Romance in Paris

The excitement begins at the airport. You know deep down that in that bag is a ring, a big diamond one that shoots doves at unhappy people, a ring that turns heads in the street. On the plane you feel yourself getting closer; you go for the bag but he says no, he smiles and reads his paper – he has the Financial Times because he has a powerful job that will secure you for life. In Paris you do the sightseeing thing, you go up and down Notre Dame, up and down the Arc de Triumph and up and down the Champs-Élysées. You know his left the Eiffel Tower until after dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Paris because that’s when it lights up, that’s where the romance blossoms. He is still holding his little bag and you’re carrying your new Louis Vuitton and that’s when he asks, slowly, calmly, you can see his nervous before he says it but that just makes everything a little sweeter.

“Is it alright if I meet up with Pierre and go to the game?”

You knew going to Paris on a Tuesday was weird, you should’ve paid attention to Sky Sports News – it’s Champions League night. You say yes obviously, as you’ve been planning to all day. He gets his shirt out of his bag and says he’ll see you back at the hotel. You get a cab back, seeing the couples walk past one on their phone the other taking in the sights alone and wonder, is romance dead?

Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and The Scarlet Pimpernel all come into your mind as you travel slowly through the streets, stuck in traffic behind a rubbish collection truck. Today’s tales of romance come in the obvious of Mills and Boon, the white horse sweeping away the fair maiden. You know now this isn’t real, you know that women aren’t wooed like they used to be and that the world has changed, every one is trying to cram as much in as they can – forgetting those around them. It takes the journey back to the hotel to realise that romance can come in different ways. That girl texting as her boyfriend looks up is still sharing something. It seems still that every book has a love story. Richard Milward writes tales of love that span up and down a tower block in Ten Storey Love Song. Alright it’s not a typical love story but what is these days? There are ‘girly’ books obviously. Sophie Kinsella writes vigorously about typical women in every day situations stumbling into full blown relationships and back out again.

You smile awkwardly at the guard. He has a huge grin on his face, probably because he knows what you’ve just found out. The lift is out of order so you’re walking six flights of stairs. On the walk you think about all the books you’ve read over the last year and how romance plays apart in so much of these. Fair enough you read books about gay gangsters and drug addicts, but they all have that element of romance, they all have a character longing for that someone who’ll appear on the next page. Romance is a bit more creative these days, romance isn’t a trip to Paris and a sparkling Eiffel Tower, romance to you is wanting to be with that person through thick and thin and sharing Sunday morning scrambled eggs with them. You reach your door and slip in quietly, smiling as you see the Eiffel Tower glisten in the distance from your window. He’s there, he beat you back and there are rose petals everywhere.

“Will you marry me?” He laughs.

“Very original.” You say, waiting for the horse.

Keith Hodges



Birthday Americana

One. I’m in a yellow highchair, the same color as the sculpted carpet. In front of me is a cake, frosted to look like flower petals. I don’t yet understand flowers or cakes. I work a blob of frosting into my mouth. Pictures of me show the kind of passion reserved for adults. Ovidian, Keatsian love.

Six. I’m at Jessica Weinbrad’s house. There is an old brown and white pony circling the patio by the pool. I don’t like Jessica. She tells everyone her name is Annabelle, not Jessica, and she pulls her pants down before opening the bathroom door. The cake comes out; it’s huge, pink, shaped like a castle, and topped with purple sugar flags. Everyone is still. Then Horace, the Weinbrad’s mastiff, breaks loose from the sunroom, making a mad dash for the castle. The best things are touching a pony’s nose and wet dogs with icing on their mouths.

On my sixteenth birthday I climb through my bedroom window, yellow panties balled up in my hand. When I can’t sleep, I stare at the ceiling, at the faintly glowing sticker stars. Will Mom find my panties if I hide them in the back of my drawer? The night flashes by. The shiver I felt when he rubbed my knee. Bob Marley. Bob Marley is the best music to lose your virginity to. Especially on the beach. My father is up, pacing around. Maybe Bob Marley is good funeral music too. It’s fine if I die now because I’ve lived.

Twenty-One. The boyfriend decided it’s diner drink night. We order everything listed on the placemats in the Greek diners that line the main drag back home. Now I’m homesick with the spins. The bartender pours Sidecars, Singapore Slings, Old Fashioneds. He’s in a good mood, so everything is a double. The Sidecar makes me want to be a lounge singer, stroking a microphone like it’s my lover. The boyfriend says something funny and we’re all laughing, laughing so hard it cramps. I lean on the wall, my face against the dark wood. An arm winds around my waist. It’s warm, heavy. I could curl up into it, wrap around it the way tree roots grow around rocks. I spend the ride home pinching the top of my nose, eyes clamped shut, breathing carefully. The boyfriend pours me into bed and says to hang a leg out over the side. It’s a waterbed. The room rolls and the bed is rocking, washing under me. I’m on the floor, the carpet, the tile, crawling. I press my cheek to cold porcelain and slur my way through the Rosary. I hug the toilet, clutching at it like a tree in a rising flood.

Thirty. “Are my tits sagging?” “Of course not. What the hell are you talking about?” “Thanks.” Thirty-three. I have no birthday. I’ll never have a birthday again. The baby has a birthday instead. The baby, who managed to get poop in her socks. In her socks. I swore I wouldn’t be one of those mothers who stops talking about things that matter. I swore I’d get a sitter and be back at work in six weeks, that I’d toss the baby in the Bjorn and take her with me. I’m supposed to be in control. That was before soap commercials made my nipples leak. The baby picks up a Cheerio between a pink-tipped thumb and forefinger. This is why you don’t murder them, maybe the only reason. It’s the baby’s birthday. I’m laughing and cleaning shit from a sock.

Forty-two. I planned on champagne. The bottle my client gave me, because his case was long and messy, and two green cards and four years later he’s family; though drinking will be like saying goodbye. The kid is doing the slumber party thing. The husband has taken the night off, even shaved, so that he can ravish me. He says ravish since finding my stash of bodice rippers. I’ve threatened him. One Screw Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Oliver Tits can find their way out of his sock drawer and into the trash. Who keeps hard copy porn anymore? He says they’re not just porn, they’re satires, and as art need to be preserved in their original format. Nothing, he says, decays like digital. I’ve been saving the champagne for when I’m ready to be ravished. After this long with a husband marital aids are required; somewhere around my daughter’s second birthday alcohol began to qualify. I need the booze because the kid is out, the husband is shaved, and despite forty-two being the new seventeen-and-a half, I think there’s a limited amount of time left before it’s not safe to fuck like you want to. And here he is, Mr. Oliver Tits, stroking his hand up the inside of my arm. His stomach presses into my back. Suddenly we’re in the years when the gut touches before the erection does. Not that my breasts aren’t three inches lower. Not that the champagne isn’t just as much for him as it is for me. Lips against my ear. A hand at my hip. “Come. Let me ravish you.”

On my daughter’s sixteenth birthday I attempt cake. I spend fifteen minutes picking eggshells from chiffon batter. Then she goes out with people she doesn’t find embarrassing. “Should I wait up with a shotgun?” the husband asks. “The boy’s named Cheever,” I say. “How bad can it be?” “People who name their kids Cheever are libertines,” he says. “Which means they breed uptight kids with purity rings,” I say. We lie in bed with the lights off, counting seconds until the house key turns in the lock. I remember where I hid my crumpled panties. Tomorrow, while the kid is at drama practice, I’ll search her room and look at the teddy bears.

Fifty-Eight. “Remember when I asked if my tits sagged?” “Which time? All the times?” “No, when I was–God, I must have been thirty.” “I remember.” “I didn’t know from sagging.” “You look good.” “I look like my mother.” “Your mother was a looker.”

Sixty-Nine. I write my name. The letters look right, but it’s wrong, the same as when I speak. I write, “I love you” to my daughter. She reads it back. “Banana. Mom? Want me to get the nurse to bring you some bananas?” The husband comes by, but I don’t want him to see my hair. It’s shaved on one side and there’s baby duck fuzz growing in over what feels like a row of giant staples. When I touch it, my daughter frowns. “They have no sense of aesthetics, Ma. None at all.” The need to ask what happened is overwhelming. I was alone, apparently, so no one can tell me. It’s a miracle that I’m alive, they say. Of course I’m alive–what else would I be? At night the machines beep, blending with the moans from the man in the next bed. He smells terrible. I don’t ask why; that would result in a late night appearance of bananas. It’s like someone dumped out my word rolodex and the only card that’s face up is banana. During the day I practice walking, swallowing, and toileting. A new word turns up. It is Yes. I say yes to everything because it’s not banana. “What’s your name?” “Yes.” The therapist tells my daughter he suspects my responses may not be meaningful. She says, “Well, Mom’s always been very agreeable.” At dinner the family of the man in the next bed visits. They have a baby, about seven months. Nurses flock to the baby, moths hovering around the only source of–well, anything. The baby looks at me. I smile. I say banana and the kid takes off laughing, the way people laughed at Carson. I’ve always had a way with the boys. You and me, kid. Team pants-shitters.

Seventy. The celebration is because I’m walking and talking and everyone remembers how grateful they are to have me. I could dance the hula naked and they’d applaud me. The husband makes a toast, but he’s cut off when the baby starts howling. Upstaged by a baby. It doesn’t matter when it’s your grandchild. You love your kids enough to kill for them, commit an ax murder, but you hate them a little too, for the things you used to be–selfish, firm, energetic. Your grandchildren get none of that. You love, not quite as fiercely, but you hate them not at all.

Seventy-Seven. It’s undignified to still have these things, isn’t it? Ah well, you don’t do it for you.

Eighty-Four. It’s a pain so sharp it passes beyond pain, twisting into startling cold. I’m crumpled on the bathroom floor. Is this how he’ll find me? Support stockings around my knees? First my toes and fingers, then other parts of me doze and drift. Once the husband stops crying–because he’s a helpless lout without me–he will blame it on the chocolate and coffee I had yesterday. I can say now, because I’m at the end of it, I should have eaten more. Made him eat more too, because it was his birthday, because cake is the last true sensual pleasure, because as terribly long as it’s been for us, it’s gone by too quickly at the good parts. The cold becomes color, yellow. Synesthesia. Good to remember the word. The brain is misfiring as it toddles off; everything sounds like the ocean. It smells like pine trees and winter. My first boyfriend’s cologne. I haven’t thought of that in years. Dying, it seems, smells like Ralph Lauren Polo. It’s silly to think of him, but it makes sense, because lust was a kind of dying too. And then I am laughing.




Remex and Rectrix

‘That’s what girls with powerful fathers do.’ ((Kelsey Rose.: 3.10.11, outside 25 West 4th Street, New York NY, 3:21 pm EST.: On the disparity between the radical voice in the early works of Rosario Ferré and the overt pro-statehood politics of Rosario Ferré.)) A slave for ever dilutes with dignity the fiction of love. The truth of this is spectacular. That even the mechanism of nature carries in its chaos an evanescent integrity. As I have been rent from these senses; none preserved, the right to have at chaos. We fester. We, when realized, will ways to destroy. And there, think nothing of order’s lamentations. Someone unheard is waiting to name love, again.

Some summer day, recall, your younger boy runs in the house for a plastic cup and fills it with water. Head full of sun, you hear him burning up the front steps into the kitchen. A few moments later, from the same window, you watch him run back outside and attempt to pour slowly his water down the chute of an ant colony. On the lawn. He stares, squatted by the small hill, waiting, listening perhaps for a sound. What makes this ant to rend the integrities. With what will to inseminate the sun.

This one that loves enough itself to love. That carries in its gaze the touch, honeyed. An eye that breathes, opening from season. The symbol, simple in its breath, is cruel—binds any grander sense of self in string. Ear pressed to hear the sound of summer flee. A speech that reaches, ringing from a depth, must make no mention of what light requests. The silence of the iris on its banks. The gentle lapping of his river rank in the arduous disintegration. Violent theft of holy soon forgotten. As was his wont, my once and future boy. A boy that would not leave with them their godhead. Will not abolish, and every morning together I chance, my hand over your kicking womb, that beauty is the perpetuation of the third language.

That legacy of man is a shadow, an impression, of the kept goodness in the flock of the fairer brother. In his absence Cain builds a metropolis. Of glass and gilt iron and gilt. The earth recoils from his hand. What transpires between two legs of a triangle, between four sides of a tetrahedron. A young man at the opposite end of the car has vomited, a nickel-yellow puddle between his black penny loafers. One nearest him nearly jumps from her seat, almost caught in the blast radius. There begins an egress. He is wearing a black leather jacket and black trousers. All black everything. His crewcut hides nothing of a stoic embarrassment; wanness with eyes closed. His head begins slowly to slump and nod, his shoulders dropping weight on his elbows pressing down on his knees to keep propped up his back. An argentine string of dribble hanging from his open mouth, distended by gravity, stretched and finally snapping back to his lip. Then the smell. Slightly more of vodka than bile. He wretches there, an abandoned figure sitting in the middle of the glossy slate blue bench, leaning slightly against the brushed steel rail in the bright florescent white light, beneath advertisements for Skin. And we are still sitting impatiently in the dark. Those of us who have not left the car, cooperating with the odor. And the blinding white and mirrored surfaces of the car in the dark; the iterative image in the angled double pane at each of the ends of the car. Several suns in the compound eye. If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? ((Genesis 4:7; King James Version.)) Something as well, biblical, of light succeeding dark by divine fiat. As one is not been a concept of the imagination before the other and began the cogs, each of such a series of projections, of his time.

One whose visual sport is textual encounters first law. Building between two energies a third language. Etching on the pane. Of an etch-proof glass. er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er. What Heidegger was unable to say. To we who are eyebright and arnica sitting impatiently in the dark. Those of us who have not left the car, cooperating with the odor.


‘The ties were cut and smashed between that point and the mouth of the tunnel. where the first car hit the concrete partition pier separating the north and the south sides of the tunnel. It was determined that the loss of life occurred almost entirely in the wooden cars of the train when they were dashed against the steel pillars, which cut like giant scythes through the sides of the cars and through the passengers packed inside them.’ ((The New York Times.: 11.4.1918.: THE MAYOR TO BEGIN B.R.T. INQUIRY TODAY)) If you knew what you were saying. If you could hear yourself, I mean. No—actually. If you knew what you were saying. If you could hear. There is in sound the imperative. Something irreparably fractal. Something rhizomatous. If you knew what you were saying. If you knew that sound of catastrophe is the blue midday. How many at any given moment are above and beneath you there is the blue midday? What is this sound in the blue midday? As a contact shoe touching and the smoldering sewage behind. A hand never too near. Or depth in devoid of light for things that sit beneath the tracks is an other notion of now seeing. Do we our whiskers grope through sound is blue midday?

A refinement of the sense is necessary. Right off the Hudson, by Vark. A Kawasaki plant in Yonkers. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Limited. Tokyo owned, Yonkers operated, in a building that was once the Otis Elevator Plant. Operating under United Technologies Corporation, the plant was closed in 1982. From the vertical to the horizontal chords of the subterranean bent snakeways. $16 million in taxpayer grist as investment of good faith in the modernization of Otis Elevators. It is now Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. Tokyo owned, Yonkers operated, stainless steel makers of the stainless steel R160B model. Where we sit, imagining the hand of Yonkers. Wearing safety goggles. With soot in bed and sinus of nail. Ember showers and disappear. Under many machines. A loud grooming sound. Riveting America. The factory built of a distinguished red brick. A red brick smokestack projecting its emulsions into the blue midday. Where Salomón III, for four years, worked as a heavy-crane operator. In his fifth year with Otis he was assigned to overseeing elevator repair-part production. Never lacking in ambition, per se, but dutiful. A forced hand I’d imagine. I had twelve by the death of the Second and my brother never complained. The spitting image of Salomón II in heart and mind, but the Third wore a softness of character that the Second kept hidden. This wasn’t entirely absent in the Second, but hidden. As when, in elementary school, he watched as I lost a fight in the yard. He walked over slow and stately, dispersing the crowd. He said nothing to me. Tears running down my face. He held my hand, which fit cleanly in his palm, as I recall, and we walked to the corner store. He bought me a creamsicle. Orange was my favorite color. I could never forget that, there in the Second. Funny. The fights, bone and muscle forget. The scars though. And that was often his intention. We learned. We ate fear behind. My father, not long after my fight, found a pack of Winstons in the Third’s bedroom. He dragged all the Solnidos, Mami, Mom, and Payín, into the living room round midnight. The pack of Winstons in the dim lamplight of the coffee table. His lawyer lamp with the green glass shade over the bulb and the brass stem. I remember. The Second opened the pack and handed the Third a Winston. Lit it for him and stepped back a mile into the dark as my brother in the catbird seat took nervous drags. Down to the filter. Where you going to put it out? My father asked from beyond the glow of the lamp which only caught, just like that. My brother at the end of the Eames at the edge of the Eames chair. The dark rowhouse of the bookshelf behind. Womenfolk in the umbra. The Second stepping forward then, at the edge of light. Emerging. My brother looked starved for air, trembling. He, in a craven whisper I remember, attempted to resist. please. His hand reaching up toward the approaching Second with the smoldering butt glowing in the dark between his thumb and index finger. please. Then in the light said Second to Third. Open your mouth.

No hay nada mejor. The Third, my brother, his eyes always on the prize, gleaning his small seeds, fed me in the following year’s absence. Acting surrogate in the emptied umbra. Coming home after dark. Singing James Brown in the kitchen. Eating lukewarm leftovers earlier prepared by Veronica. Sometimes I’d sit with him. Just listen to him sing or hum or tap a beat. Wait for him to look up from the plate and grin my way. A lovely, feral grin. A fatigued grin. I was in my middle teens when, in the early months of 1983, Veronica left him for Willy Detroit Wallace and Detroit. Took his son. In 1983. My nephew. The custody hearing lasted into spring of the following year with Veronica flying in at regular intervals, late and imperiled. His son, legally bound to visit, would not return to Brooklyn without his mother for another sixteen years. The morning of the decision I remember lifting Batman and the Outsiders #10 from the corner store. I cried silently, like a man. THE KILLING OF BLACK LIGHTING. Strapped and abused on a saltire. And my brother’s expression, having just driven home the old Nova for the last time, a shadow drawing over his darkling face. Gone by morning from the house on Stratford. Lost to riveting America. I should have said something. I could see how neglected she felt in the late afternoons alone with the child. Waking, alone, with the child. Nursing alone, that fucking bastard. So unraveled the promise of his prize, his promise. A broken bower. And I.

‘It’s getting late.’ ((Floetry.: 3.18.11 Getting Late; Floetic (2002 DreamWorks Records) 7:50 am EST.: She will not fall asleep with me in this leavening vulnerability of morning. Standing nude in front of the blinds, dressing with her back to me, arms up and hands busied adjusting floccose waves of hair into a neat bun. She dips, pulling up sheer hosiery over her hips to meet her narrow waist, just below the navel, as shadow passing over the ochretone of her skin. Sun rising over the rooftops, striating, through the blinds, the silhouette of her bare breasts. She reaches for her bra. Lissom and leaving. Impressions on the tongue.)) Who is unafraid to say, to tell, what to love is. In the infinitives. It proves never a topic too large for we. A prayer with no vocalic amen.

It’s getting late. The vomiteer is breathing softer now, pulling thinly through his open mouth. The muscles of his back tensed to regulate respiration. No longer reaching to oxygenate his insides. He has found, for the moment, some equilibrium. The air still thick with malhumor. With ironies are eyelids chafffallen from my halfsleep. On the floor of my halfsleep. That floor speckled black and white and red and red and gray. Shoeprints. Vomit. To unlove. ‘You are unloveable, but need it more.’

At my right sits an adolescent and, beside him, his mother. As goes the smell of his youth mingled with malhumor: shit and fresh laundry. Fidgety laundry and fresh shit and malhumor. At my left are three teenage whitegirls from middle America clustered together, wearing pajamas, carrying blankets and luggage from Wal-Mart. Leaning, almost huddled, over the girl seated at the center of the troika discussing their lateness in a mistaken volume. If they know no cipher lasts forever. The girl closest to me turns and asks unexpectedly—Does this train stop at 23rd street? Her young breast cleaving the light between sight and point. Plain in the florescent white; if diglossia is its color must remain a body in motion or a body in stasis. Milk fed. She repeats, softer now, friendlier—Does this train stop at 23rd street? Yes, I think so. Or at least it will after 14th. She nods her thanks and turns away. They discuss their lateness, their waiting, waiting. I am watching the dark window. In the window she is watching me. Her friends have moved on to a new topic of conversation. <<running express to 14th Street—Union Square>> I know what she wants to know from me.

In the Second’s death. In the absence of the Third. Skipped by the numeral assignation of my lineage. Breathing the provenance of voice. We readers of. In. The governance of being. I am First. The last mile is squealing before movement in four slotted tones up and one tone down. We’re moving now. And that’s it.




A Backwards Story of a Backwards Man

The Night A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks
he flicked on a small lamp in the corner of the room and rushed a Yuengling from the fridge. After a clack, fizz and slurp, after a warm flood through the gut that settled the tremble in his arms somehow, he turned on the TV: numbered ping-pong balls shot through a tubular cage like popcorn, as though popcorn could be what was, after all these years, summoning his fate – he chuckled. When the last sphere spun, slowed, and tilted to a pause, locked behind silver bars, A.W. almost lost the Yuengling. He stood, thoughts stunned as though nailed to the floor of his mind – which is how he would later describe the sensation of winning (“Sounds crazy, I know”). Then: “I’m glad!” He was giddy, confused, elated, shouting to no one, to an empty house: “I’m glad!” – letting the strangeness sift through him, with the words. He said them again, a variation: “I’m so glad!” And again, feeling his smile set: “I’m glad but not surprised!” Soon his lips were pressed to the plastic receiver of a telephone: “We did it! Like being struck by lightning twice! Finally!” His breath mixing with the cold in the room slickened the mouthpiece. “I told you!”

She didn’t know what her father was referring to, so she said nothing, until she said, “We did?” Her freshly cleansed hair was coiled into a white towel that tilted when she leaned her cheek against the phone. She had been memorizing a soliloquy of Hamlet for school. And she’d been watching American Idol. And she’d been waiting for her fingernail polish to dry into a rich, crimson red, while sitting in an old recliner chair. But, later in bed, with her drying hair curved like a fan behind her, the words echoed: I told you.


Earlier, That Morning Had Been
like every morning lately, promising. He swung open the door of The Moose Crossing. The convenience store served the best chocolate chip pancakes in Downeast, Maine and the largest muffins, the tops spilling over crimped paper like deflated tires. It was also famous for an assortment of lottery tickets and a kind-faced clerk. Scraping together callus-frost palms, A.W. surveyed the peanut butter cookies and jumbo whoopie pies. Finally, he requested two Megabucks, lifting a pack of Yuengling to the countertop. His seasonal work, landscaping gigantic cottages, could not accommodate his yearlong Megabucks routine, but A.W. was very hopeful. I have to be, he said from time to time self-defensively, speaking to no one, speaking to himself. He had to look up – to prioritize possibility before regret, the future before the past. It was time. He smiled at the store clerk and hurried into the shelter of his rusty Volvo, a car that choked when he turned the key, but it was a warm car.


“I’m a Hoper, Not a Sweeper,”
A.W. informed his daughter in the car in the driveway of her mother’s home. He had just retrieved her from soccer practice. These were the only slivers of time to be together, just the two of them – moving from A to B, or, given the chance, sitting in the car – and they almost hurt. How much he hoped these moments reached perfection. It almost felt good – how much it hurt. This was one year before he thought he won the Megabucks.

She had watched a documentary in school today, which bothered her and so bothered A.W. The documentary presented a culture of working class Americans, who earned an unreasonable amount of money but squandered it anyway. They were addicted to sweepstakes, games of chance. “Even though they hardly ever win,” said A.W.’s daughter. Many were insomniacs always scanning the Internet for new contests, she explained with strained sophistication. Some formed clubs on strategizing: colored packaging of prize applications would surely do the trick, doodles, hearts, puppy-dog faces. What the daughter did not tell A.W. was that the moral of the film was really this: These people are foolish. Another way of saying: These grownups are children. Don’t grow up to be like them. Be smarter.

When the documentary ended that day in school and the screen snapped from color to black, a static haze filled the classroom of teenagers gathering books to leave, as if the correct amount of knowledge could take them away from this small town. As if smallness were ever the problem, and maybe it was – the oasis of insularity.

A.W. shook his head and said, “Hope is the thing, honey,” reaching for something else his daughter could have learned in school, literature, something she could relate to, to make her relate to him. He was an English major once. When she did not respond, he saw that his daughter’s class hadn’t gotten to Dickinson yet and – who knows – maybe never would. He replaced the silence: “Well, wait. I got a little something for ya’,” providing with some shame a Megabucks ticket. She smiled, kissed him, and ran to the house.

From her vantage point of just outside the kitchen door, she thought he resembled a backwards Santa Claus: globe of snow-white hair, dirty jacket, ripped jeans. He was always presenting the idea of magic without the ability to employ it; say, fly.

“We could get a helicopter, fly our own private jet!” he called from the car window, face stretched, wind-burnt smile. “If we win!”

She turned to speak, to say something smart, but knew suddenly that she was too young to know anything. Not knowing that even as she grew older – old – she would use the same excuse, except invert it in a way to avoid expressing anything directly, anything that could be true, or wrong. The older I get, the less I know is what she would say when she grew old. Like an adage hanging on the wall of a home it would have hung in her mind long enough to have been solidified from words to what felt like truth. It was something A.W. had always said, she’d realize so long after that particular day in the driveway, and that’s how she knew it. And what it was she wished she knew that moment standing at the kitchen door when she was just a girl in high school would fall away: That it was wrong to hope so much? Or want so much? Or was it need so much? She’d said to her father once: I wish you were dead. She meant to keep the thought inside, but something had slipped. Then: anger toward him slackened to pity. Then: she saw it in his face – a flash of pain replaced by a little smile.

She’d be decades older than her father ever was when the epiphany eventually dawned – that her silent mantra was his spoken one (“The older I get….”); she’d realize and re-realize this in fits of memory, or what could be called wisdom, that often seized her those years before her death of old age, which she would see coming like a psychic, or a person reading the book of her own life and feeling the pages thin; something he had always said when she was small. And something else: “Hope is the thing,” she’d try to recall. How had Emily Dickinson put it? She’d buy a book, an antique, to remember. She’d find the poem in the middle of its many parted pages. “The thing with feathers.” She’d think the poem was supposed to be uplifting, but it would instead feel cliché, and the disjunction between what she felt and what she thought she should feel would compose a pain that like a hand gripping her stomach – twisting – would make her wish to be a child again, memorizing Shakespeare from an overstuffed chair. Back when even old words felt new. Instead, she’d be this: a woman pointing down at a poem with an index finger, holding all those pages apart with pinky and thumb, lest it all collapse together. She would miss her father terribly then, wondering why he left so soon. “The older I get,” she’d have absorbed his mantra like second-hand smoke, without realizing, without minding, almost gladly come to think, “the less I know.” It made her feel a part of him.

The young daughter waved as the Volvo lurched away.


Three Years before A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks,
one sweaty summer afternoon presented a kind of humidity not to be expected in mid-coastal Maine. It crept between where things existed, connecting all objects and people and thickening the world, A.W. suspected, into a solid orb, a heavy ball in the sky that would one day find itself too fat to spin, and drop. He was without hope and hopeless. He phoned his ex-wife. His voice projected the shrill desperation of his inner thoughts: “I’m going to do it this time [because there had been other times]. I’m going to kill myself.”

She was watching Law and Order: SVU, an interesting episode. It had been a long day. Dinner was made, dishes were done, and the daughter was busy with homework in her room. The last thing the ex-wife wanted was to comfort A.W. So: “If you’re going to do it, don’t make a mess.”

“Remember the bad thing? I can’t stop thinking,” he paused to clear his nose. “Maybe I don’t deserve to live.”

The ex-wife remembered many bad things but knew the one sticking to A.W.’s mind was the one that had instigated divorce. She muted the television and listened for clues that her daughter was listening, too, but there was only the trickle of music from down the hallway. She hissed into the phone just in case: “You have your daughter to think of.”

A.W. dialed a new number, spoke to a new voice, relived the bad thing through words, and became a voluntary patient at “Acadia,” an institution known through this and the neighboring counties as the only one of its kind. He did not kill himself then, but it soon became clear to him that the odds of someone with bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and a history of domestic abuse finding contentment were to be equated only with winning the Megabucks.


The Day A.W. Did Something Really Bad
occurred ten years before he thought he won the Megabucks. He awoke in the morning with a headache that extended to the pit of his stomach, instigating heartache along the way. Lying in bed, he searched the cavern of his mind for why he felt this way – pain for no reason was not worth having – and found nothing. He searched harder, still nothing. Then something. He sat up, back jerked straight as though postured by a wooden board; there was maybe just one reason for feeling so terribly bad, sad. The old horse. Their old horse had died last week. A.W. found him in the pasture, in the snow, up on the highest hill and nearly frozen in the shifty wind of morning. A.W. stood there beside the mound of soulless body, watching and wondering how to tell his wife her favorite thing was gone.

But, he knew it wasn’t the horse that was making him feel this way. The death, though never to be admitted aloud, had brought relief. And so, pain without reason, and so – the invisible wound seethed. The mind had become a set of dominoes on the breezy ledge of a world where everything is connected to everything else; where one small incident leads to another, and if something, a single moment, collapses, all moments, past, present and future, crumble; a world where everything breaks eventually.

In the bathroom mirror, while brushing his teeth – he thought he could “center” himself with daily ritual – he noticed his neck pulse, which reminded him of blood and the inner workings of his body and the possibility of a heart attack. He spat the chalky juice into the sink and rushed to the bed where his wife slept. He pushed her head with the palm of his hand. He hissed her name, but she rolled away; he raised his voice, so she groaned. “Help me!” he said.

She looked at him, blinking with the oblivion of the newly awoken, of a child, until she awoke completely, her eyes large and glistening as silver dollars. A sphere of hope, like A.W.’s pain, unraveled down the back of her throat. “Please don’t kill me,” she said. She knew this was not the first time one had awoken in fear, and she felt as though she embodied every person who ever had. Trillions of worlds of dread inside her, bursting, one by one, like soap bubbles, leaving her insides scraped new and raw. Trillions of worlds of dread, including A.W.’s. She wanted to fold into herself, to protect everything inside. He held his deer-hunting rifle to her temple. She thought she could read his mind: I have to.

She thought she could read his mind, and he sensed her doing it: I have to blow away the place where thoughts come from. He aimed right at that place.

“Please,” she said like a child; the word had regressed to a whimper, but he understood what she meant; he could read her thoughts, too. “Please don’t kill me.”

Of course he wouldn’t. He was only realizing now – he didn’t have it in him, a thought so good it felt like milk spilt on his mind. The best thought: I don’t have it in me to kill someone else. It was now so clear what had gone wrong: he’d been mistaking his thoughts for hers, a problem he’d fight for years to come, conflating his thoughts with so many others. His wife was sweating on the bed, white nightgown wet, blonde hair stringy from sleep, and he thought: She looks like an angel.

He was glad when she moved out, even with the daughter. Even as a grown man, there was so much about himself he didn’t know, and on bad days it was so embarrassing he could almost die. 


“What Is the Point?”
A.W. wanted to know. His bride wanted the horse, bad. “But what is the point of buying a retired barrel racer?” They were starting their own farm together, and this was what she wanted: an orange piece of broken hide, scarred, too scared, and so too scary, for use, nearly twenty hands high and twenty years old, this walking, giant corpse – if he could walk. “He’ll waste all our feed.”

“They’ll turn him to glue.” She clung to A.W.’s hand. She was always wanting to save things, which he had to respect.

That Friday, they arrived home late after celebrating their recent purchase. These days they celebrated every chance they had, because life was a celebration. They’d been told theirs was the mindset of the newlywed, but to them it all seemed so infinite, nothing could ever end, no feeling so strong, of happiness especially.

A.W. pulled his truck up by the pasture. Their horse stood in the headlights, a statue behind the new barbed-wire fence but for his blinking eyes. A.W. let the radio play Neil Young as he went to open his wife’s door. A warm mood was setting with the sun. The autumn air was fresh. He wanted to dance with his wife beneath the stars, but instead he just stood at her door, shaking his head. She was so beautiful she could have been an angel. The music played and a harvest moon rose, just like Neil said. She looked up at him, and, although embarrassed, although flattered, although filled with the knowledge of everything about him, his past (because he had told only her), she was hopeful.

That night, the horse came to her in a dream. In the dream, he was dying, ancient body peeling away. He was a ghost slipping from the sleeve of skin, hair falling from flanks with each swell of motion. He was in her room. He was leading her to the door, up the hill, away from the pasture, far away from everything here toward somewhere and anything else. She didn’t know where.

“When I die, you will leave this place,” the horse turned and said suddenly, though not surprisingly (as is the way with dreams, she’d sigh, thinking years later on the strangeness of the situation and watching Law and Order: SVU, after a long day, on mute). Pure ghost now, what awaited her response was a whisper of being, a sliver of mist, almost nothing at all.

“Uh. Okay. But, I don’t trust talking horses,” her dream-self countered. Then something hit her, a strange truth: When I die, you will leave this place. She wanted to tell him that didn’t make sense, to remind him: “You’re already so old.” But something shifted, changed; she was awake now and found herself alone.


A.W. was a Very Bad Child.
When he was four years old, trouble came easy. One day he taught himself to swim. Finding pleasure in companionship, he brought the barn cats. There they all were: Smokey Gray, Smokey White, Kitty Black, and A.W. in the horses’ water trough that afternoon, mewing. The trough did not present the depth of water necessary for danger. The pockets of A.W.’s overalls filled with liquid, and the way his pant legs expanded into balloons when he sat pleased him. He had a child’s cup of milk and liked the way it stained the murky water white when he poured it all in.

Then he saw his father moving toward him from a distance, and there was the first flicker of fear; it spoke in the meter of heartbeats, nervous, fast and faster, saying: “Go, A.W. Go-go-go.” Warning: “A.W., this is your chance. Now!” But he didn’t know fear. Nothing bad had ever happened. He was excited. Signals crossed – even then, he barely understood what his self was telling him. It seemed a game. With a chuckle – the laughter of someone much older – he picked up Smokey Gray, who hissed and scratched. Then he scooped the other kitties from the trough to begin his race, howling. It felt like a game, it really did.

A.W.’s father had, upon noticing the swim, broken routine, dropped a bag of horse feed to the ground, pulled a loose two-by-four from the rotting fence, and begun to run. His action came from adrenaline not thought, so if he did think one thing it could only have been: “This will never happen again.” But he was not a man of words, and words would falsify his character. Simply, he was the period that plugged each sentence, the stopper in the throat of discussion, the end to every story.

A single nail, jagged and out of place, stuck from the board. A.W.’s father caught A.W. – because a four year-old outrunning a man was just so very unlikely. In hindsight, the adult A.W. wondered why the boy A.W. had not thought this through, dear Lord.

A.W. had tripped in the grass. Staring up at the man, the boy blinked with the oblivion of the newly awoken, until he awoke completely, his eyes, like his wife’s in later years, were large as silver dollars, reflective as polished money. It didn’t take long to see that the nail was actually a tooth and that the wood from the split-rail fence was another animal on the vast Ohio farm, ready to snap.

In the years to come, the punctures in his neck began to resemble pale, pink bites. They had transformed A.W., whose story could never be as easy, as straightforward, as he’d always hope. A boy did not transcend childhood one day, becoming a man.

He lost it.




Some Really Bad Things that Have Happened at Sea – for Context.

Before we even left port I found that both of the drawers underneath my bunk were filled with jars of pickled herring.

Later, while I was watching the sun dip into the horizon, some salt water kicked up overboard and splashed me. It was actually quite refreshing but unfortunately it must have also splashed onto where my disposable contact lenses sat on deck as when I put the lenses in it really stung. When I told the guys in my room what had happened though, midshipman Wilson just laughed really loudly and said the whole thing was just too funny. I repeated that it actually really hurt and made it harder than ever to see, but he insisted it was still priceless. I said as we are all well aware good vision is essential to the sound seaman, but that only set him off again. Midshipman Clarke wanted to know why I was changing my contact lenses on deck. I explained that I’d gone up to watch the sun set. Midshipman Wilson called me a gay and started laughing even harder.

While I was removing the last jar of pickled herring from under my bunk and placing it in a cupboard near the life jacket store, midshipman Wilson came running over and asked me just what exactly I thought I was doing with his pickled herring. I explained about them being in my drawers. I said I needed to put my clothes away. I reminded him that when at sea for long periods of time it is important to feel settled and at home and that all my stuff still being in bags was not helping this. Midshipman Wilson said that was all very tragic but how was he supposed to keep track of his pickled herring if they were all over the boat. I said they were hardly all over the boat as they were all in the cupboard next to the life jackets. He said that was the same thing. I’ve only eaten pickled herring once. It was not pleasant. I already do not want to know why midshipman Wilson has so many on board.

The waves were very big today and the boat was pitching more than normal. I woke up in the night feeling strange and ended being sick in the corridor. Luckily the lads were all fast asleep so I was able to clean up before anyone noticed. Both midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke sleep on their backs with their legs spread open and their hands behind their heads. Midshipman Wilson also sleeps naked and sometimes the blanket does not cover him properly. He snores loudly and farts roughly every two hours. I have timed it.

Someone must have heard me last night because now everyone on board is calling me these silly names all derived from the word vomit. There are just too many to hold in your head all at once, but Vom-Lord, Vom-Face and McVom are prevalent. At supper midshipman Wilson called me Lord Chunderstains right in front of the captain. I expected the captain to check midshipman Wilson for his foul language but instead he asked me if the rumours were true. I said I had no idea what he could be talking about. Of course you do Vomulus, he said. Midshipman Wilson laughed so hard he had to sit down on a coil of rope. The only people who could have heard me on the corridor are Wilson, Clarke and Tins, but I have already narrowed it down to Wilson and Clarke because Tins doesn’t ever go on deck and just works in the engine room.

Midshipman Wilson broke into my drawer yesterday and stole my SHOOT annual from 1996. He’s gone through and drawn a swastika on every Blackburn Rovers shirt. He thinks what he has done is hilarious, so I had to explain that because of the swastika anyone who sees me reading it is going to think that either I’m a Nazi or that I think that everyone at Ewood Park is a Nazi. Midshipman Wilson told me to lighten up but it is a very awkward situation as everyone knows the captain wears a Chris Sutton shirt when he goes to the gym. I have decided to put the annual at the bottom of my drawer and not take it out until the end of the trip which is a big shame as it was a great season and it’s good to catch up when you’re away from home. I’m 90% sure it was midshipman Wilson who told everyone about my accident in the corridor. Clarke nodded sympathetically when I complained about the annual and is generally far too nice.

Today we pulled up and dropped anchor so some of us went for a swim off the back of the ship. I’ve always loved the water and I was having a really great swim until I realised midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke had pulled the ladder up. When I called for them to put it back they acted like I wasn’t even there and just lay on their backs in the sun, drinking those little green Heinekens they let us have when we’re off duty. I trod water for well over half an hour before they finally let me back on, by which time the sun had dried out the salt in my hair and frozen it solid. Midshipman Wilson said I looked like Sideshow Bob. I tried very hard to ignore this.

Because we are near port we were given permission to go on shore for the night. A good gang of us ended up going over around six and found a lovely sea front bar with a terrace overlooking the bay and what looked like very reasonably priced sea food. We were all relaxed and enjoying feeling like human beings again, until midshipman Wilson made everyone, including the captain, do Jaegerbombs. Soon we were all really drunk. Midshipman Wilson stood on a table and said that we must all go and get hookers. A few of the lads seemed keen but I said I’d be alright for tonight thank you. Midshipman Wilson told me to grow a pair and come and get a hooker with the boys. I told him I already had a pair thank you. He said it didn’t bloody look like it. There was a small argument and then everyone held me down so midshipman Wilson could pull down my sailor trousers to check. Then they all ran off to get hookers. I was really cross with midshipman Wilson for making such a scene as it was a very smart place. I also pray that no one caught sight of the mole on my inner left thigh, before I got my sailor trousers back up.

Apparently midshipman Wilson had three hookers. I said that seemed a little over the top, but instead of defending himself he rounded on me and asked me if I was a gay? I said I had a wife thank you, who I cared for very much and who was definitely a woman. Midshipman Wilson groaned and said it was worse than he thought. I have no idea what he meant by that. There is a high chance one of the hookers will have given him a venereal disease, but I didn’t bother telling him; I don’t suppose he would care.

Someone definitely saw the mole. On the back of the gents on Deck 4 there is a drawing of a man in a Blackburn Rovers shirt with a swastika where it should say McEwan’s Lager. The man has no trousers on and no genitals apart from a big black ball half way down his left thigh. It has hairs sticking out of it. Underneath someone has written you’ve got a mole with it.

We got post from home today. I received a lovely letter from Marie. She included a packet of refreshers and some Percy Pigs. I was in such a good mood after the letter that I shared out the sweets with the guys. Midshipman Wilson ate all but one of the Percy Pigs and then asked me to remind him to go and give Marie a decent shag when we got back to say thank you. I didn’t even bother to respond. I think blue refreshers are my favourite, although sometimes I think they all taste the same.

It was very choppy today. A huge wave came on board while we were scrubbing the deck and we all got soaked, apart from midshipman Wilson who wasn’t there at the time.

Midshipman Wilson has a new dorm rule. Wednesday night is communal wank night, where he puts pornography on the telly and we all masturbate. I explained that I had no problem with masturbating but that as a married man I would prefer to look at a picture of my wife. Midshipman Wilson said that was fine so long as the photo was big enough for everyone to see. I had to explain that there was just no way I was going to let a room full of sailors masturbate over a photo of my wife. Midshipman Wilson said I was missing the point of a communal wank. We argued about it for a good long while before Clarke told us both to belt it and put the pornography on. The pornography really was awful, not romantic at all. I thought about pretending I was feeling sick and slipping out with my photo of Marie for a more private wank, but the only place I could go was the gents on Deck 4 where there is a drawing of my mole on the door, so in the end I stayed in with the others. Midshipman Wilson was shameless; he didn’t even do it under the covers.

We were meant to go into port today but couldn’t because the sea was too rough. This was the last thing I needed as I am running out of toothpaste and I don’t believe any of the other guys have any.

Two bad things today: Firstly someone has drawn an arrow to the drawing on the gents door on Deck 4 and written, who’s this tosser? Secondly my photo of Marie has gone missing. I had it kept tucked inside my copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which I read once before and didn’t get on with, but I thought I’d give another go as everyone says it’s so good. I can’t help feeling midshipman Wilson is probably involved in both.

Today in the common room midshipman Wilson did an awful fart and then ran away so when all the guys came in from the gym they assumed I’d done it.

I caught midshipman Wilson selling my photo of Marie to other sailors today. He was charging a pound a go but he didn’t say what a go actually was. I asked politely for my photo back but he said I had to give him a pound. I said I wasn’t going to pay for my own wife. Midshipman Wilson said he’d always assumed that that was the relationship. In the end I paid him a pound. It wasn’t right that he made me do so, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Marie being passed round all the sailors. It’s my favourite ever photo of her, taken in April when we went out walking in the botanical gardens when all the pink and white blossom was out, looking like bridesmaids dresses hanging out to dry. There are small smudge marks on the sides and the bottom left hand corner is a bit bent. I have put the photo in my wallet to keep it safe. I had to fold it in half but I think I still have the negative so I should be able to print off another copy when I get home.

At supper on the last night midshipman Wilson and midshipman Clarke gave me a massive wedgie in the canteen. It took me totally by surprise. I don’t think I’ve had one since school and I forgot how much they actually hurt. Everyone was laughing including John who everyone says has no sense of humour. Maybe he was just happy because we all go home tomorrow.

As soon as the captain thanked us for our efforts and said we were free to go midshipman Wilson shouted see you suckers and sprinted across the quay to the pub. Clarke waited around and shook me by the hand. He gave me his number and said to meet up for a pint if I was ever in Exeter. We looked for Tins to say goodbye to him but we couldn’t find him. Marie was waiting with the car and I invited Clarke to come over and say hello. Marie smiled and looked very lovely in her green cardigan. In the end we gave Clarke a lift to the station. Afterwards Marie said she was glad I’d met some nice folks on board. When we got home I was so tired I let Marie unpack my bags. She was up there a long time while I just sat on a chair watching Emmerdale. Eventually she came down with a jar of pickled herring. Is there a story behind this? She asked, laughing.




Surprised by Joy

So I thought I’d cheer her up, take her mind off things, you know, lighten up the old load, no more ‘n that. I’m good at it, see, making people feel better, always have been, can’t tell you why—it’s just the way I am, the way it’s always been. People see me coming, they smile, can’t help themselves—however bad their day’s going, they see me and before they know it I’ve said something to make ‘em laugh, and the whole world feels as if it’s turned a corner—know what I mean?—found its bounce again, stopped raining all those dead cats and dogs and that. Little ray of sunshine, that’s me, little silver lining, Mr. Happy Tooth, or, as my dear old mum used to call me when I’d tell her to keep her pecker up coz it could be worse, Pollyanna Pete. Funny, that, don’t you think? She was a card, my mum, always coining a phrase, coming up with the winning number, nailing it on the bull’s head, and of course my name was Pete, still is, as I expect you saw from my file, Peter really, if I’m being formal, though not Pollyanna, I’m glad to say, ha ha. Now that would be one for the books, wouldn’t it, if she’d actually christened me Pollyanna, like that song, you know the one, about a man who’s mum named him, what was it, Mary or Ann or something—no, I lie, it was Sue, or was it his dad, one of them anyway, and it made him famous, if I remember right, Johnny Cash, wasn’t it, the man in black, and we all used to sing along to the juke box in the Hare and Whippet when we’d had a few on a Friday night, knew all the words, didn’t we, blimey? But she didn’t, my mum, didn’t really call me Pollyanna, even though she might’ve done, being one of life’s natural jokers, like mother like son, you might say, specially if she’d known when I was born that I’d turn out to be such a live wire, a bright spark to those in need, or I try to be, not that I’m famous, course I’m not, not nationally like the big names are, like Johnny Cash, though quite a lot of folk in my old neighbourhood, specially down the boozer, the Hare and Whippet—did I say?—at the corner of Dock Lane, if you know it, well, a lot of them would know who I was if you were to ask, which isn’t exactly fame, but it’s nice to be known in your own little pond, isn’t it? Nice to be a big fish in your own back yard. Ouch, that hurts, no, no, sorry, don’t mind me, I know you’re only doing your job. You’ll have to excuse me rambling on like this, only it takes my mind off, you know, the stitches going in, because I’m really quite upset, which I don’t suppose you can tell, seeing as I’m a smiling sort of person, sitting here docile as a lamb, something I’ve always been able to do when the world’s throwing sticks and stones, me being a forgiving and generally optimistic sort of a bloke, even in the face of life’s travails, which you must admit I’ve certainly been in today, though perhaps “face” is an unfortunate word to use, given the circumstances, so let’s just say in the midst of life’s troubles and those are bad enough, as I’m sure you can see with one glance, whoops, what am I saying, one glance, when any fool can see, there you are with both eyes on the prize, giving it all you got, which I have to say I’m extremely grateful for, even if I’ve always been allergic to needles, and I won’t ask you whether there’s going to be a scar because I’m not a vain type of a person, though I’ve always been considered reasonable-looking in my own way, quite a dandiprat, if not exactly one of God’s TV heroes, something, to be honest, I’ve always been grateful for, not being one to put myself forward in the street or anything, excepting, as I might’ve told you, that I will step up when it’s a case of help thy neighbour as thyself, though I can’t say today’s little episode helped thyself, meaning me, very much, at all, and not even the neighbour in the end, though how was I to know that when I opened my big mouth and she didn’t give me so much as a hint that I was out of line, not so much as a nod or a wink, not that winking’s been much up her alley recently, poor little cow. Down in the mouth don’t begin to describe it, not a smile for anyone, not a Wotcha Pete! or a wave in passing, not for weeks, and everyone beginning to say it looks like the black dog’s going to carry her off for good, like she might pop her own clogs, if you catch my drift, which is not something a self-respecting friend can just stand by and let happen, not that we’re exactly friends or anything, I wouldn’t want to imply that, but certainly neighbours, acquaintances, smile at each other in Tesco’s kind of  thing, nice girl she is, too, if a mite plain, went to school with my cousin Greg’s youngest, known her since she was four or five, not me, I mean, my cousin Greg, a really decent girl, he says, good for his Lila when she was going through her wild stage, which is a bit of a joke, if you ask me, coz when has Lila not been going through a wild stage, but I know what Greg means, like when she was fourteen, fifteen, and hanging round the chippy after school with no knickers on, pardon my French, something she doesn’t do these days, though I wouldn’t swear on a bible she’s a reformed character neither, even if she does wear a white overall and work in that big fishmonger’s by the Boxing Gym. I got to know her when she married that bloke she met at the job centre, not Lila, her friend, the girl I was telling you about, went to the wedding with Greg and his missus, only she’s not really a girl any more, not since she lost her looks, hardly surprising, given all the trouble and strife she’s been through, specially lately, and no one to cheer her up but me, which I felt in honour bound to do, being as it didn’t look as if anyone else was exactly concerned she might be taking a one-way ferry ticket across the river Sharon, and why she married him I’ll never know, coz don’t tell me he was trying to get a job when she met him, more like trying to get the paperwork straight to prove he wasn’t fit to get a job, which doesn’t take much skill these days, though it might take a bit of know-how, which clearly this Terry bloke had because he never lifted a day’s work, as far as I know, not before nor after he put one up the spout, married her, then disappeared from her life like a cloud of bad gas, and that’s been over ten years now, which is a tough thought to get the old brain-box around, as it seems only yesterday I was shaking her hand at the wedding and telling Greg and his missus that no good would come of it, and the fact I was right gives me no joy, no joy at all, let me tell you, though anyone could’ve predicted Terry wasn’t one to stick around for a life of domestic nigging and nagging.  Are you nearly done, by the way, Doc? Coz I haven’t got all day to lie around and talk to you, you know, pleasure though it is to meet you an’ that—I got things I need to be doing, people I should be calling, let them know where I am and what happened, though come to think of it, as it happened in the Hare, I suppose most of them know by now, probably already telling the story, nice flippin’ joke to pass around, I don’t think—my old mum must be turning in her grave. I can hear them now—you’ll never guess the pickle old Pete got hisself into—blood everywhere, had to call the pollies and an ambulance, not seen so much excitement since the Gunners went down 1-4 to United and Les Wiggins’ terrier bit Maisie Mitchell on the bum. Oh, I know, I know how it’s going to be, I won’t live it down for a year, maybe for never, might have to go and drink in the King’s Armpit, but how was I to know? I mean come on, be fair, how was I to know? I’m not one to gossip, and if I was one to gossip I wouldn’t be gossiping about my cousin Greg’s daughter’s friend who married a loser and had a kid who turned out just like his dad and did a runner soon as he could, and God knows where he is now and everyone looking for him, only I didn’t know that, didn’t know the kid was missing, I mean, and I’ll tell you something—if I had known, I might not’ve cared as much as I should, and that’s the sober truth coz I knew the scuzz that kid hung out with, and let me tell you, they’re the nastiest bunch of little knifers this side of Buckingham Palace, you take my word for it. Ouch, that hurt, sorry, Doc, sorry, I know you’re only doing your job, only I’ll be glad when you’re finished your little bit of sewing, to tell you the truth. I feel quite shaken up by this whole thing, quite knocked off the old rails, and I’ll be straight with you, I wish I’d never stuck my flipping neck out and tried to cheer her up in the first place, only seeing her sitting there on that bar stool with a half-drunk bottle of cat-piss lager and her eyes all red and emptied out, I just couldn’t ignore the poor little bitch, I mean, what decent human being could settle to full appreciation of his pint of Newkie with that heap of misery perched up there like a dying budgie and no one saying so much as a cheer up, love? So I thought I’d just make nice, spin a little small talk, offer a bit of jolly, which cross my heart and hope to die was all I was meaning to do when just in passing, I said, quite innocent and casual-like, “Didn’t I see your Jason down by the market yesterday?”, something I might well’ve asked in the normal run of things, the kid being one of those you’d see anywhere but where he was supposed to be, like in school or where have you, and I expect I had seen him at the market several times, only just not perhaps yesterday, but this was no more than chit-chat, remember, no more than a bit of human interest, being neighbourly, doing unto others, etc., etc. So like I said, I says to her, “Didn’t I see your Jason down by the market yesterday?”, and just for a minute, I think, Blimey, Pete, old son, you’ve done it—you’ve made her day, coz you should’ve seen her face, like I’d switched on all the lights in Wembley Stadium at once. Electric, it was, magic, moment of sheer joy—just call me Harry Potter—well, I was quite pleased with myself coz like I said, it’s my mission in life to make people perk up, and there she was, mega bloody perked. Jesus.  Clueless bleedin’ Samaritan. Never do that again, will I? She thought, see, that I really had seen her kid yesterday. Well she would, I suppose. Asked me exactly where, exactly when, asked had I spoken to him, what did he look like, was he okay, could I take her there, he’d been gone for four months, she couldn’t believe it, it was a miracle, on and on and on, and me standing there with a pint in my hand, feeling a right proper Charlie, I can tell you, her crying and begging me an’ that, and I had to stop her—well, I had to, didn’t I?—I’d dug myself into a right old hole, a giant bloody bear-pit, if you want to know, with all the sharpened knives pointing right back up at me. So of course I had to go for the Olympic record in back-pedaling—said I must’ve been mistaken, barking up the wrong tree—it must’ve been someone else’s kid I’d seen—I hadn’t meant yesterday—I didn’t know Jason was missing. “Sorry,” I said, “Sorry, missus, way out of line,” or something like that, coz I really hadn’t meant any harm, you know, just making small bananas, trying to cheer her up, like I said, good old Pollyanna Pete, total stupid arse. And that was it. She picked up her bottle of lager and broke it over my head. You know the rest. Blood everywhere. Beer everywhere. Glass everywhere. I tell you, I’ve never been so surprised in my life, could’ve knocked me down with a feather, well, what am I saying, course I was knocked down, only not exactly with a feather—what? You’re done? Well, why didn’t you say so, Doc? I got things to do, people to see, can’t stay here chattering to you all night, pleasure though it’s been to have such a Christian conversation after what happened, if you’ll pardon the expression, as I can see from your headgear that you’re probably not a Christian, but what I say is . . .




Bennett Paris — Exu’s Fedora

Franklin had left Jersey City during the real estate boom. They sold their house, he and his Brazilian wife, and with the profit, built a small house on land her parents had given them, and settled in to pursue the simple deliberate life in a former fishing village called Beira Mar. He set up a small tourism business, the income from which turned out to be not more than pocket change, but it kept him busy.

He’d been flipping through the pages of the local tourism magazine, dozing in the hammock, when the loud music started up again at the new brothel around the corner. The group from Texas was due in; he was hoping to get some sleep before they arrived.

His wife warned him about going over to the place. Who knew how they’d react? What kind of people were these? These brothelistas, she called them.

He’d been stewing about it for weeks, since the owners of the building finally gave up on the idea of a bed-and-breakfast, rented it, and took off to the countryside. He had expected something like an argument. But he was welcomed like a client. Idle women at the pool peeked around the potted plants for a look.

The manager, wearing a Speedo swimsuit, sunglasses, belly hanging proudly over his waist, put his hand on Franklin’s shoulder. “I understand,” he said.

“The people on that block over there” Franklin pointed to his own house, “are just a few meters away.”

“Sure. You’re right.” The manager called his assistant, also shirtless; washboard belly, sunglasses, goatee. “Tell them to turn down the volume. The neighbours….”

Then to Franklin: “See. Easy. We want to get along with everyone here.”

With the music turned down to a more agreeable thumping, the assistant returned: “Better?”

“Better,” Franklin said. “Thanks.” He held out his hand, a formal business-like handshake. “For your own good, by the way. You don’t want to, you know, mess up business. The neighbours….”

They both nodded. “We know.”


On his way out, Franklin ran into his neighborhood friends, Jorginho and Pau, sitting on the stoop in front of Jorginho’s bar. Kids played soccer in the street in front of them; another group played a version of hopscotch in the late afternoon shade.

“Just complaining about the noise,” Franklin said. He looked around to see if anyone else may have seen him leave the place. “Nice neighborhood like this, kids, families. Now we have to put up with putas. I don’t know why people tolerate it.”

Pau poured beer into his Jorginho’s cup. “I’m sick of it too.” He handed Franklin a cup and poured the beer. “This kind of thing happen where you’re from?”

“The putas?”

“The putas, yes; the whole scene over there,” Pau said.

“Barking dogs were a problem in Jersey City sometimes,” Franklin said. “People used to argue over parking spots. But a brothel moving into the neighbourhood? No, that never happened.”

“He’s right,” Pau said to Jorginho. “I’m sick of it too.”

A soccer ball rolled over; Jorginho kicked it toward the kids.

Pau took out his cell phone and dialed. He shouted into the phone in Portuguese slang that Franklin could not understand. He put his hand over the mouthpiece and looked up at Franklin. “We don’t ask. We call the police and the police break heads.”

“I didn’t want to create problems,” Franklin said to Jorginho, who ignored him. “I talked to them. They lowered the music, and that was the end of it.”

The fragile social contract in Beira Mar was being tested the last couple of years by a crack epidemic. The police, poorly paid and over-extended, had shadow groups that kept order. They worked off-hours, wore masks, and did what they had to do.

He snapped the phone shut. “You’ll see,” he said to Franklin.

“I wasn’t trying to create problems. Just went over to talk to them, and it was taken care of.”

‘Now it’s taken care of,” Pau said. “You’ll see how we take care of things.”


On the day of the big pre-Carnaval street festival in Beira Mar, fireworks woke the saints at dawn. The year before, police raided houses in the neighborhood at daybreak looking for drugs, guns, and dealers. They used a helicopter to catch people trying to escape.

A helicopter wasn’t used for the brothel bust, but the raid took place at dawn on the day of the big festival. Franklin walked by on his way to the bakery, and saw the sliding aluminum garage door knocked off its track. From the street, he could see around the pool, men in shorts and women in nightclothes face down with their hands behind their heads. Plainclothes police wearing sunglasses and carrying guns, shouted orders.

Pau sat on the stoop; he winked when Franklin walked by. Franklin responded with a discreet thumbs up. At the bakery, Jorginho was stirring his coffee.

“Looks like they came like they said they would,” Franklin said.

“Looks like they did.”

“Wonder what’s going to happen.”

“Don’t have to wonder. It’s happening,” Jorginho said.

“But later. What’ll happen later?”

O bicho vai pegar.”

A bicho can be any living or imagined thing, from a bug to a bird to a spirit or monster. A legitimate dictionary will have a page of meanings. One of the first words Franklin learned while he was learning Portuguese, he used it regularly.

The bicho will make itself apparent somehow was what Jorginho said to Franklin.


The group from Texas, four of them, from a company called SunTex, had won an audience with the Brazilian national oil company after they bid on a new round of drilling off the coast of Bahia, a few hours from Beira Mar. In his email note, Clyde Barriston, principal, requested “…a look around the city, a little pleasure mixed with business.”

The sign Franklin made with Barriston’s name on it, black magic marker and cardboard, was redundant, but they didn’t know it, and he raised the sign high. The four Texans lumbered through the exit gate like cattle from their home state. The walk from the runway to the gate in the tropical heat left them breathing heavily; extended patches of sweat stained their polo shirts.


Street festivals, single-day versions of Carnaval, the way they happen in Bahia, could never happen in the US: cheap alcohol sold from makeshift stands, one next to the other, blasted their own music; everyone drunk or drinking; women and girls danced with a sexuality that would make Americans blush. Police in riot gear tried to keep order by walking through the crowds poking people who happen to be in their path with billy sticks, as a reminder of what was at stake if they got out of hand. Fights broke out spontaneously. Reasonable people were safely home and tucked away.

When Franklin ran into Jorginho and Pau, they tapped fists; the music was too loud to talk. Pau turned toward the bar, and turned back around with three glass cups filled with cachaça. Franklin bought the next round. Then Jorginho. By the end of the night, Franklin was making an idiot of himself with the girls on the street. The dance implored women, according the lyrics, to “rub your genitals on the floor.” The guys followed behind. Franklin couldn’t keep up, but the girls didn’t mind, as long as he was buying them beer. A black fedora found its way to his head somehow, which made him feel like Exú, the id among the pantheon of saints in Bahia, or the devil according to some, who wore the same hat in popular representations. Cachaça was Exú’s favorite drink.

“This is how you do it,” the girl in front of him said, smiled, gyrated her hips, descended, telling him to follow. He went as low as he could until she danced herself around so her backside pressed the front of his hips. In the song, all the gatinhas, cats or pretty girls, shouted their presence, followed by the cachorras, the feminine form of dog or horny women, shouting their own presence, laughing outrageously every time. Franklin tried to keep his balance with the help of the girl’s shoulder, but he fell and pulled her down with him. The group around them broke up in fits of laughter. Her face planted in his belly, she grabbed a cup of beer from one of the tables, and threw it on his chest. The group laughed some more: cachorras! gatinhas! cachorras! gatinhas!


Franklin stumbled from the scene toward the beach, rested his shoulder against a coconut tree, and took a leak. Salvador, on the other side of the bay, sparkled like the women at the party. Franklin had known the world’s legendary cities, and none had anything on Salvador, not the least of which was because the people, a mix of African, indigenous, and European, combined with sun, tropical food and lives lived outdoors, were as physically beautiful as the city they lived in.

He zipped up and turned.

The brothel manager and his assistant, thick silver chains hanging from their necks, were blocking his way.

“Happy?”

Franklin looked around, tried to push through them.

“What do you mean, ‘happy’?'”

“They tried to shut us down. That’s what you wanted.”

“I just wanted you to lower the music. If I wanted them to shut you down, I wouldn’t have gone over to speak to you personally.”

When Franklin saw the girl he’d been dancing with running toward them, he assumed he’d made a new friend; help was on the way. But she threw her arms around the brothel manager: “I thought they took you in,” she said.

Franklin could see Pau and Jorginho standing under the streetlights near the dancing crowd.

“They did.” The manager held up his hand, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Money. Friends. Lawyers. And here we are.”

“And everyone else?” the girl said.

“All of them, probably out here somewhere.”

She kissed him on the lips, and let out a squeal of happiness. She repeated the same ceremony for his assistant. She locked her elbows between theirs and marched them back, Dorothy-like, to the party.

Walking away, the manager turned and said to Franklin, “Watch your back.”


Franklin’s wife was reading the newspaper when he sat down at the table for breakfast the next morning.  He poured coffee from a thermos, said good morning.

She ignored him.

After a while she said, “I can smell the alcohol from here. Had a good time, I guess, huh?”

He sipped the coffee.

Then, “Love the hat.” She pointed with her chin at the fedora hanging on the chair. “Nice effect. Where did you get it?”

He blinked his eyes, and tried to remember.

Before he could respond, she pushed the newspaper across the table, “See this?” The headline said, “Beira Mar Brothel Raided. Twelve arrested”; beneath it, a photo of the pool at the brothel, the image that Franklin had seen the day before, bodies with hands clasped behind heads. Franklin examined it, and identified the manager and his assistant.

“That’s them,” he said, pointing at the photo.

“So you went over there?”

“Yesterday.”

“And I guess you thought it wasn’t important enough to mention?”

“You would have been thrilled, right? Didn’t want the drama. How did you know?”

“You were out there on the street talking to Pau and Jorginho. Their wives, the kids. They all have eyes, and they all talk.”

“What’s the difference if I went over there or not?”

“When they come looking for you, who do think is going to have to explain things to them?”

“I just wanted them to lower the music.”

“Well, now they’re in jail, and they’re out a lot of money, and you were over there complaining, and it doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do, it just matters what it seems like you did.”

“They’re not in jail. Saw them last night.”

She shook her head back and forth, incredulous pity. “You know what that means then, don’t you?”

Franklin sipped his coffee, and examined the photo in the paper.

“These people aren’t just regular neighbours,” she said. “I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. They’re gang people with connections; they pay people off to get what they want. Without complicity, connections, they wouldn’t be in business.”

“What should I do?”

“I don’t know what you should do, but you better do something.”

“Or what?”

“Or what?” She shook her head back and forth again.

“Yes. What?”

“I don’t know what, but you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

O bicho vai pegar,” he said.


Waiters in tuxedos circulated the expansive room with slabs of meat on spits. They stopped at tables looking for the affirmative nod, sliced meat onto diners’ plates, and kept moving. Barriston chewed and talked at the same time. His plate was piled high with strips of beef cooked rare oozing with blood-red gravy.

“It isn’t this good in Texas, I’m sorry to say. Isn’t that right, boys?”

Barriston’s employees agreed and chewed. “You have to pay for it,” one of them said. “But you can find it.”

“We can take a ride out to the countryside where the beef is raised,” Franklin said, “if you have some free time before you leave. It’s all out there grazing in the grass, just an hour or so outside town. You guys could buy a ranch.”

Barriston sipped his caipirinha. “Grass-raised beef, that’s why it’s so good.” He looked around the table. “We could a take trip like that. Or maybe our friend Franklin here is just trying to drum up business.”

“Just offering,” Franklin said. A trip to the countryside in the mini-bus with the four of them would net Franklin enough money to pay the bills for the month.

Barriston leaned toward Franklin. “I told you what we want to do with our free time,” he said.

Franklin looked up, thought about the logistics for an instant, and grinned.


They pulled up to the aluminum garage door in the mini-bus. Franklin rolled down the window on the passenger side and looked around. He was wearing the black fedora. The manager wouldn’t risk losing the clients, especially the gringos, Franklin figured, by doing something against his own interests. He got out and slid open the mini-bus door. Franklin imagined what they looked like, the five of them, in the security screen at the front desk. He pulled the fedora down over his eyes. The manager opened the door.

Franklin wasn’t greeted like a client this time. “I have a proposal,” he said, gesturing toward the Texans.

The manager nodded his approval, and the Texans pushed through the door as fast as their big bodies would allow. A hostess in high heels and a one-piece bathing suit led them to the pool. Lit by underwater lights, it glistened like a turquoise jewel. They arranged themselves in lounge chairs around it.

“Nice place,” Clyde said to Franklin.

The manager offered drinks.

“They don’t speak Portuguese, only English. But they have money,” Franklin said. It was a muggy night. Franklin could smell the jasmine hanging in the air. He glanced around the pool to identify the source. A fragrance that Franklin spent considerable time and effort trying to cultivate, the scent of jasmine always belied the more unsavory aspects of Beira Mar living.

Another waitress arrived with caipirinhas on a tray. They each took one.

The music started. Franklin was called for a meeting with the manager in his office.

“So you’re back.” The manager had his legs crossed on a couch. He was smoking a joint, offered it to Franklin, who declined, then to his assistant. Franklin watched the Texans through closed-circuit camera.

“They have money, the gringos. Two-hundred each. Not sure what people pay, but it probably isn’t two-hundred.”

The fedora gave Franklin a feeling of invincibility.

The assistant passed the joint back to his boss.

“And there are more. I get gringos like this all the time. A nice arrangement we’ll have,” Franklin said.

Franklin turned toward the pool. “One minute,” he said to the manager and his assistant.

He walked over to Barriston, who was on his second caipirinha already. After a short conversation, Barriston stood, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet. He counted the money and put it in Franklin’s hand. Barriston’s employees stood offering money, but Clyde waved them off. Franklin shook his hand, and walked away.

Between the pool and the office, Franklin took a drink off one of the waitress’s trays.

The manager counted the money, then counted it again. He took another hit off the joint, and offered it again to Franklin.

Franklin took a hit, and passed it to the assistant.

The manager peeled off a few bills, and handed them to Franklin.

“There are more,” Franklin said. “More gringos, and more money.”

“We’re here. Just pass them along.”

A light open-hand slap, and the fist bump. “You’ll put them in a cab when they’re done, right? I’ll let the driver go.”

“Sure.”

“And keep down the noise.” Franklin tipped his hat, and closed the door on his way out.

He walked home around the corner and put himself into the hammock. The music at the brothel was barely audible; Barriston’s voice carried farther.

He watched the bats fly back and forth through the dim streetlights with their frantic grace, and flipped through the pages of the tourism magazine. He took off the black fedora and hung it on the same hook the hammock hung on. Then Franklin nodded off.

Bennett Paris lives in Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil. His work has appeared in Storyglossia, Switchback, In Posse Review and Fiction, amongst others.



Nana Howton — Interquad

My first cousin Daniel liked to sleep with his penis between my thighs when we shared his mother’s bed while she worked a graveyard shift in the local hospital. I know what most people would think: what kind of 13-year-old slut lets her 14-year-old cousin do that night after night for a whole month of vacation? Well, the kind that lived in a Catholic orphanage with 60 girls and six nuns and was never told what a penis was. Even if such definition escaped me, I still had a hunch I shouldn’t tell my aunt about it. Besides, truth be told, I liked it. When he did it, I pretended to sleep. Sometimes I had an orgasm, rolled over and he spent the night scooting after me, all over his mother’s bed, until she came home. All day he had dark circles around his eyes.

It was winter break and I was there because the alternative would have been to spend the month of June in the orphanage where I lived or in the whorehouse where my mother lived. I suppose you could say my own whoring started young, bartering an exciting vacation for a penis between my thighs, but my idea of what a whore was never included people who bartered sex in exchange for something other than cold hard cash.  Besides, it wasn’t intercourse, just “interquad”. I eventually learned that interquad was what most young people did because girls were to marry as virgins and blow jobs were for whores… or American girls.

Our days were as exciting as our nights were. I don’t mean we walked around with his penis between my thighs. No. I mean other kind of exciting things, such as egging people’s windows, starting fires, stealing from farmers, killing animals, and beating the crap out of other children. We were the kind of kids that if we were to kill somebody in the future a neighbor would say, “Yeah… I always knew they would do it.”

We stole watermelons and were pursued by rabid dogs and shot by BB guns with salt pellets. The back of my legs stung for days. We went to the morgue to peek at cadavers preserved in formaldehyde. We ate sugar out of the bag until the insides of our cheeks had open sores. I didn’t drink alcohol, though Daniel did when he could, until he looked retarded or passed out, whichever came first.  Daniel was more than too “familiar,” he was family. And he reminded me of that when he wanted to convince me to do something I was reluctant to do.

Once he suggested we hunt for food and when I refused, he said. “Our ancestors were Indians, cousin!” He always called me cousin. “Indians hunted! Or do you think they fetched their food from a G.E. refrigerator?”

So I went along through a pasture, where we threw rocks at a bull until we got its attention. We had to run for our lives and crossed the barbed wire fence just in time, Daniel with only a gash on the back of his knees and me with a tear on my shorts.

We caught a duck on a small farm and once home we came to the flabbergasting conclusion that we had to kill the bird before we could cook it and we had no idea how.

“Maybe we can break its neck,” he said. “It’s the way people kill chickens.”

But the neck was too thick, so I held the duck’s body and he pulled on the ducks head. The bird fought, scratched my belly, looked a bit dazed, but was very much alive and charged Daniel when he let go of the head. I dropped the bird and it ran around the yard with us in hot pursuit.

Finally Daniel put the duck’s head on a cement slab and attempted to cut it. The bird got away and ran around with his head hanging from its neck at an awful right angle. It seemed to be not running from us, but after us, like in some scary B film titled The Vengeance of the Duck.

Eventually it lay on its side quivering until it died. We dipped it in boiling water, plucked its feathers, and cut it in small pieces. It was hard labor as the bird’s muscles were unyielding. We fried it, but it was too hard to chew on and Daniel lost a chip off a front tooth.

My aunt arrived early. I don’t remember the reason, except that we seemed destined to be caught. She said, “What kind of meat is this? Duck? How did you get money for a duck? Did you sell your marbles? No! Then, where does it come from?”

Faced with a direct question, I could never lie, so I told her the truth.

She was appalled. “Senhor Antonio and his poor family hardly have anything to eat.” She searched the garbage can, brought up the showy feathers, “This was their male duck, and he used it for breeding.”

My cousin said, “It’s just a duck.”

She slapped him on the side of the head, a couple of times. “Just a duck?” Slap .”Just a duck?” Slap some more. “A duck!” Slap. Slap.

She searched cupboards for a paper bag and packed the leftovers. She rolled the bag closed and said, “Go back there. I want you, Daniel, to tell him it was your idea, because I know it was. Tell him exactly what happened, that you stole his duck and then killed it and then fried it.”

“I broke a piece of my tooth,” Daniel said as if instead she should be mad at the duck.

“You broke a tooth?” Slap. Slap. “Go and ask how you can pay for it.”

We arrived at the little farm at sunset – the family was indoors. Senhor Antonio came out, a small-framed man, his old shirt clean and tucked inside his jeans which fell under his hipbone.

“Well…” my cousin started. “We are here to return your duck.”

“My duck?” he said. “I reckon it was missing, where did you find it?”

Daniel thrust the bag forward and took a step back. Senhor Antonio opened it and looked puzzled.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

I wondered if he was stupid, what was there to understand?

“We hunted it,” Daniel said, “then we cooked it, tried to eat it but it chipped my tooth.”

Sr. Antonio’s mouth opened, he was missing several teeth so it was obvious that a chip off my cousin’s tooth was no big deal. He stared at the fried meat as if he expected the duck to reassemble itself and fly across the yard.

A boy came out of the house wearing frayed, but clean and ironed clothes. He looked fresh out of the shower, his hair combed neatly. He craned his neck to see inside the bag.

“Oh, it’s Lucas,” the kid said.

Sr. Antonio came out of his daze and slapped my cousin on the cheeks very hard.

“My aunt said we should ask how to pay you back,” I said.

Daniel held his cheek, and looked at me like I was the stupid one now.

“Well, young vandals, delinquents, devil’s children and latent homosexuals,” the farmer said.

I had to fight the urge to tell him, “Yes, yes, yes, on all charges, but not latent homosexual, no sir! We have our nights.”

“For the next seven days, starting tomorrow,” he went on. “From 6 a.m. to noon, Daniel will toil the fields. That’s not enough payment, but I don’t think I can stand to see his fucking face longer than that.”

For the last week of my vacation, my cousin left very early and came back so tired, he napped most of the afternoon. However, at night he was his old self again, chasing me around his mother’s bed until my mother came to get me. The day of her arrival, she and my aunt were outside washing clothes together when Daniel and I came back from a trip to a bar where he had downed two shots of rum and I had a popsicle.

“Secrets are no good,” my mother was saying to her sister.

Daniel told them I had a secret.  Of course he wouldn’t be fool enough to bring up our nightly interquads, but I was scared anyway and denied it angrily. He kept going, “Oh yeah, you have a secret!” The more I protested, the more I got angry and stomped my feet, the more he insisted.

Seeing my anger, my mother and aunt were curious. “Which secret?” They asked. “Tell us, Daniel.”

There was a broom leaning against the cement tank and I grabbed it and slammed him on the head so hard that he fell to the ground. I wanted to hit him again, but our mothers intervened.

We didn’t talk to each other for two days and when it was time for me to leave, Daniel watched us go from the porch, taciturn and stiff.

“You two better hug,” his mother ordered. “Indians have to stick together and you two are like siblings, you share blood. Don’t hold grudges against each other.”

We hugged awkwardly, but also tight. We shared the same blood, yes, and we shared a secret.

I did not see him for years. He continued to drink and on occasional visits I had to rescue him from sidewalks outside bars.

“Nobody loves me like you do, cousin,” he’d say. “You should have married me, before you got into girls.”

“You never asked me,” was my standard answer.

We never talked about those winter nights. Years later, he moved south to a beach town and was a chauffeur. I couldn’t imagine him holding his driver’s cap against his chest while he held the door for ladies getting in and out of the car. Of all the Indians in the family, he was the proudest. He always said, Indians died rather than be slaves, but like many Indians in our family, he had become an alcoholic. When you drink as much as he did you become someone else. When you drink and are followed by ghosts like he was, you die alone, as he recently did. You die alone and nobody finds you, until a man passes your little room and smells something terrible as the wind turns and lifts sand off the boardwalk and the seagulls scream and the man knows it’s not the smell of rotten fish. The man knows, it’s not the smell of rotten fish. The man knows it’s not the smell of rotten fish.

Nana Howton is a Brazilian who lives in the US, where she did her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. Her stories have appeared in Rio Grande Review and Fiction Fix, from which she earned a nomination for the Pushcart Prize and the anthology of Best American Short Stories. She is currently shopping for an agent to represent her novel Burning Seasons.



Craig Pay – Quarter Cherry Lips

“Quarter cherry lips,” the shopkeeper says. “Fifty-seven pence.”

Henry looks at the tall jar of sweets. Then he looks at the pile of sweets in the scales on the counter and finally he looks up to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper stares back, leaning on the counter. He has slack grey jowls and thinning hair that needed cutting several weeks ago. His stomach rests on the counter, straining the buttons on his woollen cardigan. A hole has been worn away in the cardigan, just above his left breast, strands of wool fray at the edges.

Henry says, “The jar says one hundred grams, fifty pence.”

The shopkeeper continues to stare.

Henry is a patient, easy-going kind of guy – or at least this is what he would like to think. He’s actually short-tempered and has an issue with authority figures, especially petty-minded Luddites like this one.

Henry looks down at Little Matty – and he sees the eyes of his furious ex-wife staring back. He rummages in his pockets, bringing out a twenty-pound note, and then a fifty-pence piece that’s shiny enough to be freshly minted.

Henry says, “This is all I have.”

“I don’t have any change,” the shopkeeper says.

“I just want fifty pence of the cherry lips.”

“I only sell quarters,” the shopkeeper says. “Quarter cherry lips, fifty seven pence.”

Henry is well-informed about the world – or at least he is when he has Google in front of him. “Isn’t that illegal? Or something?”

The shopkeeper says nothing.

“Look,” Henry says, “have you anything cheaper?”

Little Matty tugs at Henry’s arm. “Cherry lips,” she says. She’s not asking, she’s telling and she’s using The Voice.

Henry looks around the shop, at the shelves from floor to ceiling, the rows and rows of sweet jars. The shop is narrow, barely wide enough for two people to pass next to each other. He sees a jar that says 100g 45p and pulls it from the shelf. “How much for a quarter of these?”

“Quarter sherbet pips,” the shopkeeper says, “fifty-one pence.”


Little Matty isn’t happy. She refuses the bag of Haribo. They are standing outside the local SPAR just across the road from the narrow little sweetshop. It’s late autumn so it’s cold.

Henry says, “That’s all they had!”

Little Matty looks back towards the sweetshop. “They had cherry lips,” she says. “I wanted cherry lips. You said!”

Henry tries to take her hand but she refuses. They walk back to the car.


“You couldn’t even get this right! Could you?” Sometimes, Henry’s ex-wife still looks quite pretty, and at times like this he wonders whether he should have stayed and just put up with everything.

They are standing outside the front door to the house. Her house. Their house. The house he used to live in. That she still does. The house that is still on the market after nearly two years.

“Look what you’ve done!” she says.

Henry now realises that Little Matty is crying. His ex-wife places a hand on her shoulder and escorts her inside. Little Matty and his wife walk off along the hallway, leaving the front door open. Leaving him standing there.

Henry is always unsure about the protocol in this situation. Is he allowed inside? Should he call out to make sure? “Can I come in?” sounds slightly childish. He decides to step inside, closing the door behind him. He is about to remove his shoes, when he hesitates. Another protocol issue. Guests don’t have to remove shoes, they can make as much mess as they like. His ex-wife will smile and say “Don’t worry. It’s only dirt!” But he knows his ex-wife is actually very particular about keeping the carpets clean – so when he lived here he always used to remove his shoes at the front door. But this seems somehow too familiar now.

He decides to leave his shoes on. Walks through to the kitchen. The pack of Haribo is on the worktop.

His ex-wife is pouring a glass of lemonade for Matty.

Henry’s ex-wife glances down to his shoes. She doesn’t say anything, but he knows he’s made a mistake.

He turns.

“Going already?” his ex-wife says.

He hesitates again. “No,” he says. “I was just …”

His ex-wife offers little Matty a chocolate biscuit but she shakes her head. Matty takes the lemonade and leaves the room. Henry listens as she walks upstairs to her bedroom.

“I suppose,” his ex-wife says, “you want a cup of tea?”

“Well, sure,” he says.

She fills up the kettle.

“The kettle’s new,” he says.

His ex-wife takes a moment to shoot him a look that says “No small-talk please.” She turns on the kettle. Henry has to keep moving this way and that way to avoid his ex-wife as she goes to one cupboard for a mug and another for a teabag and then some sugar. As he steps around the kitchen his shoes click-clack on the floor.

“Just go into the lounge!” she says.

He goes into the lounge. His ex-father-in-law, Bill, is sitting in the corner armchair, wearing his demi-lunettes and reading the Telegraph. He nods to Henry.

Henry mumbles a hello back. He sits at one end of the sofa.

“No cherry lips,” Bill says.

“No,” Henry says. “That shopkeeper, he’s just – he’s so damned …”

Bill looks up from his paper. “Frank?”

Henry doesn’t know the name of the shopkeeper. “The sweetshop. The one in the village.”

“Yeah, Frank. Cooper’s boy.” Bill looks back down to his paper. “Odd lot.”

Henry’s ex-wife walks into the lounge. She has two mugs of tea, one for Henry and one for her father. She places the mugs on coasters on a low coffee table. “He didn’t get Matty any sweets,” she says.

Henry says, “That’s not entirely –”

“Now she’s upset.”

“He’s selling in ounces,” Henry says. “That’s illegal! Isn’t it?”

“Well it’s too late now,” Bill says. “I’ll take her up in the morning.”

“Honestly!” his ex-wife says. She walks out of the room.

After a moment’s silence, Bill folds up his paper and places it on the coffee table next to the mugs of tea.

“There’s some paperwork,” he says. “She wants me to go through it with you. If you’ve got time?”

Henry considers his schedule. His plans for sitting in his flat for the rest of this particular Saturday, wondering what to do with himself. “Sure,” he says.

Whilst they go through the paperwork, Bill says: “The Coopers always were a rum lot. Back then, they were the only sweetshop in the village. Not like now. With the supermarket.”

“It’s hardly a supermarket,” Henry says. But he wishes straight away that he hadn’t said anything, because Bill shakes his head and gives him with a pitying look.

“We all bought our toffees in there,” Bill continues, “on the way back from St Judes’ – St Judes being the local high school – “but we never went in our own. Always two or three of us at a time.”

“Why?”

“Cooper – Frank’s old man – nasty piece of work and short on his measures. You had to keep an eye on them scales, make sure he wasn’t holding it with his thumb. Then there was that kid that time.”

Henry waits for Bill to continue, but Bill just goes back to shuffling through the papers.

“So?” Henry says.

Bill looks up. “What?”

“The kid?”

Bill peers over his demi-lunettes and Henry wonders how he has missed this obviously vital component of village folklore.

“This kid,” Bill says, “I can’t remember his name, he got a hard time of it at school, they’d call it bullying now. He used to go in there on his own. One time, he never came out. You need to sign this one.” He passes Henry a piece of paper.

Henry signs the paper and hands it back.

Bill says, “Turned up a week later, all chopped up.”

“Chopped up?”

Bill nods. “Big kitchen knife. Found what was left of the poor little bugger down by the Old Gravel Pit Lodge. Scooped his eyes out. Laid his entrails next to him. Even pulled his teeth out.”

“So what?” Henry says. “Cooper did it?”

“In the back of his shop,” Bill says.

Henry makes a huffing noise.

“It’s not like now,” Bills says, “forensics and DNA.”

Then it all becomes clear to Henry. “A kid went missing in the village. And you lot thought it was the mean old guy in the sweetshop?”

Bill sighs. “You’re not paying attention. We saw him go in that day. We told the coppers, but they wouldn’t have it. Told us to bugger off.”

Henry nods. He uses his polite acceptance face. Bill scowls. They continue with the paperwork.


“She’s gone! Henry’s ex-wife is standing at the doorway to the lounge. Henry has finished a second cup of tea and some reluctantly donated biscuits. The paperwork is done and he was about to leave.

Henry’s ex-wife is holding Matty’s piggy bank: Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet hugging. Henry recognises the piggy bank, he remembers that Winnie-the-Pooh has a slot in the top of his head.

“Empty!” she says.

Bill says, “She’s gone to Cooper’s!”

Henry tells them it will be fine and he heads for the door, patting down his trouser pockets for his car keys.

“It’s dark!” his ex-wife says.

They decide – well, Bill decides – that Henry’s ex-wife should stay at home in case Little Matty comes back. Bill and Henry head into the village in Henry’s car. Henry drives slowly, both of them scanning either side of the road for Matty’s little red raincoat.

They park in one of the free spaces outside the SPAR. Across from the SPAR, Henry can see that the sweetshop is now closed; the narrow shop window is dark.

“She should have a mobile,” Bill says, “in this day and age.”

Henry would like to agree, but the anti-authoritarian in him tells Bill, “No, she’s too young.”

Henry walks over the road to the sweetshop. In a glazed panel in the centre of the door hangs a sign with the opening times. The shop shut ten minutes ago. Henry peers through the glass. He can see the inside of the shop, the shelves and the rows of jars. Towards the back of the shop is another doorway, open.

There’s no sign of the shopkeeper, Frank.

Bill says, “I’ll start walking back. You stay here.”

Henry waits outside the shop in the cold. He watches Bill walk down the hill, turning the corner by the church. He looks back inside the shop –

A figure is standing at the back of the shop, in the doorway back there. Henry stares at the figure. The figure walks out of sight.

“Hey!” Henry taps on the door. “Hey!”

After a moment the figure appears again. The figure looks like Frank – the tatty cardigan. The figure stands there staring back at Henry.

“Hey! Just open up will you? I just wanted to ask …” Henry’s voice trails off. The figure is shaking its head. The figure picks up something from the counter and Henry sees a flash of light on metal. A knife! The figure steps away, out of sight again.

For a moment Henry stands outside the shop as his vivid imagination creates graphic scenes in his mind. Then he steps back. And kicks the door.

Henry has seen this sort of thing enough times on TV to know exactly what he’s doing. The kick has to land right next to the door handle, smashing the lock away from the frame. Henry discovers that this is actually a lot harder than it looks on TV. The door is still intact and his ankle now feels like it could be broken (it isn’t).

Henry tries the shoulder-barge technique. This actually seems rather less effective than kicking. He goes back to kicking at the door. The frame eventually begins to splinter. He swaps legs, but he finds out that he’s as right-footed as he is right-handed. So he goes back to the kicking-foot that he started with.

The door splinters and flies open.

He walks through to the doorway at the back of the shop to a storeroom. He finds another door at the back of the storeroom. This door opens to a lounge area with a further door – to a hallway, stairs leading up and then another door. He goes through this doorway and enters a dining room of sorts with a narrow table along one wall and two chairs. Another door. The whole building is like this, one room after another, one door after another. Another storeroom. Then the kitchen.

The kitchen is very dark. At the far side of the kitchen there is another door and a table. The top of the table is covered with an assortment of strange objects: dark fleshy red strands laid out in parallel lines, a set of teeth still in their gums (both lower and upper) and a pair of eyes. Frank is standing in the middle of the room and he is holding a knife.

Henry yells out, “Matty!” Then at Frank, “You bastard!”

Frank’s knife is very long, the kind of knife you would use to chop up large pieces of meat into smaller pieces of meat. And this is obviously what Frank has in mind because he lunges at Henry, lifting the knife up and bringing it down towards Henry’s head.

Henry once attended a Karate lesson. Karate is one of the few things in Henry’s life that he understands he knows nothing about – and, what’s more, that he understands he will never know anything about.

During his one and only lesson he was punched in the side of his head and temporarily lost the peripheral vision in his right eye. The sensei took Henry to the local hospital because the sensei said he was afraid that the injury could be a detached retina – which, it turned out, it wasn’t.

But perhaps Henry learned something in that single lesson because, as the knife arcs down towards his face, he lashes out with his left arm – and the knife is knocked from Frank’s hand to go clattering across the kitchen floor. Henry’s right hand, which seems to have clenched itself into a fist, slams into Frank’s face and the shopkeeper collapses to the floor, quite unconscious. Later, Henry will replay these last moments over and over again in his mind, wishing that there had been someone there to see them. But now he steps towards the table. Then he hesitates, terrified of what he knows he is about to find there.
That’s when he hears a thin little voice calling out. Little Matty’s voice wailing: “Mummy! Daddy!” from behind the door in the far wall.

Henry experiences a sense of relief that he will only ever feel again once in his life (perhaps twice). He slides back the bolt on the outside of the door and Matty flies out, hugging his waist and saying, “Daddy, daddy!” over and over again.

The kitchen lights flicker on, and Henry turns to see Bill and a policewoman standing at the doorway on the other side of the room. Henry glances at the table next to him: at the teeth, the eyeballs and the dark red fleshy strands – at what he now sees as pink and white marshmallow, foil-covered chocolate and strawberry shoelaces.

Henry and Bill and Matty head back towards the front of the shop, leaving the policewoman to look after Frank.

As they step out into the street, Henry hesitates and then he heads back into the shop. He searches the rows of jars until he finds the one he is after. He tucks the jar under his arm and goes back out to join Bill and Matty on the street. He unscrews the plastic lid and offers the jar to Matty. She reaches inside to take a handful of smiling cherry lips.

Craig Pay writes borderline literary/speculative fiction and has been published in a number of different magazines. He won the NAWG David Lodge trophy in 2011 and his short story “Incarnate” (featured in the Rocket Science Anthology) received a very positive review in the Guardian in April 2012. Craig is also the co-editor of Cutaway Magazine and runs the Manchester Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group. Craig is currently finishing a novel set in 19th-century China. Feel free to get in touch via FacebookTwitter or email.



Don’t Beat Yourself Up, Anton the Destroyer by Andrew Pidoux

Setting out from his home somewhere in the south of England, Anton the Destroyer boards a ferry to France. His face is a mess, due to a fight he was in the previous night. He is already quite ugly, but now he looks like an empty-faced vessel filled with fat on which bruises float like mould. He’s a looker, in other words. Reality, I must warn you, has never really been kind to Anton the Destroyer. Anton the Destroyer has not been especially kind to reality either.

And so he embarks. The white cliffs of Dover disappear in a mist of memory, just as they did for the poets. But Anton the Destroyer doesn’t notice them go, simply because he is looking the other way. It’s so damned cold on the boat that Anton the Destroyer has to rebutton himself several times. His collar is upturned, gilded on its black rim by beads of moisture, which might be the mist embodied or might be spit from between his ugly swollen lips. Why did he have to get into that fight – and with himself, of all people? What did he do to deserve such treatment from himself? He shakes his head despairingly.

Time is getting on aboard the ferry. It is still the present, but tenses are gathering. There is a giant beam of a man extricating himself from the fog as we speak. He is an enormous heave of hands and legs, with a chest like a Volkswagen Beetle. He is not built like a house or a tank, he is built like a planet. His girth is that of a God. His name is Tor and he is entering the story.

“Hello,” says Anton the Destroyer. “Why are you here on deck in this weather? Shouldn’t you be downstairs with the others?”

“What others?” asks the giant man.

It turns out Tor is an actor. He acts in many plays on the stage, he acts in many films on the screen. Tor loves to act and thinks that it is great that he only ever gets to play monsters, the undead, fat aliens, gross sidekicks. He numbers the roles on the fingers of the same hand, as if the fingers themselves were what limited him.

“What do you do for a living?” he asks.

“I don’t,” replies Anton the Destroyer.

“Don’t what? Do or live?” Tor bursts out laughing and slaps Anton the Destroyer between the shoulder blades. Anton the Destroyer feels something he ate for breakfast rise Lazarus-like in his throat. “What is your name?” asks Tor.

“Anton the Destroyer,” replies Anton the Destroyer.

“And where are you going?”

“I am going to France,” says Anton the Destroyer. “I have heard that people are freer in France, and they often make huge sculptures in their gardens out of whatever they want, like bottles. However, I do not intend to stay in France, but pass through on my way to China.

What about you?”

“I too am going to France,” says Tor, “but not because of these sculptures. I am going because I have heard that there are many people there who are looking for sidekicks.”

“You can go with me as far as Marseille if you like,” says Anton the Destroyer.

The fog appears to be lifting at last, and though it is too early to say for sure, France is before them. There are flags flying on the harbour wall, but they are not all that French.

“Have confidence in yourself,” says Tor, extricating himself from the fog. “You are clearly a person of clarity.”

They walk down the gangplank towards the meaninglessness of the flags.

“Flags flutter,” says Anton the Destroyer, “just like birds and petticoats.”

“And cannons” adds Tor, for his imagination is unable to conceive of anything too soft or fluttery.

At last setting down in the watery mirror of France, the flipside of all their schoolboy history lessons, the two Englishmen like what they see and feel glad that they are alive in Calais on this whatever-the-hell day it is.

Anton the Destroyer has an inkling that there might be someplace to get his shoes cleaned around here. He picked them up on a dirty corner in Islington once, and they have never come clean about anything ever since. Even in the depth of the night, they sit there glowering.

“Over there” says Tor, pointing his great windmill arm towards a little stand where a small, delicate Frenchlady is polishing a single shoe.

“I haven’t had any customers all day,” she says, “and now you two show up at once, and you’re both so dirty. I can’t believe it.”

“It is a nice stall,” says Anton the Destroyer.

Tor puts his foot up into the place where you put your foot up into, and the little small Frenchlady begins to free his shoe like a fossil from the layers of primeval mud that have gathered around it. She does this with such love and simple humility that Tor believes himself to have fallen in love with her, and it is so.

“I am a Frenchlady who longs to go to England,” she says, a tear forming like a tiny diamonelle at the corner of her small French eye.

“But the problem is one of psychology. As soon as I board a ferry, I begin to ache in my mind, my legs go weak and I faint to the floor in a swirl of lace. It seems I am fated to look forever, on clear days, to the opposite shore and dream of my English compatriots eating their lovely steak and kidney pies and what have you.”

“Well, don’t worry about it,” says Tor. “All this talk of steak and kidney pies is making me hungry indeed. Is there anywhere we could manage a bite to eat around here, little miss?”

The three of them immediately set off for a small French café that the Frenchlady knows. They are all three ravenously disposed and, as soon as they reach the café, their eyes all fall on a cabinet of brown buns that are gathering French flies in the hot afternoon light.

“Don’t worry about those little beauties,” says the waitress, emerging from behind the cabinet, “in France it is illegal for flies to land on anything nasty or shitty.”

And so they ask for some of the buns and walk off to find a table, which they sit down at without any ado. When the buns arrive at the table, carried over one at a time by a whole host of straining, buzzing French flies, the small Frenchlady goes into the following monologue concerning her early life:

“I was born to the south of France in a place with no hills, but we made our own hills when we dug out much of the earth we were standing on. We had the idea that gems of the most spectacular appearance were enfolded in it, and this proved to be the case. We extracted the gems by a secret means known only to a few sagelike people who lived in the forest. It soon became a lovely setup. We grew rich off our own greed. We gorged ourselves silly.”

Here she pauses and looks thoughtfully at Tor, who is shovelling buns down his throat at speed.

“After a while,” she continues, “a tin mine opened in the town next to us, and all the apparatus of longing was installed therein to extract the tin. We thought it strange that they would choose to mine tin, when the ground was so studded with spectacular alternatives. At this point I started to learn ballet. Then the week ended, and a rivalry was set up between the two chiefs of the villages. They began to hit each other with their fists and then progressed to implements made respectively of gems and tin. They went on hitting each other for three years. After it had ended I decided to come north and be a ballet dancer, due to my small size. But I was only able to be one in my dreams.”

“Why did you wait till the hitting had ended before you became a ballet dancer in your dreams?” says the waitress over her shoulder.

“Because the hitting stopped me from having dreams,” says the small Frenchlady. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I just saw hitting.”

At this moment she turns with such a loving look to Anton the Destroyer that he almost disappears. Anton the Destroyer would normally have blushed, but the bruises on his face make blushing pointless.

“Then I came north because of the way things were,” says the Frenchlady. “I am a nice person who is of a small size.”

“What is your name, by the way?” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Yes, what is your name?” echo Tor and the waitress together.

“It is Something” she says.

“Something the ballet dancer,” says Anton the Destroyer. “That has a nice ring to it. Nicer than Nothing, and a lot nicer than Anything, because that is just too general.”

“Yeah, that’s too general,” echoes Tor.

Something’s face lightens like a tangerine lit from inside, but not because of the compliment she has been given. It is because she is imagining a simple ballet in which she stars as a princess in pink shoes that go down to a point of infinite smallness.

Declining to pay for the buns, the three friends say farewell to the waitress and walk out under the glorious sunset, which is made of stained glass. By and by, they come to a house owned by an old curiosity named Henri, who is sitting in his somewhat abstract garden, reading a totally blank newspaper.

“Ahoy there” says Tor, leaning over Henri’s hedge, his torso sprouting from it like that of some vast muscular Punch. The old man ruffles his newspaper, as if Something has landed in its folds, but she is out of sight behind the hedgerow and anyway cannot fly.

“We are three travellers lost in France,” says Tor. “If you have any wisdom to impart, let us have it, because we collect that sort of thing.”

Though they aren’t exactly invited, all three of them take the liberty of simultaneously opening the metal gate of Henri’s garden and piling in. The garden is a lovely shabby arrangement, and the butterflies that it attracts are of the largest, ripest, most solitary kind in the world. They lope around on fleshy wings and soak up the colours of the sunset, which grows paler as the butterflies’ colours intensify.

“Perhaps he’s deaf,” says Anton the Destroyer, as they tentatively make their way across the trim lawn towards Henri.

“Perhaps he is a ghost,” says Something.

“Come in, whydontcha?” says Henri suddenly and much too late. “I crafted some croissants this morning, and they are really nice. You can eat one and I can tell you my life story, in the form of a puppet play.”

“Don’t mind if we do,” says Anton the Destroyer, moseying up to the old man.

“I used to work in the toll booth over there, collecting money from people who wanted to go to England,” says Henri, pointing at an old kiosk with a broken window, “but the authorities found out about it and I had to stop. Ever since then I have been working on a sculpture called What Became of the Spaghetti. If you like it you can see it.”

And they do like it, and they do see it.

The spaghetti has been arranged into a great tower about ninety feet high. It curls and collapses upwards like a rigid waterfall.

“The authorities tried to come and take it down,” said Henri. “But they didn’t like it enough to do that, so they declared it a national monument instead.”

“I think I understand,” says Tor, scratching his belly, “but I don’t really know.”

“It is a marvellous apparition of the utmost kind,” proclaims Anton the Destroyer.

“I agree,” whispers Something, “and the butterflies that adorn it remind me of the past.”

Then Henri takes them inside his house, which is infinitely cosy. In the paintings of the house, people are doing divergent things. They are walking along a river. They are flying around in balloons. They are making fools of themselves gaily and giddily.

“Come this way for the puppets,” says Henri.

As they move through the house, Something notices that Henri has fat legs, and that they lead him with a certain Churchillian patter past plates that he has collected and stored in big cabinets. One of the butterflies has got into the house and makes a lovely place for them to rest their eyes while they are watching the onset of the puppets.

The first puppet comes on stage tentatively, afraid to disturb the verisimilitude. It is meant to represent the young Henri, and it is meant – soon meant – to be at school, among a series of desks inlaid with little pots of ink. The pen unravels in the puppet’s hand, sprawling out a series of French words that it doesn’t get. Then a teacher puppet comes in. She passes the young Henri a note that says, For your Mama. Cut to the home of Henri (the school curtailed by a curtain). His mother is opening the letter. She throws her arms around her son’s wooden shoulders. Henri has been chosen to go up in a balloon, because he is good.

Then the puppet stage becomes a kind of origami cradle, of the sort children’s hands once divined in playgrounds. Above it flies the wan balloon. It flies and flies over certain mountains. It flies like there is no tomorrow. The young puppet is in the basket, his face painted with wonder. Then comes the cloud palace, with all its blooming ramparts. The balloon is sucked in through the portcullis, above which the word CHINA is deeply scratched, just as the curtain touches down softly on the boards of the Earth.

Anton the Destroyer, Tor and Something all cheer wildly, having been utterly mesmerized by the young puppet’s journey.

“So that’s how come you are like you are,” says Something.

“So that’s China,” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Please,” says Henri, “eat more of these croissants for they are getting stale in the atmosphere of the past that prevails in my home.” He gets up in his stiff but consequential way. “Now, let’s see if we can see about your face,” he says, gesturing towards the many poor bruises on Anton the Destroyer’s features. “How did you come to get beat up so bad, young man?”

“It happened last night,” says Anton the Destroyer.

The old man leads them through into a plethora, where he keeps a box, a light switch and a whirlwind. The latter is thankfully curled asleep in the corner.

“Don’t worry about him,” says Henri, “I fed him this morning with some scraps of leaves and sweet wrappers.”

The clock on the wall is asleep too. Inside the box there are a number of bottles and bandages. Henri opens one of the bottles with his little fat fingers, and a sensual smell of wild time floats out into the room. The clock on the wall immediately perks up. Henri then pats some of the clear liquid onto the nose, eyelids and cheeks of Anton the Destroyer. He takes a bandage and wraps it around Anton’s the Destroyer’s arm, for the hell of it.

“I think I feel much better already,” says Anton the Destroyer.

“Thank you so very much indeed, Monsieur,” says Henri.

Later that same profound evening, Henri shows the three friends to the duty-free shop on the corner, and they spend a wistful hour among the products, hardly believing the cheapness they were witnessing. Anton the Destroyer buys a big carton of Camel cigarettes, on which the camel has finally reached the pyramid but at the expense of its sanity, for it is now wearing the most incongruous of petticoats. Tor gets himself a king-size bottle of Tequila wherein the worm is still alive and has set up a tiny factory to make his own tequila and thereby profit from his situation. Happily laden, the two friends wave Something and Henri goodbye, board their boat and sail back out into the fog.

Andrew Pidoux‘s stories have appeared recently in magazines such as the Delinquent, Friction, Orbis, Penniless Press and Stand. He is a winner of an Eric Gregory Award and Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize, and his book of poems, Year of the Lion, was published last year by Salt. He lives in Harlesden in west London.



Nilam Ashra-McGrath – Rouen

The February evening is sharp as I step out of the hotel. A walk through the cobbled streets of Rouen clears my head and brings the blood pumping back into my legs. I sniff the air; the central Vieux Marche has a stench of alcohol and stale urine, jarring the senses. The wind carries the smell across the river, leaving a trail that hovers over the city like a dark unspoken secret. So very anti-tourist. The cathedral is a dark hue, magnificent on the horizon at the end of the narrow alleyway. It is flanked by designer shops; Hermès and Hugo Boss sit below the stone carvings of angels and gargoyles. The still figures watch over the homeless tucked into the damp doorways of its arches and curled under the warm fluorescent lighting of nearby shop doorways. A kilometre away, the cathedral is already imposing, but like an optical illusion, it remains distant as I walk towards it through the damp streets. The shoppers are beginning to drift home, and their conversations are replaced by the clatter of shutters. The town is closing for the evening.

The town carries his presence from afar. He is the man in the supermarket who stands behind me, eyeing my choices. He is the long-haired tramp, reeking of alcohol at 8am on the bus to Mont-Sant-Aignan, waiting to see if I acknowledge him. He is in the red, swollen eyes of the drunks who sit on their stone benches, urging me to come over.

He was reserved the morning I left, watching me in silence as I washed the dishes, his eyes unreadable. As I finished and turned around, his body pinned mine to the sink.

“Don’t forget, I’m thinking of you.” He pulled the top of my blouse closed; one side, then another and ran his fingers down my arm over the bruised skin. I tensed, held my breath for a few seconds. “I hate the thought of all those men staring at you.”

“It’s just a conference.”

He stared, moving his features deliberately to show that he was searching for something. “Will there be anyone there I know?”

“Like who?”

“Well … any exes that I should be aware of? Any hidden skeletons?”

“What? No,” I tutted softly.

“What about your boss? He’s always had a thing for you.” Again, his face searched mine.

“No he hasn’t.”

“You got a promotion pretty quick.”

“And that’s nothing to do with my research, you think?”

He threw his arms open. “Of course it is. You know what? We’ve never really celebrated that. Why don’t I come with you and we can go to Paris after, make a long weekend of it?”

“I have to get back Nick. I’ve got lectures on Monday.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.” He lowered his voice and wrapped his hands around my hips. “It’ll be romantic …”

“No, really,” I shook my head, “let’s leave it for now.” I pushed him away, gently, so the rage didn’t rise. “I have to pack. My flight.”

The anticipation of freedom, of being able to take a breath when I got away from him has eluded me, and now there is a restlessness stirring in my bones. I haven’t socialised with anyone this year. Instead, I’ve left the conference swiftly each afternoon to pace the streets of Rouen, ignoring any text and phone messages, replying only once when I got here: Am fine. Hotel fine. Speak when I get back. x.

For four nights, sleep too has eluded me. It has come in snatches, light and spiralling downward so that my body jerks me back into the room filled with flickering television lights. My dreams are filled with images of me running to catch a train that is steaming away from the station – a station I don’t recognise – with the porters clinging to the sides of the carriages, gripping the brass handles and urging me to clamber on board. The only face I can see is kind, black and moustachioed. He is dressed in a way that makes me think it’s the Orient Express, but from the 1940s. I wake and wonder if this type of journey is still possible and the porter’s face remains firmly imprinted in my mind as I stamp through narrow alleys each night, skirting round the homeless clustered throughout the old town.

As I reach Place de la Cathedrale, a fine drizzle appears like string from the top of the cathedral onto the benches and pathways snaking below its bell tower. Amongst the mist, I see the lights of Ali’s Saladerie, it’s windows beginning to steam with the dishes being carved together on the stove. A group of bodies is silhouetted against the bank of windows. One slams a skateboard onto the pavement and pushes it back and forth, grating the cobbles underneath. Small rounds of ash blink amongst them and they stand fixed in front of the door as I try to enter.

Excuse-moi.” I see now that they are all boys, and one moves a fraction to let me in.

This is my fifth and final night in the city, and each night I have eaten here. The waiter nods as I enter and I nod in return. Every table is taken, so I sit at the counter overlooking the chef. As soon as I sit, the place feels claustrophobic. My jumper scratches at my neck and the air is hot and thick with cooking fumes. I order and as I wait for my food, I thumb through my text messages and see that there is something new: Looking forward to seeing u. Have surprise for u. My heart is ill at the thought of seeing him.

While eating, I recognise a woman I saw yesterday. In a small boutique near Rue Socrate, whilst looking at jumpers, she emerges from the changing rooms. Her burgundy dress is tight and cuts across her body, showing the shape of breasts perfectly. She is tall – upright and proud – and admires her own figure slowly and with surety in the full-length mirror. She moves her hands over her behind, then over her breasts. “C’est une belle robe,” say the two assistants, who have stopped to watch her.

I move to another rack, passing a mirror, and catch my reflection. The dark, oversized jumper hides the shape of my upper body. My trousers, sagging at the hips, are wet from the knees down. My coat sleeves almost cover my hands. The entire outfit has been chosen by Nick. Years before, my hair used to flow in curls into the small of my back, so that men stared, but is now almost permanently scraped back into a rough bun, tied with a cheap hairband. “Maybe not the right look for a woman your age,” he started saying, until my hair was cut and tamed, my body covered, and I was tethered. I look again at the woman. She is in another outfit: a lilac silk camisole, a tight, cream pencil skirt. She is almost certainly older than me by several years, but she exudes youth. Her hair is wavy and dances on her back as she adjusts herself. Remember? says a voice in my head, and I watch her for several more minutes, but can’t bring myself to look at my reflection again.

That night, when sleep comes, it comes with a dawning. It’s 2am and I’m watching a poorly dubbed film. The girl is heartbroken; moody, dependent and foolish. She believes she loves her man more than her own life. I can see that this is what we’re supposed to feel, to love someone more than life itself. I understand that he thinks he feels that way about me, that his choke is actually love.

Today, waking from a fitful sleep, I lie looking at the line of daybreak through the curtains. “Enough,” I whisper into the shaft of light and forget my duties for the day. Instead, I stop inside l’église Sainte Jeanne D’Arc and glimpse the features of the saint trapped in the curves of the stained glass. Her colours flutter over my body and I close my eyes to feel warmth on my face for the first time in days. I’m there for an hour and when I step outside, it feels like I’m coming out of hibernation. I go back to the boutique and am surprised when the assistants recognise me. I pick up the burgundy dress and take it to the cubicle. I pull my jumper over my head with a slight crackle, and leave my trousers on the floor, stepping on them as I carefully slip the dress over my shoulders and wrap its softness around my waist with a small knot. I try on a baby-blue, cashmere cardigan, jeans and a wool jacket. The clothes are tight and smooth around my curves and I am breathless looking at my forgotten shape.

And now, the woman from the boutique is here, in the café, with a flash of burgundy showing beneath her tailored coat. She doesn’t know what she started in me. In a butter-like Italian accent, she asks for l’addition and is met with a smile from the men around her, her stilted French earning her much praise. They ask if she will come again tomorrow. “Non.” She shakes her glossy mane. She is at a conference, she says, and I stiffen and turn my face away. This is her last night and she is taking a train to Italy in the morning. She turns back to the rest of the café – her audience – to wave and the waiters wave back and mouth “Au revoir, merci,” over the din. The boys are still outside, dragging on their cigarettes, and part to let her through.

I finish my meal and head back. Hearing the woman’s voice has roused an urgency that makes me want to leave the city immediately. I walk quickly past unlit doorways, placing a scarf over my nose to dampen the smells that come drifting across my path. From the Vieux Marche, I turn into the hotel courtyard and a group of students recognise me. They stop for small talk, and as they walk away I ask “Where are you from?”

“Trieste. Italiano,” they call back.

As they disappear to start their evening, thunder claps overhead and sheets of rain come down hard. I turn to face the hotel reception and there he is, through the window, and I start. I’m frozen, in the rain, glaring at his face as he watches television and eats a sandwich at the bar. He is here. He has found me. He is waiting, and all I can do is stare. I stand for a long time until the receptionist comes out with an umbrella and manoeuvres me inside.

He stands, smiling. “Hi baby.”

“What …?” I shake my head, “I thought …” I feel the strength I found earlier hiss away.

“You’ve been a long time, where’ve you been?”

“Eating.” I shiver in spite of the warmth of the hotel lobby.

“Who with? Who are they?’ He jerks his head to the empty courtyard. He must have seen me talking.

“Students, from the conference.”

The receptionist hands me my key and I turn and walk to the lift. He follows, saying in a low voice, “You don’t seem very happy, anyone would think you don’t want me around.” In the lift, he eyes my body. I rest my head against the mirrored walls and watch the lights take me to the fourth floor.

“I asked you not to come,” I say, pushing past the slowly opening steel door. In the room, I slump onto a chair and hot tears slide down my cheeks. “Why are you here?”

“I told you, we’re going to celebrate your promotion, go to Paris.”

“I already told you, I can’t.”

“Well, you see, I checked with your mum. You’ve got some time off she says. Funny, you never mentioned it.”

A tightness forms around my chest and I look at him. “I don’t want to go to Paris.” Then quietly, to the floor, “I want you to leave me alone.”

“Why would I do that babe? You know you’re mine now. You’re my girl.” He’s on the floor, kneeling in front of me as I wipe tears across my face. “Why the tears babe?” He holds my shoulders and shakes them a little. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” When I sob in return, he speaks again but with steel in his voice, “Aren’t. You. Glad. To see me?” I nod. He gets up, switches on the television, slips off his shoes and lies on the bed, and all the while, I’m crying, thinking of the Italian woman and of my own reflection.

We are silent for a long time until I stand and take my sodden coat off. My suitcase lies open with clothes stacked in each half. A flutter of hope rises when I realise that I have packed my new clothes away earlier; he has seen nothing.

“I have to do things for the closing session tomorrow,” I say, my cheeks burning, and spread papers out across the desk, bed and suitcase. He is oblivious to what I’m doing, happy in the knowledge that he has locked me away tonight.

“What time is check-out?”

“Eleven.” I continue to shuffle papers. If I look at him now, he’ll see the quivering in my chest.

“So we can get up late.”

“Well, you can.” The quivering has helped me tune my voice. “I have to run a session tomorrow, someone dropped out and they asked if I could step in. But I should be back here before twelve.” I can feel his eyes on my back. I turn to him, “Or you could meet me at the conference, after you’ve checked out?” He is reassured by this, by the idea that he remains my shadow. His face eases and he returns to the television screen.

He has brought wine, and I say “No, I need a clear head for the morning, for the session.” But I stay up, wide-eyed, watching war films with him until he eventually falls asleep, the entire bottle consumed by him. I creep to the suitcase, pull out my new clothes, and place them in a pile near the door. It’s 3am before I fall into a shaky sleep, waking every hour until I cannot lie still any more. At 6am, I pad to the door, put on my new jeans, the blue cardigan buttoned over a bra and the wool jacket. I fold my burgundy dress into the smallest square and put it into my handbag, next to my passport, purse and phone. I collect the papers I need to keep me sane on the journey. In the dark bathroom, with its cold tiles and haunting mirror, I know that I must go now. Now, before he wakes. Whatever I have in the bathroom, l leave. My old jumper, trousers and coat are still on hangers; my suitcase lies open. I crouch by the door, pull on my socks then zip up my boots slowly to soften the ripping sound. I pull the door handle gently and slip through the slimmest gap I can make for myself without letting in the stark hallway light. I do not look back.

Outside, the sky is the cobalt of dawn. Rue Jeanne d’Arc’s lamplight guides me past Square Verdrel to the station lit in the distance. I stride, almost jog. My feet are light; there is little baggage. I dash across Rue Verte and onto the station concourse. When I reach the counter, I ask the woman if I can get to Italy from Paris. “Oui madame, a Paris Bercy, près de la Gare De Lyon.” She sells me two tickets. Arrivée Roma Termini is printed on one, and a trembling begins inside me. I’m on the direct train to Paris and my heart is rattling in my ears for most of the journey, past the graffiti-daubed buildings and stretches of flat land, until la Tour Eiffel flickers between offices and apartments.

I step outside St Lazare station; the air is crisp and the sky clean. The morning is spent at Printemps: new luggage, shoes, underwear. When I reach Bercy station, I am humming with nerves. The fluttering in my stomach is permanent since the abuse began at lunchtime. I eat at Cafe Chambertin, fragile from the morning, and climb the stairs to the concrete and glass structure, where I am directed to the lounge upstairs. Dusk comes late in the afternoon, giving me time to sit in the deep leather chairs, with my feet tucked under me, and watch the passengers below. I imagine him waking up to an empty room and beginning to pack my things, wondering why my coat is still hanging there. I imagine him checking out, and the receptionist not meeting his gaze. I see him waiting at the conference and the fury that follows, the fury that is always there.

I study the trains and know that when my train comes, my carriage will be the third one along. When it arrives, I walk along the platform slowly, glancing in at the berths. The sky is punctured by platform lights and the passengers’ feet are hidden by steam rising from the tracks. “Madame,” says the inspector, tipping his hat and guiding me on-board. I watch France speed past my window until my bunk is lowered and I am rocked into a deep sleep. I do not dream; my mind is clear. 

Nilam Ashra-McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector. She is currently writing a book based on her summer writing residency at Huddersfield Library. You can read extracts of her book on her blog (http://nilamsnet.wordpress.com/category/writer-in-residence-2/). She also writes a blog dedicated to anyone living and working overseas, who are feeling homesick (http://feelinghomesick.wordpress.com/) for the UK. Rouen is her first piece of published fiction.



Gary Siebel – Kerouac Drank Here

I am a stinking drunk, old, dissolute, grizzled, unkempt; a writer. Like so many other decrepit desperadoes in search of their long-lost orgasm, the bars and strip clubs of North Beach, San Francisco, are my domain. The center of North Beach is the intersection of Broadway and Kearney, where sits the City Lights bookstore, publishers of Ginsberg’s Howl, in the 1950’s.

Nowadays, post-2000, City Lights is mainly an object to be photographed by tourists. Artists and writers long since moved elsewhere. They can’t afford the rent. These days North Beach is running mostly on fumes of alcohol, so I fit right in. If tourists ask where I live, so as to photograph me as one of the locals, even asking me to stand a bit more upright, if they want me in the photo, or perhaps move a bit more to the left, if they want to crop me out, I tell them, “Just up the street a few blocks.” I neglect to mention my address is a cardboard box.

I may be a drunk but I still have a keen eye for beauty, and it always wanders. On the street, Friday and Saturday nights, girls dressed like street urchins in dark, hooded sweatshirts, filtering their way through the masses, wearing jeans to camouflage their bods, are the strippers. The girls that dress like hot ho’s, with short-short dresses in the chill wind, and exposed cleavages that draw the eye, are the regular girls on their way to and from the bars and dance clubs on Broadway.

I relentlessly bar hop, and prowl the strip clubs. I avoid the regular dance clubs because the lines are too long and I wouldn’t get in anyway. I dress one grade above “street.” The bartenders all know me but the strippers ask my name. They do that to create the impression they might actually be interested in the customer. I tell them my name is Don Quixote. They ask if I am waiting for a particular girl. I tell them I seek Dulcinea. Some get it, some don’t. The other night I found, let’s see now (it’s so hard to keep track without notes), one beauty at Little Darlings, another at Hustler, three at Centerfolds, a truly outstanding performer at Showgirls, and about 25 guys and three girls at the Hungry I, a true dive.

Despite my stinking drunkenness, if I shower just enough to keep from actually stinking (just try it outdoors in the middle of January in San Francisco, with a bucket of water, and a chill breeze off the ocean), I can still get lucky. But it is an increasingly rare occurrence when a young girl finds me attractive, especially if she is sober. Did I mention it can be hard to keep up appearances when you are sleeping in cardboard? (Refrigerator boxes are the best, of course, but street people fight over them, so when you leave for the day in hunt of food or, God forbid, work, by the time you return your house will have been dragged off to some troglodyte’s cave from which you are kept at bay by a puny, relentlessly barking dog, and an outrageous stench.)

One such lucky occurrence transpired with a girl who was actually reading Catcher in the Rye while sitting on a barstool in Vesuvios, a bar next to the City Lights bookstore. She had been fired from the Hustler strip club an hour earlier for failure to tip everybody on a previous night, despite the fact she made no money herself and had gone home early because she felt ill. Strip clubs work off the tip system to avoid paying anybody anything over minimum wage, if they even pay them at all. The D.J., bouncers, and doormen all have their hand out. Some girls make lots of money, some don’t. I sympathised with her, noting how the clubs are ruthlessly exploitative, but even though we are exploited, we keep coming back, especially the stinking drunks. We like having our fantasies exploited. We search in vain for Dulcinea, but enjoy the search, nonetheless. There are so many beautiful Dulcineas the search can last a lifetime.

She was a bright little wisp of a thing, with a pleasant giggle, nice bod, and a long way from her original home, in Florida. Long blonde hair. Laughing at my jokes is always a plus. I bought her some drinks and our literary sort of conversation proceeded swimmingly. Alcohol provided lubrication, of course. I held forth that Holden Caulfield was ridiculous; that the story was unrealistic; that Phoebe, his little sister, was really some sort of secret code for incest (I made that up on the spot). I amazed myself, and surprised her, by recalling scenes and names that I had read over 30 years previously. I wanted to be sure she knew how old I was. She didn’t balk, or bat an eyelash. I asked if I she wanted to know how Catcher ended? She said no. When she got up to use the restroom she rubbed her crotch firmly against my thigh. Our eyes locked. When she returned I suggested we go. I neglected to mention I would have to get a room for the night.

Then my luck went normal. I really had been tilting at a windmill after all. We got outside and another stripper, her friend, suddenly appeared, right there in that alley between Vesuvios and City Lights, where the tourists ask me to either stand up, or move a bit more to the left. Her friend obviously decided I needed to move a bit more to the left. They hugged. To my chagrin, before long her friend offered her a place to stay that very night, and for a few weeks, if necessary. Needless to say, my girl jumped at the lifeline. I couldn’t really blame her. After all, I am an old guy, a stinking drunk, dissolute, grizzled, and unkempt. But as she walked away I yelled, “Holden kills himself in the end!” He should have waited until he was living out of a cardboard box.

 

Gary Siebel is an American writer. His book of black-and-white photography, Photos of Naked Girls, is currently available on Kindle – the title is self-explanatory. Otherwise, Kerouac Drank Here is his first publication in decades.




Leah Griesmann – The Knothole

Haight Street smells like bong residue left on a beer-soaked couch overnight. The smoke from sandalwood incense wafting out of the Liquor and Vitamin store adds to the reek. Me and Edge sit on the cement outside Amoeba Records panhandling for change. Edge has a cardboard sign that says, “This is a stick-up,” mine says, “Got money?”

Last night we slept in the park with our buddy, Ramone. He works as a runner for this guy who sells bad weed to tourists. He can make a hundred dollars in an afternoon talking up high school girls with their Gap hippie ensembles, fake tie-dye, and designer bindis. They come to the Haight with their Daddies’ money, buying up all the rainbow glass pipes and Fillmore posters, trying to be Grace Slick for a day. Then they go back to their six-bedroom homes in the suburbs and smoke the cheap shake Ramone sold them.

I’ve been in the city since June. Me and my girlfriend Holly spent the summer in Golden Gate Park with other raggedy-ass skater kids. We had our own fort built into a bush near the Tea Garden where all these Chinese ladies practice their Feng Shue Do or whatever. We’d all be on acid, watching these Asian grandmas waving their arms like Bruce Lee, taking these totally Ninja-like steps. One time when we were on X we went right up to them, trying to copy their moves. They just kept swirling, totally calm, like they didn’t see us at all.

Holly went back to her mom’s house in August to finish up high school. She’s one of those girls who can go off the deep end then get it together real quick. I have no plans except to get stoned every day. Like Bob Marley, I believe that the herb is a sacrament, and I am incredibly faithful to my religion. I guess you could say I’m a priest.

The other thing I do is skateboard. After Holly left, I spent my days skating this hill near the Haight that looks over the city. I like the speed and the wind in my ears when I’m riding downhill. I even love that black hole feeling I get when some biker dude pulls out in front of me and I have to yank to the side with all of my weight to get out of his way. The moment after that happens is awesome. I almost die, and when I don’t, it’s like this Mariachi band starts beating their drums and playing their horns so loud I can’t think. The rest of the day, I walk around with a grin on my face.

I have more time on my hands and no money since Holly went home. I’ve never been too good at stealing, so begging for change is my hustle. Ramone and Edge are real cool about sharing. We’re sort of like Communists, each to his own, or however they do it. Things were just fine until one day the forces that be threw a wrench in our plans.

I don’t know what Sept. 11th looked like if you weren’t high, but I can tell you me and six other dudes watched it on this TV they had in a gas station, and we were like, holy shit. We saw one plane hit the trade tower, BANG, then the other plane hit the next one, BANG. Then the whole buildings burned up and fell to the ground. We were all stoned, and a couple of kids started laughing.

On that day a lot of things changed. To begin with, Ramone said he couldn’t smoke pot any more cause it made him too paranoid. I was stoked when he gave me the leftover shake from his work. Edge went the opposite way. He said if the world was ending, he might as well party. He started drinking King Cobra at ten in the morning and kept it up until night.

Our main hobby got ruined. We had been going to the knothole at Pac Bell Park for the last six games because Barry Bonds was close to hitting the home run world record. Me and Barry have always been tight. We’re both from San Carlos, and I played in the same Little League he did. Also, my nickname is B.B., because my name is Brian Bohmer, which is sort of a random coincidence. Me and my stepdad Eddie used to watch all his games on T.V.

After Sept. 11th, the baseball games were postponed. If you were ever given a chance to see history and it was taken away, you’d be sort of bummed. Especially if you were people like us who go to the knothole, this fenced-off place at the back of the park where we watch the game free.

On September 16th, after barely scraping together six bucks because the rich hippie girls weren’t coming into the city any more, Ramone said he was checking himself in to this young people’s shelter on Haight Street. Ramone was our meal ticket. If he was leaving, Edge and me would have a hard time on our own.

“Come with me,” Ramone said.

Edge put down his 40-ouncer. “Dude, that place is hardcore. They make you do chores and have curfew.”

“It’s temporary,” Ramone said. “The whole world is about to explode. Aren’t you sick of this shit on the street?”

In a way I was. Without Holly or Bonds, my life wasn’t as fun. The only thing I did now at night was get stoned and look at the stars. Even that wasn’t great since I’d traded the telescope Eddie gave me for pot. Still, that didn’t mean I wanted to live in some barracks with other gross kids. Not to mention those places had lame counselors who never did shit with their own lives and took out their problems on people like us.

“No way,” Edge said. “That place is funded by the CIA. You get in there, sign a contract, next thing you know they ship you off to Afghanistan.”

Ramone shook his head. “Fine. Stay on the street if you think it’s so great.”

“I’ll try it,” I said. I didn’t know what else I could do. When Holly left, she took her ATM card with her.

“Shit!” Edge said, trying to laugh as we picked up our blankets and coats. “You guys are sell-outs. You’re lost, man, you’re indoctrinated. You’re like the living robots. Have fun selling your soul. I’ll be right here. You’ll know where to find me. Have a great time in Afghanistan.”


 

The youth shelter was lame, but it had real beds and hot showers. We had to do chores, but they weren’t really hard, and they hooked us up with jobs to earn money. My counsellor Mark was OK. He kept giving me the third degree about my family like they were some hidden gem that he needed to polish. I told him there wasn’t much to report – my mom was a slut and my stepdad moved to New Mexico.

One day in October I was walking home from my third day at work when I noticed a newspaper. The headline said “70.” When I got to the shelter, I ran to Ramone’s room. He was on his bunk listening to his Walkman, reading a K-Force comic.

“Dude!” I said, as he took off his earphones. “Bonds hit 70! He’s one away from the world record!”

“I heard that,” he said. “He’s gonna go all the way.”

“Come on. There’s still time to get down there.”

“It’s curfew. If we leave now, they’ll never let us come back.”

“Don’t be a douche, it’s once in a lifetime!”

“No way, man. Just take a time out.”

“Time up,” I said, and like that I was gone.


Back on Haight Street, I went looking for Edge. A group of dirty kids with a pit bull were sitting on the sidewalk in front of Amoeba records. Edge was slumped against the wall in his khaki jacket.

“Edge!” I said. “Dude, wake up.”

His eyes didn’t open. He was lying there, passed out or asleep, so I kicked him.

“Edge, it’s me, B.B. Barry Bonds hit 70, man. We’ve got to go to Pac Bell.”

“B.B.?” he said. His eyes were half-open. “You got five dollars?”

“No, man. Come on.”

“Can you lend me ten dollars?”

“Dude, Bonds hit 70. Tonight’s the big game.”

He managed to wobble onto his feet, then tried to grab me by the shoulders. “I’m sick, B.B. Give me ten dollars!”

I pushed him off and he fell to the ground in a heap.

“You fucking cheapskate!” he said as I bailed.


I hopped on my skateboard and started up Haight Street. The traffic was heavy, and the wind was blowing against me. I tried pass a big bus and then had to totally dive when this mini-car swerved. I finally got on the sidewalk. For once, I needed to make it somewhere without getting killed.

It took me a half-hour to get to Van Ness. From there, I passed through a really bad hood. The thing about skating is nobody fucks with you. They figure you’re just fast enough to outrun them, and too poor to rob. I get in this groove with my left leg pumping so fast I don’t even feel it.

Outside the park the streets were jammed. The game wasn’t for hours, but thousands of people were already there. I picked up my skateboard and weaved my way through. Music was playing, and flags that said “70” were hanging from every building.

To get to the knothole, I had to walk in back of the park alongside the bay, where kayaks and boats were already waiting to catch Bonds’ homerun. There’s a fence you can peek through to see who’s batting for free.  I forced my way into the crowd of people standing behind lucky bastards whose faces were pressed up against the wire mesh of the fence. If I kept my position, and nobody moved, I might be able to see Barry’s feet. Then again, if some people left, I might get in closer.

The first inning L.A. was at bat. One of their balls hit the fence, and we all screamed as the Giants right fielder ran towards us. When their turn batting was over, we stood on our tip-toes because we knew Bonds would hit fourth.

By this point I could not see the field. Everyone had pushed in closer, the tall people had grown, and the short people were wider. Bodies and heads blocked my view. There was one little place I could duck towards and just see home plate. When I did that, the kid near me pushed.

“I’m trying to see,” I said.

“Knock it off,” he said, not looking at me.

When the third batter struck out, hip-hop music started playing and a loud cheer went up. Suddenly all of us were rammed from behind, as folks started forcing their way towards the knothole. I was smashed into the kid, and by stepping just one foot in front of him I could see perfectly.

“Move,” he said sharply, and shoved me.

“Man,” I said. “Just let me stand here for Bonds.”

“Fuck, no.”

There was no getting around him. He was younger than me, but half a foot taller. I had no time to waste. “Dude, please.  I’ll give you my skateboard.”

“Just this at-bat?”

“Yeah,” I said, and handed my skateboard to him. He looked at it and stood back while I moved eight inches in front where I could see everything.

Bonds took his position behind home plate, swinging his bat a few times. The crowd started chanting again. The pitcher brought his right hand in front of his face, then pulled it back, arching his arm. He stepped forward and threw a hard fastball. My eyes were on Barry’s chest, his black glove, and the twitch of his head under his helmet. The ball crossed home plate and he swung.

After Barry connected, he took a step back and just watched. The ball shot into a high arc over the field. As it continued to climb, the gasps in the crowd became screams. A jolt of electricity surged through my body. As I jumped up and down with everyone in the knothole, Barry’s ball left the park. We all whipped around, bouncing and screaming and saw it drop into the bay.

71.

If people could burst into flames, I would have. My entire being exploded. The sky lit up with fireworks, which sounded like bombs and trailed like rain over the bay. Music was blasting, the ground was rocking, and I couldn’t hear myself scream. My head was on fire. My penis was hard. In fact, I probably came.

I was in the middle of a human sandwich, crushed inside the embrace. Everyone in the stands was waving American flags like Bonds had hit the ball straight into the face of Osama bin Laden. I fell behind the people in front of me to the back of the knothole.

By the end of the game, Barry Bonds had hit one more homerun, beating the world record at 72. I filed out of the park with thousands of people, hoping to find an empty phone booth. Out on the streets, everybody was shouting, and cars that went by were honking. I walked along the bay, yelling and waving back, until I found a phone. I picked up the receiver, looked out towards the bay and held up my finger to dial.

I wasn’t sure who I should call. The person I most wanted to tell was Eddie. He would be totally psyched. He had promised to get us Giants tickets when Pac Bell first opened.

But that was back then. In those days I still had my telescope Eddie had bought, and he still planned to adopt me. My name was going to be Brian Quinonez, which sounded so cool, and I would call Eddie Dad. But that was before mom slept with Alex, before Eddie went to New Mexico, and before he found out that he had a son. A son of his own, a real son.

I didn’t know before then that people were like planets in orbit. I thought they were more like the moon, waxing and waning, but still always there. When Eddie told me he was staying in Taos to be with his real son, a boy even older than me with his same black hair and brown eyes, I had no way of knowing that I would fall out of his solar system like an asteroid hitting the earth.

I held the phone in my hand and looked at the water. A brown beer bottle was floating on top of the bay. What was the beer bottle to the bay? Nothing. That’s what I was to Eddie.

I put some change in the phone and called Holly. Her mother picked up.

“Holly’s not here. Who is this?”

“B.B.”

“B.B? Do not call this house again. Do you understand me? Do not call her. Don’t you ever come near her again.”

I hung up. I didn’t have any more change, so I called mom collect. When the operator asked if they’d accept the charges, I heard Alex’s voice say, “Yes.”

“B.B., where the fuck are you?”

“Let me talk to mom.”

“Your mom’s not here, where the fuck are you?”

“I didn’t call to talk to you, I called to talk to mom.”

“You don’t need to know where your mom is. She’s been out to the city three times looking for your little punk ass.”

“Give me her number.”

“You get your ass home right now.”

I hung up on him and sat down on the cement railing.

People were still flooding the streets coming out of the ballpark. A family in orange, all in Bonds sweatshirts, were laughing and walking in my direction. They had two boys who couldn’t have been more than eight, waving their orange balloons.

I didn’t know where to go next. I was too beat to get back to Haight Street. Near Fisherman’s Wharf, I turned left and found a small park with some trees. My legs were so sore, I dropped right down on the grass.

A car screeched by on the street in front of the park. Teenagers were hanging out of the window, yelling, “72!” I don’t know if they saw me, but one of them pitched their beer bottle in my direction. I ducked, and the thing hit the tree, shattering over my head.

That’s when I started thinking.

What the fuck did Barry Bonds care if I stood there watching him hit 72? He had millions of people screaming his name. He wasn’t thinking about some loser kid in the knothole when he crossed home plate.

And what the hell did I care? I didn’t hit it, I wasn’t the one getting millions of dollars, seeing my name up in lights. I was sleeping under a tree with broken glass falling on me. I didn’t even have my skateboard or someone to call.

I slept in the park that night and woke up cold with my stomach in knots, thirsty and needing to pee. I scrounged the trash for half-eaten sourdough bowls and plastic cups melted with ice and ate them on top of a newspaper that said “72” on one side and Taliban on the other. I walked six miles back to the Haight and found Edge who was still jonesing hard.

“You got any dope?” he asked when he saw me.

“Fuck off,” I said.

“Can you lend me ten dollars?”

“Don’t have it.”

He rubbed his eyes and managed to open one fully. “Did you see the big game?”

“I saw it.”

He looked at my feet. “Where’s your skateboard?”

“It’s gone.”

He shifted his knee under his army surplus jacket. “Did you meet Barry Bonds?”

“If I did I would kick his prick ass.”

Edge slapped me five. I hocked a lugie for Mark and Eddie and Alex and Barry, four guys who hadn’t done shit for me. I sat down near Edge and we panhandled chicks for the rest of the buttsucking day.

Leah Griesmann was a 2010-2011 Steinbeck Fellow in Fiction at San Jose State University. Her stories have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Toyon, Swink, Paradigm Volume 3: The Best of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry 2009, Lady Jane’s Miscellany, and The Cortland Review. She earned her MA in Creative Writing at Boston University and has taught writing and literature at Boston University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is currently finishing a novel and a collection of short stories.




Fiona Glass – Spark to a Flame

Nick felt a fierce surge of joy as he struck the match. He cupped his hand to shield the sudden flare, the hot tang of phosphorus strong in the cool night air. It reminded him of childhood bonfire nights, of his Dad leaping about on their lawn lighting rockets and trying not to let the roman candles singe his eyebrows off. He’d had a thing about matches ever since. Loved their smell, loved their sudden spark to life, loved the way you had to create the flame. Not like a cigarette lighter which was all too easy – just flip the thing open and the fire was already there. No, with a match you had to work. You had to scrape it on the edge of the box in just the right way. Too much pressure and the wooden shaft would break and you’d chuck it and have to start again. Not enough and it would spark but fail to spring to life. Just right, and there was that perfect popping, sputtering sound and the tiny, bright, dancing flame in your hand.

He held it there now, daring himself, playing chicken to see how long he could hang on before it burned down and seared his skin. Sure enough there was a moment of brilliant pain and then the match went out. He dropped it and fished in the box again. Oh, that had been good. Bloody amazing, in fact. But he had a job to do. Old man Thomas had stressed that enough.

“It’s important, Nick. Probably the most important thing you’ve ever done in your young life. I’m counting on you not to mess it up.”

Nick sucked his teeth, ran the unlit match down the faint scarred undulations on the side of his face. He’d got that from a fire, a few years back. It had hurt like hell at the time but now it merely itched or got tight when the weather was cold. Badge of dishonour, his Dad had called it, and given him a clip round the ear for being daft. He liked it, though. It showed who he was and what he was capable of, more clearly than any record of time served.

But enough of this pissing about. If he stayed too long some bugger would come past and he’d be seen, and add another stint in Youth Custody to the two he’d already done.

“Don’t do anything silly, now,” Thommo had said. “Don’t forget I know all about your record. I could have you back in custody before you can say –”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nick had said, but he knew the old man was right. He could still savour the job, though. Scraping the match down the side of the box as slowly as he could, watching as it sputtered … almost died … caught. He held it towards the rags and bits of screwed up paper he’d shoved in a hole in the wall. The hole the old man had told him about.

“The whole place is full of holes – I could tell you about a dozen more just like that. But that one should serve our purpose rather well. It’s around the back and out of sight of the road.”

It wasn’t just out of sight, it was perfect in other ways. Just above waist height, knocked right through the brick into the wood and plaster inside, which gave him the best chance of getting the place alight. He wondered what other strange facts the old man knew about the school. That had been a weird meeting all right – weird but funny all the same, in an alley round the back of the bank. Thomas had been fidgeting, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and back again, and so dressed down in corduroys and a baggy pullover that he’d stood out a mile.

“We can’t be seen together,” he’d kept saying, looking furtively from side to side until Nick was glad to get away.

The newspaper took straight away, sizzling where it had got damp, red lines marching like ants round the edges of each page. A headline that had read ‘School Rebuilding Programme Axed’ twisted and charred before his eyes. Shit. Too fast, too soon. It would go out before anything else had caught. Nick readied another match, holding the end against the box, but didn’t need to scrape. A small blue flame darted from the paper to the cloth, paused then leapt again. The stench of burning cotton filled his lungs. He gulped smoke and coughed.

The joy became elation. Yes! This was what he did best. He punched the air with a fist, then looked around, foolish, glad there was no one around to see. A bit of half-burnt rag fell down and he stirred it with his toe, watching the sparks glitter and take fairy-like to the air. The alley he was in funnelled the wind, turning brick and concrete into a giant bellows, and the flames surged. The popping and hissing had become a deafening roar; he could feel the heat on his unprotected cheeks and the sudden prickle on his scar. He tucked the matchbox into a pocket and clenched his fist again but quietly, against his chest where it was hidden by his scarf.

He could have stayed all night, but it was getting dangerous. Not just from the heat or the risk of a collapsing roof, but because the orange glow was a beacon, alerting the community to what he’d done. Any second now someone in the nearby houses would see; any second now there’d be shouts and the sudden blare of sirens as the fire brigade arrived. It was time to check in with the old man and pick up his reward. Not that he needed money or anything like that – the job was satisfaction enough. But still, if Thommo offered he’d take a few quid, or a packet of smokes or the odd bottle of booze. Might as well get something back from a night’s hard work. He took a last look at his handiwork, feeling the pride stretch his chest, and then he was off, running over the playing field like a smear of ash, towards the hole in the fence.

At the last minute he changed his mind. The streets were full of wailing sirens and the uncanny on-off flicker of blue emergency lights, and old man Thomas could go and hang himself. There probably wouldn’t be a reward, anyway, not with all the talk there’d been of cutting back. Regular sob story he’d spun to Nick, about the state the school was in and how he, Harry Thomas, would get the blame.

“But I’ll show them,” he’d said, in a manner Nick might have used himself. “If I can deal with mice in the kitchen and a shortage of supply teachers I can deal with this. I’ll show the bastards there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Nick didn’t know who ‘they’ were – government, insurance companies, society at large – and he didn’t much care. The talk had made him uncomfortable – a reminder that he and Thommo inhabited different worlds. Worlds that only collided when the old man needed him. Well, he didn’t need him now. There was an orange haze in the west that had nothing to do with the setting sun and the breeze brought the acrid tang of smoke, and even old man Thomas would see that his plan had paid off. With any luck he wouldn’t hang around; with any luck he’d have the sense to go back home.

The next day Nick didn’t bother turning up for school, knowing the place would be closed. They’d have the fire brigade there damping down, and forensics people sifting through the ash. They wouldn’t find much, though – he was experienced enough to see to that. A crumpled copy of the local newspaper that anyone could have bought; rags he’d picked up from a fly-tip eyesore near his home. He hadn’t worn gloves but the flames would have taken any last traces of fingerprints or DNA, and he’d been careful about being seen.

Ignoring his Mum’s yells to ‘get your arse down here now’ he lay in bed until early afternoon, but knew he couldn’t resist going back. The call was too strong – the need to see his handiwork for himself. Head in hood like a turtle retreating into its shell he kicked his way along the streets to the school, and joined a gaggle of people peering over the gate.

“What’s up?” he said, pretending not to know.

The woman next to him had a tissue in her hand and her eyes were red. “Oh, it’s terrible,” she said. “Someone broke in last night and burned down the school. Just look at it – there’s hardly anything left. All my Jenny’s artwork was in there.” And she turned away with a sniff.

It was better than he’d thought. A few outlying classrooms had escaped the blaze but the main block was a blackened, smoking shell. Gone was the turret with the clock, gone was the roof, gone most of the upper floor. All that remained was the walls, and a few charred rafters and spars. To think that so much destruction could come from one tiny spark. It was the best thing he’d ever done.

He watched for a moment then slouched away, careful not to grin too much and draw attention to himself. There’d be time for celebration later, and far away from here. A little fire somewhere, on the edge of town. Nothing like the size of this; nothing that could get him nicked after all his precautions here. The breeze blew a few tendrils of smoke into his face and wrapped a newspaper round his feet. He bent to pick it up. It was the lunchtime edition of the local rag, and the headline glared at him in letters two feet tall: ‘Headmaster Arrested for Arson Insurance Scam’. He shrugged and scrunched the paper into a useful ball. He’d use that later to light his little fire. Even old Thommo would see the irony in that.

Fiona Glass lives in a pointy house in Birmingham, UK and writes darkly humorous fiction, usually in the form of short stories and almost always with a twist in the tail. Her stories have been published in magazines and anthologies including Mslexia, Radgepacket volumes 2 and 4 from Byker Books, The Pygmy Giant, Pulp Metal and There Was a Crooked House from Pill Hill Press. You can find more of her work online at fiona-glass.com.




Carter Jackson — Rat Hunting

Colusa was really different from San Francisco. But while I was there I discovered one of my great passions, a sport I’d never heard of before: rat hunting.

I grew up duck hunting. Which I never really liked because you had to wake up at some obscene hour, wade through a freezing swamp and sit in a dark cold blind that reeked of stale farts and was covered in tobacco spit. Then you waited very quietly—absolutely no talking allowed—for what seemed like hours for some tiny lonesome bird to fly by. Usually, at this point I would be fixing a cuticle or counting the cigar butts at the bottom of the blind and miss the entire event, which so often spurred that cool frustration from my dad—I was clearly “Not Paying Attention”—and the subsequent reminder that I was very lucky to be out there with him given that I am, after all, a girl.

Pheasant hunting was much more my speed. You went at a decent hour, like in the afternoon; you were out walking around, and the birds were big, and you could chatter as much as you like. Either way, duck hunting or pheasant hunting, I can’t say I was a very good shot. Rat hunting, on the other hand, I was great at.

I first heard of rat hunting at a birthday party after I’d been married and living in Colusa for a few months. The birthday boy, Donny, was complaining that the rats were eating all his rice seeds before they had the chance to take root. The obligatory discussion about the cheapest and most effective rat poison on the market ensued, and more Coors Lights were consumed. About an hour later, Donny decided that he had had enough of his own party and that he was getting his gun and taking off to go rat hunting. I looked at my then-husband and said, “Oh this, I have to see.”

In Colusa, there was no need to go home to get your guns, everybody kept them in their pick-ups. So two girls and thee guys piled into Donny’s Chevy along with three guns and a case of Coors Light. We took off for the rice fields. Given that we’d all get a DUI, we took the back roads.

I have to be honest. Rats really scared me. They move fast, have long hairless tails, ugly toothy faces and regardless of what my mother said, I’ve always thought that they were nowhere near as afraid of me as I was of them. In fact, I thought they were out to get me. This made the idea of hunting them down all the more thrilling. Really conquering one’s fear.

The how-to’s of rat hunting. There was an old story about my ex-husband’s uncle who spent the summer driving a tractor and living in a one-room country house. Legend had it, he came home bombed one night and walked in on a whole slew of rats going crazy eating everything in his house. He got himself so worked up over all the rats that he took out his pistol and blasted twenty holes in the walls trying to “teach those little fuckers a lesson”. Now the rat hunting that I experienced was an outdoor sport, rather than an indoor one, that used shotguns and shells, rather than pistols with bullets.

The best hunting was in rice fields right after the seed was flown on and before it took root. Rice fields are long rectangles separated by little levee roads and the rats liked nibbling the seed on the edge of one field then running across the road to nibble the seed of another field. All the hunter had to do was walk along the side of the pick up while the driver slowly creeped along the road. The lights from the pick-up got the rats moving, and when one came into your line of sight, you just shot. This seemed easier said than done.

As we were driving out, we passed what was fondly called the Fields of Death. These fields absolutely stunk of dead animal. For most farmers, the killing of rats was a purely economic equation. Were the rats going to eat enough of the crop to justify the cost of the rat poison and its application? The answer for most farmers entailed putting on some rat poison, but not nearly enough to kill all the rats. It was all about return on investment. Mike, the owner of the Fields of Death, wasn’t concerned with ROI, he flat-out wasn’t rational about rats anymore. He felt that the rats had declared war on him personally and he spent every dime he could on buying up all of the rat poison in the county to cover his fields with it. Mike’s fields were located right off of Interstate 5 and for about three miles in each direction all you could smell was dead animal. For me, having the private knowledge that this smell was due to thousands of dead rotting rats had a tendency to kick in the old gag reflex.

As we drove by and I gagged into my Coors Light, Donny decided that we could hunt some fields that were out of smelling distance from Mike’s. We bumped over more dirt roads and finally arrived at our hunting grounds. We had two 12 gauges and a 20 gauge. I won’t shoot with a 12 because its kick hurts my shoulder, and most men wouldn’t be caught dead with a 20 gauge so we two girls shared it. Unlike the guys, we played rock-paper-scissors for who had to go first, not who got to go first. She was just as freaked out by the rats as I was, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that both of us would be out on the road alone.

I lost and got out of the pick-up. My husband gave me a handful of shells and told me not to shoot too far ahead. While in the safety of the truck’s cab, I thought up a few hunting strategies.

I could walk next to the window of the pick-up, feeling the security of the driver’s company but actually walking in the dark—therefore leaving an opening for the rats to sneak-up and bite my ankles without me noticing. Or I could walk out in front of the pick-up, bathed in the security of the headlights, but out of easy voice contact with the driver. This would leave me open to the possibility of hundreds of rats forming a posse and launching a full scale eating attack on me, piranha style. The third option of sitting on the hood of the pick-up was never viable for me. First, it didn’t accomplish the moment by moment face-your-fears element of the hunt that I craved. And second, the results could be much more disastrous. If the driver braked hard, I could go flying off the hood and get run over by the truck. This would leave me paralyzed, under the truck, in the dark, but aware enough to feel the rats feasting on my maimed extremities. I thought that I would alternate between the first two strategies, switching whenever I got too freaked out.

So, I stood at the side of the pick-up talking to Donny and hoping every so often so that I wasn’t such a predictable target for the sneaky rats.

Woosh.

Out came a big fat rat about 20 yards ahead. It was hauling across the road and just as I lifted the gun to lead it and shoot (like you’re supposed to do in duck hunting), it stopped.

I missed.

Damn it.

Then there was another, this time the little sucker was just strolling across the road. I had all the time in the day. I lifted my gun again and shot, a good clean shot that nailed it. Boom. The rat actually blew up. It was amazing. You know when you go trap shooting and you hit a clay pigeon straight on? It just shatters into a million little pieces. That was this rat. Gone. Shattered.

Ah, the rush of the kill.

I looked at Donny. He looked at me. We were both grinning from ear to ear. He knew what was at work. I was coming down with rat hunting fever.

No sooner had I reloaded my gun when there were more rats. Actually at any given time there were no less than ten rats within eyesight. I could just keep shooting and reloading. It was no problem if I missed, because there was always another to take its place. Sometimes I could even kill three or four in one shot.

The best was when the rats just sat there in groups nibbling on the side of the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, smugly thinking that I couldn’t hit them for all the tea in China. Ahh, the satisfaction of raising my gun and wiping that smirk right off their little rat faces. Watching them all be blown into oblivion. Conquering.

This was fun. Granted, I was still a little freaked about being attacked by the rats, that feeling didn’t hold a candle to the excitement, the pure thrill of the hunt.

I shot about fifteen rats and thought that I should probably pass my gun back to the other girl for her turn. Then I thought, “Naa, let her ask for the gun.” I shot another fifteen rats before she asked if she could have a turn.

“Sure, just a second, let me just get that group up there.”

“Hang on, I just want to try for those guys.”

“In a minute, do you see them? They’re just begging me to nail them.”

“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve never even been duck hunting.”

“My aren’t you getting pushy—have another Coors.”

“Donny, your girlfriend is a little uptight isn’t she?”

Finally, I ran out of shells.

When I turned to my husband for more, he gave me that look. The one that meant, “Not on your life. You will share come hell or high water.”

He pried the gun out of my hands and handed it to the other girl, gave her some shells and explained to her how to shoot.

I sulked in the front seat for a few minutes. Then I watched her hunting and realized that I was the better shot. I was the born rat huntress.

Carter Jackson is Californian who came to London for a three month work gig… eight years ago. She met Mr. Perfect, who turned out to be a Croydon boy, and now happily lives in South London with him and their two kids. In addition to writing and her family, she enjoys working for the same company that originally brought her over.

 




Rob McClure Smith – Every Pitcher Tells A Story

It took the combined efforts of Rich and MacPherson’s maid to pour the little man into his clothing. They shuffled him out the door braced between them. The windows were smothered in the thorn bright fire of bougainvillea. There were pepper and bottlebrush trees, a too-high cypress hedge, a fish pool with lotuses around which fat Japanese carp slivered a sloshing yellow. MacPherson walked on a driveway wet from the fog of the night before as if on ice skates.

The southern California sunlight sucked the color out of everything, orange no longer quite orange, leaving all nebulous, each object acquiring the vague unmoving quality of a thing shimmered to stillness and in the distance lending a cool desert clarity to the sun-baked Santa Monicas. The morning diamond-bright but milky, mint odorless here, a senseless place, a landscape washed out like a canvas, shadows off, displaced. It didn’t sit right with Rich, this unreality of deserts abutting oceans.

MacPherson was laid out with care across the backseat of Reisman’s silver baby Bentley. Two young Mexicans stopped work to watch the smoothing out of their employer. They had been spreading fertilizer on a lawn green as Astroturf.

“Golpe los. . . hojas,” grunted MacPherson.

“No entiendo,” said the maid.

“This is a person is wanting to make a movie in South America?” Reisman nodded confidentially at the gardeners. “You suppose these boys are legal, Mac?”

“You suppose ah give a crap?” said MacPherson, trying to subdue his seatbelt. “Country wis built by immigrants, so ah hear.”

“Best not to mess with the INS,” said Reisman. “Country’s been built for a while. It’s a touch up job now.”  He turned the ignition over. “It got finished in the seventies.”

The producer backed out the long driveway, on either side banks of red geraniums and gillyflowers and chrysanthemums in symmetrical beds. The leather of the car seats was sticky-hot and smelled wonderful. Implausible palm trees loomed in the street. The sign on the hills made Rich think of Peggy Entwistle. Which letter had she climbed? Could a suicide climb an O? Which would he choose?

A hand pinched his shoulder, frightening him.

“Ah only came oot cause mah sister Aimee wis here.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister, Mac,” said Reisman.

MacPherson groaned.

“Duffy’s a definite, by the way,” said Reisman.

“How’d you manage that?” asked Rich.

“Oh, it wasn’t hard,” said Reisman. “If your star likes one thing more than money it’s parts that can win Academy Awards — crazy people, psychopaths, idiot savants, the differently abled.”

“Drooling crippled loonies,” added MacPherson. “There’s a surefire winner.”

Reisman looked at Rich. “Don’t ever forget that movies began as entertainment for illiterates.”

“Is it the Pole right enough then?”

“Yes.”

“Aw, Christ oan a bike.”

“Just you behave is all, Mac. It isn’t too much to ask.”

“Yes, it is,” said Rich.

The office was white. The carpet white, curtains white, desk white. Chairs of white wood, lamps of white crystal, a blizzard of a room, a creamy cube but for the incandescent redness of the quarter-moon glasses of wine on the white tray, like apples half-buried in snow, and the insistent prickly green of the cacti.

The cacti were taller than the humans.

The executive whom Rich presumed “The Pole” wore tight black jeans, a work shirt and cowboy boots, which did not complement his thin paisley tie and oval sunglasses. He perched spraddlelegged atop his desk. He had very outgoing teeth.

The development girl had a pinkish big mouth, a jot pinched, straight bangs and square-rimmed glasses.  It was her job to seat the visitors and circulate the wine.

Reisman greeted him. “How’s that divorce coming then?”

“Which one?” said the Pole, with no trace of accent. He pointed at their wineglasses. “Part of the settlement.  Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac ’96.  It sports mineral aromas of mint and black currant and…” He looked at the ceiling. “…its silky texture lingers in the mouth.”

“It’s good,” said Reisman.

“I don’t drink anymore,” the Pole declaimed. “I got myself clean.”

There followed an awkward silence.

“Big doings at MCA, eh?”

“What you hear?” The Pole leaned in. “Something good you got?”

“Stadler to Vice-Executive, Kellerman out. Jimmy T to Warner’s.”

“How’d he pull that?” The Pole frowned, removed his glasses and squinted at the lenses, put them back on. His eyes had been like cut glass. “Makes you wonder who you have to screw to get off this train.”

“You’re looking good but,” offered Reisman. “Working out you must be? Look at this man will you?”

“Know what I’m into now?” said the Pole. “Dahn yoga. It’s changed my life. It’s all about the breathing. I never knew about breathing. It’s all the good stuff they don’t tell you. You go through life, man, and you’re not even breathing. You just get the body positioned right, see, then work the postures.” He duly demonstrated, pushing down on his knees. “There are five big ones. The stretching helps you release stagnant energy in the lower abdomen.”

MacPherson whispered in Rich’s ear. “Back in Glesca we call that farting.”

“Here,” said the Pole, pawing his stomach, “is the Dan Jeon, the energy center. I haven’t been the same since I got synced with my Dan Jeon. You guys should try it, seriously.”

“I might do that,” said Reisman.

“Get yourself in touch with your second Chakra.”

“I’m hearing you.”

The Pole extracted from his pocket a set of black and gold cards, which the girl distributed.  “There’s centers all over the Hills now. That’s the best I’m giving you there. What you got in your hand is invite only.”

They all studied their cards politely.

“’Awaken the healer within. Develop it. Master it. Heal yourself, your family, society, and the earth.’ Sam M. tells me Dahn is this Korean cult. But you just take from it what you need. It’s yoga, right? No need to get all bent out of shape about it. Hey, see that hat over there?” He pointed at a fedora hung on a peg dead center on the wall. “Jack Nicholson gave that to me.”

“The actor?” MacPherson asked, malevolently.

“Yes, the actor.” The Pole offered MacPherson his gash of a mouth. “Good to see you, Mac. Love your work. An artist at the top of his game. That’s the consensus. I was just saying how ‘Whack and Smack’ is a movie that keeps giving and giving.”

“Amazing film,” added the girl.

“Variety says this man here is the best director working,” said Reisman.

“Ah widnae go that far,” noted MacPherson. “But ah’m definitely in the top one.”

“And that last movie…” said the Pole, “…the Zombies…zombie flick.”

He looked at the girl, snapping his fingers.

Nightwalkers,” she said.

“Absolutely brilliant.”

“It’s shite,” said MacPherson.

“You know the bit when the kids gets trapped in the S.U.V. and the zombies smash in the windows and make that wugawuga noise? Shit-scary. Wugawuga.”

“It’s a massive pile of shite,’ MacPherson. “Chophouse schlock.”

The Pole consulted a sheet scotch-taped to his desk. “40 million budgeted, world wide grosses of 150?  Wugawuga man. Wugawuga.”

“What Mac means is he doesn’t rate it with the new work,” Reisman said.

“Well, I’m here to hear is why I’m here.” The Pole inclined his head towards the girl. “You read it, dollface, right?”

The girl had Rich’s script in her lap. It was dog-eared and blue-penciled.

Suddenly the Pole exploded off his desk like a gymnast off a pommel to commence rummaging in a cupboard. He extracted a tall aluminum stick embedded in a light wooden base. There was a toy, resembling a woodpecker, at the summit, wobbling. The Pole prodded with his finger at the bird, causing it to rock and so begin a downward course, its tiny tin beak pecking at etched holes in the pole each step of its descent. It emitted a hollow clinking. Rich reckoned it would take ten minutes for the bird to reach the bottom. That was what they had. It was starting to make sense. Now he knew what the pole was.

“Action,” the Executive said.

“Action is the word. Action-adventure.” Reisman blurted the words with startling rapidity. “Also an odd-couple buddy job. Set in South America, historical, but in the positive swordfight way. Premise: European soldier-adventurers set out to take over the Isthmus of Panama. Buccaneer types, think Pirates of the Caribbean, sail from Scotland on a ship called The Rising Sun.”

“Scotland?” queried the Executive.

“It’s this place in the North of Britain, near Norway,” muttered MacPherson.

“Rising Sun. I like that. Name of the movie?”

“No,” Rich said.

“Who are you again?”

“Co-writer,” said MacPherson. “Seeing as how ah’m functionally illiterate.”

“Maybe,” interrupted Reisman. “It could be called Rising Sun.”

“That has been used,” said the girl. “A prior taken.”

“Anyways,” resumed Reisman, with a glance at the woodpecker, “our crew get to this colony in Panama, only to find it deserted. Ruins. No one. Nothing. Mystery.”

“A plague?” said the Executive.

“Not exactly.”

“Something picks them off one by one? Like in Predator?”

“One of them is a war hero, making a new start, sick of the killing, like Eastwood in Unforgiven.”

“Hero?”

“Hero.”

The bird oscillated down the pole, clunking methodically.

“Turns out the Spanish have blockaded the bay. Bad guys. Inquisition, auto-de-fes, all that jazz. We see a torture scene. Nasty lot. Make Jigsaw look like Mother Theresa. Hero figures when they land the Spanish will attack. He’s a cool cat though, advised by this old guy, odd couple thing, jokey in the Gibson-Glover way, before they went mental, says they have to attack, take the enemy by surprise. He doesn’t want to fight, but sometimes a man just got to, right?”

“Right,” said the Executive.

“Like the Coward of the Country,” noted MacPherson.

“So he marches into the jungle, allies with the Indians, who have it in for the Spanish too on account of their habit of making them slaves and all. Scots and Indians battle the Spanish, spectacular, like Last of the Mohicans, only with more decapitations.”

The Executive looked bored, offering a flat stare at the descending bird.

“Then what?”

“They rebuild the colony. But the bad guys blockade them. No escape. No supplies. Surrounded. ‘End up eating rats’ type of siege. Hero is wounded. They surrender. But they’re such brave bastards that the Spanish let them march out under their flag. Bagpipes. Hero refuses to surrender though, slips past the Spanish cruisers in a canoe. Suspenseful, right? Gets home, everyone’s upset, but he up and addresses parliament. Makes this massive great speech about…”

“That it?” the Executive yawned cavernously. “I’m not seeing this. There’s no hard concept.”

“It’s like Braveheart meets Unforgiven,” Reisman summarized, raising two fingers. “With a bit Apoclaypse Now mixed in.”He added a third digit.

“They wear kilts?  These scotch people?”

“They could. If you think it’s a selling point.”

“It’s a love story too but,” said MacPherson, taking his turn as rehearsed. “See they jist don’t huv an alliance wi’ the Indians. They live wi’ them. Go native. Yir man hooks up wi’ an Indian wumman. Gorgeous as hell. He’s never had that raw animal thing. First time they do it, she ties him up. He’s got the crap oan. Then she gits nekkid as a jaybird and crawls ower him wi’ a knife, holds this blade tae his throat, ither parts of his anatomy.  Man’s never been that turned oan. Sex and death that close opens him up. Then the two of them go at it like demented bunnies. Same thing happened tae me in Vegas last Christmas.”

The Executive was more interested. “I want you to know,” he said, “that we must have naked breasts in this kind of movie four times.”

MacPherson clouted Rich on the knee. “The Indians wander around naked, he contributed. “They are close to nature. I mean, they are savages, but into the rhythm of the universe. They’ve all found their energy centers.”

The Executive nodded sagely.

“They’re connected to the earth, trees, dirt. They swim naked in limpid pools. They know how to breathe right.  They suck in the universe and the stars.” Out the corner of his eye, Rich saw Reisman frantically motioning him to stop.

“Plus them being buttnaked saves a fortune oan costumes,” added MacPherson.

“I’m still not seeing this,” said the Executive. “It sounds like ‘The Mission.’ Remember ‘The Mission’?” He shook his head sadly. “Peter Horner got canned. It had Bobby De Niro too. Even Bobby couldn’t save that turkey. ‘Even I couldn’t save that turkey,’ he says to me. You can’t make a prestige movie like this without a star, people.”

“We got one,” said MacPherson.

“For this?”

The bird ceased pecking and rolled over, as though mortally wounded. It was connected to the pole by some wheel mechanism.

“Sir Terry Duffy’s on board.”

“Duffy? You’re blowing sunshine up my pants here! What I’m getting pitched is a small movie. 15 million projected.”

“He’s doing it,” shouted MacPherson. “He’s a patriot and he wants tae do it for me.”  The little Scotsman, green eyes ablaze, looked frighteningly messianic.

“I think part of the hesitation here is we have to assume that no star is willing to spend up to three months in the jungle,” proffered the girl.

“It’s in the jungle,” said the Executive. “What the hell? The jungle? Why didn’t someone say? Let me see that.”

The girl handed him the script. He stared at the first page.

“What’s EXT again? I can never remember.”

MacPherson covered his face with his hands.

“Quit that,” snarled Reisman.

“It begins ‘ext, jungle, night.  Jungle? Monkeys and shit? That means rain people. You can’t get in and out. Nightmare logistics. Budget-buster.” The Executive sucked air through his teeth. “I don’t want ever to see ‘ext, jungle, rain, night.”

“We’re slipping it to you early,” said Reisman. “See, there’s interest from Paramount. Danny Alvarez.”

“That slimeball would be interested,” said the Executive, darkly.

“You guys creamed them last year.”

“We handed them their ass in a sling. That Russell-Crowe-as-a-master-chef-thing tanked. I could have predicted that.”

“I bet you could,” said Reisman. “See, Danny is looking for a prestige project for next Fall. Plus with the action element. . .”

The Executive was thoughtful. “That place is so needy, man.”

“I have questions,” interrupted the girl, brightly. “I’ve read the draft script a few times now.”

“Shoot,” said Reisman, looking jittery.

“Well,” she began, “It needs a serious character polish. I don’t see the character’s psychological journey mapped. I like the last scene when he makes the big speech. It’s Capra-esque, old-fashioned but moving. But unprepared?”

“We’re talking a limited treatment here,” said Rich. “Once the other writers…”

“I think we need to see the seeds of character change earlier. I see the three-act structure, the beats and rhythm, but the second act crisis never gets resolved. And the bad guy — the Spaniard captain — never gets proper payoff either.”

“You know, that’s exactly what we’re revising right now,” Rich lied.

The room went quiet for a moment. A white clock ticked.

“What is Crapperesque?” asked the Executive. “Say, Jasper Lillee will not be a consideration for shooting is a given, right?”

Reisman gave MacPherson a desperate pleading look.

“Best DP oan the planet. This is a dreamlike film. Ah need his color palate. Cannae do it withoot him.”

“The man’s in rehab again,” yelled the Executive.

“We’ve talked for years aboot shooting this oan digital. He’s up for it.”

“Digital? Your dick-ass would be shooting on digital.” The Executive addressed the girl. “Digital films do not have the lush quality of celluloid,” he declaimed.

“I don’t think Mac is serious,” said Reisman.

It was then that MacPherson, less than serious, contrived to knock over his wine, which pooled on the white rug like a spreading bloodstain.

“Shit,” screamed the Executive, watching the puddles of bright crimson spread.

“That Chatto LaFeet makes a hell of a big mess,” said MacPherson, looking around the office.  He bent to examine a stain. “This wan looks like Italy.”

The men walked dejectedly to the lot where the Bentley was valet parked. The girls who passed wore identically cut suits of taupe and celadon. Each had one piece of carefully chosen jewelry, a bracelet, a thin gold necklace. It was a look. The complex sprawled on the Burbank side of the Hills and Rich thought how perfect it would be if the smog were to settle now, another dullness layered upon the dullness there. But it didn’t. It was one of those bright days when the smog recedes and palm trees with jagged fronds stand like paper cutouts under a sky of such cloudless blue that the candy-colored buildings all around them seemed lit and pretty as a child’s dream of chocolate cake.

“Russian Tea Room?” asked Reisman.

“Someone going to tell me what happened?” Rich asked.

Reisman chewed at a cuticle. “I thought it went excellent. If it went badly, he’d have said no in the room.”

“Positive thinking, eh? Learn that at yir damn yoga class? Desparate Dahn, eh? Gonnae go looking for yir Don Juan?”

“I’d have to say I didn’t hear a yes,” Rich noted.

“Already you’re discouraged? That suit is an irrelevance. I was working on the girl. There’s a regime change coming. You can smell the fear in there.”

The car was pulled up to them.

“Shotgun,” yelled MacPherson. “Ah bags shotgun.”

Reisman draped an arm around Rich’s shoulders. “Don’t forget what Mencken said: there are more morons collected in Los Angeles than any other place on earth.”

“I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise.”

The producer looked delighted. “You could have a career in the U.S., Richard. I mean that sincerely.”

 

Rob McClure Smith’s fiction has appeared in Chapman, Gutter, Barcelona Review, Versal, Warwick Review and other literary magazines. He was a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.

 

 

 

 

 




Eden City

Nick drives the green-and-gold Gennaro Financial Recovery Chevy to the levee but, it being August, the levee is dry.  The moment the name and address came in, Nick said he’d take this one himself.  Frances said, “Who’s Herbert Landon?” He knew she had to be kidding. Herbert Landon, Landon House, Landon City?

Heading along the levee now, one hand on the steering wheel, the other at the window, drumming the truck roof in time to the radio, Nick thinks he should do this more often. Get out of the office; remind himself what the job is all about. He pulls onto the highway without really looking and, in an elongated blare of horn and silent curses, a rust-red Toyota swerves past, its driver gesticulating, his face peeled open with rage. Nick lets it go. There is a flow, he thinks, like a river, that brings things into your life that are meant to be there, if you let it. He’s taken the truck because that’s what they do. He doesn’t expect to be actually repossessing anything. The guy must be a hundred years old: if he hasn’t paid the tax, he’s probably just forgotten. Used the red reminders to line the kitty tray. It’s not going to be because he can’t afford a couple hundred. The job might need politeness, a little diplomacy, but Nick can’t see heavy lifting.

The gates are open – at least the old guy hasn’t barricaded himself in – and he pulls into the driveway, scattering gravel as he swings up to the front door. Four stories high and wider than City Hall, the house old Joseph Landon built himself just after the war when Landon Water really took off, is still the largest private residence in Landon City. Ugly, though, Nick thinks: the windows are too small, with heavy stone lintels and sills that give the place the air of a barracks, or one of those police stations he’s seen in Italy where the carabinieri roll in and out with their tinted windows and machine guns. On the top floor, under the eaves, one of the panes is broken.

He picks the beige folder from where it has slipped into the passenger footwell and climbs out of the truck. It is hot outside; unusually humid. It isn’t supposed to rain this time of year, but it looks like it might. He mounts four or five stone steps to the door and pulls an old-fashioned bell cord.

The guard would be as broad as a wardrobe, and about as forthcoming. He would grunt and Herbert would guess one of the grunts was “lunch”. He wouldn’t want to eat, and might say so. At his age, he’d say, there doesn’t seem much point. You just don’t need the fuel.

Herbert Landon is 103 and believes he’ll be the oldest person ever incarcerated in the city that bears his name.  His father’s name. It is possible he’s wrong about that, but he doubts it. Perhaps, after everything else, that’s what they’ll put on his gravestone?

The stone exists already – it has for half a century – and he can picture it distinctly. It is not, in fact, a gravestone, but the last blank marble panel on the family memorial the city erected when his father died. The panels occupy each side of an octagonal fountain base. Inscribed around the rim are the words of St John the Divine: I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. Herbert wondered what his father would have made of that “freely”. The water that slides gently over them all, pumped and filtered and recycled now for fifty years, fell as rain three hundred miles away: Herbert Landon himself put it over the hill.

That was what the engineers at Landon Water called it then. They pulled water down from the lakes and reservoirs in the eastern mountains to pool in the central plain. When the weather forecasts and the big scale users said they were going to need it, they put that water over the hill to Landon City. It took two days to pull water down, six more to put it over the hill, along the aqueducts that Joseph Landon built, and sometimes they got it wrong. Sometimes, against the odds, it rained like the end of the world in August, or in February, when by rights it shouldn’t rain at all. The farmers kept their irrigation off, and the factories refilled their run-off tanks; what the Company couldn’t store they had to let run into the ocean and that cost them money.

Filling the doorway, the guard says it doesn’t matter shit what he wants, he’s going to fucking move, OK?

Herbert swings his legs over the side of his bed, places a liver-spotted hand on each knee and pushes to help himself rise. He’s used a stick for years but he knows they won’t let him keep it in jail. For health and safety reasons, they’ll say. Meaning, to be charitable, that other, fitter, inmates might take it away and beat him with it, or worse. So he is practising, and has found he can do without the stick after all, which is something to be thankful for. He wriggles his shoulders and tugs at his groin to settle the over-large jump-suit they’ll have him wearing. Pistachio does no one any favours, which he supposes to be the point, but it will be especially unfortunate against skin as grey as his.

It is Friday. Lunch will be chilli con carne – more kidney bean than carne, Herbert predicts dispassionately; he isn’t going to eat it anyway. It will be popular with his fellow inmates. In his head a black man in a uniform like an all-over purple bruise with a white trim slops rice and chilli into the largest depression of a pre-formed aluminium tray and thrusts it at him.  He carries it over to the least crowded section of the long refectory tables.  He puts the tray down carefully and sits on the bench, facing the wall, away from the table. He can stand, he can walk without a stick – he is proud of that – but lifting one leg then the other over a bench is beyond him. If he can’t get a spot at the end – and usually they’re taken first, and by the least amenable inmates – he has to sit and swing his legs a hundred and eighty degrees, his hands tugging at the table without dignity or grace. As he swings around, his foot might brush his neighbour, and there will be an ugly moment while the neighbour decides whether to take offence. It is lucky that Landon City is now large enough (and lawless enough) to need two prisons: during his time as a Councilman, Herbert himself gave the go-ahead for a separate maximum security facility on what used to be flood plain before his father banked the river. He will not be going there.

Nick hears a distant jangle as a bell rings somewhere deep inside the house. There’ll be some kind of help: a nurse/housekeeper, a butler, even. When he worked for the city council – processing benefits, at first; then, when he found sitting at a desk all day drove him crazy, investigating fraud, collecting debts – there’d been people there who remembered when Herbert Landon was a Deputy Mayor. Apparently the parties – mayoral inauguration, founder’s day – were something to behold. There were even one or two who’d been around in the early 60’s when old Joseph Landon died and Herbert and his mother sold Landon Water to the city. Nick had been there himself in the 80’s when the city sold it on to Continental, an altogether bigger operation that supplied a score of towns and cities up and down the coast.  A couple of years after that, Nick rode the same privatization wave, set up Gennaro Financial Recovery, took the city contract and half his employees with him.  Since when, he thinks, he’s been sitting at a desk most days.

He pulls the bell cord again, hears the same muffled sound. He can feel the sun on the back of his neck, the sweat beginning to trickle inside his shirt. He turns away from the door, looks out over his truck. The lawn is brown in places, the borders a little ill-defined, but the place hasn’t run to seed. There must be a gardener: there’s no way Herbert Landon is looking after this himself. So why is he suddenly on Nick’s books?

He turns to try the bell a third time and hears bolts scraping back. When the door swings open there’s no housekeeper, no butler, just a guy who must have once been tall but has lost a deal of height to age and gravity.  A guy with watery eyes and no hair that’s not transparent and an immaculate herringbone suit. Who looks as old as Methuselah and has just got to be Herbert Landon himself. Nick can hear the breath rattling his ribs but his hands are steadier than you might expect on the shotgun he’s pointing at Nick’s chest.

When Joseph Landon found the place, it was called Eden and, even though it styled itself a city, there were less than five hundred souls in all, strung out along a river that dried to a trickle every summer, but which, every decade or so, burst its banks in spring, ruining everybody’s ground floor furnishings and washing a farm and a family or two into the ocean. Insurance was hard to come by.

This isn’t the first time anyone has pointed a gun at Nick, but the last was long ago and not something he wants to recall Besides, whatever anyone says, it is not something you ever really get used to.  Nick lifts his hands, palms out, dropping the folder, and backs away from the door. Fear makes him forget the steps he has climbed to get there: he stumbles and falls, sprawling in the gravel.

Herbert has not fired a gun for seventy years – since before the Second World War – but he keeps the barrels trained on the dough-faced man sprawled against the front wheel of a green-and-gold pick-up. The man is wearing a summer-weight navy suit and a plain tie. The trouser cuffs are pulled up, showing legs like suet puddings above pale yellow socks.

Herbert walks slowly down the steps, never taking his eyes off the debt collector, who sits up, brushing dust from his knees, reaching for the folder he has dropped. When he puts one hand down to lever himself to his feet, Herbert tells him to stay where he is. He circles to the front of the truck, checks there’s no one else inside, then swings his gun off the man and blows out the windscreen. Both barrels. Once, when he was young, his father took him to see a dam he’d just built in a bowl in the mountains. The noise of water cascading down the hydro shaft was unbelievable. Then his father stopped the fall, like turning off a tap, and Herbert had been impressed, then appalled, by the complete absence of sound as water began slowly to swallow the valley. The silence that follows the shotgun blasts and the soft thump of glass collapsing onto the truck seat has the same unnatural density, like something physicists might imagine happening deep in space.

To Nick it is like the silence you get in war films, when the good guys think they might be safe, and then all hell breaks out.

In time Continental was swallowed up by someone even bigger; its executives paid themselves a bonus for pushing through the deal, and more bonuses as the workforce shrank and profits grew.

The engineers who were left watched a digital map of the entire network while their computers pulled water down from further and further afield and pushed it over the hill to the entire western seaboard. But they still couldn’t stop it raining in August, or February, which last year it had more than the year before, which itself was more than any year since records began. The aircraft plant in Landon finally went bust, along with so much else, and the farmers stopped growing stuff they couldn’t sell when the Government stopped paying them do it and the whole thing looked like it was going belly up. So the water company called the city politicians, said they needed cash: it was a strictly temporary thing, they said, and they made a lot of jokes about liquidity, but basically it was a threat. The cities agreed extraordinary tax levies because what else could they do?  There were a hundred and fifty thousand people now in Landon City alone; they couldn’t not have water. So the company survived, and its executives rewarded themselves for saving it – and, of course, for saving all those people who lived on the coast and were always their first concern.

A year later things are still touch and go, and the company is coming back for more.

Herbert breaks open the shotgun, tosses aside the spent cartridges. When the debt collector finally stands up, Herbert hands him the gun.

Nick, not knowing what else to do, takes it. He can see it is a beautiful piece: rosewood stock, silver chasework.  Herbert says it is a Beretta, a name Nick associates with gangsters and spies.

“It was my father’s. Beretta make first rate shotguns. Up there with your Purdeys and Brownings; for smaller birds – woodcock, quail – maybe the best. That one’s worth about twelve grand.”

Nick looks again at the gun in his hand, touches the breech gently. The metal is still hot.

Herbert says, “Would you care for a drink?”

When Nick gets back to the office, Frances looks at the gun he places on the desk and asks why he’s soaking wet. He tells her how, on his way back, the summer clouds opened and the rain came through the hole where his windscreen used to be like a waterfall, and he’d had to pull off the road and wait and let it happen.

Frances shakes her head, makes that sound she makes, like a little sigh, that lets him know he’s being stupid.  “What happened to the windscreen, Nick?”

He nods at the shotgun. “Junior destroyed it.”

“Christ, Nick. Were you in it?”

He tells her how it happened, though he omits to mention his falling backwards down the steps.

He tells her the old guy led him to a library, like you see in films about the British aristocracy, and poured him a whisky. He tells Nick he can keep the gun – on condition. The condition is Nick doesn’t come back, and his operatives don’t come back, and his competition doesn’t come back. Nick is to tell the city the place is barricaded and he’s not coming out.

Frances says, “Why?”

“Because he’s not paying and he doesn’t want some repo man shouldering his stereo and selling it off to settle the levy. Thinking that makes them straight.”

“He said “stereo”?”

“He’s a hundred and three. He said it “steer-e-oh”. He says they’re not getting the money. He’ll go to jail first.”

Frances shakes her head.  “He keeps shooting up people’s trucks he will go to jail.”

“He said not to tell anyone about that.”

“I bet.”

“He said I should remember the gun was one of a pair.”

Frances laughs. “He’s a game old bird, you’ve got to give him that.”

Nick opens a cupboard, pokes around until he finds a couple of Gennaro Financial Recovery tee-shirts. He strips off his own sodden jacket and shirt and pulls on a tee, then sits at his desk and uses the other to wipe down the gun, drying off the rain and polishing the silver inlay and the flower patterns etched into the steel.  He locks it shut and raises the barrels, closing one eye and aiming at the clock above the door. He pulls a trigger and makes a soft explosion with his throat and lips.

Frances has turned back to her email. She looks up and says, “You’re not going to keep it?”

Nick has been thinking about that. He could hand the gun in to the city. Job done. The old guy was a hundred and three. Twelve grand would pay his water taxes long enough that it made no difference. He takes aim at the computer screen on his desk, pulls the second trigger and breathes another quiet explosion.

In the kitchen at Landon House, Herbert lies face-down on the floor, waiting for the police. He is attempting a press-up. He can’t quite make it, but he will keep trying. He can do sit-ups now, and touch his toes. Prison isn’t going to break him. The guy in the top bunk would have to look out for him.

For the first time in years Herbert has worked up a sweat. He climbs slowly to the fourth floor, hauling on the carved oak banisters. He has not been up here since the late seventies, but he has decided that he wants a bath – God knows he won’t get one in jail – and there are only showers in the second and third floor bathrooms. He pictures the bath, white and vast like a cruise liner in dry dock, gleaming under the sloping eaves at the top of the house.

When he reaches the bathroom it is thick with dust.A window pane is broken and birds have got in. There are droppings and, in a corner, the carcass of a pigeon. The bath is crusted with dirt and calcium. The taps are stiff and hard to shift, but he is strong now and he manages to work them both. Somewhere far off in the house the pipes begin to knock and he waits for water to come gushing through the filth and sediment of all the years, and run freely.




Pacific Littoral

The wind from the Pacific was stronger and cooler than the time of year suggested it might have been. Salt sea wind and hot sun burned pale skins, and caught unhatted heads so that the unwary were struck down. In the evening they collapsed. The next day was spent motionless in the cool of their room. That was how it was for unsuspecting visitors to the ocean.

They had expected warm, white sand and high waves. They had seen themselves in the southern heat, in cotton clothes and shaded glass. They were sitting beneath enormous parasols where iced drinks were served at welcome intervals. The surfers were young and skilled. From the boardwalk came the rhythms of desire and expectation. That was, of course, how it had been in everything they had seen and heard of the coast. Anything less was wrong, like being told a movie star was not as tall as he acted.

There was a picture, a long time in the making, of which they were the stars. It was called “California. Now it was being ruined by the studio executives out of spite for the undoubted talent they had shown in telling the truth. The truth as it ought to be.

When the wind came in cooler, names were being removed from the credits. This was another picture, a second feature that nobody would want to see. They could hear the popcorn and the derisive snickers of the kids waiting for the main attraction to appear at last.

The following day, early, they were going upstate through the wine country towards the mountains and forests that were natural wonders, not the celluloid that a studio could destroy. Nobody yawned at the sight of bears coming a little too close to the tour bus.  Larry, the driver, said calmly, ‘Now, don’t you get scared. These fellas are more scared of the roar of this engine when I start up. Nobody gets hurt.’ And that was true because the bears are scattered by the man-beast’s power. Bears could look in wonder at the iron birds that did no harm. But these land creatures killed anything in their path.

And in the evening they tasted more of the wine. Tonight it was a merlot as fine as the European wines, they felt sure. They talked to a couple of German college girls with excellent English. The Germans spoke clearly, addressing most of their answers to her rather than him, and asking no questions of him. But the young women were amiable behind the perfectly understandable caution. If you were foreign and young and pretty (and female) it was wise to be cautious on vacation. ‘You’re cautious enough yourself now’, later he said to her incautiously.

The howl of what was that? – a coyote? – in the distance served to remind everybody that this was wilderness. This was not a city park. Of course there were rangers. And there were rules: ‘Do not wander. Do not think you are Daniel Boone. The cabins are safe. The only creatures you may see there are lizards, and they will do you no harm, alarming as they may seem when they leap.’

Then there was a city again. It took hours of highways, not all in good repair, before the first glimpse of tall towers of steel and glass flashing in the sunlight. That was the city, but not as they had wanted it to be. You think of wooden-boarded pavilions in rows climbing the steep hills where cable cars act like scary rides at a funfair. That is what they wanted to see. And the sight of the famous bridge, old enough to be much-copied, but looking original even now.

There were many pavilioned streets above the aspiring tedium of the financial district. They were searching for poetry. The city was a poem that you were writing as you walked to the sight of celebrated landmarks. There was the bridge, the tower, the wharf, the church, the prison island long since abandoned.

The sight of the prison island, especially in its abandonment, made you shiver. You could imagine yourself, falsely accused, over there in years of solitary. Now your ghost with vengeful cries haunts the visitors who idly pass by.

Someone screamed when a street performer bursts jack-in-the-box style from a trash can. A prisoner had escaped, a madman was on the loose, rampaging through the city. Then there was laughter when the audience got the joke. A couple with a Midwestern look shrugged indifferently. Well, this is San Francisco. What do you expect?

You expect poetry. It was poetry that attracted them: the ease of living in a community that had nowhere further to go except upward into Parnassus. This was the world’s edge. The ocean is a reminder of the impermanence of things. The constantly changing waters may take this grain of sand to China. Or else it sinks into the undiscovered depths of the Pacific where mountains that dwarf the Andes are submerged. We do not know our world, you say. The city made their thoughts profound and their feelings poignant.

There was a haze in the distance, an uncertainty that would pass over as rain. They hoped to reach Chinatown before the deluge. The darkening heavens forebode bad tidings of the world in flood. In the commercial blocks there was shelter but no hope. Who wants to be marooned in a business colony? There were places to pass through on the way to the living and interesting. It was, they reflected, disturbing the way the financial districts of the world had come to resemble one another. This could be anywhere. It was, they concluded, nowhere.

There was another anonymity in Chinatown where so much life was hurrying noisily on seemingly urgent business of a kind they could not translate into the calm that was their preference. But here was the taste of the far side of the ocean that they had admired so much. These were the people who had flown across the world in search of something they could not find at home. Whatever it was it was not peace. That, like poverty, they would have in the village of a mountain province. Here was a chance that fortune had offered. The gate they had entered was of tarnished gold. They scurried, chattering among themselves, for purposes no stranger could discern. The visitors moved invisibly, spectrally through their lives. An ancient civilization has seen nations and empires come and go. What makes a visitor worth a second look?

The Church of St Francis cast a shadow at the crossroads. The shrine was calmer than the weather that threatened the day. They found shelter, among books, as the rain swept across. Not even the house of God was spared the deluge. The significance seemed almost profound for a moment, only to fade before he or she could speak.

Then there was the poetry itself. This is what they had hoped to find. No, this is what they knew they would find as the heavens fell in fury, and the city lights made sense of premature night.

Across the road they saw two young women with oilskins. Their backpacks looked like the pilgrim’s burden. She noticed them, and tugged at his sleeve. ‘Look, it’s those two we met in the nature reserve.’ But, looking again, she saw she had been mistaken. The truth was she was hoping to see someone familiar, for they knew nobody here. Such coincidences did occur, of course, usually in fiction. It was one of the weaknesses of Dickens. It was a reason, they both agreed, for not reading him, although there were good reasons for forgiving him. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ he said. ‘Isn’t that the one set in America? Or is that Chuzzlewit?’

But this was not a fiction where everything is a network of chances written in complete sentences that furnished a series of paragraphs with a conclusion that made sense of everything that had gone before. They were speaking in phrases and overlapping dialogue. She was not listening as attentively as he hoped. He was not speaking as clearly as she wished.

The rain stilled the traffic. Empty streets so early were an unexpected sight. People were changing their plans. There had been an electrical storm once when they took a bus out in the country. Someone’s dog was desperately barking and squirming frantically. Then there was the time in a hotel when it snowed and flashed with lightning, and they felt secure, watching the world end. This, however, was no more than Californian rain that would soon pass.

In unfamiliar places you think, ‘They have weather just like ours.’ They have many things. The crazy old bearded man at the window, for example. Was he looking for someone? Very likely not. He was looking. He had been looking for so many years he had forgotten what it was he had sought. Anticipation had given way over the years to a bemused expression that asked a question to which there was no answer.

He was searching for a metaphor he could not find. One day, wandering the streets of the city he would stumble upon a few words that would explain everything he needed to know. Perhaps it would be a line of a busker’s song, or a graffito elegantly inscribed by an unknown. Perhaps it was going to be something overheard in some strangers’ conversation. Those two in there, browsing – do they have something to tell me?

They walked back to the hotel when the rain eased a little. They hoped the clouds would part so that the moon would be in view. Tonight was a full moon. He told her of a moon he had seen at midsummer. No longer a pale, luminous eye upon the world, this moon was larger and darker. This was not how it should be. It had felt like a portent, although he could think of nothing unusual happening afterward.

They liked to see a new moon, also. That sliver of lemon in the sky seemed so promising. If it portended anything it was surely something good. ‘There is a moon at home,’ she said. ‘It’s the same moon. But it doesn’t feel the same.’ She did not ask him if he understood. The assumption, naturally, was that he would understand. And if he did not then that was no fault of hers. It was no fault of the moon.

Nobody supposes they will end up crazy and old, peering through windows. The young always will be the stars of their movies. It is later that we see ourselves as passers-by. The old man looking in is the young man reading the book. But that is not a thought we like to think.

They were so far from home. It had taken a long time to come this far. So long a time had passed, it seemed, since they had arrived. Each of them felt a change inside, a quiet, barely perceptible transformation that usually takes some time to work its way through one’s being. Neither of them spoke of this, but it was there.

They had seen more of the world than they had imagined. They imagined further journeys to distant places. As children these places were known while remaining out of reach. They planned that one day they would reach those places, including the Pacific shore. Every journey made a difference. Every homecoming was to somewhere less familiar. Home was half-forgotten. Had the invitation to remain been given, had it been possible to accept, the temptation would have been powerful. Perhaps it was the moon affecting human lives as it affected the motions of the sea. Without the moon people would feel differently, they were sure. Perhaps they would not feel at all.

These were late night thoughts. In the morning there would be ordinary and necessary things to do that would shape their day. Sometimes there was a visible moon in daylight. It was something a bright child observes before telling other children, who are intrigued by this world-shaking discovery.

But in the morning there was no moon. It was a clear, unclouded day. A plane flew over, rising as it turned in a wide arc. There were crazy old men who once thought they could fly. And there were beautiful young women who were dreaming in the sky. That was how life was, and how it would be for ever. Most of the world’s poetry remains unfinished. But occasionally there rises the metaphor that stills all other considerations for a moment. We search for those moments, only to stumble on one unexpectedly, if at all.

In the ocean were turtles and sharks and whales. Their world was the same earth as ours, yet a world seen only in glances. It was out there beyond the rhythms of the surf. The bridge was closed to walkers because people had been known to jump. In the ocean they sought oblivion. What they would find was beyond conjecture. Like the surf, our thoughts cascander in contemplating these things.

The day was fine. The streets were dried by the sun after the rain. That was yesterday. They could not remember everything about yesterday because today was already passing. ‘You folks just sit and relax, and we’ll bring your order,’ said the man in the café. He was Italian-American, an Easterner by his accent. He had come out West for who knows what reason? He seemed to have found it. And that was more than many could say.

Here at the edge of the world it was possible to realize something of one’s hopes because the ocean ebbed and flowed, and the land was moving beneath one’s feet. Everything, they could see now, was given to change. They were not the same as they had been before they came. That was how it was. That was the script they had to learn by heart.




Extract from “New York”, from the collection, So, Here I Am.

“New York” is Sabrina Mahfouz’s first ever piece of short fiction and is from a collection called So, Here I Am.

Yeh so they shot him. You heard he’s dead. Yeh he’s dead. You’re telling them, you know. You heard, bastard’s dead. God bless America. Some mothafucking crazy shit right here he gone died and now who be the enemy? You hear him, brother. You heard it, he dead. And you kinda feel like you helped that happen, don’t you? Well, at least a little. You might not have been on the Iraqi frontline but you’ve been on a line of your own, that is for sure, no mistake. Cos you don’t know exactly how many of them A-rabs you had to sit next to on planes taking them back to those godforsaken places where they were unlucky enough to be born. But it’s a hell of a lotta them. Yes, siree, a hell of a lot. Like last week, you took one of them back to Pakistan. You’re not dumb, you know that don’t make him A-rab but whatever, they sure as hell don’t know where you’re from, do they? They can’t tell the difference between a Wisconsin accent or a goddam Toronto accent so why should you give two hoots about the specifics of their origin? You only care cos wherever they from is where you’re gonna be staying the night. And when you’re staying the night in Pakistan, you never know what might happen with them crazy bastards, so you were already feeling on edge when you got on the plane. That ain’t too strange with this job, lots of times you feel on edge. You don’t know what’s gonna blow up in your face. You don’t mean for that to sound insensitive, or ironic. It’s just how it is. These people are angsty, they got some real behavioural problems some of them. Not that you get that much trouble, considering. You’ve got muscles. And you show them. You don’t feel the cold, snow is like some sort of spitty shitty shower to you. Feel the heat though. Yes siree, you feel the heat. And that’s another reason why you were none too ecstatic to be landing in Pakistan in May. It’s damn hot.

This one particular guy last week, Ali or Ahmed or whatever, he was actually kinda cool. He seemed to know a hell of a lot about Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino is the man, you know, was the man, whatever. He made some damn perfect movies so you two had a good chat about them 35,000 feet above nowhere. He had an almost Queens accent, so it seemed. Must have been there a while now, or else he was fooling. Either way, it’s not your place to ask. You don’t choose who stays or who goes. You just make sure they get off the plane and don’t get back on. You’d glimpsed his notes though. Seemed he was partial to brainwashing kids straight out of prison, hooking them up with people bigger and badder than himself. He gets out a photo of his wife. Hot thing, she was, you thought he was lucky to have a hot thing like that and she didn’t have a scarf on or nothing, her hair was all out flowing down her back, laughing on some park bench and you made a mistake, didn’t you? Started to ask questions, didn’t you? You knew you shouldn’t but you couldn’t help it, could you? The smile of the woman, her dark chestnut hair that reminded you of childhood somehow and those white teeth and the wide smile that seemed to be the brightest, best thing in the world and you wished so hard that you had someone who smiled at you like that and the little pangs started low down in your abdomen and then rose slowly, slowly. When they reached around where your heart must be, you almost spat it out your wife from Pakistan too?

She wasn’t. She was from Atlanta, actually. Atlanta, America? Yes. Italian heritage, a long way back. That explained the hair. You looked closer. She could’ve been Asian, but then she could’ve been Italian. He said he’d miss her lasagne but he’d find a new wife tomorrow. Did he smile? Your brows got furrowed and you grunted. Must have been louder than you thought cos then the other guard, Todd, who had three deportees throwing gum over his head turned and asked if you were all right. Yes, you said. Yes.

You clicked your neck from side to side to side until Ali or Ahmed asked if you were all right and you said yes, yes, yes. Then you felt the pangs that had started in your abdomen all that time ago turn into fiery shooting pains and you knew it was coming. It had happened many times before but never on a job, never on this job, just at home. Only ever at home. But the fire shot through your ribs and up into your armpits and wasted no time in sprinting along your arms and down to each finger and before you knew exactly what it was you would do you found that you had twisted the guy’s ear so hard and so far that it looked like a beige little rose bud and he was screaming but you couldn’t really hear him could you? You couldn’t hear him cos your other hand was marvelling at how the moist of his eye socket was cooling down your fingers and if you bent your fingers a little you could feel something like strings and you tried to play them like a little banjo and you thought you felt one of them disappear but then when you woke up he still had his eyeball intact, patched up though it was. Todd had knocked you on the back of the head with his SIG, the big dope, and attended to your guy with medical precision and indifference. There was blood seeping from the back of the guy’s ear. You supposed you pulled it pretty hard. You felt bad, cos you knew if the guy was any real threat they wouldn’t have put him on a plane with you and Todd. You got the friendly foe. That always pissed you off, boss knew you were ready for more serious assignments. Fuck him, fat bastard. Your section of the plane was pretty empty and Todd said he saw the guy try to attack you, but he thought it best to leave it now, not say anything to the authorities when we landed. He said the guy could be blind in that eye so he’d got enough to worry about. You nodded and went to shake hands with the guy, feeling bad how you were and everything, but Todd had put you in handcuffs. Just in case, he said and went back to his seat. You sat back down and looked at the guy. With his one open eye, the guy cried.




Dave Early – The Cold Front

Life seemed so much simpler to Gavrilovich Gikalov during his youth. The Soviet regime was liberating the third world against the tyrannical US and her oppressive allies, as the radio broadcast announced on the hour. And every man in Moscow knew his place. Nobody stood out. Short men, tall men, thin men, thinner men, men with one arm, men with two … there was no greed, no envy, no snobbery or class distinction among those hardworking men of the street. The secret police saw to that.

Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle, Nikolay Treshchev, raised his glass at the dinner table each evening to toast the Marxist-Leninist ideals of old and then the traditional argument would break out between Nikolay Treshchev and Gikalov’s father, Fyodor Gikalov, over Prime Minister Kosygin’s suggested reforms until Nikolay’s face would flush a patriotic red and Gikalov’s father was forced to back down. Gavrilovich Gikalov’s father was an advocate of the then modernised order, and in constant fear of the nuclear threat boasted by the ruthless Americans.

As a family they would huddle around the radio and listen to his uncle’s fervent appraisals of Khrushchev’s pronouncements. And, being a young man of simple values and fettered intellect, Gavrilovich Gikalov would nod along between mouthfuls of his mother’s stew, longing for the day when he could contribute to the family’s income alongside his father at the factory.

Factory work agreed with Gavrilovich Gikalov. The work was honest; the repetition comforting; the long hours satisfying. The salary was meagre but earnest. He was amongst the most assiduous hands in the city, every man Jack of them as equal as the next. Gavrilovich Gikalov may not have been a handsome man; he may not have been a tall man; he was most certainly not a rich man; and as far as intelligence went, that too had been distributed elsewhere among the socialist state. But for all these non-attributes afforded him, Gavrilovich Gikalov was content in the knowledge that he was part of the machine … unexceptional and thus perfectly accepted.

Fifteen years inside the machine and Gavrilovich Gikalov’s life had not changed a great deal. Other than the death of his father and a brief, and ultimately unproductive, dalliance with a widow several doors down from his family home, Gavrilovich Gikalov was a reasonably contented man. Brezhnev, to Gavrilovich Gikalov’s mind, was doing a fine job. He knew where he stood in the order of things. Truthfully, he could not have asked for more. Work at the factory was continuous, dinners were regular, if somewhat unimaginative, and life in Moscow persevered at a steady, comfortable pace for Gavrilovich Gikalov, while the surrounding world spun around its epicentre at anxious speeds.

There were some changes, of course: Gavrilovich Gikalov was not blind to life beyond the inner sanctum of the factory. He noticed the effects the West was having on the young Soviets. The long haircuts and drooping moustaches were everywhere. Musicians popped up through the cracks in the pavement, torturing the old folk ditties he had grown up with. But these things were natural. Quirks of a new generation. Nothing serious. Nothing to worry about.

Gavrilovich Gikalov had never considered himself a man particularly prone to naivetë. Indeed, he had seldom given the possibility much thought. But in years to come he would find himself wondering whether the revelations presented to him following the factory’s demise might not have been solely owing to political events.

Initially, the stability of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s humble existence was thrown into turmoil by the oil glut in the Middle East. The Russian economy slumped and Gavrilovich Gikalov found himself a casualty of cutbacks. Then, much to his red-faced uncle’s abhorrence, Gorbachev’s perestroika paved the way for foreign investors, and all the false promises they brought.

Gavrilovich Gikalov had been hopeful (though he’d refrained from revealing as much at the dinner table with his uncle) of a reinstatement at the factory. With new investors injecting money into the industry he felt it would be only prudent to recall the long-serving hands whom had dedicated their lives to the work. Unfortunately for Gavrilovich Gikalov, and much to the smug head-nodding of his uncle, the American investors had deemed the factory uneconomic and the place was closed; the investment to be put to ‘better use’ according to a company representative. One that did not include Gavrilovich Gikalov.

Despite his fifteen years’ labour experience, Gavrilovich Gikalov struggled to find gainful employment in the new Russian Federation. And how, in the beginning, he longed for the old days of the Soviet State! No longer a young man, Gavrilovich Gikalov found himself unwanted in the engineering industry. A new order had been put quickly and firmly in place. Modern Western ideas of educational excellence and international practice were sought after by employers. Eventually, however, as the rest of the city blossomed, Gavrilovich Gikalov secured himself the position of doorman of one of the newly built members’ clubs to the north of the Kremlin. And it was during this period that Gavrilovich Gikalov began to question his own understanding of human nature.

Being a humble man by nature, Gavrilovich Gikalov had little or no concept of class distinction. And certainly it had never before come to mind to be ashamed of his employment. And yet, in this new age, this new Moscow, he found himself mortified by the impropriety of the patrons. They would lounge in their expensive suits, tilted hats, gold watches, paying Gavrilovich Gikalov little heed except when boredom took them and they looked around in desperate need to project their frustrations and found Gavrilovich Gikalov awaiting their ridicule.

“You there, take my coat.”

“Out of the way, little man.”

“My god, see how ugly the gnome is.”

“And how ignorant!”

“A relic. Thank the West for leading us into a world of opportunity.”

“Quite right. Privetstviya.”

It was quite a shock for Gavrilovich Gikalov to be treated in such a manner. Like a Chechen, he thought. And by his juniors too. Was respect a thing of the past? he asked himself. Or had it always been this way? Did people really perceive him in such a dim light?

“Think nothing of them.” His uncle said. “Vulgar capitalists, the lot of them.”

Gavrilovich Gikalov could see the colour rising to the surface of his uncle’s aged countenance.

“But remember this …” his uncle continued, waggling a crooked finger in front of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s face, “you will do better to treat all comrades equally, regardless of their ill-conceived pomposity.” He adjusted his belt. “This country was built on unity and respect and it’s imperative to stick to our traditions.”

Gavrilovich Gikalov took his uncle’s words to heart and every day, amid the constant cajoling and flippant disrespect he endured, he did his best to adhere to the old ways. Ignoring the jibes and the insults and thoughtless shoving of him aside when one of the new order of Muscovites wanted to pass, Gavrilovich Gikalov held his position with a modicum of pride and did his duty.

This was all well and good but, not being a man of letters, there were times when Gavrilovich Gikalov suffered greatly at the hands of those it was his duty to serve. Ridicule seemed at its harshest when he felt the ridiculer was vastly superior to him in both intellect and prominence. And there was one man in particular whose joy in belittling Gavrilovich Gikalov was unrivalled. That man was Nikita Morozov.

A portly man in his forties, loud and sprawling, Nikita Morozov was by no means an attractive man (albeit not as unattractive as Gavrilovich Gikalov) but he was wealthy, ostentatious and quite tall. Young, stick-thin women clung to him as he paraded up and down the street. In spite of his height the women, in their heels, towered above Nikita Morozov, marching him along like stylish bodyguards, never smiling, and keeping vigil behind their huge dark glasses. Nikita Morozov, when passing the club in company of these women, took great pleasure in humiliating Gavrilovich Gikalov.

“And how are you this fine afternoon, doorman?”

Gavrilovich Gikalov would bow his head and mumble an appropriate reply.

“Speak up man. Or has age shrivelled your brain as well as your body?”

Gavrilovich Gikalov would not respond, but stand, head bowed, listening to the cracking sounds as the women forced a smile.

“Here wretch. I suppose you are at least trying to eke out an existence, rather than those filthy creatures in the gutters down in Butovo.” And he would toss a single rouble to the floor beside Gavrilovich Gikalov, laughing all the while at his own wit and superiority.

It went like this for several years. Gavrilovich Gikalov endured his job. But he was miserable. He longed for the old life. He longed for respect. But most of all, for the first time in his life, he longed to be somebody else. His uncle’s advice no longer held water and he even turned his grievance toward his deceased parents. Gavrilovich Gikalov was a very unhappy man.

Out of the blue, fortune shone down on Gavrilovich Gikalov’s bald pate. His uncle died, and Gavrilovich Gikalov inherited a bit of money. As it transpired, a friend of Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle had struck a deal with an American consortium over fishing rights in the Caspian Sea. And Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle had purchased a number of shares in the company. Ironic, thought Gavrilovich Gikalov, that his uncle had choked on a piece of toast topped with caviar. Though fitting, he considered, that the caviar was red.

Although hardly the impetuous type, Gavrilovich Gikalov, with the aid and advice of his uncle’s solicitor, Mr Symoneyev, decided to invest his windfall in an idea over which the aforementioned Mr Symoneyev had long since been in discussion with Gavrilovich Gikalov’s uncle, in the one area where tradition and modern capitalist values had been successfully married: the banya. There had been a resurgence in the city, insisted the wily old solicitor. Some of the modern gymnasiums and leisure centres so popular in the West had incorporated a sauna into the schematics for those hard working businessmen in their dark suits and expensive shoes. Being a traditionalist people, the Muscovites had embraced these bastardised banyas, leered Mr Symoneyev. He went on to explain to Gavrilovich Gikalov that his uncle’s intention had been to purchase one of the older, struggling banyas (one not situated within a gymnasium or leisure centre) and renovate it, sticking decisively to the original make-up, and throwing in some billiard tables and other modern amenities to entice a younger generation. But on the whole, reviving an essence of old Russia … and exploiting it.

Gavrilovich Gikalov listened intently to Mr Symoneyev’s words, comprehending at least half of what the sly solicitor said. Lacking in financial perspicacity, Gavrilovich Gikalov assented to Mr Symoneyev, handing over his share with little hesitation. However, being a man of earnest dedication and humble beginnings, Gavrilovich Gikalov pressed for a single proviso, namely that he would be the one to run the place on a daily basis. Mr Symoneyev was delighted and avowed that he would not have it any other way. And so, leaving the details in the hands of his new business partner, Gavrilovich Gikalov hurried off home, grinning from ear to ear in the knowledge that he would never again have to tend to the patrons of the members’ club.

Mr Symoneyev proved himself a shrewd man indeed. Gavilovich Gikalov did not have to wait long for the sale to go through, or for the renovations to take place. And what a remarkable banya it was when all was completed. Surely, he decided (though without much frame of reference) the best banya in all Moscow!

“Well, Gavrilovich,” Mr Symoneyev clamped an arm around Gikalov’s shoulder. “You know what you have to do.”

Gavrilovich Gikalov nodded, the wonder at his new premises surrendering to an inner dread, as the reality of his position suddenly dawned upon him.

His business partner, as if coming to his senses, yanked his arm away from the little man. “Good. Good,” he said, eyeing Gavrilovich Gikalov’s poor clothing with an involuntary sneer. At least the customers won’t have to endure the little man’s shabby attire, thought Mr Symoneyev. And with a reptilian smile the solicitor bid Gavrilovich Gikalov luck in his frontline endeavours.

It took a little time, as his partner had forewarned, for word to get around and business to pick up. But Gavrilovich Gikalov was not bothered about the number of clients. He had never been so happy. Even the old factory days seemed to him dark and dreary. Never before had he felt so dignified. He was in sole charge of a beautiful establishment, humbly constructed with only a couple of columns, and barely any marble at all. But beyond the décor was the unprecedented respect his patrons afforded him.

He would hear them ascending the stairs – voices bold and bragging; high spirits among venerated businessmen, both young and old; coiffed, perfumed, gilded in both suit and esteem. Then upon reaching the top, where he greeted them in all his aged glory and received their money, the venerated businessmen dropped their gaze in reverence of Gavrilovich Gikalov, proprietor of Moscow’s finest banya. He was spoken to in civil tones, with deference, and looked to for instruction, even by those  who had experience of banya etiquette. Gavrilovich Gikalov would proffer a little bow and direct the men to the changing area. And as he stood by, ready to collect any valuables in need of secure storage, for he was a conscientious man as well as an honest one, Gavrilovich Gikalov announced the order of things in his little world: the whereabouts of the primary steam room, the hottest and most cleansing in the capital, he stated; the whereabouts of the secondary steam room, for those less attuned to such searing heat; which turning to take for the heated bath; which to take for the ice bath; where to collect the thrashing branches (a choice of birch or eucalyptus) and where to dispose of them.

And once stripped of their wool and airs, the venerable businessmen, in all their newfound humility, smiled, laughed and cajoled one another throughout the magnificent building. Bathing together, beating each other, and retiring for a calming game of billiards in the upper chambers.

Gavrilovich Gikalov beamed merrily in return to the gratitude and reverence he received from those fine fellows, who insisted they would tell their friends, their clients, even their neighbours about Gavrilovich Gikalov’s wonderful banya. And this they did. So reputable had the banya become that all the wealthiest businessmen in Moscow turned up to sample the old ways of communal convalescence. Every one of them arrived in a cloud of perfumed celebrity – loud, bombastic, positively haughty – then, the minute they were greeted by Gavrilovich Gikalov, every bit the master of his castle, and disrobed, these great men of industry and fortune, as cunning and dangerous as wolves, turned quite white and woolly before his very eyes. And how pleasing it was for Gavrilovich Gikalov! And how utterly contented he was. But never more so than the day Nikita Morozov showed his face.

Gavrilovich Gikalov recognised the voice echoing up the stairs immediately.

“All I can say is, this place better live up to its reputation. I, for one, question the credentials of anywhere willing to open itself to public access.” Nikita Morozov belched to one of his cohort. “And these stairs … do these people really expect me … I’ll have a word with this infamous proprietor. Honestly, all this fuss over a banya attendant.”

At the top of the stairs Nikita Morozov dragged a handkerchief across his forehead, preparing himself to have words with the proprietor. However, when he removed the handkerchief from his eyes he was instantly struck dumb by the sight of the little man, familiar from the neck up, standing before him. Or should that have been propped up before him? Nikita Morozov’s complaints died in his throat, and for the first time in his life he found he was unable to meet the other man’s eye.

Seeing the effect he was having on his pompous old adversary, Gavrilovich Gikalov smiled broadly, and straightened his back as much as he could.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Gavrilovich Gikalov. “This way please.” And he led Nikita Morozov over to the clothes pegs where he stayed, much to Nikita Morozov’s silent consternation, waiting for the gentlemen to shed their clothing.

Eventually, after a deal of procrastination from the usually assertive businessman, Nikita Morozov and his companions were fully undressed and ready for assimilation.

Gavrilovich Gikalov, puffing out his shrivelled chest, hands on hips and standing as tall as he might, forced Nikita Morozov to meet his eye.

“As for your valuables, gentlemen, would you care to make use of our safe?” enquired Gavrilovich Gikalov.

Nikita Morozov unbuckled the gold watch from his wrist and, along with a thin credit card holder, handed the items over to Gavrilovich Gikalov. The transaction complete, the two men held each other’s gaze for a moment. It was Gavrilovich Gikalov who lowered his first, slowly. When he brought his head back up, it bore a look of superiority akin to Nikita Morozov’s old countenance, which was now blushing.

Gavrilovich Gikalov closed his fingers around the luxury items in his hand. “Well,” he said. “the safe’s quite full already but as yours is such a tiny collection, I’m sure I can find room.”

And with that, Gavrilovich Gikalov shuffled away from the reddened, shrunken form of Nikita Morozov, humming to himself an old Soviet anthem.

Dave Early is seldom smarter than the average bear.