Cars

Broker’s Pick
Griggori Tyler Taylor


Back to Back
Photo Credit: Johann/::: mindgraph :::

Dylan and I,
we are cars going in different directions.

We are both the only child of the parent we live with.
He is eight years younger than me and into things
I’ll never give the time to understand.
But when our Grandma died
we drew close like two cars on a collapsing bridge,
drawn together from opposite ends.

There are days I still see us
wandering hospital halls waiting.
Our diets grew to be Starbucks and Subway,
and I grew to know each lustrous employee by name.
We’d entertain ourselves with cards
and checkers on preset tables.
Only then had I ever let someone win.

I love him like a brother.
That’s why once a year
I stop my mental waterfall to watch the playoffs.
That’s why he listens to REM,
allowing me to tell people
“Man, my eleven-year-old cousin has better taste than you!”

It gives us something more to talk about.

So when he stares with eyes already gone and asks,
“Would you rather have a crazy dad, or a dead dad?”
I’m left shuffling through records to find something
to fill the void.
I draw blanks so I say
“I don’t know”
and I don’t.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m still left without a father.”

And no college band or football player
would ever leave me with an answer.

Like clockwork he reminds me
he’s not even twelve yet.
That he shouldn’t have to worry about this.
That a suicide note shouldn’t be sleeping in his voice mail.
That Xanax and hallucination shouldn’t be part of his vocabulary,
which is vast because he was plucked to grow up too young.

I worry about him sometimes.
That he’s already looking at things from perspectives I missed.
That his smile might be lost and he can’t reel it back in.
The news scares him more than it does me,
and I find him asking about things like being bombed.
Like wars.
Things I didn’t think of as a child
but I guess this is how things are now.

And I wish I could tell you
it’s all a story.
That I’d spin it all into a nice metaphor
but I got nothing.
I wish I could tell you it’s making him stronger
but Dylan and I,
we are cars going different directions.
I am speeding to witness the edge of the earth,
Dylan,
He has passed it.
Now,
he just wants to rest.

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Griggori Tyler Taylor is a performance poet and visual artist from Paducah, Kentucky. He is a member of Paducah Writer’s Group and is a frequent performer at Etcetera Coffeehouse. His work has appeared in Notations and Word Riot (under pen-name Ivan Snow). His first book of poems, Picking the Lovely, is due to be published April ’12. He enjoys writing in third person. He is wearing a hat and drinking a frozen peppermint latte, not constantly, just currently. Email: ivan.snow[at]hotmail.com

Beginners Too

Broker’s Pick
Alonzo Douglass


Cinema
Photo Credit: Marcelo Acosta

Yesterday I sat in Theater No. 1 at the Broadway Centre with my friend Darvel. This is where people in Salt Lake go to watch indie, foreign, and obscure movies. This is one of the venues for the Sundance Film Festival. This is also my childhood theater. No, not the actual one, but one that is so close in nature it always makes me feel as if I’ve gone home.

As I sat in the low-backed chair, looked at the cloth-covered shapes hanging on the walls, remembered how small screens used to be, and expected the exit sign to be lit and in my eyes for the next ninety minutes, I was at peace. I felt comfort.

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of the one movie I saw in my hometown theater that I can still remember—Fantastic Voyage. Here Steven Boyd was strong, handsome, and fearless Grant and Raquel Welch was top-heavy, sex-bomb Cora. I was nine years old when the movie was released, and one Saturday afternoon I went to see it with all my prepubescent friends. When they left the movie, they could see Raquel’s breasts and feel her body in their minds, and they never looked at older girls the same way as they did before. I know one had impure thoughts about our friend’s mother.

I took Darvel with me to see Beginners. We are not longtime friends. I think we’ve known each other three years. Yesterday Darvel was just being nice to me. He doesn’t like what I call “highbrow” movies. He’s The-Fast-and-the-Furious type. Give him Jordana Brewster and Vin Diesel. Give him Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker. Dammit! Give him Raquel Welch.

When I walked out of Fantastic Voyage with my nine– and ten– and eleven-year-old friends, I didn’t imagine Raquel’s breasts and crotch, hips and legs. I didn’t imagine anything. I needed more time to find out who I was. When I did, I came to the knowledge I wanted to see Steven Boyd with his shirt off. I wanted to touch his skin. Beginners is my story. I liked Oliver and Anna. I was captivated by their romantic chase, their split up, and their reconnection. Still my story was told by Hal, Oliver’s gay father.

I love Darvel. He is everything I want. Look and you will see someone who is just shy of my height, who is slight but muscular, who has a full head of hair that looks good hanging over his collar or cut to a quarter-inch, who has absolutely no hair on his arms and legs and chest (I don’t know what it means), and who is missing his left lower canine tooth. His one defect doesn’t make him ugly. Like his strong-sounding name, it makes me love him more.

When Hal came out to Oliver, when we met his boyfriend Andy, when we saw the number of gay friends he made, and when we came to the realization his truth set him free, I sat knee-to-knee with Darvel.

“Dear, dear friend,” I said in my mind. “I am Hal. Come be my Andy.”

Then I remembered Andy is a bumbling fool. Darvel couldn’t be Andy. So, I said, “No, I’ll be Andy. You be Hal.”

Then I thought of the dog and said, “Let me be Cosmo. That way I can live with you, see you every day, and be close to you. Maybe you will let me sleep on your bed, and every night I will say, just like Cosmo did that once, ‘Are we married, yet?'”

Then I begged him to take my hand or touch my knee or, God willing, grab my chin, pull my face into his, and kiss me. The only touch I felt was my hand lightly resting on my knee.

Then I told myself what I’ve always believed. When Darvel was nine years old, he dreamed about top-heavy women like Raquel Welch. He wanted to see the older girl who lived next door naked, and he wanted to touch her. Perhaps he had impure thoughts about his best friend’s mother. He is Oliver. The person he wants is Anna.

When the movie ended, we watched the credits to the end. I hoped. Darvel fidgeted. When we stood up to leave, he said, “Let’s go get a beer.”

“Did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Well, you gotta know, it’s your kind of movie, not mine.”

“I was just wondering.”

Outside on the sidewalk, I said, “Who did you relate to the most?”

“No one.”

“Do you see yourself chasing after a girl like Anna?”

“Yeah, I could. I definitely could.”

My heart was pounding. I wanted to shout, “I love you!” This made me choke up inside, but I felt resolved.

“I’m…” I said. My throat was tight and my voice was slightly above a whisper.

After a short pause, I tried to speak again, but my vocal cords, tongue, and mouth refused to hear my commands.

“You are…?” Darvel said.

I took a full minute to find my voice. Finally, I said, “I’m Hal.”

Darvel stopped walking. I wanted to run, but I made myself stop beside him. He turned his eyes to stare at the buildings across the street, and I knew he understood me. When he took three to four steps away from me, I thought he was going to walk away and leave me and I wouldn’t see him again. Then he came to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “I’m not Andy.”

His words hit me like a bullet to my chest. I was embarrassed and scared. My hope was false. Now I was vulnerable. Could he hurt me? No. Could he cause problems for me? Not many. Still I felt afraid.

“Let’s do this,” Darvel said. “We can start tonight. Let’s go find your Andy. I know where he goes Friday night, and guess what? They serve beer there.”

Once again, I loved him and wanted him.

“I would like it, if it’s okay with you,” I said, “if my Andy was like someone I know. He has a funny name. It’s Darvel.”

“Nope. Can’t be done. There is only one Darvel you will ever know.”

Darvel put more force into the hold he had on my shoulders and started pulling me down the street. I couldn’t move my feet as fast as he wanted me to. My entire body felt as heavy as the pavement I was walking on. Finding someone is hard. I was hoping Darvel was the one. He’s so perfect for me, but all he is a brother, one who at that moment was trying to get me to goosestep down the street with him. Then I thought, “Take some of this weight I’m feeling off me Darvel.” When I decided to believe he would, my steps felt lighter.

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Alonzo Douglass holds a master’s degree from Westminster College of Salt Lake in communication with an emphasis in writing. By education and from work experience, he knows how to write everything from a media release to a feasibility study. He does not know how to write fiction. However, he volunteers at Salt Lake Community College’s Community Writing Center. His job is to mentor the LGBTQ writing group. The incredible people who come to his group write fiction, and, because they do and they encourage him, he’s starting to step outside his comfort zone. Email: dw4731[at]gmail.com

The Journey

Ana’s Pick
Pamela Kung


Dramatic Guitar Player
Photo Credit: Justin Scott Campbell

“You won’t make it, Lee. You’re throwing away your college education for nothing.”

“Your father didn’t mean that. It’s just… how are you going to earn money as a musician, sweetie?”

“I need someone who has a plan in life. I can’t wait around for you. We’re over.”

“You’ve got a good sound, but the club’s booked right now.”

“Did you see this flyer? That club’s hosting a talent show.”

“Give it up for Lee Hampton—the winner of a free pint and a tray of hot wings!”

“You scored another gig downtown? Awesome!”

“Wow, you’re playing there tonight? Any chance of a free ticket?”

“I’m an agent and I know that I can make you into a big star. Here’s my card. Call me.”

“Son, your mom and I are proud of you. Congratulations on your first album.”

“And this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist goes to… Lee Hampton!”

“I’m so sorry that I broke up with you. I didn’t mean it. We were so good together. Forgive me?”

“I just got off the phone with Modern Records! They want to produce your next album and send you on tour. Whoo!”

“Sweetie, isn’t it time to settle down? You haven’t had a single girlfriend in over five years! When do I get my first grandbaby?”

“And that’s the latest single by Lee Hampton. What do you think? Call in and let’s talk. You know the number—1-800-New-Beat.”

“Lee, your mom is ill. You should come home, son.”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Julia Anne Hampton will be remembered for her kindness and spirit.”

“You can’t just give up your music career to move back home. What are you even going to do? Work at the local hardware store?”

“Would you like to make a donation? We’re raising money so the school doesn’t shut down our music and arts program.”

“You’re going to walk away from the fame? The fortune? At the pinnacle of your career? You are making a huge mistake, kid!”

“Mr. H.? I finished my assignment. May I use the restroom?”

“I’d like to take a few minutes from our faculty meeting to congratulate Lee on taking our high school band all the way to Nationals this year!”

“I’m Marie, the new English teacher. Do you know how to get this copier to work?”

“I do.”

“Dad? We have great news. You’re going to be a grandpa!”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hampton. I did everything I could, but there were complications.”

“Thanks for doing this interview. Fans of your music have often wondered what caused you to abruptly leave the music industry.”

“You have stage three colon cancer. I’m afraid you don’t have much time left.”

“I don’t how I’m supposed to live without you, Lee. You’re my world—you and this little one here.”

“I love you, son. Say hello to your mother for me.”

“The entertainment world mourns tonight. Lee Hampton will be remembered for his talent and generosity.”

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Pamela Kung is a former middle/high school English teacher who has yet to decide on what her next profession will be. She is partial to puppies, rock climbing, going to farmers’ markets, and of course, reading and writing. She enjoys traveling, lively conversations, receiving letters in the mail, and the occasional good glass of wine. Email: ppkung[at]gmail.com

One Last Storm

Ana’s Pick
Chris Yodice


The snow was relentless that year—and surprisingly consistent. The first storm came on a Friday. It lasted three days, leaving ten inches at the shallowest point and drifts that threatened to consume whole houses like ocean waves. It had been twenty-four hours since anyone in my family could see out the windows; we knew it had ended only because we were told by the woman on the radio.

She was the one we really listened to. The television weatherman appeared once every few hours; through a practiced smile, he spoke of satellites and radars and air masses. He was unaffected; he could have been talking to us from anywhere. His suits—he wore a different one for each appearance—were unwrinkled. His hair was perfect. This woman, though, seemed to stay with us the whole time. If she slept, I don’t know; she must have, I suppose. But I am sure she didn’t go home. And as the hours wore on, her tired voice only grew more intimate.

Finally, she said, “It’s all over now, but I’m glad that we could spend this time together.”

I spent Sunday night fighting my way out of the house, budging the door open inch by inch until I could extend a foot first, a leg, and, at last, enough of my body to force the rest of the way through. The wind was fierce. Trapped outside as snow blown from the roof re-covered the clearing I had made, I was now left to shovel a path to the street and then dig my way back in.

We awoke Monday to clear skies and early forecasts of another blizzard later in the week.

And so it went: weekends covering us in white, the following days offering reprieve enough only to carve temporary gaps in the continually compounding walls of ice and snow. Those gaps would be filled in again come each Friday, some weeks, Thursday.

Despite the wearying cycles of the weather, this was my busiest season. I was in school, in the midst of a program that took up much of my time both in class and for study. I had a job at the library; despite the hours required by school, this was a necessity. Without it, both education and recreation would go unfunded. The job was low paying but it was not easy—attendance was mandatory and there were no excuses accepted.

In this season, I had also found love. Or what I hoped were love’s beginnings. But while the quotidian routines of study and work remained mostly unaffected, it turned out that love was harder to nurture in the cold. She was older than I was. Not by much, just enough to convince a college sophomore that he was dating an older woman. She had dark hair, long and straight, green eyes, and a wide and frequent smile. She was smart. And funny. This should have been enough to battle the elements for. It should have been love quickly, but as the weeks passed, its potential was buried under the unending snow. I was unconcerned; I bided my time and held out for thaw.

In the meantime, I traveled when I had to—fighting the winds that whipped the ice and snow at me from all directions—to get to the places others told me I must be. But I let those same winds, winds that continued long after the storms ended, keep me from my love. Dates were made but each weekend they were pre-empted by the snow that inevitably came. And we grew apart before we were yet close. We grew apart as we watched the storms and I barely noticed.

It had started on a whim. There was a holiday gathering in the school’s common area on the last day of finals. She and I began within a circle of students, speaking all at once of tests passed and vacation plans and the possibility of a white Christmas. In ones and twos, our mutual friends excused themselves with wishes for a happy season, and then there was just the two of us, unintroduced but carrying on merrily.

When it was time to go, she said, “It was nice talking to you.” She had not stopped smiling since I first saw her and, with these words, she smiled still. But now her face was different; it might have been something in her eyes. Unexpectedly, she leaned in and kissed me, holding her lips against my cheek and pulling them away slowly.

I stopped. Stopped speaking, stopped thinking, stopped breathing. It was not until she was halfway to the door that my heart leapt. If it had beat at all in those few seconds prior, I don’t know. But now it was galloping, faster still with each step she took. And then—if only then—at the start of it all, I did the right thing. I followed her.

I called her often over the school break. And she called me. Our conversations were lively, both of us bursting with so much to say. We had our first date, and our second, and third. We spent the early winter nights staring at the clear, star-filled sky.

Classes reconvened in January. And with them, came the storms. While school gave me the opportunity to see her almost daily, the excitement of the first few weeks gave way to conversation more polite than passionate. Too often, we spoke of the snow.

“It’s hard to get out in this weather,” I said.

We would spend time sitting together after class, then part: her to her house, her family; me, to mine. Best to avoid too much driving on the icy roads, I thought. The phone calls continued, but, with so much else to do, they too became perfunctory. Through it all, I assumed this would be remedied when the weather warmed.

The year’s shortest day falls in December, but I have always felt that there is a darkness unique to February. In the midst of this dreary month, I asked to see her.

“This coming Friday,” I suggested.

Both of our schedules, mine of a lucky underclassman, hers expected of a senior, allowed us that day off. She accepted quietly, with barely a trace of the smile I knew. We didn’t plan anything specific, just time to be together.

When the day arrived, I awoke to snow. Snow outside my bedroom window, snow rising halfway up our screen door. I called her midday, the routine now familiar.

“It’s bad out there,” I said.

“Mm,” she responded.

“Maybe—” I began, intending to finish with the overused, “Tomorrow would be better,” although I should have known that in this season, the tomorrows were never different.

Before I could continue, however, she had begun as well. The same, “Maybe—”

We thought alike at least. I laughed. She didn’t. I let her speak.

“Maybe,” she said, “We should talk.”

And suddenly things changed. The realization that came upon me was harsher than the shock of a frigid wind upon leaving a warm house, a sensation I knew too well.

It was with those words that I knew I had let it slip too far, for too long. I thought of our recent interactions and knew now what that reserved smile had meant. It was about to end; we were about to end. I thought of the storms that had kept me from her. They were real and they were cruel, there was no doubt of that. But why had they not kept me from anything else? Suddenly I gathered the ambition that had lain dormant for these weeks.

“I’ll come to you,” I said.

Silence. Then, “Okay.”

My intention was not to argue or plead. The instant clarity of the situation stunned me—how could I not have seen this? The guilt over the complacency I had shown fell upon me fast; the weight of it pinned down any urge I might have had to convince her it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t deserve that opportunity; she didn’t deserve that excuse.

Now, I only wanted to see her once more while she was still mine.

I fought through the door and shoveled, digging deep and hurling the snow with back-wrenching motions. This snow. It came; it stayed, unknowing of its effects. It had been so easy to blame for my own lapses. I looked toward the street; the plows had been through.

My car sputtered and whined, reluctant, but it moved. The roads were lined by the icy walls that had become fixtures this winter. Riding through them was like being trapped in a tunnel. These walls were white, but dirty. They were thick and solid, swirled throughout with asphalt and branches and oil. And they were endless.

I arrived at her house nearly ninety minutes later. I had not been there often, certainly not often enough in these past weeks. On less treacherous days, the trip would have taken one-third the time. But I had driven slowly and, even so, ended up spun out and backwards more than once. Fortunately, most others had stayed off the roads.

I parked as best I could—the side of my car scraping the boulders of ice that lined her street—and walked toward the house, following a thin path that had been cleared from the sidewalk to the front step. I looked up to see her silhouette in the doorway, her details lost in the glare of the setting sun off the snow.

She let me in with a quick word of hello, nothing more. Her family was sitting down to dinner as I entered. I was self-conscious, wondering where she would bring me for this final talk, wondering if they all knew—of my foolishness, my fate, or both. I was surprised to be invited to stay by her mother, who repeatedly expressed amazement that I was out on such a day.

“Young love comes with such devotion,” she said.

And with that I knew. This woman was unaware that my devotion came too late, that my arrival was a final act, and one of redemption.

The meal was lovely, and though I knew I was a condemned man at his last, I enjoyed it. Her family was amusing and gracious. I could see them in her. And they seemed to like me. I made them laugh and I was glad. This was how it should have been. I remembered her inviting me to dinner once before: “Come meet my family. You’ve never come inside, you know.” She had needled me when I was still graced with the lightness of her full smile. “Don’t be scared.” I dismissed the offer; the weather reports had been threatening. But sitting here now, I did not want to be anywhere else.

She did not say much throughout; she ate and watched and listened. Afterward, her father went outside, happy and hearty, to finish clearing the driveway of snow, ignoring his wife’s telling of more to come later in the night. I offered to help, an automatic gesture, declined by this man who seemed to relish the challenge of the elements.

So she and I remained at the table while her mother retired upstairs. We began to talk. My heart, lulled since my arrival, quickened. Now she would finish it. But while the long conversation touched on many things, we did not speak of us.

But that is not altogether true. I should say that she did not bring up this inevitable end. We spoke instead of those first, clear nights. This afternoon, in the moments after waking from my snow-blind stupor, those nights had seemed so long ago. Here, watching her mouth as she spoke, I realized how little time had passed since then. I could tell by her glinting eyes and only half-suppressed laughter that she had enjoyed them as much as I had. She seemed happy. I did all I could to not think about the chasm of my neglect that lay between those nights and this.

Our conversation branched into topics formerly untouched. As it did, I realized how much I had missed, how the focus of the early days of attraction is so often on the immediate and the simple. Now she spoke with no boundaries; sitting face-to-face, away from all of our responsibilities, and sheltered at last from the threatening skies, she told me about her family, her loves, and her life. Her openness affected me; I offered more to her than I had to anyone that I could remember. And in a gesture that was probably more than I deserved, she listened sincerely.

I could not forget, however, why I was there.

In one moment of silence, I said, unprompted, “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “Not yet,” she said.

Shortly after, her father came through and bade us good night. She stood up. I followed her to the living room where we sat before the front window.

This would be it.

The dark had come long ago. The hours since had passed under a blanket of clouds that moved constantly but never parted. It was only now that they opened, pouring light onto the frozen landscape in front of us. The moon was no more than a mirror, I knew, but on this night, it seemed to contain a luminescence all its own. And in the moments that followed, the snow started again, as if cued by this unveiling. The flakes fell gently and I was content watching them, just sitting by her side. They blew back and forth and, at times, drifted and circled in the air, carried by the unseen breeze. It would, at least, be a beautiful end.

She took my hand in hers, not finger laced in finger, but whole. I looked at her, saw her profile bathed in the new brightness coming through the window. I was ready now. This day had made it all worthwhile, provided one memory to treasure among the squandered potential of all the other moments. There was romance here. And in the years to come, when I would think back of this as love lost, I would be justified.

We sat in silence. I looked out the window and felt her turn toward me, then back. Together, we watched this one last storm.

Outside there was no way to gauge the falling snow. Each flake was like a drop of water falling into an endless ocean. But this ocean would soon rise and I had a long ride ahead. It was time for her to have her closure.

And so I would leave her, giving her the opportunity to tell me what I had already come to accept. She would do it now. Or, if she were tired, she would do it later: over the phone, or on the brown couches in the school’s common area, quietly, but in the company of her friends. It didn’t matter when.

I took a long breath. “Maybe I should go,” I said.

She moved toward me and slipped her fingers between mine.

“Maybe” she said, “You should stay.”
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Chris Yodice lives and writes in New York. His work can be found in recent (and upcoming) issues of Bewildering Stories, MicroHorror, Conceit, and Rosebud magazine. He, himself, can usually be seen through his front window spinning in circles with his children. Chris can be reached at yodicec[at]gmail.com

Disappearing

Ana’a Pick
Robert Wexelblatt


Uncle Richard rubbed his hands together and looked benignly down on us. “Good. You’re here. Now, what’ll it be? Gin with your tonic, or vodka?”

I turned toward Bonnie.

“Vodka,” she said eagerly.

“And for you?” asked Uncle Richard with a kindly smile.

“Same’s fine.”

He started toward the kitchen then turned back. “Lime?”

We both nodded, good little guests side by side on the white couch.

Uncle Richard’s house was very white. It was spacious, attractive, well furnished, filled with light, imaginatively landscaped, and centrally air-conditioned. The cathedral ceiling soared so loftily above our heads I felt like a French peasant at Chartres. I’d expected something more cramped. For their first three golden years Uncle Richard and Aunt Edith had occupied a one-bedroom condo in Delray Beach. Then they’d decided that, what with their investments gushing cash, they could spring for a bigger place. So they bought into a new development on an ex-orange grove. Here, my uncle had explained, they could comfortably put up guests, their two kids, the grandchildren, old neighbors who’d yet to emigrate. Our own invitation was a standing one, though this was the first we’d made use of it. Bonnie and I were both working hard; we were on the make. She was busy becoming indispensable at her pharmaceutical company while I was trying to do the same at the university where I was second-in-command of the Office of the Registrar.

My uncle’s open invitation was sincere. He and I had hit it off when I was a baby, precursor of a new generation. We’d always been fond of each other and talked, with ready sympathy and even candor. As my somewhat stuffy father’s easy-going younger brother Richard had a measure of authority for me but without the electric charge. As his nephew I afforded some of the advantages of a son without any responsibility or risk of resentment. As a boy, what I’d found irresistible about my Uncle Richard was the way he not only licensed my irreverence but shared and encouraged it.

When my aunt and uncle were getting ready to move he’d said, “Come down any time” with so much sincerity I almost believed he needed my company. Then, only a month before they were to move into their dream house, Aunt Edith died of a stroke. “Just fell down in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie,” Richard told me over the phone. He repeated this sentence when I flew down for the funeral and every time I’d phoned him since, which was once a week. Either he couldn’t get over the suddenness of it or he was affronted that the solemnity of death should be smirched by the banality of a supermarket.

By way of solace I quoted Cicero’s prayer to him: “The lightning before the doctors.”

“Well, there is that,” he allowed.

Richard had moved into the house anyway and ever since had found himself at one end of a conveyor belt trundling friends and relatives to his door. In October, surveying his social calendar with me, he’d confided that a spell of solitude wouldn’t be unwelcome. “I feel I’m neglecting our—excuse me—my new friends.”

I didn’t find the prospect of begging for a time-slot entirely agreeable.

What sent me and Bonnie south was the shock of our circle’s first divorce, or the recognition forced on us by it. Fred and Mariel had seemed happier than we were and better matched. They were always smooching in public, touching. Their separation provoked Bonnie and me to begin probing the fissures in our own relations, and it seemed to us they were wide and getting wider. This scared us, as if we might divorce too, even without actually willing it. It was a rough autumn, furtively inspecting each other for marks of ennui or exasperation, signs of disgust or infidelity. We’d only been married a few years and should have been thinking of children; now we were afraid to have any. We didn’t ignore the tension. On the contrary, it became our chief topic of conversation. Bonnie talked about our problems openly and exhaustively while I did it gingerly. We were like two untrained soldiers discussing how to disarm an unfamiliar bomb, only Bonnie thought we could fix it and I wasn’t so sure.

“For God’s sake, let’s go away,” Bonnie urged one frigid January night as we lay in bed after a round of picking at half-formed scabs.

“Away?”

“Just for a few days. Away from here.”

I was dubious. “Where?”

“Some place warm. Some place with sun and a beach. We could go see your Uncle Richard. He’s so sweet and I had to miss the funeral and he did say any time.”

This was an unexpected suggestion. Perhaps Bonnie reckoned the sight of a lonesome widower would impress on me the advantages of even a compromised conjugal life.

“Yes, we’re married people,” I’d been saying, “that’s our identity now. We crossed that particular line. I’m what people call a married man and you’re a married woman. But that can change overnight.”

“Marriage isn’t an abstract condition, or it shouldn’t be,” she’d replied thoughtfully. “You aren’t married the way you’re, say, Buddhist or brown-eyed. It isn’t existential. You get married to someone. We’re married to each other.”

I wanted to battle against being comforted but I also yearned to lose the argument, if that’s what it was. “And what if you decide you don’t want to be married to me any more, even if you like being married? Or turn it around. What if you still love me but just can’t bear being married to me.”

“But I do want to. You’re the one who isn’t sure, isn’t fully committed.”

“That’s not true.”

She was exasperated. “Well, then why are we—?”

“I don’t know. Jesus, I really don’t.”

In those days I permitted all sort of possibilities to pass through me like cosmic rays, everything from adultery to having triplets to outright desertion. My daydreams were passive and so I felt no responsibility for them. Bonnie, I assumed, was doing the same. We weren’t accountable to each other for this private subversion but there it was. I began to feel our marriage becoming a fragile bridge that would collapse if it had to bear even one more car.

It was February, always the longest month of the year. With sick days and a little scrambling we could both swing the trip. Uncle Richard was perfect. When I phoned he didn’t even wait for me ask. Renewing his invitation was almost the first thing he said. We set a date; we made plane reservations; we cleared our calendars. Bonnie bought some new clothes and I wondered if this weren’t just a useless distraction from whatever ailed us. Were we trying to run from the beast or choosing the ground on which to confront it?

“Umm,” sighed Bonnie as she came in late from work in overcoat and scarf and runny nose. “Next week the beach,” she said bravely.

All my life I’ve pretended to like the beach in the same way I’ve faked joy on New Year’s Eve. It isn’t simply hypocrisy or conformity but a wish to participate in the joys of others, or at least not to be a wet blanket. I grit my teeth and smile but the fact is beaches bore me. I hate the heat and the sun, the smells and most of the sights. The ocean frightens me. Since I was a child told how much fun I was having I’ve kept this aversion to myself, along with my indifference to ice cream, so as not to appear—what?—un-American? an ascetic? Not to enjoy what was universally liked wasn’t a distinction; it was shameful. After all, vacations, holidays, and fatty desserts are all pure pleasures, conceived to be delightful in their very emptiness, and to reject them, not out of puritanical rigor but simply because for me they aren’t pleasures, seemed perverse and anti-social. I was glad enough to get away, looking forward to seeing my uncle, but I dreaded the sand and the waves.

So I said, “Yippee!” as if I meant it.

 

I convinced Uncle Richard to put off his barbecue for one night and let us take him out to dinner. He chose a seafood place called Mother’s. It was pleasant and familiar, with its captain’s chairs, fishing paraphernalia on the walls, and walnut veneer wainscoting. Anyone from almost anywhere would have felt comfortable there. I was impressed by the number of people Richard greeted and who greeted him; not all of them were widows, either. We were introduced around and endured the customary snowbird jokes. Most wanted to know precisely how low the temperatures had been back home, a request for a reassurance, I supposed, or a variety of schadenfreude. Bonnie and I answered docilely. “Old folks are obsessed with other people’s weather and their own digestion,” she cracked to me later.

Once we were seated, Richard and I traded family stories—who was up to what, the latest medical data, who’d moved where, a bit of gossip concerning a cousin whose wife had deserted him, the question being whether it was for a man or a woman. Bonnie bore all this patiently and my uncle rewarded her by devoting the entire remainder of the meal to interviewing her. He insisted on hearing everything about her job, her prospects, her colleagues, her sister the urban anthropologist, her parents—who, I discovered, were also weighing a permanent move south. This was news to me.

After the table had been cleared and we were waiting for dessert, Richard beamed at us as he asked, “So, I don’t know if it’s been like this with either of you, but I remember feeling I was playing at being a grown-up for a year or two after I got hitched to Edith. You kids used to it by now?”

Bonnie replied without answering the question. “You miss her,” she said. I was puzzled because my wife seldom states the obvious but Richard understood. It was the first time he’d mentioned my aunt. What Bonnie conveyed wasn’t a query but sympathy, and he laid his hand on hers. I thought he didn’t particularly like Bonnie and put his hand on hers just because he was fond of me. It must be nice for Richard to have a young woman around, I mused, looking over Mother’s, which really ought to have been called Grandmother’s.

A man lumbered over to our table and, with incongruous tenderness, patted my uncle on the back. The fellow was huge, about six-six, and built on rectangular lines. Graying red hair curled over his ears; his pate was shiny.

My uncle turned. “Ah, Charlie MacLaughlin in the flesh,” he laughed affectionately.

“About time you sallied forth from your castle, Lionheart,” growled MacLaughlin. “I’d begun to wonder if you were being held for ransom again.”

This Richard the First business was evidently a private joke between them. I liked the way MacLaughlin teased my uncle. It made me like him too—that and the way Richard laughed when he saw him. This must be one of the new, neglected friends, I assumed. There was no Mrs. MacLaughlin in sight.

My uncle introduced us and I was pleased that MacLaughlin, enveloping my hand in his massive grip, resisted inquiring about the temperature up north. What he said was, “Call me Mack, like the truck.” Bonnie giggled.

“Mack,” said my uncle proudly, “may not know everything but he’s done almost everything. He’s my widower guru.”

Mack’s great red face turned redder. “Listen to him,” he said.

“He’s been a Marine judo instructor, worked on oil tankers, also an electrician, salmon fisherman, a claims adjuster, a trained—what d’you call guys who drill oil wells?”

“Roughneck?” Bonnie suggested.

“That’s it. Even a private detective. Right, Mack?” My uncle bragged.

Mack shrugged and looked from me to Bonnie. “Couldn’t hold a job. But look, Your Majesty, I’ve got to go. Just wanted to say hi.”

“No, no,” cried Richard. “Sit. Join us.”

“Sorry, gotta be off. Really. Pinochle.”

“Then how about joining us for dinner tomorrow night? I’m barbecuing,” Richard added enticingly.

Mack hesitated, doubtful.

“Drinks at five.”

“I wouldn’t want—”

“Isn’t the king’s wish the same as a command?” asked Bonnie archly. We both liked this Frigidaire of a man.

 

The guest room was large, again with high white walls. On these Uncle Richard had hung three paintings, all of picturesque subjects by local artists of some talent. Shells were spread on top of the bureau, navy blue sheets on the bed; by the window stood a matched pair of wicker armchairs. They were painted white and had tufted blue cushions on the seats. Everywhere white and blue, even in the pictures with their white clouds, waves, and birds, their blue seas and skies. This two-tone combo was crisp and bracing, evoking summertime and good hygiene. Bonnie was exhilarated. She said the room put her in mind of the nicer catalogues, that she liked my uncle more than ever, that Mack seemed a perfect chum for him. Then she turned on the television to catch the eleven o’clock news. She dislikes being out of touch and had gone all day without an update. The lead story was something about an alligator and a quick-thinking caddie on a golf course. Bonnie began to unpack the bags. I decided to shower. We were both too weary to pick anything apart, even our marriage.

 

Science demystifies by getting us to concentrate so much on the how that we blithely, even scornfully ignore the why. Very likely, the scientists of my acquaintance suggest, there isn’t any why, at least none we can verify, or there are too many whys and so any given one is unreliable. You want metaphysics, go down the hall and turn left. This works pretty well for astronomy and physics, which may concern us but aren’t personal matters. With dreams it’s different. Brain science hasn’t made dreams less mysterious, any less urgent as regards the why. Debunk Freud all you like—and his biblical predecessors Joseph and Daniel—we still need and heed them. In fact, the mechanics of dreaming, which part of the neocortex is or isn’t doing what, actually suggests something meaningful may be going on. At least you can’t disprove it. And so we all try to catch up with our dreams, even when they appear to be about the past rather than the future. These symbolic narratives demand an exegesis.

I had a perplexing dream that first night in King Richard’s castle, between the navy blue sheets and the white ceiling as Bonnie breathed softly and the air-conditioning hummed. It was one of those vivid ones you’re still convinced of for a few unsettling seconds after you wake, a time when reality flutters.

In the dream, not every detail of which I can recall, I am arrested. I’m living in an apartment where everything’s white. Someone lives there with me. I’m pretty sure it’s a woman but can’t say if it’s Bonnie. This roommate is, so to speak, an offstage presence in the dream which begins something like the first page of Kafka’s Trial, an unconscious plagiarism or perhaps an homage from the unconscious itself. It’s a terribly bright morning. Sunlight shines through the window over the kitchen sink and reflects blindingly off the white furniture and walls. I’m just out of bed, sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the coffee to brew. Three men clamber up the stairs and show themselves at the door, which is wide open. The first over the threshold is bald and wears a bad suit; he is the detective in charge. Behind him loom two uniformed officers. The inspector, while perfectly willing to tell me that they are there to take me into custody, is reluctant to reveal the charge when I ask. In fact, he seems to find my question disconcerting, as if I had said something in bad taste or were not playing by the rules. He hints, however, that when the charges are disclosed, as they will be at my arraignment, they will have to do with actions tending to the undermining of good public order. I remark that the charge is rather vague. Not without embarrassment, the detective lets me know I’ve been under surveillance for some time and that it’s a question of important social conventions. I seem to know what he’s referring to; in fact, I admit to myself that the charge is legitimate. Nonetheless, I protest my innocence, objecting that what he’s hinting at isn’t a violation of any existing law. I know what I am saying is only pro forma, and he looks as if he’s heard it all before.

In my opinion, the point of the dream isn’t that I’m arrested in it but that I feel guilty. It isn’t like The Trial where Joseph K. requires the whole book to accustom himself to his guilt and submit to the awful court which is both divine and demonic. What counts is the feeling behind a dream, and what I felt was culpable for something I hadn’t yet done, had perhaps hardly even thought of doing but nevertheless might do. The authorities had somehow ferreted this out, knew my plans even better than I did, and moved in to forestall the crime, which had something to do with that offstage presence with whom I shared the cramped, glaring apartment. And so, in the dream, I began to fret about my prospective life as a prisoner, as a convict. How might I defend myself, how would I be able to sleep, when would I smoke my pipe? From these self-centered anxieties, I forced myself up into consciousness.

No interpretation is other than provisional; the interpretation of a dream is apt to be colored by the dreamer’s immediate concerns. Was that bald detective a version of Mack, suggested by the fact that he’d once been a private investigator? Was the woman both at the heart of the dream and absent from it Bonnie? Was the pre-empted crime, the action tending to the undermining of good public order, that I was about to do something to our marriage? I admit this is how I understood the dream, more as a warning than a prophecy. I decided the police represented my conscience or perhaps that part of it that had been successfully conditioned by the forces of good public order. As regards myself, the dream was ambiguous because I was at once in rebellion against the social order and disposed to submit to its verdict. But what of the white glare of that small apartment? Was it merely a detail borrowed from my uncle’s décor or significant in some way—purity, blankness, sterility?

All this I thought through in a matter of seconds, those that followed the reassuring recognition that it was, as we say, “only a dream.” After that, I put it away, just as Bonnie had our clothes.

She was already up. The bed beside me wasn’t even warm.

When I got down she and Uncle Richard were eating cereal and laying their plans. The beach, of course, topped the list. We’d all go together, then Richard would leave us to run some errands. He had to pick up another steak for Mack. We could bake as long as long as the sunblock lasted, then grab some lunch, take a drive, visit the lighthouse, the wildlife preserve, the shell museum, the shops and galleries. Up to us. Bonnie liked the idea of a leisurely lunch by the ocean and some shopping. Uncle Richard suggested a restaurant and promised me a not altogether provincial bookstore.

And so the day went by without a word about our problems. We behaved like a couple in a commercial, frolicking in the waves, delighting over things in stores, smiling, smiling. We hadn’t forgotten; we weren’t even denying, only waiting—I for Bonnie to speak first and she for me. It was an Alphonse and Gaston routine, a jockeying for moral advantage.

 

Uncle Richard’s banquet was not only delicious but interesting. Having spent the day outdoors, Bonnie and I felt we’d earned the right to eat a lot. Mack also brought a good appetite along with some good beer. As for Uncle Richard, the more we all consumed the jollier he became.

“I like cooking for other people,” he remarked to me as we stood by his gas grill. “It’s a good metaphor.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, for lots of things, I guess. Teaching, for one. You used to teach. Doesn’t a teacher get pleasure from watching the young digest what he’s cooked up for them?”

“Sure,” I said uncertainly.

“Or being in love.”

“In love?”

“Selfishness as a form of altruism, or vice versa?”

“Why selfishness?”

“Sorry, I’m putting it badly. I mean when you get your pleasure from somebody else’s, from being the cause of it.” He paused slightly. “You and Bonnie?”

“Sure, sure. That is, I think I know what you mean.” This came out with more ambivalence than I’d intended.

Richard flipped the steaks and laid down circular slabs of Vidalia onion. “When Edith was alive I concentrated it all on her, you know. That sort of pleasure.”

“Um, I’m sorry—”

“It was too narrow, I see that now, but it was just lovely. Can you believe I still remember the first time she called me ‘you big lug’? More than fifty years ago, but that was the moment when I knew I had her. Sometimes nothing’s more intimate than an insult.”

I tried to recall if Bonnie had ever spoken to me in just that way. Then I asked myself if such endearing insults might really be a kind of resistance, a checking rather than deepening of intimacy. Bonnie and I had learned how to jab, but I didn’t think our sparring constituted a good intimacy, the kind you’d enjoy remembering half a century later.

Bonnie and Mack were sitting on the white couch drinking and eating cheeses. From the deck I could only see the backs of their heads, Mack’s dome was much higher than Bonnie’s brown tresses. He was doing most of the talking. Bonnie seemed to be paying close attention.

What made the evening so interesting, I later thought, was how the permutations worked out. Over the four hours we went through the six possible pairings, as if it were a square dance. Bonnie and I exchanged looks and nervous smiles but few words. Uncle Richard and I spoke over the grill and during the cleaning up. Bonnie spent a lot of time drawing Mack out, knowing how readily even a taciturn man will speak to an attentive young woman. It was like Othello telling war stories to Desdemona, I thought. Mack and I hardly exchanged a word but at the end of the evening the couples formed anew. Bonnie said she wanted another beach day but that I probably wouldn’t. While this was true, it sounded as though she wanted to be rid of me. Richard and Mack looked meaningfully at each other—a change of plans? a sense of something not quite right—and it was quickly arranged that in the morning Mack would take me out in his Boston whaler while Richard and Bonnie went to the beach, then to the wildlife preserve to check out birds and alligators.

 

I have a Ph.D., which is an asset when it comes to pushing the product at my place of employment but otherwise pretty useless. Seeing the dimness of my prospects, I jumped from teaching to administration before I could be denied tenure and sent to swell the proletariat of the spirit. I understand perfectly that, professionally speaking, I’m a parasite, that the real work of the institution is carried out by its faculty and students, the cooking and eating. Nevertheless, like most of my colleagues, I find it convenient to forget this, to behave as if it’s we, not they, who are the university. We talk of the faculty and students the way corporate executives do of workers and customers. It’s because of this rather than my doctorate that I’m never intimidated by even the most distinguished of professors, even the kind who are so eminent that their field of vision is seldom marred by an undergraduate. I call full professors by their first names. My office is larger than most of theirs.

Mack, on the other hand, intimidated me. Big, competent, many years my senior, he made me feel like a tyro. On the boat with him I felt out of my element twice over. However, this wasn’t bad. I felt happy and irresponsible. I was as inquisitive as a boy about the whaler, the fishing gear, the bait, what was swimming below us. I wanted to hear all the local names. I was just as curious about Mack himself, a man with a ton of what the English used to call bottom. If he was laconic I felt this was because he knew too much to be loquacious. In my world words are too often the point—a world of words about other words—but with Mack every statement had to have a solid referent. And this is why his thoughtfulness made a profound impression on me. Here was a man of action turned to reflection, like Conrad’s Marlow in retirement.

He began by filling me in on Uncle Richard. “He nearly went under at first.”

“Under?” I thought of the water.

“The way a drowning man’ll give up and sink, the way a climber goes to sleep before he freezes on a mountain.”

I could only come up with a cliché. “My aunt’s death hit him really hard.”

“You know he stopped eating?”

“He did?”

“Hardly anything. Sat there in that new mansion which she’d picked out everything for like it wasn’t so much her mausoleum as his.”

“You mean he lost the will to live?”

Mack shook his head. “It doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like is that life has lost its hold on you.”

Very carefully I asked, “You… too?”

Mack fiddled with his rod before deigning to give me a nod. I thought of Shakespeare’s line about having to endure, about “ripeness is all.” Mack was certainly ripe. Tempered but still accessible, you could see his vitality in his enormous hands. To my uncle he must seem not just a good but a towering example. If Mack the ex-judo instructor, the ex-roughneck, told you to go on living, you’d do it.

We fished desultorily and explored the inland waterway without saying much. If Bonnie were here, I thought, she’d get him chattering, but I lacked the knack. So it was masculine muteness for about an hour. Mack seemed to concentrate on whatever he was doing—steering the boat, playing out his line, baiting hooks—not on me. This, it turned out, was not entirely the case. At least I think so.

He pulled in at a public dock. “Thought we could use to stretch our legs a bit, grab some shade.” He pointed up the embankment. “There’s a place has an awning and cold beer up there. Here, take the painter.”

So I found myself under a striped awning—faded blue, bleached white—with Mack telling me a story. Like Marlow, he just launched into it.

He leaned on an elbow, chin in his hand. “You know, sitting here puts me in mind of something” was his once-upon-a-time. “You probably know P.I.s do basically three jobs: there’s your adultery, insurance fraud, and your missing persons. I specialized in fraud because it paid the best and I had an in with the company from when I was an adjuster. But I took on other jobs too. One day I get a call from this woman, a real piece of work she was too. Says she wants me to find her husband and offers me ten grand to do it. Of course I had a hundred questions and said we’d have to meet. ‘Okay,’ she says, ‘I’ll be there in three minutes. I’m calling from a pay phone around the corner.’ Her little joke. So she waltzes into my hole-in-the-wall and she looks like a complete flake, a hippie—the long hair and skirt, funny perfume, loads of beads and no make-up. It takes me an hour to ask all my questions.”

“Like what?”

“Like how long he’d been gone. Like did he leave a note. Like did she file a police report. Like did he take any money. That was interesting, by the way. ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘he left me all of it, in fact a lot more than I thought he had. He filled up my bank account.’ I asked where he worked and had she heard anything from his employer. I wanted to know how well they’d been getting along. I asked if she suspected another woman or foul play. She was very patient. In fact, she came prepared, gave me a bunch of written information, all nicely typed out.”

“Had she contacted the police?”

“No. When I asked why not she said she didn’t want to, which made me suspicious.”

“Something illegal? All that money?”

“Crossed my mind. But she told me no. The money was plenty but he was a rich man. Investments he’d liquidated for her, she said. She didn’t go to the police because she felt whatever was going on was a private matter. I asked if she wanted him back. That was the only question she wasn’t ready for.”

“What did she say?”

“Her answer was the ten grand.”

“Hm,” I said, just to hold up my end.

“Three weeks later I walked into a bar in Youngstown, Ohio. I took a stool, bought a beer, and began talking to the guy next to me. I went through the usual topics, weather, sports, politics. He was polite but not what you’d call outgoing. I ordered us another round and told him he looked a little depressed. ‘Look around,’ he says, amused. I asked him if he was out of work, like half of Youngstown. He says no, he’s got a job. ‘Really?’ I say. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Sales,’ he says. I ask him what he sells and he says hardware. So I tell him I’m in sales too, farm equipment, and on the road all the time. ‘Puts a strain on the marriage,’ I say and ask if he’s married. ‘Used to be,’ he says. ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘divorced?’ He doesn’t answer.

“This was the missing husband?”

Mack smiled indulgently. “By then I knew where he lived and where he worked. I knew the name he was using. Hell, I even knew what bar he went to and which stool he put his ass on. I knew everything except one thing which is why I wanted to find him before writing up my report for his wife.”

“And that was?”

“Why he took off.”

“Was it so puzzling?”

“He left all his money behind. There was no other woman and he wasn’t in trouble at work. In fact, he handed in his resignation the day he left. According to the wife they’d been nothing but happy together. ‘Happy enough,’ was how she put it.” Mack looked at me the way he might have at a stranger in the bar. “It didn’t add up,” he explained.

Could Mack know I’d thought about doing the same thing, taking a bus to some town in the middle of the country, choosing a new name, finding some lousy job and a room and leaving Bonnie with everything except an explanation because I couldn’t pin one down myself? It was only a daydream, just whimsy. Is it possible—possible that on a sudden impulse a person would act on such a thing, turn frivolity into fact?

“Did she want him back?” I asked.

Mack leaned back in his chair and some of the tension between us relaxed. “I don’t think so. She said she just wanted to know, that’s all.”

We were quiet for a moment, listening to me not asking why the guy had taken off.

“Did you tell him—I mean did you tell him who you were?”

“He figured that out for himself.”

 

Article 367(2) of the Criminal Code of Belarus has been used to make journalists disappear. In Chile and Argentina the juntas caused thousands to vanish, turning disappear into a transitive verb, disappeared into a noun. Teenagers do it routinely, so do the victims of serial killers; children are plucked from suburban streets, all the men from ill-starred villages.

The unfinished novel Kafka called Der Verschollene was published under the title Amerika. He had nothing to go on but a few postcards from his uncle in Chicago and the intuition that America offers an exhilarating yet terrifying continental liberty into which anybody might disappear, going under or emerging metamorphosed, no longer the shabby immigrant with an unpronounceable name but a big shot with just the soupçon of an accent.

Disappearing is almost a national tradition. Go west, young man; start fresh; history is bunk, especially yours. Every contract comes with an escape clause.

When he was nine years old Cary Grant—still English, still Archie—came home from school to find his mother had disappeared. One day James Franklin walked into his print shop and found that his seventeen-year-old brother had vanished, breaking his indenture. There’s scarcely a trace of Ben in Boston, but he practically invented the civic life of Philadelphia. In the end, in the ultimate West, Sweet Betsy from Pike ditched her husband Ike.

The list is staggering: runaways in bus stations, name-changers in hardware stores, bigamists, grifters, the stage-struck, the bankrupt, the lighters-out. Good public order requires that we stay put and see things through, not float away on the hot air of daydreams, not abscond, but succumb to the gravity of our histories. To disappear is enticing but it’s dangerous. To give up your place, to break the entangling, sustaining webs of natural and acquired relations is like diving into the sea; the ocean can close over you in a second. To disappear can be noble, courageous, optimistic. But isn’t it also desperate to think that a limitless, unknown nothing will be better than a cramped, familiar something?

 

We were on the plane.

“We never actually talked.”

“I know.”

“Your parents are moving?”

“I know that too.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“Everything felt, I don’t know, so unsettled. I just didn’t think of it.”

“You should have.”

“People move. People move away, apart.”

“Or disappear. That’s true.”

“They’re only moving to Florida. Like your Uncle Richard.”

“I know.”

“Well, I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“On this plane, next to you.”

“If there’s a here here, then I’m here too.”

“Next to me.”

“Next to you.”

“Right.”

“So far.”

“So far.”

pencil

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. A new collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is forthcoming. E-mail: wexelblatt[at]verizon.net

In the Footsteps of Robert Running Bear

Ana’s Pick
Ron Arnold


Jimmy, my cousin, is lanky for a twelve-year-old, but not awkward. Once he clobbered a baseball so hard it sailed clear over the fence in the park. He always says, You’re a scrawny runt for ten. I’ve never hit a home run or come close. Our mothers like to dump us off at Grandpa’s farm on weekends ’cause it’s a convenient way to get rid of us. Whenever Aunt Betty sees me, she squeezes my cheek to put a dimple in it. Then Grandpa hangs onto both of them ’til I look like a bloodhound. I don’t like being called cute or being squeezed and poked, but I guess that’s the way relatives are.

Today Grandpa is riding the tractor to break up and turn over soil. Worms and bugs are everywhere. A swarm of seagulls has flown in from the coast and follows the tractor wherever it goes. The birds squawk and dive down to pick up the quivering insects in their beaks. A red pickup turns off the road and kicks up a stream of dust as it heads toward the barn. Grandpa stops the chugging tractor and climbs off. He says, “That must be Robert Running Bear.”

We walk across the field to greet him. Robert Running Bear has high cheekbones, a broad nose, long black hair, and the sunburnt complexion of an American Indian. Another Indian, Daniel Black Swan, starts loading sacks of Sweet Silver corn seed from a stall in the barn to the back of the pickup. Sweet Silver is Grandpa’s cash crop ’cause he can plant it in early spring and harvest it in the middle of July, which is a good three weeks before anybody else does. Robert Running Bear pulls his hair together in a ponytail and knots a leather band around it that has two feathers hanging down.

“Are those eagle feathers?” I ask.

“Eagle, no. Falcon, yes. Never the eagle! That is a sacred bird.”

“What’s so special about eagles?”

He studies me closely before speaking, “At one time the earth was covered by an immense, dark cloud. The eagle gathered the lightning during a storm and soared high into the sky and flew in a circle to form the sun. Then a lightning bolt came loose and spun off to form the moon. With its work done, the eagle glided back to earth and built a nest in the highest treetop.”

I imagine the bird gliding in triumph on wings turned gold by the sunshine.

Robert Running Bear goes over to help Daniel Black Swan load the sacks of corn.

Jimmy snickers.

“What are you laughing about?” I ask.

“That Indian is loco. Everyone knows eagles can’t fly that high.”

“He says they can.”

Jimmy scrapes a stick in the dirt. “My father told me Indians are drunks. He says most of them have a stash of liquor in their living room.”

“Robert Running Bear is not like that,” I insist.

“How do you know?”

“How do you know he isn’t?”

Jimmy throws dirt balls that splatter against the tires of the pickup. Grandpa shouts at him to stop and invites the Indians into the house for coffee. Only Robert Running Bear accepts the offer. Daniel Black Swan stands guard by the pickup and Jimmy sits outside on the porch. So I find myself in the kitchen with Grandpa and the Indian.

Grandpa tinkers with the coffee pot on the stove, “Tell him how you got your name.”

“It happened when I was fifteen,” says Robert Running Bear. “I was fishing with my older brother at a creek near our village. We were catching striped bass and cleaning them. I walked back up the path toward my home. That’s when I crossed paths with a crazed black bear.” He looks over my head as though he’s seeing something.

“The bear was crazy?” I blurt out. “How did you know?”

He looks into my eyes. “Most of the time they stand up and huff. That means leave them alone. Or sometimes they turn and tramp through the woods to get away. But this one was foaming at the mouth and charged toward me.”

Grandpa pours the coffee into several cups and sets a pitcher of cream and a jar of honey on the table.

“I tried to move out of the way,” explains Robert Running Bear, “before I could, it was towering over me.”

“Those bears out in the backwoods are really big,” says Grandpa. “I’ve seen them myself.”

“I left my hunting knife down by the creek.” The Indian sips his coffee. “Luckily, my elders taught me to keep a clear head in times of danger.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the round flint stone I used to sharpen the knife with. I delivered it like a hammer blow. I killed the bear right there. That day I became Robert Running Bear.”

I’m not sure whether to believe him, but he has a proud look on his face. He unbuttons his shirt and shows me the scars scratched across his chest.

I scramble outside to tell Jimmy. “Robert Running Bear was in a fight with a bear. I saw the claw marks on his chest.”

“It’s probably a knife mark from a barroom brawl.”

“There’s a lot of them.”

“He’s been to a lot of bars.”

“How can you say that?” I complain. “You don’t even know him.”

“My father told me what I need to know about Indians.”

“Your father doesn’t know Robert Running Bear.”

Jimmy walks over to a stack of tools and pulls one out. “Do I have to hit you over the head with this rake?”

“Why can’t you believe him?”

*

Summer seems to drag on except on rainy days when Jimmy asks Grandpa if we can play in Uncle Bucky’s room. Grandpa thinks we admire Uncle Bucky ’cause he has gone to Agriculture School and shows up at family gatherings sporting clean overalls and speaking in scientific lingo. But me and Jimmy like the room ’cause a trap door is hidden underneath the rug, allowing us to sneak outside by climbing down a wood ladder and scooting underneath the house. Sometimes Jimmy takes along a slingshot to shoot stones at squirrels. Lately, he has an urge to go snooping in the woods leading to Peterson’s house.

Last night’s rain has tailed off to a drizzle. Black pools of water dot the ground as we jog across an open field. “No trespassing” signs are posted on either side of Peterson’s gravel driveway. We ignore them and slip into the woods. The upper side of branches and leaves are wet but underneath the ground is dry. Jimmy tugs on the collar of my shirt and stops me.

“David,” he says, “You might not know this, but there are spooks in these woods from John Bonner’s graveyard.”

I creep forward. The closer we get to Peterson’s house, the more eerie it feels. We spot a fence that is at least ten feet high. My heart is racing faster than the clogging of a thoroughbred as I follow Jimmy. I see a pair of black eyes and a toothy grin behind the fence. Then a dog comes roaring out, snapping its fangs.

I scream and flee for my life. I stumble over a bush and fall into a big puddle.

Jimmy stands by the fence and laughs.

He torments me for weeks by calling me a coward and teasing me with wolf howls. He says that Peterson makes his living by breeding watchdogs for city folks stuck in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods and always keeps a pair around to scare suckers like me.

I can’t sleep for weeks, causing dark circles to form underneath my eyes.

One day, Grandpa shows us the vegetables growing on his farm. He can recognize each type by the shape of its leaves which he holds in his thick, leathery hands. He kneels down along a row and digs up a purple beet. I detect a sharp odor. He breaks open a pea pod. I can smell a sweet green flavor.

Then Jimmy charges toward me with a garden snake dangling from a stick.

“Argh!” I run away.

Jimmy doubles over with laughter and stomps the ground.

When Grandpa comes over, I hang my head and almost cry. I tell him I’ve been having nightmares about the dogs.

“Robert Running Bear might have a prescription for that,” says Grandpa. “We’ll call him this afternoon.” He picks a few ripe vegetables and puts them in a cardboard box. He tells me he’s going to play the role of a Good Samaritan and dole them out to the neighbors.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Because you can do something extra that is easy for you to do and in return they will help you. It makes you wealthy like having money in the bank.”

Our first stop is Grandpa’s next-door neighbor, Clara, who has brown hair rolled on top her head like a cinnamon bun. She talks to us while hanging up clothes on a rope strung from the back porch to a pole in the middle of the yard. She starts with a light syrupy gossip—Jean’s daughter has chicken pox. Becky is engaged to a boy in another town.—and ends up with a story at least six months old about the time the tractor rolled over onto Roy Tillman and crushed his leg. She lets us use her phone.

We call Robert Running Bear’s village. He has just come back from a hunting trip for white-tailed deer. Grandpa tells him about my situation and puts me on the phone.

“If you put a man into the right situation,” says Robert Running Bear, “like planting a seed in fertile soil, courage will sprout and grow.”

I doubt it.

*

Grandpa can’t resist doing a favor. So when Peterson asks for help taking the dogs to the vet, he can’t say No! I tell Grandpa that I’m scared. He says Peterson sometimes allows the dogs to stay in the house and eat dinner in the kitchen. They like spaghetti. I picture them sitting up at the table with a plate set in front of them. “Do they know how to use a knife and fork?”

Grandpa laughs in his easy way.

That Saturday Jimmy is nowhere around. I guess he died of fright and his ghost is looking over my shoulder as we walk on the driveway of crushed gravel which dips down and rises again. My hopes soar in a strange way. Maybe I’ll get along great with the dogs and handle them like a pro. I expect to see a break in the trees any moment. We round a bend. An old Chevy sits at the end of the driveway next to a pale yellow house. An oak tree with crooked branches reaches out for us from the front yard and an oval pond with a rock wall gazes upward at the lazy blue sky. I stand over the clear water and see goldfish wagging their tails and darting around. Grandpa knocks on the front door. Peterson has white hair like Grandpa’s, but a stern face. He looks mean enough to raise killer attack dogs. He lets us inside the house. I hear the dogs growling from their pen in the backyard.

When we walk out the back door, my spine tingles with fear from the sheer size of the dogs. Both are German shepherds with a blend of black and brown fur. Rex leans against the wire and stretches out to six feet in length. Sheba, the female, stands behind him and is slightly smaller. Peterson pulls Sheba out of the cage. They slip a muzzle over her snout and led her to the car. Next, Peterson grabs Rex by the collar and slowly walks the dog toward Grandpa. Grandpa tries to hold the dog still, but Rex twists out of his grip. As Peterson brings the muzzle to its face, his right hand, which is clenched into a fist, comes falling down and bops Rex on the nose. The dog recoils backwards like a stallion rearing up on its hind legs and knocks Peterson to the ground. The old man lies there motionless. Then with a fury born of a million years of instinct, the dog lunges at Grandpa. Grandpa falls to his knees and yells, “Go get help!”

I spin around and sprint like the devil. When I get into the house, I look back. Grandpa has slipped off his jacket and wrapped it around his forearm for protection, shielding himself from the dog’s gnashing fangs. I don’t know what to do. I can’t find a phone anywhere. I knock over a dining room chair on my way out the front door. I begin to run down the long driveway toward Clara’s house. I stop. My clothes are wet with sweat. What would Robert Running Bear do?

I turn around. I race back to the front yard and kneel by the pond. Water trickles over my hand as I pull out a flat rock from the wall. I hurry back through the house.

Grandpa is lying on his back. His jacket has been ripped to shreds and blood covers his face and shirt. The dog swirls madly above him.

I step outside and heave the rock like a shot put. “Grandpa!” The rock lands with a thud about two feet away.

Grandpa crawls on his back toward it. He wraps his hand around the rock.

I pray. Then I hear a clap of thunder and an ungodly squeal. It is over. I rush to Grandpa’s side. The dog has marbles for eyes and is crumpled into a ball. I take off my belt and wrap it around Grandpa’s bicep like he tells me to. His forearm is mangled. Peterson is still out cold. I calm down and run to Clara’s house for help.

*

In the hospital Grandpa has a white bandage covering his forearm. After two days, they are ready to let him go. He puts the arm into a sling and laughs, “The doctor says when they take this off, it’s going to be a real shiner.”

Back at the farm the Indians are in the field clearing the rows of corn with a combine. Robert Running Bear drives the machine while Daniel Black Swan and another Indian pick up stray ears of corn and toss them into the back. “Those are Good Samaritans,” says Grandpa. “That’s what they are. A group of Good Samaritans returning a favor.”

Robert Running Bear stops the combine and walks over. He plucks a falcon feather from his leather band. Then he ties a knot in my hair and tightens it around the quill. “From now on, you are David Running Dog.”

Grandpa smiles.

Jimmy stomps the ground in a rage. “I could have done that. I could have.” He looks in awe at Robert Running Bear and the other Indians.

They go back to work all sweaty and dirty.
pencil

“I am a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. My short stories have been published in the following magazines: The Funny Paper, Penny-A-Liner, Northwoods Journal, Creative With Words Publications, and Tale Spinners. I am also a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” E-mail: rraflw[at]aol.com

A Requiem for Javier

Ana’s Pick
Dave S. Shearer


Colin stood at the top of the bridge looking out over the bay in the moonlight. His dark hair flipped and fluttered and his jacket ripped loudly in the breeze. The bay stared back at him, a sea of living ink, churning and crawling in the night. Somewhere down below lay the body of his best friend Javier Ruiz. He had lain in a sunken grave for exactly one year to the day.

Colin stared at the water, watching the way the moonlight played off of the waves. He tried not to imagine the body of his friend beneath the water’s darkness, but the images came anyway. He saw a skeleton covered in barnacles, crabs scurrying back and forth across fish-eaten bones. He forced himself to push the image away and after a moment he saw Javier again as he had been, dark eyes shining within his deep olive complexion, handsome and bold, an image of youth and vigor. Colin looked back at the water. “There are worse places to be buried,” he supposed. “At least it’s quiet…”

Javi would have been nineteen three weeks before and Colin had gone to his mother’s house to see her. She had cried when she saw him, arms open wide to hug him as she greeted him at the front door. She had looked so much older than Colin had remembered her. Her hair was long and graying and deep lines had formed into her face. She had cried again when she brought his picture into the kitchen where Colin sat at the table eating banana bread. It was the same banana bread they had eaten as little children, when Javi called it ‘nana’ bread and his mother had always said that was just fine because her mother had taught her the recipe anyway. She continued to cry as she talked about her son and how talented he was at everything he put his mind to.

“He’s still out there Colin,” she said in her mild accent through her tears. “I know it Colin. My little chico is out there somewhere.” She cried until he felt shamefully exhausted and had excused himself. Unable to stomach anymore banana bread and powerless to ease a mother’s tears, he had kissed Mrs. Ruiz on the cheek and went back out the front, a hollow thud trailing him as he had closed the door behind him.

And so tonight on the anniversary of Javi’s death he had come out to the bridge. Earlier in the night there had been a fair amount of folks fishing or crabbing from behind the stone walls of the bridge’s sides. Colin had hung out and waited as the night saw them all disappear one by one until only he remained.

How many times had he and Javier stood there at the top of the world (or so it had always seemed)? He couldn’t remember. What he did remember was that first night, the night Javi had put in motion the cycle of events that had both bonded and broke them in the brotherhood of a secret shared.

It had started back in freshman year. Jake Standwill had told them a story that eventually turned into a dare. Jake was a small kid with glasses two times too big for his face, and a set of ears to match. His older brother was a senior and happened to be the source of Jake’s questionable information. Jake had told Colin, Javi, and a small group of other boys that a couple of varsity baseball players engaging in a hazing ritual had jumped from the Ponquogue Bridge where the Shinnecock Bay ran next to the ocean along Dune Road on the south shore of Long Island.

Jake said it was a hundred feet to the water from the top of the bridge. Colin doubted it, but since he had never measured it himself, nor knew anyone who had, he kept his mouth shut and listened to the story. Apparently one of the guys was nervous or something and he hit the water wrong when he jumped and he began to drown. Luckily, someone was there with some kind of boat and they were able to get him out of the water in time. He had almost died, at least that was what Jake had said, but Jake was a documented liar, so who really knew? It wasn’t like Colin was going to go ask one of the seniors or anything.

Javi had always been the type of kid to push his luck, jumping off five-foot ramps with his bike, picking fights with the older boys twice his size, and riding heavy waves at the ocean even on red flag days. Colin was always there with him, a disciple of poor judgment and lack of inhibition. He was Javi’s sidekick, his “mejor amigo,” as Javi always said himself. They had grown close over the years ever since they had first started playing together in grade school, and despite their differences in skin color they were like the closest of brothers. Colin had always admired Javi and sought to emulate him in every way he could.

Javi had told Jake that anyone could jump off that bridge if they only knew how to do it, and furthermore, that Javi could jump off that bridge himself with his eyes closed, (Colin supposed the latter part wasn’t as important as you would probably close your eyes anyway), so of course Jake had dared him to do it.

The next Friday, they had snuck out of Jake’s house where they were sleeping over, creeping quietly out the back door and hauling their bikes from the bushes where they had hid them earlier that day. The group was Javi, Jake, and Colin, as well as Timmy Waterson and Forest Mitchell, two other kids from their grade who they hung out with. They had ridden swiftly down south shore roadways under the lush May foliage of a blossoming Long Island summer. They peddled as if pulled by the tide, racing and laughing, whizzing through the spotlights of lonely streetlamps, their shadows struggling to keep up. At last they came to the bridge, rising above the water like a tremendous leviathan.

They parked their bikes at the foot of the bridge in the shadows of the thick reeds that grew along the shore and began to make their way up the bridge’s slope. The steep ascent quickly tired the boy’s legs and a few groans escaped their mouths as they hiked up the asphalt. At last they made it to the top, the air seeming to “open” more around them as they stood in the center of the road. They had left late enough that no one else was on the bridge. They were alone.

No one really thought that Javi was going to do it except maybe Javi himself. They figured he would chicken out and they would call him a ‘pussy’ and then they would sneak back home. Javi, however, seemed determined to make the night memorable. He walked to the stone wall at the side of the bridge and looked over. Forest joined him.

“Man, that’s high!” Forest exclaimed. He let out a long whistle.

Javi set his eyes out on the bay like Columbus looking upon the new world for the first time. He looked to Colin almost as if he were someone else, as if Colin had never seen him before in his life.

“You see?” asked Jake. “I told you it was crazy.”

Javi said nothing for a minute, then he turned around and looked at all of them and smiled. “Well, we didn’t come all the way up here to just turn back now,” he said.

Jake snorted. “Yeah right. You’re not going to do it,” he said.

Javi simply smiled and began to start taking off his shirt.

Jake saw that he intended to uphold the dare and began to get worried. “Javi, this is crazy,” said Jake, his voice sounding a little panicky.

“You shouldn’t have dared him,” said Colin, laughing.

The others besides Colin looked concerned. “Javi, I don’t think you should man…” said Timmy.

Forest murmured an agreement. Colin knew it was pointless. Although he was as worried for his friend’s life as much as the others, he had seen that look on Javi’s face before. There was no talking him out of this one.

Javi looked over at Colin. “Qué le hace piensa mi amigo?” he asked.

“I agree with Jake, I think you’re crazy,” said Colin in return.

Javi smirked and began to take off the rest of his clothes until he was standing in his boxer shorts. He climbed up and stood on top of the steel rail, looking towards the rough water.

At that moment a pair of headlights appeared at the base of the bridge and began to approach them quickly from the south. All five boys whipped their heads to see the oncoming car’s approach.

Jake looked back up at Javi, looking real scared now. “Javi, man, were going to get in trouble. C’mon get down,” he pleaded.

“Shut up Jake,” said Javi.

Colin was struck with an admiration for his friend he had known often before, whenever Javi looked in the face of danger and didn’t blink. It wasn’t natural, and you couldn’t help but marvel at the sight.

The driver of the car had seen them by now, the four boys crowded around Javi, standing on the bridge’s ledge in his underwear. The car’s tires screeched and the sound pierced the night like a piece of chalk drawn across a dry board.

“Oh no,” whispered Jake.

“I told you we’d get caught,” said Forest.

The car was close now, pulling to a stop a few feet away as the driver screamed at Javier through the open window, yelling at him, telling him not to jump.

Forest, Timmy, Jake and Colin looked up at Javi. He bent his knees again, and without any further hesitation, hopped over the ledge and into the empty night’s embrace. He dropped through the air like a falling icicle; hands at his sides, chin tucked, feet pointed. The other boys pushed to the rail and looked over the ledge to watch as Javi’s pencil dive plunged his body into the deep bay water. The sound of his entry into the waves was marked with a distant splash and the water heaved into the air as he penetrated the current.

“Oh my God!” shouted Jake.

“What the hell is going on?!” a voice shouted from behind them. A balding middle-aged man was running over from the purring car that was excreting smoky exhaust into the air above the road, the binding light from the headlamps briefly eclipsed as he passed in front of the vehicle. He joined the boys at the railing and put his head over the edge. “What are you boys doing?” he asked quickly.

They didn’t answer him. Colin had stood there biting the inside of his mouth, something he had done often throughout his whole life when he was nervous. They had held their breaths watching, waiting, and begging the waves with the silent voices of their minds for their friend’s fate.

Then, as their eyes squinted against the night, they watched Javi emerge miraculously from the water as he burst through the surface. As he propelled himself out of the depths of the bay they all cheered as Colin smiled, watching Javi start to paddle to the shore.

“Holy…” the middle-aged man said.

Colin laughed out loud.

The middle-aged man turned out to be an off-duty cop and after Javi was seen to be safe and sound he seemed to collect himself. He had gotten on a CB radio in his car and called in the incident to the precinct. They had stayed on the bridge as he told them to until two police cars showed up and brought them to the station house. Their parents were notified and one by one they showed up, hastily dressed with sleep still in their faces, angry and bewildered. Javi’s mom was the most angry. She had yelled at him in Spanish and yanked him out of the building by his hair. Colin remembered thinking to himself that none of them would ever forget that night.

And he was right. None of them ever did. Jake had squawked his mouth off about it and Javi was a superstar around school for a few weeks. Kids would come up and ask him if it was true, boys gushing with admiration and girls giggling and marveling at him. Javi played it cool but Colin knew that he like the attention.

Eventually the novelty wore off and the fascination began to die down. The weeks went by and everyone turned to the finals and the state regulated exams that were coming up. Before he had known it, Colin found the last day of school only a short week away. It was around that time that Javi had told Colin he wanted to do it again. They had been playing Playstation at Colin’s house when all of a sudden Javier had turned and told him out of the blue. Colin had asked him if he was serious. Javi had said yes, and that this time, he wanted Colin to do it with him.

They went alone a week later as the summer evenings wallowed in the moist thick of June, a sticky, clingy web of humidity. They jumped under a cloudy sky, starless, as if the heavens had taken the night off, impenetrable layers of fog covering the murky bay.

Colin remembered how scared he had been. How immense everything had seemed. He remembered feeling as if the whole world were rushing towards him, while at the same time realizing it was he that was rushing at the world. He understood at once after his feet had left the ledge why Javi had needed to do it again. It was utterly the greatest moment he had ever known in his life.

There had been no cars, no police, no angry parents that night. It had been just Colin and Javi, embracing life in a way neither of them had ever imagined, stunned that something as serious and foolish as the temptation of death could bring such surreal sensations. They had ridden home in silence and yet they had never felt such a strong bond in their friendship before.

They told no one else of that night. Not Jake, not Timmy, not Forest. No one. Nor of the other nights that followed. Every few months they would jump from the bridge, save the months from December to April, which they spent in agony waiting for the water to warm again. They harbored their dark secret together. The dangerous bond that ensnared them, their common obsession.

Senior year everything changed. Colin had gotten a part-time job at the video store in August and worked after school, so he wasn’t around during the week anymore. Javi played baseball through to the end of the summer and worked with his dad’s landscaping business on the weekends when school started. They compensated for their lack of availability by scheduling more frequent jumps, going every three or four weeks instead of months. It had been Javi’s idea. Javi had always been the one with the ideas. It wasn’t that Colin had been content to just follow him around all their lives; it was just that Javi was the type of guy who needed to be in charge. He needed to be the first one to think of something, the first to act. Yet as Colin found himself spending more time without him he began to feel an independence he had never felt before. It was not unlike the feeling of jumping from the bridge, free and uninhibited.

He also began to feel less of a thrill each time they went and something else too. Fear. A fear that he had not known before that fall. Fear that he would hurt himself and that he would get into trouble. Fear of things that had never mattered before and had all of a sudden become inexplicably important. He felt vulnerability, the weight of responsibility of adulthood creeping over him.

Javi seemed to not show the same feelings. He was as carefree as ever, relishing the jumps, untouched by the stresses of SATs and college planning as was Colin. He had started to drink and smoke weed on the weekends with a crew of other guys Colin didn’t really hang out with. Most of them were poor and came from some of the lower class families that lived in the town. They were dirt bags mostly, always getting into fights and doing drugs, some even dealing, and Colin had asked Javi what he saw in them, Javi had answered that they were fun guys and Colin just had never given them a chance.

Eventually Colin had started to feel like he and Javier had drifted apart. Javi began to skip school and get into trouble. He had two fist fights that fall for which he received a suspension each time. The principal had called Colin down to his office after the second time and asked him if he knew what was going on with his friend. Colin had told him the truth—that he honestly didn’t know.

Colin had asked Javi that same question two weeks later at the bridge as they parked their bikes. Colin had just gotten his mother’s old car the month before but they still rode their bikes, partly because the car made too much noise and partly because it was simply tradition.

Javi had looked at him angrily. “What are you talking about amigo?” he had asked.

“C’mon man,” said Colin. “You haven’t been yourself these past few months.”

Javi had looked away from him. He stared into the night as if searching for something, something hidden and elusive.

“I just want to have fun.” said Javi. “I don’t want to listen to stupid teachers and counselors who think they know all the answers. What do they know? What do you know? What does anyone know? You’re all so content living in your tight little white bread community. You’re all like a bunch of sheep, always just going along with the flock. You don’t know any other way to live!”

Colin looked at him strangely. He was confused. He had never heard Javi talk this way.

“I thought you were different Colin,” said Javier.

“I don’t understand,” said Colin.

“How could you. How could you understand how I feel? What do you know about me?” Javi had asked sharply.

“I’ve been your best friend for seventeen years!” shouted Colin. “I know you better than anyone!”

Javi looked away again, avoiding Colin’s eyes. He stepped to the railing, pulled himself up and closed his eyes. “I don’t even know myself anymore,” he said softly. He jumped off the bridge, and a moment later, Colin followed.

That night Colin had told him he wasn’t going to jump anymore. It was almost November and the water had been freezing. They wore wetsuits after September to keep from getting hypothermia and they peeled them off afterwards like snakes shedding their skins on the small rocky beach next to the bikes. Colin had told him as they peddled home.

At first Javi had said nothing, and then after a long silence he asked: “Why?”

“I don’t know…” said Colin. “It’s dangerous, and sooner or later one of us is going to get hurt. Besides it’s… it’s not the same anymore.”

Javi had not replied. They had peddled back to Colin’s house where they snuck back inside like usual, quiet as whispers in the breeze. They had lain awake for some time staring at the traces of moonlight across Colin’s bedroom walls, posters of the rock bands Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, and Glass Jaw looking down on them.

Finally Javier had whispered, “So that’s it huh?”

“Yeah…” Colin whispered back. “Are you mad?”

“No,” said Javi. “I guess I expected it.”

“Right,” said Colin.

Silence for a moment, and then: “Goodnight Javi.”

“Goodnight Colin.”

And so it had went. They had moved along separate paths after that night, their intimate bond broken. They rarely spoke, even at school. Javi had continued to act up and hang out with the wrong crowd. He failed his midterms and missed the SATs in November. Colin had continued to work at the video store, where he met Amy Hutchins a few weeks before Christmas.

Amy was very cute, with dark hair like his and beautiful hazel-brown eyes. She had a penchant for sarcasm and was every bit as high strung and energetic as he was laid back and unruffled. Somehow they made a perfect fit. She had a laugh that turned him soft each and every time he heard it. They had become friends and soon after began to date. After a few months they were calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend.

They took each other’s virginity on a bright Sunday afternoon on soft cotton sheets in Amy’s bedroom while her parents were shopping for a new T.V. Colin remembered feeling her warmth for the first time, drinking in her wonderful smell and the electric touch of her fingers on his bare skin. He remembered telling her he loved her and hearing her say it back. He remembered how amazing it felt to have someone tell you they loved you.

He had lost track of the months after that, his mind knowing only his new love and the rapidly approaching last day of high school. He had applied to NYU as an English major with the intention to write, maybe go into journalism or something like that. Amy would be going to school in the city as well to study environmental science so it seemed like the right decision. He had scored high on the SATs and was doing well in his classes. He had almost forgotten those nights at the bay when Javi had grabbed him one day after school. It had been the second week of June and the only thing standing between Colin and the start of summer were the Regents exams going on the next week.

“You missed my birthday man,” Javi had said. He was smiling.

“I called, but your mom said you were out,” said Colin.

“I know, she told me. I was just kidding,” said Javi. “So, what’s up man?”

“Not much,” said Colin. “How about you? I haven’t seen you in Chemistry…”

“Yeah, I’m going to flunk that class so I’m just not going to go. I’ll make it up over the summer.”

“What about college?”

“Well I figured I would take a semester or two off you know? Work with my dad maybe…”

“Oh,” said Colin. He had felt strangely awkward, as if they had just met for the first time instead of having known each other their whole lives.

“Listen,” said Javi. “I know what you said about never doing it again. But… I wanted to see if you would jump with me.”

“Are you serious?” asked Colin. “We haven’t done it in like six months. We’ve barely seen each other…”

“I know… It’s been eating at me man. I need to do it.”

“Javi, I don’t know…”

“C’mon!” Javi pleaded.

Colin had paused for a moment. “I can’t…” he said finally.

“Why not?” asked Javi. He looked hurt. Colin saw a weakness in him that was as foreign as a palm tree in Alaska. He had never seen Javi seem so needy.

“I don’t know,” said Colin. “I have so much to study for, and then there’s Amy… Besides how many times are we going to jump from that bridge…”

“You’ve changed man,” said Javi.

Colin looked at him for a minute, thinking about what he had said. Javi was right. Colin had changed. All that time he had been thinking it was only Javi that was different, but he realized he was different too. He made decisions for himself, and he really liked the feeling. He was happy with his life’s direction, happy that it had one. He felt like he was on the right track. A path all his own.

“We both have,” said Colin finally.

Javi nodded his head. There was another awkward silence and then finally he said. “Well, if you change your mind I’m going this Friday.”

“You shouldn’t go by yourself. What if something happens?”

“I had hoped I wouldn’t have to.”

“Why are you doing this?” asked Colin.

“Because I have to feel it again,” Javier had said. “It makes me forget everything for just a moment. When I’m falling, I don’t worry about school, or where I’m going when it ends, where I see myself in ten years.” He paused, and then said finally, shaking his head softly back and forth, “Because it makes me feel alive.” He walked away.

Colin never saw him again.

Up on the bridge, Colin pulled himself out of his memories and brought himself back to the present. The wind was blowing stronger now as the night deepened and he told himself the chill he felt on his spine was because of it. He looked again at the water.

They had searched for exactly three weeks when Javi never came back home. Volunteers from around town and relatives of Javi’s Colin had never even met had hunted the east end of the island for the boy. Colin remembered the news broadcasts and the flyers. He remembered the police asking him questions and how he had lied and how it made him feel dirty and sinful, as if the guilt of Javier’s disappearance lay on his shoulders. All the kids at school couldn’t stop talking about it, each and every day for three weeks. And when they finally had called off the search Colin had been there to see the unfortunate picture of Javi’s exhausted and mourning mother, screaming at the police for calling off the manhunt. He remembered how Javi’s father had pulled her away and swept her into the car, and then worst of all, had thanked Colin for all of his help before driving his hysterical wife back home.

Colin had found Javi’s bike a few days after the news broke. It had been stashed in the reeds beneath the bridge as they had always done. Taped to the handlebars had been the note. It was short and not made out to anyone in particular. Colin had felt a strange combination of anger and sadness beyond measure when he read it and he found himself crying and cursing as he ripped it to shreds and tossed it into the water. He had wondered how in the world Javi had gotten the cinderblock here on his bike, and how he had gotten it up the bridge for that matter. Colin had gathered the bike into the trunk of his car and driven it out to the dump the next day.

He had never told. He bore the secret partly as a mark of shame for the failings he attributed to himself in Javi’s death, partly because he didn’t want Javi’s mother to have to confront the darkness of the reality of her son’s suicide, and partly because he knew that Javi would have somehow liked it better this way. This had been their place. A place where the entire world had lain before them, where they could be anything, where nothing could touch them and they would live forever. Here they had been kings.

He paced along the sidewalk wondering how cold the water would be. Warm enough despite the wind’s chill he guessed, but it was hard to tell in June really. The temperature of the water could be fickle this time of year. It didn’t matter either way, freezing or not, he would find out soon enough.

He began to undress in the moonlight. He pushed back his thoughts of danger and injury. What he felt now was a sense of duty and honor. He had come alone. He thought that Amy might have understood enough to come, but as it had always been, it was Colin’s secret to bear. This was between him and Javi.

He stood at the rail as they had time and time before. “Hola mi amigo,” he whispered to the wind. “I’ve missed you man.”

He was in his underwear now, his body illuminated with a dull soft glow. He was fighting back tears, but now he just let them come, letting them run off his face like the surf off the rocks below, his cheeks themselves looking like polished stones in the moonlight.

He screamed into the night. “Why Javi? Why did everything have to change?!” He stood there, sobbing and shaking. “Why does everything always have to change?!” The salt of his tears mixed with that of the sea and the two danced together in the wind.

“I wish I’d been there Javi,” he cried. “I wish you could have just let it go. I wish we could have changed together. I wish…” His voice dropped, narrowly audible even to himself above the wind.

“I guess I owe you one last jump, mi amigo,” he said finally. In the end it had been what broke them, their bond of friendship that until one year ago had been timeless, and Colin was compelled to make it right, to make it whole again. He pulled himself onto the ledge as the wind tugged at him gently.

“Here I come brother,” he said softly.

As his feet left the rail he felt the water reach for him, welcoming him, and in later days he would always recall the feeling that someone was there with him, calling and laughing as he fell, seeing him safely all the way down as he plunged into the open arms of the sea.

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Dave S. Shearer is from Suffolk County in Long Island, New York. He is a graduate of Dowling College. His hobbies include fishing, martial arts, writing, painting, drinking cheap whiskey, scaring his cats, and hotly debating his friends on trivial matters. E-mail: davesshearer[at]hotmail.com

Over Heaven’s Hill

Ana’s Pick
Geraldine Walsh


I waited for you by the row of aspen trees that nestle along the curve of the road that leads into town, that shadow the mice scrambling to the woodland in the fiercest heat of summer and the deadening rain in fall. I waited for you to cross over the brow of Heaven’s Hill, the high road that is a bystander to annual soapbox races and yearly toboggan rides—weather permitted.

I remember the year we raced our toboggans down the dry cold snow, cheered on by the neighbours’ Australian shepherd that jumped in and around us, between the flashes of red and blue paint, screeching children, and flailing mitten strings. I remember how, like an inept canoeist, we would struggle to maintain our potency and presence as we hit the curve of the knoll and slid the concurrent fifty feet to the finish line, praised for our outstanding courage and grazed legs, greeted with homemade lemonade and makeshift veteran’s medals wedged onto a burnt wooden stand.

I waited by the hook of road under the one great oak tree that stood amidst the aspen kings, thinking I would glimpse your tousled hair and freckled skin edging over the top of the shimmering heat of Heaven’s Hill. The summer’s day warmth pierced my skin and dried my eyes, burning in the fervour of my youth as I stared into the sun over the knotted bank and listened to the crickets sing.

I waited by the groove of the knoll belonging to the road we would follow on a Sunday drive in your father’s pick-up, on an endless route as we took left turn after left turn to end up in the same place, exactly where we wanted to be. And as I waited for you, as you promised you would come, I remembered it was here you first held my hand, twisted daisies through my hair, and told me how you would marry me—some day.

I watched the black crow that played on the telephone cables above my head, feathers tinged with pink from the hard-hitting sun, mellow beak silently opening, closing, in flirtatious motions, almost whispering, telling me to cover my fair skin and shelter my voice as it cawed and circled my shadow below.

I waited for you, until the heat subsided and the cool air spun around my ankles as the night air fell on Heaven’s Hill. I waited under the sallow-scented trees, inhaling their peppercorn fragrance as the breezy moonlit air wrapped a plume of soft coolness on my bare shoulders. I waited for you because you said you would come.
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Geraldine works and lives in Dublin, Ireland, which she loves and never wants to leave. She has a BA in Engish and Greek and Roman Civilisation and is a qualified Librarian! She writes poetry, short stories and revels in flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Poetry Cemetery and is upcoming in Agenda Broadsheet No. 11. E-mail: ger.monks.walsh[at]gmail.com

Three Poems

Ana’s Pick
Brittany Ober


Dreams Below the Bowery

He licks the sweat right off my neck and bites
my ear on the dance floor. Nicholas shouts
over “Music is My Hot Hot Sex”
that he’s actually a song writer; his student gig
at NYU is for his parents’ kicks. He drags me
into the coat check and we hide
behind a pink trench and faux leopard
bomber. My tongue traces the letters
of his name on his stomach, and he pulls
a red corduroy coat off its hanger. Some bitch
with pink lipstick slurs high-pitched and wasted
into her phone and gives us a dirty glare,
so I grab Nick’s Razr out of his back pocket,
punch in my number and leave. He follows
me past the bouncers at the door
all the way back to my brownstone.
We pull each other up the three flights
and I fumble with the locks, only to crash
to the hardwood floor. His vodka breath
sloshes all over my lips, shoulders,
elbows. He mumbles he’ll write a song
about this tomorrow because ink pours straight
out of his pen when he’s hung over,
and for a minute I believe him.

 

Cars

I hear that people drive on the shoulders
in Boston during rush hour. No wonder
the cars get tired. How lucky they are
that they can slide between two straight lines
or six inches beside a curb and not be bothered
until the next ride. How sweet to glide
over bridges whirring to the sound
of your own engine, to count the miles
without bias, to be so quietly intimate
with a particular city, and to rest on streets
that never ask your name.

 

My Lover, the Subway

I got on the 7 train, but it stopped
in between Queens and Manhattan.
For years I sat on the orange-and-yellow plastic seats,
next to aging blue-collar immigrants, children stuck
on the way to school, and rich businessmen in slick suits.
We did not eat, our iPods died in three days,
and we did not sing. The underground put us to sleep
like euthanasia-ed patients.

Only I woke up years later
to find the train littered
with my lover’s needles. The 40-ton car,
now emaciated, stood bare steel bones and ash.
Frayed subway maps hinted
at a multi-colored schedule:
the 1-2-3 red, the 4-5-6 green,
and the A-C-E blue. The metro
coughed black-and-white smoke
and made way only for tangible remnants: overexposed
photographs, pencil scrawled
on lined notebook paper, spare change,
and dead watch batteries.

If a flood took over the underground
and water ran through the tunnels
for a hundred years in a row,
the soaked garbage would remain.
My lover will never get clean.
Banana peels, metro cards, used condoms,
and strands of human hair—these are the residents
of darkness that will not go away,
no matter if they rebuild the mosaic-ed halls
and vestibules, no matter how many people
go thru the turnstiles, or how many platforms
are swept by orange-vested workers of the MTA.
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Brittany Ober was born in Lititz, Pennsylvania. She holds a B.A. from Muhlenberg College in English and Art History. Her work has been published in Canteen. Brittany currently lives in New York and works in an art gallery in Chelsea. E-mail: brittanyober[at]gmail.com

Afternoon Performance

Ana’s Pick
Howard Waldman


Calistro’s day finally came. For weeks before Christmas, the paper magician had been everywhere at once, like a foretaste of his promised marvels. Wherever the patients found themselves—wonderfully vertical in the hydrotherapy pool, or maintained that way by hypertrophied triceps between parallel bars, or seated in the drab corridors down which they pushed or were pushed—they’d seen his imperious gaze beneath the words Calistro Bends the Laws of the Universe to His Will! Beneath scotch-taped plastic sprigs of holly,
posters all over the place announced the magician’s special afternoon performance.

It was an unlikely spot for magic. The Rehabilitation Center, a dark-brick five-story building, stood close to the river in a landscape of cracking-units, scrap heaps, and factories, largely disused. Those magnetic mountains of crushed cars deprived the patients of television. Most had few if any visitors. On Sundays, when the industrial haze thinned, those
whose gaze could reach the level of the windows often killed time by watching the tide push in and leak out past rusting freighters awaiting dismantlement. Weather permitting, they could make out the capital’s white towers, forty kilometers downstream, and enabled freighters heading for the sea.

Today, though, things beyond the nearby rusting freighters were blanked out with a sullen yellowish fog, like prelude to snow, unheard of at this latitude. Not even the juvenile patients dreamed of a possible white Christmas.

The big multi-functional room was used for rehabilitation on weekdays but today the gym mats had been rolled up and placed in a corner along with the weighted pulleys. A spotlight in the rear printed a full moon on the closed green curtains of the stage where the patients were often exhibited to medical students, their condition expounded in carefully incomprehensible
terms. On holiday weekends, as now, the stage sometimes offered live performances. On Sunday morning, a priest performed mass there. A novelty today was the antique Victrola standing on a table to one side of the curtains.

Jammed together, prone or seated, waiting for Calistro, the patients badly outnumbered the visitors chatting doggedly in their temporary wooden chairs next to the permanent chrome and leather ones. The strange cold and the yellow fog provided a precious topic.

Calistro was already twenty minutes late. With the exception of the fidgety children, half-believers in magic, the patients waited patiently for the magician to materialize. Patients in this place had to have patience, as the staff often told them evasively, not adding: a lifetime of patience.

But each time the door opened, patients lost patience and (if they could manage the movement) turned toward the door in faint hope of a particular visitor. Seconds later, most of them turned back to the closed green curtains. The ones seated near the windows returned to the unclear perspective outside, still hoping. Occasionally they saw a headlight blur quit the
fog-shrouded freeway and head for the Center. The car would slowly emerge, sometimes the right color for one of the patients but the wrong model, sometimes the right model for another patient but the wrong color. Sometimes one of the cars was the right color and model but the wrong man or woman got out.

Finally, an attendant drew the window curtains shut, depriving most of them of the world outside. Through the inch gap between the curtains, though, the better-placed patients managed to salvage a view of an empty sliver of the car park.

The young Activities Director stepped out from behind the green curtains into the spotlight, arms outstretched. Charley had a winning smile and an enviable build emphasized by a white sweatshirt. He thanked the audience for the fine turnout and announced a wonderful last minute addition to the program, a distinguished artist, famous for over a half-century on the music-hall stages of London, stepping out of retirement today just for us, you all know him (Charley paused and glanced at the card in his hand): Harry Lane!

A very old man with a cane slipped from between the curtains into the circle of light. He wore a striped jacket of antique cut, a flowing cravat, yellow spats on black pointy shoes and a cocky-angled straw hat. In his chalky makeup, his bright red lips were set in a smile. Charley invited the audience to give him a great big hand, which they did, within the limits of their possibilities.

The old man beamed. He blew kisses until the last ripple of applause died away. He collected himself, drew a deep breath, and then deflated into bewilderment. Finally, remembering, he walked stiffly to the Victrola with its flaring horn like a giant drab morning glory. A phantom orchestra struck up a jaunty tune.

The old man shuffled about and sang in a thin cracked voice that he hadn’t got pounds, hadn’t got pence, hadn’t got hounds, hadn’t much sense, but by jiminy, but by crickity, criminy, jickity, got me a girl, regular pearl, all my own, best I’ve known, name of Sue, forever true, Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

The tap dance that followed was like a feeble attempt to scrape filth off his soles. The children squirmed about restlessly. The creaks of their wheelchairs seemed to come from the old man’s joints. He tried to twirl the cane. It clattered to the stage. He bent down to recover it. The straw hat fell off his head, disclosing bumpy baldness between white fringes.

The children started laughing. The hat wobbled over the edge of the stage. A visitor recovered it. The old man gratefully took it back and crowned himself at the same cocky angle. The children laughed harder.

Sweat or tears trickled down his rifted cheeks. The adult patients hushed the children. The tinny music stopped. Puffing badly, the old man made it to the Victrola and put on a new disc. The flaring horn evoked a faint memory of a piano.

Back in the spotlight, the old man launched into the next song. He urged the audience to keep smiling, to make December May, to keep smiling for a smile will pay, to chase the gloom away, to keep smiling all the livelong day, not to mope, ’cause there’s always hope.

Just as he began urging again, the Victrola wound down and the music collapsed.

The old man too wound down. He stood there helplessly, slack-armed and blinking. The audience murmured in discomfort.

Charley bounded onto the stage, smiling, and linked his arm under the old man’s, thanking him in the name of all present for his fine performance. He overcame Harry Lane’s feeble resistance and hustled him out of sight behind the curtains. The audience could hear the old man’s pleas and Charley’s soothing voice. Finally, Charley returned to the spotlight. He removed the prompt card from his pocket.

“And now, friends, allow me to introduce a man celebrated in five continents for incredible feats, materializing objects out of nothing.”

A high mocking nasal voice behind the curtains cut him off: “Fraud. Out of nothing, nothing.”

Confused, Charley lost his place in the card and then resumed. “Able to defy chains, buried but resurrected.”

Again the scoffing hidden voice: “Illusion, machinery, mirrors, hoaxes.”

Charley tried to continue with his catalogue of marvels but the voice behind the curtain sabotaged each of the extravagant claims and ended by routing him off the stage. The audience creaked and murmured.

The curtain tugged open.

Calistro stood there, finally, in flesh and blood, white-gowned, before a large draped table bearing a black mantelpiece clock, two empty flowerpots, and what looked like a fortuneteller’s globe. From the posters the patients recognized the melodramatic shock of white hair above the commanding forehead, the aquiline nose, the masterful chin, the thin-lipped ironic mouth.

“Let there be no light,” the magician commanded in the high mocking voice that, seconds before, had disclaimed his vaunted exploits.

He pointed at the spotlight and there was darkness.

The clock started tick-tocking loudly. The fortuneteller’s globe began glowing yellow, stronger and stronger, like a private August sun in winter, blinding the spectators.

Calistro’s finger subdued the yellow glare. He turned to the audience. Saffron-hued, they participated marginally in the miracle.

“Hidden wires, they say. Charlatanism, deception, sleight of hand. Out of nothing, nothing, they say, but… but… what is this?”

A bouquet of roses materialized in Calistro’s right hand.

The audience forgot the painful fiasco of the ex-music-hall star. The real performance had begun. Accompanied by the ironic nasal patter, the prestidigitator’s swift hands contradicted the pretend skepticism of his words.

A white silk scarf turned red then yellow then blue and then vanished.

Juggled balls, too, changed color and vanished.

More things.

At 3:36 by the tick-tocking mantelpiece clock, the rear door opened for the seventh time since the beginning of the performance. Another late visitor negotiated the labyrinth of wheeled stretchers and chairs. Many turned about in stubborn hope. An attendant finally got up and locked the door, putting an end to the recurrent disturbance and to the recurrent hope.

At 3:47, a brawny volunteer attendant tested a chain. He wrapped it about the magician and padlocked him into paralysis. The fortuneteller’s globe turned blinding red. Even before they heard the jangle of the chain on the stage, the audience knew he’d be free for he was a professional escape artist. When vision returned, so he was, free, but with a bonus: the chain transformed into a garland of white roses about his feet.

The tick-tocking mantelpiece clock marked 4:03 when Calistro, standing behind the table, passed his hands above the empty flowerpots. The fortuneteller’s globe went out. After five seconds of darkness, light returned on full-bloomed azaleas, one red, one white, occupying the pots.

Calistro was acknowledging the applause when Harry Lane’s faint querulous voice started up.

Frowning, the magician turned to the left wing of the stage and snapped a few words.

The old man’s voice broke off and Calistro resumed with a quick-handed multiplication of coins, enhanced from copper to gold.

At one point, a flourish of his arm caused one of the coins to fall, perhaps out of his ample sleeve. It bounced off the stage and rolled under a weighted pulley.

At 4:26, the magician displayed a photograph of a bikinied girl. Paraplegics whistled. He shredded her, placed the fragments on the table, covered them with a shroud of white silk, executed a pass, and snatched the shroud away. She was whole again. Paraplegics cheered.

“And now, my friends—”

The magician’s solemn phrase broke off.

Harry Lane was back, this time visible to the spectators. He blew kisses at them. The children protested. They wanted magic. Why didn’t Calistro magically dematerialize the old man as he’d done to bouquets and scarves instead of negotiating his withdrawal?

Finally, the old man tottered off stage.

Calistro returned to his magic. But his authority was shaken. He got fewer exclamations of wonder as things came and went.

At 4:43, in a strange abdication of authority, Calistro pretended not to see what everybody saw, the old man hobbling toward the center of the stage. The magician began his routine of summoning an object into existence while proclaiming the impossibility of it.

This time, the object refused to materialize.

Confidence gone, the magician repeated his formula, reciting again “Out of nothing, nothing” just as the old man started piping the song about Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

Nothing came out of nothing. The spectators were humiliated for Calistro.

Harry Lane launched into the tap dance. He tripped up on himself, blundered against the table and collapsed into a sitting position, the straw hat shoved over his eyes. The jarred fortuneteller’s globe started pouring out a chaos of colors. The clock had suffered too. The loud tick-tock accelerated. The hands swept the dial faster and faster. The globe short-circuited into a white glare and died.

Darkness.

The globe started flickering deep violet as the furious tick-tock slowed and halted.

The funereal violet light revealed the two azaleas reduced from opulent bloom to black skeletons, a miracle in reverse.

The bikinied girl was in shreds again.

The garland of roses on the floor was back to chain.

Calistro stood contemplating his wrecked magic, drained of arrogance, slack-armed and blinking, like the old man at the collapse of his first performance.

Finally, the magician broke out of apathy and turned to the audience.

“No! Like all things, this can be undone, but you must assist me. Our united wills can achieve the thing. Will it!”

He raised his trembling hands towards the dead azaleas.

“I feel it coming, yes, stronger and stronger, your will coming and uniting with mine.”

A fountain of glittering dust took form above the table. The fortuneteller globe struggled out of mortuary violet, gathered strength in yellow, and culminated in blinding sunburst.

The clock returned to life, not tick-tock tick-tock but tock-tick tock-tick, in accelerating reversal.

When vision returned the spectators saw, O!, the last of the glittering dust settling on the azaleas, summoned back from death to glossy green and perfect bloom, settling on the nearly naked girl, whole again, settling on the reborn garland of roses, settling on the inert old man, settling on the wildly tock-ticking clock with its hands whirling counter to future.

Now the furious tock-tick backwards halted and then resumed as tick-tock at the normal petty pace, the hands creeping imperceptibly into the future.

Glittering with dust, the old man slowly rose to his feet as the orchestra started up from the giant morning glory horn of the Victrola, wound up by no visible hand, the scratchy century-old music miraculously updated, quadraphonic in fidelity now.

The old man repeated his earlier routine, enjoining smiles all the livelong day, but back to ancient competence, his body supple, his voice full and true, belying the furrows and wrinkles of his face. He leaped about the stage with incredible grace, defying gravity, no need for the buoyancy of the hydrotherapy pool. His cane twirled about faster and faster, a blurred propeller reinforcing his limber leaps. Won’t he take off, rise and hover above them, levitated like a Tibetan monk?

The music triumphantly climaxed.

The afternoon performance was over. The old man and the magician bowed to applause, bowed to greater than applause, the tribute of exalted faces, some tear-stained.

The green curtains began tugging shut when Harry Lane grasped Calistro’s arm and pointed at a curtained window with an inch gap, strangely white.

The attendant swept aside the curtains on the raging snowstorm, inconceivable at this latitude. Did the audience take it for a continuation of miracle? Just before the curtain hid him, Calistro converted his astonishment into an expression of brow-knitted power, raising his wonder-working hands, taking credit for the meteorological quirk.

The swirls of snow parted for an instant like ragged stage curtains.

The patients near the window thought they’d caught a glimpse of possibly the right car below.

If so, wasn’t it possible that the right person was just yards away, waiting outside the locked door?

After all those afternoon miracles, wasn’t that little thing possible?

The chairs pushed or were pushed into a metallic mass stalled before the door.

Waiting, a few patients noticed the coin that had fallen out of the magician’s ample sleeve and rolled under a weighted pulley.

In a few hours the cleaning woman would come to tidy up for tomorrow morning’s performance of mass. The priest, an irascible white-haired old man, had already complained about the Saturday afternoon disorder. She was sure to see the coin too. It was copper, hardly worth stooping to. But she was poor. It was predictable that she would kneel and pocket it.

The door opened.

The coin was forgotten.

The chairs and stretchers started moving toward that opening and what might possibly lie beyond it.
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Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in Verbsap, Gold Dust, Global Inner Visions, and other publications. He has published three novels with BeWrite Books: Back There (2005), Time Travail (2006) and The Seventh Candidate (2007). A fourth novel, Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die, came out in late 2007. E-mail: howard.waldman[at]orange.fr