Undertow by Eric E. Wallace

Candle-Ends
Shelley Carpenter


Undertow: Stories by Eric Wallace

Undertow: Stories by Eric E. Wallace

Eric E. Wallace’s short story collection, Undertow, is one of the best collections I have read. Eighteen stories filled with so much “story.” The writing flows with authority in its language and with characters so richly rounded, so soulful. They laugh and they cry. And they strip down and bare themselves, sometimes bleeding on the pages, beginning with the first story, “Jericho,” where Wallace introduces readers to a former musician who has lost his way. The story climaxes in a moment of true clarity:

The improvisations soon took Jericho far away. He closed his eyes and was swept through all the years he’d missed, the brightness his life could have been.

Jericho is a complex character touched by grace. A character who knows himself well and makes no excuses. Beware! He’s a heartbreaker. He teases the reader with hope and yet remains true to his nature no matter where his choices lead.

Wallace conducts his stories similar to his main character, Petrie, in “Maestro”—

like a master, teasing with unpredictable progressions … challenging with unusual key changes, turning dissonance into joyful surprise, interweaving melodies of grace and beauty.

Such gorgeous prose! The stories are so intriguing and so rich that I can honestly say that I do not have a single favorite among them—I have many favorites. That’s a rarity for me. Typically with short stories I might like one or two, yet this is not the case with Undertow. The stories pulled me in and stirred me much like the “undertow” of the title.

I usually space out time between stories to savor each experience and reflect, but on a few occasions I decided to read just one more. Moments after pondering Jericho’s fate I was introduced to Maddie, the cab driver from “Meter Running,” a “wordy” story that drove me to distraction with its punchy main character and quirky sidekick characters who come and go in Maddie’s cab. Maddie thinks deep thoughts, dolling out little acorns of wisdom while avoiding pedestrians and squirrels and indecision in her sharp little Prius cab. What a character! When I stepped out of her story, I had a moment of reader’s déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps Jericho from the last story had taken a ride with Maddie, too. Maybe off-script, when I wasn’t reading…

How many times have I sat in traffic waiting for a signal from the flag guy in the orange vest?  I met that guy, who has it all figured out, in a story called “Road Work” and then I read about another guy who is trapped, a wounded veteran who suffers from silent injuries. He sees perhaps the ghost of his future self in the “Long Road Home.” Other stories were wickedly funny. “Under the Hood” got me with the first line: “What was in the baby carriage?”

Wallace’s collection is also filed with couples—couples who are stalled like the composer and the mathematics professor, classy Edgar and Sylvia, with their snappy dialog and old-fashioned appeal, who, unlike the flagman, don’t have it figured out and who face some perilous situations in “Loch Ness Monsters.” And then there are those cozy young southern sweethearts in “Playing Doctor.” Carolee and Jiminy. They had me in the third paragraph: “She put one of her least favorite dolls down range, right there for Jiminy to shoot at with his twigs and rubber bands.” Then along comes a skunk and that changes everything…

The title story, “Undertow,” was all about setting and another couple whose story—I had the distinct feeling—would not end well for one or both of them. It gave me the jeepers.

A small white butterfly meandered over the opening. From underneath came a rush, a snarl, surging thunder. Fat, briny tendrils reached up, enmeshed the unwary creature, held it high in split-second triumph. Then the dark grasp of gravity dragged wave, foam and the insect into the slurping abyss.

Wallace’s technique is spot on. Eric Wallace’s stories made this reader fall in love with the short story form all over again.

*

Eric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. Eric’s work has been published in many journals and periodicals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The First Line, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Pol Journal, Rosebud Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Idaho Magazine, Toasted Cheese and more, in eight anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several international short story competitions. Eric’s full-length drama, Syd, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. His shorter plays were read in seven northwest cities. Of recent years, Eric has concentrated on writing short fiction. A second collection of Eric’s short stories, Hoar Frost, was recently published by BookLocker in September 2015 and a third collection is in the works. He is currently researching a psychological novel set in contemporary San Francisco. Eric is a member of the Idaho Writers Guild. He lives in Eagle, Idaho.

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

Rise Up Singing

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Eric E. Wallace


Deadly Listeria Food Poisoning: Who are at Risk?
Photo Credit: James Palinsad

Cheetah Kenyatta McGuire backstage: barefoot, in tattered harlot calico, the dress blue-black like bruises, a slash of red sash around her waist, minimal stage makeup on her striking face. She was standing a half-story up, the platform nudging the back of the flats. Reflective safety markers winked at her from the dimness. Cheetah, exotic and talented, knew all about receiving winks.

Something razored in her abdomen. She flinched, shifted her weight. Gritty boards grumbled beneath her, tried to sliver her bare feet.

Directly through the set-piece door, its inner dark edges haloed by house lights, was a fictive Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1925, and the tangled world of Porgy, of Bess, of Crown, of Sportin’ Life and all the others in Catfish Row.

Beyond, past the footlights, was today’s real Charleston, with a standing-room-only Spoleto Festival crowd ready to see and to hear opera’s brightest rising star.

For the last five years, Cheetah McGuire had been racing along a very fast track, a fire in her belly, a huge need to sing. Not for money, which now arrived steadily. Not for fame, which now had found her. She simply had to sing.

“The odd thing, my dear, is your humility.” Madame DeNice sipped a sherry. “Very rare in someone who’ll soon be a superstar.” Gwendolyn Nice had aimed for the top, fallen short, resurrected herself as a demanding teacher whose students likened her to Marchesi, Lehmann or Thebom.

The veranda was humid, the air heavy with honeysuckle. Cheetah fanned herself with a menu. “I have passion. Isn’t that enough?”

“Oh, it’s most important. I told you that the day I took you on. Yes, you have real passion. But success changes people. And in our world so much is hubris. I’m amazed you’ve held on to the essential you.” Madame DeNice smiled. Two beads of sweat slalomed down her powdered nose and jumped into her sherry.

Rain thrummed on the stagehouse roof. Cheetah heard a dull karumph of thunder. She thought of the cannons booming at Fort Sumter, out there in the bay, shots which led, through years of slaughter, to the end of slavery.

Her own lineage was not from Southern slaves. Cheetah’s genes came directly from modern East Africa. Kenyan mother, Irish-American father. Gentle Swahili dance ethnographer meets arrogant New York neurosurgeon. That was thunder too, tamed by love. Asante sana, Mama.

And all for what? Five days after Cheetah’s twenty-first birthday, Mwana Ongoro McGuire and Dr. Patrick Halloran McGuire, on holiday in Mombasa, were obliterated by a terrorist bomb. Instant nothingness. You can’t flee fate.

“We gave you the name Cheetah, so beautiful, so sleek, so fast,” her mother had often told her, “so you can outrun all the troubles of the world.”

“And have you? Outrun them?” asked Harald, curled beside her, the evening Chicago breeze snapping the hotel curtains in a lively foxtrot. Harald, his Nordic face paler than the moon, leisurely traced the long mauve scar plunging down her abdomen.

Cheetah arrested his hand. “That’s why I sing,” she whispered. “Tra-la. So nothing can catch me.”

“What’s this scar anyway, Cat?” Harald’s insistent finger slid along the thin ridge of imperfection. “Something pretty major?”

“A Central Park slasher. Druggie running crazy. I was saved by a policeman. On a big horse. Entered right on cue, my knight in blue wool. But now I can’t remember his name. Officer, Officer… Krupke or something.”

Cheetah giggled and hummed Bernstein. But her thoughts, not of blue knights, were of dark nights, of the deep scars of memory.

The rain grew frantic. The storm hadn’t deterred the audience. Over the orchestra’s tuning, the antiphonal coughing, the raincoats rustling, the umbrellas sighing to the floor, Cheetah could hear the soft surge of collective breathing. It heaved in anticipation. No one wanted to miss hearing Cheetah McGuire.

“A voice of honey, charged with lightning,” one critic wrote. “Astonishing range,” said another. “Every note is astounding.”

Natural talent was one thing. But finding the right teacher had taken time, and the years of studio work were increasingly arduous, the intense focus cruelly demanding. Madame DeNice cajoled, bullied, challenged, pushed harder and harder, a tyrant, a demon.

Cheetah stuck it out, above all wanting to honor her parents. Her Puccini recital was a triumph. Even if the audience consisted mostly of her fellow students.

Cheetah’s voice was fiercely operatic, dramatic and lyrical. Tinged with spiritual quirkiness and gospel fervor. Husky with jazz. Edged with shared sadness, loss and love.

“God, girl, have you got it!” Amalie Root raised her champagne glass. Amalie had become Cheetah’s best friend. They were celebrating at a rare party at Madame DeNice’s Brooklyn studio. “What amazes me, is it hasn’t gone to your head.”

“Not yet, anyway,” laughed Cheetah. She hoped it never would, remembering her mother’s quiet grace. Mwana radiated confidence, never displayed conceit.

And now plump and genial Amalie—a perfect second soprano ready to bring Serena to life—was meditating down there in the wings, gaudy turban on her head, bulky handbag clasped to her bosom. Having a friend in the show was wonderful, especially on such a long tour. Especially with so much to confide.

“That jerk is back again?” Amalie banged her cup on the table. The coffee spilled through the iron fretwork and dripped onto her knees. “Shit.” She dabbed with a paper napkin. “Shit. And that applies to LeBraun too. Girl, he only comes around because you’re tasting fame.”

Amalie reached for another donut. This week Porgy and Bess was jazzing up New Orleans. Perfect time for a beignet binge at the Café Du Monde.

Cheetah exhaled a cloud of powdered sugar. “God, this stuff could kill my high notes. But it’s divine. Look, LeBraun’s a—a sometime thing.”

“That sounds like a song with very crappy lyrics. What about Harald?”

“Harald’s sweet.” Cheetah moistened a finger and rubbed it around the sugared plate. A horse-drawn carriage clop-clattered by in the street, jingling.

“Yeah, sweet on you. The boy’s a genius. Best damn lighting designer anywhere. How he treats you with those special spotlights is amazing. It’s gotta be love. But that LeBraun…”

“He’s been good to me, Am. I like his no-nonsense approach to life.”

“You call a criminal career ‘no-nonsense’?”

Cheetah smiled, unbaited. “I don’t think he’s a criminal. Just a wheeler-dealer. A fast track kind of guy. Power in a man appeals to me.”

“Well, I can’t seem to keep a man of any kind. So what do I know?” Amalie sipped her coffee and made a face.

The sour stink of Mississippi mud blew from the levee. Cheetah, her fingers reaching for another beignet, sat back, wrinkling her nose.

Waiting on her platform, Cheetah could smell dust as old as the grand old city of Charleston itself. Damp. Wet ropes. Lubricating oil. Something electric. Greasepaint. Talcum. Thrusting through that mélange, pulling at her, was a fragrant ray of jasmine.

Gardenias, hidden, filled the cemetery with sweet overtones. The air was oversopped with humidity, the sky painfully dazzling. Harald led Cheetah between the headstones, his slight limp oddly endearing.

“See who I found!”

The small gray marker was half-hidden by a sagging rosebush. Cheetah blinked through sweat and looked at the inscription. It took her a moment before she remembered it was DuBose Heyward’s novel which inspired Gershwin to write Porgy and Bess.

“Oh,” she said. “Buried right here in Charleston. And we’ll be performing…”

“…very near this spot. Neat, huh?”

Cheetah let him enjoy his moment. She sought out a bench. “Look, Harald, I came with you because I thought we needed a quiet place to talk. Same subject as Atlanta.”

“Oh, yeah, that subject. Well, no place quieter than a graveyard.” He studied two crows wheeling above an ancient magnolia.

“We’ve had a very good run,” she said. “Us, I mean. But…”

“You sound like a producer. God, Cat. What’s changed things? Him?”

“You mean LeBraun?”

“Not that jerk. Your new skinny mulatto.” Harald kicked at the base of a crumbling tombstone. It moved slightly, grating. Harald recoiled.

Cheetah watched, not really focusing. “Who? Palmtree?”

“‘Palmtree’? You gotta be kidding. What kind of a name is…?” Harald tried to adjust the tombstone. The crows chided.

So Harald had seen her conferring with her latest dealer. Hookups on a tour were fast. The Diva Drug Network. Sing for your needs. No waiting. Who knew the guy’s real name, but he went by Palmtree. Not her type. No way. Christ, he talked to himself in Gullah. Missing a chunk of one ear. Downright odd. And he was a drug dealer, for God’s sake. Next to that even LeBraun’s shady operations seemed okay.

But suddenly Cheetah realized how Palmtree could be of additional use.

“I love you, Cat. I really do.” Harald stood over her with the sun behind him. He was throwing a protective shadow on her face. But forcing her to look at him to avoid squinting. He knew his lighting.

She squinted anyway, grimaced. “Palmtree’s only, oh, symptomatic. Something has just… slipped for me,” she said. “I didn’t plan it. We can’t go on. You should find a woman who’s a lot more stable than I am. You’re a great guy, Harald, but I’m sorry. I don’t… I’m so sorry.”

Harald slumped. His shadow fled. The sun’s angry glare hit Cheetah full in the face. But it was Harald who was blinded. By her lies.

A red light blinked. Cheetah looked down and saw the assistant stage manager giving her the one minute signal. She acknowledged it with a half-salute, belatedly remembering that was part of her father’s collection of mocking gestures.

Harald leaned over the onstage lighting console, adjusting something. He turned, looked up. Cheetah saw confusion, pain.

The old rehearsal theater in Queens reeked of Pine-Sol. Someone had tried to mask the mustiness. Cheetah’s nose twitched. Maybe this will improve my vibrato.

“Can you hold it right there, Miss McGuire?” A voice from above.

She shielded her eyes. A white oval peered down from the darkness. Were those freckles? Eyeglasses twinkled two stars toward her.

“Call me Cheetah.” She virtually sang the words. How else do you respond to heaven?

A few moments later he limped along the stage. “I’m Harald Thorpe. Lighting designer. The union doesn’t want me up there, but I need those viewpoints.”

Cheetah smiled. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

His blush was charming. “Sorry this preliminary stuff’s taking so long. I’ve got new ideas, and I’m pretty fussy about my lighting.”

“That’s okay. I’m pretty fussy about my singing. We don’t want to take this show on the road until everything’s perfect.”

She also liked his shy smile.

A wave of discomfort surged in Cheetah’s abdomen, tumbling sharp-edged surfboards through her gut. She felt like going back to her dressing room. Can’t. Mustn’t. She fingered the small envelope tucked in her dress pocket.

The pain eased. She watched Ziggy Canton wheelchairing from his post at the stage door, skillfully negotiating between the prop tables. Ziggy’s large-headed cat, Barrymore, strutted behind the wheels. That cat knew he was lord of the theater.

Cheetah half-smiled, thinking of yesterday, when LeBraun encountered Barrymore in the theater alley.

It was no contest. Tomcat one, macho man zero. Who’d have known her sometime guy was severely allergic to cats? Sneezing and scratching, LeBraun stumbled up the alley. Cheetah ran after him.

“How come you can be around me?” she asked, resisting the urge to purr.

LeBraun, still twitching, reached for her. “You I can tame.”

Cheetah stepped back. “Don’t be so sure.”

A trumpet player took a last showy staccato gallop up a scale. The pianist countered with a honky-tonk riff. Sweat ran down Cheetah’s arms. She felt it sneaking between her breasts.

And now nerves. Waiting to go on, she was nervous. That didn’t compute. Usually she had incredible coolness. One of her strengths. But tonight she had the jitters. Side effects?

“I love the effects you create. Your lighting is magical.” Cheetah had bumped into the lighting guy on the subway platform after a rehearsal. Hal. No, Harald.

Soft pinks and reds washed over his face. “That’s a great compliment, coming from you. But it’s your voice that’s magical. It’s pure synesthesia for me, so full of light and color.” He blushed again.

They talked about singing, about art. A Manhattan train hissed into the station. They sat together. Harald enthused about light in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Cheetah said she liked Hopper. Harald blurted out an invitation. A retrospective at MOMA.

“Why not?” Cheetah was startled, but pleased. As usual LeBraun was off somewhere. Probably catting around. He had no real hold on her. Besides, this was just two professionals sharing a passion.

Passion. Who knew dry old Eddie Hopper could start such things? And so quickly.

After they left the exhibit, they strolled up West 53rd, eating spumoni.

Harald surprised her again. “You’re seeing someone, right?” he asked. “The big guy who shows up now and then? Or is he your uncle?” Spumoni dripped onto his shirt.

Cheetah laughed. “LeBraun? Not my uncle, no. Hard to describe. He travels a lot. We sometimes see each other. It’s an on-again, off-again thing.”

Harald seemed to glow in the early evening sun. “Well, how’d you feel if I took the off times?”

Cheetah’s smile melted the rest of the ice cream.

The stage manager signaled some kind of hold. Too much waiting. Too much thinking time. Too much need. Cheetah reached into her pocket, worked a tablet from the envelope. She snapped it in two, palmed half, brought it to her mouth, swallowed it with saliva.

Morphine was her friend, her ally. But it meant she needed more and more willpower to keep the singing right. Tonight, the last performance of the tour, her singing had to be good. No, it had to be exceptional.

She saw one of the field hands practicing twirls and leaps, light as cotton.

“You move like a dancer, Cat.” Harald watched Cheetah step through the tall grass of the headland. They were hiking on Angel Island. San Francisco shimmered across the silvered bay. A city not easily wowed. But it had taken to Cheetah McGuire.

“My mother’s influence. Dance was her life.”

They sat on a clovered knoll. Cheetah talked about Mwana’s poise and charm. Patrick’s overabundance of surgeon ego. Harald laughed.

When she told him how her parents died, he fell silent. “Strange to say,” he finally murmured, “but I envy you. Instant death. And at a great remove.” He leaned against her. “Your grief must have been terrible. But up close, death is even worse. When I was fourteen, I watched my grandmother dying. Five weeks in a gloomy back bedroom. I still hear her wheezing, her spitting. Still remember the smells.”

A small white butterfly meandered near his head. “Later I had to leave college to nurse my mother. A really vicious cancer. Went to her brain. She hung on for months. You watch those you love dying, you go crazy. Never, never again. I prefer to embrace life. Hang on to beauty, to light.”

The warm air breathed eucalyptus and pine. Cheetah slipped an arm around him. I could love this man.

She watched two stagehands conferring over a cue sheet. James Jimson, playing Porgy, practiced his shuffling crippled walk. Billy Royale, Crown, was intent on deep knee bends. Billy reminded her of LeBraun. Large, burly, radiating assurance. But LeBraun didn’t have Billy’s sensitivity. Or his luscious baritone voice. LeBraun spoke in a craggy-edged bass.

“You hidin’ any of them leopard spots down here, Cheetah-gal?” LeBraun snuffled around under the sheets. “I knows you gotta have spots. Them wild cats always does.” Cheetah laughed and tried to pull him up. She liked his playful side. When it didn’t veer into something rougher.

They met at a party in Soho. LeBraun Dixon overwhelmed her with confidence, expensive cologne and a prizewinning smile. Not my type. But there was a hole in her life and he could fill it. Beauty and the businessman.

“What business?” she asked. Apparently LeBraun traveled a lot.

“Buyin’ and sellin’, sellin’ and buyin’.” What more you need to know, Baby?” Cheetah thought if he’d had a trained voice he’d have been perfect playing Mephistopheles in Faust. Devil in more ways than one.

LeBraun’s travels meant his path sometimes crisscrossed with Cheetah’s touring schedule. He showed up in in Anchorage, of all places. What can he have to sell to Eskimos? They snuggled high in one of the towers at the Captain Cook, winter lights twinkling below.

Whiskey betrayed him, and he spoke too longingly about a woman in Seattle. He knew he’d been caught.

“Sure, I’m cheatin’ on you. Takes a Cheetah to know one, don’t it?” Big deep laugh wrapped in that incredible smile. “But I always comes back to you, Baby, don’t I?”

And so he did, even after she’d begun seeing Harald. She didn’t always accept LeBraun’s surprise returns, but she couldn’t seem to send him away forever. All that focus on perfecting her singing, she’d never found time to master the rest of her life.

Cheetah’s abdomen burned. She tried to ignore it, thought about the audience. LeBraun should be sitting in the theater, freshly-arrived from Godknowswhere. He’d easily commandeered a ticket to the sold-out Spoleto performance, likely making some scalper very happy. Or scaring him to death.

Another awaiting her entrance: Madame DeNice, who broke down and cried when Cheetah had phoned to say the festival tickets, hotel and air were all taken care of. Who’d have guessed her tyrannical old teacher was so sentimental? Or so fond of hotel sherry?

And someone else should be there. Cheetah peered through a small opening in a flat. In the front row, tall and gangly, sat Palmtree, muttering to himself. He was in full drug-dealer-at-the-opera regalia. White dinner jacket, orange tropical shirt, purple cummerbund. His mauled ear was accented with an emerald stud.

“You wants what, gal?” Palmtree had slipped Cheetah the envelope and was ready to split.

“I’ll get you a great seat. You might even like the show.”

“It ain’t dat. I dig opera. Shit, don’t look so shocked. But comin’ on sweet for you, I dunno. You ain’t no conkywine for dis bruddah. I goes for w’ite meat.”

Cheetah squinted up the alley. The light was overbright, searing. The stage door swung into the glimmering heat. Harald came out and turned in their direction. Cheetah pulled Palmtree close, whispering in his good ear.

“A cash proposition, nothing else. Fifty more if you hug me tight right now.”

Palmtree shrugged and hugged her hard, sliding a knowing hand along her bottom. He stank of cigarettes and barbecue sauce. Cheetah heard Harald limping toward them. He stopped, shuffled, limped the other way. The footsteps receded. Palmtree gave Cheetah’s bottom a bonus squeeze. Yeah, white meat indeed.

The house lights dimmed, hushing the audience. The stage lights came up. Catfish Row burst into action. Cheetah sensed the conductor’s arms rising, felt his downbeat. Her heart leapt to synchronize.

The rain tried to drum in counterpoint to Gershwin’s orchestral roughhousing, failed, faded.

Cheetah loved Gershwin, loved his genius at fusing many types of music. What a waste, she thought, dying so young. Dying of a brain tumor. Wait! Dr. McGuire can save him! But who can save the doctor? Focus, focus.

A smoke-sultry clarinet solo began putting the brakes on the musical helter-skelter.

Cheetah straightened. Shook her shoulders. Took a breath. Opened the door and stepped out, now Bess through and through.

She stood on a landing, awash in light and warmth. On the rickety steps just below sat Clara, slowly rocking her baby. Every performance Melissa Stuart tried not to give Cheetah a ‘you stole my solo’ look. Tonight Mel turned to the baby a moment too late. If eyes could set fires, Cheetah thought, the swaddled bundle would be furiously ablaze.

“I can’t take the first solo from Mel. It belongs to Clara, not to Bess. Not to me.”

Dirk d’Angelo ran his fingers through thick silvered hair. Bottle assist.

“Look, sure, Cheetah. Until you came along, Clara would have sung it. And Porgy would have been my production’s main focus. Status quo show.” Dirk fondled one of his Tony medallions. “But art needs to be organic. If I don’t let your magnificent Bess rule the roost, George and Ira Gershwin will scream in their graves. Hell, their ghosts will chase me down Broadway. Get me run over by a taxi.”

He took Cheetah by the shoulders. None too gently. “Cheetah, kid, you were made for Bess. “Summertime” is your ticket to the Met, La Scala, wherever you wanna go.”

She pulled back. “I just wish we could make it up to Melissa.” Does ambition need to be cutthroat?

Slow chords, punctuated by bells and piano. The frantic syncopations of Catfish Row gave way to an amble. A tiny new spotlight found Bess, caressed her.

Cheetah smiled wistfully at the baby, turned, lost elsewhere. She gazed towards an imaginary sky.

Those who knew the opera expected a simple lullaby. But from the start, Cheetah’s singing was different. Every note, every syllable, was also about: yearning.

“Sum-mer-time…”

Cheetah held each of the three notes for a long time, the last forever.

“How long have I got?”

“I can’t say for sure.” Marion Stein looked more haggard than usual. A piece of straw hung from her hair. Romp in the hay? Cheetah was amazed at being distracted, calm. Even flip. She decided her subconscious had always expected this moment. Remission isn’t cure.

Dr. Stein searched for the right words. Cheetah’s heart went out to her. The living have to bear so much more than the dead.

Stein sighed heavily. The straw fell onto her desk, the thin golden arrow pointing to a plastic model of the female organs. Bullseye.

Six years ago the news had seemed more devastating. Young women weren’t supposed to have late stage ovarian cancer. Cheetah had just won her Met Regionals and was ready to compete in the majors.

She dropped out of everything. Suffered two tough surgeries. Endured interminable sessions of harsh chemotherapy. Braved fatiguing attempts to stay in shape.

She struggled to hang on to her music despite the pain, the nausea, and especially the fear. You lose both your parents in a bizarre tragedy. A few years later your own life is in extreme jeopardy. Why did these things happen?

At the end of the treatments, the oncologists were guardedly optimistic. They put Cheetah in the ‘five years and watch’ category. She charged back into singing. With the help of Madame DeNice, she sang at major recitals, got the attention of the critics, snagged better and better roles in regional opera and last fall easily won the role of Bess in Dirk d’Angelo’s revival of Porgy and Bess. Few knew of her fight. Of the threat hanging over her. She tried hard to forget it herself.

Five triumphant years, each even better than the last.

Cheetah looked past the audience. Harald’s lighting gave her an unusual radiance.

“…and the living is easy…”

“How long?”

Dr. Stein looked directly at her. Hazel eyes. I never noticed. “Two to five months. I’m very sorry.”

“Months? That’s it?”

“Barring intervention from the God you said you didn’t believe in. Or has that changed?”

“No, that hasn’t changed. Can I keep singing?”

The doctor was startled. “Well, the meds and so on…”

“What meds?”

“You’ll need drugs to make you more comfortable.”

Cheetah felt a frightening clarity. “And they’ll interfere? With my singing?”

“Some might. Yes. In these cases—”

“What if I want to keep going? At least through this tour?”

Dr. Stein saw the determination. “How much longer?”

“Memphis. Atlanta. Then the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Another two months.”

“I can give you pain killers which shouldn’t make you too loopy. We can at least try.”

As Cheetah turned toward Clara and the infant, she ignored the shredder running somewhere deep inside. Palmtree’s little envelope sang from her pocket. She’d take another fix as soon as she went offstage. Something extra Marion Stein couldn’t legally offer.

“…so hush little baby…”

There were times when she needed to hold Harald so tightly. Not only for her own sake. Harald needed comfort and she wanted to give it. But he surprised her.

One free evening in San Francisco they were wandering through the rambling grounds of the Presidio. The warm air whispered of juniper, roses, the Pacific.

They stopped to look at long rows of headstones gleaming in the lingering sunset. Harald told her he wanted to share something.

He said that despite being so close to death in his youth, soon afterwards he began visiting old cemeteries. He found them beautiful. He liked to read the inscriptions, touch the relative permanence of old stone, learn to respect the value of memory.

And cemeteries were places where the interplay of sun and shadow, of branches and breezes, made the light seem hallowed, even inspiring.

“So one day you’ll visit me in some cemetery?” Cheetah asked. “And be inspired?”

“Oh, Cat,” he said. “You already inspire me. You’ll be singing long after I’m gone.”

Cheetah saw the Golden Gate Bridge through tall stands of windblown evergreens. Its lights danced like fireflies.

All of Catfish Row was watching Bess, every face absorbed. Cheetah remained stationary. She didn’t need to move. Her voice held everyone.

“…you’ll spread your wings…”

So easy to jump. Cheetah stared down from the open hotel window, saw the manic rush and tumble of the city. But she heard nothing at all. New York was silent. Silent, waiting.

She remembered the day she’d learned of the Kenya bombings, her mother and father simply gone, their immense vitality no more, their huge presence in her life abruptly removed. For weeks, numbness trumped horror. And then the dreams came.

Somehow she’d risen again, nurtured her talent, found great focus.

Then the devastating cancer diagnosis. She’d fought back a second time, found artistic success. But now…

“Huzuni kwenda.” In the silence, she heard her mother’s voice. “Sorrow will pass.”

Cheetah remembered her father taking them to Ireland. They visited his mother’s modest grave in a small country churchyard. Afterwards, Patrick hoisted Cheetah up and perched his spindly seven-year-old atop a wall of ancient stacked stones. He gazed for a long time at the unending fields of green, then cleared his throat, quickly tucked his emotions into his pocket along with his monogrammed gold silk handkerchief. Grief will pass.

Cheetah collapsed on a couch, let go, and cried and cried.

As she pulled the last Kleenex from the fancy enameled box, she noticed the pile of wadded tissues on the floor. Laughed. Jeez, I cried this out six years ago.

How ironic, she thought. The fire which had driven her, pushed her to success, was to be the fire which would kill her. But not until I’m ready.

She drank some water, settled herself, and returned a phone call. She told them she wasn’t available. But she had a suggestion.

“Her name’s Melissa Stuart, spelled u-a-r-t. Luscious soprano voice. Sings Clara with us. She’s fantastic. Audition her and you’ll love her. Dirk will second the motion. But can you keep it a secret who recommended her?”

Cheetah put down the phone. No more recitals. No Mimi at Santa Fe. No Aida at the Met. No international tours. But Bess would thrive for a few more weeks in the South. Bess would sing her heart out.

The clamor of the city returned. Cheetah closed the window. Her mother’s lilting voice came to her again. “Si kitu kukuumiza…”

“…Nothing can harm you…”

Cheetah was more than halfway through the song. She was drenched. Harald’s lighting seemed more intense. It was burning her up.

“What’s really killing me…” Cheetah stopped and laughed. Amalie gulped at her second mint julep. Cheetah touched her friend’s arm.

“You’re a wonderfully-strong person, Am. I love you for it. What’s really got me is Harald. I haven’t told him. I can’t. I’m not sure the poor guy can handle it. I don’t think he should stick around to watch me dying.”

Amalie’s makeup had dribbled, settled around her chin. She jerked at a napkin and blotted her face.

They were in Atlanta. An Italian restaurant at Peachtree and Peachtree. Everything’s peachy. Except.

“If I can make him back off, if we’re no longer close, it could be easier for him.”

“Don’t do that. Quit the tour right now.” Amalie tore savagely at a piece of mint. “Run away with him. To Paris. Love him for every second remaining.”

“Sounds very operatic.” Cheetah got the giggles. “But the soprano always dies in the last act.” She shook with laughter. “Opera houses are littered with dead sopranos.”

Amalie’s smile was bleak. “Yeah, but those divas get up for curtain calls and maybe a bunch of flowers.” She crumpled. “God, Cheetah.”

“No. No running away. Harald will be fine. I’ll figure something out, Am. But for sure, I’m going to sing and sing and… well, just sing.”

“Hush little baby… don’t you cry.”

Cheetah’s last syllable hovered. Hovered. Hovered, slowly fading. The orchestra’s final notes trailed.

Gershwin intended the piece to end there. Gently rock the baby, receive the applause. On with the show.

But this was Cheetah’s song, her moment, and she still had a final gift for her listeners, one more moment of beauty to savor and share.

Before the audience, still silent, enraptured, could interrupt, Cheetah McGuire breathed deeply, straightened, sang unaccompanied. As though she had all the time in the world.

“Summertime.”

That one word, pure, evocative, so languid it stretched toward the eternal, curled round the theater like lazy blue smoke, like aching desire, like a beautiful creature loping along with infinite grace, leaving every trouble far behind.

pencilEric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. His work has been published in Alaska Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rosebud, The First Line, Writers Digest and many other periodicals, in six anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several short story competitions. His short story “Cell Block” appears in the June 2014 issue of Toasted Cheese. A collection of his stories, Undertow, was published in 2014. Eric lives in Eagle, Idaho. Email: ericewallace[at]gmail.com

Cell Block

Fiction
Eric E. Wallace


Rose Garden
Photo Credit: Devon D’Ewart

Here’s Mae’s problem: at age 78, though otherwise in vigorous good health, still slender and unstooped—after all, she’s from deep-rooted Idaho stock—her mind seems to be unraveling, bit by bit. She finds herself grasping at memories, agonizing over failures of recall, worrying that whatever afflicted her mother decades ago has now awakened and is slowly uncoiling in her brain.

Some memories are bold, oddly-fresh and vivid, while others are faded and blurred. It’s glum, chum. Dumb.

These days unasked-for rhymes dance around her, amusing and annoying. Cloying, toying.

The doctors have no easy answers. Perhaps a dementia. Maybe Alzheimer’s, Mrs. Tolliver. We can’t be sure. They fall back on that popular mantra, too-soon-to-tell. Tell, swell. Hell.

At least Mae and her husband can laugh about it. Sometimes. They heard the only way to confirm Alzheimer’s is postmortem, dissecting brain tissue. “I’m sorry,” Mae smiles with unwrinkled radiance, “but I need every cell. Especially now. No autopsy, no cutting, thank you.” Cutting, tut-tutting. Rutting. Where did that come from? she wonders.

Mae’s not been sleeping well either. And now there’s this wandering thing.

Many a summer morning, Henry still dozing, Mae stands at their small kitchen window and looks up at the tawny Boise foothills. The dawn sun paints the rimrock. The shadows move, the dark rough edges shift into astonishing shapes, impossible animals, jagged demons.

Below those sandstone ridges is the Old Idaho Penitentiary, the biggest puzzle in Mae’s slowly-reassembling life. This summer, for some reason, she is strongly drawn to the prison. She wanders over there, sometimes cognizant she’s doing it, other times finding herself in the cool confines of the women’s building, not recalling the journey.

It’s an easy walk. Mae can go out the back door of their red brick cottage, open the garden gate, step onto the trail, cut through Quarry Park and the adjoining fields and soon be at the massive outer sandstone wall of the Women’s Ward, which sits at right angles to the penitentiary proper. Not that the penitentiary was ever proper, she thinks—a hundred years of anguish, guilt, fear, toil and death. History tries to put a dusty haze on it all, but she can almost feel it. Haze, glaze, maze.

Why does she need to go there, she wonders? Why does she step through the fortified doorway—conveniently open for tourists—cross the scruffy garden with its forlorn rose bushes, and slip into the dim prison building with its seven barred cells, its poignant photographs and stories of women long lost? Bossed. Tossed. At what cost?

Henry sometimes finds Mae sitting on the long wooden bench under the thick-barred central skylight, or standing motionless in one of the small side rooms, or leaning on the coarse metal grating of a cell, staring in. She simply doesn’t know why she’s there.

The family has started discussions. The most worried is Samantha, their daughter, who theorizes a long maternal line of dementia. Sam’s grandmother, her great aunt and her mother’s sister all had mental issues of one sort of another. Nuts, she thinks, but never voices that word. She fears she’s the heir apparent.

Sam tries to focus on Mae’s wandering. “Maybe it’s that damn Lady Bluebeard,” she says, twisting strands of her long black hair.

“You think Mom identifies with a serial killer?” scoffs their son Frank. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly.” He doesn’t say this with any admiration.

“What about those coincidences?” Sam persists.

Years ago, taking a tour of the Women’s Ward, Mae and Henry discovered that Prisoner 3052, Lyda Southard, the infamous husband-poisoner, shared Mae’s birth names, Anna Mae. And 3052 was the phone number of the farm where Mae grew up.

“How bizarre is that?” said Mae, scrutinizing Southard’s face, hunting for—what, she wasn’t sure. The prisoner stared bemusedly into the camera, looking almost pretty, not very penal.

The family is still discussing Mae’s wandering. Sam’s husband suggests that Mae is attracted by the huge lighted cross hovering on Table Rock above the penitentiary. He proposes the cross is a steeple, the Women’s Ward a cathedral.

“Moth to the holy flame,” he says. “So what if Mae’s never been religious? She’s at the age when people turn to God.”

“If that’s true, I sure hope she’s not required to go to prison to meet Him,” says Henry, mildly.

Mae’s condition concerns the family, but apart from her wandering, oddities of speech and memory quirks, she functions fairly normally. Everyone’s happy she’s spending much of this summer in her garden, nursing vegetables, tending roses.

One rose in particular, a hybrid with complex, fiery blooms, draws Mae’s attention. She loves touching the supple petals, relishes smelling the buttery musk, contemplating the intricate layers, orange and red.

Red was her mother’s favorite color. Belle always wore something red. A cherry dress, a scarlet sash, a ruby hat, a pair of crimson gloves. You could spot Belle far out in the pasture, brilliantly aflame amid the dusty greens and browns.

In contrast, Mae’s Dad, Charlie, a quiet man always quietly attired, was a genius at blending into the landscape, right up to the day the tractor accident made him part of that landscape forever.

Even as Belle lost more and more of her always-frail grip on reality—and Charlie’s death sped that along—she constantly wore red, clinging to her defiant signature.

Mae thinks of Aunt Ada, Belle’s sister, always in black, her long dark hair in a very tight bun. Belle and Ada. Rouge et noir. They’ll go far. Har har. Mae frowns at the rhyming.

After Ada married Uncle Snapper, Ada supposedly panicked on their wedding night—did he snap at her? They didn’t stay married long. Ada soon holed up in the Idanha Hotel, living under one of the curious turrets. She rarely came out. Dear Aunt Ada, trailing a whispery aroma of cinnamon and the past.

Uncle Snapper surely earned his nickname, Mae thought, from his protruding jaw. It thrust absurdly forward, the prow of a dugout canoe. What was his real name? Arlon, Arlie, Arlington, yes. Arlington Davis. After Charlie’s death, because of Belle’s diminishing capacities, Arlington leased and ran the farm. He was good at it, keeping things going until he retired and the first of their land selloffs began.

Thinking of the farm tugs Mae back into the hayloft, the summer Dad died, where she lost her virginity to a young man—no, a boy, really—about to be shipped off to the police action in Korea. She can’t recall his name. But she remembers the soft scratchiness tickling her back, the low laughter, the swell of desire, the peculiar mingling of pleasure and pain. She remembers rolling to the side and seeing a wide-eyed mouse staring at her, a complicit sister. Gorgeous eyes, that mouse.

And Wayne—yes, that was his name, Wayne! Pain, slain—Wayne donned a splendid uniform, proudly departed for Korea and promptly got himself killed. Then there was…

A breeze blows the rose sideways. Mae blinks, her reverie disturbed.

Henry is doing volunteer work at the food bank. Mae freshens up, decides to eat a half sandwich and a candy bar. My last meal, she muses, then wonders why she would think that.

Nibbling her food, she glances out the window. The foothills are sere and golden.

She steps into the back garden, filled with thriving vegetables. Each bed has signs identifying the plants. A carryover from her library career. Always lining things up, everything in its place. The system, what was it called? Duty? Dewey. Yes, Dewey decimal system, Admiral Dewey, Huey, Dewy, and Louie. She giggles. I’m so screwy.

She notices the spreading broccoli. “Hey! You’re crowding out the baby squash. Read the sign: B-A-B-Y!” She turns to find her gardening gloves. But suddenly there’s something else to do. She has to go. Immediately.

She unlocks the garden gate and walks toward the penitentiary, her fine white hair aglow, ruffling in the afternoon breeze.

Grasshoppers leap ahead of her. Mae thinks of the Mormon crickets her Dad would take her to watch, the creatures swarming across the country lanes, jiggling rivers of oily black, peppered with reds, purples, greens. Something fun to share if I have ever have kids.

If I ever have kids. God, she clearly remembers thinking that so many decades ago. What else? But other memories bolt. Even my own brain denies me, she thinks, my own mind keeps secrets from me. Secrets. Regrets. Egrets.

Two white dogs scampering through the grass in front of her have transformed into lovely white birds. Mae is filled with delight, but a burst of barking brings her back. In moments she’s by the high, worn stone prison walls.

The place seems almost welcoming. Mae stops at the outer gate and touches the dirty tan surface of the wall. It’s rough, gritty, yet improbably soft.

Tourists burst out, waving camera phones, making jokes. As Mae walks through the small garden, she feels depressed at the irreverence of such people. This isn’t a shrine—no, not a shrine, fine, mine—but it deserves something, maybe respect. It has meaning. Meaning. Greening. Oh, these roses need attention.

Mae is fairly tall, but several of the rose bushes dwarf her, reach long straggly arms down toward her. Could Lyda Mae have planted these? Lyda Mae, Lida Rose. So long ago, who’s to know? Go, now go. Lida Rose, I’m home again.

Mae enters the squat, cheerless building. Once more she feels as though she should be here to… Her mind rebels. She walks to the first barred cell, puts her hand on flat grimy steel and peers through the gray slats into the shadowy recesses. A tiny space, sagging bunkbed, miserable toilet, small grilled window, yellow glare beyond.

Escape. You want to escape, don’t you ladies? Lyda Anna Mae, you escaped, didn’t you? I needed to escape.

Mae was smart, and college and a professional career were her way off the farm, though many years later, with Belle dead, Uncle Snapper retired and the property much smaller, Mae convinced Henry they should return to live in the farmhouse.

Her mind takes her there now, and, oh, there’s the barn, and the hayloft and Wayne breathing softly in Mae’s ear, promising wild huckleberries for breakfast, and they lived happily ever after, and Grace Rose was with them. And. And.

Mae Day. Mae Day.

Her memories buck violently and throw her back into a puzzled present. She drops her hand from the grating, and turns to look for Henry, who at this moment is crossing into the stale shade of the prison.

“You OK?” he asks.

“I had a thought,” she tells him. “But it’s gone.” Mae Day.

After supper, Mae is her old self. They sit on the back patio and savor the warm, sweet grassiness of a slow summer evening, drink tart lemonade, and watch ravens lazily hunt for thermals.

“It fascinates me how the inmates quarried sandstone and built much of the penitentiary themselves.” Mae said. “I wonder if my mind has done that, built my own prison, locked secrets inside.”

“Hm. That’s possible,” says Henry, scratching at mosquito bite. “But what secrets could you have, Mae? They’d need to be pretty serious for your brain to do this.”

“Let’s face it, these days my brain is highly suspect.”

“You’re doing great, Babe.”

“But one minute I’m me, here, and the next my memory’s off on a wild goose chase. It’s frustrating. Scary, hairy. And those stupid rhymes haunt me. Haunt, taunt. Whoops! It’s become a habit, rabbit. See what I mean?” The trademark Mae Tolliver giggle floats into the air.

Henry lights his pipe. “Can I suggest something?” A puff. “Just a small theory.”

“Sure.” A whiff of cherry tobacco draws Mae back to the early years of their marriage, when she’d moved eons away from the traumas of her teens.

Henry takes another puff. “I wonder if you’re beating up on yourself because we sold the farm. Could your subconscious feel guilt, think you need to be punished?”

Mae smiles. She loves it when Henry’s usual linear thinking gives way to insight.

She muses, half to herself. “That’s possible. But I don’t think it’s the land, even though I do feel guilty about all the development. It could be something else that my mind’s locked up in the slammer, in solitary.”

Henry chuckles. “Well, not to worry,” he says. “Just feed it bread and water and leave it there.”

They sit contentedly, take pleasure in the rising of the ghostly summer moon, the crickets singing.

The next day Mae decides to bake a surprise for Henry. Sticky buns, she thinks. She bustles about the kitchen, pulling out bowls, spoons, flour, sugar. She opens the spice drawer. Everything’s carefully labeled, stored alphabetically. “Once a librarian, always a librarian,” she tells the fragrant yellow roses joyous in a heavy green vase. “Librarian… Marion… Carry on!”

Humming, she selects a new jar of cinnamon, rests it on the counter, crackles the plastic ring, opens the lid, shakes out a spoonful.

The synaptic leap is palpable. Aunt Ada is comforting, counseling, sure of herself, no hint of old maid except her feathery aura of cinnamon and must, Aunt Ada is taking care of things with such efficiency and grace. Oh, Grace, my dear little Grace Rose.

And the bars swing open, Mae remembers the baby she gave up, Wayne’s child, rosebud pink, barely seen but instantly named, and crazy ancient Aunt Ada, Rapunzel come down from her tower, kind, understanding, arranging.

Spilling the cinnamon, Mae weeps for Ada, loving, sobs for Daddy, crushed, Belle, drifting, Wayne, killed, for the impossible decision, for Grace Rose, gone, gone. Done, done. Spilt, quilt. Guilt. No wonder I seek a place of shame. Shame, blame.

She’s ashamed, too, that she’s never told Henry. She meant to tell him, then life moved away from those difficult years, and her secret slid into an old chest of memories, locked and hidden away.

Could she tell Henry now? Perhaps he needs to know, she thinks, before my flippery slippery mind disintegrates more, before it slips into a fragmented world and I can’t come back.

Mae slowly collects the spilled cinnamon, stands there, inhaling the velvety scent of roses, citrus and fern, love and loss.

That afternoon, she walks through the fields, stands for a moment outside the lumpy sandstone wall, enters the modest garden before the Women’s Ward.

She crosses to a stubborn old rosebush with smoky purple blooms. The largest blossom greets her with a warm fragrance, honey and anise. Mae puts on her well-worn red gloves, pulls out her favorite clippers, and begins to prune the plant, carefully, lovingly.

Grace Rose, I hope you are alive, and happy. And free. Free. Be. Me.

Mae pauses, looks up from her pruning, surveys the prison garden.

There is much to be done.

pencilEric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. His work has been published in Alaska Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rosebud, Writer’s Digest and many other periodicals, in five anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several short story competitions. Eric lives in Eagle, Idaho. Email: ericewallace[at]gmail.com