Although I was only ten years old, I could understand that something important had happened. Every time our bedroom door opened, my mother shut it again so we wouldn’t hear the frantic whispering in the living room. “Meetings” like this only happened in our house when something serious was going on. The door to the children’s room was never normally shut when people came over to chat over a cup of coffee or chamomile tea – the opposite in fact. It was always open to the living room; and every time we came in or went out, the women from the neighbourhood and our family would take turns giving us kisses. “May God protect them”, they all repeated amongst themselves.
My sister, being twelve years old, seemed to understand more than me. Maybe it was her feminine intuition, which had begun to get a feeling for the reality of life around us. She was listening carefully through a crack in the door; and every time the conversation got louder, a look of terror came over her face. Then she would hurry into the room, sit down at a small desk, and ask me angrily, “Have your done your homework?”
Occasionally, we could make out some words among the whispers like “scandal” and “insult”; but the racket always increased whenever the question itself was asked—from time to time, with a worrying anger that really frightened me, anxious child that I was: “Did she have to tell people? May God expose her shamelessness.”
The “scandal” was everywhere in the neighbourhood. Even when I failed to stop the ball from going into the goal at our neighborhood football field, none of the bigger children told me off or told me to get out of the way like they usually did. All their attention was focused on the “scandal”, and gossip was more important than the game. Even the so-called “leader of the gang” gave up this daily game in the end, so that he could sit with the grown-ups and talk about what had happened. But not before he had lit a cigarette and sucked in its smoke, trying to look all of his sixteen years. As kids do, we made a circle round them, trying to sneakily overhear as much information and as many details about this “scandal” as we could: how did it start and what did it mean?
Most of the children around me were baffled by the story that the older boy was discreetly telling … “Then he put his hand…” I was not confused like them, even if I did not know exactly what his words meant. Everyone suddenly shouted at once “Really??”, when the leader of the gang said as he took a puff on his cigarette, “under the panties.”
My father was late coming home that night. My mother waited on the balcony looking over the village, anxiously smoking. My sister was whispering away with my cousin, who had decided to stay at our house that night. For me, this was just another indication of the calamity that had befallen us. The only times I had stayed at their house or they had stayed at our house was when someone in the family had died.
Had someone died now? If so, where were my other cousins? Why were they whispering under the covers? And where was my dad?
When I heard the sound of his truck, I calmed down a little. In less than a minute, I heard my father’s familiar footsteps. As he got further up the stairs, they became clearer and clearer. Then I heard my mother when she came back from the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of hot Arabic coffee. My sister and cousin went silent. All three of us, totally independently, held our breaths and tried to make out any word coming from the balcony. We had no success worth mentioning.
I don’t know how everything changed, but the family shot into action the next day. I started to smell rice and chicken cooking along with kibbeh and Fuqaʿiyya. Suddenly, all the children were gathered in the house of the head of our family. There were men and women all around us too. At first, the food and the huge gathering and all the different kinds of cap guns, bullets, and rifles that were in our house made me forget everything I had thought about the “scandal”; and then all of a sudden, I was running with the runners, playing with the ones who played and got shot.
When the head of the family stood up, all of the women started to argue with us–with both an anger and a kind of fear I had never seen before. My nervous aunt even slapped one of my cousins across the face in order to shut him up. That made us aware of how serious the situation was, and so we were compelled to obey. The head of the family started talking about things that I didn’t understand. But I did manage to understand the words “one family” and “no problem”. All of the men nodded their heads in agreement.
When the head of the family had finished his speech, he went towards one of the men I used to call “uncle” (like I used to address all men) and hugged him and kissed him. All the other men proceeded to hug and kiss this man afterwards. Suddenly, the room was filled with loud ululations and then high pitched shrieks, in a slightly confused manner.
A weighty silence then came over the room as one of the women in the family stepped forward dragging a girl who I supposed was my age, or a little older. She stood in front of Uncle and told the girl firmly, as both of them cried with fear: “Kiss your uncle!”
That night, as my mother was tucking me into bed, my sister asked her, “Does this mean it’s over?”
My mother looked at her sternly and said, “She is a wretched girl. Is she the first one who had to do this? Did she want to destroy the family? Never bring up the story again or talk about what happened for as long as you live. Understand?”
My sister whispered a few words, which I guess meant that she had submitted entirely to my mother’s demands. My mother turned off the light in the room and looked at us lovingly. She said quietly with tears in her eyes: “May God protect you”.
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?”
“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.
“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.”
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?”
“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
John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.
‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’
When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.
I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.
John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.
Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’
By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’
This is only the beginning.
Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.
A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.
The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.
This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.
He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.
The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.
And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.
This is nowhere near the end of the story.
Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.
‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.
He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.
One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.
Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’
While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.
This still isn’t near the end of the story.
While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.
In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.
Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’
He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.
‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.
After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’
For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.
How could this possibly be the end of the story?
Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.
Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.
This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.
John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.
His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.
But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.
In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’
Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.
Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’
It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.
I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.
I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.
‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’
we aRen’T aT all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.
And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.
When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back — it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.
On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets — but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.
The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a ‘little place’. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say ‘in’, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do — it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor — but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.
So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.
On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver — I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough — he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name — he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.
I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.
Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.
‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’
‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’
‘Oh, do you listen to music?’
I wondered what he thought we might listen to — the speeches of Enoch Powell — but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’
‘Mind if I twiddle?’
‘Be my guest.’
‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)
He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.
‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.
In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’
‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’
Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’
‘It must get tiring.’
‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’
‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’
‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’
‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’
I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.
We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.
‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’
‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’
Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’
‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’
‘Do you feel sympathy?’
‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’
‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’
He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab — as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.
‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’
He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’
‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’
‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’
Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’
Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’
I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’
‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’
I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’
‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’
‘You say potato.’
‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards a l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’
Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’
‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’
‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’
‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’
‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’
‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’
I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’
He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’
‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’
‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’
We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.
Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’
‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’
‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’
‘God! Have you ever done that?’
‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’
I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’
‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’
He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’
‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’
Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’
It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.
Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.
‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’
‘There is that, I suppose.’
‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’
‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’
‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’
‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’
‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’
‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’
He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’
‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’
We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.
‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’
‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.
The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.
I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.
After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’
Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’
‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’
‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’
‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’
He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.
‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’
We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.
‘How many times have you done this?’
‘Do they pay you for it?’
I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’
‘So why do you do it?’
‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’
‘What made you start?’
‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’
‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’
I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’
‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’
The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.
‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.
He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’
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
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
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?”
“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