigate. The fat captain stops at the track just ahead of mine, the one with the two grenade and C-4 tossing idiots. 

     It could have been the suspicious "I didn’t hear nothin'" and "I didn't do nothin'" look on their stupid faces that makes this fat captain pick these two out from all the other hot, tired, and pissed-off faces in our column. Then again, it could also have been the slurred words, the blood-shot eyes, booze burn, and beer breath that gives them away.

     Anyway, when the fat captain spots the half-empty beer cooler and an open case of C-4 in the cargo hold of their track, the fat captain's suspicions are confirmed. It's then that these two idiots realize they're in very deep shit. Army shit. The worst kind of shit.

     The fat captain turns and yells at a fat and sweaty master sergeant who'd followed him down the column. I know what the fat master sergeant is thinking. He's thinking, "I don't need this shit." The fat and sweaty master sergeant yells, "Yes sir," then turns and yells at these two idiots. He looks like he wants to plant a boot up both their skinny asses for making him sweat even more. 

     It was hard to hear over the idling diesel engines, but I think I hear the fat and sweaty master sergeant yell something like, "I'll deal with you two idiots later." I'm sure the sweaty and pissed-off master sergeant later came up with a suitable punishment – like making these two idiots fill sandbags for the rest of their military lives or dig many, very deep latrines. 

     The two kids who'd been standing on the bank of the river jump back in and swim around, frantically collecting this unexpected windfall, this plethora of fish. Once back on the bank, the two fill the basket held by the old lady to the brim. One of the kids waves a fish over his head and smiles at me. I smile and wave back. 

     Still hungry and pissed off at missing morning chow, I reach into that open case of C's in our cargo hold, hoping I'll find a can of peaches. Instead I find a fish. A big fat fish. Still alive and flopping around. I pick up the fish and wave it at the two kids standing on the bank of the river. They smile and wave back.

     Many years later, after an afternoon drinking many beers with my fishing buddy Rick – at that bar just down the road from his house - I tell this story to my wife. She shoots me one of her "Yeah, right" looks and continues thumbing through the TV Guide searching for a rom-com chick-flick. 

     I don't talk about the war much, especially about the many times the locals tried to kill me and my buddies. So I'm pissed she thinks I'm telling some bullshit war story. She probably thinks this is just an Army version of a 'fish story,' you know, one of those stories where the fish gets bigger in the telling as the years go by.  Well, maybe she's right. Maybe there weren't a million fish.

     "What's for supper," I ask, hoping she'll fry us up a couple of steaks.

      "There was a sale on fish at Stop & Shop today," she says.

About the Author: Michail Mulvey is a retired educator who taught for over four decades at all levels, from kindergarten to college. He holds an MFA in creative writing and has had short stories published in literary magazines and journals in the US, the UK, and Ireland. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost, of course, but he did take first prize in the 2007 Southern Connecticut State University Fiction Contest. He also earned a couple of Honorary Mentions from the Glimmer Train sisters, Susan and Linda. His work has appeared in such publications as Johnny America, Scholars and Rogues, The Umbrella Factory, Prole, Poydras, The Front Porch Review, Roadside Fiction, Crack the Spine, Literary Orphans, and War, Literature and the Arts.

Treasure Hunt

“Treasure,” Luis whispered while waving his hand across the shining arch of worlds above his head. He paid them no attention. Luis and his brother were looking for something buried beneath the ground. 

He stopped and rotated his hand as if compressing space between his palm and the northern horizon. Luminous particles above his head filled the spaces between darkness and darkness. His right hand pointed the way and his left held the boys’ sacred codex, a map that had led them to where they were. He had kept it in a tin ammunition box he found in the old storage closet. 

Henry’s eyes also traced the scattered, milk-tinted dust that lined the sky down to the horizon line, and further down to the ground below him. The broken shards of passed-away rocks that displaced under his feet were not all too different from the dusty cloud between the stars above them. Shining rocks in the night sky came much closer together above the dirt path he walked on. Distant candles of hydrogen made an assortment of light arching behind and in front of the brothers. It was a cloudless night. 

They did not share the same mother. Henry knew they had to get back by morning. Still, the impending threat of a mother’s castigation did not scare the boy’s enough to dissuade them. They had been in Luis’s house, as the last rays of light disappeared. Soon after the first twinkle of an evening star, they were crawling out the window and into the night. Henry had been allowed to sleep at his brother’s household on occasion, but Luis knew very little about his mother’s relationship with his father. It was something the brothers avoided bringing up. Even at his young age, Henry’s discernment advised against the provocation of his brother’s darker emotions. They knew that Luis’s mother had never married their father and that Henry’s mother had once known Luis’s mother. But, she had cast indignant eyes upon her counterpart since the birth of her husband’s son. Luis rarely came their way, but Henry’s rebellious nature led him to the house of the forsaken quite often. Their island was small and the boys grew close. Henry was a familiar face in the Hagar household.  

It was there that the codex was first revealed. In the late hours of his formative nights, Henry’s father would relay stories of ancient pirates and lost treasures. Henry obsessed over the impromptu bedtime legends. In the mornings, he would run across the island to his favorite listener, attempting to match the fervor of his father’s storytelling animations. Luis, also, attached himself to his brother’s ramblings about the previous nights’ bedtime stories. To the boys, they were not legends—they transcended mythology and became sacred doctrine through which one day they too might acquire eternal, unending treasures, perhaps in the second coming of a pirate era. 

During a battle of imaginary pistol fire and throw-pillow cannonballs, the boys refuged into the storage closet where an old bookshelf was amongst the war-damage. They rummaged through the faded pages looking for familiar words or images. Henry grabbed one with a sketch of a pirate ship on the first page. 

Legends of the Lost,” Luis read aloud. 

Henry couldn’t yet read. Though he soon learned, motivated by the promise of fruitful treasures and unfathomable adventure. A young Henry was formed and cultivated between the pages of the boys’ ancient codex. He, in particular, shadowed reverence on the heroes and heroines of Legends of the Lost. Pirates and Sailors and the unpredictable, up-and-down volatility of their nature were perfect counterparts to the monotony of the rigid toil and labor he saw in his elders. He would not be like his parents. They sowed the same cloth everyday and all their clocks were round. 

“Spanish Gold. Spanish Gold,” Henry mumbled under his breath, watching his steps. The horizon stretched. Some stars drifted west. 

“Ferdinand and Isabel’s finest from the hands of Sir Francis,” Luis added in a vivacious whisper. 

The boys meandered on, sharing the same fantasy. They imagined the journey of Spanish doubloons from the cellars of Queen Isabel of Castille to the captain’s quarters of Sir Francis Drake’s ship to a hole in the ground to their own still-growing hands. Getting closer. Getting closer. Luis could already feel the ridges of the crux hispanarium and the divine right of things being bestowed upon him as the hero of his people and the rightful inheritor of the newfound riches—along with his brother, of course. They were part of a selfish fantasy. 

All the myths and tales of ancient pirates captured their attention but one story in particular became the alpha and the omega, the first and the last story they pondered at night. The boy’s ancient codex was based on the oral accounts from the great-grandchild of a first-mate on a ship in Queen Isabel’s Armada. According to the Legends, this first-mate was one of the few survivors of a ship that was seized and sunk by the famous privateer Sir Francis Drake—and he was the only surviving member of the ships command. The ever-sought-after rudders drowned with the ship’s captain and the first-mate became indispensible to Drake, who imprisoned him aboard the English interceptor. The first-mate became a witness to all of Drake’s further endeavors on that voyage including the seizure of treasure from Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion off the Peruvian coast and the burial of Spanish and Incan treasure on a small West Indian island—the same island, as fate would have it, that Luis and Henry now wandered. The codex had been lost for too many years in the bureaucratic mish-mash of a shanty-home storage closet. But, to the boys, it was sacred doctrine—Holy Scripture of profound promises and glorious glories. 

The legend had laid out a path for them and a map for them, from which they were not to stray. But, times had changed. Their island had changed. Ancient landmarks no longer matched the map before them and Henry looked up for guidance—perhaps, a celestial cartographer to take them to treasure. Many, including the boys’ parents were aware of such legends like the one that occurred on their own island, but they thought better than to assume ancient truths transcended the too-much time that had passed. Luckily, age had restricted Henry and Luis from killing dreams with mundane thinking and using phrases like “somebody would have found it by now.” Yes, their island had changed, but perhaps what was under the ground had not moved. As the pole star had remained steadfast in its position, so too the boys had hoped their treasure remained through the centuries. They knew certainly that the stars remained the same throughout the years—and the snakes. Three hundred paces from the waters edge, a sharp turn east after the old water well, and always beware of snakes. 

Luis walked in front, codex in hand. Henry wandered a few yards back hoping his brother had not forgotten the codex’s most vital commandment: to watch out for snakes. Henry knew a snake bite could make you forget about the codex, or worse, make you believe that there were no treasures at all. 

Luis mumbled something about snakes and Henry was reassured that his brother had not forgotten. He let his eyes wander up towards the lights that shone limitless distances above his head. 

“Our treasure will be shinier than those stars” Henry said, pointing to the sprinkled galaxy that arched above them. He was used to stars. Over and over again, when the lights of the village would shut off, the stars became the eternal torches of Henry’s night. They sent rays of the visible and invisible that carried with them not just information from their source but also unfathomable mystery of what is seen and unseen. The known gave way to the unknown and filled Henry’s head with perplexities unthinkable to even a more mature mind than his. He had seen stars before but that did not stop the torch that ignited deep within his chest every night when they sang across the sky. They were his favorite subjects. 

Luis’s stars shone brightly beneath three centuries of dirt and sand. Gold doubloons were all that filled the space between darkness and darkness—Luis’s unspoken darkness remained unexplored by his brother. 

“Don’t get distracted by the stars now, Henry. With our treasure I’ll buy you the galaxy.” 

“Dad says we are all like stars. We’re all made of stardust. Everything on earth is just stardust. Everything in our bodies and even the treasure is stardust. We’ll be holding stars, Luis,” Henry said, trying to push his brother deeper and letting his mouth run with his thoughts. 

His brother was silent. Their father had often shared with Henry his philosophical, cosmic ramblings—his frustration with the pandemic misconception of humanities position on the universal scale. When a star explodes, its elements float in space until gravity draws them together to form new stars or planets. When the universe began, tiny pieces of stardust made up the little pieces that make up the earth and make up your body. Small pieces of every part of your body can be traced back to the beginnings of the entire universe, his father would tell him, you are stardust, my son.  Sunday school taught him that he was made in the likeness of God and that God was everywhere and in everything. His teachers held firm that his father’s philosophies were blasphemous treasons against human dominion, against the superiority of man on the natural spectrum. He was made of the universe and he was made in the likeness of God. Adults told Henry that both positions could never hold hands. 

He looked down at his own star-dusted hand—the hand of God—and then back up to the sky. 

“Do you think that God is in the stars, Luis?” he said, testing his brother. 

“What are you talking about?” Luis jeered, still walking in front. 

“I mean why do we always look up? Have you ever seen someone pray down instead of up. Dad says were made of stardust. Mrs. Jones at Sunday school says we’re made like God. Do you think God just lives up there, as the stars? 

I guess maybe everything is God. Maybe he’s in everything that exists. I wonder what Dad would say.”

“It’s always ‘Dad, Dad, Dad’ with you, Henry. We don’t have time for this kind of talk. We need to find this treasure before our parents find out we’re gone. Then we’ll never find it!” Luis was annoyed at the references to their father and perhaps jealous, too. 

“It’s Dad’s stories that got us this far,” Henry mumbled and came back to present. He envisioned the slice of stardust-heaven he knew he could find in the treasure, but kept his eyes pointed upward. He couldn’t help but feel a connection to the stars above. I feel like the stars, maybe I am treasure. 

“Why does it all matter so much, the treasure, the glory, my mother’s hatred of my brother, the truth, the map, if I am made of stardust, if I am treasure? Our lives aren’t so dark with the stars above us” Henry thought to himself. He suddenly felt a rush of individuality. One thing felt like everything and the treasure felt found in fixing his eyes to mysterious things above. He couldn’t quite discern the sentiments surrounding him. With the sudden, sacred draw of a living breath, he felt wholeness overcome him for a moment. 

He had let his mind wander too far. He was off-track. His brother’s voice and the fear of forgetting the codex dropped him right back into his shoes. His legs now pressed against the earth that had stopped being a trodden path several miles ago. They were treading in the turf of snakes, the ones that bite from hiding-holes you don’t even see in daylight—the hiding-holes that look like crab holes, or lizard holes, that the untrained eye presumes harmless. Good thing for the codex.  

“Look for the palms in a triangle. We are getting close,” Luis told Henry. 

The codex had told them the treasure was buried between three palms. On one palm they needed to look for the letters “F.D.” carved next to the Holy Cross of the Nazarene. Time was fleeting. Luis noticed the moon had shifted across the sky now. 

The boys arrived at the edge of a river they called Shark Creek. On the other side were more trees, places where the treasure might be. They knew better than to wade across that water. 

According to the codex they were in the vicinity of priceless treasures. Somewhere close, underneath Henry and Luis’s feet, treasure had lived undisturbed for more than three centuries. That was a long time, enough time for the island to change and for the codex to change. And, the island had changed but the codex remained. They had followed a map from a world before their time. Could it still hold truth? Henry questioned but Luis was stagnant in his devotion to the codex. Trees lined the shore around the creek but none in the particular assortment indicated by the codex.

Luis found nothing. Henry felt nothing. He searched for the wholeness he found in his earlier stream of consciousness. What Henry felt instead was a resounding emptiness in the sand beneath his feet—a deficiency of connection between himself and their desired treasure. Luis scoured the shore. He looked at the island on the opposite side the creek. His focus shifted side to side, in front and behind himself. He did not look up. 

Henry affixed his gaze on the reflection of the stars on the creek. His mind left the moment again. His brother wouldn’t understand. The stars told him the treasure wasn’t there. Then, the stars danced. Luis’ footstep on the edge of the water had sent a ripple across the creek. 

“Let’s cross it. It has to be on the other side,” Luis said. The faint orange glow of the approaching sun dimly sprinkled the tree line of the land across the creek. Both hearts raced a little faster. 

“Have you lost your mind, Luis? We both know what swims up and down this creek. The treasure isn’t here. We must’ve missed something.” Henry saw his brother’s face flush red, even in the fading starlight. He had always been afraid of his brother’s volatile emotional engine. It was something he simultaneously admired and respected.
“We’re going, Henry. We have to. We’ve always dreamed of this treasure. Think of what we can gain!” Luis voice rose in near despair. It echoed off invisible dark walls somewhere in the distance. 

Henry was more afraid of his brother’s contempt than anything that hunted in the shallow waters of the creek they endeavored to cross. The boys picked the shortest and shallowest point of entry. They waded slowly, Luis leading Henry, until they were beyond knee-deep in dangerous water. There were sharks and there were snakes in these waters. There were animals looking for a meal that didn’t care if Henry and Luis were the chosen species, or if they were creatures capable of comprehending the ephemerality of their own lives. The stars danced faster on the surface of the water and Luis’s stride broke constellations. 

The boys swam the rest of the way across the creek as fast as they could, drawing the attention of night-stalking predators, but never the bite. To Luis’s despair the land across the creek proved even more fruitless than the previous. No triangle of palms and no hint of either initials or the cross. 

“Where the fuck is it, Henry?” Luis cried. Tears now formed in his eyes and he broke the rules his mother had given him. He spoke in the sailor’s tongue. His thoughts raced with slippery, slithering, hateful words. He couldn’t swallow the idea that their dream and his decision to risk both his brother’s life and his own life could end with no reward. There was nothing by which to slay the wicked whose words now filled his head. 

Henry too felt a deep disappointment. Finding the real treasure, the queen’s doubloons, had always been what his brother had told him was right. The dream of glories and riches could only be fulfilled with the gold and silver coins promised by the codex. He thought maybe the treasure could be found another day and even another way. Perhaps, the codex was not the only truth. Had they missed another important text in the shanty closet? Had they settled for the first one that caught their eye and missed an important piece of history? Did Sir Francis move his treasure? Questions raced in Henry’s head but neither the codex nor the land provided clear answers. The stars and the trees asked more questions. 

Visible rays of sunlight projected from the horizon and Luis knew they had to go back. Frustration swelled in his eyes and his knuckles turned red on his clenched fists. This time the boys waded across the water on a log they found on the opposite shore of the creek. They were still vulnerable but kept the important parts of their bodies out of reach, paddling one hand at a time until they arrived in safer waters. 

Henry and Luis raced the rising sun back home. They didn’t know what time it was but the fading stars and orange glow told them Luis’s mother would be awake soon. His swift pace and shifting thoughts increased Luis’s anger at their failure to find treasure. He considered never going back. But where would he go? He knew he couldn’t spend his whole life digging for treasure without a codex to guide him. He must’ve missed something. 

“We missed something, Henry. You distracted me with your stupid star talk” Luis’s voice cracked as he held back tears of anger. They were close to home. They kept walking until they saw the silhouette of Luis’s house. The lights were still off. 

“You were the one with the map, Luis. You missed something.” 

“No! You always have to bring up Dad and his crazy stories. I’m the only one who understands the Codex. I’m the only one who can read the map. I would’ve found the treasure if you didn’t talk so much.” Anger boiled inside of Luis as the thought of their failure continued to circle his mind and his brother pointed fingers. 

“We didn’t find the treasure, Luis, so I guess you can’t read the map afterall! I’m keeping it from now on.” 

Henry lunged for the tin ammunition box that held the codex. Just as he grabbed it Luis pulled it back. It flew out of his hands and tumbled against the rocky ground. The box nestled between two bigger stones. One side had imploded on impact, making one of the corners stick out like a broken shard of glass or a jagged knife. 

Luis dislodged the box and started running towards his house. Henry, the faster of the two, chased after his older brother. The boys kicked up dirt and made thudding footsteps sounds that resonated between the trees and houses. Henry caught up to Luis. Still running, he made another lunge toward the codex. Luis, again, pulled the box away. The two boys toppled down to the dirt both holding the box. They wrestled each other for possession of the codex. They each wanted to hold the truth and to know the truth. 

Despite his lesser age, Henry was not inferior in strength. But, Luis’s rage had swelled in him since they crossed Shark Creek. He had seen red. He had said “fuck.” He had even hated his brother. 

Luis hit the side of Henry’s head with a closed fist and tore the ammunition box out of his brother’s hands. He began to run away with his prize but turned around to the sound of frantic moaning. A gushing sea of red now surrounded his brother’s body—more red than Luis had ever seen. Henry’s blood stained the knife-sharp corner of the ammunition box. Henry bled from a spouting wound just before his open hand. 

“Henry! Henry!” Luis took off his shirt and covered his brother’s wound. The Blood didn’t stop and his hands turned red. 

Henry’s head slouched over his right shoulder. His eyes were wide and his heartbeat was a ticking clock. He looked toward Luis house, for salvation from somewhere. No one heard and no one came. Luis ran for help. Henry lifted his head and saw that a few stars still twinkled above him in the light blue sky. 

“Treasure,” he mumbled and once again dropped his head into the rushing river of blood. His own gaze circled his body as if without himself. Some palms had converged on him, getting closer with every pulse and gush of blood that left his body. He counted them and saw himself in the center of a prophesized trinity. The box that held the codex was dripping red and the God of Israel watched the scene while perched on the palm tree on his right. It had risen, but it hadn’t faded after so many years. F-D. F-D. F-D. 

“Treasure.” 

He gripped his chest. Every valley was raised up, every mountain was made low, all things were level and the rugged became plain. Then he touched the place where treasure poured out into the earth. Suddenly, by the wind of his breath, one thing became all things and all things became one. He had no name and muttered only: I am. I am. 

“Treasure.” 

And the day began. 


About the Author, Christopher Vincent: I am a recent graduate of Villanova University, where I studied English and Political Science. I was born in Miami, Florida to a Cuban-American father and a Panamanian mother. I grew up writing and speaking in both English and Spanish. I am an ardent photographer, surfer, and adventurer. I also played soccer both collegiately and internationally in two youth world cups.

Tekla's Child

4:30 a.m. 13 April 1930: Palm Sunday

     Through her sleep she hears it, clear and real: the chunk of shovel striking earth.

     The new loosened dirt on the sides of the hole crumble down on her. Her mouth is full of dirt. But still, the light above. She reaches for it. She shouts. Hands appear overhead, so many she can’t count. At first, they seem so beautiful, a lacy pattern of graceful fingers, until she feels the clods of fresh earth landing on her. Then more hands. She draws a breath. More dirt. She chokes. She screams.

     She is awake.

     The cool dark air through the open window whispers in her nostrils.  Deep night, brightened by clouded moon, casts shadows of the swaying trees outside.  One angled branch moves rhythmically up and down, up and down.  Too mechanical to be tree.

     A shovel slices sharp into dirt. 

     The thin sheet slips off Nora’s naked skin. She covers her breasts with her hands, as she swings her feet over the bed, leans forward to peer out the window.  

     It’s Babcia Franzi.  By moonlight, Babcia digs, between the budding pussy willows.  A mound of dirt already grows in the garden still edged by muddy snow.  Even with Dziadzia's* heavy old work boots laced tight around her spindly legs, she moves quickly.

     Babcia picks up a bundle the size of an infant, wrapped in burlap and tied.  She settles it into the hole.  Her wispy grey hair tumbles out of her babushka, as she carefully positions the bundle, before filling the hole again.  

     Nora can pretend this is what all the neighbors do, but actually she is glad they are asleep.   Except maybe the Słomkas.  All of the other houses are dark and still, but a light burns behind the greying curtains in the Słomka’s back room.  Their new baby must be colicky.  

     Babcia now trudges back towards the house, the old coal shovel now her cane.  Though her grandmother is hunched deeply over, Nora still hears her muttering.  Talking to Dziadzia Marian, no doubt.

     Just two days before, Babcia told a census worker that her husband Marian was still head of this household, even though close to sixteen years have passed since his coffin was carried down Chambers Street by the five Gorzynski sons. At the corner of Chambers and Broadway, those silent pallbearers stopped, while the Cleveland-bound streetcar rattled past.  Breathing heavy under the weight of the homemade wooden coffin resting on their shoulders, surrounded by wailing women, crying children and other men, all silent and smoking, they waited.  Unlike the other children, Nora didn’t cry.  She and her father and the whole entourage crossed Broadway.  They escorted the coffin down Miles Avenue to Calvary Cemetery, where they lowered Dziadzia Marian into a hole right next to his daughter, Tekla.  

     Yes, about sixteen years have passed since the entire neighborhood took that walk. Still, Babcia told the census worker her husband still lives with her in this house. 

     "Can I talk to him then?" the census worker said, probably hoping for someone more fluent in English.

     "No.  He got job in Buffalo.  Be back next week."

     “And you are?” 

     “Franciszka Gorzynski.  Call me Franzi.”

     “Frances,” the census worker said, writing.

     “No! I hate that name Frances!  Everyone call me Franzi.”

     Listening from the kitchen, Nora supposed she could go and help.  But instead, she cut a slice of bread, spread some lard on it, poured some coffee, and settled at the table.  She lit a cigarette.  

     "So, when did you and your husband immigrate?"

     "Marian come 1882.  Me 1883.  He born 1861.  Me 1867."  Babcia said the numbers in German.  The census worker seemed to understand.  Babcia told the woman that Uncle Walter still lived here, too, though he died the year Nora entered the convent.   She added Alfons, who died the year after Marian.  

     Nora traced the patterns made by decades of knives on the wood, while the census worker labored with Babcia Franzi's account of the house’s occupants.  The census worker seemed a nice woman.  Nora thought she really should go out and correct the details, by pointing out those actually living, and those dead.  But there was a certain truth to Babcia's story: this house teamed with very lively spirits.  Sometimes Nora could feel them passing in the halls, hurrying on with their unfinished lives, or just going to the kitchen for a visit with Franzi. 

     “Oh, and Nora,” Babcia finally added for the census worker.  “My niece.”  Again in German.

     Nora’s knee twitched.  She began to rise, but then heard the census worker being bustled out the door.  She’d missed her chance.  It would be nice to be counted correctly after nine years of not being counted at all.  Census workers hadn’t come to the cloistered convent where Nora lived from age fourteen.  Few at the convent took account of her at all. Sent there by her step-mother, no one knew she was the only living offspring of the long-deceased Tekla Gorzynski.  

     Six months before that census worker’s visit, it was Nora herself knocking on Franzi’s door, hoping to collect on a promise her grandmother made, long ago. Nora worried that the Gorzynskis had forgotten her. Franzi made no indication of remembering, though she acknowledged Nora as kin.  She simply grunted, then led Nora upstairs to a room full of hand-hewn furniture, cast-off clothes and ancient photographs, all covered with sheets.  Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe, all busy now with new families and changed names, welcomed their long forgotten niece. After a quick conversation, they determined Nora was the best candidate to care for their aging matriarch, the neighborhood crazy lady who spoke a Polish no one could understand when she talked to the dead.

     The back door closes downstairs.  Five days from now, Nora knows, Franzi will return to the lamb roast buried in the garden.  Burying, Franzi insists, is the only way to properly tenderize meat.  

     Floorboards creak as her grandmother moves towards the front of the house, closing curtains, extinguishing lights.  In the front room, chair springs squeak.  Nora knows that, come morning, she will find her grandmother sleeping in that chair, with her rosary, half way completed, wrapped around her fingers in her lap.  

April 1921: Uncle Walter’s Funeral
Thursday

     "Tekla's child?"  Mrs. Mrozinski said.

     "Yes, Tekla's child," Mrs. Krajewski answered.  

     Though they shared the surname Krajewski, Nora could not call this woman “mommy.” From the day she started putting Nora into bed at night, just six months after her mother had died, there had been nothing warm in this woman’s eyes.  Nora would stare, mouth clamped shut, while her father’s new wife efficiently tucked in the corners of her sheets, then patted the bed.  She never touched Nora, and in response, Nora never called her by name. In public, Nora called her Mrs. Krajewski.   

     Mrs. Mrozinski and Mrs. Krajewski talked as if Nora wasn't there. They rolled out dough on the table, producing soft clouds of flour that settled in Nora’s hair.  Nora ignored them, too.  She let herself become one with the painting she painted: the goddess Marzanna, breasts bare and flaming skirt holding her aloft over a still, icy landscape.  Nora painted her breasts like two shining suns, radiating their energy into the air.

     "How old is she now?"

     "Oh, nearly fifteen," Mrs. Krajewski said.

     "She's getting old.  Is she willful?"  Mrs. Mrozinski said, spreading butter and nuts onto the paper-thin dough.  She had lowered her voice, as if that made any difference.  Mrs. Krajewski didn't respond.

     "It must be difficult, especially since your own are getting older too."

     Mrs. Krajewski may have shrugged.  Or made a silent comment.  Nora didn't pay attention.  As she painted some flecks of gold from the sun on the turning earth, she could feel its warmth on her arms.   Adding gaunt dark birds in the sky, she heard their call.

     "She looks like Tekla,”  Mrs. Mrozinski said.  “I remember Tekla.”  

     The wind Nora could hear howling in Marzanna’s ears subsided.  Nora listened to the women making pastry at the table.  

     "I didn't know her," Mrs. Krajewski said.  "I didn't pay much attention to those people before I married George. Queer things happen in that house. If the Gorzynskis weren't Nora's kin, I'd have nothing to do with them."

     "Well, Tekla was different.  She was a little shorter than the others.  And she didn't put on airs, like her sister Helen does."

     "Oh, that Helen," Mrs. Krajewski said. 

     Nora painted a deer, as lithe and beautiful as her Aunt Helen, standing alert, gazing up at the Queen.

     "Tekla was prettier than Helen.  And very kind," Mrs. Mrozinski said.

     Mrs. Krajewski's heavy steps carried her to the icebox.  Nora’s forehead burned.  She felt Mrs. Mrozinksi’s eyes watching her.  Nora looked up to face her.

     "Who are you painting?" Mrs. Mrozinski asked. When she tried to smile, her cheeks grew fatter, her eyes more squinty.

     Nora considered telling her the painting was her real mother, the beautiful Tekla. Or her Aunt Helen.  Instead, she said nothing. 

     "Nora, you should answer people when they ask you questions," Mrs. Krajewski said, than added, "She's very shy.  Sometimes I think there's something wrong with her."

     Nora dipped her brush into water, than blended her colors together.  Blue and purple and gold and red.  They turned into the color of mud.

     "It would make sense, with all she's been through," Mrs. Mrozinski said.  "Wouldn't it be a burden to you if she never married?"

     Her brush now laden with mud, Nora spread it over the painting. Marzana and her glowing breasts, the slender deer, all became nothing but mud.

     "I think you're right," Mrs. Mrozinski said.  "There's probably something wrong with her."

     Nora watched them for a moment, then slid from her chair.  She slammed the door behind her, hard enough, she hoped, to make the delicate rising dough collapse.


     Nearly everyone on Chambers Street thought Uncle Walter was born in the Old Country.  His funny lisp was often taken for an accent.   But the truth was, Walter was born in Nanticoke, where the family lived before they moved to Cleveland.  Walter was born nine months after the young Franzi joined Dziedzia Marian in the two-room home he had prepared for her.  A year after Walter’s birth, Tekla was born.  Than Uncle Joe, then Helen, then three more boys.  Nearly one every year.

     As a young boy, Walter had worked the mines with his father, so he knew how to climb down freshly dug holes and collect valuable hunks of bituminous coal while not disturbing that which shouldn't be disturbed.  It was Uncle Walter who climbed down that hole and rescued Nora, enfolding her in his huge tobacco-tinged hands, than holding her up over the six-foot-four inch length of his body, so others could snatch her into safety.  

     Uncle Walter, too, taught Nora Polish, so she could talk to Babcia Franzi. And he told her about her mother as a girl. We were like twins, he said. But she was the pretty one.

     He had a big pock-marked face, and elephant-like ears that he could wiggle on command.  And though his hands were always dirty and dry, his touch was gentle.  For years, Nora was jealous of his two little girls, Geraldine and Dorothy, because they had both their real parents, and one of them was her mother's sweetest, eldest brother, Walter.

     The dirt under Nora’s bare feet was hot and dry.  She pressed the whittled tip of a long stick into the ground, twisting it to make a neat hole.  Then another, then another, in a pattern like a starry night sky, while her half-sister Alice and some neighbor girls jumped rope at the other end of the yard, and a dog down the street howled.  Nora looked to see if it was the Gorzynski's dog, but couldn't tell.  Their house - the largest on the street - seemed so small and far away.

     The day before it had been Uncle Walter's turn to die.  Already the neighbors were saying Walter’s widow wanted to move her girls to her brother's house in New York. Probably next week.

     "No child should live in that house," Mrs. Krajewski said just that morning.  "It is cursed."

     Nora pressed the stick against the tip of another, making it spring into the air.  Alice and her friends shouted and squealed.  Nora looked up to see them scattering as Robert ran among the girls with something clutched in each of his fists.  Probably frogs.    

     "Mama!  Mama!" Alice called. The door swung open and there was Mrs. Krajewski. Nearly as wide as the doorframe, and covered with flour, she wiped her hands on her apron.

     "Robert!  Leave your sister alone," she shouted. Then:

     "Nora!"

     Nora didn't reply, just stood and waited for her command.  

     Mrs. Krajewski stepped out of the house, her face firm and red.

     "Answer me when I call you."

     Like a tightrope walker, Nora approached her. One foot in front of the other; her stick was now her balancing rod.  

     "Nora, I have some strucla for you to bring to your grandmother's house for the funeral dinner.  Hurry now."

     Mrs. Krajewski held out a loaf, wrapped in newspaper.

     "Why not strudel?" Nora said.

     "Strudel is for special occasions.  Now go and hurry back.  I'll need your help preparing dinner."


     At the Gorzynski house, the windows and door were covered with the black sheets of mourning.  The window shroud moved slightly after Nora knocked.  The lock released, and the heavy door sighed.  When Helen’s powdered white face appeared, it seemed to float in blackness.

     “Did you come to see Walter, Honora?” Helen asked.

     Nora swallowed and her eyes grew damp.

     Only the Gorzynskis called her Honora.  It was the name her mother gave her.  She was named for her mother’s elder sister, Honorata, Franzi’s only child to be born in Poland.

     “He’s right here if you want to see him,” Helen said.

     Nora did not have to see anything; she knew this house’s death rituals so well. Just inside the door, in the parlor to the left, she knew all the shades were drawn, the mirrors and pictures covered with black. The hot, thick air would be tinged with the sweet taste of flesh, just beginning to decompose. The wooden sawhorses that Dziadzia had long ago built to brace the wood he was carving into elaborate moldings or stair rails stood under the crucifix and image of the Virgin.  Built to hold heavy weight, the sawhorses now served as coffin supports.  Today, they supported Walter’s handmade coffin.  Inside, her uncle lay, cheeks sunk deep, hands folded across his thin chest.  No, Nora did not have to look.  She knew what she would see.

     She held out her package.

     “Mrs. Krajewski told me to bring this for Uncle Walter’s funeral meal.”

     The door opened more, and Helen stepped out.  Even grieving, she was as glamorous as Alice Terry in her sequined fur-trimmed black dress and black turban.  

     “Strudel?” Helen said.

     “No, Strucla.”

     Helen smirked.

     “We’re not good enough for Mrs. Krajewski’s strudel. Go around back, will you Nora? I’ll take it at the kitchen door,” Helen said. Before closing the door, she winked and added, “and we can have some lemonade together.”

     Nora hurried down the wooden steps, then past tall sunflowers that swayed like dancers alongside the house. In the garden, chickens chattered. Uncle Joe’s roosters crowed when she rounded the corner. Joe’s son Frank – already tall as a man though only twelve – leaned, shirtless, against the shed and smoked.  

     “Ah, my pretty cousin Nora is here,” Frank said. “Don’t go into that house, you may catch the plague.”

     A sea of hardened mud and chicken shit separated her from him. She was glad. Even at this distance, his thin chest seemed to collapse as he coughed. He probably had consumption, too. After all, his mother had been the first to die from it. And his father was still in the public sanatorium.

     “You are the lucky one,” he said. “You are a Krajewski. You did not inherit this name.”

     The back door squeaked open.

     “Come sit with me, Nora,” Helen said, setting some lemon-aide and a plate of honey cookies on the wooden table under the oak tree.  The table was built from beams left over from the house’s foundation.

     Though her knees quivered as she approached her aunt, Nora sat close enough to smell Helen’s musty perfume and see the sweat pearling on the powder dusting Helen’s full, exposed cleavage. Helen’s presence always made Nora’s whole body tingle. Nora lifted a cookie, took a sweet bite.

     “Frankie, give me a smoke,” Helen said, reaching her hand out.  Frank crossed the dried mud sea, pulled a thin, smudged rolled paper from his pocket, and placed it between Helen’s graceful extended fingers.  A spark of fire reflected in Helen’s deep brown eyes, and she sipped in the smoke. 

     Frank sat across from them and popped a whole cookie into his mouth.  Close up, Nora could smell the bitter tinge of sweat and tobacco, and watch Frank’s long slender fingers.  Always dirty, they fluttered delicately, unconsciously.   

     “Got any vodka, Auntie Helen?” he said, swaying back and forth.

     “You know we can’t drink as long as Walter’s in the house,” Helen said.  

     “Nora?” she added, offering the cigarette.

     Nora’s face went hot.

     “Oh, don’t be a prude. Your mother wasn’t a prude.”

     “Was she as beautiful as you?” Nora asked, carefully taking the cigarette in her fingers.

     “Everyone says Aunt Tekla was the prettiest,” Frank said.  

     “Which is why I didn’t grieve when she died,” Helen added, then laughed.

     Nora laughed too, though she wasn’t sure why.  She could not imagine anyone prettier than Aunt Helen.  Placing the cigarette between her lips, Nora sucked.  The sides of her throat ignited, than exploded in a searing cough.  The cigarette popped from Nora’s fingers and onto the ground, while Frank laughed and Helen squealed as she snatched it up.

     “Oh, Nora, sweet, you’re such a girl,” Helen said, embracing Nora quickly against her full bosom before inhaling on the cigarette until it burned down to a glowing stub in her fingers.

     The door creaked again, followed by a rustle of skirts.  A woman’s shape emerged, shrouded by black lace and cloth.  Babcia descended into the yard.

     “Is that Tekla’s child?” Babcia said, in Polish.

     Her grandmother’s arms engulfed Nora in a stifling embrace, holding her face tight to her musty, taffeta breast.   Releasing Nora, Babcia turned, smacked Helen’s face with an open palm.

     “Disgraceful! Honor your dead brother. Go inside and cover yourself.”

     “I lose a brother nearly every year, Franzi. I can’t stay covered forever,” Helen answered.

     “Not forever. But a week of mourning wouldn’t hurt you.”

     Babcia attention returned to Nora. Now self-conscious of her light white cotton shirt and knee-length skirt, Nora crouched.  She could barely see her grandmother’s expression.  Reportedly, her grandmother was beautiful once, with sparkling eyes and flawless light skin. Although her father was a peasant who had never owned his own home, Babcia still carried herself like an aristocrat.  Underneath that veil, though, Nora knew Babcia’s eyes were sunk into a leathery, creased face; her hands were gnarled and work-worn.

     “Will you stay with us tonight, Honora?  Will you watch Walter’s final hours away with your kin?”

     “I brought strucla from Mrs. Krajewski,” Nora stammered, her Polish words like jagged pebbles in her lips.  “My father and I will come tomorrow to the cemetery.”

     “Strucla is for Christmas.  Give it to the dogs.  Your Mrs. Krajewski should deliver the best for the eldest son’s funeral,” Babcia said.

     Helen laughed, tore open the paper on Mrs. Krajewski’s package, and ripped off a piece of the strucla and ate it.  

     “Still warm,” Helen said, and passed the package to Frank.

     Babcia gathered her skirts and settled on the bench next to Frank. 

     “Nora is right to go home to her father tonight,” Babcia said.  Her hands rustled inside her crepey layers.  Finally, she drew a dented tin flask from her skirts and opened it.

      “But Nora,” she added.  “You must share a drink with us now.”  

      “But we’re not supposed to drink, mother, out of respect for Walter,” Helen said, her voice mimicking Babcia’s scolding tone.

     “Didn’t I tell you to cover yourself?” Babcia answered, without even looking at Helen.

     “Besides, this is not normal drink,” Babcia added. “It is the vodka that Marian made six months before he died. No one would buy it.  Plague vodka, they said.  Laced with the curse of Marian’s sins. It is almost gone.  If we finish it now, we will put an end to people dying in this house.”

     Babcia raised the flask, took a long drink, sighed deeply, and for a moment, seemed to relax.

     “Helena.  Drink.”

     Helen drank. She wrinkled her face as she wiped her mouth. When Frank drank, he was overcome by coughing.

     “Now you, Nora,” Babcia said.

     The outstretched flask glinted, but Nora’s hand could not move.  Drinking would surely give her the plague too.  She’d be dead in a year, for sure.

     “Honora?” Babcia said. “You must finish it. Drink to your mother’s memory.”

     Nora’s arm moved at her grandmother’s command.  Her hand trembled as she raised the flask to her mouth and tasted the tin.  The liquid inside was also metallic.  It tore open the cigarette burn in her throat as she swallowed.  She gasped. Blinding tears streamed down her cheeks.  

     “Eat some strucla. It will help,” Babcia said.  She took the flask from Nora and drank the final swallows.

     Nora tore off a piece of Walter’s funeral strucla, let its sweetness soak in the remaining vodka in her mouth.  She chewed.  It was a strange new taste.  Not unpleasant. She savored it, before she swallowed.   

Friday

     The police wouldn't let the men carry coffins through the streets between the house and the cemetery anymore, so the Gorzynskis convinced the milkman to let them use his wagon.  But they still had to carry Walter from the house to the wagon, then from the wagon to the grave.

     Holding her father’s hand, Nora stood at the edge of the group of mourners.  Her father’s usually cool palm was hot and wet.  Mrs. Krajewski had gone to the church, but refused to come to the grave. 

     The gravestone had been moved aside and a new hole dug, in the exact same place where Nora’s mother was buried. 

     “They can’t put him there!” Nora said.

     If she looked into that hole, Nora was sure she would see her mother, lying there in her broken coffin, with her hands crossed softly over her belly.  And her baby sister, who died with her, snuggled by her side.

     “Quiet, Nora,” her father whispered.

     The men and Uncle Walter's coffin moved closer to the hole.  Nora pulled on her father’s arm. He embraced her and led her closer to the grave.  

     Nora wouldn't look inside it, though.  Her eyes rested on the gravestone.  What are they thinking?  They can't put another person into that hole.

     The men shouted and struggled as they hoisted Uncle Walter over the open grave.  Her father's fingers opened Nora’s hand, pressed a clod of cool fresh earth inside it.  She sucked in her breath, but it caught in her throat as she stared at the crumbling dirt in her hand.  She wanted to turn and run.  Instead, her stomach clenched and a rushing filled her head, as her legs collapsed underneath her.

     Her father pressed dirt into her tiny hands. It crumbled out through her fingers. He pressed more dirt in and closed her fingers tight. “Throw, Nora, throw! We must bury mama.” He said. She threw. The dirt fell on Nora’s new black dress. She was too little to be burying her mother.  

     “Get closer, Nora!” her father had said, again pressing dirt into her palm, then squeezing her fist shut, before pushing her towards the hole. “Throw, Nora, throw!”  

     The earth that she threw wouldn’t let her release it; it carried her with it, right over the dark edge and into the grave. Her hands, outstretched to break her fall, instead broke through the thin wood of her mama's coffin, gripped the cold crossed hands and the rosary wound in mama’s fingers. The raw, loosened earth on the sides of the grave crumbled down on top of her, along with a shower of dirt clods. Nora couldn't scream for the dirt in her mouth. Then a heavy shadow loomed overhead. Uncle Walter, climbing down, shouted Stop! Stop! in Polish, while his warm hands embraced her and lifted her up towards the light and the stunned faces above her.  

     "Nora! Nora!" 

     Her head burned as her father shook her back to consciousness. There was no dirt in her mouth, only hot sun on her forehead. Babcia Franzi's black lace veil, dampened with tears and cool water, pressed against her forehead. Lying on the ground next to the grave, Nora watched the men try not to fall while they lowered Uncle Walter down on top of her mother.

     "She remembers her fall when we buried Tekla," Babcia said. Babcia knelt beside Nora. When Babcia stroked her face, her gnarled fingers felt as soft as bird's wings.  

     "I remember, too," Babcia whispered to Nora.  "I thought I'd lost three babies at once. But thank the Lord, we didn't lose you."

     Two of Nora’s uncles helped Babcia rise to her feet.  Babcia reached with both hands for dirt to throw into the hole.

     "I will throw for you, Honora," Babcia said.  Nora sat up to watch the clods of earth returning to their rightful place.  Everyone threw their dirt, then gathered another fistful and threw, again and again, enough to cover Walter, Nora’s mother, and Nora’s baby sister, once more.

Saturday

     "I hear you almost fell into the grave again, Nora," Robert said.

     "Go away," Nora answered.  Her dress for the day still lay on her bed.  Robert had probably heard Alice go downstairs.   Even though he was forbidden to enter the room Nora shared with Alice, Nora knew Robert came in anyway.  Sometimes she found her underwear on the floor, when she knew she had folded it and put it away.  Sometimes she was sure he'd been in her bed, because the sheets were rumpled and smelly.

     "I just want to say how sorry I am about your Uncle Walter," he said, but she didn't believe him.

     He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.

     "Leave me alone," Nora said.

     "I just thought you might need a hug, Nora, to comfort you."

     "Go away!" she said louder.  The last time he hugged her, he'd gripped her arms until they were red and pushed his hard pointy crotch against her.  When Nora had reminded him they had the same father, he had just laughed.  

     "You should be crying about your Uncle Walter," he said, moving forward through the shadows.  "But you don't care, do you?  You don't really care about anyone.  Only Nora."

     Robert’s short thick body was strong. She knew she wouldn't be able to get past him.

     " I saw your Aunt Helen with George Walzer right after they buried your uncle. They were in the backseat of Walzer’s car.  I can show you what they were doing.  You be Helen."

     “You are my brother,” Nora said.  

     “Only half,” Robert said as his breathing came closer.  Her back to the wall, Nora’s hand reached behind, fingertips searching for the windowsill.  She was barely dressed, but she removed the wood dowel that kept the window locked.  It would be foolish to turn her back to Robert.  But somehow she knew that would be just as foolish to not try to escape. She turned, yanked the window wide open.

     Nora’s hair fluttered in the cool morning air as Robert grabbed her from behind.  He pushed her against the wall so hard her face smacked the window frame.  His body heavy against hers, she could not catch her breath.  The taste of blood filled her mouth.  Robert’s fingers pried down her panties and groped between her legs.

     Nora screamed out into the dim morning streets.  The air was still. No one was out yet.

     "Shut up," he spat into her ear.  He bit her.

     Nora’s head hurt. She couldn't see. Her fingers clutched the wooden dowel. Her father had cut it strong and solid, to protect my girls, he had said. She swung around, gripping it tight. The dowel connected with a crack like a bat against a ball. Robert shouted and grabbed his head, as Nora climbed out the window. Crawling out onto the roof of the front porch, blood dripped from her head onto her hands. Robert’s head was bleeding, too, but she didn’t care. She screamed. The houses across the street lit up. She screamed louder. Mrs. Krajewski appeared in the street below, her mouth wide open as she stared up at Nora, who was standing now, on the roof of the front porch. Blood dribbled out of Nora’s ear and mouth and splattered on her thin sleeping shift.  Her panties were still pulled down to just below her knees. Still, when Mrs. Krajewski heard both her story and Robert's, she decided that Nora was all to blame.  

Monday

     One skirt. One dress. Two white shirts and some socks. Some panties. One camisole. She folded them small. Nora only had one bag, and it, too, was small. 

     Nora could hear the call of the old blacksmith who pushed a cart through the streets with his tool and knife-sharpening stone.  She paused to watch him just as he stopped under a tree, took a long drink from a wineskin.  

     Tap tap tap tap tap! The sound of hurried footsteps approached. Both the blacksmith and Nora looked and saw Babcia Franzi, her black mourning cape fluttering, her face as tight as the fists that carried her long skirt up high enough to accommodate long strides.  When Nora heard Babcia’s frantic pounding on the door downstairs, she knew Mrs. Krajewski, who was packing a cheese sandwich for Nora’s dinner, would not be happy.

     Voices rose in the kitchen below. Mrs. Krajewski knew no Polish, so she shouted in English, as if yelling was the only way to communicate with Babcia Franzi. 

     "Her father made the decision! The arrangements are made!"  Mrs. Krajewski said.

     At the top of the stairs, Nora listened, laughing softly when Babcia’s low voice growled: kurwa!you whore!.

     “Did you just put a spell on me, you Polish witch? Talk to her father! He'll be here with the car soon."  

     “Kurwiarz!”

     When Nora entered the kitchen, Babcia Franzi stopped cursing. Covered by black mourning lace, only Franzi’s face and her fingers were visible. Those fingers held an old burlap bag, wide open, towards Nora.

     "Put your things in here, and come home with me.  There's a room, just for you, in my house."

     "But I'm going to join the Poor Clares," Nora said.  The idea of a room at the Gorzynski's was enticing, but she would still be down the street from Robert. She would surely see him, and his mother, at least twice a week.  And of course, she would die in Babcia’s house.  Everyone else did. 

     “The nuns promised me my own a room,” Nora said.

     "But they're cloistered!  No member of my family could tolerate being locked in anywhere for even an afternoon!  You might as well be buried alive.  You can't want to go there, can you?"

Nora’s breath was shallow, and the room glowed brighter than usual, almost burned her eyes.  All she could see of Mrs. Krajewski was her back as she slouched against the counter, a bread knife clenched in her hand.

     Outside, a car door slammed.   Her father was back with the borrowed car, ready to take her to the convent.  

     "Yes," Nora said.  "I want to go."

     "Are you sure?" Babcia asked.  Her grip loosened. The bag dropped to her side.

     Nora nodded.

     "Just don't forget, when you start thinking you don't want to spend your life praying for strangers' sins, that there's always a room for you with me."

18 April 1930: Good Friday

     Nora can hear Babcia Franzi moving around in the parlor.  Dusting.  Talking.  To Dziedzia, for sure. Then a pause, before Franzi claps her hands together and laughs, as if Dziadzia Marian actually has answered her.

     Nora’s job is to clean the kitchen before the dinner preparations.  Babcia Franzi doesn't trust her much with cooking.  “You spent too much time just boiling things in that convent,” Franzi says, and she is right.  She lets Nora do the potatoes, and maybe make the cabbage, but Franzi insists she will do the lamb herself.  The bread is rising.  Tomorrow will be the sweets.  Nora will finally get to watch Babcia Franzi make her own strudel, envied even by Mrs. Krajewski for its delicate, melting pastry.  Until now, Franzi has refused to tell anyone her secrets, and she does not know how to write them down.

     "Helen’s new baby is coming for Easter," Franzi says as she shuffles down the hall towards the kitchen.  Then, "Honora!  This floor needs to be scrubbed!"

     "I will, Babcia," Nora says, wringing the wet rag, letting the hot water run down her arms.  Franzi insists everything be cleaned with the hottest of water.  Especially on a night as cool as this, Nora does not mind; she loves to plunge her hands into a warm soapy brew.  The scrubbing water at the convent was always cold.

     Franzi chuckles, now, in low tones, and sometimes her voice goes soft and smooth, almost seductive.  It is as if Dziadzia Marian is with her, helping her shake out the lacy table cloth, sent long ago from her mother in Poland, helping her center it on the table.  The crystal glasses, tinkling and ringing as she dusts them, orchestrate her soft lullaby.  She sings lullabies and parlor songs mostly in German.  The only Polish songs she knows are folk songs.

     Nora scrubs the counters and the sink. She scrubs down the table and polishes the gilded crucifix.  She kneels before it to scrub the floor. 

     Five days have passed since Babcia Franzi buried the roast, and Nora knows she intends to unearth it tonight.  The tulips and daffodils are a day shy of bursting, and the moon is high.  Cool air whispers through Nora’s window.  She can't sleep.

     She hears the trudge of Dziadzia Marian's boots, and the chunk, chunk, chunk of the shovel that Franzi uses like a cane.  Nora sits up to watch her through the window.  Franzi wears her nightdress - a rough grey cotton gown - and it lifts, softly, in the breeze.

     But she's going to the wrong place.  Franzi starts digging by the chicken coup.  Head bowed, her knobby fingers tight on the shovel, she cuts into the earth.

     Wrong place.  Nora remembers where she put it.  Between the pussy willows.  She can hear her grandmother’s hard breathing.

     "Babcia," Nora almost shouts.  But she would wake the whole neighborhood, she’s sure.  She dresses quickly, in the cotton shift that always hangs at the foot of her single bed, the only thing she kept from the convent.  Nora’s feet hurry down the cold hard wood steps. She finds her work boots, than goes out the back door.

     "Babcia!" she calls, in a loud whisper.

     Her grandmother grunts, takes another slice at the earth.

     "Babcia, it's over here!" She calls a little louder now.  Finally, the old woman raises her head.

     "Honora, you should be in bed," she says.

     "So should you," Nora says.  "It's over here."

     Nora walks towards the spot between the pussy willows.  They're in full bloom, their fuzzy tails swaying in the evening air.

     Franzi’s face is smudged with dust, as she leans against her shovel.

     "You woke me up the other night when you were burying it," Nora says.  "I watched you.  I know you buried it here."

     Franzi peers into the hole that she dug.  She digs a little more, taps the earth with the tip of the shovel.  Squints, shakes her head, then hobbles across the yard and hands the shovel to Nora.

     "Show me where."

     Nora kicks away white flowers and pussy willow buds, finds the place where the earth below is not blanketed with last autumn's dead leaves.  She touches the fresh soil with the tip of the shovel.

     "There."

     "Show me."

     Nora digs into the earth.  After six or seven shovels full, she begins to doubt her own memory.  Franzi is chuckling behind her when the shovel strikes something.  Not a rock.  More like a buried tree limb.  Nora gently scoops the dirt away to uncover the burlap package her grandmother buried there.

     They both kneel on the earth, push their hands into the damp soil to grasp it from beneath.  When they lift it out and set it on the ground, Nora reckons it to be about seven or eight pounds of good lamb roast.

     She puts her arms around Babcia Franzi's frail shoulders to help her up.  When Nora places the swaddled roast in her grandmother’s arms, Franzi smiles and embraces it.

     "Good for you, Nora, remembering that," she says, turning back towards the house.  It seems darker; clouds must have covered the moon.  Franzi finds her way slowly.  Nora follows her, carrying the shovel.

     "I'm getting old, you know," Babcia Franzi says, as Nora opens the door for her.  "I forget things.  It would be awful if I lost this, wouldn't it?"

     "But you didn't.”

     Nora leans the shovel against the house, latches the door behind them, than follows her grandmother to the kitchen, brightly lit. She imagines that if one of the neighbors were to wake up and look out on this night, with its nearly full moon, the Gorzynski’s would be the only house light they would see. If they looked a little closer, too, they might even see the heads of Franzi and Nora, bowed over the lamb roast, preparing it for their Easter dinner.

* Pronounced “Jah-jah” dziadzia is the Americanized Polish word for dziadziu, grandfather;  Babcia (bahb-tchah) is grandmother.

About the Author, Mary Louise Hill: With an MA in Fiction Writing from Syracuse and a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU, Mary Louise Hill's day job is academic, chairing the English Department at a small college in Buffalo, NY. In her free time, she writes fiction. Recent publications include The Gettysburg Review (shortlisted for the Best American Short Stories 2014) and Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine.

Pavane

     According to the owner’s manual, the cutting drum of Hartley’s joiner spins at 3,600 RPM. It’s fitted with three razor sharp blades so something like 10,800 slivers per minute are shaved from a board passed across its surface. More to the point, during the approximately one-half second the index finger of his neighbor’s right hand was pressed against it, the drum removed ninety fragments of bone, fingernail, and tissue from that appendage. In all, it added up to about an inch. 

     They had been working in different parts of the garage when the machine’s whirring ended abruptly in a sickening thump. Though his neighbor made no sound, Hartley knew without looking what had happened – as if, unconsciously perhaps, he had been waiting for this. So he dashed into the house and grabbed a towel from the linen closet. By the time he got back, Bokelman appeared to be in shock. He just stood there looking at his mangled hand, his pale, flaccid face registering only mild surprise. The joiner was growling furiously again, like a tiger whose appetite has been whetted for human flesh. Hartley flipped the switch and wrapped Bokelman’s hand in the towel. Then he led him to his car which was parked in the driveway.

     On their way to Harbor View Emergency, Bokelman talked about how bad the traffic was getting and what he was going to fix for dinner that evening. He was shivering and his face was as white and grainy as a peeled potato. Hartley thought he was going to pass out. But he made it. There was that soft, passive strength of fat people in him.

     At emergency they whisked him off to an operating room while Hartley gave a bored girl at the reception desk what little information he knew about the patient. The man’s name was Eugene Bokelman, he said. Middle sixties, maybe. No, it wasn’t a work-related accident. Bokelman had just come over to his place to plane some boards he was making into picture frames. Yes, Hartley did have liability insurance but he presumed that Bokelman was covered by Medicare or some kind of insurance of his own.

     This done, Hartley took a seat in the waiting room. The place was filled with people exhausted from the effort of holding in pain or fear, or both. Most were alone, slouching low in their chairs, eyes shut against the bleakness of linoleum and fluorescent lighting. Only the throbbing of an ancient soft-drink machine broke the silence. Hartley flipped through the grimy pages of a hot rod magazine, then through a couple of old Sports Illustrated issues. After half an hour he walked to the reception desk and called his wife. She’d been out shopping when the accident happened. “My god!” she said, “we don’t even know the poor man.”

     This was true, despite the fact that there was but a single house between their two residences. The Hartleys had come to Seattle the previous year when Mr. Hartley was hired as finance director for the Port. Bokelman’s wife had died shortly before they moved in. He kept pretty much to himself. Sometimes he’d nod if they encountered him on the sidewalk but nearly six months went by before he said a word. Mrs. Hartley had taped a campaign poster in the front window for a female politician. Hartley was working in the yard when his taciturn neighbor happened to walk by. Bokelman stopped and just stood there, watching him work. Finally he pointed to the window. “What do you think she can do for the city?” he wanted to know.

     Hartley was embarrassed. He suspected that his wife had hung the poster simply because the candidate was female. “I don’t know,” he said. “My wife put that up. I guess one politician’s about the same as the next.”

     Bokelman smiled sardonically. “Only when you don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’ll be voting for her opponent. You really ought to look into the record.”   Then he continued on his way. Hartley bit his tongue and dug deeply into the soil with his spade. Several months passed before they spoke again.

     On this next occasion Hartley’s garage door was open to keep the sawdust down. He was cutting some cedar fencing when he was surprised to catch sight of Bokelman coming up the driveway. As always, he wore a white shirt, open at the collar, and black everything else: baggy black pants worn shiny at the pockets, black belt and shoes. He was nearly bald and his pink face gave him a babyish appearance. 

     “Nice shop you’ve got here,” he shouted above the noise of the saw. Hartley cut the power and walked to where his neighbor stood at the doorway, hands in his pockets jingling change and keys. “Name’s Bokelman,” he said without removing his hands from his pockets. “I used to do a lot of woodworking myself.”

     Hartley thought his hands must be dirty and began wiping them on his shop apron. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve always had a shop wherever we’ve lived.”  

     “Nice to have a shop. Used to have one myself.”

     Hartley introduced himself and Bokelman said “glad to meet you” but still kept his hands in his pockets. Hartley found this unsettling. Of course, he could have extended his own hand and Bokelman would have been forced to take it. But his neighbor hadn’t offered to shake hands earlier and, in fact, Hartley was even relieved at not having to pump Bokelman’s puffy palm. Yet he was aware that, in withholding his hand now, he was accepting the distance Bokelman chose to maintain as the condition of their acquaintance.

     “Gotta go,” Bokelman said. “Maybe I’ll stop by sometime and you can show me around. Your shop, I mean.”

     “That’d be fine,” Hartley replied. “And if there’s anything I can do for you, just holler.”  It seemed like the neighborly thing to say.

     “I’ll do that,” Bokelman said with his back turned. 

     He was at least 25 years older than himself and since Bokelman had given only his last name Hartley felt obliged to say “Goodbye, Mr. Bokelman.”

     “Goodbye,” Bokelman replied giving a flip of his hand without turning around.

     What little the Hartleys knew about Bokelman they’d learned from old Mrs. Sullivan who lived across the street. He’d been an optometrist, she said, before some kind of heart condition had forced him into retirement. Dr. Bokelman, she called him. “He was always kind of different, but you couldn’t call him unfriendly. A little gruff maybe. He and his wife, oh, she was such a lovely woman, would usually walk around the block a few times after dinner. I liked her a lot. Just the opposite of him. She always had a smile for everyone. She even helped me around the house after Frank died. But then when she died, Dr. Bokelman just seemed sort of lost. I don’t think men are good alone, do you?  He almost never comes out of the house anymore. Never says hello to anyone when he does. Just walks past like he doesn’t see you. And it seems like he always has dreary music on his Hi-Fi when I walk by the house. Like dirges or something.”

     Hartley had heard the music himself. And he knew it well. He owned recordings of most of the French composers of La Belle Epoque. And the piece he heard most frequently emanating from the Bokelman home was among his favorites: Ravel’s Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte. Pavane for a Dead Princess.

     Not long after their brief conversation in the garage, Bokelman came by one Saturday afternoon while Hartley, garage door open again, was refinishing an old chest-of-drawers. He was accompanied by a young man whom he introduced as his nephew.

     “Roger here is helping me frame some canvases. You wouldn’t mind cutting a few boards for us, would you?”

     Hartley had not previously noted the nasal, sing-song quality of Bokelman’s voice. Now it added to the impertinence of his barging in and asking him to cut up the bundle of lumber his nephew was holding. Roger remained a couple of steps behind his uncle, looking rather uncomfortable and saying nothing. “Come on, Roger, give him your boards,” said Bokelman, taking the boy’s arm and dragging him forward. “This won’t take long.”

     Roger handed over four lengths of one-by-four clear fir and a piece of paper with the required dimensions. “Do you want to pick these up later on today?”  Hartley asked.

     “Well, we’d really like them now if you’ve got the time,” Bokelman answered for the two of them.

     So, as they stood looking on, Hartley cut the fir into eight lengths according to their specifications. When he had finished, Bokelman was bending over a miter box which was permanently mounted on its own table against the wall. “This is a nice one,” he said. “We were going to go out and buy a ‘cheapie’ weren’t we, Roger?”

     Hartley was annoyed but too naturally gracious to force Bokelman to ask. “I guess we could miter them too,” he said.  “You haven’t got much.”

     “Oh, splendid,” Bokelman replied. “Isn’t it wonderful, Roger?  It’s our lucky day.”

     Hartley adjusted the saw and cut the sixteen angles. Bokelman then gathered up the finished pieces, nodded to Roger, and said, “Let’s get going. We’ve got work to do.”  Then, to Hartley, “Thanks. You’ve got a nice shop here.”  The two of them walked out, Roger a step or two behind his uncle.

     After that, Bokelman was over nearly every weekend with some job he needed done. He even began to operate a few of the tools on his own. Hartley had been taken aback when asked if he minded and had been reluctant to allow this. The tools could be dangerous if you didn’t know what you were doing. But Bokelman went on in his sing-song way about how he used to use power tools all the time. Hartley, who in any case was tired of doing his work for him, grudgingly gave in. He let him use the radial saw and the drill press thinking he couldn’t run into too much trouble there.

     Then came the day Bokelman showed up with some boards he wanted to plane. Hartley, normally an accommodating man with a long fuse, was feeling genuinely irritated by then: with himself for being unable to say NO and with Bokelman for taking advantage of the fact.

     “You know how to work a joiner?” he asked.

     “Sure,” said Bokelman. “Used them lots of times.”

     “Well, go ahead then,” Hartley told him with a glance at the short lengths of wood in his neighbor’s hand. Then he went back to his own work and waited. When he thought back on this moment, as he often did, Hartley became increasingly convinced  that he actually was waiting. But he could never be sure for it had been a day of waiting. It was three hours before hearing anything at Harbor View, three hours in which to build up a pretty good head of guilt in the matter.

     Finally a doctor came out and told him they’d saved what they could. They had hopes he’d retain feeling and some freedom of movement in what was left of the finger. But they wanted to keep him in the hospital a day or two for therapy and in case of infection setting in. Hartley should go home now. He could visit his friend the next day if he liked.

     When Hartley got home his wife started dinner while he sat at the kitchen table and told her everything that had happened.

      “I don’t know why you let him use those tools,” she said. “He certainly doesn’t look like the type that knows anything about tools.”

     Mrs. Hartley rarely hesitated to speak her mind. And if that occasionally made Hartley uncomfortable he’d be the first to admit that she was only giving voice to thoughts he often shared but generally kept to himself.

     “Do you think we’re liable?” she asked.

     "I don’t know,” Hartley replied, his voice now tired and short.

     “Of course, it really was his own fault,” his wife continued. “If he didn’t know what he was doing he had no business using those things. The nerve of the man, anyway. He’s always over here asking you to do things for him.”

     “Barb, he’s probably just lonely. I’ve never seen him with anyone except his nephew. And I don’t mind much. I could have planed those boards for him in five minutes. I should have.”

     “Sure you should,” she shot back. “And what else?  Why do you let him take advantage of you like that?”

     The next day, Hartley did go visit Bokelman. He wondered if he should bring him a book or something. He nearly stopped by a news stand to pick up the day’s papers for him but rejected the idea at the last minute. They were neighbors separated by one house and a mile’s worth of convention.

     Bokelman was in a room with three other patients. They all had visitors except for  Bokelman who was seated next to his bed.

     “I feel terrible about what happened,” Hartley said, pulling up a chair.

     “Well,” Bokelman sighed, “it was my own fault. I guess the boards were too short.”

     Of course they were. Hartley had seen that right away. Any experienced woodworker would have used a pusher instead of his hand. When he had returned home the previous day and glanced warily at the blood-spattered joiner he found himself feeling uneasy.  The pusher for handling such small pieces hung on the wall next to the machine. It was in plain sight. But couldn’t he have pointed it out anyway?

     Bokelman sighed again. “I guess it’s just one of those things.”

     Soon he was home and walking around with his hand all bandaged up. No one came to see him. When several days had gone by without their meeting on the sidewalk, Hartley got to thinking he should stop by and say ‘hello’. Bokelman answered the bell, his bulk filling the doorway.

     “How’s the hand?”  Hartley asked.

     “Well,” his neighbor whined, “I don’t think it’s right. It still hurts, especially when it’s cold. I can’t get much use out of it. You want to come in?”

     Hartley didn’t know whether to interpret this as an actual invitation. Bokelman’s tone suggested that it was all the same to him whether Hartley came in or not. But it was cold and he could not be standing there like that with the door wide open. He had little desire to enter, but neither did he wish to appear unfriendly or indifferent to his neighbor’s discomfort. “Well, just for a minute,” he said.

     As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the living room, Hartley’s attention was immediately drawn to the walls which seemed to glow with an amber-like luster. At eye level throughout the room hung dozens of paintings, each in an ornate gold-leaf frame and illuminated by a small bronze lamp mounted above it. It was the paintings themselves which seemed to glow and fill the room with a warmth and passion that seemed so at odds with the Bokelman he knew. A few upholstered chairs were arranged at the room’s center to create the effect of a well-appointed gallery displaying its many treasures to best advantage. Photographs of a woman, who could only have been Bokelman’s wife, rested on a table next to the several chairs where Bokelman clearly spent much of his time.

     Hartley managed a feeble “Are you an art collector?”

     “No, my wife was a painter. They’re  hers.”

     Hartley felt uncomfortable. This room was a shrine. “She was….. very good,” he heard himself saying.

     “Yes” Bokelman said absently, sitting down. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything, but…….”

     “Oh, I have to get going,” Hartley interrupted. Then he added, “But may I just take a minute to look at your wife’s paintings?”  Despite his discomfort he felt it would have been rude to rush off without admiring them.

     “Help yourself,”  his neighbor replied.

     Hartley walked slowly, pausing in front of each canvas. It was only then that he heard, how could he have missed it before, Ravel’s Pavane. He turned his gaze to the stereo. Then, involuntarily, to Bokelman who quickly looked away as if to say I’d rather we not get into a conversation.

     Hartley returned to the paintings. Though not a painter himself, and certainly no connoisseur of fine art, he could nevertheless appreciate how beautifully they were done. ‘Painterly’ as he once heard a museum docent describe the works of an artist being exhibited. Though pastiches of the great French Expressionists, they clearly stood well on their own merits. He felt himself drawn into them by Ravel’s haunting music. And suddenly he was aware of a deep empathy for Bokelman who spent his days in this room, gazing at these paintings, listening to this music. And the pavane, this slow, elegant dance of a Spanish court constrained by rigid, deadening convention - was it not like the dance in which he found himself locked with the sad, overweight man sitting in this room? 

     “I need to be getting home. Sorry your finger’s still bothering you. Have you been back to the hospital to have it checked?”

     Bokelman stood and walked to the door. “Of course,” he said. “They just tell me it’s healing fine. I know something’s wrong though. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken me to Harbor View.”

     “But... I’ve always heard their emergency room was first rate.”  Hartley knew he was sounding defensive.

     “Just the same, I’d like another opinion. How about your homeowner’s insurance?  Wouldn’t they cover that?”

     Hartley was stung. What was Bokelman up to? Claims? Lawsuits? “I guess I could call and check,” he said.

     “Yeah,” Bokelman agreed. “Let me know what they say.”

     “Damn him,” Hartley muttered when he was home again. Still, an inner voice insisted that, after all, Bokelman had made a perfectly reasonable request. If his manner was curt, verging on accusatorial, wasn’t the poor fellow drowning in grief?  Could he have coped any better were he to lose his own wife?  He called the insurance company. The agent wanted all the details. Said he was a woodworker himself. “How come he didn’t use a pusher?” he wanted to know.

     “I don’t know,” Hartley had replied. “I guess he really didn’t know how to operate a joiner.”

     “Well, then, you shouldn’t have let him use it.”

     Hartley felt a cold fury rising up in him. Was it just the impertinence of the agent or was it also a sense of helplessness that was overwhelming him? “Look,” he practically shouted, “the guy said he knew how to use a joiner. He said he knew what he was doing. He didn’t cut off his finger on purpose for god’s sake. And what difference does it make whose fault it was anyway?  Am I covered or not?  All the man wants is a second opinion.”

     “Maybe you’re covered,” the agent said sourly. “Send in your claim and we’ll see.”

     As it happened, things turned out OK. Bokelman went to the UW where the doctors affirmed that the surgery and been performed with great skill. The insurance company picked up the tab without a peep. Probably relieved to get off so lightly. Only Bokelman was unhappy with the outcome. He grumbled about his finger every time they met. The complaining got to the point where Hartley started having trouble sleeping. He had always considered himself a decent sort of fellow. Always ready to help someone out. If asked, he knew his friends would describe him in just such terms. But this thing with Bokelman was causing him to question the Mr. Good Guy image. If he was honest with himself, and this was not easy,  had he not allowed the accident to happen?  Perhaps, out of some deep unconscious malevolence, even wanted it to happen?  Thoughts like that can keep a man awake at night.

     One day Hartley was working in his shop when he caught sight of Bokelman coming up the driveway again. “Christ,” he thought to himself. “What’s he want now?”

     “I need to talk to you, Hartley.”  Here we go. Hartley felt the blood rising to his face. “I just want to say you’ve been a good neighbor.”  

     Hartley was caught off guard. “Well,” he stammered, “maybe I could have been a better one. I could have planed those boards for you and you’d still have ten fingers.”

     “Nonsense. That was no one’s fault but mine. I did something stupid. And that’s all there is to be said about it.”

     “Still, it happened in my shop and I feel terrible.”

     “Just forget it, OK? By the way, there’s something I’d like your opinion on.”

     Hartley couldn’t keep himself from saying “Anything I can help you with?”  What’s the matter with you, Barb’s voice was shouting inside his head. Do you need to save Bokelman and the rest of the world with him?  Don’t be such a sap!

     “It’s like this,” Bokelman went on, never missing a beat. “I’m going to be moving soon. I’m putting the house up for sale and moving to Florida to live with my sister. She’s the only family I’ve got. That’s Roger’s mother. And the thing is, I’ve got to get all my wife’s paintings back there somehow. There’s more than you saw, probably a hundred. And some are just on their stretchers. Roger and I have been framing those and still have a few to go. And I wondered if you had any ideas about what kind of a crate I could use for shipping.”

     Hartley felt a wave of resignation come over him. He knew what his wife would say. But it was too late now for saying NO. “I suppose I could design some kind of crate with partitions so the paintings wouldn’t be damaged. Maybe five to a crate. That’d be a lot of crates, though. I don’t really have time……..”

     “Oh, I’m not asking for your help to build them or anything. Johnson’s cabinet shop is going to do that. I’ve already talked to them about it. They just need some kind of drawing of what I want.”  Then he added: “The paintings are all I have left of my wife. I need to take them with me. I can’t go without them.”

     “I understand,” said Hartley. He meant it. And he was relieved. Designing a sturdy shipping crate would be child’s play. And Barb could scarcely complain when he told her what it was for. Especially when she understood that this would be the extent of his contribution to the project. “I’ll draw up something for you,” he told his neighbor.

     “Thanks, Hartley. You’ve been good to me.”  And he thrust out his hand for Hartley to shake.

     That evening after dinner Barb saw her husband sitting at the computer doing something with his CAD program. “Whatcha up to?”

     “Oh, just sketching something for Bokelman.”

     His wife drew in her breath audibly and deeply. Then let it out in a burst of exasperation. “So what’s it this time, Mr. Nice Guy?”  

     God, did she have to call him that? Hartley explained about the paintings, that Bokelman was moving and needed to ship them off to Florida. All he needed was a drawing. Just a drawing. It was a small thing to ask. And he was glad he could help.

     “Sure,” said Barb. “And next he’s going to ask you to build those damn crates for him.”

     “No, he won’t. He just needs a sketch to take to Johnson’s   They’re  going to make them.”

     “Just you wait!” his wife scoffed. “When are you going to realize that you don’t owe this guy anything?”

     “Barbara, don’t...”  Hartley broke off. Then: “It’s not that simple,” he said.

Barbara came and stood behind her husband, and placed her hands gently on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, darling. I’m just thinking of you, that’s all.”  Hartley bent his head to one side and touched his cheek to her hand. And he wondered if Bokelman was gazing at his gilt-framed memories from the darkened center of his living room.

Two days later Roger knocked on the door. Hartley thought he’d come for the drawing. But he just stood there with a blank look on his face for several seconds. “Uncle Eugene died yesterday,” he finally managed to blurt out. “He just fell down in the parking lot at Walmart . When the medical guys got there he was dead. They said it was a heart attack.”

Hartley felt like he’d been sucker-punched. “Oh, god,” he said, “I am so sorry.”

“Yeah, well it happened real fast. I don’t think he suffered none.”

Hartley went to the kitchen and poured himself a drink. He was sitting at the table, head in his hands, when his wife came in and wanted to know who’d been at the door. He told her. Her face was unbelieving so he repeated it. “Bokelman’s dead.”

There was a moment of silence. Then, “Well,” she said, “that’s one problem solved.”  Her husband looked at her, speechless.

 

At work the next day Hartley arranged to take five days of unused vacation time the following week. Before going home that night he stopped by Home Depot and ordered thirty sheets of three-quarter inch plywood and an equal number of quarter inch panels. That plus five boxes of #8 woodscrews brought the bill to a little over $900. Home delivery added another $50.  Hartley put it on his Visa card. 

 When the lumber arrived on Saturday he had it stacked in the driveway. If Barb had any thoughts about what she knew he was going to do she felt it best to keep them to herself. 

Sunday, after church, Hartley put on his shop apron and for the next six days he hardly left his garage except for meals. Sometimes Barb brought him a sandwich and a beer when he failed to show up for lunch. The atmosphere was thick with sawdust.

Hartley got it down to where he could make a crate in about two hours. The longest part of the job was dado-ing the end pieces to receive the quarter inch panels that would divide the crate into five compartments. Five partitions per crate, nearly 100 paintings, twenty crates in all. A good forty hours of work. He let Roger try to help on the first day. But the boy was useless so he sent him home and told him to return at the end of the week to help load the paintings. 

By ten o’clock on Friday morning the completed twenty crates stood side by side in the garage. Hartley had attached handles to facilitate moving them. Roger came as requested and the two of them removed the paintings from Bokelman’s house and loaded them carefully into the crates. While Hartley screwed down the tops Roger filled out the labels with his mother’s address in Florida. By the late afternoon the job was done. Before leaving the garage Hartley took a damp rag and wiped down the joiner again.  There were still a few spots of dried blood he’d missed the first time.

Barb was out with friends so the house was empty when he went in. He poured himself a glass of scotch. He was glad she was gone so that he wouldn’t have to try to explain why he put Ravel’s Pavane on the stereo. He wasn’t quite sure himself. Then he sat in his favorite chair, listening to the music, letting the scotch warm his throat and clear the smell of sawdust from his sinuses. Images of the past few months came unbidden to his consciousness in no particular pattern. He thought of his neighbor, of how nice the weather had been all week, of the waiting room at Harbor View, of what would become of him if he ever lost Barb. 

He heard the final notes of the pavane playing. The trucking firm would be coming to collect the crates first thing Monday morning. Hartley calculated that the paintings should arrive in Florida about the same time as Bokelman’s ashes.

 

 

About the Author: Patrick Butler is professor emeritus of history and political science at City College of San Francisco where he taught for thirty years. Upon retirement he moved to Washington State where he lives with his wife on the shores of Puget Sound. Among his interests in retirement is the writing of short fiction and Pavane is his third published story.

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.