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.

Ferris Wheel

by James Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archie’s jaw dropped open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archie was too bewildered to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

The Gin Club

In Sevilla, there is a gin club in the town center. It has a large, glass window facing the street. The window is very clean. It is very clean, and it reveals elegant furniture you might be expected to find in the lobby of a five star hotel. Here, luxurious couches and plush old chairs surround handsome, low tables that are the absolutely perfect height to rest a drink. The low tables have glass tops with wrought iron legs, and old men sit around them and drink gin.

The Gin Club has a small, inconspicuous bar at one end of the room, but people don't sit at the bar. Only rarely is someone ever spotted sitting at the bar. They sit at the tables and waiters in tuxedos take drink orders. They take drink drink orders from the menus on the tables, and they accommodate any drink so long as gin is the primary ingredient. This is a gin club, after all, facing the street in one of Spain's most beautiful cities, not far from the largest Cathedral in the world. 

The old men went to The Gin Club each Monday. They put on fine dress clothes and showed up faithfully, rain or shine, in every season of the year. Weather might have forced them to wear a top coat or a newsboy cap from time to time, but they never sacrificed their dress code for the elements. Their dress code was their calling card, and it was important to them to live up to the standard they had set for themselves and for one another.  Their loyalty to dignity through style was uncompromising.  

Each of the old men liked to walk.  In Spain, this is very common.  Old men go for walks.  They go for walks every day.  They leave their small apartments, dressed to the nines, and take to the streets to stroll at their own pace.  The stroll, sometimes with one arm behind their backs, the other perhaps holding a cane, as they walk down the boulevards beneath the old trees, in the shadows of the city.  They frequently wear neckties, and you will never see them wearing a shirt without buttons.  Theirs is not so much a quest for dignity, but rather an emphatic statement for having already achieved it.  They drip in real class that has less to do with money than masculinity, and there is an unmistakable air about the old men in Spain that can only be classified as regal. It's inspiring and humbling, and the old men who met at The Gin Club each week embodied this ethos to the core. 

Once the men entered The Gin Club, they were received at the door by Gerard, the man who took their coats and scarves.  Gerard made sure the coats and scarves were secure, hanging them up carefully in the coat room in the back, while the old men made their way to their table.  They liked to sit at the table on the back wall away from the large window but facing it.  This provided them with the opportunity to see the street scene, but it also kept them relatively well cloaked, at the far end of the room, set against the dark, cherrywood walls of The Gin Club. That was just how they liked it.  They liked to come to The Gin Club on Monday mornings and sit in the back of the room and drink gin.  Most people don't drink gin in the morning.  But old men, dressed impeccably, sitting together on plush sofas and chairs, can certainly drink gin in the morning.  They can drink gin in the morning, in the company of friends and easy conversation, with the quickening world outside and their youth little more than a distant memory.

Francisco lived the furthest from The Gin Club.  He had moved out of the center of town some years ago, and he traveled in to the center by train.  The train was very good in Sevilla, and he liked to take the train on Mondays.  His wife worried that he might slip and fall getting off the train, but he told her not to worry.  Francisco always told her not to worry and she always worried.  She always worried, like she had from the day they were married to the time they became parents until their son left the house and on and on.  She would always worry, and Francisco would always tell her not to.  

Once Francisco stepped off the train in Sevilla, he could feel the pulse of the city.  Sevilla was tranquil and beautiful, but it was also vibrant.  Although it was an old city, it afforded itself a youthful vibe, and Francisco could feel this.  It reminded him of his youth, and he liked to see the young people moving freely with unencumbered limbs and laughing as if they would always be young.  They lacked a complete awareness of what it would be like to age, and Francisco thought this was good.  This unawareness allowed them to be young without fear of growing old, without contemplation of its constraints, and without the inevitable sadness that accompanies aging.  He liked to see people without that sadness.  

Unfortunately, Francisco had known sadness for many years. He been sad for a long time.  He had been sad since the day their son died in a car accident. He was their only child, and he was a beacon of light.  It would never disappear, the hole, the sadness, and he didn't want it to. It was just there, like a hundred ton weight on his soul--never to be removed. People often asked him how he dealt with the loss. How did he and his wife go on? "You don't" said Francisco. "You don't ever go on. Not really. Not the same. You just pretend to go on because there is no other choice." Every Monday morning Francisco went to The Gin Club, and he didn't ever talk about his son.  

Sergio was ageless, or so it seemed.  Now in his 80's, he remained dashingly handsome.  He still possessed a full head of hair, now silver, that he slicked back like Al Pacino or Anthony Quinn.  He grew his hair longer than men his age were usually able to get away with, and the silver locks stood out against his bronze skin.  He could often been seen driving through town in his old Alfa Romeo, the top down, sunglasses fastened carefully, with his long hair flowing behind.  If there were any doubts that a man could age with style, Sergio quickly put them to rest.

He stayed in remarkable shape too--frequenting the gym daily and going on long bike rides outside the city center. Unlike Francisco, Sergio lived right in the heart of the city.  He had a small villa in the country, but he rarely spent any time there anymore.  After all, he was alone and he didn't like to feel lonely. He liked his small flat near the Alcazar.  It was on the second floor, above the street level, but still only one flight of stairs for him to climb.  The flat had a small kitchen, a sitting room, exceptional light, and a modest balcony that looked out at the glorious old city. When Sergio returned home, he liked to sit out on the balcony and watch the young people moving towards the night, towards their dreams, towards whatever future awaited them.  He liked to look at the people and he liked to move among them.

Sergio was one of those men that never married.  He was built for bachelorhood.  And unlike some friends of his who were now married for the second (or fourth) time, he knew it.  The catholic church might have frowned upon him slightly, he surmised, but not nearly as much as those who were sworn to each other before god only to divorce some years later.  That was a much greater sin, he imagined, than living alone, dating women half his age, and having multiple lovers throughout his lifetime.  Sergio was who he professed to be, and he made it a point never to make promises he couldn't keep.  If a woman stayed over on Sunday night, he let her know he would be leaving in the morning.  He was not married, and he had no children, but he was loyal to Mondays and meeting his friends at The Gin Club.  Sergio was not a man who liked to be confined by commitments, but he was fiercely loyal to the ones he had made. And if he went so far as to make a commitment, it would surely be kept.

Manuel wasn't born in Sevilla.  He was from the north, and he grew up in Pamplona--home to the San Fermin Festival each year, Cafe Iruna, and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.  The north was different, and it had been his home for many years until he met a woman on holiday in Mallorca.  She was a vision, the kind of woman who needn't speak to say much.  She communicated primarily with her eyes and her smile. Her gaze was more than enough to disarm him, and their romance moved quickly.  She grew up in the south, in Sevilla.  Her parents lived in Sevilla and so did her two sisters and her three brothers.  It was decided that Manuel too would live in Sevilla, that they would live in Sevilla, and that they would raise their family in Sevilla. From the day they met, Manuel was certain this was his destiny.  He had now lived in Sevilla for more than fifty years.  

Sometimes, when the summer months arrived, Manuel dreamed of Pamplona, if only for a few days.  He thought of the people from around the world who descended on his home and celebrated it.  He thought of the streets he played on as a child, and he dreamed of watching the bulls tear through the narrow streets with unimaginable, unstoppable force.  They ran with such reckless abandon, unaware of their age, their mortality, and, of course, their fate.  Manuel loved this about the bulls.  There were times he wanted to tell them of what awaited them, but he didn't dare.  They were perfectly savage and brave, unlike men, and he loved this about them.

Their life in Sevilla began with a sweeping, magical quality that seemed to compliment their courtship.  Angelina and Manuel had six children, four girls and 2 sons, and they raised them in the Andalusian capital.  Her brothers and sisters had children, and their family grew large and strong.  

When Manuel thought about these days when their children were young, it didn't seem real.  He wasn't sure it had ever happened.  And he had to pull out old photos to confirm the accuracy of memories which seemed to vanish like a dream.  Most everything had vanished since she died unexpectedly.  The only saving grace was that it was quick, but she took everything with her.  That hypnotic gaze, that first captured Manuel, left the world with his memories, his dreams, and ultimately...his heart. 

That was now thirty years ago, and he had walked through the past three decades in something of a hypnotic fog, reaching, searching for remnants of Angelina throughout the city of her birth. He had thought about leaving and returning to the north, but his children and his grandchildren were in Sevilla.  He wanted to be close to them, and he wanted to honor Angelina.  The best way he could do that was through his loyalty to Sevilla and his undying love to everything she held dear.  He took walks to Plaza de Espana, where he had proposed, and he went to the Cathedral to pray multiple times a week.  He wasn't religious, but he still went.  He would sit down in the pews, enveloped by the massive building, and pray--to God. She had prayed to God when he did not believe.  She had prayed to no avail and now he would to.  He would sit there by himself and pray multiple times a week.  But, on Mondays, he always went to The Gin Club.

Augustin lived a charmed life.  He and his wife had been married for fifty years.  They were healthy, and they had two children and five grandchildren.  Their children were fine people, and they lived close by.  They lived close by and Manuel and his wife saw them often.  They also had a number of friends and were a well-known couple around town.  Augustin had been a successful business owner in Sevilla, and they had enough money to live out their lives very comfortably.  By any measure, life had been good to them.  

Augustin couldn't complain, but everyone has disappointments.  Nobody can go through this world unscathed, and Augustine was no different.  Despite the number of things that had gone well for him in his adult life, he lived the entirety of it with the knowledge that his own parents had died young and that they never had the opportunity to meet Augustin's wife and his children.  They hadn't lived long enough to see Augustin become a success in business, and they had missed the vast majority of his life in general.  This was a huge disappointment for Augustin, and he could never make peace with it. Time did nothing to heal this wound.  He was eventually able to accept that this was reality, but he could never really accept that this reality was acceptable. It was cruel and savage and sat there over his entire life like a gaping void that only seemed to widen with the years.

Each Monday morning, he got up and moved his way to the dresser to select the clothes he would wear to The Gin Club.  He could feel his wife watching him, as she always did, while he selected the shirt he would be wearing that day.  He wasn't known for his style, but he had listened to his wife for many years and had become better at putting an outfit together.  He looked forward to this, and each Monday he tried to do something just a little different with the clothes he wore.  There were many things about his life (most good) that he could not change, particularly at his age.  But his clothes could be altered, shifted, and ultimately born again.  This made Augustin feel like a new man, not a young man perhaps, but a new one, still capable of surprising people when so much of life seemed scripted and determined at this point.  Once he had dressed for the day, he ate a small breakfast at home, just enough to coat the lining of his stomach, and walked out the door to catch a bus to The Gin Club.  

On Monday mornings, The Gin Club was empty.  In fact, when it first opened, the owner hadn't even considered extending the hours to the morning.  Gin was to be consumed in the evenings, after the sun had been lowered and the sky grew dark.  An argument could have been made that a nice Gin and Tonic was also appropriate in the afternoon, a refreshing cocktail combatant against steamy, Andalusian sun.  But morning?  That was a stretch, and it wasn't until the old men approached Teo that he even considered it.

Teo (short for Mateo) was a middle aged man, who still looked young.  He was in his early forties but looked as if he was a decade younger.  He had a full head of hair without a single streak of grey, and his toned, tan skin might have made him out to be a surfer if he didn't wear a business suit so well.  But he always wore a business suit, the finest business suits, complete with a handkerchief and cufflinks--the little things that added a touch of class to an outfit.  The old men noticed this.  They noticed the little things, and they noticed that most men Teo's age weren't in touch with them.  Young men didn't care about the details, they thought.  They couldn't be bothered by the small touches, the finishing touches, the extra mile.  But Teo was different.  He was young and modern, but he was a throwback, an example of days gone by, and he never missed an opportunity to tip his cap to the past.  The old men loved this about him.

"Teo" Sergio called out to him one evening.  "The boys and I were thinking. Would you ever consider opening The Gin Club in the morning?"

Teo looked at Sergio and the other old men.  He was surprised, but he thought about the question carefully.  The men could tell he was giving it his full consideration.  

"Well....." he said.  "I am not really sure that it would be profitable, that we'd be able to attract customers.  I am open to anything, but we cannot survive without customers."

The men looked at each other for a moment.  This wasn't their first rodeo, and they had discussed things beforehand.  It had been easy to predict that Teo might meet their question with some resistance, but they had also predicted correctly that he would be open to the possibilities.

"We understand Teo" said Manuel.  "Would you consider opening in the morning just one day a week.  The four of us will commit to being here, and we will order 4 drinks apiece." 

"And we will cover the cost of Gerard, the bartender, and any additional staff for the entire time" added Augustin.  "You will just need to cover the cost of the electricity along with your time Teo." 16 drinks of your finest gin should suffice."

Teo nodded, impressed.  He nodded again, and he thought about the proposal.  Monday mornings were usually spent at home with his wife, following the weekend, after the children went to school.  He would have to discuss this with her, but he liked the old men.  He liked the old men very much, and he wanted to be able to open The Gin Club for them, just for them, on Monday mornings at the start of the week.

And so this was how Monday mornings came to be the time the four men met each week.  When your are old, its just the opposite of being young when it comes to your schedule and the days of the week. Predictably, week days are often slow with little to do, and old men must work exceptionally hard to remain busy.  Weekends are just the opposite--drenched in activities with children and grandkids--or women in Sergio's case.  It was both rewarding and exhausting.  The men enjoyed the rewards, but they were tired.  By Monday morning, they were ready to relax, and beginning the week with gin, while the young people moved steadily past the window on their way to work, was the perfect way to do this.  They would often arrive only to collapse into the plush upholstery. Teo would always come over to say hello with the same words each week.  "Tough weekend, gentlemen?" he would ask.  

"Yes" said Sergio emphatically.  "Didn't you see Sevilla play on Saturday?"

Sevilla's futbol team was both an inspiration and a constant source of frustration.  They were good, very good, and they had won the Europa League multiple times in recent years.  But they were still inferior to Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid.  They were good enough to come tantalizingly close to challenging for trophies in Spain without quite being able to to deliver.  This past weekend they had suffered a tough defeat at the hands of Valencia.  Sevilla FC was a good club who constantly lived in a special purgatory reserved for the almosts, what ifs, and it could've beens.  

"We need more talent up front" said Francisco. "We won't compete with the best if our side is filled with castoffs from other clubs." 

"It is true" reiterated Manuel.  " A team of mercenaries will never get the best of Barcelona. We must build through the academy and manage to keep the best young players."

"Like Sergio Ramos" chimed in Augustin.  "What I wouldn't give to have had him anchoring the back line all these years." 

"Gentlemen" Sergio requested their attention. "You are living in a "fantasia" as these things will never happen.  Each week, we come here and discuss the team, but we will never be the equal of Madrid or Barcelona. On a given day, we may compete with them.  On a given day, we may beat them, but we will never be their equal.  We are Sevilla, beautiful Sevilla, with a glory all our own. Why do we need to be anything else but that?

"Vale, Sergio" Francisco acquiesced.  "Vale. How old is she? Please tell us.  Each week, you come in her walking on air after parking your sports car with your hair slicked back and not a care in the world about the shoddy defense Sevilla has played during the weekend. Please. How old is she this time? You must tell us."

"If you must know," Sergio remarked in dignified fashion " she is 48 years old.  So you can't make the argument in this case that I am not thinking straight or that my judgement is clouded or my vision is not true."

"Need I remind you that you are 81 years old Sergio?" said Manuel calmly.  "She may not be 28, but she is, after all, still thirty-three years your junior."

The other men laughed.  They laughed in the quiet room, on the plush couches with the taste of gin in their mouths.  It was good for them to laugh and they came here to laugh.  After all, life was hard, even for those who lived the most charmed lives.  They came here to detach from those parts, to forget, perhaps not to drown their sorrows in a glass, but, at the very least, to disappear in a sea of lighthearted humor, bad jokes and gentle teasing for a few hours.

But Sergio was not laughing.  This time he was serious about Sevilla and about the woman he was with the night before.  

"I do not know what my age is" he said with a straight face.  "And I don't wish to be reminded of it.  Have you heard that saying 'how old would you be if you did not know how old you were? It is a very true statement, and I do not feel as if I am very old.  Moreover, I won't pretend to be, and I see no point in accelerating a race to a finish finish line where only a grave awaits."

"But we are old" remarked Augustin.  "We are old men who have been around for many years.  That is why we are here, at The Gin Club, on a Monday morning, because we are old.  We are here because we are old men and old friends who have been around long enough to see the world run by men who are much younger than us." 

Sergio didn't say a word.  He just looked out, past his friends, towards the big window and the street outside.  He looked out at the young people walking past on their way to work.  He looked out, past the years and disappointments and the coat room  which held their belongings.  He enjoyed coming to these weekly gatherings because they were lighthearted and breezy.  The old men were friends, old friends, and they usually shared quite a few laughs and generally kept the world at bay, kept life, real life, at a distance where none of them could really see it unless they were looking.  The old men liked this, for a few hours.  They liked to talk futbol.  They liked to think about what Sevilla's team needed to compete for La Liga.  It mattered very little if this was a "fantasia" so long as they could talk about it, dissect it, and dream of things that would never happen.  Furthermore, futbol made for safe conversation that was the perfect companion to gin in the morning.  

The old men had known each other long enough that there were no secrets.  They had witnessed births and baptisms and had buried more family members than they cared to recall.  Each was keenly aware of the other's great disappointments, their loses, and they understood that there were some things in life you never come back from.  You may go on, but you never come back.  

Each man understood this, and they made sure never to discuss any of these things on Mondays. On occasion, they might have confided in one another in private, but Mondays were sacred. Regardless of how much weight they were carrying, the banter on Monday mornings was meant to offload, to escape, and generally to isolate the old men from the hard truths of reality--if only for a moment.  Gin was merely the coating that lined the stomach and, more importantly, the heart before it would once again process the day, the week, and whatever years they had ahead.  

The old men were very committed to this approach, which is why it was so out of character that Sergio broke rank that Monday morning.  He was always good natured about the jokes which frequently centered around the age of the women he dated.  In some ways, he wore it as a badge of honor, and he certainly didn't shy away from it.  He expected it, accepted it, and it was unlike him to become so defensive.  Nothing ever seemed to strike a raw nerve with him.  Nothing stuck, and Sergio might have looked like a pretty boy, but he was like teflon.  He was tough as nails, and this was one of the things his friends admired about him.

As soon as Teo noticed the old men were nearly done with the first round, he walked over to the table and asked them what were they going to go with next.  

"Puerto de India fresas gin and tonic, please Teo" said Manuel.  This was a local gin that had recently become popular.  On the surface, it could have appeared less masculine--with a sweeter taste and a pink hue.  However, the gin was from Sevilla.  It was from Sevilla, a city draped in warm colors, and the men liked to drink Puerto de Indias. They took pride in it, and fruit seemed to go along well with breakfast anyway.

"Very well" said Teo, noticing that the men were unusually quiet this morning.  He had come by the table in the wake of Sergio's reaction and sensed the quiet tension among the men.  "Can I get you anything else?" he inquired politely but unobtrusively.

"No, thank you Teo" said Sergio. "That's all. Todo bien."

The men continued to drink their gin.  They drank their gin just as they always did, a little quieter this morning, but still drinking.  Truth be told, each man usually took his drink with two personas, caught between two worlds, no matter how hard they tried.  Francisco hoisted a silent toast to his late son, and Manuel acknowledged his sweet wife when he pulled the glass to his lips.  Augustin made sure to tip his cap to his dad, the man who had gone far too soon, who liked to take a drink of gin at the end of the day.  The old men never talked about these silent acknowledgements, but they were there.  The unspoken presence of the dead always are.  All except Sergio, who toasted to life, to love, to the many women he had been with, and to the endless spanish roads in the countryside that caressed his alfa romeo.  He toasted Sevilla and the futbol team, eating grapes to ring in the New Year at Plaza Nueva, and he toasted the splendor of Andalusia bathed in olives and now gin.  

Although Sergio may not have toasted his own existence, he always made a silent toast to his friends, to their incredible resolve, and to their ability to come here each week and get together.  He was grateful that it was important to them, that they worked to conceal their pain for a few hours, and that they greeted him with a warm embrace.  It was a pact they had made, and the old men honored it.  They honored it, and they honored Sergio.  He was their friend, their friend for so many years, and they knew that he wasn't nearly as wounded as they were. Sergio knew it too, of course, and he loved them for never letting on when he was well aware that they knew.

Earlier in the morning, Sergio had woken up in his small apartment.  Anne had stayed over the night before, and he watched her sleep in his bed, with the sheets furled around her and the morning light cascading through the window and catching the length of her body, her back exposed with light brown hair falling around her shoulders.  She was lovely, perfectly lovely, and he liked Anne. He liked Anne very much, and he didn't want her to leave in the morning.  Moreover, he didn't want to leave her, not even on Monday, with his friends waiting to meet him at The Gin Club.  

Sergio had been seeing Anne for a few months.  She was divorced, with two kids in their twenties, and she had moved to Spain after living in the UK for the better part of her life.  She was independently wealthy, having inherited a fortune from her father's textile business, and she didn't need a man in order to survive.  She wasn't looking for one either when she ran into Sergio and his smooth bravado while shopping for vegetables at the market.  He asked her to dinner and the relationship grew from there.

The night before was the first time Anne had really asked Sergio about his family.  

"So you never married?" she said.

"No," said Sergio. "I never saw the point.  So many restrictions.  So many headaches.  So many that end in divorce."

"With that attitude" remarked  Anne, "I can see why. You certainly seem to have had your mind made up."

"I am not sure if my mind was made up so much as there was never anyone who seemed to be able to change it," he said.  "Deep down, I think I might have been more open than I projected, but it never happened." 

"So no siblings?  No wives?  No kids?" said Anne.  "All these years. That is a long time to go without."Sergio thought carefully about Anne's remark.  It was a long time, and he had been alone.  He had always been alone.  

"I suppose it is," said Sergio. "It is a long time. This is how I have lived my life."

"Is it lonely?" asked Anne.  "Living with nobody in your life.  Do you feel lonely?"

"At times," said Sergio. "At times, loneliness is inescapable.  Other times, it brings solace, comfort, and tranquility."

"I think it is sad" said Anne emphatically.  "I think it is the saddest thing I have ever heard."

"Nobody should feel sad for me," said Sergio.  "I made my own choices, and I live with them.  In a sense, I live by them.  There can be no real sadness when you have had the good fortune of being able to make your own choices.  Regret possibly, but not sadness."

"Well, I think it is sad," said Anne.  "Impossibly, terribly sad."  

Sergio sat there, looking at Anne, trying to decipher the look on her face, the absolute strangeness she felt at the life he had led. They were outside, under a warm light, at a cafe near the center.  Although it was Sunday evening, a few people were still out on the streets, walking under the pale moon.  Sergio looked beyond Anne, just over her left shoulder, and into the blackness of the night. He looked farther and farther until his vision was inhaled by the dark sky.

"I watched my friends suffer" remarked Sergio painfully.  "Suffer a lot.  It wasn't easy. Their boats took on a lot of water over their lifetimes, and they lost a lot.  They lost big, and they never recovered.  I never wanted to suffer losses like that."

Anne sat there quietly, focused intently on each word he was saying.

"At times, it seemed like a cruel joke" he went on.  "Their lives gave them so much joy, only to strip it away so savagely, to take it away so unapologetically, leaving scars behind that would never, could never, heal.  I wasn't willing to give as much or go as far.  I played some hands, but I always knew when to fold.  I understood just how to escape before the money was gone. I have spent my life employing that strategy.  It worked for me, and I never questioned it."

"Do you not have a soul, Sergio?" asked Anne. "And if so, what has nourished it?"

"I have a soul, like anyone else, but am not sure it has ever been nourished, truly nourished, at least in the sense you suggest" said Sergio.  "But it has been comforted and it has soared on the wings of many nights spent with beautiful women, the laughter of friends, and the adventure of new horizons, the next horizon, whatever exists just over the next rise.  The promise of what comes next, what might come next, has provided meaning and a sense of hope--if not a genuine purpose." 

A young couple sped by on a moto.  The woman was on the back, wearing a pink helmet with her arms wrapped tightly around the man driving and her head turned and pressed against the back of his black, leather jacket. Both Anne and Sergio watched them carefully.  They were young, and they rode with a fearlessness, an abandon, that was akin to youth.  Their moto throttled between the old buildings, her golden hair flowing out from beneath the helmet as he leaned left and right navigating the corridors.    

"You are happy with this life you have chosen?" asked Anne.

"Until recently," said Sergio.  "I always thought I was happy with it until recently.  Now I am having some doubts."

"You are an old man, Sergio" said Anne. "You can't be capable of learning new tricks at this stage."

Sergio hesitated.  He wasn't sure he could articulate his feelings with the eloquence required, and he wanted to get the words right.  

"Each Monday, as you know, I meet my friends at The Gin Club.  We have known each other for many years, and it is my favorite day of the week.  We never talk about anything painful or serious.  The conversation is purposefully light, and we might discuss futbol or travel or gin or our favorite movies or the best flamenco guitarists.  Of course, we reminisce about some of the times we shared in the past.  We sit and laugh and tell lies like all old men, about the good old days when we were young men, capable of doing the things that young men do.  But the weight is always there, down deep, and I can feel it each time we meet, almost as if it is gaining ground."

"The weight?" said Anne. "What do you mean?"

"The weight of their experiences. The richness. The weight of life's loves and life's losses.  As I said, we have an unspoken rule never to talk about these things, and they wouldn't dare.  But they don't have to talk about them in public in order for the weight to be felt.  We aren't the poker players we once were, and the spectacular pressure builds each week.

"How do you all manage this?" asked Anne, captivated now, and less judgmental.  

Sergio paused.  He took a moment to take a sip of his drink, place it back on the table, and lean in closer.  He was now looking at Ann, almost looking in to Ann, and she could feel the care with which he was preparing to chose his words.  

"Usually, the conversations will be shifted to me.  I am the one with the young girlfriends, the sports car, and my life makes it easy to illicit a laugh or bring the decibel level down.  As our conversation disappears into my life's travails, they feign envy, but I know that's not really the case. They want me to feel good, to feel fortunate, and to feel their feigned desire to live vicariously through me.  All I feel is their pity, like your sadness, and I have never wanted their pity."

They sat in silence for many minutes before Anne decided to speak.  "Why don't you mention this to them."

"Because...they are my friends, my dear friends. It's almost a brotherhood, and being the one who can infuse the conversation with humor, even at my own expense, is an easy price to pay in order to ease the pain, their long suffering pain that subsides gently, slightly, temporarily in the wake of my escapades.  Even their pity arrives with its own justification for the pain they feel, the lives they have led, and the terrible losses they have endured.  I've simply never had enough, felt enough, or cared enough to be truly vulnerable, susceptible to the possibility of a great loss." 

Anne didn't say a word.  She just kept looking at Sergio, and she made sure not to look at him with sadness.  In some way, she felt admiration, as what could easily be construed as selfish behavior, in some odd, twisted way, now seemed noble and generous.  Sergio looked down slightly.  He took out a cigarette, lit it, and didn't say a word. They sat at the outdoor table, and he crossed one leg stylishly over the other.  They just sat, for what seemed like hours but was likely only minutes, until Sergio paid the bill, stood up, and offered Anne his arm.  The walked home to his apartment, past the Alcazar, in the warm glow of the lights in Sevilla.

When they got home, Sergio poured each of them a drink, and he put on his favorite record.  He stood up, offered his hand, and they danced cheek to cheek, with their bodies close until they went to bed. They went to bed in each another's arms until the sun rose over the great cathedral in Sevilla.  Sergio woke up in the morning to go to The Gin Club while she slept.  He couldn't be late, and he exited the apartment quietly, with the beautiful curve of her back once again revealed and her hair falling around her shoulders.

The old men sat around the table.  They sat around the table and drank gin and didn't talk anymore about Sevilla's futbol team.  The sat on the plush couches and chairs. They sat together and didn't say a word.  They sat while Teo went to bring them the check. It was nearly the middle of the day.  The sun was high in the sky and they had consumed gin in the morning, in beautiful Sevilla, near the end of their lives that had been so long.  They were together, but each man was left alone with his thoughts.

Sergio thought about Anne. He thought about her and her bewildered look the night before and her light brown hair and her exposed back and her probing questions.  He thought about her in his apartment.  He liked to think about her in his apartment, and he hoped she would still be there when he returned home.

"I have met someone," he announced to his friends for the first time in all their Mondays at The Gin Club. "I have met someone" he repeated. "Her name is Anne."

 

 

About Author David Joseph: David Joseph's writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Doubletake Magazine, Rattle, and The London Magazine. A recipient of The John Henry Hobart Fellowship for Ethics and Social Justice, he spent twenty years as an educator and nonprofit executive in Los Angeles. A graduate of Hobart College and The University of Southern California's graduate writing program, he has taught at Pepperdine University and Harvard University. He currently lives in San Roque, Spain with his wife Karen and his sons Jackson and Cassius.