SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
The first time I ever met Mr. Tallent was in the late summer of 1906, in a small, lonely inn on the top of a mountain. For natives, rainy days in these places are not very different from other days, since work fills them all, wet or fine. But for the tourist, rainy days are boring. I had been bored for nearly a week, and was thinking of returning to London, when Mr. Tallent came. And because I could not “place” Mr. Tallent, nor elucidate him to my satisfaction, he intrigued me. For a barrister should be able to sum up men in a few minutes.
I did not see Mr. Tallent arrive, nor did I observe him entering the room. I looked up, and he was there, in the small firelit parlour with its Bible, wool mats and copper preserving pan. He was reading a manuscript, slightly moving his lips as he read. He was a gentle, moth-like man, very lean and about six foot three or more. He had neutral-coloured hair and eyes, a nondescript suit, limp-looking hands and slightly turned-up toes. The most noticeable thing about him was an expression of passive and enduring obstinacy.
I wished him good evening, and asked if he had a paper, as he seemed to have come from civilization.
“No,” he said softly, “no. Only a little manuscript of my own.”
Now, as a rule I am as wary of manuscripts as a hare is of greyhounds. Having once been a critic, I am always liable to receive parcels of these for advice. So I might have saved myself and a dozen or so of other people from what turned out to be a terrible, an appalling, incubus. But the day had been so dull, and having exhausted Old Moore and sampled the Imprecatory Psalms, I had nothing else to read. So I said, “Your own?”
“Even so,” replied Mr. Tallent modestly.
“May I have the privilege?” I queried, knowing he intended me to have it.
“How kind!” he exclaimed. “A stranger, knowing nothing of my hopes and aims, yet willing to undertake so onerous a task.”
“Not at all!” I replied, with a nervous chuckle.
“I think,” he murmured, drawing near and, as it were, taking possession of me, looming above me with his great height, “it might be best for me to read it to you. I am considered to have rather a fine reading voice.”
I said I should be delighted, reflecting that supper could not very well be later than nine. I knew I should not like the reading.
He stood before the cloth-draped mantelpiece.
“This,” he said, “shall be my rostrum.” Then he read.
I wish I could describe to you that slow, expressionless, unstoppable voice. It was a voice for which at the time I could find no comparison. Now I know that it was like the voice of the loud speaker in a dull subject. At first one listened, taking in even the sense of the words. I took in all the first six chapters, which were unbelievably dull. I got all the scenery, characters, undramatic events clearly marshalled. I imagined that something would, in time, happen. I thought the characters were going to develop, do fearful things or great and holy deeds. But they did nothing. Nothing happened. The book was flat, formless, yet not vital enough to be inchoate. It was just a meandering expression of a negative personality, with a plethora of muted, borrowed, stale ideas. He always said what one expected him to say. One knew what all his people would do. One waited for the culminating platitude as for an expected twinge of toothache. I thought he would pause after a time, for even the most arrogant usually do that, apologising and at the same time obviously waiting for one to say, “Do go on, please.’’
This was not necessary in his case. In fact, it was impossible. The slow, monotonous voice went on without a pause, with the terrible tirelessness of a gramophone. I longed for him to whisper or shout— anything to relieve the tedium. I tried to think of other things, but he read too distinctly for that. I could neither listen to him nor ignore him. I have never spent such an evening. As luck would have it the little maidservant did not achieve our meal till nearly ten o’clock. The hours dragged on.
At last I said: “Could we have a pause, just for a few minutes?”
“Why?” he enquired.
“For… for discussion,” I weakly murmured.
“Not,” he replied, “at the most exciting moment. Don’t you realise that now, at last, I have worked up my plot to the most dramatic, moment? All the characters are waiting, attent, for the culminating tragedy.”
He went on reading. I went on awaiting the culminating tragedy. But there was no tragedy. My head ached abominably. The voice flowed on, over my senses, the room, the world. I felt as if it would wash me away into eternity. I found myself thinking, quite solemnly:
“If she doesn’t bring supper soon, I shall kill him.”
I thought it in the instinctive way in which one thinks it of an earwig or a midge. I took refuge in the consideration how to do it? This was absorbing. It enabled me to detach myself completely from the sense of what he read. I considered all the ways open to me. Strangling. The bread knife on the sideboard. Hanging. I gloated over them, I was beginning to be almost happy, when suddenly the reading stopped.
“She is bringing supper,” he said. “Now we can have a little discussion. Afterwards I will finish the manuscript.”
He did. And after that, he told me all about his will. He said he was leaving all his money for the posthumous publication of his manuscripts. He also said that he would like me to draw up this for him, and to be trustee of the manuscripts.
I said I was too busy. He replied that I could draw up the will to-morrow.
“I’m going to-morrow,” I interpolated passionately.
“You cannot go until the carrier goes in the afternoon,” he triumphed. “Meanwhile, you can draw up the will. After that you need do no more. You can pay a critic to read the manuscripts. You can pay a publisher to publish them. And I in them shall be remembered.”
He added that if I still had doubts as to their literary worth, he would read me another.
I gave in. Would anyone else have done differently? I drew up the will, left an address where he could send his stuff, and left the inn.
“Thank God!” I breathed devoutly, as the turn of the lane hid him from view. He was standing on the doorstep, beginning to read what he called a pastoral to a big cattle-dealer who had called for a pint of bitter. I smiled to think how much more he would get than he had bargained for.
After that, I forgot Mr. Tallent. I heard nothing more of him for some years. Occasionally I glanced down the lists of books to see if anybody else had relieved me of my task by publishing Mr. Tallent. But nobody had.
It was about ten years later, when I was in hospital with a “Blighty” wound, that I met Mr. Tallent again. I was convalescent, sitting in the sun with some other chaps, when the door opened softly, and Mr. Tallent stole in. He read to us for two hours. He remembered me, and had a good deal to say about coincidence. When he had gone, I said to the nurse, ‘’If you let that fellow in again while I’m here. I’ll kill him.”
She laughed a good deal, but the other chaps all agreed with me, and as a matter of fact, he never did come again.
Not long after this I saw the notice of his death in the paper.
“Poor chap!” I thought, “he’s been reading too much. Somebody’s patience has given out. Well, he won’t ever be able to read to me again.”
Then I remembered the manuscripts, realising that, if he had been as good as his word, my troubles had only just begun.
And it was so.
First came the usual kind of letter from a solicitor in the town where he had lived. Next I had a call from the said solicitor’s clerk, who brought a large tin box.
“The relations,” he said, “of the deceased are extremely angry. Nothing has been left to them. They say that the manuscripts are worthless, and that the living have rights.”
I asked how they knew that the manuscripts were worthless.
“It appears, sir, that Mr. Tallent has, from time to time, read these aloud –”
I managed to conceal a grin.
“And they claim, sir, to share equally with the—er – manuscripts. They threaten to take proceedings, and have been getting legal opinions as to the advisability of demanding an investigation of the material you have.”
I looked at the box. There was an air of Joanna Southcott about it.
I asked if it were full.
“Quite, sir. Typed MSS. Very neatly done.”
He produced the key, a copy of the will, and a sealed letter.
I took the box home with me that evening. Fortified by dinner, a cigar and a glass of port, I considered it. There is an extraordinary air of fatality about a box. For bane or for blessing, it has a perpetual fascination for mankind. A wizard’s coffer, a casket of jewels, the alabaster box of precious nard, a chest of bridal linen, a stone sarcophagus – what a strange mystery is about them all! So when I opened Mr. Tallent’s box, I felt like somebody letting loose a genie. And indeed I was. I had already perused the will and the letter, and discovered that the fortune was moderately large. The letter merely repeated what Mr. Tallent had told me. I glanced at some of the manuscripts. Immediately the room seemed full of Mr. Tallent’s presence and his voice. I looked towards the now dusky corners of the room as if he might be looming there. As I ran through more of the papers, I realised that what Mr. Tallent had chosen to read to me had been the best of them. I looked up Johnson’s telephone number and asked him to come round. He is the kind of chap who never makes any money. He is a freelance journalist with a conscience. I knew he would be glad of the job.
He came round at once. He eyed the manuscripts with rapture. For at heart he is a critic, and has the eternal hope of unearthing a masterpiece.
“You had better take a dozen at a time, and keep a record,” I said. “Verdict at the end.”
“Will it depend on me whether they are published?”
“Which are published,” I said. “Some will have to be. The will says so.”
“But if I found them all worthless, the poor beggars would get more of the cash? Damnable to be without cash.”
“I shall have to look into that. I am not sure if it is legally possible. What, for instance, is the standard?”
“I shall create the standard,” said Johnson rather haughtily. “Of course, if I find a masterpiece –”
“If you find a masterpiece, my dear chap,’’ I said, “I’ll give you a hundred pounds.”
He asked if I had thought of a publisher. I said I had decided on Jukes, since no book, however bad, could make his reputation worse than it was, and the money might save his credit.
“Is that quite fair to poor Tallent?” he asked. Mr. Tallent had already got hold of him.
“If,” I said as a parting benediction, “you wish you had never gone into it (as, when yon have put your hand to the plough, you will), remember that at least they were never read aloud to you, and be thankful.”
Nothing occurred for a week. Then letters began to come from Mr. Tallent’s relations. They were a prolific family. They were all very poor, very angry and intensely uninterested in literature. They wrote from all kinds of view-points, in all kinds of styles. They were, however, all alike in two things—the complete absence of literary excellence and legal exactitude.
It took an increasing time daily to read and answer these. If I gave them any hope, I at once felt Mr. Tallent’s hovering presence, mute, anxious, hurt. If I gave no hope, I got a solicitor’s letter by return of post. Nobody but myself seemed to feel the pathos of Mr. Tallent’s ambitions and dreams. I was notified that proceedings were going to be taken by firms all over England. Money was being recklessly spent to rob Mr. Tallent of his immortality, but it appeared, later, that Mr. Tallent could take care of himself.
When Johnson came for more of the contents of the box, he said that there was no sign of a masterpiece yet, and that they were as bad as they well could be.
“A pathetic chap, Tallent,” he said.
“Don’t, for God’s sake, my dear chap, let him get at you,” I implored him. “Don’t give way. He’ll haunt you, as he’s haunting me, with that abominable pathos of his. I think of him and his box continually just as one does of a life and death plea. If I sit by my own fireside, I can hear him reading. When I am just going to sleep, I dream that he is looming over me like an immense, wan moth. If I forget him for a little while, a letter comes from one of his unutterable relations and recalls me. Be wary of Tallent.”
Needless to tell you that he did not take my advice. By the time he had finished the box, he was as much under Tallent’s thumb as I was. Bitterly disappointed that there was no masterpiece, he was still loyal to the writer, yet he was emotionally harrowed by the pitiful letters that the relations were now sending to all the papers.
“I dreamed,” he said to me one day (Johnson always says “dreamed”, because he is a critic and considers it the elegant form of expression), “I dreamed that poor Tallent appeared to me in the watches of the night and told me exactly how each of his things came to him. He said they came like ‘Kubla Khan’.”
I said it must have taken all night.
“It did,” he replied. “And it has made me dislike a masterpiece.”
I asked him if he intended to be present at the general meeting.
“Yes. Things have got to such a pitch that we have had to call one. There will be about a hundred people. I shall have to entertain them to a meal afterwards. I can’t very well charge it up to the account of the deceased.”
“Gosh! It’ll cost a pretty penny.”
“It will. But perhaps we shall settle something. I shall be thankful.”
“You’re not looking well, old chap,” he said, “Worn, you seem.”
“I am,” I said. “Tallent is ever with me. Will you come?”
“Rather. But I don’t know what to say.”
“The truth, the Whole truth—”
“But it’s so awful to think of that poor soul spending his whole life on those damned… and then that they should never see the light of day.”
“Worse that they should. Much worse.”
“My dear chap, what a confounded position!”
“If I had foreseen how confounded,” I said, “I’d have strangled the fellow on the top of that mountain. I have had to get to clerks to deal with the correspondence. I get no rest. All night I dream of Tallent. And now I hear that a consumptive relation of his has died of disappointment at not getting any of the money, and his wife has written me a wild letter threatening to accuse me of manslaughter. Of course that’s all stuff, but it shows what a hysterical state everybody’s in. I feel pretty well done for.”
“You’d feel worse if you’d read the boxful.”
We had a stormy meeting. It was obvious that the people did need the money. They were the sort of struggling, under-vitalised folk who always do need it. Children were waiting for a chance in life, old people were waiting to be saved from death a little longer, middle-aged people were waiting to set themselves up in business or buy snug little houses. And there was Tallent, out of it all, in a spiritual existence, not needing beef and bread any more, deliberately keeping it from them.
As I thought this, I distinctly saw Tallent pass the window of the room I had hired for the occasion. I stood up; I pointed; I cried out to them to follow him. The very man himself.
Johnson came to me.
“Steady, old man,” he said. “You’re overstrained.”
“But I did see him,” I said. “The very man. The cause of all the mischief. If I could only get my hands on him!”
A medical man who had married one of Tallent’s sisters said that these hallucinations were very common, and that I was evidently not a fit person to have charge of the money. This brought me a ray of hope, till that ass Johnson contradicted him, saying foolish things about my career. And a diversion was caused by a tremulous old lady calling out, ‘’The Church! The Church! Consult the Church! There’s something in the Bible about it, only I can’t call it to mind at the moment. Has anybody got a Bible?”
A clerical nephew produced a pocket New Testament, and it transpired that what she had meant was, “Take ten talents.”
“If I could take one, madam,” I said, “it would be enough.’’
“It speaks of that too,” she replied triumphantly. “Listen! ‘If any man have one talent…’ Oh, there’s everything in the Bible!’’
“Let us,” remarked one of the thirteen solicitors, ‘’get to business. Whether it’s in the Bible or not, whether Mr. Tallent went past the window or not, the legality or illegality, of what we propose is not affected. Facts are facts. The deceased is dead. You’ve got the money. We want it.”
“I devoutly wish you’d got it,” I said, “and that Tallent was haunting you instead of me.”
The meeting lasted four hours. The wildest ideas were put forward. One or two sporting cousins of the deceased suggested a decision by games-representatives of the would-be beneficiaries and representatives of the manuscript. They were unable to see that this could not affect the legal aspect. Johnson was asked for his opinion. He said that from a critic’s point of view the MSS. were balderdash. Everybody looked kindly upon him. But just as he was sunning himself in this atmosphere, and trying to forget Tallent, an immense lady, like Boadicea, advanced upon him, towering over him in a hostile manner.
“I haven’t read the books, and I’m not going to,” she said, “but I take exception to that word balderdash, sir, and I consider it libellous. Let me tell you, I brought Mr. Tallent into the world!” I looked at her with awesome wonder. She had brought that portent into the world! But how… whom had she persuaded?… I pulled myself up. And as I turned away from the contemplation of Boadicea, I saw Tallent pass the window again.
I rushed forward and tried to push up the sash. But the place was built for meetings, not for humanity, and it would not open. I seized the poker, intending to smash the glass. I suppose I must have looked rather mad, and as everybody else had been too intent on business to look out of the window, nobody believed that I had seen anything.
“You might just go round to the nearest chemist’s and get some bromide,” said the doctor to Johnson. “He’s over-wrought.”
Johnson, who was thankful to escape Boadicea, went with alacrity.
The meeting was, however, over at last. A resolution was passed that we should try to arrange things out of court. We were to take the opinions of six eminent lawyers-judges preferably. We were also to submit what Johnson thought the best story to a distinguished critic. According to what they said we were to divide the money up or leave things as they were.
I felt very much discouraged as I walked home. All these opinions would entail much work and expense. There seemed no end to it.
“Damn the man!” I muttered, as I turned the corner into the square in which I live. And there, just the width of the square away from me, was the man himself. I could almost have wept. What had I done that the gods should play with me thus?
I hurried forward, but he was walking fast, and in a moment he turned down a side-street. When I got to the corner, the street was empty. After this, hardly a day passed without my seeing Tallent. It made me horribly jumpy and nervous, and the fear of madness began to prey on my mind. Meanwhile, the business went on. It was finally decided that half the money should be divided among the relations. Now I thought there would be peace, and for a time there was—comparatively.
But it was only about a month from this date that I heard from one of the solicitors to say that a strange and disquieting thing had happened – two of the beneficiaries were haunted by Mr. Tallent to such an extent that their reason was in danger. I wrote to ask what form the haunting took. He said they continually heard Mr. Tallent reading aloud from his works. Wherever they were in the house, they still heard him. I wondered if he would begin reading to me soon. So far it had only been visions. If he began to read…
In a few months I heard that both the relations who were haunted had been taken to an asylum. ־While they were in the asylum they heard nothing. But, some time after, on being certified as cured and released, they heard the reading again, and had to go back. Gradually the same thing happened to others, but only to one or two at a time.
During the long winter, two years after his death, it began to happen to me.
I immediately went to a specialist, who said there was acute nervous prostration, and recommended a “home־’. But I refused. I would fight Tallent to the last. Six of the beneficiaries were now in “homes”, and every penny of the money they had had was used up.
I considered things. “Bell, book and candle” seemed to be what was required. But how, when, where to find him? I consulted a spiritualist, a priest and a woman who has more intuitive perception than anyone I know. From their advice I made my plans. But it was Lesbia who saved me.
“Get a man who can run to go about with you,” she said. “The moment He appeal’s, let your companion rush round by a side-street and cut him off.”
“But how will that – ?”
“Never mind. I know what I think.”
She gave me a wise little smile.
I did what she advised, but it was not till my patience was nearly exhausted that I saw Tallent again. The reading went on, but only in the evenings when I was alone, and at night. I asked people in evening after evening. But when I got into bed, it began.
Johnson suggested that I should get married.
“What?” I said, ‘’offer a woman a ruined nervous system, a threatened home, and a possible end in an asylum?”
“There’s one woman who would jump at it. I love my love with an L.”
“Don’t be an ass,” I said. I felt in no mood for jokes. All I wanted was to get things cleared up.
About three years after Tallent’s death, my companion and I, going out rather earlier than usual, saw him hastening down a long road which had no side-streets leading out of it. As luck would have it, an empty taxi passed US. I shouted. We got in. Just in front of Tallent’s ghost we stopped, leapt out, and flung ourselves upon him.
“My God!” I cried. “He’s solid’:
He was perfectly solid, and not a little alarmed.
We put him into the taxi and took him to my house.
“Now, Tallent!’’ I said, “you will answer for what you have done.”
He looked scared, but dreamy.
“Why aren’t you dead?” was my next question.
He seemed hurt.
“I never died,” he replied softly.
”It was in the papers.”
“I put it in. I was in America. It was quite easy.”
“And that continual haunting of me, and the wicked driving of your unfortunate relations into asylums?” I was working myself into a rage. “Do you know how many of them are there now?”
“Yes. I know. Very interesting.”
“It was in a great cause,” he said. “Possibly you didn’t grasp that I was a progressive psycho-analyst, and that I did not take those novels of mine seriously. In fact, they were just part of the experiment.”
“In heaven’s name, what experiment?”
“The plural would be better, really,” he said, “for there were many experiments.”
“But what for, you damned old blackguard?” I shouted.
“For my magnum opus he said modestly.
“And what is your abominable magnum opus, you wicked old man?”
“It will be famous all over the world,” he said complacently. “All this has given me exceptional opportunities. It was so easy to get into my relations’ houses and experiment with them. It was regrettable, though, that I could not follow them to the asylum.”
This evidently worried him far more than the trouble he had caused. So it was you reading, every time?”
“And it was you who went past the window of that horrible room when we discussed your will?”
“Yes. A most gratifying spectacle!”
“And now, you old scoundrel, before I decide what to do with you,” I said, “what is the magnum opus?”
“It is a treatise,” he said, with the pleased expression that made me so wild. “A treatise that will eclipse all former work in that field, and its title is – ‘An Exhaustive Enquiry, with numerous Experiments, into the Power of Human Endurance’.”
My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.
Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.
I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”
“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”
“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”
“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”
“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.
“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.
“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.
“A khazer,” my father muttered.
I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.
“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.
“What about being a conscientious objector?”
“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.
“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?
“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”
“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”
He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”
I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.
I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.
I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.
I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.
“Hey! You okay out there?”
My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.
“No,” I said.
“What’d you say?”
“HELP!” I shouted.
“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.
ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.
“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.
He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.
So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.
“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”
True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”
“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.
Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.
THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.
Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.
“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”
“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.
“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.
“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”
No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.
I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”
“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.
Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.
SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”
“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.
He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.
As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.
“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.
“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.
“I’d better get back to work,” I said.
“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.
“Wow,” said Nick.
“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”
Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”
“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.
BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.
Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.
“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.
“What was Hower saying?”
“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.
“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”
“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.
Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”
“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.
“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.
“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.
“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”
They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.
“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.
I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.
My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”
“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”
“You’re growing up, son.”
They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.
“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”
“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”
“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”
“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.
“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”
I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.
But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.
I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.
“Really, I can leave,” I offered.
“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.
“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”
“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.
After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”
“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”
Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”
Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”
“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”
“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”
“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”
I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?
“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”
“It does sound a little unsupervised.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”
“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”
“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”
I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.
She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”
“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”
“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.
IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.
My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”
“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.
“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”
“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”
“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”
“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”
Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”
“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”
“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”
“Julie’s very upset—”
“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”
“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”
He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”
By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”
“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”
Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.
JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.
“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”
“My parents aren’t here,” I said.
Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.
“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.
“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.
He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”
Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.
“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”
“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”
“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”
“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”
“Who told you that?”
“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”
“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”
“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.
“Just a few days ago.”
“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”
“I’m not lying—”
“You just did about your age.”
“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”
Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”
It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”
“You want to get your father involved in this?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”
“My father had nothing to do with this!”
“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.
Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”
Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”
THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.
Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.
Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.
“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.
“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”
“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.
I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.
Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”
“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.
I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.
Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”
“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.
I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.
That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.
*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
At a late age, Thomas Francini, the engineer responsible for many of the grand fountains at Versailles and infamous for his will to control, married the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Compte de Frontenac, a pristine child whom he dressed in taffy-colored velvets and ribbons and paraded through the Villa di Pratolino near Florence. Francini bought his young wife what she pleased from torch-lit shops, and what she could not find, he invented for her, producing a variety of curious wind-ups. She possessed a clock in the shape of an oversized parakeet with pearl eyes and jade plumage, set to trill at the lunch and dinner hour. There was also a small silver man that cried like a newborn until held, at which point he would grow intensely warm to the touch. Finally, the pinnacle of her collection, a miniature Madonna that swung open to reveal a trinity—the fierce and stoic God and fiery dove of the Holy Ghost ready to be birthed alongside the infant Christ.
When asked about her husband, the child bride, called Florette, said it was as if the Lord had sent his kindest angel to care for her and keep her heart in a treasury box, safe from all those who would harm it. She could never be bruised or pierced with the great inventor at her side. But soon she learned that even Francini could not stop time and the persistence of disease. Plague blossoms spread on the skin of her throat, and he was reduced to sitting at her bedside, wiping sores with swabs until the organic machinery of Florette’s heart and lungs had stilled. He declared he would not marry again and wore a musical locket around his neck that held the child’s portrait and played strains of “Come, Heavy Sleep” at intervals timed to match those that sounded inside Florette’s own mechanical coffin. Soon after the girl’s funeral, Francini purchased a portion of land and announced he would construct his final great invention there, a monument to sorrow for everyone to see—the automatic garden at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
The writings of Clodio Sévat, Vicar Emeritus and servant to the Dauphin, give us a brief glimpse of Francini’s garden and echo the general anxiety of seventeenth century French and Italian aristocracy concerning that place: “Though it has been nearly a month since my pilgrimage to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, I still cannot wipe the yellow-stained eyes of Thomas Francini’s metal men and beasts from my memory, nor can I forget the sight of Francini himself stalking through his field of glass flowers like some devil, dragging what appeared to be a common garden hoe behind. Does Francini believe that God’s good works should be made again, and that he, however noble an engineer, can improve upon them? And what soul motivates these new creatures? He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.”
Gladly, not all travelers were as brief as the Vicar Emeritus, lest the automatic garden, which burned to the ground nearly a year after its opening, might have been lost entirely to time. “Maestro Francini’s water- and steam-powered automata,” wrote the Duchess of Langres in her private journal after a trip to the garden, “are of a new and unexpected breed. I was warned by my companion that these false creatures might disturb me with their preternatural resemblances to life, but I instead found myself intrigued. Their ability to exude what appeared as emotion was startling, yes, but not frightening. Never in my life did I think I would see a tiger ravaged by sadness crouching in the underbrush and looking at me with amber glass eyes, or Poseidon himself, crying tears into the very ocean that he rules—tears that were then swallowed by a thick and toothy monster who lives in the ocean’s depths. I was moved to call for an interview with Maestro Francini, wishing to enquire about the labyrinthine secrets of his inventions. And yet despite my status and the fact that I had attended the funeral of his bride, Florette, I was rebuked by what appeared to be a page in a red tunic who told me that the Master was frail and no longer tolerated audiences. It was only after the page’s retreat into a forest of metallic pines that my companion, characteristically droll, asked whether or not I’d caught the sun glinting oddly off the young man’s skin or whether I’d seen the glassiness in his eyes.
“I drew my wrap closer and begged my friend to assure me he was not implying that the page had been some advanced version of Francini’s moving statuary. He replied with a laugh, saying he’d only been trying to give me chills, but by the time I’d reached the garden’s third terrace, I did not need such humor to provide tremors. It was there that I saw what I can only describe as a ‘dragon’ rising from a stone basin, only to be slain by a lifelike knight in white armor who descended from the columned ceiling on a golden rope. The dragon’s blood was as red and real as my own, yet it spread across the flagstones in delicate calligraphy as if sketched by an artist’s hand. I was forced to ask my friend to find a bench on which I could gather my wits. ‘We shouldn’t have come here, Duchess,’ he said, but I replied that I was glad we’d come, despite the effect. Francini’s automatic garden showed me that a certain sickness—a questioning of one’s world—could serve as a kind of enlightenment.”
Like the automatic garden, the answer to whether the death of Francini’s wife, Florette, had truly given rise to his monument of sorrow is largely lost to history. Francini’s motivation for his final invention was a topic of debate in fashionable circles, and many argued that there was more to the inventor’s grief than the death of poor, simple Florette. Gossip about such details was often named as the cause of the inventor’s self-imposed exile to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye and his distancing himself from the aristocracy. It was not Florette who’d shamed him, after all, but the prior object of his passions who had made for a near public embarrassment and perhaps even venial sin.
Antonio Cornazzano had been a danseur and general actor of the Florentine stage who’d met the great engineer during the period when Francini was commissioned to build a revolving set for La Ballet de La Deliverance de Renaud. Francini, who could then still be called a young man, adored the danseur, and that affection was apparently reciprocated. The two were often seen huddled in dimly-lit taverns of Florence over a candle and a serving of black ale, discussing topics in such hushed voices that no one else could hear. Despite the apparent gravity of these discussions, Francini and Cornazzano sometimes burst into hearty laughter, and tavern patrons reported an unnatural magnetism between the two men. There were even rumors of sorcery, though André Félibien, court historian to Louis XIV, dismisses such conjecture as peasant talk. “Simply stated,” he writes, “Thomas Francini and Antonio Cornazzano behaved as artists will, and though such behavior seems, at times, against nature, we must learn to accept and make do if the theater is to persist.”
Francini’s revolving stage set for the ballet was said to be a marvel—a replica of the city of Florence itself. And the ninety-two dancers and singers employed to move through the mock streets, bedrooms and common houses did so in an exhaustive display of “city-life” which also encompassed a spiritual dimension, as the upper parts of the central stage contained sets for the unmovable Empyrean of the Heaven. Masked angels and demons pulled silken ropes connected to doorways that affected the lives of the human dancers. Cornazzano acted as choreographer for the production and worked closely with Francini to create what many called a “threatening sense of fantasy.”
The emotion between dark-featured Francini and agile Cornazzano developed a volatile irrepressibility. They could not contain themselves even when they worked with the dancers, and were often seen erupting into laughter and pulling each other out into the alley behind the theater to calm themselves with sobering talk. It was only when they lurched back to Francini’s rented villa one night after drinking and were set upon by a band of Florentine locals and dashed to the flagstones that the two men became more cautious.
When precisely they decided to begin living inside of Francini’s revolving set for the ballet, we do not know, but a number of sources document that Francini, who’d already made his fortune at Versailles, started stocking the taverns and shops of the set with actual goods and even hired out-of-work ballerinas to act as barmaids and shop keeps. He and Cornazzano lived privately on the stage, setting up house each night after the performance ended, enjoying that false city as they had previously enjoyed the actual streets of Florence. There were taverns in which the two could drink black ale by candlelight without the interruption of noisy patrons, and there was a library filled with fake books. Actual texts proved unnecessary because Francini could recite portions of Le Morte Darthur as well as Gargantua and Pantegruel by heart. At times, the two men climbed into the Heavenly domain, lit the wicks of the stars, and floated through the Empyrean on Francini’s cleverly concealed wooden pallets.
A ballerina managed to steal a letter that Francini had left for Cornazzano on a pillow in one of the small apartments. The letter ended with a line that became popular in Florence as fashionable blasphemy: “I do not love God, my darling, ’Tonio. For what is God when there is you?” Cornazzano’s response to those words remains in ellipsis. The content of the young man’s heart is largely unknown. It is only years later that we hear from him in his own words. By then, he had married and seen the birth of three children with his wife, Marie, and together they owned a small theater in Charleville. Cornazzano wrote his thoughts in a sturdy leather diary which he then concealed in one of the walls of his home. In recent times, the diary has surfaced, and while it provides an uncomfortable end to the story of the two men, it gives evocative details of the automatic garden itself, which Cornazzano was invited to visit by the great inventor a month before fire consumed it.
Cornazzano begins the journal with intimations of the falling out between Francini and him years before.
They’d apparently abandoned their home in the revolving set long before the Ballet de Renaud had closed. “It has been years,” he writes in his careful yet unschooled hand, “and I wonder if I am being overly cautious or cruel by suggesting that we meet at the garden itself rather than at Francini’s home. I do not want to recall our privacies or the invented world we shared. It wasn’t merely the stage—our fake city. We invented places in our minds, as well, that we could slip off to even in a crowd. I remember what Thomas said to me—that two men living together is in itself a kind of invention, a household of dream furniture and shadow servants. Is it wrong that I do not want to even come close to this dream again? How would I explain such a thing to my dear Marie or to my children, the eldest of whom is almost the age of Thomas’s own bizarre deceased bride. By coming to the automatic garden, I hope to appease him, so that his letters will stop. I admit I am nervous to see what he calls his ‘great defiance,’ his palace against the day.”
Cornazzano writes that he was greeted at the garden’s columned gate by a page draped in a cloak dyed the color of saffron and told that Master Francini was unwell and sent his apologies for not being able to join Cornazzano on the tour. This came as quite a surprise to Cornazzano who’d believed the entire reason for this trip was so that Francini could see him again and perhaps persuade him that this place was like the other fantasy in which they’d lived—a new set for a fresh and dangerous ballet.
He attempted to beg off, saying that he was a busy man with a theater to run and did not have time to walk the garden if Francini could not be bothered to escort him, but the page became insistent, grabbing Cornazzano’s arm and pulling him into the garden toward the forest of the gods. “Please, Monsieur. Master will be miserable if you don’t at least give me some word of praise for his inventions.” Finally Cornazzano conceded to take a short walk through the place, writing, “The page’s hand was cold—not like a dead man, but like one who has never lived. I feared disagreement, so I allowed myself to be led.” The walk turned into a game of mad circling through the garden’s multiple levels and in the dim light of a forest path, the page disappeared, and Cornazzano was left alone with Francini’s glowering mechanicals.
He became intrigued by a bed of glass chrysanthemums—a flower of the orient, rarely seen in France. The stem of the mechanical chrysanthemum was made of green copper with sharp-edged leaves protruding, and the petals of the flower itself were crafted from thin pieces of stained glass. Inside the stem was what appeared to be a small flame of the sort one finds in lanterns which was given oxygen at regular intervals, causing the chrysanthemum to pulse with a light that suggested the process of blooming. The brightening of the flower was subtle, nearly imperceptible, and Cornazzano writes that even after studying the chrysanthemum for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to say whether it was growing brighter or dimmer. The light seemed to exist somewhere inside of his own body, in fact, a warmth in his core. “The mechanical chrysanthemum causes a momentary dizziness with its warmth,” he adds, “a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant.”
So entranced, Cornazzano did not recognize the approach of the figure in black, and when he caught his first glimpse of it standing at the stony edge of the garden path, he did not fully comprehend what he saw. He attests instead to being startled as one can be startled by an unexpected mirror hanging at the end of a gallery. The figure that stood in the grass and watched him was not an obvious automaton. Unlike the moving statue of Poseidon who wept into his miniature ocean, or the huntress, Diana, who drew her bowstring in the dark forest, this figure, had a versatile range of movement. It was able to crouch, then stand, and then to caper there at the edge of the path, as if begging for Cornazzano’s approach.
Our chronicler likens the figure to one of the dancing fauns in the garden’s Doric gallery, but man-sized and wearing a garment that looked like a merchant’s robe with a wide lace ruff around its neck. The collar was crenulated and gave the appearance that the automaton’s head, bearing its pale and almost luminous face, was displayed on a black plate. Its mouth was open in what could not be called a smile, and so surprising was the creature that Cornazzano did not at first recognize it as a replica of himself. “Would any man know himself clothed in such odd garments,” he writes, “and set to caper and leer like a demon?”
The automaton turned from the path, and its fluidity of movement made Cornazzano momentarily believe the thing must be an actor in heavy makeup or mask, merely pretending to be a machine. But there were subtle inhumanities to its gestures that soon convinced him otherwise. Just as one could never mistake the mechanical chrysanthemum for a real flower, neither could one think this object was a man.
The creature fled across the garden, black boots flickering over the grass, and was it any wonder that Cornazzano left the safety of the path to chase his double, hungry for a better look? The automaton darted playfully beneath an evening sky as dark as iron. It ran through a swamp of reeds that hummed sad flute-song, and then across a plain of grass which rippled, though there was no breeze in the air.
Cornazzano watched as his replica slipped into one of the many grottoes that were too smooth for nature. No longer the agile danseur he’d once been, he found himself winded at the entrance to the cave and stopped, considering whether he should continue following the creature. His blond hair lay wet against his forehead. His gut heaved. He knew he should walk away—leave Francini to his madness. But still some part of him wanted to doubt what his eyes had recorded. It was not possible that Francini had built his own Cornazzano to live in his garden of gods.
Cornazzano writes, I crept into the cave and found the creature no longer dancing but crouched near one wall, huddled in its tunic as if for warmth. Seeing the details of my own face—or rather the details of how I had once been, a young and foolish boy—gave rise to an intense and surprising anger. I wondered if Francini was making a mockery of me, or worse, if perhaps he used this metal man for some type of pleasure. And I found myself gripping the thing’s pallid face, feeling the contours of its chin and cheeks. I pulled at its nose which was made of some soft metal, pushed at its eyes until the bulbs of glass cracked beneath my thumbs. The automaton did not struggle. It allowed its destruction. Perhaps that is even why it led me to the cave. And when I reached into the creature’s mouth, trying to find some tongue to pull out, I heard behind me the scuff of a leather boot on the sandy cave floor.
I turned to see Francini himself—hair shot with silver, eyes set deep in his skull, standing and watching in the fading light. This was not my laughing friend from Florence with bright eyes and wine-stained lips. This was a poor copy—an old man—ruined and sad.
“What have you done?” he asked in a soft voice.
By then I had managed to rip the automaton’s lower jaw from its head, and I tossed it at Francini’s feet. “That question,” I said, “would be better put to you, maestro.”
“I thought you would like him, ’Tonio,” Francini whispered. He bent to pick up the jaw from the cave floor, and as I formulated some rebuke, feeling the old dangers and passions rushing back into the causeways of my heart, I realized something was wrong. Francini’s fingers were around the jaw bone, but he did not grasp it, nor did he attempt to straighten himself. He had grown intensely still in his awkward, bent position, and it was only then that I realized—this was not Francini. It was not even alive.
Such horror I felt. I could not move my arms or legs, could not look at this false Francini with limp gray hair hanging against its brow. I wondered if my old friend even still existed. I wanted to cry out for him. I wanted Francini to reveal himself in flesh and blood, but I held my tongue. How I escaped the automatic garden, I do not know. It seems to me that the gods called to me as I ran—begged me not to leave at first and then mocked me for my foolishness. And even as I sit composing these lines at my own wooden table in my home where I can hear the sound of my good wife speaking to my children in the upper rooms, I wonder if am I still in that garden, lying on the cave floor, broken into my separate parts.
Adam McOmber, “The Automatic Garden” from This New & Poisonous Air. Copyright © 2011 by Adam McOmber. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and then, at ever-lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her, like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the vanishing edges of consciousness.
The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld, indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the length of journeys half forgotten-through her mind there now only moved a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine… and that she should never again hear the creaking of her husband’s boots – those horrible boots – and that no one would come to bother her about the next day’s dinner… or the butcher’s book…
At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth… Ah, now it was rising too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;… her mouth was full;… she was choking… Help!
“It is all over,” said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official composure.
The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking boots.
She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had of late emerged.
She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her, she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in the opaline uncertainty of Shelley’s vaporous creations, then gradually resolved into distincter shape – the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain, aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its curve – something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background of Leonardo’s, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.
“And so death is not the end after all,” in sheer gladness she heard herself exclaiming aloud. “I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he wasn’t sure about the soul – at least, I think he did – and Wallace was a spiritualist; and then there was St. George Mivart –”
Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.
“How beautiful! How satisfying!” she murmured. “Perhaps now I shall really know what it is to live.”
As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.
“Have you never really known what it is to live?” the Spirit of Life asked her.
“I have never known,” she replied, “that fulness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea.”
“And what do you call the fulness of life?” the Spirit asked again.
“Oh, I can’t tell you, if you don’t know,” she said, almost reproachfully. “Many words are supposed to define it – love and sympathy are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the right ones, and so few people really know what they mean.”
“You were married,” said the Spirit, “yet you did not find the fulness of life in your marriage?”
“Oh, dear, no,” she replied, with an indulgent scorn, “my marriage was a very incomplete affair.”
“And yet you were fond of your husband?”
“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
“And your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never got beyond the family sitting-room?”
“Never,” she returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'”
“Then,” the Spirit continued, “those moments of which you lately spoke, which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life, were not shared with your husband?”
“Oh, no – never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers — and — and, in short, we never understood each other in the least.”
“To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?”
“I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset, or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I felt but could not express.”
“Someone whom you loved?” asked the Spirit.
“I never loved anyone, in that way,” she said, rather sadly, “nor was I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of two or three who, by touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being, had called forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in my soul. It has seldom happened, however, that I have owed such feelings to people; and no one ever gave me a moment of such happiness as it was my lot to feel one evening in the Church of Or San Michele, in Florence.”
“Tell me about it,” said the Spirit.
“It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.
“Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in some remote way of the honeycolored columns of the Parthenon, but more mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss, but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon martyrs’ tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena, or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer, more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece.
“The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there, bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor. Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.
“As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty born of man’s hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled in Orcagna’s apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece, till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen’s hammers in the goldsmiths’ workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of armed factions in the narrow streets, the organroll of Dante’s verse, the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while plague-struck Florence howled beneath them — all this and much more I heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote, fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it with me, we might have found the key to it together.
“I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: ‘Hadn’t we better be going? There doesn’t seem to be much to see here, and you know the table d’hote dinner is at half-past six o’clock.”
Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of Life said: “There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have expressed.”
“Oh, then you do understand?” she exclaimed. “Tell me what compensation, I entreat you!”
“It is ordained,” the Spirit answered, “that every soul which seeks in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity.”
A glad cry broke from her lips. “Ah, shall I find him at last?” she cried, exultant.
“He is here,” said the Spirit of Life.
She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.
“Are you really he?” she murmured.
“I am he,” he answered.
She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung the valley.
“Shall we go down together,” she asked him, “into that marvellous country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?”
“So,” he replied, “have I hoped and dreamed.”
“What?” she asked, with rising joy. “Then you, too, have looked for me?”
“All my life.”
“How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world who understood you?”
“Not wholly – not as you and I understand each other.”
“Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy,” she sighed.
They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory tribe.
“Did you never feel at sunset –”
“Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?”
“Do you remember that line in the third canto of the ‘Inferno?'”
“Ah, that line – my favorite always. Is it possible –”
“You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?”
“You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too, that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of her drapery?”
“After a storm in autumn have you never seen –”
“Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters-the perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the tuberose, Crivelli –”
“I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it.”
“Have you never thought –”
“Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had.”
“But surely you must have felt –”
“Oh, yes, yes; and you, too –”
“How beautiful! How strange –”
Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain tender impatience, he turned to her and said: “Love, why should we linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue hill above the shining river.”
As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn, and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.
“A home,” she repeated, slowly, “a home for you and me to live in for all eternity?”
“Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?”
“Y-yes – yes, I know – but, don’t you see, home would not be like home to me, unless –”
“Unless?” he wonderingly repeated.
She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of whimsical inconsistency, “Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking boots.”
But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the valley.
“Come, O my soul’s soul,” he passionately implored; “why delay a moment? Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can see our home already. Have I not always seem it in my dreams? It is white, love, is it not, with polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the blue? Groves of laurel and oleander and thickets of roses surround it; but from the terrace where we walk at sunset, the eye looks out over woodlands and cool meadows where, deep-bowered under ancient boughs, a stream goes delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the walls and the rooms are lined with books. Think, dear, at last we shall have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to choose. Shall it be ‘Faust’ or the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Tempest’ or ‘Les Caprices de Marianne,’ or the thirty-first canto of the ‘Paradise,’ or ‘Epipsychidion’ or “Lycidas’? Tell me, dear, which one?”
As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the persuasion of his hand.
“What is it?” he entreated.
“Wait a moment,” she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice. “Tell me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom you sometimes remember?”
“Not since I have seen you,” he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed forgotten.
Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her soul.
“Surely, love,” he rebuked her, “it was not that which troubled you? For my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud before the moon. I never lived until I saw you.”
She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit of Life, who still stood near the threshold.
“I want to ask you a question,” she said, in a troubled voice.
“Ask,” said the Spirit.
“A little while ago,” she began, slowly, “you told me that every soul which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one here.”
“And have you not found one?” asked the Spirit.
“Yes; but will it be so with my husband’s soul also?”
“No,” answered the Spirit of Life, “for your husband imagined that he had found his soul’s mate on earth in you; and for such delusions eternity itself contains no cure.”
She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph?
“Then – then what will happen to him when he comes here?”
“That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and happy.”
She interrupted, almost angrily: “He will never be happy without me.”
“Do not be too sure of that,” said the Spirit.
She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: “He will not understand you here any better than he did on earth.”
“No matter,” she said; “I shall be the only sufferer, for he always thought that he understood me.”
“His boots will creak just as much as ever –”
“And he will slam the door –”
“And continue to read railway novels –”
She interposed, impatiently: “Many men do worse than that.”
“But you said just now,” said the Spirit, “that you did not love him.”
“True,” she answered, simply; “but don’t you understand that I shouldn’t feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two – but for eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except when my head ached, and I don’t suppose it will ache here; and he was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never could remember not to. Besides, no one else would know how to look after him, he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he bought it. Why, he wouldn’t even know what novels to read. I always had to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful detective.”
She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien of wonder and dismay.
“Don’t you see,” she said, “that I can’t possibly go with you?”
“But what do you intend to do?” asked the Spirit of Life.
“What do I intend to do?” she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first he would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes.” She pointed with a contemptuous gesture to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent mountains. “He wouldn’t give a fig for all that,” she said, “if he didn’t find me here.”
“But consider,” warned the Spirit, “that you are now choosing for eternity. It is a solemn moment.”
“Choosing!” she said, with a half-sad smile. “Do you still keep up here that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that you knew better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had gone away with someone else-never, never.”
“So be it,” said the Spirit. “Here, as on earth, each one must decide for himself.”
She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost wistfully. “I am sorry,” she said. “I should have liked to talk with you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find someone else a great deal cleverer –”
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
“Will my husband come soon?” she asked the Spirit of Life.
“That you are not destined to know,” the Spirit replied.
“No matter,” she said, cheerfully; “I have all eternity to wait in.”
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of his boots.
Late that afternoon they were ordered from the crippled field. Sweat streaked sunburned faces and soaked their prison blues. To the west, the sun had grown huge and crimson as it nipped the horizon; broken strings of pink clouds, the tops darkening to purple and black, drifted above its crest. Ramsey hadn’t seen it from such a perspective, not segmented by chain link or razor wire, in years. Although shadows had grown long and distended, it would be midnight before the heat would abate. The monotonous drone of insects, awakened by twilight, sounded like rapid, wireless static.
He and the others who had searched were shackled from hand to foot and then chained together. As they shuffled toward the Bluebird, prodded in the back with shotgun barrels if they stumbled, the links rattled like tempered wind chimes. After climbing aboard, they were herded to the rear into a steel mesh cage from which the seats had been removed and the windows blackened and barred. Since the bus had remained at the field all afternoon, the bare metal sides could sear flesh, so they sat on the floor, in the center of the cage, huddled back to back, arms resting on folded legs. Webster’s body had not been loaded. Ramsey assumed he lay where he had been killed, submerged in the sea of oats.
After they were counted, a guard, wearing a dun colored uniform, slammed and locked the narrow, sheet steel door. He stepped to the side, peering through the mesh, and flashed a whiskered, yellow grin as he rattled the keys, like ringing a bell. He was just one of many, all seeming emotionally cloned, governing Ramsey’s life, shamelessly flaunting their authority and license to abuse. Most, it comforted him to hope, probably despised their plight as much as he did his. He imagined them living in dented trailers, strewn like discarded cans along unnamed dirt roads, some alone, drinking themselves to sleep while watching reality TV; others with bitchy, pregnant wives and burdensome children running wild.
While Ramsey and the others waited, sweltering, body odor thick, the guards opened a cooler. They popped tops and guzzled beer. With his free hand, the driver twisted the key. The starter growled, slowing with each rotation, until just when it seemed it might expire, the engine coughed and backfired to idle. He shoved the floor shift forward several times, stomping the clutch and scraping gears until the transmission engaged, the bus lurching ahead, the driver struggling to steady the steering wheel with one hand. Cans, some trailing foam, sailed out the open door. The interior began filling with a thin, blue haze and the stench of burnt oil and spent gasoline. The bus wobbled along the rutted dirt road, the chassis grating like a rusted hinge.
Although residents had named the squalid settlement Carson Springs, as the town grew, the artesian sources and natural springs, which once fed twisting, unmolested streams churning over stones abraded smooth by time, had been harnessed and diverted through hand hewn canals leading to the town. The clay banks of the depleted streams became etched with gaping cracks, the waterless depths littered with skeletal remains, the bordering forests withered and broken.
Before the townspeople arrived to civilize by building the first church and banning the sale of liquor, ancient, nihilistic pioneers, with a penchant for women who were not delicate, had subsisted for decades on the same land, distilling, fishing, hunting, and enduring hardships they felt earned them an endowed immunity from newly imposed limits. But when one of original settlers lethally avenged a “squatter’s” intrusion, he was tried and sentenced to death. Most of the residents, including children, attended the execution, which had become a social event. The condemned, his expression defiant, his hands tied behind, sat backwards on a mule. A crudely fashioned noose, the attached rope dangling loose from a live oak limb, was strung around his neck. A minister read the Twenty-Third Psalm. After he sanctimoniously proclaimed: “Amen” and slapped the Bible closed, the sheriff reread the jury’s verdict and then nodded to the animal’s owner who cracked a whip across the animal’s flank. It bolted, leaving the man dangling. The drop had not broken his neck, so for several minutes his legs stroked the air, as if he were trying to run.
No one claimed the body, because those who had first settled the land with him had already packed up and moved, rather than conform to flags and The Word, northwest to distant mountains where they hoped to find a less troubled land.
Years later, after the town had grown and graveled streets named, the state paved SR 92 which ran straight thirty miles from the state line, north past Carson Springs, to connect with highways leading eventually to the Canadian Border and both coasts. Sheltered by ridges dense with hardwood and pine, the town grew in the center of a copiously fertile valley bordering the prairie, the western landscape featureless and barren and worn, the horizon, wavering with the sun, stretching between blue mountain ranges so distant they looked like fallen clouds.
George Smiley built Carson Springs’ first store, a sagging building, which looked as if it had been constructed of driftwood, sitting skewed on a rock foundation. George sold anything one might need, merchandise in disarray, pots and pans, yokes and bridles, hanging, in no particular order, from rafters and unadorned walls. For a while he sold the only gasoline in Carson Springs, dispensed from a single Ethyl pump in the middle of the furrowed, dirt parking lot, the Sinclair dinosaur standing on its pedestal out by SR 92. Even after Fred’s Market, a spotty, regional chain, moved in with lower prices, wire buggies, clean-shaven clerks in white aprons, and two grades of Esso, most folks still, out of loyalty, shopped with George, a generous man who would gladly run a tab for anyone who walked through the door.
Why his wife left had moved in with her sister back in St. Louis, no one ever knew, not even his boy Dewey. Some gossiped of another man, others of a divine irrationality unique to the frontier, compelling some to flee, others to wander wide-eyed, speaking in tongues, into the desert mists where nothing can survive except sooty gray rats that evolution has taught to place only two feet at a time against the blistering sand. Within a year George came down with cancer and succumbed six months after the diagnosis. Most folks felt one thing led to the other.
“Doctors said he was eat up,” the story went, “but he never was the same after she took off. I think that’s what brought it on. His body and spirit just give up. It happens, you know?”
Dewey tried running the store for a while after his father’s death, but everyone knew he was a braggart and a drunk, usually opening late, if at all. The old loyalties soon faded after George’s death, and Fred’s became the place to shop. One Saturday, when he woke with a hangover and no money, Dewey held a sale, everything for whatever folks felt like paying. People filled toe sacks and cardboard boxes, while Dewey berated their treachery, and rattled change into a metal pail beside the door. By noon, the shelves and racks were bare. The building wasn’t worth much, and you couldn’t give the land away, since so much of it went unclaimed, so Dewey walked away without bothering to lock the door.
Once inside the double electric gates, they stumbled from the bus. The guards who had transported them removed the shackles; two guards responsible for the entrance counted them again. One stood on the threshold of the control booth, hands plunged in his back pockets, his lower lip packed with tobacco. The other called out names listed on a clipboard, holding it at arms length and squinting. Each inmate responded with eyes submissively averted. When he came to Webster’s name, he nodded before calling it louder than the others, his voice slick with contempt, and then, after making a show of the intervening pause, marked through it with a flourish.
The shuffle of voices, colliding, indistinguishable, filling Ramsey’s days on the crowded compound had by that time been confined behind locked dormitory doors, the grounds empty except for prowling guards, the only sounds a distant whippoorwill, its plaintive cry unanswered, and an annoyingly nasal female voice barking coded numbers and names from portable radios clipped to the guards’ belts. Night had silenced the insects inspired by the gloaming.
Since the other inmates had been fed, the guards led them into the empty chow hall and handed each a standard sack meal: a stale bologna sandwich, the bread soggy with mayonnaise, an apple, and a glass of lemonade, which most never drank. A black working the kitchen had been caught pissing in the vat. They ate at burled pine picnic tables. Although posted regulations forbade speaking in the chow hall, during scheduled meals, with hundreds of inmates shuttling in and out by dorm assignments, each allowed fifteen minutes to eat, the scraping of feet along with the clanging of metal plates and utensils being tossed onto a conveyor created a cacophony indigenous with captivity. However, with so few in the cavernous room, a fork dropped inadvertently, keys rattling, a sneeze, a murmuring between guards, whispers, almost, became amplified in the spaciousness, echoing, as if one wall were answering another, like spirits conversing. The relative silence tempted Ramsey to shout his name, just to hear it repeated, softer each time until it dissolved to silence, like dying, he thought, without the attendant trauma, the most he could hope for, but there would be sanctions if he dared, a period of solitary confinement, like living in a shadowy cave, or worse: the loss of his windows.
* * *
After Fred’s came to Carson Springs, Sonic followed a couple of years later, the Desert Inn Motel soon after that, and then, given its logistical advantages and undemanding labor pool, Chrysler built a small factory at the end of a new, quarry rock road to manufacture radiator thermostats. At times it employed as many as thirty people. With approval from Fred’s corporate management, the city council began planning to expand the local store into a truck stop to service the eighteen-wheelers speeding by each day in increasing numbers. Excavation had begun for the additional underground diesel tanks, but then, as part of a flood control project, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Tamaha River where it sliced deep between precipitous slopes in the neighboring state, which heartily endorsed the endeavor because of the recreational areas for boating along with a market for lakeside lots it would create. Within two years, however, a tongue of warm, murky water began filling low-lying areas several miles north of Carson Springs. Lacking political influence, their protests were harmlessly absorbed by a bureaucracy designed to quell dissent. SR 92 soon disappeared beneath ten feet of brackish water. Eventually the Corps began regulating the spillways and the advance that had become a languorous but methodical flood abated, but Carson Springs had become the end of the road. SR92 emerged many miles to the north across the great, stagnant lake at a town named Vale, but it couldn’t be seen even on the clearest day.
Ramsey lived with almost two hundred inmates, mostly blacks, far fewer whites, and one Ukrainian who didn’t speak English, but after having his head pummeled like a punching bag a few times, translation became unnecessary. Housed in one of eight dormitories, each a dusty, concrete block building with galvanized roofs and epoxied slabs, iron framed, double bunk beds filled the interiors, three rows down the center and two, parallel to the others, lining the longer walls, the beds about eighteen inches apart. For his first two years, Ramsey was assigned a lower bunk, the head against the wall. And then his longevity and lack of disobedience merited an upper bunk, but still with nothing behind but reinforced, concrete block. Two years later, he was moved to an upper bunk with a window behind, and then, on the anniversary of his eighth year, an upper bunk in a corner with a view out two windows, one of four coveted locations.
With access to their factory no longer profitable, Chrysler moved the operation to Mexico, leaving the workers staring in dismay at the plant’s shuttered doors and despising more each day the unassuming migrants laboring in the fields. Someone artlessly sprayed “FUCK YOU” across the front wall in red. Then the bank foreclosed on The Desert Inn, with its ten rooms and pink flamingos standing crooked on wire legs. One morning the dark-skinned woman with a red spot on her forehead who ran it loaded her station wagon and headed south, leaving the beds made with clean sheets and the green neon sign on SR92 blinking “Vacancy.” And then the Sonic, whose presence had been overly ambitious, dismissed its employees with two days notice and one hundred dollars severance. Fred’s remained in business, but half its employees lost their jobs. The pits that had been excavated for the proposed diesel tanks filled with muddy water and became breeding ponds for mosquitoes during the summers. The population of Carson Springs began aging and declining, so when the state proposed building a prison nearby, no one objected, the citizenry fearing poverty more than the threat of escaped convicts.
After they had eaten, lines were assembled outside and then each began moving in different directions toward their respective dorms. Cameras mounted high on building corners swiveled to track each group. Ramsey had never been on the compound at night, the grounds so fully lighted that no shadows were cast; no trees, no leaves to mottle the ground; the stars, whose humbling canopy he missed, blinded.
The noise inside the dorm, without rhythm or tone, seemed more aggravating than usual after the relative quiet of the day. Some played cards or Scrabble while others lay in bunks staring emptily with hands laced on their stomachs; a few, who knew how, were reading. Showers were over, but since Ramsey and the others who had searched were late through no fault of their own, the guard magnanimously turned the water on for three minutes, reminding them that he was not required to, and handed each a clean towel. Ramsey always tried to shower immediately after supper, before the tiled floors became slick from inmates masturbating with impunity in the large, open stall.
Once in his bunk, he tried to block the noise, broken words mostly and mirthless laughter, by remembering its absence outside, as if by concentrating, everything around him could be locked in a cell of its own. Solitude, besides freedom, was the thing he missed most. Squinting against blinding fluorescents dangling just out of reach, he woke each morning groggy-eyed to screaming bells, which marked the sequence of relentless rituals dictating his life. During the day, if the din became unbearable, he’d retreat to the remotest corner of the recreation field to try and escape the sounds, but even there the air was stained by cop-killer rap drifting from ghetto blasters inside the open shed where the blacks, their dreadlocks dangling like willow bangs, worked with weights to further enhance arms so bloated they looked like wings. While many whites withered as captives, laboriously shuffling their feet, as if somehow gravity had been enhanced, most blacks seemed to thrive, strutting the compound with an ethnic buoyancy, reveling in the social reversal.
Someone asked about Webster. Ramsey told them what he knew. Although he tried to push it from his mind, the image of Webster lying among the crushed oats, the top of his head scalloped away, burned with a sunken anger. Ramsey doubted the body would be claimed, most outside allegiances, including his own, surviving no more than a year. To him, it seemed inevitable. How many weekends could they sit with families and ask about a sister or a brother, a father or mother, a son or daughter, and speak hopefully of a future that might never come? On Sundays, some stood as close as permitted to the front gate, plaintively watching the visitors enter, waiting for someone they knew, or perhaps, expecting no one, trying to remember what it was like to be free and have someone care.
Webster would be buried without ceremony or marker in an overgrown field that bordered the dump; no one would mourn his loss.
As they had boarded the Bluebird at the field that afternoon, emergency vehicles began arriving, their red and blue lights turning the twilight into a violence of slashing red and blue. And then the business of assigning responsibility, if possible, for the girl began; cameras flashed; men, slipping white coveralls over their street clothes and snapping on latex gloves, crawled on hands and knees, sifting through the maze of stems, dropping minute pieces of this and that into clear plastic bags, a wooden stake with a day-glo ribbon stapled to the top marking the location.
After Dewey ran through the money from the sale at his father’s store, he took a job loading feed at Slater’s Mill for six dollars an hour. On that Tuesday, he called in sick, as he often did, and drove out to the abandoned factory in his pickup, an oxidized blue Dodge with rusted rocker panels and a premiered front fender. He emptied what remained in a bottle he’d stashed under the seat and napped until it wore off. He woke with a boner and a parched throat. He checked himself in the rearview mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, and he hadn’t shaved in days. He raked a hand through his hair, reset the mirror, and headed into town, empty cans and broken tools rattling around the truck bed. After passing the old trailer sitting on a red clay lot scooped out of a loblolly pine thicket that ran from the factory to the edge of town, he saw the girl, her hair braided to the waist, walking toward him, a book bag dangling from her shoulder; he thought nothing of it at first, but then he slowed and stopped beside her, his elbow crooked out the window.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Melissa Gayle,” she said, squinting against the sun and shading her eyes. She wore a starched white blouse and a plaid skirt, the hem several inches above her white socks and black patent leather shoes.
He opened the door by reaching through the window and stepped out, looking both ways along the road.
“You know me. You and your momma used to shop at my store.”
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
She pointed in the direction of the trailer.
“It ain’t that far.”
He took her arm.
“Come on, I wanted to talk to your momma anyway.”
He lifted her into the cab and shoved her to the passenger’s side. He tossed the book bag into the bed, started the truck, and turned around.
“That’s where I live,” she said as he sped past the trailer toward the abandoned factory.
* * *
An old singlewide sat down the factory road, from what townspeople called “the junction to nowhere,” beneath a large willow, its twisted mane reaching the ground and bunching atop the sloppily tarred roof. Although within walking distance of town, no other dwellings were built close enough to be called neighboring. The trailer had been placed there fifteen years before by the town’s only realtor, who also sold and serviced farm implements. He posted a rental sign in the front window. People had moved in and out, none staying more than a year. Most were drifters and drunks who had to be forcibly evicted. It had been empty for several months when the woman showed up one day in a fully packed, hump backed, Oldsmobile station wagon and rented the place, just her and the little girl. No one ever saw her with a man or any strangers entering or leaving the trailer. At first she drove to town, but something happened to the Oldsmobile. The tires eventually dry rotted flat.
The woman was bone-thin, bird-like, even, pale skinned, with a long face and large eyes, her hair, the color of stone, tied behind in a bun. Like her mother, the girl was all knees and elbows but with red hair and freckles. Each month the woman deposited a railroad pension check in the bank, paying cash for food, always counting her change carefully. If someone spoke, she would respond politely with a shy smile.
The woman enrolled the girl in Rosewater Elementary and Middle School, the only one in the county.
“She was never a problem,” said one of the teachers.
“Smart as a whip,” said another.
The woman had even invited the visitation ladies inside the first Thursday night they came to call, fixing coffee, chatting civilly, promising to attend Sunday school, which she did the following weekend. The women gave Jesus and His Disciples coloring books and a box of crayons to the girl before they left, holding a brief prayer meeting at the opened door.
Around dusk on the day Dewey had picked the girl up, he drove back from the factory alone, both arms itching from weed rash and insect bites. His hands trembled. He passed through town, honking and waving at the sheriff, who sat outside the office, elbows draped over the back of a wooden bench. Dewey drove north on SR92 toward the water, the lights in his rearview mirror having vanished, and turned off onto a grassy path, matted down by truck tires, few people knew about, and those who did held their tongues. Sumac and low, broad-leafed trees obscured the entrance. Despite idling the truck in gear, it still bottomed a couple of times, limbs clawing the windshield and scraping the sides, cottontails scampering out of the beams. An old bootlegger named Mel lived at the end in a two-room log cabin with hubcaps nailed along the front wall. Several rusted cars sat on concrete blocks, hoods yawning open, an engine dangling by chain from a thick, sycamore limb. A reflection of the moon rippled in the lake behind his cabin.
Dewey took a quick step back when a German shepherd, snarling and baring its teeth, lunged at him as Mel cracked the door.
“I’m tapped out,” the old man growled in a smoker’s voice, holding the dog’s collar with both hands. “Come back in a day or two.”
“I need something now,” Dewey said, opening his hands submissively.
The old man kicked the door shut.
Dewey drove back to town. A dually pulling a carrier full of bawling cattle passed in the opposite direction, the radio blaring music. He stopped across from the courthouse, under a streetlight, and counted his money. He had enough for the thirty-mile trip down SR 92 to an all night liquor store just across the state line.
Searchers found no trace of the girl at the dump or around the abandoned factory. Fishermen launched Jon boats into the murky lake, probing shadowed marshes along the shore but soon abandoned the effort. Some in hip boots waded the drainage ditches surrounding a large field, banded by barbed wire and choked with oats ready for harvest, looking for evidence of damaged and broken stalks, suspicious trails, all the obvious places where someone might have thoughtlessly discarded a child. No such evidence was found.
Vultures were a common sight, floating in imprecise circles on thermal pillows, constantly trolling, so few people paid them any mind, but when they began drifting above the field in greater numbers, the implication became clear.
Since the field was so large, over a mile square, and the crop so dense, the sheriff asked the prison for help. Ramsey and other inmates, all with records free of disciplinary infractions, were caged in the Bluebird and driven to the field. Flanked by guards armed with shotguns, they stepped unshackled from the bus.
Determined to complete the search before dark, the sheriff assembled two lines at opposite ends of the field, each to proceed methodically toward the center. Due to the size of the field and the waist high crop, one line could not see the other. Except for the vultures and strings of manmade clouds dispersing as soon as they formed, nothing occluded the sun, inclined toward afternoon and punishing without quarter, shirts sweat plastered to itching backs, the air thick with heat that Ramsey felt through the soles of his brogans. A shuffle of birdcalls, along with the croaking of frogs and the ratcheting sound of summer insects, formed an unscripted, ubiquitous chorus. Dragonflies rested their twin sets of veined, translucent wings by lighting atop the swaying pods for a moment, their bodies swathed in twisted rainbows. Mosquitoes began swarming and feasting upon exposed skin. No-see-‘ems clogged nostrils and ears.
They waited for what seemed an unnecessarily long time as a deputy communicated with someone on the other end by portable radio. Finally he blew a whistle for them to proceed. That the crop would be damaged could not be helped. Men and women stretched across the field, each a few yards from another, moving deliberately, arms extended, hands brushing the ripened pods aside, scanning the ground. Even the owner, his wife and sons, and their migrant workers, chattering in their own private language, joined the search. As Ramsey pushed ahead, his pants brushing the stalks aside made a sibilant sound with each step, like breath being expelled, as if he were treading upon a living being.
Although it lasted less than a day, Ramsey relished the freedom, not freedom from the sense of being unfettered, but the quiet and the vast prospect above, which seemed unlike the one visible from the compound.
At first he wasn’t sure. The shimmering horizon distorted what appeared to be figures spread across the field, but then heads and torsos began to form, as if rising out of the earth.
As the two lines came within sight of each other, those with Ramsey glanced at one another, expressions bemused, catching the faintest odor carried by shifting breezes, at first dismissing it as an aberration of the heat, until it grew stronger and could no longer be ignored. His line tightened and closed on itself, approaching the fence, hands covering noses and mouths as the stench became nauseous. They stomped the oats flat, trying to find the source. The one who found her, an older man wearing overalls and a straw hat, shouted and raised his hand. He tied a red bandana across his face. Dozens crowded around the body. For a careless moment, guards, their weapons lowered, forgot about the inmates. The girl lay naked, her arms and legs splayed, as if she had been tossed over the barbed wire from the access road just a few yards away. Decomposition and the feeding of scavengers led to speculation that she had been killed soon after she went missing. Beetles and maggots swarmed the frail body, a haze of green-backed flies hovering with a low, malevolent hum. Her face was unrecognizable, the skin covering her body drawn tight to the point of splitting and darkened as if sheathed in teal. The time elapsed since she’d disappeared had allowed the oats to right and repair themselves, concealing the body. A thickset woman, in a long, flowered dress with puffed sleeves and wearing a denim bonnet, dropped to her knees, and with hands clasped under her chin, began to pray aloud, but no one else made a sound. A female cardinal, its color robbed by gender, squatted on the top strand of the nearby fence, bobbing its tail for balance.
Neither Ramsey nor anyone else had noticed the black named Webster back away until he was several yards from the group and someone shouted. It was as if they all had been awakened from a trance, requiring a moment to orient themselves. That’s when he began running, his arms and legs flailing like a string puppet, as if he was frolicking rather than trying to escape, which, with the thickness of oats, would have been impossible. Without being ordered to, he stopped and turned, facing his captors. He ripped his prison-blue shirt free and tossed it aside. Bathed by the sun, his sweat drenched body seemed to glow. He held his arms straight to the sides, smiled, and dropped his head back. For a moment, with only an unblemished sky behind and his upper body seeming to emerge from a blur of gold, he appeared suspended. Then a shotgun exploded. Webster dropped from sight, the moment imbedded in Ramsey’s memory. He thought of the Zapruder film, as Kennedy clutched his throat, a crimson spray blooming behind, marking the moment of his death, and of his Uncle, who raised him and thankfully had passed on before Ramsey was disgraced, setting a watermelon on a stump for target practice, the pulp and seeds scattering like brain tissue and bits of skull. Everyone rushed to where Webster lay, everyone except Ramsey. He remained beside the girl’s body. It didn’t sicken him to stare at her remains; neither did it fill him with sorrow nor a sense of outrage. Could he remember a time when it might? Or had he evolved antithetically? After so many years, he couldn’t be sure.
While the others huddled, staring at Webster with train wreck fascination, Ramsey could have dropped to his knees and crawled away, obscured by the oats. In the confusion he might not have been missed for at least half an hour; by that time he could have been well on his way, and with night coming on, an effective search could not have been launched before morning, but then what? He had nowhere to go, no plan, a short-lived escape for which the consequences would have been severe.
* * *
After leaving the liquor store, Dewey felt like celebrating, one hand resting atop the steering wheel, the other wrapped around the neck of a bottle of low-grade alcohol. He sang along tunelessly to a cassette playing: “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” his voice switching from normal to an annoying falsetto as Shelly West alternated verses with David Frizzell. But then, another sound. He flicked the volume down. A rod knocking, like a morning after headache. He pumped the brakes up and pulled into a 7-11. He got out and lifted the hood. He uncapped a gallon jug of recycled forty-weight and filled a dented, tin can that he then carried to the front. Acrid smoke spewed into his face when he spilled some on the exhaust manifold. He lowered the hood but then raised it again when it failed to latch and slammed it shut with both hands. A jagged chunk of Bondo fell off.
After crossing back into the state, a colonnade of grain elevators, which had stood empty for years, flashed momentarily in the sweep of passing light, but then no other structures, no lights ahead, behind, or to the sides, nothing but thirty miles of untamed forests between him and Carson Springs. A foraging possum waddling across the road turned to face the truck, its eyes glowing red when caught in the beams.
“Roadkill!” Dewey laughed and swerved to crush it beneath the left front tire, but as he did, the right side dropped onto the shoulder. He jerked the wheel to the left, tipping the truck. It rolled down an embankment, jettisoning metal and glass, until it came to rest on its roof in a muddy swale, steam hissing from under the hood. Dewey lay broken and bloodied on the shoulder where he died, but not quickly. Sometime later, after the lights of the crumpled truck had gone dead and the radiator expelled itself, an eighteen-wheeler, its cab glowing yellow, sped past. The driver glanced at the road, not realizing he was lost, and then at a swindle sheet spread across the steering wheel. The book bag had tumbled from the bed of Dewey’s truck and come to rest beside the road’s segmented center. The tractor’s front tandems ripped it apart, shredded paper swirling upward in their wake like confused butterflies.
Robert Earl had seen it in others, tradition dictating their lives, growing old in family albums that would someday be put aside and forgotten; at times, when alone, their gaze fixed at some middle distance, wondering if there might have been more. And he had tried it himself, a marriage that led to divorce, his wife married to another. Two boys he’d never wanted calling another man father. But he thought of it, the way destiny had wound its way through his life, as just the way things were, random, one event following another capriciously, without pattern. The secret, he concluded, was to expect nothing and accept the inevitable. He paid what the court had deemed fair, and, for that, he got to spend two weekends a month with his boys. He’d rather have not seen them at all, just in passing, maybe, but it would have been unseemly and injurious to his image. Although they were grown and gone, for years he tolerated the four days by watching them fight and buying whatever they wanted. He thought of it as penance.
By the time the cruiser, its lights off, pulled in between the willow and the disabled Oldsmobile, it was almost dark; the trailer windows glowed. He had been elected to eight two-year terms as sheriff, so it was something he’d done many times: telling parents that their son or daughter had been crushed beyond recognition in a grinding head on collision, or a wife that her husband had dropped dead of a coronary while counting his change at Fred’s, or apportioning anguish and relief in an emergency room, reading from a list following a fatal school bus crash. It had nothing to do with him, and he ordered his life so it wouldn’t.
Two deputies accompanied him, one driving, the other in the back seat, not for support for what some might consider a trying moment of responsibility, but more a demonstration of authority. Once, after leaving the washroom at Sonic and zipping his pants as he walked along the hallway leading to the serving line, he heard someone yell: “All your fuckin’ cash, man.” He stopped and pulled his .357 Magnum from its holster to shoulder level, the barrel pointed at the ceiling. He could see the robber’s back reflected in the front window. He then stepped clear of the dividing wall and leveled the pistol, which was only inches from the temple of the robber, who held a Glock on the frightened cashier.
“Drop it,” Robert Earl said but pulled the trigger before the man had time to respond.
They closed the restaurant for half a day to clean shards of skull and bloody tissue from the fry baskets, the condiment bins, and the walls.
He and two deputies attended the funeral, standing to the side, shoulder to shoulder, hats in place, as the dead man’s brothers comforted their mother. He and his men were not there as a matter of respect, or to express regret for having done what had to be done, or to solicit some expression of forgiveness or at least understanding, but as a warning, much as he and his men in the 1st Cavalry had done in Vietnam by tucking death cards in the mouths of fallen Viet Cong.
The door to the trailer opened as they climbed from the cruiser and placed ten-gallon hats atop their heads, leveling the brims. The woman stood, hands on hips, as a silhouette, the light behind seeming to bend away and around her so that she appeared as a stick figure, slight in stature but intimidating and anonymous.
“You found her,” the woman said in a flat, hollow voice. It was not a question.
“Yes, ma’am,” Robert Earl said just as dispassionately. “I’m afraid so.”
She stepped back into the light and, by casually opening her hand away from her side, invited them in. On a coffee table with a glass insert, an open coloring book with crayons scattered across the top.
After they sat, backs rigid, on the end of their bunks nearest the aisle for the eleven o’clock count, and the lights were turned off, the snoring and the stench of near naked bodies sweating in the still, humid air began. Ramsey lay on his stomach, chin resting on his laced fingers. He would not fall asleep easily, and when he did, still vigilant, with an edgy awareness, like some exposed animal, in peril, always seeking but never finding shelter. He watched the field, a gentle cross breeze caressing his face. Although he could not see the men still searching for clues, flashing lights sweeping in ocher waves across a shelf of fog sliding unevenly like silt low above the field said that some remained. He thought of Webster, not of the moment when his head exploded, but of the moment, the timelessness of it, between the decision to leave and the end, which had not really been an ending at all. Most would say it had been an act of desperation, which if reflected upon rationally would never have been attempted, and, after a cursory investigation, which would exonerate the guard who had fired, that was how it would mostly likely be reported, as an aborted escape, but Ramsey alone knew he had succeeded, that, like a translucent cicada husk clinging to a winter-stripped limb, Webster had left nothing behind to kill.
Ramsey had seen him on the compound but noticed nothing to distinguish him from hundreds of others, most, like Ramsey, with little hope of ever being released, and if they were, of use to no one, danglers, feeding along the edges. But Webster had not been just another jailhouse punk. He had had vision and, when he had smiled and offered himself sacrificially, had imparted to Ramsey the gift of clarity.
Without reference he had no sense of time, but it must have been close to midnight before the flashing lights surrendered the night; a razor-thin sliver of grinning moon, its edges feathered by mist, hovered as the great, silent field began repairing itself.
But the best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.
Stephen Hawking, “The Future of the Universe”
I remember now how lonely I was when I met Cross. I never let anyone know about it, because being alone back then didn’t make me quite so unhappy. Besides, I was just a kid. I thought it was my own fault.
It looked like I had friends. In 1962, I was on the swim team and got elected Assistant Patrol Leader of the Wolf Patrol in Boy Scout Troop 7. When sides got chosen for kickball at recess, I was usually the fourth or fifth pick. I wasn’t the best student in the sixth grade of John Jay Elementary School — that was Betty Garolli. But I was smart and the other kids made me feel bad about it. So I stopped raising my hand when I knew the answer and I watched my vocabulary. I remember I said albeit once in class and they teased me for weeks. Packs of girls would come up to me on the playground. “Oh Ray,” they’d call and when I turned around they’d scream, “All beat it!” and run away, choking with laughter.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be popular or anything. All I really wanted was a friend, one friend, a friend I didn’t have to hide anything from. Then came Cross, and that was the end of that.
One of the problems was that we lived so far away from everything. Back then, Westchester County wasn’t so suburban. Our house was deep in the woods in tiny Willoughby, New York, at the dead end of Cobb’s Hill Road. In the winter, we could see Long Island Sound, a silver needle on the horizon pointing toward the city. But school was a half hour drive away and the nearest kid lived in Ward’s Hollow, three miles down the road, and he was a dumb fourth-grader.
So I didn’t have any real friends. Instead, I had science fiction. Mom used to complain that I was obsessed. I watched Superman reruns every day after school. On Friday nights Dad used to let me stay up for Twilight Zone, but that fall CBS had temporarily cancelled it. It came back in January after everything happened, but was never quite the same. On Saturdays, I watched old sci-fi movies on Adventure Theater. My favorites were Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think it was because of the robots. I decided that when I grew up and it was the future, I was going to buy one, so I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.
On Monday mornings I’d get my weekly allowance — a quarter. Usually I’d get off the bus that same afternoon down in Ward’s Hollow so I could go to Village Variety. Twenty five cents bought two comics and a pack of red licorice. I especially loved DC’s Green Lantern, Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, but I’d buy almost any superhero. I read all the science fiction books in the library twice, even though Mom kept nagging me to try different things. But what I loved best of all was Galaxy magazine. Dad had a subscription and when he was done reading them he would slip them to me. Mom didn’t approve. I always used to read them up in the attic or out in the lean-to I’d lashed together in the woods. Afterwards I’d store them under my bunk in the bomb shelter. I knew that after the nuclear war, there would be no TV or radio or anything and I’d need something to keep me busy when I wasn’t fighting mutants.
I was too young in 1962 to understand about Mom’s drinking. I could see that she got bright and wobbly at night, but she was always up in the morning to make me a hot breakfast before school. And she would have graham crackers and peanut butter waiting when I came home — sometimes cinnamon toast. Dad said I shouldn’t ask Mom for rides after five because she got so tired keeping house for us. He sold Andersen windows and was away a lot, so I was pretty much stranded most of the time. But he always made a point of being home on the first Tuesday of the month, so he could take me to the Scout meeting at 7:30.
No, looking back on it, I can’t really say that I had an unhappy childhood — until I met Cross.
I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon in October. The leaves covering the ground were still crisp and their scent spiced the air. I was in the lean-to I’d built that spring, mostly to practice the square and diagonal lashings I needed for Scouts. I was reading Galaxy. I even remember the story: “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” by Cordwainer Smith. The squirrels must have been chittering for some time, but I was too engrossed by Lord Jestocost’s problems to notice. Then I heard a faint crunch, not ten feet away. I froze, listening. Crunch, crunch … then silence. It could’ve been a dog, except that dogs didn’t usually slink through the woods. I was hoping it might be a deer — I’d never seen deer in Willoughby before, although I’d heard hunters shooting. I scooted silently across the dirt floor and peered between the dead saplings.
At first I couldn’t see anything, which was odd. The woods weren’t all that thick and the leaves had long since dropped from the understory brush. I wondered if I had imagined the sounds; it wouldn’t have been the first time. Then I heard a twig snap, maybe a foot away. The wall shivered as if something had brushed against it, but there was nothing there. Nothing. I might have screamed then, except my throat started to close. I heard whatever it was skulk to the front of the lean-to. I watched in horror as an unseen weight pressed an acorn into the soft earth and then I scrambled back into the farthest corner. That’s when I noticed that, when I wasn’t looking directly at it, the air where the invisible thing should have been shimmered like a mirage. The lashings that held the frame creaked, as if it were bending over to see what it had caught, getting ready to drag me, squealing, out into the sun and ….
“Oh, fuck,” it said in a high, panicky voice and then it thrashed away into the woods.
In that moment I was transformed — and I suppose that history too was forever changed. I had somehow scared the thing off, twelve-year-old scrawny me! But more important was what it had said. Certainly I was well aware of the existence of the word fuck before then, but I had never dared use it myself, nor do I remember hearing it spoken by an adult. A spaz like the Murphy kid might say it under his breath, but he hardly counted. I’d always thought of it as language’s atomic bomb; used properly the word should make brains shrivel, eardrums explode. But when the invisible thing said fuck and then ran away, it betrayed a vulnerability that made me reckless and more than a little stupid.
“Hey, stop!” I took off in pursuit.
I didn’t have any trouble chasing it. The thing was no Davy Crockett; it was noisy and clumsy and slow. I could see a flickery outline as it lumbered along. I closed to within twenty feet and then had to hold back or I would’ve caught up to it. I had no idea what to do next. We blundered on in slower and slower motion until finally I just stopped.
“W-Wait,” I called. “W-What do you want?” I put my hands on my waist and bent over like I was trying to catch my breath, although I didn’t need to.
The thing stopped too but didn’t reply. Instead it sucked air in wheezy, ragged hooofs. It was harder to see, now that it was standing still, but I think it must have turned toward me.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“You are a child.” It spoke with an odd, chirping kind of accent. Child was Ch-eye-eld.
“I’m in the sixth grade.” I straightened, spread my hands in front of me to show that I wasn’t a threat. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer. I took a step toward it and waited. Still nothing, but at least it didn’t bolt. “I’m Ray Beaumont,” I said finally. “I live over there.” I pointed. “How come I can’t see you?”
“What is the date?” It said da-ate-eh.
For a moment I thought it meant data. Data? I puzzled over an answer. I didn’t want it thinking I was just a stupid little kid. “I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “October twentieth?”
The thing considered this, then asked a question that took my breath away. “And what is the year?”
“Oh jeez,” I said. At that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rod Serling himself had popped out from behind a tree and started addressing the unseen TV audience. Which might have included me, except this was really happening. “Do you know what you just … what it means when ….”
“What, what?” Its voice rose in alarm.
“You’re invisible and you don’t know what year it is? Everyone knows what year it is. Are you … you’re not from here.”
“Yes, yes, I am. 1962, of course. This is 1962.” It paused. “And I am not invisible.” It squeezed about eight syllables into invisible. I heard a sound like paper ripping. “This is only camel.” Or at least, that’s what I thought it said.
“No, camo.” The air in front of me crinkled and slid away from a dark face. “You have not heard of camouflage?”
“Oh sure, camo.”
I suppose the thing meant to reassure me by showing itself, but the effect was just the opposite. Yes, it had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It stripped off the camouflage to reveal a neatly-pressed gray three piece business suit, a white shirt and a red and blue striped tie. At night, on a crowded street in Manhattan, I might’ve passed it right by — Dad had taught me not to stare at the kooks in the city. But in the afternoon light, I could see all the things wrong with its disguise. The hair, for example. Not exactly a crewcut, it was more of a stubble, like Mr. Rudowski’s chin when he was growing his beard. The thing was way too thin, its skin was shiny, its fingers too long and its face — it looked like one of those Barbie dolls.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I said.
It started. “There is something wrong?”
I cocked my head to one side. “I think maybe it’s your eyes. They’re too big or something. Are you wearing makeup?”
“I am naturally male.” It — he bristled as he stepped out of the camouflage suit. “Eyes do not have gender.”
“If you say so.” I could see he was going to need help getting around, only he didn’t seem to know it. I was hoping he’d reveal himself, brief me on the mission. I even had an idea how we could contact President Kennedy or whoever he needed to meet with. Mr. Newell, the Scoutmaster, used to be a colonel in the Army — he would know some general who could call the Pentagon. “What’s your name?” I said.
He draped the suit over his arm. “Cross.”
I waited for the rest of it as he folded the suit in half. “Just Cross?” I said.
“My given name is Chitmansing.” He warbled it like he was calling birds.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Let’s just make it Mr. Cross.”
“As you wish, Mr. Beaumont.” He folded the suit again, again and again.
He continued to fold it.
“How do you do that? Can I see?”
He handed it over. The camo suit was more impossible than it had been when it was invisible. He had reduced it to a six inch square card, as thin and flexible as the queen of spades. I folded it in half myself. The two sides seemed to meld together; it would’ve fit into my wallet perfectly. I wondered if Cross knew how close I was to running off with his amazing gizmo. He’d never catch me. I could see flashes of my brilliant career as the invisible superhero. Tales to Confound presents: the origin of Camo Kid! I turned the card over and over, trying to figure out how to unfold it again. There was no seam, no latch. How could I use it if I couldn’t open it? “Neat,” I said. Reluctantly, I gave the card back to him.
Besides, real superheroes didn’t steal their powers.
I watched Cross slip the card into his vest pocket. I wasn’t scared of him. What scared me was that at any minute he might walk out of my life. I had to find a way to tell him I was on his side, whatever that was.
“So you live around here, Mr. Cross?”
“I am from the island of Mauritius.”
“It is in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Beaumont, near Madagascar.”
I knew where Madagascar was from playing Risk, so I told him that but then I couldn’t think of what else to say. Finally, I had to blurt out something — anything — to fill the silence. “It’s nice here. Real quiet, you know. Private.”
“Yes, I had not expected to meet anyone.” He, too, seemed at a loss. “I have business in New York City on the twenty-sixth of October.”
“New York, that’s a ways away.”
“Is it? How far would you say?”
“Fifty miles. Sixty, maybe. You have a car?”
“No, I do not drive, Mr. Beaumont. I am to take the train.”
The nearest train station was New Canaan, Connecticut. I could’ve hiked it in maybe half a day. It would be dark in a couple of hours. “If your business isn’t until the twenty-sixth, you’ll need a place to stay.”
“The plan is to take rooms at a hotel in Manhattan.”
“That costs money.”
He opened a wallet and showed me a wad of crisp new bills. For a minute I thought they must be counterfeit; I hadn’t realized that Ben Franklin’s picture was on money. Cross was giving me the goofiest grin. I just knew they’d eat him alive in New York and spit out the bones.
“Are you sure you want to stay in a hotel?” I said.
He frowned. “Why would I not?”
“Look, you need a friend, Mr. Cross. Things are different here than … than on your island. Sometimes people do, you know, bad stuff. Especially in the city.”
He nodded and put his wallet away. “I am aware of the dangers, Mr. Beaumont. I have trained not to draw attention to myself. I have the proper equipment.” He tapped the pocket where the camo was.
I didn’t point out to him that all his training and equipment hadn’t kept him from being caught out by a twelve-year-old. “Sure, okay. It’s just … Look, I have a place for you to stay, if you want. No one will know.”
“Your parents, Mr. Beaumont …”
“My dad’s in Massachusetts until next Friday. He travels; he’s in the window business. And my mom won’t know.”
“How can she not know that you have invited a stranger into your house?”
“Not the house,” I said. “My dad built us a bomb shelter. You’ll be safe there, Mr. Cross. It’s the safest place I know.”
I remember how Cross seemed to lose interest in me, his mission and the entire twentieth century the moment he entered the shelter. He sat around all of Sunday, dodging my attempts to draw him out. He seemed distracted, like he was listening to a conversation I couldn’t hear. When he wouldn’t talk, we played games. At first it was cards: Gin and Crazy Eights, mostly. In the afternoon, I went back to the house and brought over checkers and Monopoly. Despite the fact that he did not seem to be paying much attention, he beat me like a drum. Not one game was even close. But that wasn’t what bothered me. I believed that this man had come from the future, and here I was building hotels on Baltic Avenue!
Monday was a school day. I thought Cross would object to my plan of locking him in and taking both my key and Mom’s key with me, but he never said a word. I told him that it was the only way I could be sure that Mom didn’t catch him by surprise. Actually, I doubted she’d come all the way out to the shelter. She’d stayed away after Dad gave her that first tour; she had about as much use for nuclear war as she had for science fiction. Still, I had no idea what she did during the day while I was gone. I couldn’t take chances. Besides, it was a good way to make sure that Cross didn’t skin out on me.
Dad had built the shelter instead of taking a vacation in 1960, the year Kennedy beat Nixon. It was buried about a hundred and fifty feet from the house. Nothing special — just a little cellar without anything built on top of it. The entrance was a steel bulkhead that led down five steps to another steel door. The inside was cramped; there were a couple of cots, a sink and a toilet. Almost half of the space was filled with supplies and equipment. There were no windows and it always smelled a little musty, but I loved going down there to pretend the bombs were falling.
When I opened the shelter door after school on that Monday, Cross lay just as I had left him the night before, sprawled across the big cot, staring at nothing. I remember being a little worried; I thought he might be sick. I stood beside him and still he didn’t acknowledge my presence.
“Are you all right, Mr. Cross?” I said. “I bought Risk.” I set it next to him on the bed and nudged him with the corner of the box to wake him up. “Did you eat?”
He sat up, took the cover off the game and started reading the rules. “President Kennedy will address the nation,” he said, “this evening at seven o’clock.”
For a moment, I thought he had made a slip. “How do you know that?”
“The announcement came last night.” I realized that his pronunciation had improved a lot; announcement had only three syllables. “I have been studying the radio.”
I walked over to the radio on the shelf next to the sink. Dad said we were supposed to leave it unplugged — something about the bombs making a power surge. It was a brand new solid-state, multi-band Heath kit that I’d helped him build. When I pressed the on button, women immediately started singing about shopping: Where the values go up, up, up! And the prices go down, down, down! I turned it off again.
“Do me a favor, okay?” I said. “Next time when you’re done would you please unplug this? I could get in trouble if you don’t.” I stooped to yank the plug.
When I stood up, he was holding a sheet of paper. “I will need some things tomorrow, Mr. Beaumont. I would be grateful if you could assist me.”
I glanced at the list without comprehension. He must have typed it, only there was no typewriter in the shelter.
-One General Electric transistor radio with earplug
-One General Electric replacement earplug
-Two Eveready Heavy Duty nine volt batteries
-One New York Times, Tuesday, October 23
-Rand McNally map of New York City and vicinity
To receive in change:
-Five dollars in coins
When I looked up, I could feel the change in him. His gaze was electric; it seemed to crackle down my nerves. I could tell that what I did next would matter very much. “I don’t get it,” I said.
“There are inaccuracies?”
I tried to stall. “Look, you’ll pay almost double if we buy a transistor radio at Ward’s Hollow. I’ll have to buy it at Village Variety. Wait a couple of days — we can get one much cheaper down in Stamford.”
“My need is immediate.” He extended his hand and tucked something into the pocket of my shirt. “I am assured this will cover the expense.”
I was afraid to look, even though I knew what it was. He’d given me a hundred dollar bill. I tried to thrust it back at him but he stepped away and it spun to the floor between us. I can’t spend that.”
“You must read your own money, Mr. Beaumont.” He picked the bill up and brought it into the light of the bare bulb on the ceiling. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. A kid like me doesn’t walk into Village Variety with a hundred bucks. Mr. Rudowski will call my mom!”
“If it is inconvenient for you, I will secure the items myself.” He offered me the money again.
If I didn’t agree, he’d leave and probably never come back. I was getting mad at him. Everything would be so much easier if only he’d admit what we both knew about who he was. Then I could do whatever he wanted with a clear conscience. Instead he was keeping all the wrong secrets and acting really weird. It made me feet dirty, like I was helping a pervert. “What’s going on,” I said.
“I do not know how to respond, Mr. Beaumont. You have the list. Read it now and tell me please with which item you have a problem.”
I snatched the hundred dollars from him and jammed it into my pants pocket. “Why don’t you trust me?”
He stiffened as if I had hit him.
“I let you stay here. I didn’t tell anyone. You have to give me something, Mr. Cross.”
“Well then … ” He looked uncomfortable. “I would ask you to keep the change.”
“Oh jeez, thanks.” I snorted in disgust. “Okay, okay, I’ll buy this stuff right after school tomorrow.”
With that, he seemed to lose interest again. When we opened the Risk board, he showed me where his island was, except it wasn’t there because it was too small. We played three games and he crushed me every time. I remember at the end of the last game, watching in disbelief as he finished building a wall of invading armies along the shores of North Africa. South America, my last continent, was doomed. “Looks like you win again,” I said. I traded in the last of my cards for new armies and launched a final, useless counter-attack. When I was done, he studied the board for a moment.
“I think Risk is not a proper simulation, Mr. Beaumont. We should both lose for fighting such a war.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Both sides can’t lose.”
“Yet they can,” he said. “It sometimes happens that the victors envy the dead.”
That night was the first time I can remember being bothered by Mom talking back to the TV. I used to talk to the TV too. When Buffalo Bob asked what time it was, I would screech It’s Howdy Doody Time just like every other kid in America.
“My fellow citizens,” said President Kennedy, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out.” I thought the president looked tired, like Mr. Newell on the third day of a campout. “No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”
“Oh my god,” Mom screamed at him. “You’re going to kill us all!”
Despite the fact that it was close to her bedtime and she was shouting at the President of the United States, Mom looked great. She was wearing a shiny black dress and a string of pearls. She always got dressed up at night, whether Dad was home or not. I suppose most kids don’t notice how their mothers look, but everyone always said how beautiful Mom was. And since Dad thought so too, I went along with it — as long as she didn’t open her mouth. The problem was that a lot of the time, Mom didn’t make any sense. When she embarrassed me, it didn’t matter how pretty she was. I just wanted to crawl behind the couch.
As she leaned toward the television, the martini in her glass came close to slopping over the edge.
President Kennedy stayed calm. “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are — but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high — but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”
“Shut up! You foolish man, stop this.” She shot out of her chair and then some of her drink did spill. “Oh, damn!”
“Take it easy, Mom.”
“Don’t you understand?” She put the glass down and tore a Kleenex from the box on the end table. “He wants to start World War III!” She dabbed at the front of her dress and the phone rang.
I said, “Mom, nobody wants World War III.”
She ignored me, brushed by and picked up the phone on the third ring.
“Oh thank God,” she said. I could tell from the sound of her voice that it was Dad. “You heard him then?” She bit her lip as she listened to him. “Yes, but….”
Watching her face made me sorry I was in the sixth grade. Better to be a stupid little kid again, who thought grownups knew everything. I wondered whether Cross had heard the speech.
“No, I can’t, Dave. No.” She covered the phone with her hand. “Raymie, turn off that TV!”
I hated it when she called me Raymie, so I only turned the sound down.
“You have to come home now, Dave. No, you listen to me. Can’t you see, the man’s obsessed? Just because he has a grudge against Castro doesn’t mean he’s allowed to … .”
With the sound off, Chet Huntley looked as if he were speaking at his own funeral.
“I am not going in there without you.”
I think Dad must have been shouting because Mom held the receiver away from her ear.
She waited for him to calm down and said, “And neither is Raymie. He’ll stay with me.”
“Let me talk to him,” I said. I bounced off the couch. The look she gave me stopped me dead.
“What for?” she said to Dad. “No, we are going to finish this conversation, David, do you hear me?”
She listened for a moment. “Okay, all right, but don’t you dare hang up.” She waved me over and slapped the phone into my hand as if I had put the missiles in Cuba. She stalked to the kitchen.
I needed a grownup so bad that I almost cried when I heard Dad’s voice. “Ray,” he said, “your mother is pretty upset.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I want to come home — I will come home — but I can’t just yet. If I just up and leave and this blows over, I’ll get fired.”
“But, Dad ….”
“You’re in charge until I get there. Understand, son? If the time comes, everything is up to you.”
“Yes, sir,” I whispered. I’d heard what he didn’t say — it wasn’t up to her.
“I want you to go out to the shelter tonight. Wait until she goes to sleep. Top off the water drums. Get all the gas out of the garage and store it next to the generator. But here’s the most important thing. You know the sacks of rice? Drag them off to one side, the pallet too. There’s a hatch underneath, the key to the airlock door unlocks it. You’ve got two new guns and plenty of ammunition. The revolver is a .357 Magnum. You be careful with that, Ray, it can blow a hole in a car but it’s hard to aim. The double-barreled shotgun is easy to aim but you have to be close to do any harm. And I want you to bring down the Gamemaster from my closet and the .38 from my dresser drawer.” He had been talking as if there would be no tomorrow; he paused then to catch his breath. “Now, this is all just in case, okay? I just want you to know.”
I had never been so scared in my life.
I should have told him about Cross then, but Mom weaved into the room. “Got it, Dad,” I said. “Here she is.”
Mom smiled at me. It was a lopsided smile that was trying to be brave but wasn’t doing a very good job of it. She had a new glass and it was full. She held out her hand for the phone and I gave it to her.
I remember waiting until almost ten o’clock that night, reading under the covers with a flashlight. The Fantastic Four invaded Latveria to defeat Doctor Doom; Superman tricked Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards once again. When I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom, I could hear Mom snoring. It spooked me; I hadn’t realized that women did that. I thought about sneaking in to get the guns, but decided to take care of them tomorrow.
I stole out to the shelter, turned my key in the lock and pulled on the bulkhead door. It didn’t move. That didn’t make any sense, so I gave it a hard yank. The steel door rattled terribly but did not swing away. The air had turned frosty and the sound carried in the cold. I held my breath, listening to my blood pound. The house stayed dark, the shelter quiet as stones. After a few moments, I tried one last time before I admitted to myself what had happened.
Cross had bolted the door shut from the inside.
I went back to my room, but couldn’t sleep. I kept going to the window to watch the sky over New York, waiting for a flash of killing light. I was all but convinced that the city would burn that very night in thermonuclear fire and that mom and I would die horrible deaths soon after, pounding on the unyielding steel doors of our shelter. Dad had left me in charge and I had let him down.
I didn’t understand why Cross had locked us out. If he knew that a nuclear war was about to start, he might want our shelter all to himself. But that made him a monster and I still didn’t see him as a monster. I tried to tell myself that he’d been asleep and couldn’t hear me at the door — but that couldn’t be right. What if he’d come to prevent the war? He’d said he had business in the city on Thursday; he could be doing something really, really futuristic in there that he couldn’t let me see. Or else he was having problems. Maybe our twentieth century germs had got to him, like they killed H. G. Wells’s Martians.
I must have teased a hundred different ideas apart that night, in between uneasy trips to the window and glimpses at the clock. The last time I remember seeing was 4:16. I tried to stay up to face the end, but I couldn’t.
I wasn’t dead when I woke up the next morning, so I had to go to school. Mom had Cream of Wheat all ready when I dragged myself to the table. Although she was all bright and bubbly, I could feel her giving me the mother’s eye when I wasn’t looking. She always knew when something was wrong. I tried not to show her anything. There was no time to sneak out to the shelter; I barely had time to finish eating before she bundled me off to the bus.
Right after the morning bell, Miss Toohey told us to open The Story of New York State to Chapter Seven, Resources and Products and read to ourselves. Then she left the room. We looked at each other in amazement. I heard Bobby Coniff whisper something. It was probably dirty; a few kids snickered. Chapter Seven started with a map of product symbols. Two teeny little cows grazed near Binghamton. Rochester was cog and a pair of glasses. Elmira was an adding machine, Oswego an apple. There was a lightning bolt over Niagara Falls. Dad had promised to take us there someday. I had the sick feeling that we’d never get the chance. Miss Toohey looked pale when she came back, but that didn’t stop her from giving us a spelling test. I got a ninety-five. The word I spelled wrong was enigma. The hot lunch was American Chop Suey, a roll, a salad and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. In the afternoon we did decimals.
Nobody said anything about the end of the world.
I decided to get off the bus in Ward’s Hollow, buy the stuff Cross wanted and pretend I didn’t know he had locked the shelter door last night. If he said something about it, I’d act surprised. If he didn’t … I didn’t know what I’d do then.
Village Variety was next to Warren’s Esso and across the street from the Post Office. It had once been two different stores located in the same building, but then Mr. Rudowski had bought the building and knocked down the dividing wall. On the fun side were pens and pencil and paper and greeting cards and magazines and comics and paperbacks and candy. The other side was all boring hardware and small appliances.
Mr. Rudowski was on the phone when I came in, but then he was always on the phone when he worked. He could sell you a hammer or a pack of baseball cards, tell you a joke, ask about your family, complain about the weather and still keep the guy on the other end of the line happy. This time though, when he saw me come in, he turned away, wrapping the phone cord across his shoulder.
I went through the store quickly and found everything Cross had wanted. I had to blow dust off the transistor radio box but the batteries looked fresh. There was only one New York Times left; the headlines were so big they were scary.
US IMPOSES ARMS BLOCKADE ON CUBA
ON FINDING OF OFFENSIVE MISSILE SITES;
KENNEDY READY FOR SOVIET SHOWDOWN
Ships Must Stop President Grave Prepared To Risk War.
I set my purchases on the counter in front of Mr. Rudowski. He cocked his head to one side, trapping the telephone receiver against his shoulder, and rang me up. The paper was on the bottom of the pile.
“Since when do you read the Times, Ray?” Mr. Rudowski punched it into the cash register and hit total. “I just got the new Fantastic Four.” The cash drawer popped open.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said.
“All right then. It comes to twelve dollars and forty-seven cents.”
I gave him the hundred dollar bill.
“What is this, Ray?” He stared at it and then at me.
I had my story all ready. “It was a birthday gift from my grandma in Detroit. She said I could spend it on whatever I wanted so I decided to treat myself but I’m going to put the rest in the bank.”
“You’re buying a radio? From me?”
“Well, you know. I thought maybe I should have one with me with all this stuff going on.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. He just pulled a paper bag from under the counter and put my things into it. His shoulders were hunched; I thought maybe he felt guilty about overcharging for the radio. “You should be listening to music, Ray,” he said quietly. “You like Elvis? All kids like Elvis. Or maybe that colored, the one who does the Twist?”
“They’re all right, I guess.”
“You’re too young to be worrying about the news. You hear me? Those politicians ….” He shook his head. “It’s going to be okay, Ray. You heard it from me.”
“Sure, Mr. Rudowski. I was wondering, could I get five dollars in change?”
I could feel him watching me as I stuffed it all into my book bag. I was certain he’d call my mom, but he never did. Home was three miles up Cobb’s Hill. I did it in forty minutes, a record.
I remember I started running when I saw the flashing lights. The police car had left skid marks in the gravel on our driveway.
“Where were you?” Mom burst out of the house as I came across the lawn. “Oh, my God, Raymie, I was worried sick.” She caught me up in her arms.
“I got off the bus in Ward’s Hollow.” She was about to smother me; I squirmed free. “What happened?”
“This the boy, ma’am?” The state trooper had taken his time catching up to her. He had almost the same hat as Scoutmaster Newell.
“Yes, yes! Oh, thank God, officer!”
The trooper patted me on the head like I was a lost dog. “You had your mom worried, Ray.”
“Raymie, you should’ve told me.”
“Somebody tell me what happened!” I said.
A second trooper came from behind the house. We watched him approach. “No sign of any intruder.” He looked bored: I wanted to scream.
“Intruder?” I said.
“He broke into the shelter,” said Mom. “He knew my name.”
“There was no sign of forcible entry,” said the second trooper. I saw him exchange a glance with his partner. “Nothing disturbed that I could see.”
“He didn’t have time,” Mom said. “When I found him in the shelter, I ran back to the house and got your father’s gun from the bedroom.”
The thought of Mom with the .38 scared me. I had my Shooting merit badge, but she didn’t know a hammer from a trigger. “You didn’t shoot him?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He had plenty of time to leave but he was still there when I came back. That’s when he said my name.”
I had never been so mad at her before. “You never go out to the shelter.”
She had that puzzled look she always gets at night. “I couldn’t find my key. I had to use the one your father leaves over the breezeway door.”
“What did he say again, ma’am? The intruder.”
“He said, ‘Mrs. Beaumont, I present no danger to you.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And then he came toward me and I thought he said ‘Margaret,’ and I started firing.
“You did shoot him!”
Both troopers must have heard the panic in my voice. The first one said, “You know something about this man, Ray?”
“No, I-I was at school all day and then I stopped at Rudowski’s ….” I could feel my eyes burning. I was so embarrassed; I knew I was about to cry in front of them.
Mom acted annoyed that the troopers had stopped paying attention to her. “I shot at him. Three, four times, I don’t know. I must have missed, because he just stood there staring at me. It seemed like forever. Then he walked past me and up the stairs like nothing had happened.”
“And he didn’t say anything?”
“Not a word.”
“Well, it beats me,” said the second trooper. “The gun’s been fired four times but there are no bullet holes in the shelter and no bloodstains.”
“You mind if I ask you a personal question, Mrs. Beaumont?” the first trooper said.
She colored. “I suppose not.”
“Have you been drinking, ma’am?”
“Oh that!” She seemed relieved. “No. Well, I mean, after I called you, I did pour myself a little something. Just to steady my nerves. I was worried because my son was so late and … Raymie, what’s the matter?”
I felt so small. The tears were pouring down my face.
After the troopers left, I remember Mom baking brownies while I watched Superman. I wanted to go out and hunt for Cross, but it was already sunset and there was no excuse I could come up with for wandering around in the dark. Besides, what was the point? He was gone, driven off by my mother. I’d had a chance to help a man from the future change history, maybe prevent World War III, and I had blown it. My life was ashes.
I wasn’t hungry that night, for brownies or spaghetti or anything, but Mom made that clucking noise when I pushed supper around the plate, so I ate a few bites just to shut her up. I was surprised at how easy it was to hate her, how good it felt. Of course, she was oblivious, but in the morning she would notice if I wasn’t careful. After dinner she watched the news and I went upstairs to read. I wrapped a pillow around my head when she yelled at David Brinkley. I turned out the lights at 8:30, but I couldn’t get to sleep. She went to her room a little after that.
I must have dozed off, but when I heard his voice I snapped awake immediately.
“Is that you, Mr. Cross?” I peered into the darkness. “I bought the stuff you wanted.” The room filled with an awful stink, like when Mom drove with the parking brake on.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said, “I am damaged.”
I slipped out of bed, picked my way across the dark room, locked the door and turned on the light.
He slumped against my desk like a nightmare. I remember thinking then that Cross wasn’t human, that maybe he wasn’t even alive. His proportions were wrong: an ear, a shoulder and both feet sagged like they had melted. Little wisps of steam or something curled off him; they were what smelled. His skin had gone all shiny and hard; so had his business suit. I’d wondered why he never took the suit coat off and now I knew. His clothes were part of him. The middle fingers of his right hand beat spasmodically against his palm.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said. “I calculate your chances at 1016 to 1.”
“Chances of what?” I said. “What happened to you?”
“You must listen most attentively, Mr. Beaumont. My decline is very bad for history. It is for you now to alter the time line probabilities.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your government greatly overestimates the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. If you originate a first strike, the United States will achieve overwhelming victory.”
“Does the President know this? We have to tell him!”
“John Kennedy will not welcome such information. If he starts this war, he will be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, both Russians and Americans. But he does not grasp the future of the arms race. The war must happen now, because those who come after will build and build until they control arsenals which can destroy the world many times over. People are not capable of thinking for very long of such fearsome weapons. They tire of the idea of extinction and then become numb to it. The buildup slows but does not stop and they congratulate themselves on having survived it. But there are still too many weapons and they never go away. The Third War comes as a surprise. The First War was called the one to end all wars. The Third War is the only such war possible, Mr. Beaumont, because it ends everything. History stops in 2009. Do you understand? A year later, there is no life. All dead, the world a hot, barren rock.”
“But you …?”
“I am nothing, a construct. Mr. Beaumont, please, the chances are 1016 to 1,” he said. “Do you know how improbable that is?” His laugh sounded like a hiccup. “But for the sake of those few precious time lines, we must continue. There is a man, a politician in New York. If he dies on Thursday night, it will create the incident that forces Kennedy’s hand.”
“Dies?” For days, I had been desperate for him to talk. Now all I wanted was to run away. “You’re going to kill somebody?”
“The world will survive a Third War that starts on Friday, October 22, 1962.”
“What about me? My parents? Do we survive?”
“I cannot access that time line. I have no certain answer for you. Please, Mr. Beaumont, this politician will die of a heart attack in less than three years. He has made no great contribution to history, yet his assassination can save the world.”
“What do you want from me?” But I had already guessed.
“He will speak most eloquently at the United Nations on Friday evening. Afterward he will have dinner with his friend, Ruth Fields. Around ten o’clock he will return to his residence at the Waldorf Towers. Not the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but the Towers. He will take the elevator to Suite 42A. He is the American ambassador to the United Nations. His name is Adlai Stevenson.”
“Stop it! Don’t say anything else.”
When he sighed, his breath was a cloud of acrid steam. “I have based my calculation of the time line probabilities on two data points, Mr. Beaumont, which I discovered in your bomb shelter. The first is the .357 Magnum revolver, located under a pallet of rice bags. I trust you know of this weapon?”
“Yes.” I whispered.
“The second is the collection of magazines, located under your cot. It would seem that you take an interest in what is to come, Mr. Beaumont, and that may lend you the terrible courage you will need to divert this time line from disaster. You should know that there is not just one future. There are an infinite number of futures in which all possibilities are expressed, an infinite number of Raymond Beaumonts”
“Mr. Cross, I can’t ….”
“Perhaps not,” he said, “but I believe that another one of you can.”
“You don’t understand … .” I watched in horror as a boil swelled on the side of his face and popped, expelling an evil jet of yellow steam. “What?”
“Oh fuck.” That was the last thing he said.
He slid to the floor — or maybe he was just a body at that point. More boils formed and burst. I opened all the windows in my room and got the fan down out of the closet and still I can’t believe that the stink didn’t wake Mom up. Over the course of the next few hours, he sort of vaporized.
When it was over, there was a sticky, dark spot on the floor the size of my pillow. I moved the throw rug from one side of the room to the other to cover it up. I had nothing to prove that Cross existed but a transistor radio, a couple of batteries, an earplug and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents in change.
I might have done things differently if I hadn’t had a day to think. I can’t remember going to school on Wednesday, who I talked to, what I ate. I was feverishly trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I had no place to go for answers, not Miss Toohey, not my parents, not the Bible or the Boy Scout Handbook, certainly not Galaxy magazine. Whatever I did had to come out of me. I watched the news with Mom that night. President Kennedy had brought our military to the highest possible state of alert. There were reports that some Russian ships had turned away from Cuba; others continued on course. Dad called and said his trip was being cut short and that he would be home the next day.
But that was too late.
I hid behind the stone wall when the school bus came on Thursday morning. Mrs. Johnson honked a couple of times, and then drove on. I set out for New Canaan, carrying my bookbag. In it were the radio, the batteries, the coins, the map of New York and the .357. I had the rest of Cross’s money in my wallet.
It took more than five hours to hike to the train station. I expected to be scared, but the whole time I felt light as air. I kept thinking of what Cross had said about the future, that I was just one of millions and millions of Raymond Beaumonts. Most of them were in school, diagramming sentences and watching Miss Toohey bite her nails. I was the special one, walking into history. I was super. I caught the 2:38 train, changed in Stamford, and arrived at Grand Central just after four. I had six hours. I bought myself a hot pretzel and a coke and tried to decide where I should go. I couldn’t just sit around the hotel lobby for all that time; I thought that would draw too much attention. I decided to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I took my time walking down Park Avenue and tried not to see all the ghosts I was about to make. In the lobby of the Empire State Building, I used Cross’s change to call home.
“Hello?” I hadn’t expected Dad to answer. I would’ve hung up except that I knew I might never speak to him again.
“Dad, this is Ray. I’m safe, don’t worry.”
“Ray, where are you?”
“I can’t talk. I’m safe but I won’t be home tonight. Don’t worry.”
“Ray!” He was frantic. “What’s going on?”
I hung up; I had to. “I love you,” I said to the dial tone.
I could imagine the expression on Dad’s face, how he would tell Mom what I’d said. Eventually they would argue about it. He would shout; she would cry. As I rode the elevator up, I got mad at them. He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. They should’ve protected me from Cross and the future he came from. I was in the sixth grade, I shouldn’t have to have feelings like this. The observation platform was almost deserted. I walked completely around it, staring at the city stretching away from me in every direction. It was dusk; the buildings were shadows in the failing light. I didn’t feel like Ray Beaumont anymore; he was my secret identity. Now I was the superhero Bomb Boy; I had the power of bringing nuclear war. Wherever I cast my terrible gaze, cars melted and people burst into flame.
And I loved it.
It was dark when I came down from the Empire State Building. I had a sausage pizza and a coke on 47th Street. While I ate, I stuck the plug into my ear and listened to the radio. I searched for the news. One announcer said the debate was still going on in the Security Council. Our ambassador was questioning Ambassador Zorin. I stayed with that station for a while, hoping to hear his voice. I knew what he looked like, of course. I knew Adlai Stevenson had run for President a couple of times when I was just a baby. But I couldn’t remember what he sounded like. He might talk to me, ask me what I was doing in his hotel; I wanted to be ready for that.
I arrived at the Waldorf Towers around nine o’clock. I picked a plush velvet chair that had a direct view of the elevator bank and sat there for about ten minutes. Nobody seemed to care but it was hard to sit still. Finally I got up and went to the men’s room. I took my bookbag into a stall, closed the door and got the .357 out. I aimed it at the toilet. The gun was heavy and I could tell it would have a big kick. I probably ought to hold it with both hands. I put it back into my bookbag and flushed.
When I came out of the bathroom, I had stopped believing that I was going to shoot anyone, that I could. But I had to find out for Cross’s sake. If I was really meant to save the world, then I had to be in the right place at the right time. I went back to my chair, checked my watch. It was nine-twenty.
I started thinking of the one who would pull the trigger, the unlikely Ray. What would make the difference? Had he read some story in Galaxy that I had skipped? Was it a problem with Mom? Or Dad? Maybe he had spelled enigma right; maybe Cross had lived another thirty seconds in his time line. Or maybe he was just the best that I could possibly be.
I was so tired of it all. I must have walked thirty miles since morning and I hadn’t slept well in days. The lobby was warm. People laughed and murmured. Elevator doors dinged softly. I tried to stay up to face history, but I couldn’t. I was Raymond Beaumont, but I was just a twelve-year-old kid.
I remember the doorman waking me up at eleven o’clock. Dad drove all the way into the city that night to get me. When we got home, Mom was already in the shelter.
Only the Third War didn’t start that night. Or the next.
I lost television privileges for a month.
For most people my age, the most traumatic memory of growing up came on November 22, 1963. But the date I remember is July 14, 1965, when Adlai Stevenson dropped dead of a heart attack in London.
I’ve tried to do what I can, to make up for what I didn’t do that night. I’ve worked for the cause wherever I could find it. I belong to CND and SANE and the Friends of the Earth and was active in the nuclear freeze movement. I think the Green Party is the only political organization worth your vote. I don’t know if any of it will change Cross’s awful probabilities; maybe we’ll survive in a few more time lines.
When I was a kid, I didn’t mind being lonely. Now it’s hard, knowing what I know. Oh, I have lots of friends, all of them wonderful people, but people who know me say that there’s a part of myself that I always keep hidden. They’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell anyone about what happened with Cross, what I didn’t do that night. It wouldn’t be fair to them.
Besides, whatever happens, chances are very good that it’s my fault.
His father was now his mother but he was still an epic asshole.
“He won’t even let me get a tattoo,” Josh said. “He gets his whole dick cut off and he won’t even let me get a tattoo.”
Josh hated being forced to sit here at family therapy every week, the therapist and his parents waiting for him to miraculously be okay with the fact that his asshole father was now his asshole second mother or something. What a freak show.
“Call me Goat Boy,” Josh said. “From this day forth, my name is Goat Boy. If he can change from a man to a woman, from Joe to Heidi, then I can do the same. I am officially changing my name to Goat Boy and my gender to half goat, half boy.”
“I’m not paying good money for you to mutilate your body with tattoos like all the other losers,” Heidi said.
“But you can mutilate your body and we’re supposed to be all happy for you,” Josh said.
“We’re not here to talk about tattoos, Josh.” “Goat Boy.”
“There’s no such thing. But there is such a thing as a woman born into a man’s body. We’ve been through this. You’re fourteen, not some baby,” said Heidi. She patted and stroked her long hair as she talked.
He looks stupid patting his hair like that. He stinks at this. Josh pictured Ashlee in his Spanish class, the sexy way she tugged on her ponytail when she smiled at him. Now that was how a real girl handled her hair. He felt an immediate erection rise up and gathered his coat over his lap to cover it.
“Maa-maa. Maa-maa. Goat Boy is bleating,” Josh said.
“Knock it off, Josh,” said his mother, Sue Ann. “It’s not easy for me either but you don’t see me bleating.”
“Maa-maa, I was born into a goat body and you’ll just have to accept me as I am,” Josh said. “If I have to accept him as a she-male, he has to accept me as a goat boy. Maa-maa.”
“She-male is not an acceptable way to describe Heidi, Josh,” the therapist said.
“Josh is not an acceptable way to address Goat Boy,” Josh said. “Heidi is still the same person,” the therapist said. “I’d like you to try something, Josh. Just for a minute. Turn your whole body toward Heidi and look her right in the eyes.”
Josh turned his whole body to face his father. He looked him right in the eyes and held his gaze for a full minute, forcing himself to wait before he spoke.
He felt sick at what he saw. He wasn’t used to it at all, even though his father had started dressing like a woman months before his surgeries. It was still disgusting and wrong and ugly. His father had been a regular looking man, kind of nerdy, with square glasses and a normal dad haircut. He had been a skinny guy, clean-shaven always. He said he couldn’t stand the scruffy look that so many movie stars and singers had. They look dirty with that stubble on their faces, he had said. Look at that bum, why would it be a fashion to look like a dirty bum.
Now Josh saw the strangest man when he looked at his father. Puffy face. Long straight blonde hair. Red lipstick! Eyes ringed with brown eyeliner, fluttering long eyelashes. Contact lenses instead of glasses. He didn’t know how to dress like a woman. Nothing fit him right. His blouse was all bunchy and his skirt started way high above his waist and hung below his knees, like it belonged on an old nun. To Josh, he looked like he was in a cheap Halloween costume or like he was one of those gross female impersonator guys in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade strutting down the street with big red lips and a ruffled umbrella. He was a fake woman with fake breasts and a fake vagina and nothing would change that.
There was a family story about the first time Josh saw his dad’s penis, but Josh was too young to actually remember. He had heard his mom tell the story to girlfriends cackling around the kitchen table and to tipsy aunts at family parties. His dad had been trying to teach Josh to pee in the toilet while standing up. Toddler Josh looked at his dad’s penis, pointed to it, and said one of the few words he knew, “big.” Josh wished he didn’t have a picture of that story in his mind. He would give anything to be able to take a penknife to his brain and cut it away.
Josh saw an eager look on his dad’s face, like he was waiting to hear a compliment. Like he actually thought Josh would be one molecule of okay with this. Fuck that shit.
“Hey Dad, how are you doing in there? You can come out now. Admit it was all a crazy mistake. Take off the makeup and stockings, chop off that hair, stop taking hormones because that’s a losing battle. Hate to break it to you, Dad, but you still look like a dude. Your big feet and hands—dead giveaway. What are you going to do—chop them off too? I don’t think so. Period, end of story,” Josh said.
His dad looked away, his face reddening. Josh felt his heart thumping like a drummer was flailing wildly around on his rib cage. He wanted to ask his mother if she was going to stay married to this asshole. Did she even want to be married to a woman? She didn’t sign up for this. Poor Mom.
“Can we wrap this up?” Sue Ann said. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take for one day.”
“We have ten more minutes on the clock,” Heidi said.
“Un. Fucking. Believable. He wants to get his money’s worth,” Josh said.
“Why do you let him dominate these sessions?” Heidi said to the therapist. “It’s outrageous. Everything is not about him.”
“I said I’m done, Joe,” Sue Ann said. “I mean Heidi.” It was the same voice she used to order Josh and the farm animals around. No nonsense.
Josh loved when his mom cracked. When she called him Joe. When she said “my husband.” It meant he wasn’t the only one who looked at Heidi and still saw Joe in there.
“I have my own money,” Josh said. “I’m getting a tattoo with my own money.”
In the front seat of the truck, his parents exchanged a look. It was too fast. He couldn’t tell what was going on up there.
“It’s not about the money,” Sue Ann said. “We don’t want you to do something you’ll be sorry about later in life.”
“Like you never did that.”
“Yeah, we did stupid shit, Josh,” Sue Ann said. “So we feel like that’s our job, to save you from doing stupid shit, all right? Enough. Get off it.”
Josh felt a rage so huge he wanted to pound his fists against the truck windows and break out of there like Superman, roar out into the corn fields and knock down everything in his path—barns, cows, fences, tractors—smash it all down.
“I hate you,” he cried. “You suck. I don’t know why I was even born. Do you know what kind of shit I have to endure every day of my life, having a she-male for a father? Do you know what happens to me at school every day? Anyone else would have blown their brains out by now. And all I ask is one thing. I want a fucking tattoo on my arm. And I am getting one, no matter what you say or do. If I have to go to an illegal place where they don’t ask for the stinking permission form because I’m underage, I will. And if I die from an infection because you made me go to a butcher tattoo shop, that’s fine. I’ll be better off dead anyway.”
His parents looked at each other again. They did that thing married people do, talk with their eyes. Josh hated when they did that. It wasn’t fair to send thoughts to each other instead of having to say them out loud so he could hear.
Finally Sue Ann said, “We said get off it, Josh.” But her voice wavered and Josh knew that meant his parents were weakening.
“All you care about is yourselves. You don’t even care what I go through. I have a right to my own life. I have a right to get a tattoo. It’s my body. Luke got a tattoo when he was eleven. Stevie got his first one when he was twelve and now he has like ten of them all over him. All my friends have tattoos. I’m the only one without one.” He wasn’t going to bring up Ashlee, who had a purple rose tattoo on her lower back and a pierced belly button.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Heidi said finally. She still drove like a guy, one arm draped over the top of the steering wheel.
“There is no later,” Josh said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sue Ann said.
“I’m doing it this weekend. Or else.”
“You don’t speak to us like that,” Sue Ann said. “You don’t tell us what to do and when.” But she didn’t sound like herself. She sounded like a new mom, who was not quite sure of what she was supposed to say. His normal mom was a bellower. When she yelled at you, you moved. She got lots of practice yelling at the cows, who were good at getting out of the pasture and milling around in the middle of the road. When she yelled at the pigs, they jerked around and followed her.
“I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do. This weekend.”
Everything Josh had said about school was a lie. His friends were great. They said the right thing when they heard about his dad. They said they were sorry. It was like a dad dying, wasn’t it? Like what you say to a guy whose dad dies. Sorry for your loss.
Just one guy gave him a hard time. Bernardo wanted to be a film-maker and he would not shut up about making a documentary about Joe/Heidi. Every time Josh saw Bernardo coming, he ran. He was sick of hearing how important the film project was, how it would go viral, how Josh would be famous for having a tranny dad. He hated the stupid questions Bernardo kept asking. What exactly did they do with his dick after they cut it off? Does he keep it in a jar like my uncle’s kidney stones? Is he a lesbian now, because he’s still married to your mom? Bernardo said, Don’t you see, it’s like a story of America, here in lower Delaware, all these farms and shit, and there’s your dad, walking in a corn field with her long blond hair blowing in the wind, no city around him to protect him, nobody else like him.
His friends said they would lean on Bernardo to shut him up, if Josh wanted. But Josh said no. He was trying to keep a low profile. If he got in trouble at school, those fucking family therapy sessions might go on forever.
The tattoo guy was a girl. Josh didn’t expect that. She was covered with tattoos herself, her arms and legs a sea of colors and pictures. She looked like a cartoon that you wanted to read, with a story line that led you up one arm and down her back, down her leg and up her other arm.
She barely glanced at his forged permission form and didn’t even ask him for i.d. Josh could not believe his good luck. He actually thought they would throw him right out the front door and tell him to come back in a few years.
She didn’t look directly at him, but gestured for him to sit down in her chair and stood over him silently.
“I want a real big one,” he said. He pulled out a picture of a huge bull with red angry eyes and black flared nostrils. It was an intricate beautiful design, with curly plumes of smoke coming out of the bull’s nose and his legs kicking up in the air. “On my right arm. Like I want his tail to end up in my armpit and the rest of him all over my whole arm. And when I move my arm, can it look like the bull is pawing on the ground?”
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “I knew it. I knew someone would ask for something really, really hard on my first day. I might as well quit right now. I’m sorry, man.” Her face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask for something hard,” Josh said.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Everything I touch turns to total crap. I try so hard,” she cried.
Josh felt totally helpless. He didn’t know what to do or say to make her stop. He stood up.
“It’s okay. I don’t even need it. I can go,” Josh said.
“No. No. No,” she said. “I have to do this. I can’t keep fucking up my whole entire useless life.”
“Are you sure? I’m cool with not doing it. I swear,” Josh said. “Fake it till you make it. Fake it till you make it,” she chanted under her breath. Her hands shook as she groped for her tattoo gun. Josh turned around, reached out, and touched her hand with one finger. He was trying to settle her down, the way he laid his hands softly on the farm animals when they were scared. When it was time to inseminate the heifers, he was the one who stroked their backs to keep them calm and held the tail up in the air while his mom reached deep inside them to thread the insemination rod into the uterus and pump the bull semen in. He had the magic touch, his mom said.
The tattoo girl still didn’t look him in the eyes but she opened her palm and took his hand, breathing heavily like she was trying to catch her breath. She held on tight, like she was bobbing in choppy water and he was her lifeline.
He was so happy holding her hand. He had forgotten what happy felt like. It was like he just ate a warm, oozy brownie where the taste stayed in his mouth and filled him up everywhere. It was like waking up after a wonderful dream where a girl put her mouth right on his penis and her soft long hair fell all over his naked body. Wow.
The tattoo girl whispered, “You’re a good guy, you know that? Thanks for being so super nice to me.”
“It’s nothing. Everyone should always be nice to you all the time. Don’t even worry about it. You won’t be nervous forever. It’s only your first day,” Josh said.
“Come here, you,” she said, pulling him close. She hugged him so fiercely and for so long that he almost fainted with pleasure. She smelled so incredibly good. “Let’s try again. I think I’m ready now.” Josh smiled and sat down in her tattoo chair. He took off his shirt, hoping he didn’t smell of cows or sweat. She studied his picture, made a stencil of the bull, then wiped his arm and armpit with rubbing alcohol. The gentle way she swabbed him down and the feel of her hands on him were so wonderful that he had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
When the first stab of the needle in the tattoo gun landed under his armpit, Josh cried out in shock. It felt like the needle reached all the way to his bone, like she was stabbing him with a jagged knife, ripping him open. Was this normal? Or was he a baby who couldn’t stand a little pain?
She continued, panting a little and murmuring under her breath, like she was remembering the steps and repeating them to herself. She stabbed so hard and so fast, Josh couldn’t even find words to stop her. The pain paralyzed him. Finally his nose started gushing blood and he vomited and fainted almost at the exact same time. As he slid from the chair to the floor, he saw the air turn a gorgeous shimmering green all around him. Isn’t that amazing, there’s all this green hidden under the air, was his last thought before blacking out.
Someday he would tell his wife about the first woman who got under his skin. He would describe it all—the bull, the green cloud that enveloped him, the ink that remained under his armpit in a trail that went nowhere. How that was the moment he knew his childhood was over. He would tell his wife he was born into his manhood covered with blood and vomit and paralyzed by pain. Try having a baby claw its way out of you and then we’ll talk, she would say, laughing.
When Josh woke up in the emergency room and saw two faces looming over him, his first thought was, Who’s that lady with my mom? Then he saw Heidi reach her long, hairy arm with her big man’s hands around his mom’s shoulder and he knew. He closed his eyes again, but he could feel her there, waiting.
*This story was published in: Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson, Autumn House Press, 2016.
*Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Anderson.
*Image: Alon Braier
I met Adam at the bookstore. He was in the section marked Biography/History and he was looking, extensively, at a book about some historical event no one’s ever heard of. The only way I knew it was an historical event was because the cover was in black and white and had a photo on it of a tank. But it wasn’t a World War II book; WWII has its own section, way over on the other side of the store.
I myself was aiming for the art books, because my friend Terrie had just had a life-changing experience from looking at a photograph of a clown. She’d spent her childhood terrified of clowns but when she saw this photo, on a friend’s coffee table, she experienced a 180 degree shift – one of those rare moments when the other side becomes clear as anything, and we can no longer understand why it was so hard to get before.
“Clowns are desperate,” she’d told me, with wonder in her voice. “That’s why they’re so scary.”
It hadn’t occurred to me either, and I wanted to see if she was right. I too had had the experience of a childhood clown doll that one day had transformed from delightful toy-friend into the diabolical engineer of my nightmares. It had to be sold at the neighbor’s garage sale, because I refused to sell it at my own. Someone bought it for seventy-five cents – some kid too young to feel the fear yet – and I threw the cursed coins into the outdoor trash, observing as the other neighborhood kids spotted and retrieved them. Let them spend it, I thought, from the safety of my bedroom. It will only bring them grief.
They used the quarters to buy ice cream.
Story of my life.
I found the art book Terrie had been talking about, and flipped towards the photo of the clown, which, according to the table of contents, was on page 32. As I skipped through those shiny pages, pages that smelled like a hair salon, Adam turned and held up the war book. “Do you know this photo?” he asked me, tapping the cover.
“Oh,” I said. “Is that World War I?”
He shook his head, and his hair was very light brown, almost colorless, and as it shifted, it caught no light.
“Korean war,” he said. “A photo from then.”
He shelved the book. “They told me it was a good read but I just read a page and it was so dull,” and then he stepped closer. Aside from that colorless hair, he had a wide open face, sort of big-featured, with a big nose and big eyes and teeth. Likeable. The kind of face you could immediately trust, even against better judgment.
I held my finger before page 32. I didn’t want to look at the clown first off. It seemed too intimate, even if I was just looking with myself. So I was looking, then, instead, at a washed-up movie star wearing sequins in some kind of aquarium tank emptied of water. I guess they were trying to work with the phrase ‘washed up’, but the star didn’t seem aware of that because she was grinning in the tank like it was all funny and fun. Maybe the whole book should’ve been titled desperation.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Art photos,” I said.
“Wait, wasn’t she in that cop movie?”
We stared at her together, in that tank. “Was she?” I asked. She had giant breasts, ornamented by magenta sequins. I found her painful, so I turned the page to have something to do, and there was the clown, with its big nose and scary mouth makeup and scary eyes and red costume. And I could see what she meant, Terrie. Right off, I got what she was saying. It was trying so hard. That was part of what was so menacing – its enormous effort to amuse. You kind of wanted to hurt the clown, before it smothered you into total suffocation.
“Do you think it looks desperate?” I asked him.
He squinted his eyes, and stared at the photo for at least a minute. “Why do they do the eyes like that?” he said, at last. “I mean, the star-shaped thing? Is that clown protocol?”
We ended up at the Greek coffee place next door, and he bought no biography and before we left the store, I flipped through the rest of the photo book to see if the others were desperate too but they weren’t, not in the same way. They were just pictures of other shiny figures that looked good in bright colors, like Vegas acrobatic performers at Rite-Aid, or a tomato farmer in his garden reading Newsweek. Only pages 30-32 were terrifying.
Adam got up to get the coffees while I looked out at the cars driving by on Sunset. It was raining a little, and watching the windshield wipers made me feel more settled. The air smelled like city, like damp city.
“They told me that was the definitive book on Korea,” he said, returning with the coffees. “I’m disappointed.”
I felt attractive, talking to him. Next to those big features of his, I could feel myself as delicate. When the conversation waned, I sipped from my bitter little Greek coffee, and told him that my friend Terrie was having surgery the following day. That she was young, still, but they’d found problematic shapes in her bronchitis x-ray. “Lumpy shapes,” I said, “inside her lungs.”
He stirred his coffee, and nodded with appropriate solemnity. He seemed more measured, now that he was caffeinated.
The cars whisked by.
“You know,” I said. “I just lied. That’s not true.”
I reached out, and touched his arm. “I didn’t know what to say,” I said, and his arm was warm, “so I made up Terrie’s lumps. That’s awful of me.”
He leaned in, then, and he didn’t kiss me but it was too close for regular. We spent a few minutes there, blinking together, breathing the coffee-scented air. Who knew what would happen? He had that trustworthy face, a face I didn’t trust, simply because I’d trusted it so swiftly.
We agreed to meet the following afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica, and the directions we gave each other were complicated enough, were distinct enough, so neither could possibly get lost. Of course I was early because I’m always early, and I didn’t head over to the water just yet, instead wandering past the snack bar, reading the names of foods listed in black plastic stick-on letters: chili dog. Onion rings. Popsicle. Words I love to see in black plastic stick-on, words that conveyed summer to me, on this cloudy November afternoon. I hadn’t called Terrie the night before, because I’d sold her out for flirting; it seemed I’d cursed her, and although I was fairly certain I had no cursing abilities, it was not in the spirit of good friendship and this I knew. But I had not been flirted with in many months, and this man had not rejected the reeking desperation of either the clown or the old star, and asking for sympathy about a dying friend was the first tool that appeared from my own personal flirting toolbox. Sometimes my own capacity for smallness is surprising, even to myself.
Adam was already at the beach when I walked over, and he had a picnic basket in his hands. He’d set up a blowzy checkered blanket, whose corners picked up with the wind, and when I walked across the sand, bumpy and difficult to traverse, he smiled at me with those wide open eyes. For a few minutes we chit-chatted, and at one point, he threw his hands into the air and said some exclamations, about nothing, really, but just showing a sense of spirit. I felt the love, spreading roots in my chest, making it so easy to smile, the way the promise of love loosens and eases the muscles of the face, and how the onset of pain had tightened them before, into tense lines and grit. How good it felt, to let go of grit for a second! We settled onto the blanket and he opened a small size bottle of champagne and we toasted and the water waves crashed, and other than a homeless man way to the left and two teenagers trying to get tan on the right, we were alone. I reached out a hand, and touched his colorless hair, and he turned his face to my palm. Then he reached into the picnic basket, and pulled out two plates, two checkered napkins, and two forks.
“Wow,” I said. “You go all out.”
As he removed the plastic food containers, he told me he used to be a chef, that he used to own his own restaurant. He told me the name of it, and how he’d gotten a great review last year in the L.A. Weekly, saying he had a knack for unusual flavor combinations. “Really?” I said, impressed, and then, after a pause, he said no. “I mean, I’ve always liked to cook. Never got paid for it. Sorry.” We looked out at the water. It was the second lie, and it was clear, from the tone of his takeback, that he had surprised himself with it. For whatever reason, it seemed we couldn’t help but lie to each other. It didn’t even feel like a big deal to me at first, but like an unexpected shift in weather, as the food came out of the basket, his mood collapsed. When he removed pieces of a roasted chicken from the container, and handfuls of green grapes, they were almost like apologies, for something he had committed long ago and I would never understand. Certainly he had no reason to apologize to me, me who was so ready to love him. He handed me a charred chicken leg, and a bunch of grapes, and refilled my champagne. “It’s lovely,” I said, about five times, but he wriggled under the compliment, and wouldn’t look over, and the way he sealed the remaining food back into its containers, with careful palm and thumb, made me feel badly, as if I’d done something wrong, or as if we both knew, in the future, that we would wrong each other irreparably. The seagulls approached. I ate the chicken and grapes, peeling stripes of chicken off the leg, but everything tasted a little off. Not like poison, but just not fulfilling, and Adam was striking me now as very difficult to know. “Why’d you want that book?” I asked, as I peeled the skin off a grape in slippery little triangles, and I understood then that I would be undressing every item of food I could because my clothes would be staying on.
“I like war books,” he said, out to the ocean. “Of wars people don’t read. I like to remember the forgotten wars.”
For dessert, he brought out oatmeal macadamia cookies that he had baked himself, but I could hardly eat them, my mouth felt so dry, and without thinking, I threw a few sprinkles to the seagulls who stepped closer on their webbed feet. I slipped my whole cookie into the sand when he wasn’t looking. Adam and I walked to the water and held hands and touched our bare cold toes to the foam. I felt like crying, then, with those seagulls invading our perfect picnic behind us, eating the cookies and the chicken, stepping all over the napkins, cackling, shoving each other out of the way.
I touched his arm again, and my eyes filled with tears.
“I know,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
When we finally kissed, it was clear that it was our last. His lips pressed gently against mine. I felt that kind of wrenching in my heart, and as I turned and walked the other way, I could hear him packing the picnic back into his basket. It took some effort to shoo away the seagulls, but finally they squawked and flew over us. A flock of seagulls. As a child, I’d found them so wonderful, seabirds, with their curving yellow-orange beaks and funny strut. They lived at the ocean, and anything that lived at the ocean I felt I could love forever. But they turned, in my mind. Sometime around adolescence, after hitting the critical mass of beach picnics, after seeing them come over again and again, pushing each other out of the way, squawking so loud, eating chicken and turkey sandwiches without pause, I found them repulsive.
At the snack bar, I ordered a basket of onion rings and sat on the green-painted ocean bench, watching the water. The clouds were thick, and the water took on a metallic gray sheen that eased my mind. When Adam passed by, with his picnic basket all packed up, I nodded, and he nodded. The look he gave my onion rings was that of a betrayed lover. But I have always liked onion rings. They were the thickly-cut kind, each ring the width of a plastic bracelet, dipped in golden-brown crumbs. I ate almost the whole basket, licking the bits off my fingers, and when I was done, I threw the remaining few to the trio of waiting seagulls, who, after all, were only hungry. Opinions change.