Two people came through the double glass doors of a twelve-story brick building and walked along the chain link fence to the parking lot. The tall, gray-haired man guided the short, white-haired woman by her elbow, urging her into a more energetic pace. Their heads were canted forward at the same watchful thrust, and anyone looking at them would have guessed correctly they were mother and son. The man was a solid six feet, not fat, but bullish in the shoulders and chest, and the woman, probably tall when she was younger, was now stooped and hollowed. The son’s tailored suit and expensive, well-made shoes reported success in the world, and his impatient pace, while the never-slowing lanes of traffic whizzed by the fence, suggested deadlines and engagements. Poor men stop to look at their environment; wealthy men pass through it on their way to somewhere else.

Though the old woman no longer had the same large body as her son, her face still had the vigor of opposition, evident in the stubborn, demanding chin. Leaning on her cane, hobbling beside him, she argued loudly, “I told you we can’t go yet. I didn’t say goodbye to my friend.”

He didn’t slow down, but he turned his head to say, “Gloria?”

“I have to say goodbye to her. She won’t know where I’ve gone.” “You’ve said goodbye to her five or six times already. All right? Okay? You’re done with saying goodbye to Gloria.”

She stopped, “I’m not done,” but the man kept going. “And what if I don’t like this new place?” she shouted.

He had reached the car. “What’s there not to like? It’s very nice.” (He had never actually seen it.) “They have animals. It’s in the country.”

Now she reached the car too. “But the people. Are they friendly?”

“Very friendly.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re like you. They’re old.”

“But I have to be back at five thirty. For dinner.”

“No, we’re leaving. Remember? This is your last day in Buffalo, your last day at The Meadows. And god help me, here’s your final goodbye.”

He forced her around to get a last look at the enormous structure on one of the city’s busiest highways. The Meadows was a brick building built in the seventies that blighted the entire block with its tall, institutional facade and apron of black parking lots. “Goodbye Meadows,” he said, as though to a child, not bothering to hide his exasperation.

“Goodbye Meadows,” she repeated in a pure, obedient tone.

Sylvia Fleming hadn’t been in a car in many years. Within the fortress, a resident’s every need had been taken care of, and the few times it had been necessary to venture into the outside world, The Meadows provided a van which picked up and delivered residents to the garage in the basement so their feet never touched the earth and their lungs never breathed anything but interior air. Like many other people who lived there, Sylvia hadn’t worn anything but slippers since the day she entered. She didn’t own a pair of shoes anymore and earlier that morning, John’s brief glance at her flaking, bluish feet with their thick, raptor-like toenails had been enough to dissuade him from any attempt to take her to a store and purchase more ground-appropriate footwear.

Once they got on the interstate, he waited for her to fall asleep, but she stayed awake the entire time, making conversation.

“How’s Mary?”

“I don’t know, Mom. Mary moved to California. She and I are separated. A year ago, remember?”

“Right. I’m so mixed up I don’t know if I’m coming or going. By the way, no one asked me if I wanted to move.”

“Look, for the last time: You can’t stay there any longer. The Meadows has already rented your apartment to someone else.”

“Who told them they could do that? I happen to live there.”

“You did live there and now you’re moving away.”

“Really.”

He could see her staring at the complicated structure of bridges and ramps, the pillars that held up the massive swaths of concrete that loomed over the flat, industrial landscape of western New York, moving millions of cars in an infinite combination of directions. “It cost a lot, didn’t it? I was running out of money.”

“You’re right. This new place is cheaper. By half.”

“How’s your friend?”

“What friend?”’

“Your friend from work who came with you once.”

“Bentley? That was a long time ago. But actually, he’s the one who discovered this new place. It’s called Flora and Fauna.”

“That’s nice. Like The Meadows.”

“Not really. This place is out in the country. It’s much smaller. They have a garden and chickens and I think the food will be better.”

“So how’s Mary? Why didn’t she come with you?”

A month ago, when the report came that Mrs. Fleming’s mental and physical deterioration required a greater level of care than The Meadows could offer, they recommended The Orchards, their sister institution where each resident had a room rather than an apartment, and access to nursing and hygiene staff twenty-four hours a day. John had been tempted to say yes. It would have meant The Meadows movers and The Meadows van would have done the relocation and his only job would have been to sign a check. But something had made him pause. He wanted to do right for his mother, a person he had once loved, or at least, looking at the childhood photographs, it appeared he must have. Now he felt a mixture of guilt and duty, so he assigned the matter to Bentley. Two days later, Bentley put him on the phone with a woman named Rose Curtain. She was a registered nurse and she operated a home in the southern tier of New York State that provided just the level of care his mother needed. When he asked about vacancies, Ms. Curtain had said, “We’re not a large place. We never have more than three, and last week, well, our dear ninety-eight-year-old Arnie climbed the hill and his beautiful, south facing room is available.”

“Arnie climbed the hill?”

The Meadows had phoned again and requested that Mrs. Fleming be removed by the end of the month. “Deteriorating hygiene,” the officious caller informed him, “is the first sign the resident needs more extensive oversight. And the reports show that Mrs. Fleming…” But seeing Bentley step into his office, John ended the phone call. “So who is Rose Curtain?”

His employee stopped in the center of the room. “Rose? Well, very reliable. Very dependable. You would be satisfied, and I think your mother would be happy.”

“But who is she? How do you know about her place?”

Before answering, Bentley looked at the carpet. Then he looked up, and if John had hoped to see anything but the usual expression, he was disappointed. Bentley was never combative, nor arrogant, nor even mildly self-assured. His manner was apologetic, as though by his mere presence he might intrude. If John were given to wondering, which he wasn’t, he might have wondered if the many hours Bentley sat at his desk absorbing the shadowless blue of the computer screen had sucked all that was robust out of his body. His skin was the color and texture of eggshell. His hair was never anything but unwashed, and the mole on his neck sprouted a whisker. Though he had solid brown eyes, they were so unquestioning as to be without depth. Bentley was a quiet sufferer, just as he was a quiet accomplisher, and he had, over the years, earned John’s admiration. Lucky Cow, the company John had bought as a young man out of business school and grown from a small cheese-making business into a corporation with national distribution and universal name recognition, reflected not only the economic aggressiveness of John Fleming, but the inventive genius of Bentley Tomes.

Bentley knew cows. He knew cheese. That was his world. But when John saw that the business would not grow as he had envisioned unless it had broader appeal, he had developed a new division. Lucky Cow moved into the processed line and that line grew steadily while the line of natural products stayed flat. His business sense told him to drop it, and from that point on, he let demand dictate the direction the company took. As it turned out, Bentley, the farm boy, was willing to accept these changes and soon had learned his way around the world of food science. He hired the people who knew how to make a commodity that tasted like cheese, looked like cheese, smelled like cheese, but was made entirely out of soybeans. And now, pressured by the demands of the stockholders, a noisy crowd who had no patience with the volatility of a major ingredient that was dependent on weather and soil and other variables, Bentley had found the people who could create a commodity with the same CRA, cheese recognition attributes, but none of the unpredictability of actual food. They were considering inert materials. Still being tested were wood pulp derivatives mixed with coagulants. But could you get the public to eat a food that wasn’t a food at all?

It was Bentley who finessed that question. One ounce of Lucky Cow cheese product would satisfy the daily adult requirements of seven essential vitamins and minerals.

“Which ones?” John asked. “Because calcium, these days, is very popular.”

There was a mystery at the center of Lucky Cow. Mary had identified it one night in the midst of an argument and her succinct, biting description stayed with him long after she had left. Why do I think you don’t care? Because the guy you put all of your trust in, the guy you depend on, you haven’t even bothered to get to know. I know him better than you do. Because you’re incurious. People don’t interest you, John Fleming, only things. Accumulated things.

Some of that was not true. They had worked together thirty years, and John actually did know something about Bentley. He was not married. He did not have a girlfriend. Two facts. Both were understandable, given his behavior. Bentley was not a sexual being. There: a third fact. And yet, he was always sympathetic to John’s ongoing problems with Mary and his children and the various women he’d been involved with since she left. Maybe he was willing to listen because he didn’t have a personal life of his own. Maybe he was a closet something or other. If so, matter closed. John did not need to know any more about it, but now, watching him figure out how to answer the question about Rose, it came to him that perhaps Bentley was simply a virgin.

He stayed at his spot in the middle of the carpet, hands in his pockets. “We went to school together. My family’s dairy farm was next to her family’s dairy farm. Now she raises heifers.”

“She was your girlfriend?”

John saw a blush fill his employee’s cheeks even as he glanced down at his shoes, and then, sheepishly, back up at John. Bentley was wearing the same tan pants and tan jacket he always wore and the redness of his face with the worn and stained outfit made him appear even more scrappy. Several years ago, John had tucked a hefty Christmas bonus into a card with a note, Go treat yourself. He’d scribbled the name of “his man” at the only decent gentleman’s clothiers in Erie, where the corporate headquarters of Lucky Cow, because of financial advantages in the state of Pennsylvania, had relocated eleven years ago. But it didn’t change. The same perma-press jacket and slacks.

“In high school,” Bentley said. “But her father surprised us in the hayloft and she was sent away to a boarding school.”

“How awful,” John said, seeing everything a little too clearly. Bentley, in his awkward, forthright manner, attempting to ravage the girl next door, while all the little rustles and squeals that come with private acts alerting the murderous father. The pulling out, the terror, the slinking away. It would have wounded him for life.

Or maybe there hadn’t even been the chance for fucking. That was worse. To be surprised just when they were working up to it, to have the farmer stop it so violently that the shrunken, guilty prick stayed shrunken and guilty forever. Either way it was sad.

“On your recommendation we’ll check it out. I’ll pick my mother up on Saturday.” But that was a lie. There was no time to check it out; he’d have to move his mother right in, unless, of course, the place simply wasn’t safe. “Any of your family still in the area?”

“All gone.” Bentley’s voice was without emotion, his skin back to its normal whitish tone. He had no more to say, and so, with characteristic awkwardness, he turned and went out the door. John watched the worn heels of Bentley’s shoes, the baggy backside of his trousers pass into the hallway. It occurred to him that the horror of that night in his friend’s adolescence might explain everything. But insights of this nature, revealing private things, made John uncomfortable. Automatically, his fingers started to move across the keyboard. Toneless clicks filled the room and hundreds of exquisitely neutral numbers crossed the computer’s face.

The road was so empty and the odor of urine rising from his mother’s seat so sharp, that his foot had pressed the accelerator to the floor. The black Mercedes shot through the lush, green landscape like a stone fired with a boys sure aim from his slingshot.

The sign for Flora and Fauna was tiny, but he saw it just in time and made the turn. He pulled up in front of a farmhouse flanked by dilapidated outbuildings. Sylvia sat in the car, waiting until John came around to open her door. Then she unbuckled her seatbelt, set her cane on the ground, and very slowly placed one slippered foot next to it. The other followed, whereupon John leaned in and hoisted his mother onto her feet. Real ground. True air. She sniffed it. “I remember this,” she said.

They faced the house. The clapboard needed painting; the porch needed repair. There was an old barn and a field next to it with cows.

“What’s that?” Sylvia asked when a shrill bird-like sound startled them both.

“I believe it’s a chicken, they cackle.”

A small, white dog ran towards them, its tail wagging.

“But John, we forgot to get my things.”

“No, Mom, everything’s been taken care of. The movers came after we left and packed it all up. I’ve seen to everything.”

“No one asked me. Not once. Do you realize that? And I have to go to the bathroom. Fast.”’

But after three hours, Sylvia’s bathroom announcements no longer created the urgency they had at first. “Not a problem. I’m sure someone here can help you.” John took his mother’s elbow and pulled her across the rough, uneven grass. The screen door was closed, the cool breath of an empty hallway coming through it. He rapped on the doorframe. “Hello?”

“You’re here already!” a voice sang from deep in the interior. “Just a second! I’ll be right there!”

“I don’t have those pads or those disposable…” his mother remarked in a loud voice.

“You’re fine.” At each of the four rest areas, he’d guided her as far as the door of the Women’s and then dutifully waited outside to guide her back. Beyond that, he had no wish for information. “I’m sure she’ll have them.”

Color splashed across the screen and a woman with a mass of red hair and a wide, unrehearsed smile pushed it open. Bosom leading—she had the imperiousness common to large-chested women, people like his ex-wife—she stepped barefoot onto the porch and clapped her hands together.

“You’ve arrived, Sylvia Fleming! How very good of you to come on such a beautiful day!” She pulled his mother into her body for a hug. “And John Fleming.”

She was about to hug John too, but he stepped away and put out his hand.

“I’ve seen you before,” Sylvia said.

“My name is Rose. I bet you’re tired and thirsty. I bet you’d like to see your room.”

“What we need, I believe, is a bathroom,” John whispered.

“But first, I’ll show you the bathroom and help you get settled.”

“I’ve been here before,” Sylvia announced as Rose, holding her hand, stopping to slip her feet into a pair of rubber sandals that were waiting inside the door, led his mother down the hallway. She moved at the old woman’s pace so patiently there might not have been such a thing as time or other places to get to.

The floors glimmered and on a shelf he saw a vase of garden flowers.

“I know you.”

“Yes, you do. I’m Rose.”

“I was so rushed I didn’t bring any pads or any of those disposable….”

“Don’t you worry. I have everything you need. This is the bathroom. Let me show you.”

When the door shut behind them, John found himself alone in the hallway, eavesdropping as they chattered comfortably. “Exactly,” Rose was saying, “they go back in here. So you’ll always know where they are.”

“I remember. John brought me to your house before, because I remember that they go in there.”

“I’m glad it feels familiar. Then you won’t have to be nervous about moving in with us.”

“Oh no, I’m not nervous. I know you and I know this place. But The Meadows is where I live and I want to get back there because they’re going to wonder where I am.” She added in a polite tone, “You’ve been very kind to let me use your bathroom.”

Sylvia came out first and pronounced it a very nice place. “I would come here if I didn’t already have an apartment somewhere else.”

“Good, let me show you the bedroom.”

Rose took them to the end of the hallway and when she opened a door, a blaze of yellow light fell across the floorboards. “It gets the afternoon sun so this is where I keep my plants.”

They stepped into a large room filled with greenery. It had a single bed, a reading chair, and an enormous birdcage where a bird of many colors eyed them warily. “Sammy! Sammy!” it shrieked.

His mother hobbled up to it and said, “I’m Sylvia. Can you say Sylvia?”

“That’s Maurice. He loves Sammy and he’s always hoping that when the door opens it’s going to be her.”

“You’ll have to learn to say Sylvia,” his mother chided, clucking at Maurice as though she were familiar with the ways one made friends with parrots. “He knows me. See, we’ve been roommates before.”

The bed was covered with a soft blue quilt. Tiers of houseplants were arranged in front of the windows. It would be like sleeping in a terrarium, John thought.

“Dinner’s at five thirty. I really must get back.”

“Mom, we’ve been through this. You’re done with The Meadows. They kicked you out.”

“What do you mean? They didn’t kick me out.” She straightened herself up and in a queenly tone corrected him: “I am a resident.”

“You need more care. And you’ll get more care here. And that’s final. You have to get it into your head. This is your new place.” He couldn’t help it. Even though he knew very well that she wasn’t being dense on purpose, it had been a long day and all he really wanted was to have everything settled.

“There’s Sammy,” Rose said, slipping her hand into his mother’s. “Can you see her over there? She comes every afternoon to help me.”

Rose pointed out the window, and in the distance behind the barn, John saw something moving. But it wasn’t a person.

“She’s a senior in high school. She lives nearby and it’s faster coming over the hill,” Rose said.

As they watched, the movement took on definition and though he found it hard to believe at first, he realized as the object approached that it was indeed what it had seemed: a girl with long hair whipping about was galloping towards them on a brown horse.

“I know I’ve been here before,” Sylvia said in a soft and amazed voice. “I’ve seen that hill. I’ve seen that rider.”

They watched her dismount and lead the horse into the barn.

“Sam does the evening rounds, although right now you’re our only resident.”

“This room is very pretty,” Sylvia said. “I like it. I like the view. There’s so much to look at.”

John consulted his watch. They’d been there an hour and it was clear that the place would be fine. He clasped his mother’s hand and said, “I have to go now,” his voice thick with a sorrow that had nothing to do with this leave-taking.

“Drive carefully.” She was practiced in the routine of goodbye. She waited for the touch of his lips to her forehead and then made the remembered motherly remarks. “Don’t worry about me. And next time, bring Mary.”

The lake was only a few miles north of the highway. But there was no evidence of a huge body of water just beyond the hills. Just as well. His mind, empty of the usual “to do” list, watched the beautiful, black machine eat up the miles while his memory snagged itself on a conversation.

You’re nothing but a robot, she had said to him in the early hours of the day they had decided to separate. You don’t take anything into consideration except money. Money’s the ultimate goal.

“Go ahead,” he’d said sarcastically. “Don’t hold back. Now that you’re telling me what you really think, why not unburden yourself?”

Okay John. Then what about doing good? What about making a quality product? What about contributing to people’s health and well-being? Well, why go on. I won’t waste my breath.

He remembered how beautiful she had appeared at that moment, how wise and womanly and sad. But she couldn’t blame him for economics. “Numbers don’t lie. And I’m a good businessman because I understand growth. For your information, growth is necessary for a healthy business.” He’d finished with the brand of humility he’d learned at the therapist’s. “I’m good at growth. I’m not good at other things.”

That was not entirely true. As he knew all too well, growth was aggression. There were businesses that could plateau and still have healthy balance sheets, but he was too ambitious for that. He’d re-invented the entire cheese landscape and now Lucky Cow was not just a company any longer, but a force. Each time he altered the product it received national attention without even a full-scale advertising campaign and instead of TMS, targeted market saturation, they had BMS, bulk saturation. Now BMS drove the corporation. Lucky Cow altered packaging or ingredients continuously, simply to gain attention.

The therapist suggested that he and Mary spend a Saturday together every month and for a while, it seemed to be working. On a Saturday in June, Mary had wanted to explore the lake. They’d found a hidden path that took them to a small cove with a protected beach. The water was cold, invigorating. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she cried, dancing about with the simple pleasure of nakedness. He splashed out quickly; it was too cold. But he found a rock to sit on, and watched her play in the water while he rubbed himself dry with his shirt. When she came out, rinsed and glistening, they had moved in concert. He caught a stink of something on the wind, but it was from another cove, so he put it out of his mind, and together, following the lead of their bodies, they dropped down to the sand. But then he felt insects biting his legs, tiny pinpricks of pain, over and over. Sand fleas. He slapped them away until she took his hand and murmured softly, holding his hand to her mouth, her breast, stroking him, kissing him, opening herself. But it started again and finally, he couldn’t stand it, he jumped up.

Yes, it was too abrupt, but he couldn’t help it, they were annoying him.

Back in the car, Mary’s eyes were wet. She was pressed against the door, as far away from him as possible. He couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so he nosed the car along the curve of the lake and let it find the one lane blacktop, so unused there were weeds along the edge. It took them to a cove they had never visited. They discovered a hotel that seemed to operate mostly as a restaurant. The elegant, old-fashioned structure was three stories high, with a gingerbread porch cantilevered over the rocks. The tables were filled, the diners dressed as though for a party, women sparkling with jewelry and perfume, white-coated waiters balancing platters heaped with some kind of fish. They found a table on the outer edge, and in the spirit of the party they ordered it too. Smelt. The breaded, crispy, tiny fish, heaped on a silver platter, came with a dipping sauce. Mary was famished. She looked errant, disturbed, laughing too loudly, eating the fish with her fingers, dozens disappearing at once. He nibbled carefully, preferring the beer and celery to creatures that had been dragged from the oily bottom of a polluted lake.

Yes, he knew exactly what his mistakes were. Hadn’t they talked about it endlessly? But no amount of hushed dinner-time talk, her greasy fingers lifting the fish to her mouth, her laughter hanging on a precipice where it might at any moment dissolve into tears, could alter the fact that an army of small, stinging insects had attacked his legs and not hers. What was he supposed to do? He said he was sorry but apparently his timing was off. The time for sorry had been earlier. Well he didn’t understand then and he didn’t understand now how an intelligent adult woman could be so undone by such a tiny thing. Fleas! It was their last outing.

The phone rang. “How’d it go?” the familiar voice asked.

John was tempted to hedge a bit just out of habit. But why? Bentley was his friend. “It’s a nice place. I think she’ll get good care.”

“Great.” Bentley paused, taking a moment before revealing the real reason for the call. “What did you think of Rose?”

“Rose is remarkable. She’s everything you said. It’ll be a nice change from The Meadows. My God, now I realize what a horror that place was.”

“Do you think…” but Bentley hesitated and John could see him casting his eyes downwards. “Well, would it be all right, John, if I go there once to visit your mother? Do you think she’ll remember me?”

“Absolutely. She’ll be happy to see you. I guarantee it.”

“Good. I think I’d like to do that. It would give me a chance to say hello to Rose.”

“I’m getting into traffic,” John said, understanding as soon as the opportunity had passed that he should have suggested they go there together.

But Bentley, who was used to non-engagement, simply went on. “Okay, just listen. The tests are done. We know what to use. It’s not straw dust; it’s not wood pulp. Too much texture. Get this. It’s water. Plain, ordinary water. With seven essential vitamins and minerals, plus the oils and coagulants and stabilizers and flavorings. You know, the list.”

Water, John thought, coming into the city, weaving the Mercedes through the ribbons of traffic and then braking suddenly when the line slowed. On a beautiful summer day when he’d seen a girl galloping her horse down a hill, water, that plain and forthright, almost spiritual substance, seemed exactly right.

 


*Megen Staffel, “Leaving The Meadows” from The Exit Coach. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.

You got it wrong, son. You exaggerated the wrong things and failed to exaggerate the right things. I know you’re supposed to know your business, but you wrote your story from a long way off and tried to make it sadder than it was. In your story, I shoot myself. I know you meant well, but you’re young and your life has been different than mine, so maybe your imagination isn’t mature enough just yet. The other problem is that you don’t believe in luck. You don’t believe, more specifically, that bad luck plays favorites. But it does, and it has, and that’s the story I mean to tell—again.

Three weeks before Christmas (not Christmas Eve), I was sit­ting up late at night holding a handgun. I’d been into a bottle of bourbon, and I was marching along inside a self-loathing cam­paign to end self-loathing. I was 61, broke and jobless, eyes and feet failing from diabetes, and no family to speak of except for a son who disliked salesmen. The only reason I was still alive is that your mother let me live in the backyard studio apartment she’d converted from a shed—“the condo,” as she called it. It’d been five years since I pulled into her yard with everything I owned crammed into my car, fresh from leaving my fifth wife. I’d driven eight hours from the Carolina mountains to the south Georgia flatlands, gambling your mother would take pity on me. I was grateful. Even with the slanted ceiling I bumped my head against, even with pecans smacking the tin roof like bombs all through the night. I was grateful to have a single friend who had a spare bed, and I told her so.

But you left out five years. It screws up the whole timeline, and your story amounts to one crazy night with no underpinning. You ignored how hard I tried. Every day for five years, my phone machine called a thousand numbers between Savannah and Jacksonville, targeting senior citizens who needed final expense insurance to offset burial costs (I bought some for myself, by the way). Every day, people waited for the end of my one-minute message just so they could record profanities and threats. I was happy to get one lead out of a thousand calls, lucky to sell one a month, and grateful if my commission check arrived a month after that.

I added water to the soup. I survived. Pretty soon, your Mom asked if I ever intended to pay rent. I wanted to, believe me, but every few months, I got further behind and things got so bad that I asked her for small loans—fifty dollars here and there for gro­ceries. I felt guilty every time I asked, and the guilt never went away. On that night in early December, I reached a new low. I called to see if you could spare a loan.

“No problem,” you said.

I knew I’d interrupted something. I heard music and voices and silverware clinking on plates, and then I felt worse. Here you were, about to bring your future ex-spouse home to meet your parents, and here was your father, calling up to advertise his problems.

I said, “I’m embarrassed to have to ask.”

“No problem,” you said again.

“Yes it is,” I said. “I was married to a teacher once; I know what you make. The father is supposed to help the child,” I said. “Not the other way around.”

“I understand,” you said.

“No you don’t,” I said. “I hope you never do.”

There was a pause. Music played. Forks scraped plates. A woman laughed.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said. “Sounds like you’re having a party.”

And you said, “Are you okay, Dad?”

“Thanks for sending a check,” I said. “I’m grateful.”

When we hung up is when I reached for my gun. A hun­dred dollars wasn’t going to solve anything. In a few days, I’d need another hundred. My license plates were expired, I had no car insurance, my phone bill was three months behind, and I couldn’t afford the gas to get to the Savannah VA clinic. Earlier that day, I’d emptied my one-gallon Lord Calvert bottle of saved up pocket change to buy two frozen pizzas and a pint of bourbon. So yes, I was in a serious funk.

But the problem with your little story is that you’re in too much of a damn hurry for me to shoot myself. You must believe I’ve always been poor. You know, your mother married me because I was talented and ambitious. A month into our marriage (after I lost my license) she drove me door to door so I could sell vacu­ums. Three months later, I was managing the office and training the salesmen, and taking business courses at the community col­lege. Six years after that (three years after your Mom left and four years after I graduated from the Dale Carnegie Institute), I was sharing a stage with U.S. Presidents. Where the hell is that story?

The college president had hired me as PR director after I graduated, so it was my job, in 1976, to warm up campaign crowds and introduce the candidates. President Ford was arriv­ing by helicopter—so when I saw one approaching, I whipped the crowd into a frenzy to welcome him. It was the wrong heli­copter. His campaign staff was leading the way. And the crowd deflated. But I revived them, kept them energized, and by the time President Ford’s helicopter landed, they were louder than before. Afterward, President Ford wrote me this letter: Your cha­risma was most appreciated on this exhausting campaign trail. If my stay in the White House should get extended and you find yourself in need of a position, please let me know. A month later, a newspaper photographer shot a picture of Governor Reagan (campaigning for Ford) with his arm around my shoulder, looking up at me. I know you’ve seen it. Reagan wanted me to move to California to work for him. I had my picture taken with Carter, but I never framed it. Point is: I was once on course for a successful life.

Soon after that, the Carolina Eye Bank recruited me (with a hell of a raise, believe me) to head-up their PR department. I flew across the country giving speeches and raising money. I booked Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap for a charity concert, but they pulled out after I got fired. Why do people defeat themselves? I hope you never have to ask yourself this question. Two decades blurred by. I drank, my second wife divorced me, my mother died, I drank, ran for public office, forgave my father, remarried, lost the election to a crooked incumbent, my father died, I sold (a lot of) real estate, got divorced, remarried, drank, became an award-winning auctioneer, divorced, remarried, drank, divorced, owned my own business (which was very successful very briefly), remarried, poked a needle into my stomach four times a day, drank, divorced, moved.

What I’m saying is that I’ve been reaching for that gun for thirty years. And if you give one good shit about the truth, you should include this in your story: I lost my stomach for sales. I spent entire days driving around south Georgia and north Florida (paying for my own gas), tracking down leads provided by an art instruction correspondence school. I went to trailer parks and government housing complexes and followed dirt roads deep into the woods. When I saw how these people lived, I didn’t have the heart to hard-sell anyone. You made it seem like I was pressur­ing people to make bad choices. You portrayed me as deluding a single mother into believing that her retarded kid was going to be the next Van Gogh. Your story is dishonest. When I was younger, sure—I persuaded people to spend what they couldn’t afford on what they didn’t need. And it would still come easy for me—I’ve been the best salesman everywhere I worked—but I came to real­ize, while selling art instruction, that I could not sell something I didn’t believe in. And since there was nothing I believed in (except for final expense insurance), I saw no point in selling anything.

For three months, I managed a topless restaurant off I-95. Your mother called me the boob boss. It was a sleazy joint and I hated every second of it: 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., baby-sitting the girls. If it looked like one girl got special treatment, other girls accused me of getting special favors. What you imply, again, is dishonest. I promise you—I never laid a hand on any of them. I spent most of my time in the kitchen, dropping frozen patties on the grill. My diabetic feet couldn’t tolerate standing for twelve hours at a time, so I walked out one night at midnight, just as two girls got into a hair-pulling fight over a table of cash-waving men. The owners still haven’t paid me what they owe me. Three days later I was standing behind a convenience store counter. You should appreciate the pride-swallowing this required, since I once owned a convenience store, “Grand Central Station,” but I did not, as you suggest, inform every customer of this fact. I told no one. Believe me, I’ve heard enough of those kinds of stories to know how piti­ful they sound.

I drove a cab for a week after that, mostly for dope-heads who popped the door and ran, sticking me with the fare. And yes, some crazy man stuck a knife against my neck and got all the money I had, including seven dollars from my own wallet, but there was no dialogue like the kind you must’ve gotten from television. There was no talking. I took the cab back to my boss and left it. He said I owed him for that night’s fare. I told him to kiss my ass and then went home. I was more depressed than ever. I started to under- stand—I mean really understand how desperate some people get, and I started thinking of doing something desperate myself.

So I called you. An hour after that, I was staring at the end of a gun. No offense, but I couldn’t think of a single reason not to shoot myself. So I took my gun and drove down to the Winn Dixie and parked in the alley behind the store.

I said, “Goodnight, Irene,” and it made me laugh. I told you about her—Miss America, but you don’t believe how close I came to moving with her to Lake Tahoe. We attended high school together in Asheville and met again at our 40th class reunion. Even though I didn’t graduate, the organizers sent me an invita­tion, so I said what the hell, maybe I’d sell some final expense insurance. And she came up to me, said she remembered me from my night shift as a rock-n-roll DJ, 1957-58. We talked all night, danced, traded phone numbers, met after that in Charleston for two different weekends. She’s a classy and intelligent lady and we liked talking to each other. And she’s humble—one time I asked a waitress if she had any idea who she was serving, and Irene asked me never to do that again.

When I confessed the truth about my finances, Irene broke it off. I don’t blame her. You slandered her as a shallow person, but that’s unfair. She was used to a certain standard of success, and I didn’t measure up. How would she have introduced me to her friends? How would I talk about my life to them? I wish her well. But sure, I was heartbroken. For a while, I imagined I might live out the rest of my life closer to how I envisioned it forty years before.

It was a clear and soft night, not raining and thundering, the way your story had it. It is true about the putrid smell of grease coming from the Winn Dixie Deli—at least you got that detail right—there was also the smell of rotting garbage coming from the dumpster ten feet away. After a couple minutes, I pulled up to the dumpster and threw the gun into it. Then I reached into the glovebox for my other gun, and tossed it in the dumpster too. I didn’t stumble upon any epiphany about the value of life, nor did I think of any good reason for living. I just knew I wasn’t thinking too well, and I didn’t trust myself with guns. In your story, classi­cal music was playing while I shot myself. But there was no music. In fact, the radio in my Chrysler stopped working four years ago, about the time my air conditioner quit.

I know there’s some rule about a gun going off at the end if it shows up at the beginning, but if the story had ended with me shooting myself, it wouldn’t be much of a story, if you ask me. That’s too easy of an ending. Where you really screwed up is leav­ing off what happened the next day. “What happened next?” Isn’t that supposed to be the main question?

The next afternoon, I was reading the classifieds from Jude’s morning newspaper, and I saw where the police department was buying guns off the street for fifty bucks each, no questions asked. Nice timing, right? Story of my life. I went back to the dump­ster. No one was around, so I pulled my car right up against it, climbed on the hood and looked over the top down into it. It was about half full, and I couldn’t see much except for bags and boxes and scattered shit, so I swung my leg over the top and climbed down in there. You ever been inside a dumpster? I wouldn’t rec­ommend it. Two dozen flavors of shit. I moved it all around, cov­ered every square inch, gagged a few times at the smells. Couple minutes later, I heard someone open the back door, so I stood up and saw a man carrying out a bag of garbage. He saw me too, and stopped. It was the same man I’d seen inside the store a dozen times putting up groceries. Maybe you’ve seen him. Stick-skinny man, wears thick glasses that make his eyes look too big, high- water pants, red windbreaker? I’d asked him a few times where to find something your mother had asked me to pick up, and he always led me to it, nearly sprinting, and I’d thank him, and he’d stand there and smile, and I’d thank him again, and he’d smile his rotten-toothed smile again like he’d just saved my life. But just then, while I was in the dumpster, and he was on the other side of it holding a bag of garbage, he didn’t recognize me.

He said, “Hey, you ain’t supposed to be in there.”

I agreed with him. I wasn’t supposed to be in there

“But people do throw away some interesting things, don’t they? You won’t believe what I found in there this morning.”

I already believed it.

“I found two guns in there, and both of them was loaded with bullets.” He nodded, persuading me.

I put my forearms on the side of the dumpster and looked above his head toward the sky, bright blue and soft—pleasant for December.

“You won’t believe what else?” he said.

I knew what was coming

“I took them to the police station and they gave me a hun­dred dollars. I was just going to turn them in, you know, in case they was murder weapons. I told them I’d found them in a dump­ster, and they said it was my lucky day. You believe that?”

I believed it. I watched a few sea gulls swirl above the dump­ster and waited for one of them to drop a shit-ball into my eye.

The guy said, “I got it right here in my pocket.” Then he pulled out the money and waved it at me, laughing without any sound coming out.

He said, “I figured I’d go to the Jacksonville flea market. Somebody’s got a big truck down there full of cheap movies.”

I looked past the sea gulls toward the sky, thinking that some years from now this might be funny. Just then, it wasn’t funny at all. I looked back at the man with the thick glasses whose eyes were too big. I said, “You guys hiring?”

He said, “You’d have to talk to Richard about that. You want me to get him?”

“No,” I told him. At first I thought I should go home and take a shower, change clothes, come back ready for an interview. Then I looked at this man and thought better of it. “Maybe you could just lead me to him,” I said.

So I climbed out of the dumpster, brushed myself off, and followed the guy through the back door, past a kid wrapping grapes, and down the dairy aisle to the manager’s office. When we got there, Richard wasn’t in. The assistant manager gave me an application.

My new friend said, “You can use me as a reference. Name’s Lonnie. L-o-n-n-i-e. I live over yonder.” He pointed to the fro­zen food aisle. Then he shook my hand and walked off.

I went back to my car and drove home. Your mother was moving all of her flowers inside because it was supposed to freeze that night, so I helped her carry them. Probably a hundred damn plants. When we finished, she asked if I was hungry. She’d made too much soup, she said. We sat at her table and talked of how we looked forward to your visit, and how we hoped you’d have more success with your first marriage than we had with ours. Then your mother asked me to promise her something.

“Please,” she said. “Do not offer our child any advice about relationships or money.”

It was an easy promise to make.

When you did come home, I was happy to see you. I was happy we got to talk alone one night. I told you this story that you made into your own version. But it reminds me now of what my father said whenever someone told a story that he suspected was mostly bullshit. He’d say, “Nothing ruins a good story like an eye­witness,” and then he’d be off and running with his own version of the story he claimed to know better because he’d seen it himself, but his version was mostly bullshit too.

So, I don’t mean to ruin your story—it’s your business to tell it the way you want to, and I realize that you’re young and you’re still learning, so screwing up is a natural part of the process. I hope the next time you’re home, we can talk about endings. I want to sit in the condo facing each other in my fine plastic furniture, and I want to ask whether you could imagine a story that ends more painfully because the hero continues living. Then I’ll pour us another round and tell you this story again.

 


 

*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Matt Cashion from Last Words of the Holy Ghost

 One move leads to another move, and nowhere feels as good as you want it to feel; your childhood feels wrong, and this place feels wrong, and the next place feels wrong, and so you move again. Find a new job, a new apartment, meet a neighbor at the mailboxes; he has a dog named Kidney that terri­fies you, but the neighbor is a new friend, the first one you meet and when he invites you to dinner you go because that’s what you do, you’ve just moved to the area.

His wife is sullen with red wine, glancing at you, and you understand, you do not like people either, though she does not realize this about you because you chat with her husband like you do like people, and he chatters back nervously as though he really does like people; he is one of those rarities, only he usually pre­tends not to like them because of the wife. Hence the nervous­ness. He has broken a rule bringing you here. Kidney scratches behind a closed door down the hall.

Your job is in an office with bright yellow walls; they are too yellow, and you point to them and say you now know what it’s like to work inside the sun. Everyone laughs, someone suggests we turn up the heat, and the next day someone brings you a bag of Sun Chips, then Sunny-D; soon they call you Sunny. You get a promotion. You go to the neighbor’s to celebrate, and the wife, takes Kidney for a walk. Neighbor tells you don’t take it person­ally. Neighbor is excited about the promotion.

Things slow down. Work. Coffee. Mailboxes. Neighbor. Your coworkers sense something. They make calls, fix blind-dates for your lunch hour, say: this might be the Moony you’re looking for! None of them are Moonies. You wish you could be friends with the neighbor’s wife who hates people, but you after all are a per­son, too.

Your mother calls. She says three houses opened up in their neighborhood and they are all good deals. Your dad snores in the background. Your mother says: I broke another plate today. Your mother says: I ran into your high school sweetheart. No, not married. Bald as a bat!

You move. Somewhere new. New neighbor, new job; it’s not hard, you are highly skilled. The walls are blue in the new office. They call you Skyler.

New neighbor’s dog Potato scratches down the hall. New neighbor has no wife. You sleep together. You move in together. Goodbye Potato. You tell your mother, she cries about it. At the office they call neighbor Nightler. Things slow down. Night- ler gets thin. You realize Nightler does not like people. He puts headphones on when you enter the room.

Your coworkers sense something. You hear whispers around his name. Bzzzzzz Nightler bzzzzzz. You close your door. Boy do you miss old Neighbor.

Your mother calls, says: we’re still here! Dad snoring. She says: we bought new plates today. We bought three. One for you.

The problem with people: one person leads to another per­son, and no one’s who you want them to be; even Mother feels wrong, and Nightler feels wrong, and the next one feels wrong.

Nightler says: I’m hungry. I think you should leave.

You move. This time you move backwards. Hello Neighbor. Hello Kidney. Hello wife that hates you. You say to Wife: I hate you, too. You say to Neighbor: I do not hate you. I do not really hate everyone, only I think I do when I get restless. Will you chain me here to your kitchen chair? Will you be my Moony?

Wife leaves with Kidney. Goodbye. Goodbye. You are unhappy being chained down the rest of your life. But it’s the only way to stop moving.

 


 

*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place

This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us.  We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I.  My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.

It was a very quiet life.  The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village.  Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home.  Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live.  But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.

I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world.  Its splendors stunned me and dazed me.  We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth.  For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.

There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic.  My father was very agitated when the news of his death came.  “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over.  I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.”  I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional.  So I had a second visit to the capital that year.

Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul.  This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course.  You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair.  We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus!  Long live the Consul!”

(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch.  I was very surprised at that.  My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders.  He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one.  The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch.  I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium.  It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier.  To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor.  But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time.  Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)

Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere.  I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school.  Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious.  And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.

 

***

 

There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building.  “I’ve seen it myself,” he said.  “The ghost, I mean.  He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”

I didn’t believe him.  I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost.   Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it.  For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much.  My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living.  For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.

But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there.  Everyone in the village knew that.  It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together.  Hardly anyone ever went there.  The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.

It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that.  My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort.  Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her.  My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be?  I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.

But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone.  This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure.  The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by.  You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves.  I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest.  So I took my sister along.

I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted.  Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging.  What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found. 

Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god.  (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors.  This made my grandmother angry, naturally.  “But we are Romans,” she would say.  “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)

It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going.  The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often.  We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there.  (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)

Then we got into deeper, darker territory.  The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here.   Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves.  I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak.  I hadn’t mentioned it to her.  So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.

Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness.  The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor.  But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here.  We’d been hiking for hours, now.  I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back. 

It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides.  I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her.  And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.

“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.

“There,” said Friya.  “Look.”

I followed her pointing hand.  At first all I saw was more forest.  But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge.  Yes!  Yes, it was!  I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.

So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house.  In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.

And then I saw the ghost.

He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls.  His clothing hung in rags.  He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast.  I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.

For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified.  Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.

“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured.  “There really is a ghost here!”

Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her.  But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly.  He’s nothing but a scared old man.”  And went to him unhesitatingly.

 

              ***

 

Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times.  The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds.  Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though.  There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.

He was terrified of us.  “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking.  Latin was what he spoke.  “Are you here to arrest me?  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I’m not any kind of a danger.  I’m only the caretaker.”  His lips quavered.  “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.

“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him.  “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”

“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.

We laid him out on a couch.  There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow.  He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much.  We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food.  Then he closed his eyes without a word.  I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off.  We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.

“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken.  Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings.  No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here.  In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more.  I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger.  Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was.  Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another.  And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.

When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened.  Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.

“From the village, are you?  How old are you?  What are your names?”

“This is Friya,” I said.  “I’m Tyr.  She’s nine and I’m twelve.”     

“Friya.  Tyr.”  He laughed.  “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh?  But times have changed.”  There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant.  He gave us a confidential, intimate smile.  “Do you know whose place this was, you two?  The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who!  This was his hunting lodge.  Caesar himself!  He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”

He began to cough and sputter.  Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.

“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir.  You don’t have the strength.”

“You’re right.  You’re right.”  He patted her hand.  His was like a skeleton’s.  “How long ago it all was.  But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ”  A look of torment, of sorrow.  “There isn’t any Caesar, is there?  First Consul!  Hail!  Hail Junius Scaevola!”  His voice cracked as he raised it.

“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him.  “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”

“Dead?  Scaevola?  Is it so?”  He shrugged.  “I hear so little news.  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “

 

***

 

But of course he wasn’t the caretaker.  Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall.  You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags.  But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes.  It was the royal face, all right.  I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things.  The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself.  Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.

He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit.  He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.

But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.

For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said.  “It’s thousands of years old.  You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you?  You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?”  And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.

That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges.  I looked at them, mystified.  “From Nova Roma,” he explained.  “Where the redskinned people live.  The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are.  He went there almost every year to hunt.  Do you see the trophies?”  And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.

We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer.  He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead.  “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us.  Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging.  In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother.  It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it.  But he was grateful.  Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt.  He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me.  I wondered about that.  If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood.  But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.

Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home.  “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr?  Or the Emperor himself?”

“What?”

“He’s got to be one or the other.  It’s the same face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”

“The big portrait on the wall, silly.  Of the Emperor.  Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”

I thought she was out of her mind.  But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.

What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day.  “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said.  “But you can have these.  You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand.  As relics of history.”  His voice was bitter.  From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver.  “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said.  They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man.  “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”

“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.

Indeed he did.  Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker.  I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him.  He began to tremble.  I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again.  “No,” he said faintly.  “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ”  And his shoulders shook and he began to cry.  Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little.  He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back.  “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked.  And his tale came pouring out of him.

A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur.  He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius.  He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.

Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power.  We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny.  To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.

Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths.  Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week.  Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi.  Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.

Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained.  But in the confusion he was overlooked.  He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne.  Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.

“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us.  “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of.  The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead.  The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.

After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”

“And when did you come here?” I asked.

“Almost twenty years ago.  Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I

could live here undisturbed.  And so I have.  And so I will, for however much time is left.”  He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass.  He drank it in a single gulp.  “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost!  What madness it was, to destroy the Empire!  What greatness existed then!”

“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.

I kicked her ankle.  She gave me a sour look.

Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village.  We were trained to see the entire world in a glance.  The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire.  Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all?  Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul?  Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long.  Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form.  But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last?  If one man can take power, so can another, or another.  There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words.  Or fifty.  And every province will want to be an Empire in itself.  Mark my words, children.  Mark my words.”

I had never heard such treason in my life.  Or anything so wrongheaded.

The Pax Romana?  What Pax Romana?  Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries.  But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification?  And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica?  No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force.  The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic.  So my father had taught me.

But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood.  Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these.  I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty.  And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.

When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said.  “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure.  All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered.  When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them?  But I want you to have these.  Because you’ve been so kind to me.  To remember me by.  And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”

For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire.  For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus.  And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.

The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day.  We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it.  She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.

“Where did you get this thing?  Where?”

I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much.  But as usual she was ahead of me.

“We found it, grandmother.  We dug it up.”

“You dug it up?”

“In the forest,” I put in.  “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around.  There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “

She turned it over and over in her hands.  I had never seen her look so troubled.  “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno!  I want you to swear to me before the Goddess.  And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”

Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.

Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother.  I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “

I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too.  It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.

She held the figurine out, its base toward me.  “Do you see these marks here?  This little crest stamped down here?  It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr.  That’s the mark of Caesar.  This carving once belonged to the Emperor.  Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest?  Come, both of you!  To the altar, and swear!”

“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly.  “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”

“Of course not, child.  Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”

“The haunted house in the woods,” she said.  And I nodded my confirmation.  What could I do?  She would have taken us to the altar to swear.

 

***          

 

Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was.  The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.

Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense.  And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother.  He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended.  And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors.  But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble.  We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic.  Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.

We were children.  We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.

Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting.  Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions.  Then things returned to normal.  My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.

That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar.  Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was.  I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself.  A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars.  But, as I say, we were children then.  We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism.  Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.

“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later.  “Stay away from it.  Do you hear me?  Stay away.”

And so we would have, because it was plainly an order.  We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.

But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house.  Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle.  “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say.  “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”

“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked.  “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”

“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said.  “Rifles don’t have ghosts.  It’s a real rifle.  And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”

I repeated all this to Friya.

“What should we do?” I asked her.

“Go out there and warn him.  They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”

“But father said – “

“Even so.  The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide.  Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”

There was no arguing with her.  Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself.  That left me with no choice.  I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.

“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge.  “I can tell.”

Friya always had a strange way of knowing things.  I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.

We crept forward warily.  There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced.  Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other.  I took a deep breath.

“You wait here,” I said, and went in.

It was frightful in there.  The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments.  Someone had slashed every painting to shreds.  The collection of arms and armor was gone.

I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius.  He wasn’t there.  But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.

Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.

“We’re too late,” I told her.

 

***

 

It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course.  They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job.  I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had.  So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall.  I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.

Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down.  I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line.  During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”

“A long time ago, yes.”

I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.

Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it.  And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”

He seemed taken off guard by that.  He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled.  “So you heard about that, did you?”

“I wondered if there was any truth to it.  That he was a Caesar, I mean.”

Lucentius glanced away.  “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone.  “An old lying tramp.  Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.”  He gave me a peculiar look.  And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.

A filthy old tramp, yes.  But not, I think, a liar.

He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire.  And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying.  Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them.  But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.

For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume.  These matters are not so simple.  The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt.  The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil.  What if there had been no Roma?  What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build?  Imagine the madness of it!  But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage.  Or so I think now.

In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it.  I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus.  Now and then I take it out and look at it.  It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight.  My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago.  Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade.  For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire.  As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.

When I came down, Granpa’s door was barely open. A blade of candlelight from inside crossed the floor and the living room couch. Mom whispered orders. Someone prayed. When I peeked in, Mom’s hand touched the bed and her other was on Granpa’s chest. In the candlelight his mask was too thin, too much like his face. His chin had fallen. Someone closed his eyes.

I went upstairs and practiced lying stiff, my own eyes and mouth gaping in the dark, and wondered if the silence I heard would go away, if a deeper quiet would come, something Granpa could now hear. I sank backward into my mattress. I felt death like fast water rise and run over my sheets, my pillow, my ears and shoulders, the whole length of me submerged, all but my nose, a lump in the fast surface. I listened until my heart became loud, a meat-faced giant with bloody boots stomping through a village, so I awoke again and practiced not listening. I concentrated on all that was left of me, my open nostrils like two diminishing circles of breath that rose and fell.

Next came the noise of the birds and the light. Already the horizon sizzled. The distant pop and crackle of firecrackers was steadily marked more and more by an echoing boom. I remembered the excitement and the fireworks—it was the Fourth of July—and all the things my brother Rocky taught me that summer: M80s, bottle rockets, sizzlers, ashcans, and bottom-blasters.

Granpa was dead on the Fourth! He had looked like a dead man for so long and though I’d never known him when he wasn’t out of his mind, I couldn’t imagine the Fourth without him. Our entire family, all the Fitzgeralds and the Tomasinos (Aunt Maureen had married an Italian) always staked out the front of the Belleville firehouse with lawn chairs and coolers and boxes of sparklers for anyone who wanted one and all of us came to wave at Granpa in his fire chief’s hat and sash as he rode smiling like a mummy on display and waving from his own beach chair strapped to the roof of the hook and ladder. He’d been chief of the Volunteers for thirty years and honorary Parade Master every Fourth since he retired. The Fourth was the one day he got out of his pajamas. At home, he was skin and bones, his shoulders a hanger draped in a yellowed terrycloth robe as he wandered the house, as quiet as the cats. Dad explained I should treat him more like a four-year-old than a grown-up and be as patient as I would with any of my littlest cousins.

But Granpa and I had a running game of Tom and Jerry. Once I tied kite string around his ankles while he slept sitting up on the couch and when at last he stood, he toppled over the coffee table like a two-by-twelve. He didn’t even have time to put his hands out. Another time I dropped a shrew down the back of his union suit. His hair grew a little long and shaggy now and then and I got my cousins, the little Tomasino twins, Lynnie and Marie, walking tippy-toes and whispering, to put curlers in his hair while he snored. In return, I expected him if I was at my homework in the den or the kitchen having a doughnut. I could smell him or just know he was behind me and turn in time, before he put a gunnysack over my head or screeched in my ear. Once, a fireplace poker came down across my bowl as I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios. Milk went everywhere, onto the walls, the floor behind me, all over my shirt and face. Another time I was at the table doing penmanship when somehow I knew, thanks to an unmistakable sensation, a steak knife was at my temple. What I loved was to be in a quiet room, alone with my baseball cards or a book and realizing he was there too, in the chair next to me or standing with his back to the bookshelves and staring at me, his eyes lit like candles.

When Dad came to me with the news, I was in the living room watching Sunday morning cartoons. I listened politely and turned back to the TV. What concerned me though was the arrival from Vermont of my cousin Doreen, who always came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth. I was eleven and she was only nine but already in the fifth grade and smarter in her school than anyone. As far as they knew, I toler­ated her because she was good at sports, being double-jointed, with quick, wiry little monkey legs. Because she was two years younger and a girl, I didn’t always treat her well, but secretly I loved her more than anyone. Always after she went home, she was all I thought of for weeks, the first thing when I opened my eyes in the morning and again as I had my cereal. For days I had long imaginary conversations with her. She was the last thing at night I saw before I fell asleep.

She was so pretty, it pained me to look at her. Her chin and cheeks and forehead were so perfectly shaped and so empty of freckles I could barely remember what she looked like. She used to squinch her nose and follow me everywhere when she was five, no matter how mean I was. Now her nose was as straight as a line drawn with a ruler and her glasses always slid down so she could peer over at me with her small gray eyes. Sometimes her eyes were green or blue, depending on her mood or the time of day, whether I was telling lies or not, whether she hated or loved me, though I never knew which color meant which.

She must have loved Granpa more than I did. She was crying into a big hanky when she stepped out of the car into the driveway. She wouldn’t look at me, though I’d been waiting for her all morning. She had come straight from church in her white stockings and blue round-toed shoes but when she finally looked at me I was startled at what a mess she was.

Aunt Angela was a mess, too. Her nose-blowing sent all three cats—Spooky, Clumpy, and mine, Ratface—around back. Uncle Paul, in a black suit and black tie, looked like he might be dead, too. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat and stared over the wheel after Angela and Doreen left the two passenger doors wide open.

Doreen just stood in the gravel, gripping her hanky. She stared at her shoes, her shoulders all jumpy as she sucked her lips. I looked hard at her and wondered why she was putting on this show. I had waited all morning and now that she was here, I despised her, as if she were some dressed-up circus chimp. Was she the one I loved? I wondered how to get rid of her.

Angela clumped noisily up the steps and pulled my head to her big bosom and squeezed me. She smelled sweet and sweaty, her bare arms hot on my neck for a moment before she ran indoors where the noise, the wailing, thanks to the Italians, began in earnest.

For a long time I stared curiously at Doreen, until I got bored with the pathetic little battle between her lips and her eyes.

“Hi, Doreen,” I said. “You submarine.”

Her gray eyes flashed green outrage and blue injustice. Then she said, “Hi,” and exploded into tears.

I thought of something and ran into the house. When I got back, I had two orange popsicles. She had gotten better hold of herself by then, the hanky and both her hands were in her pockets.

“Popsicle?” I asked.

She scowled. “How can you be thinking about popsicles?”

I looked at her for a long time, almost telling her I was glad Granpa Fitz was dead, then decided against it. I felt lovesick for a second, holding the two melting treats in my fists. Then I hated her again.

“Nothing wrong with popsicles,” I said. “I don’t care who died.”

“Aren’t you even upset?” she said.

“What?” I said, pretending I hadn’t understood.

“Aren’t you upset?” This time she screamed, her fists and front pockets forced down hard into the depths of her lap as she leaned toward me, peering up into my eyes, as if to see the inner dome of my empty skull.

“Why should I?” I shouted.

“Granpa Fitz is dead!”

This made me so angry, my shoulders, my arms, my whole body shook. How could she be such a little lap-dog? Who put her up to this?

“Haven’t you any sense?” I said, mimicking Mom.

“What did you say?” she said.

I could have screamed, but I whispered, “Granpa’s not dead!”

“What?” she said. “You’re sick.”

“He’s not dead,” I said. “You’ll see. At the parade. Granpa wouldn’t miss the parade. Not ever. Even if he was dead.”

Now her eyes were red with hatred. Her mouth was open, gasping for air.

“Cross my heart,” I said as she watched. I dragged my finger twice across my shirt. “Hope to die.”

There was such a fuss all morning. Two reporters from the Belleville Sentinel, the EMTs, the county coroner, the police and all the stupid little second-cousins in their church clothes came march­ing back and forth past us as Doreen and I sat on the porch in sunlight. We had covered a lot of ground by then.

“I can’t imagine what it’s all about,” I said and stood up. “Mom knows. So does Pop. I don’t see why everyone’s faking.”

Normally Doreen took a superior attitude whenever I got into a fix as ridiculous as this, but what pleasure our secret gave her by now. She peered intelligently down her perfect nose through her lenses at the yard, as if the inexplicable situation were some iridescent insect crawling across a slate. By then I had so easily enlisted her that I was unbearably bored. Where was Rocky? The morning before, he and Bean, his best friend, dragged me out of bed and assigned me a bag of dinged golfballs to carry down through the woods by the country club, where Bean buried the capped butt of a lead pipe in a mound of dirt. A hundred yards away, beyond an electric fence and a meadow, was the target we could see with Beanie’s binoculars. When everything was ready, he struck a match and held it while he peered through his bin­oculars with the other hand. Once he shouted FIRE, Rocky set an M80 to the flame then dropped it into the pipe. I shoved in a golfball and we dove for cover.

That was fun. There had been no wind and Rocky had our cannon calibrated so that pretty soon we hit the tee every shot. After the blast Bean jumped to his feet with his spyglasses and watched the old guys tee up, smoking cigars, climbing in and out of their carts oblivious to the white ordnance that bounced in their midst and danced into the high trees. Bean wouldn’t let us touch his binoculars but he gave a full report of what happened each time and Rocky made adjustments. Before long we were rolling in the dirt. One big fat guy Bean called Butterballs was so slow-moving we took three shots at him.

“Once,” Doreen said, interrupting my thoughts, “I heard Mommy say how rich she’ll be once Daddy kicks off. They both laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Dad said if he could just convince the insurance company (Doreen looked gravely at me when she said these two words) into believing he’d fallen into the incinerator at the garbage plant, we could live like royalty. Daddy said he’d grow a long beard and come back to get hired as her gardener. That was really all he ever wanted anyway, to just dig in the dirt like a dumb old gardener.”

She put the palms of her hands up and looked at me with big eyes. I wondered if I should ditch her and head now for the woods or wait until Rocky came for me. Rocky was always out of the house before all of us. He might not even know about Granpa yet and I suspected I knew where to find him. But shouldn’t they have come and got me? Maybe Bean couldn’t get any more M80s.

“Maybe Granpa just wants to fool the insurance company so we can all live like royalty,” she said and put her chin on her knee. I could see her thinking, how do royalty live? I had no clue either and before long I went down the steps to kick gravel out of the driveway onto the lawn. After she said a few more stupid things I realized I was furious at her for buying in so easily, but when I looked at her sideways she caught my eye, becoming suspicious at once.

“Granpa’s dead,” she hissed and her lip began to waver. I hated her so much then I shivered.

“He is not, stupid.”

“Is too!” She spit the words at my feet.

“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. “At the parade.”

“You won’t!” she said, without looking up.

“Goddamn you to hell,” I said. “You’ll see.”

At noon Mrs. Falato arrived, trailed by her sons Mark and Paul with huge trays of ham, roast beef and sliced cheeses in their arms. They ran back out and returned with another tray of subs and three cases of root beer. Doreen and I had made tentative peace by then and ate in a hurry on the porch. The commotion inside, the crying, the laughter and the drinking (the liquor cabinet had been opened early in the morning) reached a hysterical volume. When we were done we hid our plates under the hedge and charged through the Whalens’ yard out to London Road and ran the whole way into town. Our place in front of the firehouse was already taken so we ran for a long time on the sidewalk, through the dense crowd of families past the Comet Market, the Presby­terian Church, past Albee’s stationers and the hardware store.

“Wait!” said Doreen and stopped and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. I breathed fast too, but waved at her to come. The parade was about to start and we wouldn’t see a thing. When she pointed up behind me, I knew what she meant. No one was up by the flag yet except a fifth grader named Jamison who was bouncing a basketball against the pole. We ran and ducked through the gate and up the steps and arrived in full sunshine with a perfect view.

We claimed our places on the wall. We sat a minute until I said, “Save my seat” and ran back down the stairs and under the rail again, through the crowd and into Albee’s where I found myself looking up at the counter and a Styrofoam pyramid bristling with twenty-five-cent flags. Mr. Albee had turned to the top shelf for sun lotion a woman in a straw hat had asked about. In no hurry, I reached for a flag for Doreen. Then took one for me. Mr. Albee was still searching the shelf. I waited and watched him. A second later I was outside in the sunshine again, lost in the crowd. Flags waved everywhere. Everyone was all smiles. It must have been the warmest, sunniest, friendliest day in the history of America. When I heard the drums my heart nearly burst. Already our wall was a throng of kids and I charged up the steps to find Jamison standing in my spot next to Doreen.

“Hey!” I said and she looked at him sullenly.

“He’s just there till you get back,” she said.

“No, I ain’t,” he said. He had the basketball under his arm and a stripe of chocolate went from his mouth almost to his ear. He looked at me and tossed a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper into the crowd below.

“That’s my spot,” I said but he just smiled and gave me the finger.

When the trumpets sounded everyone turned, even Jamison, and I shoved him so hard he fell over an empty stroller. His basketball went bouncing onto the road. He was too surprised to even cry and the last I saw of him some adults with a picnic basket and a baby had jostled him out of the way.

“You’ll see,” I said and turned to give Doreen a flag. I said it again as the VFW brass came marching down the hill and she turned her eyes from me. Despite the excitement, the brass were a dull gang in suits and sashes and I would have shouted something rude if not for the majorette who marched in front. She was a lady I never saw except on the Fourth. I wondered who she was, embarrassed and thrilled by her tall white hat and feather, the black curls that framed her pretty pointed face, the short white marching skirt as it flapped about her thighs and her white boots that went up and up past her knees. She twirled the baton over her head, around her back and through her legs. I stared and stared at the white gloves over the elbows of her oth­erwise bare arms, hypnotized by a strange desire, and could find no escape from her until the Vietnam vets finally hit the drums at the hilltop. Then they sounded the trumpets and tubas and their fabulous band played medleys of tunes like “I Feel Good” and “Shake That Thing” and a jazzy version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

We had to stand on our toes to see Jonah O’Neil. He was the most famous war hero in Belleville now because of the things he had done in Vietnam and the collection of mementos everyone said he kept in a safe in his mom’s basement. Rocky once said Jonah had eyes like a cruel retard, which had given me nightmares, but he looked pitiful and bloated when I finally saw him, with giant elephant legs, the purple nose, his face the color of a spoiled ham. No one laughed at him as he marched in his fatigues, which were tight enough to burst the buttons and zippers, or the green beret bobby-pinned to the side of his head.

Next came the Korean War vets. Granpa had been a major in Korea and these were his best pals. Like the group before them, they followed Old Glory but all had their jaws squared and their corsairs tilted jauntily on their heads. Mr. Reid, who was a Scot and must have done something in Korea as well marched along­side them in a kilt and a bearskin busby. Mostly because of the busby, they got warm applause.

Amidst all the shouting and applause and laughter, the crying, the squealing babies, the sea of flags, the noise of the bands and the fire engine strobing red and blue intermittently beyond the hill, Doreen had been silent. Now and then she stood on tip-toes for a minute to scan the crowd. Once I got tired and sat down next to her feet. Her knees and her ankles in those little white socks were so pretty I wanted to close my eyes.

“Granpa rides the hook-and-ladder,” I said, looking up at her. Since she obviously knew, she didn’t bother to answer. I wanted to tell her Granpa never marched with the WWII vets either, when they came down the hill, but that would have been point­less also. All of them—except Mr. Cleary, who had lung cancer— had always looked bigger and stronger than him. They carried an attitude of victory and heroism in a way none of the others who had come before them had and a hush came over the crowd. No one shouted. Everyone stared at this, the largest troop of all, white-haired, bone-skinny or pot-bellied old geezers in sashes and corsairs marching silently below us as I tried to imagine all the Krauts and Japs they must have killed.

This year only three from WWI were alive. They rode in a racing blue Corvette convertible driven nervously by Lucy Farr, the prom queen who must have just gotten her license. Mr. Pilsen, who was ninety-two, kept standing in the tiny back seat to throw kisses and wave his flag but Mr. Stuart who sat in front in a kaiser hat turned around every few seconds and pushed him down into his seat. The other old guy, whose name I didn’t know, seemed asleep in the back as he slouched forward, resting his big straw­berry of a nose on Lucy’s shoulder.

After that came the Civil War cannons. They were pulled by horses, the big wooden spokes in a blur followed by a dozen ponies of the Kilsy Civil War & Cavalry Club. The ponies were mounted this year by Union riders with blue uniforms, sabers, black boots and white gloves. All kinds of things came next—three librarians from the public library; Boy Scout troop number 111; the Belleville Brownies; the Masons; the Farr County Clown Club. The freshmen marching band, in torn-up, ketchup-stained blouses and bandages, canvas knickers and tri­cornered hats came near the end and sent a wave of laughter and applause through the crowd by playing their disorganized “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with tin whistles, flutes, a parade drum, a triangle and a bugle. It seemed the whole thing would never end when a cheer went up that was so loud Doreen covered her ears and sat down. I tapped her shoulder and handed her my flag. The cheer went up again and I realized the firemen marching in front of the engines, Irishmen to a man, were sing­ing. The crowd all up and down the street began to sway and join in too, though by then whatever it was sounded more like a brawl than a song.

As the hook-and-ladder approached I could barely see over the shoulders of the grown-ups. The third cheer was so loud I had to scream at Doreen. She took my hand and I leapt to my toes in time to see Granpa’s sash and the fire hat laid out on the seat of his empty lawn chair, which had been duct-taped to the roof over the red cab and floated away from us, far out in the middle, like a toy boat on a wide colorful river.

Doreen let go of my hand. I looked up the street and down toward St. Paul’s. The commotion was everywhere the same. Everyone in the world had crowded onto the streets of Belleville. Weekenders from Boston and New York and Montreal had come for a peek at our majorette, our soldiers, our hook-and-ladder bearing an empty lawn chair dressed with a red fire chief’s hat and a green sash. For a minute the noise and crowd were com­plete, a deafening loneliness, the same as the silence I heard in the morning in my bed, after concentrating so long on the puzzle of Granpa’s absence.

Doreen sat at my feet and covered her ears again. It was the strangest thing, that Granpa Fitz was dead, as if something too big to see had changed—and changed everything else in ways that were too small to see. I sat down next to her, only half intending cruelty as I whispered into her delicate hair, but she shook her head, eyes closed, hands over her ears, to stop me.

I tried again but she was trapped by something. She kept her ears covered and shook and shook her head. I waited, until a platoon of state troopers on Harley Davidsons cleared the road with their metal thunder and brought me to my feet. Rocky loved motorcycles more than anything on earth. More than God. Almost as much as he loved Granpa. You could never say anything against Granpa or the Ultra Glides when Rocky was around. Where the hell was he? Shouldn’t someone find him? And tell him? Did he know? I searched the crowd for him but it was pointless. I checked the front of the firehouse. I watched the formation of white helmets pass below us and disappear into a rumble in the crowd, then turned back to the confusion up the street. Everywhere a thousand red, white and blue flags waved. When I saw Doreen’s hands over her face, I figured at least now she could hear.

I knelt and said, “Hello, Doreen. You jelly bean. Did you see him?”

She turned a savage, unfocused glare at me. She stared at my mouth now, hating me with perfect reason, as if I’d led her into a dangerous place then run off and left her.

“Did you?” she answered. “Did you, honestly?” Something in her eyes scared me.

I almost said it was a stupid question and didn’t matter any­way. She had been such a sucker. In a moment of violent confusion I had to stand, turning my back on her, and run to the flagpole which I kicked and kicked. I began to shake and the shaking took hold of me until my nose itched. I rubbed it furiously with the backs of my hands but my cheeks got hotter, my lips and all the muscles from my nose to my chin cinched tight by the time she called me, and asked me again.

When I turned she was standing with both flags in her hand, as if offering me a flower. I showed her a fist and said I would strangle her, anything to shut her up. I pointed a finger too close to her eye. She only frowned and crossed her arms. Then she scrunched her nose and looked past me over her glasses.

 


*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Peter Brown from A Bright Soothing noise

He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.

Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pre­tended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, look­ing down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.

He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.

He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t real­ize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.

He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.

His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.

He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.

You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.

It’s not him; it’s you.

 


*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl

During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.

But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.

The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.

Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.

One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.

“Swimming,” said Changming.

Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?

“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”

“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”

“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”

“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.

When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.

“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”

Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.

“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.

Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.

“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”

“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.

“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”

Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”

“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”

“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”

“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”

Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.

“Must?” her father said.

“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”

Must and must again.”

She said nothing.

“Your need is strong.”

She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.

“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.

The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.

She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.

Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.

Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.

She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.

She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.

Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.

 


Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.

Yoshi Takamata moved from Kyoto to Connecticut at the age of fifteen, and his three years of American high school, followed by four years at local college and two decades in New York City, had done little to soften the severe Japanese accent he greeted me with after I had climbed a flight of stairs on Chambers Street to find my new master.

It was Yoshi’s accent that assured me I was in the right place. The dojo itself was dishearteningly rundown, a converted dance studio with water- damaged ceilings, a warped wooden floor, and a wall of tall, dirty windows, only half of which opened. There was no visible training gear other than a blue multipaneled gymnastics mat and a curved wooden sword propped in the corner. A flimsy cloth curtain separated the two locker rooms, each looking to fit no more than a half dozen people at a time.

“Come in to my office,” Yoshi growled, bowing. I bowed in return, slipped off my shoes, and padded behind him in my dark socks.

Yoshi’s office was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the dojo. On the walls hung framed photographs of Yoshi at different ages, flinging opponents through the air by their wrists and shoulders, and kicking apples off of swords while blindfolded.

Yoshi gestured for me to sit in the visitor’s chair. I faced him across the slim wooden desk. He folded his hands, interlacing his fingers. Where his starchy white uniform had been rolled up at the cuffs, I could see his smooth forearms, like the skin of a mannequin.

“I’m looking for a new master,” I said.

He nodded.

“It’s been almost ten years since I last trained. I don’t know how it happened. I stopped just after college. I had a red belt but I moved for work and then somehow the years went by.”

“Are you married?” he said.

“No. Why?”

“That’s usually how it happens.”

“I’m engaged,” I said.

“Congratulations. I was engaged once. Very nice girl. She plays violin for an orchestra.”

“But you didn’t marry her.”

“My family was disappointed.” Yoshi shrugged. “What can you do?”

He plucked two hard candies from a ceramic bowl on his desk and offered me one. A student of his, I later learned, worked for a candy distributor and kept Yoshi’s office supplied with treats. Most of the students provided free services to the dojo at one time or another. A red-belt lawyer had drafted the insurance release form. A blue-belt carpenter had built the shelves in the women’s locker room. Another blue belt, a computer engineer, had designed the website.

Yoshi rolled the candy around in his mouth and asked me what it was, exactly, that I wanted to learn. Why had I come back? To get in shape? For self-defense? Was I bored of the gym?

“I’d like to be able to put someone in excruciating pain,” I said.

“You want to fight.”

I shook my head. “That’s just kicking and punching. I want to learn how to incapacitate someone. So painful they can’t even think.”

“That is a . . . unusual desire.”

He stood and walked out of the office. A moment later, when it was clear that Yoshi wasn’t returning, I followed him out. I regretted offending him. I should have said that I sought spiritual enrichment. Standing by the door, I slipped my shoes back on and tied the laces. “Sorry if I’ve wasted your time,” I said.

Yoshi smiled. He seemed acutely relaxed, his round, wide face displaying the expressionless gaze of serenity etched into the sculptures of gods. We shook hands.

Then my thumb exploded.

It’s a bad habit to shut your eyes when you’re attacked. Maybe it comes from the childhood belief that if you don’t see it, it will hurt less, as if viewing pain were necessary to its transmission. Or maybe it’s just the opposite, and shutting your eyes is a kind of dedication, a devotion to the momentary annihilation that agony brings. Either way, I suffered in astonished blindness. When I finally reopened my eyes, I found myself kneeling on the hardwood floor, freshly released from Yoshi’s vicious grip. I could feel a circle of heat throbbing around the distressed bones of my limp hand.

“Welcome,” Yoshi said.

I began studying under Yoshi that autumn. Although my previous master had been a triathlete who demanded a brutal level of conditioning from his students, Yoshi possessed something beyond a physical excellence that, with enough diligence and training, I hoped I would one day achieve. There was a fluidity and ruthlessness to his movements that made him seem impossible to stop. His speed was careless, his strength inscrutable, his touch adhesive and pitiless. He was shadowy, emotionless, disinterestedly cruel. At times, when facing him, I felt like I was facing death. Only unlike the invisible figure that had recently claimed my father, for all my new master’s terrifying skill, Yoshi was tangible, reachable, even interrogable.

But he did not always answer the questions asked of him. Many times he would ignore them, or else answer an entirely different question. One evening, I was struggling to understand how to move an opponent who was resisting me. I had failed to predict the difficulty of inflicting great suffering, that what life had meted out casually to my family I had to labor to reproduce and, consequently, control. Yoshi told me to create a space for the person to fall into. “But how do I get them into that space?” I asked.

We were standing alone on the thin blue mats. Class had just ended, and a few students were waiting outside the overcrowded locker rooms for their turn to change, checking their phones for missed calls and messages.

“Look at Oriana’s feet,” Yoshi said.

I craned my neck to see them. “You mean the way she positions her toes?”

“They are sexy little feet,” he said.

“I guess,” I said, confused.

“Haven’t you ever noticed them?”

“Not really.”

“You must learn to look down. Where the eye goes, the mind follows.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

Yoshi raised an eyebrow. “Tonight I think it is time we celebrate your promotion. Too much seriousness is not good for a man, Mr. Wallace!”

Only a year had passed since I had joined Yoshi’s dojo, but my devotion, along with my previous training, had sped my advancement, and Yoshi had recently made me an assistant instructor. After changing out of our uniforms, we went to the Irish pub across the street. The bartender was one of Yoshi’s students, a handsome young yellow belt with a shaved head. He brought us a round of free drinks.

“Thank you, Billy,” Yoshi said and scooped a handful of peanuts from a dish. He turned to me. “What do you think of the new Italian student?”

“Gabriella or Oriana?”

“Both of them,” Yoshi said.

I shrugged. “Gabriella has that dancer background, so she’s disciplined, flexible, good core strength. But then she’s slow, the way dancers are. Everything’s a performance and—”

“Oriana has very good spirit,” Yoshi interrupted.

“I guess.”

“Did you see last week when she saw a nail sticking up from the floor? She went straight to the office for a hammer and flattened it. Because she is raised European. American but European. They have family values.” He motioned for Billy to bring a round of shots. “Really, you never noticed her feet?”

“I try not to get distracted by the students.”

“The pinky toe has a very small nail. It is very sexy.”

Billy came over with our shots. He placed them on the bar and asked Yoshi to correct his finger lock. “I was trying it on my mom last night and it wasn’t working,” he said.

“Which finger did you use?” I asked.

Yoshi shook his head. “Finger selection is unimportant. Of course, it is easier to pick one of the weaker fingers, but with proper technique all will work. Give me your hand.”

Billy stretched out his palm. A moment later, his face was flat against the bar and he was breathing loudly out of his mouth.

“Always, you must strike a kyusho, a vital point, to attack a joint,” Yoshi said. “Our ki, our energy, flows through these kyusho. They connect the body’s energy system. Every joint is controlled by at least four—many to choose from.”

After Billy staggered away, Yoshi raised his shot glass.

“To your tremendous achievement, Mr. Wallace.”

“Thank you,” I said, though I felt undeserving of the praise. Whatever skills I had developed were insignificant compared to Yoshi’s. I was capable, even proficient, in certain situations, but I lacked the holistic devastation Yoshi routinely demonstrated. Wrists slipped out of my grip. Partners reversed my locks. I muscled through technique that should have been effortless.

“What is very important for you next . . .” Yoshi said, and I nodded eagerly. It was the first time that I had ever been out alone with Yoshi. He had often invited me for a drink after class, but always in a group of students, and we would sit around him while he entertained us with anecdotes about his boyhood training in Japan, rigorous drills in which he was forced to run barefoot in winter around the icy fields until the skin on the soles of his feet tore free. To sit together on our own, side by side, seemed an almost daunting privilege.

“Yes, Sensei?” I prompted.

“Another shot!” He laughed and motioned for Billy to bring us a round.

“But Sensei, doesn’t drinking weaken your kyusho?”

“Well . . . yes.” He picked up the shot glass between his thumb and forefinger and sniffed the contents. “But pleasure is a discipline too.”

 

The following Saturday morning, Yoshi called. My wife handed me the telephone with her eyes still closed. She rolled over and fell back asleep.

“Sensei?” I whispered, climbing out of bed as quietly as possible.

“Come meet me at the dojo!” Yoshi cried.

“Now?”

“It is part of your training!”

“But Sensei, it’s seven a.m.”

“I am a night bird. I never went to sleep. Bring your car.”

He hung up. I changed into sweatpants and a tee shirt, left my wife a note on the bathroom sink, and swiped the car keys from the self-adhesive hook by the front door. It was a long walk to the outdoor parking garage on Eleventh Avenue, and I had underestimated the cold. A dog walker in a knee-length coat blew onto alternating hands, her breath white in the September morning. Outside an apartment building, I passed a series of soil beds full of purple and black-striped flowers. The blooms looked startled and hunched over, as if interrupted while stepping out of the shower.

When I arrived at the dojo, I found Yoshi asleep on the mats. He wore a baggy, charcoal suit, the sleeves wrinkled from having been rolled up. One of his socks had a hole by the big toe, which I could see because Yoshi had taken off his shoes to use as pillows.

“Sensei, I’m here,” I said and bowed.

Yoshi yawned.

“I’m here,” I repeated, louder this time.

“Excellent, excellent.” Yoshi sat up. His eyes were red and irritated. The radiator in the corner of the dojo spit out wet, petulant heat.

“Should I change into my uniform?” I asked.

“No, no,” Yoshi said, rising off the mats. “Do you know New Jersey?”

“I guess so.”

“I am unfamiliar with New Jersey. It is better if you drive.” He stumbled toward the door, carrying his shoes in one hand like a sleepy child dragging her doll.

I had parked the car halfway down the block from the dojo. The lock on the passenger-side door was broken, and while waiting for me to climb in and open his door from the inside, Yoshi leaned his forearm against the roof and rested his head on it. Flecks of gray had begun to sprout in his black hair. Behind him, in the second-story window of an apartment building, pigeons were cooing. I put my shoulder into the door and popped it free.

“Where are we going in New Jersey, Sensei? Is there a kyusho seminar?” I asked hopefully, while we idled at a stoplight.

“We go to the mall,” Yoshi said.

“The mall? Why?”

“The heart wants what it wants,” he said and passed out.

I took a roundabout route to the Lincoln Tunnel, wandering through the red and yellow awning-filled labyrinth of Chinatown, up through Little Italy, and all the way over to the Meatpacking District, passing the French brasserie where I had taken my parents out to dinner on their first and only visit to the city. My father instantly disliked New York; he found it noisy and congested, and insisted it smelled of sewage. My mother, out of loyalty to my father or perhaps out of agreement, remained silent. I got angry at my father for his criticism and his reluctance; I felt that his disapproval of the city that I had fallen in love with was, through a commutative property to which sons are particularly receptive, a disapproval of me. I even snapped at him for picking at his meal, calling his conservative tastes childish. Had I known then that my father was already dying, that his mild appetite and the dull intermittent ache in his stomach and lower back were the result of metastasizing pancreatic cells, I might have kept quiet. None of us knew, however, what was coming. We couldn’t anticipate the next five years with their radiant pain.

Yoshi slept fitfully while I sped southward along the New Jersey Turnpike. I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect grace from someone asleep, but it bothered me to watch him fidget, and after a while I turned on the radio to distract myself.

“Blondie. I love her voice,” Yoshi said, stirring in the passenger seat.

“Sensei, how much farther until we get there?”

“This song reminds me of high school. The good old days. Smoking pot.” He chuckled and slapped my shoulder, the impact of the blade of his hand against my body sending us halfway into the passing lane. I jerked the wheel and we swerved back. “Let’s see,” Yoshi said and pulled a cocktail napkin out of his pocket. He unfolded it, squinted, and then flipped the napkin upside down. “Can you read this?”

I took it from him. “We passed this exit five miles ago.”

“Good, then we’re almost there.” He flipped down the sun visor to check himself out in the compact mirror. “It is a good thing Oriana likes long hair. I need a haircut very much.”

“Is that who you went out with last night?”

“Of course not.” He snapped the mirror shut. “I went out with Gabriella. Aerosmith!” he said, and spun the volume dial. “Even their later material is catchy. Aerosmith has a tremendous longevity. As a band, they are very reinventive.”

“I don’t understand. You went out with Gabriella? I thought you were interested in Oriana.”

“It is always wise to befriend a woman’s friend. A woman’s heart, and not just her body, has kyusho.” He slid his crumpled tie free of his collar and began to retie it.

A few minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot and entered the mall. It didn’t take us long to find Oriana. She was easy to spot. Oriana’s job was to stand just inside the entrance of the NordicTrack store and demonstrate how to use their exercise machine. She wore a black leotard, a black tank top emblazoned with the store’s logo, and sneakers so big and white and clean that it looked as if she had just stepped out of a snowbank in Aspen. She moved precisely but happily on the machine, her blond ponytail bouncing above her shoulders. A queasy cross between jazz and flamenco music accompanied her efforts.

Yoshi asked me to keep an eye on Oriana while he visited the bookstore on the second floor. “Do not let her see you,” he instructed.

I leaned against the mall’s information board and watched Oriana from a distance. Many of my friends were getting engaged, my wife and I had just had our wedding in June, so I was becoming increasingly familiar with the difficulty of understanding another person’s romantic enthrallment. And while Oriana was hardly an inscrutable object of desire—she was attractive in the way that any blonde in her early twenties with healthy skin and an athletic body can be—I’ll admit I expected something more from Yoshi, a hunger for exoticism and sophistication. The most exotic thing about Oriana was her slightly upturned nose of questionable authenticity.

Yoshi returned with a slim brown bag and motioned for me to follow him into the store.

“Miss Odenna,” he said, nudging past a woman pushing a twin stroller.

“Master Takamata?”

“What a coincidence,” Yoshi said. “I am just doing some weekend shopping with Mr. Wallace. You remember Mr. Wallace from the dojo? He is an assistant instructor now.”

I glanced in the mirror that should have been projecting Oriana’s taut figure across the store but instead reflected Yoshi in his rumpled baggy suit and me beside him, swaddled in sweatpants and a workout shirt.

“Wow,” Oriana said. “You guys look different out of, you know, class.”

“You too,” I said.

“They make me wear this. It’s like a uniform.”

“Black is very sophisticated,” Yoshi said. “Is this a difficult job?”

“Not really. The commute’s the hardest part. My roommate moved out and she was the one with a car, so now I take a bus from Port Authority and it’s about an hour and a half each way. What are you guys shopping for?”

“I am buying Mr. Wallace a book,” Yoshi said. “To provide him spiritual guidance. It is easy to improve the body, but the spirit is much more difficult.”

“Cool,” Oriana said.

Yoshi opened the brown bag and extracted a thin black paperback entitled Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment,” Yoshi read aloud. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” Yoshi closed the book. “These are very inspiring words. When do you eat lunch?”

“I usually just get a salad. I don’t know. Around one?”

“You must have lunch with us.”

“Oh wow. Really?”

“I insist. Live true to the single purpose of the moment.”

“I don’t know if I can take a half hour. They’re super strict. I’m not even supposed to talk to people.”

“I will take care of it,” Yoshi said.

“Wow. Thanks, um, Sensei.” Oriana’s smile was toothy and girlish, rapturous and a bit clumsy, the kind you see young women direct at their undeserving boyfriends.

“Do you like gyros?” Yoshi asked Oriana and handed off the book to me. I took it without thinking, distracted by the sense that something was wrong—something besides my having ended up in a mall in New Jersey, or Yoshi’s successful wooing of Oriana with nothing more than a Japanese paraphrase of carpe diem. Then I realized: Oriana had stopped moving. She was standing still, one foot a half stride ahead of the other, her hands folded atop the plastic and metal control panel.

I wasn’t the only one to notice.

“Everything okay over here?” asked a man in khaki pants and a black polo shirt, marching over to us. He was broad shouldered and thick, with a fat, ex-college football player’s build. Monogrammed on the pocket of his shirt was the store’s insignia and, above it, the word manager.

“Sorry. We were just talking for a second,” Oriana said quickly.

“Do you have questions about the machine?” His face was soft and a little sweaty. It looked like if you stuck your finger in his cheek, the indentation would stay.

“Miss Odenna is a marvelous representative,” Yoshi said. “She deserves a half-hour break with us as a reward.”

I had once heard that only seven percent of communication was verbal, and that the remainder consisted of body language and facial expressions. Confronted by Oriana’s glowering manager, for the first time I was obliged to consider this statement as more than an inflated statistic.

“Get back to riding the machine,” he said.

With an anxious glance over her shoulder at us, Oriana resumed her pacing.

“Excuse me,” Yoshi said, “you may not talk to Miss Odenna in this way.”

The manager ran his tongue over his front teeth. He might have been irritated or he might have been bored. He certainly wasn’t intimidated. “Why don’t you two go somewhere else to pick up girls? Try Abercrombie and Fitch. There’s a cute Chinese girl that works one of the registers.” Finished with us, he turned to Oriana. “A little slower, honey. You can’t sell this thing if you look like a hamster.”

“I have not completed speaking with Miss Odenna,” Yoshi said.

“Yeah, you have,” the manager said.

“Excuse me, there is a misunderstanding. We have not been introduced: I am Yoshi Takamata. I am Miss Odenna’s master.” Yoshi extended his hand to shake. His disquieting, serene half smile had returned. The manager stared down at him with apparent bewilderment. Then, reflexively, he took Yoshi’s outstretched hand. He would have been safer lowering his hand into a pot of boiling water.

After security released Yoshi, the three of us drove back to the city. Yoshi sat in the back seat to comfort Oriana, reading aloud from The Book of the Samurai to her. Oriana listened without reply, like a child being sung a lullaby. “For a samurai,” Yoshi recited, “a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word martial valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words show one’s bravery. In troubled times, too, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one’s heart. It is not something said simply with one’s mouth.”

The changes at the dojo began soon afterward. A potted ficus plant appeared on the windowsill of Yoshi’s office. Pine-tree-scented air fresheners hung in the locker room. The floors were swept, the mouse holes plastered over, and the mats mopped. Along with the addition of a miniature refrigerator and a cube-shaped portable speaker, these renovations were discreet and welcome, and at first I took them as indicators of a blossoming in Yoshi’s life, as he courted Oriana in every venue that he could.

A few weeks after they had become a couple, Yoshi confessed the news to me in his office, though he needn’t have bothered. He was in his early forties, and the pace of dating a girl in her early twenties was taking an obvious toll on him. His eyes were puffy with sleeplessness. His skin looked waxy. An aged slackness had overtaken his handsome, once-boyish face.

Gradually, he stopped teaching many of the classes. Oriana was now working as a cocktail waitress, a job Yoshi had secured for her through a former student who managed a Midtown nightclub, but he liked to be there at the start of her shifts, and since her hours were unpredictable and her schedule likely to change without warning, he often abandoned his teaching duties at the last minute. Naturally, this wasn’t how Yoshi described it when he called in a panic half an hour before class, begging me to take over for him. Instead he invented emergencies, repetitive lies about late-running meetings and sudden dinners with clients—besides owning the dojo, Yoshi claimed to help at his father’s insurance business—lies that would be forgotten hours later when my phone lit up with a midnight call from Yoshi, who was now at home, waiting for Oriana to get off work. I could hear the television babbling and the metallic click of a bottle opener. “She is so shy. She is an angel,” Yoshi would tell me.

From the contact I’d had with Oriana, I didn’t think she was an angel. She was shy, that was true, but she was also vain, and when people paid attention to her, the shyness vanished, and in its place came a brassiness that could easily be misinterpreted as something more inviting. While Yoshi was aware of the agitating effect Oriana could have on men, it didn’t mean that he endured it with any grace. When they went out at night, he glared at men who eyed Oriana and threatened the intrepid ones who dared speak to her. Luckily, most of the bartenders knew Yoshi and prevented any real confrontations—except for one instance when Yoshi squeezed an overly solicitous man’s jaw and brought him to the ground in flustered, agonized tears.

Oriana had asked him to keep their relationship secret from the other students. Consequently, Yoshi was careful not to favor Oriana in class and avoided eye contact with her if she asked a question. Yet his fascination was impossible to wholly conceal. He grinned whenever he spoke her name. He answered her too quickly, repeating himself and gesturing wildly. There were moments when I felt that everyone could sense his enchantment, that it was noisy, incandescent, flagrant—as love, perhaps, should be. One night I caught him staring through the rear window of his office, a diamond shaped sliver of glass that looked out onto a corner of the dojo. When I reminded him that we had been waiting ten minutes for him to begin class, he whispered, “Mr. Wallace, you must come see this.”

I closed the office door and came up beside him. He gestured to where Oriana stood with her back to us. Her long blond hair was piled on top of her head and speared through with a chopstick. Inside her bulky white cotton uniform, she was winsomely petite, her neck as thin as a dandelion stalk. She reached high with her right arm and let her left arm slacken at her side. Slowly, tantalizingly, she stretched the tiny intercostal muscles running between each rib and the lean latissimus muscles of her lower back. She had been in the office plenty of times and knew precisely where the window was positioned.

Yoshi shifted in place, continuing to observe her. I could see the reflection of his eyes in the glass, and for a moment, I had the disconcerting sensation that I was once again in my parents’ boxy old Volvo, looking up at the slashed reflection of my father’s face. As the youngest of three, I sat in the small middle seat while my brothers sandwiched me, my arms pinned, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but stare ahead, either at the unspooling road or up into the rearview mirror. The angle of the mirror created a spooky superimposition, projecting my father’s mouth onto his forehead, so that he looked like a Greek titan, ready to consume us.

It was strange to think of him like that now—my most recent and final memories of him were of a shrinking old man in a hospital bed, weak and pale, as bitter as an almond. That there had been a time when he was all powerful was almost unimaginable to me.

After class that night, when Yoshi announced that we were having a holiday party, I should have realized how far gone he was. Food, drink, even excessive conversation was forbidden in the sacred space of the dojo, where one forges one’s soul through strict discipline. Yoshi kicked open the miniature refrigerator and pulled out two six packs, then told the candy distributor to run to the corner deli for beer. The windows that could open were opened. The radio was switched on to a classic rock station. Oriana came out of the dressing room, carrying a bag of votive candles under her arm and, without any warning, flipped off the overhead lights. Darkness stretched across the room. Then she lit a candle and placed it on the wooden floor, and lit another and another, each white circle spreading its new, urgent luminescence.

It was the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when a night in the city often becomes a matter of celebration, despite the unpleasant personal and professional facts of one’s life. In those busy weeks, dozens of parties are attended, most of them happily—evidence of what might just be the enduring resoluteness of life, which doesn’t care much for facts. And the forty students who milled around the dojo that night did seem genuinely cheerful as they drank beer and talked about their lovers, spouses and children—those essentials we ignore every night while we strive to inflict agonizing pain with ever greater ease—but I was gloomy and worried. I felt edgy, tethered to something I could neither recognize nor, accordingly, protect myself from.

After a while, I snuck into Yoshi’s office. It was quieter in there, the radio muffled by the heavy wooden door, and much darker. The only light came through the small diamond-shaped window, and this light was a diminishment, the faint glimmer of distant candles. Holding my hands out in front of me, I navigated around the sharp edges of the desk and sat down behind it. It was uncomfortable on the floor, but it would have been disrespectful to sit in Yoshi’s seat. I crossed my legs and shut my eyes, assuring myself that I was meditating, though really I was drunk and sleepy.

The creak of the door jarred me awake. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. I blinked in anticipation of brightness, but the light stayed off. Then the door clicked shut and two black shapes tiptoed across the office. The smaller shape approached the file cabinet and removed a bottle from the top drawer. It was the scotch that, I thought, Yoshi had told no one else about except for me. The bigger shape sat on the edge of the desk. He had his back to me, but I recognized Billy’s shaved head.

“Did you bring cups?” whispered the smaller shape as she handed over the bottle. It was Oriana’s voice.

“You don’t drink Glenlivet from a cup,” Billy replied. Oriana giggled and rubbed Billy’s shoulder. She ran a hand along his developed triceps and cupped his elbow, pulling him close to her.

I stood and turned on the green banker’s desk lamp.

“Mr. Wallace!” Oriana said, jerking away from Billy. “Jesus, you scared me!”

“We were just getting something for Master Takamata,” Billy said.

“But we couldn’t find—” Oriana said.

“We need real glasses,” Billy explained. “Then we were going to bring it out to him.”

“I’ll bring it,” I told Billy. “Why don’t you go? Oriana, stay for a minute.”

Billy hurried out of the office. Oriana sat down in Yoshi’s chair and crossed her legs. She pursed her lips into a small pout. There was something charming even in her sullenness, and I suspected she knew it. “What?” she said. It was an old story, maybe the oldest, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

Yoshi pushed open the door with a grin. He had decided to grow his hair long, but instead of a masculine wave, it puffed out like a hedgehog’s back. When he saw the bottle in my hand, he swatted my shoulder with affection. A nerve near my scapula went numb.

“Mr. Wallace, you have been hiding very unseasonally. But you are forgiven because you found my special treat.”

Yoshi took the bottle from me. He filled three cups and gestured for us to raise them in a toast.

“To the flower of my heart,” he said.

On Christmas Eve, my wife told me that she was pregnant, and a week after the new year, I stopped training with Yoshi. I explained that with a baby coming, I couldn’t risk an injury that might put me out of work. He accepted my excuse with regret but didn’t try to change my mind. Perhaps he worried that there was something else to my sudden resignation, some behavior for which he was responsible and that he didn’t want to confront.

I was surprised by how little I missed the dojo. My wife encouraged me to continue my training, concerned that I was abandoning my only outside interest. Like my father, I had no hobbies, and when the illness overtook him, he’d had nowhere to go for diversion.

“I’m not like my father,” I told her.

“I didn’t say you were. Just that . . . people need something else.”

“I don’t need it anymore,” I told her.

“But you like it.”

I wondered if I did. When I was nine years old, desperate to impress my older brothers, and exchanging the first and most valuable currency of boys, which is bravery, I had jumped off our roof. When our father heard me crying, he came outside to the backyard and, shaking his head, told me to get into the car so he could take me to the hospital. “I can’t walk,” I’d cried, crumpled on the grass. My brothers came over to help me up, but our father waved them away. “He does it himself or he doesn’t go.” It took ten minutes for me to drag myself across the yard and to the car, and another five to settle into the back seat, wincing as I struggled to position my leg in a way that didn’t make me want to scream. When I was done, my father climbed behind the steering wheel and lit a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder at me, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “If you’re going to be stupid, you’d better learn to be tough.”

But training with Yoshi hadn’t taught me anything about being tough. And perfecting the painful manipulation of a stranger’s kyusho now seemed equally senseless. Whatever minor skill I had gained only rendered me more aware of how vulnerable we are. It was an impossible task. There was no training, no expertise, no level of mastery that could ever truly protect us.

 

***

 

I saw Yoshi one more time, at the end of February. He had been locked out of his apartment and called to ask if I would come downtown and give him my keys to the dojo, which I had forgotten to return.

“It’s almost four in the morning. Why don’t you just take a cab up here and sleep on our couch?” I offered.

“I must get into the dojo.”

“I’ll pay for the cab.”

“My keys,” he repeated. “Please.”

I put on a sweater and a pair of jeans and thick black boots. Softly I kissed my wife’s warm cheek. Her forehead was damp with sweat and her lips chapped. She often woke in the middle of the night and had trouble falling back asleep, but that night her breathing was heavy and deep. She was growing, changing, becoming. It was a strange new process, tasked with its own variety of pain, and I kissed her again, full of gratitude. Then I found the keys and hailed a cab to help my old master.

Yoshi was waiting for me in the Irish pub. It closed at four, but the bartender, a heavyset man in his fifties, had let him stay inside until I arrived. Yoshi sat slumped in a booth in the corner. His eyes were gray and unfocused. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, maybe a week, and a wispy mustache was sprouting above his lip, giving him the appearance of a catfish.

“Master Takamata,” I said.

“Excellent, excellent.” He waved to the bartender. “A great student!”

The bartender handed me Yoshi’s tab. I paid it and we left.

Outside, Yoshi paused at the curb of the sidewalk. The cold night air seemed to have roused him, and he began to bob his head slightly, as if he were a boxer weaving in a fight. “The night is still young, Mr. Wallace. I know a Japanese bar . . . very high profile. I introduce you to a Japanese girl.” He took an accidental step off the sidewalk, flinging his arms wide to reassert his balance. “Japanese girls—very loose. They pretend the opposite, but they are island girls. A history of many sailors.”

“I brought your keys,” I said and led him across the street.

He labored up the two flights of stairs to the dojo, and then I unlocked the door for him. The air smelled dusty. Plaster littered the edges of the floor where the mouse holes had been chewed back open. I switched on the light but Yoshi switched it off.

As I kneeled in the doorway to untie the laces of my boots, Yoshi pushed past me and lay down on the mats. He stared at the ceiling, stained with years of water damage.

“Oriana is gone,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“She leaves me for her yoga teacher.” He kicked off one shoe and tried to pry free the other but couldn’t do it. I walked over and unlaced it for him. Then I placed both his shoes alongside the edge of the mat.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Are you going to sleep here?”

“I don’t need to sleep. I am a night bird.”

He blinked.

“Do you think she loved me?”

“Why don’t you try and get some rest?” I said.

“Did she?” Yoshi sat up, leaning on his elbow to face me. “Tell me the truth.”

I hesitated. I thought about the icy fields of Yoshi’s youth, the skin tearing from his feet as he chased after bravery and strength.

“No,” I said.

He smiled. It was the smile that I had so often confused with serenity, but which was only familiarity, a muted recognition of the transference of pain. Yoshi closed his eyes. I placed his jacket over his shoulders, left the keys beside the door, and went home to my beautiful wife.

 


Panio Gianopoulos, “The Flower of one’s Heart” from How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books.

For three years, lifetimes ago, I was an office manager at a credit agency. During those years, with one exception, I never fired anyone. Probably this was because everyone quit first. The pay was miserable, there was too much work for any person to do in any given position, and my superior was an aimless man who was slowly ruining us all. His office window looked out onto the street, and it was on the sill of this window, visible to every passerby, that he kept his balled-up hamburger wrapapers. It was from this man that I received orders to fire Paula.

I wasn’t supposed to fire Paula because she was lazy or in-competent. We kept on a lot of people who were lazy and in-competent. In fact, they tended to be the ones who got the most respect from the majority of us. I was to fire this young person, this twenty-one-year-old typist, because when she took her first vacation her replacement from the temp agency did an astonishingly better job and was willing to take over Paula’s job. The girl from the temp agency, Linda, typed at what was a phenomenal rate, according to my superior, although I had never been a witness to her fast finger work. Purportedly, she didn’t make mistakes either. She was prompt. To top it off, she brought my superior his hamburgers twice during the week that she served as Paula’s replacement.

Why I eventually agreed to fire Paula was not a mystery to me. My superior made it sound like a solid business practice to fire Paula. Besides, he so seldom made a demand that it seemed unthinkable to argue for too long with him—although I did express my opinion that we should keep Paula.

Paula had been with us for just over a year. She was quiet and did her work. She wasn’t late—except for a couple of times and then with good reasons. She sometimes got lost in details, that’s true, and once she handed in a document that was part gibberish. But when she was told about the problem she worked straight through her lunch hour to get the report straightened out. She was, I think, entirely unremarkable.

Except for her brother.

For years, even long after I fired Paula, I would think of her brother and feel a surge of longing and confusion—and even some envy of Paula. In fact, on a certain level those of us women who saw him (he stopped by at least once a week to take Paula out to lunch) felt almost proprietary toward him. He and Paula had the same dark coloring and slim, graceful build, although he was considerably taller. But more than his good looks, it was his manner that was touching. He remembered everyone’s name after the first visit. Without fail, he helped his sister put on her coat. He had a way of making his whole face smile, and then he’d turned to Paula with a wink, and for a moment you could see what they’d been like as a couple of little kids. It was obvious that he was the kind of brother who could manage a secret. It seemed certain that they had had secrets as children—silly little secrets that they kept and that drew them closer together. You just knew that he was the big brother who protected her. I imagined that he would protect her after she was fired too.

I suppose that seeing Paula’s brother was so refreshing because of some of the things I had to do and say. For instance: I had to tell a pretty young woman that she smelled funny—so funny that people couldn’t get their work done around her. Frequently, I listened to employees tell me about their gynecological problems because they knew that although I was also a woman I would never in a million years ask them follow-up questions, and so they could get the day off with only a small amount of self-humiliation. Along with that sort of thing I counseled someone with an ulcer who worked with a can of warm cola at her elbow on doctor’s orders. I think she got an ulcer because she was such a good listener—everyone confided in her. For a while two pregnant women kept falling asleep while talking to clients on the telephone. There were harrowing things too: I had to barricade the door three times when deranged husbands or boyfriends came for the women who worked in the agency, and one of the husbands was our security guard. Worst of all, I had to pretend that I didn’t notice when a woman from accounting came in with her newborn baby and the baby was missing a hand.

No one had warned me. It was a beautiful baby, and I said it was a beautiful baby. And there was the mother making hardly more than minimum wage, and there was her baby without a hand.

Presumably there is a way to fire people, but I didn’t know how to do it.

It shouldn’t be done right before Christmas or New Year’s, I reasoned. I decided that the right time to fire Paula was three weeks after New Year’s. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done it at that time because that’s the time, at least in Ohio, when few people have anything to live for. The snow has been around for a long time and has a used, particularly defeated look. It begins to look unnatural, even though nothing could be more natural. And then you have Valentine’s Day looming around the corner, like some sort of mean mockery of everybody. But, as I said, the snow is the worst part. It isn’t even a color anymore—but an unreflective, dead, noncolor. When I had to confront my superior again to see if he still meant that I ought to fire Paula, I stared out the plate-glass window behind him, past the hamburger wrappers wadded on the windowsill. The snowbanks looked as if an occasional canon shot landed in them. That sort of bleak snow makes you think that nothing will change. Things will just break down and wear away at best.

“Are you all right?” That was Paula’s question to me. She put her hand on my forearm. Her touch was gentle and hesitant, and I noticed for the first time how broad her face was, like a child’s.

She had touched my arm after I asked her to come into the restroom with me. When I realized that she thought I must be ill and was asking for her help, blood shot into my head.

Of course I thought it would be best to fire Paula first thing in the morning, so that she would have the whole day to herself and so that her brother couldn’t accuse us of getting the most possible work out of her before letting her go. I also thought it would be best to fire her in the restroom so that we would have some privacy. My own desk was at the head of an office of eight desks. Certainly there was no privacy there. In particular, I didn’t want any men to see her being fired. It would be too humiliating to be fired in front of a man—even some of the kinder men. And of course there were men in the credit agency who had hardened their hearts long ago to women in trouble.

I thought that my firing of Paula should be swift too.

But this is the truth: although I had rehearsed ways to break the news to Paula, I can’t remember a word I said to her. I was trying to keep my balance so that I wouldn’t plunge my head into the sink.

I must have said something to the effect that she was being replaced because of the accelerating demands of the position she was filling (i.e., typist).

I braced myself for angry words—because even a quiet, passive sort of person like Paula can let you have it.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Paula cried. Never before and never since have I seen anything like it.

There was no prologue. Seemingly no beginning. No snuffle or slow moistening of the eyes or blushing of the cheek.

Her crying was instantaneous and silent. It was as if water were spurting soundlessly out of her head.

If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it: it was as if she had to be made of tears. Her blouse—a violet-colored flimsy blouse that showed the outlines of her bra—was wet with tears. As if she had to cry not only out of her eyes but out of her cheeks and out of her eyebrows and out of her chest.

I count it as a miracle that no one came into the restroom during all this.

I myself was ready to run from the restroom. I couldn’t even see her eyes for her tears; her eyes were that puffy and her tears were that profuse.

And then I started.

I was crying—and I wasn’t even feeling sympathetic toward poor Paula during those moments. I was only feeling physically sympathetic, I suppose. I was lurching and crying. I was in my tears, inside them, swimming in them, and all my sadnesses came up—things I can’t mention here and would rather not dwell on. They came up not as discrete names or memories but as substances of some sort without features, as if my sadnesses had turned to liquid inside me.

When I finally gathered myself, when I could see again, Paula had left the restroom.

I walked through the back door to her desk. She wasn’t there. Her coat was not in the cloak room. I ventured back to her desk, in case somehow I had missed her, and the big beige typewriter—we used electric typewriters in those days—seemed to be resting by itself, just waiting for Linda, the remarkable replacement for Paula.

Now I am going to move swiftly to another part of the story, the part where I come to see that I have been party to something like a murder. But of course it took me a good long time to figure it out, and once more something strange happened in the agency’s restroom.

The next week when I saw Linda seated at Paula’s typewriter I felt guilty. I hadn’t paid much attention to Linda during the week she was temping, but now I looked at her closely. She had Paula’s coloring, that was true, but not Paula’s smile. Paula had a shy, embarrassed smile—as if she were apologetic just for being Paula. Linda’s smile was a challenge. It was a smile that practically spoke. Her smile said: You are so stupid. When she smiled one of her teeth stuck to her lower lip.

On the very first day she only typed in the necessary information on three of the forms that we use for garnishing wages.

On the second day it occurred to me that there was something vicious about the way she looked at me. And then I realized the obvious: she felt pity for Paula—and anxiety. She was afraid that she would suffer Paula’s fate. She thought of me as the sort of office manager who fired people easily and often and thoughtlessly.

As I recall it now, I made a point on the third and fourth days of her first week to stop by her desk. I even brought her coffee twice to show her that there was nothing to worry about.

Once, I watched her when she couldn’t see me. She was looking into a compact of facial powder with such concentration that I wondered what she could be seeing. She squinted at her reflection. She actually licked her lips. And then she smiled at herself—a beautiful, dazzling, full-toothed smile that lit up her eyes, a smile I had never seen her use for any of us.

At the end of the week I actually found myself staring into the restroom mirror and wondering why I appeared to be a person who is easy to disdain. I washed my hands, pulled off one of the manila papers to dry my fingers, and when I was about to toss the paper into the wastebasket I saw something that made my heart skip: mailing addresses. Lists and lists and lists of mailing addresses. Linda’s mailing addresses. They had cost us a fortune to obtain, and she was supposed to affix those addresses to envelopes for our new advertising brochures. She had dumped them here. There could be no mistake.

It had been a long day, and suddenly I was close to tears. Linda had left early, and so I retrieved the mailing labels from the waste basket and put them on the top of her typewriter. I knew that I wouldn’t even have to talk to her about them on Monday. She would see the mailing labels and know that I knew what she was up to. That ugly smirk would dissolve back into her face, and she would have to contend with the labels and my knowledge of her perfidy—and her knowledge that I couldn’t be viewed as an imbecile quite so easily anymore.

As it turns out, Linda had picked up her check earlier that afternoon (it had been processed because we were at the end of the month). We never saw her at the agency again.

One of the women in our office, the one nursing an ulcer, informed me that Linda told her just before she left us that Paula had contracted gonorrhea. Furthermore, this was due to the fact that Linda had seduced Paula’s boyfriend after she her¬self contracted gonorrhea from her dentist during a checkup that turned passionate following a routine cleaning.

“But why,” I asked, “why did Linda want to hurt Paula?”

About two weeks later I was able to figure something out again thanks to the woman with the ulcer.

“Did you know that Linda used to live with Paula’s brother?” the woman asked.

I felt my breath knocked right out of me. With that information I could see that I understood everything. How better to harm Paula’s brother than to harm Paula?

“He must have dumped Linda in some spectacular way, and poor Paula was the sacrificial lamb,” I told the woman with the ulcer. “I bet he was polite about dumping Linda. He used his politeness like a weapon. That would make Linda want to kill him, at the least.”

And then my friend with the ulcer said: “Guess who else is walking funny these days?”

Of course I found out that she meant my superior.

It was all miserable—and more trouble for Linda than it should have been worth.

This all happened so long ago, but parts of it are very fresh to me. Especially the firing and the way Paula cried. And her brother. Sometimes I felt guilty about Paula and her brother although I never tried to contact either of them to apologize.

Just this past year, believe it or not, I saw Linda again, and I still recognized her after all this time. I was visiting with my cousin who asked me to stop with her at a yarn shop. This was about ten miles outside of Cincinnati at one of those little malls. I recognized Linda immediately. She was standing under rows and rows of knitting needles of all sizes, most in bright metallic colors—blues and greens and magenta. A line of hand-knitted sweaters dangled from the wall behind her. She had a kind of washed-out look. Instantly it occurred to me that if she were a sweater she would look nice until you turned her inside out and saw all the loose knots and clumped spots.

She tried to sell me some angora yarn but backed off immediately when she sensed my lack of interest. She had a superior air, and so it was likely that she owned the shop. It occurred to me too that she must have been a fabulous knitter and had successfully changed her avocation into a vocation. I tried to imagine her reputedly fast fingers clicking the needles, but of course she didn’t give me a demonstration. Her smile was much the same; one little tooth kept getting caught on her lip. At one point her hand fluttered up to hide it—even from me, an old nobody.

And then a month later—this is the way life is, some version of reality will always come to get you, let no one tell you otherwise—I was at a wedding reception when I met a woman who appeared vaguely familiar. When I told her my name she laughed and said she knew something she bet I didn’t know: “You fired my niece twenty years ago.”

This particular woman was about my age, heavy-set, sloppily drunk, and extremely talkative. She was laughing as she spoke. She looked, I could see now, a lot like Paula and her brother. And apparently she knew my name because I was a family legend of some sort.

I found out from that woman what I could about Paula’s life.

Paula—get ready for this—is a chief executive officer of a major marketing company. I felt disoriented for a moment. Who could have predicted it? Paula must fire people all the time. You can’t be in a position like that without ruining people’s lives. Paula, I learned, was also married and the mother of a teenage daughter. A powerful person. Our Paula.

But I didn’t think I would drop Paula a line of congratulations for her good fortune and hard work even if her family laughed about her first job now. I knew what it had cost her.

“Don’t feel bad about firing her,” Paula’s aunt said, looking right into my eyes. “It was nothing to her. It was amusing. Given everything she had to deal with it was nothing.”

I was sure then that Paula must have made the firing incident into a family joke. She was fired from her first job, but look at her now.

“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked the woman. Truth be told, I had wanted to ask her about him as soon as I knew she was his aunt. I had thought of him for years really. I had even tried to imagine having someone like Paula’s brother to comfort me on the two occasions when I got fired.

The wedding reception was virtually over. People were getting their coats. The roads were likely to be icy, and there was a sense of urgency in the air amid all the white and silver wedding decorations.

“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked again.

“Oh dear,” the woman said. “You didn’t know? Paula doesn’t have a brother. You must mean Michael.” She paused and then I felt her determination—she would be swift, and she would lower her voice so we would have our privacy.

“I don’t like to speak ill of Michael, but he enjoyed fooling people. Paula didn’t like to do that, but he liked to go around pretending they were brother and sister.”

She must have registered the look on my face because she went on speaking even more quickly. “I know. I know,” she said. “It was strange. He liked to call Paula his sister. It was his strange joke—a kind of compulsion. He did it even in front of me. But I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead.”

“What?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know. Hodgkin’s disease. He must have been fighting it when Paula worked for you. I thought everybody knew. I thought you knew. You hired his sister.”

“But Paula—.”

“Lynn was his sister’s name, I think. No, Linda. Linda was his actual sister.”

I was swimming in confusion. “The only person I ever fired in my entire life was Paula,” I said, “and I shouldn’t have.”

In my mind’s eye I saw Linda with all those knitting needles hanging over her head, and I felt what people used to call Holy Fear, the fear of a jealous God’s revenge.

Already I have had a long life, filled to the hilt with mistakes, but I’ll say this: it is a terrible perversion to harm the living just because you want to injure the dying.

It’s not that I’m bragging about, at last, knowing what I know. Or pretending in some mealy-mouthed way that I should have known more than I knew years ago. He took my breath away, I used to think of the beautiful young man who said he was Paula’s brother.

Why wouldn’t I have believed whatever he said: the man I thought was Paula’s brother? If I had known the truth I wouldn’t have said anything anyway. That’s what beauty and politeness do. When you see those two possibilities together in one person that person can lie to your face. You don’t say: Your real sister believes she’s the love of your life, not Paula. And you play your little game with Paula because your sister is right. You let Paula go, I didn’t. Would I have said that? It’s only family members who can correct one another that thoroughly and ruin each other in the process. Like anyone, even the bravest of the lot, it’s cowardice I understand.

 


 

*Lee Upton, “Let Go” from The Tao of Humilation. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

“This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm. As if she was really sorry.

“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” I said.

“No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“It’s only one house. Maybe the next one.”

“It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.

“But we’ve come so far. You can’t stop now. Absolutely not.”

I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would not break. That’s how hard she was. No one could win against her. Certainly not me. Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast upward.

 

The houses they did not buy: the contemporary with too much sunlight, the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting, the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the houses they did not buy.

 

Seventy-three houses they did not buy. Seventy-three houses I showed them and I knew this game. I knew how to play this game. But she was winning.

“I quit,” I said.

She laughed. “We’ll take a few days off.”

I just won’t return her calls, I thought. “Great idea,” I said. To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”

I could see that made the partner mad. But she was the long-suffering type, even with me.

“Not at all,” her partner said. She held her head up high.

 

They were so beautiful, these two. Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy blond, with a gorgeous, wide smile and sharp, blue miss-nothing eyes. Long Suffering was short and olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that showed off her large breasts. Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching for its turn at the watering hole.

I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples. There were tons of resales on those couples. A lot of them broke up after four or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought new ones with other women. I especially liked couples like this one, with their matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts, and high-salaried corporate jobs.

I liked lesbians, but I hated these two. They were realtor cock-teasers. Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my point. They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.

It had nothing to do with me. They were watching each other, waiting for the house that made one of them pant and scream. Then one of them would have the upper hand. The one who wanted it the most was the one who would have to grovel for as long as they lived in that house.

I know power struggles. I can smell them in the air after twenty-three years in the business and four marriages of my own. The smell is unmistakable, like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.

“The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on the market these days,” I said. “I know you are busy women with highly responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this. We’ll have to wait it out. Maybe in a few months, the market will improve. You two deserve something spectacular.”

Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has watching a chipmunk run by. Her blue eyes were steady beams.

“Next week,” she said. “Set it up.”

Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring intently into her mobile phone. She licked her lips slowly.

Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be buying a house with her. Look at her. She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she? But she isn’t.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I feel so close to you. You feel like a friend after spending all this time with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming out on my face. Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.

“If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.” “I operate on instinct. My gut tells me to keep looking. The right house will grab me. The house will say, come on in, you two. She’ll relax in this bedroom. She’ll attack me in this living room.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Why?”

“A house doesn’t fix anything. Definitely not a sex problem.” “Who says? Maybe a house could fix something. Maybe no one lets it.” She reached out and put both her hands over my hand. Her hands were warm. “Help me.”

“For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.

I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone. But she laughed.

“You’re a cockteaser,” I said.

“So I’ve been told. By better women than you.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face, but she let go of me.

Good, I thought. I’m finally getting to her.

“So next week, then. Set it up for Saturday,” she said.

 

Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday. I was top agent in my office. I didn’t have to work things like this. It was a sad, tiny little house with a persistent moldy smell. The owners were old. They didn’t want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling. So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block over. No one cut their grass regularly. Next door, someone had propped two stained mattresses against their house.

The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that the owners leave so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people trooping through. I didn’t care. I was happy to be there. Anywhere but trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.

Only one couple ventured in during the first hour. I put on my honest, earnest face.

“It needs work, I won’t lie to you. A little paint, new rugs. You can see for yourself. But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next year. All signs point straight up for appreciation in value. If you bought this now and fixed it up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”

The man had the hungry look. He didn’t want to be poor all his life. His wife looked afraid. She didn’t want to make a mistake.

I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know. No one knows. The neighborhood could take an upturn. And a husband who wanders could stop, just like that. Sure. It could happen.

After they left, it was quiet for a long time. I turned up the volume on the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in my chair. I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend, instead of me.

 

The door opened. They walked in. Long Suffering wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set up in their parking lots during closeout sales. Concrete Skull leaned in.

“We found you,” she said.

“I thought we were taking a break.”

“Break’s over.” Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.

“Don’t you ever give up?”

“Never,” she said. Her partner snorted.

Now, we’ll get into it, I thought. Come on, Long Suffering, make your move. Get in there. Speak up. But she just turned, walked back to the car and got in, holding her elegant, round rump out on display for an extra second before it vanished into the Mercedes.

“Why me?” I asked. “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor? Maybe she’ll do better for you. And she can come to your house-warming party, too.”

“You know why I want you? Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to work hard for me. Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever they show me. Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me and my money. Wrong. You’re smarter than that. It’s all about the deal.”

I liked beating out lesbian realtors. I pictured them trotting out secret weapons with her little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common. And still I won. I admit I melted a little, flattered.

So we went on to the seventy-fourth house. It was a spectacularly ugly McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill. But it was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.

“Honey, this is it. This is the one,” said Concrete Skull. She smiled her gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten. It didn’t sound convincing even to me. This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of a real urge to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared. So disregard this test. It is only a test.

“No way,” Long Suffering said. “I loathe the smell of this house. You’ve got to be kidding me. No freaking way.”

“I was kidding. I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said. “See, honey, we really are getting close. We both hate this one. So that’s a good sign.”

They both turned to me, waiting for my applause. “Seventy-five,” I said. “That’s my limit. I warn you.” They both chuckled, like I was making a small, dumb joke.

 

I hate you both, I thought. You are the bad smell.

 

It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed. When we walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it. Somebody wanted this one, but I couldn’t tell who. I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming cars and deciding when to run. I studied one and then the other. Who was it?

I tried all my realtor tricks. I vanished into other rooms so they could talk privately. I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me. I studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny and indifference.

“It’s quite old,” Concrete Skull said finally. “It’s an old house. They are asking a lot for such an old house.”

Aha, I thought. She wants it.

 “Honey, what do you think?” she asked. Her voice was a cat slinking along a high ledge. I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the seventy-eight previous houses.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said. She sounded bored but she was paying close attention, her brown eyes flickering madly. “Let’s go on to the next.”

I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the Persian rug.

“I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said. “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This is a house where you will have swank parties. I see gorgeous women in slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”

“We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull. “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.

“After you practically pushed them in my mouth.” “You wanted me to.”

“You wanted it worse.”

I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.

“Let’s write it up, girls. You can sign the agreement right now,” I said. And they did.

 

When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and cried. Her partner was on her way. We were supposed to wait for her, but Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.

“We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office, bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.

“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so. But we can’t do this one simple thing. I’ve done it with other women. It’s no big deal. Go look at a few houses and buy one. What is happening? Why is this happening to me? I can’t stand it. I’m being punished.”

“It’s only radon. Easily remediated,” I said. “Punished for what?” “I stole her from another woman. They have a baby. I’m mean to my mother. I hate my father. I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with. Is that enough?” She was really wailing now, working herself up.

“It’s only radon,” I said. I was enjoying myself immensely. “I’m forty-one years old. I can’t make any more mistakes.” “Everyone has some radon around here. This house is just a tad over the limit,” I said. “You don’t understand. I am not everyone. I can’t have it.” “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said. “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house. We’ll be poisoned from below. What chance do we have to make it? Do you have any idea how many failed relationships I’ve had? This is my last chance. I’m not wasting it on her.”

“It’s not that bad. You’re getting all carried away.” I thought of Husband Number Three. I thought he was my last chance too, but along came Four. There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found. I could have kept it up my whole life. Hello Five. Hello Six. Hello Seven.

 

Long Suffering showed up. “Do you still want it?” “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed. “It’s a poison house.” “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.

“It’s our last chance. We’ll never find another house as good as this one. This was the one. And it’s ruined.”

“So we’ll buy it and fix it.”

You fool, I thought. You don’t see that there is no way to win with her. The house is nothing. The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.

“I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried. “I’m done.”

“You’re done. With looking?” Long Suffering stood in the door-way, legs planted wide. Slowly her face began to change. “With me? In front of her?”

“Just ignore me,” I said. “Do what you have to do.” You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.

 

I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things. But she stood there silently for the longest time. And then she crumpled to the floor, making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs. She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet, and she kept making the squeezy sound. It was the most terrible sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was like watching somebody die.

I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly next to her. I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me, then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings. I was safe there. I rubbed her back. I patted her hair. I whispered in her ear, “You’re okay. You will be. You’re not going to die.” It didn’t help at all. Nothing does. Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.

We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back. We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.

 


*Kathy Anderson, “You Are the Bad Smell” from Bull and other stories.   Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.