At Last

1

Tabloids spread Vogue Thailand’s news. Those three photographs paper newsstands, drawing the eye despite the proper desire to avert the gaze from such a tangle of limbs. First is the cover shot of the magazine: most famous model of the moment, Sofi, long limbs and doll face coiled around the Muay Thai champion, Plu, who hulks for the camera, dark skin oiled, fists in gloves. Her airy clothes and draped body, slight smile next to his grimace make for inspired composition. Even before the fistfight, Vogue Thailand’s launch edition sold out in two days. The parent company was thrilled.

The second shot of course is the punch. Three bodies wedged together. The emerald bow tie’d man’s eyes leap to towards unsheathed fists, blurring. Scared, is he? The model, curiously enough, leans in. Her arm actually reaches towards the boxer, and she’s smiling, of all things, even though his fist bursts on her body. His face hasn’t caught the mistake yet, but it is a mistake— if anyone cared to catch the snatch of his right foot slipped forward, left foot kicked up.

The last photo isn’t in black and white but it might as well be. Plu lifts the model draped, limp, across his arms. His back is to a lens but he is outlined on the dark street by the jagged cut of his white suit. Her skin glows but her dark hair and black dress slip into night. Each partly disappearing, partly drawn in relief. Though the golden light from the warehouse stretches to reach them they are receding already.

It’s a prince charming, but where is he taking her, and how will he atone?

2

Plu steps through the entry of the warehouse, a man reluctant despite the lure of the model, Sofi, tripping ahead of him. Cameras go bang. The swarm of photographers coalesces into a wall blocking Plu’s way. Plu has planted himself barely in the warehouse door. Although he should push in he hesitates, allowing them to engulf him in an eager half-circle. He clenches his fists, an action that is natural, comforting. Plush carpet is rolled over smooth concrete floors framed by walls of newly-corrugated iron meant to evoke the Klong Toei slum, those canal-bank shacks of Plu’s home. He crawled up from the water like a monitor lizard, he thinks, powerful but slow, wary. With this evocation of Bangkok derelict Vogue aims for edgy. It embarrasses and makes him sad to imagine how much money they spent to fantasize a slum that sags in reality just blocks away.

Sofi pulls him toward her. She cocks a hip and drapes herself over Plu to create an outtake of the cover photo they made for Vogue Thailand, the model and her muscle. They are squat and slender, teak and ivory. Their contract mandates they spend the party together to continue the ripples of gossip that released when people first saw the cover: what an incongruous pairing; what surprise.

“Khun Plu, aren’t you going to give them a smile?” Sofi asks.

They have not paid him to smile. He is a gritty prop that enables perfumed soft-skins to shine. He’s even been dressed in a white suit by that Vogue editor. It bunches around his thick shoulders. He feels like a dwarf going to a ball. Sofi wears black, of course, with the cutout triangles around the waist that all the women sport, but Sofi lends the style her sugar that is her signature strength, the way his left kick is his. What would it be like to earn a companion like this, to have her at his side without needing to wear his title—champion—as a badge of admission? He grimaces. Impossible thought.

Bang go the cameras.

When the editor approached Plu about modeling for Vogue’s first cover, he’d been in the gym of their shared apartment, pounding doggedly across the treadmill. Three months post win and new to the building, Plu was still enamored with the idea that a guy didn’t have to regurgitate car exhaust and fight crowds to drag tires attached to his waist around the solo public park in the city center to get a workout. There was no need to be tire-strapped in the apartment’s gym. Like the husk of brown rice discarded in favor of the expensive white inside, his previous life as a slum boy had fallen easily away from him the moment he won the Muay Thai title. Now he dealt with women— not rented women, the apartment was too expensive for that—but major wives working with personal trainers, eying him as they shaped their bodies. He had to remember to keep out of their way. That editor, though. She’d had him up to her apartment. Blanched furniture, walls, even her outfit white, to talk about the upcoming cover shoot. Her husband wasn’t home. Would Plu look at the bathroom sink? And in there she’d pawed, slipped her hand over the front of his shorts.

Sex was different in high-society circles. It was play-acting sex; she’d moved like a kitten, screeching with abandon. The marks the editor made stayed raw for days and Plu wondered if she still had his skin bunched under her long nails. Strange. Nothing like the quiet trysts he’d slipped into with girls in the slum, mouths locked so they didn’t alert neighbors. A shaking shack—that’s what used to give him away in Klong Toei—but the walls of his new shack wouldn’t shake if you took a jackhammer to them.

By the feel of her waist Plu can tell that Sofi works out. Muscles woven tight like a well-trained athlete, she is at the top of her game, his supermodel…. are they friends? She put him at ease during the shoot, made small talk as they touched, and seems content to guide him now past rows of cameras. Easily moved to conversation, just as easily quiet in his company, Sofi doesn’t need to please or be pleased. If they could hear each other better they might talk about their next jobs, but they’d have to shout to be heard over the roar in this cavern that can’t contain the excitement of nobility and moneyed merchants pointing at celebrities, led by magnetic devices. The phones hone on Sofi and Plu, guaranteed to be cover models tomorrow, too. All his people will see it: aunties who fed him as a boy, uncles who trained him as a teenager, friends fallen to his strength, turned into opponents in defeat. That familiar pride at his achievement starts to build but he tamps it, damp dirt thrown over fire. Have to stifle—and reach for—repentance, probably, after the way he put Ton in the hospital.

Plu sighs, wishing the hot cold of triumph and regret sat more easily.

Sofi’s hair is gathered in some slink of a twist leaving her neck exposed, the curve pearly. He wants to run a finger over it. He imagines her shivering. Does Sofi look at him like the other women do? He can’t decide. Sometimes, he thinks, when she lets herself be more than a model, but mostly she is perfect and aloof, slightly out of focus, coming into brightness when big cameras point her way.

Vogue’s DJ slips a beat under the roar. Plu notices other party-going desperates posing. Behind their painted lips and powdered faces the non-professionals look clumsy too, fighting off the terror of so many lenses.

Sofi’s proximity to him is sugar near ants. He is pulsing. “What if I get us some food?” Plu asks. Where he comes from food is the maker of affection. He’s spoken with all the diminutives to favor her, but instead of relaxing into the big brother role he’s offered—the first step of flirtation—her shoulders stay up, and she cocks her head at him.

“I already ate,” she says.

“Not even a snack?” he says.

The look Sofi shoots him freezes that. She glances at the party over his head. What? The known ways to make small talk are failing him. These high societies. What do they talk about? Plu shrinks, squat monkey.

“How about a drink?” Sofi says finally.

 

3

Poor man, straining so hard. She didn’t mean to laugh at him, but he keeps talking calories at a party where the thinnest rod rules. Poor brute, stalking through the crowd, head hunched into the mountains of his shoulders toward a waiter lofting champagne. He reaches for a glass but the waiter moves the tray higher, just out of reach, causing Plu to plant his feet and look directly at this fresh enemy.

The boxer must get this all the time. Thais are merciless against those of their own class who have catapulted out, and prejudiced against those with dark skin, as if it’s any indication that they work in the fields. White-skinned, Sofi has always reaped the benefits of that prejudice, accepting fawning favors from perfect strangers as her birthright, for isn’t her hair naturally a lighter brown, and don’t her eyes blink double lids without feeling the blade of a scalpel?

When he makes it back she holds his gaze for a lingering moment before she accepts that victoriously claimed champagne. Is she thawing too fast? Sofi senses how he measures her long limbs, notes him imagining the way she could, if she wanted, wrap herself around him like a silk scarf around a wooden beam. It is not unwelcome, his attention. It makes her nostalgic. He reminds her of her uncles and their stolid sensibility. Plu would be able to put away a bottle of Sangsom whisky with them and banter familiarly, distracting her kin from the shell-shock they exhibit in her presence.

They are still intimidated by the supermodel. How did she grow into that, the uncles ask, as if they’d prefer a stringy vine to this orchid in their midst.

When their sister took up with the foreigner the uncles predicted just this outcome. He did leave Pin as soon as she got pregnant. But they loved Sofi, and were surprised that Pin never hid the story of Sofi’s father, using it as a cautionary tale for the gangly daughter that grew into a white-skinned girl with real potential.

Taking a sip, Sofi smiles at Plu, feels that pull that means she might sleep with him tonight. It is a game she enjoys playing. Not cruelly. After the cover shoot they’d parted ways only to bump into each other that evening at Emporium.

“Eating alone?” he’d asked.

Bold, for a man who couldn’t be accustomed to shopping at Emporium. But she hadn’t taken the bait, and said good night.

She was used to eating alone. When Sofi was still shooting yogurt drink ads, her mother would shoo her off to eat while Pin romanced the man making som tam in the food court of a small local mall. Pin skipped the meal to stand there talking the whole time. “We can’t be alone forever,” Pin would tell Sofi when she returned, done. By the time Sofi did spray deodorants mother and the som tam vendor were married. They bought a storefront and Pin pounded papaya with him. Her uncles took turns shuttling Sofi on motorcycles to photoshoots, learning how to tuck her hair together and dab makeup over sweat when she arrived, windswept. Sofi perfected the art of napping as she swayed and stopped, arms anchored around a waist. The year Sofi landed the whitening face cream contract her stepfather died crossing an intersection on the way to the morning market. Sofi still feels that a motorbike arrival guarantees a job well done, though her mother insists she takes cars now.

Plu darts towards more champagne but Sofi lays a hand on his arm. “Won’t you drink Sangsom with me?”

His answer is a grin that recognizes her purpose. She must have guessed correctly. It is his favorite drink. Plu moves away.

Sofi has transformed her family’s life and they have steadied hers. Unlike other child models, binging on drugs and partying, Sofi’s family knows what time she arrives home. Though Sofi technically bought the six-bedroom house the family shares, her mother is Khun Pin now, the owner, and Khun Pin doesn’t tolerate a wild daughter.

Plu and Sofi share the mutual isolation created by envy. She could take him to a hotel. Sometimes she longs for an adult life outside the bright curtain of her family’s attention, but living with them is the buffer that saves her from the fate of other supermodels. And modeling is the buffer that puts her at a remove from the politics of workplaces, where the prettier a woman is, the more wily she must be, to fend off attention without offending.

Sofi sighs, momentarily forgetting to project her happy confidence. She will play her role well, giggling and smiling and bowing all night. But she should slip away from Plu before their flirtation becomes serious. She will subside into the usual routine, buying jok to eat with her mother, nursing a hangover while sharing stories from the night’s party. Sofi is a good girl. If not precisely untouched, she is untrammeled.

Someone grabs her arm. Turning, it isn’t Plu. “Could it be that you are looking for someone?” she says, pretending not to recognize the notorious Warit.

“Sofi, I can’t believe we’ve never met.” Warit addresses her in English, allowing her to drop the tinny falsetto she employs to speak Thai. Like everyone, Warit has made the mistake of assuming Sofi is a native English speaker. They think her farang father enrolled her in an international school, don’t know she’s never met him. Actually Sofi grew up going to Thai public schools; she failed to test into Triam Udom or Mater Dei where her English would have been smoothed out. Leaving for boarding school overseas, the way Warit’s class does, was unavailable to her because she had to work, so Sofi is bound to struggle on in her Tinglish and make it sound cute, not clunky.

“Is Sofi finished as a Samsung model?” Warit says.

“No, not finished.” Sofi smiles without showing her teeth. Thai men often forget her height or simply don’t believe in it, and when they face her six-some feet with heels, they shrivel. That would be a dangerous feeling to provoke in Warit, who is small beside Plu’s memory, a pale ghost buttoned in tight clothes. He braves a white hoodie over starched shirt and emerald bow tie, managing to look like the noble thug that he is. Sofi hopes her eyes aren’t giving away how judgmental she feels. She is angry at the needle about her career. If she finished modeling for Samsung her reign would be done, since the company sponsors the top model.

Warit has a title but acts like new money, waving his connections unabashedly to secure contracts: the only license to import Sony electronics, an extended lease on prime Crown Property land that no one else could gain. People tread carefully around him although he frequents reputable events, and Sundays takes his grandmother to the dim sum buffet at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

This time she spots Plu cutting a path back to her. He slides like he is starting his engine for a fight. It must be the isolation. Plu really knows no one at the party, she realizes, remembering her early days in the industry.

“Can I take a photo with Sofi?” Warit asks her as if she’s a child. And like a child she agrees obsequiously, aware she cannot say no. They stroll to the Vogue photo backdrop of winking stars on a black background, forcing Plu to arrive at a vacant spot, searching, the mixed whisky of commoners in hand.

When she tucks her arms into herself Warit says, “Sofi will do the cover pose with me?”

Empty question. She’s paid to keep these men happy so they will pay for advertising. Warit is here to… which company is it? She sorts through possibilities. Watches. Patek Philippe. Pale dials glow from glossy pages. An image of Sofi draped in pearly satin, a rose sheen washing over her perfect Photoshopped face. A diamond-studded watch mounts the slim wrist she holds to her shoulder, arm grazing breast, just barely suggestive. It would be a good contract to land.

Smiling, Sofi drapes herself over Warit, noting he has none of Plu’s coiled muscle. Okay, tonight. She’ll get a hotel room.

The professional photographer appears to make the shot official. Sofi curls in her stomach, allowing the bars of her ribcage to show through her dress. There’s a ruthlessness that comes with being the best, of giving your body over to the force of profession. Or should she think of it as a vocation? A drive, something she inhabits that inhabits her.

On the day of Plu’s final Muay Thai match Sofi had wandered through the house checking the mosquito screens were closed on all the windows. Down the hall a smatter of cheers, drawing her into the TV room where the male side of the family gathered.

“What is it?” She sat on the floor, trying not to make the uncles self-conscious about watching Muay Thai with her in the room. The violent sport was a working class, male-only activity, but she actually liked to watch. The smash of flesh on flesh excited her.

“Best friends,” her oldest uncle muttered from the side of his mouth, not taking his eyes off the screen. “These kids grew up in the slum, this guy’s mother died, the other guy’s mother took him in.”

“Like brothers?”

On the screen the fighters circled, blue and red. One’s eye bursting, bleeding. Would he go blind? His body too wan, blood retreating from the skin’s surface. The other man’s arm revolved in a small circle waiting for an opening, a snake hovering to strike. He would have rushing blood, Sofi thought, eager blood.

“Fighting hard,” her uncle whispered.

Sofi reached into the shared bag of peanuts. Broken shells slipped between her fingers. Salt crunched under her tongue. Saliva, adrenaline, juices humming. Something in the sweating men excited her—rough passion unfiltered. An uncle handed her the bottle of Sangsom. She took a long swig.

The quick shuffle of slippers on wood. Sofi’s mother passed the doorway. Shush shush shush. With quick and careful maneuver a bottle was hidden, an uncle shifting to block Sofi from view. She crouched forward, held her breath. Sofi’s mother didn’t come in. The brothers looked back to the TV in time for a knockout punch—final round—then it was all yelling, a flurry of arms reaching for the bottle.

“What’s this? What’s Sofi doing here?” her mother appeared like an apparition summoned as soon as they forgot her.

Before they could be admonished the commentator broke through their noise: “Excuse me, excuse me!”

As far as Sofi knows, Ton hasn’t woken up from the coma. It was not unheard of for fighters to be damaged permanently, but the scandal came from their friendship. Ton and Plu: an early fight in two promising careers.

She wonders if Plu visits Ton’s mother. Has he bought her a house with his winnings? Does he take her out for meals? She’ll ask him tonight. If he does these rituals of the rising class, it will make Plu more palatable, despite the tragedy of his winning fight. She feels a furtive pull because she, too, had been captivated by the fight. She likes victors. Maybe a person has to find the weak spots in life and hammer blows or never rise. She’s not friends with other models; little sisters in the industry, a game she doesn’t play.

“When you devote yourself to the fight you give up your soul to this ancient art,” Plu had said in the post-match interview. “You fail to see people as people. Ton wasn’t Ton, he was my inner demons, and I was taken over by a god.”

Even her uncles hadn’t bought that explanation—most of them agreed it was un-Buddhist to cause harm to someone to whom you owed a debt. But Plu was a fighter. He needed to rise. Was it Buddhist to watch with glee? Stake bets on fights?

The way red drops flew from broken skin is like lights flashing as she strides a runway. Markers of achievement. She rises too, crests the wave of eyes turned in her direction.

The shutters make doubletime snaps. Realizing she isn’t blinking she does so rapidly. If her eyes tear up too much she’ll look weepy. She must be wearing a forced smile by now—it is time to shake it up— will they hurry? Sofi and Warit have attracted the mob of paparazzi swinging through the warehouse.

Here is Plu with two drinks, blocking the picture, which has Warit fuming. A ripe smell like rancid yeast. Whisky blooms on Warit’s shirt, the faint brown watermark an empty speech bubble.

“What the hell do you think—”

Warit breaks his clutch on her waist. Her skin goes warm and blood floods through. Sofi feels the pinch— he’s been twisting her skin together. Warit lunges for Plu, cutting off his own question.

And no one speaks, claims that opening of air. Who spilled on Warit?

Plu?

Did he throw it?

They shuffle in a tight circle. Warit has the boxer’s arm. Sofi’s body her own again, she can feel the effect a claw gripping Plu will have on his instincts.

They’re jumbled puzzle pieces forgetting their place on the board.

Aren’t lenses aimed this way? These ridiculous men, locked together. This outtake will make her even more famous.

Sofi jumps forward, hoists a moonlike smile onto her face.

Plu jerks. His eyes fly to hers. Fist meets stomach.

Bang go the cameras.

Wham! Breath presses to the edge of her ribcage, squeezes out, emotion threading through the eye of a needle too small to fit the weight of so much…longing.

Longing?

Sofi wants to laugh. How the mind leaps. Where, and for—why, why is her mind spinning in the air above?

There is no effect when she tells her body to inhale. She looks up. At. Stocky legs sheathed in white. Who would wear such an ugly suit? Her chest is numb. The sensation spreads to the rest of her body, eager to relinquish its ability to hold itself together. A kind of rest. This dark face moves over her. What happened? His features too close to focus on. Closing her eyes against bushy brows.

Plu. Did he punch her?

She laughs, eyes closed, as strong arms forklift her body.

The press of people dissolve into four white walls, a single bed that came in a box, framed posters of her major campaigns staked in a neat row on the wall below twin portraits of the King and Queen: her mother’s idea of a supermodel’s bedroom. It is a child’s, unchanged. Sofi laughs again, and her body is curled closer to the man who supports her.

She doesn’t have the energy to imagine how her limp body looks as it’s lifted. For the pictures. A dead eel. A fat, spotted, dead eel that no one will buy at the fresh market in the morning.

She wanted something. What was it?

4

Everyone will remember the punch differently: photographers, depending on their vantage and political inclination; gawkers who love the purity of Muay Thai, or who angle for a connection to Warit. Some side with Plu, provoked by Warit’s grip, which would guarantee a reaction from a fighter; or Warit, blocked in his crowning moment with a supermodel by an ape in a stiff suit. Those without such frank self-interest will focus on the boxer’s propensity to punch out his allies. Sofi looked like she was actually accompanying him. Didn’t Plu know how extraordinary his fortune was?

Eventually consensus will settle on Plu, who will bear the brunt of class self-destruction, and the fascination with his celebrity will fade into the easy label of violent. The money from the championship will run out. No sponsorships will materialize. Who could sell a yogurt drink to growing kids with a role model like that? Plu will move back to his old neighborhood, live next to Ton’s mother, make pilgrimage with her to the Army Hospital every Sunday after they share a modest meal.

Plu’s impulse to violence or protection could go many ways with Sofi. She could identify in his misplaced punch a kindred ruthlessness, shared outcast among celebrity. Then she would bring Plu home. The easy banter Plu can sustain with the uncles will endear him to Khun Pin. Sofi and Plu will have a small wedding at the Klong Toei temple. She’ll win over Ton’s mother when she pulls up to her hut in a BMW that she drives herself. Wearing loose clothing, bearing food.

The meal: it would have to be something special. Kao chae will do, a dish no one makes anymore except those with Palace cooks. Sofi’s found such a cook, who makes the laboriously distilled and cooled jasmine water, hand-pulled rice noodles with fresh vegetables floating like gems, food of the nobility entering the slum. Why not? Prudent to win the mother figure over before the couple announces a baby on its way.

Yes a baby, who will… choose to be born with her father’s dark skin and her mother’s long limbs; only foreigners will find her beautiful. The planned advertising campaigns featuring the incongruous couple and their newborn will dissolve when at eighteen months Coco still looks like a dark-skinned insect. Or will they say she looks like a lump of palm sugar kneaded and stretched? Finally they will say that she looks like oyster sauce poured over morning glory vegetable: glossy and shiny, impossibly long.

Wait. No. Bang go the cameras.

With Plu’s punch that almost breaks Sofi’s rib their future flips away. That squeeze of hard-earned breath pushes a wedding to the boxer out of her body. Who would tie themselves to a wounded animal guaranteed to create trouble wherever he goes? Sofi recovers, accepts the consensus on the night, rides a new wave of fame. She is that model, on a sharper edge. She doesn’t admit her attraction to violence and hard-won titles, settling like a house into an uneven foundation. Sofi stops modeling to marry a man who agrees to lift her bloodline into his as long as she doesn’t seek a life beyond his family’s compound. No eyes turned her way. Her uncles and mother, sights mostly unseen. What happens to a beautiful woman who allows herself to be won? She must plan to become a staple of state dinners, a prop at the door for all to admire.

And Plu? He devolves down the path of confronting alone what happened when he channeled might and energy and a god, sure, to defeat his best friend brother. Plu wishes he were in the hospital with Ton. Maybe one day he puts himself there.

Before the possible futures there is that punch, which certainly happens. Sofi hangs limp in Plu’s curled grasp. The party is in chaos, but no one calls a doctor, only points their phones, calls their friends, creates a maelstrom of digital activity so that tomorrow there will be a roll of white suit photos, an emerald bow tie askew, various angles on a cutout black dress sprawled unflatteringly on the floor.

5

What does it feel like to have a brother and hurt him so bad? The question unasked by Sofi circles Plu’s mind like a shark in a fishbowl as he lofts his prize, taking care not to bump her head or heels. He pivots them out of the warehouse. The valet won’t call him a cab. Still shouting, bulbs flashing. But no one blocks his way when he stumbles into the street, this neighborhood so familiar. An absurd figure outlined in white against night, against traffic, caught in the shine of streetlamps and car beams. What is that the man is carrying—a woman?

Ton bursts into Plu’s dressing room before the match.

“What are you doing here?”

“Promise it’ll be a fair fight,” Ton blurts, pale already, sweating nerves. “We both need this win.”

“So we’ll let the gods decide,” Plu agrees.

“Yes.” Silly, confident grin. “Our fate.”

A roll of the dice. But it was muscle. Training. The problem of the public assuming a leap, panic that made Plu punch Warit, survival when he punched Ton. No, it was instinct pointing toward victory, illumination focused on a way out. Of the slum—a cliché. Of the class—some naivete to assume that could be escaped.

Plu lays Sofi across the length of ripped plastic upholstery in the backseat of the taxi. He feels regret, also pride, also swelling sensation, everything about to change.

6

It isn’t even that late when the headlights shine through our orange metal gates into the house. I am only on my third cup of jasmine tea. It isn’t even that late. I swap my inside slippers for my outside ones and put the cup on the table, trying not to hurry as I shuffle down the cement lane past frogs making their mating calls and the chingchok lizard chirruping from the ceiling of the outdoor garage. The insects haven’t bedded down. The sounds tell me it isn’t even that late. At the gates I am off to the side of the headlights so now I see past the blast of golden beams—it’s not the black chauffeur car that has brought her home. It’s only a taxi: beat-up pink and green thing. Sofi hasn’t taken taxis since—since—there! The meter is running! What has happened to my daughter?

I have to ask the ape to lift her into the house. Don’t want to get the uncles out of their rooms because even though it isn’t that late what would they say if I fetched them to see this? Sofi unable to walk or stand. This man with her. At last has it come to this?

“You stay with her,” I tell him, “I am only going to the kitchen where I will be able to hear you.” She needs something hot, my daughter, so I have to leave them alone. I won’t call the maids to see this. What would they say?

He has thrown a blanket over her legs to keep her modest but he is too close, crouched over her on the sofa. “Shoo! Shoo!” I say as I hurry in with hot tea for Sofi. I wag my free hand. He might think I am swatting flies. “What were you doing with her?”

Well, he can’t be her date to the Vogue magazine launch as he says. Him? At last has it come to this? Little Sofi mistaking like me. I loved her father’s pink arms but he would freckle in the sun so I rubbed whitening cream into his skin when I gave him massage. He never knew I was bleaching him, taking away those dirt specks, those bird dropping spots. “You have the best hands Pin,” he used to say.

Would she pick a black ape, my moon-pale girl, when she could have anyone?

The ape man. He looks familiar. Sitting here, her head in my lap, looking at him. I can’t make him leave yet, not until I remember. He isn’t speaking but he is nervous. A mother knows the things men imagine around my Sofi.

He leaves to use the bathroom.

I pat her cheek tap tap tap. “Sofi!” I hiss whisper.

Her eyelids flutter. “Mother?”

I can smell whisky on her breath. It isn’t even that late! “Who is that man?” I keep on tap tap tapping her until her hand, waving, holds mine.

“Stop, mother.” She pushes herself onto an elbow and sees him down the hallway. “Plu, Muay Thai guy.” She turns herself upright.

He’s the new champion! Don’t want that man in my house. Fighters always from the slum. The uncles would say it’s an ancient art. But he is trained to fight. This Plu. Wasn’t there some scandal?

But I have solved the riddle. He was on the cover of the magazine. She didn’t choose him. Great exhale.

Did he hurt the other fighter? Put that boy in a coma. What would he do to two women alone? At last it has come to this!

“Plu,” Sofi is holding herself up.

He sits opposite us. I tuck my legs tight and hitch one ankle over another. He would have to shake me.

“You okay?” she asks.

He looks so sad—as if he thinks that will work on us. These people always know how to tell a sad story.

“You weren’t there when I came back,” he says.

I had a sad story too, very sad, but what did I do? I made the best of it.

“Sorry I went with Warit,” she says. “Was it hard to find me?”

“I looked for the photographers,” he says. He slides off his seat. He is on knees in front of her. I kick my legs out from the sofa, a flutter, and he slides back.

“Sofi? I’m sorry I… hit you.” He eyes me before back to her. “I lost my temper but I was going for Warit. You know that don’t you?”

“You hit her?”

“Mother. An accident.” I feel her sit up straight. “I need to speak to Plu alone.”

At last has it come to this? The way she looks at him. Is she… smiling? Is she… beaming? Beyond imagining.

“Khun Pin will be in the kitchen,” Sofi declares when I don’t move.

Is there an age when a mother renounces her duties? The last thing she says to me, my girl, before I walk away: “Ma, the uncles will like Khun Plu, don’t you think?”

At last has it come to this? I shake my head as I shuffle with empty teacup. The hallway dark and lonely. Sofi makes her own bed. At least it isn’t that late.




Water Towers

He wasn’t a ghost. He just felt like one. He couldn’t join Samantha on the other side, so Garland backed away from the restaurant’s commotion toward a window where he heard her again remind him he wasn’t Poe and please no odes to his lost ravishing Samantha Lee. She’d been the literary one, not him, better he remain true to his musical talents.

Don’t worry, getting by, haven’t forgotten you. Can’t. Wouldn’t know how.

Why was it taking the woman at Table Four so long to order? It was a one-page menu, not the Old Testament in Hebrew.

A draft sliced in through a gap between window curtain, and Garland felt a chill but stayed close to it, liking this window. There were four of them along one wall in the restaurant’s main dining room and they reminded him of stained glass windows in a church, back when he went to mass with his mother and prayed for the father he’d lost as a boy. A man he remembered vaguely for his rough cheek and the blending smells of tobacco and after-shave.

As if that life had never happened, fragments of it returning as he saw himself as that other me. Before Samantha’s death that night in a car accident. Back when he’d linger at the piano through slow afternoons, Samantha in a flowing flower-print skirt drinking sweet tea on a bench under a camellia that shaded the courtyard in back of his mother’s house. She liked to hum close to his ear in bed, pausing now and then in her soft voice to assure him he was okay, that this latest thunderstorm of emotions and insecurities like all the others would pass, so he should sleep now. Her Gar she called him.

Why was this woman at Table Four unable to make up her mind? Not today of all days; he had no patience. On her phone? Pushing little buttons? Everyone was, all their answers residing elsewhere.

What he wanted was to make a scene, lie there on the restaurant’s blue carpet and wait for the day to pass. Of course, he couldn’t. If he wasn’t careful, another waiter would nab Table Four. It had happened in the past and he’d been warned if it happened too often he’d be fired. No shortage of waiters in the city and he needed this job, saw it as one mark of stability in his life and a small price to pay to be in such a city and calling himself a musician. It had consolations, as well. He seldom bought food, finding it easy to live on one free meal a day.

The woman at Table Four was calling him. Not by name, of course. She used the word Waiter but she could have easily called him Robot. No Southern courtesy in this rarified air, but he was used to it. She wasn’t the kind who liked to wait. None of them were. She needed more time. All of them did. He nodded. He was an adult, acting as such, his grief a private matter.

No other tables for now, so he turned and moved back toward one window. A fall breeze stirred a few trimmed maples and one oak that grew along both sides of the street below. He looked down in both directions and remembered how during past visits to Greenwich Village, Samantha had adored this neighborhood. This was to be her city, a new zip code that would prove status and self-actualization.

She stood there with him in his mother’s living room on Monument Ave, telling him one day they’d live there together and Garland would play in a band, gig with jazz musicians, vamp it up with singers on Broadway. He could do it; he had his bachelor’s from Reed and his talent was nothing to sneeze at. She’d work for a fashion designer. Maybe she’d model. Or do both.

Had those moments happened or were they sugar-coated renditions from a past he wanted so much that he believed in it, though it was a reality he’d never had? He felt his delusions lanced by the shadow of one tree branch that ran like a spear through the window to bisect the room’s carpet. Here was separation between the physical and ephemeral, yet all gently fused into a force that told him he was still his mother’s good boy, must keep quiet and do his job, try not to get lost in foggy ruminations.

At Table Four, the woman was standing now, raising open arms to another middle-aged Botox queen and then a third, all of them with hair dyed blond, shiny cheeks, plump lips, like three guppies freed from various aquariums. Garland watched the trio hugging in that careful urbane way, sizing each other up as they exchanged guarded pleasantries. Women, indeed, could be mean swimmers.

It was all about stealth and invisibility. Once they were seated and comfortable, he’d bring two more menus and the wine list. These three were no doubt drinkers and had watched more than a few episodes of Sex In The City.

Better he return to autumn moments, he thought, so splendid in this room: the smell of coffee on a hot plate in the corner, one far brick wall, varnished grains in the coffered panels that covered the lower half of the other walls and spoke of parlour drawing rooms from an era when all was built by hand to last. Nothing here was new, proving time distinguished any surface. He still believed this.

The women were calling. He leaned over them and smelled their unguents and told them the soup of the day, the three specials and two desserts he was paid to memorize.

He did not feel satisfied bringing them the momentary happiness they craved.

There was a somnolent subtle radiance, as if candle-lit, in the quiet. It was, he supposed, an earned solemnity, part of his loss, his aging and learning and the reducing of the wilder confident person he once saw himself as. It occurred to him that when he spoke now to people it was from a gentler, firmer and ironically more Southern perch. A place in his mind, an object he’d found as a boy during a walk with his father. A polished stone, a dirty old nickel he’d kept to help him observe time pensively, to feel it passing. Anybody could comment on it, but who really understood it?

He heard Samantha tell him keep enduring the silences. There was no escape from them.

Finally. The day was over. He’d been little more than an accessory to their decorous reunion. He had his secret mourning, his memories, but could he step outside of them at will?

Knowing he could remained a comfort.

Okay my lover, says Samantha. Let’s move on.

They don’t get far, pausing to admire hand-chiseled granite steps, black wrought-iron railings that lead to a door painted glossy cranberry red, a polished brass monkey for a knocker. On the building’s face, the bricks are painted marine blue, chipped and scarred in places and Garland knows such bricks can be tuck-pointed and sandblasted to look uniform and new. His uncle Desmond had done such work in Charleston, Savannah and Norfolk, knew much about construction from this period.

Here the bricks are painted tangerine, dusty rose, buttery yellow. Windows are trimmed in a satiny yet durable white. Samantha takes his arm, holds him close at her side and they study a turquoise door that gleams when sunlight peeps in from behind clouds. It has a black cast-iron knocker that resembles a small cannonball. The doorway is framed by windows with crooked louvered shutters and box planters. Shutters hung with an easy elegance.

Samantha says: This feels so French. They respect time’s inevitable cruelty.

Knowing Samantha would not expect a reply, he remains silent. She likes having the last word. She points out below one window a box planter emptied for winter. How much she likes knowing old gas lanterns are still part of the architecture here. A block away one street is still cobbled in round stones. This neighborhood, so cozy, so close to her heart, the streets narrow and rife with personal touches yet not all that remote from the thundering metropolis of chromatic steel and mirrored glass just blocks away.

She confesses she’s in love; this is where they’ll live. She’s seen Paris and Rome and there’s no other place she’d rather be.

Later, after lunch, he proposes.

Garland stopped on the street and stood still and waited as if he were letting the air speak to him. Samantha wasn’t there. He’d expected her. Not this time. Perhaps he should dive into a distraction – TV, Internet, People magazine.

How they’d stand together and when she spoke she’d show her breeding, manners, such tender inflections. Warmth flooded his body as he smiled with a memory of Gaslight, one of her favorites and how she’d say they were born in the wrong time.

What did it really mean to know death?

Did he want to cry? He couldn’t, not on the street.

He heard as she pointed toward a sliver of light that filled a gap between ochre drapes. She said, One more nuance, my Gar. As if those windows weren’t enough, look at the color of the light there. So small, like a flower in bloom. Stop and smell. You know daylight has a scent.

Doesn’t everything?

In its way.

What do ghosts smell like?

Depends on whose ghost it is.

He can smell the rising scent of the Hudson. Not death. He looks up at trees that line the sidewalk, pruned, cared for. The smell of cleanliness, uniformity. Pedestrians pass him, unhurried, strolling the way they once strolled together in that relaxed almost regal way. The insistent clamor of traffic becomes a distant intrusion, easy to ignore. If he begins to smell daylight, will it be real or because she’d want him to?

He looks to the sky. Isn’t much of it. He wants to see himself there.

She says, My Gar being reborn. That’s what my dying is for.

Right, he says.

He walks for another hour until dusk begins to settle in. He stops at a café where the manager, Becca, recommends which sweet glazed pastry he should try with coffee. Becca also hails from Richmond, but has lived in the city a long time, and was the first one to promise Samantha she’d help after the wedding when the two of them made their big move.

After leaving Becca, walking uptown, he thinks the city must become his, re-invented for his needs, not Samantha’s dreamscape of Victorian-era lassitude. What he likes as a counter to her horse and carriage romanticism are the surreal blocks of mirrored glass towers that stand like giant silver needles of ice. Symmetrical, frigid, in rows, flashing at pedestrians below.

He must become this city, the one he lives in now. Midtown, he stops and studies himself in a massive bronze mirrored pane. Each face looking inside for its soul, each second of time elbows past him as it does all the others with the same unanswerable questions. He feels a disarming sexual charge, dirtied by the gritty fumes from a river of traffic.

Re-born constantly as long as I’m here.

No amount of counseling could cure him. He just had to accept it.

There was no reason.

He shouldn’t forget her statement that love brought miraculous resilience, but he did forget, and not a day passed without him doubting its veracity.

The morning windless, unseen edges growing sharper, preparing to cauterize from him all thought of his third eye, that place where he really witnessed from. Bodies flew upwards off the street and dissolved in a magenta sky. He didn’t have enough money, couldn’t afford this life and would need to move, but where? It was while shaving and listening to Takemitsu’s To The Edge Of A Dream that he began to feel calmer. He had his savings, his mother’s support, and if careful he’d be fine.

Gar, my Gar, we all get better.

He was surprised not to see his roommate and it wasn’t until Garland started eating his toast that he remembered Drew had left with his girlfriend to attend a conference in Toronto on computer gaming. He’d be gone for the week. Garland realized at that moment just how much he hungered to speak with someone, to share those edges of his own dreams, particularly how he’d seen Samantha swimming to him in a river while he was bathing naked. He’d felt such a strong sexual voltage in that dream, powerful enough to wake him up.

While sipping coffee, he sat in front of his apartment’s one big window and turned on his laptop and began searching for psychiatrists. He’d lied to his mother that he was seeing a therapist. Lied to console her, but now he wanted professional support. His dreams, evaluated, could help: anything to move steps closer to harmonious mergers with the city’s gargantuan pulse.

A phone call interrupted him. It was Becca. She sounded excited. Would he like to join her and her new friend uptown this afternoon? They were going to the Frick. Jade, Becca’s new friend, had never been.

He’d never been to the Frick either. Does Becca mean Jade the waitress at Le Gamin? He’d met her a couple weeks back.

Yes, same girl, just so happens we have tons in common.

He heard in Becca’s voice something bubbly, eager, an energy he wanted to be around. He’d love to go, but he had a time-slot reserved in a practice room up-town and then he had to be at the restaurant.

But some other time. Promise?

Becca said of course, adding: Garland, are you okay?

I’m searching the Internet for shrinks.

She could recommend someone. She’d e-mail her name and number.

Becca kept talking and he absorbed fragmented words about plans, Jade, a show next week, tickets and she wanted him to come.

He told her he was off on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays, forgetting she already knew this.

Then we’re on, she said. You need to get out more.

Tips had been good all night. His practice time had gone well, but he was glad to be home alone. He sat in his bed and sipped a glass of red wine and listened to Claudio Arrau play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He thought of all the people he could call and decided not to call any of them. He thought about ordering Chinese, changed his mind. Did he want to go out? Wasn’t sure. His room didn’t feel right. He got up and started changing into warmer clothes. He’d go somewhere. He needed to start feeling as if he’d been living in the city forever.

That’s it! The roof. Carlos and Donna in 6-O down the hall had shown him how to get there. The Super didn’t mind. But no alcohol. He’d bring his prayer for Samantha, be alone with her in just the right way.

He heard her tell him good idea, he was stronger than he thought, he’d manage to survive, but he didn’t want to survive. Survival struck him as capitulation. He wanted to engineer his fate and enjoy it in the process.

She was laughing, leaning against him. They were on a train rolling through darkness. He felt secure as she told him to remember there were many people paying their dues everywhere.

But I need something more.

Then find it.

The roof, of course.

Colder than he’d expected for an October night and windier, but a little discomfort was worth it as he sat near a steel ventilation duct and held on to one of the pipe stanchions that supported the building’s water tower. He couldn’t see much because his building stood lower than most of those around it. He knew if he was willing to move to one corner and lean out he could see a slice of the skyline aglow at night. He didn’t want slices; he wanted whole chilly windy areas where he could hold on and think of her and say his prayer.

He smelled a sudden sweet fume that he recognized as pot. Someone else was here. He listened and heard footsteps across the peat stones mixed with roofing tar. The steps grew louder, closer. The pot smell strengthened.

It wasn’t The Super, but a virile Tommy, Danny type – from the cast of Friends – and he looked stoned as he hopped lightly up and down and offered his lit joint and said, Hey man, what’s up?

In his jeans jacket with his long hair, he made Garland feel a little older, but not too old, not at all. He said, I’m Mason. New in the building.

They didn’t shake hands. A fist bump instead. Garland said no to the marijuana and Mason, shrugging, carefully put out the joint and asked if he could sit. He looked suddenly troubled. Tender. Sensitive. Didn’t really fit in. Such disarming blue eyes, thought Garland. So thin and fine about the neck.

Pulsing, blinding, flashing energy, said Mason. But what is it about water towers? They promise something, don’t they?

Garland, pleasantly surprised, offered a shrug. He watched Mason pull from his jeans jacket a big wrinkled sheet of paper with writing on both sides. He offered it shyly to Garland.

Wanna see? I was writing a poem about them. Wanna read it?

You read it, said Garland. I’ll listen.

You won’t make fun of me?

Garland shook his head no.

Mason, brightening, began to read: And tasting like his blood and mucus and the wormy stink of failed ambitions and boots denting his skull until he blacks out. His wings clipped. His body slumped on the ground with a copy of Genet in his back pocket. Oh Momma send me back into my amniotic cocoon where I hears soft waves on a beach. All the dreams are not his fault. They simply come. They cannot all be understood. Nor can they all be the source of inspiration or blame. He still craves experience and it has come to him through the smell of a moment in which he has no fear. He knows this smell just as he knows that he will, one day, lengthen like a late afternoon shadow and give shade and disappear.

Mason paused. He sighed through his nose.

Go on, I can tell there’s more, said Garland.

There is, said Mason. He read on: Like a cloud, he’ll burst into rainbow showers. He will delight in play. He will be his mother’s child. He will observe. He’ll see the wretched drunk reaching to steal his wallet and he’ll give him a dollar and tell him not to spend it on whiskey, though he knows better. He’ll see old women struggling to get across the street. He’ll help them. He won’t be afraid of the subway roaring under the sidewalk grates. He won’t fear his nightmares of water towers. He’ll embrace them. He’ll observe, blend in, choose, create. There is a man inside of him. Death has not robbed him of identity. He’s found a mask worth assuming. He’ll use that mask. He’ll endure.

That’s it? asked Garland.

Most of it. There’s even more. But you like it so far?

I have dreams about water towers all the time.

That’s what I mean, said Mason. What is it about them?

I really don’t know.

Mason leaned toward Garland with less caution. He kept moving and he studied Garland’s face from different angles until he could see it clearly in the hard wash from a flood light. He said, You’re not from around here, are you?

I’m originally from Virginia.

I might’ve guessed that, eventually. Like it here?

This is home now.

Man, don’t take this wrong, but you look like you’ve been crying.

Yeah, just a little.

Because of a girl or my poem?

Maybe both.

Then I’ll keep reading, said Mason.

I’d like that, yes.

Mason stood straighter, seeking a more earnest and noble tone in his voice. He launched into his poem: No matter how rat-like I feel in this maze, I’m still in motion and intact. Messengers are saying what’s been said and done a million times before and none of it matters when I lie in this bed with you and we drift into sleep and all needs for definitions blur. I lose skepticism and fear. I discover flowing inside of myself a colossal city, not an eroding iron lung, but a sense of beauty about myself, my ability to define a life, a dream I must share. Tell me, is this love?

Mason, stopping, looked up at the sky. That’s it, he said.

What’s it called?

On Nights When The Stars Can’t Be Seen.

Garland sighed.

It’s trashy and rough, I know, said Mason. But it just came out of me. I couldn’t help myself. You ever feel that way? Like you just don’t know anything, so all you can do is, like, wail from the bottom of your soul?

Garland wasn’t yet ready to speak. He needed to wait, to think. Looking at Mason, he liked knowing he could.




A Good Read

I had made a mistake.

As I lay here in bed, staring down at it, I can only think that I should have known something of such impossibility would bring me to this. But when I made the discovery little over a week ago, I was far too excited to think in such rational terms. I had been foolish, addicted. I see that now. By all appearances, ‘it’ was a book. The kind you would see sitting on a desk by a box of cigars in a gentleman’s study. Red leather hardback, weighty, ambiguous. But as I soon discovered, it was a tool for the perverted kind of things nature would not allow.

I should take a step back and explain. When I first read the book – a fine story of a young amnesiac trying to find his way in the world, I loaned it to my new neighbour, Bess Waters. Bess was a pretty thing, a confident woman in her late thirties. A mathematics professor at the local University. I’ll admit to a slight crush – but nothing untoward. I had found her intimidating when she first moved in three months ago. After all, she was a lofty professor, and I was a mere semi-retired librarian. Over time, though, she seemed to warm to me and we soon became friends.

I had offered her the book to read. She took it gladly, promising to read it that week. Three days later when she returned it, she gave me a knowing wink and a devilish smile that seemed out of context for our friendship. I couldn’t quite grasp what this meant and, confused, I read the book for a second time. The moment my eyes fell upon the first sentence, the first word, my flesh bristled at the potential of what lay in my hands.

The story of the young amnesiac was gone. Instead, in those very same pages unfolded a story, told in frank and alarming detail, of a woman who was obsessed with her older, lonely neighbour. She fantasised about him when her house was dark and quiet. She struggled to sleep, ruminating on what could be between them. He was the last thing on her mind before she finally succumbed to sleep, and the first when she awoke. She was a thirty seven year old mathematics professor. He was a semi-retired librarian. Her name was Bess. His name was – well, you get the gist of it.

This book – and I hesitate to even call it that – was a sordid gateway to the mind of the person who read it before you. An ever changing account of their private thoughts, memories, secrets and urges. As you can calculate, this meant that when I gave the book to Bess, she had read an account of my thoughts and desires. This would have, no doubt, loosely translated into a story of a sad, lonely man in his late forties with a slight crush on his neighbour – on her. She wasn’t stupid. She had understood the true nature of the book. She knew that when she returned it, the book would expose her infatuation with me. And yet she had no qualms about this. I should have known this was a sign of what she was capable of. But at the time, I wasn’t alarmed, and I never anticipated what would happen.

I just dived head first into the depravity of it all and enjoyed it.

Really enjoyed it.

I read quickly, devouring the details of her fixation with me. Once finished, I loaned her the book again, hoping to learn more when it returned. I was too shy to do this in person, so I posted it through her letterbox. There was no need for a note – my intentions would be revealed in the book once she read it. She returned it the same way just a day later. The heavy clunk on my doormat as she eased it through the letterbox was the most thrilling sound I had ever heard.

That second read was mind blowing. Our communication through the book had ignited her infatuation, and now her head was filled with me, and only me. There was no room for anything else. She struggled at work, creating a series of bold fictions about the two of us in an attempt to make time away from me worthwhile. Her bedroom was next to mine, and in the evenings she pressed herself against the wall, listening for me as I retired to bed. She had powdered cement under her fingernails from where she had scratched away at the wall in a despairing attempt to get closer.

Reading of her growing infatuation in such intimate detail was like being inside both her mind and body. I felt everything she felt. Every raw emotion. Every physical sensation. Every desperate thought. I felt the aching zeal with which she wanted me, and it only made me want her in the same way. It’s sick, I know. Looking back now, I see just how sick and wrong it was to be ‘in’ someone else like that. But at the time, it was intoxicating and I just couldn’t see sense.

After that second read, I still hadn’t cottoned on to the depths I was sinking to. I just posted the book through her letterbox again, greedy for more. I don’t think I should be judged for that. After all, how often is one the focus of such intense affections, and affections by someone as beautiful as Bess Waters? Not very often, I can tell you. I speak from personal experience. Therefore I think it quite rational that I returned the book hoping for more. I was, in a sense, making up for years of romantic failure. So when she returned the book the following evening, again through the letter box, I abandoned any thought of sleep to gorge on the newly formed text.

As I slipped into her mind once again I learned how she had obtained items of my clothing from the washing line outside, spending hours inhaling the smell of my skin on their cotton. There had been fits of feverish anguish at the thought of being so far away, and she was following me, watching me, intent on closing the distance. The boundaries of her fantasies had blurred and she now believed there was something real and inevitable between us. She was impatient for our union, determined it would happen soon. Any alternative was unthinkable.

I finished reading in the early hours. Unlike the previous reads, I felt no excitement. This time it was different. She felt different – or at least, her mind did. There was a dark, final tone to her thoughts, as if she had finally achieved what she most desired. Knowing this to be me, I felt a creeping unease as I ruminated on what this actually meant.

Heavy eyed, I returned to bed and placed the book on my side table. I slept fitfully, dreaming of Bess, only she wasn’t there. I simply sensed her within a suffocating darkness, but I wasn’t sure whose darkness it was – mine or hers.

It is now the following morning, and the sun is seeping through my curtains. I found the light confusing, and I lifted my head to check the clock on my side table. It was just after 8.30am. Why hadn’t my alarm gone off? It took me a moment to register the heavy weight on my chest, and the space on the table where the book should have been. A quiet alarm crept through me as I looked down at it. The book rested across my chest, split in half, each side of the red cover sprawled over my body like angel wings.

“Bess?” I waited for an answer, but there was silence.

I lifted the book instead and saw new text on the cream pages.

My love, I’ve never been so happy. What we share is unlike anything that anyone else will ever have. Your mind belongs to me, and mine to you. How wonderful that the book has brought us together. But it’s not enough, is it? Now that we share a mind, shouldn’t we share everything else?

We were together. We shared a mind. We were to share everything.

“Shit… Bess, where are you?”

Another heavy silence, followed by the distant sound of vinyl hissing on the turntable downstairs in the living room. It sputtered for a second, before a soft melody began to drift through the house.

Throwing the book to the floor, I leapt out of bed and ran downstairs.

“Bess,” I called out. “How did you get in my house?”

I pushed open the living room door, watching for a moment as the record wobbled on the turntable. Everything else was calm, too calm. As I looked around the empty room, confused, I realised I was looking in the wrong direction. Behind me, a heavy presence swelled in the doorway.

“Bess,” I said, forcing myself to turn around. “I know you think we belong together, but you can’t just come into my house like this – ”

I stopped. The book lay on the floor by my feet, open in the middle. A single line of inky black text waited to be read.

Our house.

“Shit,” I mumbled. “I mean, yes. Yes, our house. Can you please come out? We need to talk about this.” Gritting my teeth, I stepped over the book, debating whether to turn right into the kitchen, or left to return to the stairway. If I remained downstairs I could run outside if needed. I crept forward into the kitchen, pushing forward despite the weakness in my legs, but the sound of pages fluttering behind stopped me cold. I looked over my shoulder at the book, which now lay in the kitchen doorway. It seemed to wink and smile, just like her. I snatched it from the floor, letting it fall open in my shaking hands. Another single line of text, small and petulant in the middle of the page.

Don’t you want me?

“Of course I do,” I said, desperate. “You know I do. I just want you to come out and face me.” I tucked the book under my arm and ran to the back door on the other side of the kitchen. I reached for the hook where I kept the keys, but the hook was empty.

I tried the door. Locked.

“Bess, come on now.” The book fell from my arm as I tried the door again, tugging hard on the handle. “Let’s talk. In person.”

There was no reply, except for book on the floor. It had fallen face down, and I knew there was more to come in those pages. I picked it up and continued reading.

I don’t want to talk, my love. I just want you. I just want you and I to be together. I need you. I need you to be mine. I need you to make this heart ache go away. Please, my love, take it away. Please don’t leave me with the burden of being without you. We’re so close. We’re almost there. Just a little bit closer and we can be together forever.

Oh god. This was – this was beyond me. What was I supposed to do? I tried to think, to slow my thoughts, but the world around me was fast becoming a suffocating haze of devilish smiles, winks and locked doors. The pounding of my heart was now so hard it resonated down my arms and fingers, making the book tremble in rhythmic little stops and starts.

“Bess,” I said, barely managing a whisper. “Please, where are you?”

In the living room, the turntable sputtered to a stop, leaving the air thick with silence again. I could hear fumbling with records, and shifting feet on the carpet. I forced my legs to move forward, clutching the book, bringing myself closer. It was an aching walk, but I made it. The living room door remained open, a tantalising invitation to join her, and on the other side, a shadow slipped across the carpet.

Taking a deep, shaking breath, I set the book on the floor and nudged it forward with my foot.

“Bess, of course we can be together. There’s nothing I want more. But… can’t we just talk? Please, Bess. Just come out.”

From the other side of the door, two dainty hands reached out for the book, snatching it from the floor and away from sight. I held my breath, waiting, anxious. Was she reading? Was it a trap? Why was it taking so long? Finally, I heard the book sliding across the carpet behind the door, and moments later it appeared, pushed by a single pale finger.

As I reached for the book, I had visions of her tiny hand springing out from behind the door, snatching mine and dragging me down into some violent ending. She didn’t though, and as I retrieved the book, I stared at the door beside me, feeling her impatient presence on the other side. Nervous, I fumbled with the pages until I found the new text.

I don’t understand. I saw your mind so clearly as if it were my own. You were so close to loving me. We were so close. I can’t take this, my love. It’s too much. Please, just tell me you love me. That’s all I need to hear.

I set the book on the floor, too afraid to proceed. Perhaps I should give in. Give myself over to her and burn the book so she would never know that I was choosing her out of fear. I wanted to contemplate that possibility just a little longer, but I found myself pushing the book forward again, as if I no longer held any control over my body. With my thoughts now imbued on those pages, I became paralysed with fear at the thought of what would happen next.

Once again, her delicate hand reach out for the book, and I could hear her shaky breathing on the other side of the door. A hesitant silence, and then a short, pained whimper, like a kitten falling under the wheel of a car. I heard the book snap shut, and just as before, her pale finger pushed it forward.

This is it, I thought. I stepped forward out of the door’s shadow and picked up the book, prising apart the pages. For a dizzying moment, I became mesmerised by it. The sound of the door sliding shut behind me didn’t even register until I heard the firm click of the lock.

You have chosen to reject me. How silly. There is no ‘choosing’. Do you think I chose to fall in love with you? No, I did not. You infected me and now I’m powerless. So if I don’t get to choose, then neither do you. The love I have is a screaming in my head that will continue until I have made you mine. I wish you could feel the same way I do. I wish you could feel the desperation I feel. It would make this so much easier. But, my love, there is no going back now. Not for me, and not for you. I’d rather die than live without you. And whether it is in life or in death, we will be together.

Turn around, my love.




Static

Promise yourself: If they catch you, you’ll deny it. Decide that you will play dumb. Practice seeming confused, insisting genuinely to an invisible supervisor that you were looking for a different file, one that you were asked to get. Realize while laying in bed after your fourth day of work that if you end up doing this, you should do it within the first month, so it’ll be more believable if you do get caught. Reach for your phone on the nightstand and look up Virginia state laws for accessing unauthorized medical records. Read about a podiatrist named Zhang Liu Jie. Wonder how you would do in prison for four months. Start Googling whether prisoners are allowed to have tampons. Fall asleep with the thought that probably you should just avoid it altogether.

Late at night on Wednesday of your second week, spend hours flinging yourself into different but equally ineffective positions on your bed. Feel at least two itches on some part of your body at any given time. Become uncomfortably aware of your breathing for what feels like a solid hour. Open your eyes and stare up into the darkness. Make a face like you are looking at someone who has chosen intentionally to piss you off. Get up.

Have a glass of wine at the kitchen table from a mostly-full bottle in the fridge. Have another. Take the bottle back to bed without a glass and finish it, knowing that this was what you planned the moment you got out of bed to open the fridge in the first place. Fall asleep around four or five in the morning. Wake up at your last alarm at 6:25am, absolutely still drunk. Put on a brown dress with a high collar that makes your neck itch. Don’t put on any makeup. Call a cab. Get to work and walk through the hallways staring at the floor. Try to focus your vision enough to see the thin silver lines that divide up a white speckled desert of linoleum tiles. Get to your desk.

Lean down over the side of your chair and squint to confirm that yes, the silver lines are there after all. Straighten up. Turn on your monitor. Listen to the quiet of the building, since you’re here actually rather early after not showering or putting on eye-shadow. Log in. Settle into the scratchy neck of your dress. Idly open the hospital mega-database network icon. Idly go through three more login screens. Peer doubtfully at a black line blinking at the beginning of a long white text bar.

Look up a name.

If you type in “Mallory Dunn,” open a page with the correct birth year listed and let your eye wander down a table of dates and doctors and pronouncements of the body given in capital letters, strange abbreviations and unknown terms. Bounce off a few words that are staring out from the mass of black-on-beige text, each one like a hostile yet familiar face in the crowds of a foreign market. Like the assassin in a 50s movie you watched once in a dim hotel room. He painted himself orange as if it would disguise him among Moroccans, and chased the man who recognized him down alleyways to send him staggering out into the sunlight, a knife unreachable exactly in the center of his back. Realize just how drunk you still are.

Click print for the one crowded page of the summarized file before you can think about how stupid that is. Rip it from the jaws of the printer. Stuff it dramatically in your bag. Spend all day sobering up and ruminating on horrors of the abdomen. Feel like each woman around you knows by heart a history that is only hers, the details of a long-term relationship, with first occurrences made into legends and knock-down drag-out fights and hard-won victories and silent burdens and the bitter pride of old battle scars. Find yourself stealing glances at shirt fronts: the blank wall of loose blue scrubs, a gentle suggestion of hill and belly-button through pink cotton, rolls of fat jiggling smoothly under a skin of teal jersey. Give up. Sit on the bus without your headphones and listen to your silent abdomen.

Once you get home, remember one Halloween that she spent talking to a tall man in a dapper black coat with a large, elegant nose. Cut out everything but the nose until she is talking up to a tired literary reference. For some unknown reason, go looking for the hat you wore that night. Find it in a downstairs closet at the bottom of a box of gloves, its cheap white fur faded grey, small round ears permanently crumpled. Put it on. Tie the sides under your chin. Sulk, and unknowingly do a pretty good impression of how you looked most of that Halloween. Have a flashback of explaining to the nose that you and a friend (who had left the party) were dressed as characters from a cartoon.

“Is the character a bear? A small white bear?” he wondered.

“No,” you said, “He’s a boy.”

“Did you maybe put on the wrong costume?” ran the nose.

“No, he’s just a boy who wears a hat with ears on it.” No one knew what you were.

Sit at your desk on Friday and repeat under your breath a Biggie Smalls lyric you can’t get out of your head, as you send out some tedious office-logistic-type emails. Sing it as, “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ smishmortion.” Tell yourself you’re singing it like that because it makes you laugh. Imagine you and her, still in love, walking to the zoo with a perfect three foot-by-two-foot shmishmorted Biggie. You are each holding one of his hands.

“I’ll make your motherfuckin’ brain warm!” he sings happily as he swings between the two of you. Wonder how much attention that might attract on the streets of San Francisco. Plan to get the whole family discreet wide-brimmed hats. Wonder what the rent is like in her neighborhood. Look up on Google maps how far away the west coast is. Change the route to “Walking” and drop the little orange street-view man at the beginning of a 3,079 mile line stretched across America. Click “begin route.” Stare down a blurry, pixelated arbor of trees.

If you do not type “Mallory Dunn,” type “Louisa Gurman.” Know the exact date of birth because it is an annual source of guilt. Click the only possible file and skim through relatively bare sections until finally you get to a long list of ophthalmologists, the last one from a visit a few months ago, near her current listed address, in Maine. Scroll through a column of appointment dates aligned with a column of myopic prescription diopters that decline against each other in a pattern as exact and unchanging as the glide ratio of a crashing airplane. Stare dumbly at the staggering cost listed for the first two weeks of guide-animal training. Note that, at the very least, her astigmatism has still not shifted since she was fourteen.

The next day at work, walk past a woman wearing a thin tortoiseshell headband. Turn to look at it. Get an odd glance in return. Get to your desk and think suddenly of the smell of new paint and the cold draft from a window blowing directly onto your left side as your sister showed you her first pair of glasses, which were striped bright green and yellow, a child’s tortoiseshell, with bendable rubbery frames so they would not be broken by anyone as small as both of you. Remember a twenty-two-year-old miracle: being handed the glasses unprompted, her uttering, “Put them on.”

Look up at her. Put them on wrong. Sit still when she tells you to, and try not to flinch away as she puts them on for you and then smooths your thin toddler hair out from under the ear hooks. Feel alien weight on your face and look out into twin basins of a warped and sharp-cornered world. Remember how precious and rare it was to be even in this madhouse version of her room. Stare at the space between your computer monitor and your keyboard, the whole world undone under a blur of wine and exhaustion. Picture blinky brown eyes behind increasingly thick glass. Push your tongue into the gap tooth you developed right after she got hers fixed. Wonder what her hair looks like now.

Have a song stuck in your head. Get as far as, “I know my mother—” Put some headphones in and listen to the Talking Heads instead.

Re-check her current address after lunch. Panic when you realize how close she could be to fleeing up into Canada. Picture a black stone house on a hill with a smoking chimney, half-buried in snow. Picture a polar bear creeping bare-toothed up the expansive white towards the house. Never quite realize that you have pictured a cartoon polar bear. Remember what she looked like wrapped up in winter garb, stamping deliberately out into a blizzard, curly hair flying from the sides of her hood. Feel nostalgia for a hard-fought childhood in Alberta together that never happened. Picture her aiming down the sight of a rifle. Make sure each movement is practiced. Keep her hands steady. Leave a squint ambiguously as either anger or concentration. Throw the arrangement of four black lines and a nose that is now the polar bear into an open roar. Place her finger on the trigger. Wait for her to fire. Wait.

In a box of junk from the last room you shared with her, find a photo that has slid sideways in a nickel frame of clunky filigree hearts, and immediately start crying. It is early-ish digital and the details are slightly grainy and wrong—in one spot the pixels have failed to delineate where an incisor disappears into an upper lip. Hold the frame in your lap like a crystal ball and look down into it. Witness your sister at seventeen leaning back against the rail of a boat, the bow cutting pure-white against waves a mess of every possible blue, the island of Crete like a painted tile behind her and her skin more deeply olive than it ever was with you and your parents at home. She is half-smiling. She is wearing a pair of dark sunglasses.

Wear real pajamas to bed that night. Spend the next day doing everything you’re supposed to do for your superiors. Get lunch with some nurses your age. Work in that office for seven years, and get pretty good at your job. Look up only the names of strangers, given to you by other people. Drink wine early enough in the evening that you are never drunk by morning. Befriend a cardiologist named Bill, and eventually name him as the godfather of your son. Never think about small rubber glasses, or a white boat off Crete, or the charging speed of a polar bear up an incline. Work on a computer all day. Never find yourself staring down an arbor of blurred trees. Never map a trail up to Maine.




The Shed

She takes to visiting the shed on a daily basis, constantly checking over her shoulder on the lookout for Lottie or James, hoping to snatch a couple of hours to herself.

In the beginning, these visits were seldom, few and far between. She would make up an excuse, that she had a headache and couldn’t see, her vision dissolving into multi-coloured spots like psychedelic rain. Perhaps it was another migraine coming on. Yes. A Migraine.

She needed absolute silence, no loitering about outside, wearing the carpet out. And definitely no interruptions. This was her space, a solid cube of a room, a kind of cardboard lodging where she was the only resident. Manufactured solitude.

Except they couldn’t stay away.

Lottie was the worst, tappity-tap-tapping like a cat scratching a post.

‘Can I show you something? Can you take a look at this? It will only take a minute.’

And James wasn’t much better.

‘Have you seen my car keys, love? How do you turn on the oven again?’

Can you remember how to breathe? No of course not. That would be far too convenient.

So she took to the shed instead, furnishing the interior with homely comforts, a splash of paint here and there, a yoga mat and Pilates ball, a CD player and smoothie maker where heaven flowed through a straw at any time of the day. It was sheer bliss.

Whenever she felt like the house was getting a bit too much, she would feign a headache and steal outside into the garden. Lottie was too wrapped up in her performance to notice anyone else, and James, well, he found pleasure in the smallest of things. Surprisingly, he could keep himself entertained for hours on end, though she never understood quite what these guilty pleasures were.

She tiptoes across the paving stones, careful not to trip over the fleet of watching gnomes, James insisted on having. A job lot, he said. Letting them go cheap. Eight for five pound and a dozen more for a tenner. She couldn’t help but notice that the figures didn’t add up.

But she held her tongue. Male pride and all that.

The door is quiet, discreet; its hinges purposefully well-oiled and maintained. It opens with a perfect sigh, gliding wide like summery butter.

She listens.

Once inside, she switches on the lava lamp, waiting for the lime bubbles to snake and stretch, winding their way in the mauve jelly, inviting her to come and play, experiment. Dare to be different.

She opens the fridge and selects two smoothies; a banana and raspberry ready-made cocktail sweeter than pavlova.

And she smiles, a wide syrupy grin smearing her face, whale songs coming alive in her ears as she loses herself in whisked-up ecstasy.




The Book of Children

I close my eyes. I swear I felt it shift before. Not a kick. Just a shift: something settling into place. Of course it happened the one time we’re not careful. I wish he would call.

I’m supposed to be writing a story. Mrs. Anderson told us to write a story about something we know how to do well, something we’re an expert on. My story is about a baker. He likes to bake, but the real reason he loves being a baker is that he likes getting up early in the morning and walking through town while everyone’s still asleep. He’s based on Steve. Not the baking part—that’s me. But the waking up early is all Steve.

Yesterday, Steve told me that I was going to get bored of him. That’s what our fight was about. We were sitting on his blue couch, watching an old Jimmy Stewart movie, the one where he has an imaginary friend. Of course we had our first fight the same day I found out I’m pregnant.

I told Steve I could never get bored of him. To be honest, I thought he was projecting so I asked him if he was getting bored of me.

“Don’t flip things around on me,” he said. “You’re just trying to avoid the issue.”

He wasn’t yelling or being nasty, but there was something in his voice that I didn’t like. Something fake and condescending, like the way psychiatrists talk on TV. Like he knew something about me that I didn’t know.

Steve is six years older than me. He’s very insecure about the fact that he dropped out of college and since I’m graduating from high school next month, that’s been on his mind a lot lately. He paints houses and works at Espresso Joe, which is where I met him last fall.

To get ready for college, I had decided to start drinking coffee. My parents only drink decaf so I started going to Espresso Joe on my way to school. And one morning there was Steve behind the counter, wearing a brown apron and a green baseball cap with little strands of black hair curling up above his ears. He looked tired.

“What can I get for you?” he asked. His voice was soft. He cleared his throat and then he smiled. It wasn’t a fake smile, one he had been trained to do for the customers. It was warm. He had green eyes and freckles all over his cheeks and nose.

All month, I had been ordering caramel lattes, but that seemed like a little kid’s drink. I wanted to impress him. I ordered a double espresso.

To be honest, I just wanted to stand next to him. He seemed so nice; everything about him was earthy, brown and green. I swear, I actually pictured myself standing next to him behind the counter, wearing a brown apron and green cap of my own, with his arm around me. That was my fantasy.

He handed me the espresso and I forced myself to drink it in a shot, like I’d seen in the movies. It was disgusting, but I smiled and thanked him. Every morning I went back and drank a double espresso until finally he asked me out.

“Are you Italian?” was how he started the conversation as he ground the beans for my cup of dirt.

I said that was a funny question.

He laughed. “I just figured maybe you grew up drinking Italian coffee.” He was looking down and pressing the grounds into their little canister. “Most folks don’t drink it straight the way you do.”

I told him I was half German and half Irish. Then he asked me if I liked Italian food and looked up at me kind of sideways. He was blushing. It was so smart, is what I remember thinking. High school boys never ask you out that way; they don’t just smoothly work it into the conversation.

I’m tired of writing. I can’t focus. The room feels like it’s getting smaller, like the walls are creeping in on me. This has been my room since I was four years old. On my bed, four stuffed animals lie on their stomachs facing me: two puppies, an elephant, and a panda. Steve’s only been here a couple of times. He says the stuffed animals creep him out. Not that they’re scary, but they make him feel like he’s robbing the cradle with me. Also, my parents make him a bit uncomfortable. They’re very polite to him, but I know they don’t like me having an older boyfriend. They don’t even know how much older he is. My mom just keeps telling me to be careful.

On our first date, Steve told me about The Book of Children. It’s his big project. According to Steve, everyone needs at least one big project to focus on in their spare time. “You go crazy otherwise,” he said. His voice cracked just a little bit. That happens when he gets excited.

The Book of Children is about a school for orphans and runaways. Each chapter tells a different kid’s story. Some of them are about how the kids got to the school or what happened to their parents, but others are just about a particular kid’s dreams.

One kid keeps having a nightmare about drowning. She hears a sound like something crumbling and opens her eyes. Cracks spread across the walls and ceiling. Just as the water starts to flood in, she wakes up. She crawls out of bed and lies on the floor. Every morning, she wakes up there, looking at the bottom of her steel bed frame.

At least, that’s what Steve tells me. He won’t let me read the stories. He’s very shy about his writing, which I’ve told him is going to be a problem since he wants to be a professional author. He says he’ll show the stories to me when they’re ready; he wants them to be perfect before he lets them go.

Yesterday, I told him he was the most interesting person I knew. Somehow that upset him. That didn’t mean anything, he said, because I hardly know anyone. He said that when I get to college I’ll meet lots of guys who are actually interesting and forget all about him. That made me mad and I kind of snapped. I told him he was being stupid; I called him a baby. I told him that as soon as I left, he’d probably just find another dumb high school girl. He looked down. His fingers picked little threads from the couch.

Sometimes when we’re lying together, I take my hands and put them inside his. My hands are small; they fit inside his completely. It’s like they disappear. I close my eyes and feel his fingers covering mine. It’s like I’m holding every part of me in my hands and giving it to him.

Why hasn’t he called? I’m sick of waiting, with my stupid stuffed animals staring at me like I’m five years old. What will I tell him? “I’m pregnant?” Just like that? There’s no way I’m keeping it. Do I just say that too? It doesn’t matter. I just want to hear his voice.

He loves the quiet of the morning. In my story, this baker—who has to wake up before sunrise—actually gets to work extra early just so he can sit on the step and smoke a cigarette before starting the bread. Steve told me he does that at the coffee shop. He sits there watching the empty street. He thinks about how his body is getting older while he sits there. He exhales. He watches the smoke float away and thinks about things passing, bit by bit: things he’s lost already and things he knows he cannot keep.




Irene, I’m Waiting

As the eye of the hurricane looks over me and the city rathouse, I am tucked away in my amphetic overpriced pygmied apartment watching the rain splash the streets clean. All the anger and reciprocity marched up and down the avenues by the mad savants finally have their chance to rest. A latex balloon lungingly surfs the airless hyperovercasting casualty with metallic sun prayers. The hustle and demand of the everyday brings upon a confronting variable, where balance has no choice but to be an unfound fact of consideration, or at least a variance of recognition plausible to suffice along the perimeter.

I have been metronoming since setting foot off the plane and onto the ramp at LaGuardia airport. I suppose it’s what makes it worth it—the itching tight potato dress. Weighing sand bags while pushing through heavy bramble. It was only meant one way.

A somewhat plutonifying romance cut short of its own volition. Degreed feet callousing a/third way across, but with your finish: a dark wooded lingrance reminding your involved beginning. An awakening more difficult to ho(bo)okit. The wind essineming, hoping you’ve made an unfallaced forkwrench with the backstreaming sockwet footwear. But the truth you wouldn’t know either way, so the traveling gems are back on.

Spirituality, the undeniable interconnectedness of human relationship, eternal life—simple but abstract—moment by day in this slung world we’re told to stop and breathe.

We all experience a multifaceted array: pain, suffering, love; or just lost innumerably. Beyond before, a mysterious indefinable movement chose your vessel, equipped you for an experiential timeline, and programmed an elastic caravan to bring you from point A back to point A. Interlapped proximity explorelessly coming, going, othering the misconception of linear lives. This movement which began a timeline began with you. The you you truly are that makes up the absolute, the core, the source, the everlasting, where nothing begins and everything takes turn, immaculately out-of-order.

We come into this as helpless faucets of overflowing salt ducts, eager and scampering, exhausting profusely to make sense yet never availing, barely scratching. Unveilment yields a faltered attempt principally responsible for our attachment to one another. Walkways of discombobulated remergency—we’ve become uniquely twin, wearing the mask rather than attempting to recalculate why it was given.

Disregarding our lack of sensuality to the metaphysical, we have more in common than we’d like to admit. Those astray, prematurely overestimating aversive degradation, unknowingly graduating to adversity. Lead sponges of candycum-corner burlaps, salivating to a flesh-eating gay vampire muppet. Seven siamese badluck bandits in an overly self-conscious egotism, thinking they’re whispering when really tapered screaming.

The truth can never be found in permanence, as our stoneheaded mozart’s remain sullen and wilted. The unconscious inheritance devoting declaration parables, inadvertently constituting pervasive baiting with tactical repertoire while having the best intentions, but incomprehensibly defining grandeur as a timeline for synapse response rather than a spectrum of evolution.

As they employ thinkers and gain control of the empire, a preamble for societal readjustment will be brought to attention with tuned-out acappellists. Natural balance will be closed for debate.

They have surpassed the wisdom of the sages, shamans, and healers, rumoring them as voodoo supernaturalists with no characterized relevancy to the present day ambition of the individualist—the wheel becoming square before even introduced. Inevitably, those who knew better: conveniently absent, unaware, sermoned immunity by noisy cube contours—“frontiers of limitless will, so long as rhetorically vacant.” The secret intentions of the empiricist; the empirist; impirist; impurest. Ideal for unboxing ghetto herds of whipped widows pre-shrouding slivered Z needlebacks.

To lead an empire, you must have the mind and power for control. Once courtly bricks laden, sectioning the royal outhouse as a Chinese rose garden—the result, assigning diplomacy to a graceful leader with an elegant beam of forehead oil. The fall, globally anticipated, ineviting a cheering sport satire with buttons and barrels and not everyone making it home.

Ahead, the proem hypothesis of a socially inept functioning euphony. An implosive spiritual awakening… the structural decomposure of an evercounting mathunion time machine, recalculates sky pyramids, bathing wristful ropeburn back to roaming, redless peach.

A parallel universe is just a humble universe.

There are strings—loose, unfitting, webbed and intermittent, scattered like iridescent stars in a myriad sky.




In The White House

My father has always said we’re not Americans. Americans have presidents. We don’t. We were carted over here from a land far away and don’t know the way back, but we’re not Americans. Americans are white people or Red Indians or Hispanics. And only white people have a president in the White House.

And my father would talk of the struggle. He would chastise me for taking life too easy, for not realizing what they had to endure in the day. Have you been told to sit at the back of the bus? Have you ever been denied the right to a free education? Have you ever been looked down upon? Have you ever been called ‘boy’?

No, I reply. I explain to him that that was a long time ago, before and during the struggle. America is different now. This is our home now. We are Black Americans.

But he won’t have it. There are Americans and there are black people. Black people come from Africa.

Are there any white Africans? he asked, then answered, I shall hope not.

I didn’t want to tell him about the white settlers of South Africa who are proud to call themselves South Africans. That would only provoke a lengthy debate I’m afraid his mind can’t handle.

My father is old and senile. Alzheimer’s is wrecking his mind as the years take their toll. But he still thinks he knows it all. He still goes on about the struggle and the civil rights movement of the sixties like it was yesterday. In his confused mind there is still segregation, racism and inequality.

He goes on. So can you drink in the Whiteman’s bar or go out with his daughter? Doesn’t the Whiteman pass you over for promotion at work or hold you back? Does the Whiteman make black peoples films in Hollywood? Does the Whiteman let you make laws to govern America?

My father, in his confused state, would argue and argue. We were not Americans, he would say. We were just unwanted guests. We were brought here against our will and now they can’t get rid of us. As a token of their hospitality they have labelled us ‘Black Americans’ but we’re not. Only white people are Americans.

So what will it take for us to be American?

My father looked at me with his good eye, the other had long succumbed to glaucoma and he can’t see out of it. He mustered up all his concentration, as much as the Alzheimer’s would let him do. His lips mumbled as he formed the words.

The day we have a black boy in the White House, he began, is the day we become American.

He laughed, a laugh that brought a throaty cough from the depths of his chest. It hurt him. Even though it caused him much pain to laugh he must have thought it was worth it. A black boy in the White House? Impossible!

I let him finish. I watched him take a sip of water to soothe his cough. I waited till he was quiet and calm. I waited until he was attentive and focused.

Father, I began, there’s one there right now.




The Saffron Lover

This morning when Walter tumbled off a beribboned donkey halfway up the steep cobblestone path from the port to Fira he was embarrassed. But the accident has worked to his advantage—instead of being nagged by Vicky to join her on the guided tour of the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, he has been allowed to rest in a chair.

Not far from where Walter sits, a tour guide is expounding on the excavations at Akritori. Walter is usually bored by lectures, especially lectures about art or history, but this man sounds like the aristocratic Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey and since the Earl is Walter’s favorite character (Walter having similarly endured wayward daughters and a domineering mother and a manipulative wife), Walter finds himself paying attention.

The guide is discussing the frescos archeologists uncovered under volcanic ash: “One of the frescos depicts women gathering saffron by hand from crocus flowers much as it is still picked today.”

Last night Walter had spat out his forkful of fish in saffron sauce and declared it inedible.

“Scholars speculate that these frescos depict religious rites. Then again, perhaps the owner of the frescos was a saffron merchant and these his advertisements.”

The tourists chuckle.

“We know little about the Minoans,” the guide continues. “For example, the beautiful lady in this fresco could be a priestess or a princess or even a lady of the evening.”

What fool can’t tell the difference between a priestess and a prostitute?

Walter limps across the room to judge for himself.

She is a beauty.

Thick black hair ripples like a river down her back to her slim waist. Her fringed skirt bells as she walks, the end of her belt dangles above her firm round rump, a spot of excitement blooms on her white cheek, the faintest of smiles parts her lips. She reaches out to her lover, and though her hand is missing, Walter feels it beckoning.

The air around him vibrates.

Her gold hoop earring glints. Ornaments on her skirt tinkle.

He hears buzzing.

She calls to him.

Her lips will be as sweet as honey; her breasts full and heavy; her skin rich with the warm, musky, sun-kissed scent of saffron.

“There you are,” Vicky says. “The bus is leaving in ten minutes. Do you need to use the bathroom?

Walter’s head throbs. He cannot leave her. Suddenly, across the room, he sees her lovely face tucked under a man’s hairy arm.

She is on the cover of a book?

The museum gift shop!

Vicky hovers behind him, checking her watch and muttering. She rolls her eyes when she sees his purchase.

“You don’t even like art,” she says.

At lunch, with his lady in his lap, he orders dishes flavored with saffron.

Vicky reminds him that he dislikes the flavor.

“Aren’t you always pushing me to try new things?” he says.

The throbbing in his head does not diminish his appetite. He sops up the last traces of orange sauce with bread and then crams the soaked bread in his mouth, craving her tongue, her nipples, her sex.

That afternoon while Vicky wanders among the shops in Oia on the rim of a volcano high above the blue Aegean Sea, Walter shields his eyes from the painful glare of the sun and takes his lady on a hunt for saffron. The bottle they choose sets him back four hundred dollars but its rich earthy smell is the perfume of paradise.

Unfortunately, when they return to their hotel, Vicky finds the receipt in his pocket. She calls him a fool. Then she calls his doctor. While she discusses the possibility of a concussion or even, God forbid, a brain tumor, Walter locks himself and his lady in the bathroom’s cool darkness.

With trembling hands he crushes the blood red strands of saffron into crimson dust on the vanity. The dust leaves a glowing trail as he scrapes it into a glass of water. Crimson streams dance and whirl until it seems the glass has captured melted joy.

The room smells like a garden.

“For you,” he says, raising his glass. He wishes he knew poetry.

An electric taste fills his mouth. Sweet and hot. Her tongue on his.

His pants pool around his ankles. His hands tangle in her thick black hair.

There is pounding on the bathroom door.

“Walter, unlock the door! Doctor Warren says we have to get you to a hospital!”

He touches himself. His hand is her hand.

“Don’t make me call the hotel staff!”

Walter’s head feels as if it were splitting open, but in that saffron haze, that radiant glow, that bright yellow fog of pleasure, he is the happiest he has ever been.




The Golden Calf

It is fall–when grasslands turn to grey and brown and the sloughs and wetlands prepare for ice. The sounds of life get tuned down; frogs nestle in the mud, birds abandon their roosts and even peepers get quiet, the land feigns snowfall. Charlie and I talked about costumes. Getting the right costume could be tough, trying to be original, maybe scary, mostly warm. One year we went as quarterbacks, Canadian football quarterbacks. We had the shoulder pads, the ball and the dark paint under our eyes. The shoulder pads were made out of old margarine tubs but the Roughriders jerseys were real. We borrowed them from Uncle Chester, Charlie’s dad, who said if we got any candy on them he’d fucking kill us. That fall we also went swimming.

Auntie Audrey had a job at the Whitewood Inn. It was a big hotel, not like most of the one-floor, twenty-room, sideways shotgun shacks off the Number One. The Whitewood Inn had two floors, thick carpet in the lobby, a restaurant with a buffet and a pool behind locked glass doors. There were big windows so you could watch swimmers and hottubbers, like an aquarium. Audrey worked as a receptionist, maid and bookkeeper. Charlie and I would go to the hotel for free pool time on one condition–we had to go to church. We’d sit in the back seat of Audrey’s Buick and moan and stomp and kick our feet every time we pulled into the gravel parking lot. Church was boring. Upstairs the adults would talk for hours and downstairs was all kid’s stuff. The kid’s stuff wasn’t fun but at least we could keep our hands busy. We would listen to a Bible story on a tape and fill in coloring pages that went with the story, our swimming trunks swished under our jeans as the tape voice droned on and on.

There were no adults in the pool at the Whitewood Inn. They all went for the hot tub, roiling and reeking of chlorine. The pool was a five-footer so we couldn’t dive. Charlie tried once and conked his head bad. Mostly we did cannonballs or ran around the edge until we slipped and fell in. We were thrashing in the water, trying to dunk each other, when a guy in came through the glass doors. He had a beard, real long and narrow, like a trail of smoke. On his back was a five-pointed star with a circle around it, blood in the tattoo dripped off the circle in red blobs. He pulled his hair into a ponytail and sat on the edge of the hot tub, rings glinting in the light. He had headphones hooked up to a Walkman. Charlie took the opportunity to kick my feet out from under me. He pushed my chest down hard so it slammed the bottom pool, water shot up my nose, a good dunk. The guy was stayed there after we got out; his hands beat fast rhythms on the tub.

People would forget stuff in their hotel rooms. When Auntie Audrey cleaned she found a lot of goods, mostly travel junk, but sometimes she’d find something worth taking home. The cassette tape was wedged between mattress and bedframe. It shot out when Audrey pulled off the sheets. She gave it to Charlie later that day. The tape cover had an emaciated giant with stringy clumps of white hair reaching down to pluck a small devil that was singing into a microphone on a stage surrounded by flames in outer space. Charlie took the tape player from the kitchen counter after we got back. Uncle Chester was in the kitchen.

“Freeze,” he said.

“What?”

“Where you taking the tunes?”

“Just going to the basement. Mom found a tape.”

“Oh yeah? Let me see.”

Charlie handed over the tape. Chester turned it around then looked inside at the insert. “Some real heavy metal,” he laughed.

We went downstairs. The basement at Charlie’s was unfinished. There were a couple rows of metal beams, with holes in the centre. Piles of old toys and carpet remnants covered patches of the bare concrete floor. Charlie slid over a couple pieces of carpet to the electrical outlet. He plugged in the tape player and stuck in the tape. Upstairs Chester was yelling.

“What do you mean you didn’t get paid yet?”

“They said it was going to be a week late,” Audrey replied.

“Well fuck.”

“So it’s my fault?”

“You’re working there. It’s your job.”

“If I got a check in the mail every month too I wouldn’t need a job.”

“What did I do?”

“They aren’t going to screw me. Phil wouldn’t do that.”

“Like Phil’s going to pay for the fucking gas?”

Charlie turned up the volume to max as the tape started to whirr. It was fast. The guitars sounded jet-powered. The singer’s voice was high and twisted, total treble. The notes expanded in a long thin arc up and up then twisted back around, swooped down on us like the giant on the insert cover, fingers already reaching to pluck us out of this basement and deposit our husks somewhere on the outer rim of the black, expanding universe. Rock and roll wasn’t new–my mom used to listen to it all the time–but I hadn’t heard anything like this before. Gongs ended it. When we flipped it over we realized we had played Side B first. Chester and Audrey were still shouting but Charlie kept his eyes on the speakers. When the last notes faded, Charlie looked at me.

“Fucking good.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie flipped the tape. At some point the front door slammed and a car pulled out of the driveway, but we were focused on the music. When it was dark we went up to the kitchen and made dinner–peanut butter and Cheese Whiz sandwiches on white bread. Charlie left the fridge cracked for light. He went back downstairs to listen to the tape. I went to sleep on his bedroom floor, shoes on, sweatshirt balled underneath my head and wrapped in a Roughriders blanket, the faded green “S” on the logo was stained with rust from well water.

Weeks went by and Charlie took that tape everywhere. It stuck out of the back of his jeans pocket until the plastic cracked and splintered. He wouldn’t ever let me borrow the tape. “I’m listening to it,” he said, even though there wasn’t a tape player at the school. I didn’t push it. The tape was cool, it sounded good, but I wasn’t crazy about it. I said it was like his old G.I. Joe he used to carry around, the paint on the face got worn off and eventually the doll lost both its hands. Charlie looked away like he didn’t hear my joke.

Charlie said he was getting a drum set.

“No way,” I told him.

“Just you wait.”

Charlie always talked about stuff that never happened, like the Halloween when we dressed up as quarterbacks. That was Charlie’s idea. He was really into the CFL then, kept saying how the Roughriders would draft him, that his dad was taking him to a game, that they got the best seats at Taylor Field. Charlie’s only been to Regina once, on a field trip. He built these massive towers in his head overnight that took over his brain, all flashy to Charlie, they looked great, looked real, but inside they were all vacant and the walls were made of paper, soon to crumple into the next dream, the next tower. That tape built up a new spire in Charlie’s head, but I knew the drums would be just like the Roughriders tickets–talked about on and on but never seen.

Charlie brought the tape over to my house once. We didn’t have a tape player. Dad only listened to the radio.

“Why’d you ask to borrow it then? The fuck are we gonna do?” Charlie was tapping his fingers on the tabletop and his sneaker toes on the linoleum. He was shaking the table legs.

“Fuck man, settle down.” What I didn’t know then is that Charlie listened to that tape all the time. He had the words memorized.

“After I get the drums we’ll start a band, make our own tape.”

“What will I play?” I only had my old clarinet.

“You’re the singer.”

“The singer? I can’t sing like that guy,” I pointed to the tape.

Charlie shrugged, “You can’t play guitar.”

“Well who will, then?”

Charlie looked up at the ceiling, fingers still drumming on the table, “Benny.” Benny was another cousin of Charlie’s, on Audrey’s side, I only met him once. He could drive.

“You got a name?” I asked.

Charlie shook his head and handed me the insert. The lyrics talked about God, Satan, others about Vikings, women and prisoners. There was even one about Indians. For such violent lyrics it was weird they kept talking about the Bible. The Bible didn’t seem tough, but if it was in music like this maybe we were wrong about church.

Last time we went to church the story was about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandment coloring page had two round stones, almost like gravestones, with all the new rules. But the thing was, when Moses went to tell all the people about the rules, it turned out they had made something else to worship while he was gone–a golden calf. God was ticked off. I wondered how the calf would have looked to those people, easily catching their praise. Maybe it had blood red stones for eyes; maybe it had a giant’s mouth, gaping wide; maybe it was small and soft and weak but the people were so tired and scared they clung onto it because it was all they had to believe in, all they could see.

“Charlie.”

“Yeah?”

“What about The Golden Calf?”

“That a restaurant?”

“No, for the band.”

He shrugged. “It sounds like a kind of smokes.”

Charlie called me up. He had talked to Benny who wanted to jam. I asked about the drums. Charlie said they’d go get them on Saturday, so we could practice Sunday. I figured Charlie would wait until Saturday night to let me know practice was canceled, but the call never came. Sunday Dad drove me over. Charlie had left me the insert to work on lyrics. When I pulled it out of my pocket on the drive a corner was crinkled down.

It was the kind of day where the wind carries a weird warm, doesn’t bite, caresses a little, and I stood in it after I got out and watched the Chevy pull away, letting it leak into my jacket. A thump, thump, snapa-thump, was beating through the front door. Downstairs was Charlie sitting behind a drum kit. Those drums were blue flecked with glitter in the paint that made them shine and the skins were worn, black marks and nicks everywhere. Charlie had some rhythm. He tried snapping on the snare drum, a brisk sound.

“Guy at the store said you have to roll off it.” Charlie moved his wrist up and snapped like the way we broke a garter snake’s neck. Then there was a pounding at the door upstairs. Charlie called back with the bass drum.

Benny came down with a black guitar case and a small amp. He looked at the drums, “Not bad.” Benny plugged in his stuff against the wall and kicked away a Fisher Price lawnmower.

“What are you going to do?” asked Benny.

“I’m the singer,” I held up the notepad, scribbles from the last twenty-four hours.

“Ok,” he said. “Where’s your mic?”

Charlie jumped in, “He’ll figure it out after we get a song. Besides we don’t need to hear him yet anyway.” Benny nodded and started noodling on the guitar with a lot of feedback. Charlie banged on the drums. Each instrument on its own going at different paces, sending the sound back-and-forth, made me dizzy.

Benny stopped and shouted. “What?”

“Are you guys making a song?”

“We’re jamming man, this is jamming.”

I looked down at my notebook. The guy on the tape’s voice was so powerful. I knew I couldn’t do that, but I had to do something, so I started humming under the sound. Then I switched to talking, trying to follow Charlie’s bass drum beat, “Give it to the calf, give it to the calf.”

We didn’t hear the car pull up. Then there was Uncle Chester, “What’s all this fucking noise?” Charlie stopped. Benny let a chord hang out in the air.

“Chester, leave them alone!” Audrey’s voice came from upstairs.

“Where the fuck did these come from?” Chester was eyeing the drums, shouting up to Audrey but glaring at all of us, the unholy racket.

“That boy should play the drums,” Audrey’s voice got louder.

“Where’d you get the money?” Chester was staring at the drums now, “Phil?”

“I got them on credit.” Audrey was in the doorway.

“You’re trying to bribe my boy with an old drum set.”

Audrey crossed her arms and stared at Chester, Chester stared at the drums, Charlie looked down, Benny clutched his guitar, and I stared at Charlie. Chester said it again, “Bribe my boy, bribe my boy.” He swung his boot into the bass drum. He grabbed a cymbal, sent its edge straight through the snare’s skin. He kicked the tom over. He stomped the high-hat until it flattened out. Our eyes were glued to Chester. Audrey guarded and tight-lipped, Benny bunched on the basement wall, me with feet glued to the floor and Charlie, the innocent wrongdoer, sat rigid on the small black drum stool.




Performance

I first saw him on my seventh day on the job. I remember because my boss ordered me to chop off my hair the day before, and the spring breeze was whispering through my hair and giving me goose bumps. Cherry blossoms were shattered across the pavement. I was running in my Armani suit—I forget why, something about the air made me feel late—and as I rounded the corner to sprint through the doors I saw this clown standing next to them.

He barely reached over the rim of the ashtray-trashcan, and I almost ran past him were it not for his wig. It towered a good two feet over his head. I stopped, tripped straight into the door, and stumbled backward into the air, managing to stop myself from teetering over the stairs by flailing my arms about. And as I regained myself, feeling the ground secure itself through my shoes, the clown looked at me—pointed his finger—and laughed.

But it wasn’t really a laugh. It was more like an ambulance siren than a laugh, all shrill and constant and loud, going “Ha ha ha” in a computer’s perfect monotone. Then it stopped, and he lowered his hand, and his mouth became still again.

I looked around me, scanning the busy street corner for some eyeballs, some stares, a pause in the steady pounding of pavement and heels. No one seemed to notice. I was shoved aside by an enormous handbag attached to a woman in heels. They both gazed at the clown as if in their sleep, and pushed their way into the lobby like a conveyer belt through an assembly line.

The clown neglected to laugh at them.

I adjusted the reassuring strap of my bag on my shoulder, swiped my nonexistent hair out of my eyes, and walked up to the clown a few inches from his face. He made no notice of noticing me, his eyes a placid lake of blue and gray, nothing moving beneath but blood and eye juice. I waved my hand in front of his face. Not even a flicker of interest moved his mouth, the greasepaint hiding any deepening of the lines that may have occurred. A rage hit me, dazing me so that I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists.

No one was paying us the least attention, and as the clown continued to gaze through me I forgot who I was and what I was doing for a second. And I laughed. It was a low, deep growl of a laugh, but a laugh just the same, and it rolled across my tongue like the cogwheels in a rusted machine. The clown still didn’t flicker. Grabbing my bag to my chest I marched past him into the lobby, wishing I could have flicked my hair, a horse’s tail, irritated by a fly.

The next time I saw the clown I was ready for him. I remember because my boss had told me to stop painting my nails with clear polish the day before, and so my nails were naked that day to the mist of the spring rain coming down between the skyscrapers’ watch. I saw him as I rounded the corner, not running but coming at him at a steady pace. He was at his post by the door, not looking at anyone but seeming to see everything regardless. As I came toward him I reached out my hand, and in a firm voice, I said:

“Hello. My name is unimportant, and I work in the commercial lending department of a multinational bank. I graduated top of my class at Harvard. I make more than you could possibly imagine. Pleased to meet you.”

This time, the clown didn’t laugh. As I held out my hand, waiting for him to grip it or spit on it, I saw a thick, oily tear reach its way over his eyelashes and slide down his greasepainted cheek. It trembled on his chin, mingling with the mist of the rain, and splattered onto his pinstriped lapel, splayed across the fabric like a bomb victim. And he started to cry.

“What—what’s the matter with you?” I said, being jostled in the ribs by a coffee cup attached to a man in a trench coat. They walked past us, shoved their way through the doors with a guttural grunt as they slurped at their latte. The clown continued to sob, a shrill, constant, and loud wail—not like a mourner but like an alarm—and the tears glistened in his greasepaint like so many bullets. I lowered my hand, opened my mouth, flailed about for words, numbers, anything to stop the sound no one else seemed to hear. But I could think of nothing, and soon I was sobbing too, thick, oily sobs that dribbled from my throat into the mist obscuring everyone’s face but the clown’s.

“I’m sorry I’m so ridiculous,” I said.

The clown reached out his hand, gripped my lapel, and with round eyes, he said:

“You should be.” And to the sound of the rain, the doors opened, and the doors shut, and the clown laughed.




All Invisible From Where We Stand

Spandau, the most outlying and unexciting borough of Berlin, has earned some measure of fame for two things: providing Rudolf Hess with life-long free board and lodging, and for making it as complicated as possible for those who seek shelter in Germany. Marco started to work at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees twelve years ago, after his second child was born and his wife had her first attack of multiple sclerosis. This afternoon, after finishing his paperwork, he goes to the window and looks down on the courtyard. He stands there while his colleagues are marching to their cars and the janitor is clearing the trash bins. He’s still there when the court is deserted and the pigeons take over. At five fifteen he goes back to the desk and reaches for his briefcase. Slowly climbing down the stairs he hears somebody else’s steps above him.

“Marco! You’re going to the bus?”

He turns around. “I need to copy something first.”

Iris smiles. “Me too.”

They have to wait until the secretary is done. Marco opens the briefcase and takes out his iPad. He browses through his calendar, and then he puts the iPad back again. Iris tilts her head. “I’m thinking of buying one of those, too.”

“It’s practical,” Marco says.

“I’m still not sure,” Iris says. “Always online. Sounds a bit creepy.”

He shrugs. “Always and everywhere.”

“Well,” she says, “You can still turn it off, can’t you?”

The secretary grabs her papers and winks. “You guys have a lovely weekend,” she says, pushing for the door.

“You, too.” Iris turns to Marco. “You can go first.”

He steps back. “No, go ahead.”

She holds up a book of case law. “I haven’t found the right precedent yet.”

“All right.” He opens his briefcase. “I won’t be long.”

Iris touches his sleeve. “Take your time.”

He clears his throat and takes out a single sheet. “Thank you.” He closes the lid, presses the button, waits for the light to pass and removes the sheet again. When he catches the copies, they are still warm. He stuffs them into his briefcase and says, “Your turn.” He reaches for the door handle. “I better be going now.”

“Give me a minute. We can take the bus together.” Iris puts her book onto the machine. “Just two pages, okay?” She presses the start button and frowns. “Marco?” She points at a sticker attached to the wall: Always make sure that the copy machine is filled with paper after usage.

“Sorry.” Marco opens a new pack and pulls out the drawer.

“Don’t do that,” Iris says. “You don’t want to have a paper jam.” She takes half of the pile, places it in the drawer and carefully closes it. “This should be fine.” She presses the start button again and then takes out the book and makes another copy.

Marco looks at the clock above the door.

“I’ll be done in a sec,” she says.

She reaches for her copies and browses through them. “That’s not mine,” she says, handing him the first one.

“Right.” He quickly rolls up the sheet. “My son’s celebrating his birthday.”

“It’s a nice drawing.”

He smiles. “I’ll tell him.”

They walk past the pigeons. One flies by next to his head, brushing his shoulder.

“That was close.” Iris removes a feather from his coat and says, “When I was a kid, a pigeon got caught in the front wheel of my bike. There was blood everywhere.” She starts to laugh. “It took me two shrinks to realize that it isn’t my fault if someone stupid comes in my way.”

“My wife loved them,” Marco says. “She used to feed them with bread crumbs.”

At the bus station Iris opens a pack of cigarettes. “How are things at home?”

“Since when are you smoking?”

She smiles. “I quit after Leon was born. Now that he is moving out, I thought I might start again.”

Marco looks at the sign. The next bus is leaving in five minutes. “I could use one of those too.”

She passes him the packet. He pulls out a cigarette and bends toward the lighter that she is holding up to him. “Thank you,” he says.

She nods. “How are the kids?”

He takes a drag and inhales deeply. “All right.”

Iris looks at him, frowning. “I’m so sorry.” She slowly blows out the smoke. “I really am.”

He reaches into the briefcase for his cell phone. He looks at the display, and then he says, “There’s the bus.”

“If you need someone to talk…” She drops her cigarette, puts it out with her foot, picks it up and throws it into the trash bin. “You can call me anytime.”

“Thank you.”

“I’d love to help,” she says, and then she bites on her lower lip.

“Thank you.”

“I’m a single mom, remember?” She touches her chin. “Gosh, what am I saying?” She shrugs. “What I mean is I can look after your kids. I know how it is. You have to organize and everything. Anyway, I’d love to do that. If you need a rest, you know?”

“Thanks,” he says.

Iris enters the bus. Holding up her ticket, she smiles at the driver. Then, she turns around and says, “You’re coming?”

He tosses his cigarette on the street, reaches into his back pocket and shows his ticket. The driver nods and pushes a button. The door lets out a sigh, closing them all in.

Iris falls onto a free bench. “I’m so happy for Makela,” she says as he sinks down next to her.

“Who?”

She opens her eyes wide. “The Lebanese girl you signed the paper for today.”

“That one.”

“She’s going to do her A-levels next year.”

He presses his briefcase to his upper body.

“Girls like her make me feel that my work makes sense.” She smiles. “At least you’re not one of the bastards. You haven’t forgotten that they are real people.”

Marco looks at the kid standing next to him. His gaze wanders from his head to the sneakers, to the loose laces blackened from dirt and rain.

“The first week I was so close to quitting.” Iris sighs. “But then I thought that it would be worth it if I could at least save some of them.” She winks at him and says, “Like the Mbuvis. Remember them? The father has finally got a work permit. They got their own place now.” She rummages in her bag and produces a pack of chewing gum. “Want one?”

He nods and tries to draw out a stick.

“Wait,” she says. “Let me do it.” She passes him a stick. “I always hated clerks with bad breath. I hated all clerks.” She starts to laugh and puts her hand on his thigh. “You’re doing a great job, Marco.” She smiles and says, “You save a lot of families.”

He turns to the window, holding his breath.

Iris chuckles. “I’m sorry.”

He looks at the bus which is just passing them. He looks at the faces looking in his direction. “I sign the orders, that’s all.”

Iris sighs. “It must be hard for you.”

He stands up. “You’re staying in here?”

“No,” she says.

The subway is crammed full of people at this time of the day. Since they have started construction work on the new line to the Reichstag, trains are delayed constantly. Plus, the beginning of winter has added a large number of people who’d rather leave their bicycles at home. A group of Spanish tourists with maps in their hands crowds around them, making every attempt of conversation redundant. Iris and Marco just stand next to each other in silence. Then, the Spanish tourists leave and other people leave, too, and Iris says, “Shall we take a seat?”

He sinks down next to her. She opens her bag and takes out a folder. “There is this guy from Cameroon I’ll have to interview on Monday.”

Marco presses his briefcase to his chest.

“His first application was turned down. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s gay.” She opens the folder. A sticker saying Stop Deportation Now is attached inside. “He is a poet.” She holds up a booklet. “This is his original language, Duala. The title means, ‘My father’. He was killed in some war. Threw himself on a group of children to protect them from shelling.”

Marco fumbles with the handle of his briefcase.

“This guy is the only one from his family to survive,” she says. “If we sent him back they will kill him on the spot.”

Marco sighs.

“Sorry,” Iris says. “Work’s over for today, I know.”

Next to them four teenage boys are chatting loudly in a mix of German and Turkish. Iris smiles. “I’m learning Arabic now. It’s not easy. With the different letters and all.” She writes something on a piece of paper. “This is my name in Arabic. Pretty, isn’t it?” She throws a glance at the boys and says, “Nobody ever asks us if we speak their language, right?”

He looks at her. Then, he opens his briefcase and takes out a bunch of papers. “See these?”

She frowns. “What’s that?”

He flips through the pages and says, “Ngala, Tokewa, Koye.” He draws a pen out of his shirt pocket. “Watch this.” He scribbles on the bottom of a page. “Saved.” He also signs the other papers and then passes them to her. “Feel better now?”

She drops her gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Can you please stop?” He rubs his left temple, saying, “Can you please stop saying that?”

Her eyes are fixed on the ads offering advice, jobs, and master programs at private colleges. “I began to study law because I wanted to do something. They were deporting all these people back to their countries where there would be starving or tortured or killed as soon as they left the plane.” She carefully puts the papers into her folder. “It wasn’t easy being a single mum.” She leans back and says, “I wanted to help.”

He closes his briefcase and places it on the floor. “It’s a job,” he says. “I’m just a desk criminal.”

“I thought you cared for these people.”

“Of course you did.”

The subway comes to a halt. He looks out of the window. The sign says Halemweg.

“I understand.” She smiles. “You’ve got other things on your mind now.”

He snorts. “Like what?”

“Marco,” she says. “I know it’s hard.”

He checks his cell again. “Do you?”

“My mother died two years ago.” She closes her eyes for a moment, and then she opens them again, saying, “I often ask myself why there are still so many people laughing and chatting and having fun as if everything would last forever.” She clears her throat. “There is this group I’m going to once a month. They all lost a loved one. It’s good to share.” She smiles at him and says, “Next time is on Wednesday. Perhaps you’d like to come, too.”

Marco leans back. “Jesus.”

She bites on her lower lip, and then she says, “I just want to help.”

He stands up. The doors are closing. He sits down again. “Sorry. I didn’t want to be rude.”

Iris fumbles with the sleeve of her coat. “I know.”

The train is rattling along the tunnel. He looks up and says, “Your son’s moving out?”

She nods. “He’s going to live in Hamburg.” She straightens her skirt. “He wants to study law. I told him not to, but you know how it is.”

Marco yawns. “Back to freedom.”

The lights start to flicker. The train slows down for a while, and then it speeds up again. Iris looks to her left where one of the teenage boys is scribbling a tag onto the window. “It’s not easy,” she says. “Letting go, I mean.”

The boys jump up and push each other along the aisle. When the subway comes to a halt, they bang against the door until it opens. They are replaced by a man reading a book, a woman pushing a buggy and three girls dressed up for a party.

“Well,” Marco says as the doors are closing again. “Any plans for the weekend?”

Iris shrugs. “Nothing special.” She fumbles with the collar of her blouse. “I thought of going to the theatre. My son’s worrying about me being by myself too much.”

Opposite to them a boy and a girl are holding hands, watching videos on a tablet, sharing in-ear headphones. Iris smiles and says, “I told him that I don’t mind, but you know how it is. Kids want their parents to be happy.”

The speakers announce the next stop. “Right.” Marco stands up and extends his hand. “Have a nice weekend.”

“You, too,” Iris says. Then, the lights go off and the subway comes to a halt in the middle of the tunnel. “Oh,” she says, holding on to his hand.

Marco steps back to get free. The emergency light goes on. He sits down again and says, “I hate it.”

Iris leans back. “Maybe we’re just waiting for another train to leave the next station.”

“I just read that more than half of the vehicles need maintenance,” Marco says. “Apparently, they ran out of money.” He shakes his head. “Like everyone in this fucking city. Poor but sexy.”

Iris touches her temple with her right hand and put her left on Marco’s leg again. “Last night, I had this dream.” She takes away her hand, and then she says, “I dreamed that I was riding a bus. I sat down behind the driver and took out my book. When I looked up again, I realized that there hadn’t been any stop for more than hundred pages. ‘I need to get off,’ I said to the bus driver. He looked at me through the rear view mirror as if I wanted something no one had ever wanted before. ‘You have to push the button,’ he said which I did then and the bus stopped. I hurried down the aisle and got off in the middle of a desert, and then I stood there, watching the bus slowly disappearing, and then I woke up.”

“Well,” Marco says.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“I wish we were in a bus now,” he says. “We could get out and share a taxi.”

She smiles. “You don’t believe in dreams, do you?”

Marco reaches for his cell phone. Looking at Iris he says, “Listen, honey, can you call the pizza service?” He rubs his front and listens and then he goes on, “Nothing to worry about. Talk to you later.”

The girl opposite to them smirks. “Fuck them.”

“Relax,” her boyfriend says.

Iris turns to Marco. “Are they all right?”

“Who? The kids?” He puts his cell into the inner pocket of his jacket. “Of course.”

“How old are they now?”

“Nine and fourteen.” He looks at her, and then he says, “I believe in coincidences. I believe that life is just a never ending collision of stupid coincidences.” He loosens his tie and opens the first buttons of his shirt. “If you hadn’t come down the stairs, I wouldn’t have had to wait for you at the copy machine and I would have caught the earlier bus. Or, I would have made some more copies and I would have taken the next bus. Anyway,” he says raising his eyebrow, “the coincidence that made you go down the stairs the very moment I came out of my room led to a lot of other coincidences which led to the fact that my poor kids will be sitting in front of the TV munching a hot pizza in about twenty minutes.” He smiles. “They’ll be happy. I am such a bad cook.”

“Me too,” Iris says.

The man standing next to them opens his backpack and takes out a beer can.

“Lucky bastard,” Marco says.

A woman says to her teenage son, “Somebody jumped on the tracks?”

Her son shakes his head. “That’s called personal damage.” He turns around to her and says, “They wouldn’t do it in the middle of a tunnel. Too much hassle.”

His mother says, “How do you know?”

He raises his left shoulder. “I just.”

Marco clears his throat. “What was it like to be in the desert?”

“It wasn’t as exotic as I thought a desert would be. It wasn’t even hot.”

“What do you mean by exotic?”

She shrugs.

“A poor but happy place?”

“Guess so.”

Marco takes out his cell and looks at the display, and then he puts it back again. “I’d die for a smoke.”

Iris sighs. “Hopefully we’ll be moving soon.”

“Give me a cigarette.”

“You can’t smoke in here!”

He points at her bag. “I know where they are.” He gets up and opens the window. “Come on, I blow the smoke outside.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Stop me.” He gently takes the bag out of her hands and reaches for the pack of cigarettes. Then, he returns the bag and says, “I also know where you keep your lighter.”

Iris reaches into her breast pocket. “You really shouldn’t.”

He holds the cigarette out of the window and blows out the smoke. “Relax,” he says. “I take full responsibility. I’ll pay the fine.” He winks and says, “Have one too. I’ll pay yours as well.”

“Hey,” a man wearing a baseball cap shouts, “it’s non-smoking in here.”

Marco doesn’t even look. He takes a drag and blows the smoke into the cold darkness, and then he takes another drag.

The owner of the buggy touches Iris’s shoulder. “Can you please tell your husband to stop smoking? My son’s got asthma.”

“He’s not my husband.” Iris looks around, at the people staring curiously at her, and then whispers, “His wife died. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“The fuck I do,” Marco says.

The man with the beer can takes out a pack of cigarettes as well and joins Marco. He holds up his can. “Want some?”

“Yeah,” Marco says. He takes a sip and smiles, and then he takes another sip and passes the can back. The two men finish smoking and drinking in silence. The mother brings her kids to the other end of the wagon, and the rest stop watching when both men return to their seats.

Iris takes a deep breath, and then she says, “I understand that you’ve had a lot of stress lately.”

Marco starts to laugh. He laughs and shakes his head, and then he says, “You understand nothing.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You better listen to me now. What if I was glad that she died?”

Iris clears her throat.

“You want to know the truth?” Marco says, “No, you don’t. Because people like you never want to know the truth. But that’s how it is. I wanted her to stop breathing. I prayed each night that she would just stop breathing.” He puts his hand on Iris’s chin and forces her to look at him. “I don’t deserve your pity. I don’t deserve anybody’s pity. You’re all a bunch of hypocrites. And I got a master in hypocrisy. I was fucking glad that it was over.” He lets go of her and leans back. “Now you know. Because you got it all wrong, see?”

Iris turns her head away.

The boy opposite to them removes the earphones from the tablet. “Let’s dance, honey.”

“Stop it,” his girlfriend says.

Marco opens his briefcase and reaches for his iPad. “He’s right.” A few seconds later a deep woman’s voice is singing in Spanish. “Dance with me,” Marco says. He takes Iris’s hand and pulls her up. “Please.”

Iris looks around. No one is watching. Some have taken out their books or magazines, others open their laptops. Some sit there, staring silently at nothing.

“You want to help me?” He puts his free hand on her hip and says, “Dance with me.”

Iris frowns at the teenage boy who gives her a thumbs-up. “That’s crazy,” she whispers.

“Life’s crazy,” Marco says. He holds her close and puts his mouth next to her ear and sings, “Porque sin tu amor se me parte el corazón.” He slowly moves her around and around. “The singer is from Mexico,” he says. “Exotic enough for you?”

Then, all the lights turn on again. The people cheer and the subway resumes her task, slowly in the beginning, but little by little regaining the usual speed with which she and her companions crisscross the underworld days and nights. The speakers say, “Next stop: Jungfernheide. This train terminates here. All change please.”

Iris opens her eyes. “We’re moving again.”

Marco continues holding her tight, and he continues moving her around. “Let’s not get off,” he whispers. “There’s just the desert outside. And it’s not even hot.”

And then the subway comes to a halt and the passengers get out. There’s an empty subway waiting for them, ready to help them reach their destinations, and it may seem much, much later that they get back on their way, but the time business is a peculiar one, especially for our couple that is left alone now, not dancing anymore, not holding each other anymore, but standing a foot apart, which means 0,3048 meters to them, looking at each other in embarrassment or in stupor or in fear, and maybe their gazes mean something completely different which we will never know and they will never know either and maybe together they have found a short, intense break from seclusion for a while, but there’s no need to decipher their glances – nor anybody else’s – to understand that there’s no hope at all at all at all.




Boys Will Be – Levi Andrew Noe

In the overgrown, ripening summer, four boys, elementary age, chase the day away. It is that magic hour, right after dinner, just before the dark comes and beds call. It is twilight when boys can claim ten-foot tall dirt mountains on construction sites as their own kingdom. It is that time of not-day, not-yet-night when shadows grow longer than they ever will get and when the sun casts mirages and mirrors on tin trash can lids and car windows.

It is this moment when Hector takes his playschool plastic three-wheeler into the alley behind his house to play games of bravery, rivalry and danger with his brother and cousins. They take turns at first, on the “Big Wheel” as Hector calls it. He is only slightly too big for it. His brother, Cameron, outgrew it last year and his cousins played on it when they were six, but even then they barely fit. Hector is small for his age, but he controls the group dynamic, and he knows it.

Simple turn-taking becomes poking and prodding, becomes challenges to intellect, ability and manhood. Hector’s youngest cousin, Manny, takes the Big Wheel out of turn when Hector turns too fast and falls. While Hector still nurses a scraped knee, Manny lifts the Big Wheel above his head, like some tyrannical Cyclops. Hector screams, his most valued possession hurled like felled timber before the howling and jeers of his kin.

Something in Hector snaps, erupts like a hot, battered soda can and he leaps for Manny, fingers brandished like Wolverine’s claws. He strikes Manny’s face, narrowly missing his eyes. Fingernail scratches on Manny’s temple will be attributed to a tree branch when their mothers ask later, but at this moment they are cause for retribution, for war.

The two boys roll and rage on the shark skin cement. Neither commit to full blows or all-out fist fighting, but the potential is there as their seething young muscles grapple. Cameron and Vinny, in their upper elementary wisdom, know instigation and co-conspiracy charges when they see them. They look at each other, wordless, and run for an alibi. Manny and Hector continue to tumble, teeth bared, neither acknowledging the inevitable truce they know they must come to.

For it is not this day, not this sunset when they will at last come to terms with their places in existence, in the hierarchy of boys that becomes the hierarchy of men that becomes the structure of civilization. It is not yet their time to accept their lots and play the cards they’ve been dealt.

During this dusk, all things are still possible. And so they curse each other more, but eventually let go. They examine their own wounds first and then the wounds of their adversary. And at this time, they can still feel the pain of the other. They can still regret the suffering caused. They can still walk away, holding each other up unsteadily and, together, tell their mothers a unified lie.




The Man With No Hands

The man with no hands is telling me how he held his newborn in his hands this morning. The bar is dimly-lit yet I can still see his face laced with long, shoe-string tears. He says when the infant cooed, he could feel electricity in his fingers for the first time since the blast in Afghanistan. He tells me love is the only real medicine, even the kind that isn’t necessarily reciprocated.

He orders another tumbler of scotch which the bartender puts in front of him with a straw dangling over the lip of the glass.

“I can tell you don’t believe me.”

“How do you know?”

He leans forward and lips the straw as if it is a pesky cigarette, then sucks the glass empty.

The man with no hands goes on: “My mother read tarot cards when I was a kid. Worked right from the kitchen table. She gained quite a reputation and by ten am when she opened the front door for business there were often long lines starting at our front porch and winding all the way down the sidewalk.”

“That so?”

“My mother said her secret was trusting that love would show up in the cards. Others let the cards do the work, let them fall where they may, but first thing my mother always did was take the client’s hand in hers, just holding it for a while until the transfer happened.”

“Transfer?”

“Aren’t you listening to me?”

I am listening to him, but he’s confusing and I’m thinking about my own mother who left us when I was five. I have three photos of her, but they are only black and white paper. I found out later she was a junkie and eventually became a prostitute in order to feed her habit. I don’t tell the man with no hands any of this.

“I’m telling you, brother,” the man with no hands says, “life is so good I can’t stand it sometimes.”

I sneak a quick glance at the stumps that end at his wrists. I feel queasy then guilty as hell for feeling that way.

I motion to the bartender for the check and when he brings it I pay for both our drinks.

“I’m not a fucking charity case,” the man with no hands says.

“Never said you were,” I say. “Good to meet you.”

I leave before he tells me his name, but just as I slip out the door I hear him shout, “Life is good and love is the reason!”

At home, my wife is where she always is, lying on the couch with a blanket pulled up to her chin. No matter if it’s ninety degrees and sunny, as it’s been the last several weeks, my wife hardly moves from the sofa.

When I kneel down beside her, she doesn’t open her eyes even though I know she heard me come in and can likely smell the alcohol on my breath.

I haven’t told her that I’ve been fired, haven’t told her about the accident last week when I got into my car drunk and totaled the thing, leaving before any police arrived. There’s only so much she can bare and up until this point I’ve always been a secret keeper.

“Hey,” I say. “Open your eyes.”

It takes a moment, but she finally relents, her lashes fluttering like moth wings. “It’s so bright out,” she says, shielding her brow with a hand.

“That’s just the moon,” I say. “It’s full tonight.”

“Can you close the drapes, please?”

I do what she asks and come back and kneel down beside her again. I take her hand in mine, moving both of them inside the blanket to her stomach where our unborn daughter was only a month ago, before the botched delivery.

I say, “I love you,” and I know I mean it this time. I say, “We’re going to get through this, all of it.” I say, “Even if you don’t believe me.”




Gettin’ Up

It took me that whole summer to really get the beginning of “Wish You Were” down. If that had been the sum total of what I accomplished those ripe musty days of 1977 I could have put June through August in the plus column.

But it wasn’t all that happened, not by a long shot.

Under the 44 caliber smoke presence of crazy chubby slack-jawed Berkowitz, the Yankees, the heat wave, black-out-and the release of ELP’s “Works”, I was let into one of the biggest secrets I had ever, would ever encounter, a secret that changed my life, though I didn’t know how much until I opened my email today. Revelations thirty years on come hard, let me tell you, but maybe it’s finally time to tell of my adventures of that summer. Maybe I should at least get it all down so I might be able to read the incredible events when my memory dulls and I start to doubt it even happened.

I haven’t pick up the guitar in years and I have definitely since forgotten how to play the beginning of “Wish You Were Here”.

Clifton New Jersey sits some twenty miles from Manhattan New York, but the bucolic suburban neighborhood I grew up in, namely Allwood, Clifton NJ might as well be ten thousand miles away from NYC. Especially back in the waning days of the decade, we were as insulated on our tree-tunneled street and Tudor houses as any spoiled middle-class white kids could be. It wasn’t Ozzy and Harriet, but it was pretty damn close.

My friends and I hung-out at the park at the end of my street every night of that summer. This time-honored ritual had begun for me in earnest two years before, when I was fourteen but in ‘77 I was an overripe, slightly chubby, but still ardently horny sixteen year-old living for my nights at the park. With the radio and girls becoming increasingly more important in my life, not to mention playing guitar from the songs I heard on the radio for the girls that were becoming increasingly more important in my life, we were a close knit group of about eight or so friends Yes, drugs were coming into vogue for us all, but other then some joints and a concoction of Black Berry Brandy mixed with Coke (don’t ask, I never partook) we were a pretty tame bunch. Cutting through backyards or standing under the second story window of our friend Everett’s dad’s Chinese restaurant while Everett chucked us down steamy egg rolls was about the most larceny we ever got into.

I was the tamest of the lot, well liked, cute enough (I wasn’t yet aware what a good pair of dimples and a quick wit could get you with the opposite sex), a typical first-born Italian male in an adoring family, a smarter then average (or maybe just a little bit better read) with a perchant for Star Trek and the progressive rock of the time. I usually stood around while mischief ensued, or listened to it bragged about later and never ever touched the illegal substances offered…though I did manage to imbibe a few of those egg-rolls.

I was the last kid you’d think would be involved in what I got involved in.

Bob ‘Pops’ Handy was eighteen, listened to Jackson Browne and Foghat on his car’s 8-track deck and was about the coolest guy any one of us had ever encountered. For some reason he took a shine to little ol’ me, I think it was because my older cousin Kim was into Jackson Browne and I had some cursory knowledge of the songs I heard blaring out of Bob’s Tarino’s “Blowpunk”. I was thrilled beyond belief to be spiked in such a cool guy’s radar and it wasn’t too long until Bob, Bob’s girlfriend Nancy (a babe-and-a-half, if truth be told) and my best friend Tom Kenny and I were making our way into NYC, the Big Bad Big Apple, well after we had all hung at the park for that night.

Ok, I guess sneaking out of my house that late was probably the worse thing I did, but mom and dad were asleep and we weren’t doing much other then riding around at the wee hours through the dazzling city streets, stopping at diners on the way home and just basically hanging out in Bob’s car. In fact, Tom’s dad even knew we were out and seeing as Tom was with me, a year older and always so much more mature then anybody else, I rationalized if my folks ever did find out they’d be cool with it all (hey, Mr. K. was, right?!)

In those first two weeks I’d managed to get out about three times, and it was at the beginning of the second week-this would be right after the blistering hot 4th of July we all suffered through and only a pubes’ from the blackout of ‘77-when I met Nancy’s half cousin Chula. He was a reed of a guy, twenty (though I couldn’t and would never be sure of his age until I read what I did today) Puerto Rican, with a full quick laugh, big brown eyes and the knottiest forearm muscles I had ever seen. When we first came upon him in ‘The Village’ that night I honestly thought he was going to try and sell us drugs, but when he got in, gave Nancy a kiss and shook hands with Bob…then me and Tom, I was transfixed.

When I saw what he had in the bag he was carrying I fell in love.

Ok, not love. I am a straight guy, have always been and always will be. I’m not damning anybody their thing, shit, you don’t get to my ripe old age without mellowing about people’s personal preferences (or at least I’ve mellowed) but I just have always been and will always be into girls. But I loved Chula on first sight. The same was true with how I felt about Tom, how’d I’d come to feel about a whole host of men in my life, filling the role of my father who was present only in body in my house (a long story for another time, believe me).

You could just smell the wickedness coming off Chula. He was a feral animal kind-of-a-guy, not dangerous per say but slick, slightly sad but defiantly up to no good in every fiber of his being. Unlike anyone I knew then (but unfortunately like most people I know now) Nancy’s fiery-eyed cousin had an agenda. He had something he wanted to do, something he needed to say and a way to execute same and it was connected to what I spied in that bag that night, something I knew Tom, Bob even Nancy probably hadn’t even noticed, or if they did, it didn’t mean anything to them.

It meant a lot to me, though I didn’t know why.

“Getting’ up, my little brother,” Chula whispered to me as he writhed in the backseat to my left and caught me looking down into his bag longer then I probably should have.

I couldn’t think of much to say with the heat coming off the guy, “Too Late For The Sky” blasting and the full swash of city lights whizzing by us then.

“You a paintin’ man back in the wilds of Jersey?” he quipped, Nancy turned to look over her seat at her cousin and Tom shot another query at Bob about the car’s suped-up magnificent engine.

“I…uh…I don’t…” I said, or something just as articulate still looking down at the array of spray paint cans littered in Chula’s duffle.

“You def got the look homes,” the lanky young man next to me said.

I looked up at Nancy who was smiling over at us and Bob drove Chula someplace to the mid twenties. I kept quiet the rest of the ride until we got back to Jersey and fries with gravy at the dinner.

 

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” I was protesting to Arty and Barb the next night. We sat on the ‘adult’ swings, waiting for the rest of the gang, while my radio sat under us, blaring “Hotel California” for what had to be the tenth time that day.

“You just don’t like The Eagles,” Arty replied.

True, they weren’t my favorite band, but I didn’t dislike the quintet from California. Shit, if the radio had played the new Emerson Lake and Palmer as much as they were playing “Hotel California” or “Barracuda” that summer I would have been just as bored with it (well, maybe).

Just as I was about to reply, Nancy, of all people-Bob’s blonde goddess Nancy in those amazingly tight Jordash jeans-walked through the park gate and came right across the chipped macadam to …me!

Luckily by then a few more of my friends had sauntered in and were joining us all at the swings so Nancy walking up, while not unnoticed, didn’t garner much more then a few side-long glances. She kind of nodded her head indicating she wanted to get me alone and I followed, more transfixed by her ass then ever as she walked in front of me.

I had never seen Nancy up here without Bob. The two of them weren’t really from this part of town and though she was only seventeen she was all ‘woman’ to me, and all that much more intimidating. But she had always been nice to me, actually Nancy was nice to everybody, not a bitch with her obvious great looks and popularity (and popular long-haired boyfriend with the hot car) so I wasn’t as much worried as intrigued why she had shown up obviously looking for me.

“Chula really thought you were cool,” she said as we made our way around the merry-go-round.

To say I was thrilled would be an understatement.

“He’s cool,” I offered, not knowing what else to say except to return the compliment.

“You know what all that was about in the car last night, the spray-cans?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so, but Chula said you did,” Nancy said and laughed.

I could tell by the way she flashed her tiny blue eyes, tilted her head that she wasn’t laughing at me, so I laughed with her and joined her as she sat straddled one of the merry-go-round benches.

“My cousin thinks everybody is in on it,” she continued. “Like if he meets one person he thinks might have a little bit of an interest, somebody who sees his bag and doesn’t start asking stupid questions that that person’s got to be ‘getting’ up’, like he says.”

“Yeah, he mentioned that last night, I…”

“Look, it’s no big mystery, ok?” she said and lean in so close I could smell her (and feel her ample right boob brush my forearm).

“Chula and a couple of guys he knows are graffiti artists; you know spray painting trains and all.”

The facts that I didn’t know then (and have just read about today) was that 3 and half million riders rode NYC subways back then. If you could tag (that’s what they call it when you manage to spray paint your stenciled moniker-a throw-up or piece-on the side of a subway car, overpass, even the front grate of a store) then your personal graffiti could be seen by thousands. In the case of ‘getting-up’ on the side of subway train car, your mark had the potential to be seen by thousands more people then even a well-attended museum got through its doors daily. If an artist could manage it, to tag in all five boroughs, then he was deemed “all city”, which was a huge honor indeed. These gangs of guys, some very well-known, near celebrities really, would steal into train yards and work all night…what I would come to do myself!

“Chula thinks he can be all city this summer,” Nancy finished, as I am sure I sat there mind and mouth agape, “and he wanted to know if you maybe wanted to help.”

I have no idea how my chin didn’t hit the wooden bench we were sitting on.

Of course I wanted to hang with Chula and tag, get up, paint. Jesus Christ, I was as thrilled as I was scared, but what I knew about defacing a subway train with spray paint you could have fit into a thimble, then as now. What I didn’t know at the time-what only you could with hindsight-was that this night guerilla paint warfare was at its peak from ‘75 through to that crazy summer of heat, Nancy’s perfect ass and my first ever attempt to stick it to society in the guise of art.

“When?” was all I asked as Nancy smiled, reached over and actually kissed my cheek.

 

Tom was grounded. That’s all any of us knew or cared about that Tuesday night as we huddled in front of his house. That was the way you rolled back then, one popular guy was grounded you brought the hang to him. Tom’s mom, the warden of his recent house incarceration, came out to the front porch at about 8:30 or so and shouted:

“There’s a black-out in the city.”

Mrs. K. allowed her son-which kinda allowed the rest of us-to walk to the bottom of our street and spy the dark NYC skyline, which, on any other normal night, we’d be able to see illuminated from the end of my dead end street. On the way back up the block to continue our vigil with Tom on his front curb, Bob and Nancy drove up. I was on the passenger side of the group of ten who surrounded Bob’s car as he drove slowly with us walking back up the street. Nancy angled her ample self out the window to give me a smile.

“Chula was all set to have us come in,” she said.

As we kept pace with Bob (or he kept pace with us) more of my neighbors came out of their houses to do exactly what my group of friends and I just had. It was a busy tree-lined suburban street during any summer night, just more so with the spreading news of the black-out.

“He was gonna have you go help him be all city tonight,” she added.

“Yeah?” I asked, ever the conversationalist when face-to-face with a pretty girl.

“Next week for sure, okay? After all this sheet…” (Nancy had this over-affected way of swearing, which at the time I thought endearing, now I’m not so sure about) “….dies down, you know with black-out and stuff.”

“Yeah.”

Man was I ever the charmer with my comebacks.

Bob parked at the curb in front of Tom’s house, effectively canceling Mrs. K’s plan to punish Tom by truncating his social life for two weeks; by week’s end his two-week grounding flittered away to just that one week. I was glad ‘cause I knew I’d need Tom in that car with Nancy, Bob and I when we all went in to the city next time and I helped Chula.

 

It was July 18th, a Monday night when we went in. Bob dropped me off on a street in the village that has since lost its name to me (but I know I have been by since hundred’s of times). It was about eleven thirty, Tom had been in the back seat with me (told you that grounding hadn’t stuck) and as he got out of the car to let me out he whispered:

“You sure you’re cool with this? You don’t have to go.”

“I am definitely cool with this,” I said only to him. “Don’t ask me why but this is like something I have to do.”

“Carl, I have known you a long time,” he smirked back, “and I know never to get in the way of you wantin’ to do something, cause you won’t let it go.”

I hadn’t ever considered myself so determined, but I guess in a way he was right. I didn’t do a lot of stuff back then, (still don’t). I wasn’t into sports or drinking, I wasn’t even itching all that much for my license like everybody else. But I did have a passion for my friends and family and I was way into music, some would say I never shut up about how much I loved Pink Floyd’s new Animals, how I nearly cried seeing Emerson Lake and Palmer on Midnight Special or how serious I was about getting a band together in my parent’s basement and maybe figuring how best to sing “Baba O’Rielly”. So I guess like Tom reminding me right then, I was into some stuff pretty heavily, not just a lot of stuff.

I guess he, Nancy, Bob even, Chula definitely could see how important it was for me to go on this raid with Chula, no matter how foreign spray painting subway cars was to me or how scary the big bad apple seemed to a suburban momma’s boy. I guess maybe they all knew better then I how much this would all prove the particular rebellion I felt and needed. Funny, kids today this same age as I was then, communicating across cell phones, so seemingly hip with what they can download and how they make their way through the world, don’t strike me as this cool and insightful when it comes to one another or even themselves. A guy like Chula who only met me once, Nancy and Bob who certainly didn’t know me as well as Tom, they all seemed to just accept this as something I would take to.

I spun from them, came up on Chula and heard Nancy say something about picking me up at four in the morning. Four in the morning was the latest I had ever stayed out on these NYC runs and if I was ever going to push the possibility of discovery with my folks this would be the night… but it would all be worth it.

It was God awful hot that night, that’s the thing I would come to remember most. Chula and I ran-and a chubby kid like me never really ran-but we ran with fleet-footed speed, as if our heels never touched pavement. I met hundreds of people that night, or it felt like hundreds, all with that wild-eyed feral ache in their eyes like Chula, some white kids like me, other coca-skinned black guys with massive wiggling afros and an indiscriminate amount of guys of ethnicities I couldn’t have figured, like Chula. We started from the village and soon found ourselves someplace in Chelsea (did they even call it Chelsea then?) going down one platform up into another, flying way out on a train that seemed just for us to a yard I could never have gotten back to with even the best GPS unit (had they had them then) and as the night wore on all I could remember was how hot it was on the street, going through the garbage strewn yards and how hotter it got when we descended into the subways. I followed right on Chula’s heels as he took me to that one yard, the another, across all manner of space and time and we flew man, really flew. It’s all a wall of images to me now, colors and shouts, pats on the back, gulping Cokes, smiling stupid at Chula as he smiled back at me and told me to hold the stencil higher, the “azhhaa” of the spray cans, the stale smell of things I didn’t dare imagine in the stunted dead grass just outside the fences, the laugher-Christ the fucking laughter-madness, meeting then separating in clutches and shouts of abandon; youthful freedom like you wouldn’t even hear it in the youth of today. It was hot and crazy and hushed and hurried and fun and sad and desperate and real. That’s the thing really, it was real, it was the real-est night I had ever experienced in my cocoon of suburbia and by the time Chula somehow had me back at that corner in the village and Bob was rolling up with only Tom (I had hoped Nancy would be there to see how cool I was to have survived it all, but she had long since gone to bed Bob told me) I was light-headed and exhausted.

Did Chula make all city that night? I wish I could say he did, not that I would have ever read about in anywhere, but when I saw Nancy she confirmed what I already knew…we hadn’t managed it. There had been too many stops, to much laughter and radio playing, too much fun. I really couldn’t even get my mind around why he needed a slower then slow white kid to join the wind-footed guys Chula had running with him. I do know there was some disagreement among Chula’s crew, between being all city and simply keeping to one yard and working on what they called “burners”, entire whole-car pieces. Maybe Chula needed a nice calm malleable slave with him that night to do what he wanted to do, which seemed like paint, drink, smoke, and paint some more or I really shared a hunger with him. I really don’t know. I was smack dab in the middle of the melee so I went along, my skin as open and alive as my ears were that night. When the little guy left me on the street corner and we parted with a sweaty firm handshake I even sensed that was the last time I’d see him.

Until, of course, I was staring back at his picture in the obituary column this

morning.

 

The faces of my summer of 1977, the most important summer of my life, have either faded from my memory or, if I remember them, or even see them to this day (as I still do Tom) then they have morphed well beyond my dimmest flittering recall. If I think real hard, if I happen to pass one of the places I hung that summer (I own my parent’s house now and use it as a base of operations when I come north on business) I can almost, if I try real hard, taste what it felt like back then. It’s like a mental tip-of-the-tongue thing, right there teetering out of my reach and if I look on it out of the corner of my eye I can almost discern details; if I look straight on, the taste fades. I’m deliberately mixing metaphors here; that’s what memory’s like. It’s not linear, it’s not pretty, colors run, sometimes the mash potatoes do spill over onto the steak or a few peas skitter loose. The nights I ran into the city, those great arguments over which was better Hotel California or Frampton Comes Alive, wondering if I really would kiss Rhonda again, all those moments are running colors in my mind, varied and bright, but all as jumbled together as the spray cans I spied in Chula’s bag in the back of Pop’s simple car that night.

Chula’s obituary didn’t reveal much beyond that he had become a respected civic leader in the Bronx, a lawyer of note and a devoted dad to his two sons. He had died of a heart attack. I never would have seen the obituary had Tom not emailed it to me after getting it himself from his sister Kate, who was friends now with Nancy, of all people. Somehow in the ensuing years Kate had begun a friendship with this ‘older’ woman (Kate is four years younger then me) she had met at the gym, a woman who, when she found out Kate’s last name, inquired if she had a brother named Tom. When the girls got to talking, Kate mention me and how Tom and I were still buds (Kate and I had always had a thing for each other, so she liked to evoke my name as much as possible) and Nancy had made sure to get Tom’s email from Kate when Chula died, asking him to forward the item about Chula to me.

And so it goes.

For the first time in a very long time I picked up my dusty Ibanez acoustic guitar and began trying to piece together the furtive beginnings of a song that used to mean so much to me I lived and died by the challenge of learning how to play it. The effort means nothing really, or maybe it means a hell of a lot more then I care to admit. Maybe it means now that Chula is as really gone-as he had never really been all these years to me, but in remembering that wild-eyed guy, those running steamy nights in NYC, the chubby boy I was that oh-so-special summer I might finally realize. Or maybe “Wish You Were Here” and so many songs I might have forgotten to forget really formed me in a way that made me be that chubby boy running those steamy nights in NYC.

Now, what that damn opening chord again?




Remaining Lost

She woke on the sand in the scorching daylight and tiptoed her fingers towards the gauze wrap of a woman dead beside her. White blind from the high sun, white blind from the crystallized ocean rippling into sandy waves and dunes around her, she had to feel her way exposing the smallest amount of skin to the blistering heat. At last, she let her hand rest deep on her lover’s chest. No precious beat, no lifting and falling of the ribs, the woman had escaped in the night and never said goodbye.

She rose onto her elbow and squinted at the body. A hot blast from the south, she believed it was south, blew granules into her eyes. It parched her of all senses. She curled and with cracked fingers wiped the stinging particles from her eyes. There were no tears.

She made her way towards the withering shelter of her companion and pulled loose her garb. Tented, she lay cocooned within the fabric walls of the improvised sarcophagus, praying she would be buried alive.

When the sun set, she emerged to the cold air of the big sky. Blinking in the deepening gentian light, she could make out night’s first star. She remembered her lover’s voice whispering—make a wish.

A celestial movement caught her attention. A meteor flickered as it blazed to its death. She witnessed its small life in the unfathomable depths of the universe. Life wasn’t fair or kind. Still, she had found love and been loved.

With the dune looming ahead of her as a sharp curved blade, she lay back and named the constellations. She identified the direction in which home lay. And chose to remain lost.




3 Words

He lived upstairs. He lived alone. Always immaculately dressed. A polite man. Old fashioned manners. Worked long hours. Liked the pub. Was well read. He went missing. Never came home. The police came. Searched his flat. It was squalid. Bottles, newspapers, laundry. They found him. In the river. An autopsy done. Blood alcohol fusion. No family known. A quiet funeral. Me and another. Death by misadventure.




Avoiding the Glue Factory

We’re running down a gradual hill when Patrick tells me he isn’t coming back to school in the fall. I want to stop and ask for an explanation, but that isn’t an option because gravity and target workout pace dictates when I can stop. I keep bouncing along, trying to process what he’s said while concentrating on my foot strike.

“What?” is my best effort.

“Not allowed back.” He spits. “Grades.”

“Fuck.” I check my watch. It’s time to start another surge. I say that we’re back on, and we both accelerate to our respective race paces, which means Patrick is a few strides ahead of me and steadily increasing the gap as we glide through the five-minute interval. His blond curls bounce beads of sweat into the early morning June heat.

We boxed each other in the lobby of our dorm when we were freshmen. On the last day of finals, a major blizzard dropped over a foot of snow on most of the eastern half of the country, so we were all holed up with nothing to do but drink everybody’s leftover liquor stash and beat the hell out of each other. A kid from down the hall, Jersey Dave, had a few pairs of boxing gloves that he said his dad used to wear when he fought in Golden Gloves tournaments back home. The padding was thin and compressed and the leather was creased and cracked like they’d been folded up and jammed into a box since his dad gave up the dream.

It didn’t take long for Jersey Dave to talk me and Pat into boxing. “For fun,” he said.

A kid who wasn’t as drunk as us helped slide on and lace up our gloves. I could feel my heartbeat in my palms and was worried that my hands would fall asleep and I’d break my wrist during the fight, but I asked for somebody to dump a shot of Captain into my mouth and focused my energy on staying upright.
Patrick and I tapped gloves and Jersey Dave banged a pen off of a small aluminum bowl. Patrick swung his arms at me like I was a human-shaped swarm of bees. I put up my gloves and backpedaled until I felt hands and forearms against my back, shoving me toward the flailing red orbs. I blocked the first few punches, and then Patrick landed one that smashed my own glove into my face. He was breathing harder than he ever did during our toughest workouts.

I slugged him one good time in the gut with all I had. I can’t exactly say it was out of instinct because I have about as much instinct for fighting as I do playing a concert violin, but I do have a keen sense of how to capitalize when I hear the huffing and puffing that comes with over-exertion. I’d never been close enough to Patrick in a race to hear it come from him, and I relished in the chance to get the best of him. He doubled over and I slammed him in the face a few more times before I heard everybody shouting for me to stop. But I got in a few more, the last one sending Patrick down on all fours.

“What the fuck, dude?” Jersey Dave grabbed me by the gloves and led to me to the side. “You deaf?”

“My bad.” I watched as bloody snot dangled from Patrick’s nose, swaying a few inches above the green-gray carpet. I walked over to apologize. He raised a glove and shook his head. I rambled out a few basic apologies and went the other side of the lobby to get out of the gloves.

*

“They say humans are the best distance runners on the planet.” Patrick sat in the outer lane of the track and laced up his shoes. “We can outrun a horse over the course of a hundred miles.”

“You’d have to be crazy to do that,” I said.

“No doubt. But people do it.” He stood up and bounced around to loosen up. “Obviously, not a lot of people can do it or even try, so it’s not like you can just say that we’re all capable of outrunning a horse. It takes a stud.”

“And it probably helps if you race a really slow horse.”

“You ever seen a slow horse?”

“I don’t know.”

“You haven’t. Except in a glue bottle.” He laughed and started a slow trot. “If I ever get slow, just send me to the glue factory too.”

*

Each year on Spring Break, our team took a trip to Miami and usually hit one track meet on the way down and one on the way back. Between those two meets was our hardest week of training and our hardest week of drinking. By my sophomore year, it became routine to wake up on a piss-soaked mattress, chug some water, and shuffle out the door for morning practice. Coach never cared what we did as long as we made it to practice and got in the work. Gotta beat the heat was his simple rationale for having practice at eight in the morning.

In the middle of the week, maybe Wednesday or Thursday, we had a two-hour run on the schedule. During my morning ritual of stumbling into the kitchen and putting my entire face under the running faucet, I watched Patrick bong a beer, drop the funnel and tube, and head out the door. After I had sufficiently water-boarded away my cotton mouth, I made my way to the lobby for our team meeting. I smelled the leftover foam in the beer bong and fought back the mouth-watering induced urge to vomit. I was still drunk, and I knew the long run would be one of the most effective, yet unpleasant, ways to purge my toxins.

*

I don’t know what happened in the team meeting — none of us ever did, especially during that week. Somewhere in the first half-hour of the run, I felt like I was hovering over my shoulder, watching our small group of long-distance guys, except for Patrick, labor through a zombie-like state. Patrick yammered incessantly about music and how if you play vinyl records backwards there really are hidden messages but how he’d also never done it and never even physically touched a vinyl record.

I could only nod and grunt, so Patrick tried to involve Larry and Sherman, our two stoic freshmen, in his conversation. They were naturally quiet guys, but they were also both peeved with Patrick for making them streak naked into the suite full of girls as part of their “initiation.” We’d never done initiation – we were a team, not a fraternity – and Larry and Sherman knew that but didn’t want to upset Patrick while he was swinging a handle of Captain Morgan over his head, splashing rum on everyone and nearly taking out the ceiling fan.

Somewhere in the middle of run, we found an old guy watering his flowers and trudged up to him like a pack of mangy coyotes. Before we could say anything, he told us that we looked like we needed some water and offered the hose. He made small talk as we took turns slurping down the cool, rubber-tinged water. He said he used to live in Fairmont, West Virginia, but hadn’t been back for over twenty years. Patrick excitedly shook the man’s hand and thanked him with slurred speech. “Son, you smell like skunked beer,” was the only thing I actually remember that man saying word-for-word.

When we started our trek back to the hotel, Patrick slowly edged ahead of the group. I yelled up and asked him why he was picking up the pace.

“Am I?” He glanced back over his shoulder.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Just feel good, man. I’m gonna keep it going.”

The rest of the run was a struggle against the coastal winds and increasing heat, but we made it back in one piece. I lost sight of Patrick with a few miles to go, but when I got back to the room and collapsed face-first onto a piled-up comforter on the floor, Patrick stood over me drinking a beer with one hand and passing me an unopened can with the other. While I dry-heaved at the thought of beer, Patrick laughed and stepped over me on his way out to the balcony.

*

One night in April, a few weeks before the conference track meet, I missed dinner with the team because of a group project, so I ordered takeout to avoid feeling like a weirdo who sits alone in the cafeteria. On my drive to pick up the food, I saw the reflectors from a pair of shoes moving along a block ahead of me. They were moving too fast to be a high school kid, and all of the guys on our team had already been to practice and worked out at least once that day. When I got close to the runner, I recognized Patrick’s stride. He was the most efficient runner I’d ever trained with — his legs worked in harmony to propel him forward, each muscle doing its fair share of work, and his upper body was loose but balanced without any of the bobbing or swaying.

I pulled up beside him, rolled my window down, and yelled for him. He didn’t look over and waved me off.

“Hey, what the fuck are you doing?” I leaned with my elbow on the passenger seat and looked up at him. “We already ran twice today.”

“Just felt like getting out for a bit.”

“You okay?”

“Never better.” He flashed a smile and accelerated.

I moved up beside him again but he shook his head, got over to the sidewalk, and cut down an alley beside someone’s garage.

Back in the room, I ate chimichangas and wondered what the hell Patrick was doing and when he’d be back. His phone vibrated so many times that it eventually fell off the desk and bounced across our gray linoleum dorm-room floor. I picked it up to put it back on the desk before heading out to the meeting.

*

At the conference track meet, Patrick won the five-thousand meters, three-thousand-meter steeplechase, and ten-thousand meters, which had only been done once before when one of the schools from the Northern Panhandle had a Kenyan runner who they recruited with the pretense that he was the missing piece in taking their sorry team to a national championship. Patrick had to outsprint a couple guys to win the five-thousand, but his other two victories were commanding from start to finish. I saw most of this from one-hundred to two-hundred yards behind, either looking far ahead or directly across the track as Patrick loped away from everybody. I couldn’t even congratulate him afterwards because I knew that he didn’t take any pride in winning minor conference championships in the mountains when there were guys he went to high school with who were winning Big East titles at Rutgers and UConn.  All he ever said after a win was, “I shoulda gone faster.”

*

As we finish the second to last surge of the fartlek workout, I struggle to catch my breath. I’ve gone too hard trying to keep close to Patrick, and I don’t want to wait until the cool-down to get an explanation for why he’s dropping out of school. I use all my focus and energy to catch up to him, wheezing and huffing like an asthmatic in a game of tag.

“Is there… not any… way for you to… still come back?” I’m pathetic.

“We got about ten seconds until we’re on again.” He shakes his head.

“Why you even still doing the workout?” I run my words together to maximize the breath used.

“What else would I do?”  He grins and accelerates before I can even check my watch.

I try to respond and stay close to him, but my body has had enough strain. My sides feel like they’ve been assaulted with a tenderizer and my breath catches at the back of my throat each time I inhale. I slow to a stop and clutch my trembling knees, the sweat making it difficult to keep my hands from sliding down. Up ahead, Patrick is running away.




Return of the Hunger Artists

The neighborhood had changed. The city got more expensive, more stainless and sleek. In response, people went back to the land: canning and pickling vegetables for winter. Foraging when the need had long gone. Bow-hunting deer and wild turkey in parks, draining the blood in wading pools. Reclaiming hard identities and calloused fingers they had tried so hard to soften or forget.

The old ways were coming back, too. Old tastes. Religion. Cigarettes. Casual racism, masturbation and chastity belts, and long, long fireside stories told on frigid winter nights. It was all back, and it was all in.

But no taste was more celebrated, held with more esteem, than the return of hunger artistry. And no man was more celebrated for his work than Dunphy.

In his off-season — his thinking time — Dunphy had to walk over homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk. Major bus intersections had attracted beggars. Sitting on cardboard boxes, plastic crates, and unfurled newspapers; deranged and disoriented, they demanded spare change. They seemed oblivious to being pitied or ignored. They seemed content to starve to death.

“Li’l hep,” one bloated, bleary man bleated, palm out.

Despite himself, despite his best instincts, Dunphy nearly laughed.

Amateurs, he thought. Really, seriously pitiful.

It had been three months since his last hunger binge, since disaster and downfall. It was enough time for Dunphy to walk, to think, to acquire a new pelt that would see him through the next hunger season, when he would cage himself, sleep on straw, and grow wan and hollow-cheeked.

Such successful performance art was rare, and Dunphy was the acknowledged master. Oft-photographed, hailed by Ducky Tours and other such brainless urban entertainers, he was frequently asked to sign autographs. Always gracious — unlike some of the competition, who were downright nasty — Dunphy inevitably complied. Today or tomorrow, he thought, money in the bank.

Forty days was once the limit before people lost interest — about the threshold of most tortured populations and troubled protestors. After a few artists had died of hepatitis and heart attacks, Dunphy was the first to reach sixty days. Exhausted and emaciated, he made a full recovery — and, for a handsome sum, he repeated his famed Sixty-Day Show for artists-in-residency and private saturnalias. Ever the best, he feigned losing his composure, pulling at his hair, digging through the straw, gnawing the bars of his cage.

Then there had been a challenge. Samantha, The Fasting Girl, an indigo-black West African who had known famine, was his main competition. Dunphy was judged impossibly old-school — the cage, the straw, the tired, predictable histrionics. For her part, Samantha used a Victorian fainting chair in a hip plexiglass cube, video cameras displaying her binge as she matched Dunphy day by gut-wrenching day.

The half-wit newsies played it as the Hate Match to the Death. Off-stage, though, the two were unlikely friends, occasional lovers. In the off-season, they enjoyed seafood feasts and western movies, laughing at men in skinny jeans trying to take down 200-pound boars with bows and arrows.

In season, Dunphy and Samantha pushed each other. Sixty. Sixty-one. Sixty-two, stopping short of the magical seventy-three, the golden line set by the legendary Riannini of the Rialto.

But one day Samantha clutched her throat and fell to her chair, dead of toxemia. Dunphy stared at her, then walked out of the cage.

The crowd, for which blood-letting and leeches were making a comeback, wouldn’t accept a live death. Tempers flared. We paid good money.

Three months later, Dunphy opened Seventy-Three: The Bataan Death March to reclaim his title. His very name.

No one came to see him that first day, but he knew they would. At first, curious glances from old fans; they didn’t want to look, but they did. The accented lines of the ribcage, yellowing skin, graying gums. They were hooked, to Dunphy and his march.

When Dunphy hit thirty the crowds came, so fast that stadium seating was wheeled in. Popcorn stands, organic food trucks, androgynous couples in their titanium belts cupping fistfuls of fried quinoa, snickering oh the humanity.

Then the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, Shrieking Sixties — the hard, muted lull before glory. The tortured steps towards true transcendence.

Then the Sublime Seventies, when all is hallucination, and the failure of heart and lungs builds like bellowing timpani, like rumbling cumulonimbus on the prairie. The crowds shuddered. Dunphy, barely able to lift himself, was but fifty pounds.

Then, yes, transcendence. It is coming.

So is Samantha.




The Birds

At the café in the gardens, I order a coffee and a date muffin from the waitress. The sun shines down on the climbing roses. An assortment of reds and pinks and scarlet. I want something to read so I go inside the café for a newspaper. As I do so, I pass the waitress taking my order out to my table.

Back at my table again, I am taking a bite of the muffin when a woman comes up to me.

“When you went away,” she says, her tone stern, her cheeks red, “the sparrows flew down and began to eat that muffin.”

“Oh,” I say, my mouth full. I want to spit out the uneaten bits that I have yet to swallow. I look about for a napkin but mine has blown away.

The woman shouts out to the manager. “These birds are so annoying.” She flaps her hands at a small cluster.

The manager comes over. “They are annoying.” He directs this to me. “They come in, eat the food, poo everywhere but when I wanted to poison them, my staff said, ‘Don’t do that to the poor little birds.’”

“Well,” the woman says, “you have to do something. Look at that one.” She gestures angrily to a small speckled bird which has flown onto my plate and is pecking at what is left of the muffin. “Why should we have to put up with it?”

The manager flaps his apron. The bird ignores him.

“Indeed, madam,” he says. “If it troubles you, I will do something about it.”

The bird pauses and seems to glance up at me.

The manager reaches out a strong tanned arm. His hand clasps the little bird. The other snaps its neck.

“Oh.” The woman stares fixedly at the little limp body, before scuttling away from us. Overhead, heavy clouds fill the sky, darkening the red, pink and scarlet blooms.