The Star-Ratings Tango

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


star star
Photo Credit: Markus Schöpke

The internet is always teaching me something. For instance, I recently learned that you’re not a geek if you can’t display an in-depth knowledge of particular pop culture phenomena. (I’d elaborate, but I can’t because I lack sufficient geek cred.) Say what? You’ve just robbed me of my life-long belief that I’m a geek, internet. I haz the sads. (The dictionary still has my back. Whew.) I also just learned that displaying your diplomas makes you a tacky, pretentious douche. Thanks, internet! (The classy thing to do, if you’re wondering, is to put them in a box “somewhere” and then “forget” about them.)

Now that my whole worldview has been upended—ah, kidding. One should never take internet wisdom too seriously, of course. I just wanted to illustrate that what one group holds to be a common understanding will often astonish or perplex another. We develop our ideas of what constitutes common knowledge based on the people around us, and it’s often not until we collide with someone who is baffled by something we consider common sense that we become aware that our perspectives are not as universal as we might think.

Which brings me to the bane (and occasional delight) of every writer’s existence: star-ratings. Perhaps nowhere am I more aware of how much perspectives can conflict than with book reviews. When I started keeping track of the books I read on my blog, I didn’t rate them. I even tried to avoid calling my posts “reviews”—my rationale being that my posts aren’t reviews in the classic sense, but more like my reading notes and reflections, a part of my reading process. Then I joined Goodreads with its tempting little stars. At first I thought deciding how many stars to give a book would be difficult. That’s when I noticed the hovertext. This is what it says:

5 stars — it was amazing
4 stars — really liked it
3 stars — liked it
2 stars — it was ok
1 star — did not like it

While choosing stars on their own seemed an enigmatic proposition, these little descriptions clicked with me. They made sense. It was surprisingly easy to slot any book into one of those categories. From my perspective, only the one stars are truly negative reviews, and no book’s getting a five unless it had a profound impact on me. Most books are going to land somewhere in the middle, and most of those are going to be threes. You know, average. Not life-changing but not terrible either. And yet, I’m clearly in the minority in taking this approach. It’s so unusual, it might even be considered weird.

In the majority camp, you have readers who give four or five stars to practically everything. This group includes writer-readers who are reluctant to say anything remotely critical about a fellow writer, sometimes out of kindness, sometimes out of fear of retaliation. Their positive reviews tend to be genuine; they simply omit reviewing books they didn’t like. It also includes readers whose star-ratings don’t match their written reviews. That is, they’ll write a ‘this book was ok’ review but then give the book four stars. I can only surmise that this strategy is an attempt to avoid conflict with the writers of the books in question. The third group are readers who would clearly prefer a binary ratings system: loved it/hated it, like/dislike, thumbs up/thumbs down. With this group, everything’s a five or a one.

On the other side of the reading equation, you have the writers, many of whom seem to have developed the expectation of receiving five-star reviews. Frequently I see writers flipping out over two- and three- and even four-star reviews, in despair because from their perspective anything less than a five means “I hated it” or angry because they think an uninformed and possibly jealous reader is out to get them. Some will fume to their allies, seeking sympathy; others will attack readers head-on, rebutting each criticism or even bullying readers into changing their reviews.

This, I shouldn’t have to point out, is egregious behavior. As writers, we absolutely do not have the right to dictate what readers think of our work or what they write about it. A great deal of the conflict over reviews, I think, arises from writers misunderstanding readers’ motivations for writing them. Reviews have multiple purposes—they can be for personal reflection, to enter into a discussion with fellow readers, or to provide information to potential readers—but unless the reviewer is the writer’s publicist (or a friend providing UPOP), they are not for the writer.

Once a work leaves our hands, it ceases to be ours alone. Whatever words we have put on the page, with each new reader, each new reading, the meaning is reinterpreted, the story reconstructed. Each story is a tango, a negotiation, between writer and reader. A story that one reader finds moving and meaningful, another might find sappy and maudlin. And that’s ok. No, really it is. It might make you sad that a reader didn’t find your story as wonderful as you think it is, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing their reviews wrong. It means their perspective is different than yours.

The good news is, that means sometimes two stars equals “guilty pleasure!” not “blech.”
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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Erin Bellavia


Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (DAW, September 3, 2013), the seventh book in Seanan McGuire’s October “Toby” Daye series, hits shelves everywhere this week. I was lucky enough to once again find myself in the possession of an advance copy.

My feelings about Seanan and Toby haven’t changed since my review of Ashes of Honor last year. Opening any of the books in this ongoing series is like going on an adventure with an old friend, and Chimes at Midnight doesn’t disappoint. This time, Toby finds herself investigating a series of deaths caused by the extremely addictive and deadly goblin fruit.

As the plot unfolds, Toby once again finds herself at odds with The Queen of the Mists—but this time, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Toby is exiled and has only three days to save herself and the kingdom from a queen who, it seems, rose to the throne under very suspicious circumstances.

Among her many strengths, Seanan has a gift for creating complex, believable characters that make the reader care. This book is no exception. Toby is aided in her quest by her usual close-knit group of allies: her squire Quentin, who reveals some vital information about Faerie; her fetch May, once a harbinger of Toby’s death, but now a trusted friend; the once-feared, now-loved Luidaeg; and, of course, Toby’s love interest Tybalt, the King of Cats. I think all of the Toby-Tybalt shippers will be pleased with the way the relationship is progressing. In Chimes at Midnight we’re also introduced to some fantastic new characters, including Mags, the Library of Stars librarian.

At the heart of this story are Toby’s ongoing struggle between her fae and human natures and the increasingly complex politics of Faerie. Seanan’s skilled worldbuilding brings the reader into a world that, while fantastic, always feels real. And as always, Seanan weaves a satisfying tale that leaves just enough unanswered questions to leave the reader eager for more.

Fans of the series will not be disappointed with Chimes at Midnight. And if you’ve never heard of urban fantasy, or aren’t quite sure where to start, the October Daye series would make an excellent entry point.

Chimes at Midnight is on the shelves now.

*

Seanan McGuire wrote Finding Your Fairy Godmother: A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent for Absolute Blank in September 2009. We interviewed her alter-ego, Mira Grant, in April 2011. You can find her at Live Journal and on Twitter as herself and Mira Grant.

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Email: billiard[at]toasted-cheese.com

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The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A.R. Cook

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013) is a fantasy coming-of-age story appropriate for middle-graders and beyond. The storytelling is imaginative, vivid in description, complimented with sparkling prose and shining vocabulary that a teacher would love. A.R. Cook’s treatment of language is reminiscent of E.B. White (Elements of Style, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little) who once said in an interview with the Paris Review relating to his writing to a young audience that “…You have to write up, not down… They [children] accept without question anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly and clearly.” Cook clearly does this throughout her story. Young readers have many opportunities to stop and ponder word choice and appreciate the many beautiful phrases and well-crafted sentences found within the pages.

The setting is 1852 in a small hamlet outside of Paris, the magical city of light that holds more than just a dream apprentice job for newly-arrived, sixteen-year-old architect-protégé, David Sandoval. While meandering through an evening crowd filled with street dancers, jugglers, and entertainers, David is coerced by a young gypsy girl into purchasing a dagger. This purchase inadvertently sets him on a dangerous and noble path, traversing between two worlds. Mythical creatures beckon and pursue David as he becomes a reluctant player an ancient war between a maleficent goddess and an iconic creature, part-human and part-animal—the sphinx, who is the last of its kind and is at heart of David’s adventure.

David’s quest takes him through a gateway called the “Magic Curtain” to unseen places where he meets curious new friends and enemies along the way. Some of the supporting characters rival and, at times, surpass the young protagonist with their voice and charm: characters such as Kappo, the comical green, vampire monkey; Tanuki, the shape-shifting Japanese badger; and David’s wise, sea-dragon master, Yofune, who, like Yoda, counsels the young hero against prejudices.

“What defines monstrosity?” Yofune folded his hands… “Is it having a form that is not acceptable? Is it how sharp your teeth are, or if you have claws instead of fingernails? Or does it reside in some invisible shape, inside all of us, Sandoval-san?”

Cook balances these supporting characters with several antagonists that disrupt David’s plans. Unexpected cliffhangers and daring escapes propel the story to its climax. Interestingly, part of the story is told in flashback form that reveals a secondary theme. As David searches for something tangible, his journey is also internalized as he is forced to face his past disappointments and learn from them.

Readers who enjoy high fantasy epic stories will like A.R. Cook’s cross-genre debut novel that combines world culture, mythology, and magic within a historical context.

*

A.R. Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. Her first young adult novel is The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013). Her story “Derry’s Down, Deary” won the gold award in Toasted Cheese’s Three Cheers and a Tiger Writing Contest in the June 2013 issue. In 2011, she placed Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her play, Major Arcana, and in WD’s Science Fiction contest for short story, Psycho Babbles. She has also written a short play, In the Cards, published by Heuer Publishing in 2002, and a short story, The Saintly Stew, published in the Georgia Museum of Art’s Kress Project anthology this year 2013. She likes sushi and sundaes (but not together).
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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

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The Tiger’s Wedding by James Dante

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Tiger's Wedding

The Tiger’s Wedding (Martin Sisters Publishing, 2012) is a literary love story written from the close vantage point of a male narrator who has left his old world behind for a new beginning in South Korea. James Dante’s prose is superb, filled with understated humor, irony, and wonder.

The protagonist is thirty-year-old Jake St. Gregory who is employed as an English language teacher at the Ripe Apple Language Institute in Seoul, South Korea. There, Jake forms interesting relationships and finds intrigue in the people and places that surround him. The focal point of the story is one particular relationship: Jake meets a woman who becomes the love of his life. Their affair is complicated and takes some unpleasant turns for Jake who comes to realize that the woman he loves is bound by a very different set of values that at times he suffers to understand.

“I knew the honeymoon of being a foreign guest
had been trumped by the vulnerability of being a foreigner.”

Also, the close narration assists in developing and showing character vulnerability. Dante writes Jake’s story in an effective first-person point-of-view that gives the novel a sense of intimacy as if one is hearing Jake’s story by Jake himself over a long cup of coffee at Starbucks. And as his story unfolds, Jake’s voice becomes stronger and more distinct and this reader couldn’t help but root for such a likeable protagonist.

It could also be that Dante has done his due diligence in really knowing his setting. Indeed, there is a strong sense of place in The Tiger’s Wedding from Club Umbrella in the seedy bar district where the bar girls in their bright dresses sit like sirens on stools fanning themselves to the colorful street markets in Namdaemun “where one could buy anything from pottery to a hog’s head” to the surreal-like demilitarized zone between North and South Korea—“the army’s version of Disneyland”—where Jake spied “two soldiers in camouflage playing golf on a small Astroturf green surrounded by miles of … land mines.”

Embedded in the setting are numerous references to Korean creation stories and myths such as the tiger’s wedding, and fortune cookie-like wisdom frequently dispensed by many of the characters. Korean customs, language, and politics give Dante’s novel a richness of depth that one would expect from a story framed in a second culture. These sources also allow the reader to see Jake in the Korean perspective by contrasting the nuances of both cultures in Jake’s many references to home through nostalgia in books, film, family, politics, popular icons and clichés.

The characters Jake meets in Seoul are well-developed, particularly the women characters that are intriguing to Jake. They are balanced by equally interesting male characters. Both of which are written very humanly and balanced with an individual yin and yang—kind, yet self-serving; loving and distant; angry and tender.

James Dante’s novel The Tiger’s Wedding is indeed a love story, a love triangle between a man and a woman and a country. It is also a study of human nature, how profoundly choice can affect balance and order within a community.

*

James Dante lives in Northern California. He graduated from the University of California at Davis and later traveled to South Korea where he taught English in the 1990s. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. The Tiger’s Wedding is his debut novel. James presently teaches adult education classes and is writing his second novel, set in Moscow. In addition to his website, you can find James on Facebook.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Summer Fruits

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Pauline Wiles


Gooseberries
Photo Credit: Christian Guthier

It was the mountain of plump, shiny gooseberries which first caught my eye. Piled in an old-fashioned wicker basket, each had veins so delicate, they might have been painted on by hand. Then I noticed him, sitting in the shade, bent over his task. Methodically, he topped and tailed the glossy fruit: slice, slice, then dropped them into a huge stainless steel tub at his side—plink. He was dressed in chef’s whites, but his head was bare, his hair no more than a few wispy strands of grey.

I had spent the first part of the morning exploring the walled vegetable garden, where eager beans climbed wigwams to the sky and plump marrows lazed on the soil. The garden was well-tended: patches of damp earth and a faint peaty smell told me the crops had been watered early in the day. The sweet peas had been well-picked, as is necessary, to encourage fresh growth. I wondered who was the lucky recipient of the scented blooms.

By now, the sun was high. The imposing orange-brick walls refused entry to any hint of breeze. My hip was troubling me; I was in need of a sit-down. Where better than the tearoom? At National Trust properties, they are a reliable choice for quality baking and tea served in a proper pot.

*

With my handbag slung inelegantly across my body and awkward walking stick hooked over my arm, I managed to carry my tray outside to the patio. I saw first the fruit, then its keeper. From the speed he was working, I hoped the gooseberries weren’t needed for today’s lunch.

‘They’re keeping you busy this morning,’ I said to him as I shuffled by. I never used to start conversations with strangers, but recently I’ve found entire days can pass without me speaking to anyone.

The chef lifted his head and looked in my general direction, but not straight at me. His face was round and weather-beaten. ‘It’s all I’m good for, these days.’

There was precious little shade on the patio and I couldn’t face the indignity of grappling with one of the furled umbrellas. A small round table next to him was vacant.

‘I’m going to sit here in the shade, if you don’t mind.’ I leaned my stick against the wall of the building before lowering myself carefully towards a little wooden chair. My joints shrieked and I had to allow gravity to take me the last couple of inches. Fortunately, the chair held. One of these days, it wouldn’t.

‘You help yourself, my dear.’ He reached for a cloth to wipe his fingers. It was lying on the table almost next to his hand, but it took him a couple of pats to find it.

I looked more closely, nodding to myself as I understood. He was almost blind.

I poured a careful splash of milk into my cup, then added the tea. ‘It’s going to be another scorcher.’

‘It is,’ he agreed.’I don’t know who’s going to want a hot pudding on a day like this, but there you have it.’

‘Are they going in a pie, then?’ I sipped my tea gratefully.

‘Crumble. So I’m told.’ Slice, slice, plink. ‘I don’t decide the menu, not any more.’

Again, he looked in my direction and I saw his cloudy eyes. Cataracts, almost certainly.

‘But you used to decide what to cook?’

‘I’ve worked here since before the house was given over to the National Trust,’ he said. ‘Before the family ran into problems, couldn’t pay the inheritance tax. It was a different place, back then.’

I had the luxury of being able to observe, without him knowing I was staring. I guessed he was in his seventies. Apart from his eyes, he seemed to be in good health.

‘Oh yes, I’ve cooked for the rich and famous,’ he continued. ‘Made lunch for Elizabeth Taylor, once. Trout, it was. Trout with almonds.’ He stared off into the distance for a few moments before resuming his work. His fingers were still nimble, just slow.

‘But now you can’t cook, because of your eyes?’

‘That’s right, lass. A blind chef isn’t much use to anyone.’

I liked being called lass. That hadn’t happened in a long time. ‘Have you had your cataracts looked at?’

‘Oh, no. Nobody’s taking a paring knife to my eyeballs.’ He sniffed. ‘I don’t trust hospitals. Too many folk die in those places.’

I laughed. ‘I don’t think they do.’

‘My mother died, for starters. Having me.’

‘I’m sorry.’ I coughed awkwardly.

He shrugged. ‘My father never forgave me.’

‘It was hardly your fault.’

‘No. But he never came to terms with it. He couldn’t talk about her, drunk or sober. I spent the next forty years trying to apologise for being born.’

‘Then what happened?’

‘He died.’

I said nothing, but drank my tea and listened to the steady rhythm of his work. The plink of falling gooseberries had changed to a plunk: he must have filled up the bottom layer of the tub.

‘Then, there was Billy Morse,’ he continued. ‘The boys at school—they either ignored me, or poked fun at me. Being ignored was preferable, obviously. I got by just fine with no friends: found a corner of the playground and kept my head down. But one day, out of the blue, Billy Morse shared his lunch. There was never much food around at my house, you see. I had to find it myself, or go hungry.’

That made sense, with no mother and a father gone to pieces.

‘Yes, Billy scuffed up to me in his short trousers, sat down and offered me half his ham sandwich.’ Slice, slice, plunk. ‘We were friends for life.’

I poured extra hot water into the pot and hassled the bag with my teaspoon.

‘Last winter, they took Billy into hospital for his prostate. Routine, they said. Just a couple of days, they said.’

I murmured, so he would know I was listening.

‘You won’t get me near those places now.’ He stopped slicing for several seconds.

‘I’m sorry about your mother and your friend,’ I said, ‘But I can tell you, hospitals aren’t as dangerous as all that.’

‘Hmmph. What are you then, a doctor?’

‘No, a nurse,’ I said, a little crisply. ‘Retired, I mean.’

‘And I suppose you worked with eyes.’

‘No, paediatrics.’

I hadn’t started off in paediatrics. That was the most popular ward, and I wasn’t pretty or funny or persuasive, like the other new nurses. So they sent me to oncology. There, I witnessed white pain and dark suffering that twisted my stomach and sent me running to the toilet to retch. After the first year, I learned to see without remembering, to touch without feeling, my emotions for the patients as starched as my uniform.

My thirty-seventh birthday turned into thirty-eight and then thirty-nine, and Fred and I still hadn’t had a child. The gap in our family threatened to swallow me. I went to the hospital administrators and told them that unless they transferred me to paediatrics, I would leave the profession and train as a teacher. Within three months, they moved me to a children’s ward and that’s where I stayed for the next two decades. I might not be a mother, but I shaped the lives of thousands of children.

‘I saw hundreds of operations,’ I told my gooseberry friend. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’

‘And how many of them died?’

‘Not many.’ I paused. ‘Well, not many who weren’t going to die in any case.’

He chuckled. ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

‘I just came from the walled garden.’ I changed the topic. ‘Beautiful looking vegetables.’

He nodded. ‘Yes, it’s a fine plot. A grand kitchen garden. I used to stroll down there in the early evening and eye up what might be ready for the following day. In summer, this estate was darn near self-sufficient.’

I thought of the pitiful tomato plants in the back garden of my house, the home Fred and I had bought when we were first married. My vegetable bed was growing more weeds than food this year. Darned hip. I had waited stubbornly until it was unbearable, before seeking help. Foolish mistake.

‘What’s your favorite dish to cook?’ I asked him. ‘If you could, I mean.’

‘Ah, that’s easy.’ He smiled. ‘Game pie.’

‘Game pie?’

‘From scratch. Rabbit, venison, pheasant. Carrots, potatoes, pastry, everything from scratch. I’d prepare the game myself. No short-cuts.’

‘I don’t often see that on menus, these days.’

‘No, folks are too squeamish to make it—or too lazy, I don’t know which. But I bake a wonderful game pie. Of course, you have to plan ahead.’

‘And it’s not really a dish for a day like today.’ My patch of shade was shrinking and I shuffled my chair back a fraction.

‘No, no, it’s an autumn dish, winter, even. October, November, when the nights are getting chilly and there’s mist in the air. November’s best.’

He had paused in his work, his head lifted, as if he were looking out across the estate, to where the deer were grazing peacefully.

‘You know,’ I waited a few moments and then said carefully, ‘I need a hip replacement and there’s a six-month waiting list. My vegetable plot will be a jungle when I eventually get back to it.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ he said.

‘The wait’s much shorter, for cataracts.’ I hoped I was right about this. ‘You’d see your GP, who’d send you to a specialist, and then they’d probably do it in day surgery. You’d be in and out in less time than it’s taking you to humiliate those gooseberries.’

‘You’re a cheeky lass.’ He gave a chuckle.

I had finished my tea and gathered my things together. I found my stick, then hoisted myself up, using the edge of the wobbly table for support.

‘Who knows, you might be making game pie this autumn,’ I said.

‘I might, I might.’

‘Well, I’ll look for it on the menu, then. In November.’

As I walked away, I tried to read his expression. But with his eyes so foggy, there were no clues, just the gentle nodding of his head in time with his work.

Slice, slice, plunk.

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British by birth, Pauline Wiles moved to California eight years ago and, apart from a yearning for afternoon tea and historic homes, has never looked back. Her work has been published by House of Fifty, Open Exchange and Alfie Dog Fiction. Pauline’s debut novel, Saving Saffron Sweeting, was published in spring 2013. Email: paulinewiles[at]gmail.com

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Hell is a Dry Heat

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Chris DeWildt


Junkyard Cat
Photo Credit: Roy Schreffler

The old man woke early. He felt the springs of his cot bed poking through the sheet and he smiled as he remembered when he was like a spring, full of stored energy and purpose. He laughed lightly through the discomfort because he’d come to expect it, and there was a certain pleasure he could take in the pain, the gentle prodding to rise that he may not have been able to generate himself. He rolled slowly to his side and barely resisted gravity as his legs fell from the bed, hit the grit-dusted, wooden floor of his cabin. He called it a cabin, shack is the way others put it, a name that did not do it justice, but was not altogether off the mark. Still, it was weather-proofed and clean as it could be with the old man as creator and caretaker. He breathed deeply the quickly warming air and lay still for a moment longer, a twisted sculpture of torso and legs, bent like some old liver-spotted sycamore finally blown crooked by years and years of a light, persistent breeze.

He parted the curtain that separated the small sleeping room from the main room of the cabin, still bare-chested in old blue corduroy pants that were nearly falling off under the awning of his great gorilla belly. The hair was long gone, but the muscle was still massive and strong and carried him through the day. The old man circled his hand over the skin, as if making a wish upon it.

The cats, sensing his awakening, came forth from the piles of discarded goods that surrounded the home like caricatures of the distant mountains. The beasts with memory of a time of warm winters by a hearth, these animals snaked through his legs and purred and the old man took notice of them as to avoid a fall that he knew would crack a hip.

Outside, more cats lay in the sun, flopping lazy tails and he stepped past them and pulled an armload of wood from the neat pile that lined the length of the cabin and then set it back so he could tie down the corner of tarp roof that had come loose in the night. The old man gathered the wood and again stepped over the cats before loading the belly of the old Franklin stove. Poofing clouds of ash escaped the stove’s mighty gut and disappeared, mixing with the clean air. He struck a blue-tip match on a chipped tooth and lit a rolled piece of newspaper. He held the paper to the dry wood and it began to burn quickly. The old man closed the door of the stove and put on a kettle of gathered rainwater to boil for coffee.

While he waited for the water he fed the cats from a bag which itself had a picture of a cat on it. The old man was not one to cater to the felines, nothing more than companionship, same as was what they offered, but the boy had brought the food and the old man thought it a sin to waste the gift. The boy had reminded him that the cats killed the rats and the old man reminded the boy that it was their nature and if the old man died in the night they would probably eat him too. At that the boy had laughed, but when he saw the seriousness in the old man’s eyes he stopped and the next day brought the bag of food. The old man watched the cats gather around the hubcap in which he’d poured the meal and stroked them as they ate greedily and tried to appease the parasites in their guts. The old man plucked ticks from behind their ears and sliced at the hard red bodies with his hard thumb and fingernail, checking and rechecking each of them until they no longer moved upon release of the pressure. He hated them and tried to see past their nature, but he could not. He believed in God and purpose, but could not for his life rationalize a purpose for the ticks. Though he’d killed them for years, he had not been struck down so he figured perhaps even God had regrets.

The old man collected the dead ticks in his palm. He lifted one of the burner covers and turned his palm over and dropped the ticks into the flame. He listened to them crackle and managed to force a feeling of sadness for them in their final purpose even though they had done the cats wrong. Wrong or not, nature or not, regret or not, they were only what they were and could be nothing else.

The old man put the ticks out of his mind and took the dried, used coffee grounds from the windowsill. The window was once part of a car windshield and the wall was built around it so that it was not a square but closer to another, undefined shape. It did not need to be square to let him look out in anticipation of the boy’s visits, to let the sunlight dry his coffee grounds and allow him one more gift from their grains.

He rewrapped the cheesecloth tight around the grounds and placed them inside his porcelain cup, poured the hot water over them and watched the clear water change color, the swirling leak from the cheesecloth spinning and spreading and changing the water to an even brown. He had dry beans to grind, raw beans to roast, and living beans to pick in his small garden behind the shack, but he believed in getting everything he could from the things he had. The boy laughed at his weak coffee and told him about a shop across town where people spent upwards of five dollars for a single cup and the old man thought he was trying to tease him, but the boy insisted and the man had no choice but to believe because he wasn’t interested or curious enough to confirm such a trivial piece of information, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to him. He had only a few plants and enough coffee to last the rest of his life and each cup cost less than the one before it. He displaced judgment and remembered he had what he needed and had his way and was comfortable enough for an old man and was thankful he did not need five dollars for a cup of coffee, and remembering that truth made the weak brown water taste very pleasant.

*

The man knew something was different that morning when it was not only the boy behind his locked gates, the chain links waiting for him to open them so the world could come and add to his mountains of debris. The boy was accompanied by three others and they stood straddling their bikes, looking at the old man as he approached, and then to the boy who would speak for them all.

“What’s this?”

“These are friends of mine, from the neighborhood. Can I borrow the twenty-two?”

“For? You squirrel hunting?”

“No. Coyote killed Mike’s dog and we’re going to find it and kill it.”

The old man looked over the boys, for Mike, but no boy came forward as the offended party.

“You know it was a coyote?”

“Had to be. There’s been lots of dogs bloodied and some missing. And people have seen it. Come up the wash, I figure. Dry, you know?”

The old man did know and his mind’s eye went to his rain barrel and he knew that if it didn’t rain soon he’d need to buy water or maybe even break down and contract the tools for a well. The river that ran through the back of the property had shrunk to a urine-stream trickle.

“So can we borrow it?”

“You think you can kill it if you find it?”

“You’ve seen me pick off rats and squirrels. I can put one through their heads at twenty yards. I can get a good shot on a coyote.”

The old man didn’t doubt it. The boy did not know how to shoot when he first began coming to the junkyard cabin, but the old man had worked with him and the boy took to killing very comfortably.

“You can borrow it.” The old man turned away and listened to the sound of bicycle tires in the dirt behind him. The boys did not speak because he was there and that made him smile. Shy boys were funny to him. What was he to be feared? He was the old man at the dump, part legend, part joke.

He took the gun from inside the cabin, it was secured in a tied off blue-jean-leg holster with braided shoestrings tied to both ends as a shoulder strap. He handed the gun to the boy and the boy slung it over his shoulder and around his back in a smooth, familiar motion. He nodded thanks and turned away on his bike. The other boys parted the way for him and then turned their own bikes and followed, peddling slowly at first and then faster, as if the old man was some kind of magnetic force that only allowed them to move freely the greater the distance between them.

*

The old man finished his coffee and pushed aside his disappointment that he would not have the boy’s company that day. He had a special project he was tending to and would have liked to hear the boy’s thoughts, if only for amusement. He was such a modern boy and always commented on the curious ways he found in the old man’s actions and words and habits and beliefs, but the old man liked him and his way. The boy was proof of how far the old man had drifted from everything else, but also proof that maybe it wasn’t completely hopeless. Despite his wisecracking and suggestions, the boy was quick to learn and eager to try. And if nothing else, a few of the old man’s lessons might make it another generation before there was nothing left of him but the rusted, rotting remains of the junk and his own dusty bones.

The special project had started as a dream, not a wish but a nighttime tale spun from somewhere deep within his soul. The dream had come often and he had initially pushed it aside, but it returned and the man had decided to ponder it. The dream was nothing elaborate or fantastic. It was a riverbed, dry and dead. There was a single large rock, two feet by two feet near the opposite bank. He knew the rock. The old man stood beside that river just watching the dirt be dirt, the rock be a rock. And that was all, no other clues as to what it could have meant, just a feeling, its significance brought on by repetition of the dream, hinting that perhaps there was something of value to be found in that dry old dream of a river come and gone. So the old man had taken to meditating on the dream and looked for metaphors and thought about his own life and why he may want to pay such attention to this dream, but he was unable to come up with a single thing. A dry riverbed? Not so unusual in the desert. His standing beside it? He’d stood beside many dry beds, crossed them on horseback when people still rode horses, cursed them when they offered no respite for either he nor Gwen Clover, his mare. Finally, he resolved to do nothing until he had the dream again and then he would still do nothing but let the old spirits guide him through the meaning of the dream, the meaning he could not parse on his own. And the previous night, the dream came again. The old man had pushed it out of his mind, refused to think through it again and waited for the guidance he’d asked for, and that very morning it had come to him with the sound of the popping ticks in the fire.

He’d felt an old feeling of joy well up, but he tamped it down quickly, not wanting that joy to become some sort of unwarranted pride. He knew that it was not his reward to accept. He’d asked for help and received it, like a man trapped under a rockslide who calls for aid in the dust, equally grateful for a hand or death. Pride was the old man watching others lift the rocks, pulling him free, and then turning around and taking the credit himself because it was he that cried out. That he would not do. He was to be only a vessel. And even if the vision was something created solely within him, no one could ever make him believe it.

The old man put on his boots and walked the winding paths of his junk mountains. Though it looked a hodgepodge of trash, there was a method to it, like with like. There were pieces of automobiles on the south side of the property, almost a full car if a man cared to play mad scientist. Wooden, dry-rotted things in another pile, old tires in another. The boy liked to climb that tire pile and he often scrambled to the top before he left in the evenings, watching the sun set behind the true mountains on the horizon. He said it was beautiful and the old man nodded, acknowledging the opinion. The lights of the town had brightened the land and the old man did not like the blue-black sky as much as the pure black he remembered as a boy, as a young man. But he knew the boy was sincere in his praise of nature and because of that the old man would not dispute it or try to better the boy’s image with one of his own.

The old man found the pile, or was led to it, and began pulling scraps of metal from its shape. He loaded his wheelbarrow full of the scrap and returned again and again, loading up more material for the creation that would flow from him. The old man did not notice the heat as his hands sweat inside leather gloves and the new pile of metal grew in the middle of the junk yard. He moved old rusted water heaters, pipe, raw copper wire and the like. Most of the metal was unrecognizable as anything man-made except for the fact that it did indeed exist. The old man let his thoughts drift to the objects’ initial states of creation, whatever they were, and he wondered if anyone or even the objects themselves had an idea what they would someday be part of.

He continued all day, pulling objects and scraps from piles, making his new mound of the chosen. The cats came to watch him. They lay in the sun, tails flapping and slapping puffs of dust from the earth, just observing the man and his work in between their naps. The old man sweat that day like a young man and looked fondly toward the ache of used muscles, a pleasant pain he hadn’t experienced for a time. The old man did not break for lunch or water, he felt nourished by his work, cooled by his own sweat like a horse, and at the end of the day, when he did drink the tepid, slightly acidic water from the rain barrel, it was the best he’d tasted.

That night he lay naked atop his blanket, ushering in sleep, hungry for the daylight that would allow him the sight to continue. He remembered the boy just before drifting away and wondered if the coyote had been found, but could not long consider any imagined scenario. Fatigue was upon him and he accepted it.

The dream came again and the old man woke remembering his project, recharged and ready to begin. He forced himself to eat a bowl of chicken stock, boiling the broth alongside his water for coffee. He ground his roasted coffee beans and the caffeine invigorated and excited him. He allowed himself the tiniest thoughts and plans as he waited for the sun and the light.

When it came he went to the hand-built shed behind his cabin, near his garden, and pulled from its guts the old mig welder and goggles, hoisted the tools with little strain into the wheelbarrow and brought it to the pile of scrap. The day lost all time as the old man again worked through the heat and the minutes, the hot scorching flame from the torch blazed hotter than the sun upon his skin. He first worked with the rusted hot water heater, affixing pipe, six pieces, with only a phantom of thought pressing him on.

Upon completion of this task he found he’d created a form in which the barrel rested horizontally upon the six legs of pipe. He affixed a rusted-out metal pail to one end of the water heater and then added two rounded, dead, headlight eyes. He heated the metal to a pliable form with the torch and hammered the mass into shape, rounding out the contours of the figure. He bent copper wire into wings, filled them out with mesh from an old screen door and lashing it together with long leather cord. He continued to work, to shape the mass and his mind drifted.

The old man was a young man on horseback, on Gwen Clover, standing beside the riverbed. It was not yet dry and he watched a young brown Yaqui Indian girl scrub the beautifully handmade cotton clothing on the rock jutting from the cold clean water. He spurred the mare and she stepped into the river, the soles of his boots skimming the surface. The girl looked at him fearfully at first, as if she’d been alone in the universe, and then her eyes smiled at him when realization of another soul came to be.

“Hello,” he said.

The girl nodded and tried to continue the washing, but the distraction in her heart numbed her fingers and she made clumsy passes over the scrub rock with the fabric. She laughed at herself and put the work aside. She looked up at him, sweat glazing her and she passed a forearm across her brow.

“Would you like to ride with me?”

She considered the washing and then left it all on the side of the river. She took his hand and allowed herself to be hoisted behind him on the saddle. He spurred the horse on again, led her east with the bridle. The girl held around his waist tightly as Gwen Clover gained speed through the scrubby desert brush. She looked back but could see nothing of the task she’d abandoned. She held tighter.

He took her to a pecan grove and they had one another in the shade. They ate raw pecans and watched a train puff black smoke on the horizon. He took her into town and they were married the next day with no rings. She wore white flowers in her hair. He purchased the small ranch the following morning. They knew nothing about goats but they learned together and made enough money to support two comfortably. She used her knowledge of the land to coax forth an acre of cotton and another of corn. She bore him no children. They were happy.

The old man sat puffing before the creature that had come from his hands through the spirits’ asking. It was a wasp like the one that had stung her and swelled her throat. They’d arrived at the hospital in time to learn she had a cancer strangling her uterus. They learned of it just in time to prepare for her death. The old man stroked the wasp, its rolled tin can stinger was smooth and sharp. The old man laid a hand on the thorax. It was hot from the sun and the old man took in the burning heat. His palms were thick with work and dulled to the extremes by age. The burning was pleasant. He stepped back and watched the heat radiate in watery waves from the entire body of the wasp. He looked through the heat and beyond the gate of his dump. He looked for the boy, the group of boys on bicycles, but they did not come. He gathered his tools and retired for the day.

The old man’s work took on that of ritual. He was up before the sun and feeding the cats and remembering dreams, using the visions to guide him. Somewhere was tucked the plan for his creation but he did not dare look for it. To look was to mistrust the spirits and then the work would be his and would not give credence to those that had come before, those who had gone. The man worked and did not know what he was making until, as if coming out of a trance, he could see the shaped twisted metal before him, taking the form of some living beast from his past. The exception was a tree. It was a pecan tree and upon that he allowed himself to look and linger and remember. After it came to be, the tree was the last thing he touched in the evening and the first to feel his rough, cracked palm in the dawn.

*

In less than a week the old man had created a menagerie of rusted life, set large and still in the midst of the piles of metal and plastic and other things worn and forgotten. There was the wasp and the tree and there was the deer, a revered life symbol of the Yaqui people. A turtle to carry away the worries of all those in the world, a horse, and then again, for her, a grove of rusted flowers atop television antennas, planted and glowing up in the midst of these animals. He’d used all of the materials he’d gathered that first day, not a scrap remained, and the old man felt he was finished. He admired the work, the spirits’ work, and tried not to be proud. It was very hard as the things from his vessel hands were things of beauty, but he reminded himself that he was lost until giving himself to the spirits. It was not his to hold or to have beheld by anyone for his own sake.

The old man dreamed again that night. It was not of the river or the rock or of her or of pecans. He dreamt he was the coyote, laughing in the night, nipping the heels of a deer, killing stray dogs, and he could taste the blood on his tongue as he yelped in the moonlight across the cool valley plain. The blood was warm and filled his belly with a greater hunger, as if the nourishing liquid fed not him, but the hunger itself, growing it stronger. With each stride the hunger pressed him on, making him more powerful, making the instinct to kill the deer that much greater. And then he was a young man, in a jail cell and still drunk. The blood he now tasted was his own after a fight, after she was dead. The need to hurt had grown with each swallow from the bottle, with each thought. The bourbon whiskey came up sweet with his burps as he sobbed alone behind the bars. After his release he watched the crops die, and the goats were killed by coyotes. He saw the ranch house fall apart around him, patched and cobbled back together with this and that from the piles he’d begun to collect.

The old man woke and heard his tarp roof flapping somewhere in the wind. He heard hard rain all around the shack, the storm extending for miles beyond him, he heard every drop. The monsoon had come and he tried to recapture the pain of the dream but it ran like water through his fingers. The darkness told him it was still very early and he thought about things other than himself. The boy, where was the boy? He hoped the coyote had not created trouble. A fighting coyote could be a rabid coyote. These worries put the old man back into a fitful sleep in which he was not anywhere but where he was, on a cot, in a cabin, in a junkyard, on the edge of town where the desert became its own again. He was alone but for the cats that meowed and howled and fought one another, wet and angry. This was rest.

*

The old man sat with his coffee at his small table, his good work resting deep in his mind and soul. He read the paper from the week before, tracing each line of each story, lines that were already faded and no longer left ink on his hard finger tips. There was the honk of a car horn and the old man remembered it was Saturday and that he’d have many new loads of scrap dropped off for disposal. The horn got him to his feet and he finished the last swallow of his weak coffee. There would be no rest.

The cats followed the old man into the sunshine, but the ground was not yet dry. The old man’s boots sunk slightly with each step and the land held him, as if trying to keep him, slow him for some unknown purpose of its own. Each drying grain had its purpose.

He looked at the creation as he passed, at the sloping ground within the scrap piles and the pond. It was the pond he’d seen after every monsoon rain, but this day it took on a new life, shone and sparkled with sunshine, the clouds reflected among the creations, the wonderful beasts that looked up and down and in all directions at once. It seemed a wonder to him and the spirits surely had a hand in this, surely; his own old form was reflected as well, and there was no doubt.

The old man stood at the locked gate, fingers hanging, anchored on the chain link, his dangling elbow moving slightly with his breath.

“Sheriff.”

“Hey, Marty. You give the Williams kid your twenty-two?”

“I did. He get that coyote? Did it get him?”

“Is that what they fed ya? Boy I wish. Those kids been on a regular crime spree. Home invasions, raping, killing, stealin’ anything they could carry off. Plenty of sin to go around. Sons of bitches’ll be going away, that’s a truth. We just had to see they was tellin’ the truth ’bout that gun. Make sure you weren’t dead in here.” The sheriff snorted hard and spit on the damp earth outside the gates. “Said they were goin’ after a coyote?”

“That’s what he told me. I believed him.”

The sheriff put his hand on the fence like the old man’s. “God damn shame,” the sheriff said and the men looked past each other for a long time.

“What you got goin’ on back there, Marty?”

The old man turned and saw the creation, rusted, flooded, silly-looking and nothing more than the junk it came from. He looked back to, and then past the sheriff. There was a growing line of pickups full of scrap to drop off, the drivers hidden safely behind sun-blasted glass.

pencil

Chris DeWildt’s website. Email: csdewildt[at]yahoo.com

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As I Walk Out One Evening

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
HC Hsu


london bus
Photo Credit: Anthony Kelly

Beautiful

It was early in the evening. I was walking down the street, on the side of a big, busy road.

I was walking, and walking… and a person appeared before me, about fifty feet away.

I shouldn’t say ‘appeared,’ because the person was clearly there before I was there, and I just hadn’t noticed him.

Perception is a weird thing: often we see only what we want to see, even if we don’t know fully what we want, or even what it is we are seeing. It’s a bit like misplacing your keys and being locked out of your own house. But, we somehow seem to have learned to deal with the former, to the extent that we hardly even notice it any more.

I saw this man. He was sitting on the raised concrete partition bordering the sidewalk and a parking lot on the left, belonging to a 7-Eleven. He was wearing a T-shirt, faded blue workman jeans, and gum-sole boots. Dark, curly hair down to his neck, covering the profile of his face. He just sat there, legs apart, arms resting in between, head slightly drooped.

Cars kept coming toward and passing me, as I kept walking. As I walked closer and closer to the person, I didn’t know why, I had an urge to look at his face. A strange, and rather powerful desire. Like I had predicted something was about to happen.

And now waited ebulliently, for the proof. For the realization.

As I passed him, I looked, and saw the man’s face. Black. Gashes, criss-crossed on a flesh canvas, in varying lengths, and widths, like branding marks, where the skin had been scissored and turned inside out so that new, newer skin, grew even more thickly and heartily along the edges, merging the one into another, scar upon scar, so that eyes, nose, mouth became pushed, pulled, contorted, distorted, in every which direction, touching, where they shouldn’t, then flying apart—disappearing, beyond any recognizability whatsoever. Like a go board drawn and half-washed away in the sand, all before nightfall.

Realizing the man had turned his head toward me, I looked away. And walked on.

Then all of a sudden, I heard a voice behind me.

It was the man’s voice.

He said:

‘You are beautiful.’

*

There is a man sitting behind me writing. I feel like he is my ghost. One day I will die, and my ghost will die again.

*

 

Change

At the bus stop, behind me, squatting down and sitting on the imaginary line where the skyscraper meets the sidewalk, a man, in his thirties or forties, maybe younger, and wearing washed-out, frayed jeans and a short-sleeve white T-shirt with spots of brown and yellow, was speaking. Evenly, tranquilly, monotonously. Neither loud nor soft, as if he were simply having a conversation with someone, but using only one word:

Change. Change. Change. Change. Change. Change.

Just one word. Again and again. Over and over, like a mantra. Without joy or sadness, neither warm nor cold, without interest, or disinterest, just, simply, over and over again, in a single, even, regular rhythm, that is automatic and mechanical. As if it were no longer a voice, or even language, no different, from breathing, or the beating of a heart valve, or the mere grinding of gears in a machine.

Change. Change. Change.

An eternal demand.

 

Seats

A few months ago I was riding the bus.

It was morning, and rain was drizzling. The sky hadn’t lit up yet. Glancing at the full seats in the back, I sat down in one of the handicap seats in front. At this point, I usually close my eyes and continue my butterfly dreams of Zhuang Zhou until my destination.

Probably because of the rain and traffic, the bus kept swaying and stopping. As soon as I drifted off again I was jolted back into consciousness, uselessly trying to lap at the shallow shore of sleep that was receding farther and farther away.

The more awake, and delineated, each time, my mind became, the more and more annoyed I got. Starting with how idiotic people are as if they’re cavemen witnessing rain for the first time ‘for yet seven days’; how inefficient public transport authorities and infrastructures are on a good day, never mind in a cataclysm like a chiffon of morning mist; how I have to get up at an ungodly hour—surely an affront to nature and the heavenly way of things… from the passengers, to the bus driver, the mayor, the governor, the President, God… a grudge is born, and no one guilty in the conspiracy against peace and rest can escape being consumed by its fury…

Then a man and a woman boarded the bus.

It was an old man and an old woman, probably in their seventies at least. The man had a soft olive complexion, short white hair parted to the side, thin, outward-sloping grey brows, dark squinting eyes, thin lips, a smile brimming in his eyes instead of his lips. He didn’t look Caucasian, wearing what looked like a blue Chinese changshan, with an old plum-colored purse in his hand. The woman was white, her face more wrinkled and pale, with thinning grey-and-white hair parted in the middle down to her neck. She was in a long-sleeve green shirt and mint-colored pants, and had an oxygen mask on.

The two of them were about the same height by each other, diminutive and wan. The man slid the two bus passes he was holding in his hand through the reader, and then, with the woman on his other arm, shuffled toward the seats next to mine. They sat down. The man carefully put the bus passes back in his shirt pocket, and put his hand on the woman’s hand, lifted it and set it back down on his own leg. After a while, he raised and put his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her closer to him. The woman leaned in, then on him.

They never said a word to each other.

Suddenly I felt extremely childish, and ashamed.

I still think of that couple every now and then, especially when I feel down.

Love is not always found in sonnets and epic legends. Sometimes it’s found in the handicap seats of a city bus.

*

A branch from a tree fell, one amidst many, and can no longer grow forward, or be traced back.

*

 

An argument

Walking down the street this morning, I saw some people arguing on the side of the road.

A slender woman, who looked to be in her sixties, in a teal-colored dress and white heels, with shoulder-length dyed dark-brown hair and a wrinkle-lined mouth, which, making her appear as if permanently sad and sulking, seemed to wither and recede farther into but a tiny hole, opening and closing, as sounds threaded through like click-clacking beads, forming the syllables of her sentences, was trying to say something.

A younger man—bald, dressed in head-to-toe black, with a small, black-and-brown Chihuahua sitting right beside his dirt-encrusted Panama-style jungle boot, its small head cocked up and alert, eyes glinting, watching the woman, who stood about two feet away from them—cut her off.

‘Where do you get off being self-righteous?’ His voice was loud and distinct, and several passersby turned their heads to look to see what’s going on.

She got out— ‘I’m not——‘ It was a high and lilting voice, with the oooot drawn out at the end.

Yes, you are!‘ The young man yelled. ‘It’s my dog. It’s not for sale!’

That seemed to be the end of the argument. But, instead of both parties moving on, or at least away from each other, the man and the woman both stood in place, neither being willing to concede to the other their area of the sidewalk. The Chihuahua, also, sat still.

I was coming up to them in the middle of the sidewalk, so I stepped off onto the road, and stepped back on again as I passed them.

I walked a little ways, for a bit, and looked back. The woman had walked behind me and turned onto a cross street. I could still see her; walking briskly, her head lowered, she was wiping away her eyes with the palm of her hands. Farther back, around the corner, on the original street, the young man had sat down legs crossed on the ground, and was holding the dog in his lap, sniffing, rubbing the top of its head, and lightly burying his face into the dog’s fur, and then, slowly, and gently, he placed a small aluminum can out front, on the ground of the sidewalk.

A bus sped past me, drumming up a cloud of faintly red, strange, brick-colored dust, in its wake.

 

A bag of roses

At noon I went out and saw a big black plastic trash bag lying next to the dumpster; the bag was filled with roses. White, peeking out from the open bag, fresh, abundant, entangled, bright. Almost exuberant. Someone had left them there. For some reason—perhaps the occasion in which they were used was over, perhaps there were too many, perhaps someone simply didn’t want them. So there they lay, next to cardboard boxes, newspapers, ads and fliers, plastic bottles, old foodstuffs, dirty styrofoam containers, small plastic bags filled with trash, and other odds and ends by the dumpster. White, creamy, with a pale, almost imperceptible shade of yellow at the base of the petals, like a solitary soft murmur, one, criss-crossing with another, gathering, building, multiplying, until they became a mesh of rumpled, fuzzy clamor, sprouting out of a giant, black flower-shaped mouth. Blossoming, withering. I thought of taking one home, but didn’t, and left.

*

An old couple was ambling and picking flowers along the side of the road. I had been staring at them, and when we came up to each other, the old man, Indian, said hello. I mouthed a hi and averted my eyes, somewhat embarrassed. The man seemed a bit displeased, and turned to his wife in a gold-trimmed purple sarong, saying: ‘Kids today.’

*

 

Crying

A kid was crying in the street.

I was walking behind. The kid was a few paces in front of me, walking, while crying. There was a woman walking a few paces in front of him. Probably the mother. Neither of them turned around. I couldn’t see their faces.

Judging from the height and frame, I guessed the kid to be no more than three years old. Buzzed black hair. He didn’t try to hide his face in his arms or wipe away the tears with his hands. He was just crying. Howling. And wailing. Screaming. Almost. Without any restraint or reserve, without a care as to where he was, or anything or anyone that was around him. Just sad to the extreme, from an intolerable pain, that seemed to vibrate down to the very core of one’s being, a piercing line of steel. Then exploding into a million shards, pure sounds, borne away by the wind.

The boy walked in a steady pace behind his mother, as if the act of crying were something completely separate from the rest of his body, and the movement of his legs. In white sneakers. Tiny. And always just a few steps, behind her. The woman, neither fat nor thin, had straight, shoulder-length black hair, and wore a short black dress, and low black heels. Underneath the net of yowls and snivels, the sharp hard clicks of heels on concrete interspersed the long, more languid quashes of rubber tennis soles. The woman never turned around. I don’t know if it’d be the same if the boy were a man, or if it were the woman who was crying.

It was afternoon. There were other pedestrians on the street. No one bothered to look, or they merely tossed a quick glance over and, maybe out of politeness, re-directed their gaze elsewhere right away.

As if no one, not even the boy himself, heard these gut-wrenching, blood-curdling cries, in the middle of a street, under the bright spring sun.

 

Evidence

I was standing in line.

A tall man stood in front of me. I couldn’t see his face, only the back of his head, which was bald. He was thin, and his scalp enveloped a bony, sprout-shaped skull, with a fleshy protuberance slightly jutting out at the midpoint between the top of his head, and the back of his neck. There was a crease under the bulge that extended from behind the middle of his left ear to his right, curving upward. It made the back of his head look like a smiley face. But incomplete.

There was a long, extremely thin strand of red hair, glimmering under the overhead fluorescent pipe, almost transparent and invisible, gently lying across the back of his neck, touching it, but at the same time, hovering over, and above it.

Like a secret memento, a nearly imperceptible trace, unbeknownst to the one to whom it was left, or even to the one who left it, a line connecting them both, even as their backs turned, and began to separate, to move in opposite directions, never to meet again.

Like evidence, that we once were.

*

An old man sat in the front of the bus in an electric wheelchair. The wheelchair was black, with a bright orangish-red and yellow nylon sack hanging from the push handles down the back. He was wearing a black baseball cap that, on the back, read ‘Air Force’; beneath it, his scalp peeked out in the space between the fabric seam and the plastic strap. When I got up he glanced at me, nodded and lowered his head, and turned away. I got off the bus.

*

 

Traveling

On the bus home today, the shades were drawn down on the large bus windows. The shades were composed of hundreds and hundreds of little circular perforations. The early afternoon sunlight shone in, while the rest of the outside scenery stayed behind, flowing along, struggling to seep through the rows and rows of tiny holes, plastered against the surface of this net, as it morphed from buildings, into trees, then into masses of people, and then into a large silvery, rippling, shimmering lake. Latching on to the traveling bus. No matter what form or shape it assumed, it could only show through, visible, only, from inside, as a finely pixelated image, like a facsimile of an impressionist painting.

It’s kind of fun to see the city this way. I think people who like to travel, or wish they traveled, a lot, need to open up their eyes, and minds, more, to what is already there around them. Traveling is not going to new places. It is experiencing things in new ways.

*

I don’t like mountain laurels. The faded purple, that bubbly pungent, tryingly sweet scent, like royalty that’s been made to hide and live like commoners after the revolution, being forced to smile, it makes me sad.

*

 

Parallel

You get on.

You don’t see me.

You take the seat two rows in front of me.

I see your backside, the back of your head, your dark brown, somewhat frizzed and wavy hair. For some reason, I don’t tap you on the back, or your shoulder (I see you turn around—surprised, smiling, your eyes sparkling, an underwater cavernous limestone blue—‘Hey, when did you get on?’ you ask, and try to stand up as you jolt forward, your body leaving your seat, as you find a way to balance yourself and move toward me)—but I stay still, and we remain where we are.

I watch you. I don’t see your face. It’s a strange feeling, as if I were no longer me, or were somewhere else completely, or I had simply disappeared, evaporated, from here and now. It occurs to me I had never up until then, seen you. In your completeness.

In your solitude.

I wonder what you are like without me.

Yourself plus the world minus me.

It’s a strange feeling, but I feel a lightness and clarity. A bright whiteness shines through me.

I can see an outline of myself.

We ride across the water. You look out. At that moment, I see your face, reflected in the glass, translucent, overlaid with reflections of the brilliant blue rippling water, the passing trees, and the sky.

I wonder sometimes whether you are lost in your own thoughts.

 

‘When the sun is folded up, and the stars fall, the mountains are made to move, and the seas boil, then every soul shall understand what it has done.’ (The Quran)

pencil

HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, May 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, and Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, he has written for Liberty Times, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland. Email: khsuhc[at]gmail.com

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Perennial

Broker’s Pick
Jay O’Shea


Untitled
Photo Credit: Charles Fredrick Gruber

I stood at the window as the new girl arrived. Mrs. Sutani was out so I went downstairs to meet her. I took her bags and caught the scent of something floral, synthetic but appealing.

“On your way home?” I asked. With her olive skin and hazel eyes I thought it could go either way.

“No.” Her English was accented, with an inflection I didn’t recognize. “I’m from Corsica.”

She looked so small and fragile, I wanted to take her in my hand.

“It’s an island,” she added. “In the Mediterranean.”

“Well, be careful here,” I said. “This is no tropical paradise.”

“Neither is Corsica.” She smiled, the corner of her mouth turning up, just on one side.

I’ve lived in this house for over a year. There’s no point in buying my own place on the island, with my wife and child back home. Besides Mrs. Sutani likes me. She finds it comforting, a respectable man like myself here while so many others come and go. Not that this is a hotel or a boarding house. Everyone who stays here has a personal recommendation. But no one’s as constant as me.

Mrs. Sutani and I are the same age. You could see she was a looker once. But a woman loses her beauty so soon. Nothing she can do but stand by and watch it fade, like a flower cut and brought indoors. Doesn’t help that she lost her husband in the war. On leave and killed by a bomb meant for anyone at all. Imagine: he put in years of service and died running errands.

I saw action myself and I know I’m not safe here. But at least the missus and the little one are at home. But then, there’s another difference, right? It’s man’s job to go out into the world and take risks. I can’t hold Mrs. Sutani’s flaccid skin and thick body against her; it must be hard to stand by, while someone else faces danger.

At dinner, the girl sat across from me. It was just the three of us. I asked her name. Her clear eyes locked with mine.

“Rosa.” Her lips inched back into a smile.

Rosa, I repeated to myself. Rose. A blossom not yet faded. Not even picked.

I found myself talking. She brought it out of me; maybe it was her eyes, with their open, trusting look. I felt she would listen, that she would understand.

I was military for twenty years and none of it was light duty. The worst of it was here, on this island, in the northern desert. You have to wonder who’d want to form a country up there. If it were up to me, I’d say, let them have it. They wouldn’t last more than a few months. Even water is scarce. Fresh water, anyway. Plenty of salt water. It seeps in and ruins the land for farming. That land was for fighting on, not fighting over.

But the battle: on the narrow strip, the tendril that connects the peninsula to the rest of the country. Sunlight seared our eyes so that we, with our tanks and guns, sat blinded, waiting for their attack. The guerillas bided their time, then swarmed in from the patches of jungle that rested at the edge of the pass.

I don’t even know how many of my boys fell that day.

And the worse part, I said, looking at the two women next to me, was when I saw the guerillas’ faces. They had girls on their front line. Not even women. Girls. Bright-faced with hair in braids, looking like they should be in school. Until you saw their eyes. You only see eyes like that in a soldier. They had made a life of this and they were, what, sixteen?

“I’m surprised you stayed,” Rosa said, her voice cool as the water in my glass.

After dinner, I sat in the back garden and smoked, listening to the cicadas buzzing and birds chattering before they went silent for the night. The traffic on the road was a whisper. The servant woman’s child laughed as he ran through the garden. He was prattling away but I couldn’t understand him; I’ve never learned the island language. Why bother? It’s irrelevant, spoken nowhere else in the world, barely more than a dialect. And it sounds like nails rattling in a can.

Rosa sat down. She said nothing and I wondered if I’d upset her, with my talk of the war. The light from the kitchen threw a shadow across her face. Her neck was long and graceful and it arched as she turned her head to look out into the garden. Her blouse had a neckline that dipped to the edge of modesty. I couldn’t see a swell of breasts. All I could see was her collarbone, an even edge with a tight valley behind it. Without meaning to, I thought of my mouth on her shoulders, of my tongue caressing the line of that bone.

She stared at me. I sat back. I ran my hand through my hair and took a drag off my cigarette. She couldn’t have guessed what I was thinking. Could she?

“I’ve met him,” I said, dropping the name of the rebel leader.

He’s notoriously elusive—you don’t run a jungle campaign for fifteen years by calling attention to yourself—and not many people get to see him. Certainly no one else from our side has. It’s a good story. Not one I get to relay very often. I told it well this time, filling in its edges with detail.

“What do you do, Rosa?” I asked just before I went to bed.

We were standing on the stairs. I felt how close she was. I looked down at that perfect head and thought about what it would be like to pull her into my arms. She just might acquiesce.

Then again, she might not.

“I’m a journalist,” she said, with that half-smile. It might have been unnerving at first but I’d come to find it charming.

“Well, I hope tonight is off the record.” I laughed.

Her lopsided smile didn’t move, didn’t spread to her cheeks or her eyes.

“Of course.” She ran her hand along the banister.

“Where do you go from here?” I asked.

“The Peninsula.” She looked at me for a moment longer than was comfortable, then turned and walked to her room.

I called in sick the day she left. I hadn’t planned it that way; I woke with a scratchy throat and thought about what it would be like to see her go. I carried her bags to the car.

“Maybe you should leave something behind,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow as she took the bags from me. Skin flashed under her loose sleeve. A straight line ran down her forearm where the muscle cut in. These young girls with their fitness obsessions: don’t they know making themselves hard is not attractive?

“You can come back anytime,” I said, although it wasn’t my place to offer.

The hours after she left reduced her to disconnected snapshots: the hint of curves underneath flowing clothes, her skin, creamy, eyes hazel like a cat’s. I worried about her up there, in the North, on her own. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. A fragile blossom in the midst of all that danger and devastation. So easily crushed.

My Mediterranean rose.

She wasn’t mine. But the words caught in my head.

I argued with my wife on the phone that night. I couldn’t help but make the comparison, not just between Rosa’s sleek little figure and my wife’s soft, spreading flesh, but between Rosa’s quiet acceptance and Rupa’s constant questioning. Rosa just listened; Rosa took me as I am. Rupa pushed me away with her nagging and haranguing.

Later, Rosa’s image eluded me. I looked at my own loose body. I told myself to make up with my wife.

Then it was morning and I woke to the television’s blare. I heard the servant woman shout and Mrs. Sutani’s slippers slap against the floor. The servant calling the mistress, I thought, amused. Then I realized there must be something wrong for Mrs. Sutani to run like that.

I walked out in my bathrobe, smoothing down my hair as I opened the door. They stood on the landing in front of my room, poses identical. Two statues, one old, round, and pale, the other young, dark, and skinny, arms clasped around their chests, faces pinched. Standing in front of the television. Watching an international news channel. Voices in English.

The servant woman kept talking and I could barely make out the broadcast. But I saw the pictures: a body crumpled by bullet wounds, curled up tight as it was lifted onto a stretcher. A few other dead, who no one was bothering with. Fire in the background. The shell of a building, surrounded by rubble. It took me a moment to recognize the destruction as war damage, not connected to the assassination.

Assassination. I finally heard the newscaster’s voice. The rebel leader was killed. Shot in the early hours of the morning by a sniper from a rival faction.

A woman, traveling on a foreign passport, under an assumed name.

The camera caught a shot of the assassin. Hands cuffed behind her back, she stumbled as two scruffy policemen pushed her along. Her head dropped like a blossom cut at the stem. The shirt slipped from her shoulder as the police edged her toward the door of the truck.

I didn’t have to look to see the straight line of her collarbone.

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Jay O’Shea is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. Her novel Alchemy of Loss is currently seeking a good home. An enthusiastic, if somewhat inconsistent, practitioner of yoga, rock-climbing, and martial arts, she lives in Los Angeles with her partner, child, and pet Rottweiler. Email: j.b.oshea[at]gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Inheritance

Creative Nonfiction
Susan Lago


Tool of the Trade
Photo Credit: JL Stricklin

When I was twenty-five I thought I was going blind. One day I was driving home from work and when I stopped at the light I saw a glowing circle around the red traffic signal. Like a halo. I blinked, rubbed my eyes and then the light changed and I forgot about the halo until the next time I saw it. Over the next few weeks, the halo appeared with increasing frequency. I saw it mostly around objects that emitted light, like the buzzing florescent tubes in the office of the ad agency where I worked as an account coordinator, or the clock on the stove, or the screen of the small TV perched on the edge of our dresser. I tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, but the halo grew until it took over the whole world.

You should see a doctor, my husband said. We had been married for less than a handful of years then. Past the newlywed stage, but not yet at the start-a-family stage either. We were both starting out in our careers, still paying our student loans, living in a low-ceilinged basement apartment in Secaucus, New Jersey with the cast-off furniture from my father and stepmother’s attic.

Go see your dad, he said. He’ll know what to do.

My father was an ophthalmologist.

For my exam, my father wore his white doctor coat. It was after-hours, the waiting area empty of patients and staff. In my memory, the examination room is cave dim with quiet carpet and no dust. My father used his ophthalmic examination instruments to peer into one eye and then the other. His face loomed so close to mine that it was the size of the moon. His breath on my cheek mortified me.

Finally he sat back on his doctor stool and sighed.

What? I said.

He shook his head. I can’t believe this, but you have a cataract.

Are you sure? Don’t only old people get cataracts?

When young people get them, they’re usually hereditary. I had one myself a few years ago. I guess you got it from me, he said, and looked at me, his small gray eyes behind his glasses. But you can’t tell anyone about that.

About what?

My cataract. I could get sued for malpractice.

I was ten paces behind in the conversation as usual. Why? I asked.

Because I operated on patients when I had the cataract. Before I had surgery to remove it.

Oh, I said. I won’t say anything.

You’ll need surgery, he said. I’ll make arrangements for a buddy of mine out in California to do it. He’s the best in the field. He won’t say anything.

Why can’t I just go to a doctor here?

My father sighed again. A line appeared between his eyes, a knife slash. Another doctor would ask for your patient history, he said. He would know that a cataract in someone your age was probably hereditary. I can’t take a chance it’ll be traced back to me. I could lose everything.

What happens if I wait, I said. I needed time to think. Surgery. I pictured the scalpel, sharp and perfect, slicing into my sclera. I felt nauseous.

The halo glowed around my father’s white coat. You could wait, he said, but you’ll gradually lose vision in that eye. You’re young, you’re healthy. My advice is to take care of it now. You don’t want to be sight-impaired in your twenties.

Maybe I should get a second opinion.

The knife slash deepened. I told you, he said. This has to be a secret.

Pressure in the back of my throat. I knew better than to cry.

He took off his glasses, held them up to the light, and put them on again. Him on his doctor stool, me in the patient chair held in place by the black metal ophthalmic instrument suspended in front of me from a hinged rod. What’s the matter, I said.

This will be expensive.

Ten paces behind.

Knife slash.

You could talk to your sister, he said. I’m still paying her health insurance. I don’t know if I can afford this kind of operation unless I can free up some extra funds.

But she’s still in college.

I know, but maybe your mother could take over the payments. The word “mother” in his mouth like the worst kind of swear word.

He reached over and touched my hand. I only want the best for you, he said. And this guy is the best. Okay?

Okay, I said. I stood. Okay.

And then his arms were around me and he held me tight against the rough starched surface of his coat. Everything will be all right, he said, and then he let me go.

I tried to remember if my father had ever held me before, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t. I would have promised him anything.

A cataract? my husband said when I got home. That’s nuts. You’re too young to have a cataract. You should get another opinion.

I explained about the possibility of malpractice. How we had to keep this secret, but my husband didn’t understand. We may have argued about it, but I can’t be sure.

Are you crazy, my sister yelled when I told her about the cataract, the secret, the doctor who was the best in the field out in California. Her health insurance.

We were sitting on my bed, which took up most of the bedroom, sorting through Jujyfruits. I got all the black ones because she didn’t like them. How much do you think he pays for my insurance? she asked. Twenty dollars a month? Thirty? He has two fucking BMWs for chrissakes! He lives in a huge house in Mendham! And you have your own health insurance! He doesn’t have to pay a dime! If he wants to keep it a secret, then he should pay for it.

One could say the scales fell from my eyes, blue like my sister’s eyes, like my mother’s. You’re right. I guess I was so worried about needing surgery that I wasn’t thinking straight, I said.

She shrugged. She understood. He was her father too. Maybe you should get a second opinion, she suggested.

And so I did.

It’s a Mittendorf Dot, said ophthalmologist #2. He had the same ophthalmic examination equipment, but he didn’t wear a white coat, just a sport jacket. He explained that a Mittendorf Dot was an anomaly like a freckle. It in no way affected my vision.

But it could be mistaken for a cataract? I asked.

He frowned. No. It’s not even on that part of your eye.

Now I frowned. But what about the halo?

Do you do much work on a computer? he asked.

Only about ten hours a day, I said. This was in the late eighties when desktop computers had big box-like monitors with cathode ray tubes.

Doctor #2 explained that staring at the monitor and the rays it emitted for long periods of time could cause eyestrain. Take breaks, he suggested.

That’s it?

He nodded.

I used my health insurance to pay for the visit.

I didn’t call my father to ask if he had made a mistake. I didn’t drive to his home or office to accuse him of lying. When Sunday came I didn’t make my weekly phone call. Two weeks went by before I realized he hadn’t called me either. Then I tried to remember if he had initiated any of the Sunday night calls and I thought that probably he had not. Why don’t you call him, my husband asked when three weeks had gone by, but I didn’t. The silence screamed as I counted up the days, the weeks, and then the months that I didn’t call him and he didn’t call me.

More than two decades later and neither one of us has made any attempt at getting in touch with the other. Here’s the thing: if he believed his diagnosis was correct, then why didn’t he call to see how I was? Wasn’t he concerned that I was going blind from my untreated condition? Wasn’t he worried that I’d blurted out his secret? Or: if he realized he made a mistake, then why didn’t he offer some kind of apology or excuse? But the worst possibility, the one that’s kept me from picking up the phone or typing out an email, was that he had known from the beginning that there was nothing wrong with my eyes and that he took the opportunity to get something he felt was owed him. At various times in my life, I’ve believed different versions of the story as I’m sure my father has believed his.

I could throw in a metaphor about blindness, love, but I won’t. The halo? I took breaks as the doctor suggested and after a couple of weeks it went away.

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Susan Lago teaches writing at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Pank, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle, Verbsap, and Word Riot. In 2011, she was honored to have one of her short stories nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pank Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: Professor L. Email: shlago[at]optonline.net

Posted in Uncategorized

To Give Up Smoking

Fiction
Alex Shishin


Starbucks, Shibuya
Photo Credit: St Stev

A man in fatigues enters the suburban Los Angeles convenience store and opens fire with his semi-automatic rifle. The tobacco-reeking young man standing in line behind twenty-eight-year-old Vera Medvedev pulls her to the floor and covers her with his heavy body.

“I can’t breathe! Get off!” she screams amid sounds of exploding glass and other screams.

“Stay put. You’ll be okay,” he says.

These are his last words.

A year later Vera is walking down a street in Kobe’s Motomachi district. It is an early autumn evening. She will teach a special English conversation seminar to a group of middle managers at a well-known Japanese chemical company. She is taking over for a colleague at her university who needed to reduce her load of part-time jobs.

Her family’s vacation apartment is nearby. It is a few minutes walk from Daimaru department store, where she shops and has lunch and dinner, and Starbucks, next to Chinatown, where she has breakfast and where she hangs out in the evenings, enjoying only her own company and luxuriating in the absence of the Second Amendment and gun lobbies. Her Japanese relatives, who found her the university post and with whom she dines on weekends, live in big houses at the foot of Mt. Roko. When she was in high school, her parents sold their inherited Taisho Era Western-style house on Kitanozaka and bought the less troublesome though spacious apartment in Motomachi, where they stay during their periodic visits to Japan.

On the ninth floor of the company building an office lady greets her: “Welcome, Ms Medvedev!” Leading Vera to the conference room where she will be teaching, she remarks, “Your Japanese is very good!”

Seven men are seated at a round conference table and they are all smoking cigarettes. Panes of grey smoke drift through the conference room like harbor fog.

Vera remembers the police extracting her from under the blood-soaked and tobacco-reeking dead man. She remembers crying, “I can’t deal with this.”

“I can’t deal with this!”

The seven men and the office lady do not speak. The office lady’s hand covers her mouth.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry!” Vera says and brings her own hand to her mouth. “I am terribly sorry,” she says in Japanese. “I don’t smoke.”

No problem, no problem, the men tell her in English and Japanese. Soon the office lady has led them to a fresh conference room. The men promise not to smoke.

The businesswoman in Vera takes over. She stands ramrod straight and seemingly unruffled, makes a joke and then introduces herself in English and Japanese. “Medvedev is Russian. My mother is Japanese but my father is Russian-American. He is a company president. My mother is a housewife. My father came to Kobe on business and met my mom. She comes from an old Kobe family. Medvedev derives from the Russian word for bear. I am a mother bear—grrr!—and you are my cubs.”

The men find this uproariously funny and this inaugurates a successful seminar. When it is over three months later the men throw Vera a party at the Chinese restaurant in Daimaru, where smoking is forbidden. They present her with an expensive porcelain tray. Several men say they will try to give up smoking, which makes the other men laugh.

Walking back to her apartment in the cold January night she feels slightly drunk from the Chinese beer and wine and worries she might drop the box with the porcelain tray. When she stops for a light, she hears hurried footsteps approaching. She turns. It is Kurihara-san, who used the name “Walter” in the seminar. The light turns green and she walks briskly across the street.

“Vera-sensei, wait!” he says in English as they are passing by Daimaru. “You are walking too fast. I am out of breath.”

She stops and says, “Okay, what’s on your mind?”

“Sorry to bother you, Vera-sensei. Thank you for the seminar. Can you help me stop smoking? I must stop but I can’t.”

“I’ve never smoked,” she says. “I don’t know how to stop smoking.”

“I have tried,” he says. “My wife wants me to stop.”

“I see,” Vera says and smiles. She remembers he has a family and a house in Fukuoka. “I heard the second day is the worst. Maybe if you can get past that.”

“Tried it,” he says and slaps his arms against his sides.

He is in his early forties. Not a bad looking man, though she thinks he would look better with longer hair and perhaps a thin beard.

“Maybe a change of environment,” she says. “Places where people don’t smoke.”

The man stands still with his arms at his sides.

“Where do you usually spend your free time?” she asks.

“Bars. Coffee shops.

“Try Starbucks. Over there.” She points to the other side of the cross street. There is no smoking inside.”

“I’m afraid,” he says.

“Cripes! Of what?”

“Hippies. I feel I don’t belong there.”

“Hippies? What planet are you from? All sorts of people go there. It’s friendly. No one smokes, except outside.”

“I am shy about new places. Well, good night.”

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“I’ll take you.”

He hesitates. She pulls on his sleeve.

Once there, she finds a table, makes him sit and gets two cappuccinos.

“I like this,” he says. “I like strong coffee. Is that hippie music they’re playing here?”

“That’s Janis Joplin. She’s from my parents’ generation.”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he says.

He knows. Therefore the other men know.

“Thank you. How did you find out?”

“Your colleague told our boss, Mr. Kimura. Mr. Kimura said we should be nice to you.”

“I see. I haven’t talked about it very much.”

“You can talk to me about it. If you want to.”

“I don’t, Kurihara-san.”

“Call me Walter. I like Walter. And please feel free to speak English.”

“Okay, Walter. I always meant to ask why your English is so good.”

“I worked at our New York City office in Manhattan for five years.”

“Manhattan for five years and you’re afraid of Starbucks?”

He shrugs. “You must be lonely,” he says.

“I only stopped by the convenience store to pick up a six-pack for our family barbeque,” Vera says. “I did not know what was happening until the man had me on the floor. Even then I only wanted to run away. Poor guy. There wasn’t much left of his head. Most of it was all over me.”

He nods.

“If I start to cry, please excuse me, Walter.”

“Of course. I understand.”

“Mr. Right-to-Bear-Arms killed three people and then killed himself. I am surprised he didn’t kill more. I am surprised I’m alive. The newspapers said the man who saved me was a hero.”

“He was,” Walter says.

“Yes, he was,” Vera says. “His name was Jack O’Brian. He worked in a warehouse. He apparently had no family because no one claimed the body. Finally my family did and cremated him. We scattered his ashes at sea from our boat. We chose a beautiful autumn morning.”

“That was good of you.”

“Here I was, this rich girl with everything I modestly needed. I expected to lead a quiet academic life at some liberal arts college. I might have married my boyfriend. We broke up after a bitter argument. I told him to get rid of his guns. He accused me of loving a dead man because I couldn’t make love to him after it happened. Excuse me. You look uneasy, Walter.”

“I have to smoke. I’ll go out for a moment.”

He returns after ten minutes and she says, “Whenever my dad has a bad day at work mom makes him a martini and after he’s finished it he says, ‘It’s only misunderstandings. It’ll be okay tomorrow.’ It’s sort of how I handle post-traumatic stress. I am an optimist like my dad, I guess. But I’m bothered I couldn’t save the guy who saved me. Yes, I love Jack. Yes, I’m loyal to him. Yes, I’m grieving. I admit it. I accept it. I don’t care who thinks I’m weird.”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Walter says.

“Thanks, Walter. You know what, though? I’m more sad these days about not being able to get a martini as good as my mom’s. Funny, isn’t it?”

“It’s not funny,” he says. “By the way, my wife loved martinis in New York. I learned how to make them. Maybe I can make you one some day.”

“I’d appreciate it, Walter. Are you lonely for your wife and kids?”

“Very much. Maybe that is why I cannot stop smoking.”

“Walter, I have an idea. “Why don’t you move into my apartment?”

“I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mean we’ll sleep together. I have three bedrooms. You can have one. You can come and go as you like. Only you cannot smoke. That might do it for you.”

“My wife won’t like it.”

“I’ll write to her. If she agrees, will you do it?

“I’m sure my wife won’t like it. But if she agrees I’ll consider it. Only the company must not know. My wife’s English is very good, by the way.”

After coming home, Vera writes to the email address Walter gave her. She receives an email back a few hours later. “Dearest Vera,” his wife writes. “How kind of you to wish to take care of my husband! As a woman I understand your need to do some good after what happened to you. You have my blessings. I know this might seem very strange in Japan but if it can save my husband from smoking I do not care. With All My Heart, Yumi.”

Their initial daily email exchanges concern Walter’s smoking. Yumi complains how Walter ignored doctors for years and how he would even smoke around the children. Vera writes that she seldom sees him as they come and go at different hours. For several weeks she repeatedly mentions that though he never smokes in her apartment there are times she can smell tobacco on his clothes. In one email Yumi asks if Walter makes martinis for her. He does from time to time, she writes back. Yumi replies that she misses Walter’s martinis.

One evening Vera writes to Yumi that she admires her written English and confesses that though she speaks Japanese well enough, she cannot read or write it. Yumi writes back that she got a master’s degree from Hunter College when they lived in New York. She asks where Vera studied. Vera writes that she was at U.C.L.A. from her undergraduate years to the time she completed her Ph.D. For several days they are no emails from Yumi and Vera thinks that she said too much. Then Vera receives Yumi’s email headlined: WALTER HAS STOPPED SMOKING!! “He called me to say that this time he has definitely stopped. He had not smoked in three days and does not want to smoke again. You have accomplished a miracle!”

Vera writes back: “Come to think of it he has not smelled of tobacco in days. Why didn’t he tell me?”

Yumi immediately replies that he has peculiar habits with regard to information. Then Yumi asks, “How are you coping?”

Vera replies, “Very well most of the time, thanks to your husband.” She does not mention her occasional crying spells when she is safely alone in the apartment.

Yumi replies, “Do you find Walter attractive?”

Vera writes that she cannot think of attraction at this point in her life. She also mentions that when she went to Starbucks earlier than usual she found Walter there with a café latte and a roll.

Yumi’s next email comes a few minutes later. It is about how much fun she had in New York and how much she would like to live there. Vera cannot read it to the end.

Walter is home at eleven p.m. He goes into the kitchen. Vera hears him making martinis.

“Hey, you big holdout!” she calls to him from her study. “Congratulations!”

He comes into the study with two martinis.

“Thank you. But for what? Oh, that.”

“You look younger now that you quit. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugs. “I was going to tell you. I did not know if I had really quit until I went back to my apartment today and couldn’t stand the smell. I called my wife.”

“She emailed me earlier.”

“Good. I am glad she did.”

“Cheers!” Vera says. “I saved a life. I am redeemed.”

“Why do you need to be redeemed?”

“It’s called survivor’s guilt, Walter.”

“Talk about it if you want.”

“I don’t want to. You should change your apartment.”

“Impossible.”

“So stay here. When you need to go back, wear a mask or something.”

“Thank you! You are the only friend I have left.”

“Cripes, Walter! What do you mean?”

“All my friends smoke. I can’t stand them.”

“Funny, after what happened my friends couldn’t stand me.”

“I am insisting that our workplace should be smoke-free. I was transferred to a little room in the basement. I hardly meet anyone.”

“The company works quickly.”

“It does.”

“I hope this hasn’t screwed you up at work.”

“Our boss said it is about time the entire office was made smoke-free. The head office in Tokyo has been smoke-free for years.”

“Good,” Vera. “I ought to mention my mom and dad are coming to visit soon. I already told them you’re my roommate. You don’t have to move out when Mom and Dad come.”

“I want to meet your family.”

“You’ll love them. They are my best friends in the whole world.”

“How could you leave them, Vera?”

“Walter, they are perfectly happy I am in Japan. They actually wanted me to live in Japan a while long before what happened. I want another martini.”

“With an olive or a twist of lemon peel this time?”

“I want it exactly like the last one. Not one molecule different.”

That evening Yumi writes, “I am glad he will continue staying with you.”

Come March, a gloomy Walter comes home and announces that he will be transferred back to Fukuoka.

“Congratulations!” Vera says. “You should be happy.”

He shakes his head.

“My friend in personnel in Tokyo told me something when he was in Kobe.”

“What?”

“I can’t say it.”

“Please say it.”

“My boss in Fukuoka had me transferred to Kobe so he could have an affair with my wife.”

“We’ve both been deceived,” Vera says.

“Well, I’m going back to Fukuoka and my ex-boss is being transferred to our branch in Saudi Arabia.”

“Right. What happens when you go back to Fukuoka?”

“We’ll carry on. We won’t talk about it. We’ll just carry on. For the children’s sake.”

“I’ll make love to you, Walter.”

He shakes his head.

“I won’t make any demands. I promise.”

“I’m in a bad mood. It wouldn’t be nice,” he says. “I’ll go out on the balcony and smoke.”

“Don’t go out on the balcony,” she says.

“Why? I can’t smoke here.”

“Just don’t. I can’t lose you.”

“I’ll only smoke.”

“I’m afraid you’ll jump.”

“I won’t.”

She seizes his arm. “Smoke here!”

“No!”

“Please! I’ll smoke with you. I will. Give me a cigarette. Light it.”

“I’m only smoking because I am sad,” he says.

“I’m sad too. Light me a cigarette, Walter.”

“Okay. Just one.”

She inhales the first puff lightly and the second one deeply. With the third puff she holds her breath until she nearly faints. “Oh God!” she says exhaling. “Oh God! I never imagined!” She unbuttons the top button of her blouse, shakes out her hair and collapses on the couch as her head spins. She uses a coffee cup for an ashtray and then puts the cigarette to her mouth. “Beautiful!” she whispers as she exhales.

Walter has lit his cigarette and bends over to flick ash into the coffee cup.

“Sit down next to me, Walter,” she says.

He sits down on the couch at a discreet distance from her.

“I want another cigarette,” she says, snuffing her stub in the coffee cup. “Put it between my lips and light it.”

He does as he is he is told.

She closes her eyes and inhales smoke. She exhales the smoke in Walter’s direction.

“Sit here and put your arm around my shoulder,” she says.

He does so.

“No limp hand,” she says. “Squeeze my shoulder.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says.

“Yeah you should. Don’t be shy; squeeze. That’s it. How does it feel?”

“Very nice, Vera,” he says.

She inhales and exhales smoke and then leans against him. “You’re right,” she says. “Just go home and carry on. That’s what I ought to do. Go back to L.A. and carry on. I’ll fight for gun control. I owe Jack that.”

“Vera—”

“Do you know how to undress a woman, Walter?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I need another cigarette first.”

“Okay.”

pencil

Alex Shishin is an American living in Japan. His fiction and non-fiction has been published widely in print and on the Internet. His short story “Mr. Eggplant Goes Home” received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards and was anthologized in Student Body (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2001). The short story “Shade” was anthologized in Broken Bridge (Stone Bridge Press, 1996). “Bulldozer” was named an outstanding short story for 2004 by storySouth‘s Million Writers award. Shishin’s experiments with ebook publishing are available for free on Smashwords. Email: sats_3100[at]yahoo.co.jp

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