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. 

Kim Philby

     Superior Court Judge Patrick William O’Neill jogged down Painted Cave Road with his beloved German Shepherd Kim Philby trotting along beside. The narrow road serpentined, challenging drivers and terrifying their hapless passengers with its quick, tight turns and steep drop-offs. Great granite slabs thrust up its edges and hung down slopes toward Santa Barbara. Manzanita, Sagebrush, Sage, Chamise, Bay Laurel, and the occasional Yucca and Prickly Pear cactus dotted the arid landscape. 

     O’Neill stopped a mile down at his usual turnaround spot, jogged in place, and sat on a boulder. Kim Philby was panting but eager as always, his eyes alert, prick ears up. O’Neill reached down, scratched his head, and a fingertip sensed the irregularity of a fresh hard tick in his coarse brown coat. He grasped it between index finger and thumb, twisted it out, set it on a rock, and crushed it with his foot, leaving behind a dime sized red splotch. 

     Kim Philby gazed worshipfully at O’Neill, a lean and fit man of sixty, clean-shaven with silvery white hair and clear blue eyes. 

     The view was fine, O’Neill thought. Friends, co-workers, and relatives had all told him it was nuts to live up here, what with wild fires, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and coyotes, but they were wrong. All of Santa Barbara lay below, as far south as Ventura and, beyond the curving coastline, the pellucid blue Pacific Ocean and upstart Channel Islands. It was an awesome place to live despite the hazards.

     He checked his watch. They would be along soon now, and it was time to head back up the hill. 

     He stood and stretched. 

     Kim Philby’s ears perked and his eyes blazed. 

     O’Neill took a few deep breaths and then continued his jog, slowly at first, and then quickening his rhythmic pace, heading toward the house on the summit where he lived with his wife and Kim Philby. A house with, among other things, a tripod-mounted Celestron 1000-millimeter telescope good for observing wildlife and surveying the neighborhood. From his hilltop aerie, he had spotted incipient fires, burglaries in progress, and, most recently, a possible clandestine drug laboratory; the next hour would reveal the species of his latest prey.

     Sun rising above his right shoulder, O’Neill jogged steadily uphill, retracing his earlier downhill course. Kim Philby floated effortlessly beside him, perfectly in tune, breathing with clocklike cadence. The road pitch leveled out as they approached O’Neill’s midpoint landmark, a row of four rural mailboxes atop a stone wall at roadside surrounded by a patch of white-flowering Toyon. 

     Powerful diesels whined in the distance as they climbed their way up the curlicue road, steadily getting closer. That would be them, O’Neill thought. Right on time.

     He jogged past the mailboxes, stopped a hundred feet beyond, turned for a look back, and waited.

     And waited. It was like marking time before the first pitch in a championship baseball game. He felt a tinge of pleasure, as if placing a bet, for he had something riding on the outcome of this particular game. His bet was that the sheriff’s party would find some incriminating prize inside that little house beside the road. If they did, he’d win; if not, he’d lose face. 

     Flashing lights appeared a quarter mile away as they rounded a bend and came out onto the straights. The lights grew brighter and their conveyances larger, and soon he could make out raiding party elements. 

     Two sheriff’s cruisers led the way, followed by two white vans and two trailing cruisers. They caravan grew louder and larger, sunlight glinting off windshields and polished chrome, and then gradually slowed until all its vehicles came to a stop on the road alongside the little house. Loud idling diesels and crackling sheriff’s radios pestered the otherwise sweet and silent mountaintop air. 

     A few seconds passed, and then a mass of sheriff’s deputies rushed from the cruisers and fanned out along the road. Six helmeted men in black uniforms carrying M4 carbines disembarked from the front van. A second group left the rear van. Four men in the assault team slung a steel battering ram between them, double-timed to the porch, and swung the ram into the front door, which collapsed inward in two strokes.

 

 

About the Author: Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017). He holds a Ph.D from UCSB.

The Nymphs at the Vagabond Motel

by Jo-Anne Rosen

     Despite poor night vision, Nathan can make out the neon sign for the Vagabond. It towers over the motel, atop a tall, brick pylon. The shooting stars going up and down are fuzzier than they used to be.

     The cabbie glances at his passenger in the rear view mirror.

     “You stayed here before, mister?” 

     “We came every winter,” Nathan informs the driver. “Back in the sixties.”

     “The neighborhood’s rougher than it used to be. You shouldn’t be out alone at night.”

     “I’m too old to go out at night.”

     The cabbie brings his bags into the lobby and takes the tip. “Y’all take care,” he says. 

     The floor feels sticky under Nathan’s rubber soled shoes. He remembers a plush carpet from their last visit ten or twelve years ago. The first time they checked in, the place was brand new. How Helen had admired its sleek, modern look, boxy and geometric with splashes of coral and aquamarine.

     To his disappointment, the clerk says room 111 isn’t available. 

     “But I made the reservation three weeks ago.” 

     “Room 113 is identical.” The young man seems irritated. “Kitchenette’s on the same side.” 

     “My wife and I always stay in 111.”

     “Look, mister, 111 is already occupied. 113 is next to the vending machines, so it’s noisy there. How about I put you in a quieter room on the other wing?”

     Nathan hesitates and the clerk says gruffly, “So what’ll it be?”

     “Put me in 113. I’ll take out my hearing aid and it’ll be fine.” He straightens his shoulders. It’s been a long day and he still has a phone call to make.

     The clerk locks the cash register, puts the bags on a luggage trolley and they set off in silence for his room. The courtyard is landscaped with palms and other tropical foliage whose names Nathan can’t recall. The water in the pool is dark, not gleaming turquoise as it used to at night. 

     The room smells musty. He cranks the jalousie windows open, preferring fresh breezes to air conditioning. It’s April and not yet sultry at night, a good time for a visit to Miami. It is also school break so his granddaughter, Claire, is able to fly out from California with her son, his first great-grandchild. How strange that his youngest child, the baby of the family, is a grandmother. He hasn’t seen Dora since Helen’s funeral. Now they are both widowed.

     He phones his daughter. Their conversation is, as always, perfunctory. He is more at ease with his other children, perhaps because they live close by and are therefore familiar. The way a family should be, he thinks.

     Dora says she’s relieved he’s arrived safely and Claire has just called from the airport. “She has to get a rental car, Dad. She’ll call you when she gets here.”

     “I’m going straight to bed,” he says. “Have her call me in the morning.”

     People walk by his window, laughing and talking. He hears a door slam. He takes out his hearing aid and dentures, puts on his pajamas and climbs into bed, exhausted. Sleep overtakes him at once. 


     The next morning Nathan steps out with his black oak walking stick and cautiously crosses the busy intersection to the restaurant he and Helen once frequented. It’s open 24 hours now, he notes, but few customers are in evidence. Their favorite booth is available. Splendid, he thinks, and examines the menu through his magnifying glass.

     "What happened to your senior specials?” he asks the waitress. She is a plump woman in a tight, powder blue nylon uniform.

     “Honey, we don’t get the seniors here like we used to.”

     He orders his usual, one softly poached egg and rye toast, hot tea with milk. The egg is overcooked. He’s not in any hurry, so he sends it back.

     The second egg is scarcely cooked at all. He hails the waitress and sends it back again.

     “Third time’s a charm, I hope,” she says, setting the third rendition of the egg before him. “How’s this one?”

     “It’s perfect,” he says and tucks in.


     Not until he re-crosses the intersection does Nathan notice the grotto at the corner of the building. He’s forgotten about the Vagabond’s signature grotto. Helen got a big kick out of it. She’d take new visitors around to show it off. The three bas relief, white plaster nymphs, out of focus and shadowy now, are still cavorting in their giant coral half-shell like the three graces or Venus times three, without a stitch on. Two pale blue dolphins leap from the basin toward the nymphs. But the basin is dry. He runs a hand along the rim and plaster flakes off. A fountain of water used to bubble up from the basin and cascade over the half-shell, bathing the nymphs and dolphins, night and day. 


     Nathan settles in poolside under an umbrella with a glass of ice water and a small cassette player. No one else is in the courtyard, except a maid pushing a cart down one of the breezeways. He dons earphones and puts an audio book in the player. 

     Now he has the leisure to read, but neither the vision nor the stamina. It’s retirement that wears a man down. He worked until he was 87 and, if Helen hadn’t taken sick five years ago, would be working still. 

     He dozes and wakes with a start when a gun shot goes off, thankfully only on the tape. 

     A woman is seated at a table under an umbrella halfway around the pool. She’s thumbing through a magazine and eating a sandwich.

     His wife would have befriended this woman. Helen was a one-woman welcome wagon, even if she had never been in a place before in her life. Once he took her with him on a business trip to Tokyo and before he could say “Ohio,” she had charmed a room full of Japanese businessmen and carried off some lovely silk and ribbon samples. Oh, she was game for anything. She even got into the public bath with him, in the buff like everyone else in the on-sen. He laughs aloud at the memory. “How do you do, Mr. Ishikawa,” she’d said gravely, when they encountered a colleague there who had often been a guest in their home. “How do you do, Mrs. Wasserman,” Ishikawa had replied, bowing his head.

     A phone rings nearby. He looks around, puzzled.

     The woman reaches into a large purse and takes out one of those new-fangled portable phones. He hears a muffled one-sided conversation, and then laughter. She puts the phone back in her purse and gets up and walks toward his side of the pool. At an opening in the hedge, she hesitates and looks at him from behind dark sunglasses. Her hair is carrot red.

     Nathan smiles and nods, uncertain of what to say.

     “How you doing?” she asks. Her voice is husky.

     He sits up straighter. “Couldn’t be better,” he tells her. “It’s a pleasure to stay at the Vagabond. We’ve been coming here for many years.”

     “You’re not alone then?”

     “Unfortunately, I am. My wife passed on three years ago. She’s with me in spirit though.”

     He gets to his feet and walks over to her. “I’m Nathan Wasserman,” he says, offering his hand.

     She takes his hand gingerly as if afraid it might break. “I’m Delia,” she murmurs. He can’t see her eyes even up close.

     “Delia, pleased to meet you. You know, this place used to be a lot livelier. I wonder why there aren’t more folks out by the pool. It’s a beautiful day.”

     “I bet they’re working,” she says. “Like me. I’m on my break now.”

     “I assumed you were a guest, too.”

     “I am, but I also work. It’s more of a residential motel now,” she explains.

     “We live in a residential hotel, too. Or I do, now. It’s not a hotel in the traditional sense, though.”

     “This one ain’t either.”

     “I mean, there’s no check-in, no lobby. And it’s not modern like the Vagabond. My wife prefers the kitchenette here.”

     Delia says gently, “You must have loved her very much.”

     “Yes I did, by gash.” His voice trembles a little, he notices, and he takes in air. He doesn’t usually talk this much at one time. “Sixty-two years we were married and I tell you, it wasn’t long enough.”


     “Gramps, that’s definitely not a non-smoking room you’re in. Can’t you smell it?” His granddaughter looms over him, tall and lithe in a scant bathing suit. “And there’s burn marks on the carpet.”

     “I don’t mind,” he says mildly. “You know, I used to smoke a pipe, myself.”

     “I loved the smell of your pipe,” she says. 

     While Claire talks, she keeps a close watch over her boy, who has the run of the pool. He swims like a fish, Nathan notes approvingly. But it’s a shame he hasn’t got a father on board. It’s a shame young people these days don’t give marriage a chance.

     His daughter and granddaughter are two fine-looking women, he thinks. Dora is full bodied and olive skinned like Helen with the same thick hair, silver now, but glossy black when she was a girl. Claire is fair and slender like her father. He remembers his three girls — Helen, Dora and Claire —emerging dripping and laughing together from this very pool. Three beauties, they were. Three water nymphs.

     Claire’s boy has a shock of red-brown hair. He’s skinny and freckled and already tall for his age. Who is the father, Nathan wonders. He’s been told but can’t remember.

     Danny clambers out of the pool and pads over to the adults. 

     “You said there’d be other kids,” he grouses.

     “Take him around the side and show him the grotto,” Nathan advises. “There’s no water in it now but otherwise it’s still intact.”

     “The nymphs!” Claire exclaims. “I’d forgotten all about them.”


     When they are alone he clears his throat and asks his daughter if she is comfortable enough now that she’s on her own. Did Jacques provide for her adequately?

     “I’m alright, Dad.” 

     “If you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask me for it,” he says a little awkwardly. He’s not accustomed to talking with Dora one on one. Helen was always the buffer. And his son-in-law was so loud and boisterous, no one could get a word in. He doesn’t miss Jacques in the slightest.  

     “Thank you,” she murmurs. Then she asks him suddenly, “Are you okay without Mother?”

     “I miss her terribly,” he says, then hesitates. “I suppose it must be difficult for you, as well? Being alone now.”

     “I’m alright,” she says again, looking away. 

     “Have you considered coming home?”

     “Home? What do you mean?”

     “Toronto.”

     “Dad, that’s not my home anymore, not after twenty-five years. And I’m certainly not alone here. I have lots of friends.”

     “That’s not the same as family.”

     “They’re like family.”

     “You’d still be there, if it weren’t for Jacques,” he says wistfully. “You and Claire.”

     “If it weren’t for Jacques, there’d be no Claire.”

     “Of course not.” 

     He can’t fault her marrying for love; he’d done as much himself, only made a far better choice. He has nothing against the French. He’d grown up among them, done business with them and, heaven help him, brought Jacques Beauchemin home and introduced him to his daughter.

     “It was a pity, all the same. It hurt your mother to see you go.”

     “To see Claire go, you mean.”

     “Not just Claire. Of course, she missed you, too.”

     Dora looks startled and Nathan, a little flustered, clears his throat.

     “You are our baby, after all,” he says.


     Claire and Danny return, chatting excitedly.

     “Why can’t a boy be a nymph, too?” he wants to know. “How come the nymphs are always girls?”

     “Danny is reading the Greek myths,” Claire explains. “Dryads and naiads are tree and water nymphs and they’re always female. They’re the hand maidens to the gods. I can’t think of what the male equivalent would be.”

     “I don’t know a thing about it,” Nathan admits.

     “I’ve never heard of dryads and naiads,” Dora confesses.

     “There’s Cupid, of course,” Claire says. “Cupid is a boy.”

     “Did you like the grotto, Danny?” his grandmother asks.

     “The dolphins are cool.”

     “The nymphs look a little down at the heel,” Claire laughs. “One of them has a nick in her nose.”

     “What a pity,” Dora murmurs.

     “You may not remember this, Mum. I was embarrassed by those nymphs.”

     “How come?” Danny asks.

     “Somebody started calling me a water nymph and the other kids teased me.”

     “Why?”

     “Because the nymphs in the grotto are naked.”

     “Your grandmother was something of a water nymph herself,” Nathan offers. 

     “Did Nana swim in this pool?” Claire asks. “I don’t remember.”

     “Maybe not too often during the day. It was mobbed with kids.”

     “What kids?” Danny demands, incredulous.

     “There used to be lots of grandparents staying here and lots of grandkids visiting them,” his mother explains.

     “I have photos to prove it,” Dora puts in. “I’ll show you when we get home.”


     Nathan lowers himself tentatively into the pool. “It’s not as warm as it used to be,” he says to Danny. “Or I’m colder than I used to be.”

     The boy grins. Then he flips over and does a hand stand, his scrawny calves waving wildly above the surface.

     The old man swims the length of the pool and back while the boy watches.

     “Not bad for an old codger, eh?”

     “That was awesome,” Danny says politely.


     Nathan peers, then waves at the woman coming out of one of the rooms.

     “Delia!” he calls. “Come over and meet my family.”

     “Glad to meet you folks,” she says warmly. “Four generations, that’s a fine thing to see.” 

     “Delia lives here,” Nathan explains. “It’s a residential motel now.”

     “I’ll see y’all later,” she says and heads out to the parking lot.


     Dora has been watching Room 111. 

     “I’ve seen three women and four or five men going in and out, and they’re all so different looking. They can’t be related. Isn’t that peculiar?”

     “Oh my,” Claire murmurs. She sits quietly for a few minutes, then excuses herself and goes into the motel office. 

     When she returns, her face reveals nothing of what she is about to say in a lowered voice so that Danny, who is in the pool, will not hear. She has to get close to the ears of parent and grandparent, as both are hard of hearing. They listen intently.

     “The Vagabond Motel, in fact, the entire neighborhood up and down Biscayne Boulevard for several miles, is a hangout for prostitutes. They rent rooms here by the hour. I must say, that’s a real sleaze ball in the office.”

     Silence greets this announcement. The two women look at Nathan, whose face is impassive.

     “You could stay in a motel that’s down the street from me,” Dora suggests, not for the first time ever, and he shakes his head no.

     “But Dad, it takes an hour to drive up here and an hour to drive back.”

     “You did it for years and never complained.”

     “I didn’t, but Jacques sure did.”

      “I’m not going to be chased away,” he says firmly. “I like it here well enough. In fact, it’s very peaceful. I have the entire pool as a swimming lane.”

     Dora is exasperated. “And Danny has no one to play with.”

     He frowns. “I am sorry about that. But I wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.”

     “Je comprend,” Claire says and he looks at her sharply. “Nana’s here with you, isn’t she?”

     “That’s right. She is.”

     “She wouldn’t want you to stay here alone. It isn’t safe. I saw some tough looking guys lurking about the office. I think they’re the pimps.”

     “Oh my God,” Dora breathes. “Dad, you’ve got to check out of here.”

     “It’s not the same, anymore,” Claire presses on. “You can’t bring back the past. Aren’t you visiting so you can be with us?”

     “Why are you women making such a fuss?” he counters. “We’re having a good time here and we’re all together. I haven’t felt in the least threatened. Have you?”

     Mother and daughter look at each other, roll their eyes.

     “Please bear with me one last time. I may not visit again.”

     They are all quiet for a while. His daughter bows her head. Will she miss me, he wonders. We scarcely know each other. 

     “What would Nana think about these ladies of the night and the belles de jour?” Claire wonders aloud.

     “Belles de jour?” Nathan smiles. “Are they pretty? I can’t tell.”

     “Don’t they have to be?” Dora asks.

     “No, Mum, not necessarily.”

     “She’d get their life stories out of them,” Nathan says. “She could get a stone to talk.”

     “I just want you to be careful, gramps.”

     “I won’t go out at night, he assures them. “I’ll walk softly and carry a big stick.” And he brandishes the black oak cane.

     He takes the girls and Danny out for dinner across the street and then they pile into the rental car to drive back to southwest Miami. 

     “Think about it some more, Dad,” Dora urges before leaving. “It would be easier if we could all be closer.”

     She’s right, he knows. But he can’t pack up and leave the Vagabond, any more than he could abandon the apartment where he and Helen had lived so many years. He will have to be carted out on a guerney. He walks slowly around the courtyard in early evening, thinking about his wife and their life together.

     Weary, he sinks into a lounge chair. The heat of day lingers like a light blanket, comfortable and no longer oppressive. He dozes.

     When he opens his eyes again, Helen is seated on a nearby chair. She leans over him smiling. He can smell the lilac scent she always wears.

     He reaches for her. “How I’ve missed you, darling girl.”

     “I’ll stay a while.” She strokes his hand.

     In the twilight and with his eyes clouded and tearing up again, her lovely face is indistinct.

     “Stay forever,” he tells her. 

     “Are you alright, Nathan?”

     She never calls him Nathan. Confused, he struggles to sit up.

     “We are lodged in a house of ill repute,” he manages to say. “What do you think about that, dear?

     Helen’s laughter peels out like bells tinkling. What had he said that was funny? Her face flickers near his, strangely doubled. He blinks several times.

     “If you’re happy here, it’s fine to be here,” she says softly.

     “Couldn’t be happier,” he assures her.

     He remembers then what Helen had said about Mr. Ishikawa’s girlfriend. They had been introduced to her in the on-sen. She was a geisha.

     “I’ve never seen him so happy.” 

     “But he has to pay her,” he’d huffed. 

     “He’s happy,” she’d repeated. “Nothing else matters.”

     “Are you alright?” she asks again.

     “Got a headache, is all.”

     “Maybe you’re dehydrated. Drink this.” She puts a water bottle in his hand, opens the top for him. He drinks thirstily, and looks at her again. Her face is in focus now, more or less. Her eyes are dark pools.

     “Delia,” he says. “I thought...”

     “I know. You must’ve woke up from a dream.”

     “It was a beautiful dream.”

     She nods, smiling. “So are you moving out of our house of ill repute?”

     “No, I’m staying on.”

     “You’re staying?” She seems surprised.

     “I’m safe here, aren’t I?”

     “Oh, sure, you’ll be just fine.”

     “What about you? Will you be fine?” he asks her.

     She shrugs. “It’s a good enough living. I got three kids. No one’s helping me.”

     “Three. Who takes care of them,” he hesitates. “While you work?”

     “The oldest girl is old enough now, twelve. I don’t need a sitter no more.”

     “And the young ones?”

     “They’re boys, eight and nine.”

     He ponders this. “Any chance your boys could play in the pool with my great-grandson. My granddaughter would keep an eye on them.”

     She smiles thinly. “The management won’t go for that.”

     “I can handle the management,” he says. “I still know how to get things done.”

     She shrugs. “I know what they’re going to say. Everyone’ll want to do it, the hookers, the maids. We’re not running no nursery school is what they’ll say. Our insurance won’t cover it.”

     “Can your boys swim?

     “Oh, sure. They’d have a ball in that pool.”

     “I’ll get to work on it in the morning. I’ll make it worth your while.”

     “You do that,” she says, but doesn’t sound convinced.

     “If only we were in Japan,” he sighs. “You’d be a geisha. It’s an honorable profession. Neither you nor your children would be excluded from the public baths.”

     She laughs again, a deep comfortable rumble. “Maybe I should relocate.”

     Before she leaves, he pulls the wallet out of his back pocket and peels off a fifty-dollar bill.”

     “Take the night off,” he tells her. “Do something special with your kids.” 

     “Alright, I will.” Her smile is brilliant now.

     “I don’t want to see you back here tonight.”

     “Thank you,” she says. “You’re a prince.”

     He watches her go out to the parking lot and drive away.


     Alone, Nathan sits in a deck chair by the pool while the sky darkens. How he’d love to pull this off, not only for the boy’s sake. Helen would be so pleased. It may not be possible, though. The clerks must all be surly and perhaps Delia is humoring him. She might come back to the motel after he’s asleep to turn a few more tricks. She might not want her children anywhere near the Vagabond. Claire and Dora might not bring Danny back here.

     A spasm of doubt grips him momentarily. It’s like grief and heartburn combined, and then it passes. He sits up straighter.

     “I won’t take no for an answer,” he promises Helen. “Why shouldn’t children use an unused swimming pool?”

     He stays outside a little longer, waiting for the neon sign to light up so he can watch the stars shoot up and down again.

 

 

About the Author, Jo-Anne Rosen: My fiction has appeared in Other Voices, The Florida Review, FlashQuake, The Summerset Review, Pithead Chapel, Flashquake, Valparaiso Fiction Review and other journals. I publish an online literary journal at www.echapbook.com and am co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update (www.socolitupdate.com). Some of my stories have been performed in local readers’ theaters and at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood, California. What They Don’t Know (published 2015) is my first fiction collection. See www.joannerosen.us for more info.

Che

     “Go in the house,” he yelled at his brother and sister. The palomino stallion exploded onto the front yard, whirling and stomping. He was in his tree and not sure he was safe there.

     Mr. Murry and his hired man dug their heels in the goathead and  hornytoad-infested patch of grass, weeds, and sand they called a lawn, trying to hold the beast, and still he drug them from the mail box to Mother’s jonquil bed. For such a monster, he had dainty feet, and their fine dance made a mess of her tackstems and Russian sage.

     Paul hauled hay and cut grass for Mr. Murry, and he took him and Simon to cattle sales and flea markets. He was generous and nice to them, treating them to roasted peanuts and Coca-Cola, but sometimes he preached at them, which Paul didn’t appreciate. Another thing he didn’t appreciate was the way he looked at Mother. And flirting with her. Didn’t even try to hide that he was sweet on her. 

     Mr. Murry had the soft hands of a man who worked in an office – which he did at Tinker Field – and tried to make up for it by acquiring livestock that he fooled with on weekends in his forty acres. Paul believed he looked up to men like Che at the same time he looked down his nose at them.

     “What would you want a horse like that for; you don’t mind me asking?” Paul said the day before to their neighbor when he and Billy brought the stallion home. The yellow terror had kicked the homemade trailer to splinters by the time they got him backed up to a corral.

     “Watch yourself, son,” yelled Mr. Murry, waving a quirt at the stallion. Like that was going to do any good. “Ride him in the Frontier Days parade if I’ve a mind to, is what for. After your daddy breaks him for me. Shoot, they’re likely to name me grand marshal they see me sitting a rank steed broke by the great man himself.”

     Paul thought if he shut up, Mr. Murry would let the whole thing go, realize how idiotic the idea was, but the man kept on about it, until Paul realized he meant to go ahead with it, so he tried to take the chicken shit way out and mumbled, “Che, he doesn’t really ride anymore, Mr. Murry. I know he would really like to help you – and he sure could – but him being old and stove up and all …”

     Mr. Murry poked his hired man with the short whip and smirked. “Hell, your old man’s a world’s champion, son.” Then he laughed. Billy didn’t.

     His big goddamn mouth was going to get Che killed.  He punched the pillow that night like it was his face. When he grew tired, a couple of my jabs slipped the case and grazed Simon’s snotty cheek, but he was so far under Che’s ‘surefire’ asthma remedy, he wouldn’t have noticed if it’d been Floyd Patterson himself that slugged him. He only whimpered and turned over in the bed.

     As far as Paul knew, the first Che ever saw of the animal that was going to kill him was when he pulled the station wagon up in the gravel, opened the door, lifted his hat, grinned out the corner of his mouth as he was want to do, and said, “Well, whatta we got here, boys?”

     Mr. Murry, all of a sudden, acted like he was in a hurry. He gleeked out a diarrhea stream of Union Mule on the hyacinth and said, “Here’s a stud horse, Mr. Dennehey, we thought you’d want to take a look at before we called in Danny Schmitz and his boys.”

     “Preciate that, Howard,” Che said, his eyes never leaving the horse. “Yeah, you needn’t trouble Schmitty and them over something like this.” Then he shifted his eyes up to Paul like he hoped and feared he would. “Skinny down here off that locust branch, Son, and give me a hand.

     Paul was proud and terrified.

     Che leaned over. “He’s a fine looking animal.”

     “He’s nasty. I’m scared.”

     “I know you are. Just reach over and take that lead from Mr. Curry and hold on with all you got. You can do it.”

     He was just about to tell him, no, he didn’t think he could do it when the stallion lunged forward as quick as a cat and knocked Che to the ground.

     MJ started crying.

     “Thought I told you to go inside!”

     “Who was it died, and made you my lord and master?” she said.

     Che laughed hard, placed both hands to the ground so to get back up, then smiled at Paul. “It’s okay, Son. I know better’n to come up on a spirited horse. New and all to each other. Like that.”

     The horse’s eyes were about to pop out his head, and he kicked at the two men trying desperately to hold him. “Think we got him as ready as he’s ever gonna be, Mr. Dennehey,” said Mr. Murry. “Don’t know how much longer we gonna hold this animal.”

     “That’s fine, Howard,” Che said. “Just fine.”

     Che got the toe of one boot in a stirrup and maybe his left butt cheek in the saddle before the two men let go their hold, and that horse jumped straight in the air like a helicopter, whipsawed his middle far to the right as quick as the copperhead snake had uncoiled to kill Paul’s pup, Blackie, and then threw Che hard against the slate siding of the house.

     He hit the wall about chest high with a sickening thud, and Paul knew his arm was broken before he tried to hide it from him.

     Now Simon started blubbering.

     Mother came out of the house. She was not one to comment on a situation until she had studied it some, and Paul knew well the manner in which she took in a scene. First, she’d find the children: Simon and MJ standing together like twins – which they weren’t – holding hands and bawling, her eyes would behold him moving fast, she’d see Mr. Murry and Billy running after a wild horse in her front yard, and then she would find her husband up against the house on all fours and laughing like it was April Fool’s Day.

     She scowled, but her eyes held that tiny, amused hint of light in them that she claimed was her Welsh. “You kids go inside and read or color or draw,” she said to the children, who didn’t move an inch. She said to Paul, “Son, see to your father.”

     “That’s where I was heading, Mother. Don’t worry. I’ll bring him in to you.”

     “No, you won’t.” She plopped on the big box she kept outside for her garden tools. “I’m tired. I think I will just sit and watch.” 

     Mr. Murry took off his hat. “Morning, Mrs. Dennehey. I believe your husband may be hurt.”

     “Good day to you, Mr. Murry. My husband’s people came from over near Killyslavan, and that was after they were driven out of Ardnamurchan by famine and the English. They were a hardy breed. He’s fine.”

     Che was still grinning when Paul reached him, but he knew he was in pain. 

     “You’re not crying are you, Son?”

     “Hell no. These dang allergies.”

     “Okay. Fine. I got a cramp in my leg. Rub it for me. Grind it hard like you do.”

     “Your arm?”

     “Arm’s fine. Don’t need but one to ride that rhinoceros-headed stick of dynamite anyway. I do need to ask you something though.”

     “Sure. Anything,” Paul said, brushing his shirt sleeve across his eyes.

     “Can you hold that horse for me?”

     “You’re not getting on him again?”

     “I ain’t been on him once yet. And that’s what I need you for. Can you hold him? I mean really hold him. Until I get on him, really on him? With me in a good seat and my feet set deep in them worthless Spanish stirrups? I don’t want Billy or Murry. It’s gotta be you. I want you. It’s gonna take ever thing you got though, son. Can you do it?”

     No way he could do it. He nodded. “I can do it.”

     “Not with tears in your eyes, you can’t.”

     “Okay. Okay.”

     “Fine then. Let’s go.”

     Mr. Murry and Billy had finally got the stallion settled down somewhat and were prancing him out the gate. 

     “Hold on, gentlemen,” Mother said.

     “What’s that you said, ma’am?” Mr. Murry hollered from the gate.

     You couldn’t have gotten Mother to yell if Satan was about to pounce. She considered raising one’s voice to another person about the lowest form of personal behavior there was. If Howard Murry was going to hear what she had to say – which he wanted – he was going to have to come closer. Which meant he had to bring the horse closer. Which is what Mother wanted in the first place.

     “'Hold on,’ is what I said. Hold on because Mr. Dennehey will ride that horse of yours.”

     Mr. Murry took off his hat again. He looked at Mother but couldn’t hold her gaze, and his eyes slipped downward. “It was wrong of me, Mrs. Dennehey. We’ll take this animal off your property now.”

     “Howard, I do not know for sure if you intended to humiliate Che Dennehey in front of his children, but I will accept your apology, nonetheless. Now, if you will hand that lead rope to my son and back away, I believe my husband will ride.”

     You could see that Mr. Murry wanted to say more. He didn’t. 

     When that rope touched Paul’s hands, it felt like he’d just been handed the tow line attached to a submarine. There was no way in hell he was going to hold this creature. The horse yanked his head, and Paul thought both his shoulders had come out their sockets. 

     “Hold him, son, hold him,” Che said softly as he took the reins. “That’s the way, Paul,” he said when he settled in the saddle. “Don’t get your face In there.” 

     Too late. The palomino jerked again, this time sideways, and the tooth just back of Paul’s dog tooth flew out the side of his mouth. 

     “That’s it, son. Let him out!”

     If someone ever tries to tell you that a full-grown American horse cannot turn a complete circle in the air without at least one hoof touching dirt somewhere in the entire three hundred-sixty degree process, you’ll know that you’ve just been told a lie, because that is exactly what that palomino stallion did with Che Dennehey seated firmly on his back that day in their little front yard. When the animal finally landed, damned if he didn’t turn around (literally) and do it again – only this time in the other direction. 

     That magnificent mankiller jumped, bucked, twisted, kicked, stomped and did everything but turn a somersault for what seemed like the rest of the morning to shake the man from his back and couldn’t. At times, Che’s body looked like one of MJ’s ragdolls being shook in the mouth of a large, irate dog. Other times, he resembled the hood ornament welded fast and unmoving on a runaway pickup bouncing along the pasture. Most of the twenty minutes, though – which is how long the ride actually lasted – he looked glorious and in total control above the beast through the sultry June gluck, his bent and twisted right arm held high for balance, with Paul and Billy screaming their throats dry, Simon and MJ only weeping slightly now, Mother sitting ramrod straight and grand atop her garden chest, and Mr. Murry, standing at the gate, gape-mouthed and petrified.

     When the stud horse finally gave up, Che aimed him straight through the gate at a dead run and ran him hard through the orchard. He sprinted him past the crabapple trees and pulled him to a splendid stop at the one cherry tree. For another thirty minutes Che walked, trotted, galloped and raced the palomino through the fruit trees. By the time he eased him back through the gate and handed the reins to Mr. Murry, that yellow stud horse was as sweet and behaved as Simon’s broom stick pony. 

     Mr. Murry tried to take his wallet out his pocket, but Che waved him off. “Was my pleasure, Howard.” What he didn’t wave off, though, was the half-pint Mr. Murry took out of his other pocket. “Don’t mind if I do, sir,” said Che, taking a big swig and then shoving the bottle in his own back pocket. “I’ll probably be sore tomorrow,” was all he added, walking toward the orchard to retrieve his hat which had fallen off during the ride.

     Mother probably thought Paul followed Che to the orchard – which is what he usually did – so he didn’t think she knew he was still in earshot when she said, “Mr. Murry, I will allow Paul to continue helping you around your place because he needs the money for the baseball items he swears he cannot do without, but you are not to speak anymore to him or to Simon about evil and sin and morality for I am sure they will find it in their own bad time and method. Now, sir, you may take that animal off my property.”

 

 

 

About the Author, Stanley Beesley: Scholastic Magazine chose my acclaimed book Vietnam: The Heartland Remembers (University of Oklahoma Press) as its book club selection for mature readers on the American experience in Vietnam. The Sunday Oklahoman said this about my collection of short stories, Sweetwater, Oklahoma; which won the University of Oklahoma Master’s Thesis Award, “Beesley is a strong, talented, witty writer whose works are likely to show up in anthologies and future textbooks.” Pegasus Books released my novel The Last Man to Hit .400: A Love Story (2016) “Last Man superb. Stanley Beesley hits it out of the park. The Last Man to Hit .400 is terrific. Great characters. Original premise. More twists and turns than a ballpark pretzel. The year’s Silver Slugger award winner in Fiction,” Carolyn Hart, three-time Edgar Award winner and author of Walking On My Grave and Ghost in Time and 58 other novels.

Cat Killer

     Ethan Hoffman sat in a white plastic chair on his porch, drank scotch from a mug with the words World’s Greatest Dad written in bright, bold letters across it, and listened to the electric chorus of a thousand cicadas. It was a Wednesday night, late July, the air heavy and still. He searched the tops of the towering maple trees for the insects’ vibrating abdomens and translucent wings, until his eyes were drawn to the light of Mr. Peterson’s bedroom window across the street. Ethan watched him take off his jeans, fold them carefully and lay them on top of his oak bureau. Mr. Peterson was 61-years-old, had retired too early, could no longer pay his mortgage and had recently watched his wife pack two flowered suitcases, get into a car with a man she met online and drive away. He sat on the edge of his king-sized bed, in a white t-shirt and loose jockey underwear, put his head in his large hands and cried uncontrollably. On nights like these – despite the fact Ethan hated his job, his 10-year-old son showed signs of Asperger’s, and he couldn’t remember the last time his wife had touched him—he felt fortunate.  People he knew had divorced, lost jobs and houses, become addicts, hung themselves from trees in the college woods or jumped from the tops of parking garages in the city. At their funerals, as he stared at their distorted faces, he understood just how fragile their lives must have been.  

     He looked into Samantha Robinson’s bay window. The light of the television bathed the living room and her profile in a soft, blue light. He watched her bring a large wine glass to her lips. Her black Audi was in the curved driveway, her husband’s BMW absent, as it always was, on Monday and Wednesday nights. 

     He told himself that one day he would summon the courage to sneak across the street, duck behind the row of yellow roses around her driveway, slowly climb the three steps of her back deck and stand before the sliding glass door. He closed his eyes and imagined her turning to look at him from the couch with a mischievous smile. She would walk to the door, wearing a blue silk slip that rose and fell against her thighs, her red painted toes barely touching the marble, kitchen floor. He pressed a hand against the glass as she stood behind it. The thin strap from her left shoulder fell to her elbow; the top of her dark nipple peered out from the blue silk. The door would be unlocked and he pictured himself sliding it open, letting her lead him upstairs where… 

     A bird shrieked. He opened his eyes and looked down the front steps. On a broken, gray paver, sat Mrs. Heinrich’s fat, white cat, a house wren held in its jaws; the bird’s tiny body shuddered as it tried to free itself. 

     “Drop it,” Ethan said.

     The cat’s tail swung like a metronome behind it. It smiled and its teeth pierced the skin of the bird. The wren’s black eyes shut. Its head drooped. Drops of blood stained the white fur around the cat’s mouth. 

     Ethan hated the cat. It killed songbirds and voles, left them in Ethan’s son’s sandbox, or in his wife’s flowerbeds. She screamed when she found them, stormed inside and would tell him to call the police.

     “For what?” he always asked her.

     “Murder, littering, trespassing. I don’t care. Just make it stop.”

     Once, he went to Mrs. Heinrich’s house, knocked on the door, determined to tell her to keep the cat inside or he would call the police and animal control, but she never answered. In the ten years they lived next door he had only seen her a few times, just before dawn, in a white nightgown, planting bulbs in her garden or floating like a ghost past her upstairs windows. An old Buick that never moved sat in the garage and he had never seen anyone visit. She was childless, as far as he could tell, the cat her only companion. Each morning Ethan roamed the yard and collected the scattered bodies of birds and rodents in plastic grocery bags, cursing Mrs. Heinrich, her cat and his wife the entire time.

     The cat stared at him with wide, yellow eyes, the dead bird clenched in its mouth. Ethan felt the burning rage he kept in his gut boil, spill into his veins and travel through his entire body. He threw the mug as hard as he could and watched it sail past the cat’s head and land in the rhododendrons. The cat sat perfectly still, even as Ethan walked to the front of the porch and picked up his son’s aluminum baseball bat. He raised it above his head, jumped over the four steps and brought the bat down as hard as he could. The cat dropped the bird, turned to run, but the bat crushed its back right foot. It screeched in pain and ran on three legs through the bushes to its own yard. Ethan let go of the bat and ran after it. The cat had almost reached the back steps of Mrs. Heinrich’s house when Ethan lunged, grabbed its tail and pulled it towards him. He knelt in the soft, wet grass, the cat beneath him, his right hand clenching the throat, that felt, beneath the soft fur, as thin as a plastic straw. The cat dug his nails into Ethan’s arms. He muffled a scream and tightened his fist until he felt his fingers dig into his palm. The cat’s eyes bulged, the nails retracted and when he finally relaxed his fist the cat’s body let out a slow, final breath, like a punctured bicycle tire. 

     A floodlight came on. The backdoor opened.

     “What have you done?” Mrs. Heinrich asked as she stood at the top of her back steps.

     She was wearing a long, sheer nightgown. Her white hair reached below her shoulders. Her fingers were long and thin, her skin so pale he could see the outline of her veins. He watched her long, slender breasts swing and brush against the light fabric as she walked down the concrete steps. She stood above him in the grass. The air around him grew cold. 

     “Give it to me,” she said.

     Ethan stood, handed her the dead cat and wondered if she was going to call the police. 

     She took a step toward him. He felt her stale, dying breath on his lips and stared into her bright, gray eyes. Hairs rose from every pore on his body.

     “I’m not going to call the police, if that’s what you’re wondering. You’ll be punished, every day, for the rest of your life, in ways the police could never imagine.”

     “I was trying to save the wren,” he said.

     “It was already dead.”

     She turned around, cradled the cat in her arms, and walked up the steps into her house.

     He stayed in her backyard until she turned off the light, then walked back through the bushes, sat in his chair and poured another mug of scotch. His hands trembled. 

 

The next morning he looked out his bedroom window and saw Mrs. Heinrich, in the same thin gown, kneeling in her yard, digging a hole with a small garden shovel, the body of the cat next to her on the grass. He felt the familiar seeds of guilt sprout in his stomach and turn into vines that constricted his heart, just like they did each time he grabbed his son by the arms and shook him too hard or when he felt like hitting his wife.

     That night, as he sat on the porch, Mrs. Heinrich stood before her bedroom window and stared down at him. As soon as he stared back she slipped behind the walls. Each night, as soon as he sat down on the white chair, she appeared in the window, reminding him of what he had done and each time he stared back, silently acknowledging his guilt and her sentence, she disappeared. 

     He was almost disappointed when, eight nights later, she wasn’t there. 

     “Have you seen Mrs. Heinrich?” he asked his wife the next morning as they sipped their coffee. 

     “I never see her,” she said.

     It was a Sunday. The two of them looked out the kitchen window and watched their son, lying in the grass, pointing at the clouds, talking to some imaginary friend.

     “I think she’s dead,” he said.

     “Why would you think that?”

     “I see her every night, standing in front of her bedroom window. She wasn’t there last night.”

     “Call the police,” she said. “And tell them to take the cat too.”

     He waited until his wife took their son with her to her sister’s, and then walked next door to Mrs. Heinrich’s house. He rang the doorbell and listened to the electric chimes echo through the rooms. He put his face against the glass oval and looked inside. The hallway walls were bare, except for a long, gray trench coat on a single hook. He checked the door, but it was locked. He walked around the house and peered into each window searching for any sign of life. All he saw were large pieces of furniture that looked like they had been bought at the Good Will. 

     He walked up the back steps, turned the doorknob and pushed the door open. He stepped into her kitchen. The air was cold and stale. Dust floated through a stream of light. Next to the white Formica and chrome table was a bowl of cat food covered in flies and a small bowl of curdled milk. The kitchen counter was lined with cat salt and pepper shakers and coffee mugs with pictures of cats, clichés written beneath them.  

     He walked into the dining room. The table was set for three, with white china, crystal glasses and silver. He ran his finger through the dust on a plate. He heard the song of a wren come from an open window upstairs and followed it up the steep staircase into a long, narrow hallway. He walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. It was empty, except for a tube of toothpaste and a prescription bottle of Wellbutrin. 

     The bird’s song became a long, slow whistle that came from her bedroom. He walked down the hall. The air smelled fecal. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and stared at her dead body, in the white gown, hands crossed over her stomach, her eyes straining to see the crucifix over her bed. Her jaw was open and her feet were purple. Her skin had loosened, fallen away from the bone and landed in small puddles on the white sheet. On the table beside the bed was a Bible. He thumbed through the pages and found a wallet-sized picture of a young boy, around eight-years-old. His face was pale; his nose long and thin like hers, the narrow lips forcing a painful smile. On the back was the name Michael, the dates 1971-1988.

      He knelt next to the bed, took her frail, thin hand in his, and felt the echo of his pulse. He closed his eyes, saw his mother’s face, his son laying in the grass, his wife when she was younger and Mrs. Heinrich, carrying the dead body of her teenage boy up the back steps. He pictured himself there, dead, alone, what he realized then, as his greatest fear and what must have been hers too. And if the cat had been there, she wouldn’t have died alone. Her words that night no longer seemed like some predestined curse. It was a warning, from someone who must have understood loneliness better than anyone else he had ever known. He looked at the cross and asked for forgiveness.

     A quadrangle of light came through the window and rested on her face. The wren chirped. When he looked over at it, it flew away.

     “Thank you,” he whispered, put her hand back on her stomach, and covered it with her other hand.

     When he returned home he called Mike O’Connor, the local police chief, and told him that Mrs. Heinrich was dead.

     “Where is she?” Mike asked.

     “In her bed,” Ethan said.

     “How do you know she’s dead?”

     “I went inside to check on her. I couldn't find a pulse.”

     “Next time, just call the police,” Mike said and hung up.

     He sat on the porch and watched Mike and the county coroner carry her body, wrapped in a white sheet, from the front door into the back of a van. His wife pulled her car into the driveway as the van drove away. His son got out of the car, ran up the steps, but before he could open the front door Ethan grabbed him, knelt down and hugged him. He kissed him on the forehead and told him that he loved him. 

     “Okay,” his son whispered and went inside.

     His wife stood at the top of the porch steps and stared at him.

     “She’s dead?”

     Ethan nodded, walked over to her, and took her in his arms. She stood perfectly still as he kissed her neck and whispered I love you too

     “What about the cat?” she asked.

     “It ran away.” 

     She opened the door and went inside.

     He forgave her for her coldness. Forgave his son for his lack of affection. They would never understand how much he loved them, and if it hadn’t been for the cat, Mrs. Heinrich or her dead son, he wouldn’t have either. 

 

Three days later he came home from work and saw an older, silver Mercedes parked in front of Mrs. Heinrich’s house. Her front door was open. He walked up the front steps and knocked on the door. He heard footsteps upstairs. 

     “Hello,” he said as he opened the door and stepped into the foyer. 

     A man a few years younger than Ethan came down the stairs, stood at the base of them and glared at him. He wore too tight jeans, white sneakers and a perfectly pressed, white, button-down shirt. His hair was blond, styled to look like he just rolled out of bed. He had her thin nose and lips, her gray eyes, pale skin and thin bones. 

     “Can I help you?” the man asked.

     “Are you Michael?” 

     “How could you know that?” 

     “There was a picture, on top of her Bible. I saw it when I found her.”

     “Really?”

     “My name is Ethan Harris. I live next door.”

     “Why were you in her house?”

     “I hadn’t seen her. I was worried. She died peacefully, in her sleep.”

     “Are you sure?”

     “She was in bed. Her hands on her stomach. She looked like she was smiling.”

     “I suppose that is what most people would like to hear.”

     “Will there be a funeral?”

     “Already cremated.”

     “If there is anything I can do,” Ethan said.

     “I think you’ve done enough.”

     “Will there be some kind of service?”

     Michael took a step towards him and narrowed his eyes

     “Did you know her?” 

     “We were neighbors,” Ethan said.

     “You didn’t know her. If you did, you wouldn’t really care if there was a service, or if she died in peace, which I’m almost certain, she didn’t. A truck from The Salvation Army will be here tomorrow. The house will be on the market by the end of the week.”

     Michael grabbed his elbow and led him out the door. Ethan was too stunned to resist and stood speechless on the step as Michael slammed the door shut.  

     He walked down the front steps, over the cracks of the sidewalk and into his own house. His wife was on the couch in the living room, drinking Chardonnay, watching reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Their son sat next to her, staring at the screen. A fat man fell through a trampoline. 

     “She had a son,” Ethan said.

     His wife stared at him. His son watched a dog scoot in circles.

     “Who?” his wife asked and muted the television.

     “Mrs. Heinrich. He’s over there now.”

     “Is he moving in?”

     “No.”

     “Good,” she said and turned the volume back up.

     Ethan went into the kitchen, grabbed his coffee mug from the cupboard and the scotch from under the sink. He walked between his family and the television, out to the porch as a cat played chopsticks on a piano.

     He sat in his chair and filled the mug with scotch. He heard the front door of Mrs. Heinrich’s house shut. He looked over and watched Michael put a single box in the trunk, get in his car and drive away. 

     When Ethan’s mug was empty he filled it again. The sun went down. The cicadas started their nightly chant. He watched Mr. Peterson take off his clothes and cry on his bed. He watched Samantha Robinson bring a glass to her lips and change the channel. 

     He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there or how many glasses of scotch he’d had when he saw a white cat, sitting at the end of his walkway, staring at him. He stood up and walked slowly towards it. The cat jogged across the street, into Samantha’s driveway. He followed it through the rose bushes, into the backyard and up the steps of the back deck. The cat sat in front of the sliding glass door. He knelt in front of it and whispered, I’m sorry. 

     The glass door slid open. The cat ran into Mr. Peterson’s yard. Ethan looked up and saw Samantha standing above him, wearing a green silk nightshirt that came down to her thighs, the top three buttons open.

     “Hello,” she said.

     He stood up and faced her. He smelled the coconut shampoo in her long, dark hair and the cheap, red wine on her breath.

     “Do you want a drink?” she asked.

     “Okay,” he said.

     She took his hand and led him inside, across the marble floor, down the one step to the living room. The television was large and bright. On the screen a pack of hyenas surrounded an injured wildebeest. 

     “You sit,” she said and walked back into the kitchen.

     He watched her fill two large glasses with wine from a box on the counter.

     She handed him a glass and sat next to him.

     “To neighbors,” she said and held her glass in front of her.

     He gently touched her glass with his.

     “And windows,” she said and laughed softly.

     He took a sip of wine. It tasted like fruit juice mixed with vodka.

     “Do you watch me?” she asked. 

     “Sometimes,” he said.

     “Do you think about what it would be like?”

     “What what would be like?”

     “To fuck,” she said.

     “Sometimes.”

     “Do you really want to know?”

     “Yes,” he whispered, but as she dug her nails into the back of his neck and put her large tongue in his mouth, he wasn’t so sure. She unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it off him. She bit his nipples, undid his belt, pulled off his pants and boxers, then took off his socks and threw them over her shoulder. She stood in front of him, curled her drunken lip, and pulled the nightshirt over her head. Her skin was light gold, her nipples large and flat, on top of breasts the size and consistency of too full water balloons. She put her hands on his shoulders, straddled him and slowly moved against him. Her pubic hair felt as coarse and stiff as a scouring pad. He was almost inside her when he saw flames in the mirror over her fireplace. 

     He stood. Samantha fell to the floor. He ran out the front door, across the street and up his front steps. Sirens wailed. Flames shot out the windows. The metal doorknob felt hot in his hand. He opened the door and a wave of smoke knocked him down. He smelled burning wood, hair and skin. He crawled back towards the door, screaming the names of his wife and child, until two EMTs grabbed his ankles and dragged him down the steps to a waiting ambulance where they covered him in wool blanket. He watched firemen enter the burning house with oxygen tanks on their backs. 

     His wife survived. His son didn’t. A burning rafter fell on her legs outside the child’s room. Crown molding, engulfed in flame, fell on the left side of her face. The insurance company hired investigators. It was an electrical fire, caused by the knob and tube wiring his wife had asked him, years ago, to replace. 

     They moved to a single story house on Westdale Avenue, on the very edge of town. In his spare time he built ramps and widened hallways for her wheelchair. In the summer evenings, when he pushed her down the street, a blanket over her thin, useless legs, the left side of her face as raw as a baby mouse, he heard the cicadas call, summoning the ghosts of cats, old women and children, who followed him with every painful step.

 

 

About the Author, Nate House: Other stories of mine have been published in Armchair Shotgun, The Bicycle Review, Kudzu House, Apt, Sentenia, The Rambler, Troika, and other publications. My novel Float was published in 2011 by Aqueous Books. 

The Way of the World

by Karl Harshbarger

     Jack Ammerman, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, had slept with thousands of his female students.

     Well, not thousands, but certainly hundreds.

     All right, he hadn't actually slept with them.  But in a way, in a manner of speaking, he had violated them:  He had imagined what it might be like to sleep with them.

     And - Ammerman was absolutely sure of this - these young women had also violated him.  Because certainly his imaginings weren't all that one-sided.  These girls, that is, the ones he imagined what it might be like to sleep with, had certainly maneuvered to place themselves dead square in front of his life.  They came into his office or stopped him in the hallway or talked to him out on one of the sidewalks of the university, and somehow, by the tilt of their heads, the tossing of their hair, the tone of their voices, or whatever it is that young women do in these situations, had managed to convey the message:  I am dreaming of you.

     Not that Ammerman had ever followed up on any of this.

     After all, he was a happily married man.

     He was.  He had been happily married - as these things go - for almost 12 years now.

     And, further, he was more than aware there could be consequences.  Legal consequences.  Career consequences.  Worse.

     He wasn't crazy, after all.

     Also, in addition, he understood something of the psychology of these young women - the ones who maneuvered to place themselves in front of his life.  They weren't really available.  Because these girls were essentially nice girls, the girl-next-door kind of girls, the truth being they were simply experimenting, trying themselves out, growing toward womanhood.  In that sense they were playing a game.  And like all games, this game had its rules.  For sure (and probably this is why they had chosen him) they were counting on Ammerman to hold up his end of the game.  Which meant that he was to remain unavailable.  Which meant that he was to remain happily married. 

     And, so, finally, if everyone, on his side, Ammerman, and on their side, all these girls, played by the rules, it was all very enjoyable and nobody would get hurt.

* * *

     Yet that was perhaps about to change.

     Because a female student named Cindy Carson had set up an appointment with Ammerman in his office at 10:30 in the morning.  Cindy Carson was one of Ammerman's many, many students and was taking his course, "Modernity and Restoration Comedy."  She had, Ammerman discovered by consulting his grade book, received a C- on her term paper, a paper she had entitled, "An Analysis of Congreve's The Way of the World."  Ammerman assumed she had made this appointment to talk about that C-.

     "Good morning, Dr. Ammerman," said this Cindy Carson at Ammerman's office door at 10:28.  She smiled a bright smile.  As most girls do in these situations.

     "Good morning," said Ammerman moving from behind his desk to one of the two chairs he used for consulting with students.  "Please come in."

     "Shall I close the door, Dr. Ammerman?"

     "Yes, could you?"

     "Of course."

     Ammerman sat down in one of the chairs and indicated to Cindy Carson that she was to sit in the other.

     Except she was wearing a short skirt.   Actually an exceptionally short skirt.  In fact, so short it more than occurred to Ammerman that it would have been far more decent of him to be sitting back behind his desk and not in a chair opposite.  Because how in the world was this girl going to protect her modesty as she sat down?

     "Here?" said Cindy Carson looking at the chair Ammerman had indicated.

     "Yes, please, if you don't mind."

     Of course, Ammerman didn't get up and move behind his desk.  He remained seated right where he was.  And Cindy Carson did sit down.

     While preserving her modesty.

     She managed this by keeping her legs tightly together and edging herself sideways into the chair.

     No frontal assault.

     "So," said this Cindy Carson.

     "So," said Ammerman.

     He watched her pull at the hems of her skirt perhaps moving them a fraction of an inch forward.

     Then she crossed her legs.

     And that was a frontal assault.  

     Because Ammerman saw a flash of white from under there.

     After that flash of white Cindy Carson leaned over and pulled her paper out of her rucksack.  She placed the paper on her lap, looked up at Ammerman and smiled.

     "So?" she said again.

     "So?" said Ammerman.

     "So?" she said. 

     This was not going quite to plan, thought Ammerman.

     Nevertheless he reached over to his desk for his grade book, opened it and ran his fingers down the names of the students in "Modernity and Restoration Comedy" until he came to the name, "Carson, Cindy."

     "Ah, yes," said Ammerman.

     He looked up from the grade book to her and saw she was continuing to look right at him.

     "Miss Carson, according to my grade book I see gave you a C- on your paper."

     "Yes," she said.

     "And you're here to talk about your paper?"

     "Yes."

     "Well, then, perhaps then we should proceed to the business at hand."

     "Yes."

     Ammerman replaced the grade book on his desk.

     "Probably the best place for us to start, Miss Carson, is for you to tell me what you understand to be the central point of your essay."

     "Yes," said Cindy Carson.

     She looked down at her paper, studied the first page for a while and then turned to the second page.

     And now that her attention was fixed on her paper Ammerman had some leisure to study her.  First, that short skirt.  Really unusually short.  Why in the world had she chosen to wear such a skirt to school?  Then her long legs, quite well shaped, actually, finally disappearing under her term paper into her skirt.  Then the rest of the body, very nice, very, very nice, a tight waist and the tops of her breasts showing at the scoop of her blouse.  Blonde hair, too.  But the face.  Not the most beautiful face.  But not the worst either.  Slightly pockmarked.  Chickenpox as a child?

     But overall?  Well . . . yes.

     And therefore, just for a moment, and only for a moment, and very much in the land of make-believe or other realms that would or could never happen, Ammerman wondered what it would be like to reach out and cup a hand over one of those breasts.  That is, without the unfortunate interference of the blouse.  Would he, he wondered, choose the right one or the left one?

     Cindy Carson continued to turn a few more pages of her term paper.

     "That is," said Ammerman returning to the real business at hand, "perhaps you could comment on the main argument you were attempting to put forward."

     "Yes," said Cindy Carson.

     "Your central idea perhaps.  That is, your controlling theme."

     Suddenly Cindy Carson deliberately - and there could be no question that it was quite deliberate - turned her paper over and put her hands over it in such a way as to indicate the paper was no longer under discussion.

     Having done this, she looked up at Ammerman.

     She looked at him and he looked at her.

     For 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, whatever.

     Then she said, "Maybe you should call me 'Mrs. Needit.'"

     "What?" said Ammerman.

     "Or 'Mrs. Wishforit.'"

     Ammerman wasn't sure he had just heard what he had just heard.

     But he had heard what he had just heard.

     This girl, after all, was taking his course in Restoration comedy, and these late 17th and early 18th century English plays were populated with not only the usual beautiful men and women in their sexual prime, but also by older, ugly and silly women with names like Mrs. Wantit, Mrs. Wishforit, and so forth, who hungered after lovers.

     "Or, perhaps," said Cindy Carson still looking directly at Ammerman, "'Mrs. Takeme?'"

     Ammerman kept looking at her and she kept looking at him.

     "If you understand my drift," she said.

* * *

     Needless to say the rest of the day as Ammerman went through his various tasks and duties he thought of little other than those last words spoken in his conference with Cindy Carson.  By four o'clock when he closed and locked the door of his office and left some papers to be copied with the secretaries at the English Department and he had made up his mind.

     The main issue, the central issue, he told himself as he walked down the corridor and took one of the six elevators of the Cathedral of Learning down to the ground floor so that he could catch a bus back to his house in Squirrel Hill, was how to extract himself from this difficult, and, if he thought about it, rather comic, even Restoration comedy, complication.  That is, first of all, and most importantly, how to extract himself; and then, secondly, and this was also important, how to extract himself without hurting her.  That is, how to say to her, no, Cindy, it would really not be a good idea at all to continue on this course without making her feel that he was in any way rejecting her, that is, her sense of herself as a human being.  That somewhat pockmarked face, for example.

     But, as the elevator descended and stopped at this floor and that floor to let people in and out, Ammerman also thought over the fact that Cindy Carson had, in fact, chosen him.  Not some other professor.  Him.

     Well, and he had to admit this to himself, the truth was he wasn't just any professor, some young type, for example, she had met in a disco who wanted to throw her in bed and get into her pants.  He, Ammerman, was of a quite different sort.  An older and wiser man.  Happily married.  Gentle.  Kind.  Giving.  That kind of man.

     And it wasn't completely, completely impossible to imagine the two of them agreeing to meet somewhere, a room, and apartment, a place, of course, in another part of Pittsburgh far from the university, sharing a glass of wine from a bottle he had brought, toasting each other, that sort of thing, and finally, after they had both finished their glasses of wine and perhaps were both standing at the window looking out onto the street, she in front of him, he could imagine his putting his arm around that narrow waist of hers, the first touch, and his saying to her,  "Well, Cindy?"

     Why not?

     Just why not?

     Why not?  Because the whole damn thing was crazy.  That's why not!

     Think of the consequences, thought Ammerman.  To himself.  His marriage.  His career.  Worse.

     The doors to the elevator hissed open and along with the others Ammerman stepped out into the lobby of the Cathedral of Learning. 

     "Jack!"

     Someone was calling to him.  This someone turned out to be Bill Kyte, an occasional graduate student and an occasional friend, long hair, hippie way of dressing.

     "Hey," said Bill Kyte.

     "Hey," said Ammerman.

     "I'm dumping this joint, Jack!"

     Bill Kyte threw the information at Ammerman:  He was off, shagging a trip to Mexico, maybe the rest of Central American, maybe gone for two months.  Maybe longer.

     "Really?" said Ammerman.

     "Want to come, Jack?"

     "Oh, sure.  When do you leave?"

     "Tomorrow, Jack, tomorrow."

     "Don't know.  Got some classes to teach."

     "Toss it all, Jack.  Toss it all."

     They walked out through one of the revolving doors to the courtyard outside the Cathedral of Learning.

     "And your place?" Ammerman found himself suddenly asking.  He had been over to Kyte's apartment in Shadyside a number of times to drink a beer or even sometimes share a joint.

     "My place?  Why you asking?  You need a hide-away, Jack?"

     "No, no.  Just wondering."

     "A little nest for a bird?"

     "Not at all.”

     "Come on, Jack.  No fiddling with me.  You want a set of keys?"

     "I don't think so."

     "Come on, Jack."

     "Well . . . ," said Ammerman.

     Bill Kyte pulled out a ring of keys and extracted two of them.

     "This one opens the front door of the building and this one opens my door."

     "Just in case," said Ammerman.

     "No stains of the sheets, Jack."

* * *

     All this was developing something like a novel, thought Ammerman as he got off the bus the next morning and walked toward the Cathedral of Learning along with the streams of students.  First the girl makes the blatant approach to him.  Well, perhaps not blatant, but at least an approach.  Actually, though, pretty blatant.  Then, out of the blue (how often had this ever happened to him?) he is offered a hide-away apartment.  In the novels Ammerman taught the protagonist always thinks these fortuitous events leave him no choice but to continue on the path of his adventure.  But Ammerman knew better.  The protagonist was always free to extract himself.

     As he, Ammerman, certainly was.

     Yet, on the other hand (and wasn't there always an "other hand?"), all right, here was the truth:  He did desire her.  He wanted to cup his hand over one of those breasts.  He wanted to slip his hand between her legs under her skirt.

     Walking along the sidewalk with all the other students, the tower of the Cathedral of Learning looming over him, Ammerman realized he was beginning to get an erection thinking his hand under her skirt.

     "Hi, Dr. Ammerman!"

     "Hello, Dr. Ammerman!"

     Two female students from one of his classes.

     "Hi, there!" said Ammerman.

     "Wonderful morning!"

     "Great morning!" said Ammerman.

     And, suddenly, there she was in front of him, Cindy Carson, going in one of the revolving doors to the Cathedral of Learning, carrying her books in the crook of her arm, in jeans today, but still the long legs, the tight waist, her blond hair flowing down over her shoulders, the next event of the novel unfolding right in front of him.

     He followed her through the revolving doors as if he had no choice and then followed her into one of the main elevators again as if he had no choice, even allowing himself to be pressed by other people beside her at the back of the elevator, again as if he had no choice.  Their bodies were actually touching.

     She turned and recognized him.

     She smiled.

     "Hello," she said.

     "Hello, Miss Carson," he replied.

     They rode together, side by side, bodies touching, not saying anything, the elevator stopping at different floors to let people on and off, and as it was stopping at the floor for the English Department, Ammerman said "Oh, Miss Carson, perhaps you could step into my office.  I have that paper for you now."

     He said this in what he hoped was an official enough sounding tone of voice.

     He wasn't sure she got off with him, but as he walked down the hallway toward his office he heard her following him, and when he got to his office door and stopped to insert the key, he turned and saw it was, indeed, she.

     "Won't you come in, please?"

     He opened the door, she came in, and he closed the door behind her.

     Even though she was wearing jeans and not a short skirt, she still sat down in the chair opposite Ammerman's chair in that sideways, edging-in way keeping her legs together.

     Ammerman adjusted himself down into the other chair.

     "Good morning," he said to her.

     "Good morning," she said to him.

     They looked at each other.  For 5 seconds, for 10 seconds, for 20 seconds, whatever.

     It came to Ammerman that this situation was getting a bit out of control.

     So he decided to put it back in control.

     "Miss Carson, listen to me.  I've thought about everything.  I've thought about everything a lot.  About you and me.  And I want you to know.  I find you very attractive, I do.  You are  a very, very attractive young woman.  And in another time and another place, well . . . .  But . . . and you know as well as I know . . . we can't go any further with this.  I'm your teacher and you're my student.  Do you understand?"

     "Yes," she said.

     "You understand?"

     "Yes."

     "And that's all right?"

     "Yes."

     Cindy Carson stopped looking at Ammerman and instead turned to her rucksack at the side of her chair.  Ammerman watched her as he reached into her rucksack, found a tissue, then pressed the tissue into her eyes.

     She's crying, thought Ammerman.  

     Ammerman glanced out the window of his office door into the hallway where he could see people passing by.  A girl student crying in a professor's office . . . well, that sort of thing happened.

     He waited until the crying eased, occasionally glancing at the window of his office door.

     Suddenly she looked right at Ammerman.  It was almost as if something physical had hit him:  the redness, the pain in her eyes.

     "You!" she said.

     She began to get up.

     "Cindy!"

     "What?" 

     "Sit down!"

     She sat down.

     "Cindy, I've found a place."

     "What?"

     "I've found a place."

     "What do you mean, 'a place?'"

     "A place.  For us.  For you and me.  Where we can go.  Together."

     "Go?"

     "It's a nice place.  I've been there many times.  It belongs to a friend of mine.  But he's moved away for a while.  To Mexico."

     "A friend of yours?"

     "Not really a friend.  Someone I know.  And he gave me the keys.  I've got them right here."

     Ammerman pulled out his own ring of keys and showed her the two keys on it Bill Kyte had given him.

     "Those are the keys?"

     "Those are the keys."

     "For the place?

     "For the place."

     Once more they looked at each other.

     Then she lowered her eyes.

     "And you . . . ?" she finally said.  "Do you want me to go . . . to this place?"

     "Yes, Cindy.  I do."

     "You're sure?"

     "Yes, I'm sure."

     She raised her eyes to his.

     "You're very sure?"

     "Cindy, I am very sure."

* * *

     They arranged for two mornings from then at nine o'clock.  Ammerman explained to Cindy Carson exactly how to recognize the apartment building.  He even drew her a map.  Next to Mom's Eatery on Shadyside's main street, the red door to the right.  He would get there a little early and she was to ring the bell marked for "Kyte."  Then he would buzz her in.

     And that's where Ammerman found himself in two mornings:  in front of the red door.  He'd even gone into Mom's Eatery and gotten himself a coffee-to-go.  A couple of students in there had recognized him.  "Hi, Dr. Ammerman," they had said.  "Tanking up?"  He smiled at them and said "hello."  Probably no problem there.  That is, that he was recognized.  What was wrong with dropping in at Mom's Eatery in Shadyside for a cup of coffee-to-go?  A perfectly natural thing to do.

     He inserted the key in the lock of the red door.  But what was this?  The key didn't turn the lock.

     Of course!  The wrong key.  He tried the other key, and, thank God, it worked.

     Ammerman quickly stepped in, closed the door and climbed the wooden stairway.  It curled around to the first landing, past doors which he assumed were for other apartments, then up another flight and more doors and up to another flight until he reached the top landing.  Here there was only one door in front of him and it was covered by a poster of a SCI FI version of an almost naked woman holding ray guns in both her hands.  Ammerman inserted the key in the lock (he chose the right key this time), turned the key and the door opened.

     A heavy-set woman of about forty or forty-five, wearing a pair of men's pajamas, looked up from a table at the kitchen-end of a long room where she was drinking a cup of coffee.

      Ammerman stopped in the doorway.

     "Hi, there," said the woman.  She must have just gotten out of bed because her hair was all over the place.  "You must be the prof whose having a fling."

     What in the world? thought Ammerman still standing in the doorway.

     "Not to worry," said the woman.  "I'll be gone in ten minutes."

     "No, I'm leaving," said Ammerman.

     "Leaving?  Leaving?  Hey, no reason to flee.  I'm out of here."

     Ammerman knew he shouldn't.  That is, enter this apartment.  He knew very well that he shouldn't.  That perhaps he had been compromised.

     "Hey, come in!" said the woman.

     But, even knowing that he shouldn't, knowing very well that he shouldn't, Ammerman stepped through the door into the long room.

     "Coffee?" said the woman.

     "No thank you," said Ammerman.

     He walked by the table where the woman was sitting to the more "living room" section of the long room where he sat down in one of those chairs made out of old orange crates.  In fact, all the chairs in the room were made out of old orange crates as was the coffee table.

     "Which department you in?" said the woman from the “kitchen” part of the room.

     "Humanities," said Ammerman, trying to disguise his actual department, English, and telling himself at the same time that it had been a mistake to come into the apartment and that what he should do, right now, in fact, was to get up and walk out the door.

     "I was a student at the University once.  Years and years ago.  An eon ago."

     "That a fact?" said Ammerman.

     "Things pretty much the same?"

     "Pretty much the same."

     "Same old crap?"

     "Same old crap."

     "Thought so."

     Ammerman looked at his watch.  Only five minutes before Cindy Carson would show up.

     "You got some tomato coming up?" said the woman.

     "I beg your pardon?" said Ammerman.

     "Sorry."

     The woman stood up, took her coffee cup over to the sink, rinsed it out, placed it on the drying rack and went down the hall to the bathroom.  Ammerman knew it was the bathroom because he could hear bathroom-type noises coming out of it.  Finally she emerged, now only in her underwear (the woman had huge hips), and went down the hall and into another room, most likely the bedroom.

     Ammerman had been checking his watch all this time.  Nine o'clock on the nose.  Which meant that at any moment he would hear the bell.  He knew he should leave.  On the other hand, he had to be here to answer the bell, didn't he?  He couldn't be halfway down the stairway when Cindy Carson rang.

     At exactly six after nine, finally, the woman came out of the bedroom, dressed all in black, her hair still all over the place.

     "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."  She went out the front door and Ammerman could hear her going down the stairway.

     Thank God she was gone.  Although again Ammerman told himself that he should leave.  This woman being here.  But now the damage, as it were, was done.  She had seen him.  And if the damage was done, he might as well stay.

     Even if it was all a little crazy.

     He looked at his watch.  Eight minutes after nine.

     Perhaps, it occurred to Ammerman, the bell at the front of the apartment house wasn't working.  He hadn't thought of that.

     He went over to the window on the street side of the room, opened it and leaned his head out.  He was just in time to see the woman emerging from the building.

     But no Cindy Carson.

     He caught himself.  He wasn't being careful.  That is, leaning out the window like this.  He might be seen.  An associate professor of English leaning his head out the window of student digs.

     He pulled his head in, and then timed himself so he only leaned out of the window once a minute and then for only the shortest time possible.

     At fifteen after she hadn't arrived.  At twenty after she hadn't arrived.  At nine-thirty she hadn't arrived.  At nine-forty-five she hadn't arrived.

     It was clear.

     Even Ammerman admitted this.

     She wasn't coming.

* * *

     That afternoon Cindy Carson, as usual, attended Ammerman’s class on "Modernity and The Comedy of Manners."  He noticed her in her usual seat, second row, three chairs over from the aisle.  "Noticed," was the word he used for himself.  Because he had decided that in the future that's how he would relate to her.  He would "notice" her.  No more.  She would receive the very same attention due to any other student.

     This new resolution was immediately tested because right after the class he "noticed" she was following him to his office.

     "Won't you please come in," he said.

     This time he sat behind his desk and watched her sit down on a chair on the other side of her desk.  Again she edged in sideways keeping her legs together.  But it didn't matter because she was wearing jeans again.

     "Well?" he said.

     Nothing from her side.

     "I was there," said Ammerman.  "I was there at nine o'clock.  In fact, I was there at ten of nine."

     Still, nothing from her.

     "Correct me if I'm wrong.  But didn't we have an understanding?  For nine o'clock?"

     "Yes," she said, but so quietly Ammerman could hardly understand her.

     "I didn't hear you," said Ammerman.

     "I . . . thought you didn't want me to come."

     "You what?"

     "I thought you didn't want me to come."

     "What?  Why?"

     She didn't answer him.

     "Why did you think that I didn't want you to come?"

     "When I woke up.  This morning.  I just thought . . . you didn't want me to come."

     She lifted her eyes and looked at him.  She was beginning to cry again.

     "Cindy," he said.

     She reached in her rucksack, pulled out a tissue and held it up to her eyes.

     Finally she stopped crying.

     "So?" said Ammerman.

     "So?" she said.

     "Here we are," said Ammerman.

     "Yes, here we are.

     "What happens now?"

     "Yes, what happens now?"

     "Cindy, look, I think we have to be honest with each other.  Are you listening?"

     "Yes, I'm listening."

     "Please listen carefully."

     Ammerman explained the whole situation as completely as he could.  In the first place, he pointed out, it was very, very clear that she was ambivalent about going ahead and meeting him and, well, to be frank, doing certain things together.  Which was totally understandable.  Her ambivalence.  More than totally understandable.  And, as a matter of fact, she should know that he was also ambivalent about meeting her, as well as doing those certain things together.  Which was also understandable.  Very understandable.  And, therefore, since they were both so ambivalent, since they both didn't know if they should go ahead with this, certainly the most logical thing to do was call everything off.  After all, she should understand that he was happily married, loved his wife, and there was absolutely no chance in the world that he might leave his wife.

     "Yes," she said.  "I understand."

     Then she said, "But if I were to come some other morning . . . ?"

     Ammerman looked at this girl.

     "Another morning?"

     "If I were to actually show up.  This time.  You know.  Show up at that apartment.  In Shadyside.  Well?"

     "Well?"

     "Would you?"

     "Would I what?"

     "Would you . . . also be there?"

     Ammerman knew as well as he knew anything in his life that he shouldn't say it.  Still, he said it.

     "Yes, Cindy, I would."

* * *

     Two mornings later Ammerman found himself in front of the same red door on the main street of Shadyside.  This time he didn't go into Mom's Eatery for a coffee-to-go.  Why risk being seen, he reasoned.

     After looking up and down the street to see if the coast was clear, he chose the correct key, inserted it in the lock, opened the door, climbed the three sets of stairs, put the other key in the one door in front of him at the top of the staircase and opened it.

     A bigger surprise this time.

     Two people sat at the table at the kitchen end of the long room having coffee.  One of them was the same heavy-set forty or forty-five year old woman from two days ago wearing those same, oversized men's pajamas.  The other person was a younger man, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five.  He was dressed only in his boxer shorts.

     "The prof," said the woman.

     "Hi Prof," said the young man.

     "I beg your pardon," said Ammerman.

     Ammerman didn't come in.  He wasn't about to repeat the same mistake as last time.  In fact, he turned around to go back down the stairs.     

     "Hello?  You're not leaving?" said the woman.

     "We got lots of coffee," said the young man.

     "Sorry," said Ammerman.  "My mistake."

     "Hey," said the young man getting up from the table and coming out on the landing, "friend of mine took you.  Several years ago.  Said you were a damn good prof."

     "Oh?" said Ammerman stopping half way down the first flight of stairs.

     "Jerry Balkwell.  You remember him."

     "No."

     "Well, he thought you were a great.  Most profs, you know, they just repeat the same thing year after year.  But not you.  You had a certain quality.  That's what Jerry said."

     "Well, that's nice to hear," said Ammerman.

     Just at the moment he heard someone coming up the stairs from below.

     "So," said Ammerman starting down toward the next landing.  "Thank you for telling me that."

     "You're not leaving?" said the woman who had also come out to the landing.

     That's when Ammerman saw Cindy Carson coming up the stairs.  They almost bumped into each other.

     "Someone let me in the front door and I . . . ," she started to tell him, but then she saw the man and the woman at the top of the stairs looking down, the woman in oversized men's pajamas and the man in boxer shorts.

     "It's all right, honey, we're leaving," said the woman.  "Come on, Ed."

     They both disappeared into the apartment.

     "Who are those people?" said Cindy Carson.

     "Those two?" said Ammerman.

     "Who are they?"

     "Just people.  They're leaving."

     "But who are they?"

     "It doesn't matter."

     "I thought you said . . . ."

     "It's all right," said Ammerman.

     "It's not all right."

     "It is all right!"

     "It isn't all right!"

     Cindy Carson started back down the stairs and Ammerman caught up to her at the next landing.

     She whirled on him.

     "You said!"

     "Shhhh!  Not so loud!

     She started down the stairs again and again Ammerman caught up with her at the next landing.

     Again she whirled on him.

     "Cindy, believe me.  I'm sorry . . . ."

     And what was this?  Suddenly she was sobbing in his arms.  Absolutely sobbing.  Heart rendering.  Her arms up around his neck.  Him having to support most of her weight.  Ammerman held her to her.

     "You folks don't do anything I wouldn't do," said the woman coming down the stairway and passing them on the landing.  Glancing over Ammerman saw this woman was again dressed all in black and again her hair was all over the place.  The young man followed behind her.  He had changed to jeans and a T-shirt.

     "Hey, said the young man stopping on the landing and not paying any attention to Cindy Carson sobbing or the fact that she had her arms around Ammerman, "it wasn't Jerry Backwell.  It was Tom Backwell.  Remember him?"

     "No," said Ammerman.

     "He was real tall."

     "I don't remember him."

     "He sure as hell remembers you.  Said you were the best damn prof at the university."

     "Fun, fun, fun," said the woman from down at the front door of the apartment building.  The young man gave Ammerman a thumbs up sign and went down the stairs to join her.  Ammerman could hear them go out and he could hear the door close.

     "Well, thank God!" Ammerman said.  "Gone!"

     Slowly she took her arms away from Ammerman, pulled a tissue from her purse and held the tissue up to her eyes.

     "It's just . . . ."

     "Take your time.  It's all right, Cindy."

     "It's just that those people . . . ."

     "I know," said Ammerman.  "Terrible people."

     "I didn't think they would be here."

     "They're gone," said Ammerman.

     And then he said, "Cindy?"

     He pointed up the stairs.

     She looked at him and he looked at her, for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, whatever.

     "If you want," she said.

     "I want," he said. 

     Cindy Carson went ahead of him up the stairs.  The door of the apartment had been left open.  Ammerman closed it behind them.

     Inside Cindy Carson went towards the end of the long room, the part that looked more like a living room, and sat down on one of the chairs made out of an orange crate.  She slid down in the chair this time, no edging sideways.

     "How about some coffee," said Ammerman.

     "Coffee?  Yes, that would be nice.  I guess."

     Ammerman went over to the percolator on the stove and saw there were at least two cups left.  He poured her a cup, set the cup in front of her on the coffee table, carried the sugar over and found some cream in the refrigerator.

     He sat down opposite her and watched her take her first sip.

     "And?" he said.

     "Not bad."

     "We aim to please."

     She looked around the long room.

     "This is a bit of a strange place."

     "More than a bit."

     "But interesting."

     "Student digs."

     She drank the rest of her coffee.

     "More?" said Ammerman.

     "Please."

     He poured what remained of the coffee from the percolator.

     "You know," she said after Ammerman had sat down again, "I was just thinking.  It would be so nice if you were my actual father.

     "I was just thinking.  It would be so nice if you were my actual daughter."

     "That maybe you lived in this apartment and I had come to visit you."

     "Or, more likely, that this place was yours and I had come to visit you."

     "Yes," she said, looking around again.  "I see what you mean."

     "Of course, I would be disapproving of the way you lived here."

     "I would be afraid of your coming over and seeing how I lived."

     "'And who were those two strange people, Daughter?'"

     "'Oh, those?  They were only here for a few days, Father.'"

     "'Daughter, I want you to be careful who you associate with.'"

     "But," she said dropping this little play, "it is better this way, isn't it?  Don't you agree?"

     "Yes, it is better this way."

     Ammerman got up and went over to the cupboards above the sink and found what he was looking for.  A bottle of whiskey.  He also found two shot glasses and poured a little whisky into each of them.

     He brought the glasses back to the table, but she waved hers away.

     "No?" asked Ammerman.

     "I don't think so."

     "Probably you're right."

     He sat down with his glass in front of him.

     "A question," she said.

     "A question," said Ammerman.

     "Even though you're my father, even considering our new relationship, and that it's better this way, you still find me attractive."

     "I can hardly keep my hands off of you."

     "That's nice.  That's so nice to know."

     "If I were a younger man . . . ."

     "If I were an older woman . . . ."

     "And me?" said Ammerman.  What about me?  You heard what that young man said.  Do you find me a good professor?  Or just run of the mill?

     "Oh!  I agree.  I think you're one of the best."

     "Cindy, don't lie.  You must tell me the truth.  Do you really believe that?"

     "I do."

     "Come on.  You only say that because you're my daughter.  All daughters think their fathers are the best."

     "No, no. It's not just me.  Lots of students feel that way.  Something about you.  Some quality."

     "Some quality?"

     "Some quality.  It sets you apart from the others."

     "Really?

     "Really!"

     "That's nice.  That's really nice to hear.  Because sometimes, well, sometimes I wonder."

     "Don't wonder.  Believe me."

     Ammerman looked at this girl.  This girl who up until recently had just been one of his many, many students and who had turned in an essay entitled "An Analysis of Congreve's Way of the World.  Who had a slightly pockmarked face.

     "So, do you mind," said Ammerman, "if I drink to our health."

     He held up his glass of whiskey.

     "Well," she said reaching over for her glass and lifting it up as well, "maybe also a sip for me."

     "Just this one time?"

     "Just this one time."

     They touched glasses.

     "To us," she said.

     "To us," he said.  

 

 

About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and have had over 100 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and I have just received a nomination for Best of the Net.