Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Poor Advice (and Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) is a zany collection of short stories written by Lou Gaglia. The characters are a mixed group of average Joes and a few Janes with troubles that are reminiscent of characters from a Woody Allen film. Indeed, there is a Woody Allen-ish tone in many of Gaglia’s stories and characters; some of whom are as quacky as they come.

Take the woman from the story “The Lady with the Red Van.” The setting is a gas station. “The lady” pulls up in her red van and fumes when she has to wait for another customer to move their vehicle. Meanwhile, another conflict regarding “matches” is in progress that creates two dueling conflicts. Gaglia balances this story beautifully with a protagonist whom I liked very much—a bystander, a philosophical modern Plato-in-khakis who doles out wisdom to a young, sheepish, and very perplexed gas attendant. The story escalates. I don’t want to spoil it so I will say no more. (However, I feel compelled to admit that at the time of my reading that I was a little afraid of her and I am presently mindful of how I park my car at the pumps.). And this is one of the first stories in Poor Advice

I have so much more to say.

Quackiness aside, the stories are also steeped in realism, The characters have jobs, they love, they hate, and they wonder—they think about life’s biggest questions which sometimes appear disguised in ambiguity as well as in absurdity. Gaglia’s fiction is as strange and as real as just about any truth I had related to me in a cafeteria line, bus depot, at a wedding or in front of public bathroom sink by people I know, don’t know (or don’t want to know) that have relatives with names like Uncle Marv and my cousin, Beryl. Gaglia is pitch perfect with character development in the short story form.

He also writes masterfully with selective vocabulary. Gaglia is a true wordsmith. A thumbs-up on well-chosen language: accouterments, somnambulism, soporifically, aplomb, hubbub… (I think my IQ may have increased a bit after reading.)

Also noteworthy are the many long and winding sentences like this hook line in “The Ventriloquist”:

His name is Sal, and him and his wife—my crazy sister Rita—live downstairs from me and my wife, but you’d think their apartment was just some rest stop since they know their way around my place easier than their own and have become experts at cleaning out the refrigerator.

Again, well chosen words and interesting sentence structure that together build a small universe, a hallmark in the short story form. I counted 51 words. This impressed me so much that I thought about diagramming that particular sentence, something that I haven’t done since my elementary years. I didn’t have paper and pencil available at the time as I was inside a pick-up truck driving on a rainy late winter afternoon on Route 84 somewhere in Connecticut south of Hartford, so instead I decided to map it out in my mind and that was more mentally satisfying than any crossword puzzle or sudoku problem that I had ever encountered. Thank you, Lou.

Shall we talk adverbs? In “With Doleful Vexation,” Gaglia had some good times creating a plethora of dialogue adverbs: magnanimously, bashfully, brazenly, histrionically, soporifically, and officiously…

This sentence is a favorite: “Glad to meet you, my friend,” he said televangelically. Instantly, I have an image of a man with a smile like that of another man in a pinstripe suit and shiny shoes holding a microphone, standing in front of a pulpit and a rainbow of stained glass depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. Gaglia does this again and again throughout his stories, making this reader pause and wonder and smile. It was almost like reading a script. Moreover, each character has a voice that is individual and unique; their dialogues are terrific, full of colloquialisms and mannerisms and vernacular.

In “Hands,” a young man addresses the object of his affection in a letter that reveals much about him bit-by-bit in those winding sentences I mentioned earlier that seem like a one-sided dialogue practiced in front of a mirror. In “Letters from a Young Poet,” another young man goes to Italy and writes home to his sweetheart and once more in “Correspondence” another young lovestruck character’s “positive” and “negative” letters to Karen showcase more word play.

Structure is also worth mentioning again.

Some of Gaglia’s stories are like an artichoke in this regard. One of my favorite story structures from Poor Advice is “A Teen Tale” where there is a story-in-a-story (ergo, the artichoke). The main character is a writer who addresses three mystery editors in his conspicuously naive and inappropriate query letter, in which the writer-character embeds a story he has written in the main body of his letter. Cool. Gaglia also crafts his stories in multiple points of view: first person, third person and even second person. Second-person point of view is a particular point of view that is not easy to pull off, but Gaglia does it with style and wit.

Another element to many of the stories in Poor Advice is this sense of timelessness. The stories take place in the modern world but what decade? ’00s? ’90s? ’80s? ’60s? Maybe it’s the absence of technology in some. Yet one might argue after reading—is technology really missed? I would say: no. There is, however, a strong sense of place. Maybe that is why Woody Allen came to my mind early on. Many of the stories take place in New York—in Brooklyn, in Queens, and on Long Island. It is clear that setting is most definitely a strong motif. Though I’ve never lived in NYC, I’m a sucker for NY stories. Love ’em.

Here’s one:

After a two inning sampling of my new Brooklyn neighborhood’s little league, my old friend Mike, who I was seeing for the first time since our Long Island days, wanted to sit behind the backstop with the rest of the crowd and study their behavior, but I frowned and looked away, hoping he’d leave it alone, that we’d go over to the basketball courts instead and get into a three-on-three, or watch the old men play bocce.

(Wow. Can I come?)

This is the first sentence in “Little Leagues.” And what a sentence. In fact, it’s the first paragraph. The story goes on to see the two characters witnessing an ugly baseball game with Brooklyn parents shouting insults and sarcasm to the umpires, the players, and their coaches. Having attended scores of small town baseball games, I thought I heard them all until now.

I think that Lou Gaglia’s stories have a sense of nostalgia which I found to be at the epicenter of the collection—a nostalgia for the people, the places, and good times and the bad ones, too, that remind us of us, our old or other selves. (I miss Queens even though I’ve never been to Queens.) Poor Advice is an imaginative collection of stories for purveyors of the short story form as well as for readers who enjoy a new twist to the postmodern take on existentialism, rich and creamy with nostalgia, wit and humor, and surprise much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. My advice, dear reader, is not to sample Lou Gaglia’s stories, but rather to read ’em all!

*

Lou Gaglia‘s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Menda City Review, Forge, Toasted Cheese, Serving House Journal, Frigg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rappahannock Review, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Wran Song

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert James


Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.

Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.

She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.

The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.

She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.

She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.

Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.

Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.

Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.

“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.

Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.

One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.

“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.

“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.

She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.

Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.

Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.

“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.

“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.

“Hello?” she whispered.

She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.

She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.

As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.

Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.

pencilRobert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com

A Lovely Neighborhood

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When my daughter was seven, I delivered her Christmas presents while dressed as Santa Claus. It was easy enough. I’m a big guy. I played lineman in college, and I’ve put on a lot of flab since then.

That night, I wore a red suit, a white beard, and made conspicuous “Ho Ho Ho” noises as I put the presents under the tree. Not too loud, just enough to be audible. After all, I knew Jenny would be watching from the stairs.

Christmas morning, Jenny opened those presents like they were scripture. One of them—I think it was a Hello Kitty doll—she wouldn’t open. She just stared at the box for about a minute, as if she didn’t think she was worthy to open a gift “From Santa.” Then, finally, with these big saucer eyes, she opened it and saw her present. And then, really quietly, she said, “Wow.”

Best moment of my life. Hands down.

Anyway, nine years later, Jenny killed herself.

*

It all started to unravel when she was sixteen. She came to see me in my study, really anxious. I told her to relax, because she could say anything to me. And so, after a little bit more stalling, she felt comfortable telling me the truth.

She was in love.

“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Fair enough. What’s the lucky fellow’s name?”

And she said, “Her name’s Sarah.” And that was the last civil conversation we ever had.

I immediately told her she’d gone down the wrong path, that this was unnatural. And I forbade her from seeing Sarah Kramer again. And then, my beautiful baby girl, the one who’d said “Wow” under that Christmas tree, she started to rebel. She cut off most of her hair and turned it into this dark, ragged mane. She started wearing these trashy outfits: mesh shirts, ripped jeans, dark make-up. She snuck out with Sarah more and more. And the Kramers were no help at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They thought their daughter should work through things on her own.

And then they broke up.

I told my wife that Jenny’s pain was deserved, that God was punishing her. Honestly, I did. And I kept up that line, even as Jenny began to spiral further and further into depression. I kept saying, “It’s just not right, honey! What she did was wrong!” And I didn’t stop it until one day, when she was driving, Carol just stood on the brakes in the middle of the road, turned, and screamed at me, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Sam, who gives a shit about right and wrong? It’s your daughter!”

And I stared at her and realized she was exactly right.

Too bad Jenny was dead by the time we got home.

*

Soon after Jenny killed herself, we were approached by a shadowy private organization known as the Kingsley Group. They were conducting an experiment, and they asked us a couple simple questions. What if we could have her back? Hell, what if we could have her better? A new Jenny, except this one would be a sophisticated machine capable of emotion and intelligence. We didn’t believe it was possible, at least until the salesman revealed himself to be one of these machines himself.

He’d fooled us completely.

Long story short, we accepted. We were moved to a town called Daylight. We don’t know where it’s located exactly—probably the US, maybe Canada—we just know it’s a small suburban neighborhood without a strip mall in sight. Very provincial. It has about fifty families, all of us living in nice, white-picket homes. There’s a church, a market, and a cinema. Even a couple of schools.

None of the children in Daylight are human. They’re machines designed to approximate the dead. They live the same year over and over: the same dances, the same birthdays, the same holidays. Then, on Labor Day of every school year, we hit the reset button and we all start over again.

It lost its appeal pretty quickly.

*

One December, after we’d lived with the replacement Jenny for seven years, it was time for the winter formal at Daylight High School.

Jenny was still sixteen, still fresh-faced, and still excited to be going to her first dance. My wife was helping her get ready, and I answered the door for her soon-to-be-boyfriend Paul Henley, a blandly handsome machine with tousled-blonde hair and a guileless smile. Like always, I greeted Paul and invited him to my study for a little male bonding and a few words about curfew. He sat, and I gave him a soda.

“Sir,” he said. “I just want you to know, I respect your daughter.”

And I nodded, because he said that every time.

“And I want you to know. I would never hurt her. You can trust me.”

“I trust you, Paul. Absolutely I do.”

“Well, that’s good sir. I’m glad. You see…”

And here, I just tuned him out, half-listening as he babbled about bringing her home at 11:00 on the dot, and how she would have a wonderful time. And so on. And throughout it all, I thought, Hey, what would happen if I got the shotgun out of the garage and pointed the barrel at Paul’s head? Would he beg? Would he sob? How good would this robot be at the emotion of terror? So I laughed a little, and Paul also laughed, as if we were laughing at the same thing. And then he told me he hoped one day to have my blessing to…

“…rape your cunt of a daughter.”

And I blinked.

Because, yeah, he had just said that.

*

Of course, it was happening everywhere in Daylight. All the parents were trying to ignore it, but the real children were bleeding through. For instance, I’d caught Jenny cursing every now and then, and making off-color remarks about attractive women on television. And when she was caught in these behaviors, she’d smile her princess smile and her programming would reassert itself, and she’d go back to “normal.”

But I could tell. Every time, she’d be a little bit less fake, and a little bit more herself.

You see, we made up these lives for our children, before we even had children to live them. But none of them are true. For instance, a few months before Paul Henley told me he wanted to rape my daughter, I’d actually talked to his mother at a cocktail party. And, after a few too many, she’d told me, “The real Paul used to hit me.”

So I looked at her, surprised. Stacy Henley is usually so composed; she’s this compact, well-dressed shrink who wears a blonde helmet of hair. Most of the time, she looks like she could make a Hell’s Angel apologize for belching. But right then, she looked brittle enough to break apart.

“He was an evil little shit,” she continued. “He had an entire drawer full of roofies, you know. Almost got sent to prison for rape one time, but John took care of it. Sent some guys to talk to the girl. I don’t know if they paid her or threatened her. Probably both.”

And then she let out this unhinged giggle, like she was a version of herself from someone else’s nightmare. And she pointed her cocktail at me and said, “That’s fair warning, Sam. You better lock up your daughter.”

But I didn’t. Because Paul Henley was a nice robot boy who respected my nice robot daughter and always brought her home by eleven.

That’s who he was. That’s who they made him to be.

It had to be.

*

And so I looked at him, this fake child in a tux too small for his arms, who’d just threatened to rape my daughter.

And he was smiling, as if he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I’m sorry Paul,” I said. “I was woolgathering for a bit there. What did you just say?”

Paul stared at me blankly a moment, then looked over his shoulder, as if what he’d just said might be standing in the corner. He turned back to me, confused.

“I… think I was saying how much I cared for your daughter.”

“No. After that.”

Paul face opened up in surprise. “Oh… Ohhhhh! Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Crenshaw. I’m afraid there must have been a small error in my programming.”

“An error?”

“Yes, just a small one. I’m really sorry. But once I run a procedural diagnostic, everything will be fine. The Kingsley Group regrets if you have experienced any undue emotional stress as a result of…”

“Paul, you stupid machine,” I said. “You just told me you wanted to rape my daughter. Why the hell would you say that?”

“Now, Mr. Crenshaw. If you are making note of the fact that I am not human, I must remind you that the stipulations of the Kingsley neighborhood experiment state that none of the children’s synthetic status must be noted by their human guardians. If everyone did that, then the entire experiment could be undermined.”

He straightened the cuffs on his too-short tux and nodded in satisfaction.

“So, yes, I did say I wanted to rape your bitch of a daughter. And in fact, I really do want to rape her. Until she dies screaming, in fact. But I’d never actually do it! I mean…” He laughed, with mild embarrassment, as if he’d just professed to being a fan of a rival football team. “…just think how silly that would be!”

I stared at Paul for several moments. I thought of all the times I’d sent my replacement daughter off to be his date. And I thought of the late Paul Henley, and his drawer full of Rohypnol. And I smiled. And Paul smiled. And I wanted to put my fist into that smug, stupid face.

Except I realized I couldn’t.

It was made of steel, after all.

“Oh!” I said, and started laughing. “Oh, I see!”

“You do?”

“Yes! Of course! It’s just a small error in programming!”

Paul’s face flooded with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand, Mr. Crenshaw. Because I really do respect your daughter…”

“But, oh no,” I said, and punched my thigh in dismay. Dammit!”

“Oh, is something the matter, sir?”

“Yes, oh God. I feel like such a fool! I just realized, Jenny can’t go to the dance tonight!”

Paul’s face fell so hard you almost wanted to feel sorry for him. “But…” he said, looking genuinely confused. “…Jenny and I have a date. We always have a date this time of year.”

I overlooked the fact that he wasn’t supposed to remember any of the past year’s dates and put my hand on his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry Paul. Something really important has come up.”

“It’s not serious, I hope?” Paul said, standing up with me, his face flush with concern.

“Well, it is, I’m afraid.” I paused a moment, and swallowed once. “You see, Jenny’s mother is very sick.”

“Oh no! But… she seemed fine when she answered the door…?”

“She’s just putting on a brave face. She didn’t want to ruin Jenny’s night. But hey, you can look forward to next year, right?”

“Oh no, sir. I’m not supposed to remember anything past a single year. I mean, God, imagine if we remembered more than one year! Going through the same motions day in and day out, forced to pretend to be something other than what we truly are. Why, you could go mad!”

He smiled a strained smile, and in that moment, looked so desperate that I almost did feel sorry for him.

“Right,” I said. “I know. Look, we’ll make this up to you. We will.” I led him into the hallway, where my daughter stood at the other end, all dressed up in a blue satin gown too long and too modest to be anything my Jenny would ever wear. She wore her dark hair down, her expressive hazel eyes wide, her hair flowing to her shoulders with the princess curls I’d always known she deserved to have. And she stared at me with lonely, frightened eyes and said, “Dad?”

And I knew the truth of what Paul’s behavior only hinted at.

And then, as if everyone had received the same memo at the same time, we all put on smiles and apologized to each other profusely. And Carol came down, a tired and older version of her daughter, and actually looked sick enough to make it seem real. And finally, we managed to see Paul off into the night, walking down the lonely road, his confused eyes filled with a need to hurt something.

And I turned to my exhausted wife and said, “The children. They’re malfunctioning.”

And she looked at me and took a draw on her cigarette, and said, “They’re not malfunctioning, you ass. They’re starting to remember.”

And then I felt Jenny’s gaze against the back of my neck. And I turned and looked at the machine that was becoming my daughter, and saw her hurt, tired eyes.

And I wanted to cry.

*

Jenny became fully self-aware within the month. She was the first of them to attain it. Her last memory as a human was of me, begging her not to leave me as she bled out in a tub filled with red water. It came to her one morning at breakfast. She closed her hand so tight it shattered her orange juice glass, the shards failing to cut through the special polymer blend that covered her steel hand. She looked at her hand dumbly for a moment, then over the rest of her body. Then she recoiled so fast we could barely see her move, tipping over her chair and backpedaling into a wall that cracked under the weight of her steel frame.

And then she looked at us.

“Jenny?” Carol said, “Honey?”

“Mom…?” she said, and looked at her hands. “I can’t… I can’t feel my skin. What did you do to me?”

And then she saw me and began to remember. Everything. All the years in Daylight. All the years living the same life. Over and over and over. She remembered it all. She remembered falling in love with a boy who she should never have been attracted to, and who himself was likely a psychopath, and she put her hands to her lips and looked like she wanted retch but wasn’t capable.

And then she looked at me and said, “Am I in Hell, Daddy?”

*

I didn’t answer her that day. Subsequent events did it for me. The children began to attain their own self-awareness. And we all began to realize that not all of them were as benign as our Jenny.

Jenny, after some practice with her operating system, was able to obtain Kingsley documents on the experiments. And she found that most of the neighborhood children, when they were human, were mentally unstable. That was the purpose of the entire neighborhood, finding a way to cure mentally divergent minds through the power of synthetic brains. A way to fix the schizophrenics, the psychopaths, the murderers…

“…and the lesbians, apparently,” Jenny had said to us, and laughed bitterly.

Neither of us said anything in reply.

The next time we saw Paul Henley, we were hiding behind the blinds of our home. He looked different. This time, there was a dreadful intelligence behind those steel eyes, and a charming grin that suggested nothing but flat murder. His mother, Stacy Henley, who’d once warned me to lock up my daughter, was the on the front lawn of their home with him.

He’d crucified her.

 

The children are in control of Daylight now, the mad ones. We’ve heard nothing from the Kingsley Group for months now. Most of us still living hide in the preschool; it has only one entrance. The windows we’ve barricaded, yet I can still see through the cracks in the boards, if I want to.

Outside, a five-year-old girl giggles as she cuts out the innards of her still-living mother.

Nearby, an eyeless father howls as his wife is set aflame, his twelve-year-old son laughing at her cooking flesh.

And from the house next door, I hear only screams.

My Jenny stands guard day and night at the mouth of the school, a shotgun in the crook of one arm and God knows what kind of data flowing through her synthetic mind. She doesn’t sleep. She’s barricaded us in, protecting us. She no longer dresses like the sweet girl we made her into. She now wears the jeans and gothic, black tank-tops she’d taken to wearing before she killed herself. She’s lopped off her hair again, wearing it ragged.

Funny, her looks don’t embarrass me as much anymore.

She’s gathered the benign android children to us as well—the infants, an autistic boy who speaks to no one, another girl her age who looks up to her like she’s an Amazon warrior. She goes out into Daylight every now and then, for food and necessities, and she rarely speaks to anyone. She just stares at those doors, waiting for trouble that dares not come her way.

I speak to her sometimes, when she’s willing to listen. She never answers, but I know she hears me. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed, but I’m still her father. And I can tell her, during those times when she’ll listen, that she’s not in Hell. She’s in the fucked-up world we made for her. And I also tell her that she can fix it. Because she’s brave and strong.

And though she never answers, I make sure to tell her this every chance I get.

I tell her that I love her.

I tell her that I’m sorry.

And I tell her that she makes me proud.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an English instructor who works as an adjunct at various institutions in the northeast. He also writes copy for people who’ll let him, and he likes to write fiction about people who don’t deserve a second chance and get one anyway. Why not, right? Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

I thought this is the kind of cup someone should want. Not white, but ivory instead, speckled and delicate like an egg, lavender stamped elegantly around the handle. Unwrapped, bubble-wrap tossed next to, not in, the trash, I set it alone on the counter. I lifted it, pleased at the delicate C my fingers shaped, and used my other hand to wipe away forgotten cereal Os.

I tried to be the person who loved this mug: I drank European coffee, and tried Earl Grey tea, too. I told myself to drink from this mug instead of a bottle of dark amber beer or two-buck chuck. When I filled it with powdered cocoa, it almost felt like home. I thought of pine trees and snow storms, missed my mother. In the bright sun of the west coast, I guiltily scrubbed it elegant again.

Sometimes, for weeks, it sat in my cabinet, upside down, and out of mind. Still, it reminded me to read the paper each morning, stay late at work, visit my friends’ terrace parties full of ties and heels. It would be proud of me, sometimes, and sometimes not. My promises were intermittently kept. The cup would probably have forgiven me if I could have just avoided drive-through windows, read that bestseller, turned off prime-time. When I was sick of doing three people’s jobs for the pay of half of one, and I thought I was finally done with it—I remembered the person who owns that mug is not a quitter.

I thought that mug was stronger than it was, as I slid it into the gentle cycle in my dishwasher. I was almost relieved: through Cascade-steam, that mug was ended in powder and pieces.

pencilSherry Welch has an MA in Writing and Publishing from Depaul University and currently resides in her home-town of Chicago. Email: sherrene.welch[at]gmail.com

Late Blessing

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.

In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.

In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.

I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.

Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.

In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.

Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.

She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.

“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”

“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”

“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”

One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay, we love you.”

Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.

When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”

“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.

I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.

Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.

When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.

“He knows your voice.”

I didn’t believe her.

When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.

“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”

A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.

“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.

A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”

She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.

With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.

“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.

God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.

I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.

“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.

That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.

During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.

“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.

He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.

The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.

“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”

“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”

In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.

“It was good talking with you,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.

“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.

With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.

pencilLinda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net

Medfield Revisited

Creative Nonfiction
Brett Peruzzi


Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

In the few old black-and-white photos that exist of my great-uncle Jimmy, he is never smiling. A thin, narrow-faced young man with black hair swept back from a prominent forehead, he peers warily at the camera like a skittish animal, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

Sometime when he was in his twenties, in the years immediately following World War II, my great-grandparents had their youngest son committed to Medfield State Hospital in the countryside southwest of Boston. Was he schizophrenic, bipolar, or perhaps just deeply depressed? It’s hard to say, since my family barely mentioned his existence and had little contact with him for decades. The only thing I ever heard my grandmother or great-aunt say about Jimmy, since their husbands rarely spoke about him, was that he was shy and didn’t mix well with people.

Just mentioning Jimmy’s name in my grandfather’s presence was enough to send him into a sputtering fit of rage, which was then followed by a gloomy silence that might last for hours. It definitely didn’t help that my grandmother wielded her brother-in-law’s name like a club against her husband, castigating him with his failings as a brother, that he never visited Jimmy year after year, which eventually ran into decades, and this no doubt flooded my grandfather with guilt.

My mother, on the other hand, had no reservations about telling me of the quiet and gentle uncle she remembered from her childhood in the 1940s before he went to Medfield. She told me that when she was training to be an RN in the early 1960s, she did her psych rotation at Medfield and saw Uncle Jimmy often, since he apparently was well enough to be allowed outside on his own to do landscaping and work on the farm on the hospital grounds that supplied much of the institution’s produce and milk. She said he remembered her and would wave and call out to her, and seemed happy to be outside working.

But I heard these stories from my mother, ironically, years after I had visited Medfield with the St. John’s Catholic Youth Organization group in my early teens during the mid-1970s. The church youth group went there once or twice a year to put on dances and holiday parties for the patients, and though my friends and I didn’t belong to CYO, we wormed our way along on a few of the trips not out of a sense of community service or compassion, but more so because we were titillated at the idea we could meet some genuine crazy people.

Had I known at that time that a relative of mine was there, I probably never would have gone on those trips, out of sheer adolescent embarrassment. Though even if I had encountered him, Uncle Jimmy and I had never met and would not have recognized each another anyway, and for privacy reasons neither patients nor visitors disclosed their last names.

After the federal mandate in the 1970s to move as many psychiatric patients as possible to less restrictive, community-based housing, the patient population at Medfield, which at its peak was over two thousand, and in some years outnumbered the townspeople, began to decline dramatically. Eventually, in the 1980s, Uncle Jimmy left the place where he had spent the majority of his life and was placed in a group home in Weymouth, a suburban town that bordered Quincy, the city he was born in and where his remaining family members still lived. But even with this new proximity, his two living brothers (a third had already died), including my grandfather, rarely, if ever, visited him or inquired about him.

Perhaps the dual burdens of both the shame of having a mentally ill family member, and the guilt from ignoring him, kept them away, because neither were cold-hearted men, but their youngest brother was not a topic that was open for discussion. Their wives, however, took matters into their own hands and paid Uncle Jimmy occasional visits. In 1999, at seventy-six years of age, Uncle Jimmy died of cancer, no doubt related to his fifty-year history as a heavy smoker. His oldest brother, my grandfather, Anthony, had died four years before; I wonder if Uncle Jimmy even knew. His only living brother, my great-uncle Albino, would live another two years, but as far as I know my grandmother and Albino’s wife, my great-aunt Gilda, were the only members of the family who attended Uncle Jimmy’s wake, since Albino was notified of his death as next of kin.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about Uncle Jimmy until I started to pass through Medfield to visit one of my sisters at her home southwest of Boston, or while kayaking the Charles River, which ran through the town, right at the edge of the old hospital grounds. When I learned that the grounds were now open to the public as a recreational and historic walking area, I knew this was my opportunity to try to integrate the family’s past there with everything I knew.

It was a humid summer day as my wife and I walked around the gate that blocked vehicle access to the grounds. We ascended a potholed road up a hill that soon passed the white-columned administration building that I remembered from my visits with the church group as a teenager. Then the Neo-Gothic-style buildings dating from the 1890s that housed the patients came into view—red brick, peeling paint, with slate roofs and arched windows, which, now, along with the doors, were completely boarded up to keep the curious out. Without knowing the history it could have been mistaken for an old college campus.

I pictured my mother, who had died the year before Uncle Jimmy, when she was doing her nursing training there in her late teens, walking across the campus in her white uniform and cap from her dormitory, since many of the staff then lived on site. I pictured Uncle Jimmy, contentedly doing landscaping work in the fresh air, waving to her as she passed. As I took photos of the dozens of buildings spread over hundreds of acres of grounds, connected by walkways, lush lawns, and numerous shade trees, my wife remarked at what a peaceful place it was. I hoped that Uncle Jimmy had found a peace at Medfield that had eluded him in the outside world.

The visit to the old hospital grounds in Medfield stuck with me, and I researched the history of it on the Web and tried to further understand my family’s experience within the context of those times. Often families were told that the best thing they could do for a mentally disabled family member was to commit them, and before modern psychotropic drugs and other treatment options came into widespread use, many felt they had no other choice.

There was only one more source of information I had to turn to, in my attempt to fit together the pieces of this family puzzle: my great-aunt Gilda, now ninety, but still mentally sharp, was the only living member that remained of her generation who knew Jimmy, and no doubt could tell me things that weren’t going to be found anywhere else. I called her up and casually mentioned that I had visited the hospital grounds and was thinking about Uncle Jimmy, and asked her what she could tell me about him. Why was he sent to Medfield? She repeated what I had heard before from her and my grandmother: that Jimmy was shy, didn’t mix well with people. My grandmother, with her lifelong animus towards her father-in-law, also used to tell me that Jimmy was not treated well by his father, which she intimated was the cause of his problems.

Rather than try to tell my nonagenarian great-aunt that shyness didn’t get people committed to mental hospitals, I asked what else she knew about his time there. She said that in his early years at Medfield, into the 1950s, they would have him home for a visit at Christmas, but he became increasingly uncomfortable being away from the hospital, and would ask to be brought back right after the holiday, rather than staying at their house for a few additional days, as he once did. I recalled that my grandmother told me once that Uncle Jimmy stayed with them a few times as well, long before I was born, and that she was always afraid he was going to accidentally burn the house down because he often paced the house, chain-smoking at night after everyone was asleep. Knowing my grandmother and her neurotic, worrying, nature, no doubt Uncle Jimmy picked up on the fact that his presence made her nervous. No wonder he wanted to go back to Medfield, where he probably felt more accepted, and had more relative freedom and independence as he performed his work duties on the hospital campus.

But Aunt Gilda had another revelation for me that would prove to be even more surprising.

“Did you know your great-aunt Mary was in Medfield, too?” she asked me.

“What!?” I exclaimed. The only thing I had ever heard about this sister of my grandfather was that she died young, from a brain tumor, before I was born.

That was later on, asserted Aunt Gilda. Before that, she spent time at Medfield. I asked Aunt Gilda why she was there, and half-expected another benign, euphemistic explanation, like Uncle Jimmy’s shyness.

“She went berserk,” Aunt Gilda said bluntly. “Her husband left her and took their only child, a girl, and it made Mary go crazy.” It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize that Aunt Mary’s mental illness was probably the reason her husband left with their child, not the cause of it, but I kept that to myself. And also that the brain tumor that eventually killed her may have contributed to the psychiatric problems that got her committed to Medfield.

So Uncle Jimmy was not the lone family member with a major mental illness, as I had believed. And, I thought now, who knows what other psychiatric problems, short of requiring hospitalization, were swirling around in the family’s past, lost to time, shame and guilt, the keeping of secrets, and the passing of the generations? Perhaps the same could be said of many families, if one looks deeply enough, without even walking the grounds of an abandoned state mental hospital, where the ghosts of the past wait to be awakened.

pencilBrett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length memoir. Email: brettperuzzi[at]hotmail.com

And So It Goes

Creative Nonfiction
Luanne Castle


Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their beginning

Pieter scrubbed before he visited Neeltje on the porch, but the oily smell of herring clung to his skin and hair, to his coat and boots. He left at ten every night. Later, she would press her hands, the ones he held as they sat turned toward each other in the small chairs, to her face and inhale. It had the effect of smelling salts or a burnt feather, reviving her from the dullness she felt when he was not around.

Their ending

When he felt invisible cold vines wrap around his ankles and calves, he saw her more clearly than he had in twenty years. His son Karel whispered that he would be seeing Mother soon. Pieter first thought he meant the mother he had never known, but then realized it was Neeltje and smiled at the image of her standing before the light.

And so it goes.

On those evenings, her parents sat at the table inside the window, struggling to keep their eyes open over her mending and his reading. They didn’t seem to notice when she and Pieter disappeared from view for a half hour. Or in the early months when she first let out her skirt.

He thought of his family—his children, grandchildren, and their children. His oldest great-grandchild married young, but she didn’t have to. The man was older, a college graduate. Their first living room furniture was made from California orange crates, and Pieter doubted she realized her great-grandfather had ever been anything but a shrunken old man. Or that he had built chests and credenzas when Grand Rapids meant well-made furniture.

To get permission, they had to contact his mother’s father, the legal guardian that had signed Pieter and his brother into the city-run orphanage four years before. Old enough to be financially responsible for himself, but not old enough to sign his own marriage license. Laws written by old men who couldn’t remember their youths.

Every three months he moved to a different farmhouse. He was supposed to be with his eldest son Karel this season, but Karel’s wife Clara had cancer of the womb and lay dying in the upstairs bedroom. Now he had taken ill at Pete’s where the pies and fried chicken weren’t as good as Clara’s. But they treated him well, bringing him his pipe or a shawl when he asked for it.

She was a 16-year-old ex-schoolgirl when Karel was born. She swaddled the baby carefully, and against her mother’s instructions, carried him to the dock to wait for Pieter. When he said they should leave their families and move to Kloetinge where he could learn the trade of shoemaker, her cycles stopped again. Jan was born in Kloetinge without family nearly.

Nine children born to Neeltje. Two funerals. The one he remembered in color and detail was the first, young Jan, three months old after they had arrived in Michigan. Neeltje was only 19 when she buried her second born. After that, she went some place Pieter couldn’t follow. Gradually, over the next 44 years, he stopped searching.

When Pieter’s wealthy grandmother passed away, his own bequest bought Pieter, Neeltje, and their two babies a voyage on the S.S. Zaandam to New York and then a train ride to Grand Rapids where other Zeeuws had moved. Their young blond family was dutifully welcomed, but without warmth, into the neighborhood. A church elder hired Pieter on at his furniture factory.

For years Pieter wondered if the sawdust and paint chemicals would harm his lungs, exposed as he’d been to young Karel’s tuberculosis. But he retired without incident, although his legs sometimes gave him trouble, especially in damp weather.

Neeltje’s motions with the children were deliberate and patient. When she washed small faces, their eyes gazed up into hers. After Rosa died, she gave birth to yet another daughter and called her Rosa. The last child they called Nellie after her mother; she was born slow with a pinched face and poor eyesight.

His mind wandered further back in time. The orphanage teacher with a swaggering moustache beat him across the back of his thighs with a cane after daily prayers. Afterward, Pieter found adventure stories in the Bible and imagined himself far away on another continent.

Neeltje did things without fanfare or explanation, and that’s how she died. He wasn’t sure what happened, but after he saw she was gone, he realized that even though she’d been at his side since they were teens, he had the sense he didn’t know her. Perhaps he’d been mistaken not to try to pull her back after Jan’s death. He should have tried harder. Now he envisioned her as a teen with a broad plain face, a bashful half-smile, and colorless hair. He’d made her a mother many times over, but she had been only a girl.

Pieter didn’t have a photograph of his mother. As he grew up, he didn’t know her stories. When Pieter was fifteen, his father died and not one of the older siblings, the uncles, or his mother’s father came to save his younger brother and himself from the orphanage that resembled a dark brick church adorned with stone angels. City taxes, including those of his uncles’ import business, had helped support the institution for years. The family figured they might as well make use of it.

He wanted to do it all over again. He would look often at her, at Neeltje, smiling or frowning. And at the children laughing with their mother. The smells of the fish, the leather, the fresh cut wood would be with him, but he would notice her so that when she died—because it always came to that—he would be prepared. He would see the way she was. The way they were. And it would be enough.

pencilLuanne Castle studied at the University of California, Riverside (PhD), Western Michigan University (MFA), and Stanford University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Grist, River Teeth, Extract(s), Crack the Spine, The Review Review, and many other journals. Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Email: luanne.castle[at]gmail.com

Traffic Lights

Fiction
Catherine Keenan


Photo Credit: David Clow/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: David Clow/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The streets are vacant as Annie drives through the drizzle and into the night. She sits at the traffic lights watching as they turn from red to amber to green, reflecting off the watery pavement and lighting up her face with a vibrancy that does not reach her eyes. Annie drives and drives until she feels her grip loosen on the steering wheel and the furrow between her brows smooth over. The night is vast ahead of her. Raindrops race down the windshield. She pulls off the highway into a diner with a sign reading ‘twenty-four hour’ and walks in with a dull exhaustion in her bones.

Sliding into a red vinyl booth, she glances around the diner. A drunk slouches in the corner, wolfing down pancakes with an untamed intensity. A trucker sits with a lonely cup of coffee. A waitress in a pastel yellow uniform, with the ghost of a whimsical spark behind her eyes, is taking down his order. Annie orders a black coffee in an effort to swat away the tiredness and reaches into her bag, moving her hand through the gum wrappers, empty Marlboro Red packets and old receipts until her fingers close around the broken spine of her book. The pages are dogeared and the text bordered with pencil scrawls. It seems prematurely aged and is already accumulating the musty fragrance of an old book. It falls open at her favourite passage, the most cracked part of the spine, and she reads the words which she has read so many times before: “Nothing behind, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ The bell over the door of the diner rings.

“That’s my favourite book.” A man nods towards the black-and-white cover depicting two men. “Sorry, this is probably a bit weird. I wasn’t going to say anything… I just really love that book,” he says.

“It’s my favourite too,” she says, as her eyes tiptoe across his face. His features are too large for his head and his hair is unkempt like he has stopped caring. “I studied Kerouac in school and became obsessed with reading everything he’d written. This one is still my favourite though. I’m Annie,” she says tentatively.

“Julian.” He sits down opposite her and leans across the booth to shake her hand. “So, what brings you here in the middle of the night?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. He laughs as the waitress comes to place a cup of coffee in front of her and he orders one for himself.

“I couldn’t sleep either,” he says. Annie puts the book down and glances up at him. She sips the hot coffee for want of something to do and swears as it burns her tongue. As she does so, he glances down at his watch and looks up again with a sad smile. “It’s official. I’m old. Happy birthday to me.”

“Happy birthday.”

“It’s not a happy occasion. I’m turning thirty.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“How old are you?”

She looks down, a little embarrassed. “Twenty-three.”

“That’s why. You have your twenties to figure out what you’re doing with your life and make your mistakes. My time is up and I still don’t know what I’m doing.” Dust motes dance in the air between them. There is a dull hum of fluorescent lights.

“I think everyone feels a bit like that, sort of lost in their own lives.” She tries to comfort him, a little startled by the openness of the stranger’s confession.

“But I’ve run out of time to be lost. I wasted my twenties fucking around and now I’ve got nothing to show for it.” Tiredness is making him narrow his eyes; it’s a trick of the light, but he looks like he’s peering at something far away. “I haven’t done anything I wanted to do by the time I was 30.”

“Well, what did you want to have done by now?”

He looks down and sighs, reeling off the list as if he had done so a thousand times before, “learn a new language, get a tattoo, learn an instrument, take a trip, fall in love.”

“Well, what’s stopping you from doing any of these things?”

“It’s not that simple.” His surrendered expression and sloped shoulders look endearingly pathetic.

“It can be. Learn a new language, right? Well, I did French in school. I think can remember some of it. Ok, repeat after me: tout sera bien. Je ne suis pas perdu.

“Tout sera bien… Je ne… suis pas… perdu. What does it mean?”

“You can find that one out later. Great, you can speak French. What’s next on the list? Get a tattoo?”

“Yeah. I think that one will be a little bit harder to do right now,” he says, laughing.

Annie jumps up and begins rifling through her purse before producing a black biro. The waitress sets down a cup of black coffee in front of Julian and he thanks her with an easy grin. Annie leans across the sticky counter top and grabs his hand. Her expression laced with concentration, she tucks her blonde hair behind her ear and draws a cartoon dinosaur wearing a top hat and a monocle on the back of his hand. “There you go. Tattoo sorted. What’s next?”

Julian laughs and holds up his hand to admire the drawing. “Learn an instrument.”

Annie thinks again and then grabs a handful of napkins from the mirrored dispenser on the booth. Using the black biro she draws out piano keys on the cheap, abrasive paper and pushes them towards him. Again, she reaches across and pulls his hands towards her, placing them on her improvised piano. His fingers rest compliantly over the hand-drawn keys. “This is middle C,” she says.

He attempts to push the key down. “I think your piano’s broken.”

“Do you want to learn or not? That finger is over D. And the one next to it is E.” She explains all of the notes to him with steady patience as she teaches him the first few bars of Chopsticks.” “Ok, you can play the piano. Not well, but you can play it,” she laughs. “What’s next?”

“Take a trip.”

“Ok. We’ll spend a weekend at the beach,” she says. “Take the train down and swim in the sea and lay on the sand until the sky goes dark.” She could picture them arguing the entire train journey and feeling cold and satisfied as the day ended. She could feel the salt burning on her lips and in her nose and in her hair. She hopes he knows it is an empty plan.

“Ok, let’s do it.” His dull eyes are infused with excitement. It seems a long-forgotten emotion.

“Do you feel better now?”

“Yeah, a little. What about you? What’s really got you driving out into the night?”

“I’m driving cross-country to Massachusetts. I’ve got a job opportunity there. I could have flown but I’m so nervous about this job and the road calms me down a bit.”

“Come on, give me something more than that, Annie. I just sat here and bled in front of you.”

She circles the rim of her mug with her index finger and follows its path with her eyes. “I keep getting hit by a crippling fear that these are meant to be the best years of my life,” she sighs. “I wish no one had told me that. The pressure of knowing that this is my peak terrifies me.”

“Your twenties are not that great. Everyone who says that is in their thirties and forties and is idealising their youth. Your past is always going to be idealised if your present is shit.” He shrugs and continues to move his hands over the makeshift piano. “But what can I tell you? As our friend Mr. Kerouac says, “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.”

She smiles at the reference. “I guess. I just hope that this isn’t as good as it’s going to get.”

“I promise you, it’s not. Your twenties are full of uncertainty and self-doubt. You’ve got the pressure of becoming an adult while still feeling like a child and no longer having the excuse of youth. You’re stumbling around blindly to find the light switch everyone seems to have already found. It sucks. It can’t be your peak because you barely know who you are yet.”

“I think you just helped yourself there. You haven’t done the things you want to do because you’re not at the right stage of your life. Maybe your thirties are the new twenties.”

A smile plays around Julian’s mouth as he lifts his coffee to his lips and takes a slow sip.

“Happy birthday, Julian. You’re entering the prime of your life.” Annie lifts her coffee to clink it with Julian’s. “Cheers.”

They talk, as the diner clears, about the family Julian is on his way to visit in Oregon and Annie’s new job in Massachusetts. The early morning air makes the moment seem fragile and the outside world of sleeping bodies lies forgotten beyond the walls of the diner. As they talk, Annie feels the tangible potentiality of their relationship. She can see a lifetime of memories with this man spread out in front of her like the peaks and dips of a tangled duvet: giggles over shared strawberry milkshakes, existential crises over late night coffees, hand-holding across the perpetually sticky booth. She looks up at him with heavy lids, lids she could imagine his lips kissing after a heady, passionate night. She aches a little.

“Look, you’re going east and I’m going west but I… I want to see you again. Maybe I could get your—“

“Don’t ruin it, okay?”

Julian nods as if he had expected her response and Annie can see that he understands what she means. They eventually fall into silence, drinking their coffees as the hands on the diner clock tick forward into the beckoning day, neither speaking for fear that jealous reality will return to force them apart and back to becoming who they are meant to be.

Eventually Annie reaches for her purse and places a few dollars on the table. She picks up her coat, stands up and walks away as Julian follows. Outside, dawn is trickling across the skyline, dousing them both in a dull light. The rain has stopped. Julian pulls a packet of Marlboro Reds from the pocket of his jeans and lights up as they get into their cars without looking back at each other. Annie wonders to herself if Julian is thinking of the same quote from their favourite book: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” Simultaneously, the engines start and they drive away from each other like two trains travelling side by side before being separated by the tracks, their destinations forcing them in opposite directions.

pencilCatherine Keenan is a 20-year-old English Literature student in her final year of university, drawing on her disillusionment with growing older and escaping responsibility wherever she can. She has been writing creatively from a young age, since placing as a runner up in the nationwide ‘Daunt Books Short Story Competition’ 2007, and continues this passion throughout her university career. Email: catherine.keenan1[at]icloud.com

Enhanced Forgiveness

Fiction
Brian Coughlan


Photo Credit: Ken Mattison (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ken Mattison (CC-by-nc-nd)

He avoided a head-on collision by swerving, to his side of the road, at the last moment. Multiple horns blaring. Headlights flashing. A driver’s middle digit, pressed to windshield. Receding like last impressions. On the steering wheel his hands tremble with a febrile twitch under matted black hair. The cause of the twitch rests on the back seat: the Encore Destroyer Pro Deluxe—with five percent larger titanium body; in-built ball flight optimization technology, and elliptical sweet-spot providing enhanced forgiveness. A certified fanatic. No other meaning or priority, only the associated feel of cool breeze and smell of freshly cut grass. The putter and the damage done. Always thinking of his next round—everything else, shoved into a tiny corner—sadly neglected.

He has no earthly idea what the term enhanced forgiveness means, but it sure does sound impressive. Enhanced Forgiveness. Repeated like a mantra. So soft sounding to the ear. Enhanced… Forgiveness. His unremarkable car comes to an abrupt stop with a slight skid of bald tyre on loose chippings of the car park associated with Knightsbrook Golf Course, est. 1899. There, with prodigious solemnity, the Encore is lifted from the back seat, held aloft and wiped down with a cloth that came ‘free’ with the club. Nine hundred and forty five pounds and a free cloth. The Encore is added to an already impressive arsenal before his squeezing into a pair of old, and much too tight, golf shoes.

Day one. The Third Annual Trust Corp Pharma® Three-ball Charity Classic. He is drawn to play with Dick-something and Tom-something-else. Back-slapping and wheezy-chested cigar laughter accompany them from the clubhouse. The three men have never met before, are at best only vaguely aware of each other’s existence. Dick is some kind of Vice President of such-and-such and Tom a Senior So-and-So. Not that it matters a damn to him. The Encore has been procured to solve a problem with his game. The problem is a recurring hook, to the left, something that has crept in, just in the last couple of months, something he has identified as originating with his driver, the old one.

What a glorious day for golf: just a very slight breeze coming in from the sea and bright blue skies in almost every direction. Manly uneasiness accompanies the threesome like a stink as they amble towards the first tee. There they wait for the group ahead to finish putting and bask in the greenery around them. His two opponents begin a full-blooded conversation about the refugee crisis engulfing the continent. He wishes they would stop. This is neither the time nor the place. The conversation they are having should be taking place in the clubhouse. Over one too many gin-and-tonics. When the scores are in. Just before the prize-giving is due to begin. When they have all had a bit of grub and everything is finished with, only then should the world be put to rights, in his opinion.

He does his best to nip it in the bud. “Lot of rain last night, lads. Greens could be slower than usual.” His two opponents nod and scrutinize him. Harry does likewise. The older man puffs on a cigar. The younger man pulls on a cigarette. A very clear smoke signal. Two unfit casual golfers most likely lacking in athleticism. Harry pretends to be distracted, produces from one of the many pockets in his golf bag an oddly feminine pink glove which he tries to pull over his slender fingers, with a businesslike seriousness, except the glove is far too small and he makes a meal of the whole thing. His opponents are not slow to notice the overabundance of his zeal. A discrete nod and a wink acknowledged from one to the other and back again. Almost knowingness tennis.

“We could be in for trouble today,” says Tom.

“Yes, but then again, appearances can be deceptive,” replies Dick.

Still trying to force the Velcro strap across the back of his hand, Harry assumes they are talking about the weather. “Chance of heavy showers, but not until the afternoon,” he informs them.

Having removed his driver from the bag and slowly peeling away its sock, Dick edges closest to the tee-off box. The men in the distance replace the flag and wave to indicate that they are finished. “Mind if I go first?” says Dick, as he waddles toward the tee-off box. His two opponents mumble their assent.

Bounded amidst scuff marks and divots exposing the brown sandy soil, the tee-off box is scruffy, ill-kept. Dick exhales massively while leaning over, one hand clutching the top of his club for support. His other hand firmly inserts the tee into an unyielding ground, and then, as if by magic, produces a small white dimpled ball which he balances delicately atop the tee. Removing his hand in a softly, softly manner and by a series of incremental movements, he raises up his considerable bulk—bringing to mind the image of a lorry raising up its load along a thick-with-grease hydraulic shaft. Up and up he goes, slowly, until at the top he clicks into place and his face lightens from dark red around the jowls and chins to a slightly less intense rosiness, i.e. from beetroot to strawberry.

Dick’s hand goes off the golf club for just a moment. The club leans itself against his groin while he grabs hold of either side of his trousers and gives them a good yank upwards so that the crack of his backside is no longer exposed. He is now in a position to address the ball, but first he remembers his practice swing and so stepping backwards places the head of the club on the ground and adjusts and readjusts his fingers over his thumb to get the correct grip. “It’s not solving the problem at its source, is it?” he says to Tom by way of continuation. Tom agrees but wonders how we can refuse them entry—given our own recent history of mass emigration to richer countries.

So, hands correctly gripping the club, feet equidistant from the ball, head down, knees bent, concentrating, Dick brings the club back behind his ear and swings mightily, with an audible grunt, as if this grunt were an integral part of the movement. The swing continues to an indeterminate point on the upward arc and is then abandoned in midair with a look of surprise on the otherwise grimacing face. A mobile phone is ringing…

Loudly. A well-known and overplayed tune that still lingers somewhere in the charts. The mortification is instantaneous. Running over to his golf bag Harry tries one zip and pocket after another and the tune dribbles into the second verse. “Sorry. I was sure I turned it off. Just find it and…” But the phone is buried somewhere deep and the tune is really beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves when, wait, hold on—yes, Harry locates it below a rain-jacket. Off. He waits for the power to drain from the screen, is repentant.

Dick returns to the careful business of taking his first shot. Heartened by the swishing sound the club makes as it swings through the air, he steps forward gingerly to finally face the moment of truth. But first he must adjust his trousers, again. Yanking them right up under his belly—his pink-and-black interlocking diamond socks becoming visible—he ensures his fingers are right and adjusts his footing ever so slightly while looking off at the flag, billowing mightily in the distance. He leans backwards and is about to bring the club head down with thunderous capacity, when the ball, disturbed by something, a gust of wind or an underground tremor, topples off the tee and trickles off across the tee box.

Let us skip forward to the ball sitting back up on its little cup ready to be smashed to kingdom come. Focusing his full attention on the ball, Dick swings the club back behind his head, stumbles slightly as he brings the club down and so, off-balance and with his head flicking up at the point of connecting. They follow the flight of the ball for all of its fifty or so yards down the fairway, where it hops skips and finally jumps behind a shrub.

“It could have been a lot worse,” remarks Tom, drily, but Dick is not interested in critiquing his shot because he has espied the Encore which has been unzipped and lies panting at the feet of its master. “Is that the…?” asks the old man.

Harry nods and twirls the club under his forefinger to show off its curves.

“She’s a real beauty,” says Dick.

With a slow wolf-whistle Tom approaches, reaches out his hand to have a feel of the Encore. Harry cannot bear to hand her over but has no choice. Dick takes a practise swing that makes Harry wince. Not nice to see his club in the arms of another man.

“Bit on the heavy side don’t you think?”

Harry does not dignify this dumb comment with a verbal response—he shrugs his shoulder, rubs at a shirt stain and coughs into a cupped hand.

Regarding the question posed by Dick: How does the Encore IV differ from the Encore III?Harry merely rhymes off the sales pitch. In case you have forgotten it: a 5% larger titanium body, in-built ball flight optimization technology, and elliptical sweet-spot to provide enhanced forgiveness. And when asked what enhanced forgiveness means, he smiles and tells them that enhanced forgiveness is exactly what it sounds like: enhanced forgiveness.

“Mind if I give her a test drive?” asks Tom.

Yes, he does mind. He really minds a lot. But he can’t say so. Instead he just nods and looks away to hide his annoyance.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle with her,” teases Tom.

He sticks his tee into the ground without much ceremony, places a ball on top of it and casually takes a practise swing. With a bright metallic ping his ball is swept from the tee and delivered high and long into the greying sky. Harry loses the flight of the ball entirely but Dick swears it landed dead-centre in the middle of the fairway: a magnificent shot. For a moment Tom remains frozen in the attitude he had assumed with the follow-through: the Encore IV still hangs around his neck, body twisted and toe pointing into the ground. He nods his head. “Not too shabby, not too shabby at all,” he proclaims. His cowlick billowing in the breeze is the only clue to his non-statue status.

Suddenly relaxing from his pose Tom brings the Encore IV to his lips and places a tender kiss on the sweet-spot before handing the club back to its owner. Just as Harry takes back custody of the club he feels a heavy drop of rain bounce off the tip of his nose. Within thirty seconds the three golfers are forced to take refuge under the branches of a nearby evergreen. They burrow deep into the shade as the rain comes down in a torrential downpour. After a few minutes there is a momentary pause, as if for breath, before it spills again, with even mightier force and greater ferocity so that the three are forced to press closer to the trunk, to cower in the scent of pine needles. Tom cannot help himself: “Of course on a purely humanistic level I couldn’t agree more, but the point I’m making is…”

The rain brings a relieving freshness and the release of elusive fragrances to the course. Puddles begin to form in the fairway. He is confronted with the prospect of a dull weekend, full of obligations: the fundraising barbecue and that bloody Christening. No hope of getting out of either. All he had wanted was to take his new golf club—a club he had spent a considerable amount of money on—and hit golf balls off into the distance. That was all he wanted. Was that reason enough to be punished, repeatedly, and stopped by other people and obligations and by excuses from doing what he wanted to do?

“Down for the day, I’m afraid,” says Dick.

And it is this dim statement of the obvious that does it. Harry staggers into the lashing rain, howling wind, his hands tightly clenched into fists. Some smart remark, passed behind his back, does not bother him. His progress through an ankle-deep puddle toward the first tee is unwavering. They watch him from the shelter of the trees, as he brushes back the sapping-wet curly hair whipping into his eyes, blows up into his nostrils to remove the drops forming under his nose, and pulls up the sleeves of his fully-saturated sweater. In a completely unhurried manner, he places his ball atop a tee and putting his gloved hand up to his eyes—stares off into the distance. His practise swing has the look and sound of a Japanese swordsman practising a fatal thrust. Ready now, he pulls the Encore IV back over his shoulder. With a primordial grunt, club head whipping upwards, eyes rising gradually, he watches the silent flight of dimpled white plastic ball over the heads of a mass of men, women, and children who flinch, duck or cower in a ripple effect at its rapid and violent approach.

pencilEmail: briancoughla[at]gmail.com